Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

John Galt was important to his own time both as a settler in Canada and as a novelist who presented Scottish life in fiction. As both a novelist and a leader in the Canada Company, he has, however, been largely forgotten. In the field of fiction Galt was so far overshadowed by Sir Walter Scott in his own time that he never became widely known outside of Great Britain. A Scot himself, Galt wrote in the ANNALS OF THE PARISH: OR, THE CHRONICLE OF DALMAILING about the Scotland he and his parents had known, and he wrote lovingly. His humane feeling and the love he gave to his own country can be marked on almost every page he wrote. In this novel, the strongest and most sympathetically portrayed character is of the Scottish Presbyterian clergyman of strict Calvinist persuasion. Hardly less important are the descriptions of the new class of industrialists.

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In the tradition of Daniel Defoe’s MOLL FLANDERS, Galt’s ANNALS OF THE PARISH is a fictional autobiography, chronological in form. It is successful in conveying a diarist’s immediate experience of the kind of daily living that has a way of becoming social and cultural history. Some critics think it blasphemous to juxtapose Defoe’s story of a thief and bawd with Galt’s account of a pious clergyman, but both works share a common psychological impulse: the need of the central protagonist to combine factual objectivity, confessional in spirit, with self-justification.

Galt noted that his desire to write ANNALS OF THE PARISH was sparked by Goldsmith’s THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD. He wanted to do for Scotland what that book had done for England: to record the life of a rural. In the early planning stages of his book, Galt almost switched from minister to schoolmaster because the latter promised to be a better vehicle for transmitting rural values but finally stuck to his original concept and began writing in the summer of 1813. However, publishers discouraged him from continuing with the project, and he did not actually finish the book until 1820 when there was renewed interest in Scottish themes.

With the appearance of Micah Balwhidder, the English literary public finally had the Scottish answer to Dr. Primrose—not to mention Pastor Balwhidder’s similarity to other memorable English fictional characters like Parson Adams, Uncle Toby, and Sir Roger de Coverley. Like them, Balwhidder combined naivete, ingenuousness, and occasional absurdity with common sense, tact, and kindness.

In addition to the memorable creation of Balwhidder, Galt’s book is known as a rich repository of Scottish historical data: agricultural reform, industrialization, domestic economy, rural education, church affairs, and theological fashions. Modern critics find it a fault that Galt filters all the data through Balwhidder’s limited intellect in such a way that readers are not always sure how reliable the information is.

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