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Barometer Rising Summary

Neil Macrae is serving in France under his uncle Col. Geoffrey Wain when his uncle hatches a disastrous plan to advance on the Germans. Neil is later blamed, arrested, and set to be court-martialed when a bomb strikes and he is presumed dead. After recovering from amnesia, Neil returns to Halifax to look for the only person who can clear his name. Alex Mackenzie is a corporal under Col. Wain and the only other person who can vouch for Neil.

Col. Wain is also sent back to Halifax and works as a transport officer. His daughter Penny had been Neil's lover before he went overseas and has given birth to his child, though Neil does not know about that. Penny, believing Neil was dead, began dating Angus Murray but recently deferred his proposal of marriage. Penny and Neil reunite, and Angus, who previously believed the story of Neil's disgrace, agrees to help him find Alex Mackenzie.

Alex is employed at the shipyard, a job Col. Wain helped him to attain, but still agrees to testify to Neil's innocence. However, the Halifax Explosion occurs, killing and injuring several characters. Penny's aunt and uncle who were fostering her child are killed. Angus and Penny are injured. Alex dies from his injuries, but not before Neil secures an affidavit clearing his name. As it turns out, Col. Wain was also killed in the explosion. In the end, Neil and Penny are reunited with their child.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The main subject of Hugh MacLennan’s novel is the return of Neil Macrae from France to Halifax in order to clear his name. His uncle, Colonel Geoffrey Wain, had ordered an ill-planned advance on the Germans; Wain tried to blame the resulting debacle on Neil, ordering his arrest and court-martial for cowardice. When a shell hit the dugout in which he was being held prisoner, Neil was reported missing, believed killed. It is revealed, however, that he was picked up, badly wounded and amnesiac, and sent to the hospital. His rescuers believed him to be a private in the British North Country regiment that had relieved the Canadians. He gradually recovered his memory but retained his British identity until he returned to Canada.

This is the situation when the novel opens, and MacLennan leads gradually into his theme by not naming the shabby man wandering through the streets of Halifax in search of the man who can clear him. The reader learns only later who the wanderer is and how he got there, through flashbacks, one of the main narrative techniques of the novel.

Probably influenced by the classical ideals of unity of time, place, and action, MacLennan has limited the action of his novel to eight days, between December 2, 1917, and December 10, 1917, to one place, Halifax, and to the action of Neil returning to claim his good name. The classical aspect is reinforced by the name of the heroine, Penelope (usually called Penny). Neil is the Odysseus figure returning from his travels to unite with Penelope, with whom he has long been in love and who has borne his daughter. Neil does not know about the child, however, since he embarked for France shortly after spending a night with Penny at a hotel.

Neil is searching for Alex Mackenzie, the corporal whom he had sent back to headquarters with a message that would have cleared him of the charge of cowardice. Penny catches a glimpse of Neil on a streetcar and, although she fails to catch up with this man whom she believed dead, she is convinced of his identity and tells her father, Colonel Wain. Wain is back in Halifax because he has been suspected of incompetence. He is now a transport officer, which allows him to carry on his lucrative wharfing business. He is also scheming to get back to France in a higher command position.

Wain has long hated Neil because his beloved sister died giving birth to him and because Neil is completely opposite to Wain in temperament. Whereas Wain is controlled, conservative, and calculating, Neil is impulsive, generous, and quixotic. When informed by Penny that Neil is back in Halifax, Wain realizes...

(The entire section is 1,127 words.)