Themes and Meanings

Although the novel is written in the realistic mode, its mythic references and its frequent coincidences move it constantly toward fable. In particular, the explosion that rocks Halifax and the novel’s characters indicates that MacLennan was more interested in tracing in mythic form the awakening of modern Canada from its nineteenth century sleep than in creating a purely realistic fiction. He takes an omniscient point of view in order to move in and out of the characters’ minds and to make editorial statements. The characters are used as mouthpieces for his ideas as well as for symbolic purposes. Neil Macrae has to carry the heaviest burden of ideas and symbols. He is descended from English settlers in the United States and Scottish settlers in Nova Scotia and has been educated in Montreal and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yet, despite his education and training, he has still not found himself when he goes to France to fight the Germans. His wounding and loss of identity, both of which are symbols of initiation, provide him with the experience out of which his new identity can emerge. Significantly, he has to shed the English identity that has been given him after he lost his memory before he can find out what it means to be a Canadian. Like Odysseus, he has to remain disguised on his return until he can step into his new role. Then he can begin to define that identity in terms of his nation’s role in the world.

Through Neil, MacLennan outlines what he believes to be Canada’s role. It must be a strong, united nation, independent of the United States, that can also act as a link with Europe. At the end of the novel, Neil reflects:For better or worse he was entering the future, he was identifying himself with the still-hidden forces which were doomed to shape humanity as certainly as the tiny states of Europe had shaped the past. Canada was still hesitant, still hamstrung by men with the mentality of Geoffrey Wain. But if there were enough Canadians like himself, half-American and half-English, then the day was inevitable when the halves would join and his country would become the central arch which united the new order.