Canadian Long Fiction Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Given the geographical and historical proximity of Canada and the United States, it stands to reason that their national literatures would reflect similar concerns. Early Canadian settlers traveled from Europe, with the majority emigrating from Great Britain and France. They were faced with a wilderness that seemed almost infinite—and would not be completely settled even into the twentieth century—inhabited by people whose appearance, beliefs, and customs were different from their own. Their national economy was closely linked to natural resources, dominated by such industries as farming, fishing, mining, logging, and milling. Little in their previous experience had prepared them for such an encounter, and few of the artistic models they had brought from Europe allowed them to completely express the reality of their relation to this “new” world. Like their cousins to the south, Canadians were continually renegotiating their identity relative to the surrounding landscape, and early Canadian writers sought to raise this daily phenomenon of encounter and compromise to an expression of national selfhood.

As such, it is strange to note how differently Canada and the United States developed, in both literary and historical senses. Where Americans were driven by their “manifest” directive to settle the continent, Canadian settlement was less rapid and headlong. Official groups such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police often preceded settlers into the wilderness, carving out a habitable and “known” space for pioneers who followed. The emphasis was usually on order, which prevented the frenzied land rushes and cultural clashes occurring to the south. Where American settlement was often violent, punctuated by slavery and wars with American Indians, Canadian movements across the landscape were deliberate and, at some level, introspective. Relations with Indians, though not perfect, were enhanced by the Canadian government’s simple willingness to adhere to its treaties. Other interchanges between cultures, despite friction, infrequently rose to the level of martial conflict that punctuated U.S. history. Indeed, the high premium that Canadians have historically placed on cultural dialogue continues to be exemplified by the coexistence of anglophone and francophone cultures.

Early Canadian novels, 1769-1852

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The complexities of cultural interchange and of comprehending the landscape beyond simple conquest have epitomized Canadian long fiction from its inception. Chief among such works is Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague (1769), arguably the first North American novel. Written by an Englishwoman who had lived for five years in Canada and adhering closely to a standard romance plot, The History of Emily Montague nevertheless invokes the sense of dichotomy that would characterize later Canadian novels. The matrices that form the novel’s thematic base—civilization versus savagery, urban versus rural, feminine versus masculine, and domestic order versus natural law—challenge the assumption that European society could be instantly transplanted to North America. While the lead characters, Emily Montague and Colonel Rivers, marry at the novel’s end—per the genre’s conventions—the negotiations that occur during their courtship in Canada suggest how Brooke’s writing subtly undermines the moral, sexual, and political expectations of her English audience. Though no great upheaval occurs within the book’s social order, the mere suggestion of necessary compromise (between characters of various backgrounds and between humans and the wilderness) creates a sense of cultural dialogue uncommon in works of the time.

Such dialogues are stressed in John Richardson’s Wacousta: Or, The Prophecy, a Tale of the Canadas (1832), the next seminal novel in Canadian literary history. Similar to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales in its depiction of a white army facing an Indian foe, Wacousta eschews the easy valorization of “civilization” over “savagery” implicit in Cooper’s works. From the novel’s start, Richardson refuses to uphold any character type as absolutely worthy or moral, and even the notion of identity itself—who people are, what qualifies them as good or evil, how rapidly...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

The interim period, 1852-1920

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Despite the impressive novels of the early nineteenth century, Canadians did not produce many long literary works from 1852 to 1920, and those that were produced did not rival the complexity of their predecessors; the best-known work from this period is a children’s book, L. M. Montgomery’s 1908 Anne of Green Gables. Indeed, a quick look at the number of Canadian titles produced throughout the nineteenth century would be enough to demonstrate that Canada was not developing the sizable literary tradition of the United States at the time. In part, this situation was the result of demographics: A small Canadian population spread over a broad area did not have the resources to support an indigenous publishing industry.

The disparity also was the result of U.S. history. Obsessed with becoming a world power, the United States engaged in not only a quick march across the continent but also a furious drive to place before the world a literature that could be considered emblematically American. Success against Britain in gaining independence, as well as the attention of European philosophers and a growing industrial economy, had made Americans keenly aware of their need for an intellectual apparatus to match their imperial aspirations. The novels they produced out of this sensibility were largely future oriented, singular in their belief in the eventual greatness of the United States, and philosophically rooted in a tradition that generally—if ironically—raised individual liberties, the spirit of revolution, and a proclivity for violence to the level of national-cultural persona.

Canadians, by contrast, often viewed...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

The prairie and the West

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, a common metaphor for this process of discovering history recurred in novels about the Great Plains and the Western interior. Unlike the American frontier novel—where white pioneer-cowboys contend against American Indians, villains, and the forces of industry to settle the continent—Canadian Western novels deal with settlers coming to terms with the “vast absence” around them. If violent contests did occur in the Canadian West, they more often took the shape of humans versus the landscape or versus their own demons than a contest against those external forces struggling to prevent the advance of “civilization.” Thus, while most American Westerns resolve themselves quite neatly—the defeat of the “savage” cleared the way for the nation’s progress—Canadian Westerns were troubled both by the absolute moral oppositions of the American system and by the way that system failed to address Canada’s own historical experience.

Implicitly aware of the multiple viewpoints shaping their past, Canadians struggled with the concept of how to build “history” out of many voices—or, more to the point, how to articulate Canadian identity when no one cultural voice told the nation’s full story and history became a kind of “surrounding silence” incapable of revealing itself. Canadian experiences with both the prairie and the Western interior served as apt metaphors for this struggle, though for different reasons. The prairie—flat, empty, even desolate—offered a vacant site where the task of self-creation seemed simultaneously imminent and impossible, a blank slate on which to inscribe both personal and national identity that contained no external signposts to suggest exactly what that identity should be. The Western interior, by contrast, offered a mountainous landscape filled with spectacular topography and various cultures, a place full of external stimuli yet also filled with different people who encountered those stimuli through vastly divergent historical, economic, and personal contexts.

Of the prairie novels, the most notable are Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh (1925), Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese (1925), Robert J. C. Stead’s Grain (1926), and Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House (1941). While all have been called works of realism, depicting the harsh nature of prairie life, later critics recognized them as psychological quests for self-understanding. Grain follows the attempts of a slow-witted man, Gander Stake, to come to terms with his own social and sexual identity even as the farm life to which he is accustomed slowly gives way to a post-World War I industrial economy. Settlers of the Marsh and Wild Geese explore the worlds of egomaniacal patriarchs trying to found personal dynasties on the plains, as well as the oppressed characters (often female) attempting to break free from their single-minded imperatives. As for Me and My House analyzes the process by which characters construct their identities away from civilization, isolated in a small prairie town.

Of these works, As for Me and My House is the most interesting because of the way it explores identity construction as more than a reaction to another’s demagoguery; Ross’s work excludes dominant, if detestable, central figures (such as Grove’s Neils Lindstedt or Ostenso’s Caleb Gare) in order to avoid amoral touchstones through which the actions of others can be measured and understood. Instead, he offers only the town of Horizon—a mere spot on the Saskatchewan map—during the Great Depression, where characters come to understand themselves through interactions with the community. The novel is rendered in journal format by the wife of Philip Bentley, Horizon’s minister. Mrs. Bentley is a proud and stand-offish woman, a former musician who claims to detest everything about the small, isolated place to which her husband has been sent. Philip Bentley is an agnostic and a failed artist who has assumed his religious post more out of his sense of duty than out of belief or desire.

Together the Bentleys struggle to understand themselves against the backdrop of the desolate prairie, Philip’s extramarital affair, an illegitimate child, and constant rancor. Despite her desperate need to be loved, Mrs. Bentley refuses to turn to Philip because of the many betrayals which she believes he has heaped upon her. Despite his desperate need for artistic stimulation and his overwhelming self-doubt, Philip refuses to leave Horizon, motivated by the same pride that motivates his wife. In both cases, the prairie becomes a symbol of the isolation and emptiness that both characters feel. Even the one person who seems capable of escaping the oppressive psychological weight of Horizon—Philip’s lover...

(The entire section is 1986 words.)

Canadian novels after 1960

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While Native Canadians constitute the most prominent minority group writing in Canada, peoples of other races and ethnicities have found room within the nation’s pluralistic literary tradition. Mordecai Richler has charted the Canadian Jewish experience in books such as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), St. Urbain’s Horsemen (1971), and Joshua Then and Now (1980). Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Café (1990) and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (1981) recount the sometimes tragic histories of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, respectively. Beginning around 1980, novelists of Middle Eastern, Asian Indian, and Sri Lankan descent also assumed a prominent place in Canadian letters. Before...

(The entire section is 1141 words.)

Multiplicity and the Canadian self

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

At its most basic level, Atwood’s writing reminds readers of Canada’s “differences.” With its diverse geography and cultural history, the country frequently produces writers who seem more influenced by localized forces than national ones. Certainly this is true in the case of Quebec, where early novels such as Les Anciens Canadiens (1863; The Canadians of Old, 1864) byPhilippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspe and Jean Rivard (1874; English translation, 1977) by Antoine Gerin-Lajoie emphasize Québécois individuality and differences from anglophone Canada. English-language writers also have their regional traditions; one has only to consider Alistair MacLeod’s Nova Scotia (The Lost Salt Gift of...

(The entire section is 440 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1996. Analysis of the chief issues in Canadian literature, in prose that is clear, witty, and accessible to a broad audience. A classic work of Canadian criticism by a renowned novelist.

Benson, Eugene, and William Toye, eds. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Like Oxford’s other companion volumes, this work offers insightful introductions to a broad range of Canadian writers and literary issues. Entries are as uniformly well written as they are diverse in subject...

(The entire section is 575 words.)