Canadian Short Fiction

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What are the themes in the following Canadian short stories?

  • "Do Seek Their Meat from God" by Charles G. D. Roberts
  • "The Desjardins" by Duncan Campbell Scott
  • "From Flores" by Ethel Wilson
  • "Last Spring They Came Over" by Morley Callaghan
  • "One-Two-Three Little Indians" by Hugh Garner

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"Do Seek Their Meat from God" is a story in the movement of Realism (about 1860 to 1917), which was, on one hand, a reaction against Romanticism and, on the other hand, a reflection the new scientific revolutions of Darwinism, geology, psychology and other sciences. Realism sought to represent the natural world--of nature and of humankind's relationships--as true to life. Of course, some authors carried over tinges of Romanticist influence since no movement ever starts without interacting influences from what went before, as T. S. Eliot once pointed out.

The theme in "Do Seek Their Meat" (1896) is dual as the focalization is on the panthers, then the humans, then on the interaction of the panthers and humans. The theme for the panthers is that survival in wild nature is without malice; survival is a matter of finding the meat provided by the god of nature with which to break a fast. The theme for the humans is that while nature has no intentional malice, it is nonetheless a dangerous and threatening place of potential fatality. The shared theme is that the survival of humans means the inevitable destruction nature, regardless of nature's innocent condition.

The theme in "The Desjardins" (1896) explores the Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest and its effect on relationships within the family. There are mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of two of the families more immediate patriarchs and, when Charles declares he is Napoleon, Adèle sobs that "It has come!" Nature's undiscriminating power has asserted itself, and Philippe decides that the only possible way to proceed is to cut the family off: when opposing powerful nature, only the fittest must or may survive.

"We must cut ourselves off; we must be the last of our race," [said Philippe].

The theme of "From Flores," published after 1930, is the power of beautiful and majestic nature and its effect on human lives. As the result of accidental, though fateful and inadequate decision making, the fishing ship the Effie Cee goes down in a storm with passengers and crew and a boy who was being taken to a hospital. The theme explores the effect of nature's might on those on shore awaiting the return of the ship and their loved ones.

The theme in "Last Spring They Came," set in Toronto (1927)--reflecting the Modernist movement in defragmentation of personal identity--explores the psychological adaptation, or, in the case of brothers Alfred and Harry, maladaptation of immigrants to new environments and to new expectations on established personalities. The brothers shine in the inventive letters they send home to England yet fail miserably as journalists. Though their personalities are well adapted to their old world, they cannot make psychological adjustments to new expectations. Their attempt lasts less than a year.

The theme of "One-Two-Three Little Indians" (1952)--a Modernist story of fragmented identity--is exploitation of humankind in general (the mining camp) and of Native American Indians in particular: (1) exploitation of labor and health for profit; (2) exploitation by American whites of Native Americans for a form of entertainment; (3) exploitation of tourists by Native Americans who must first exploit themselves in order to exploit the tourists in order to achieve a means to an end (such as Tom's need for money). Tom parades himself as a "real Indian" in order to take money for his son's medical expenses: Tom takes "a bedraggled band of cloth into which a large goose feather had been sown" and exploits himself so as to appear like "'a real Indian with a feather'n everything.'"

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What are the conclusions in these Canadian short stories? "Do Seek Their Meat from God" by Charles G. D. Roberts "The Desjardins" by Duncan Campbell Scott

The conclusion to "Do Seek Their Meat from God" is a duality: for one focalized group, it concludes happily while for the second focalized group, it ends tragically. This short story tells the tale of a family of panthers and a family of people. The panther's behaviors are motivated by the need to locate their next meal which will end their fast. The people's behaviors are motivated by the desire to seek out friends and the need to have food supplies at hand.

For the panthers, who pursue their natural feeding instincts and who find a young boy trapped in the dark in an abandoned hut, it ends tragically when both female and male are shot. For the humans, who find each other against their baser instincts yet in accord with their higher instincts--which win out over the baser ones--it ends happily when the father finds he has unwittingly saved his own son (instead of his son's rejected friend) from being torn alive by the panthers. The ironic climax of the panther's tragedy is that later, the man finds the two panther cubs lying dead in their den.

The conclusion to "The Desjardins" is comically tragic though the tragedy is brought about by fate, not external foes, and is a repeating and repeating one. With a whispered family history of mental illness that is attested to by Adèle as true, "'It has come!' sobbed Adèle," Charles becomes more and more studious, withdraw and solitary. Adèle finds a sweetheart who is courting her as they walk over the bridge of the River Blanche that symbolically cuts off the family when it floods and breaches its banks. Philippe finds a woman whom he anxiously waits to see each Sunday.

Then Charles proclaims that he is Napoleon Bonaparte (with none of the humor attached to the contemporary cliche). After Philippe's decision to cut themselves off, "'We must cut ourselves off; we must be the last of our race'," and his promise to guard Charles, the seasons roll by while Charles over and over again enacts Bonaparte's battles against Russia. After a long confinement in bed, he recognizes Adèle, holds her face in his hands, kisses her, then with the snow, again makes his plans against Russia. The cycle broke for one ray of reality, then closed over his derangement in a comically tragic yet symbolic truth.

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Can you compare the settings of these Canadian short stories? "Do Seek Their Meat from God" by Charles G. D. Roberts "The Desjardins" by Duncan Campbell Scott "From Flores" by Ethel Wilson "Last Spring They Came Over" by Morley Callaghan "One-Two-Three Little Indians" by Hugh Garner

Each of these Canadian short stories is set in a different kind of environment and most are set in different time periods. Setting, of course, is the time and place of a story. These elements set the cultural tone and define the historic and social parameters of the story. Some of these stories have multilayered locations and span considerable lengths of time while others have narrower locations and span short times.

Going in order from the wildest to the most civilized--though civilized refers only to citification, not necessarily to moral or cultural civilization--Charles G. D. Roberts's "Do Seek Their Meat From God" is set in a hostile wilderness where dangerous panthers roam. The time was the present when the story was published, which was in the late 1890s, and it covers only a brief period of time.

Ethel Wilson's "From Flores" is set in a neutral, though impersonal and dangerous nature. While Robert's setting is represented as hostile by the deliberate actions of the panthers, Wilson's setting is neutrally impersonal since all that is exposed to the storm universally suffers its rage. The time is around the turn of the twentieth century, a time Wilson is reminiscing about, even though it was written after the 1930s, and it covers more time but not a great deal of time.

Duncan Campbell Scott's "Desjardins" brings us out of the natural wilderness although we enter the psychological wilderness of Charles' mental deterioration. The time is the late 1890s and several years are covered. Charles, Philippe and Adèle live in their father's family estate in the countryside. They are bounded by a hill, a river (the River Blanche) and a marshy field where "by day the marsh marigolds shone, and by night, the fire-flies."

While the other stories have various specialized locations, like (1) the wilderness and the abandoned cabin or (2) the ocean and the port of call, Scott does a particular job of providing a multilayered setting because not only are there various locations, like the interior of the house and the hilltop, there is symbolism that attaches to each location, making the parts of the setting more integrally tied to the theme of the story. For instance, the Lombardy poplars that are dying out symbolize the family that is also dying out and the bridge over the Blanche, that rises periodically beneath the bridge to flood out the marshy field symbolizes the hopelessness of avoiding the ultimate fate of the family: "We must cut ourselves off; we must be the last of our race."

Hugh Garner's "One-Two-Three Little Indians" is set in a coal-mining boomtown and focuses mostly on the home home of Tom, a member of the Algonquin tribe. The setting shifts to the counterpoint setting of the tourist trailer camp nearby. The time is around 1952, which is also when it was published, and it covers a brief time. The settings seem stark and, though multilayered through contrasts, are not elaborately detailed. They remain as stark as the reality of Tom and Mary's baby existence. Other locations, like the nightclub Mary frequents and the trailer camp where Tom impersonates a "real Indian" with a feather in a band around his head, also function to add to characterization.

Morley Callaghan's "Last Spring They Came" is set in the major city of Toronto around the year 1927, which is when it was published, and it covers almost a year, from one spring almost to the next spring. The setting is integral to Callaghan's story of two immigrant brothers who strike out to be journalists without understanding the requirements for success as journalists or as immigrants. It may be said that Callaghan could not have told his story without the setting of Toronto or a very similar city because, as in Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, the city is a major antagonist in the story. Significant locations are the newspaper office, the brothers' lodgings where they write their imaginative letters home and the tavern where they are duped.

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Can you please describe the characterization in these Canadian short stories? "Do Seek Their Meat from God" by Charles G. D. Roberts “The Desjardins" by Duncan Campbell Scott “Last Spring They Came Over" by Morley Callaghan “One-Two-Three Little Indians" by Hugh Garner

[The eNotes format and purpose allows for only brief discussion of detailed questions but can get you started.]

"Do Seek Their Meat from God" has two focalizations. The first is the panthers who are sympathetically observed and characterized as though through the eye of a naturalist: their behavior is given no suggestion of being negative or willfully malicious. Through pathetic fallacy (a type of personification), emotions are ascribed to them through the sound of their cries and their actions.

That terrible cry, ... was a summons to his mate, telling her that the hour had come when they should seek their prey. ... The male walked around her in fierce and anxious amazement.

In addition, the man who owns the "substantial frame-house," who is father to the darkness trapped boy, and his son are characterized through their actions and desires but also through their own cries or assertions. The man commands and restricts; his son seeks a lost friend; the boy chokingly cries in terror; the man drops his desires and his bundle and goes to rescue a boy with an unknown identity.

In "The Desjardins" characterization follows the standards of Realism, as is true of "Do Seek Their Meat." Philippe, Adèle and Charles are characterized through their interests--walks, piano, study, isolation, courting--and through their thoughts and emotions. For instance, Charles knows he will be protected by his brothers touch in his hair:

Charles dropped on his knees ....  Philippe, ... thrust his fingers into his brother's brown hair. ... [Charles] knew ... his brother would guard him.

In "Last Spring They Came," the brothers are characterized in their public and their private personas. In private, they laugh and have jokes with each other and write imaginative letters home about things that may not have happened exactly as told. In public, they err and are duped and criticized. In public, they are failures who cannot perform their jobs. In private, they are unable to adapt because death comes before the next spring: last spring they came.

In "One-Two-Three Little Indians" Mary is characterized in a stereotypical way as the irresponsible night-clubbing wife who is unconcerned for her baby; she is at a nightclub when the baby dies. Tom is characterized more psychologically revealing his feelings and motivating thoughts. Tom is characterized as being exploited by tourists while capitalizing on it by exploiting them. His motive for accepting exploitation is a noble one: he tries to raise money off the tourists for his baby's medical care.

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