Marian Engel Critical Essays

Introduction

Marian Engel 1933-1985

Canadian short story writer, novelist, and children's writer.

The following entry provides criticism on Engel's works from 1977 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1977, see CLC, Volume 36.

Considered one of the most articulate feminist fiction writers of contemporary Canada, Engel insightfully portrayed the ongoing war between the sexes and highlighted the few, often devastatingly poignant, options left for heterosexual women of her generation.

Biographical Information

Engel was born on May 24, 1933, in Toronto to parents who were both teachers and was raised in several Ontario towns where she claimed to have had a happy childhood. Engel attended McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. As a university student, she was actively involved in the production of the university newspaper and literary magazine, as well as in the dramatic society and debating society. One of the major influences that informed Engel's concern with the power of words and directed her approach to writing was her continuing friendships with the fellow students from her academic years, many of whom went on to teach at universities, became writers, or engaged in politics. Her travels and residence outside Ontario, including several years spent in France and Cyprus, also served as a rich source of inspiration. Engel worked as a lecturer, teacher, and writer-in-residence at universities throughout Canada, contributed stories and articles to journals and periodicals, and won many awards for her writing. She died on February 16, 1985.

Major Works

Critics have commented on the ways in which Engel's fiction seems to incorporate the various places she lived and visited. Her novel Monodromos (1973) is set in Cyprus and depicts the summer adventures of a Canadian woman abroad. Mediterranean imagery and the western Ontario landscape also inform her second novel The Honeyman Festival (1970), which depicts the experiences of a pregnant Toronto woman during a single night. In an early 1970s interview, however, Engel herself claimed that, even though she found foreign places fascinating, she was becoming more and more Canadian and that the Great Lakes region was her heartland. In Bear (1976), probably her most widely read novel, Engel sheds light on the unendurable positions in which Canadian society has placed its intelligent older women. The protagonist, Lou, who is a veteran archival librarian in Toronto, receives a commission to spend an entire summer on a river island in northern Ontario sorting out what has been left in a colonial mansion recently bequeathed to the for which institute she works. What she discovers in the colossal house on the mystical island is not so much valuable historical documents as her authentic self. She forms a peculiarly erotic friendship with a pet bear that belongs to the house, as a potential alternative to, and a possible compensation for, the humiliating and disappointing relationships she has had with men. In The Glassy Sea (1978), Engel again created a lone, middle-aged female protagonist who may at first seem simply confused about what she wants, yet who in fact embodies—and eventually manages to articulate and condemn—conventional cultural norms and feminist beliefs. A one-time Anglican nun and now dispirited divorcee who has barely survived her self-righteous, religiously fanatic, lawyer/politician husband and the battle to save her hydrocephalic and only child, Rita Bowen muses over the current status of affairs in heterosexual relationships. Rita suggests the radical solution of having all women die at age thirty or in childbirth as older women are considered useless and at the same time feared for their intelligence and independence. The decision Rita makes at the close of the book indicates that her concern is clearly not religious, but rather constitutes an ardent desire to offer refuge to the many women who have been battered or discarded. In contrast to the lucid sense of loneliness and loss that pervades The Glassy Sea, Lunatic Villas (1981) carries a generally cheerful tone. This novel is considered entertaining, even though it has been deemed of much less literary value than Engel's other fiction. The novel's protagonist, Harriet Ross, is a Toronto freelance writer who signs her weekly magazine column, with a considerable amount of honesty, “Depressed Housewife.” Harriet fiercely protects her brood of seven mismatched children as well as a few helpless friends, managing on the side to harbor a married lover. Even though Harriet's battles are endless and her responsibilities dauntingly enormous, Engel's buoyant sense of humor adds a great deal of warmth and hopefulness to the narrative. In her last published work, the short story collection The Tattooed Woman (1985), Engel featured a wide variety of characters, most of whom are disillusioned middle-aged women. In the title story of the collection a woman learns of her husband's affair with a younger woman; in response, she begins carving designs into her skin with a razor, hoping to achieve the wisdom of older tribal women.

Critical Reception

Bear is by far Engel's most controversial work. The novel's ending has been hailed by some as a victory over the misogyny of mainstream Canadian society, with which Engel constantly takes issue. At other times Bear has been interpreted as a rather passive gesture of resignation and acceptance of the status quo, not unlike the way some critics have read the closing of fellow Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's Surfacing. Critics suggest that since Engel herself scoffed at the trend to label every piece of fiction a roman a clef, it would be incorrect to see her women characters as direct reflections and outgrowths of the author. Rather, they should be regarded as literary vehicles through which Engel voiced her views of contemporary women's lives, their difficulties and strengths. Even though Engel considered herself experiential—in the sense that she tended to jump into situations—rather than theoretical or analytical, her fiction presents her feminist principles unambiguously and cerebrally, in highly charged political language.