Morley Callaghan

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Morley Callaghan Long Fiction Analysis

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Much has been made of Morley Callaghan’s streamlined style—in his own words, the art of getting the writing down “so directly that it wouldn’t feel or look like literature.” Callaghan wished to achieve an effect that was “transparent as glass.” Life should be delineated without embellishment and to a large extent without metaphor. The language should be stripped of all artistic and symbolic associations, and objects should be seen as they are, like painter Paul Cézanne’s apples, which are merely apples and yet capture the essence of apples. The central ideas of Callaghan’s style are that reality must be accepted for what it is and that reality can be conveyed directly and simply. Leon Edel has suggested that this method has its origins in Callaghan’s journalism, that Callaghan, like Hemingway, transfers the clipped, almost perfunctory prose of the newsroom into the realm of the novel, evading the images and symbols so often used in fiction. In its formative stages, Callaghan’s style was perhaps also affected by the naturalism that was popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s, especially with American writers who wanted a mode of expression to capture the grim realities of the Depression.

Whatever its antecedents, Callaghan’s style, especially in the early novels such as Strange Fugitive and It’s Never Over, is handicapped by its programmatic simplicity; the prose is ill equipped to handle complexities of character. Callaghan’s novels, even the later ones, are also marked by a structural simplicity, with a limited number of characters, few subplots, and, usually, a single controlling consciousness. They seem to plod on to inevitably tragic but morally ambiguous conclusions, giving an illusion of time that is almost static, reduced to its elemental character.

Callaghan did not, however, adhere slavishly to the avowed principles of his early fiction. Beginning with Such Is My Beloved, the sentences are more complex; the dialogue is richer, less stylized in the Hemingway manner; the prose is more rhythmic; and the structure of the novels is more intricate. Still, all of Callaghan’s work is characterized by an unremarkable surface that at first glance has little aesthetic appeal. A more discriminating appraisal must therefore be made that accounts for the enduring quality of his work. Some critics have noted the parabolic nature of Callaghan’s fiction, which limits the need for rounded characterization and necessitates simplicity of structure. Others argue that Christian humanism, especially in Such Is My Beloved, More Joy in Heaven, and A Passion in Rome, with their obvious biblical titles, informs Callaghan’s work, giving it veracity and insight. Finally, some conclude that Callaghan’s power derives from the influence of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud and a particular setting in history.

To a certain extent, all these theories are true, but all are equally unsatisfying as comprehensive theories. Underlying each of the novels is an ironic point of view that defeats easy answers and leaves readers with both an unsatisfying vision of life with few moral or aesthetic certainties and a sense of mystery, an awareness of the infinite complexities of human action and thought that make life worthwhile. This deliberate ambiguity is anarrative strategy designed to force readers into reevaluating their own observations of life and their own moral stances. Callaghan’s novels, then, demand an involved sensibility and a questioning attitude; perhaps what is needed is the passionate intensity that Callaghan so frequently hints is the key to self-realization and independence.

Many of Callaghan’s novels are animated by the tension between an individual and the institutions that circumscribe that person’s behavior. The Church, the government, and the business community insist...

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on a patterned, prudent existence that gives society stability and order. As such, they serve useful functions in most people’s lives, but they are no substitute for a personal, compassionate, and intuitive vision, which, in everyday relationships, often subverts the legalistic intentions of the institutions. Individuals can be caught betraying society because they refuse to betray their own consciences. Thus, Father Dowling inSuch Is My Beloved befriends two prostitutes to rescue them, and himself, with the power of love. His seemingly inordinate concern for them strikes a local parishioner and Dowling’s bishop as unorthodox, and Dowling is relieved of his position and finally is admitted to a sanatorium. In The Loved and the Lost, Jim McAlpine is torn between his ambition to be a respectable columnist on a Montreal newspaper and the love of Peggy, a mysterious woman who inhabits the seamier region of the city. By losing faith in Peggy at a crucial moment, Jim allows the circumstances that bring about her death and a loss of faith in himself.

In Close to the Sun Again, Callaghan explores a more complex relationship between private and public values. Ira Groome, former “lord” of the Brazilian Power Company and now chairman of Toronto’s police commission, reflects to no avail on why he has become impersonal and detached from the stream of life. After suffering severe injuries in a car accident, he relives his career as a naval commander and realizes that he had tried to escape the pain of human involvement by representing an institutional view of life. In a final epiphany, he accepts the voices in his own heart and dies with the profound self-knowledge that had been lacking in the earlier part of his life. In all of these works, the ultimate irony is that the individual can rarely reconcile the public demands of the world with a passionate, often barbaric, private vision.

Such Is My Beloved

The dedication to Callaghan’s finest early novel, Such Is My Beloved, reads, “To those times with M. in the winter of 1933”; “M.” was Jacques Maritain, the world-renowned philosopher, who came to St. Michael’s College Institute for Medieval Studies as a visiting lecturer. Perhaps from his discussions with Maritain, especially concerning the nature of Christian humanism and the role of the saint in the world, Callaghan chose to concentrate on an explicitly religious theme, probing the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church, an agency of worldly prudence, and its priests, who must minister to individuals’ needs through the love of Christ. The title suggests the focus of the novel; as Brandon Conron has noted, it is an echo of God’s expression of love for His Son on the occasion of Christ’s baptism. The epigraph confirms the theme of the nature of love and the consequences of the spiritual attitude of the novel. Taken from the Song of Songs, it reads: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.”

The story is simple. Father Dowling, the central figure of the novel, befriends two prostitutes, Veronica “Ronnie” Olsen and Catherine “Midge” Bourassa, in order to save them from their degrading way of life. He soon realizes that they need not only love but also material necessities to sustain them through the Depression. Aware that the money he earns from his parish will not be enough, Dowling enlists the help of a wealthy parishioner, James Robison, to provide jobs for them. Robison, however, is not willing to risk the possibility of scandal and reports Dowling to his bishop. The two women are forced to leave the city (ostensibly Toronto), and Dowling, driven by these betrayals to madness, has only momentary periods of lucidity in the sanatorium.

Brandon Conron and Malcolm Ross both have argued that this novel presents at least a superficial allegory, with Dowling as Christ, Robison as Judas, and the bishop as Pontius Pilate, with certain minor characters also serving symbolic roles. The success of the novel, however, resides in Callaghan’s ability to draw these characters as vulnerable human beings and not merely as types. Dowling conveys a disturbing naïveté that, despite his powerful love, causes his downfall. He brings Ronnie and Midge presents and money in an effort to keep them off the streets, but the gifts are ineffective. Dowling exhibits many other traits that seduce the reader into a kind of Conradian belief in him as “one of us.” In the confessional, he is so consumed by his thoughts for the girls that he is harsh with others. He is jealous of Father Jolly’s room, which Dowling himself covets; he admits to the natural sexual feelings of a young man his age; he hates the owner of the bawdy house, Henry Baer; and he lies about his involvement with the two prostitutes. Ironically, these human weaknesses make his love seem more potent.

The other characters, although not as well portrayed as Dowling, are effective in that the reader’s responses to them are never wholly one-sided. Robison, much of the time, is a kind, helpful Christian who is confused by Dowling’s love. The bishop, representing the position of the worldly Church, doubts himself and does not seem secure in his opinion of Dowling. Ronnie’s pimp, Joe Wilenski, is a brutish man who often takes advantage of her yet respects her as a person. Ronnie, coming from a broken home in Detroit, and Midge, abandoned by her lover, react with affecting girlishness, especially when Dowling gives them pretty clothes. The ambivalent, realistic natures of these people condition the reader’s response to the novel as a whole. One sees human beings with limited control over their circumstances; the Church and society seem to conspire to destroy the idealistic impulse in the individual consciousness.

Professor David Dooley has identified the central moral problem of Such Is My Beloved as the conflict between quixotic idealism and worldly prudence, with no satisfactory conclusion being evinced. Father Dowling tries to love the prostitutes as Christ loved sinners; all people are worthy of love without distinction, despite their failures. Love, he thinks, will overcome worldly considerations, but his faith cannot change the economic conditions that have driven the girls into sin. Dowling also tries to console the Canzanos, a family with twelve children living in abject poverty. Mr. Canzano says that they need money, not faith, and there is nothing left for him but despair. Even Dowling’s great love is unconvincing here; he spends so much time with the girls that he can give little to his other parishioners. Although Callaghan satirizes the bishop for his concern that the scandal will hurt his charity campaign, he is perhaps correct in thinking that the Church should play a more material part in helping people such as the Canzanos.

Dowling’s best friend, Charlie Stewart, a medical student who is an avowed Marxist, also views the world in terms of economics. Because he is a secular idealist, he believes that the ideal state could transform society and put an end to poverty. For him, there is no religious problem, only an economic one. The Church, the business community (represented by Robison and his uncharitable wife), Stewart, and Dowling are all caught up in the same dilemma. The personal qualities of spiritual love and secular compassion are defeated by institutions that must force their representatives to make rational, pragmatic choices. Even though these choices are often hypocritical, they are necessary to sustain order in society.

Such Is My Beloved ends with the two prostitutes forced out of the city by the police, and Dowling, in the sanatorium, is left to think of them as two of the many restless souls who cannot find peace. Dowling has occasional moments of clarity in which he offers his sanity as a sacrifice to God so that God might spare their souls. The priest is content in this offering and, at peace with himself, plans to write a commentary on the Song of Songs. The only positive note in the book is that this powerful love of Dowling’s is somehow good, and although it cannot change society, it can transcend it, making even the tragic elements of life worthwhile.

In his next two novels, They Shall Inherit the Earth and More Joy in Heaven, Callaghan continued to examine the theme of love and its relation to society in explicitly religious terms. Neither novel is as well wrought as Such Is My Beloved, but both are nevertheless effective renderings of complex human motives. In the period between 1937 and 1948, his “dark period,” Callaghan published no major novels. In 1948, however, his period of “spiritual dryness” over, Callaghan published Luke Baldwin’s Vow and The Varsity Story and began work on The Loved and the Lost, which appeared in 1951.

The Loved and the Lost

Although the religious dimension is understated in The Loved and the Lost, the novel again explores the inner opposition between the individual and the dictates of society. For the most part, the narrative consciousness is that of Jim McAlpine, through whose eyes the reader receives impressions of Montreal’s clearly divided social strata. Formerly an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto, Jim is brought to the city by a publisher, Joseph Carver, to write a political column for the Montreal Sun. Carver, a professed “liberal,” admired an article Jim had written, “The Independent Man,” for The Atlantic Monthly. Living on “the mountain,” an affluent district in Montreal, Carver and his divorced daughter, Catherine, represent the social status to which Jim has aspired all his life. Through a friend, Jim meets Peggy Sanderson, a seemingly generous and warmhearted woman. Jim falls in love with her innocence and her compassion, knowing that their relationship, as elusive as it may be, could destroy his ambitions. After a brawl involving Peggy at Café St. Antoine, a black jazz club on the river, Jim feels compelled to protect her and to profess his love for her. When Peggy’s need for him is greatest, however, Jim loses faith in her, inadvertently leaving her to be raped and murdered. Unable to choose between the stable values of “the mountain” and the uncertain values of the river, Jim betrays not only Peggy but also himself.

The novel works in parallels of discrete oppositions between the mountain and the river, with Jim at the center, torn by the attractiveness of each and unable to reconcile the contradictions inherent in both. Carver has wealth and power, which he uses to operate a newspaper dedicated, like The New York Times or Manchester Guardian, to the principles of independent thinking. His editorial stance, however, is compromised by his personal objection to giving his own writers freedom of thought; he wants supreme loyalty from his staff, and he is disturbed by the possibility that Jim may be an embarrassment to him. His daughter, Catherine, embodies the beauty and social grace of her class, but she is unsure of herself and hides her ardent character. She sees a hockey game with Jim and remarks on the artistic patterns of play. For her, life is a pattern, like her orderly room, which should not be disturbed. When Jim seems to side with the hockey player breaking the pattern by receiving a penalty, she asks why he is not “with us.” In the end, however, discovering Jim’s complicity in the murder, she empathizes with Peggy, violently slapping Jim for what she thinks is his betrayal.

Evoking similarly complex responses in all those who know her, Peggy Sanderson is an extremely ambiguous character. She has an air of innocence that enchants Jim and makes him want to protect her, but there is also a suggestion of carnality; as a young girl she admired the body of a naked black boy, and there are many comments made on her promiscuity with the black men at the Café St. Antoine, although they are not verified. In her indiscriminate, but platonic, love for all souls “without distinction” (here she echoes Father Dowling), she is seen as Saint Joan and Christ. This spiritual gift, however, invites fear and resentment, not peace and understanding. Symbolically, she is associated with a carved leopard and a small antique church, both of which she takes Jim to see. The fierce, uncertain jungle violence of the leopard contrasts with the stable religious feeling of the church, but Callaghan never lets the reader know if these are indeed Peggy’s responses to these objects. Jim thinks that her innocence is attracted to violence, that in fact her actions are self-destructive. By refusing to compromise her personal vision to social prudence, she is destroyed; the reader is never really sure of the extent to which she is culpable for her own fate.

Much of the novel is controlled by Jim’s subjective, ambivalent feelings. He is estranged from the world of status as a child, a boy outside the hedge of the wealthy Havelocks, so his ambition is understandable even if excessively rationalized. Although he is drawn to Catherine and her tidy universe, he feels more comfortable in the “middle world” of the Chalet restaurant. Peggy shatters his balance by showing him a different side of life, where society’s rules are broken and ambition becomes mere illusion. At the hockey game, he dismisses the patterns and sees the ice surface as a pit with writhing sacrificial figures. His vision, however, is only refracted, not significantly altered, and, rather than accept Peggy for what she is, he tries to mold her into his possession. Like Peter denying Christ, Jim denies knowing Peggy at Angela Murdoch’s party on the mountain, hoping that he can bring the two worlds into harmony at some later date.

Wolfgast, the owner of the Chalet restaurant, tells Jim the story of a white horse he believed belonged to him although it was owned by his father’s landlord. The circumstances of losing the horse impressed upon him the need for some definitive personal possession. In buying the Chalet, he achieved his dream. Peggy becomes Jim’s “white horse,” and he tries to own her by using her apartment to write his articles. Every day he tidies it up and makes a change that reflects his own personality. Only after her death does he recognize that his sin resided in not accepting Peggy for herself. Ironically, by not abandoning himself completely, by losing faith in Peggy as Orpheus lost faith in Euridice, he loses his own sense of identity as well. Confused about the values of high and low society and the mysterious values embodied by Peggy, Jim is left only with a dream of Peggy being trampled by white horses from the mountain as he draws back. In desperation, he attempts to find Peggy’s antique church, hoping that in this symbol of belief Peggy will be with him always. The gesture is futile: Jim does not find the church.

The reader, too, is left without a clear moral resolution. Is Peggy really a virgin, a pure innocent? Is she a saint like Saint Joan, destroyed by an insensitive society? Is there really something primitive in her character that attracts violence? Could Jim cope with Peggy as a human being and not as the ideal he made her out to be? How do the symbols clarify and support meaning? After all, Wolfgast’s “white horse,” the possession of his restaurant, is something quite different from the possession of a human being. Does the church symbolize religious values or innocence, or is there a more ephemeral quality to it? Does the leopard represent the passionate nature of human beings or perhaps only independence? Beneath the surface of a straightforward, well-told story, then, are ambiguities that admit no easy resolutions.

Through the 1950’s, 1960’s, and early 1970’s, Callaghan continued to write many interesting stories; his novels, however, met with mixed reviews. His style became more ambitious, and his ideas remained adventurous, but his plots were clumsy, his dialogue often unrealistic, and his characterizations more stereotyped than ever before. In A Fine and Private Place, an entertaining roman à clef for the author’s followers, Callaghan even included a strident attack on critics unwilling to accept him as a major novelist.

Close to the Sun Again

With Close to the Sun Again, Callaghan returned to some earlier themes with great success. The values of the novel are less ambiguous, and the story is simply but powerfully told in Callaghan’s characteristic clipped style, which suits the material admirably. The story relates the psychic journey of former naval commander Ira Groome, who quits his job as head of the Brazilian Power Corporation to become chairman of the police commission in a large, metropolitan city, probably Toronto. After the death of his alcoholic wife, Julia, he feels a sense of astonishment that shocks him into the realization that imperceptibly he has lost the passion that makes life real. He has, in fact, become so detached that his wife only felt comfortable calling him “Commander,” and his son has rejected him as a father. Voices from within challenge him to break the pattern of impersonality that has characterized his life, but they do not completely penetrate his conscious mind.

As introspective as he was in Brazil, Groome still projects the image of stable authority in Toronto, demanding and getting loyalty from the members of the police commission and starting a casual, uninvolved affair with Mrs. Oscar Finley (Carol) of the prestigious Hunt Club set. Still seeking some “enchantment,” however, he begins to drink gin, which softens his disciplined view of life but forces him into the Maplewood rest home every few weeks for a temporary “cure.” One night, shocked by some harsh but vaguely familiar words from Carol, he leaves Maplewood for home in an excited state, only to be involved in a serious car accident. In the hospital, holding the hand of his former ship’s boatswain, Horler, Groome experiences the enchantment he so badly desires and drifts into a dreamworld of memory and heightened perception.

Groome relives an important part of his life in which he is again Lieutenant Groome on a ship in the North Atlantic during the war. Upon realizing that he is alive after being severely wounded in action, he sees people as unique individuals, each inhabiting a wonderful private world, and is then able to respond to his men with a sensitivity rarely shown by officers. Groome’s life is changed radically, however, when two survivors of a torpedo raid board his ship. Gina Bixby, trying to reach England to see her father, a boxing promoter, is accompanied by huge, silent Jethroe Chone, her father’s bodyguard. They are escaping Marty Rosso, a mobster involved in fixing fights, who wants to use Gina to prevent her father from testifying before the boxing commission. Rosso has already caused the death of Robert Riopelle, a naïve boxer duped into believing in himself: With his hands smashed by Rosso, Riopelle perceived that his whole being was corrupted and committed suicide. During their escape from Rosso, the mysterious Chone raped Gina but feels no remorse for an act that “kills” part of her. Although there still seems to be a perverse bond between them, Gina confesses to Groome that, when they reach London, she will kill Chone for this brutal betrayal.

Groome is disturbed by this world so unlike the well-ordered naval existence; it is a world of violent passions beyond his experience. In her questioning of Groome, however, Gina brings to the surface his fascination for the Mayan religious rituals he had encountered as a young archaeology student on the Yucatán Peninsula. This society, with its sacrificial violence, seems to parallel Gina’s world in a strange way. Groome recalls a native girl, Marina, an image of light suffusing his memory, who gave him the ancient piece of wisdom that in a cruel, senseless world, all one can do is create something beautiful from the nightmare.

Before they can reach the safety of London, the ship is torpedoed, leaving Groome, Horler, Gina, a wounded Chone, and a few sailors on a life raft. Defiantly, Chone tells Groome that no one knew or loved Gina more than he did; soon after, Chone rolls himself into the water to die at sea. Yelling for him to come back, in the same words that Carol later spoke to Groome, Gina swims after Chone, her passion overcoming any sense of safety. She is also lost in the water. Groome is horrified at the emotions he feels—the jungle terrors of involvements with people living in intense personal worlds. He rationalizes that getting too close to people, being intoxicated by violent passions, only causes pain and suffering. Groome closes his heart to these sufferings and resists the voices in his own heart. He changes into secure Ira Groome, the Commander, dedicated to a high purpose in life, a world of order unencumbered by the depth of personal relationships.

Remembering all this from his hospital bed, Groome realizes that he has committed treason to his own nature. He finally understands the significance of Chone’s life. He sees the brightness from a sunlit jungle clearing into which a white leopard emerges, and, finally, Groome understands himself. Recognizing the necessity of leading a life of passion in all respects, bearing the suffering and sacrifice that enrich the individual sensibility, Groome dies, “close to the sun again.”

In this novel, Callaghan reiterates the themes of his other works but makes it clear that passion should not be compromised to suit the values of society. In earlier novels, the conflict between private passions and the imposed, prudent views of society is unresolved, but Close to the Sun Again concludes with an epiphany that clearly emphasizes that the individual’s responsibility is above all to him- or herself. Throughout his career, Callaghan offered his readers a vision that is thought-provoking, humane, and replete with the passions that touch all persons’ lives. There is little doubt that in the future his reputation as a significant twentieth century novelist will remain secure.


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