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Ross, (James) Sinclair 1908–
Ross, a Canadian novelist and short story writer, is best known for his realistic portraits of Canadian prairie life which are as vivid as they are bleak. His characters are sympathetically drawn from childhood memory: they are presented as victimized figures whose struggle with isolation and loneliness reflects Ross's own view of the human condition. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647
The bleak assumption of this beautiful novel [As For Me And My House] is that Philip Bentley has no ground whatsoever upon which he might stand, no communion at all through which he might discover saving dimensions of self. The overwhelming desolation which rims Horizon around—the hostile wind, the suffocating dust and sand and the even more suffocating and claustrophobic heat—recurs on the pages of Mrs. Bentley's diary as outward manifestation of the inner desolation felt by her husband. All that Philip can claim or cling to is his maddeningly inarticulate impulse to create. The novel is less like a story than it is like a cumulative picture in which Ross, by a remarkable, almost tour de force repetition of detail, grains a central scene upon the reader's consciousness so that all other details and even the action of the novel achieve meaningful focus in relation to the one scene at the center, repeated some thirty times. It is of course that in which Philip is shown retreating to his study where he will sit interminable evening superimposed upon interminable evening, drawing or fiddling at drawing, or staring with baffled intensity at drawings he has in some other time and place tried to draw. Yet, "Even though the drawings are only torn up or put away to fill more boxes when we move, even though no one ever gets a glimpse of them … still they're for him the only part of life that's real or genuine." The novel is a projection through the medium of Mrs. Bentley's remarkably responsive consciousness of the despair in which her husband is caught…. And the town itself, with the dust "reeling in the streets", the heat "dry and deadly like a drill" …, is simply a place name for the limbo in which Bentley lives…. (pp. 14-15)
Philip's need to escape from this isolation drives him to art. But just as he can find no terms under which he may act as a self so he can find no terms under which he may act as an artist. His most characteristic drawing is a receding perspective in which a looming false-front building gives way to a diminished next building, and a next, and a next, an endless progression which provides a portrait of the monotony of his own being. The novel is a study of a frustrated artist—actually, a non-artist—one unable to discover a subject which will release him from his oppressive incapacity to create. The excellence of the study traces to the remarkable resourcefulness with which Ross brings into place the day-to-day nuances of Mrs. Bentley's struggling consciousness as he builds up her account of an artist who cannot create because he cannot possess himself and who cannot possess himself because there is no self to possess. Certainly there are more deep-reaching portraits of the artist, for in this novel all is muffled within Philip's inarticulation, but none that I know represents with so steady a pressure of felt truth the pervasive undermining of all vital energies which occurs when the would-be artist's creativity is thwarted. No momentary exuberance survives…. Not once in the novel does Philip break through the torment of his constraint to utter a free sentence. Even when his wife confronts him with knowledge of his covert love affair with Judith West his response, beyond the endurance of even an Arthur Dimmesdale, is silence. But if the beauty is in the detailing, it does not trace to the dreariness which is portrayed. It traces to the constant presence in Mrs. Bentley's consciousness of an exuberance which flares up like matches in the wind and struggles to survive, a counter-impulse within her by which life attempts to defeat the defeated. This bravery loses out to the dreariness … but in the process of struggling it animates the novel. (pp. 15-16)
Warren Tallman, in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1960.
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Horizon, the town that is the setting for [As For Me and My House], could be any place on the prairie in the thirties; yet again, it can be anywhere at any time. It is bleak, it is tired, it is horribly true; and yet there is an element of the flower blooming on the desert, and the flying of feeling that transcends all, that gives to As For Me and My House a prominent position in Canadian letters. This is a novel which, despite its Puritanism, its grimness, its dustiness, gives to the reader many of the elements of optimism and romanticism so often found in Canadian literature. (p. 17)
[One] is first captured by the writing in the book. There is an exact vividness, pure diction choice, observation that is accurate, and a rhythm that is controlled. Everything seems to move at its own pace, and yet the tension of the characters renders vividly the actual setting…. (p. 18)
[The] simplicity of style and intricacy of mood create a prairie so immense that it virtually stuns the mind. The physical limitations of existence in Horizon pummelled by the visitations of a cruel God—though He is never blamed for what goes on—are clearly etched in the mind by the almost unbearable monotony of wind, sun, snow, and drought. It is a place with a past and a future, but with no real present…. Environment plays a strong rôle in the story, an environment that is at once uncluttered and cluttered. (pp. 18-19)
The sky and the earth fuse into a huge blur, a haze which envelopes the town and its people and stills all but the faintest murmur of hope for the future. There is a vivid immobility that lies stark against the dullness of the endlessly shifting dust. The theme is of the prairies during the thirties—the unrewarded, unremitting, sluggish labour of men coupled with the loneliness and nameless terror of the women—and is the only action upon the stage that Ross presents before his reader…. These people are not hard to imagine, but they are very difficult to understand, and consequently difficult to accept….
[Everywhere] there are the unmistakable signs of Puritanism: the standards are rigidly set; the struggles, the tenacity of people in so bleak a circumstance, the horror of hypocrisy and of sexual sin. Jealousy, failure, slow realization of forgiveness, possible redemption and reconciliation after anguish and torment, all take their places in the lives of these tenacious people. The problem of fighting versus flight, and the all powerful will of God remain in the foreground; the nerves of all the people of the town remain taut to the breaking point. (p. 19)
[Ross] does not immerse [his main characters] totally, but rather just dips them into this sheep-dip of futility and sets them into a corner to let the bitter juices seep into their absorbent beings. Perhaps he has not dipped them for long enough, or again, too much, for none of the characters seem to rise out of the story as individuals of total belief. They are at once types and individuals, yet never really discernable as one or the other. Despite this vagueness, the characters can be analyzed; unfortunately, with varying degrees of accuracy.
Ross chooses a woman's point of view for this novel, and obviously has tremendous insight into a woman's mind, and this particular woman's troubles…. [Mrs. Bentley] is the narrator, and if the reader takes her at her literal worth, then all the characters become exceptionally clear. But she is a paradox, and there becomes the necessity to probe beyond what she says superficially and to make conjectures as to her real meaning. (pp. 19-20)
She becomes through the novel an epitome of a type of woman; she displays intelligence, responds to situations with courage and sympathy, and displays a vague hope for better times (typical of prairie women of the period: clever, hard-working, hoping). Yet she is individualistic in that she rebels against the stifling pressures of propriety imposed by the town. Though she does not want impropriety, she scoffs at the pretentious airs that the citizens of Horizon so capably put on. She lives in a semi-vacuum, drawing from her stored-up intellectual resources what her husband and the other citizens fail to give her.
However, she is not as strong a person as she would have the reader believe. And this is Ross's point. Assailed by doubts she seems to hang on by sheer stubbornness. Everything she sees before her is thin, disheartening, dull and bare. There is an inert and chilly stillness to the life she leads, and it becomes evident in her thoughts. Yet, what kind of person is she? She seems to be strong, if what she says in her diary is to be taken literally. Her strength, however, comes from the knowledge of the falseness and the sham of the life that she and her husband lead. With this strength comes a certain smugness…. Though she abides by her husband, she is the one who makes the major decisions, she is the one who fights the internal battles for both of them, and it is because of her inner strength that they emerge triumphant.
She, like all the characters in the book, is hurt too easily, yet she is too enduring. She can see all things clearly and objectively because she is a stranger and cannot fit into the town and share its frustrations. This is her futility. Since she is outside of Horizon's influence, she can, for the most part, be cool, logical, and even somewhat caustic about its workings. (pp. 20-1)
She appears to be constantly saying—"Poor Philip", and by virtue of this negation, enhances her own virtuous qualities of wifehood. Her theme of "poor Philip" eventually grates sharply upon the reader's nerves. She protests too much his innocence, thereby attempting to absolve herself and him of blame for their torturous predicament. That she possesses an optimism for his future and hence her own is often negated by her emphasis on his moral and spiritual degradation.
She does not reveal enough to the reader for him to deduce anything other than what she wishes him to deduce….
She almost envisions herself as a goddess, all-seeing, but fearful to tell or show the reader lest he recognize yet another flaw in either herself or her husband. Ross's stylistic brevity does not make sufficient amends for Mrs. Bentley's brevity; the reader can make only his own hypothesis concerning their deeds, motives, and the subsequent results. (p. 21)
Philip never really emerges as a character, but then maybe that is his condition. He is contrived, far too mechanical to be other than fragmentary…. At first, sympathy and pity can be extended to Philip, but after a time irritation sets in with disbelief hard on its heels.
Is he the frustrated artist? Is he, rather, a weak, spineless hypocrite who cannot face what life puts before him? He is neurotic—far more than his wife—but do we know "why" he is? It is never solved. (p. 22)
Paul Kirby serves as a foil for both Bentleys. For a time a love interest seems to be developing, but it is foredoomed to oblivion and never gets under way…. He is perhaps the least faceted and least successful character in the story. He seems to have been brought in only for relief, when another page of Philip's sulkings and Mrs. Bentley's wanderings threaten a total suspension of belief.
Steve is opportunely introduced. He is the hope the Bentleys have been seeking; his exit almost extinguishes any hope that the reader and the Bentleys share…. His temporary importance to the plot cannot be overlooked….
Judith West is also shallowly drawn…. She displays the inner torments that also rack Philip, thus giving them their common ground on which to create. To Philip she is the rebel with whom he can identify. To Mrs. Bentley she is the potential and then the real "other woman" against whom she must pit her wiles. It is strange that Mrs. Bentley, with all her astuteness, cannot see the supposed power of attraction between Philip and Judith.
Sinclair Ross gives variety in character; not all the characters are those on the racks of internal torture beaten by the overwhelming powers of nature. (p. 23)
In general, the characters are made subservient to the environment of the story; the limitations of Ross's vehicle hamper the full realization of these characters. The only way the reader can realize the portent of all the characters is to let his imagination have full rein. Despite the shallowness of the characters, they are interesting, and at an intense, rather than a cursory, examination.
It is, then, the characters who make As For Me and My House. The place belongs to the history of Canada, the prairie town that is for the most part gone from our midst…. The time, too, belongs to history; the thirties, the depression, are only ugly dreams which man hopes will not become another reality. But the people remain the same. We are all typed in some way, and we all, too, hope that there is something individualistic about us that separates us from the crowd. But only rarely are we separated, and only rarely do Sinclair Ross's people separate from their world. And this is the way people are; this is why the reality of Ross's fictional world elevates his novel to a lasting and prominent position. (p. 24)
Donald Stephens, "Wind, Sun and Dust," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1965, pp. 17-24.
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The futile cycle of eking existence from an indifferent world predominates [The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories]—a kind of rural Dubliners in which the same adult impotence replaces a similar childish Araby. Overall, the book spawns variations on the theme of isolation and its haunting melody is unmistakable. The storm which creeps into Will's house [in "Not by Rain Alone"], killing his wife but undoubtedly allowing the child to relive the same empty cycle as its parents, also invades Martha's home in "A Field of Wheat," not as snow but hail. At the same time it crushes "the best crop of wheat John had ever grown." These prairie inhabitants own nothing that is inviolate; they can retreat nowhere that is not whirling vainly in an absurd seasonal cycle…. [The] storm motif recurs in sporadic and tragic fashion, proving a principal antagonist in each of the stories devoted exclusively to the adult (as opposed to the child) experience.
In "The Painted Door,"… close to the finest [story] in Canadian literature,… [Ann's] husband wanders fatally into a blizzard after his discovery of her adultery (it is the only story which uses the adultery theme found in both Ross's novels). (pp. 77-8)
The story's conclusion does not appear gimmicky—rather a unique result of what Ross has established as part of the futility cycle. Ann decides that despite her affair with Stephen she does love her husband, and senses that any future lies with him. Yet she discovers him next day frozen to death, and on his palm a smear of white paint. Suddenly she realizes that John had indeed returned in the night, not merely in her dream, and had touched the freshly painted door of their bedroom as he watched the slumbering couple. In the husband's suicide the author intends us to discern an ending for a life that is less senseless, perhaps, than would have been his natural death: for Ross tells us earlier, "It was not what he actually accomplished that mattered, but the sacrifice itself, the gesture—something done for her sake." In future years John could offer her nothing anyway; to continue living with awareness of her deceit would have been disastrous, better for his wife to believe that he had never discovered her. But the smear of paint betrays him, and this image counterpoints in an uncanny coda Ann's own betrayal.
The illusion of the double wheel around the moon which had always warned Ann of an impending blizzard before they married, Ross picks up artistically in what his character imagines to be her husband standing over the bed that final night when she dismisses him as an illusion—the first separation not realized because John always hiked through blizzards to see her in the past—but the second, fully accomplished, because it has divided them irrevocably for the future.
Not all Ross's couples part so dramatically. There are those who continue at the pump [Ross's recurrent symbol for their endless, futile labors], those who out of necessity restore shaky relationships when their quarrels subside. They are his rural Bentleys, saved from dependence upon the false-fronted town only by a candid consort—the land—from whom salvation remains uncertain. Sometimes it seems enough that the bad among them are punished (as is Luke Taylor in "The Runaway" when he dies in his burning barn, and the wife of the man he cheated calls up her Biblical clichés that justify his death). But when are the good rewarded? Not really ever; anyone who shows kindness, like the strange Arthur Vickers in "One's a Heifer," we see in a misunderstood, perverted light. Yet the reward for being good or bad does not interest Ross in his short stories so much as does the sweat of labour. When couples do not receive much from it (inevitably the case), he explores the attitude of their living, the consequences of their relentless—or disrupted—cycles. He writes with a lucidity characteristic of Joyce in the early years, while creating a prose music distinctly his own.
If his characters appear flat or two-dimensional at times it is because there are so many here the same. Yet that does not detract from their individual credibility…. (The fact that Ross can repeat his favourite adjective, "little," eighty-one times in nine stories without apparent repetition, attests to the freshness of each story.) When the totality of Ross's short fiction is recognized, then his characters emerge as a condition of it: that they appear similar in no manner decries their roundness. Because they meet isolation and futility at the pump, then "getting ahead" (the hope of man) becomes for them a particular obsession. But in their case the endurance continues even when that hope proves inescapably an illusion. And perhaps they are right—maybe Ross is saying that all the plateaux we climb toward are really part of a single prairie after all. But to give up is impossible because in the pumping we at least exist. (pp. 79-80)
Keath Fraser, "Futility at the Pump: The Short Stories of Sinclair Ross," in Queen's Quarterly, Spring, 1970, pp. 72-80.
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A number of the stories [in The Lamp At Noon and Other Stories] are narrated from the viewpoint of a young boy between the ages of ten and fifteen. While he seldom felt inclined to use a distinctive idiom or dialect, such as Twain adopted for Huck Finn, Ross nonetheless wanted this youthful narrative voice to seem fresh and natural. He was also aware, from his own experience, that prairie farm boys in the 1930s entered early into the world of adult responsibility. The grim facts of the Depression required a maturity of outlook far beyond their years. Ross sought to combine the natural impulsiveness of youth with the tempered understanding and quiet acceptance of the adult world. Yet the meanings which the stories unfolded often demanded a kind of insight—and a phrasing of that insight—far beyond the limited powers of a young boy…. Twain would not have allowed Huck such big words as "august," "compliance," "inordinately proud" or "downright bigotry" [used by the boy in "Cornet at Night"]. (pp. 9-10)
Here and there, we may feel that the narrative voice grows slightly strained:
I have always been tethered to reality, always compelled by an unfortunate kind of probity in my nature to prefer a bare-faced disappointment to the luxury of a future I have no just claims upon….
A boy may well develop such an outlook on life, but no eleven year old could phrase it as perceptively. Ross overcomes this problem by consistent use of the past tense, and by such useful devices as the repetition in this passage of "always." The narrative voice takes on a retrospective quality, a distancing which makes us forget for a moment that we are listening to a youth. Ross adopted this rather complex narrative voice—youthful but also quietly sage—for several of his best stories…. (pp. 10-11)
A second distinctive narrative voice is that of the prairie farm woman. Two of Ross' finest stories, "A Field of Wheat" and "The Painted Door," employ this approach, thus allowing us to experience at first hand lives of terrible loneliness and isolation. Ross was particularly attracted to this narrative mode, and the novel As for Me and My House combines his two strongest forms of storytelling—the vivid intimacy of first-person narration combined with the prairie woman's point of view. (p. 11)
Ross is equally diverse and skilful when describing landscape, weather, and the seasons. The prairie writer is here faced with a special problem; to the outsider, the prairie appears empty, featureless, almost without character. It is thus a major triumph for Ross that the land comes to life so magnificently in these stories. But it is a particular kind of life. Here the landscape has a brooding, threatening quality, as though just beyond the horizon a malevolent God is preparing horrors of nature to hurl against an embattled people. Weather here is cursed, at first flattering human hopes, then mockingly dashing them asunder.
There is, of course, nothing made-up or fanciful about Ross' use in these stories of wind and storm, dust, hail, and snow.
During the time that he lived the experiences which became the raw material of his art, the Canadian prairies were a gigantic dust bowl for years on end. To the farmers it seemed that nature had turned against them forever, exacting a terrible price for some unknown crime. At the heart of the stories is an unequal, but nonetheless heroic, struggle between tenacious man and relentless nature.
Personification is of primary use in making nature seem hostile to his prairie farm characters. Wind doesn't merely blow in these stories; it pries into the very houses and lives of a people besieged…. But the personification works in two directions: we feel the savage attack of the wind but are never allowed to forget that a woman [as in "The Lamp At Noon,"] alone and tensely watching a clock listens to a predatory drama, which will go on and on and on … until she cracks. (pp. 11-12)
[In "The Painted Door," for example, the] powerful build-up to storm is described in no neutral way. Rather, some live but hostile force has selected this desolate farm house as a target for its assault. With the outside world completely cut off, it begins to try its strength, and release its wrath, upon the lonely woman who stares unmoving through the frozen window.
Many of the finest moments in Ross' stories combine these few but simple elements: menacing nature, lonely humans, a tightening claustrophobia. The dominant mood is one of attrition, with a terrible harmony between the working of wind upon soil and snow and the slow undermining of human stamina and strength. (p. 13)
Ross' male characters, especially the farmers in the short stories, share with their creator [an] accumulated knowledge of prairie farm life. They can best be defined, not in relation to any society or to the universe, but simply in relation to nature. They think crop. They learn to read the skies. They are men who gauge and calculate, who play endlessly, as it were, a desperate game of chance with the weather and the seasons. (p. 15)
Ross records, with both power and compassion, the heroic lives of these simple but good men, and celebrates their intense loyalty to a land which had apparently gone bad forever.
The farm wives form a distant point of this impossible prairie triad: men, women, and land. A typical moment in a Ross story finds the wife alone in the farm house, straining for a glimpse through the window of her husband ploughing in far off fields or struggling through mountainous drifts of snow. These are the loneliest women in Canadian fiction, and Ross has an especial understanding of their unjust plight. They are basically good and faithful mates, with an instinctive awareness of the severe tensions under which their husbands labour. But the desolation and hopelessness of prairie farm life occasionally gets to them, often against their own wills and desires…. Sometimes the bleak face of despair leads to desperate acts…. It is the sense of being utterly cut off from the world … which vividly characterizes their lives…. Indeed, the overall testimony of these stories suggests only a single motivating force which keeps these prairie farm women struggling on—the hope that their children will one day enjoy a better way of life.
The children in the stories are a fascinating group. They share with their parents the discipline and hard work of prairie farm life, and their lives are likewise not without tensions. (pp. 15-17)
[The children] often find themselves caught between two different value systems. Fathers, needing help with the farm work, encourage the useful skills; mothers insist upon religion, good manners, and those dreary piano lessons! Somehow, between chores and cultural workouts, the youngsters find moments for exotic dreams or brave fantasies. The climactic moments of their young lives occur, however, when parental pressures subside, when both parents gladly hand over some adult sphere of responsibility to the proudly waiting child. And while we naturally welcome this initiation into the adult community, we also sense that this parental dream of a better future may never be realized for these children. We come away haunted by the thought that, as with their mothers and fathers before them, these children will in time yield to this lonely and harsh environment. (pp. 17-18)
["A Field of Wheat"] opens on a strong note of hope. After years of blight and failure, a great crop of wheat is ripening for John. For his wife Martha, little dreams of the future begin to form, better schooling for the children, perhaps even something left over for herself and John. Ross creates in Martha's mind a quietly musing quality which parallels the outer scene of the great crop shimmering in the summer sun. This is one of the story's strong points—the subtle equation between the human world and the world of nature. Indeed, after sixteen years of marriage, Martha has come to see John almost in terms of the land—dried out and without hope. But this once, with the great crop coming on, she dreams that it (not herself) will restore John to his former self. This balanced tension between inner weather and outer weather is beautifully caught again in the symbol of the poppies, that most fragile of flowers, which the daughter Annabelle grows in the garden behind the house…. Ross thus establishes the terrible fragility of prairie farm life, the extraordinary beauty followed by sudden destruction and loss. And with this symbolic touch Ross begins the horrible prelude to storm.
The description of the hail storm—from Martha's first sensing it through its savage length—is one of the finest set pieces Ross has written, and takes its authority from his first-hand experience of prairie storms. This shows especially in Martha's frantic efforts at defence—throwing open the barn door for John and the horses, the children holding pillows against the exposed windows. And then the breaking ferocity of the storm, "like a weapon that has sunk deep into flesh," invading the house, smashing windows, lamps, dishes, and leaving the poor mutt Nipper beaten to death by the door. And after the storm has passed, they walk out into the [ruined] fields…. This is the farthest point of endurance, with the great promise of the season stretched dead before them. Both John and Martha are at the breaking point, but mask their agony before the children. It is only later, with anger and frustration and rage in her eyes and on her lips, that Martha seeks John in the barn, and finds him sobbing against the mane of a horse. Watching him cry is the most terrible moment of her life—a reaction which indicates the price exacted on these prairie farmers by the code of tough masculinity. Without letting him know that she has witnessed his agony, Martha creeps back to the house to clear up the mess left in the wake of the storm:
Martha hurried inside. She started the fire again, then nailed a blanket over the broken window and lit the big brass parlour lamp—the only one the storm had spared. Her hands were quick and tense. John would need a good supper tonight. The biscuits were water soaked, but she still had the peas. He liked peas. Lucky that they had picked them when they did. This winter they wouldn't have so much as an onion or potato.
There is a fantastic strength of character in these final acts and thoughts of Martha (notice how the clipped rhythm of the sentences seems to keep the deeper emotions temporarily at bay), and the story's ending sees love and compassion wrenched from the potential chaos of human despair. The will to go on never completely dies in the world of Ross' fiction, and some of his finest moments show the little lights of hope burning bravely against the black and massive forces of negation. (pp. 18-20)
Ross handles the theme of ["Cornet at Night"] with great delicacy…. [We] see a process of growth—a developing awareness in Tommy [the young narrator] that farm values are not the only values. (The story of Tommy's later life is, in a sense, transferred to Sonny in Whir of Gold.) Moreover, the resolution of this story's tensions is supported throughout by a subtle deployment of diction. One notes, for example, how the word "lesson" threads through the story in a variety of contrasting contexts. There are the overt lessons—Tommy's music lessons…. And there are the hidden ones—the lesson which the Lord, so his mother claims, will teach Tommy's father for desecrating the Sabbath with work …; the lesson which Tommy's parents sense from the beauty of cornet music by night; the lesson Tommy learns about the potential beauty of the world outside the farm.
Towards the end of the story, Ross plays with equally skilful effect on the word "golden." Its usual form is in such phrases as "golden harvest," but a rival connotation emerges in the beauty of the gleaming instrument which Philip raises to his lips. The quiet and subtle meaning of the story—an ironical probing into the value systems of prairie farm life—is superbly caught in the final sentence, where the different sets of values are brought together powerfully and established, once and for all, in their proper relationship: "A harvest, however lean, is certain every year; but a cornet at night is golden only once."… (pp. 21-2)
The fictional characters Ross has created in his short stories are of a very special kind. Because of the power which the land exerts on them, they seem to have little of their own volition, little scope to choose the direction of their lives. There is about them a strongly deterministic quality…. [We] develop a deep sympathy for the situations life alloted to them; as fictional characters, however, we do not find them either very complex or very dramatic.
Ross' desire to go beyond the achievements of the stories—his desire to individualize and dramatize—led to As for Me and My House (1941). The book is comprised of a series of entries, covering slightly over a year, from the journal of Mrs. Bentley, the wife of a Protestant minister…. (pp. 25-6)
The world of the short stories is often grimly ironical, but none of its characters possesses an ironical cast of mind. Mrs. Bentley is not so simply constructed; not only is she more intelligent and cultured than the farm wives of the stories, but also she has the capacity to embrace both sides of a question. She can, for example, see the comic side of a gloomy situation, approve and disapprove simultaneously, acknowledging her honesty and her hypocrisy in the same breath. It is precisely these dimensions of character which make Mrs. Bentley such a memorable personality. But the complexity that issues from her irony and ambivalence has led to disagreement about her basic character. (pp. 26-7)
What we need to grasp … is the real reason for Philip's dismissals in the past: his choice of the private relationship of marriage above the public life of his calling.
This public/private theme in the novel is complicated by the unique conditions in which ministers and their families live…. [The] constant invasion of privacy figures heavily in As for Me and My House, being at once a source of pressure upon the Bentleys—since, of course, hypocrisy is inevitably involved—but also a secret possibility of an intimacy that the townspeople can never touch…. (p. 28)
The resolution of [Philip's unhappiness] is the major business of the book, and becomes Mrs. Bentley's single aim in life. Her desire to free Philip (the irony of the saver-of-souls himself needing saving) consumes all her energies and transcends even the gravest threats to her marriage: the adoption of Steven, and Philip's adultery with Judith.
Saving Philip, however, involves Mrs. Bentley in a dilemma of her own. While she is prepared to abandon her own wishes for the sake of Philip's future, she nonetheless wants that future to include herself. She thus charts a precarious course which combines self-interest and self-sacrifice. Moreover, her drive to save Philip has her doing battle on two fronts—against the community and, paradoxically, against Philip himself. (p. 32)
Like so much of the book's texture, [the] final sentence poses precisely the complexity that Ross attaches throughout to Mrs. Bentley's character. Here, as elsewhere, the qualities of irony, paradox, and ambivalence characterize the writing. Mrs. Bentley's "I want it so" provides hostile critics with evidence of her continued desire to dominate Philip. They read the line "I want it so" in the sense of "I'm determined to have my own way." Mrs. Bentley's admirers find another meaning: "I want it so"/"I seek your happiness so very much." Perhaps it is both meanings at once, but the "it" of the sentence seems to me undeniably a recognition that Philip has at last emerged from his terrible isolation, and found a newness of being. It seems equally undeniable that Mrs. Bentley alone has brought that rebirth to pass.
This is the private side of the Bentleys' regeneration, but it also has its public consequences. Philip's decision to leave the church means overthrowing a profession which entailed a long apprenticeship and also assured a kind of livelihood. The economic aspect of the Bentleys' life needs further comment, since almost every page of the book raises the spectre of inadequate money…. Perhaps, then, the "want" of the final sentence has both an economic and personal connotation. Here, however, Ross leaves the future uncertain. Stability—whether private or public—remains tentative…. We cannot help but ask ourselves: Will they endure?
The answer to that question rests largely upon our assessment of Mrs. Bentley's character. Here, again, we notice a difference from the world of the short stories. Their endings often involve human tragedy or terrible loss, but in time the characters gradually readjust to the cycle of the seasons and the land. The close of As for Me and My House marks a significant difference. The Bentleys break with their environment; they leave Main Street and effect a change of direction in their lives…. We … experience a sense of personal triumph over externals. As Mrs. Bentley observes, possibly articulating Ross' own view: "… a man's tragedy is himself, not the events that overtake him."… No phrase more directly takes us to the heart of the book, or of Mrs. Bentley's character.
It is possible to view the Bentley's marriage as tragic. Even at times of deep despair, however, Mrs. Bentley does not view it so. She has much to lament, much to regret…. She is one of the loneliest women in all fiction—and one of the most remarkable. If there is any single value which Ross celebrates in this book it is Mrs. Bentley's incredible strength of character, her quietly creative determination to save her husband and her marriage. (pp. 35-7)
[The] contrasting worlds of past and present form part of Ross' strategy in [The Well]. Clearly, he wants us to question the human implications of the technological progress which transformed prairie life in the postwar period…. The Well is thus at one level a work of social criticism, a probing into some neglected side effects of that new prairie trinity: mechanization, mobility, and money.
Old Larson's life has straddled these two worlds. His hankering for the simple and heroic life of the Depression, despite its terrible hardships, is symbolized by the upkeep of the old well, whose waters he carefully guards and keeps perpetually clean. At times, the pressure of the past creates a traumatic tension in Larson which leads him to the borderline of insanity (there are affinities here in character with the crazed hermit of "One's a Heifer"). Ross brings this aspect of Larson's experience to a powerful climax in Chapter 26, as Larson kneels in the cold rain to tend the neglected grave of his son. His frantic rejection of his second wife Sylvia, striking wildly at her legs with a fistful of weeds, conveys a symbolic return on Larson's part to the simple mode of prairie life. Here, too, the elemental fidelity of Cora contrasts strongly with Sylvia's mercenary motives and sexual wanderings.
Sylvia functions in the novel primarily to emphasize the emergence of a new prairie mentality….
Marriage is merely an escape [for her] from the endless drudgery of restaurant life. She wants fine clothes, a good time, exotic places. She finds old Larson both strange and repulsive; she lives for the day when his death will release her into wealth and freedom.
Nor has Sylvia any love for the land, nor any understanding of the deep, seasonal rhythms of the prairie farmer's life. Land is simply there to make money from; money is necessary to get you off the prairie and away to some romantic place…. (pp. 41-2)
Ross never resolves the question of Chris' possible guilt as a murderer, although the conclusion of the novel is designed to free him from the stereotype of the hardened and murderous personality. Chris' character is shaped to fit with great structural neatness into the polarities represented by Sylvia and Larson. The basic development of the book sees Chris vacillating between these two centres of contrasting values. He shares with Sylvia a desire for sudden wealth, ease, freedom: take what you can get from life today, at whatever cost—an attitude which Ross carefully plants in Chris' character with his original criminal act. But Chris is complex; there is in him a strain of goodness, sensitivity, and compassion which draws him, even against his will, towards old Larson. (p. 42)
[We] can see Ross gradually inching Chris towards regeneration. In this process, a variety of quietly humanizing forces come into play: the prairie land, with its subtle capacity to settle the restlessness of Chris' mind, to strip away all that hard glitter of city life and return him to the open and receptive nature of a child; the animals, whose quirks and oddities of behaviour begin to teach him a basic psychological insight denied by the crudely narrowing experiences of Boyle Street; and, finally, old Larson, who extends to Chris both the paternal anger and the tenderness which he had never known in his fatherless childhood….
The central theme is the retrieval of Chris from alienation as an outsider, from that ruthless pursuit of self which characterizes the loner in twentieth-century society. This theme, while typical of much modern literature, was especially popular in the angry books of the 1950s, and it is likely that Ross saw The Well as taking its place within a fashionable literary type. There is here, however, a rejection of the notion that the outsider is an especially attractive figure. Ross makes no attempt to glamourize an antihero. From the outset, Chris is sketched as raw and crudely self-centred, and it thus becomes Ross' major task to make us feel and believe that this shrewd opportunist with basically criminal instincts can be slowly, and at last completely, transformed. (p. 43)
Ross naturally uses the two basic modes of fictional development, external action and internal reflection…. [When he] blends these two approaches, we can see the process of regeneration at work…. (p. 44)
[The] narrative showdown, with a dying Larson providing evidence of Chris' innocence, ultimately fails to achieve real dramatic impact, although it suitably completes Chris' development in the novel. Nor does the sequence seem saved by the interesting structural device of the return journey to the old well (paralleling the earlier trip in Chapter 12). The final dumping of the dead Larson into the well's clean waters somehow fails to generate any clear symbolic meaning or evoke much emotional response—a failure which is compounded by the forced and unrealistic dialogue of the closing pages. The book ends with the flight of Sylvia, a fitting dispossession which leaves Chris, despite the hazards that lie ahead, successfully transplanted to a new life. The restless drifter from the eastern city has at last put down roots in prairie soil. (p. 45)
The world of the short stories and As for Me and My House, for all their rich ironies and ambiguities, is nonetheless a relatively homogeneous world made up of simple elements, as though Ross had deliberately set out to create a welding together of Old Testament and New World: arid land and a beleaguered people, evil visitations, inner struggle, acceptance and the will to go on.
Writers, however, do not stand still. Their experience changes and their art grows…. Once removed from his native prairie setting, and stimulated by the fresh experiences of war and life in a great metropolitan city, the focus of [Ross'] art begins to shift. His keen psychological insight, so obvious in the portrayal of Mrs. Bentley, continues to dominate his writing, but in the postwar period he starts to exercise it on rather different types of characters: outcasts, misfits, criminals. This shift is clear even before The Well. In characters such as Peter Dawson ("Barrack Room Fiddle Tune") and Private Coulter ("Jug and Bottle"), Ross reveals that he has moved on to delineate oddities and failures, people who simply do not belong, who cannot feel at home anywhere. (pp. 45-6)
Ross' next novel [Whir of Gold], published in 1970, is a slight affair, both in physical heft and literary quality. Its action is compressed into the span of a single week, and there are only a handful of characters…. Sonny McAlpine is familiar Ross material, sharing the psychological problems of Chris in The Well. His background, however, is very different. He might be one of the prairie lads from Ross' stories, now grown up and living away from home in a big eastern city…. Like the young farm boy of "Cornet at Night," Sonny has become entranced with the strange power and beauty of music, and has followed it towards the bright lights of the eastern cities. Sonny has ranged from the piano to the clarinet but Ross' characterization of him as a musician lacks density. (p. 47)
The single glow of warm light which modifies the dark tones of Ross' canvas is the character called Mad. Sonny meets her in a bar on a dreary winter night and at first mistakes her friendliness for the overtures of a prostitute. Mad, however, is merely expressing her basic nature; she acts on impulse in singling out Sonny as "the right one" for her. Ross bows to the popular formula of getting them into bed as quickly as possible …, and at first sight we appear headed for another of those modern celebrations in which the delights of good old animal sexuality make us, at least momentarily, forget the dark world beyond the bedposts.
It turns out, however, that the book's central tension, apart from the conflict within Sonny himself, is a duel between Charlie [a racketeer] and Mad for possession of Sonny. (p. 48)
Although [Ross] again uses first-person narration (Sonny tells his own story as Mrs. Bentley had told hers), the style of Whir of Gold has a curiously clipped quality. There are few rounded sentences or paragraphs. Dialogue and descriptive passages take the form of broken phrases and fragments, a kind of cryptic shorthand whose meaning occasionally eludes the reader. Indeed, the writing often has the look and feel of a play script;… the jagged thoughts and notations of Sonny's mind seem stripped down to the bare economy of stage directions.
In much of the novel's content there exists what can only be called a desperate brand of naturalism. Ross' pages are covered with mundane and trivial things, as though the endless plates of bacon and eggs and all those nice hot cups of coffee will somehow cohere to underpin a work of art. But they utterly fail to do so. As a result, Sonny and Mad merely talk on in an uninteresting way about uninteresting things. By giving us a group of characters with so little scope (none of them has much traditional education or takes an imaginative or intellectual interest in the world around), Ross seriously restricts himself to the banalities of their limited existences—the movies, magazines and mindlessness of middle North America. Naturalism has always posed difficulties of representation for the writer, problems for which Ross finds no solutions within the course of this book.
With regard to other areas, however, the book merits a more positive comment. One interesting structural device that Ross develops is the use of the horse Isabel as both a transitional device between past and present and as a vantage point from which to view the relationship of Sonny and Mad. This high-spirited and quiet unpredictable mare (the same Isabel as in "The Outlaw") provides Ross with a useful way of conveying the quality of Sonny's youth. Isabel seems to have been the one thing which in the course of everyday prairie farm life eagerly excited his developing imagination and sense of beauty…. Ross skilfully parallels the Sonny/Isabel theme with the developing relationship between Sonny and Mad …, and this adds depth and clarity to material which otherwise rests too heavily on mere surface naturalism. (pp. 50-1)
Finally, it is of interest to note that the novel takes its title from what appears to be another of Ross' boyhood memories, one which captures the note of pessimism which permeates the book. In a remarkable piece of writing …, Ross describes how the lad Sonny, merely on impulse and without conscious evil intent, set a gopher trap near the nest of a brilliant prairie bird called the flicker, whose bright movements in the air dazzled the eyes as with a whir of gold. But the trap is soon enough sprung, and that bright glow, like the human warmth of Mad's presence or that once golden cornet at night, is soon stilled forever…. (p. 51)
This may seem a stark note on which to conclude a discussion of Sinclair Ross' writings, yet there is an appropriateness about the image. The idea of entrapment is a central aspect of Ross' vision, from the prairie farms of the short stories to Horizon's Main Street, and Sonny's slum boarding-house in Montreal. The limitations on human freedom are severe, and only a great effort of will, such as Mrs. Bentley's, can ease the fetters which environment fastens on human character. Despite their entrapment, Ross' characters nonetheless continue to hope, to plan, to dream. What makes this combination so moving and valuable is the sheer imbalance of its elements—the temptations of fatalism and despair greatly outweigh the likelihood of happiness or success, yet his characters face the world with a quiet determination that is truly impressive. The ultimate value of Ross' writings is his compassion for their plight. As harsh and destructive as the world may be, his characters are seldom touched by the same dark qualities. Our final impression of his world is not of the blackness that surrounds, but rather of the small gleam of beauty and humanity that bravely irradiates—like the after-image of a child's sparkler on the night air. (p. 52)
Robert D. Chambers, in his Sinclair Ross and Ernest Buckler (© Robert D. Chambers; reprinted by permission of the publishers; distributed by Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.), Copp Clark Publishing, 1975, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975.
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