Sinclair Ross Ross, Sinclair - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Ross, Sinclair 1908-1996

Canadian novelist and short story writer.

Ross is best known for his novels and short stories about life on the prairies of western Canada. Much of his work is set during the Depression era and depicts the severity of frontier life and the destructive power of natural forces. Generally considered naturalistic, Ross's fiction is characterized by distinctive regional language, economical prose, powerful descriptions of western Canadian landscapes, and a lack of sentimentality. In his most notable works, As For Me and My House and The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories, Ross's characters struggle to remain hopeful despite the universe's apparent indifference to their sufferings.

Biographical Information

Ross was born on a 160-acre homestead twelve miles from the town of Shellbrook, Saskatchewan. His parents separated when he was seven, and his mother, the daughter of Scottish-born clergyman, supported the family by working as a housekeeper. After finishing the eleventh grade Ross began a lifelong career at the Royal Bank of Canada, intermittently living in such Canadian cities as Abbey, Lancer, Arcola, Winnipeg, and Montreal. He served in the army during World War II from 1942 to 1946. After retiring from the Royal Bank in 1968 Ross lived in Greece and Spain before returning to Canada in 1980. He died in 1996.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Ross became interested in writing when he was ten and first submitted a story for publication at age sixteen. In 1934 his short story "No Other Way" was published by the English magazine Nash's Pall-Mail. Between 1934 and 1952 Ross published fifteen short stories that were later revised and collected in The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories. These stories realistically depict rural life in Saskatchewan during the 1930s and are centered around familial relationships. In "The Lamp at Noon," for instance, a three-day dust storm quells a farm woman's determination to overcome her extreme poverty and ultimately causes her to go insane. In "A Field of Wheat" a family's entire crop is destroyed by a sudden hailstorm, and the husband, unable to exhibit his emotions to his family, retreats to the isolation of the barn to cry in anguish.

Critical Reception

Although his short stories are widely anthologized, critical reaction to Ross's work has been limited. Because much of his fiction has been associated with nature and the struggle of humans against it, critics have labelled Ross a naturalist. Some commentators, however, have underscored his realistic and deft portrayal of human relationships amidst the isolation and physical hardships of the prairie. In recent years Ross's reputation has undergone a mild resurgence within Canada, though his work has not yet sparked recognition outside of the Canadian context.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories 1968

The Race and Other Stories 1982

Other Major Works

As For Me and My House (novel) 1957

The Well (novel) 1958

Whir of Gold (novel) 1970

Sawbones Memorial (novel) 1974

Margaret Laurence (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories by Sinclair Ross, McClelland and Stewart, 1968, pp. 7-12.

[Laurence was a Canadian novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, editor, and translator. She is considered a prominent figure in contemporary Canadian literature. In the essay, she acknowledges Ross as an early influence upon her work and describes his style as "spare, lean, and honest. "]

Although Sinclair Ross's stories and two novels have appeared over a period of some twenty-five years, most of his writing has been done out of the background of the prairie drought and depression of the Thirties, and as a chronicler of that era, he stands in a class by himself. When I first read his extraordinary and moving novel, As For Me And My House, at about the age of eighteen, it had an enormous impact on me, for it seemed the only completely genuine one I had ever read about my own people, my own place, my own time. It pulled no punches about life in the stultifying atmosphere of small and ingrown towns, and yet it was illuminated with compassion.

In Ross's short stories, the same society is portrayed, the same themes explored, with the difference that these stories all have completely rural settings. The farms stand far apart, only distantly related to whatever town is the focal point for buying and selling. The human community is, for most of the time, reduced to its smallest unit, one family. The isolation is virtually complete. It is within this extreme condition of human separateness and in the extremes of summer drought and winter blizzard that Ross's characters grapple with their lives and their fate, a fate partly imposed upon them by an uncaring and fickle natural order and partly compelled by their own spiritual inheritance, the pride and the determination which enable them to refuse defeat, but which also cut them off from nearly all real contact with others.

Appearing almost as chief protagonist is the land itself. In spite of its deceptive moments of calm promise, it is an essentially violent and unpredictable land, quixotic, seeming to bestow grace and favour, then suddenly attacking with arrows of snow, shrieking armies of wind, bludgeons of hail, or the quiet lethal assault of the sun. Indeed, the land sometimes assumes a character as harsh as that of the vengeful God who sorely tried Job, and the farmers who stay on, year after year, seeing their crops spoiled and themselves becoming old in youth, yet still maintaining their obsessive faith in the land, are reminiscent of Job himself—Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.

Characteristically, and in keeping with his themes, Ross describes the land in strong, broad strokes, and I do not believe that anyone has ever given a better impressionistic view of the prairies. I think, for example, of his description of drought in "Not by Rain Alone":

The days were still, brassy, pitiless. Swift little whirlwinds scoured across the field; in their wake there closed a hushed, oppressive immobility. On wheat and fallow land and ripening rye alike lay a dusty-yellow monochrome of haze. . . .

Or the hard, sharp description of winter as seen by Ann in "The Painted Door":

The sun was risen above the frost mists now, so keen and hard a glitter on the snow that instead of warmth its rays seemed shedding cold. One of the two-yearold colts that had cantered away when John turned the horses out for water stood covered with rime at the stable door again, head down and body hunched, each breath a little plume of steam against the frosty air. She shivered, but did not turn. In the clear, bitter light the long white miles of prairie landscape seemed a region alien to life. Even the distant farmsteads she could see served only to intensify a sense of isolation. Scattered across the face of so vast and bleak a wilderness it was difficult to conceive them as a testimony of human hardihood and endurance. Rather they seemed futile. Rather they seemed to cower before the implacability of snow-swept earth and clear pale sun-chilled sky.

Ross's style is always beautifully matched to his material—spare, lean, honest, no gimmicks, and yet in its very simplicity setting up continuing echoes in the mind.

The women in these stories have their own personal dilemmas, but they also have many qualities in common. They are farmers' wives, most of them still fairly young, trying to resign themselves to lives of unrelieved drabness. They are without exception terrifyingly lonely, shut into themselves, shut out of their husbands' inner lives. Ann, in "The Painted Door," is trapped both by John's blunt devotion and by his total lack of perception of her real needs. Ellen, in "The Lamp At Noon," feels caged and cannot communicate her feelings to Paul. Their separate pain remains separate, until she, in a final madness of concern about their baby, tries to escape and walks into the windstorm in which the child, ironically and tragically, is smothered both by dust and by his...

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Sandra Djwa (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "No Other Way: Sinclair Ross's Stories and Novels," in Canadian Literature, Vol. 47, 1971, pp. 49-66.

[In the following essay, Djwa determines the quintessential Canadian nature of Ross's short fiction.]

As a Newfoundlander, I have always felt a great fondness for the writings of Sinclair Ross. I do not quite understand the nature of the attraction, whether it is his concept of a prairie nature—hard, with overtones of fatalism—which corresponds to my own view of Newfoundland, or whether it is simply his wry observations of the circumlocutions of the Puritan way—a sensibility which also strikes a familiar note. In any event, whenever the term "Canadian...

(The entire section is 3329 words.)

Robert D. Chambers (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories," in Sinclair Ross & Ernest Buckler, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975, pp. 9-24.

[In the following essay, Chambers explores the pervasive sense of isolation, claustrophobia, and cramped imagination found in Ross's short fiction, particularly "A Field of Wheat, " "Cornet at Night, " and "The Painted Door. "]

Between 1934 and 1952, Sinclair Ross published sixteen short stories, all but three of them in the Queen's Quarterly. Great credit is owing to this distinguished university journal for such faithful encouragement of a fledgling Canadian writer. These stories, especially those collected in The Lamp At...

(The entire section is 5783 words.)

Ken Mitchell (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Stories," in Sinclair Ross: A Reader's Guide, Thunder Creek Publishing, 1981, pp. 3-27.

[In the following excerpt, Mitchell surveys the major themes of Ross's short fiction. ]

The short stories of Sinclair Ross are worth examining first because of what they tell us about his craft and moral purpose. As a group, the 16 stories published indicate his development as a prose writer, and provide some key insights to the world of psychological violence he depicts in his longer fictions. On the whole, the stories are simpler and more precise—although Ross himself is inclined to see them as "apprentice" works of fiction.

When his first story,...

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F. H. Whitman (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Case of Ross's Mysterious Barn," in Canadian Literature, No. 94, Autumn, 1982, pp. 168-69.

[In the following essay, Whitman contends that the little girl in Ross's "One's a Heifer" is an imaginary construct of Vickers's "schizoid personality."]

When discussing Sinclair Ross' "One's a Heifer," most readers seem drawn to essentially two considerations: why Vickers would not allow the boy to look into the stall and what he kept there. Over the years one popular explanation has emerged to the exclusion of others—namely, the boy was denied access to the stall because Vickers kept there the girl who used to visit him, and that she was possibly dead, but more...

(The entire section is 1252 words.)

Lorraine McMullen (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Race and Other Stories, by Sinclair Ross, University of Ottawa Press, 1982, pp. 15-21.

[In the following essay, McMullen provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Ross's short fiction. ]

The Race and Other Stories includes all of Sinclair Ross's previously uncollected short stories and a chapter from Whir of Gold, here titled "The Race," which stands on its own as a short story. Heralded as a prairie writer and best known for his stories of the bleak dust-bowl prairie of the Great Depression, Ross has also written of urban life and, briefly, of army life, as these stories demonstrate.

Not a prolific...

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Karen Bishop (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Pegasus Symbol in the Childhood Stories of Sinclair Ross," in Ariel Vol. 167, No. 3, July, 1985, pp. 67-87.

[In the following essay, Bishop traces the metaphor of the horse in Ross's childhood stories, maintaining that the image of the horse "becomes the enspiriting essence of the imagination. "]

It's all over and it's all beginning, there's nothing more required of you. April and the smell of April just as it was that day too . . .

These are Doc Hunter's final words in Sawbones Memorial, Sinclair Ross's latest novel, published in 1974. On an April day forty-five years earlier, Doc Hunter had...

(The entire section is 7265 words.)

David Carpenter (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Horsey Comedy in the Fiction of Sinclair Ross," in From the Heart of the Heartland: The Fiction of Sinclair Ross, edited by John Moss, University of Ottawa Press, 1992, pp. 67-80.

[In the following essay, Carpenter offers an overview of the critical reaction to Ross's short fiction and notes the comic elements in eight of his stories.]

I began reading Sinclair Ross's work around 1970, a bit before the publication of his last story, "The Flowers That Killed Him" (1972). At the time there seemed to be a hunt in progress to find our cultural heroes, who in turn would articulate for us that elusive thing called "The Canadian Identity." The word was out: return to...

(The entire section is 6101 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Bowen, Gail. "The Fiction of Sinclair Ross." Canadian Literature No. 80, Spring, 1979, pp. 37-48.

Discusses the main themes of Ross's fiction.

Chapman, Marilyn. "Another Case of Ross' Mysterious Barn," Canadian Literature, No. 103, Winter, 1984, pp. 184-186.

Provides an alternative interpretation of "One's a Heifer," contending that the girl does in fact exist and acts as an ironic counterpoint to the narrator.

Comeau, Paul. "Sinclair Ross's Pioneer Fiction," Canadian Literature, No. 103, Winter, 1984, pp. 174-84.

Examines Ross's use of tragedy, irony, and comedy as a...

(The entire section is 241 words.)