Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

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...

(The entire section contains 36946 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Sinclair Ross study guide. You'll get access to all of the Sinclair Ross content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 34

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)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2129

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 mother's hysterical efforts to protect him.

These women are intensely loyal, and as driven by work-compulsion as their men, but they still long, hopelessly, for communication and tenderness with their husbands—who desperately need the same thing but can never permit or accept it lest it reflect unmanfully upon themselves. Martha, in "A Field Of Wheat," thinks that ". . . love was gone; there was only wheat." In lieu of expressed love towards their men, these prairie women take refuge in attempting to instil small, rigid, meaningless and usually tasteless portions of "culture" into their children's lives. In "A Field Of Wheat," Martha's ambitions are described. They are heartbreakingly limited. She would like to see her husband for once unclenched with worry, and to have him shave twice a week, as he used to do when they were first married, and she would like her children to be able to have music lessons. The mother in "Cornet At Night" forces her son to spend dreary hours in the stuffy plush parlour, playing hymns on the piano so that he will not grow up rough. (In this same story, interestingly enough, there is some adumbration of Ross's first novel, for on the parlour wall is a pansy-bordered motto which reads As For Me And My House We Will Serve The Lord.)

The men who are portrayed here are painfully inarticulate. They are not able to make themselves known, not even to their women—perhaps especially not to their women. They are basically men with great uncertainties, great inner doubts. But because they believe that a man must be strong, both physically and spiritually, it is quite beyond them to acknowledge any vulnerability to any other human. They must maintain faith in the land's ability to yield, and in their own ability to coax or force it, for in this encounter their essential manhood lies in the balance. They cannot desert the land in its drought because in some way they would die as male beings if they did. Yet their helplessness in the face of drought and blizzard gives them a recurring sense of importance against which they can only rage inwardly.

Paul, in "The Lamp At Noon," refuses to leave his land, although it is dying all around him. Consciously, the one thing he could not bear would be to become dependent upon his town store-owning in-laws. But at a deeper level, one feels that what he really could not stand would be to prove inadequate to the land. He cannot express his torment verbally. He cannot appeal to his wife for help or reassurance, and in the end his self-imposed isolation and his shutting-out of Ellen are decisive factors in her final crackup. In "September Snow," Will meets the challenge of wind and snow, only to fail utterly in the area of human contact, for he refuses to admit into his consciousness the realization of his wife's desperation. Her horrifying death in childbirth seems bizarrely similar to retribution. These prairie men fail consistently in close relationships. They never perceive what is being asked of them, nor do they see what they themselves might have gained by allowing someone to get close to them. When they suffer, it is doggedly alone. John, in "A Field Of Wheat," consoles his wife after the crop has been destroyed by hail, and assumes a mask of unbreakable strength. It is only by chance that she goes later to the barn and finds him there, sobbing. She goes away without letting him see her, knowing this is the kindest thing she can do for him. The real issues will never be mentioned between them, for she is too afraid of being brushed away, and he is too afraid of appearing weak in her eyes.

With the character of Vickers, in "One's A Heifer," there is a sense of real evil, and yet even this sinister man's madness is pictured as a direct result of unbearable isolation. This is where it can sometimes end, this total noncontact—in a man who, when another human being attempted to touch him even slightly by coming in and cooking his meals, responded by killing her.

The children in Ross's stories are only half aware of the deprivation of their lives, but they long for the colour and excitement which are missing. Tommy, in "Cornet At Night," listens to the unsuitable hired hand playing his cornet, a voice quite literally out of another world. "A harvest, however lean, is certain every year; but a cornet at night is golden only once." He does not know at all what the rest of the world holds, but the notes of the cornet suggest marvels to him, and he will never forget.

Fantasy is these children's solace and place of retreat. For many of the imaginative youngsters in these stories, horses symbolize freedom, escape, faroff glamour. In "The Outlaw," the mare Isabel is infinitely more feminine and more sophisticated than the prissy girl child Millie, and to the thirteen-year-old boy, the horse represents adventure and the conquering of worlds.

She was one horse, and she was all horses. Thundering battle chargers, fleet Arabians, untamed mustangs—sitting beside her on her manger I knew and rode them all. I charged with her at Balaklava, Waterloo, scoured the deserts of Africa and the steppes of the Ukraine. Conquest and carnage, trumpets and glory—she understood, and carried me triumphantly.

The horse represents something quite different to the men whom the boys grow up to be. Paul, in "The Lamp At Noon," turns to his horses, strokes their necks, for the comfort which he cannot seek from his wife. When John, in "A Field Of Wheat," goes to the stable after his wheat has been ruined, he rests his face against the flanks of one of his horses, and sobs his anguish there.

Throughout Ross's stories, the outer situation always mirrors the inner. The emptiness of the landscape, the bleakness of the land, reflect the inability of these people to touch another with assurance and gentleness. In "The Painted Door," Ann finally makes love with Steven, the young bachelor, out of her need to be noticed once more as a woman and to be allowed to express tenderness. When her husband discovers what has happened, and in his shock and pain allows himself to freeze to death, his act, as well as being an appallingly unanswerable reproach to her, is in a sense only a final and terrible externalization, for the process of emotionally freezing to death was begun long before. Ross never takes sides, and this is one admirable quality of his writing. Blame is not assigned. Men and women suffer equally. The tragedy is not that they suffer, but that they suffer alone.

The patterns are those of isolation and loneliness, and gradually, through these, the underlying spiritual goals of an entire society can be perceived. The man must prove absolutely strong, in his own eyes. The woman must silently endure all. If either cannot, then they have failed to themselves. With these impossible and cruel standards, and in circumstances of drought and depression, it is no wonder that individuals sometimes crack under the strain.

The real wonder is that so many of these men and women continue somehow—stumbling, perhaps, but still going on. Hope never quite vanishes. In counterpoint to desolation runs the theme of renewal. Tomorrow it may rain. The next spring will ultimately come. Despite the sombre tone and the dark themes of Sinclair Ross's short stories, man emerges as a creature who can survive—and survive with some remaining dignity—against both outer and inner odds which are almost impossible.

Sandra Djwa (essay date 1971)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3329

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 novel" comes to mind, I find myself gravitating towards Ross and particularly towards his sometimes puzzling first novel, As For Me and My House.

Reading through Queen's Quarterly of the late 30's and early 40's, it is not too difficult to recognize branches of the novel. Here are the familiar characters and concerns of Ross's world: the Steves, the Philips, the Pauls, the young boy with the horse ("A Day with Pegasus," 1938); the chance intrusion of the artist into the prairie town ("Cornet at Night," 1939); the paralyzing lack of communication between husband and wife ("The Lamp at Noon," 1938, "The Painted Door," 1939); or, for that matter, between friends ("Jug and Bottle," 1939) which leads inevitably to further betrayal; the "unappetizing righteousness" and pansy-embroidered motto, "As For Me and My House We Will Serve the Lord" of "Cornet at Night" Here, too, in the short story, as in "No Other Way," first published in Nash's magazine (London, 1938), is the unmistakable silhouette of Mrs. Bentley. Older, more haggard than the protagonist of As for Me and My House, Hatty Glenn is equally dependent on the love of her still-elusive husband of over twenty years.

Reviewing the short stories and novels, I seem to find that character recedes into the emotional landscape; the primary impression is of those short paragraphs which establish the natural landscape and its relation to perceiving consciousness. Throughout Ross's work, there is a sense of a bleak, hard nature—the loneliness and isolation of the prairie winter, the indifferent sun which scorches the summer wheat. Against this nature, man is insignificant:

In the clear bitter light the long white miles of prairie landscape seemed a region strangely 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, lost, to cower before the implacibility of snowswept earth and clear pale sun-chilled sky. ("Lamp at Noon")

Mrs. Bentley, looking across the open prairies and towards the Alberta foothills, recognizes both man's insignificance and his need to project human meaning into the natural landscape:

We've all lived in a little town too long. The wilderness here makes us uneasy. I felt it the first night I walked alone on the river bank—a queer sense of something cold and fearful, something inanimate, yet aware of us. A Main Street is such a self-sufficient little pocket of existence, so smug, compact, that here we feel abashed somehow before the hills, their passiveness, the unheeding way they sleep. We climb them, but they withstand us, remain as serene and unrevealed as ever. The river slips past us, unperturbed by our coming and going, stealthily confident. We shrink from our insignificance. The stillness and solitude—we think a force or presence into it—even a hostile presence, deliberate, aligned against us—for we dare not admit an indifferent wilderness, where we may have no meaning at all. (As For Me and My House)

This is a nature against which man must struggle—not just to become a man—but simply to exist and perhaps, if he is particularly fortunate and determined, to exist in some meaningful way. Most of these stories are a legacy of the drought years of the thirties on the prairies—the depression moving imperceptibly into the war years. Even in Ross's second novel, The Well, where the protagonist, Chris Howe, is given an urban childhood, the primary emphasis is still placed on the essentials of survival: "to outwit, score, defeat, survive—Boyle Street had permitted nothing else." However, as is later suggested in this novel and throughout the first novel, existence of some meaningful way becomes the ultimate goal. For Philip Bentley this search for meaning involves the attempt to find dignity and purpose in nature and in himself through his art:

Tonight Philip made a sketch of Joe Lawson. . . . He's sitting at a table, half-hunched over it, his hands lying heavy and inert in front of him like stones. The hands are mostly what you notice. Such big, disillusioned, steadfast hands, so faithful to the earth and seasons that betray them. I didn't know before what drought was really like, watching a crop dry up, going on again. I didn't know that Philip knew either.

In many of the short stories and also in some of the entries in Mrs. Bentley's journal, human action is presented as the reaction to natural events. The young farm boy of "One's a Heifer" is sent out into the open prairie because a blizzard has caused the cattle to stray; Ellen, the young wife of "The Lamp at Noon," is driven to madness by the incessant wind and dust beating against the walls of the house and stable, "as if the fingers of a giant hand were tightening to collapse them." This reaction to the natural event can precipitate a quarrel, most often between husband and wife, sometimes with a young boy as the interested bystander, and the development of the plot quite often lies in the working out of the emotional tension that has been generated by the conflict.

Because this conflict is intimately connected with the struggle for survival, the tragedy of these stories is that there is often no possible reconciliation of any kind. When an author's horizon is composed of "the bare essentials of a landscape, sky and earth," there are no compromises open: if land and weather fail man, the struggle for survival can only end tragically, the extent of the tragedy being largely determined by the strength of the person concerned. Will, the young farmer of "Not by Rain Alone", has a moment of bleak recognition when he suddenly sees the future which must surely lie ahead of himself and his sweetheart, Eleanor:

He was thinking of other dry spells—other wheat that had promised thirty bushels and yielded ten. It was such niggard land. At the best they would grub along painfully, grow tired and bitter, indifferent to each other. It was the way of the land. For a farmer like him there could be no other way. ("Lamp at Noon")

As in the poetry of Pratt, this struggle against nature becomes a test of endurance in which only the very strong such as Paul of "The Lamp at Noon" survive, but with such heart-breaking self awareness as to make it almost unendurable, while those who are weaker, such as his wife Ellen, are destroyed. As Laurence notes, Ross's men seem to know by instinct and by habit that strength, if not actual, at least apparent, is demanded, and each of them refuses to communicate to his wife those admissions of failure and of helplessness which would undermine the appearance of strength until the final, irreversible betrayal. John, the good but stolid farmer of "The Painted Door," is simply unable to communicate; his wife's tragedy is that she can see but not accept the fact until it is too late. Paul of "The Lamp at Noon" cannot accept his wife's anguish; even after the final devastating betrayal when he realizes that compromise with the land is no longer possible, when his crops are completely destroyed and he is stripped of "vision and purpose, faith in the land, in the future, in himself," he is still attempting to find a way to withstand his wife and to go on: "For so deep were his instincts of loyalty to the land that still, even with the images of his betrayal stark upon his mind, his concern was how to withstand her, how to go on again and justify himself." For a farmer such as Paul or Will or the John of "A Field of Wheat," there is "no other way" than to go on, and this continued struggle against tremendous odds becomes a revelation of the real self, as is suggested in Ross's description of the stripping down of Paul's character to "a harsh and clenched virility . . . at the cost of more engaging qualities . . . a fulfillment of his inmost and essential nature."

For other characters of Ross's fictional world, the stripping down which leads to self discovery is equally important. Often made in terms of a sudden discovery of one's essential nature, it delimits the path that this nature must follow. For the country boy of "Cornet at Night," a chance meeting with a musician, Philip, makes him aware of his vocation as an artist: "This way of the brief lost gleam against the night was my way too. And alone I cowered a moment, understanding that there could be no escape, no other way." For the Bentleys, the gradual stripping away of the "false fronts" of dishonest life leads to the realization that they must get away from the kind of world that the small town of Horizon imposes, to a community where essential self can be safely revealed: "I asked him didn't he want to get out of the Church, didn't he admit that saving a thousand dollars was the only way."

Ross's earliest references to the "way" which character and environment impose are found in his first published story, "No Other Way." Hatty Glenn, the female protagonist of this story, is a simpler character than Mrs. Bentley, as she is most strongly motivated by the habit of parsimony. After a lifetime of "grubbing" while her husband "schemed," she is weather-beaten while he is still comparatively attractive; to make matters worse, he now ignores her. In a moment of insight, she recognizes that nothing in the world can better her relationship with her husband, and that for her there is "no other way" than to continue along in the same tragi-comic fashion:

She glanced over her shoulder and saw the half-chewed turnips being slobbered into the dirt. December—January—a pail a day.

And then in a flash she was clutching a broom and swooping into the garden. 'Get out, you greedy old devils! After them, Tubbie!'

Butter twenty five cents a pound. There was no other way.

In Ross's more sober stories, character and environment can combine like a vise to grip a character and set up a course of direction that even repeated failure does not change. His characters appear to be driven, like those of Grove in Settlers of the Marsh, to act as they do until one or another of a partnership is destroyed. When Paul is finally willing to make some compromises with the land, he finds his wife mad and his child dead. Having betrayed her husband, Ann of "The Painted Door" has a revelation of his intrinsic strength and determines to make it up to him. He, however, has already walked out into the blizzard where he freezes to death. Coulter, the inept recruit who has been repeatedly befriended by the soldier narrator of "Jug and Bottle," is accidentally let down by his friend. Crushed by an overwhelming burden of guilt and despair, and with no one to turn to, Coulter kills himself: ". . . caught helpless in some primitive mechanism of conscience like a sheaf in the gear of a thresher, borne on inexorably by the chain of guilt to the blade of punishment." Many such scenes of human despair and futility suggest that the President of the Immortals also has his sport with the people of Ross's prairie. Mrs. Bentley comments on this when observing the work-torn country congregation which is still waiting and praying after five years without a crop: "And tonight again the sun went down through a clear, brassy sky. Surely it must be a very great faith that such indifference on the part of its deity cannot weaken—a very great faith, or a very foolish one."

On the whole, despite the suggestion of naturalism, particularly in the metaphor used to describe Coulter, Ross is not a naturalist in the sense of Norris's The Octopus or even in the modified sense of Stead's Grain. There is a strong streak of determinism running through Ross's work, but it is most often kept firmly within a Christian context through a respectful address to "Providence," albeit with some irony as suggested by the title, "Not by Rain Alone," of one short story where the crops fail. Philip of As For Me and My House ". . . keeps on believing that there's a will stronger than his own deliberately pitted against him . . . a supreme being interested in him, opposed to him, arranging with tireless concern the details of his life. . . ." The good man of "The Runaway" finds himself troubled by God's justice, especially when the scales are eventually weighed in his favour: "What kind of reckoning was it that exacted life and innocence for an old man's petty greed? Why, if it was retri-bution, had it struck so clumsily?" ("Lamp at Noon"). . . .

The significance of Ross's achievement, and I fully agree with those critics who suggest that As For Me and My House is in the mainstream of the English Canadian novel, is that in nature, ethos and hero, Ross has captured all of these qualities which we attempt to invoke when we want to talk about Canadian writing. It is Ross's hard nature given tongue by Mrs. Bentley when she observes that the wilderness frightens us:

We've all lived in a little town too long. . . . We shrink from our insignificance. The stillness and solitude—we think a force or presence into it. . . . for we dare not admit an indifferent wilderness, where we may have no meaning at all . . . .

which also recurs in Bruce Hutchison's book, The Unknown Country and which is given the status of a literary myth in Northrop Frye's rationale for the "garrison mentality" of Canadian writing.

Yet, in significant difference from the nature which leads to the formulation of Frye's "garrison mentality" or, for that matter, from the mental "pallisade" of William Carlos Williams's In The American Grain, Ross does not seem to be suggesting that there is no god in nature if for no other reason than that his people would not allow it. It may very well be the Old Testament vengeful God, the Nemesis of Philip's guilty conscience, or simply the psychological projection of the will to believe. Nonetheless, the people of Ross's prairie appear to keep on waiting and believing that beyond the individual tragedies of such as "Not by Rain Alone," such endurance does have value. And, certainly, in the larger structure of the first novel, there is a kind of grace bestowed: Mrs. Bentley is supported in her struggle to find the way by the Old Testament metaphor of the pointing finger: "It was like a finger pointing again, clear and peremptory, to keep on pretending ignorance just as before." Ross gives an explicit psychological basis for this metaphor; yet, as it springs from the inner recesses of self and is associated with her desire to find the "way," it is not without implications of a transcendent function. Then, too, Philip undergoes a kind of salvation through grace. He does find other-directed subjects for his art and he is given a child which he so desperately wants. Most importantly, it is a child with all of the New Testament implications of "a little child shall lead them."

It would appear that the religious frame of reference, even if only in terms of residual response, is still a very important part of the Canadian novel. It was with considerable surprise that I realized recently that a surprisingly large number of our twentieth century novels refer to specifically moral, often explicitly religious concerns, as is suggested in the following titles: Grove's Our Daily Bread, Fruits of the Earth; much of Callaghan, including Such is my Beloved, They Shall Inherit the Earth, More Joy in Heaven, and The Loved and the Lost; Mitchell's Who has Seen the Wind?; Klein's The Second Scroll, MacLennan's Each Man's Son and The Watch that Ends the Night; Buckler's The Mountain and the Valley; Wiseman's The Sacrifice; Watson's The Double Hook; Laurence's A Jest of God; Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many; Horwood's Tomorrow Will Be Sunday and Kriesel's The Betrayal.

Why might this be so? There does not appear to be a comparable movement in the American novel of the last twenty years, although a successful argument might be made for the preceding three decades. There is the obvious fact of the unpopulated land itself: Canada, particularly the prairie, is still largely open space. In the midst of land and sky, as is explicitly suggested at the start of Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind?, it is difficult not to feel the cosmic setting. Then, too, the country is still basically regional; in the smaller communities religion still remains a strong force. Furthermore, our great wave of immigration was at the turn of the twentieth century rather than in the late eighteenth or nineteenth, as it was in the United States. This turn-of-the century immigration, particularly of Scotch Presbyterians and European Jews, has greatly strengthened the Old Testament concerns of our literature.

Another possibility may be inferred from the fact that naturalism did not take hold in Canada as it did in the United States. R. E. Watters, in an address to the Third Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association (Utrecht, 1961), gives a convincing rationale for this fact. He further notes that as Canada experienced no wars of emancipation and liberation, Canadian fictional characters do not usually see existing social conditions in Zolaesque terms, nor are they particularly concerned with leaving established communities for a place where they might be more free, as is suggested in the American myth of the journey west. Rather, as the historical fact of the United Empire Loyalists would suggest, and as Frye and Watters both note, the Canadian hero is concerned basically with maintaining his own integrity within a chosen community. I would add to this that the works of Ross would suggest that naturalism cannot flourish where there is even a remnant of divine providence. Religion, even if largely residual or seemingly converted to demonism as it is in As For Me and My House, invokes another set of values which even if psychologically internalized, still supports the individual in his struggle:

A trim, white, neat-gabled little schoolhouse, just like Partridge Hill. There's a stable at the back, and some buggies in the yard. It stands up lonely and defiant on a landscape like a desert. . . . The distorted, barren landscape makes you feel the meaning of its persistence there. As Paul put it last Sunday when we drove up, it's Humanity in Microcosm. Faith, ideals, reason—all the things that really are humanity—like Paul you feel them there, their stand against the implacable blunderings of Nature . . .

And it was just a few rough pencil strokes, and he [Philip] had it buried among some notes he'd been making for next Sunday's sermon.

Unlike Huckleberry Finn, the characteristic American hero who determines "to light out for the territory" when civilization becomes too pressing, the characteristic Canadian hero is the one who stays and endures—the farmers of Ross's prairie. If and when there is to be some way as there is for the Bentleys of Horizon, it must be an honourable way and one which is sanctioned by community.

Robert D. Chambers (essay date 1975)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5783

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 Noon and Other Stories, comprise perhaps the most consistently excellent literary pieces to appear in Canada during the 1930s and 1940s.

Since limitation of space precludes discussing each of Ross' stories in turn, it has been necessary to treat them under general headings. Yet each repays close scrutiny, and at least three are superb little masterpieces.

Literary Techniques

A number of the 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:

And Scripture we did read, Isaiah, verse about, my mother in her black silk dress and rhinestone brooch, I in my corduroys and Sunday shoes that pinched. It was a very august afternoon, exactly like the tone that had persisted in my mother's voice since breakfast time. I think I might have openly rebelled, only for the hope that by compliance I yet might win permission for the trip to town with Rock. I was inordinately proud that my father had suggested it, and for his faith in me forgave him even Isaiah and the plushy afternoon. Whereas with my mother, I decided, it was a case of downright bigotry.

("Cornet at Night")

Almost immediately we recognize the general territory of Huck Finn, but Twain would not have allowed Huck such big words as "august," "compliance," "inordinately proud" or "downright bigotry." When Twain wants to do bigotry he has a drunken Pap tongue-lash a coloured university professor. Huck simply doesn't know what the word "bigotry" means, though he clearly recognizes the bigot that his father is. Ross has additional things to accomplish. Notice, for example, how this whole passage is shaded in meaning by the exquisite choice of "august" and "plushy," so that in the boy's clear-sighted judgment the ritual of a Sunday afternoon reflects a beautifully light satirical tone.

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.

("Cornet at Night")

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: "The Outlaw," "Cornet at Night," "The Runaway," "One's a Heifer," and, more recently, "The Flowers That Killed Him."

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 story-telling—the vivid intimacy of first-person narration combined with the prairie woman's point of view.

Occasionally the stories use a shifting narrative pattern. "The Lamp at Noon," for example, alternates the viewpoint between Paul and Ellen, an appropriate device since the story involves a husband/wife debate about the value of prairie farm life. A similar narrative mode appears in "Not by Rain Alone": Part I shows events from Will's point of view; Part II (originally published separately as "September Snow") gives frightening glances into the demented mind of Will's wife.

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:

Tense; she fixed her eyes upon the clock, listening. There were two winds: the wind in flight, and the wind that pursued. The one sought refuge in the eaves, whimpering, in fear; the other assailed it there, and shook the eaves apart to make it flee again. Once as she listened this first wind sprang inside the room, distraught like a bird that has felt the graze of talons on its wing; while furious the other wind shook the walls, and thudded tumbleweeds against the window till its quarry glanced away again in fright. But only to return—to return and quake among the feeble eaves, as if in all this dustmad wilderness it knew no other sanctuary.

("The Lamp at Noon")

This paragraph is beautifully conceived and executed. The wind becomes diabolically alive, with the dominant image of a hunt carried superbly throughout the passage. But the personification works in two directions: we feel the savage attack of the wind but are never allowed to forget that a woman, alone and tensely watching a clock, listens to a predatory drama, which will go on and on and on . . . until she cracks.

At other moments, Ross works this same effect using a landscape of snow:

Then she wheeled to the window, and with quick short breaths thawed the frost to see again. The glitter was gone. Across the drifts sped swift and snakelike little tongues of snow. She could not follow them, where they sprang from, or where they disappeared. It was as if all across the yard the snow were shivering awake—roused by the warnings of the wind to hold itself in readiness for the impending storm. The sky had become a sombre, whitish grey. It, too, as if in readiness, had shifted and lay close to earth. Before her as she watched a mane of powdery snow reared up breast-high against the darker background of the stable, tossed for a moment angrily, and then subsided again as if whipped down to obedience and restraint. But another followed, more reckless and impatient than the first. Another reeled and dashed itself against the window where she watched. Then ominously for a while there were only the angry little snakes of snow. The wind rose, creaking the troughs that were wired beneath the eaves. In the distance, sky and prairie now were merged into one another linelessly. All round her it was gathering; already in its press and whimpering there strummed a boding of eventual fury.

("The Painted Door")

This 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.

Prairie Life and Prairie People

Knowledge is valuable no matter where we find it, and one aspect of literary criticism is an assessment of what we learn about life at a particular time and place. The historian and economist can give us the statistical data about prairie farm life in the 1930s, but literature alone can render these hard facts in an imaginative or creative way. Indeed, the Depression years in the Canadian west have been represented in a variety of evocative ways, from the impressive National Film Board production called The Drylanders (1962) to Michiel Horn's brilliant anthology, The Dirty Thirties: Canadians in the Great Depression (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1972). But it remains for writers like Sinclair Ross, who actually lived through those years, to illuminate them.

In Ross' stories, knowledge of prairie life is revealed in many ways. While the social historian or economist can usefully record that farm income dropped dramatically, and therefore drastically curtailed consumer purchasing, perhaps only the imaginative writer can communicate the effect, as in this passage from "Cornet at Night" in which the boy is instructed what to do when he takes the eggs to market in town:

By the time they had both finished with me there were a great many things to mind. Besides repairs for my father's binder, I was to take two crates of eggs each containing twelve dozen eggs to Mr. Jenkins' store and in exchange have a list of groceries filled. And to make it complicated, both quantity and quality of some of the groceries were to be determined by the price of eggs. Thirty cents a dozen, for instance, and I was to ask for coffee at sixty-five cents a pound. Twenty-nine cents a dozen and coffee at fifty cents a pound. Twenty-eight and no oranges. Thirty-one and bigger oranges. It was like decimals with Miss Wiggins, or two notes in the treble against three in the bass. For my father a tin of special blend tobacco, and my mother not to know. For my mother a box of face powder at the drugstore, and my father not to know.

("Cornet at Night")

Sometimes Ross' knowledge reveals itself in brief but precise instinctive reactions—a glance at a man's hands conveys the certainty that he won't be any good at setting up wheat stooks; or humiliation comes from thinking, against one's better judgment, that a balky horse can be cured:

Of course he was wrong. He should have known what every horseman knows, that a balky horse is never cured. If you're unscrupulous, you'll trade it off or sell it. If you're honest, you'll shoot it. Promptly, humanely, before it exasperates you to moments of rage and viciousness from which your self-respect will never quite recover. For weeks and months on end it will be a model horse, intelligent, cooperative, and then one fine day, when you're least expecting trouble, it will be a balky one again. You'll waste time and patience on it. You'll try persuasion first, then shouts and curses. You'll go back to persuasion, then degrade yourself to blows. And at last, weary and ashamed, you'll let the traces down and lead it to its stall.

("The Outlaw")

This exact and detailed knowledge of horses runs throughout Ross' fiction, and some of his best writing has been concerned with the relationship of boy and horse—for example, from the early story "A Day with Pegasus," through the better known "The Outlaw," to sequences in both The Well and Whir of Gold.

Ross's male characters, especially the farmers in the short stories, share with their creator this 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. And it is well to understand the effect of these obsessions upon themselves, their wives, and their children.

Ross' farmers are big, silent men who go about their work with a dogged fortitude that is truly impressive. Working farms which are at best marginally viable as economic units, and engaged as they are in a desperate duel with the land, it is hardly surprising that their inner lives reveal some terrible tensions. As heads of families they must grow the crops which buy the clothes and put the food on the kitchen table; failure to do this means more than the possibility of poverty or the ignominy of going on relief, for the vast majority of Saskatchewan farmers were on some form of relief during the Depression years. Failure entails, too, a loss of moral authority, the inability to retain what has traditionally been seen as a man's chief role, the support of his wife and children. Because of these pressures many of these prairie farmers suffered terrible strains, or broke under the unequal struggle against the unyielding seasons. 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. Then they come face to face with reality and with pained awareness count the toll of their way of life:

There was a dark resentment in her voice now that boded another quarrel. He waited, his eyes on her dubiously as she mashed a potato with her fork. The lamp between them threw strong lights and shadows on their faces. Dust and drought, earth that betrayed alike his labour and his faith, to him the struggle had given sternness, an impressive courage. Beneath the whip of sand his youth had been effaced. Youth, zest, exuberance—there remained only a harsh and clenched virility that yet became him, that seemed at the cost of more engaging qualities to be fulfilment of his inmost and essential nature. Whereas to her the same debts and poverty had brought a plaintive indignation, a nervous dread of what was still to come. The eyes were hollowed, the lips pinched dry and colourless. It was the face of a woman that had aged without maturing, that had loved the little vanities of life, and lost them wistfully.

("The Lamp at Noon")

Sometimes the bleak face of despair leads to desperate acts. Ellen, in "The Lamp at Noon," flees into a prairie dust storm and unwittingly suffocates the child whom she is trying to free from such a terrible life. In "Not by Rain Alone" (Part II), Eleanor dies when a winter blizzard invades the house and freezes her in the act of childbirth. It is the sense of being utterly cut off from the world (both women are alone) which vividly characterizes their lives. Neighbours are far distant through swirling dust or across frozen prairie; no radios or phones bring the outside world into these bare parlours and kitchens; husbands come for meals or to sleep. Even a rare trip to town may become a traumatic experience, as in the fine story, "Nell," with its lovely symbol of fidelity in a remembered ketchup bottle. 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. The pressure to be "good" and "nice" comes largely from their mothers, the children becoming the objects of their mothers cultural aspirations:

It was the children now, Joe and Annabelle: this winter perhaps they could send them to school in town and let them take music lessons. Annabelle, anyway. At a pinch Joe could wait a while; he was only eight. It wouldn't take Annabelle long to pick up her notes; already she played hymn tunes by ear on the organ. She was bright, a real little lady for manners; among town people she would learn a lot. The farm was no place to bring her up. Running wild and barefoot, what would she be like in a few years? Who would ever want to marry her but some stupid country lout?

("A Field of Wheat")

With significant frequency the drive for culture takes the form in these stories of music lessons; to play the piano is a sure sign that one has risen above the level of chickens and crops. (The nature of these lessons is nicely detailed in Chapter 11 of Whir of Gold.) Equally impressive is the belief in the benefits of formal schooling, as though education were the one certain way of delivering the next generation from the hardships and heartbreaks of prairie farm life.

The children, moreover, 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.

Three Stories

Many of the themes and techniques discussed above appear in three of Ross' masterly stories: "A Field of Wheat," "Cornet at Night," and "The Painted Door."

"A Field of Wheat" (Ross' first story published in Canada) 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:

Sitting down on the doorstep to admire the gaudy petals, she complained to herself, "They go so fast—the first little winds blow them all away." On her face, lengthening it, was bitten deeply the enigma of the flowers and the naked seed-pods. Why did the beauty flash and the bony stalks remain?

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 fields:

Nothing but the glitter of sun on hailstones. Nothing but their wheat crushed into little rags of muddy slime. Here and there an isolated straw standing bolt upright in headless defiance.

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.

"Cornet at Night" is narrated by Tommy Dickson, an eleven-year-old prairie farm boy. It is a story which celebrates at least two firsts in Tommy's life—his first trip to town alone (his father is too busy with the harvest to find another hand, so Tommy is sent on the mission) and, secondly, his first awareness of a world of strange and beauty which exists outside the narrow compass of farm life. It is thus a story in which practical responsibility comes in conflict with aesthetic impulse.

Tommy is one of those prairie lads caught between the different values of his parents. His father's great compulsion is the crop; ripe wheat will be harvested, Sunday or not. Tommy's mother warns of the vengeance that will be reaped by breaking the Sabbath, or keeping Tommy home from school to help with the harvest. Ross sketches these parental values in a quietly satirical tone in the early part of the story:

He slammed out at that to harness his horses and cut his wheat, and away sailed my mother with me in her wake to spend an austere half-hour in the dark, plushy little parlour. It was a kind of vicarious atonement, I suppose, for we both took straight-backed chairs, and for all of the half-hour stared across the room at a big pansy-bordered motto on the opposite wall: As for Me and My House We Will Serve the Lord.

But the male forces win out, and Tommy goes off to town to hire another hand. Tommy finds a young man named Philip, with shabby clothes but gentle manners, whose delicate hands hardly suggest the kind of man his father wants:

His hands were slender, almost a girl's hands, yet vaguely with their shapely quietness they troubled me, because, however slender and smooth, they were yet hands to be reckoned with, strong with a strength that was different from the rugged labour-strength I knew.

On the ride home, Tommy discovers that Philip is a musician (Ross skilfully withholds the symbolic cornet until after the middle point of the story). Philip turns out to be a hopeless worker and, after one glorious evening of cornet music. Tommy's father drives him back to town.

From the mid point of the story, Ross develops a powerful tension between two sets of values, already prefigured in Tommy's parents. In one sense, Tommy has shown poor judgment and thus failed the test of his father's work ethic. The father nicely diverts the blame for this onto Tommy's mother—with all her nonsense about music lessons! On this count Tommy has been humiliated, but he has learned in the process that you don't judge every man by the toughness of his hands, or his ability to set up stooks. Tommy defends Philip as a musician, and about that there could be no argument:

There were no answers, but presently he reached for his cornet. In the dim, soft darkness I could see it glow and quicken. And I remember still what a long and fearful moment it was, crouched and steeling myself, waiting for him to begin.

And I was right: when they came the notes were piercing, golden as the cornet itself, and they gave life expanse that it had never known before.

Nor is Tommy the only one listening. His parents also respond to this extraordinary and unexpected beauty, as though realizing that the endless drudgery of farm life had almost closed their ears forever to the possibility of such unearthly loveliness. Once Philip has gone, Tommy's anger at the world flares briefly and then subsides into the pattern of acceptance which prairie life demands: "It's like that on a farm. You always have to put the harvest first."

Ross handles the theme of this story with great delicacy. Despite the temporary defeat of Tommy's pride, and the apparent triumph of his father's values, we see a process of growth—a developing awareness in Tommy 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 the lesson he tries to give Philip in stooking. 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 (Philip embodies that particular lesson); 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."

"The Painted Door" is perhaps Ross' most dramatic story. It is told almost entirely from the woman's point of view, and spans a single day and night in her life—a fateful time, nonetheless, which brings her first act of sexual infidelity since her marriage, and the death of her husband. Ann and John have together struggled with prairie farm life for seven years. They have only two close neighbours—Steven, a bachelor, who farms alone about a mile away, and John's father, five miles across the hills. It is winter and the story opens with an ominous reference—to be repeated throughout the story—to "a double wheel around the moon," a certain prelude to storm.

Moreover, the early pages make it clear that Ann is undergoing a crisis in her relationship with both John and the prairie. A caustic quality colours her exchanges with John as he prepares to set out across the hills to visit his aging father: "'Plenty to eat—plenty of wood to keep me warm—what more could a woman ask for?'" What, indeed?—except company—she hasn't seen anyone but John for two whole weeks—and love; but John really loves the battle for survival with the land:

Year after year their lives went on in the same little groove. He drove his horses in the field; she milked the cows and hoed potatoes. By dint of his drudgery he saved a few months' wages, added a few dollars more each fall to his payments on the mortgage; but the only real difference that it all made was to deprive her of his companionship, to make him a little duller, older, uglier than he might otherwise have been.

The middle section of the story, before Steven arrives, is a brilliant depiction of the lonely winter day of a prairie farm wife. Even the familiar noises of the house—crackling stove and ticking clock—grate on her taut nerves, and the rising blizzard slowly builds the atmosphere into a terrible tension. Ann's few attempts at relief somehow fail to bring any comfort—touching up the interior with white paint, returning in memory to happier days, when John was younger and more alive, when she danced with the youthful Steven (the recurring reference to Steven shows Ross' skill at creating dramatic suspense). Ann simply faces the hard truth that life has passed her by.

Then Steven comes. But his coming brings no lessening of the tension. Alone now with this younger man, whose calm assurance contrasts strongly with John's dullness, Ann is forced to admit an attraction:

She felt eager, challenged. Something was at hand that hitherto had always eluded her, even in the early days with John, something vital, beckoning, meaningful. She didn't understand, but she knew. The texture of the moment was satisfyingly dreamlike: an incredibility perceived as such, yet acquiesced in. She was John's wife—she knew—but also she knew that Steven standing here was different from John.

As Ann and Steven put in the long hours until John's return (five miles across the hills in a blizzard), the tension continues to build inside this desolate farm house. Finally, they respond to both the attraction and the desire.

However, the presence of John, not in person but in thought, dominates the relationship of Ann and Steven throughout the long winter night. Ross' handling of John's off-stage presence is masterly. For example, we notice a subtle transition in the way John is referred to. The phrasing of Ann's doubt that John would attempt to return home through the blizzard is vaguely threatening: "'. . . he wouldn't dare . . . he wouldn't dare . . .'" Steven's judgments are more ominous: "'—it would be suicide to try,'" and "'A man couldn't live in it.'" Finally, in a splendidly symbolic moment, Ann imagines that she has dreamed of John's return, that he has stood over her menacingly just as the shadows from the stove mass above the sleeping lovers:

There was one great shadow that struggled towards her threateningly, massive and black and engulfing all the room. Again and again it advanced, about to spring, but each time a little whip of light subdued it to its place among the others on the wall.

One cannot sufficiently praise the suggestive brilliance of this passage: words such as "struggled" and "advanced" force us to imagine John making his slow way through the blizzard, and the play of shadows on the wall beautifully parallels Ann's unsuccessful attempts to put John completely from her mind.

The final pages of the story bring a resolution to Ann's agony, and a totally unexpected dénouement. Ann's dark night of the soul—she suffers terrible pangs of guilt while Steven slumbers contentedly beside her—is finally dissolved by the coming of day. Ann now stands convinced of two certainties—that John is the man she really loves, and that somehow he has made his way home through the blizzard. In a surprise ending of great dramatic power—one which sends our minds reeling back across the whole length of the story—Ross finally reveals the Tightness of Ann's intuition.

Ken Mitchell (essay date 1981)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7877

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, "No Other Way," was published in the English magazine Nash's in 1934, Ross wrote, "I am now starting to work on short stories, hoping gradually to build up a better technique without the cramping grind that writing a novel after hours demands." At that time, he was working for the bank in Winnipeg and had written two novels which he described as "failures."

The stories from Ross's "early" period, roughly 1935 to 1945, are his most successful—that is, during the time when he was giving them close artistic attention. He virtually stopped writing short stories after 1950.

Most of the stories have a remarkably similar pattern: a direct narrative simplicity and lack of stylistic excess.

Occasionally, there is a first-person narrator. The characters are usually simple people, either rural or small-town; "sophisticates" never appear, even peripherally. Ross's technique of characterization, however, is never simple. It shows a careful accretion of physical and psychological detail through the course of a well-plotted story. His pieces are, in other words, models of the "classic" story, and show much similarity to the stories of James Joyce and Stephen Crane. Ross's particular strength is the use of external forces, such as weather and landscape, to create symbolic patterns around the internal lives of his characters; he also shows a highly developed eye for the significantly vivid detail in a commonplace world.

Except for "No Other Way," Ross's stories have been published in small Canadian magazines, and it was many years before they were widely available or read. They are unusual in Canadian fiction, in that the best of them achieve an exhilarating fusion of the classic elements of short fiction: character, plot and theme. By not fearing to rig out a strong plot—a "populist" rather than literary approach—Ross has succeeded while many of his more "polished" contemporaries have already faded from view.

It has taken a long time for Sinclair Ross's fiction to be appreciated, no doubt in part because he is averse to interviews and publicity—but also because his very qualities of simplicity, directness and a thematic concern with "ordinary" people, have placed his work below the dignity of Canadian academics and critics. History is the final judge of literature, however—and it is a rare anthology of Canadian stories these days that does not include at least one of his stories.

In 1968, nine of the stories were selected by the editors of McClelland and Stewart to be published in paperback, the first time any of them would appear in book form. This followed the successful paperback reprint of As For Me and My House, in 1957—sixteen years after its first publication. This selection of stories for inclusion is curious, as some of those omitted are superior, but perhaps the unifying principle of The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories is simply one of agricultural setting. All of these stories take place on farms, and the characters are all rural.

As these nine are the only stories generally available to readers, I will examine them first. They can—for the purpose of discussion—be divided into two groups. The strongest stories are in the first group, one marked by an intense conflict between husband and wife—that is, a sexual conflict. This is a theme which dominated Ross's first story ("No Other Way"); elements of it appear in nearly all his written works.

In each of these stories, the husband is a wheat farmer. He is usually tight-lipped and physically powerful, almost brutal. As an archetype, he could be seen as a slave of the earth-goddess Demeter, toiling to satisfy the demands of his farm and crops. The wife is generally characterized as sensitive and refined, often well-educated. She is subjected to a life of suffering and emotional deprivation in this harsh existence of rural isolation, fearing that worldly and cultural pleasures will be denied to her forever.

While these stories are not specifically located, it appears obvious that Ross has drown on his observations of Saskatchewan during the "Dirty Thirties."

"A Field of Wheat" is one of Sinclair Ross's finest achievements and illustrates this thematic conflict perfectly. John and Martha (surnames are rarely given in any of Ross's stories) live with their children, Annabelle and Joe, on a farm somewhere in the Great Plains. From the number of crop failures they have suffered, the period could be assumed to be the 1930s. There are no other characters, and their world becomes reduced to one of the simplest elements: family, animals, farm, weather. They are in conflict with the universe, and among themselves, but it is this starkness of detail which provides the story with its beauty. There is no attempt to provide social history, or any kind of documentary realism. The effect is to give us a microcosm of suffering mankind, caught in the grinding wheels of a universe beyond understanding or control.

John has never been to school himself; he knew what it meant to go through life with nothing but his muscles to depend upon; and that was it, dread that Annabelle and Joe would be handicapped as he was, that was what had darkened him, made him harsh and dour. That was why he breasted the sun and dust a frantic, dogged fool, to spare them, to help them to a life that offered more than sweat and debts. Martha knew. He was a slow, inarticulate man, but she knew. Sometimes it even vexed her, brought a wrinkle of jealousy, his anxiety about the children, his sense of responsibility where they were concerned. He never seemed to feel that he owed her anything, never worried about her future. She could sweat, grow flat-footed and shapeless, but that never bothered him.

The girl Annabelle is the repository of Martha's dreams. In the coming winter she will, perhaps, take music lessons. "The farm was no place to bring her up. Running wild and barefoot, what would she be like in a few years? Who would ever want to marry her but some stupid country lout?" Martha is terrified that her daughter will follow her own pattern, despite a real love she has for her husband.

Martha's dream of the future is, naturally, centred on the crop of wheat, "the best crop of wheat John had ever grown," and she goes continually out to the field to examine its progress. It is three hundred acres of dreams: "Beautiful, more beautiful than Annabelle's poppies, than her sunsets. Theirs—all of it."

However, on the mid-summer day when the story is set, there is an oppressive atmosphere building in the air. The children are quarrelling around her feet in the hot kitchen, and when she suddenly looks outside, "there was no sky, only a gulf of blackness. . . . Above, almost overhead, a heavy, hard-lined bank of cloud swept its way across the sun-white blue in august, impassive fury."

Martha screams at the children to stay inside as the hail storm suddenly strikes. The description of the storm is one of the most effective passages Ross has written, opening with:

a sharp, crunching blow on the roof, its sound abruptly dead, sickening, like a weapon that has sunk deep into flesh. Wildly she shook her hands, motioning Annabelle back to the window, and started for the stairs. Again the blow came; then swiftly a stuttered dozen of them.

She reached the kitchen just as John burst in. With their eyes screwed up against the pommelling roar of the hail they stared at each other. They were deafened, pinioned, crushed. His face was a livid blank, one cheek smeared with blood where a jagged stone had struck him. Taut with fear, her throat aching, she turned away and looked through Joe's legs again. It was like a furious fountain, the stones bouncing high and clashing with those behind them. They had buried the earth, blotted out the horizon; there was nothing but their crazy spew of whiteness.

The effect of the storm is catastrophic; it breaks the windows and invades the house, heaping hailstones on the beds and floors. The dog Nipper is forgotten outside and "beaten lifeless." When it subsides, Martha and John walk out to their field of wheat:

Nothing but the glitter of sun on hailstones. Nothing but their wheat crushed into little rags of muddy slime. Here and there an isolated straw standing bolt upright in headless defiance. Martha and John walked to the far end of the field. There was no sound but their shoes slipping and rattling on the pebbles of ice. Both of them wanted to speak, to break the atmosphere of calamity that hung over them, but the words they could find were too small for the sparkling serenity of wasted field. Even as waste it was indomitable. It tethered them to itself, so that they could not feel or comprehend. It had come and gone, that was all; before its tremendousness and havoc they were prostrate. They had not yet risen to cry out or protest.

Up to this point the story, though well-written, is fairly conventional and, it might be said, typically Canadian in its grim presentation of the power of nature. Ross, however, is more concerned with the human dynamics of this archetypal family. Martha, devastated, whimpers that she cannot go on any longer. John pleads with her to put on a brave front for the sake of the children, which she does, though vowing to herself she will leave the farm. Unable to take the strain, she runs to the stable to "unloose the fury that clawed within her, strike back a blow for the one that had flattened her." Her intention is to attack her husband, but she cannot find him at first; and when she does, she is startled to find him "pressed against one of the horses," sobbing in private anguish. It is a shock to her, "the strangest, most frightening moment in her life. He had always been so strong and grim; had just kept on as if he couldn't feel, as if there were a bull's hide over him, and now he was beaten." Like an intruder she creeps away, an unwilling witness to his humiliation.

The story concludes on a curious note of triumph and hope, when Annabelle cries to her mother, "Look at the sky!"

Withdrawn now in the eastern sky the storm clouds towered, gold-capped and flushed in the late sunlight, high still pyramids of snowiness and shadow. And one that Annabelle pointed to, apart, the farthest away of them all, this one in bronzed slow splendour spread up mountains high to a vast, plateau-like summit.

Martha hurries indoors to prepare a "good supper" for John, with the peas she had picked before the storm. The image of the gold-capped clouds towering in the east suggests that life will go beyond this stormy moment in their lives, despite the terrible burden of defeat and despair, which threatens to crush their hopes. Martha's faith in self, at least, is somehow renewed—and a story drenched in pathos somehow becomes a parable of existential hope.

"The Lamp at Noon," another dust-bowl story, is considerably bleaker. This time, the external force is the shrieking wind. For three days it has hurled dust at a struggling young farm couple, Paul and Ellen. Again, the storm symbolizes the conflict between man and wife, or at least the suffocating blast of circumstances which threatens Ellen's equilibrium. A former school-teacher, she has been struggling against deep emotional depression, perhaps a result of her recent birth-giving as much as farm life. It is the isolation which abrades her nerves, but she focuses her bitterness on the helpless Paul.

The story begins at noon on the third day of the dust storm. Even at noon, the obscuring dust has brought on such darkness that Ellen must light their kitchen lamp. The description of the farm quickly becomes more universal:

In dim, fitful outline the stable and oat granary still were visible; beyond, obscuring fields and landmarks, the lower of the dust clouds made the farmyard seem an isolated acre, poised aloft above a sombre void. At each blast of wind, it shook, as if to topple and spin hurtling with the dust-reel into space.

Alone with the baby inside the claustrophobic shack, she recalls her recent arguments with Paul, bitter exchanges of angry words which neither of them understands. When he finally comes in for lunch, the quarrel picks up where it left off, as she pleads with her husband to give up the futile struggle against the wind.

The lamp between them threw strong lights and shadows on their faces. Dust and drought, earth that betrayed alike his labour and his faith, to him the struggle had given sternness, an impassive courage. Beneath the whip of sand his youth had been effaced.

He sat staring at the lamp without answering, his mouth sullen. It seemed indifference now, as if he were ignoring her, and stung to anger again she cried, "Do you ever think what my life is? .. . I'm still young—I wasn't brought up this way."

"You're a farmer's wife now. It doesn't matter what you used to be, or how you were brought up. You get enough to eat and wear. Just now that's all I can do. I'm not to blame that we've been dried out five years."

As the storm intensifies its violence around them, Paul refuses to sympathize, seeing her hysteria as female weakness. Finally his preoccupation with the waiting farmwork overwhelms any need for talk, and "with a jerk" he frees his smock from her clutch.

Like John in "A Field of Wheat," he goes to the stable to find comfort in the company of his work-horse. Even there, the walls "creaked and sawed as if the fingers of a giant hand were tightening to collapse them; the empty loft sustained a pipelike cry that rose and fell but never ended." As in so much of Sinclair Ross's fiction, the external world seems alive with malignant rage. Once alone, however, Paul becomes filled with remorse for his cruelty, seeing his wife's face in front of him with "its staring eyes and twisted suffering."

As the afternoon wears on, the storm gradually expires and Paul returns to the house. "But she was gone.. . . The door was open, the lamp blown out, the crib empty. The dishes from their meal at noon were still on the table." Terrified, he stumbles for hours through the piles of dirt around their farm until he finds her "crouched against a drift of sand as if for shelter, her hair in matted strands around her neck and face, the child clasped tightly in her arms."

The baby is dead, suffocated either by her frantic arms or by the dust. The horror is that Ellen does not realize that the child is dead, and her eyes show only "an immobile stare." Although the storm is over and she whispers "tomorrow will be fine," the conclusion is one of unrelieved despair, so that Ellen's final utterance is tragically ironic. For this couple there is no tomorrow. Yet Ross is careful to assign no blame to either of the characters; like the unnamed baby, they are victims of their own frailty.

"Not By Rain Alone" is a story in two parts, called "Summer Thunder" and "September Snow." These were originally published separately (the latter section two years before the former) in Queen's Quarterly, where most of Ross's stories first appeared. They were unified in the collection with slight revisions, to greatly enhanced effect. The cycle of the seasons and years becomes—like the storms of the other stories—a symbol of the changing lives of the central characters, Will and Eleanor.

In "Summer Thunder," Will is a bachelor farmer, very poor and fighting a drought. He hopes to marry Eleanor, the daughter of a wealthy neighbour, but they are thwarted by the "still, brassy, pitiless" weather. His farm is full of stones which appear every spring as fast as he can clear them, the frost heaving "another litter from the bitch-like earth." His black mare Bess is beginning "to sag a little now," and his shack is a "stench of heat and a sickening drone of flies." All in all, a rather unattractive proposition for Eleanor. "At the best they would grub along painfully, grow tired and bitter, indifferent to each other. It was the way of the land."

The couple meets in the field to look at their hopeless crop, but they determine to marry after harvest in the fall. As they talk the distant thunder grows closer,

like tumbling stones. . . . flare after flare of lightning lit the clouds, yellow and soft like the flickerings of a lamp; and they saw what dark and threatening clouds they were, yet how they still hung in the distance, as if at a pause, uncertain of their way.

In "September Snow" a year later, the couple is married. Eleanor is pregnant, and, with a snowstorm coming, she does not want Will to go out into the fields at night to collect his cattle. Yet the cattle must be brought in, or they will be lost, so he goes into the storm. When he finds them, huddled against a fence, they prove impossible to drive back against the wind. When Will loses his temper and strikes his horse Bess, she jerks away and disappears into the night.

Will sets out walking back to the farm, sometimes "backwards, sometimes with one shoulder thrust out, his head tilted, the way a swimmer meets a wave." Finally he can go no further and seeks refuge in a straw-stack. As though trying to reverse his child's impending birth, Will attempts to escape from the world back into the womb-like warmth.

He tunnelled into it, lengthwise, feet first, kicking and burrowing until he could stretch his legs. And now the warmth was real, but wide awake from the effort it had cost him to pull out the straw he began to think of Eleanor, and to feel troubled and even guilty because he was lying here comfortable and idle. . . . She would be waiting for him, pacing through the house. . . . afraid he might be lost. Sometimes a woman did queer things when she was expecting a baby. She might even start out to look for him, or try to make her way to a neighbour's.

Panic stricken, he tries the storm once again, but is driven back by a wind "like a needled wall." Surrendering to its fury, he retreats into the warm shelter of the stack and dozes until morning. When he wakes, the storm is over, and the world has become "colourless and blank, without balance or orientation." He trudges home, anticipating a quarrel with his wife.

The house, however, is empty except for an invasion of snow "mounded right across the kitchen, curled up like a wave against the far wall, piled on table and chairs. Even on the stove—" He finds Eleanor on the bed, "her face twisted into a kind of grin, the forehead shining as if the skullbones were trying to burst through the skin." She dies in the process of childbirth; the cattle wander home by themselves. Eleanor's death has been completely absurd, and Will must live a future knowing that his devotion to the farm has killed her. Yet once again, there is at the conclusion of this utterly bleak scene a curious trumpet-note of hope:

They talked to him about the baby, somebody held it up for him to see, but he went to the door and stood blinking at the glitter of the sun. .. . It was like a spring day, warm and drowsy... . There was a hushed, breathless silence, as if sky and snow and sunlight were self-consciously poised, afraid to wrinkle or dishevel their serenity. Then through it, a faint, jagged little saw of sound, the baby started to cry. He felt a twinge of recognition. He seemed to be listening to the same plaintiveness and protest that had been in Eleanor's voice of late. An impulse seized him to see and hold his baby; but just for a minute longer he stood there, looking out across the sun-spangled snow, listening.

What is Will listening for? What does he wish to hear? The voice of God, providing an explanation for this cruel joke? Why should he, of all men, be made to suffer in this sharp exchange of life and death? As in all of Sinclair Ross's stories, there are no answers. Man simply must go on. The new generation is at hand, maintaining the cycle, just as Will himself has taken on the endless toil of moving rocks from his parents' harsh land. Here is a Sisyphean parable indeed.

The sexual conflict in these stories, obviously, is not of the conventional boy-meets-girl, man-takes-mistress variety. Here the sexual roles are very basically defined. The male is the physical half of the human animal, imbued with grim determination to provide and compete. The female is the spiritual half, trying to make sense of it all, victimized by her physical weakness just as the man is victimized by his lack of "common sense." The source of Ross's vision lies as much in the ancient mythology of Egypt as it does in Canadian geography. The primal conflict is demonstrated most brilliantly in Ross's finest story, "The Painted Door," a piece which has been anthologized dozens of times but was virtually unknown for years after its first publication in 1939.

Here again, we have John, "a slow, unambitious man, content with his farm and cattle, naively proud of Ann. He had been bewildered by it once, her caring for a dullwitted fellow like him." They have no children, and like the other doomed couples, they toil out their lives in the same vast and lonely land.

John's father lives a few miles away and needs help in the middle of winter. Ann is terrified of being alone, with a blizzard threatening, but John promises he will return no matter how bad the storm gets. His promises, it is assumed, are absolutely reliable. But to allay her fears, he says he will ask Steven, their neighbour, to drop by for a visit.

As the day wears on, Ann paints the kitchen woodwork to keep her mind off the weather and solitude. Like the other women, she reflects on their long years of drudgery to pay off the mortgage, their sacrifice to a future that will never arrive. Painting onward, accompanied by the ominous ticking of her clock, the silence grows unbearable. She thaws the frost on the window to see the storm beginning, its drifts

swift and snakelike little tongues of snow. .. . It was as if all across the yard the snow were shivering awake—roused by the warnings of the wind to hold itself in readiness for the impending storm. . . . Before her as she watched a mane of powdery snow reared up breast-high against the darker background of the stable, tossed for a moment angrily, and then subsided again as if whipped down to obedience and restraint. But another followed, more reckless and impatient than the first. Another reeled and dashed itself against the window where she watched. Then ominously for a while there were only the angry little snakes of snow. The wind rose, creaking the troughs that were wired beneath the eaves.... All around her it was gathering; already in its press and whimpering there strummed a boding of eventual fury. Again she saw a mane of snow spring up, so dense and high this time that all the sheds and stables were obscured.

The sustained intensity in the description of the blizzard is one of the most effective passages in Ross's canon. He is, of course, describing the storm within Ann—complete with deft touches of sexual imagery—as well as the one which assaults from without. The elements rage like demons, threatening her soul as they do the walls of the house with "sharp, savage blows." For relief, she keeps turning to the stove to warm herself—that is, to the domestic hearth. But gradually she begins to doubt that John will return through this ferocious storm. She goes outside to feed the animals in the stable and encounters the blizzard head-on:

A gust of wind spun her forward a few yards, then plunged her headlong against a drift that in the dense white whirl lay invisible across her path. For nearly a minute she huddled still, breathless and dazed. The snow was in her mouth and nostrils, inside her scarf and up her sleeves. . . . The wind struck from all sides, blustering and furious. It was as if the storm had discovered her, as if all its forces were concentrated upon her extinction. . . . Suddenly [with] a comprehension so clear and terrifying that it struck all thoughts of the stable from her mind, she realized in such a storm her puniness.

She retreats back to the house, shortly before Steven arrives to calm her hysteria. She collapses against him, "hushed by a sudden sense of lull and safety." Steven is a swaggering opportunist who exploits Ann's loneliness and seduces her, after convincing her that John could not possibly travel through such a storm.

As she lies in bed with Steven asleep beside her, Ann has a frightening nightmare in which a great shadow

struggled towards her threateningly, massive and black and engulfing all the room. Again and again it advanced, about to spring, but each time a little whip of light subdued it to its place. . . . Still she cowered, feeling that gathered there was all the frozen wilderness, its heart of terror and invincibility.

In this world where sexual infidelity is more than a sin, but approaches the vilest evil, she is tormented with a vision of John standing at the bedroom doorway, gazing on her transgression. As she looks on the sleeping Steven, "half-smiling still, his lips relaxed in the conscienceless complacency of his achievement," she knows she was wrong to see anything in his smooth appearance that was preferable to her rough, unshaven—and entirely faithful—John. To make it up to him, she resolves, "John was the man. With him lay all the future."

It is already too late, however, John is found in the morning a mile away, clutching the wire on the fence past the house. It appears he missed the house, returning in the storm, and got caught up in the wire. Later, when left alone with his corpse, Anne sees a "little smear of paint" on the palm of his hand, paint he could only have gotten from the bedroom door as he watched his own nightmare in the bedroom. He has killed himself in the storm, rather than return to a home he could no longer tolerate.

The ending employs an unexpected twist of plot, yet its impact is totally convincing. Ann is left as Will was, facing an indescribably tormented future of guilt, for her one lapse of conviction. It is a tough moral world that Ross's characters occupy.

The second group of stories in The Lamp at Noon shows a slightly different perspective. They reveal an element in Sinclair Ross's writing which appears, so far, only in the stories. This is the story seen from a child's point of view, though often narrated by the child grown-adult. Here the themes are less tragic—though never whimsical—as the child learns how to deal with the confusing adult world of farm life. The horse as both character and symbol is important in all of Ross's work, but there is an especially strong link in this group of stories between child and horse.

For example, in "The Outlaw," a 13-year-old unnamed boy has two loves which dominate his life: Millie Dickson, a sweet little thing "from town," and Isabel, his "beautiful but dangerous" pony. It is a touching and often funny triangle, for Millie comes to the farm one day and taunts the boy into riding the "outlaw" horse, against the specific commands of his parents. He has already fantasized riding Isabel to the school house to impress Millie, "whose efforts to be loyal to me were always defeated by my lack of verve and daring."

In a moment of heroic exhilaration, he gallops across the fields—a horseman at last, among the strawstacks "luminous and clear as drops of gum on fresh pine lumber"—before Isabel throws him off head-first into a snowdrift, almost at the feet of her watching rival. Millie is wickedly amused at the punishment which will follow—but it never comes. His father is pleased after all at his daring, and silences the mother's disapproval. "Now, in their peculiar parental idiom, they had just given their permission, and Isabel and the future were all mine. Isabel and Millie Dickson."

"Circus in Town" is probably the lightest story in the collection, concerning an 11-year-old girl, Jenny, who is denied the circus because of the family's poverty. Worse, she must endure her parents' recurring bickering over finances, making her feel "exasperated and guilty that there should be a quarrel about it, her father looking so frightened and foolish, her mother so savage and red." Jenny flees with her bright circus poster to the barn loft—another womb-like sanctuary of privacy and innocence—where she proceeds to enjoy the circus in her fantasies: "All night long she wore her purple tights and went riding Billie round and round the pasture in them. A young, fleet-footed Billie. Caparisoned in blue and gold and scarlet, silver bells on reins and bridle—neck arched proudly to the music of the band." Like most of these sad children, Jenny fights to retain her sense of beauty and romance by retreating inward, away from the cruel world of practical adulthood.

A much more densely plotted story is "The Runaway," a tale of moral justice in the Faulkerian mode. Here a boy tells of the conflict between his father, a rather unsuccessful farmer, and Luke Taylor, a highly successful breeder of "Black Diamond" horses, and a man with a reputation for sharp dealing. When Father acquires a team of Black Diamonds, over Mother's objections, they are horrified to discover they own a "balky" team—that is, a team which, at unpredictable moments, refuses to move. Father is completely humiliated on Main Street when the Diamonds "instead of springing away with flying manes and foaming mouths, striking sparks of envy and wonder from the heart of every beholder, simply stood there, chewed their bits and trembled."

Father, a Christian optimist, keeps hoping to change them, but loses control of himself when he is further goaded by Luke Taylor. (Taylor is described in generally Satanic terms, especially by Mother). Father finally employs Luke's taunting suggestion and builds a fire under the balky team while they are hitched to a straw stack. Frightened, the horses pull the strawrack over the fire and take off for home—not to their new home, but to Luke Taylor's big hip-roofed barn. They gallop off with "terror in their hearts, hitched to a load of fire," while the boy chases behind on his pony Gopher.

Like a pair of rebellious black imps, the Diamonds set Luke's barn on fire. The herd of Diamonds inside all balk when the boy tries to remove them; Luke runs into the barn as the floor of the burning loft collapses. "You sow the wind and you reap whirlwind," Mother comments knowingly, while Father continues to dream of a pair of Black Diamond colts "[the] prettiest horses a man ever set eyes on."

The most unusual story in the collection is "One's a Heifer," a mysterious tale which pits a young boy of thirteen against one of the most sinister and crudely appealling characters in Canadian fiction, Arthur Vickers.

Vickers runs "a poor, shiftless-looking place" a few miles distant from the boy's uncle's farm. They meet when the boy is out late searching for some stray cattle. Vickers denies seeing them, although he is extremely evasive about a closed box-stall in his ramshackle barn. Nonetheless, he invites the boy to stay for supper and a game of checkers in his crude bachelor's shack. "The table in the centre was littered with tools and harness. On a rusty cookstove were two big steaming pots of bran. .. . At the end opposite the bed, weasel and coyote skins were drying. There were guns and traps on the wall. .. . In a corner squatted a live owl with a broken wing." In explanation, Vickers, say, "You get careless, living alone like this. It takes a woman anyway."

A little later, however, he reveals he had a woman there a few weeks the previous summer, "but it didn't last. Just a cow she was—just a big stupid cow—and she wanted to stay on. . . . I had to send her home."

All the time, the boy is plotting how he can slip out to the barn, round up his uncle's yearlings and start the long trek home. He decides to accept Vickers' invitation to stay overnight, and they get involved in a series of checker games which Vickers transparently allows the boy to win. "Sometimes I used to ask her to play," he says, "but I had to tell her every move to make. If she didn't win she'd upset the board and go off and sulk." Eventually Vickers begins talking about the girl, who wanted to marry him, or at least stay on with him in the shack. Vickers could not be trapped so easily, especially by an inferior checkerplayer.

His "glassy, cold" eyes are deeply disturbing to the young narrator, filling him with "a vague and overpowering dread." Pretending to sleep, the boy is distracted by Vickers, who remains sitting at the checker-board,

staring fixedly across the table as if he had a partner sitting there. His hands were clenched in front of him, there was a sharp, metallic glitter in his eyes. . . . then suddenly wrenching himself to action he hurled the checkers with such vicious fury that they struck the wall and clattered back across the room.

When Vickers finally goes to sleep, the boy has a nightmare in which he goes to the stable, with the owl "sitting over the door with his yellow eyes like a pair of lanterns. The calves, he told me, were in the other stall with the sick colt. I looked and they were there all right, but Tim [his horse] came up and said it might be better not to start for home till morning. .. . I agreed, realizing now that it wasn't the calves I was looking for after all, and that I still had to see inside the stall that was guarded by the owl."

In the morning, Vickers is very tense, and the boy employs a trick to get into the mysterious stall to find his calves. Vickers returns and grabs him violently by the throat, then knocks him down to the floor. "But it wasn't the blow that frightened me. It was the fierce wild light in his eyes."

When he finally makes his escape on his horse, by lashing Vickers across the face with the reins, he gets home to discover that the calves had come home by themselves. Vickers didn't have them in the stall at all, and we are left to conclude that Vickers kept the corpse of the "stupid cow" in there. It is not indicated how or when this nightmare will end, either for Vickers or for the boy.

"Cornet at Night" is probably Ross's most popular story, widely anthologized and adapted to a short film. It is the most optimistic in the collection, despite the theme of intense sexual conflict. The Dicksons represent the same family again: a hard-working father, a cultured, even Puritan mother. Tommy, the boy, is sent into town to hire a man to help with the harvest, against his mother's wishes.

"But Monday's his music lesson day—and when will we have another teacher like Miss Wiggins who can teach him music too?"

"A dollar for lessons and the wheat shelling! When I was his age I didn't even get to school."

"Exactly," my mother scored, "and look at you today. Is it any wonder I want him to be different?"

Like the other children, Tommy is the battleground for his parents' obsessions. He is torn between his is father, who is demanding and surly, and his mother, who makes him wear "knicker corduroys" and practise hymns on the piano.

However, a compromise is wrung, and Tommy is sent with Rock, the plodding reliable work-horse, to hire a hand. Mr. Dickson wants "somebody big and husky"; Mrs. Dickson wants one who looks clean. On his first solo flight to town, even with Rock, Tommy is ecstatic. "For a farm boy is like that. Alone with himself and his horse he cuts a fine figure. He is the measure of the universe. . . . His horse never contradicts."

In town, however, it is very different, and his "little bubble of self-importance" is soon burst. On an impulse, he selects from the candidates a young well-dressed man with slender hands, "almost a girl's hands, yet vaguely with their shapely quietness they troubled me, because, however slender and smooth, they were yet hands to be reckoned with, strong with a strength that was different from the rugged labour-strength I knew."

The young man, named Phil, turns out to be a musician who has never worked on a farm before. He is a disaster, and even Mrs. Dickson is contemptuous. Mr. Dickson attempts to blame her for Tommy's misjudgement: "It's your fault—you and your nonsense about music lessons. If you'd listen to me sometimes, and try to make a man of him."

Completely shattered, Tommy is compensated that night when Phil plays his cornet in the bunk-house.

. . . when they came the notes were piercing, golden as the cornet itself, and they gave life expanse that it had never known before. They floated up against the night, and each for a moment hung there clear and visible. Sometimes they mounted poignant and sheer. Sometimes they soared and then, like a bird alighting, fell and brushed earth again.

The next day, after failing miserably in the fields, Phil is cast back again into the stream of unemployment just as Tommy comes home from school. Moved by the mysterious outburst of music, his mother shows some sympathy for the haggard Phil, giving him "a box of lunch and some ointment for his sunburn." "My father looked uncomfortable, feeling, no doubt, that we were all unjustly blaming everything on him. It's like that on a farm. You always have to put the harvest first."

This is what Tommy learns, apparently, although the parents' bickering continues long after Phil has gone. Mrs. Dickson says the misfortune came about as retribution for her husband harvesting on Sunday. It is back to painful piano marches and a life of brutal toil, but Tommy has transcended for one moment into the world of the spirit. He concludes, "A harvest, however lean, is certain every year; but a cornet at night is golden only once."

The uncollected stones show many of the same themes. "No Other Way," Ross's first story, is a somewhat melodramatic account of Hatty Glenn, an unfortunate farm wife who tends cattle and turnips while her husband runs off to town to dally with the undertaker's wife. She is humiliated on the one occasion when she insists on going with him to a dance. She contemplates killing herself as "an ugly, crabbed old woman," but when the endless farmwork demands her presence, she once again takes up her burdens for "there was no other way."

It is apparent, then, that even in his first story, Sinclair Ross was depicting his farm characters as existential anti-heroes, winding the plot around the battle of the sexes. This is again demonstrated in "Nell," a later story that is, if possible, even more depressing. Nell is a "tall, spare, rawboned woman" who struggles in resentment over her husband's Saturday night jaunt to town. He plays poker in the back of the poolroom while she maintains her vigil in the general store, finally walking home with her son Tommy and a bottle of ketchup she had purchased especially for her husband's enjoyment.

It is hard to understand why "A Day with Pegasus" was not included in The Lamp at Noon, as it is not only a superior story, but is remarkable for its positive outlook. For once, the farm family is harmonious and prosperous. The emphasis is on romantic fantasy, rather than despair.

Peter Parker is a young boy with a vivid imagination, in the process of being shackled by a prosaic school teacher. Inspired by a new colt he has been given by his father, he writes a school composition about rodeos and a fictitious cowboy friend named Slim. Miss Kinley is outraged at the "lies" and demands that he writes a "true" composition on how he spent the previous Saturday planting potatoes.

At home again, Peter recovers his dignity with the companionship of his colt, and retreats to the barn loft to gaze at the prairie, lit by the setting sun:

For a few miles it fell gently, then with a long slow swell slipped over the horizon. There was a state of mind, a mood, a restfulness, in which one could skim along this curve of prairie floor and, gathering momentum from the downward swing, glide up again and soar away from earth. He succeeded now, borne by a whitelimbed steed again. And as they soared the mystery was not solved, but gradually absorbed, a mystery still but intimate, a heartening gleam upon the roof of life to let him see its vault and spaciousness.

This "magic crystal globe" of transcending imagination is a key motif in Sinclair Ross's writing that lies as a counter-balance to the harsh and stringent realism of the psychic conflicts he otherwise explores. Treated here with thematic purity, it puts "A Day with Pegasus" in a class by itself.

Two stories which derive from Ross's army experiences during World War Two appeared in magazines just after the war, "Barrack Room Fiddle Tune" and "Jug and Bottle." These may be surviving fragments from an abandoned novel which Ross has said he was working on during the war years "about a young soldier from Manitoba." "Barrack Room Fiddle Tune" is a slight tale about a group of soldiers who destroy the fiddle of a pathetic character because he torments them with his awful playing. "Jug and Bottle" is a far more substantial morality tale, rather Conradian in structure and density. Of all of Ross's stories, it is the most remote from his prairie landscape. It resists summarizing, being essentially a character study of Private Coulter, an ungainly man, a misfit who keeps trying to kill himself for unexplained reasons. The narrator finds himself keeping the man alive, becoming friendly with him, and finally assuming responsibility for his life. Gradually, it evolves that Coulter has previously married an invalid girl out of pity. When she did not die as expected, he could not keep up his false mask of love and now he is tormenting himself with guilt.

Gradually, the narrator realizes that he has put himself in a similar position, that Coulter "had a special claim on me, as if sympathizing with him in his misfortune was my special job." He attempts to back out of the friendship, avoiding him because there is a difference "between helping a man through a tough spot, and turning yourself into a crutch for him to lean on permanently."

The conclusion is complicated, but effective. Coulter's estranged wife dies; the narrator agrees finally to meet him at an English pub called The Jug and Bottle. Too late, he discovers that the name is simply the description of a pub entrance, and he waits at the door of the wrong pub. As a result, Coulter has slashed his wrists and died, his burden of guilt unrelieved. Now the narrator must carry Coulter's burden.

Another later story is "Saturday Night," about a young man who is painfully pursuing a Saturday night date in his old home town with a girl who had charmed him the week before. But his illusion of great romance is shattered; when he finally tracks her down, she is out with a fancy rival. The point of the story is his recovery from the disappointment—the rhythm of life going on with or without him.

The most recently published (1972) of Ross's stories, "The Flowers that Killed Him," is also his most experimental in structure. If anything, however, it is even more somber than his rural stories. Were it not for the odd twist of plot at its conclusion, it would not be recognized as a story by the same author.

The narrative technique is rather sophisticated, as the story is told by a young boy who is obviously disturbed by something he does not reveal. His two friends—13-yearolds like himself—have recently been sexually assaulted and murdered. Together they were known as "the inseparables," although the other boys had come from deprived backgrounds, and were considered outcasts.

The narrator's father is the town's school principal, known as "Old Creeper" because of his fascination with plants and flowers. It is the father who brought the boys together, and when the narrator discovers that his father is the murderer—through a complex series of plot turns and character revelations—he is revolted. His father had used him like a piece of bait to bring the other boys into his reach. He waits until his father comes out onto the balcony of their apartment building, "because to reach one of the boxes you've got to lean out over the railing and stretch." When he does, the boy pushes him over, hurtling him five floors down onto the pavement and a broken milk bottle the son has placed there in preparation—"to be sure that nobody, even after they'd straightened him out and washed off the blood and makeup, would notice the scratches that had been there before he hit the pavement."

It is a particularly gruesome and gothic story, combining the outraged innocence evident in Ross's earlier work with the demands of magazines for more sophisticated material and techniques. If nothing else, it proves Sinclair Ross's continuing adaptability as a writer, and that his ability to write short fiction has not waned over the years.

F. H. Whitman (essay date 1982)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1252

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 probably confined as a prisoner. In my opinion this explanation is totally unsatisfactory, for the very good reason that the whole story of the girl is nothing more than a fiction in Vickers' mind. I see no grounds for believing that the stall contains anything or for rejecting Vickers' own explanation of his conduct: "There's a hole in the floor—that's why I kept the door closed. If you didn't know, you might step into it—twist your foot."

The clues that Vickers' girl is purely imaginary may be found in both what Vickers tells us about the girl and his behaviour in the light of what he has said. Our suspicions ought to be aroused by the very first mention of the girl ("Last summer I had a girl cooking for a few weeks, but it didn't last. Just a cow she was—just a big stupid cow"), and, if not, then certainly by the account of her performances at the checkerboard: her inability to make decisions ("I had to tell her every move to make"), or remember ("she'd forget whether she was black or red"), or even speak ("This one . . . couldn't even talk like anybody else"). What puts the issue beyond doubt is the description of Vickers playing checkers with himself:

Most of the time he played checkers with himself, moving his lips, muttering words I couldn't hear, but once I woke to find him staring fixedly across the table as if he had a partner sitting there. His hands were clenched in front of him, there was a sharp, metallic glitter in his eyes. I lay transfixed, unbreathing. His eyes as I watched seemed to dilate, to brighten, to harden like a bird's. For a long time he sat contracted, motionless, as if gathering himself to strike, then furtively he slid his hand an inch or two along the table towards some checkers that were piled beside the board. It was as if he were reaching for a weapon, as if his invisible partner were an enemy. He clutched the checkers, slipped slowly from his chair and straightened. . . .

It was a long time .. . then suddenly wrenching himself to action he hurled the checkers with such vicious fury that they struck the wall and clattered back across the room.

The change that Vickers undergoes, the impression he creates of playing with "an invisible partner," someone he is angry with, the final description of the game, the consequent release of tension—all of these things call to mind what Vickers has previously told the boy of his games with the girl, in particular that "If she didn't win she'd upset the board and go off and sulk." Significantly Vickers would always sit rigidly before the checkerboard, staring fixedly before him, his eyes not on the door but the window. The reason for this is obvious: his "visitor" never came through the door but always "appeared" in the window, and when she "appeared" was unmoving: "night after night she'd be sitting there—right there where you are, looking at me, not even trying to play." Such odd behaviour, it is worth pointing out, does not escape the boy. After the game has been disrupted and Vickers has calmed down, the boy sums up the episode with the observation, "I relaxed gradually, telling myself that he'd just been seeing things."

Clearly the most important cause of these "appearances" is the extreme loneliness of Vickers' life. As Vickers himself explains in one revealing passage, "You don't know how bad it is sometimes. Weeks on end and no one to talk to. You're not yourself—you're not sure what you're going to say or do." Worst of all is apparently the summer ("it's worse even than this in the summer. No time for meals—and the heat and flies"). Evidently this is when Vickers feels loneliness the most; by no coincidence, it is also the time the girl has "stayed" the longest. Significantly, the girl disappears when Vickers goes to town and has social contact: "I went to town for a few days—and when I came back she was gone." Solitude, then, is a primary factor in Vickers' condition; but it is not the only one. Another would seem to be Vickers' belief in the need for a feminine presence to handle the domestic work. As he says, "You get careless living alone like this. It takes a woman." So strong is this sense that in the absence of a woman he himself takes on a feminine role. This tendency comes out in a number of small ways, most notably perhaps in the scene where Vickers is helping the boy dress ("He [Vickers] held my sheepskin for me while I put it on, and tied the scarf around the collar with a solicitude and determination equal to Aunt Ellen's"); its culmination of course is the girl's "appearance" for given periods of time. So it is, I think, that in Vickers we may find a rather sharp portrait of a schizoid personality, whose duality is expressed in the title of the story ("One's a Heifer"), which itself is excerpted from the boy's description of the calves ("Yearlings . . . red with white spots and faces. The same except that one's a heifer and the other isn't"—my italics). There is a nice symmetry to this—this equation between the calves and Vickers: the boy does not find the two almost identical calves that he is looking for, but in Vickers, particularly when the "big stupid cow" of a girl appears, he happens upon a striking human parallel; and in both matters, identification of the calves and analysis of Vickers' behaviour, the boy misinterprets what he sees by a wide margin.

As I see it, the business of the barn, what might or might not be there, is not only unimportant but is even an impediment to any appreciation of what the story—a study of illusion—is about. Interest in this matter only arises when the reader is seduced into an unwitting acceptance of the values and opinions of a narrator who believes in Vicker's guilt but whose judgements throughout are unfortunately unreliable. For such an elementary critical error there can be no excuse. We are told explicitly that the boy is only thirteen; we know that he has not been away from home all night before and never visited these parts; we can see from his reactions on the way to Vickers' place, as his disappointment at not finding the calves mounts and his sense of alienation increases, that he is highly impressionable; and what is more important, we cannot escape the fact that in charging Vickers with theft of the calves he is simply wrong. Given this, I find it surprising that any reader would entertain the boy's suspicions seriously. Aunt Ellen obviously knows better.

Lorraine McMullen (essay date 1982)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2497

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 writer, Ross has published only four novels and eighteen stories. He spends much time rewriting and revising, and he destroys much of what he writes. His work indicates that the discipline and control essential to survival on the prairie can be adapted to the achievement of a controlled art. His taut, economical, rhythmic prose reflects the bleak, spare landscape of the prairie. He achieves economy of style largely through metaphor and through a diction both simple and precise, suggestive and resonant. The concerns of his novels are equally evident in his stories: loneliness and alienation, the sense of entrapment, the imaginative and artistic struggle. Ross's bleakest stories were published between 1934 and 1941, the year he published As For Me and My House. During these years Ross was living in Winnipeg and working for the Royal Bank of Canada. In 1933 he had left Saskatchewan, where as a bank clerk in small prairie towns he had witnessed the combination of economic and climatic disasters of the Great Depression.

Ross's first story, "No Other Way," appeared in Nash's Pall-Mall in October 1934, selected for third prize from among eight thousand entries in the magazine's short-story competition. The story foreshadows many of the stylistic characteristics and thematic preoccupations Ross develops in later work. Ross reveals his concern with personal relationships, especially the interplay between husband and wife against a setting that has an important effect on their relationship. In "No Other Way," as in later stories, he shows the effect on a marriage of years of exhausting struggle. The portrait of Hatty Glenn is the first of many portraits of prairie farm wives. Hatty has made a success of the farm by dint of hard physical labour while her husband has devoted his time to wheat and land speculations. Hatty has become wrinkled and worn as well as shrewish, bitter, and parsimonious, and her still youthful-looking husband has grown away from her. Facing her situation, Hatty contemplates suicide only to realize that for her there is "no other way" but to continue, stoically, working, as she has done for twenty years. In "No Other Way" Ross does not present the drought-ridden farm we come to know in "A Lamp at Noon" and other stories of this period but the successful farm. The theme of antimaterialism he develops twenty-four years later in The Well is evident here. As in The Well the protagonist looks back to the struggling past as happier than the materially successful present. As in The Well an abandoned well becomes the focal point for recollections of past happiness:

. . . she came to the bleached cribbing of an old, unused well.

She looked at it reflectively, remembering how her arms used to ache when she had to pull up water with a rope and pail, before they drilled the new well and could afford a windmill. There was an old roan cow that used to drink eight pailfuls, night and morning, and then leave the trough reluctantly.

And yet, that had been the vital, solid time of her life. The work had a purpose behind it: there had been something to look forward to. It used to seem that a windmill, and a big house with carpets and a gramophone, were all that was needed to make life perfect: and now, after all the old wishes had been realised, here she was, back at the well.

Though the well as a symbol of vital, meaningful activity and shared love, and as a link between past and present, hope and disillusion, is more skilfully woven into the fabric of the novel, this first story shows us the early development of Ross's concern with the contrast between past and present, illusion and reality, a contrast that recurs throughout the canon. We also find in "No Other Way" the endurance so characteristic of many of Ross's later protagonists and the theme of entrapment so prevalent in much of his later work.

Stylistically, the story provides an indication of the course Ross follows in future works. The first sentence prefigures one of the most outstanding characteristics of his style, his metaphoric use of nature: "Out of a sprawling sunset, ragged and unkempt, as if in a sullen mood it had grown careless of itself, the October wind dragged a clamping resolute night." The image itself and the symbol are awkward in comparison with Ross's later more subtle use of imagery and smoother, less stilted phrasing, yet it is an appropriate image for this account of a bitter, unkempt, and sullen woman and her attempt to influence her resolutely indifferent husband. Except for one brief revelation of her husband's thoughts, the third-person narrative is told from the point of view of the wife, the narrative point of view which characterizes most of the later stories of prairie farmers and their wives. The momentary shift in viewpoint is unexpected and inappropriate, the technical failing of a less experienced writer. The irony present in most of Ross's writings is evident in the dilemma of Hatty Glenn, who realizes that she has lost her husband through her excessive devotion to the farm she had considered to be their shared concern. The story is cyclic; it begins and ends with Hatty chasing cows out of the turnips, a scene not without humour, but a scene signifying her entrapment. Her situation at the end of the story is the same as it was at the beginning.

"No Other Way" lacks the subtlety and psychological complexity which are major sources of strength in Ross's later writing: the emotion is less intense, the handling of voice is less skillful, and the style is not always as graceful as in succeeding stories. Nevertheless, the story points the direction Ross will take.

"Nell," published seven years later, is similar in theme to "No Other Way." Again a woman is trying to win back the love of her husband. Eight years married, Nell recognizes her own rawboned ugliness in contrast with her husband's slight build and fine features. She cuts a ridiculous figure when she wears a silk dress and high-heeled shoes to accompany her husband to town one hot Saturday evening. Ross recalls that "Nell" had its origin in an incident in which a man did forget to pick up his wife waiting for him at the store but, unlike Nell's husband, he returned to town to get her. The ketchup Nell buys because her husband likes it becomes a symbol of her continuing devotion to him despite his neglect of her. Again, as in "No Other Way," communication between husband and wife is virtually impossible. For Nell, "Words were always a labor. The task of explanation now was beyond her." Reticence, stubbornness, insensitivity, and the kind of inarticulateness demonstrated here, cause rifts between such women and their husbands. Nell and Hatty are isolated on their farms, lacking the freedom of their husbands to find diversion or solace elsewhere, and hence are more dependent on their husbands than their husbands are on them. Unlike the wives in some of Ross's stories who are better educated and more intelligent than their husbands, Nell and Hatty feel their husbands to be superior.

In Ross's world, dreaming is necessary to sustain hope. Nowhere is dreaming as escape from reality more in evidence than in his stories of children. Ross's children are imaginative and hopeful. In "A Day with Pegasus," eight-year-old Peter Parker is propelled into a fantasy world by the fulfillment of his dream of having his own horse. Even a detention from his uncomprehending teacher, who mistakes his imaginative composition for a lie, fails to quench his delight. The colt becomes a Pegasus carrying Peter into an exciting new world:

There was a state of mind, a mood, a restfulness, in which one could skim along this curve of prairie floor and, gathering momentum from the downward swing, glide up again and soar away from earth. He succeeded now, borne by a white-limbed steed again. And as they soared the mystery was not solved but gradually absorbed, a mystery still but intimate, a heartening gleam upon the roof of life to let him see its vault and spaciousness.

This story not only reveals the excitement and wonder of childhood but also contrasts this excitement and wonder with the overliteral and unimaginative attitude of the adult unable to comprehend or value a child's fantasies. The colt is Peter's agent of escape from the dreary and restricted everyday world. Though Ross later uses the first-person point of view in stories of childhood, in this early story he uses the third person, as he does in most early stories, and he gets inside the mind of his young protagonist by using him as the centre of intelligence. In later works, such as "Cornet at Night" and "Circus in Town," Ross continues to contrast the imaginative child with the adult who because of lack of opportunity or stimulus has lost the gift of transcending reality. This theme is linked with Ross's conception of the struggling artist which he develops in As For Me and My House and in Whir of Gold.

"A Day with Pegasus" is one of several stories centred on the same boy which Ross at one time planned as a group. "At the beginning," Ross writes, "I had in mind a group of short stories having to do with the same boy. In "Cornet at Night" he becomes really aware, for the first time, of the wonder of music—I suppose you could call it an aesthetic wakening. "One's a Heifer" is his first contact with evil (although the man in the story, Vickers, is not evil, of course, but deranged). There was to have been one about death—he loses his parents in a fire, which is why in "One's a Heifer" he is living with an aunt and uncle. "A Day with Pegasus," the mystery of life and beginning, etc."

"The Race" continues the adventures of what could be considered the same young boy. Sonny is a prairie farm boy, now a clarinetist in Montreal. In the novel, the race is one of several flashbacks to his prairie childhood. In Sonny's mind, music is joined with his spirited horse Isabel; both were stimuli to his imaginative life in the bleak environment of his childhood. Throughout this adventure, Isabel remains her cocky, assured self, a fitting ally for her confident young rider. Isabel's arrogance and pride are a projection of Sonny's own arrogance and pride.

"The Race" is closely linked with the earlier story "The Outlaw." In fact, Isabel is described in almost the same words as in "The Outlaw":

One horse and all horses—somehow representative. Chargers, mustangs, Arabians, standing beside her in the stall, I knew and rode them all. In the neigh and eyes and forelock there was history. Battle and carnage, trumpets and glory—she understood and carried me triumphantly.

She was coal-black, gleaming, queenly. Her mane had a ripple and her neck an arch. And somehow, softly and mysteriously, she was always burning. The reflection on her glossy hide, sun or lantern, seemed the glow of some secret passion. There were moments when you felt the whole stable charged with her, as if she were the priestess of her kind, in communion with her deity.

The self-contained incident of "The Race" possesses the characteristics we are accustomed to find in Ross's stories: humour, economy, skilful combination of dialogue with retrospective narration, and an introductory conversation which leads directly into the action. Since the story is a flashback, the point of view is the dual perspective Ross uses in most of his stories of young boys. The adult Sonny, recalling his past, relives the childhood event while retaining his adult perspective on his younger self. The narrative voice speaks for the two points of view simultaneously.

As a result of his wartime experience, Ross started a novel of a Canadian soldier from Manitoba, but he was never satisfied with it and eventually destroyed it. All that remains of his army years are two stories, both based partly on experience. "Barrack Room Fiddle Tune" is a light story stemming from Ross's having had as a barrack mate a country boy who played the fiddle. The boy's off-key playing irritated his mates, but nothing untoward happened, Ross tells us, except for the occasional boot flung in his direction. The idea for "Jug and Bottle" occurred to Ross when, like the protagonist in the story, he mistakenly assumed early in his tour of duty in England that the words "Jug and Bottle" on a pub signified its name. The element of chance in this story of a suicidal young soldier is akin to the element of determinism in several of the prairie stories where an indifferent nature plays a large part in deciding man's fate.

"Spike," read on CBC radio, is published here for the first time in English. The panic of a man terrorized by a teenage hitch-hiker depends largely on the clipped, terse rhythm of the language. The man's terror is accentuated by the bored tone of his teenage daughter when he calls home. In the earlier story "Saturday Night," the teenager is a naive adolescent from a simpler world. Like Spike, he is coming home to see his girl friend. The myth of romantic love he had built up around the girl is destroyed when he sees that her interpretation of their relationship is very different from his. To her, he was just another date. His story is an initiation.

With "The Flowers that Killed Him," a story of perversion and murder, Ross demonstrates his fascination with the criminal mind which he explores at greater length in The Well and Whir of Gold. An unexpected ending adds an extra dimension to the story. Ross does not attempt to get into the mind of the killer, but views him from outside, from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old boy. Thus we see only the mask the murderer wears to the world.

"The Flowers that Killed Him" is Ross's last published story. It is written with the same skill and economy that distinguish his earlier stories. He has since published one novel, Sawbones Memorial. Like his last story, the novel demonstrates that Ross has not lost the artistry he displayed in earlier stories and in As For Me and My House.

Karen Bishop (essay date 1985)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7265

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 arrived in Upward, Saskatchewan to practice medicine. On this day in April, he has retired and his son will take his place. It's all over and it's all beginning.

This sense of ending-and-beginning is present in most of Sinclair Ross's short stories and novels. The endings may be devastating, as in "The Lamp at Noon," or tentatively hopeful, as in As For Me and My House, but, in all cases, the possibility of a new beginning results from the ending of a one-sided experience of life dominated by either happiness or suffering, creativity or destruction. Awareness of reality is refocused or expanded to encompass both values, to acknowledge a duality in life. In his work, then, Ross is not "affirming polarities of good and bad . . . but exploring what is real in the world." In order to begin again, a recognition of both halves of the whole—insight into the interplay of creative and destructive elements—is necessary to understand and come to terms with life. Doc Hunter capsulizes this theme, of "what is real in the world," toward the conclusion of Sawbones Memorial:

The Great Mother and The Evil Mother, maybe one and the same, creating life only to turn and destroy it. . . . As if the potter got his wheel going and then couldn't stop it—and not knowing what to do with all the jugs and bottles piling up, no storage space, no markets, had to rig up another machine to grind them into dust again.

An inkling of this cycle produces new beginnings from endings, because hope need never die. The pots ground to dust do not remain dust. Instead, they are moulded again into beautiful perfect vessels. Creativity and destruction, beginnings and endings are inextricably linked. The group of stories to be discussed here, "A Day with Pegasus," "Cornet at Night," "Circus in Town," "The Outlaw," and "One's a Heifer," deal with Ross's most optimistic and hopeful endings-and-beginnings. In each story, a child discovers the dimension of the imagination and the one dimensional understanding of life anchored in every day reality ends. Each child is awakened to a world of new possibilities and experiences—a phase in the potter's cycle when creativity dominates and the life-sustaining, benevolent side of the duality of life shows itself.

Until quite recently, studies of the works of Sinclair Ross have overlooked such purely literary aspects of Ross's art to focus on his place among those writers whose time and place is the Canadian prairie during the Depression. Largely because critical attention has been centred on As For Me and My House and The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories, most Ross criticism is an outgrowth of the impression of Ross as prairie realist, portraying the human suffering and environmental effects of the dustbowl prairie environment. As a result, the role of the prairie landscape as it reflects character or as it moulds character receives much emphasis in this criticism. However, as attention shifts from Ross's earliest work to considerations of his total literary output, the role of the landscape becomes secondary. More formalist study of Ross has yielded patterns of image, symbol, and theme which emerge from his novels and short stories to inform the vision of reality, which happens to have a prairie setting but also exists independent of it. Ross's writing is a unit in which he expresses his understanding of life as a cyclical duality of endings and beginnings, of combinations of creativity and destruction, which make up the whole of life. Although recent criticism has dealt with a range of symbols, such as the lamp as symbol of hope, the colour gold as symbol of beauty, the mirrors, false fronts, and the house in As For Me and My House as symbols of hypocrisy, no one has yet undertaken a complete study of the imagery and symbolism and how they contribute to the meaning of Ross's fiction. One important aspect of Ross's imagery is his use of the horse as symbol of the hopeful creative, imaginative half of the duality of life.

Horses, in the works of Sinclair Ross, are recognized by recent critics, such as Lorraine McMullen [in Sinclair Ross, 1979] and Robert Chambers, as more than realistic props in the dustbowl prairie setting. The horse is a recurring image in Ross's works, always "linked to the imaginative life." The sensitive reader is immediately aware of a special relationship between Ross's children and their horses. This closeness gives the horses personalities of their own, independent of the children, so that as nearly separate characters, they initiate experiences which go beyond the normal child-horse relationship. The horse, which is more than a peripheral link to the imagination, becomes the enspiriting essence of the imagination. Without their horses, the children are at a loss to discover the dimension of the imagination which awakens their dreams of fulfilment, creativity, and happiness for the future by ending their one-sided view of life.

Each horse becomes a Pegasus, soaring above everyday reality to a light-filled dimension of perfection and beauty. In Greek mythology, Pegasus, the white, winged horse born from the blood of the beheaded Medusa, created the fountain of Hippocrene, which was sacred to the Muses as the source of poetic inspiration. The only man to ride this magical horse was Perseus, who captured and gently tamed him with a golden bridle provided by Athena. He successfully rode Pegasus to kill the Chimera, but when he pridefully attempted to join the gods on Olympus, Pegasus threw him back to earth, where Perseus remained, while Pegasus became the thunder and lightning bearer of Zeus.

As for Perseus, the Pegasus propels Ross's children into flights of the imagination, in which they soar above earthly reality. Specific elements associated with the dimension of the ima-gination recur in these stories. Extreme clarity of vision is possible in this dimension, beauty and light are prominent sense impressions, and a sense of timelessness is experienced. Like Perseus, with his golden bridle, the children tame their imaginations by combination with everyday reality, and channel them into, in some cases, specifically artistic creation and, in all cases, a new awareness or perception of the world. Although these flights of imagination are momentary and these children could, like Perseus, be thrown back to earth forever, all are aware of having seen an otherworldly dimension, of having had a "glimpse of the unknown," that is, a glimpse of the possibilities or opportunities of life.

"A Day with Pegasus," published in 1938, Ross's second published work, is the prototype for his use of the horse as symbol of the spirit of imagination, symbol of the creative half of the duality. With the birth of his long-awaited colt, Peter Parker discovers the tangibility of dreams:

It was a strange, almost unbearable moment. The horse that for five months had served the extravagances of his imagination, that he had lived with, gloried in, and underneath it all, never quite expected to come true—it was a reality now—alive, warm and breathing—two white stockings and a star.

Because this incredible dream has come true, Peter is transported by degrees into a world of pure imagination, where anything is possible. The newborn colt quickly outstrips even Peter's dreams of its speed:

The colt ran with him, more swiftly now than it had ever run before. With no earth beneath their feet they leaped across the garden and around the house—around the house and across the garden—then back to stand a moment eager and irresolute before the stable door.

Soon the spirit of the dream possesses him, kindling his imagination further:

His colt, grown fleet of limb, possessed a fire and beauty that enslaved him now, that he could not abandon for the blear-eyed reality in Biddy's stall.

Peter's vision expands yet again. His colt becomes the Pegasus which carries him into the world of the imagination:

But it was a mile to school, and the reality could not last so far. The white-stockinged legs began to flash more quickly, the long limp neck to arch, the stubby tail to flow. Then suddenly as if by magic he was mounted, and the still May morning sprang in whistling wind around his ears. Field after field reeled up and fell away. The earth resounded thundering, then dimmed and dropped until it seemed they cleaved their way through flashing light. Until at last he stood quite still, impaled with a kind of wonder-fear that life should yield him such divinity, while the sun poured blazing, and the road stretched white and dusty through the fields of early wheat.

Peter is no longer conscious of the material colt; he rides a spirited, mystical horse through the barrier separating earthbound reality and the realm of the imagination. Like Perseus, he has been transported into a new dimension above earthly reality where he sees divinity, perfection, and purity.

Also like Perseus, Peter's flight is abruptly grounded by earth-bound reality. First, his farm chores break the spell of his imagination:

It was the colt, the colt he had raced with before breakfast across the garden, that made the feeding of the calves this morning such a humiliation. . . . Nigger—Daisy—Dot—as stupid and silly as their names, gurgling and blowing at him until there was no colt left at all—until for beginnings again he had to steal back to the stable, and pay another visit to the box-stall.

Next, he is reprimanded by Miss Kinley, his teacher, when he attempts to share his excitement with his friends, but her anger is lost on him. Possessed by the spirit of his new colt, he is involuntarily pulled out of the classroom reality into the dimension of his earlier flight:

Hammer of mortification—of despairing foreknowledge that he would never solve the [arithmetic] problem—and gradually at last of galloping hooves. . . . The rhythm persisted, was stronger even that [sic] the implacability of Miss Kinley's tapping ruler. . . . Gradually the class-room fell away from him. The light flashed golden in his eyes again. The fields sped reeling young and green.

Also, Peter's friends, firmly rooted in farm reality, are untouched by the spirit of the imagination embodied by the colt. When Peter must defend the colt from their insults, his faith in its tangible spirit is strengthened:

The colt, now that he had actually championed it, seemed more real, more dependable—seemed even reaching out to assure him that the flights of his imagination this morning had been something more than mere fantasy.

Such incidents cannot permanently ground or defeat the spirit stimulated for the first time by his Pegasus. In each case, Peter is renewed and reaffirmed in his new beginning by the spirit of the imagination.

Peter's dilemma is, instead, that he is unable to convey to others the tangibility of the spirit of the imagination and, at the same time, this spirit prevents him from descending completely into reality. His short, but actual, friendship with a cowboy named Slim and his sensitized imagination combine into a daydream over which he has little control. Imagination overpowers reality and an improbable fantasy results:

Slim must have another name, and fancifully it began to grow in Peter's mind that some day he might take horse and ride out seeking him again. . . . Then on again all four of them—unequal, yet in total virtue equalling: himself on the horse that was to be called whatever Slim's real name was—and a great cowboy riding Tony.

Later, the spirit of the imagination works in him so that he is consciously able to unite imagination and reality in a composition for Miss Kinley. He thinks of his colt and is again transported above the earth to the dimension of the imagination:

[T]here was a moment's stillness round him, clear and isolating like a globe of magic crystal; and then suddenly he was writing. As he had never written before. With the glow and enthusiasm of sheer inspiration.

Rather than reproduce the Saturday which he considers "a limbo of unworthy dullness," "he transformed it—redeemed it with an inner, potential reality—rose suddenly like a master above the limitations of mere time and distance." Now for the first time, Peter reproduces in a controlled manner the experiences of his flight above the earth. He gives his Saturday the freedom of possibility, the inner, potential reality which pushes his experience in the sheer joy of being alive into the timeless, universal sphere of perfection.

Miss Kinley, like Peter's friends, demands pure earthbound reality. She insists that he write a completely accurate account of how he spent his Saturday and destroys the imaginative one, filled with possibility, hope for the future, and excitement. Peter is again thrown to earth in mid-flight. In confusion and frustration, he again seeks renewal from his colt, the embodiment of the spirit of the imagination: "all his pride in a peerless horse had become a humble need to see again and draw comfort from a wobblylegged one." He enters Biddy's stall "in fearful hope of what awaited him," but the spirit of the imagination is still strong: "There was the same hush, the same solemnity," which he has felt on first discovering the colt. In addition, as he seeks renewal from the material horse, his dream expands once more from being merely a childish wish for a fast horse to become a dream of understanding, of seeing and knowing the mysteries which life offers.

Peter slips into the hay loft to interpret the awakening which has been inspired by the birth of his colt. Instinctively, he senses that this moment is the beginning of the fulfilment of his own destiny. With the birth of his colt, which inspired the birth of his imagination, Peter was born anew: "It was imperative to be alone a few minutes, to feel his way through and beyond this mystery of beginning." As he looks out over the prairie from the stable loft, Peter is able to describe this new awareness:

There was a state of mind, a mood, a restfulness, in which one could skim along this curve of prairie floor, and gathering momentum from the downward swing, glide up again and soar away from earth. He succeeded now. Borne by a white-limbed steed again, but smoothly, as if their passage were a flight: no rush of wind, no beat of thundering hooves. And in the flight the mystery was not solved, but gradually absorbed, a mystery still but intimate, a heartening gleam upon the roof of life to let him see its vault and spaciousness.

He laments the fact that he has only just awakened to the possibilities of his future and has wasted time, unlike his colt which is "[a]ble to go into and explore a whole new waiting world. .. . It seemed a pity that a boy was never born that way."

As Peter's awareness of the power of the imagination grows and he gains control over its influence, he becomes an artist uniting reality and imagination in a new way of perceiving the world around him. This is Peter's beginning, his first experience with the side of the duality of life which he had not known existed, and the first step toward the mature vision of the whole of the potter's cycle. The earthly horse acts as a Muse, the spirit in its purest form, to inspire in Peter recognition of an inner, potential reality, an awareness of the numberless possibilities life holds. Since the colt lived up to his expectations, the spirit of the imagination suggests that his hopes for the future are also possible. However, Peter's awareness advances one step further to make him an artist and bring him closer to affirming the duality. He still has no experience with the soul-destroying side of darkness which dominates in the stories about the dustbowl prairie. While Pegasus transports the boy into a dimension of crystal clarity, light, divinity, and beauty, he does, through the story of his Saturday, unite this creative side of life with its opposite, dreary, ordinary reality.

While Peter Parker has his knowledge of the two-sidedness of life expanded by the Pegasus spirit at the birth of his colt, some children are inspired to begin seeking life's possibilities by other manifestations of the same spirit. The earthly manifestation of Peter's flight to the dimension of the imagination was his inspired story about his adventurous Saturday. Similarly, music, the earthly manifestation of another artist's flight in the creative dimension, is the enspiriting force which begins Tommy Dickson's new awareness of the duality of life in "Cornet at Night."

In this story, the musical composition, Sons of Liberty, is Tommy's counterpart to Peter's cowboy adventure day dream. The Pegasus spirit of this music, unfortunately, is not under Tommy's control:

There was a fine swing and vigor in this piece, but it was hard. Hard because it was so alive, so full of youth and head-high rhythm. It was a march, and it did march. I couldn't take time to practise the hard spots slowly till I got them right, for I had to march too. I had to let my fingers sometimes miss a note or strike one wrong. Again and again this afternoon I started carefully, resolving to count right through, the way Miss Wiggins did, and as often I sprang ahead to lead my march a moment or two all dash and fire, and then fall stumbling in the bitter dust of dissonance.

Unlike Peter, Tommy cannot control the Pegasus spirit, and rather than open to him a new perception of life, such inspiration is frustrating and confusing. In addition, he does not confront life with Peter's vigour, like an adventurous Perseus. For example, in a departure from the usual farm routine, Tommy's father sends him to town to hire a hand for the harvest. Cautious of hoping for too much, Tommy will not submit himself entirely to the sheer joy of this new opportunity:

For while it was always my way to exploit the future, I liked to do it rationally, within the limits of the sane and probable. On my way to the cows I wanted to live the trip to town tomorrow many times, with variations, but only on the explicit understanding that tomorrow there was to be a trip to town. I have always been tethered to reality, always compelled by an unfortunate kind of probity in my nature to prefer a barefaced disappointment to the luxury of a future I have no just claims upon.

The spirit of Pegasus, the luxury of a future, is a disruptive force in Tommy's life. He is not a dreamer on the possibilities of life, even though he has been touched by the spirit of the imagination through his music.

Significantly, Tommy is sent to town in the care of an old farm horse named Rock, which is outwardly not of the race of Pegasus. However, with Rock, Tommy knows the feeling of control, confidence, and superiority that a horse, a Pegasus, inspires. Like Peter Parker riding his dream horse on Saturday rodeo adventures, Tommy and Rock together are a match for the world, and Tommy, under Rock's influence, is awakened to his own capabilities and potential:

Alone with himself and his horse he [a boy] cuts a fine figure. He is the measure of the universe. He foresees a great many encounters with life, and in them all acquits himself a little more than creditably. He is fearless, resourceful, a bit of a brag. His horse never contradicts.

Therefore, even stolid Rock belongs to the spirit of the imagination for helping Tommy experience, if only momentarily, how his life could be.

Naturally, under Rock's influence, Tommy is attracted to a man whose presence proclaims that he is the measure of the universe. Although the man is obviously not the farm hand his father needs to help with the harvest, he is "strong with a strength that was different from the rugged labour-strength I knew." Drawn by this inner strength, which he does not possess, Tommy hires Philip Coleman knowing he is unacceptable for harvest work. He is suitable, however, for Tommy's purpose. He corrects Tommy's impression that by subduing his flights of feeling, inspired by his music, by "keep[ing] slow and steady like Miss Wiggins" when he plays, he would be less frustrated and perplexed. Philip disagrees. What Tommy needs to do is learn to control his imagination.

To illustrate his point, Philip plays his cornet. "[0]nly one fragment of a note" from the cornet "like pure and mellow gold" is necessary to transform the plodding Rock into a spirited Pegasus. At the briefest sound from the cornet, Rock leaves the road, carrying the wagon on a jolting gallop across the open prairie. Although his flight never becomes airborne, Rock responds to the spirit of the imagination and breaks out of routine reality. For Tommy, too, the stranger's cornet is the agent of the imaginative spirit which lifts him out of earthly reality, the notes flying and soaring like Pegasus, to expand his limited understanding of life for new awareness:

And I was right: when they came the notes were piercing, golden as the cornet itself, and they gave life expanse that it had never known before. They floated up against the night, and each for a moment hung there clear and visible. Sometimes they mounted poignant and sheer. Sometimes they soared and then, like a bird alighting, fell and brushed earth again.

Tommy feels the influence, not only of having found a kindred spirit, but of the spirit of the imagination ordering his life and giving him a destiny, a place to begin:

I could still feel the cornet's presence as if it were a living thing. Somehow its gold and shapeliness persisted, transfiguring the day, quickening the dusty harvest fields to a gleam and lustre like its own. And I felt assured, involved. Suddenly there was a force in life, a current, an inevitability, carrying me along too.

This is how Peter Parker felt at the end of "A Day with Pegasus." He was awake to explore and know the world. Now the awakened artistic spirit in Tommy has a purpose. The march Philip plays, which is controlled and disciplined, as Sons of Liberty should have been, inspires him to take advantage of life's possibilities: "It said that life was worth the living and bright as morning shone ahead to show the way."

However, Tommy's beginning is not as assured as Peter's is. Life on a farm dictates that artistry like Philip's is insignificant. He merely delays the harvest and leaves a bittersweet memory of his short intrusion: "A harvest, however lean, is certain every year: but a cornet at night is golden only once." This conclusion is ambivalent, and Ross's revisions of this story indicate that he meant it to be so. As McMullen comments, "Ross eliminated the lines which specifically indicate that Tommy now sees he too must be a musician—or at least an artist. Ross has no successful artists in his work, only those who are beginning to pursue that dream with "tentative self-knowledge." Indeed, after "A Day with Pegasus," the potter's cycle of "creation one day, destruction the next," imposes itself more strongly in Ross's fictional world, as is evident in "Cornet at Night." An intimate knowledge of the dimension of the imagination is strictly balanced with a bitter taste of the dimension of destruction, a more extreme version of the everyday reality which opposed Peter's flight.

The strengthening of the destructive side of the duality is evident in "Circus in Town," even though the child, Jenny, does have her awareness of life expanded by a flight with Pegasus. A torn poster advertising a circus transports Jenny from the reality of her bickering parents into a flight of imagination.

The bit of poster had spun a new world before her, excited her, given wild, soaring impetus to her imagination; and now, without in the least understanding herself, she wanted the excitement and the soaring, even though it might stab and rack her, rather than the barren satisfaction of believing that in life there was nothing better, nothing more vivid or dramatic than her own stableyard.

Jenny's awareness of life's possibilities grows out of her initial wish merely to prolong the wonder and excitement of her fantasy-circus. Under the influence of the Pegasus spirit, she sees life going in two directions:

This sudden dilation of life—it was like a bubble blown vast and fragile. In time it might subside, slowly, safely, or it might even remain full-blown, gradually building up the filmy tissues to make its vastness durable, but tonight she was afraid. Afraid that before the hack of her mother's voice it might burst and crumble.

To prevent the bubble of this beginning awareness from bursting, she retreats from the world to remain untouched by reality in her imaginative reverie:

[F]or once the threats of what would happen next time failed to touch her. The circus went on. All night long she wore her new purple tights and went riding Billie round and round the pasture in them.

While Jenny's dream-circus seems unforgettable, it also appears to be only a momentary escape from the bickering and unhappiness of her family life, rather than a permanent beginning leading to fulfilment outside the farm. Like Tommy Dickson, Jenny's insight into the possibilities of life is not as complete as the awareness of Peter Parker, perhaps because of the encroachment of the destructive dimension of the duality.

Jenny and Tommy Dickson wander in their imaginationstates, enjoying the freedom and emotional intensity, but have no concrete goals formulated from their flights of imagination, no clear beginnings initiated. Only Peter Parker is able to articulate what he has learned from his flight with Pegasus. He is an artist, able to synthesize the dimension of earthly reality and the dimension of the imagination to explore the world. However, Peter McAlpine, in "The Outlaw," is thirteen, older than Peter, Tommy, and Jenny, and the first child to be confronted with the harsher, dark side of the duality which is dominant in the stories about adults coping with the dustbowl prairie. In short, Peter McAlpine is the first child to experience the polar opposites of the duality, the extremes of experience which correspond to the images in the potter's cycle, for the most complete perception of life in Ross's childhood stories.

Peter McAlpine and Isabel and Peter Parker and his new colt have much in common. Both boys ride exquisitely beautiful and spirited horses into the dimension of the imagination. The imagery used to describe their flights connotes a realm of pristine beauty, crystal clarity, absolute timelessness, and an aura of the magical or mystical. However, the exotic, black Isabel is much more complex than the purely spiritual white-limbed creature in "A Day with Pegasus." Initially, she is described as "beautiful but dangerous," a killer which no one expects the thirteen-year-old Peter to ride. She is kindred to the destructive elements of the prairie evironment:

[S]he was a captive, pining her heart away. Week after week she stamped and pawed, nosed the hay out of her manger contemptuously, flung up her head and poured out wild, despairing neighs into the prairie winds and blizzards streaming past.

For Peter, she is the composite of equine beauty and spirit:

She was one horse, and she was all horses. Thundering battle chargers, fleet Arabians, untamed mustangs—sitting beside her on her manger I knew and rode them all. There was a history in her shapely head and burning eyes. I charged with her at Balaklava, Waterloo, scoured the deserts of Africa and the steppes of the Ukraine. Conquest and carnage, trumpets and glory—she understood and carried me triumphantly.

Isabel embodies all time and all experience. She understands and transmits to Peter the mystery of life, its potential and its dreams:

To approach her was to be enlarged, transported. She was coal-black, gleaming, queenly. Her mane had a ripple and her neck an arch. And somehow, softly and mysteriously, she was always burning. The reflection on her glossy hide, whether of winter sunshine or yellow lantern light, seemed the glow of some fierce, secret passion. There were moments when I felt the whole stable charged with her, as if she were the priestess of her kind, in communion with her diety [sic].

Isabel glows golden like Philip's cornet, but much more sensually. She too has a presence of her own, an electrical charge, "a force in life, a current, an inevitability."

Isabel's personality, then, adds another dimension to the imaginative spirit which initiates Peter's new awareness of life. Peter must fight the temptation to ride Isabel because her reputation is tainted with evil, not just disobedience. In a scene which, as McMullen suggests, echoes the temptation of Christ by Satan, Isabel shows how, as co-conspirator, she could raise him to a respected position among his peers:

And then, temptress, she bore me off to the mountain top of my vanity, and with all the world spread out before my gaze, talked guilefully of prestige and acclaim.

Over there, three miles away, was the school house. What a sensation to come galloping up on her, the notorious outlaw, instead of jogging along as usual on bandy-legged old Pete. . . . How sweet to wipe out all the ignominy of my past, to be deferred to by the older boys, to bask in Millie's smiles of favour.

Over there, seven miles away . . . was town. Where fairs were sometimes held, and races run. On such a horse I naturally would win . . .

Peter childishly attempts to keep the boundary between good and evil sharply defined, while Isabel would blur the focus because true awareness of the mystery of life requires experience with both. As a result, Peter will be confronted with a two-sided reality. Isabel is a killer, but, because she is so dangerous, she can provide the self-respect which Peter so desires. She is a temptress, coaxing him toward disobeying his parents' order not to ride her, but she also offers knowledge of the unknown. In describing Isabel as "one horse, and .. . all horses," Peter unwittingly acknow-ledges this duality. He has ridden Isabel in wars, situations of life and death, carnage and glory, where destinies are decided. In addition, Isabel in her very essence, burning with sensual devotion to her deity, combining sensuality and spirituality is not, according to W. H. New, "affirming polarities of good and bad, but . . . exploring what is real in the world." True understanding of the mystery of life is gained from knowledge of both good and evil. Since Isabel represents all experience in the potential, inner reality of life, Peter must conclude that life will bring his worst fears as well as his most desired dreams to fruition. By resisting Isabel, Peter remains a child, resisting a complete awareness of the two-sided mystery of life.

As the imaginative spirit, Isabel's motive for Peter's ride is to share with him the secrets of her deity. As she has promised, the actual ride is more spectacular than Peter has ever imagined. She is Pegasus, the flying horse:

She didn't drop to a trot or walk as an ordinary horse would have done, but instead, with the clean grace and precision of a bird alighting on a branch, came smoothly to a halt.

She shows him beauty he has never seen before, a deeper awareness of the landscape not possible without the influence of the spirit of the imagination:

And I too, responsive to her bidding, was aware as never before of its austere, unrelenting beauty. There were the white fields and the blue, metallic sky; the little splashes here and there of yellow strawstack, luminous and clear as drops of gum on fresh pine lumber; the scattered farmsteads brave and wistful in their isolation; the gleam of the sun and snow.

All the elements of Peter Parker's dimension of the imagination are here, but Isabel adds more. She insists Peter see the world as it really is, two-sided:

Look, she said firmly, while it's here before you, so that to the last detail it will remain clear. For you, too, some day there may be stalls and halters, and it will be a good memory.

Isabel directs his awareness to the future, but just as Peter suspected, not only do dreams come true, but also fears and a harsher reality. She heightens this cruel, dark, fearinspiring side of the mystery on the return ride:

She disdained and rebelled against her stall, but the way she whipped the wind around my ears you would have thought she had suddenly conceived a great affection for it. It was a strong wind, fierce and cold. . . . Her mane blew back and lashed my face. Before the steady blast of wind my forehead felt as if the bone were wearing thin.

Peter manages to stay mounted while Isabel gives him a taste of this destructive side of life. He suffers frozen ears for the experience. However, more significantly, like prideful Perseus who attempted to ride Pegasus to Olympus to place himself among the gods, the moment Peter thinks he is in control of this experience, Isabel throws him into a snow drift:

Being able to ride an outlaw was not the same thing at all as being accorded the privilege of riding one, and for the good of my soul, it was high time I appreciated the distinction.

Riding Pegasus is an opportunity not to be missed or taken for granted. Other such chances will be available to Peter, but he must take responsibility for his actions. As Pegasus, she naturally explains this through the metaphor of horsemanship:

From the bottom of her heart she hoped I wouldn't be so unfortunate another time. So far as she was concerned, however, she could make no promises. There had been one fall, she explained . . . and there might easily be another. The future was entirely up to me. She couldn't be responsible for my horsemanship.

Within this experience, then, Isabel shows Peter both sides of the mystery of life. By riding this two-faceted Pegasus, he accepts the challenge of a new beginning, the challenge to encounter life as a duality of light and dark, creativity and destruction, and to deal with the phases of the potter's cycle. Therefore, Peter has not, as McMullen suggests, "move[d] from the fantasy world of the child to the real world of the adult," but has linked the two for a new awareness of life. Peter McAlpine's flights of the imagination with Isabel are not replaced by tangible, realistic dreams of impressing his friends at school, as if the tangible reality were superior to the imaginative reality. Isabel shows him the calm, perfect beauty of the landscape from a Pegasus point of view and qualifies this insight with: "Someday there may be stalls and halters, and it will be a good memory," because full complete awareness of the mystery of life depends on knowledge of both sides of the duality.

A much more intense manifestation of the destructive dimension of life is experienced by an unnamed boy in "One's a Heifer." Like Peter, he is thirteen and takes a horseback ride which changes his awareness of life. In "The Outlaw," Isabel rewards Peter with a glimpse of exquisite beauty when he takes charge of his own life by doing a thing forbidden by parents who think he is still a child. The boy in "One's a Heifer" voluntarily takes on the adult duty of searching for lost calves, but rather than ascending to a lofty vision of perfection and beauty, he descends to a dark, hellish atmosphere which, nevertheless, accords him a new awareness. Both boys are passive participants in this growth toward insight; neither boy looks voluntarily at the unknown. Peter is forced to appreciate the beauty of the landscape by Isabel, and the boy in "One's a Heifer" is drawn involuntarily and fearfully to the dark mystery in the boxstall by an uncontrollable urge. Both forces, light and dark, beauty and terror, are equally strong as manifestations of the unknown.

While the boy's visions expand in opposite directions, one toward light and the other toward darkness, the role of the horse remains constant. Like Isabel, Billie, and Peter Parker's colt, Tim is also associated with the warmth, light, and clarity of vision of the creative dimension. For example, Tim reluctantly leaves the farmyard, where perception is clear:

After the storm the drifts lay clear and unbroken to the horizon. Distant farm-buildings stood out distinct against the prairie as if the thin sharp atmosphere were a magnifying glass.

He naturally becomes disheartened as the cold saps the warmth which associates him with Isabel and the cornet as manifestations of the spirit of the imagination: "despite the cold his flanks and shoulders soon were steaming." Tim and the boy follow the calves to "a poor, shiftlesslooking place," which is devoid of light and comfort: "Darkness was beginning to close in, but there was no light in the windows." Tim has carried his rider to a place of insight into the dark side of the duality, just as Isabel carried Peter McAlpine to an awareness of the light-filled dimension of the imagination.

This boy cannot respond to the experiences of this newly discovered dimension with joy and spontaneity as the other children reacted to their flights in the creative dimension. Vickers, the man who lives in this dark, cold environment, is threatening. Furthermore, his unlit barn has a presence which seems the essence of darkness and evil:

Behind the light from his lantern the darkness hovered vast and sinister. It seemed to hold its breath, to watch and listen. . . . My eyes were fixed on him so intently that he seemed to lose substance, to loom up close a moment, then recede. At last he disappeared completely, and there was only the lantern like a hard hypnotic eye.

This looming and receding movement has been experienced by the children associated with the bright side of the mystery as their focus on reality weakened or dilated and they were overcome by the quiet, timeless clarity of the dimension of the imagination. Rather than an expanded vision, however, the oppressive, dark presence has focused the boy's awareness onto the lantern, a yellow glow, which is almost defeated by the darkness: "It held me. It held me rooted against my will." Peter Parker is also unable to shake off his imaginative vision, but this boy's glimpse at the unknown has a sinister quality from which he wishes to escape:

I wanted to run from the stable, but I wanted even more to see inside the stall. Wanting to see and afraid of seeing.

This mystery is not carefree and prolonged with enthusiasm; the boy willingly escapes when Vickers offers an excuse to leave the boxstall uninvestigated.

The boy spends the night with Vickers rather than return home through the darkness without his calves, which he believes are locked in Vickers's stall. He spends an uneasy night. At first, he and Vickers play checkers and Vickers talks about his former housekeeper. When he does go to bed, the boy dozes and dreams, waking to find Vickers's owl starting at him and Vickers still at the checkerboard, apparently in combat with an invisible enemy. The boy dreams about rising and going to look in the boxstall:

There was a bright light suddenly and the owl was sitting over the door with his yellow eyes like a pair of lanterns. The calves, he told me were in the other stall with the sick colt. I looked and they were there all right, but Tim came up and said it might be better not to start for home till morning. .. . I agreed, realizing now it wasn't the calves I was looking for after all, and that I still had to see inside the stall that was guarded by the owl.

The owl is Vickers. His eyes have seen the secret contents of the boxstall and he guards others from such knowledge. In the dream, the boy realizes that this knowledge, not the calves, is what he searches for.

In the morning, despite this dream, the boy still believes the calves are hidden in the boxstall. When he goes to the barn to get Tim, he uses a nervous horse as a diversion to distract Vickers long enough to attempt to look in the stall. As he tries to open the door, he comes to realize his desire to see inside has nothing to do with the calves or Vickers. His search is now focused on knowledge of the essence of darkness, the side of the duality which is unknown to him:

Terrified of the stall though, not of Vickers. Terrified of the stall, yet compelled by a frantic need to get inside. For the moment I had forgotten Vickers, forgotten even the danger of his catching me. I worked blindly, helplessly, as if I were confined and smothering. For a moment I yielded to panic. . . . Then, collected again, I forced back the lower bolt, and picking up the whiffle-tree tried to pry the door out a little at the bottom.

The boy escapes and returns home cold, exhausted, and emotionally distraught. The calves, he learns, had returned shortly after he had set out. The boy is stunned to silence by the realization that the secret Vickers guarded was that he had murdered his housekeeper and hidden her body in the stall. Though the boy has not actually seen into the stall, he has glimpsed this dark divinity of death through his experiences with Vickers.

The other children, Peter Parker, Jenny, and Tommy Dickson, experience flights to the light-filled imaginative realm, the opposite dimension to the one experienced by this boy. As with Peter McAlpine, in "The Outlaw," who faced the destructive dimension by making his own decision to ride Isabel, the boy in "One's a Heifer," by searching for the calves, also comes into contact with the potentially dangerous side of life. However, for both boys, the urge to experience both sides of the mystery, the light and the dark, is strong. Rather than grow increasingly more frightened the longer he stays with Vickers, the boy becomes more and more determined to look into the boxstall. When an initially pride-inspiring ride becomes the opposite, the dimension of destruction and the dimension of the imagination are linked in one experience. The boy becomes disturbingly aware that a mature understanding of life includes knowledge of both light and darkness, that elements of both sides make up the true essence of life. For this child, as for Ross's other child characters, "it's all over and it's all beginning." A childish one-sided understanding of life ends and a sometimes dangerous, potentially disappointing and painful world of new possibilities and challenge begins.

David Carpenter (essay date 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6101

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 your roots, scour the countryside, haul those skeletons out of the closet. The grimmer the better. As a graduate student in search of a thesis, I canvassed the bookshelves in search of the most unsparing realism I could find. What I sought would have as many broken teeth as Faulkner's stories, as many corpses as Hemingway's. It would vibrate with existential angst and vomit, just like Sartre's La Nausée. It would seethe with all the trapped futility of Joyce's Dubliners. When I found whatever it was I was looking for, I would feel a shudder in my soul and cry, "The horror! The horror!" And it would be politically relevant too.

I became a card-carrying proselytizer for stark realism, a grim reality snob in the Saskatchewan tradition: grimmer than thou. But was I alone in my glorification of despair, deprivation, and defeat? I think not.

When I came across "The Painted Door" by Sinclair Ross, I knew I had come home. Several other narratives in The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories confirmed my discovery: "Not by Rain Alone," "One's a Heifer," and the title story, "The Lamp at Noon." "A Field of Wheat" was powerfully written, but in those days I was like Atwood's surfacer: I was corpse hunting. And as far as I was concerned, "A Field of Wheat" should have ended paragraphs earlier with the dog Nipper lying mutilated on the ground.

I had become a Rosselyte, what critic Morton Ross refers to as the "gladly suffering reader." Looking back at the critics of As for Me and My House in this same era, Morton Ross observes, "It is, I suspect, natural for literary critics to recommend books on the same grounds that castor oil is prescribed; the experience is not pleasant, but it may be good for you".

I felt that to be a true Rosselyte, you had to suffer willingly through these stories; that was part of the aesthetic pleasure. And as I intimated earlier, I was not alone. Here is Laurie Ricou [from Sinclair Ross and Ernest Buckler, 1975] summing up his impressions of As for Me and My House and the grimmest stories in The Lamp at Noon: "An empty, unproductive, and oppressive existence in an empty, unproductive and oppressive landscape makes an intense fictional impact. The discovery of meaning in this existence . . . makes Sinclair Ross one of Canada's best novelists." And here is Robert Chambers [from Vertical Man/Horizontal World: Man and Landscape in Canadian Prairie Fiction, 1973], commenting on the same short stories referred to by Ricou: "Many of the finest moments in Ross' stories combine these few 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."

Re-reading all 18 of Ross's stories has been a disturbing process for me. So has my reading of the dozen or so critics who have done studies of Ross's short fiction.

Virtually every major study seems to emphasize what Margaret Laurence refers to as the "lives of unrelieved drabness" chronicled in these stories. Perhaps she speaks for all the Rosselytes in her ground-breaking preface to The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories (1968):

Throughout Ross's stories, the outer situation always mirrors the inner. The emptiness of the landscape, the bleakness of the land, reflect the inability of these people to touch another with assurance and gentleness. . . . Ross never takes sides, and this is one admirable quality of his writing. Blame is not assigned. Men and women suffer equally. The tragedy is not that they suffer, but that they suffer alone.

Laurence's remark here seems to speak for all the stories in A Lamp at Noon, but she has very little to say about Ross's other stories in this volume, the comic pieces: "The Runaway," "Circus in Town," "The Outlaw," and "Cornet at Night." Her sombre essay seems to have set the tone for all subsequent treatments of Ross's later volume, The Race and Other Stories (1982). Ross's comic work in the short story is either ignored by subsequent Rosselytes or cast in such a dubious light that the stories seem unduly severe in the critical interpretations. Typical of these readers is Paul Comeau, who claims that Ross's short fiction between 1934 and 1952 is written in "the tragic mode [Canadian Literature, Winter, 1984]. This position forces Comeau to paint Ross's comic stories with a strangely grey brush. After all, these characters in Ross's lighter work "come from the same pioneer stock and cling to variations of the same dream [as the characters in Ross's grim tragedies]. For example, Martha's ambition to have her children properly educated is realized by Tom's mother in 'Cornet at Night,' mainly because she has sufficient time and funds to maintain an orderly household and supervise his music and Bible studies." Stories like "Cornet," which I now claim to be richly comic, are seen by Comeau as merely less severe reflections of Ross's "hostile environment."

Keath Fraser's essay on Ross's stories [which was published in Queen's Quarterly, Spring, 1970] is much more perceptive than the studies of Comeau, Djwa, Chambers, Mitchell, Friesen, and McCourt. Like Lorraine McMullen, he devotes some serious consideration to these comic stories—as comedy. And even more than McMullen he demonstrates a rich awareness of Ross's comic talents.

My problem with Fraser's essay is one I've seen in the work of most of the Rosselytes: he reads each story within the pervasive context of all the stories in A Lamp at Noon. In his treatment of them, the comic stories come across as though they were part of a formally constituted story cycle, such as Jake and the Kid or Go Down, Moses. According to Forrest Ingram, a short story cycle is "a book of short stories so linked to each other by their author that the reader's successive experience on various levels of the pattern of the whole significantly modifies his experience of each of its component parts." Fraser reads all of Ross's stories in The Lamp at Noon "as part of the futility cycle" he claims Ross has established:

The futile cycle of eking existence from an indifferent world predominates [in] this collection of 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. .. . These prairie inhabitants . . . can retreat nowhere that is not whirling vainly in an absurd seasonal cycle. . . .

There is nothing wrong with reading these stories as a unified collection as most critics have done. They are unified by their setting and their time. Indeed, two of these stories were altered by Ross to form a linked sequence. The two-part story we now know as "Not by Rain Alone" was first published as two stories six years apart: "Not by Rain Alone" and "September Snow." In her pioneering study Sinclair Ross (1979), Lorraine McMullen notes: "For consistency the original names of the man and wife in 'September Snow,' Mark and Ann, were changed to Will and Eleanor (the names of the man and wife in 'Not by Rain Alone')".

Lorraine McMullen's lengthy treatment of Ross's stories has the advantage of allowing some of them their own separate integrity. Reading them as Comeau or Fraser or Chambers do, as a unified cycle, occasionally forces these critics into a discussion of the comic stories as though they were written to a theme: the impact of the drought on farm economy, or how farm debt affects interpersonal relationships. These stories deserve to be read as individual works that maintain their own comic integrity without the cloudlike encumbrance of an overall scheme or a theme that prefigures their significance.

One story badly neglected and distorted by the readings of the Rosselytes is "The Runaway." Chambers claims it is one of Ross's "best stories," but says nothing about it. Paul Comeau seems to think it has something to do with the price of prosperity exacted by the land, and dismisses it. So does McMullen with the passing thought that "sometimes nature or coincidence works hand in hand with divine retribution. .. . In 'The Runaway' Luke Taylor's own meanness and cheating lead indirectly to his own death and that of all his magnificent horses." By grouping "The Runaway" with Ross's truly tragic stories under the theme of "Nature as Impassive Agent," she obscures the story's comic vitality. McMullen and Fraser are better geared to Ross's comic vision than the other Rosselytes, but even Fraser doesn't know what to say about "The Runaway." His only words on it are: "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 upon her Biblical clichés that justify his death). But when are the good rewarded? Not really ever. ... "

The only critic bold enough to comment on this story is Ken Mitchell. He gives it a page in his book Sinclair Ross. His reflection on the story is only a plot summary, but he does manage to locate it as "a tale of moral justice in the Faulknerian mode." By "Faulknerian mode" I assume Mitchell means the Faulkner of the Snopes trilogy. The story's antagonist, Luke Taylor, is a dishonest horse trader who, like Faulkner's Flem Snopes, becomes the richest landowner in the district. And like Flem, he meets his nemesis, dies violently, and not a tear is shed. I like Mitchell's phrase, "a tale of moral justice." Perhaps because this story is a tale, it fits less securely into Ross's collection A Lamp at Noon than those praised by the Rosselytes for their unsparing portrayal of bleak lives. By "tale" I assume Mitchell means a narrative that is not realistic but has its own kind of brilliance and charm. [In his The Art of Fiction, 1985] John Gardner is helpful on this distinction between stories like "The Painted Door" and others like "The Runaway":

The realistic writer's way of making events convincing is verisimilitude. The tale writer, telling stories of ghosts, or shape-shifters. . . uses a different approach: By the quality of his voice, and by means of various devices that distract the critical intelligence, he gets what Coleridge called . . . "the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

Nevertheless, the tale writer, like the realist, must document his story from time to time in some way that gives credibility to his narrative voice. We believe the narrative "not just because the tale voice has charmed us but also, and more basically, because the character's gestures, his precisely described expression, and the reaction of others to his oddity all seem to us exactly what they would be in this strange situation." The reader of "The Runaway," then, is from time to time given proofs (closely observed details of farm life and human intercourse) that generate a compelling sense of reality—however fantastic or illusory.

Ross uses a nameless boy to tell his tale. This boy obviously loves a good yarn. In the heat of the story's climax, the narrator thinks, "I knew that for months to come the telling of [this tale] would be listened to." He begins in this fashion:

You would have thought that old Luke Taylor was a regular and welcome visitor, the friendly, unconcerned way he rode over that afternoon, leading two of his best Black Diamond mares.

"Four-year-olds," he said with a neighbourly smile. "None better in my stable. But I'm running short of stall room—six more foals last spring—so I thought if you were interested we might work out a trade in steers."

My father was interested. We were putting a load of early alfalfa in the loft, and he went on pitching a minute, aloof, indifferent, but between forkfuls he glanced down stealthily at the Diamonds, and at each glance I could see his suspicion and resistance ebb.

So far, we have a realistic story grounded in the conventions of verisimilitude. But note how, in the next passage, the narrator's tone and diction modulate when he comes to his description of Luke Taylor's Black Diamonds and their impact on all who behold them:

For more than twenty years old Luke had owned a stableful of Diamonds. They were his special pride, his passion. He bred them like a man dedicated to an ideal, culling and matching tirelessly. A horse was a credit to the Black Diamond Farm, a justification of the name, or it disappeared. There were broad-rumped, shaggyfooted work horses, slim-legged runners, serviceable in-betweens like the team he had with him now, suitable for saddle or wagon—at a pinch, even for a few days on the plough—but all, whatever their breed, possessed a flawless beauty, a radiance of pride and spirit, that quickened the pulse and brought a spark of wonder to the dullest eye. When they passed, you turned from what you were doing and stood motionless, transfixed. When you met them on the road you instinctively gave them the right of way. And it didn't wear off. The hundredth time was no different from the first.

Note the closely observed details here, the "broad-rumped, shaggy-footed work horses, slim-legged runners," the sort of things one might associate with any group of normal horses. Then note the intangibles, that "flawless beauty, a radiance of pride and spirit, that quickened the pulse," rendering all who saw them "motionless, transfixed." Note, too, the extravagance of the boy's claims—that all people were affected by these magic steeds, even those with "the dullest eye."

Luke Taylor's Black Diamonds turn out to be "balky," which means that at unpredictable times, the very worst times even, they will refuse to move. Once again Luke Taylor has triumphed. The boy narrator's mother, who in this story is always right, had predicted Taylor would manage in some way to swindle them. This was her warning to her husband:

"But there are things you can't check. All the years we've known [Luke] has he once done what was right or decent? Do you know a man for twenty miles who'd trust him? Didn't he get your own land away from you for half what it was worth?" And she went on, shrill and exasperated, to pour out instance upon instance of his dishonesty and greed, everything from foreclosures on mortgages and bribes at tax and auction sales to the poker games in which, every fall for years, he had been fleecing his harvest-hands right after paying them.

We have in Luke Taylor, of course, the classic villain of romance. Martha Ostenso's Caleb Gare comes to mind as well as Flem Snopes. And Taylor's victims provide an interesting contrast to him in this intensely moral struggle. Here is the boy narrator's description of his father:

According to his lights my father was a good man, and his bewilderment [over Luke's successful swindle] was in proportion to his integrity. For years he had been weakened and confused by a conflict, on the one hand resentment at what Luke had done and got away with, on the other sincere convictions imposing patience and restraint; but through it all he had been sustained by the belief that scores were being kept, and that he would live to see a Day of Reckoning. Now, though, he wasn't sure. You could see in his glance and frown that he was beginning to wonder which he really was: the upright, God-fearing man that he had always believed himself to be, or a simple, credulous dupe.

The boy's father is in fact in the throes of a spiritual crisis that has been precipitated by envy. His envy is not simply for Luke's handsome greystone house and hip-roofed barn, the "abode of guile" as the narrator calls it, but is a much deeper, more forbidden envy, focused on Luke Taylor's Black Diamonds but eating away at his own soul. So when he trades his four fat steers for the team of Diamonds, he and his wife are suddenly, mysteriously, young again. Our narrator explains it this way: "My father had a team of Diamonds, and my mother had something that his envious passion for them had taken from her twenty years ago."

Seen on its own terms, then, "The Runaway" is a tale told by an ideal teller in the (slightly) hyperbolic tradition about an upright man in danger of losing his soul to a comic embodiment of the devil. Had Ross taken his hyperbole much further, he would have had a yarn in the tradition of "The Devil and Daniel Webster" or "The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon." But like William Faulkner's narrator Ratliff of The Hamlet, Ross's narrator reins in his hyperbole so that on the surface, for the most part, this moral conflict remains fairly realistic. I say fairly realistic. Note how, even in realistic passages, the innuendoes spread like superstition throughout the narrative. Here is an example. The boy's father loses his hat in a gust of wind. Just as Luke Taylor approaches on horseback, the father reins in his new team of Diamonds so that he can retrieve his hat.

And after weeks without a single lapse, that had to be the moment for [the Diamonds] to balk again. Was it the arrival of Taylor, I have often wondered, something about his smell or voice, that revived colthood memories? Or was it my father's anger that flared at the sight of him, and ran out through his fingers and along the reins like an electric current, communicating to them his own tensions, his conflicting impulses of hatred and forbearance? No matter—they balked, and as if to enjoy my father's mortification, old Luke too reined in and sat watching. "Quite a man with horses," he laughed across at me. "One of the finest teams for miles and just look at the state he's got them in. Better see what you can do, son, before he ruins them completely." And then, squinting over his shoulder as he rode off, he added, "I'll tell you how to get a balky horse going. It's easy—just build a little fire under him."

"I wouldn't put it past him at that," my father muttered, as he climbed down and started to unhitch. "Being what he is, the idea of fire comes natural."

Just as envy of Luke Taylor's Black Diamonds has apparently robbed the narrator's father of his virility, so too have the horses responded, apparently, to his spiritual conflict, "his conflicting impulses of hatred and forbearance," by humiliating him. And we are teased, rather than informed, in wondering at the cause of this humiliation: a man to whom the idea of fire "comes natural."

If we read Sinclair Ross critics and not the story itself, we might at this point be tempted to predict the ending of "The Runaway." Will Christian forbearance and Godfearing piety win out over evil? Will the devil (or his emissary) and his demonic charges be destroyed on a Day of Judgement? Of course not. Ross's blind and uncaring universe, the indifference of his deity that critics often associate with all of his early work, all these resolutely bleak emanations from an absentee or uncaring God will determine the fate of Ross's God-fearing family. [In Canadian Literature, Winter, 1971] Sandra Djwa puts it very well when she says the following: "Because this conflict is intimately connected with the struggle for survival, the tragedy of these stories is that there is often no possible reconciliation of any kind. When an author's horizon is composed of the bare essentials of a landscape, sky and earth, there are no compromises open: if land and weather fail man, the struggle for survival can only end tragically, the extent of the tragedy being largely determined by the strength of the person concerned."

But this is not what happens in "The Runaway." It is not even close. What happens is that Luke Taylor is destroyed, along with his demonic horses, in a fiery inferno. No tears are shed, not even for the horses, and there is only a perfunctory sort of mourning after this apocalyptic incident. In fact, Luke Taylor's death is rather funny. His advice to the narrator and his father is Luke Taylor's undoing. The horses balk again with a load of straw on a cold and windy November afternoon. And this time, exasperated, the father says to his son, ".. . I think I'll take old Luke's advice, and see what a fire will do." The narrator tells it this way:

I closed my eyes a moment. When I opened them he had straightened and stepped back, and there on the ground between the Diamonds' feet, like something living that he had slipped out of his coat, was a small yellow flame, flickering up nervously against the dusk.

For a second or two, feeling its way slowly round the straw, it remained no larger than a man's outspread hand. Then, with a spurt of sparks and smoke, it shot up right to the Diamonds' bellies.

They gave a frightened snort, lunged ahead a few feet, stopped short again. The fire now, burning briskly, was directly beneath the load of straw, and even as 1 shouted to warn my father a tongue of flame licked up the front of the rack, and the next instant, sudden as a fan being flicked open, burst into a crackling blaze.

The Diamonds bolt, the boy jumps on his entirely ordinary horse Gopher, and the chase is on. "Riding close behind, my head lowered against the smoke and sparks, I didn't realize, till the wagon took the little ditch onto the highway at a sickening lurch, that the Diamonds were going home. Not to their new home, where they belonged now, but to old Luke Taylor's place."

Note how our narrator has personified the fire, with its nervous flickering, "like something living." Note too how the narrator characterizes the Black Diamonds in Luke Taylor's stable. When the flaming wagon is drawn home by the terrified team, it overturns and sets fire to Luke Taylor's barn. His Black Diamonds are inside, and the boy tries to save them from immolation. Instead of fleeing their stalls to safety, they all balk. Instead of being portrayed by our narrator as the innocent victims of an uncaring fate, the Black Diamonds are presented to us as monsters. The narrator describes them as follows:

I ran forward and squeezed in past [the] heels [of the first Diamond I saw], then untied the halter-shank, but when I tried to lead [the horse] out it trembled and crushed its body tight against the side of the stall. I climbed into the manger, struck it hard across the nose; it only stamped and tossed its head. Then I tried the next stall, then the next and the next. Each time I met the same fear-crazed resistance. One of the Diamonds lashed out with its heels. Another caught me such a blow with a swing of its head that I leaned half-stunned for a minute against the manger. Another, its eyes rolling white and glassy, slashed with its teeth as I turned, and ripped my smock from shoulder to shoulder.

This is the point at which Luke Taylor shows up. He heads straight for his huge burning barn, evading those wellmeaning neighbours who try to head him off. He goes through the door. "The same moment that he disappeared, the floor of the loft collapsed. It was as if when running through the door he had sprung a trap, the way the great, billowy masses of burning hay plunged down behind him."

It doesn't take long. Luke returns to his element, and the two remaining Diamonds whose fateful trip "home" started the fire mysteriously return to a prosaically horsey identity. The narrator fears that they will balk again. He "mounted Gopher as usual and rode through the gate ahead of them, but at the first click of the reins they trotted off obediently. Obediently and dully, like a team of reliable old ploughhorses. Riding along beside them, listening to the soft creak and jingle of the harness, I had the feeling that we, too, had lost our Diamonds."

The story closes with the mother (who in this story, as I have said, is always right) and the father (whose judgement is usually questionable where horses are concerned) trying to place their own construction upon the events of the day:

"It's as I've always said [the mother argues]... Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small. His own balky Diamonds, and look what they carried home to him." She hadn't been there to see it—that was why she could say such things. "You sow the wind and you reap the whirlwind. Better for him today if he had debts and half-a-section like the rest of us." But my father sat staring before him as though he hadn't heard her, There was a troubled, old look in his eyes, and I knew that for him it was not so simple as that to rule off a man's account and show it balanced. Leave Luke out of it now—say that so far as he was concerned the scores were settled—but what about the Diamonds? What kind of reckoning was it that exacted life and innocence for an old man's petty greed? Why, if it was retribution, had it struck so clumsily?

These last words, which I italicized, are the ones Djwa quotes to arrive at her sombre conclusion about this work. "The good man of 'The Runaway' finds himself troubled by God's justice, especially when the scales are eventually weighed in his favour." But "The Runaway" does not end with the man's words; it ends with the narrator's response to the impact of his mother's words. Here are the last lines of the story:

"All of them," he said at last, "all of them but the team he was driving and my own two no-good balky ones. Prettiest horses a man ever set eyes on. It wasn't coming to them."

"But you'll raise colts," my mother said quickly, pouring him a fresh cup of coffee, "and there'll be nothing wrong with them. Five or six years—why you'll have a stableful."

He sipped his coffee in silence a moment and then repeated softly, "Prettiest horses a man ever set eyes on. No matter what you say, it wasn't coming to them." But my mother's words had caught. Even as he spoke his face was brightening, and it was plain that he too, now, was thinking of the colts.

Note how the conversation in this closing scene goes in one way, but how the tone moves like an undertow in the opposite direction, away from any possibility of tragedy.

And if the father has undergone a spiritual crisis (which might reappear with the birth of Black Diamond colts), so too, perhaps, has Sinclair Ross. To write "The Runaway" he has forfeited that bleak nihilism he has been branded with in all of his early work.

In the above reading, I have characterized "The Runaway" as a tale rich in comic detail. It is much less about the fate of a man and his horses that "wasn't coming to them" than about the damnation of a diabolical schemer and his demonic steeds. Luke Taylor's fire unites the settlement in a common cause. His death restores normality and hope to the characters.

A re-reading of all of Ross's stories has served to focus my attention upon his talents as a comic writer. I hesitate to say what kind of a comic writer, because the very moment I make a formulation of his comedy, I will begin to recall stories in his canon that refuse, like Luke's horses, to conform to a theoretically "normal" category. "Spike" has the structure but not the texture of romantic comedy. "The Race" (an excerpt from Ross's novella Whir of Gold) reads like a long joke or a boy's adventure, full of good spirits and friendly contempt for the strictures of the adult world. "A Day with Pegasus," written in what critics would like us to think of as Ross's early black period, is a realistic story about a boy's fantasy lie, and it reads a bit like a Miracle Play. "Barrack Room Fiddle Tune" is Ross's only story written in the first person plural, an anecdote about the impact of a farm boy's terrible fiddleplaying on a group of army recruits. There is really only one character in this story, so again it defies easy classification.

"The Outlaw," "Cornet at Night," and "Circus in Town" have all received fair attention from critics. The only thing I would add to the comments I have read is that these three stories work by means of subversion. The subversive victory in each has something to do with a child's attainment of a vision which is antithetical to that of his or her parents. In each case the child manages to invert the value system that oppresses her or him.

It is interesting to note that the comedy in almost every one of these eight stories is inextricably bound up with horses. For example, in "Cornet at Night" the story proceeds with quiet, almost detached, irony. Our narrator, Tommy Dickson, has tried to remain obedient to the strictures of his parents' parsimony. His orders for his first ever trip to town alone are to hitch Rock (an old, utterly reliable horse) to the wagon, do the shopping, and bring back a hired man to help his father with the stooking.

"Mind you pick somebody big and husky," said my father as he started for the field. "Go to Jenkins' store, and he'll tell you who's in town. Whoever it is, make sure he's stooked before."

"And mind it's somebody who looks like he washes himself," my mother warned, "I'm going to put clean sheets and pillowcases on the bunkhouse bed, but not for any dirty tramp or hobo."

By the time they had both finished with me there were a great many things to mind. Besides repairs for my father's binder, I was to take two crates of eggs each containing twelve dozen eggs to Mr. Jenkins' store and in exchange have a list of groceries filled. And to make it complicated, both quantity and quality of some of the groceries were to be determined by the price of eggs. Thirty cents a dozen, for instance, and I was to ask for coffee at sixty-five cents a pound. Twenty-nine cents a dozen and coffee at fifty cents a pound. Twenty-eight and no oranges. Thirty-one and bigger oranges. It was like decimals with Miss Wiggins, or two notes in the treble against three in the bass. For my father a tin of special blend tobacco, and my mother not to know. For my mother a box of face powder at the drugstore, and my father not to know. Twenty-five cents from my father on the side for ice-cream and licorice. Thirty-five from my mother for my dinner at the Chinese restaurant. And warnings, of course, to take good care of Rock, speak politely to Mr. Jenkins, and see that I didn't get machine oil on my corduroys.

All things considered, Tommy doesn't do too badly. His only major deviation from the rule of the adults is to bring home a trumpet player with slender and smooth white hands to do the stooking. The young musician's name is Philip Coleman. Philip, lover of horses, Paul Kirby might remind us. Tommy cannot keep his eyes off Philip's cornet case, but other than this, he keeps his enthusiasms and old Rock dutifully reined in—until Philip takes his cornet out of the case:

It was a very lovely cornet, shapely and eloquent, gleaming in the August sun like pure and mellow gold. I couldn't restrain myself. I said, "Play it—play it now—just a little bit to let me hear." And in response, smiling at my earnestness, he raised it to his lips.

But there was only one note—only one fragment of a note—and then away went Rock. I'd never have believed he had it in him. With a snort and plunge he was off the road and into the ditch—then out of the ditch again and off at a breakneck gallop across the prairie. There were stones and badger holes, and he spared us none of them.

Note how, when Philip puts the cornet to his lips and Rock explodes, the comedy takes off as well, from a nicely modulated irony in the first 11 pages to a wonderful moment of farce which effectively destroys the parental hold over Tommy's mission. The carefully garnered supplies fly out of the wagon, an egg crate is smashed, items are lost or ruined, and best of all (or worst of all, depending on your politics), Tommy has been seduced into a new vision of soaring possibilities by Philip's cornet.

Ross returns again and again in his comic works to these moments of subversive joy brought about by a young person whose feelings are catalyzed and released by a horse. Even the relatively horseless "Barrack Room Fiddle Tune" does this when the farm boy protagonist jumps a fence to have a conversation with a horse.

Horses in Ross's work are usually associated with freedom, self-sufficiency, release, and sometimes male pride. They are the Pegasus vehicles for a child's dream of freedom and adventure. And in a society in which sexual desire is suppressed so relentlessly, the horse is often the adolescent's substitute for a true object of desire. Isabel, the horse in "The Outlaw" and "The Ride," for example, is a temptress. The horse is the trigger for the body's ecstatic release, so a horse out of control (as in Ovid's story about Phaëthon or Pindar's version of Bellerophon and Pegasus) is a moment of high celebration in the life of a prairie youth. When I re-read my own summary of "Cornet at Night," I can't help but notice how the images I have cast this story in are charged with erotic innuendoes. The story seems to carry this subcurrent.

It is not my purpose here to offer firm value judgements about Ross's comic work. But I have reached the point where I can urge all the Rosselytes to read his eight short comic pieces as comedy. Reading these works will remind us most obviously that Ross has unsung talents as a writer of comedy. It does not, as some critics imply, show up only in Ross's later works; it is there right from the beginning. Also, if we read Ross's short stories without the constrictions imposed by a prearranged scheme—some form of thematic criticism, for example—we can begin to appreciate Ross's subversive sense of the ridiculous, his buoyant affirmations. And best of all, we can rid ourselves of the excesses of the Rosselytes: their insistence upon suffering as a salutory element of aesthetic pleasure.

I have re-read these stories after the rise and fall of postmodernism in North American fiction, after the theatre of the absurd, after Beckett and Pinter, after the quest for the Canadian identity when stark realism was the unchallenged orthodoxy, and I am returning to something Shakespeare must have known a long time ago: that a balanced diet of comic and tragic renderings is healthier than a strict regimen of one without the other. When I think of modern Canadian works that might fit some acceptable definition of tragedy, I can think of very few: The Stone Angel, perhaps, or Under the Volcano. Both are written by people who had, by my reckoning, a pretty good sense of humour. So did Sinclair Ross.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241

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 response to the Canadian pioneering experience.

Fraser, Keath. "Futility at the Pump: The Short Stories of Sinclair Ross." Queen's Quarterly LXXVII, No. 1 (Spring 1970): 72-80.

Examines the characters of Ross's short fiction, noting the common aspiration to prevail amid the harsh prairie conditions.

McCourt, Edward. "Sinclair Ross (1908-)." In The Canadian West in Fiction, pp. 100-05. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1970.

Asserts that Ross's short stories are superior to his novels. McCourt also ranks "The Painted Door" as one of the most finely crafted stories in all of Canadian fiction.

Ricou, Lawrence. "The Prairie Internalized: The Fiction of Sinclair Ross." In his Vertical Man/Horizontal World: Man and Landscape in Canadian Prairie Fiction, pp. 81-94. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1973.

Explores the theme of alienation in Ross's short fiction.

Additional coverage of Ross's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 13; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 88.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Sinclair Ross Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Ross, (James) Sinclair