Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

MacLennan has been awarded a number of honors. Several of his novels have won for him a Governor-General’s Award, he has had Guggenheim and Canada Council fellowships, and he has been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Companion of the Order of Canada. In large measure, these honors reflect the stature of Two Solitudes, which has been correctly described as one of the few major achievements of Canadian literature, as a national historical romance of immense scope, and as a national allegory.

In the sections that treat Paul’s development as a novelist and in those that present Heather’s political and social philosophy, one occasionally suspects MacLennan of becoming rather too didactic. Yet the observations are totally in character and appropriate to the context, even where they are mildly deterministic.

The great majority of minor characters are introduced in brilliant vignettes. Set pieces, such as Yardley’s and Athanese’s deaths, are written with great tenderness and detail. Scenes of potential sexual satisfaction are handled with consummate skill, so that they are neither prurient nor routine and predictable. Aphorisms, though few, are pungent and occasionally truculent: Ontario is said to have “the mind of the maiden aunt,” for example.

MacLennan has long been an admirer of Lytton Strachey, whose Portraits in Miniature and Other Essays (1931) he regards as the precursor of a new genre and as that author’s masterpiece, because the short biographies read like short stories by Guy de Maupassant. It is MacLennan’s skill in the depiction of his minor characters and in his narration of their actions that—added to his major theme and near-allegorical principal characters—supports the claims for the major status of Two Solitudes.