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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1951

In her three earlier novels, as well as in her poetry and her short fiction, Jane Urquhart has considered such matters as reality and illusion, the everyday world and the realm of the imagination, and the temptation to escape from life, which, she suggests, is probably experienced, to some degree, by every human being capable of reflective thought. In The Whirlpool (1986), characters are mesmerized by Niagara Falls and the flight into death that it offers them; in Changing Heaven (1990), art is presented as a man’s refuge from the demands of love; and, in Away (1993), women fall under the spell of the supernatural, the wilderness, and their own power to rewrite reality. All of these novels focus on women. The Underpainter deals with the same issues, but, in it, the women are presented obliquely because the narration is entrusted to a man.

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The selection of Austin Fraser as a narrator is somewhat surprising, since the central fact of his life is his refusal to become attached to anyone or anything, which, he is persuaded, is the way to produce great art. In the end, however, Fraser’s art suffers because, as his fellow artist Rockwell Kent comments, he has no feeling for his subjects. Similarly, Fraser fails as a human being, not only because he never allows himself to love, but also because, since he never develops the capacity to empathize with others, he does great harm to those who care for him. When, at the age of eighty-three, Fraser realizes his mistake, he is alone in a sterile house with no company except his memories, some images, and his artifacts.

The Underpainter begins with a prologue which, though admittedly tantalizing, is a bit confusing. The scene is a deserted Canadian mining village in the dead of winter. An unnamed woman, who lives there alone, opens the telegram she has just received and sets out on foot for Port Arthur, some twenty-two miles away. Then, the narrator intervenes. He is merely imagining these events, he says, and adds that they took place forty years before. Finally, he introduces himself. He is Austin Fraser, he says, and he was the person who called the woman to Port Arthur.

In the main part of the book, Fraser is not so laconic; he routinely introduces characters by name and explains who they are, at least externally. However, readers of The Underpainter are not permitted to be passive observers. In the first place, they must develop their own working timetables. Fraser’s narrative is governed by memory rather than by chronology, jumping back and forth in time and moving just as suddenly from one location to another. The author does provide some help: She has her narrator drop in exact dates fairly frequently, and she also has him mention his age and the ages of the other characters often enough that, with a little effort, one can keep track of the action. There is, however, still more to be done by Urquhart’s readers. Even though, as the book proceeds, Fraser is working toward a degree of revelation, a narrator as insensitive as he will inevitably be blind to subtleties. He may not understand the implications of the actions of others or of their comments to him. It is, therefore, left to the reader to put the pieces together, to imagine the emotions that the self-centered Fraser cannot understand, and to feel the pain that Fraser refuses to experience or even to acknowledge.

The metaphor indicated by Urquhart’s title, then, comes to have a complex significance. On the obvious level, underpainting is a term drawn from art: It refers to what is first placed upon a canvas. After embarking on what he called his “new” style, Fraser began as an “underpainter” with a realistic scene or figure. Then, he began overpainting, adding layer after layer to cover up his initial effort. Fraser’s greatest fear was that his underpainting would be revealed; in fact, he has sometimes held paintings for years in order to make absolutely sure that no chemical action would occur that would cause the shapes he deliberately obscured to rise to the surface. Since the critics titled one series of Fraser’s paintings Erasures, it is obvious that they understood his intention. Early in The Underpainter, Fraser also makes it clear that the pattern of his life is exactly like that of his painting. He has always set about to blank out reality.

However, when one applies the underpainting-overpainting concept to the novel itself, it is clear that Urquhart is forcing her narrator and her readers to reverse the process. Step-by-step, they must remove layer after layer of overpainting until reality appears before them. That intention explains the air of mystery in the prologue, and that process determines the structure of the book because, even if Fraser’s memories appear to be random and uncontrolled, his creator knows exactly what she is doing.

Each of the three sections of the novel, for example, has a clear purpose and a specific subject. The first, which takes up almost one-third of the book, is entitled “The Lake Effect.” It begins with Fraser’s recollections of the woman mentioned in the prologue, Sara Pengelly, who has died and left him all she owns: her isolated house on the north shore of Lake Superior. There, for fifteen summers, Fraser had lived with her, using her freely, both as his model and as his mistress. Then, suddenly deciding on a change of painting style, he packed up and left for New York City. Eventually, however, Fraser returned to Rochester, New York, the town where he was born. In retrospect, Fraser realizes that his mother and his father represented the two attitudes toward life between which he would later have to choose. His mother had a great imagination and gothic tastes: She liked to take her son on long walks along the Genesee River gorge and into the Mount Hope cemetery. She died, however, when Fraser was nine, and he was left with his father, who, at that time, shrank from any displays of emotion. Driven into himself, Fraser had already begun to become the person who would find so appealing the doctrine of detachment propounded by his mentor, Robert Henri. Now, Fraser is struck by the similarity between his own passionate mother and Rockwell Kent, whose view of life he rejected in favor of that of Henri.

The narrative now jumps to the momentous summer of 1913, when Fraser’s father, who had become wealthy, acquired a lakeside home in Davenport on the north shore of Lake Ontario. There, Fraser found a friend, George Kearns, who, like him, was interested in art but, unable to afford art school, spent his time painting designs on articles to be sold at the China Hall. George had two passions: Vivian Lacey, who liked to flaunt her power over young men like him, and a small collection of valuable china. At the end of the summer, George left for France but not before demonstrating his affection for Fraser. If anything should happen to him, he said, his beloved collection was to go to his friend Fraser.

The section concludes with more memories of Sara and with an interesting comment. Fraser’s reason for avoiding Sara all those years, he now knows, was not that he did not want to see her but that he could not bear for Sara to find out who he really was.

Fraser’s reasons for feeling such profound guilt are made clear in the second and longest section of the book, “Night in the China Hall.” Fraser now introduces a new character, Augusta Moffat, and repeats her life story as she told it to him during the night they spent together in the China Hall. Augusta was reared on a farm near Davenport, became a nurse, and served in France. There, she first met George, who had been wounded. She also met Maggie Pierce, another nurse, and they became friends. After the hospital was shelled and Maggie died, Augusta was sent home to be hospitalized until she recovered from shell shock. After her release, she became George’s companion, and, over the years, little by little, together they rebuilt their lives.

Since Fraser is trying to make sense out of his own life, not that of Augusta, it is logical that, from time to time, he would abandon her story in order to think about his own. He remembers how he broke off his friendship with Kent because his friend had told him an unpleasant truth: that Fraser’s painting was flawed because it was so cold. He also keeps thinking about his relationship with Sara. Fraser’s new understanding of himself becomes evident when he comments that, where he used to feel that he would never forgive either Kent or Sara, now he wonders whether they ever forgave him.

What Fraser most needs, however, is some sense of forgiveness for what he did to George and Augusta. He had not set out to harm them, but, nevertheless, his carelessness in driving the glamorous Vi Desjardins, or Vivian Lacy, to Davenport to see George, twenty- four years after their last disastrous encounter, as certainly results in tragedy as if Fraser had acted out of malevolence.

In the final section of the novel, “Ontario Lake Scenery,” Fraser returns to his past with Sara and to the planned reunion at Port Arthur. As he hinted at the beginning of the novel, he did not see her. Now, the reason is evident: He did not want her to see him for what he was. The only amends he could make for what he did to her was to spare her his presence; the only amends he could imagine for what he did to George and Augusta was to painstakingly piece back together the china George broke when he discovered what had happened to the woman he loved.

By the end of The Underpainter, all of the secrets have been told, all of the references explained. However, this is not a simple story, in part because it deals with the complexities of human nature, in part because it admits the degree to which human beings and the landscape are intertwined. The symbolism is complicated. Darkness, the north, and water are all important in the book, but their significance is constantly shifting. In the prologue, Sara sees the ice as a road to the man she loves; on the other hand, Fraser’s mother, who thinks of the north as profoundly spiritual and sees the wild Genesee River as a symbol of life, imagines, in her final delirium, that she is skating north on the Lake Ontario ice, drawn inexorably toward death.

However, it is the very complexity of structure and symbolism that makes The Underpainter so haunting. Life, Urquhart suggests, is much like the lakes that are so important in her landscape. One must either accept it all, calm and storm, life and death, or avoid risk by remaining forever on the shore. At the end of the novel, Fraser, seeing how foolish he has been, changes his attitude and reverses the direction of his art. His final painting, he says, will be a self-portrait, and it will include everyone and everything in his experience, even the uncaring Vivian, even the bitterest cold of winter. Fraser will entitle it “The Underpainter,” for that is what, at last, he has chosen to be.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, September 15, 1997, p. 212.

Library Journal. CXXII, September 1, 1997, p. 221.

Maclean’s. CX, September 15, 1997, p. 85.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, November 23, 1997, p. 28.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, November 24, 1997, p. 48.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 28, 1997, p. 22.

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