Themes

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Last Updated on July 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

Hugh MacLennan's Voices in Time takes place in dystopian Metro, formerly Montreal, Quebec, which is under the control of a repressive governmental entity known as the Bureaucracy. The novel follows the family history of John Wellfleet, an "inoperative" (resident of an elderly compound), as narrated by himself or directly from...

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Hugh MacLennan's Voices in Time takes place in dystopian Metro, formerly Montreal, Quebec, which is under the control of a repressive governmental entity known as the Bureaucracy. The novel follows the family history of John Wellfleet, an "inoperative" (resident of an elderly compound), as narrated by himself or directly from the physical records of his family history. The records depict the livelihood and trials that Conrad Dehmel, a renowned historian, had faced in his lifetime. Dehmel's story is central to the main narrative in addition to that of John's older cousin, Timothy Wellfleet.

Dystopia as Foresight

One of the most prominent themes in the novel is the idea of foresight. As the story progresses, so do Dehmel's trials and tribulations surrounding the onset of World War II. Readers are able to form connections between the errors deriving from the way of life that was in existence during the World War II and post–World War II eras. The entirety of the novel is constructed as a means of forewarning MacLennan's readers, as it depicts society as a dystopia in the distant future, in addition to the preceding history that forms the basis for that future. Essentially, the moral degeneration of Western society will ultimately be its demise.

As is alluded to within MacLennan's text, political affairs concerning Western society have many dire ramifications that not only are readily apparent in the present but are also insidiously ruinous for society in the future. In addition, readers are filled with a sense of urgency, as the error of society's ways in the past are only wholly revealed to John and his companion, Andre Gervais, at a time when it is too late to many any significant change.

From the initial authoritarian regimes to the subsequent demoralization of the youth and elders alike in late twentieth-century North America, MacLennan forewarns his readers of the catastrophic path society is on and how it may soon be too late to change.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

In some respects, Voices in Time is devoted to showing the public the error of its ways. The novel is structured in a way that records a variety of voices from the past, voices intended to help prevent or delay impending catastrophe. Underlying the conflicts in the novel is one that is common to many of MacLennan’s fictions: the Oedipal revolt of son against father. Timothy is in full revolt against his father, a former army officer. The main assignment on which he is working at the beginning of the story is an expose of one of his father’s oldest friends, a general at the Pentagon who has been justifying the Vietnam War. John Wellfleet, too, has been in revolt against his father, which he expresses in his devotion to drugs and promiscuous sex. MacLennan sees the revolt against the father as the ultimate cause of breakdown in Western society. Unfortunately, the generation of the fathers seems to be too confused to muster the necessary authority against the revolt of the young, and the love of mothers seems also to be ineffectual.

A breakdown in communications underlines this breakdown of relationships between the generations. Ironically, John studied communications but has evidently profited little from the experience. He has to learn painfully how to assemble and link the documents in order to communicate to the next generation what it was like to live in the days before the apocalypse. The novel is full of broken telephone conversations and interrupted talks. The nuclear war that destroys civilization itself is not caused by any intentional act but by a sort of nervous breakdown of the computer communications system that spans the world.

Although MacLennan sometimes adopts the role of a lecturer in this novel, he has certainly come to grips with one of the most appalling and haunting possibilities of our time—a possibility that human beings are all too eager to sweep under the rug of the collective unconscious. Yet despite his sense of doom, MacLennan has not lost his faith in man’s ability to learn, in time.

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