Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Watch That Ends the Night, Hugh MacLennan’s fifth novel, established him as a novelist of international stature. The novel received the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and assisted in winning for him the Alberta Medal and the Critics’ Circle Award. It had solid sales in Canada, the United States—more than nineteen weeks on The New York Times list—and in Great Britain. Translations were sold in German, Swedish, and Estonian. By 1975, the novel had sold more than 700,000 copies.

Most critics agree that this novel fuses a number of themes which appear in earlier books into a coherent pattern. In earlier novels, such as Barometer Rising (1941) and Two Solitudes (1945), a variety of characters are required to play such roles as the father figure, the wandering hero, the gifted healer, and the wise counselor, often with two-dimensional results. In The Watch That Ends the Night, Jerome Martell is a composite of these roles, indicating that MacLennan had undergone a major shift in his theory of fiction. This novel, he said, “would not depend on character-in-action, but on spirit-in-action. The conflict here, the essential one, was between the human spirit of Everyman and Everyman’s human condition.” George Stewart became the “Everyman” figure, whose encounter with Jerome and Catherine leads him to resolve his own spiritual anguish.

While MacLennan’s shift in approach was far from radical for the times, it did allow him to achieve a much more integrated vision of the human condition than had been present in his earlier novels.