Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In the 1930’s, as a result of World War I and then the Great Depression, a generation was cast adrift without faith in God. This period saw, in MacLennan’s words, “the virtual disappearance of the old belief that life is a coherent experience.” MacLennan also pointed out that, when it comes to spirituality, nature abhors a vacuum. If Christianity were rejected in the 1930’s, socialism or personal relationships offered an alternative vision. As George points out, “in the thirties we tried to make gods out of political systems, and worship and serve them.” This novel makes clear that political systems and personal relationships are transient and offer no respite from the real enemy—the Great Fear—death.

The key image which recurs in The Watch That Ends the Night is that of Jerome fleeing by canoe down the New Brunswick river to the ocean. The image expands to represent personal identity as “no more than a tiny canoe at the mercy of an ocean.” The ocean is equated with the subconscious mind, out of which comes the fear of death. Everyone is involved in the chaos of life, everyone faces the inevitability of death. Yet each man must become a place of solitude facing eternity alone. The only response to fate—a fate which knows no justice—is to allow the human life force to fight for life as long as possible. One must grasp every moment to love, grow, be grateful, suffer, hope, and believe. Life is a gift to be striven for. The fight itself is the essence of life.