Analysis of Hugh MacLennan’s Novels

Hugh MacLennan (1907-1990) began as a historian, and, in a sense, he remained one throughout his long writing career. His doctoral dissertation, Oxyrhynchus, discussing the history of an area in Egypt during the seven hundred years that it was subject to the Roman Empire, foreshadowed such major themes in his novels as colonialism, the wanderer, the town-country antithesis, and geographical determinism. Underlying both the dissertation and the novels is a view of historical causality.

As Erich Auerbach has remarked, “Basically, the way in which we view human life and society is the same whether we are concerned with things of the past or things of the present”; a corollary of this may be that when a writer is, like MacLennan, both a historian and a novelist, his or her narratives of individual human lives will be shaped by larger forces that transcend the concerns of the psychological novelist. In MacLennan’s fiction, geography is preeminently such a force.

1-Z1gl_YDp5SP4uSso5LF4LwIn both his fiction and his nonfiction, MacLennan had a continual concern for the impact of geography upon character, and thus, as people make history, upon action, fictive or historical. The fact that a Canadian, living in a frequently harsh terrain and climate, would appreciate the significance of geography is hardly surprising, but MacLennan went further, adopting a geographical theory of history. His sense of geography’s interaction with psychology and history provides the ideological framework that, more than any other single factor, gives his work its distinctive character. This framework is especially useful to MacLennan as a way of putting into perspective his personal experience, for he drew less upon “pure” invention than do many novelists. His method, in both his essays and his novels, was to use personal experience to support general and philosophical concepts.

This means that, fundamentally, MacLennan wrote novels of ideas; it does not mean, however, that his ideas were necessarily free from self-contradiction or that they remained entirely consistent throughout his career. His ideology, complex but ultimately growing from a sense of the fundamental importance of geography, is most explicit in his first three published novels, in which he worked toward a definition of Canadian identity by first contrasting Canada to England (Barometer Rising), then dealing with the potentials of Canadian unity (Two Solitudes), and finally differentiating Canada from the United States (The Precipice). The next novel, Each Man’s Son, is transitional in that it conveys a strong sense of the land, Cape Breton in this case, while anticipating the greater interest in psychology that characterized his subsequent novels. Even in these later novels, however, history as geography remains a basic concept. Although psychological concepts became more important to MacLennan, he employed topographical images to express this interest.

Character, then, in a MacLennan novel is closely related to theme, as is plot, and the theme is tied to setting. Although he created a fairly wide range of characters, including some minor figures that are presented with Dickensian humor, the central focus in his characterization was either on the “love interest” or on a conflict of generations. Both of these recurring motifs are normally subservient to theme in that the characters, whether they come together in love, as, for example, Paul and Heather in Two Solitudes, or stand apart in years, as do Alan Ainslie and his son in Return of the Sphinx, represent different value systems or cultures. Their psychology, which motivates their interactions, is seen in terms of their conditioning by history and, ultimately, by geography.

Admittedly, this emphasis is modified, especially in the later novels, by MacLennan’s concern with various ideological factors, such as Calvinism in Each Man’s Son, and by his interest in psychological theories, especially Freudianism, particularly notable in Return of the Sphinx. Nevertheless, similar imagery and recurring motifs, reflecting a sense of historical causation, run through both his earlier and later works. One finds, for example, the antithesis between the city and the country; the retreat into the woods; the theme of the wanderer, exiled from his or her roots; frequent references to weather; and imagery of trees, gardens, and water, in all of his novels.

MacLennan’s novelistic techniques did change, however, as he developed his craft, as can be seen in his plotting, use of point of view, and style. In plotting, as in many aspects of his craft, MacLennan was old-fashioned; he kept the reader interested in how the story will come out. MacLennan was by nature given to relatively happy endings, but after the upbeat conclusions characterizing his first three novels, his optimism became tempered, appearing more as a coda following climactic elements of tragedy in Each Man’s Son, The Watch That Ends the Night, and Return of the Sphinx. Voices in Time has a series of climaxes occurring at different points in the novel and producing different effects on the reader. The fact that MacLennan was able to unify the various narratives included in this, the most complex of his works in its plotting, is an indication of the development of his craftsmanship.

MacLennan’s ability to manipulate increasingly complex narrative patterns is closely related to his mastery of point of view. Although none of MacLennan’s novels approaches a Jamesian concern for this aspect of the art of fiction, with The Watch That Ends the Night, as he moved away from straightforward chronological sequences, he slipped skillfully between first- and third-person narration. Return of the Sphinx uses third-person narration but with a shifting between the viewpoints of different characters. This novel, however, lacks what Henry James called “a fine central intelligence.” Alan Ainslie does not provide this unifying quality as effectively as does John Wellfleet in Voices in Time; Wellfleet’s perspective gives coherence to the novel’s varied narrative strands.

As MacLennan’s ability to structure his novels developed, slowly and within a fairly conventional framework, yet with increasing skill in his craft, so did his style mature. His earlier novels exhibited some tendency toward overwriting. Barometer Rising has “set-pieces” that skirt the borders of sentimentality; Two Solitudes is sometimes verbose; The Precipice is not free from clichéd expression. In Each Man’s Son, the style, reflecting the dramatic structure, is tightened. The Watch That Ends the Night contains superior passages of description, although the dialogue (never one of MacLennan’s strengths) occasionally shows some of the stilted qualities of the earlier novels. Return of the Sphinx is notable for its economy of style and in this respect prepares for Voices in Time, in which MacLennan’s style is the most fully unselfconscious and “organic.”

MacLennan, then, is a novelist whose works may be read for the pleasure to be found in an interesting story well told, but he remains a writer less likely to be remembered as a storyteller or fictional craftsperson than as a man of ideas, a dramatizer of history.

Barometer Rising

When, following his wife’s advice to write of that which he knew best, MacLennan turned to his hometown, Halifax, he used it not only as the novel’s setting but also as its subject. In Barometer Rising, he was also writing of Canada; Halifax, with its colonial attitudes overlaying social and ideological divisions, is a microcosm of a new Canada. The book’s title is in large part explained in a subsequent essay, in which MacLennan describes Halifax as a barometer for the whole country.

What goes up must have been down; if the barometer rises, if, by implication, Canada faces a halcyon future, it does so only after a great storm and a particularly violent stroke of lightning. The action of Barometer Rising is centered on an actual historical event, the blast that occurred when a munitions ship exploded in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917. The largest single human-made explosion before Hiroshima, it destroyed a major portion of the town and killed some two thousand people.

A result of Halifax’s role in World War I, the explosion is also symbolically related to Canada’s involvement in that bloody conflict. Although the concurrent destruction of life, property, and outworn colonial beliefs—the old world dying with a monstrous bang—constitutes the core of the book, a number of other motifs are woven into its thematic patterns. The conflict of generations, the return of the wanderer and the Odysseus theme, the psychological aspects of technological change— these are all important elements of the novel that continued to reverberate in MacLennan’s subsequent work. Underlying all the thematic strands is the author’s view of historical process, a view that puts a strong emphasis upon the conditioning significance of physical geography.

It is Halifax’s geographical situation that underlies the book’s basic contrast, that between old and new Canada, colony and country. The harbor gives the town its meaning; facing away from the rest of Canada, Halifax looks toward Great Britain and the Continent, both in a literal and a figurative sense. From the topographical facts, carefully elaborated at the beginning of the novel, derive the prevailing attitudes of the Haligonians: It is the preservation of England that motivates all of what happens in Halifax; the colonial mentality prevails. Had the geography been different, the town’s development and activity would have been different, and, consequently, its people would have been different.

If geography is destiny, there is no rigid determinism in MacLennan’s view of that destiny. Halifax, although pointed toward Britain physically and thus psychologically as well, is part of the New World and has, therefore, the potential for a different orientation. This reorientation follows from the book’s central event, the explosion, an event that, while the result of accident, is influenced by topography in both cause and effect. The explosion is a result of the collision, in Halifax harbor, of a munitions ship with a Norwegian freighter; the crash occurs because the physical nature of the harbor limits visibility. As a result of the destruction, new values arise from the rubble of the old; Halifax is no longer dominated by the rigid ideas of its old colonial aristocracy.

Although the story has this allegorical quality, with a message made explicit in a concluding passage on what might be termed Canada’s “manifest destiny,” its allegory is fleshed out with particular, three-dimensional characters, conditioned by geography and history, but living out their private lives within the interstices of that conditioning framework.

Neil Macrae, the book’s hero, is, like Odysseus, a soldier returned from the war, bearing an assumed identity acquired after he was falsely accused of disobeying an order during an attack in which he was thought to have been killed. His accuser is the novel’s villain, Colonel Wain, representative of the old order, and father of Penelope—whose Homeric name is intentional—the heroine with whom Neil is in love. The cast is completed by a number of skillfully drawn secondary characters derived from MacLennan’s memories, including Penny’s younger brother Roddie, modeled on MacLennan himself, and Angus Murray, also in love with Penny, the first in a series of heroic doctors who appear in MacLennan’s novels.

Following the explosion and the vindication of Neil’s conduct during the attack in France (the outcome of the battle depending, just as does the collision in the harbor, on terrain), Neil and Penelope are finally united; the storm is over, and the future is bright. Although the novel is marred by this rather facile happy ending and by its general didacticism, the basic interest in both action and character, reinforced with symbolism, makes Barometer Rising artistically satisfying. Although MacLennan was to write more subtly in future novels, Barometer Rising, representing clearly his basic approach, fiction as dramatized history, remains one of his best achievements.

Two Solitudes and The Precipice

MacLennan’s next two novels also used a love story to express theme and continued to demonstrate his interest in the impact of geography upon the character of a people. Two Solitudes, centered upon the romance between Paul Tallard and Heather Methuen, begins with a description of the landscape of Quebec; throughout, the symbolism of the river, the forest, and the town reinforces the theme of the relationship of the English and French in Quebec. The Precipice, with its love affair between a Canadian woman and an American man, contrasts Canada and the United States by relating the character of the peoples to their respective terrains. Set primarily in Ontario, the novel uses Lake Ontario as a dominant symbol, reinforced by references to weather, gardens, the city, and other prevalent MacLennan imagery.

Each Man’s Son

Similar imagery informs Each Man’s Son; thematic conflicts are drawn between two sides of the Scottish Highlands character, between religion as a sense of sin and religion as inspiration, and between science and superstition, particularly focused through the contrast between the mines and the sea of Cape Breton. A major turning point in the plot occurs when Dr. Ainslie (whose name is taken from a Cape Breton place-name) gives his to-be-adopted son, Alan, a lesson in history, followed by one in geography.

The Watch That Ends the Night

Arguably MacLennan’s best novel, The Watch That Ends the Night demonstrates a significant advance in his technique. The didactic quality of his earlier novels is reduced; the imagery becomes more involved, as does the handling of time; characters take on more interest, not as symbols but in their own right. Concurrently, the sense of the formative power of geography upon character is moved more to the background, as though Canada, having been conditioned by geography, is able to go beyond this conditioning. Nevertheless, in this, as in all his novels, MacLennan writes from essentially the same perspective on history and employs many of the same patterns in fictional construction.

Again, just as in the earlier novels, the book is based on a strong sense of place, in this case Montreal, described in memorable, often loving detail. Again, the plot centers upon a love interest, a triangle involving George Stewart, who has autobiographical connections with MacLennan; Jerome Martell, a doctor with mythic qualities; and Catherine Carey, a remarkable woman (who takes on, for Canada, some of the symbolism Kathleen Ni Houlihan did for Ireland) whose portrait owes something to MacLennan’s wife Dorothy. George loves Catherine, but she marries Martell. After Martell is thought to have been killed by the Nazis, Catherine and George eventually marry, but, much later, Martell reappears. (The story begins at this point, and is told primarily through flashbacks.) Although Catherine stays with George, suffering a heart condition, she has little time left to live.

Within this framework, MacLennan presents a rich picture, with numerous wellrealized minor characters, of Montreal during the Great Depression and during the time of the Korean War. For all his interest in psychology in this work, it is, as are all his novels, less a “novel of character” than a working out, through characters, of ideas, and a dramatization of social-historical processes. Although the plot (except in the New Brunswick section) does not hinge on terrain, the imagery does. Images derived from nature control much of the book’s tone, with references to rivers and oceans particularly important. In The Watch That Ends the Night, MacLennan moved beyond any mechanistic application of historical theory to the novel; he did not, however, change his fundamental view of the forces underlying human events.

Return of the Sphinx

MacLennan’s next novel, Return of the Sphinx, reintroduced Alan, from Each Man’s Son, now a grown man with his own son. Dealing, on the surface, with events of the Quebec liberation movement during the 1960’s, it is set mainly in Montreal and Ottawa but contains a “retreat to the woods” section and begins with an explicit statement of the impact of geography and weather upon culture; it ends with images of the land. Beneath the political action lies a deeper psychological theme, in essence that of the Oedipus complex, as MacLennan extends in this novel his interest in psychological theory, begun in Each Man’s Son and continued in The Watch That Ends the Night; he also extends his use of imagery derived from nature and geography to express psychological states.

Voices in Time

In MacLennan’s final novel, Voices in Time, his lifelong interest in the perspective provided by history is obvious and central to the book’s structure. Indeed, the direct, albeit complicated manner in which this interest informs the novel may be a key to its success. MacLennan’s focus on history was always essentially pragmatic—to use the past to understand the present and anticipate the future; this is what Voices in Time undertakes.

The book intertwines the stories of three men from three different generations: Conrad Dehmel, born in Germany in 1910, a concentration-camp survivor; Timothy Wellfleet, a Canadian born in 1938 who becomes a television interviewer; and John Wellfleet, another Canadian, born in 1964. John Wellfleet is the central narrator. He is one of the few humans who has lived through the “destructions” of atomic explosions, and when the novel opens in 2039, he is approached by the young André Gervais, who has found materials related to Wellfleet’s family and wants the old man to use them to reconstruct the past that has, in effect, been destroyed for Gervais and his friends. Wellfleet works out Dehmel’s story, involving opposition to Hitler and love for a Jewish woman, and finds it subsequently connecting to Dehmel’s stepson Timothy, who interviews Dehmel on television in 1970. As a result of the interview, during which Timothy accuses Dehmel of having been a Nazi, Dehmel is assassinated.

Obviously, the presentation of this material, these voices from different times, calls for a complicated structure: Timothy’s story is told by John Wellfleet; Dehmel’s by both Wellfleet and, through diaries, by himself; and Wellfleet’s own story is concluded by Gervais. The time scheme moves from 2039, to the late 1960’s, to 1909, to 1918-1919, to 1932-1945, to a climax in 1970, and finally to 2044.

Like the time scheme, MacLennan’s view of causation that underlies this historical presentation is intricate, especially as compared to Barometer Rising and his earlier novels. Nevertheless, his belief in the significance of geography, nature, and landscape in motivating character can still be seen, even though the landscape has become primarily urban, and character may be formed, or deformed, by separation from fundamental geography. Nature continues to provide MacLennan with a thematic contrast to the urban, technological environment and to be a source of much of his imagery. Timothy is cut off, in his technological world, from natural geography; at nineteen thousand feet, he flies over the woods his father’s generation had known intimately. Dehmel finds a temporary salvation, in both the world wars, in Germany’s Black Forest. John Wellfleet lives on the outskirts of what was once Montreal, with trees, flowers, and birds. Drawing upon Walt Whitman, MacLennan uses lilacs and a star to make a contrast with urban technology and its sense of time; he has Wellfleet think of the “time-clocks” of plants and birds. In one key passage, civilization is compared to a garden. Most significant, perhaps, when compared to the thoughts about civilization, its rise and fall, and time, which MacLennan presents in Rivers of Canada, is the mentioning of rivers, as when, for example, the cautious optimism that tempers the tragic events narrated in Voices in Time is symbolized by the return of salmon to the St. Lawrence River.

Voices in Time was MacLennan’s final novel and was a fitting climax to a successful career. It indicated that although he assuredly has a major position in the history of Canadian letters, he was one of those novelists who, although solidly rooted in time and place, transcended both. His ability to dramatize his geographical sense of history suggests that MacLennan is a writer who will continue to speak to future generations, to be, himself, a voice not stilled by time.

Major Works
Long fiction: Barometer Rising, 1941; Two Solitudes, 1945; The Precipice, 1948; Each Man’s Son, 1951; The Watch That Ends the Night, 1959; Return of the Sphinx, 1967; Voices in Time, 1980.
Nonfiction: Oxyrhynchus: An Economic and Social Study, 1935, 1968; Cross-Country, 1948; Thirty and Three, 1954; Scotchman’s Return, and Other Essays, 1960; Seven Rivers of Canada, 1961 (revised as Rivers of Canada, 1974); The Colour of Canada, 1967; The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan: Selected Essays Old and New, 1978 (Elspeth Cameron, editor); On Being a Maritime Writer, 1984; Dear Marian, Dear Hugh: The MacLennan-Engel Correspondence, 1995 (Christl Verduyn, editor).
Edited texts: McGill: The Story of a University, 1960. miscellaneous: Hugh MacLennan’s Best, 1991 (Douglas M. Gibson, editor)
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.


Categories: Canadian Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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