UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Attitudes to love and sex in the English Canadian novel Ulrych, Miriam Iris


This thesis examines the attitudes to love and sex reflected in eight Canadian novels dating from 1925 to 1969. The first three, Frederick Philip Grove's Settlers of the Marsh, Morley Callaghan's They Shall Inherit the Earth, and Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night, were chosen not only as works centrally concerned with love, but also as good examples of their writers' treatment of sexuality in other novels. And since Grove, Callaghan, and MacLennan are generally held to be the major Canadian writers of at least the first half of this century, collectively their novels form an accurate picture of the traditional, mainstream attitude to sex, insofar as it can be seen operating in and through fiction. Chapter One introduces the reader to the ways in which twentieth-century Canadian fictional attitudes to love and sex are directly contiguous with those of Victorian England: the fundamental duality of body and soul; the "worship" of the good woman as the embodiment of the Christian virtue of self-sacrificing, pure love; the resulting splitting off of aggressive sexuality from feelings of tenderness; and the subsequent driving underground of the repressed sexual urges and their emergence into perverse forms. Chapter Two traces Grove's insistence upon a tender, asexual Victorian ideal and his deliberate efforts to eliminate what he regards as degrading and destructive, that is, any sexual urges not strictly passive and subordinate to spiritual love and monogamous procreation. Chapter Three discusses Callaghan's attempt to break away from this traditional duality of love and sex, and then demonstrates how his fusion of body and soul actually breaks down into just another version of the old split so that sex is good only so long as it remains in the service of self-sacrificing love. It also establishes how Callaghan's notion of love comes to depend ultimately upon covert sadomasochism in which both the male and female unconsciously and destructively attempt to break out of sexual roles too rigid and narrow to serve their complex human needs. Chapter Four looks at MacLennan's apparent affirmation of life and sex, and maintains that his mystical message is really a sadomasochistic impulse in which life becomes the unconscious and obsessive pursuit after pain and death. The relationship which emerges between the sexes in all three of these novels is that of dominant female and dependent, resentful, frightened male. Grove, Callaghan, and MacLellan all portray women as essentially stronger than their men: the "good" ones dominate by means of protective, maternal power and the "bad" ones through aggressive, self-gratifying sexuality. The male responses to these powerful women are deeply ambivalent: they seek infantile security and gratification at the breasts of the "good" women, while they simultaneously attempt to establish their potency, autonomy and safety by overtly destroying the "bad" mothers and covertly punishing the "good" ones. Thus Grove, Callaghan and MacLennan all create fictional worlds in which sadomasochism inadvertently works against their notions of idealized love. Chapters Five and Six examine Sheila Watson's The Double Hook and Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, concentrating on their more contemporary treatment of sexaulity and particularly on their response to the archetype of the castrating mother. Watson pioneers the way out of the Victorian past by exploring aggression as a potentially positive mode of behaviour, and by seeing in the traditional role of the self-sacrificing woman the kind of tyranny-by-guilt which covertly holds sway in the earlier works. Richler also rejects the notion of the efficacy of suffering and thus has his young hero attain manhood partially through his repudiation of the "security" offered in a relationship with a self-sacrificing woman. Moreover, his satire repeatedly focuses on the covert sexual reality which underlies idealistic pretensions, and thus makes the same comment as this thesis is making about the novels of the traditional mainstream. Chapter Seven analyzes the ways in which Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, Margaret Laurence's The Fire-Dwellers and Robert Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man all work through various responses to the repressive limitations of Victorian ideals: Cohen dramatizes an ideal of polymorphous perversity, Laurence "masculinizes" her heroine and "feminizes" her male protagonists, and Kroetsch insists upon an unidealized, aggressively sexual response to life. Nevertheless, as Chapter Seven demonstrates, even contemporary imaginations continue to focus on the woman as castrating mother and the man as threatened son. Thus in the final analysis, the differences between the attitudes of contemporary writers and those of their predecessors lie not in an abandonment of the traditional archtype, but only in the degree to which they are conscious of, and deliberately choosing to work with, sado-masochistic sexuality.

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