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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Martha Ostenso's novels : a study of three dominant themes Jones, Alexander Henry


This thesis is an examination of a group of central themes which run through Martha Ostenso's novels; it focuses upon three major problems in human relationship, observed within the context of her fictional families. Ostenso's characters are usually seen as victims of tyrannical forces that exert destructive pressure upon normal family life. The examples of domestic dissension in the novels are generally familiar, consisting as they do of problems arising from incompatibility, narrow dogmatism, and resentful isolation, caused by a suppressed fear of retribution, in one form or another. Even though the greater part of her work involves agricultural communities of North America, there is a distinct universality about her novels that recommends her as a suitable subject for serious research. In the Introduction, I have outlined the thematic concerns of this study. In doing so, I have suggested that effective evaluation of an artist, such as Martha Ostenso, can occur only following an examination of the total output of work. Ostenso's canon contains material for numerous specialized studies; however, it was decided to concentrate upon tracing three characteristic elements, which owe their origin to her first novel, Wild Geese. This novel is used as a base in order to illustrate Ostenso's apparent determination to exploit certain of its more successful aspects. Chapter Two is a discussion of the problems arising between members of her fictional families. The pattern of abrasive relationships between parents and children is followed from her first novel to her last. There is discernible evidence that Ostenso's treatment of this subject reveals a growing sense of psychological insight. Similarly, other kinds of family strife receive an increasingly sensitive handling, indicative of her apparent desire to capitalize upon an expanding awareness of human tensions. Chapter Three, in continuing the discussion of Ostenso's central themes, traces the delineation of the authority figure, from the elemental, caricature-like Caleb Gare to the wholly credible figure of Luke Darr. It is concluded that Ostenso's ultimate goal is the regeneration of such individuals who place themselves outside the pale of human sympathy. Chapter Four examines the spiritual desolation and self-torture seen as one of the more common conditions of the human predicament in Ostenso's novels. This aspect of her work reveals the least evidence of development. On occasion it becomes awkwardly incredible. The study concludes with an examination of Ostenso's impact upon literary criticism in North America. It is clear that she is overshadowed by many of the contemporary practitioners of "realism" in America; however, in terms of Canadian fiction she has made a contribution that will rank always as a major landmark on our journey to a mature literature.

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