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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Environment and the quest motif in selected works of Canadian prairie fiction Rogers, Linda

Abstract

Time and place are the media through which the eternal is manifested for the comprehension of fallible man. It is the response to environment which has determined and shaped the human attitude toward ultimate mysteries. The patterns of nature are translated by the artist and philosopher into the ritual behaviour of man. The challenge of adversity and the joy of the morning or the new season are motivation for the restless desire to overcome the imperfections of human and geographical landscape. The Canadian prairie, virgin and elemental, as old as the world and as new as the twentieth century, determines a particular kind of response which is both immediate and universal. It provides the traditional challenge of the desert with the inherent possibility of a Promised Land for the regenerate. The writers who have translated the prairie experience into words have tended to fuse traditional with personal mythology, elevating the moment in mutable time to time eternal. The prairie, for them, is at once the desert of the Old Testament and the modern wasteland. The response, although archetypal, has relevance for the individual. The quest motif, which is an aspect of the romantic tradition of all cultures, is central to prairie fiction. The optimism of the journey toward the light is felt even in moments of darkness, during drought or a dust storm. There is a prevailing sense, in the Canadian prairie novel, that man, through regenerate behaviour, will overcome. As he wanders through the physical and metaphysical landscape of the prairie, the individual regenerate behaviour, will overcome. As he wanders through the physical and metaphysical landscape of the prairie, the individual learns to know God and to know himself. As environment takes on traditional aspects of Godhead, the fictional characters find their analogues in the Bible and in traditional mythological figures. The sick king, the fisherman, the god, the messiah and the prairie farmer become fused in the symbolic struggle for identity. The names of the original pioneers in the Old Testament are given new vitality by the particularly contemporary dilemmas of their modern namesakes. In the major fiction of the Canadian prairie, the quest takes on many aspects. Sometimes it is a direct search for transcendental reality, as in Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell, and sometimes it is an effort to find heaven on earth, outside of the spiritual context, as in Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel. Mitchell's journey after the meaning of God in Who Has Seen the Wind is primarily simplistic. He believes in the direct route. Reality is a means and not an impediment to supernatural revelation. For Sinclair Ross, whose characters in As For Me and My House are obsessed with transcendental reality, the quest is not so simple. Psychological realities distort divine ecstasy into grotesques. The Promised Land is circumscribed with irony. Margaret Laurence, who has rejected the vertical quest after God, is concerned with the voyage toward self knowledge. Her paths lead into the self. The individual is responsible for his own salvation. A tragic example of irresponsibility related to the horizontal quest motif is that of Abraham in Adele Wiseman's novel The Sacrifice. The questor is not always successful, but the knowledge he gains contains the promise of salvation. That promise is often realized in the messianic motif which is a corollary of the quest. Outsiders with the power to heal, like Gwendolyn MacEwen's magician and George Elliott's kissing man, have the traditional properties of the saviour. Their love embodies the promise of spring and the new season. The major and minor fiction of the prairie share a common vocabulary of optimism which is inherent in the quest literature of every tradition. Landscape is the objective correlative through which man learns by association about God and about himself. His struggle to comprehend particular environmental mysteries is analagous to the universal quest after truth.

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