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Puritanism in Canadian prairie fiction Cameron, Doris Margaret

Abstract

Although it is generally acknowledged that Puritanism has been a major influence in Canadian society, little has been done to trace that influence in the literature. It is the aim of this thesis to discuss the place of Puritanism within some of the best Canadian prairie fiction. The broadly historical approach is avoided in order to make possible a detailed study of a few significant novels. Five novelists were .chosen for consideration: Arthur Stringer, Robert J. C. Stead, Martha Ostenso, Frederick Philip Grove, and Sinclair Ross. Three novels by Arthur Stringer, The Prairie Wife, The Prairie Mother, and The Prairie Child, are included because together they form one complete work, and three by Frederick Philip Grove, Settlers of the Marsh, Our Daily Bread, and Fruits of the Earth, because of his relatively large output of significant fiction. Only one novel by each of the other novelists is discussed: Robert J. C. Stead's Grain, Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese, and Sinclair Ross's As For Me and My House. The selection of the novelists was governed by a desire to examine only fiction worthy of critical examination and yet to represent as many attitudes towards Puritanism as possible. Arthur Stringer, the least important in terms of artistic achievement, is included because of his attempt to replace Puritanism with the American myth of innocence. Robert J. C. Stead and Martha Ostenso represent, respectively, the extremes of acceptance and rejection. Frederick Philip Grove, a more complicated figure, accepts many of the Puritan values, but points to the breakdown of those values' in the society. Sinclair Ross presents the most comprehensive and articulate description of Puritanism. Although he is critical of it, and, like Grove, sees the weakening of its hold on the society, he is nevertheless able to maintain a positive attitude towards it. The Introduction states the need for a comparative and thematic approach to Canadian literature and suggests some of the pre-suppositions of this study. In order that the main emphasis be placed on the literature, the definition of Puritanism is given within the discussion of the specific works under consideration. Canadian Puritanism is obviously not the same as the original Puritanism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but neither is it simply the rigid and narrow-minded morality which represents the worst form of its later historical development. It is best approached with an awareness of both its original form and its later perversions. The five main chapters are devoted to separate studies of the five novelists. The emphasis is placed on the attitudes towards Puritanism reflected in the novels. For each novel, the major themes are examined, a discussion of symbolism and imagery is included whenever possible, and comparisons with the other novels are made where relevant. The Conclusion draws more specific comparisons and defines more fully the three themes common to all the novels: the problem of man's relationship with the soil, the problem of woman, and the problem of authority. The land, like the Puritan God, is the arbitrary master, controlling the seasons and the outcome of the crops, and demanding obedience and co-operation of man. The rigorous nature of farm life and the need for children encourages the Puritan attitude that the proper role of woman is that of a hard working wife and mother father than that of an intellectual or sexual companion. Because the farm is an independent and self-sufficient unit, the main authority figure is the father, and because the work is so time-consuming the father often becomes, to his family, as aloof and arbitrary as the Puritan God. Prairie Puritanism may appear inordinately harsh, but the harshness is the result of the Puritan's awareness of sin which, forces him to face his situation realistically. Any realization of love and forgiveness, when it comes, is achieved after all the facts have been faced and the temptation to romanticize has been resisted. With the movement away from the land and the gradual improvement in working conditions, the characteristic themes and settings of prairie life, and with them, the explicit Puritan doctrines may disappear, but it is to be hoped that the tough-minded and realistic approach to life which is basic to Puritanism, will not be lost.

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