Representations of Women and Nature in Canadian Women's Writing

Thesis (M.A.), 2008

74 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The Canadian North

3. The North in Early Exploration Literature

4. The Significance of Nature in Canadian Literature
4.1 Literary Representations before the 1960s
4.2 The Renaissance of the Northern Myth
4.3 Women Entering the Canadian Wilderness

5. Representations of Women and Nature in Contemporary Canadian Literature
5.1 Margaret Atwood's Surfacing
5.2 Marian Engel's Bear
5.3 Joan Barfoot's Abra
5.4 Aritha van Herk's The Tent Peg

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Canada has always been associated with its landscape, with a vast and inviolate nature, including prairies, forests with innumerable lakes, idyllic mountain ranges and the Arctic barrens in the far north. With an area of almost 10 million square kilometers, Canada is the second largest country in the world, but with only 31

million people living there and a population density of 3,2 inhabitants per square kilometer, it is also the less populated.1

The theme of nature and wilderness has also been reflected throughout Canadian literary tradition. As Canadian author Aritha van Herk notes, "[t]he impact of landscape on artist and artist on landscape is unavoidable" (1992, 139). Adopting the northern concepts of early explorers and settlers, most literature about the Canadian wilderness has been written by male authors. For a long time, the Canadian North served as background for historical romances and adventure stories. The response to the landscape was often very negative, the wilderness was described as being hostile and dangerous. Parallel to that image, the landscape was portrayed in female terms, as being innocent, inviolate and beautiful – the Canadian North appeared as a femme fatale. Especially in its beginnings, Canadian literature was strongly influenced by its American and British predecessors and the early writers reinforced the myth of the Canadian North. In the early twentieth century, the North was mainly a place of retreat for the fictive heroes of the South who went from the city to the wilderness to find themselves. One of the most famous texts of this time is Frederick Philip Grove's autobiography In Search of Myself (1946). His journey to the North became a synonym for the search of the own self.

Due to cultural and political changes around the late 1950s, and especially due to the search for a Canadian cultural identity, Canadian literature underwent a change. The search for a cultural identity particularly influenced Canadian women writers who were looking for possibilities to show new ways to a self-confident and emancipated female identity. While for centuries the Canadian North had only been a place for men, more and more women writers began to send their female protagonists into the wilderness which provided a place of refuge and rehabilitation.

That this women-in-the-wilderness writing has become a frequent theme in Canadian women's writing, is shown by the following quote by American novelist Gail Godwin who, in 1982, let one of her protagonists threw a Canadian book across the room, complaining: "I'm getting tired of novels about women who go off to the woods to find themselves" (in Slettedahl Macpherson 92).

However, as there have been written so many novels about women in the wilderness, the aim of this thesis is to point out the different representations of women and nature in contemporary Canadian women's writing. The analysis will especially focus on the relationship between women and nature and on the similarities and differences in comparison to male depictions of the North. As Margaret Atwood asks in her book of lectures, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995):

[W]hat happens when women writers choose the wilderness as a locale [?] What becomes of the body of imagery built up by male writers, in which a female Nature opposes a male protagonist? If the North is a cold femme fatale, enticing you to destruction, is it similarly female and similarly fatal when a woman character encounters it? (4)

[W]hat happens to the North – that is, the written North – the North both of clichéd image, and of more serious literature – when women enter the northern landscape, either as authors, or as female [...] protagonists created by women authors [?] (88)

However, before analyzing the different perspectives on women's wilderness experiences in Canada, it will be necessary to define the term "the North". What does it mean and where is the North located? As the early explorers have provided the first written accounts of the Canadian North and its landscape, the next part will be, then, to point out how they have perceived and portrayed the North during their journeys in an unknown country. Most of their letters and journals had been very important for later literary representations. Therefore, chapter 4 focuses on the literary representations of nature and wilderness in Anglo-Canadian literature from the middle of the nineteenth-century until the 1970s. Furthermore, the chapter looks at the development of women-in-the-wilderness writing and its significance for feminist writing.

Chapter 5, finally, analyzes in chronological appearance the works of four of the most famous contemporary Canadian women writers – Margaret Atwood's Surfacing (1972), Marian Engel's Bear (1976), Joan Barfoot's Abra and The Tent Peg (1981) by Aritha van Herk.

Surfacing marks the transition from traditional representations of the Canadian North to alternative concepts. The nameless protagonist of the novel goes on a journey to her home island in Quebec to search for her lost father. Accompanied by her lover and two friends, the journey turns out to be not only a physical journey but also a psychological and mystical quest to her past and her own self.

With her novel Bear, which combines realistic, fantastic and sexual elements, Marian Engels continues the detachment towards an alternative northern tradition. Through the relationship with a bear, the protagonist Lou is finally able to find herself and her place in the world.

The third text, Abra by Joan Barfoot, also deals with a woman who finds in the close contact with the wilderness of Ontario the necessary source for her own psychic renewal. While the other women are finally able to return to society, the protagonist Abra decides to stay in the wilderness. The novel has caused some critical discussion because it is about a woman who abandons her children and her husband, preferring to live a fulfilled life in the remote wilderness.

The last text to be analyzed will be Aritha van Herk's The Tent Peg which is about the young woman J.L. who spends one summer in a geologist camp in the Yukon mountains to work as a cook. While initially, the novel bears the characteristics of northern narrative tradition, it soon turns into a mythical story of a woman who does not only undergo a change herself, but who also changes the patriarchal views of the nine men who are with her in the camp.

2. The Canadian North

For centuries, the North2 has been the symbol for Canada. Or, as Louis-Edmond Hamelin states: “The presence of the North is always around: it is the background of the picture without which Canada would not be what it is” (in Grace 1993, 68). However, before talking about the different representations of the North throughout the last centuries, it will be important to define what 'the North' is and where it is located.

It is very difficult to say exactly where the North begins because, as N. L. Nicholson notes, “[t]he term 'the Canadian north' has a different meaning for different people and in no interpretation of the term are there more divergent views than with regard to the area to which it refers” (in Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 32). In his book Canada's Changing North (2003), William C. Wonders also mentions that “few other geographic regions are subject to such widely differing interpretations” (xii).

The most common alternative is to distinct the Canadian North into political territories. Based on that, the North of Canada comprises the three territories which are located north of sixty degrees latitude. These are the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut which has been administrated by the Inuit since April 1999 (Lenz 432). The landscape in those territories is diverse, ranging from coniferous forests to the tundra and finally to the Arctic barrens in the far north. The vast archipelago which is located above the Canadian mainland, contains some of the world's largest islands. The landscape of the western North is mostly inviolate and characterized by huge, partly iced mountain ranges of the Yukon Territory as well as the enormous river valleys of the Mackenzie river in the Northwest Territories. The territorial border of 60°N is not only recognized as the political but also as the geographical marker. The smooth transition between the climatic conditions does not allow an exact distinction and therefore the vast landmass north of sixty is basically divided into two natural spaces – the Arctic and the Subarctic – which makes it possible to confine the North with regard to its physical character.

The division between North and South is identical with the southern border of the Subarctic, whereby this line partly runs south of 60° latitude (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 33f). According to Peter Usher, “[t]he Arctic [...] includes very little of the Yukon, only the northern and eastern parts of the [Northwest-Territories], but also the parts of northern Manitoba, Ontario, Québec, and Labrador. The Subarctic includes all of the remainder of the territorial North, plus the northern parts of all of the provinces except the Maritimes” (485).

In the 1960s, geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin developed the concept of 'nordicity' to define the degree of northernness of a region. He argued that because of its variety “boreal Canada cannot be considered as a homogeneous region” (Hamelin 8). To define the 'nordicity' of an area, he has established ten criteria: “1. latitude; 2. permafrost; 3. number of days above 42°F (5°5C); 4. negative thermal index from 65°F (18°3C); 5. length of freeze up; 6. vegetation; 7. communications; 8. population (native and white); 9. exploitation of resources; 10. cost of goods. The ten categories chosen are intended to represent both physical and human phenomena” (Hamelin 9f).

Hamelin's measure of nordicity is Polar Value (valeurs polaires or VAPO). According to calculations based on those criteria, Hamelin distinguishes four latitudinal norths in Canada – the Near North, the Middle North, the High North and the Far North. These four regions are located beyond the Southern Base which takes in 91 per cent of the country's population, although it extents over less than 10 per cent of Canada. The Near North is characterized by its raw materials, forestry and mining. With a permanent population of more than a million, it stretches from Kitimat to Newfoundland, encompassing the Peace River, the iron bridge north of Lake Superior and passing through Sept-Îles. The Middle North is the largest nordic zone. The mainly subarctic region with 100,000 inhabitants stretches from the Yukon to Labrador, including Hudson Bay. Hamelin calls the High North “the beginning of the true North” (12). Including the Inuit, only 20,000 people live there. It extends from the channels between the mainland and the Arctic islands, including Victoria Island and Baffin Island. The Far North covers ten per cent of Canada and it is permanently frozen, both on the land and on the sea. It includes Ellesmere Island and the pack ice in the Arctic ocean.

According to Hamelin, these four regions which make up the Canadian North, are not divided by a single line, but rather by a transition zone (Hamelin 10-12).3

However, the North is much more than a physical region, it is also “a place of dreams, of imagination and fantasy” (Morrison, 1). Originally, like the West, the North was a European dream (Grace 1993, 68) which goes back to the early explorers. Petra Wittke-Rüdiger argues that “the Canadian North – just like the Orient – appears as a constructed 'reality' which is commonly portrayed as Europe's other” (2005b, 145). Using the term 'Nordism', she refers to Said's concept of 'Orientalism':4

'Nordism' functions as a folio against which the Canadian North has been perceived and controlled and which at the same time justified colonial politics [...]. Every encounter with the Canadian North became equivalent with an entry into the complex world of texts and discourses. [...] 'Nordism' does therefore not describe a neutral discipline. It is rather a European way of perception, appropriation and exploitation. (2005b, 145f)

In her book Canada and the Idea of North (2001), Sherrill Grace also writes that “what we know as North is the product of [...] writing, [of] representations. The real north (or north s) is not [...] the issue” (21).

The following chapter will show how the European explorers and colonists have perceived and represented the North and in how far they have influenced the literary representations of the Canadian wilderness.

3. The North in Early Exploration Literature

The first written accounts of the Canadian North go back to the early explorers who kept records about their journeys and their experiences in an unknown country. Canadian exploration literature developed in the late 17th, early 18th century and it comprises empirical observations as well as personal records, for example journals or letters (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 41). Many of the explorers, like John Franklin, Samuel Hearne or Alexander Mackenzie, became famous because of their journals. Those early northern narratives had been very influential for later literary representations of the north.

In his book True North: The Yukon and Northwest Territories (1998), William R. Morrison distinguishes three periods of Canadian exploration which each were motivated by different goals:

The first [period], which lasted until the early years of the nineteenth century, was motivated mostly by economic goals – first the search for the Northwest Passage, [...], and later the search for new fur-trade opportunities. The second period, which lasted for about a hundred years, from 1820 until after the First World War, had national pride as its basic motivation. [...] Today, in the third period, the word “exploration” is really a misnomer, for in almost all cases the men, and often women, who strive to be the first to reach the pole on skies, or by snowmobile, or by dragging their own sleds, do so to challenge themselves, or in the hope of attracting media attention. (62)

According to Morrison, the most important period of North-Canadian exploration ranges from the end of the first period until the end of the second period:

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, with the last of the trade-motivated expeditions, it continued throughout the nineteenth century, ending when the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-18 explored the last unknown islands of the high Arctic archipelago. Beginning in 1770 with the travels of Samuel Hearne and ending 150 years later with those of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, this era saw the entire North explored and added to the world's maps, from the Barrens of the Northwest Territories to the extreme north of Ellesmere Island. (62)

In those years of exploration, many explorers have noted down their experiences in the Canadian North, but only few of the accounts and journals had been influential for the later representations of the North. In Strange Things – The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995), Margaret Atwood describes this phenomenon as follows:

These lectures depart from the position that, although in [Canadian] culture many [exploration] stories are told, only some are told and retold, and that these recurring stories bear examining. [...] [I]n literature, they hold a curious fascination both for those who tell them and for those who hear them; they are handed down and reworked, and story-tellers come back to them time and time again, approaching them from various angles and discovering new and different meanings each time the story, or a part of it, is given a fresh incarnation. (11)

Atwood further notes that in Canadian literature one such story is the famous expedition of John Franklin who wanted to discover the Northwest Passage in 1845. He and his crew never returned alive because they got caught in the ice (1995, 11f).

The main reason for the European explorers to travel and explore the unknown territory was not because they were interested in the region itself, but because they hoped for wealth, prestige and knowledge (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 45). As Alexander Mackenzie has stated in the preface to his Voyages from Montreal: 5

The general utility of such a discovery, has been universally acknowledged; [...] and as the completion of it extends the boundaries of geographic science, and adds new countries to the realms of British commerce, the danger I have encountered, and the toils I have suffered, have found their recompence; nor will the many tedious and weary days, or the gloomy and inclement nights which I have passed, have been passed in vain. [...] I cannot but indulge the hope that this volume [...] will not be thought unworthy the attention of the scientific geographer; and that, by unfolding countries hitherto unexplored, and which, I presume, may now be considered as a part of the British dominions, it will be received as a faithful tribute to the prosperity of my country. (viii-ix)

However, what the explorers really found in the first instance was not fame and recognition. Without seeing the beauty and uniqueness of the country, they encountered a cold, unpredictable wilderness which they tried to calculate and retain in European terms (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 45). As Coral Ann Howells puts it, “Canada was a hostile terrain with an implacable climate and filled with hidden dangers from indigenous Indians and wild beasts, where the European settlers felt their existence to be a heroic struggle for survival against multiple natural threats (1987, 14). For them the North was an unpredictable “monster” which relentlessly crushed people and which had to be defeated. It was “an anti-garden of snow, cold and endless night. [...] The North was [...] largely inaccessible and uninhabitable, silent, mysterious and deadly” (Grace 1993, 69).

One of the most famous explorers is Alexander Mackenzie after whom the longest river in Canada is named. During his first voyage, Mackenzie had an aversion to the country he was crossing. In a letter to his cousin Roderic he wrote: “[...] I think it unpardonable in any man to remain in this country who can afford to leave it” (Lamb 453). This approach to the Canadian landscape is also reflected in his travelogue. He noted for example: “The country [was] so naked that scarce a shrub was to be seen (263). [...] No trees are visible, and with scarce any thing of surface that can be called earth” (404). He described the wilderness as “barren and broken” (398) and found this “inhospitable region” (404) as a suitable place to live for the Canadian natives: “There is not [...] a finer country in the world for the residence of uncivilised man” (lxii). Mackenzie also wrote about the dangers caused by the harsh climate in the Canadian North: “Indeed, the weather had been so cold and disagreeable, that I was more than once apprehensive of our being stopped by the ice” (241f). At the end of his journal he emphasizes the validity of his records: “Here my voyages of discovery terminate. Their toils and their dangers, their solicitudes and sufferings, have not been exaggerated in my description. On the contrary, in many instances, language has failed me in the attempt to describe them” (Lamb 407).

Another famous explorer is Samuel Hearne whose Journey to the Northern Ocean 6 is one of the most impressing examples of Canadian documentary literature (Wittke- Rüdiger 2005a, 46). Morrison notes that it “is one of the epic achievements of exploration in the Canadian North. Its remarkable success lay not in the discovery of new riches [...]. Rather, the achievement lay in the feat of traversing such tremendous distance – more than 6,000 kilometres – through difficult country, mostly on foot, and returning alive” (64). Hearne saw only little beauty in the country that he was crossing: “[I]n my opinion, there cannot exist a stronger proof that mankind was not created to enjoy happiness in this world, than the conduct of the miserable beings who inhabit this wretched part of it [...]” (Hearne 122).

In the travelogues of the early explorers, the Canadian North became a place of wilderness and vastness, an unknown and dangerous country of challenge and adventure. In comparison with the civilized world of Britain, this region of extremes became a place of testing.

The North was a region that was discovered and mapped, marked and conquered by men for men. It was a virile territory in which the presence of women was refused categorically (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 49-51).

The parallel concept which portrayed the North as a female space can be seen in close connection with this male dominance: “While [...] the acts of exploration, adventure, [and] free movement in that space are exclusively masculine, [...] northern space is gendered feminine [...]” (Grace 1997, 164). This feminization of the northern landscape can often only be seen indirectly by using attributes which evoke the association of female curves. Mackenzie for example describes the course of a river as „meandering“ (Lamb 205), „serpentine“ (197) or as “narrow winding channels” (198), the parts of land that lie in the river as „small round islands“ (67). Robert Hood, who took part in the Franklin expedition of 1819, is much more direct in his accounts: “The gifts of nature are disregarded and undervalued till they are withdrawn, and in the hideous regions of the Arctic zone, she would make a convert of him for whom the gardens of Europe had no charms or the mild beauties of a southern climate had bloomed in vain” (64, my emphasis). Hood does not only use the female pronoun “she”, but he also connects the landscape with its discoverer. Nevertheless, the message behind it is pejorative because it implies that everyone who knows the Arctic, almost inevitably must appreciate the amenities of the European gardens (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 51f).

However, there is also a more 'aesthetic map' of the Canadian North which had been drawn by men who were more open and receptive to the beauties that nature had to offer in this region. Some of them saw in the North a fascinating symphony of snow and ice, which was able – depending on latitude and season – to change into a splendid mosaic of different colors: “Above water, the ice was white and blue, and where seen through it, dark green, making a contrast with the grey sea and murky fog, almost too powerful for the eye. Every moment, a new form rose through the gloom, presenting the semblence of houses, leafy forests, or herds of deer on its ridge” (Hood 9). The representations were often very picturesque in which the men tried to trace and capture this image of the North (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 52). Robert Hood also wrote about the redemptive beauty of Arctic landscapes:

This evening [...] an army of fantastic shapes burst into existence [...]. The colours fading at the water's edge, they assumed so strikingly the forms of white icebergs, that we were much divided in our opinions, when an impervious dark blue cloud descended like a curtain, and veiled the most beautiful sky I ever saw. (8)

He later notes: “The weather was exceedingly fine, and the increasing beauty of the scenery was alone a source of gratification which repaid every exertion” (26). During his first voyage, Alexander Mackenzie only had eyes for the nastiness of his surroundings, but on his journey to the Pacific, he got to know the thrilling magnificence of the North:

[T]he west side of the river displayed a succession of the most beautiful scenery I had ever beheld. [...] at every interval or pause in the rise, there is a very gently-ascending space or lawn, which is alternate with abrupt precipices to the summit of the whole, or, at least as far as the eye could distinguish. This magnificent theatre of nature has all the decorations which the trees and animals of the country can afford it: […] The whole country displayed an exuberant verdure; the trees that bear a blossom were advancing fast to that delightful appearance, and the velvet rind of their branches reflecting the oblique rays of a rising or setting sun, added a splendid gaiety to the scene, which no expressions of mine are qualified to describe. (Lamb 258f)

This representation of the Canadian North has strongly affected the tradition of northern narratives. Many explorers saw the Canadian North as an innocent “Northland” (Mitcham 12). Its inviolate and widely unexplored nature, its rolling outlines and its seemingly compelling attraction made it an innocent country which needed to be conquered. To show how unsoiled this place had been, many accounts referred to the pure whiteness of the northern Canadian snowscape. Fridtjof Nansen even described the whole North as “the land of the great white silence” (in Wittke- Rüdiger 2005a, 53). According to the two different concepts described above, the early explorers perceived the Canadian North as a femme fatale which was a terrifying, dangerous and the same time innocent and inviolate space.7

4. The Significance of Nature in Canadian Literature

4.1 Literary Representations before the 1960s

The representation of unknown places is a topic which makes up the most important part of narrative literature. Since its belletristic beginnings, the Canadian North has played an important role in Canadian literature. While academics mainly paid attention to sources like travelogues and historical documentations, the representation of the North in Anglo-Canadian fiction has for a long time attracted only little interest. However, since a few years, literary scholars pay more attention to the North (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 63). The first comprehensive study which deals with artistic examinations of this region is Sherrill Grace's Canada and the Idea of North (2001). A few years later, Petra Wittke-Rüdiger, with her dissertation Literarische Kartographien des kanadischen Nordens (2005), has written the first monograph on contemporary literary representations of the Canadian North.8

In Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Margaret Atwood describes how nature had been represented up to the middle of the nineteenth century:

The prevailing literary mode in Nature poetry in the late eighteenth century as derived from Edmund Burke was the cult of the sublime and the picturesque, featuring views and inspirational scenery. In the first half of the nineteenth century this shifted to Wordsworthian Romanticism. What you were "supposed" to feel about Nature under the first mode was awe at the grandeur of Nature; under the second, you were supposed to feel that Nature was a kind Mother or Nurse who would guide man if he would only listen to her. In the popular mind, the two modes often combined; in any case, Nature was "good" and cities were "evil." Nature the kind Mother on Earth had joined and in some cases replaced God the severe Father in Heaven who had been around for some time previously. In the United States, Emerson and his disciples Thoreau and Whitman are certainly later tributaries of this stream. Towards the middle of the century Nature's personality underwent a change; she remained a female deity, but she became redder in tooth and claw as Darwinism infiltrated literature. Toward the middle of the twentieth century, Nature's personality underwent a change; she remained a female deity, but she became redder in tooth and claw as Darwinism infiltrated literature. (1972, 49f)9

Literary critic Northrop Frye found in Canadian poetry a “tone of deep terror in regard to nature” (1965, 830) and he argued that “[t]he environment, in nineteenth- century Canada, is terrifyingly cold, empty, and vast” (843). In Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995), Margaret Atwood notes that “popular lore, and popular literature, established early that the North was uncanny, awe-inspiring in an almost religious way, hostile to white men, but alluring; that it would lead you on and do you in; that it would drive you crazy, and, finally, would claim you for its own” (1995, 19).

While Frye and Atwood found a predominantly negative representation of nature in Canadian literature, Margot Northey, in her book The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction (1976), argues that the 'deep tone of terror' may be valid for Canadian poetry, but the response in fiction would be much more complex (23). She rather identifies the attitude towards nature as being ambiguous and therefore characterizes it as a gothic feature: “[The] attitude combines fascination with horror, seeing nature as a source of exciting vigour and also of ominous danger or doom” (22f). According to Northey, this attitude frequently occurs in a lot of books and can be defined as typically Canadian.10

Another important study on the representation of nature in Canadian Literature is Gaile McGregor's The Wacousta Syndrome: Explorations in the Canadian Langscape [sic] (1985). Like many other critics, McGregor has also used Frye's theses as a basis for her work:

The discovery that a negative response to nature is common among Canadian writers is, admittedly, neither new nor revolutionary. As yet, however, no one has satisfactorily explained the causes or noted the ramifications of these recurrent images of a hostile wilderness – or, in fact, fully traced the extent to which such an image, mediated and mutated, pervades and dominates not just Canadian literature but Canadian culture as a whole. (9-10)

McGregor believes that the response to the Canadian environment has been almost completely negative as there is plenty of evidence in nineteenth- and also in twentieth-century literature (Bühler Roth 19).11

The authors of the 19th and 20th century first of all saw themselves as Europeans who, being outsiders of the North, were not depicting reality but an idea of the North. In his radio documentary The Idea Of North,12 Glenn Gould confirms that “[...] like all but a few Canadians, [...] I've had no direct confrontation with the northern third of our country. I've remained of necessity an outsider, and the north has remained for me a convenient place to dream about, spin tales about sometimes, and, in the end, avoid” (in Friedrich 138). Thus, the authors helped to vitalize the myth of the Canadian North and fixed it on the literary maps of Canada for all times. Especially the early writers adopted the concepts of the famous explorers: they did not only interpret their northern concepts as an authentic image of the northern region and tried to imitate them in their poems and novels; moreover, they intensified the reading of the explorers and therefore transformed the northern representations of the early explorers into a literary permafrost (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 63-65).

One central theme of the frozen images is the historical motif of adventure in the wilderness. In The Literary History of Canada, Gordon Roper explains that “[t]he popularity of fiction of the out-of-doors and of the frontiers [...] grew rapidly after 1900 as the enormous popularity of historical romance declined. [...] Sometimes, as in the dime novels, the setting was used only as a backdrop for adventure; sometimes [...] it was used to communicate the mystical redemptive quality of Nature” (282). The Canadian North became the successor of the American 'frontier' which had already been closed at that time. Like the western romance, and influenced by Jack London's gold rush narratives, Arctic Canada also built the background for adventure and love stories which celebrated the glories of the British Empire and idealized the colonial adventurer (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 66).

Many authors of that time were convinced of their racist and also male predominance and therefore, the heroes in their writings did not only defeat alien nations but also conquered a female landscape. In Strange Things, Margaret Atwood takes Robert Service as an example, arguing that in his collection of poems 'The Spell of the Yukon', “the Yukon is a 'she' [...]. Service habitually personifies the North as a savage but fascinating female, and a talkative one at that” (1995, 18).

So, one can see that especially in its beginnings, Anglo-Canadian literature had been strongly influenced by American and British literature. But, instead of questioning the perceptions of the region, the populist writings of the early authors reinforced the existing images of the North. Thus, already early in Anglo-Canadian literature, there had been a process which promoted the myth of the North through certain stereotypes, coining generations of subsequent writers (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 66f).

However, with the beginning of literary realism in Anglo-Canadian literature, a hesitantly change came and by the end of the First World War, Canadian literature detached itself from its European roots and tried to find alternative forms of representing the North. Therefore, the myth of the Canadian North does not only rely on the images of the early explorers, but the so called “armchair explorers”13 of the early 20th century made the North an imagined place of retreat for their fictive heroes. Often used by South-Canadian writers, the North became a largely frequented place of pilgrimage (Wittke-Rüdiger 2005a, 68). In English Canada, novelist Frederick Philip Grove “was one of the first to feel overwhelmingly the enchantment of the northern spirit and to evoke it in his work. Although his 'North' is most frequently southern Saskatchewan, he envisioned it quite rightly as northern frontier wilderness” (Mitcham 9). In his autobiography In Search of Myself (1946) , the journey to the North became a synonym for the search of the own self.14


1 By comparison, Germany has a population density of 230 inhabitants per square kilometer. See Embassy of Canada:

2 As 'the North' in Canada is often equivalent to 'nature' and 'wilderness', it will also be used synonymously in this paper.

3 There are also other possibilities to define the Canadian North. The Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, for example, divides Northern Canada into five geologically determined physiographic regions. These are the Canadian Shield, the Interior Plains and Arctic Lowlands, the Inuitian Region, the Arctic Coastal Plain and the Northwestern Cordillera. See also Wonders, Canada's Changing North, 2003, 15ff.

4 In his influential and controversial book Orientalism (1978), Edward Said analyzes how Western conceptions of the Orient have legitimized the arrogant behaviour of Europe's colonial politics. His thesis is that the literary representations of the Middle East have contributed to the development of a dichotomous positioning between Europe and its others.

5 Alexander Mackenzie, Voyages from Montreal through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793.

6 Samuel Hearne, A Journey from Prince of Wale's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771 and 1772 (Toronto, 1911).

7 See also Margaret Atwood, Strange Things – The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, 1995, 4.

8 Wittke-Rüdiger has developed a three-staged model, consisting of “Imitating”, “Re-drawing” and “Driving off the Map”, which analyzes the emancipation process in northern narrative tradition.

9 See also Klinck, Literary History of Canada, 1965, 365-367.

10 Margot Northey's assumptions are mainly based on the analysis of John Richardson's Wacousta or the Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas (1832).

11 For a more detailed overview of critical studies on representations of nature in Canadian literature see Bühler Roth, Wilderness and the Natural Environment, 1998, 11-23.

12 In The Idea of North (1967), Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) wanted to “examine the effects of solitude and isolation upon those who have lived in the Arctic or Sub-Arctic” (Friedrich 140). He portrayed five people who gave contrasting views of living and working in northern Canada.

13 Authors who never went to the North themselves and who only had an idea about how the Canadian wilderness might look like.

14 In In Search of Myself, Grove analyses how the Siberian landscape influences his identity and he describes the Canadian prairie as being a kind of Canadian Siberia.

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Representations of Women and Nature in Canadian Women's Writing
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Corinna Thömen (Author), 2008, Representations of Women and Nature in Canadian Women's Writing, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: Representations of Women and Nature in Canadian Women's Writing

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