Forms and functions of the negotiation of Canadian identity in Hugh MacLennan’s "The Watch That Ends The Night"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2022

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


1. Introduction
1.1 Methodology
1.2 Current state of research

2. What is (national) identity?
2.1 Definitions, explanation of theoretical framework
2.2 National identity and nationalism in Canada

3. Aspects of Canadian Identity in The Watch That Ends The Night
3.1 History
3.1.1 World War 2 as an international conflict
3.1.2 Post-colonialism and distinction from Great Britain
3.2 Political idealism in the 1930s
3.3 Religion
3.3.1 The role of faith in The Watch That Ends The Night

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

Forms and functions of the negotiation of Canadian identity in Hugh MacLennan's

The Watch That Ends The Night

1. Introduction

Since the question of identity is a recurring topic in literature, literary works are one of the most accessible sources regarding identity formation. Indeed, the protagonists' journey to self-discovery is a widely prevalent trope in fiction. However, the characters' need for belonging is naturally intertwined with their affiliation to a certain group. In the case of national identity, literature can have a powerful impact on a nation's self­awareness. Especially during the process of nation-building, literature can be used as a tool to influence the people. While there are many examples of literary works being deliberately utilized as propaganda, fiction can also have a subliminal, yet significant effect on the readers' national consciousness. In the novels of Hugh MacLennan, the topic of Canadian identity is explored. By choosing a Canadian setting for his debut novel Barometer Rising* 1 and chronicling part of the nation's history, Hugh MacLennan “marks a major advance in Canadian fiction“ (Woodcock 1961: 7). As Dorothy Farmiloe states in her article on the works of Hugh MacLennan, he “has been exploring the meaning of Canadianism; each of his novels has been a variation on this theme” (Farmiloe 1969: 1).

In 1959, MacLennan published The Watch That Ends The Night (cf. Knight 2009: xxv) . In the novel, he does not only tell the story of George and Catherine Stewart and Jerome Martell, but also illustrates the way in which Canada's involvement in international politics and conflicts have impacted the country's national consciousness as a post-colonial nation. In this paper, the forms and functions of the negotiation of Canadian identity in The Watch That Ends The Night will be discussed. At first, the methodology used to identify aspects of identity constitution in the novel will be briefly explained. Subsequently, the current state of research will be touched on. Before important scenes in the novel can be interpreted, the concept of identity including Canada's cultural and historical context will be considered. Simultaneously, key terms will be defined in order to provide a theoretical foundation.

1.1 Methodology

This paper examines the way in which Hugh MacLennan incorporates elements of Canadian identity into his renowned novel The Watch That Ends The Night. Firstly, an attempt to define the terminology that is essential for the understanding of this paper will be made. Moreover, rather complex phenomena such as ‘identity' or ‘nation' will be briefly discussed whilst taking into account influential works such as Anderson's Imagined Communities. Having introduced the terminology, this paper will be concerned with the question of how these concepts can be applied to the situation in Canada. On that point, the relevance of national identity for Canada will be debated. In order to do so, Canadian nationalism will be taken into consideration. Then, MacLennan's The Watch That Ends The Night will be examined, taking into account the different elements of identity constitution to be found in the novel. Thereby, the aspects of Canadian identity will revolve around the main themes of history, politics and religion. The significance of the thematization of national identity in MacLennan's novel shall be discussed as well as the novel's impact. Comparing the aspects of national identity in The Watch That Ends The Night with MacLennan's previous novels would go beyond the scope of this paper. Moreover, novels by other Canadian authors cannot be taken into account.

The central thesis of this paper is that in his The Watch That Ends The Night, Hugh MacLennan utilizes Canada's involvement in an international conflict as well as the nation's history during the early twentieth century in order to establish a sense of national identity among the readers.

1.2 Current state of research

Previous studies have examined the significance of MacLennan's works for Canadian literature. In his essay ‘The Power of The Watch That Ends The Night', Stephen Bonnycastle argues that The Watch is “one of the most important novels in the body of Canadian literature” (Bonnycastle 1979: 76). While most critics agree on the fact that MacLennan has earned a reputation for being of “undoubted importance as a novelist” (Woodcock 1961: 7), his writing is not perceived uncritically by literary scholars. As MacLulich writes, “[t]here is a critical consensus that MacLennan's ‘portrayal of Canadian life (...)’ is the strongest feature of his work” (MacLulich 1979: 500). Furthermore, MacLennan's style of writing is especially criticized in Woodcock's influential essay ‘A Nation’s Odyssey’, in which he points out that MacLennan's works are apparently “over-simplified and moralistic in tone” (Woodcock 1961: 7). Nevertheless, there are various studies which have explored the issue of Canadian identity in MacLennan's works. MacLulich even claims that “[t]oo often MacLennan's novels are discussed as if they were simply a group of lectures on the Canadian identity” (MacLulich 1979: 500). Although MacLennan's first novel, Barometer Rising, seems to have been discussed the most by literary scholars, there are many comparative works of MacLennan‘s novels including interpretations of The Watch That Ends The Night. The “regularitites of plot and character” (MacLulich 1979: 501) among MacLennan's novels have been pointed out by several scholars such as Woodcock (cf. MacLulich 1979: 501).

2. What is (national) identity?

2.1 Definitions, explanation of theoretical framework

The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines identity as “the characteristics, feelings or beliefs that make people different from others” (“Identity Noun - Definition, Pictures, Pronunciation and Usage Notes”). However, the phenomenon of identity seems to be too complex to fully comprehend it using only one sentence. That's why De Levita has suggested the term ‘concept of identity'. According to him, this concept is “an attempt to group known phenomena in a special way” (De Levita 1965: 157). Since De Levita's definition is rather broad, it can also be applied to the term of national identity.

As Omar Dahbour illustrates in his article on national identity, there seem to be two predominant research positions (cf. Dahbour 2002: 17, ‘two concepts of national identity'). While the ‘strict one' “regards nationality based on a belief in common ancestry or ethnicity” (Dahbour 2002: 17), the comparatively loose concept “views nationality as a malleable term without fixed properties” (Ibid.). However, in recent studies, the stricter position has been heavily criticized. Dahbour explains that “national identities must be defined as broadly as possible, in order to avoid the implication that nations need to be exclusionary or discriminatory” (Dahbour 2002: 18). In the words of Benedict Anderson; “[n]ation, nationality, nationalism - all have proved notoriously difficult to define” (Anderson 2016: 3).

Nevertheless, the ideology of nationalism (cf. Anderson 2016: 5) needs to be explored and contrasted with the concept of national identity. In his much-cited essay ‘Imagined Communities', Anderson states that “nationality (...) as well as nationalism, are cultural artifacts of a particular kind' (Anderson 2016: 4). Moreover, he quotes from 3 Gellner, who explains that “[n]ationalism is not the awakening of nations to self­consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist” (Gellner 169, quoted from Anderson 2016: 6). This argument is supported by Anderson's definition of the nation, in which he declares that “it [the nation] is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 2016: 6). Furthermore, Anderson points out that all nations are “imagined as limited ” and have “finite, if elastic boundaries beyond which lie other nations” (Anderson 2016: 7). This supports the theory of in- and out-groups; in order to identify with a certain group — or nation — it needs to be distinctive from other groups. In their article ‘Being Canadian in the world', Berdahl and Raney argue that “national identities influence [individuals'] opinions toward international issues” (Berdahl and Raney 2010: 997). Additionally, they underline the fact that “these identities are clarified through comparisons between in- and out-groups” (Ibid.)

In the following, the characteristics that are important for Canadian identity and the significance of identity for Canada will be examined.

2.2 National identity and nationalism in Canada

Nowadays, when speaking of Canada, it is probable that one might unwillingly resort on stereotypes and — exaggeratedly — associate the country with hockey, maple syrup and people who tend to over-apologize. Needless to say, the essence of Canadian identity is quite difficult to put into words. However, the question of which characteristics make up Canadian identity — not to be confused with mere stereotypes — is one that has been occupying various scholars since the past century. For instance, attempts to distinguish Canada from its' southern neighbor have been made. Berdahl and Raney are of the opinion that “Canada's relationship with the US is (...) central to its national identity” (Berdahl and Raney 2010: 999). Commenting on this issue, Hugh MacLennan asserts that “the essence of Canadian nationhood lies in this very fact, that it is a political fusion of the two elements in North American history which refused to belong to the United States” (quoted from Metraux 1996: 1996: 1158). On this, Daniel A. Metraux writes, using Anderson's terminology:

The United States survives (.) because it is an imagined community whose citizens hold shared conceptions of their society, whereas the tragedy of Canada is the stark absence of a uniform view. Rather, there are conflicting images of Canada that do not overlap exactly. (Metraux 1996: 1157)


1 MacLennan, Hugh. Barometer Rising: Penguin Modern Classics Edition. Emblem Editions, 2017.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Forms and functions of the negotiation of Canadian identity in Hugh MacLennan’s "The Watch That Ends The Night"
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar 1)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Canadian Literature, Canadian Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction, Hugh MacLennan, Canadian Nationalism, national identity, decolonization, can lit, identity, post-colonialism, world war 2, british empire, imagined communities, benedict anderson
Quote paper
Carolina Maria (Author), 2022, Forms and functions of the negotiation of Canadian identity in Hugh MacLennan’s "The Watch That Ends The Night", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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