The Presentation and Criticism of Ethnic Conflict in Hugh MacLennan's "Return of the Sphinx"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

25 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Canada and Quebec
2.1 Data and Facts
2.2 The Role of French in Quebec Society

3. Social and Political Tension in French Canada
3.1 The Origins of the Ethnic Conflict
3.2 French-Canadian Nationalism
3.3 The Radical Sixties
3.4 The ‘Quiet Revolution’ or ‘La Révolution Tranquille’
3.5 Radicalism and ‘Le Front de Libération du Québec’ Manifesto March 1963

4. Ethnic Conflict in Return of the Sphinx
4.1 About the Novel and its Author
4.2 Return of the Sphinx – Story and Characters
4.3 The Protagonist and his Ideal of a Unified Canada
4.4 The Antagonist and Quebec Nationalism

5. Parallels between Return of the Sphinx and Oedipus Rex
5.1 Oedipus Rex – A Greek Tragedy
5.2 Parallels to Return of the Sphinx
5.3 The Situation in Canada Today

6. Conclusion

7. References

1. Introduction: Aims and Methods

The novel Return of the Sphinx, written by Hugh MacLennan in 1967, is not a socio-political study of English-French Canadian relations in Quebec, as many critics concluded. It rather deals with a series of interrelated conflicts, predominantly father against son, generation against generation and Quebec against Canada. However, the novel offers an extensive insight into the political and ethnic situation in Canada during the radical sixties, which remains a problematic one until today.

This paper will examine the historical development of Canada’s political instability, the origins of the ethnic conflict within the nation and, in addition, the continuing problems between the Québecois and the anglophone majority of the nation. In this context I will briefly talk about French-Canadian nationalism, the so-called ‘Quiet Revolution’, and the radicalism of the 1960s. In the second part the paper will work on the presentation and criticism of the ethnic conflict in Return of the Sphinx. The focal point here will be on the protagonist and his battle for a unified Canada, as well as on the antagonist and Quebec separatism. Furthermore, this composition will concentrate on the Greek tragedy of Oedipus Rex along with the symbolic use of the mythological figure of the sphinx[1] and its association with the state of affairs in contemporary Canada. To conclude, I will summarize the results that follow from this work.

2. Canada and Quebec

2.1 Data and Facts

Canada, officially Dominion of Canada, is State of the Commonwealth in North America with the Federal Government having its seat in Ottawa, the capital. Canada in area is the second largest country in the world (after Russia), concerning inhabitants it occupies position 33 worldwide. Contrary to other North American colonies, Canada has an exceptional background since:

she began her national adventure as a colony, not of a single motherland, but of two very different ones – two motherlands, moreover, which had been such bitter rivals for centuries that the innumerable wars they fought against each other form the major part of their respective histories.[2]

Resulting from this peculiarity Canada is one of the few nations that is composed of two major and different ethnicities. The official language today is English as well as French, however 60.5 percent of the inhabitants state English as their mother tongue, contrary to only 23.8 percent who are French-speaking. Nonetheless the French Canadians number more than 5 million people who are not only restricted to the area of Quebec but are also distributed among a region called

[T]he French Belt. The belt of French-speaking Canadians, although centered in Quebec, extends east to include Northeastern Brunswick, and west as far as Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. There are small outliers of the French Belt in Manitoba and Nova Scotia. There are also small numbers of French-speaking people scattered throughout the rest of the country. Within the French Belt, only in Quebec and Northeastern New Brunswick are the francophones in the majority.[3]

Quebec is the largest province of Canada and with approximately 82 percent French-speaking inhabitants[4] the main dominion of the Canadiens or Québécois[5] as they define themselves. Besides, Quebec is also the name of the province’s capital, which is located at the mouth of the Saint Charles and St Lawrence River. The city of Quebec was founded in 1608 as the capital of the French colonial empire by Samuel de Champlain.

Even with the stop of French immigration in 1763, the long isolation from the mother country, and 200 years of struggle to preserve their identity and religion despite the British conquest the French-Canadians nevertheless managed to preserve their culture along with their language. Quebec fundamentally was and is a French society where nowadays still one fifth of the population speaks no more than French.

2.2 The Role of French in Quebec Society

The language barrier between the two ethnic groups is an additional aspect that complicates the situation among Canadians. Since the country is officially bilingual, federal government services are held in both languages; formal documents, money, and product labels are in French and English. A fact corroborating the statement that French-Canadians managed to maintain the use of their mother tongue and that in addition:

Many French-speaking Québécois use French as the language of the home, neighborhood, social gatherings, and shopping; however, because many of the firms for which they work are owned or managed by Anglophones – speakers of English – they must work in English.[6]

Consequently ‘ les Canadiens ’ are forced to learn English while in contrast English-speaking Quebecers refuse to study French, a fact that will certainly neither improve the general feeling nor promote the integration of these distinct communities. A reality already proven by the past: In 1867 the British North American Act had guaranteed the status of English in French-speaking Quebec but the only English-speaking province where the use of French was assured was Manitoba. Already at that time the Canadian government was legally and theoretically bilingual; however, all national business was exclusivelyconducted in English. In addition, Alberta and Saskatchewan were admitted to the federation in 1905 as unilingual provinces with no further requirements for the instruction of French in their schools. Seven years later, in 1912, the government of Ontario banned teaching French beyond grade 3 in their public schools, in Manitoba French lessons were eliminated entirely in 1916 and eventually all provinces, except Quebec, were officially monolingual by 1918. Thus French-Canadians felt increasingly discriminated and compared their situation with that of an oppressed European colony since:

Long distance phone calls, railway transportation, air travel, staying in large urban hotels, eating in restaurants, shopping in downtown Montréal, doing business, all of these activities required the use of the English language, even in the very French province of Québec.[7]

This ‘colonial feeling’ along with growing discontent about the political situation, which will be further described in the following chapter, intensified the already existing resentment towards the English Canadians and amounted to a rebellious movement that reached its climax during the 1960s.

3. Social and Political Tension In French Canada

3.1 The Origins of the Ethnic Conflict and Its Development

The ethnic conflict in Canada has an enduring history since the reasons for the French-English split reach back as far as the establishment of the first colonies in the northern regions of America. The French, more successfully than the British, founded colonies in Acadia[8] and in the St Lawrence Valley in the beginning of the 17th century and although these settlements did not accomplish the expectations, French presence remained in North America. In 1627, Cardinal Richelieu[9] called the Company of One Hundred Associates[10] into existence, a group consisting of wealthy members whose ambition was the erection of a community in Quebec. In July 1628 four ships with 400 people on board were sent across the ocean with the purpose of creating an inhabitable environment in the New World. However all of the crafts were captured by the armed expedition of the British Kirke brothers, given that France and the Anglo-Saxons were at war since 1627. After this event “began a military struggle lasting more than a century between France and Britain for control of North America.”[11] And: “[a] little later, increasing imperial ambitions led to an inevitable clash between the two main powers interested in the control of North America.”[12]

During the next decades the British made four efforts to capture Quebec,[13] starting in 1690 with further attempts in 1711 and 1746, and ultimately gained a victory in the Battle of Quebec[14] in 1759. Although the French finally had to surrender to their adversaries, mostly as a result of the Anglo-Saxons’ superiority in naval power, Quebec remained predominantly in their hands. As a consequence, the British Parliament ratified the Quebec Act on July 22nd 1774. It granted the French-speaking population the protection of their religion as well as confirming French civil law. For the British colonists the Quebec Act was the explanation why the former French settlement did not fuse with that of the English, and furthermore it was seen as one of the reasons for the continuous tension between the two ethnic groups.

In 1791 another Constitutional Act was passed, dividing Canada into two provinces with autonomous administration: British Upper Canada and French Lower Canada, separated by the Ottawa River. When Upper and Lower Canada were reunited into the single province of Canada under a parliamentary government nearly 50 years later, in 1840, it became obvious that Canada was likely to remain“…a federation of separate races and autonomous provinces.”[15], a state that the historian Bumsted characterizes as the “bicultural Canadian nationalism”[16] while MacLennan calls it the Two Solitudes[17] of Canada.

Between 1870 and 1914 approximately 1.5 million British immigrants inundated Canada and the French-speaking minority felt increasingly under siege of Anglophone preponderance. Both communities lived alongside one another rather than becoming integrated and the Anglo-French antagonism grew, a feeling that deepened throughout the following years, particularly in the 1930s[18], when the French-Canadians felt economically disadvantaged compared to the prevailing Anglophone population.

3.2 French-Canadian Nationalism

At the beginning of the 1960s the traditional French-Canadian nationalism, in particular characterized by the Union Nationale[19] ,“the reactionary and repressive provincial government of Maurice Duplessis, a true disciple of the Old Order” and the Catholic Church seemed to lose its predominance. While “…as recently as 1959, the Quebec Catholic Church was still strong enough to forbid the use of the word ‘divorce’ on the sound-tracks of any movie shown in the province…the churches rapidly emptied”[20] in the early 1960s. Mainly the Church, being the prevailing religious, political and social power once closely linked to Quebecois identity, was suddenly regarded as outdated and oppressive. The massive modernization and the change in lifestyle weakened the influence of the Roman Catholic Church significantly and French-Canadians ceased attending church in record numbers. Quebec was obviously eager for a change; subsequently the clamor for long-needed reforms and a modern state became loud. The result was the abolition of the conventional nationalism that les Canadiens had believed essential for their survival:

[k]eep Quebec as rural as possible, because urban life tended to break down traditional values; keep Quebec as Catholic as possible, because the church provided indispensable leadership in the struggle for survival; build an educational system that gave more stress to the French language and to traditional values than it did to vocational subjects[21]

French-Canadian nationalism, by tradition more cultural and religious than political-oriented and dedicated to the preservation of the francophone minority in Canada, was no longer paid attention to. People recognized that the Roman Catholic Church was out of step with contemporary living and thus its authority was swept away by a new secular patriotism.

3.3 The Radical Sixties

At all times there has been a gap between French Canada and the rest of the country concerning progressive industrialism. The francophone province was regarded as rural and backwards but after 1939 its society experienced a fundamental change and its economy a rapid catch-up that remained nearly unnoticed by the anglophone population. This “socio-economic transformation was accompanied by a series of profound ideological shifts within Quebec society that shook its foundation to the very core.”[22] A major radical change in this context was “the dramatic collapse of the Catholic Church’s influence”[23] (see above) and the credibility loss of organized religion. The expanding authority of the State weakened the position of the Church in the communities by taking over services that were formerly under clerical control, for example, the educational system that became a main task during the revolution in view of the fact that:

[t]he traditional educational system under the control of the Church had previously been oriented towards a classical education with an emphasis on the arts and literature. The class colleges were attuned to the professions: the church, the law, medicine, and letters.[24]


[1] Sphinx in Greek mythology: daughter of Tyohon and the snake Echidna, a monster with the head and the breast of a woman and the winged body of a lion.

[2] Hugh MacLennan, “A Society in Revolt,” in Voices of Canada (Burlington, Vermont: The George Little Press Inc. 1977) 30.

[3] Ralph R. Krueger, “A Geographical Perspective: The Setting and the Settlement,” in Understanding Canada (New York: University Press, 1982) 20.

[4] Marcel Fournier, Rosenberg and White, eds., Quebec Society: Critical Issues (Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall Canada, 1997) table 9 on p.282.

[5] Canadiens or Québécois: definitions that are used by the French-speaking population to identify themselves.

[6] Peter Woolfson, “An Anthropological Perspective: The Ingredients of a Multicultural Society,” in Understanding Canada (New York UP, 1982) 360.

[7] Louis Balthazar, “The Faces of Québec Nationalism,” in A Passion for Identity (Scarborough, Ontario: ITP Nelson, 1997) 72.

[8] Region that is in the north adjacent to the St Lawrence, in the east and south to the Atlantic, and in the west bounded by the St Croix River.

[9] Armand-Jean du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu: Cardinal under the reign of Louis XIII; in April 1624 appointed to be first minister of the Privy Council.

[10] Organization composed of 107 members who all contributed 3,000 livres (old French coin) to finance an expedition of four ships to New France with the aim to set up a colony in Quebec.

[11] J.M. Bumsted, A History of the Canadian Peoples (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1998) 35.

[12] W.J. Keith, Canadian Literature in English (New York: Longmann Group Limited, 1985) 7.

[13] Quebec was the administrative capital of New France during that time.

[14] 1759 ‘Battle of Quebec’ - Wolfe’s victory over Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham.

[15] Bumsted, A History of the Canadian Peoples, 253.

[16] Cp. ibid. 253.

[17] Two Solitudes (1945): MacLennan’s second novel, that describes the relations between French and English Canadians within Quebec (MacLennan received the Governor General’s Award for this novel).

[18] The economic crisis that was shaking North America in the 1930s is known as the ‘Great Depression.’

[19] Union Nationale: political party at the provincial level under the control of the popular leader Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959).

[20] Hugh MacLennan, “A Society in Revolt,” in Voices of Canada, 29.

[21] Gerald M. Craig, “A Historical Perspective: The Evolution of a Nation”, in Understanding Canada (New York: University Press, 1982) 139.

[22] Bumsted, A History of the Canadian Peoples, 321.

[23] Fournier, Rosenberg and White, eds., Quebec Society: Critical Issues, 5.

[24] Woolfson, “An Anthropological Perspective,” in Understanding Canada, 354.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


The Presentation and Criticism of Ethnic Conflict in Hugh MacLennan's "Return of the Sphinx"
University of Kassel  (Anglistics)
Social Criticism in American and Candian Literature
2 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
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583 KB
Presentation, Criticism, Ethnic, Conflict, Hugh, MacLennan, Return, Sphinx, Social, Criticism, American, Candian, Literature
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Ilka Kreimendahl (Author), 2001, The Presentation and Criticism of Ethnic Conflict in Hugh MacLennan's "Return of the Sphinx", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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