Outside the Lines

Identity Formation in the Life-Writing of Emily Carr

Essay, 2011

20 Pages, Grade: MA


Outside the Lines:

Identity Formation in the Life-Writing of Emily Carr

Although her talent failed to be acclaimed in her own time, the literary work of writer and painter Emily Carr is now considered an important contribution to the development of a distinct Canadian culture. Her paintings of the wild nature of the Canadian West Coast and her alternative lifestyle choices made her an outcast in her local community. Throughout her life, Carr struggled with being different and feeling out of place both in her community and in her own family. Carr’s parents immigrated to Canada in the mid 1800’s when the country was still a dominion of the British Empire and settled in the untamed landscape of British Colombia. They brought with them a British identity and culture and brought their children up according to Victorian standards. The longing for the mother country was evident among the citizens of Carr’s hometown of Victoria and made the formation of a Canadian identity difficult. Carr’s retrospective exploration of her own identity formation, as expressed in her life-writing, mirrors that of Canada’s struggle to form one collective identity as a new, multicultural country. The distinct character which Carr expressed in both her paintings and her writing has thus been acknowledged by many as a symbol of Canadian culture. Susan Elderkin describes Carr’s sense of uniqueness as her brand: “A woman who took pride in her difference and ex-centricity, she is often endowed with the stylized heroism that figures prominently in our national self-representations” (Elderkin, p. 14). Carr’s life as well as her art has become common Canadian property, and she has been interpreted and reinterpreted many times through plays, novels, musicals, poetry, etc.1 Her art has given life to what Elderkin describes as a “uniquely Canadian brand of individualism and artistic development.” (Elderkin, p. 14) Since Carr published her autobiographies in the early 20th century, Canada has seen a growing body of life-writing by women and minorities such as the native population to whom this medium has become more easily accessible. This essay will explore the life-writing of the woman who has been hailed as one of Canada’s great cultural icons and examine her uniqueness as a woman in a Victorian society, where women were not supposed to have lives outside of the domestic sphere much less in a masculine field such as that of an artist.

In this essay, I want to explore how Emily Carr’s life-writing reflects the formation of a unique identity by distinguishing the self from others. This is in part evident in the definitions of herself as other to the majority of Victorian women such as her sisters, her mother and other women she encounters throughout her life. This sense of being misunderstood, out of place and different is a recurring theme in all her life-writing. To examine this, the essay addresses Carr’s descriptions of her father, mother, and sisters as well as the self-portrait she paints of herself as a woman on the margins of society. Gilbert & Gubar’s theory on ‘the Madwoman in the attic’ and ‘the Angel in the house’ will be applied to this end. Other feminist and post-colonial theory such as ‘writing back’ and ‘otherness’ will also be featured and explained accordingly. The purpose of this essay is thus to discuss Carr’s critique of the Victorian woman’s role as a means to assert and justify her own identity. I will commence with a theoretical overview of the autobiographical genre in order to shed light on its illusiveness.

Autobiography as a Genre

Until the late 20th century, the tradition of autobiography in Western culture contained only the works of those considered to be ‘great men’. A group consisting of a privileged few who were prominent historical figures and whose lives and accomplishments were of interest and inspiration to the reading public. The autobiographical genre was an opportunity for them to write their own history and leave a written testimony to their lives. This required the author to be recognized as an individual of great importance to world history. Literary critic Georges Gusdorf saw autobiography as an endemically Western genre, which implied a definition of the individual as uniquely distinct from others. The autobiography was defined as a literary work in which the identity of the author is consistent with that of the protagonist and narrator. The importance of the credibility of this connection has been emphasized by literary theorist Philippe Lejeune. In his work The Autobiographical Pact, he argues that when the reader discovers that the name of the author is consistent with that of the main character, he or she will read in a certain manner, trying to assess the correctness of the claims that are made about the real world in an attempt to identify errors and “to look for breaches of contact” (Lejeune, p. 14). Lejeune includes in this definition only the works which contain a clearly stated oath from the author declaring the content of the book to be a truthful account. However, one may question if a title such as The Life and Times of… or an introductory promise of truth-telling warrants a truthful account. The Pact further implies that the author is omniscient and omnipresent in the work. He knows the outcome of all events and has the advantage of hindsight and reflection.

Defining autobiography as one consistent genre has been problematic for literary critics such as Lejeune, who aim to classify literature according to generic traits as autobiographies can assume many different forms. Even Lejeune himself characterized autobiography as an impossibility that is nonetheless constantly undertaken by authors. Autobiography defies the literary critic’s need to define a genre by occupying a space in between various different genres2. New theories of autobiography have moved away from the classical view of the genre as a documented history towards it being a literary genre. This is a result of the recognition that even though autobiographies appear factual, their content is largely fiction disguised as fact. It has led some to question if autobiography should even be considered a genre in its own right, suggesting that it belongs in a sub-category of fiction. The term ‘autofiction’3 has thus been proposed as a more accurate word for autobiographical writing as it incorporates more obviously the fictional element, which all such writing inevitably contains. E. H. Jones argues that ‘autofiction’ is the proper term for this genre: “The admission of fiction is a clear recognition of the extent to which memory is fallible and a move away from the mythical figure of an omniscient writer.” (Jones, p. 177) Lejeune does not characterize literary works which do not live up to the Pact as autobiographies. His definition of the genre is completely void of fictional elements and he describes autofiction as a category between autobiography and fiction, “which won’t separate itself from its author” (Jones, p. 181). Rather, the author becomes his own subject and the intention of the autobiography is to link the author to the narrator and protagonist. This genre thus challenges the notion of ‘the death of the author’. However, by using the analogy of a mirror, Lacan draws attention to the fact that although someone’s reflection in a mirror might look exactly like the person standing before it, the reflection is not the actual person.4 The same is true of the autobiography. Even though the protagonist might appear to be exactly like its author, it is but a mere reflection. Thus, all autobiography is necessarily fictional and the term autofiction seems a suitable description for this elusive genre.

Both the reader and the author of autobiographies walk a fine line between reality and fiction by referring to the fact that the stories are rooted in the ‘real world’. Despite the similarities with the actual world, however, the autobiographical universe exists only inside the author’s consciousness and should not be taken literally. The factual accuracy of the work is not important, and Richard Coe accepts this “compromise between fact and fiction” which values “an inner, symbolic truth” (Coe, p. 2-3) rather than accuracy. Before considering an autobiographical work an accurate account (a concise history) of what transpired in the life of a given person, one should consider the issue of memory or lack thereof. It is paramount for the reader to bear in mind the premise of the autobiographical genre that it depicts a subjective truth. When autobiographers account events of the past, especially a distant past such as their childhood, they will highlight perhaps trivial moments which have become significant to them as adults with the experience they have since then accumulated.5 It would thus be naïve of the reader not to question the author’s choice of characters, places, events, etc. Readers must always ask themselves: what is not being told? When reading autobiographies, the reader must accept “the impossibility of memory” (Jones, p. 180) as well as the intentional ‘loss of memory’ to serve the author’s purpose. The question is whether everything has to be disclosed to the reader of an autobiography. Even if we know all the facts, we can never completely know a person’s life story.

It is by now widely recognized that Lejeune’s definition of the autobiographical genre cannot be applied to the life-writings of women and minorities as these occupy entirely different genres. Laura Marcus defines the turn away from the original autobiographical tradition as follows: “The majority of twentieth-century theorists have rejected the Victorian notion of autobiography as an epitaph or a monument to a past life and a memento mori for future generations in favour of a stress on the communication of life and the ‘lived experience’.” (Marcus, p. 17) In the late twentieth century with the rise of feminism, women’s autobiography was clearly distinguished as a genre of life-writing and critiqued according to the conventions described here by Marcus. Women’s autobiographical works differ from those of men in both content and form and should thus be read differently.6 From both feminist and postcolonial standpoints, the term ‘autobiography’ has been criticized for its original implication of a Western ‘master narrative’. For this purpose, the term life-writing is not as loaded with connotations and includes a broader range of life narratives such as diaries, memoirs, confessions, journals etc. The unfixed nature of these writing modes has made them the medium of the oppressed, through which untold stories can be disclosed. The various types of life-writing have been a way for women to write themselves into history and thus creating ‘her-story’. The recognition of life-writing as a genre has made it possible for women and minorities to represent themselves in a manner which will be accepted by the oppressor. According to Susan Friedman, what distinguishes the writings of oppressed groups is the “importance of a culturally imposed group identity” (Friedman, p. 34) and, more specifically for women, the construction of generic gender categories which dictates a certain gender identity. While the lives of (white) men were considered unique and interesting topics, those of women were considered amorphous, shared by all and thus insignificant. In a patriarchal society, women are identified by labels such as mother, sister, daughter, or wife, which robs them of having an identity in and of themselves. As a result of the gender stereotypes bestowed on the woman (and the man) by society, it makes it almost impossible to look beyond and see the individual behind them. However, when women create the self through writing, they destroy the images created for them by introducing images created by them. Friedman describes women’s identity formation in a patriarchal society as the development of several identities: “Not recognizing themselves in the reflections of cultural representation, women develop a dual consciousness – the self as a culturally defined and the self as different from cultural perception” (Friedman, p. 39). The generic definition of ‘woman’ is thus always a present factor in the way women perceive themselves as individuals.

Women and thus their writing have been categorized by men as opposite or other to the masculine and as a result existing only as man’s opposite. Feminist critics, however, argue that the role of ‘the Other’ has not limited women’s ability to define themselves as something other than the opposite of man. Female autobiographers explore the self through their relationship with others, whereas male autobiographers focus on the self while other characters become mere bystanders in their life journeys. Freidman suggests that women possess a “collective consciousness” and that instead of defining themselves against each other, they construct a shared identity based on their common historical position. However, I will argue that this theory of female interdependency does not apply to Carr’s life-writing. Rather the exact opposite is evident in her description of her relationships with Victorian women. We find the explanation in Friedman’s definition of women’s identity formation: “Instead of seeing themselves as solely unique, women often explore their sense of shared identity with other women, an aspect of identity that exists in tension with a sense of their own uniqueness” (Friedman, p. 44). The problem for Emily Carr was that she was in fact a ‘solely unique’ woman in her native of Victoria and knew of no other women who shared a similar destiny. Establishing a common identity was thus impossible for Carr who tries and fails to do so with her sisters, her fellow art students, and the native women. Instead she realizes the insurmountable gaps between her and the others and thus winds up defining herself against these women. However, her attempts to integrate herself into various communities of women are congruent with Friedman’s theory, and this will be addressed again later in the essay.

Ultimately, whether one uses the term life writing, autobiography, autofiction or something entirely different, the essence of this genre is the act of self-representation. The personal experience is the basis of the autobiography and it is necessarily individual and unique and cannot be essentialized through a generic mode of literary analysis. With her life-writing, Emily Carr brings a female voice to the autobiographical genre, and my analysis of her work thus focuses on her identity formation as a female author and the subject of her own narratives. Throughout this essay, I will refer to the works of Emily Carr as life-writing since she herself only classified Growing Pains as her autobiography.

The Life-Writing of Emily Carr

When Carr wrote her narratives in the 1940’s, she very much struggled with the “conflict of how to be an artist and a woman when men repeatedly [told] her that they [were] mutually exclusive” (Friedman, p. 44). Female autobiographers in general struggled to be acknowledged as proper writers far into the 20th century. The events of their lives, and thus their books, took place in the domestic sphere and were not considered to contain valuable knowledge or insight, as Nancy Pagh explains: “their writings are seen as inconsequential because the bios (life) they describe is culturally insignificant in patriarchal society.” (Pagh, p. 66) The recognition of male critics was necessary for any artist and therefore also Carr with both her writings and her paintings. Although her aim was never to conform her art to conventional standards, she had to please her male critics. In this sense, Carr is writing both in and against the masculine autobiographical tradition. According to Collett & D’Arcens, this has been a common trait for female autobiographers: “…irrespective of historical or cultural context, the very act of lifewriting has involved women in a complex and often quite fraught balancing of their own self-interest against the demands of sociability.” (Collett & D’Arcens, p. 6) The ambivalence of this need to please others to gain recognition while at the same time depicting herself as opposite and on the outside of tradition is thus portrayed in Emily Carr’s life-writing. I will return to this aspect of her identity confusion in the paragraph on Carr’s self-portrait.

It was only toward the end of her life, when illness made it impossible for her to paint, that Carr took to writing. And indeed the topic of her first book, Klee Wyck (1941), was her experiences as a painter among the native peoples of Canada as far away from the domestic sphere as possible. Carr expresses her fondness of the Canadian wilderness and living among the indigenous peoples in all her work, and her life as a ‘nomad’ certainly separated her from her female contemporaries. The Book of Small, it is set against the backdrop of Victoria’s rural environment, where Carr spent the years of her childhood. Her descriptions of this small, colonial town portray a colonial outpost permeated with a longing for the mother country and thus a rejection of anything Canadian. The wild nature which Carr loves so much is being suppressed by an inherent need for control not only of the landscape but of appearance and façade in general. The young Carr in The Book of Small finds herself at odds with these conventions very early in her life and continues to challenge the Victorian notions of her role as a woman within this lifestyle. In House of All Sorts, Carr describes her adult life in Victoria where her unorthodox lifestyle made her the object of people’s judging stares. Her final publication, Growing Pains, connects her three prior works by constructing a more linear narrative of her life from baptism until death in 1945.


1 Kröller, 1986

2 Claire Lynch: Trans-Genre Confusion – What Does Autobiography Think It Is?, 2010

3 E. H. Jones, Autofiction: A Brief History of a Neologism, 2010

4 Helen Buss: Mapping Our Selves, 1993

5 Richard N. Coe: When the Grass Was Taller, 1984

6 Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson: Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, 1998

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Outside the Lines
Identity Formation in the Life-Writing of Emily Carr
University of Copenhagen  (Institute of English, Germanic and Romance Studies)
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outside, lines, identity, formation, life-writing, emily, carr
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Kirstine Steno (Author), 2011, Outside the Lines, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/180638


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