Call of the Wild - Heroines in Canadian Women’s Wilderness Fiction

Master's Thesis, 2012

87 Pages




Canada’s Literary Quest for a National Identity

Women Writing Wilderness

Defining the Canadian Wilderness

The Female Quest Novel as a Genre

Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and the Wilderness of Contrasts

Wilderness Madness in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing

The Wild Within - Marian Engel’s Bear





The colonization and subsequent settlement of Canada forced an encounter between man and the wilderness[1]. The wild Canadian nature was very different from that of Britain and came to be considered untamable, inhospitable, and dangerous to civilized people. Like Australia’s ‘dead heart’, the American frontier, and Africa’s ‘heart of darkness’, the Canadian North has been perceived as beyond the limits of civilized society, a place where manmade rules and laws do not apply, order becomes chaos, and man is the inferior species. This landscape is simultaneously dismissive and alluring to the protagonists of the Canadian quest novel. The Canadian North has become a mythical place where people go in an attempt to find themselves, their true identities, unaffected by the norms and values of society. This quest is signified both by its destination, the wild, and by its point of departure, civilization, and the need for both physical and mental escape.

More specifically related to women’s quest novels, is the search for a distinct female identity and a place in society not dictated by patriarchal norms and values. Thus, the escape from civilization marks the female protagonist’s liberation from male domination. In this context, the male characters often play the role of colonizer, imperialist, oppressor. The representation of nature as feminine establishes even further the fact that women’s bodies as well as the land have been colonized by men. Author Margaret Atwood’s description of the wilderness as a ‘femme fatale’ suggests that there are a number of shared characteristics between Mother Nature and the natural female. She is the raw, natural, and real woman, not the manmade illusion of a fragile and virginal angel. Like nature, she is both beautiful and cunning, inviting and hostile, giver and taker of life. The discovery of a true identity as the result of the encounter between woman and nature suggests a connection between the two that is somehow inherent and beyond the control of man.

Women’s wilderness quest novels have come to form a distinctive genre within the Canadian literary tradition in the twentieth century. I will attempt to define the characteristics of this genre and determine its significance as part of Canadian literature as well as within a feminist and postcolonial tradition in the chapter The Female Quest Novel as Genre. By examining three female-authored quest novels I want to explore the transformations of their female protagonists as they move from civilization into the wilderness. How does this transition affect their identities as women after having liberated themselves from conventional gender roles and male domination? Are there common features in these authors’ descriptions of their heroines before and after they have completed their quests and discovered their natural selves? What exactly are the aims of the journeys and are they reached? What role does the Canadian wilderness play in their quests? And more importantly, what defines this ubiquitous wilderness? I will argue that women’s wilderness writing is a genre in its own right and has long been independent of the tradition of male explorer and quest literature which preceded it. In the Canadian context especially, the quest novel has become a means to challenging the notion that nature is at the same time feminine and unsuitable for women.

Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972), Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel (1954), and Marian Engel’s Bear (1976) all feature female protagonists who enter the wild on their own account to discover themselves and, for different reasons, to escape their lives in the cities. These novels are the focus of this thesis in attempting to examine the unique relationship between the Canadian heroine and the wilderness. My reading of these novels will bear traits of the feminist[2] approach, which is often used for this purpose, as well as their place in a Canadian literary tradition concerned with writing the wilderness. I have chosen to structure my analysis of these novels chronologically, starting with the oldest and ending with the most recent, as these authors tend to have been directly or indirectly influenced by the works of their predecessors. Their relation to earlier works is addressed in the second chapter Women Writing Wilderness which considers the literary tradition of Canadian women writers. I will begin this thesis by establishing Canada’s position as a postcolonial nation and its impact on the literary and national identity.

Canada’s Literary Quest for a National Identity

A country’s literary tradition is a major part of its national identity, but with Canada being notoriously famous for its lack of identity one would expect the Canadian literary tradition to be equally undefined. And until the end of the 20th century, it was. The 1960s and 70s have been termed ‘the Canadian Renaissance’ to describe the upsurge of literary works published in Canada by Canadian authors in those decades. The time was ripe for new writers such as Margaret Atwood, Ethel Wilson, and Marian Engel who all established their careers in this era, and a large number of literary critics[3] engaged in discussions to determine the themes of old and new contributions to the tradition. What occasioned this significant increase was not only the economic growth and optimistic sentiment of the post-war era but also the centennial of 1967, which prompted a national quest to assert a distinct national identity, previously lacking in Canada. Policies to make the country multicultural and attempts to officially incorporate the French population into the community[4], made this a time of renewal and reform.

As in many other countries throughout the world, this was also a time for discussing women’s rights and, for former colonies, the rights of indigenous peoples. The Canadian literature of the 60s and 70s thus reflects the dilemmas brought about by these social changes and the national debates concerning them. Swamp Angel, Surfacing, and Bear have been read as feminist novels that question the unnatural order of patriarchal society and thus voice a need for change in gender relations. The importance of fiction in the national debate should not be underestimated. Even in its more indirect form, fiction is a social product that that can promote change by approaching political topics from different perspectives.[5] Many female authors thus began placing their female protagonists in what had hitherto been a male dominated sphere: the wilderness. In the Canadian feminist tradition, the wilderness has come to be considered a tabula rasa, a location void of manmade divisions between genders.

The significance of the Canadian landscape to the country’s identity as well as its literary tradition has been great. Since the first settlers came to the country, Canada’s natural environment has been the focus of most literary works and has thus been inscribed in its historical conscience. In 1955, renowned Canadian scholar Northrop Frye wrote: “the most dangerous enemy of Canada has been not a foreign invader but its own geography.” (Frye 1955, 270) By this he meant that the country had been challenged in establishing a shared literary tradition simply because of its size. He argued that the individual’s regional allegiances were stronger than their loyalty to the nation, and that the lack of a commonly recognized national center made defining common traits between the inhabitants of the prairies, the Maritimes, and those of the cosmopolitan areas nearly impossible. But it seemed somehow that the feeling of being surrounded by nature, be it the ocean, mountains, forests, prairies, or tundra, was familiar to most Canadians. This describes accurately the double connotations of the term ‘forging a nation’ in the sense that the country’s shared identity is based on that which they could agree not to disagree. Coral Ann Howells assesses Canada’s identity crisis as follows:

“The Canadian problem of identity may not be the problem of having no identity but rather having multiple identities, so that any single national self-image is reductive and always open to revision.”

(Howells 1987, 26)

Even though the wilderness theme is open to interpretation depending on the individual’s local environment, it encompasses both a national and regional perspective. A more metaphorical interpretation of the wilderness motif proves even more suitable in describing the country’s national identity: multi-faceted and indefinable. In a multicultural and rootless country such as Canada, the wilderness becomes a third space[6]. This is not a specific place but an undefined space open to individual interpretation as well as encounters between Canada’s different populations. While in the wilderness, the protagonist of Surfacing encounters several members of the French population; in Bear, Lou meets a First Nation woman, and in both Swamp Angel and Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese, the Scandinavian, Eastern European, and Icelandic populations feature as part of the wilderness and consequently of the nation. M. F. Salat notes that even though multiculturalism is a defining trait of Canadian society, it is also the very thing that makes unity difficult:

“the overwhelming and at the same time frustrating multiplicity and heterogeneity of Canadian cultures gives rise to ex-centric attempts to look for regional identities as an alternative to the goal of seeking a homogenous or homogenizing national identity”.

(Salat, xiv)

But while the decentralized power structures in Canada complicate the acquisition of a shared identity, they enable the existence of the third space, and in its symbolic capacity the wilderness becomes a shared space for all Canadians.

A National Theme

Defining not only a distinctly Canadian literary identity but, more essentially, a national identity was the topic of discussion for many of the country’s prominent scholars during the second half of the twentieth century. For a long time the country was thought to possess neither, having since its birth occupied a space in-between Britain and the USA. In his famous Conclusion to The Literary History of Canada (1965), Northrop Frye accounts for the country’s predicament as a result of its many transitions:

“English Canada was first a part of the wilderness, then a part of North America and the British Empire, then a part of the world. But it has gone through these revolutions too quickly for a tradition of writing to be founded on any one of them.”

(Frye 1965, 826)

Both Frye and his most prominent student, Margaret Atwood, describe being brought up with a sense of detachment from the Canadian canon and feeling more attached to the British and American literature which they knew from the curriculum at school. Atwood thus describes her reaction to discovering the great body of Canadian literature as one of both exhilaration and depression. Exhilaration at realizing that such tradition actually existed, but depressingly acknowledging the fact that it had for so long been ignored by society.

“Canadian writers have not been trying to write American or English literature and failing; they’ve been writing Canadian literature. The general invisibility of this fact suggests that what we need now is not so much a way of writing Canadian literature as a way of reading it.”

(Atwood 1972, 237)

Atwood views the unwillingness of a country to recognize its own writers as uniquely theirs as a main reason for its lack of identity.

In his Conclusion, Northrop Frye suggested that Canada had to start with the basics before attempting to answer the identity question and simply ask themselves: “Where is here?” (12) What this question implies is a limited knowledge, if any, of the country, and one must first be familiar with their place of origin before attempting to define their own identity. Consequently, asking “Who am I?” without being able to first answer where you are and what defines that place, is impossible, according to Frye. This is not a matter of placing yourself on a map of the world or stating your address, because you can know where you are and still be lost. Placing oneself in a broader context is essential to identity formation both for the individual and for a country as a whole. The question of “Where is here?” can be answered in part by examining how Canada has been portrayed by its own citizens through literature. ‘Here’ or Canada, according to Frye, has always been a place governed by a “garrison mentality”, which originated in the physical garrisons built by the first settlers. These tight knit communities are characterized by Frye through their strong loyalty towards the group and the overhanging need to protect the community from the outside world. But while the garrison keeps danger out, it simultaneously fences people in:

“The real terror comes when the individual feels himself becoming an individual, pulling away from the group, losing the sense of driving power that the group gives him, aware of a conflict within himself far subtler than the struggle of morality against evil.”

(Frye 1965, 831)

It is this mentality that Frye finds dominating in Canadian literature and culture in general, even though it is no longer necessary to protect oneself from wild animals, blizzards, or hostile natives. This has resulted in a literary tradition which is deeply entrenched in its settler history, advocates moral and social conduct, and is uncomfortable with the uncivilized wilderness. However, this classic motif that requires protagonists to protect themselves from unknown, outside forces symbolized by the wilderness has been refigured in the late 1900s:

“The garrison, then, originally seen as necessary to protect society from the wilderness, becomes a prison from which characters need to attempt escape in order to reaffirm their own ties to nature.”

(Macpherson, 111)

The idea of ‘escaping the garrison’ has been adopted by many feminist writers as a metaphor for breaking away from patriarchy.

The impact of Frye’s garrison theory on future literary criticisms has been immense. The negative relationship with nature came to epitomize the Canadian literary tradition for years and “gave expression to powerful national myths.” (Bühler, 15) In Survival – A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Margaret Atwood approached the nation’s identity crisis, in much the same manner as Frye, as an existential question:

“Canada is an unknown territory for the people who live in it, and I’m not talking about the fact that you may not have taken a trip to the Arctic or Newfoundland (…). I’m talking about Canada as a state of mind, as the space you inhabit not just with your body but with your head. It’s that kind of space in which we find ourselves lost.”

(Atwood 1972, 18)

This causes Atwood to caution Canadians that a continued lack of national identity is a serious threat to their survival as a country. One senses in her warning a fear of being swallowed up, not by the wilderness, but by the vast and clearly defined nation to the south encroaching on Canadian borders. Canada’s close proximity to the United States makes it not only an obvious rival but also a mirror reflecting your own strengths and shortcomings. Therefore, when a country finds itself in midst of an identity crisis, the most convenient solution is to define its identity against that of an ‘Other’, in this case the much larger and culturally richer United States. From this perspective, the garrison protects the community, not from the wilderness, but from what this has come to symbolize: an unknown, threatening, and over-powering enemy. Atwood’s warning that this is a matter of life and death for Canadian culture is expressed in her frequent use of the word ‘survival’, and she even suggests that this is not simply what defined the state of the nation in the late twentieth century, but a theme that has always denominated its literature. It is Atwood’s claim that throughout the country’s literary history, protagonists have been fighting for survival, often against natural forces greater than themselves, and accomplishing the “satisfactory failure” expected by readers. She argues further that in later Canadian fiction, the danger one must survive has shifted from without to within, thus becoming an internal struggle rather than a physical one. This means that the struggle to survive is no longer a matter of retrieving the bare necessities to sustain the body but a spiritual and emotional struggle. In Survival, Atwood detects a pessimistic tendency in Canadian literature and states that “Canadians show a marked preference for the negative.” (Atwood 1972, 35) When stories of survival end well, they cast Canadians in the role of survivors, yes, but certainly also in the role of victims of whatever danger they have just barely escaped. according to Atwood, it is this victim role that Canada is all too willing to embrace as its identity. This extends into a tradition of considering life as being out of one’s own hands and thus “displacing the causes [of failure] onto Fate or the Cosmos.” (Atwood 1972, 241) Perhaps this is the result of a colonial mentality which places power in the hands of the colonial master or, in this case, nature, destiny, or the United States. As Salat states, “Canada and Canadians have never been fully rid of the colonial mentality throughout their post-colonial history.” (Salat, xiv)

Canada has a rich literary tradition which encompasses works by Anglo-Canadian and French-Canadian writers as well as First Nations and immigrant authors[7]. The process of recognizing the value of these has been obscured by the tendency to focus on the rich literature of large nations such as Britain and the United States. Calls for a ‘Canadian Shakespeare’, who would finally and unequivocally determine the role of Canadian literature on the international scene, remain unanswered. But the continually growing body of work produced by Canadian authors continues to shape a tradition. Before the country can reach international acclaim for its literature, it has to assert within itself what makes the Canadian genre unique and not simply a part of a larger North American tradition. Uniting the writing of Canada and the U.S. as such proves especially incongruent when considering the differing approaches to writing the wilderness. As Rebecca Raglon suggests, the wilderness writing of the United States[8] is very different from the Canadian tradition:

“Unlike the U.S., where writers express anxiety over the urbanized pressures that constantly intrude on wild places (…), the underlying anxiety in Canada is a fear of being swallowed by the wildness surrounding isolated human settlements”.

(Raglon, 514)[9]

A prominent theme of American nature writing has been ‘the taming of the land’, but in Canada the overarching theme appears to be ‘surviving the land’. Northrop Frye also addresses the fact that Canadian literature is marked by its relationship with nature and the feeling that it is constantly ‘breathing down one’s neck’, so to speak: “everything that is central in Canadian writing seems to be marked by the imminence of the natural world.” (Frye 1965, 17) Being “swallowed” by the “imminent” land does not sound very appealing, and, based on the above descriptions, one would assume that Canadian literature is haunted by a gloomy sense of powerlessness and overhanging doom. This is, however, far from true. As will become evident in my analyses of three ‘women in the wilderness novels’, nature has been refigured, especially in post-modern writing, as a source of regeneration and social change.

The duality of nature as both giver and taker of life has brought an easily detectable gothic element to Canadian literature. The wilderness instills both awe and fear in the Canadian writer who in turn becomes both attracted to and terrified of it. According to Margot Northey, the gothic is expressed through this ambiguity which:

“combines fascination with horror, seeing nature as a source of exciting vigour and also of ominous danger or doom. It is an attitude which recurs in numerous later books to the present day, and may well be identified as typically Canadian.”

(Northey, 22-23)

This perception of nature as an unknowable entity has linked it to the human psyche that similarly resists being fully explored. Gothic imagery has always beckoned social connotations and depicted society “through the distorting mirror of the self, with the exaggerating intensity of personal, psychic, or spiritual urgings.” (Northey, 6) So maybe the distinct feature of Canadian literature is not so much pessimism and gloom but rather its sense of realism. As Atwood suggests, people rarely live happily ever after in Canadian fiction as well as in real life. Maybe Canadians should just accept and embrace the fact that:

“this isn’t a country of princesses, The Fountain of Youth and The Castle of the Seven Splendours don’t belong here. They must have told stories about something as they sat around the kitchen

range at night: bewitched dogs and malevolent trees perhaps”.

(Surfacing, 52)

Frye and Atwood’s interpretations of Canadian themes have been widely acclaimed but also widely criticized for their definite character. Verena Roth criticizes “the purely negative and narrowly national interpretation of nature and wilderness in Canadian literature” that became the result of Frye and Atwood’s theories. Recent literary criticisms read the wilderness as a more nuanced entity that cannot be characterized as ultimately bad or good. Furthermore, Frye has been criticized for basing his analyses of Canadian literature largely on works by male authors[10]. Although I will be using Frye and Atwood’s disputed theories in my analysis, it should be made clear that any attempt to establish one true national theme in any tradition is futile. The thematic criticism advocated by these two authors is very limiting in describing a diverse nation such as Canada, as it necessarily reflects a white Anglo-Canadian view. If approached critically, however, these theories provide exceptional guidelines to reflecting on literature and identity. It should also be clearly stated that there is no such thing as one true, static national identity that will resound with everyone in a multicultural society such as Canada. My discussion of national identity reflects the topic which has dominated public debate in the country for several decades now and which appears to continue well into the 21st century. In this discussion, the country’s geography is frequently mentioned as the primary reason for its uniqueness and a great part of how Canada imagines itself as a nation. The importance of regional differences should not be underestimated, but it is the aim of this thesis to explore the common features of women’s novels from different settings: British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. The aim of this thesis is not to pass final judgment on the theme of ‘wilderness’ and whether it is good or evil in the Canadian context, but rather to explore how this setting has become essential to women’s quest novels and redefining of gender roles. I will thus proceed with a chapter on representations of the wilderness in women’s literature.

Women Writing Wilderness

The earliest publications about Canada were British explorers’ accounts of their travels and expeditions into the Canadian wilderness[11]. Their objective was primarily the mapping of unknown territory in an attempt to document their findings to the British government. None such explorers were female and for this reason, the first accounts of Canada were written from a male vantage point. However, with the first male settlers came their wives, and even though the wilderness was usually considered a male dominated sphere, Canada boasts many female authors dating back to the first settlements. The ones mentioned throughout this thesis are only a fraction of literary pioneer women who have helped shape what Conny Steenman-Marcusse terms a “maternal Canadian history” (Steenman-Marcusse, 6). Contemporary women writers such as Atwood, Wilson, and Engel were clearly inspired by their predecessors and the female Bildungsroman; a genre in which

“women chronicle their emergence from the stereotype of the proper lady into the Canadian pioneer of energetic initiative. Their emphasis is on women’s strength in the absence of men or even in the presence of husbands who are unfitted for life in the backwoods.”

(Howells 1987, 23-24)

In many regards, women’s contemporary wilderness writing reflects that of their foremothers’ by utilizing the ‘quest into the unknown’ motif as empowerment for their protagonists. When reading Canadian women’s contemporary work, it is thus important to be familiar with the heritage from the founders of this tradition.

After the Seven Years’ War with France, Canada officially became a British colony and during the 1830’s, and many immigrants came from the British Isles to settle in the region. The early 19th century saw literary publications by women who had followed their husbands to the colonies and thus came face to face with the strange Canadian nature. Anna Brownell Jameson’s Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838) was published in England and provided readers in the Old Country with descriptions of the new colony. As an upper-class woman, Jameson had already established herself as a writer in England before departing for the colony. Having recently divorced her husband, Jameson finds a reflection of her newfound freedom in the nature of eastern Canada:

“She idealises nature, views Ontario as a paradise and deplores men’s destruction of the wilderness. Anna sees the land as a passionate woman whose beauty has been ravished.”

(Steenman-Marcusse, 81)

As a woman of the upper-class, however, Jameson hardly experienced more of the wilderness than a few black flies and some mud on her shoes, and she is what Atwood defines as a “tourist”[12], who returned to England as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Sisters Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie reported of their experiences as settlers adapting to life in Canada in very different manners. In Traill’s The Canadian Settler’s Guide (1854), she embraces her role as a frontier woman keeping house and supporting her husband in establishing a colonial existence.[13] Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush from 1852 recounts her story of the rough reality of life in the wilderness. She clearly did not mean to persuade her peers in the Old World to migrate to Canada, but rather to advise them not to follow in her footsteps. Moodie’s view on life in the colony depicts the general sentiment in the Canadian women’s literature of this era. The wilderness was seen as something to endure, because once they had crossed the Atlantic, only very few had the opportunity of returning to the mother country.[14] Many critics stress the fact settlement and all that it entails was, at the core, a male venture and women’s role in this feat was that of enablers not partakers. Thus, pioneer women came to perceive the wilderness as the antagonist in their stories of achieving domestic bliss. The wild was indeed gendered space associated with male dominance. This begs the question: Is the Canadian wilderness even a place for women?

Being the wife of a settler in the new colony was a tough job that required a different set of skills from that of London’s housewives, and the pioneer women of the North were forced to develop new competences to ensure their family’s survival. A distinguishable shift in women’s role as domestic figures is thus apparent in much Canadian women’s literature of this time, because their efficiency as housewives becomes more directly associated with the life or death of the family. Especially the works of Catharine Parr Traill have contributed to this change, and according to Howells, “Traill takes a male model of survival in the wilderness likening herself to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for she possessed (…) the same combination of piety, practicality and determined optimism.” (Howells 1987, 23) Pioneer women, however empowered by their new responsibilities in the colony, were still confined to the domestic sphere, and they continued to occupy the inferior position in the community. Steenman-Marcusse explains the value ascribed to women’s role in a settler society:

“Pioneering qualities like adaptability to adverse circumstances, hope, courage and perseverance apply to both men and women. But the male activities outside the house were considered to be higher on the hierarchical scale of importance than those of domestic tasks inside.”

(Steenman-Marcusse, 50)

Female settlers such as Jameson, Parr Traill and Moodie were forced to follow their husbands to the colonies and endure the rough nature of the North. Margaret Atwood considers this group of women as part of ‘the first wave’[15] of Canadian women writers. These women did not enter or explore the wilderness voluntarily, if they ever did, and their descriptions of the wild were usually not very wild at all, as they were observed through the dim windows of the household: “Women of the first wave were not out on the land, but inside houses with their families, nor do they utilize verbs of the staking and penetrating variety.” (Atwood 1995, 97) However by the middle of the 20th century, a new female character had emerged in the Canadian literary tradition as a result of ‘the second wave’ of female authors. Instead of being placed in the wilderness by others, this heroine made the conscious decision to enter the unknown and male dominated territory of the North. According to Steenman-Marcusse, this is a postmodern tendency that can be detected in much of the literature from this period:

“Just as postmodernism deconstructs the power of master narratives and postcolonialism undermines imperial centres of power, feminism attacks the power of male domination.”

(Steenman-Marcusse, 41)

The purposes of the female journeys vary, and sometimes it is more the act of ‘getting away’ than that of ‘entering the unknown’ which drives the protagonists. This is certainly the case of Swamp Angel ’s Maggie Lloyd who leaves Vancouver to liberate herself from an abusive husband. Entering the wilderness as an attempt at escape is also evident in Bear and Surfacing, even if the protagonists’ incentives for escape are not as tangible at the outset of these novels as that of Maggie Lloyd. Whatever the objectives of their quests, the female protagonists break away from patriarchal society by refiguring themselves and their roles as women. This thesis deals with Canadian women writers of the second wave, who both incorporate and contrast the experiences of their predecessors.

While Canadian critics have been preoccupied with deciding whether or not the country possesses a literary identity, scholars outside of Canada have been wondering: “Why are there so many good Canadian women writers?” (Howells 1987, 2) One reason might be traced back to the first settler women and the new roles that they took upon themselves in the new colony. Through redefinitions of themselves, they tapped into a previously unexplored area of women’s literature, leading them to explore this new identity through writing. Howells describes how the new colony provided women with a creative space to express personal thoughts, fears, and desires:

“For the vast Canadian solitudes provided precarious conditions of existence where women were forced to redefine themselves and where the self was discovered to be something far more problematical than feminine stereotypes from ‘home’ had allowed women to believe.”

(Howells 1987, 15)

Atwood’s answer to the question about Canadian women writers also ascribes this to the reinterpretation of gender roles brought about by new and adverse circumstances:

“Maybe part of the answer is that there were no towering, overpowering male Canadian literary figures, so there was room for women. Or maybe, under frontier conditions, the men were kept so busy chopping down trees and strangling wolves that the arts came to be regarded a sissy stuff, and women were left to do the cushion embroidery, the flower-painting, and the poetry-writing. Or perhaps being so close to frontier conditions, under which women with lots of muscles were valued for their water-hauling and plough-pulling capabilities, Canadians never developed the concept of women as merely brainless decoration. Canadian oral folklore is still full of tales of our grandmothers’ generation, when women ran farms, chased off bears, delivered their own babies in remote locations and bit off the umbilical cords. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains: if you’re looking at writing in Canada at all, you can’t just footnote the women.”

(Atwood 1972, 90)

As this quote suggests, powerful female figures in Canadian history and literature abound, and the telling and retelling of these stories makes their presence undeniable.

Another explanation could be that women’s quest for identity is akin to that of the national attempt at identity formation. The large number of female authors from Canada might even make it easier to distinguish a Canadian women’s literature rather than a Canadian tradition:

“Though in some of these novels signs of national identity may be difficult to decipher for readers outside the culture, the signs of gender identity are plain and there is no way any reader would not know that they were all written by women.”

(Howells 1987, 27)

Whether this expresses a lack of clearly identifiable characteristics in Canadian writing or a strong female tradition is another question presented by the first. It would appear that even though “both Canada as a nation and women within Canada have to write themselves into existence” (Steenman-Marcusse, 7), only the latter has succeeded in doing so at an international level.

Defining the Canadian Wilderness

Defining the actual location of the Canadian wilderness is a futile quest. In a country where most of the major cities are located to the south along the US border, the most specific geographical description of the wilderness is merely a direction: north. But north of what? This is not a matter of coordinates, longitudes, and latitudes, but rather one of imagined space. The boundaries of ‘the wild’ are constantly changing much as those of the imagination. Several Canadian authors have chosen the wilderness as the setting for their novels and poems, and it would appear that this vaguely defined space is a source of great literary inspiration to many. Especially female writers have found the Canadian nature an attractive destination for their female protagonists.[16] The wilderness is a space where the conventional rules apply to neither the author nor his/her characters. It provides a mythical setting about which the tales are plenty, but no one holds the one true answer. The fascination with mysteries of this unexplored land has made it a recurring theme in Canadian fiction closely linked with spiritual quest.

To regard the North as merely the backdrop of Canadian fiction would be restricting to a critical reading of the quest novels and the importance of their setting. Though the wilderness can be defined as a physical place, however intangible, many of the qualities ascribed to it are personifying characteristics. In this sense, the wilderness has itself become a character in Canadian fiction, and I will attempt to define the unique nature of the wilderness throughout this thesis. Despite the lack of a clearly defined geographic position, the wilderness can be described in terms that would normally be applied in the characterization of a person, more specifically a woman. In Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995), Margaret Atwood outlines the characteristics traditionally attributed to the wilderness:

“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, claim you for its own.”

(Atwood 1995, 19)

The description of nature as feminine is by no means unique to the Canadian tradition. Throughout his tory it has been a commonly used discourse to describe rolling hills as the female curves, forests as women’s pubic hair, and crevices and caves as female genitalia; in short to identify nature as woman.[17] In the Canadian North, where nature can be exceptionally brutal and inhospitable to humans, its feminine traits are likened to ‘the Madwoman’ rather than ‘the Angel’[18]. The wilderness is thus savage, cunning, inhospitable, and the cause of disorientation and insanity. Yet as Robert Service’s Spell of the Yukon (above) suggests, these characteristics are exactly what have drawn man to the wild for centuries. Nature’s refusal to succumb to his dominance has created an ambivalent love-hate relationship between the two. But where does this love affair leave women? As wives or as mistresses? Or is their role obsolete in tales of the wilderness? It would seem that in the male-authored explorer literature, women are of little importance in the power struggle between man and nature, and the stereotypical trope has been deeply embedded in the wilderness tradition. Rebecca Raglon suggests that “If women are to truly find wild nature compelling, they must address some of the darker implications of the centuries-long love affair men have had with ‘wilderness’.” (Raglon, 526) The objective for women writers has thus been to define the concept for themselves, not using the masculine rhetoric, and writing the wilderness as new space. Women’s wilderness narratives, though based on an inherited male tradition, rarely portray their characters staking claim to or taming the land. Instead feminist depictions of the wild have portrayed the Canadian North as an imagined space rather than a physical location. It has become the object of the female quest for liberation, self-discovery, and new beginnings. Naturally, this makes it difficult to define, and Heather Murray’s definition thus seems appropriately imprecise:

“Wilderness in Canada is where you make it, or where you imagine it to be. It is not a place, but a category, defined as much by absences and contrasts as by positives and characteristics.”

(Murray, 75)


[1] I find it reasonable to use the terms ‘the wilderness’, ‘the North’, and ‘the wild’ interchangeably for the purpose of this thesis. My aim is not to place the Canadian wilderness on a map, but rather to examine different representations of this entity in Canadian fiction. This definition of the wilderness by Faye Hammill suggests the multi-faceted and region specific variations of the wilderness found in Canadian fiction and makes obvious why a single definition of the term is impossible: “although primarily associated with forested areas of eastern and western Canada, it can also take on the broader sense of ‘the wild’, or uncultivated land, and refer to frozen Arctic landscapes or even to the prairies of central Canada.” (Hammill, 64)

[2] I will use the terms feminism, feminist fiction, feminist authors, etc. throughout this thesis when describing the chosen authors and their works. This does not necessarily mean that these writers consider themselves or their work feminist, but merely that they deal with topics related to and critical of women’s position in society. My interpretation of ‘feminism’ is thus as a genre which considers gender a social construct and advocates a critical approach to this.

[3] Literary History in Canada (1965) edited by Carl Klinck is an example of these contributions, as well as Northrop Frye’s The Bush Garden (1971) and Margaret Atwood’s Survival (1972).

[4] The election of French-Canadian Pierre Trudeau as Prime Minister in 1968 and the official implementation of bilingualism signified the union between the Anglo- and French Canadian peoples. (Salat, 1-28)

[5] “Examining the relationship between literature and society does not necessarily entail falling into the ‘realistic fallacy’ which assumes that novels as factual transcriptions of real life. (…) It is (…) naïve to contend that there is no relationship between literature and society, or to demand that literature only be read by referring to other texts.” (Macpherson, 37) Especially Margaret Atwood has played a major part in shaping Canada’s national identity through her writing and is by now considered a Canadian icon.

[6] Homi K Bhabha introduced the term ‘third space’ to describe encounters between different cultures. This is a new space for communication and translation situated in-between the two nations; a new space that is neither one nor the other, but a hybrid between the two. It thus provides a new identity to people in the third space (Ikas & Wagner, 1-2). “Bhabha is more interested in the narratives and stories that make up a national identity than in the notion that there is anything essential about such an identity.” (McWilliams, 62) The national myths keep changing as the country refigures itself, and a national identity is thus dynamic and constantly moving.

[7] However, I have chosen to focus solely on female authors from the Anglo-Canadian tradition in order to try and establish some semblance of a common ground from which to depart in this analysis.

[8] Such as Henry David Thoreau’s accounts of Walden Pond and the wild landscape of Massachusetts.

[9] It may be possible to detect a change in this tendency within the 21st century, which has thus far been characterized by a great emphasis on environmental issues such as global warming and pollution.

[10] Steenman-Marcusse finds Frye’s view on women’s literature faulty, describing him as an “ivory-tower male professor”. He thus fails to recognize the importance of early Canadian women writers: “Viewing literature as an autonomous discipline that transcends social and historical pressures, Frye does not think highly of pioneer women who wrote creatively.” His preference for classical English literature and insistence on placing Canadian works within this framework has obscured a constructive approach to that genre. (Steenman-Marcusse, 71-73)

[11] For further reading on such travel narratives, see New’s A History of Canadian Literature (2003) or Kröller’s The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature (2004), pp. 70-93.

[12] Atwood divides these authors into three categories: ‘the tourist’, ‘the coper’ and ‘the dismayed’ to describe how they dealt with their new environment. She follows up by stating that “Although all three women admire the scenery, from a distance – up close it was too full of mosquitoes – and although they comment on the untouched freshness of nature, none of them was that keen on staying in the wilderness.” (Atwood 1995, 96-97)

[13] Wayne Fraser, The Dominion of Women (1991), 8-30

[14] Rebecca Raglon: Women and the Great Canadian Wilderness: Reconsidering the Wild (1996)

[15] Margaret Atwood, Strange Things : The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995), 95-97.

[16] In addition to the novels analyzed in this thesis, women’s wilderness novels published in the latter part of the twentieth century includes, among many others, Emily Carr, Klee Wyck, Aritha Van Herk – The Tent Peg, Martha Ostenso - Wild Geese, Margaret Laurence – Stone Angel (The Manawaka Series), and Joan Barfoot – Abra.

[17] Sherry B. Ortner examines the notion of nature as female and culture as male dichotomy in her article Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? (1974), and argues that “even if woman is not equated with nature, she is still seen as representing a lower order of being, less transcendental of nature than men.” (12)

[18] In their book The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar distinguish between the two types of women most often portrayed in male-authored literature: ‘the angel in the house’ and ‘the madwoman’. The former is described as an angelic presence rather than an actual human, while the latter is the witch, the monster, the Madwoman; an image which can be traced back even further than the Victorian Age through Greek mythological and Biblical texts among others. This monstrous woman is characterized by her frivolity, primitivism, and animal-like features. I will operate with these two categories in my analyses of the novels and their female characters. Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar: The Madwoman in the Attic (1979)

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Call of the Wild - Heroines in Canadian Women’s Wilderness Fiction
University of Copenhagen
Canadian Literature
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Kirstine Steno (Author), 2012, Call of the Wild - Heroines in Canadian Women’s Wilderness Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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