Differences Between the Traditional and the Modern World in Alistair McLeod's "The Return"

Term Paper, 2011

18 Pages, Grade: 2,7

Tom Keller (Author)



1. Introduction

2. Two Different Worlds

3. Cultural Differences between the Worlds

4. Differences between the Characters
4.1 Mary:
4.2 Angus:
4.3 The two Grandfathers:

5. Conclusion

Works Cited List

1. Introduction

Alistair MacLeod, born in 1935, is a famous Canadian short story writer, who published three short story compilations, a novel and an illustrated Christmas story. He spent most of his youth in the maritime province of Nova Scotia, which lies on the Atlantic coast of Canada. Putting all of his passion into his work as a writer, he created several short stories which take place in rural maritime areas he knows from his youth. All his stories deal with similar themes and characters, showing their lives, the hardship and their work circumstances as fishermen, farmers or miners, providing an insight of maritime life and culture. Nature, family tragedies and differences between traditional and modern lifestyles are also recurring themes.

Certain contrasts are especially obvious in the short story “The Return” from the short story collection “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” published in 1976 (cf. Boyd 2011).

The storyline is about the little boy Alex and his upper class family from Montreal, who make a journey to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia to visit relatives, and contains many examples about how the urban and rural areas differ. Narrated and perceived by Alex, whose father Angus has his roots on the island, this theme is dealt with in many cases. The contrast “[...] is not only limited to the Maritime culture [though]; it is something that can be universally understood” (Mallorylee 2008). It is the general way of life of the people which is so contrasting even though they live in the same country.

First of all, I am going to show the general characteristics of the two distinct worlds the protagonists live in. Afterwards, the focus lies on the several differences between the two worlds according to clothing, alcohol, gender roles, time, family structure and language. Analyzing the characters, I am going to point out certain characteristics, which show clearly, why the people belong to two contrastive worlds. Finally, I will conclude the analyzed contrasts and try to determine which world is the better one in the end.

2. Two Different Worlds

There are some major differences according to the appearance of the urban area of Montreal and the rural landscape of Cape Breton Island which are pointed out in the story.

When the narrator Alex travels through the countryside for the first time, he is undoubtedly very impressed by what he sees. Cape Breton Island is a beautiful place with an almost dreamlike landscape where “[...] the sea is very blue and very wide [] touching the golden sand of the beach which is [...] separating the blue from the greenness of the grass” (92)[1]. With its “spruce and fir mountains rising out of the water []” (73) Cape Breton is described as a peaceful little paradise on earth. Gazing at the gulls, Alex realizes that they “[...] are the whitest things that [] [he has] ever seen [...]” (74) and probably he does not have the opportunity to see wildlife in the urban area he comes from.

Montreal as a contemporary postmodern city is much more dynamic than Cape Breton. Time is moving much slower on the island and economical change and prosperity cannot be seen as fast as in the city or hardly ever. The city with its skyscrapers, means of transport and uncountable streets cannot offer such picturesque landscapes and wildlife and is probably a more stressful place where time is always ahead.

But the nature on Cape Breton, though beautiful, is also existential. Merciless it endangers the lives of the residents like Angus´ brother Andrew, who died in a mine accident (82). Miners for example, are not allowed to smoke because a “[...] [f]lame might cause an explosion and kill them all” (87) and they have to live with the knowledge, that nature can bring them death anytime and cannot be controlled.

The way the environmental conditions influence the people also becomes evident when Alex and his family reach his grandparents´ house with “[...] many people sitting around a big coal-burning stove even though it is summer” (78). Decades of life under harsh circumstances have made the people vulnerable. They know what it means to live in the cold and appreciate every opportunity of feeling warm. Nature is on the one hand, the reason for their hardship, but on the other hand, they are also dependent on it, for example working in the mines and finally using coal to protect themselves from the cold.

People in Montreal probably do not have to face such natural threats and difficulties. Less physical work and modern electrical devices make the life more comfortable and save. Nature in general does not have such an influential power over the people and their lives.

Whereas the island´s countryside is magnificent, the rural towns look less inviting, being “[...] black and smoky [] without “[...] nice streets [or] flashing lights like Montreal [...]” (84). Clearly little rural towns exposed to rough natural influences and with little development, lack the means to build and restore buildings or modernize the infrastructure. Slow trains with creaking and swaying coaches are outdated in comparison to modern ones in urban areas (77). Basically, economical wealth is mostly seen in the big main cities of a country. Therefore, Montreal as a metropolis and economical center of the region is dominated by large glassed buildings, representing power and affluence, and offers a wide ingenious infrastructure. It is a big change for Alex, who is used to the city, being in such a contrastive environment like Cape Breton, which has beautiful and simultaneously unattractive sides.

Basically, the two worlds are connected by trains which can be seen as symbolic, connecting the modern and the traditional world, making it possible to travel between them through time and space. They enable the family to leave Montreal and travel to Cape Breton Island; a completely different place.

3. Cultural Differences between the Worlds

Taking a more detailed look it becomes clear, that the people on the island look and behave differently than people from Montreal.

First, the clothing of the people among each other, is quite similar and shows their rather poor status. By exiting the train at the station Alex´ observes “[...] little clusters of darkly clad men [] and some ragged boys about [] [his] own age who lean against battered bicycles []” (77). Life is harsh on the island and people are rather poor not having the money for luxurious clothes or better bicycles for the kids. However, they are traditionalists and they have never had much money, but they still come to turn with the situation. Material things have clearly less value on the island.

In comparison, Alex and his parents are dressed typically for the upper class, showing their wealth, wearing fine clothes which are completely unsuitable in this area.

Another big issue is the alcohol consumption on the island. The hardship, the difficult life with the exhausting work, environmental danger and little developmental opportunities cause many alcoholics. The drunken young man, who is singing a song in front of Alex´ family, drinking out of a bottle, is a good example. Mary, Alex´ snobbish mother, says that Alex “[...] has never seen an adult drink liquor out of a bottle [...]” (76), underlining, that the laws in Montreal are more strict. Typical for American cities it is against the law to drink liquor in public and carrying bottles without a paperbag, whereas on Cape Breton nobody seems to bother. There are also “[...] two empty bottles roll[ing] endlessly back and forth [] (76) in the train the family is traveling in and these are also probably left there by drunkards. Even Alex´ uncle is an addict, who tried to stay in Montreal but failed to fight his addiction and to acclimatize himself (82). He wanted to escape his fate of living on the island, but not being able to become a member of the modern society, he had to return (cf. Creelman 1999, 10th paragraph).

There are also signs for a male dominated society on Cape Breton. Families like Alex´ grandparents are still leaded by men. They work hard to survive with the family, whereas women basically work in the household and give birth for many children.

When Alex´ strolls around with his cousins, he is bullied by two bigger boys who tease him about his “[...] sissy clothes [...]” (84). Alex´ fine tidy clothing is obviously not very masculine, making him look rather feminine in contrast to their rather dark and ragged clothes.


[1] The following Citations are taken from: MacLeod, Alistair (1976). "The Return". In: Müller, Klaus-Peter (ed.) (1990). Contemporary Canadian Short Stories. Stuttgart: Reclam, 72-94.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Differences Between the Traditional and the Modern World in Alistair McLeod's "The Return"
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Englisches Seminar)
Canadian Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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differences, between, traditional, modern, world, alistair, mcleod, return
Quote paper
Tom Keller (Author), 2011, Differences Between the Traditional and the Modern World in Alistair McLeod's "The Return", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/319477


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