Sexing the Prairie - Male domination over female instincts in Martha Ostenso's "Wild Geese"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Prairie realism
2.1 Realistic depictions of the prairie
2.2 The disfiguring of the hero
2.3 The emancipation of the New Woman

3. Psychological character studies: Sexuality and gender bonds
3.1 Caleb Gare – male misapropriation of power
3.2 Natural instincts of the feminine
3.3 The prairie as female nature

4. Two ways of female liberation

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Martha Ostenso’s novel Wild Geese, published in 1925, depicts a young, passionate heroine revolting against the repressive conventions of a rural community in Oeland. Infected by the notion of a free modern life in the city by the new female teacher Lind Archer, Judith Gare begins a strong revolt against her patriarchical father attaining liberty not only for herself and her boyfriend, but also for the rest of her family and the community of farmers they live with. The work caused a sensation after its publication, because the public refused the idea of a young girl as wild and sensual in her love life as Judith.

Wild Geese outlines the description of the battle between the feminine and the masculine, between the principles of Eros and Logos, and between economic exploitation and nature itself.

Martha Ostenso writes in the realistic tradition, leaving behind the idyllic Romances of the turn of the century and applying modern psychological assumptions to the conceptions of her characters.

In this respect Wild Geese combines on the one hand an authentic social picture of rural prairie life, and on the other hand the mystical spirituality embodied by the female heroine.

The questions raised in this work focus on the relationship between man and women in the novel and on their symbolic presentation as struggling forces of contrasting natures. Most critics perceive the prairie landscape itself as a symbol of femininity mirroring the rebellion of the heroine against the domination of her father. The central question to be examined will be that of Ostenso’s understanding of the female and the male.

In section 2 of this work, realistic aspects of the novel will be analysed in order to gain an insight into the narrative structure of the novel. Three aspects are of special importance for this paper starting with the authentic description of the prairie as habitat, turning towards the disfiguring of the Romantic hero in realistic writing and finally focussing on the emancipation of women in the Canadian West. Since the characters in prairie realism are presented as the extension of the landscape, this section is the indispensable preparatory step for the closer analysis of the male and female gender descriptions.

The third section deals with the main characters of Wild Geese and their relationships among each other, investigating, in particular, those traits of character, which Ostenso presents as typical for their gender. Furthermore, the influences of Modernism on Ostenso will become obvious in this analysis, as she makes use of psychological conclusions of Sigmund Freud and the intertextual reference to classical mythology.

In section 4, the two alternatives of female liberation shown by Ostenso are set into context with the preceding plot and narrative structure of the novel completing the question about the relationships among men and women.

In the conclusive section, the gender-typical features as perceived by Martha Ostenso should have become evident, so that the battle between the sexes as well as its symbolic level of nature against domination will be fully unfolded in the end.

All citations from Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese are gathered from the 1989 edition by McClelland and Stewart and are endued with the corresponding page number.

2. Prairie Realism

Realistic depictions of the prairie

In the turn of the century, literature in Western Canada described the prairie depicted as an idealized landscape offering freedom, remoteness and pure nature to its inhabitants. Whoever rode through the prairie in Romantic regional writing enjoyed the mythical liberty on the one hand combined with the comforting security of the North West Mounted Police patrolling the plain on the other hand. These two notions merged into the image of a garden to be cultivated in the name of the empire. Arnold E. Davidson argues, that this image is based rather on the expectations of authors and inhabitants of the West than on observation.[1]

In contrast to the settling of the American prairies there was no border experience in the Canadian Western plains. Due to the Mounted Police and the railway connection the transition from civilised country to wild land was barely notable. The early settlers felt to be in the same civilised order they used to be in Great Britain. According to Davidson, “There was no frontier literature because there was no frontier, and that lack freed the novel to a different task […]”.[2] This different task is the invention of the West with a lively history and mythology presenting the kind of values they hoped for. This is the reason why the first Romantic depictions of the Canadian prairies dealt with the garden myth indicating both, the safety of reclaimed land as well as the fascination of spiritual nature. In many of the Romantic novels of the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century the prairie served as a huge, idyllic playground for the hero’s adventures.

Later, when the third and biggest wave of migrants arrived from Slavic and Scandinavian countries, the bonds to the empire loosened and the British order established in the prairies was questioned by many of the new settlers. So, starting in the 1920s, Canadian writers ceased to maintain the myth of the garden. Expectations were replaced by experiences which have undoubtedly been hard for the immigrants struggling to make crops, build houses and raise families in the prairie. But not only the lost hopes of the earlier settlers mirrored the atmosphere of loneliness and physical hardship, the Balkan and Scandinavian newcomers added to the prevalent mood, because they had faced persecution and depression in Europe. The prairie obtained the image of a harsh testing ground, a bleak country, where inhabitants suffered from loneliness and moral alienation.[3]

Realistic literature picked up the problems resulting from the lack of orientation and organisation among the different nationalities. In Wilde Geese Martha Ostenso draws a portrait of a multicultural society, where different mythical and religious backgrounds concourse. The Bjarnassons live out their Icelandic traditions and keep up their mythological belief. “The lake has two of our family. […] We shall not let others in to fish where our dead is buried” (p. 52). Their feeling of honour for their family and their mythological culture are respected by most of the other settlers, except of Caleb Gare whose greed of gain discards his social sense.

Moreover, she represents the economic struggles of the society of farmers, who had to compete with the excellent farming techniques and mixed farming procedures of America. For the Hungarian Klovacz, his illness results in the financial ruin for the family.

Their father, Anton Klovacz, was seriously ill, Lind was told. And because there was no mother in the family, all the children left with him in the covered wagon for the city in the south, where a physician would be called into attendance. Anton’s savings would go, of course (p. 70).

The prairie is a region of social discontinuity, because the culture of the settlers is determined by their immediate environment as well as their home outside the region. As such, prairie life is constantly under the effect of a strange “there”, which at the same time separates and unifies the inhabitants, as most of them share this experience.[4]

Another topic to appear at the start of the new century was that of the equilibrium of nature which was endangered by the exploitive farming methods in the West. In Wild Geese Caleb’s lot of land is presented in two different manners: on the one hand he maintains a very emotional relation to his land and on the other hand he judges it only by its profitability. Therefore, the flax fields seem dearer to him than his own family, while he would not hesitate to trade “the useless land” against Fusi Aronson’s “neck of timber” (p. 18). He strives to dominate and control the land (and his family), which seems to fight him back through his consequent dispossession and death in the end. The novel can be read as a warning of alienation from nature in the pursuit of increased productivity. It anticipates the destructive results of disrespect for the balance of the natural world.


[1] Arnold E. Davidson. „The reinvention of the West in Canadian Fiction.“Studies on Canadian Literature. Introductory and Critical Essays. Arnold E. Davidson (ed.). New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1990, 75.

[2] Arnold E. Davidson 75 f.

[3] Elizabeth Waterston: Survey. A Short History of Canadian Literature. Methuen Publications, Toronto 1973, 120.

[4] Glenn Willmott: Unreal Country: Modernity in the Canadian Novel in English. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002, 100.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Sexing the Prairie - Male domination over female instincts in Martha Ostenso's "Wild Geese"
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg
Early Twentieth-Century Canadian Novels
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ISBN (Book)
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Sexing, Prairie, Male, Martha, Ostenso, Wild, Geese, Early, Twentieth-Century, Canadian, Novels
Quote paper
Ines Ramm (Author), 2006, Sexing the Prairie - Male domination over female instincts in Martha Ostenso's "Wild Geese", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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