One of the most important agents in the development of a modern critical spirit in Canada between the wars was the Canadian Forum. Because it provided the only forum for critical discussion of modernism in general, and Canadian art and poetry in particular, its pages provide the intellectual context for much of contemporary Canadian poetry and criticism, with the inclusion of writers such as Dorothy Livesay, E. J. Pratt, A. M. Klein, Northrop Frye, Earle Birney, Marshall McLuhan, P. K. Page, Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, Ralph Gustafson, and Miriam Waddington. The Forum's development of discussions concerning nationalism, continentalism, and internationalism helps us understand the historical intertwining of the national and international in Canadian poetry and criticism. It continues to remind us that a national literature can only develop in a supportive national context.
Despite critical dismissal of Ethel Wilson's 1947 novel Hetty Dorval, it is one of the most tightly-written, finely crafted, and controlled of Wilson's published works, and one that raises serious issues explored more fully in the longer novels. As in her later work, the primary conflict results from the tension between the individual and society, a tension explored through the relationship between Frankie Burnaby and Hetty Dorval. Contrary to critical assessment which considers Hetty an evil character and a foil to Frankie's innocence, Hetty might instead be thought of as a much maligned victim, misunderstood by both Frankie and society at large. Frankie Burnaby, through her revelatory role as narrator, exposes this misunderstanding by her process of arriving at a more complex knowledge of both Hetty and herself.
Hugh MacLennan's first novel, Barometer Rising, and his last, Return of the Sphinx, present his understanding of power and criticism of power in Canada. Because McLennan is a nationalist, and perhaps because he is a patriot, he has thought deeply and written with sharp insight about the colonial condition, the character of the powerful middle class in a colony, the psychological feeling of deracination among colonials, and their fear of people from imperial centres. While his analysis of the social fabric of this country has been flawed, with his criticisms of capitalism and class division not leading to any fundamental analysis, he is the only writer thus far who has taken the larger social order in Canada, as it effects individual lives and motivation, as his pervasive subject.
Ernest Buckler's The Mountain and the Valley is more than just a flawed paean to the virtues of the rural family, as suggested by Claude Bissell in his introduction to the novel, and it is more than simply another example of the victim syndrome in Canadian literature, as Margaret Atwood claims in Survival. It is a far subtler achievement: the representation of a potentially great character, David Canaan, who fails to achieve his potential for the most human of reasons – willful self-love. This carefully structured study of human isolation undercuts the failure of David's life as a writer in that Buckler's artistic exploration of David's character actually succeeds where David does not, while showing, with precision and clarity, why David fails.
Popular Western novelist Robert Stead, despite his reputation as a social realist, has, for the most part, avoided the portrayal of immigrant characters. Two of his novels, The Homesteaders and Neighbours, do however include some treatment of immigrants, both those from Europe and from Eastern Canada. Stead clearly exposes his British sympathies, implying that existing cultural differences will disappear as a result of the new life in the West, which, in his view, emphasizes the conflict between the individualistic and aristocratic values of frontier life and the dangers of materialism.
Thomas D'Arcy McGee, a Father of Confederation, was a literary as well as a political figure, being not only a poet but a "prophet" of a Canadian literature and a new nationality in the years preceding Confederation. He argued for revisions in the British Copyright Legislation in order to assist Canadian publishers, objecting to the dominance of American and British literature. He realized that the New Dominion could not be satisfied with books produced elsewhere, and recognized the necessity to seek out in other cultures what was most pertinent to a Canadian need to create "a genuine, modest, deep-seated culture" characterized by "northern energy."
Robertson Davies's Salterton trilogy, consisting of Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties, is united by a religious myth of achieved freedom and spiritual growth. This myth, buttressed by Shakespeare's The Tempest and Apuleius's The Golden Asse, is developed through explorations of longing, bondage, freedom, and love, and through the search for a social order in which the individual is fulfilled rather than stifled. The characters' personal growth, both singly and in sum, allegorizes Canada's own growth to spiritual and cultural maturity.
For many Canadian novelists emerging in the last twenty-five years, Canada's geography, history, and culture have been a source for creating a distinctive mythology that is unmistakably connected to the northern, the frontier, and the paradisaical aspects of Canada. Northrop Frye's The Bush Garden hinted at the emergence of such a view, and writers such as Robert Kroetsch, in Gone Indian, Margaret Atwood in Surfacing, and Leonard Cohen in Beautiful Losers, have further contributed to it. Malcolm Lowry, although an outsider, has also followed this trend, transforming the landscape of his adopted British Columbia into a mythological paradise that serves as the informing metaphor of much of his work. Although for Lowry this was a private and even selfish vision, he nevertheless succeeds in adding to the fictional possibilities of a northern tradition and developing the journey as a means for salvation or self-realization.
Margaret Atwood's Surfacing departs significantly from her previous writing through its location in Quebec, a place which serves, as it has for other English-Canadian writers, as a mirror for the narrator's ideals and dispossession. Quebec plays a defining role in the narrator's development, in that her confrontation with the foreign language of her home territory initiates her suspicion of verbal language, which is integral to her plunge through layers of pre-verbal, irrational experience.
In Margaret Laurence's novel A Jest of God, the myth of Demeter and Persephone comes through her portrayal of the protagonist, Rachel Cameron. Rachel's relationship with her parents, particularly with her mother, supports Rachel's role as Persephone, a character who combines both fertility and death. Ultimately, Rachel's concern for her mother allows for the unification of the Demeter and Persephone roles within the one character.
In three novels, The Studhorse Man, Gone Indian, and Badlands, Robert Kroetsch has faced the problem of historiography and apocalypse with obsessive insistence. Kroetsch's statement that the "experience of an absence is an experience" opposes earlier, European experiences of Canada as expressed by Rupert Brooke, who finds a troubling lack of selfhood in Canada's wilderness. Kroetsch's post-modern novels explore, rather, an unconcluded self, a complex of possibilities, and the lack of an ending, either psychically or temporally, thus acknowledging the fluidity of time
Malcolm Lowry's fondness for the English Romantic poets affected both his reading and his rhetoric, an influence particularly notable in Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. Reference to Coleridge and Wordsworth reveals Lowry's contemporary rewriting of the humane values of the Romantic tradition. Readers of Lowry's book, with its repeated re-enactment of voyage and return, are asked to become aware of the interpenetration between joy and distress, and to reflect upon the interaction between the world of nature sensorily perceived and the world of nature ethically transformed by the contemplative mind.
The surface simplicity of Ethel Wilson's Hetty Dorval is artfully indicative of the ethical scheme and moral debate that is the real impetus behind the writing of this novel. Through the archetypal nature of Hetty as a Siren, Circe or Lamia figure, the allegorical nature of other characters, the ritualistic movement of the action, the emblematic progress of the soul of Frankie, and the dominant narrative devices of journey, quest, and battle, this book can be seen to contain traditional and profound allegorical underpinnings.