Regionalism in Canadian Literature

The term regionalism is an inevitable idea when it comes to Canadian literature and the never ending search for Canadian identity. The definition of regionalism in literature is said to be “fiction and poetry that focuses on the characters, dialect, customs, topography, and other features particular to a specific region” (Campbell). Northrop Frye, a respected Canadian literary critic, discusses the development of regionalism in Canadian literature and stresses “the importance of regions to the creative imagination, arguing that an imagination conditioned by prairie stretching to the horizon would develop differently from one shaped by the huge mountains and trees of British Columbia or by the churning sea around Newfoundland” (Fiamengo).

Is that experiencing the variety of environments that exist in Canada would cause Canadian authors of different regions to develop and emphasize the specific aspects associated with their particular region. In their writing, regionalism speaks to the characters of the novel and manipulates their identity to match the landscape and history of the region.

This displays a true connection with the region and there is “no doubt that regionalism stems from a deep personal involvement with a particular place, a lived experience that is not available to the causal observer”. In the novels As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross and The Diviners by Margaret Laurence aspects of regionalism are very prominent.

The central characters in each novel develop identities which reflect the regions in which they live. Ross’ characters, Mr. and Mrs. Bentley, develop the hollow existence and aversive attitudes that are common in small prairie towns.

Get quality help now
Prof. Finch

Proficient in: Culture

4.7 (346)

“ This writer never make an mistake for me always deliver long before due date. Am telling you man this writer is absolutely the best. ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

Laurence’s characters, Morag and Pique Gunn, develop an identity that reflects the history of the land and the happenings associated with the imagined town of Manawaka. The forms of regionalism in these two novels foster the idea that “metaphor relates man to the world in which he lives.

It is a connective image which at once reveals a disparity and an affinity. The connection moves between the human individual and the perceived order of the world; it is always at once particular and indicative of identity, pointing to cultural orientation” (Adamson). Sinclair Ross’ novel, As for Me and My House deals with the tired, repetitive nature of small prairie towns in western Canada and how this nature becomes regurgitated in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Bentley.

In this case, regionalism that is associated with the prairies focuses on the landscape. Historically, the first settlers of the prairies attempted to deal with the environment. They “responded by trying to force the foreign environment to conform to their familiar frames of reference, with little success” (Jordan, 93). This novel is a representation of the prairie life through and though. It is interesting how the name of any town or reference to a province is obsolete yet we get the true feelings associated with the prairies still.

In his book Introduction to Sinclair Ross: As for Me and My House, Roy Daniells says, “although precise dates, places and historical events are avoided, there is no doubt that these pages present the prairies of the drought and the depression, the long succession of years between the two wars” (Daniells, ix). Regionalism is also represented in the historical happenings of the region. The specific outcomes that the depression and drought had on the prairie lands are outlined throughout the novel and add to the authenticity of the experiences. When speaking of the drought and the depression, Mrs.

Bentley says, “It makes me wonder how things are going to be with us. The crop is the town’s bread and butter too; and the first place we are going to feel the pinch is the collection plate. We’re behind already with the car, and now that Steve’s here the store accounts will climb just twice as fast” (Ross, 75). When Mrs. Bentley exposes her financial worries to the readers, we truly get the feeling of her struggle to live comfortably in the prairie society. The economic struggle is a big theme in this novel and the prairies themselves. Amongst the failing of the collection plate, “the latter pages of the book are dominated by Mrs.

Bentley’s attempts to recover a thousand dollars from the twenty-eight hundred owed to her husband by the towns he has served” (Davey, 34). As well, the mention of the farmers’ crops divulge more hardships that the land has brought upon it’s people. These experiences are none unlike the events experienced by the true prairie world in the past and continue to expose the regionalism with which Ross chooses to write. The vivid life that is given to the novel provokes the readers understand of the true struggle during the depression era and allows them to observe prairie life almost first-hand.

The people of the prairies have to fight against the land and the elements to live a comfortable, satisfactory life. Regionalism is demonstrated here in the sense that the land of the prairie region is such a powerful force. The inhabitants have little choice but to have their identities moulded around these factors. Like the real world situation, Mr. and Mrs. Bentley, as well as the rest of the townspeople of Horizon, become shaped by factors such as these. The wind, the dust and the struggles with seasons all have a stake in making each character who they are or who they will become.

It is said about this environment that “the vast emptiness envisioned by early settlers and writers has provided a ground for the dramatization of an existential conflict pitting the internal unity of human consciousness against the horrifying void of an unknowable external world” (Jordan, 94). In Canadian literature, this conflict is emphasized and the extent to which the land threatens identity becomes a reoccurring theme among Canadian fiction. As for Me and My House is an excellent example of this. The town itself seems to be depleted and hopeless.

It is categorized by “broken sidewalks and rickety false fronts” (Ross, 5). Even the infrastructure seems to be suffering the external consequences. Mrs. Bentley’s diary entries capture all of these shortcomings and “the world that emerges through these entries is claustrophobic. The walls of the house stifle the inhabitants, not because they isolate those inside from the exterior world but because the world outside constantly seeps in – through the doors and windows, through cracks in the walls, and through the roof – only to remind the occupants of the prison that they have built for themselves” (Jordan, 95). Mrs.

Bentley retreats to the outside world for relief, because no matter what, the land’s curse is inescapable. Even in her own home, comfort does not exist. Mrs. Bentley’s character suffers from this dreary lifestyle. Her use of language to describe the prairies is parallel to the words that are used to describe humanity itself. An excellent description of the harsh environment she endures is given to the reader at the beginning of the novel. She says, “It’s an immense night out there, wheeling and windy. The lights on the street and in the houses are helpless against the black wetness, little unilluminating glints that might be painted on it.

The town seems huddled together, cowering on a high tiny perch, afraid to move lest it topple into the wind” (Ross, 4). In this sense, the land and its elements become a large metaphor for the people of the prairies. Words such as “helpless” and “cowering” are effective words to describe the people of Horizon. In his book Vertical Man/Horizontal World, Laurence Ricou explains Ross’ writing to be “the first in Canada to show a profound awareness of the metaphorical possibilities of the prairie landscape” (Ricou, 82). He also says that “the people of Horizon, as Mrs.

Bentley describes them, mirror the physical environment’s dry and featureless visage, and yet they are not home in it” (Ricou, 82). This statement cleverly demonstrates how the aversive environment makes the townspeople, like Mrs. Finley, stern and non-personable. They are making ends meet, yet they are uncomfortable in their own lifestyle path. It is because of the environment that Mrs. Bentley seems to be passive and depressed. There is a scene that describes the Bentleys outside after a church service. She says, “mile after mile the wind poured by, and we were immersed and lost in it.

I sat breathing from my throat, my muscles tense. To relax, I felt, would be to let the walls around me crumple in” (Ross, 52). Mrs. Bentley is represented as inferior to the wind and its forces. She is presented to the reader in a feeble light, almost as if her existence could vanish at any moment. In this sense she has become helpless against the life she chose. Her ability to do what she desires is quite limited by the physical environment as “the wind carries the totality of possibilities which life offers, possibilities which cannot be grasped or merely pass unnoticed” (Ricou, 85).

This implies that Mrs. Bentley sees what she is missing in her life and understands her missed opportunities, but can do little about this because her whole existence has been spent moving from one little prairie town to another. She is vulnerable and stagnant in the prairie society as she practices the same routines each day and becomes engulfed in the land as sacrifice. In her diary, Mrs. Bentley seems to focus too much on weather elements and she uses “the prairie constantly as a mirror of her own fears, frustrations, and helplessness”.

It is her fixation with the wind, rain and dust that lets the reader assume that many people of that region are “possessed by the prairie,” giving up their “mind and body as it if were an extension of it”. It is clear of the implications of the region upon its people, like Mrs. Bentley, and it’s development into regionalism. Philip also suffers from the consequences of landscape and the prairie’s harsh physical environment. It causes him to retreat into his study and allow his relationship with his wife to diminish as he “turns inward in an attempt to find a refuge from the emptiness of the prairie”.

In order to escape his fate he turns to art in the forms of writing and painting. Unfortunately his attempt to break loose from the constraints of the environment seem to confine him even more. He lives a life that is devoted to expressing his feelings on the prairies though his art. Even in the solitude of his private study, the prairies invade his thoughts. This life that he turns to is “no less stifling than the world of Horizon”. His pictures very much resemble the land as it is depicted in the novel and therefore reflect not only the real setting but Philip’s identity as well.

Mrs. Bentley describes one picture as “a good job, if it’s good in a picture to make you feel terror and pity and desolation” . These feelings that arise in Mrs. Bentley when she studies the picture are also the feelings that Philip feels about the external prairie. Philip’s character is now seen in a dark light, one that is colored by hopelessness and “emotional and intellectual suffocation. As well as art, religion and the puritan lifestyle of the prairies in the depression era forge the identities of the people.

Philip is portrayed in the diary as a soul tormented by his religious lifestyle. He is regretfully the “embodiment of the puritan temperament, the product of his environment and much more a part of it then he would ever admit”. He cannot shake loose from this destiny and he “pretends to be what he can never be, for the sake of a meagre existence, and yet he is heartsick with awareness of the futility of his pretense”. It is said that “prairie puritanism is one result of the conquest of the land, part of the price exacted from conquest.

Like the theme of the conquest of the land, the theme of the imprisoned spirit dominates serious prairie writing, and is connected with it”. The regionalism that is associated with this strict lifestyle is reflected by how the characters demonstrate the puritan ideal. In her novel, The Diviners, Margaret Laurence also writes with an emphasis on regionalism. Both Morag Gunn and her daughter, Pique, are adamant on establishing a sense of identity. On this search for identity, both characters are influenced by the region that they have been subjected to.

Margaret Laurence’s small town of Manawaka is one of the greatest fictional towns in Canadian literature. Laurence has carried this town through in many of her novels and her geographical creation is said to be “deeply rooted in the author’s hometown of Neepawa in the Province of Manitoba” and “at the same time an amalgam of many prairie towns”. In examining the nature of Manawaka and its influence on its people “the reader is required to have a fair grasp of not only the physical but also the mental, spiritual, historical and cultural peculiarities of the region” .

This refers to the aspects of regionalism that have the potential to be analyzed within the town of Manawaka. Laurence gives the town a vividly real landscape and a rich historical background and “after five books, the town of Manawaka can be specifically mapped. It geography is precise and consistent, and there are now many landmarks in the town. The cemetery, the garbage dump and the valley where the Tonnerres have their shacks are all on the outskirts of Manawaka” . Manawaka “acts as a setting for the dilemmas of its unique individuals and also exercising its own powerful dynamic on them”.

The characters experience many events due to the town’s historical roots and values and ultimately, characters tend to grow apart from the sullen town. However, this growth is purely physical because Canadian towns, such as the fictional Manawaka, tend to leave a mark and a great impression on its inhabitants. The characters that are involved with the town “carry Manawaka with them, its constraints and inhibitions, but also its sense of roots, of ancestors, and of a past that is living still, both it’s achievements and its tragic errors” .

In The Diviners, both Morag and Pique feel the need leave their prairie towns and therefore, the setting of Manawaka exists only in past reference. Regardless of this, it consumes their lives. It is because of this that “Manawaka as a setting constitutes only one third of the story, but the region follows the heroine wherever she goes, enriched by each of her experiences while the heroine pursues her path leading to the art of ‘divining’. The visions Laurence created with her magic rod of divining are regional in their details”.

All these aspects make Manawaka what it has become in the world of Canadian literature. It represents the foundation for all of Laurence’s achievements as it is embedded so deeply into her personal roots as well as her characters’ roots. “Manawaka was Laurence’s time and place, and she set herself to get it ‘exactly right’. Her success fulfills the prophecy of the closing line in one of her undergraduate poems: ‘this land will be my immortality’”.

A statement such as this demonstrates the extreme to which Laurence is connected to this prairie land, and also the town as a reflection of other Canadian prairie towns. Regionalism is portrayed here in it’s fullest. With regard to the region, as any true prairie town, Manawaka is complete with tales of historical trials and tribulations. The people of the town emphasize history and relish it’s significance in their lives. These tales are used to refer to historical events throughout the novel. They surround the town and demonstrate to the reader the true nature of it’s heritage.

The stories told and celebrated by Christie Logan and the Tonnerre family emphasize the historical implications of the battles that were fought on the land and are manipulated just enough to give them a small town twist. By telling the stories of Piper Gunn and Rider Tonnerre, “it is made clear that the townspeople incorporate in their bones and blood a far longer span of history than the town’s, one that comes down from the time of the Highland Clearances and from before the settlement of the West, and is landmarked by battles–Batoche, Bourlon, Wood, and Dieppe”.

Laurence uses these stories as a catalyst in both Morag and Pique’s search for identity and belonging. The greatest journey in this novel is the quest for identity and “Morag Gunn is trying to reconcile an inner autochthonous nature and an outer assumed persona, one which is formed and fostered by the society in which she lives. The dichotomy is between nature and civilization, and true identity can only come with a fusion of the two elements of our human experience” (Adamson). In this sense, the society in which she lives is portrayed when “history and legend merge in Morag’s pictures of herself as a small child”.

Morag identifies with the story of Piper Gunn and “the ancestral heritage characterized by the stern Calvinism of Scottish Presbyterian Protestantism as well as the tribal pride symbolized by tartan checks and kilts” (Tsutsumi, 310). It takes a great many years before Morag understands and associates these legends and truths with her development into an adult woman. The region that she grew up hating had one of the most significant impacts on her life. It is the stories of her land that first encourage a young Morag to jot down poems and stories in her scribbler.

Laurence gives specific mention to this new hobby when she says, “Morag is working on another story as well. She does not know where it came from. It comes into your head, and when you write it down, it surprises you, because you never knew what was going to happen until you put it down” (Laurence, 100). At this instance, Morag seems to find an excitement and a novelty in writing. Christie’s stories of her ancestors and the land inspire her, and her career as a writer begins here. As well as being a springboard for Morag’s future, these stories emphasize to the reader the social class system that exists in small towns such as Manawaka.

The tales are an extended metaphor for this inequality throughout the novel, as well as a metaphor for the importance of identity. In his article, Arthur Adamson says, “it is not description of prairie scenery or of the Precambrian Shield that makes a regional writer, but the ability to translate descriptive elements into metaphor, to reveal the reality of the confrontation of nature and civilization” (Adamson). The nature of the people in this region and their living patterns are the aspects that separate Morag and Jules from the rest of the town.

It is said that, “The Diviners portrays class prejudice in an ostensibly democratic society. Attempts to humiliate Morag only encourage her inner toughness” (Morley, 123). This also demonstrates to the reader how the town’s ignorance to the less fortunate helps her to develop that strong exterior that allows her to contend with difficulties bigger than the small town gossip of Manawaka and other prairie towns. The town “presents a false image of respectability, first seen in the social elements of Manawaka: the residential area as opposed to the nuisance grounds and the half breed dwellings” (Adamson).

It’s attitude towards the outcasts is kept socially hidden by some of the more prominent townspeople but Morag sees through this. The treatment of these people, such as the Tonnerres, resemble similar occurrences in many small prairie towns. With regard to this vicious social stratification, “Manawaka’s was a swiftly forming social system, based on thrift, hard work, pressure to conform to the patterns of respectability, and, above all, financial success”. This regionalistic factor becomes extended throughout the novel. Pique also feels the pressure of being different.

There is an instance in the novel that Pique complains to her mother about the kids at school teasing her about her heritage. She struggles with her mixed race and “carries in her veins a heritage that she does not yet understand but is unwilling and unable to reject. This is due to the fact that “Laurence’s fiction accurately depicts the general contempt with which the Metis were regarded in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and the twentieth”. The region’s heritage was, and will always truly be based on the native peoples.

The new settlers in the land, which are spoken about in the tales of Piper and Rider, are the people who abolished these culturally rich tribes. The townspeople in this novel continue to have these narrow views on the ones they call “half-breeds” and therefore, The Diviners is an accurate depiction of the region and the prairies. Pique is the connection of two important cultures and “when Pique sings her own song at the end of the story, the two traditions are fused together and she will become an inheritor” (Tsutsumi, 311). The nature of regionalism in this novel is the historical importance of the people and the land.

It encourages both Morag and Pique to discover their significant heritages and enables them to remain connected with their prairie lands regardless of their current living situations. There is no doubt that “no town in our literature has been so consistently and extensively developed as Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka. Through five works of fiction, it has grown as a vividly realized, microcosmic world”. It is quite evident that regionalism plays a major part in Canadian literature. In its many forms it brings a region to life for the author, the reader, and most importantly, the characters.

A region can seem like a simple backdrop to the story-line until it is analyzed by the reader. On a second glance, a region contains many aspects, specific to it’s domain, that become one with its land and the inhabitants. In the Canadian novel, its influence on character is very prominent. The ability of the region to shape one’s identity is the central idea of regionalism. In the novels As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross and The Diviners by Margaret Laurence, the environment plays a large role in the definition of identity. Ross’ characters, Mr. and Mrs. Bentley, find themselves lost in the void of the prairie and they become emblematic of the land in which they occupy.

In this sense, their identity is a mere flicker in the emptiness of the prairie that demonstrates a hollow existence. Laurence’s characters, Morag and Pique Gunn both derive their identities from the heritage that they have inherited from their ancestors. In doing so, they come to understand the significance of the historical events of the region and appreciate the land in which they live. Each of these outcomes deal with the prairie life and, although they re quite different, they are a truly symbolic to the region. It is by using metaphor that Ross and Laurence are brilliantly able to achieve such strong regional statements. Their metaphors effectively express prairie life and the characteristics associated with it.

Works Cited

  1. Adamson, Arthur. “Identity Through Metaphor: An Approach to the Question of Regionalism in Canadian Literature” Studies in Canadian Literature. 5. 1 (1980). 11 Feb. 2010. Campbell, Donna M. “Regionalism and Local Color Fiction, 1865-1895.
  2. ” Literary Movements. 22 May 2007. 7 Feb. 010. .Daniells, Roy. “Introduction. ” As for Me and My House. Ed. Malcolm Ross.
  3. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1957. v-x. Davey, Frank. “The Conflicting Signs of As for Me and My House. ”
  4. From the Heart of the Heartland: The Fiction of Sinclair Ross.
  5. Ed. John Moss. Ottawa, ON: University of Ottawa Press, 1992. 25-37. Jordan, David M. “Introduction. ” New World Regionalism: Literature in the Americas.
  6. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 1994. 3-10. Jordan, David M. “The Canadian Prairie: Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House.
  7. New World Regionalism: Literature in the Americas. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 1994. 93-97. Kreisel, Henry. “The Prairie: A State of Mind. ” Contexts of Canadian Criticism. Ed. Eli Mandel.
  8. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1971. 254-266. Laurence, Margaret. The Diviners. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2007. Morley, Patricia. Margaret Laurence.
  9. Boston : Twayne Publishers, 1981. Ricou, Laurence. “The Prairie Internalized: The Fiction of Sinclair Ross. ”

Cite this page

Regionalism in Canadian Literature. (2017, Feb 20). Retrieved from

Regionalism in Canadian Literature
Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7