Wilderness and the Canadian Mind: Treatment of Nature in Canadian Literature

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  • Topic: Margaret Atwood, Canadian literature, Garrison mentality
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Wilderness and the Canadian Mind: Treatment of Nature in Canadian Literature

Since Northrop Frye first proposed his "garrison mentality" thesis in 1943, many literary critics have debated its validity as a representation of early Canadian attitudes towards Nature. In the 1970s a number of books were produced, which dealt with this thematic element at great length. Most of these supported Frye's theory and demonstrated the tendency of Canadian writers to depict Nature in negative ways. A more recent article by Mary Lu MacDonald has tried to counter this prevailing notion, and attempts to argue that there was, before 1850, an "essentially positive view of the Canadian landscape." (MacDonald 48) While I applaud MacDonald's attempt, her response to the likes of Atwood, Moss, and Frye is lacking in a number of significant ways. Her criticism is often inaccurate and I feel it does not go far enough in demonstrating the weaknesses of Frye's thesis.

While Frye's thesis may be valid in as far as it discusses Canadian poetry, it largely ignores a large body of Canadian literature, namely that written by nineteenth-century, often female, middle-class settlers. In this body of literature one finds not only an abundance of negative images of the Canadian wilderness, but also a surprising abundance of positive images as well. An analysis of this literature reveals a curious ambiguity in middle-class attitudes towards wilderness and the nature of the Canadian environment. The authors, primarily women, came to Canada with preconceived notions of what Nature should be. These notions were generally reflective of European Romantic or Wordsworthian attitudes towards nature. The ambiguity or contradiction one finds in their writing is due in part to the tension between believing in these preconceived ideas and the reality of living within nature itself. Unlike Wordsworth, these ladies were not able to retreat from their own "Ruined Cottages" to cosy, cosmopolitan coffee houses, but had to live out their days in the midst of the "sublime" wilderness. The result of this isolation, and the physical stress of having to live and work in conditions far "below" what they were used to, is the negative imagery, which is usually found in relation to the effects of the wilderness on their standard of living. The sublime tree of a Wordsworth poem is, in the context of the Canadian environment, an obstacle to settlement and, due to the high cost of labour in Canada, it is also a threat to the middle-class gentlemanly way of life. However, despite the negative imagery in such books as Roughing it in the Bush or Backwoods of Canada, the Canadian environment is not generally regarded as hostile to the nineteenth-century women writers. It may be ambivalent, or indifferent, but it is rarely "sinister and menacing,"(Frye "Canada" 210) and it is never the "nature red in tooth and claw that Frye refers to" (Frye "Conclusion" 843).

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Frye first proposed his thesis in a 1943 review of J.M. Smith's Book of Canadian Poetry, and he states there that "the outstanding achievement of Canadian poetry is in the evocation of stark terror" in regards to Nature. This tone of deep terror is not a coward's terror, but "a controlled vision of the causes of terror"( Frye "Canada" 209). It is a terror, not of "the dangers or even the mysteries of nature, but a terror of the soul at something that these things manifest"( Frye "Conclusion" 830). The immediate source of this achievement, according to Frye, is obviously the frightened loneliness of a huge and thinly settled country. Even the unusual physical characteristics of entering Canada affect the European traveller to this country. Unlike the United States, which Frye describes as mainly a "culture of the Atlantic seaboard" down to the 1900s, with London and Edinburgh on one side and New York and Boston on the other, Canada has, for all practical purposes no Atlantic seaboard. The European traveller to Canada:...
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