Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Under the Ribs of Death: Immigrant Narratives of Masculinity and Nationality

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Under the Ribs of Death: Immigrant Narratives of Masculinity and Nationality

Article excerpt

Given John Marlyn's emphasis an Canadian social history, it is important to consider his protagonist's relationships with all the male characters in Under the Ribs of Death; Marlyn's depiction of the male immigrant's masculinity and maturation is heavily informed by World War I and the inter-war years.

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Under the Ribs of Death, written by John Marlyn and published in 1957, occupies an unusual place in Canadian literature best defined by those spaces that it seems to hang between. It is taught (I myself was introduced to it in a graduate seminar), but nowhere near as often as solidly canonical novels like those written by Davies, Atwood, Ondaatje, Findley, and Lawrence, for example. In academic journals it has been called the first Canadian book to have "confronted the public with the experiences of an immigrant population other than the dominant Anglo-Saxon and Germanic communities, and thus g[i]ve a voice to ethnic cultures outside the Canadian 'mainstream"' (Dvorak 22). Its author has been called "one of the first Canadian writers to dramatize the social dislocation of those Canadian writers who dramatized the social dislocation and alienation of those Canadians who belong to the 'Third Solitude"' (Rasporich 36). However, there is but a handful of articles on Marlyn's most popular novel, and some question its literary merit, calling it "(over)accessible," and "cliched" (Dvorak 23), and noting that its characters are poorly drawn and one-dimensional (Molnar 466). Therefore, one might conclude that Under the Ribs of Death is located within a canonical venue (academia and its publications) while it is barred from canonical status, or even sound literary status.

This within/without positioning is hardly unique to Under the Ribs of Death; studies in feminism, globalization, and ethnicity all challenge the canon while they thrive in its academic circles. My argument, however, is that this condition of being at once inside and outside defines the immigrant experience as described by Marlyn through his protagonist, Sandor. The novel's literary status has come to mirror, and thus highlight, the immigrant's location in the Canadian national narrative. In other words, immigration certainly has a role in the story of how Canada came to be a nation, but to what extent is the immigrant allowed to take part in that narrative? The historical events that have had some of the greatest effects on Canada's construction as an independent nation--World War I, the post-war boom years, the Great Depression--are almost always referred to in critical analyses of Under the Ribs of Death, but the novel itself does not mention them by name. Accordingly, such critical analyses refer to these historical events in order to describe Canadian society at the time of the novel, but never to interpret the novel itself What are we to make of this? As readers (and critics), we clearly understand the events of the novel within a national historical framework; that is to say, we read the protagonist's experiences as being related to these specific historical events in our national narrative despite the fact that the protagonist's (first-person) narrative does not refer to them by name. In this essay, I deal with this issue, that is, of the Canadian national narrative and the immigrant's simultaneous location within and without that narrative. To do so, I conduct a close reading of the text that tracks how the protagonist, a boy from a Hungarian immigrant family who grows to manhood in and around Winnipeg's north end, identifies and goes about obtaining the identity of a Canadian man and joining a national brotherhood. My reading incorporates literary, historical, psychological, sociological, and political approaches so as to reach a more precise and measured understanding of how this novel operates not only in relation to Canadian national narrative but also as a lesson in the pitfalls of trying to become a man in accordance with the standards set by that narrative. …

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