Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Elegy and Mourning in Alistair MacLeod's "The Boat". (Articles)

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Elegy and Mourning in Alistair MacLeod's "The Boat". (Articles)

Article excerpt

Readers of Alistair MacLeod have identified "an abiding sense of loss and regret.... [and] a pervasive sense of sadness" (Nicholson 98) in the writing, as well as the "proximity of most characters ... the final elemental darkness threatening to reduce all hopes to one uniform and meaningless conclusion" (Berces 116). MacLeod's short stories are pervasively somber in that they depict a culture that is in a gradual loss or erosion of value. Colin Nicholson considers MacLeod to be "involved in a kind of historical elegizing, playing a pibroch in his own behalf" (99). The "Scottish-Canadian genealogical explorations" (Gittings 93) that largely comprise MacLeod's short stories, as both laments of a lost past and as fictional chronicles of that past, have the function of memorializing the personal--and familial--as well as social history of the narrators and their ancestors. Many of MacLeod's narrators can be considered to be mourning, and the stories that they tell are an activity of that process; that is, telling stories has the function of helping a narrator memorialize the dead and thus partially work through feelings of grief. MacLeod's stories, however, have not received sustained analysis in terms of mourning, or in terms of their elegiac elements, beyond initial thematic identification. In this paper I will explore the narrator's engagement in "The Boat" from the collection The Lost Salt Gift of Blood with this memorializing by delineating the structural elements that allow this story to be identified as a work of mourning, and by exploring the narrator's engagement with processes of mourning--processes that force him to examine his fundamental sense of self.

In a useful conception, Freud defines mourning as work--both in the sense of an action and as an object--a dual connotation that the German word for mourning, Trauerarbeit, supports even more forcefully than the English term does. Thus, mourning is considered as work that needs completing and, in some cases, mourning work can be the result of the action, such as, for example, a literary representation. The textual form that is most readily identified as a "work" of mourning is the elegy. The notion that mourning itself is work implies active involvement by the individual in the processes of grief. While elegy is most commonly associated with poetic forms, it is, as one theorist points out, "a literary genre that has become increasingly marked by blurred boundaries" (Smythe 4); and fiction that incorporates elements of elegy is termed fiction-elegy. Formally, fiction-elegy is "fundamentally trans-generic in that it brackets other genres in their modal form while retaining elegy as the generic `dominant'" (6). The dominant genre, then, elegy "is a verbal presentation or staging of emotion wherein the detached speaker engages the audience with the intent of achieving some form of cathartic consolation." In tragedy, for example, where mourning is central, "it is the structure of the text that makes catharsis possible" (3). As a "staged performance of grief-work structure is [also] partially functional" (3) in forms that incorporate elegy. Peter Sacks points out that "the objective of an elegy is ... to displace the urgent psychological currents of its work of mourning into the apparently more placid, authentically organized currents of language" (14). Forms that incorporate elements of elegy channel the emotional responses to death into a structure (the creative work) that can more effectively deal with the loss, and that offers a means for working through the loss. Thus, the work of mourning involves the active ordering and structuring of information into a narrative construction that will enable--or, at least attempt--consolation.

As a work of mourning, "The Boat" is structured around the narrator's grief for the loss of his father. The narrator's means of coping with his emotional state is by telling a story that explores his relationship with his father, mother and ancestral tradition; these relationships are fraught with conflict and ambivalence, for the narrator documents a period in his life where he must choose between upholding old beliefs and forging his own path in life. …

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