Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'Thinking Themselves Halved When They Are Atomized': Identity Contradictions in Marian Engel's No Clouds of Glory and the Honeyman Festival

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'Thinking Themselves Halved When They Are Atomized': Identity Contradictions in Marian Engel's No Clouds of Glory and the Honeyman Festival

Article excerpt

This article focuses on Marian Engel's first two novels to explore why critics were so often disappointed in her work. Engel's focus on individual female and national consciousness within social and historical circumstances was generally considered a good start, but she apparently took a wrong turn when she did not discover workable identities in an era of dominant Canadian nationalist and second-wave feminist identity movements. Engel resisted the idea of discoverable identity, and the reception of her work suffered. Her less optimistic treatment of identity stands up better today, when we are less sure about the existence of resolvable identities at all. Re-reading these two novels as explorations of obstacles that interfere with identity reveals a compelling pattern: characters are confronted with what troubles their understandings of themselves as women and Canadians.

IN HER DAY, MARIAN ENGEL WAS ROUTINELY RECOGNISED as a good writer.1 Fresh from her Governor General's award for Bear in 1976, her work was included on the list of important Canadian novels generated at the controversial Calgary Conference2 in 1978, as well as in numerous anthologies. Despite the interest in her work, however, Engel clearly presented problems for critics. In 1987, Elizabeth Brady posited that the nature and extent of these problems indicated remarkable critical confusion: 'That critics and reviewers may hold conflicting estimation of the overall stature of a novelist is not uncommon, but, over a seventeen-year span [1968-85] to so markedly disagree about her characteristic strengths and weaknesses, to so strikingly dispute which books are even noteworthy, is unusual' (1987: 17). This paper focuses on Engel's first two novels, No Clouds of Glory (1968) and The Honeyman Festival (1970), and argues that they were undervalued in their time because they were out of step with critical expectations of discoverable female and national identities.

The 1960s ushered in a period of intense and renewed interest among Canadians in general, and Canadian women in particular, in issues of identity and self-definition. This intensification of interest is often explained within the context of important political decisions that would reframe the experience of being female and/or Canadian. Firstly, legislation addressed identity questions, reflecting changes in public opinion about such wide-ranging issues as divorce, family law, equality, sexual assault, abortion, and domestic violence.3 As women ventured into non-traditional environments, they challenged assumptions about who women were and what they could do. Secondly, change was at the forefront of national life through initiatives by the federal government to 'bring home' the Canadian Constitution and commit its citizens to values that would govern collective national action. Fundamental issues included the relationship of the nation to its colonial history, those of the provinces to each other, and those of the provinces and territories to their central government.4 Not surprisingly, as female and national interests were foregrounded, questions of identity and self-definition became relevant not only within the social and political worlds of the time, but also within the realm of literary production.

From the outset of Engel's writing career, the importance of female identity to her work was recognised and acknowledged. Male and female critics alike5 focused on female characters in her novels who wrestled with their own self-understandings while doing battle with social limitations presented by a patriarchal society. As Susan Swan explained about No Clouds of Glory, Sarah's career is one 'which grows increasingly meaningless; Minn [in The Honeyman Festival] has marriage and a brood of children. In the end, they are only every woman, baffled, frightened and a little angry' (1970: 30). In 1975, Douglas Parker described Minn of The Honeyman Festival as a wife and mother 'who probes her psyche in an attempt to glean some meaning about the nature of her own identity . …

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