Introducing Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes

A Reader's Guide by Linda Leith


"Linda Leith's study certainly enriches the beginner's appreciation of Two Solitudes, but it offers a stimulating interpretation for specialists as well." -- Patrick Coleman, Quebec Studies


Quebec Studies - Two Solitudes

Patrick Coleman (Link to original review)

Hugh MacLennan's landmark novel about English-French relations is the first text from Quebec to be included in ECW's new series of "Canadian Fiction Studies." (Volumes on bonheur d'occasion and Maria Chapdelaine are in preparation.) Designed for senior high school and undergraduate students, each volume in the series contains a chronology of the author, introductory chapters on the importance and critical reception of the work, and an extended "reading of the text," followed by an annotated bibliography. The concept is thus roughly equivalent tothe similar series devoted to world masterworks published by G.K. Hall. Although the format is a standard one, much depends on the critic's individual talent: combining basic exposition with fresh insight is not an easy task. Linda Leith's study certainly enriches the beginner's appreciation of Two Solitudes, but it offers a stimulating interpretation for specialists as well.

Critics of Two Solitudes have often distinguished between the worthiness of its theme and the awkwardness of its litereary expression. The value of Leith's study lies in her revisionary approach to the book's duality, which she locates within the form of the novel itself. Leith suggests that Two Solitudes seeks to blend two very different genres. The first parts of the novel offer an epic view of Canadian history, in which broadly drawn characters like Athanase Tallard are meant to typify larger social forces whose significance is explained by an authoritative narrator.The book's second half belongs instead to the genre of the bildungsroman, depicting young Paul Tallard's slow and tentative growth as a writer. Unfortunately, the techniques of characterization appropriate to the first half are carried over into the second, where greater subtlety and nuance were required. "The change of genre after the death of Alphonse Tallard … throws thesimplifications and banalities, the implausibilities and inconsistencies of MacLennan's characterization into relief. What had been admirable and certainly necessary in the epic becomes, in the Bildungsroman, a flaw" (45). Leith develops this insight in a number of directions, showing the interconnections between formal and thematic issues throughout the story.

The asymmetry of French-English relations is another of Leith's concerns. She shows how the half-English, unreligious Paul Tallard makes him "quite unrepresentative of French Canada" in the 1940s, for his relationship to his community is very different from that of his bride Heather, an Anglo pure laine. MacLennan's sympathetic portrayal of the Canadian duality is also undercut by the assumption that it is the French who must do more accommodating than the English in Québec. To clicnch the point, she includes a section called "An Imaginary Anglo" in which she invents an English Canadian "whose sympathies for French Canada [would be] a match" for those of Athanase Tallard (63). Through this exercise in counter-imagination she shows very wittily justhow the novel's premise is skewed in essential ways. In the chapter on the work's reception, Leith also explores the reasons for the different reactions to the book among French and English critics.

Yet, while offering an interpretation of MacLennan's novel that takes full account of contemporary political and formal concerns, Leith helps us appreciate, in historical as well as litereary terms, the real value of MacLennan's "attempt to find a form to accomodate the duality of the Canadian experience" (81). Written in a clear and lively style, it is a valuable contribution to the field and a most useful resource for the teaching of the Canadian or Qu&eacaute;bec novel.

Patrick Coleman, University of California, Los Angeles

CM Magazine - Two Solitudes

Louise Reimer (Link to original review)

As Canadian fiction has gained acceptance in the curricula of literature courses, the demand for supplementary literary criticism has emerged. Once again, ECW Press has risen to fill a gap with a series of short, novel-specific reader's guides, "Canadian Fiction Studies" (see also the review of Introducing Margaret Atwood's Surfacing by George Woodcock and Introducing Timothy Findley's The Wars by Lorraine M. York on page 184 and the review of Introducing Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House by George Woodcock and Introducing Farley Mowat's The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Lorraine M. York on page 185).

The Apprenticeship of Buddy Kravitz [sic] by Mordecai Richler (1959; Penguin Books, 1973) and Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan (Collins, 1945; Macmillan, 1986) are regularly studied by second­ary and post-secondary students. In these two recent volumes in the "Cana­dian Fiction Studies" series, George Woodcock and Linda Leith, both critics of solid reputation, provide concise critical introductions to the two novels.

The series follows a standard format: a chronology; a discussion of the novel's importance, context, and critical recep­tion; an extended analytical reading of the text, focusing on language, theme and character; a selected annotated bibliography of secondary sources; and an index. Both Leith's and Woodcock's discussions are cogent and well argued and they offer particularly perceptive comments on characterization. In addition, both prove their measure as critics by refusing to lapse into national­istic adulation and by offering full and impartial consideration of the novels' strengths and weaknesses.

These slim, attractive volumes will prove a lure to students browsing the shelves for a quick critical read. Those expecting a simplistic "Coles Notes" type of introduction will be beyond their depth in these two volumes, however, for many of the ideas and arguments have a level of sophistication most suited to students with at least a rudimentary exposure to literary criticism.

Louise Reimer, Edmonton Public Library, Edmonton, Alta.