Canadian Writers Two Books Built Essay

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¶ … Canadian Writers

Two books built on the lives of their respective main characters in an uncompromising, looking at the way people make decisions and shape their lives for good or ill, can be found in Sinclair Ross's as for Me and My House and Alice Munro's Who Do You Think You Are? Both books are by Canadian writers, and both involve women as protagonists who show different strategies of empowerment in societies where women are seen as having little power and where they are encouraged indeed to become adjuncts to the men in their lives and not to step to the fore.

The central voice in as for Me and My House is Mrs. Bentley (her first name is never given, as her marital status as Mrs. Bentley is her defining mark given that her relationship with her husband and the charade that is their outward life shape her world. Mrs. Bentley is married to a Protestant minister, or at last claims to be. In fact, she and her husband are contemptuous of religion and only pretend to be a minister and his wife as a way of life, a life that has also been one of numerous moves from town to town as they are found out and have to leave again and again. They are confidence people more interested in living in different places and in silently laughing at the values of the people among whom they live.

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The novel begins as the two are settling into a new home, and Mrs. Bentley looks back at their life before and considers her own dreams and how they have not been fulfilled as she has followed her husband from place to place on this ongoing masquerade. Mrs. Bentley is really a musician, and her husband is actually a painter and writer. Her one regret is that she has not been able to give her husband a child, and she fears that her husband will become more distant to her as they get older.

TOPIC: Essay on Canadian Writers Two Books Built on the Assignment

The town in which the novel is set is important for its symbolic value. The Bentleys are in a town called Horizon, and Mrs. Bentley wants this to be the last town they have to move to, suggesting that she has reached her limit (an idea embodied in the word "horizon"). Another symbolic element of importance is the setting on the Canadian prairie, marked by the isolation of settlements built by the pioneers of the past and now serving as backdrop for the lives of today. The Bentleys in Horizon know that the horizon marks the end of the prairie that surrounds the town to which they move, and now Mrs. Bentley wants to stop moving from place to place but also shows an awareness of the isolation of even the town: "I found it hard myself to believe I the town outside, houses, streets, and solid earth. Mile after mile the wind poured by, and we were immersed and lost in it" (Ross 38). The Bentleys may see the way they are immersed in and yet isolated from life as lived by other people.

The Bentleys are not the happy couple many in town believe them to be., and the empowerment of Mrs. Bentley takes place in the marriage as hidden from the town, in the intimate relations between the two and the way Mrs. Bentley manipulates her husband and, as one critic finds, systematically destroys her marriage. Her unreliability is evident in her relationship with Philip, and that lack of reliability extends to how the reader views the woman. The reader only sees the action in this book through the eyes of Mrs. Bentley in the journal she writes, a journal she probably does not expect to be read. This should suggest that she is telling the truth, for she is actually only speaking to herself. Still, the way she behaves toward Philip makes this questionable, for her image of herself may take precedence over the truth. Mrs. Bentley never shows Philip any real affection, though Philip does show affection for her. Philip reacts to this by seeing their relationship as problematic. As noted, she is a musician, and she often uses music as a tool for punishing Philip. She also flirts with other men when Philip can see her doing it, using this as a way of goading him when she wishes to do so. At the same time, she sees herself as a pious and faithful wife and as a wife much put upon by Philip's habits and the lifestyle he has chosen for them. She appears at first to be a loving wife, but she begins to seem more like a woman who wants primarily to exert her power over her husband even though he resists at every turn. Theirs is a very complex relationship, with degrees of love on both sides, but with a battle of wills that is ongoing and that suggests they cannot stop punishing one another long enough to find the connection they otherwise seem to seek. Part of Mrs. Bentley's resentment derives from her potential as a concert pianist, a potential she believes has been thwarted by following her husband from town to town, and she also believes that her husband has turned on her for no reason at all.

Interestingly, while she tries to make Philip jealous, she is subject to unreasoning jealousy herself. Mrs. Bentley's fears about her husband lead her to follow him, and the weather and the nature of the prairie conspire to surround her and isolate her even more as she goes to see if her husband is really meeting Judith: "Then, hugging the walls, I stole from window to window, trying to get a glimpse inside. But the blinds were all drawn" (Ross 138). Mrs. Bentley in such sequences is enclosed by the prairie, by nature, and by the darkness as much as she is enclosed by the walls in her home.

Philip Denham states that Ross's novel is "a study of the failed artistic imagination, and of an eroding Puritanism" marking the Canadian experience, and also an example of what he calls the "garrison mentality, in its exploration of the peculiarities of the Canadian experience of nature and its relation to civilization" (Denham para. 2). One critic says that the Ross novel is more ambiguous and difficult to read because of the use of Mrs. Bentley as the only direct voice because she "does not reveal enough to the reader for him to deduce anything other than what she wishes him to deduce" (Stephens 21), another statement of how Mrs. Bentley's voice as narrator cannot be trusted.

Of course, both the Bentleys have to be seen as hypocrites, for both are pretending to be what they are not to the people of the town. Mrs. Bentley is perhaps more the hypocrite than her husband because she also pretends to be other than she really is both to her husband and to herself, while Philip is far more reliable. Mrs. Bentley complains in her journal that Philip is becoming more distant from her, but in fact, she often seems to be the one who is growing more distant. She does detail the forces in Philip's life that might explain his mode of life, such as his absent father and the way his mother shamed him with her behavior.

Mrs. Bentley's life changes when they adopt a child, giving her part of what she has long wanted. The child is Philip's but not hers, though she accepts the boy as if he were. However, she and Philip still have to move away from Horizon, a process that is more wrenching than it has been in the past: "After three or four years it's easy to leave a little town. After just one it's hard" (Ross 164). For her and Philip, how others view them becomes important, and she notes as they are leaving that "It turns out now that all along they've liked us" (Ross 164). She has not noted this before because she lives as if she is visiting, pretending to be what she is not, and so failing to relate to people even though she might want to do so.

Alice Munro's book Who Do You Think You Are? is a book of short stories and was published in 1978. The central character is Rose, and one thing she shares with Mrs. Bentley is the use of her own narrative as a form of empowerment, for she can shape her story any way she wants as long as she is telling it, just as Mrs. Bentley could do. Both women talk about the past, Mrs. Bentley to explain the present, and Rose to separate herself from the poor part of town in which she lives and from the people there and also the people in her past. She uses narrative as a way of reshaping herself and her life. The town of Hanratty is not unlike Horizon… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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