Comparative Canadian Literature

The comparative study of the Canadian literatures (which normally means writing in English and French) is of recent origin, the best work dating from the late 1960s. The linguistic situation that exists in Canada is not unlike that of other countries that practice bilingual policies (e.g., Cameroon and Belgium). The problem with language is that it often establishes zones of territoriality, rather than opening lines of communication, and in Canada this situation has profoundly inhibited the comparative study of the country's literatures.
Northrop Frye, writer
Frye's enormous influence derived from his insistence that literary criticism is a symbolically co-ordinated discipline that outlines the shape of the human imagination itself (photo by Andrew Danson).

Another reason for the slow pace of such studies in Canada is that the normal model for comparative studies has been between rather than within nations. Furthermore, since the rise of comparative studies in the 18th century, the assumption has been that the object of comparative literature in general is to unify the literatures of the world and to examine them as part of a harmonious whole. Thus literatures that constitute the culture of a country already unified do not seem to require further unification. Finally the literatures of Canada, until recently, have usually been treated as colonial, and therefore more closely allied to the literature of their respective mother countries.

The Official Languages Act (see Official Languages Act (1988)), as well as the sense of national unity generated by the centennial of Confederation, tended to provide the impetus not only to overcome colonial attitudes but also to permit an examination of the 2 literatures as significant enough to be studied in their own right. A satisfactory model for comparison, however, has yet to be found. The most frequently cited image is that of the double staircase at the Château de Chambord, proposed over a century ago by P.J.O. Chauveau. The image is apt, for it suggests 2 cultures that constantly spiral around each other without ever coming into direct contact.

The model is most often used by anglophone critics; francophone critics, by contrast, complain of too much contact. Not surprisingly, the majority of scholars who study the Canadian literatures comparatively are anglophone, for it is there that the ideology of comparative studies as conducive to unity is most strongly felt. It is felt, however, with paradoxical delicacy. As Philip Stratford has argued, the Canadian comparatist "must neither unify, nor divide."

The usual method of following, at least implicitly, such an injunction has been to include francophone literature in histories of Canadian literature in a special chapter. Archibald MacMechan's Headwaters of Canadian Literature (1924), a pioneering work, only includes francophone literature because it constitutes an exception to "Canadian" literature. That literature also merits a chapter in Lorne Pierce's An Outline of Canadian Literature (1927), and the same position is given the writing of Québec in Margaret Atwood's widely read Survival (1972).

Of studies exclusively devoted to probing how two literatures relate, Ronald Sutherland's Second Image (1971) must be considered the fundamental point of departure. While confirming that the two literatures cannot be compared as a result of mutual contact, Sutherland argues that on the basis of shared themes they possess sufficient likeness to merit mutual study. The same point is developed in The New Hero (1977). Margot Northey's The Haunted Wilderness (1976) follows a similar methodology with more attention paid to issues of form.

The most significant Québec critic is Clément Moisan, whose first book, L'Âge de la littérature canadienne (1969), echoes the pioneering work of Edmond Lareau's Histoire de la littérature canadienne (1874); both examine the two cultures from broad, sociological perspectives. Moisan's second book, Poésie des frontières (1979; trans A Poetry of Frontiers, 1983), follows Sutherland's method in poetry rather than in the novel.

The technique is one of "facing-off" thematically similar francophone and anglophone writers. E.D. Blodgett's Configuration (1982), more pluralistic in design, endeavours to overcome the impasse of shared francophone and anglophone themes, first by examining Ukrainian and especially German texts and, second, by employing critical methods more various than thematic analysis. Nevertheless, the trend continues to examine similar patterns between the 2 founding literatures.

The title of Philip Stratford's study, All the Polarities (1986), makes this manifest, and his method consists in pairing off anglophone and francophone novels to assess both similarity and dissimilarity. It might be observed that studies in English generally address prose, while those in French turn to poetry, which is the object of Richard Giguère's Exil, révolte et dissidence (1984), a study of French and English poetry from 1925 to 1955. The fundamental desideratum of the field, however, is a history of the Canadian literatures, both the founding literatures and those of lesser diffusion, and the kind of mosaic they continue to shape.

Recent trends suggest, however, that such a desideratum is not to be expected. Some cooperative efforts in that direction have been made by the Research Institute for Comparative Literature (University of Alberta) and the several volumes published under its auspices. Only occasional forays are made beyond francophone and anglophone texts, and the norm appears to draw heavily upon theoretical positions (ethnicity, feminism, post-colonialism, and problems of narratology and translation) that tend to diminish the older question of distinguishing the English-Canadian and Québécois aspects of the texts. Aboriginal writing, like ethnic writing, has not yet, for many reasons, been brought into the general zone of cultural interchange, and Diane Boudreau's Histoire de la littérature amérindienne au Québec (1993) and Walter E. Riedel's The Old World and the New: Literary Perspectives of German-speaking Canadians (1984) are useful histories. Ethnicity as a theoretical problem is explored in Joseph Pivato's Echo: Essays on Other Literatures (1994). Of the many feminist texts, orientations are well provided by Barbara Godard's (ed.) Gynocritics: Feminist Approaches to Writing by Canadian and Québécois Women / La Gynocritique: approches féministes à l'écriture des canadiennes et québécoises (1987).

As in other fields of literary research, the search for a basis in theory dominates. Theory is primarily relevant to the literary text and only rarely does it extend into the sociological or ideological context of the nation, which is evident in Rosmarin Heidenreich's The Postwar Novel in Canada: Narrative Patterns and Reader Response (1989). While drawing upon the theory announced in the subtitle, the study is quick to indicate the fundamentally different contexts which produce the dominant literatures of Canada. Winfried Siemerling's Discourse of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, & Nicole Brossard (1994) appears to be more of an earnest study of the contemporary by carefully avoiding any essentialization of English Canada or Québec in its use of post-colonial and discourse theory. Nevertheless, Canada is still perceived as nation, even if in the plural, and the area in which many of these issues converge is in the theory and practice of translation, the continuous dialogue of which is well exemplified in David Homel and Sherry Simon's (eds) Mapping Literature: The Art and Politics of Translation (1988).

Further Reading

  • D.M. Hayne, "Comparative Canadian Literature ...,"Canadian Review of Comparative Literature III.2 (1976); Hayne and A. Sirois, "Preliminary Bibliography of Comparative Canadian Literature,"CRCL (various issues 1975-83); D.G. Jones, Butterfly on Rock (1970); A.J.M. Smith, "Introduction,"The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1960); Philip Stratford, ed, Comparative Canadian Literature, a special issue of CRCL VI.2 (1979).