In the early 1970s Canadian literary criticism saw the publication of a number of studies generally grouped under the term thematic criticism. Such books included D. G. Jones's Butterfly on Rock: A Study of Themes and Images in Canadian Literature (1970), Margaret Atwood's Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), and John Moss's Patterns of Isolation in English Canadian Fiction (1974). These books were Canadian in focus and historical in arrangement, offering readings of deliberately selected texts.
Many recent books of criticism are descendants of these thematic critics, for they too are Canadian in focus though not necessarily historical in arrangement, and they offer readings of deliberately selected texts. Amelia DeFalco's Imagining Care: Responsibility, Dependency, and Canadian Literature is one of these, and it is a fine, [End Page 776] thought-provoking, and eminently suggestive study. Premised, as she states, "on the indispensability of narrative for ethical philosophy," she insists "that narrative literature has much to offer the enigmatic ethical theory based on care" (14). Consequently, she makes "literary narrative the primary subject, one that does its own speculating and evaluating, creating moral universes with the potential to address the insights of ethical philosophy. In other words, my perspective treats stories as the inquiring subject, rather than the instrumental device."
Based on previous ethics-of-care philosophers, most notably Carol Gilligan and her excellent In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (1982), DeFalco demonstrates that "care relations can be at once positive and negative, progressive and regressive, sometimes both nurturing and hurtful, a potential for contradiction and duality that inhibits attempts to definitively theorize 'quality' caregiving" (15). Both men and women are equally dependent on care for their own survival, and therefore, she asserts, they are equally obligated to provide care for others. It is astonishing to read a critic who regards the care of others as a concern of both genders and not simply so-called women's work; too often this kind of caregiving is assumed to be the province only of women.
For her multivalenced view of the Canadian practice of caring for others, DeFalco devotes a chapter to life writing before focusing on four voices of contemporary fiction: Margaret Atwood, Michael Ignatieff, Alice Munro, and David Chariandy. Their writings replace "totalizing myths of Canada and its citizens as unified and identified by care with particular scenarios of complicated, often ambivalent relations of dependence and need. Literary representations of vulnerability and responsibility offered by these authors expose the myth of Canadian care in a different register from cultural criticism, depicting the day-to-day difficulties of care in the private realms of friends and family" (23).
As DeFalco begins her study of Atwood's fiction (especially Atwood's 2006 story collection Moral Disorder), she notes wisely that the license of fabrication often permits writers to discuss unpalatable and socially unacceptable attitudes toward vulnerability and dependency. Although Atwood's book shows the primary necessity of caring for family members, friends, strangers, and even animals, the demands of care are never quite answered, and none of the characters are better for the care they receive. Providing care to others is both responsible and risky. For some reason, often not stated directly, the losses that result from the obligation of caring are numbing. People respond to the needs of other people, and through this caring for others the self is harmed even if refusing the demands of care may be more harmful still. Moral Disorder "confronts readers with the burden of responsibility, [End Page 777] the pain of witnessing, the disorder of emotional attachment while simultaneously evoking the more disturbing alternatives: fecklessness, alienated detachment, and orderly dismemberment" (74).
Exploring the relationship between an incapacitated and dying mother and her narrator-son, Ignatieff's Scar Tissue (1993) examines the feelings of obligation and dependence, the sensitive dichotomy of responsibility and helplessness. The narrator makes his caregiving an all-encompassing lifestyle, an exclusive focus, which tends to rob him of his ability to understand both his mother and himself. In this fictional...