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Faith and Fiction

A Theological Critique of the Narrative Strategies of Hugh MacLennan and Morley Callaghan

Barbara Pell

Publication Year: 1998

Is it possible to write an artistically respectable and theoretically convincing religious novel in a non-religious age?

Up to now, there has been no substantial application of theological criticism to the works of Hugh MacLennan and Morley Callaghan, the two most important Canadian novelists before 1960. Yet both were religious writers during the period when Canada entered the modern, non-religious era, and both greatly influenced the development of our literature. MacLennan’s journey from Calvinism to Christian existentialism is documented in his essays and seven novels, most fully in The Watch that Ends the Night.

Callaghan’s fourteen novels are marked by tensions in his theology of Catholic humanism, with his later novels defining his theological themes in increasingly secular terms. This tension between narrative and metanarrative has produced both the artistic strengths and the moral ambiguities that characterize his work.

Faith and Fiction: A Theological Critique of the Narrative Strategies of Hugh MacLennan and Morley Callaghan is a significant contribution to the relatively new field studying the relation between religion and literature in Canada.

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Series: Editions SR


Hugh MacLennan

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p. v-v

Morley Callaghan

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p. v-v


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1. The Problem of Faith

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pp. 1-3

We live in a post-Christian era. The legacy of the twentieth century was the death of God in the nineteenth century. Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) undermined the Christian concept of humanity created in the image of God with special rights and privileges...

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2. The Problem of Fiction

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pp. 4-8

The spiritual crisis of our century and the Christian theological responses to it form a crucial backdrop to any discussion of modern literature and religion. It has been said, by authors and literary critics as well as theologians, that all literature is essentially religious...

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3. Faith and Canadian Fiction: MacLennan and Callaghan

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pp. 8-14

In my application of theological criticism to Canadian fiction, I hope to illuminate, in a way not previously practised, the theological premises and literary productions of the two most important and influential Canadian novelists before 1960: Hugh MacLennan and Morley Callaghan...


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1. Introduction

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pp. 15-21

Hugh MacLennan, one of the founding fathers of modern Canadian fiction, was also the self-appointed spokesman for Canada in the twentieth century. From 1907 to 1990 he witnessed most of the extreme political, social, and religious upheavals of this turbulent century. In six books of essays and seven novels he chronicled his historical and sociological...

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2. Barometer Rising

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pp. 21-25

After two amateurish and unpublished novels, "So All Their Praises" and "A Man Should Rejoice," MacLennan abandoned international settings to accept his wife's advice to write about his homeland....

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3. Two Solitudes

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pp. 25-30

In Two Solitudes (1945) MacLennan continues the thematic pattern of a movement from Calvinism to a spiritual humanism in a denunciation of the old puritanical religions which he believes have sown the racial hatreds in this country, and in a quest for a meaningful faith for the individual in this scientific age...

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4. The Precipice

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pp. 31-38

The Precipice (1948) is really a religious thesis in the guise of the "sociological novel" that MacLennan felt was fashionable and marketable at the time (E. Cameron, Life 210). It is an analysis of the respective legacies of puritanism without God in Canada and the United...

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5. Each Man's Son

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pp. 38-43

Each Man's Son (1951) recapitulates most of the author's previous criticisms of Calvinism, both as a theology and as a crippling psychological complex, and he again probes the existential meaninglessness that accompanies a renunciation of religion. This time he offers a solution, based not on abstract dogma nor religious rhetoric...

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6. The Watch That Ends the Night

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pp. 43-51

The Watch That Ends the Night (1959), MacLennan's finest novel, incorporates the whole thematic pattern which we have traced through his other fiction to the spiritual resolution which has been suggested in his essays: a radical redefinition of God to answer the existential dilemma of modern man...

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7. Return of the Sphinx

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pp. 51-57

In Return of the Sphinx (1967) MacLennan did not repeat the basic techniques, or the success, of The Watch That Ends the Night. This novel replays the conflict between the races and generations which we saw in Two Solitudes, but two decades later MacLennan's basic...

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8. Voices in Time

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pp. 57-63

Thirteen years after Return of the Sphinx MacLennan published Voices in Time (1980) at the age of seventy-three, a final elegy for the present but with surprising hope for the future. The novel is set in a dystopian future, about 2039 (VT 170), but despite a brief science fiction beginning...

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9. Conclusion: "codified theology"

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pp. 63-64

We have traced the development of MacLennan's religious vision through his fiction. Since MacLennan, despite his denials, was a didactic writer who cheerfully sacrificed form to content, it should come as no surprise that his strength lies in his vision and his weakness in his art. In both cases, they were largely a product of his faith...


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1. Introduction

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pp. 65-73

Although he did not share MacLennan's nationalistic vocation to define this country in fiction, Morley Callaghan was arguably the other most important founding father of the modern Canadian novel. One of Canada's most prolific writers for over sixty years, he produced in that time sixteen novels, five books of short stories and novellas...

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2. Naturalistic novels: Strange Fugitive, It's Never Over, A Broken Journey

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pp. 73-80

Strange Fugitive (1928), despite its fresh realistic style, has evoked the strongest criticism for its lack of focus: Callaghan seems to have been feeling his way in this novel, and he put into it practically every element fashionable in the advanced...

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3. Biblical parables: Such Is My Beloved, They Shall Inherit the Earth, More Joy in Heaven

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pp. 81-92

Callaghan's three novels of the mid-thirties express his religious themes most explicitly. As I suggested in the introduction to this section, Callaghan was especially influenced in these years by the Christian humanist philosophy of Jacques Maritain. This theology provided a context within which Callaghan could clarify the tension between nature...

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4. Sinner-saints: The Loved and the Lost, The Many Colored Coat, A Passion in Rome

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pp. 92-102

For the next ten years Callaghan went through "a period of spiritual dryness" (Weaver 20). He wrote articles and plays (including a dramatic version of They Shall Inherit the Earth), and travelled for the CBC programme Citizen's Forum. In 1948 there appeared his juvenile book...

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5. The law of love: A Fine and Private Place, Close to the Sun Again

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pp. 103-111

After another surprising long hiatus, fourteen years this time, Callaghan's two full-length novels of the seventies show yet a further development in his treatment of the complexities of faith in fiction. At this point he seems to have moved farthest from the metaphysical realm of grace to concentrate on the struggle between light and darkness in the realm...

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6. The truth of the story: A Time for Judas, Our Lady of the Snows, A Wild Old Man on the Road.

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pp. 111-123

Callaghan published a final trilogy of novels before his death in 1990. In them he reiterated (often with metafictional self-reflexivity) the perennial religious themes of his fiction as they had become defined in an increasingly secular form during the 1970s. Although his first novel...

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7. Conclusion: "the irreducible mysteriousness of life"

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pp. 123-124

In tracing the development of Callaghan's faith through his fiction, I have suggested that there is a constant, unresolved tension between his religious vision and his fidelity to existential realism. Callaghan always had a profound commitment to portraying the mysterious and sometimes "rotten" stuff of human existence...

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pp. 125-130

I have considered the problematic relationship between fiction and faith in this post-Christian era with particular reference to Hugh MacLennan and Morley Callaghan, the two most important Canadian novelists of the first half of this century...


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pp. 131-138


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pp. 139-146

E-ISBN-13: 9780889206489
Print-ISBN-13: 9780889203075
Print-ISBN-10: 0889203075

Page Count: 150
Publication Year: 1998

Series Title: Editions SR