restricted access 9. Freedom and subservience in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song
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137 9. Freedom and subservience in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song PHILIPPE LAPLACE O thou who lived for Freedom when the Night Had hardly yet begun: when little light Blinded the eyes of men and dawntime seemed So fair and faint – a foolish dream half-dreamed! (Gibbon 2001: 185) Sunset Song, the first novel of the trilogy A Scots Quair, has enjoyed a wide readership and general esteem in Scotland and throughout the world, in spite of its linguistic difficulties and its abrasive social and political standpoints . Voted ‘the best Scottish book of all time’ in 2005 in a survey backed by BBC Scotland, it is undoubtedly the novel (along with Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, the subsequent two novels of the trilogy) which gave the thirty-two-year-old Anarcho-Marxist James Leslie Mitchell – Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s real name – his nearly iconic status in the Scottish Literary Renaissance. The so-called English novels written by Mitchell are not as well-known – Spartacus where the desire for freedom is of course at the heart of the novel and maybe Stained Radiance are the exceptions – whereas he has remained famous and celebrated for the work he produced as Lewis Grassic Gibbon – namely a collection of essays with Hugh MacDiarmid, some short stories and A Scots Quair which he set in his home region, the Mearns in Kincardineshire. The novelist famously wrote shortly before his death: ‘I hate capitalism; all my books are explicit or implicit propaganda.’1 The first two volumes of A Scots Quair reflect Gibbon’s main concerns about society and the burden imposed by capitalist values upon farmers and farming communities before turning his attention towards workers in the final volume.This chapter considers how the theme of freedom, and its necessary component, 138 subservience, can be studied in the first novel of the trilogy. We will consider what freedom meant from a personal and artistic point of view before studying Gibbon’s characters and their confrontation with freedom and subservience through Gramsci’s notion of contradictory consciousness: we will also consider how Gibbon cleverly handled the demotic and turned it into a compelling narratological device in order to articulate his characters’ ideological dispositions. We will finally see how Gibbon expressed the basic dichotomy freedom/subservience through the image of the Land. This will give us the necessary paradigm in order to understand how successfully his ideology is developed in Sunset Song. Personal and narrative freedom for Grassic Gibbon The first element one should note is that Sunset Song meant narrative distance and freedom for James Leslie Mitchell. Using a pseudonym made up of his mother’s maiden name and an adaptation of her first name – Lilias Grassic Gibbon – gave him the possibility to separate this new fictional work from the previous English novels he had so far published. He could write a novel about Scotland and more particularly about his homeland, the Mearns, and leave little doubts as to his origin and identity. The genuine Scottish voice he adopted also gave him the opportunity of ‘crying out louder’. This new local and authentic voice allowed him to be heard not only as a genuine Scottish novelist in Sunset Song and in the short stories he thereafter wrote, but also in the essays he published with MacDiarmid where he bitterly attacks the Scottish Nationalists, challenges the artistic conceptions of his fellow Scottish writers of the Literary Renaissance and denounces the dismal conditions experienced by the working-class in Glasgow.2 The English Mitchell and the Scottish Gibbon went on to publish the incredible number of nine books in the following two years until the highly prolific author’s untimely death at the age of thirty-four shortly after the publication of Grey Granite. Not only did Sunset Song mean personal distance and freedom for Mitchell under his Scottish persona, but the novel also had more comprehensive and literary side effects by allowing him to clearly mark a break with popular Scottish writing: it meant artistic freedom and a clear philippe laplace 139 freedom and subservience in sunset song split from traditional narrative voices and discourse in Scotland at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth centuries. The Kailyard had in a way imprisoned Scotland into a very particular and restrictive representation. Mitchell uses traditional Kailyard motifs in Sunset Song but only to distort them to suit his own narratological agenda and to proclaim the release from a restrictive standard. The protagonist...