Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Constructing English Quebec Ethnicity

Constructing English Quebec Ethnicity: Colleen Curran's Something Drastic and Josée Legault's L'invention d'une minorité : Les Anglo-Québécois

                                                                                    (first published in 1998)

In a 1997 La Presse [1] editorial on the much discussed situation of the "les Anglais" in Quebec, [2] Agnés Gruda describes Josée Legault's title for her1991 study of the dominant discourse of the English Quebec community, L'invention d'une minorité : Les Anglos-Québécois, as "un nom évocateur"(B2). [3] Gruda summarizes Legault's thesis as follows: "Selon l'auteure, il n'existe pas vraiment au Québec de communauté anglo-québécois fondée sur une identité propre et différente du reste du Canada. Cette 'minorité' a été inventéede toutes pièces à des fins stratégiques" (B2). [4] Certainly, the connotative baggage of skepticism and suspicion of the French word "invention" seems intended, since Legault's central theme is that the dominant Anglo-Québécois liberal humanist discourse of individual rights is a mask intended to cover collective interests, reactionary, irresponsible, wait-and-see attitudes of superiority and nostalgic, elitist desires for domination. [5] However, Werner Sollors's reflections on the popularity of the word "invention" in his introduction to The Invention of Ethnicity seem to undercut Legault's rhetorical outrage at the rift between the "true" nature and objectives of the English-speaking communities of Quebec and the"false" discourse emanating from the leaders, politicians, journalists, and writers of those communities:

... that "invention" has become a rather popular category in intellectual discourse seems, if anything, an understatement. The term "invention" is, however, not just part of a fad; and we would not be better off without this buzzword, which, after all, offers an adequate description of a profound change in modes of perception. The interpretation of previously "essentialist" categories (childhood, generations, romantic love, mental health, gender, region, history, biography and so on) as "inventions" has resulted in the recognition of the general cultural constructedness of the modern world. (x)

Sollors's thesis that ethnicity "is not a thing but a process" and that it "is not so much an ancient and deep-seated force surviving from the historical past, but rather the modern and modernizing feature of a contrastive strategy..." (xiv) not only puts into question but seemingly erases essentialist distinctions between a real or "vrai" community and the communality constructed or "inventée...à des fins stratégiques."

Throughout the body of L'invention d'une minorité, Legault juggles constructionist and essentialist visions of English Quebec pointing to the constructed, invented, created nature of the community in opposition to its essential, historic, "true" character and roots in order to display the apparent disingenuousness and hypocrisy of the public discourse of Quebec Anglophones and to explain what she sees as English intransigence. Legault argues clearly and in extensive detail that the newfound solidarity and cohesion of the English communities of Quebec came about largely in reaction to twenty years of government legislation designed to limit the use of English in Quebec [6]: "Une nouvelle identité collective a commencé à se construire, beaucoup en réaction et en opposition certes à l'affirmation nationale des francophones et aux gestes faits en son nomme pars le gouvernement québécois"(57). [7]

The shrinking of the English population in the face of growing Québécois nationalism brought to the fore a number of organizations and prominent individuals as spokespersons for the dwindling English minority. These organizations and individuals, the subjects of Legault's study, themselves confirm that the English-speaking communities of Quebec have coalesced and, in many cases, drawn themselves into a defensive posture explicitly in reaction to the political, cultural and economic realities of post-1976 Quebec. [8] For example, Alliance Quebec, an English-rights lobby group, was formed in 1982, shortly after the first referendum. [9] The English of Quebec may have traditionally thought of themselves as simply English Canadians who happen to live in Quebec, or even more firmly as members of a particular region or municipality of Quebec, or as constituents of other ethnic communities where English has become the lingua franca. Whatever the feelings of the moment of individual English-speaking Quebecers, they are and have for many years now been going through a process, both internal and external, of being labeled and defined as a community. Legault's thesis that "les Anglo-Québécois" have and are undergoing the process of constructing and being constructed as a community is corroborated by masses of daily and documentary evidence. [10]

However, Legault also adopts a traditional, essentialist line of argument identifying the Anglo-Québécois as "descendants de Britanniques" (descendants of the British) and therefore ethnically connected with "les conquérants" (the conquerors): "Pourquoi remonter au passé de 'conquérants' des Britanniques du Québec dans le cadre d'un ouvrage portant sur les années 1974 à 1991? Parce que ce retour en arrière est essentiel à l'analyse et à la compréhension du discours "dominant" anglo-québécois des vingt dernières années" (18). [11] Legault completes her description of the Anglo-Québécois community with this encyclopedia of features: "La langue anglaise, la domination économique des anglophones, de même que leur culture politique propre, qu'ils considéraient supérieure à celle des francophone, étaient au coeur même de leur identité collective" (58). [12]

Against this kind of closure, Sollors's notion of"invention," once again, offers a means of re-opening and reconnecting a dialogue. He argues: 

The forces of modern life embodied by such terms as "ethnicity,""nationalism," or "race" can indeed by [sic] meaningfully discussed as "inventions." Of course, this usage is meant not to evoke a conspiratorial interpretation of a manipulative inventor who single-handedly makes ethnics out of unsuspecting subjects, but to suggest widely shared, though intensely debated, collective fictions that are continually reinvented. (xi) 

From this perspective Legault's L'invention d'une minorité is itself an attempt to invent (or perhaps reinvent) Anglo-Québécois ethnicity and as such joins a number of such publications including Sheila McLeod Arnoploulos and Dominique Clift's The English Fact in Quebec (1980), Gary Caldwell and Eric Waddell's The English of Quebec: From Majority to Minority Status (1982), Ronald Rudin's The Forgotten Quebecers: A History of English Speaking Quebec, 1759-1980 (1985), Reed Scowen's A Different Vision: The English in Quebec in the 1990's (1991), William Johnson's Anglophobia: Made in Québec (1991), Mordecai Richler's O Canada/O Quebec (1990) and so on. To this list of "inventions" we might add those fictions which are explicit fictions by and about English Quebecers, including such Canadian classics as Hugh McLennan's Two Solitudes, Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers (to name but a few). [13]

Something Drastic (1995), a first novel by playwright Colleen Curran, offers a timely contribution to the discourse, and the discourse about the discourse, of the English Quebec community. Curran is part of a new generation of English Quebec writers—which would include novelists such as Linda Leith, Gail Scott, Robert Majzels and Kenneth Radu, as well as playwrights David Fennario, Vittorio Rossi, and Marianne Ackerman—who have responded with equanimity to the growth of Québécois nationalism and the minoritization of English in Quebec. For example, in her introduction to the anthology of short stories, Telling Differences: New Fiction in English from Quebec, Linda Leith comments:

The writers who stayed and who live here now have chosen to be here and they accept, with varying degrees of alacrity, the predominantly French face of Quebec. Some of the older writers may still be shaking their heads at what they see as decline, but those who have been emerging more recently are circumspect. Anxious as some anglos were on the night of November 15, 1976 when the Parti Québécois won the provincial election (but has enough been said about how pleased others were?), and displeased as some of them remain with aspects of the French language law, the new writers view this as a society that has by and large been changing for the better. (4)

Leith's allusion to a generational split was reaffirmed in a more recent feature article in the Montreal Gazette by Joel Yanofsky entitled "The Silence of the Lamb Lobby." [14] The article was provoked by "veteran Montreal writer William Weintraub" [15] who "...wondered aloud in The Gazette last month why young anglo writers here—and by young the 71-year-old Weintraub later told me he meant anyone under 60—aren't writing about 'the social and political upheaval...the cataclysm' affecting their own community" (i4). In the article, Curran was identified, in fact featured, as one of these "young" (Curran is 43) writers. However, it was in a 1993 interview with The Gazette that Curran most clearly displayed her "degree of alacrity." The interview, which bore the title "Successful Montreal Playwright Colleen Curran Finds Home Town Tough Nut to Crack," focused on the relative lack of production that her plays had received in Montreal, and in particular the fact that Centaur Theatre, Quebec's main English-language theater, had never produced one of her plays, though she had been the theater's playwright in residence for a year. Curran's response was that "It could be that as an English Quebecer, as a minority, I'm expected to write something political or angry." But as Curran explained, "that's not my outlook. When I write really seriously, the plays are so turgid and they're so depressing. I just can't stand it. I just want to have a good time and tell a good story" (B4). 

Curran's novel is written in the same tone and with the same acceptance of the minority status of Quebec English that she expressed in the interview.  Something Drastic is a series of letters written by the heroine/narrator, Lenore, to her estranged boyfriend, in which she tries to account for his sudden, unannounced departure for Florida, tries, unrequited, to woo him home, and in the process tells him the story of her daily life in Montreal from January 6 (presumably 1990), the day he left, to December 30 of the same year, the day she is able to say "you're out of my life, I'm over you" (210). Through the process of a year's experiences as a woman alone, which included making a best friend of her tenant, Concordia University professor of Canadian and women's literature, Heidi Mavourneen (Irish for darling) Flynne; being drawn into a militant feminist group under police investigation for terrorist activities; attending a therapy session for "Women Who Love too Much," and winning a role in a musical at Centaur Theatre, Lenore comes to realize what a low-life, reprehensible cad her boyfriend is and to discover herself. 

In her letters, Lenore makes several references to Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple, and to Steven Spielberg's adaptation and film. In fact, Something Drastic offers a pastiche of the form and structure of Walker's novel. Just as Walker's Color Purple is an epistolary diary/novel of a woman's growth and individuation through adversity told in what becomes a bible of Afro-American culture written largely in ebonics, Curran gives us, in a similar form though a minor key, the testament of one year in the life of an Anglo-Québécoise as she rises from the bottom of one of life's barrels into a blossoming awareness of herself and her environment, written largely in Quebec English. [16]

The theme of abandonment seems distinctly Québécois in Something Drastic since the villain of the plot is an Anglo version of a "vendu" [17]: the term frequently used to refer to Québécois who sold their property and left the province prior to the first referendum. Moreover, the average Anglo-Québécois is very likely to have experienced the departure of friends and loved ones in recent decades. In her first letter, Lenore compiles a list of possible reasons her boyfriend, John Ferguson, (like the former "number 22 of les Canadiens") (30) has suddenly left Montreal for Florida. Possible reason number two was "You won't speak French." 

But you will not be able to escape Possible Reason 2: Speaking French, because where do you think everybody from Quebec goes in the winter? There will be people speaking French all over the place and if you're in the Tourist Industry you will have to be nice to them, which you never were here. I hope you wind up working in Miami or Hollywood Beach after what you did to me. I hope you have to work in a store with customers who'll only speak French. And I hope they all find out you're nothing but a big Anglo separatist from Quebec. (13)

In contrast to Legault's image of the megalomaniac Anglo, Lenore is in a distinctly subaltern position in relation to Franco-Québécois culture and society. She tries to date Francophone police constable Benoit Archambault, makes friends with "separatist" neighbour, Reine Ducharme, by babysitting her dogs (Brioche [18] and Montcalm [19]), and works at a cabaret-style restaurant called Festin du Bois, [20]which features meat service by les coureurs du bois [21] and entertainment by les filles du roi. [22] Her big break comes when one of the singing waitresses defects to the Maison Hauntée [23] and she is invited to audition to become one of les filles du roi. When she auditions, Gaetan the restaurant manager tells her her voice is good but "my song was trop donner les bleus." [24] She prepares a bilingual version of her girl-guide songs in order to be more Festin-ish which "meant something that celebrates nature or how much fun it is to be French Canadian"—and she gets the job (51).

The style of the novel is unabashedly kitsch. Lenore is a ceaseless collector of the tawdry and arcane,which of course overtakes the structure of the novel as she sends her boyfriend macabre headlines clipped from the Montreal Gazette with each letter, describes the tacky Christmas napkins and cards she has purchased, and reveals her love for Doris Day movies, souvenir plates, and Expo 67 memorabilia. While Heidi tries to educate Lenore to a taste for Canadian and Feminist Literature, their friendship causes more of an educational exchange. Heidi eventually hires Lenore to give a lecture on Doris Day at Concordia and arranges for Lenore's home to be declared a museum. As one Tour Book describes it:

Museé d'art foklorique à Lenore/Lenore's Folk Art World: ...A kitschy , cluttered collection of taxi-dermied animals...gnomes and assorted creations à la lawn ornaments,...what may be the most extensive private collection of Expo 67 memorabilia in the world; Grottoes of the Stars;... Not what you'd expect in this English bastion in the midst of New France. It's what the Québécois would deem "trés kétaine," [25] you'll deem it trés fun. (134)

Lenore's museum serves as a mise-en-abyme for the novel as a whole. In fact, its "thrown together" style, with its lists, and headlines, asyndetic references to fragments and details of news and folk/popular culture, notes, agendas and schedules, together with Lenore's open, magpie innocence make the novel an effective vehicle for documenting the multitude of influences which form this Anglo-Québécois world. The novel creates a veritable vortex gathering in Steven King, the Oprah Winfrey Show, soap operas and sitcoms, country and western music, can lit classics, fads and fashions, People magazine and Macleans, the McGarrigle Sisters, the Gulf War, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Brian Mulroney, Gille Vigneault and Robert Charlebois, and the fictional trial (echoing the O.J. Simpson case) of mass murderer Jean-Luc Clossé in which, to the incredulity and outrage of the public, he is acquitted by a jury which includes Lenore's neighbour, Reine Ducharme. In this process, the novel demonstrates how Anglo-Québécois culture is formed, not through isolation and insulation but by being the site where a multitude of cultures—pop, American, Canadian, Québécois, feminist, academic and Irish—overlap. 

Literary discourse in general and the form and style of Something Drastic in particular have important roles to play in the display of ethnic culture as the site of metissage and boundary crossings. Though Legault's analysis in L'invention d'une minorité is largely of political discourse, in a 1995 commentary in Le Devoir [26] Legault acknowledges the possibility for what she qualifies as an "anglo-montréalaise" culture: nombreux anglophones demeurent prisonniers de leur refus d'une recherche imaginative et créatrice de leur identité et de leur appartenance à cette terre québécoise. Ils se replient sur leur solitude et leur crainte face a "l'autre" francophone. D'autant plus lorsque cet "autre" est nationaliste or souverainiste... Heureusement, il existe à Montréal un nombre croissant d'anglophones qui ne craignent pas l'aventure que représente cette recherche. Que l'on songe aux companies de théâtre—Centaur, Bulldog Productions, Black Theatre Workshop et Theatre 1774—ou aux nombreux auteurs, poètes et compositeurs, la volonté de communiquer et de créer une culture anglomontréalaise distincte est indéniable. (A6) [27]

Legault's choice of the regionalizing expression "anglo-montréalaise" over the broader notion of "anglo-québécoise" signals the grudging quality of her ostensibly generous vision. The expression Anglo-Québécois would doubtlessly be repudiated by many English-speaking Quebecers (not to mention Canadians) on the grounds that it inscribes acquiescence to Québécois nationalism. Québécois attachments to notions of cultural purity, signalled by such common expressions as Québécois de souche and Québécois pure laine [28] are also obstructions to an Anglo culture being recognized as Québécois. However, in his book Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, Neil Bissoondath who lives in Quebec and writes in English and who is described by Linda Hutcheon as "a self-proclaimed assimilated Canadian" (29), suggests a clear preference for Québécois "centeredness." Bissoondath describes "English Canada..." as "adrift with no sense of its centre" whereas "Quebec [has] redefined its own centre, strengthened it, sought to make it unassailable" (196). 

The downside of an "unassailable centre" became apparent on the night of the 1995 referendum when then Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed the failure of the independence resolution on "l'argent et des votes ethniques." [29] And Bissoondath's attempts to attach himself to that center have proven problematic. In June of 1996, some eight months after the referendum, the theme of Bouillon de culture, the French television programme which presents round-table discussions of books and culture, was Quebec. When, near the end of the broadcast, host Bernard Pivot asked the panel, "Mais enfin, pouvez-vous me dire ce qu'est un Québécois?" Bissoondath took the initiative of responding: "Un Québécois, c'est quelqu'un comme moi." [30]  At a conference, in the spring of 97, on English literature and culture in Quebec, distinguished Québécois literary scholar Gillles Marcotte delivered a paper entitled "Neil Bissoondath disait..." (alluding to this segment of Bouillon de culture). In his presentation, Professor Marcotte was categorical that "Citoyen québécois, Neil Bissoondath n'est pas un écrivain québécois" on the basis that "Il n'existe évidemment pas telle chose qu'une littérature anglo-québécois..." (2). [31] 

In L'invention d'une minorité, Legault clearly attaches her argument to these categorical sentiments when, for example, she argues that "s'il est indéniable qu'un certain nombre d'anglophones résidaient bel et bien au Québec, on ne pouvait toutefois parler de l'existence d'une 'communité' anglo québécois"( 58) [32] laying emphasis (through her italics) on the word "québécois." As Legault makes plain, the collective identity that les anglais are beginning to construct is, in her understanding, "'québécois,' dans le sens territorial et non cultural du terme" (58). [33] Ironically, Legault's claims sound like an apologia for the largely Anglo, Quebec "partitionist" movement. [34] They also require that we overlook what Eric Waddell describes as the significant contribution of the Irish, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon traditions "to defining the personality of the province" (167).

The impasse which these binary oppositions set up seems all the more insoluble in the face of the recent tendency to identify a "true Québécois" as a nationalist and sovereigntist, and an Anglo-Québécois as, almost by definition, an opponent of independence. Certainly, Curran's naive heroine in Something Drastic unquestioningly buys into this new version of the two-solitudes myth, as she presumes separation to be anathema. However, when she  meets her neighbour Reine Ducharme, Lenore observes:

Madame Ducharme likes me because I'm bilingual and we always speak French....She's really one for justice. And for Separation! (But we always knew that.) Luckily the subject of Quebec never came up. Still, I had such a nice time with her it didn't matter she was a Separatist. (107, 108)

Something Drastic signals the writer discovering or attempting to discover herself as an Anglo-Québécoise for the first time. In fact, nothing in Curran's twelve published plays between 1981 and 1995 gives any suggestion that she is and has all her life been an English Quebecer. The typical setting of a Curran play is small-town Ontario, though she has set one-act plays in Acapulco and cottage country in New England. Curran has been described as a "tradition" at the Blyth Festival in Blyth, Ontario, where most of her plays have been produced. 

Lenore's self-proclaimed orphan-hood (she is a fully independent adult but her parents have died before the novel opens), together with her recent abandonment, make her a distinctly disconnected, tabula-rasa character, and therefore all the more prepared as an empty vessel to be filled with the distinctly Anglo-Québécois mix of cultures she experiences. Lenore's friend, Heidi Mavornneen Flynn, for example, is passionate about her Irish ethnic roots. Heidi practices Ceili dancing, listens to Chieftain's music, talks of her fighting Irish father and brothers, and celebrates St. Patrick's Day with devotion. Lenore absorbs this Irish essence like an Anglo-Québécois cultural sponge. Curran's upholding of Irish ethnicity, which has also been undertaken by playwrights David Fennario and Marianne Ackerman, becomes all the more striking when juxtaposed to Legault's attempt to reinforce the ethnic line from the conquerors to the modern-day English population of Quebec. 

Using a 1976 survey carried out by the now-defunct Montreal Star, Legault persists in attempting to carry forward a mythical connection between "les conquérants," "les britannique de souche," the modern Anglo-Québécois minority and resistance to the French language:

Selon un sondage effectué par le Montreal Star en 1976, seulement 20% des Québécois anglophones travaillait uniquement en français, et la majorité de ces 20% était d'ailleurs d'origines autres que britannique. En fait, la quasi-totalité des travailleurs de souche britannique travaillait encore dans leur langue. (45) [35]

Although one may detect incredulity in Legault's discourse here, a brief perusal of the relevant statistics will confirm that her tone is, at best, feigned. In the first place, it is universally acknowledged that bilingualism among Anglophones has increased dramatically since 1976 and has outstripped bilingualism among Francophones. There are generally considered to be 800 or 900 thousand Anglophones in Quebec. The numbers are "soft" because they are made up of native speakers of English and native speakers of other languages who live and work in English. According to the 1991 census 599,145 residents of Quebec identified themselves as native speakers of English. However, in the same census year, only 159,260 Quebecers identified themselves as English in terms of ethnic origin. Welsh is not given its own category as a language or an ethnic origin in the Canadian census statistics for Quebec. Including the Scottish (a questionable move according to my Scottish friends) in Legault's category of "britannique de souche" we arrive with a population figure of just over 200,000. In other words Legault's "britannique de souche" make up, at most, about a quarter of the Anglo-Québécois community. Are we to be amazed that in 1976 the majority of Anglophones in Quebec used some English in their work? Our incredulity (and hers) should be erased when we take into account Legault's own statistic that 75% of Quebec Anglos are in the Montreal region together with her claim that "Il faut vivre sur une autre planète pour croire que Montréal, par exemple, sera un jour unilingue française" [36] (48).

Statistically, Quebecers who claim English as an ethnic origin are significantly outnumbered by Italians (by almost 10%). 82,790 Quebecers identified themselves as being of Irish origin in the 91 census. It is these Irish cultural roots which Curran's novel tends to emphasize. To underline the point, Lenore's arch-enemy in the novel is her Anglo neighbor Jemima Farnham whom she describes as "formerly of England, a Monarchist and an Anglo Supremacist" (157).

What the novel outlines to us is that being an Anglo-Québécoise means, for example, the polyphonous experience of travelling by "Métro" (subway) going to the "Complex Sportif" (sports centre) at the Université de Montréal with a celtophile, Anglo professor of Canadian literature to attend a Bonnie Raitt concert and stopping to leave flowers at the memorial for the Polytechnique massacre. [37] It means arranging a date with a Francophone police officer to see either Les Expos or Les Canadiens and thinking "He'll probably take me to Ben's for Smoked Meat. (That's probably what he thinks all the Anglos go for)" (141). Although bilingualism may not have much purchase in French Quebec these days, in the novel it remains the center of an Anglo utopic ideal. Lenore waxes sentimentally:

The other day that musical, Les Misérables, opened here in French and in English. The same cast is doing the show, one time it's all in French, another time it's in English. That is so amazing,it's so bilingual and so hopeful or something. For our city. It's the first time its been done like that, it's all Montreal people in it. And it's professional like the ones in Toronto and New York.
And as if to confirm that her bilingualism, whose icon is a French classic, Anglosized, Americanized and presented in Quebec in French and English, is not an anglocentric strategy, Lenore continues:
That makes me think of the Gulf Desert Storm War, because the bad guys speak English. I've seen them on the news. In the other wars, it was always people who didn't speak our language, but this time they do (32).
Being Anglo-Québécois means celebrating St. Patrick's Day at a restaurant called Festin du Bois where you, the Anglo, have introduced the clientele to a new house wine from a Quebec vineyard, and being able to observe that "the fact that it's Québécois has the pure-laines pretty heureux" (69). Being Anglo-Québécois means observing on New Year's Eve that "if we were politically correct anglophone Quebec Canadians we'd watch ByeBye, that French comedy show looking back at the year, and we'd pretend we understood all the in-jokes" (25). As the novel so copiously displays, being Anglo-Québécois also means speaking a version of English which accommodates such signifiers as "joual," [38] "dépanneur," [39] réveillon," [40] "pure laine," "kétaine," flyé" [41] and "boite a chanson" [42] as well as a host of standard French expressions and institutional and commercial names.

Is there a political allegory to detect in the conclusion of the novel? Perhaps even asking the question is heavy-handed given the author's claims to being apolitical. But Reine Ducharme was captured trying to poison the other jurors with whom she had hastily acquitted Jean-Luc Clossé. There seems to be something here about the Franco-Québécois making rash and hasty decisions which they later regret. Heidi resists marrying into an American family. There seems to be some subtext here, despite Lenore's appetite for American pop culture, about resisting American domination. These are, after all, also English Canadian narratives. Feeble political correctness, tokenism and speaking franglais will not move the political agenda in Quebec. But, through the process of the novel, Lenore has become ever more clearly and fully what she was in the beginning: an Anglo-Québécoise. Her case invites us to begin seeing the hyphen between anglo and québécois, and all such hyphens, not as separations but as possibilities, as "trait d'union," a pulling together. It is a sentimental notion, not a solution, but Legault also concludes her study by giving stern counsel on the need for compromise. Perhaps what the Anglo-Québécois case best demonstrates is what philosopher Charles Taylor, himself an English Quebecer who has upheld Quebec's right to defend its collective cultural interests, [43] calls the need for "'deep diversity,' in which a plurality of ways of belonging would also be acknowledged and accepted" (183). In fact, there are no immediate, viable options other than the ongoing need for invention.

Works Cited

Bauch, Hubert. "Alliance Meeting Turns into Love In." The Gazette [Montreal] 26 May 1995: A4.

Bissoondath, Neil. Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Penguin, 1994.

Bouillon de Culture. Réal. Michel Hermart. Anim. Bernard Pivot. Radio-Québec. le 2 juin 1996. France 2. le 7 juin 1996.

Curran, Colleen. Something Drastic. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 1995.

Davidson, Arnold E. "Canada in Fiction." The Columbia History of the American Novel. Ed. Emory Elliot. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 558-85.

Donnelly, Pat. "Successful Montreal Playwright Colleen Curran Finds Home Town Tough Nut to Crack." The Gazette [Montreal] 17 Feb. 1993: B4.

Daymond, Douglas and Monkman, Leslie. "Introduction." Stories of Quebec. Ed. Douglas Daymond and Leslie Monkman. Ottawa: Oberon, 1980. 5-10.

Gruda, Agnès. "La confusion minoritaire." La Presse [Montréal] le 12 avril 1997: B2.

Harris, Cole R. "Regionalism and the Canadian Archipelago." Heartland and Hinterland: A Geography of Canada. Ed. L.D. McCann. 2nd ed. Scarborough: Prentice, 1987. 532-60.

Hutcheon, Linda. "Crypto-Ethnicity." PMLA 118 (1998): 28-33.

Legault, Josée. "Trois solitudes." Le Devoir [Montréal] le 15 novembre 1995 : A6.

—. L'invention d'une minorité : Les Anglo-Québécois. Montréal : Boréal, 1992.

Leith, Linda. "New English Fiction from Quebec." Introduction. Telling Differences: New Fiction in English from Quebec. Ed. Linda Leith. Montreal: Véhicule, 1988. 4-7.

Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage. Ed. Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1979.

Marcotte, Gilles. "Neil Bissoondath disait..." Conférence. "Le Québec anglais : Littérature et culture." Centre d'études québécois, Université de Montréal. 25 avril 1997.

Sollors, Werner. "Introduction: The Invention of Ethnicity." The Invention of Ethnicity. Ed. Werner Sollors. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. ix-xx.

Taylor, Charles. Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1993.

Vachon, Robert. "Qui est québécois?" Qui est Québécois? Ed. Robert Vachon et Jacques Langlais. Montréal : Fides, 1979. 119-51.

Waddell, Eric. "Cultural Hearth, Continental Diaspora: The Place of Québec in North America." Heartland and Hinterland: A Geography of Canada. Ed. L.D. McCann. 2nd ed.Scarborough: Prentice, 1987. 149-72.

Yanofsky, Joel. "The Silence of the Lamb Lobby." The Gazette [Montreal] 26 Apr. 1997: i1 and i4.

1. Quebec's second-largest French-language daily

2. The second referendum on Quebec sovereignty was held on October 30, 1995. The vote was 50.56%(2,360,717) against and 49.44% (2,308,072) in favour of the resolution to grant the present government of Quebec the right to declare independence from Canada within one year. There had been a significant and continuous exodus of English-speaking residents from the province of Quebec since prior to the first referendum in May of 1980 in which the sovereigntist declaration was rejected 58.2% (2,258,002 "no votes") to 41.8% (1,619,662 "yes votes"). The English-speaking communities have become more and more the focus of attention because of their declining numbers and status within Quebec, and
because of the pivotal role these communities continue to play in holding the Canadian federation together and, consequently, obstructing the sovereigntist aspirations of French-speaking Quebecers.

3. "A name/title intended to evoke a reaction" (my translation, as are all subsequent translations)

4. "According to the author, there does not really exist in Quebec a community of English Quebecers. This 'minority' was created from scratch for strategic reasons."

5. Based largely on her reading of journalistic and political texts, Legault concludes that the dominant Anglo-Québécois discourse is one of "desolidarization" (199) and "déresponsabilisation" (210), displaying attitudes thatare "nostagique" and "attentiste" (200) and encouraging "la resistance et la confrontation" (198).

6. Bills 63, 22, 101 and 178 were passed into law by successive provincial governments, both Liberal and Parti Québécois. They were designed to guarantee the preservation and growth of French by limiting access to education in English and the use of English on signs, and by requiring the use of French in larger businesses.

7. "A new identity started to be built, largely in reaction and, indeed, in opposition to the nationalist affirmations of Francophones and to the programs undertaken in their name by the government of Quebec."

8. The Parti Québécois, whose central mandate is the independence of Quebec from the rest of Canada, first came to power in 1976. The Parti Québécois has won three of five elections since 1976. They surrendered power to the Quebec Liberals under Robert Bourassa in 1985, and Bourassa's Liberals won again in 1989. The Parti Québécois returned to power in the election of 1994.

9. Legault cites Alliance Quebec documentation that the organization had over 40,000 members in 1989. In 1995, in an article covering the meeting between Parti Québécois Deputy Premier, Bernard Landry, and Alliance Quebec, The Gazette claimed that "Current membership stands at 3,700, down from 10,000 a decade ago." (see Hubert Bauch, "Alliance Meeting Turns into Love In.") The Equality Party emerged largely in reaction to the perception that the Quebec Liberal government under Robert Bourassa had not lived up to its promises to protect English rights. The Equality Party elected four members to the Quebec National Assembly in the 89 election, but none in the 1994 election.

10. This nascent Anglo-Québécois ethnicity might best be described as what Linda (Bortolotti) Hutcheon calls a "crypto-ethnicity" (see her essay "Crypto- Ethnicity" in PMLA). Not only is there reluctance to acknowledge Anglo-Québécois ethnicity in both English and French communities, but English Quebecers are a non-visible and, frequently, an aurally unrecognizable (when they speak French) minority. Hutcheon describes the pleasures and tensions of her own crypto-ethnicity as liberating, as "transethnic" and as "a reminder of the constructedness of all forms of ethnic identity"(32).

11. "Why go back to the past of the 'conquering' British of Quebec in the context of a study covering the years 1974 to 1991? Because this return to the past is essential to the analysis and comprehension of the 'dominant' discourse of English Quebecers of the last twenty years." In order to accept Legault's image of a pure British line (and a pure French line) one has to ignore the history and patterns of immigration and migration which have constructed the present-day communities. (See, for example, Cole R. Harris's "Regionalism and the Canadian Archipelago.")

12. "The English language, economic domination by Anglophones, as well as their own political culture, which they consider superior to that of Francophones, are at the very heart of their collective identity."

13. In "Canada in Fiction" Arnold E. Davidson, who is also the author of Mordecai Richler, judiciously distinguishes English Canadian, Québécois, French Canadian, Native and Ethnic writing but makes no explicit mention of English Quebec. There is no established critical tradition of identifying English Quebec literature. We might note the difference of nuance in Davidson's description of the first North American novel, Frances Brooke's The History of Emily Montague, as "both record and product of the coming into being of what will be Canada" (558) and Douglas Daymond and Leslie Monkland's description of the same novel, in their introduction to Stories of Quebec, as the beginning of "the tradition of anglophone fiction set in Quebec" (5).

14. The expression "lamb lobby" has come into currency in English Quebec to identify those English Quebecers who have adopted soft or passive or acquiescing attitudes toward Québécois nationalism and the minoritization of the English community. Conversely, the French equivalent of 'wolf lobby' (as in 'those who cry wolf') has gained some currency in the French Quebec media to identify English Quebecers in the public sphere who are viewed as strident, reactionary or simply hysterical.

15. Weintraub is the author of the novel Underdogs (1979) which presents a dystopian vision of a repressive and financially bankrupt independent Quebec. The precursor to this novel was likely Richard Rohmer's political thriller Separation (1976) which ends with a failed referendum vote, "48.3%" in favour of Quebec's independence.

16. "With increasing contact between the two languages, more and more French words—particularly those connected to provincial institutions, linguistic politics, and local life—have been assimilated into English, resulting in a new Canadian regional dialect: Quebec English." quoted in the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage. Ed. Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1997.

17. "Vendu" meaning "sold" appeared on many "for sale" signs on Quebec property following the election of the Parti Québécois government and prior to the first referendum. The double entendre is that "vendu" can also carry the sense of "a sell-out."

18. "a brioche," a French pastry

19. name of the General who led the French forces and was killed on the Plains of Abraham, the decisive battle leading to the British conquest of New France

20. "A Woodland Feast" or "Banquet in the Woods" but also implies something like "Party Hard"

21. French and Metis explorers in North America who generally travelled by canoe expanding the fur trade

22. women sent to New France to become pioneer brides

23. a Montreal restaurant with "haunted house" decor

24. word for word: "too much giving the blues"

25. very tacky and/or kitsch, but leaves open the possibility of being cute

26. a French-language Quebec daily with modest distribution, but generally considered culturally and politically significant: the paper of the intelligentsia

27. "many Anglophones remain prisoners of their refusal to imaginatively and creatively explore their identity and their connection to this Quebec land. They withdraw into their solitude and fear of the Francophone 'other.' All the more so when that 'other' is nationalist and sovereigntist...Happily, there exists in Montreal a growing number of Anglophones who do not fear the adventure of this exploration. Whether one considers the theatre companies—Centaur, Bulldog Productions, Blac Theatre Workshop and Theatre 1774—or the numerous authors, poets and composers, the desire to communicate and to create a distinct Anglo- Montreal culture is undeniable."

28. Québécois de souche literally translates as being "from the stump."  The expression is usually translated as simply "old stock" but it implies that anyone so described can connect their family origins to the original pioneer inhabitants of New France. In daily usage, anyone who might appear to be a native of Quebec and who is a native speaker of Quebec French will be loosely identified as Québécois de souche. Pure laine (pure wool or 100% pure wool) is simply a more contemporary, colloquial version of the same idea. The obvious problem with these expressions is that, although they are typically used innocently and unconsciously, they inscribe a distinction between "real" Quebecers and "les autres" (another common Québécois expression). Though these expressions seem acceptable as the signifiers of a minority's pride, they take on a different tenor as the common discourse of a nation on the threshold of independence.

29. "money and some ethnic votes." Though the Premier resigned the next day, this remark continued to elicit concern, bewilderment and outrage. Mr. Parizeau is a graduate of the London School of Economics. In "Canada in Fiction," Arnold Davidson classifies the Premier's late wife, Alice (Poznanska) Parizeau, as an "ethnic novelist" (574).

30. "But finally, can you tell me what is a Québécois?" "A Québécois is someone like me." This is hardly the first time the question has been asked. See, for example, Robert Vachon and Jacques Langlais' Qui est Québécois? in which the authors conclude: "Nul d'entre nous n'est vraiment Québécois. Nous somme tous et chacun des Québécois en voie de ledevenir" (151). ["No-one among us is really Québécois. We are each and every one of us Québécois in the process of becoming."]

31. "A Quebec citizen, Neil Bissoondath is not a Québécois writer..." "There is clearly no such thing as an Anglo-Québécois literature..."

32. "though it is undeniable that a certain number of Anglophones do indeed reside in Quebec, one cannot, however, speak of the existence of an Anglo- Québécois 'community.'"

33. "'québécois' in the territorial and not the cultural sense of the term"

34. The "partitionist movement" typically traces its roots to Pierre Trudeau's declaration that "If Canada is divisible, then Quebec is divisible." One of the effects of the last referendum was to clearly identify those (ethnic/anglo) regions which were strongly against independence. Certain municipalities have attempted to pass resolutions indicating their determination to remain a part of Canada should Quebec secede.

35. "According to a survey undertaken by the Montreal Star in 1976, only 20% of Quebec Anglophones worked exclusively in French, and the majority of this 20% was from origins other than British. In effect, nearly all the workers of British origin still worked in their own language."

36. "You would have to live on another planet to believe that Montreal will one day be unilingually French."

37. On December 6, 1989, an anti-feminist gunman killed 14 women at l'École Polytechnique of the Université de Montréal

38. slang term for the popular language of Quebec. It derives from a claim that Quebecers pronounced the French word for 'horse' as 'joual' rather than 'cheval.' Joual has become an object of some pride in Quebec, particularly as its poetic qualities are displayed by Michel Tremblay, Quebec's master playwright and novelist.

39. "small grocery store or corner store"

40. traditional all-night family party

41. adjective for light-headed or spirited or wild behaviour or character

42. night club featuring French folk singers and, often, sing-alongs

43. For example, in Reconciling the Differences, Taylor writes: "...there is something exaggerated, a dangerous overlooking of an essential boundary, in speaking of fundamental rights to such things as commercial signage in the language of one's choice. One has to distinguish between, on the one hand, the fundamental liberties...and, on the other hand, the privileges and immunities which are important but can be revoked for reasons of public policy..." (176-7).

Saturday, 14 May 2022

If Men Could Get Pregnant . . .

If Men could get pregnant . . .

It is my counterfactual conviction (meaning it is what I absolutely believe but as a hypothetical cannot be proven with evidence) that if men could become pregnant, the question of abortion would never have arisen.  If men were capable of giving birth, it never would have crossed anyone's mind that the termination of a pregnancy needed to be governed by legislation, let alone criminalized.  Conversely, the termination of a pregnancy is a question because of the inferior status assigned to women throughout Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman history and culture.  Only in the 20th century have women been grudgingly assigned the status of "personhood," and we continue to struggle with the implications of that assignment.

Women Are to blame . . . men say so . . .

Woman have hard lives.  Men justify the suffering of women through mythology.  In the Christian tradition, Eve brought evil into the world and is therefore responsible for the suffering of all women.  In Greek tradition, Pandora opened the box which released evil into the world.  In Aeschylus' ancient Greek trilogy, The Oresteia, Orestes is put on trial by the gods for murdering his mother, Aegistheus, after she killed his father, King Agamemnon.  The conclusion of the trial is that Orestes is not guilty of a crime because his first loyalty was to his father.  Orestes was, first and foremost, the son of his father and his mother was simply the vessel of his birth.  Three thousand years later, that verdict is still being debated.

Tremblay v. Daigle (1989)

In 1989, the Supreme Court of Canada, in Tremblay v. Daigle, ruled that "a father has no right to veto a woman's abortion decision."  However, Daigle had already gone to the US to terminate the pregnancy before the Supreme Court ruled. Why are the courts, the judiciary branches of government in both Canada and the USA, which can interpret but have no power to create or change the law, being left to decide the abortion question?  The simple answer is that the executive branch, the men we elect (and yes the executive branch is dominated by men), has no interest in passing laws that would give individual women the power to decide to terminate a pregnancy.

 Roe v. Wade (1973)

No new laws were passed, but abortions became legal when the Supreme Courts in Canada and the USA (re)interpreted their respective constitutions as giving women the right to terminate a pregnancy.  In Roe v Wade (1973), the US Supreme Court heard the case of Jane Roe (a play on Jane Doe) against Henry Wade, Attorney General of Texas.  Roe's complaint was that the laws of Texas prevented her from terminating her pregnancy by forcing her to travel to another state and pay for an abortion.  Roe was accompanied in her petition by another Texas couple and a doctor who had already been convicted of performing abortions and had two more accusations pending.  In the end, the Supreme Court accepted to hear only Jane Roe's case.  Allowing Roe's case to even be heard was challenged because she became pregnant in 1970 and by the time her case was before the Court she had already given birth.  Nonetheless, the Court heard her petition and ruled that preventing her from having an abortion was unconstitutional based on various clauses of the US constitution relating to "privacy" and "liberty of the person."  Consequently, the laws of Texas and, by extension, the laws of any state which attempted to curtail a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy were determined to be unconstitutional. 

R. v. Morgentaler (1988)

A similar scenario unfolded much later in Canada. The Canadian Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms were enacted in 1982.  In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled, in R. v. Morgentaler, that abortion laws were unconstitutional, according to the 1982 constitution, because they "infringed upon a woman's right to 'life, liberty and security of person'."  Since that time, in Canada, a woman's right to an abortion has been unrestricted.  The Mulroney Conservative government attempted to pass a law in 1992 which would impose a two-year prison sentence on doctors performing abortions, but the bill died in the Senate.

Justice Alito's majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade

 The abortion question is very much back in the legacy media since Politico published a leaked draft of Supreme Court Justice Alito's majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.  This year, the case of the Mississippi State Health Officer v. Jackson Women's Health Organization was brought before the Supreme Court.  The State of Mississippi is proposing a prohibition on non-therapeutic abortions after sixteen weeks of pregnancy.  At first glance, the proposal might not seem unreasonable.  However, some states are proposing to ban abortion after six weeks which would effectively ban most if not all abortions.  If Roe v. Wade is overturned, these various state bills prohibiting abortion would almost immediately become law.

What the Bible says about abortion

Despite US claims of separation between church and state, it is obvious that anti-abortion, pro-life movements are underpinned by powerful evangelical lobbies.  I remain dumbfounded that at this point in human history, evangelism, the literal interpretation of the Bible, can still have a profound influence on American politics.  (See How Many Americans Think Planet Earth Is 6000 Years Old?)  Moreover, even if we accept literal interpretations of the Bible, as I have pointed out previously (see What Bible Translation Says about People Who Oppose Abortion), despite attempts by Thomas Nelson Publishers to rewrite the Bible in the 1970s, Exodus 21:22 is explicit that a fetus is not equivalent to a human life.

When Life begins

Much of the debate concerning abortion, including in Roe v. Wade and the Alito opinion, eventually turns to the question of at what point a fetus is considered equivalent to a human person or, more abstractly, at what point life begins.  Typically, pro-life arguments contend that life begins at conception. In Western practice, life is taken to begin at birth.  We measure age by and celebrate birthdays not conception-days.

When Life begins according to the Bible

If we turn to the Bible to determine when life begins then the story of Onan becomes relevant.  These days, "onanism" is a synonym for masturbation.  However, what exactly Onan's sin was and how the biblical story should be interpreted are much debated.  When Onan's older brother died, Onan was, according to old-testament law, required to conceive a child with his brother's widow.  He went to his sister-in-law but, instead of completing the sex act as required, he "spilled it [his seed] on the ground."  If we want to take the Bible literally, one possible interpretation is that life begins with a man's seed and Onan's sin, wasting his seed, was equivalent to terminating a human life.  If you kill the seed, you kill the flower. God's punishment for Onan was death. If we want to base modern laws on Bible stories, then any man who masturbates, scratches his testicles carelessly, uses a condom or does anything to interfere with his own semen is guilty of the same crime as a woman who terminates a pregnancy. Needless to say, no government has ever considered legislating, let alone criminalizing, how a man treats his own semen.  

Alito's Argument overturning Roe v. Wade

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, according to various commentators, tends toward hyperbole and arrogance.  His draft majority opinion shows evidence of both, especially when we consider that he is critiquing the work of his predecessors and two decisions of past Supreme Courts:  Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).  Alito's argument, in contradiction to earlier Supreme Court decisions, can be boiled down to:

  1. "The Constitution makes no reference to abortion [. . . .]"
  2. Abortion is not equivalent to any of the various rights and freedoms that are claimed as implicit under the constitution.  
  3. "Liberty of the person" does not include the right to an abortion because of the moral issue and debate concerning the rights of the fetus as a "living person."
  4. In the absence of implicit or explicit coverage in the constitution, the Court must turn to US history, custom, tradition and precedent to determine its judgment.  Alito asserts, in contradiction to the Court in 1973, that US history shows no openness to granting abortion rights.

Alito's conclusion:

We therefore hold that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.   Roe and Casey must be overruled, and the authority to regulate abortion must be returned to the people and their elected representatives.

Are Women's rights human rights?

 Reading Alito's conclusion I am reminded of  the refrain in Hilary Clinton's address to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing:  "Women's rights are human rights."  Now we know the response:  "Not in the USA."

Imagine that the Supreme Court ruled that whether or not a man could get a vasectomy would be determined by "elected representatives."  Unimaginable . . . which is exactly the point.

Women Don't have rights because, in the eyes of the law, women don't exist

There is a slippery, slight-of-hand argument running throughout Alito's opinion.  Alito claims that removing the right to decide the termination of a pregnancy does not discriminate against women.  Citing early court cases, Alito argues there are precedents which establish that women are not a group being discriminated against.  The dividing line created by an earlier court case is between  "two groups -- pregnant women and nonpregnant persons. While the first group is exclusively female, the second includes members of both sexes."  In this perspective, since women do not exist as group, it is not possible to claim that restricting abortions discriminates against them.   Therefore, state laws prohibiting abortions would only discriminate against "pregnant women," and it would be left to individual states to balance the rights of pregnant women and those of "unborn living persons."  In this latter case, curtailing the rights of pregnant women would be justified if state legislators believe that a fetus is a living person with equal rights.  What this slippery argument willfully ignores is that what is being taken away is not just the right of some women to a medical procedure; what is being taken away from all women is the right to decide.

 So What!?

The Supreme Court decision will be a victory for evangelicals, 80% of whom voted for Donald Trump knowing he would appoint conservative justices and predicting that this day would come.  Justice Alito is obviously right that US history does not provide precedents for allowing individual women to decide what happens to their own bodies for the obvious reason that American history is a history of discrimination against women.  Arguing that the future must be a continuation of the past is, more or less, a definition of "being conservative."

In practical terms, the new laws will force some woman (in southern states) to face the cost and inconvenience of traveling out of state to terminate a pregnancy.  Consequently, the greatest burden will be borne by the poorest of women.  In the abstract, women's rights and sovereignty over their own bodies will revert to 1970. We might hope that since the majority of Americans support a woman's right to decide, they will elect representatives who will legislate this right.  But, somehow, despite the promises of democracy, the will of the majority rarely succeeds against the power of lobbies and interest groups.

What about Canada?

Could the same happen in Canada?  The mechanisms are exactly the same.  Supreme Court Justices are appointed by the government.  Five of the nine current members of the Supreme Court were appointed by the Conservative government.  These days, various Conservative politicians promise that they will not introduce abortion legislation.  Such promises are irrelevant.  If someone brings a case to the Supreme Court tomorrow, the Court could overrule R. v. Morgentaler (1988) and abortion law would revert to 1969.  Abortion would become illegal in Canada unless a committee of doctors decide it was necessary to save a woman's life or health.

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Transtextuality in Film Adaptation: Fidelity Revisited

Presentation to a Joint session of the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures and the Film Studies Association of Canada, Monday, May 30, 2005; University of Western Ontario

In a course on American literature, I typically showed students scenes from Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel, The Age of Innocence. The Scorsese film is what one would commonly describe as a  faithful adaptation of the novel–a Visconti-style film fitting to the turn-of-the-century splendour and mannerisms which Wharton describes. Most of the film’s dialogue and narration are pulled directly from the novel. The scene from the film which I presented to students is the major turning point of the narrative in which May Archer, the novel’s most conspicuous symbol of innocence announces to her husband, Newland, that Countess Olenska, her cousin who was about to become Newland’s mistress, had decided to leave New York and return to Europe. In this scene, the novel announces to us May’s loss of innocence. She has lied to her cousin, claiming to be pregnant and thereby putting a stop to the affair which was about to take place and, in the same manoeuver, taking control of her husband. This episode is the turning point of the novel, and Wharton signals May’s loss of innocence by having her wearing her wedding dress on this occasion, which May has just torn and muddied while getting out of a carriage. At the very end of this crucial “loss of innocence” chapter, Wharton presents us with the image of May turning to exit “her torn and muddy wedding dress dragging after her across the room."

This scene in the novel is markedly filmic, in that May’s loss of innocence is principally and forcefully signaled to us through the visual image of the “torn and muddy wedding dress.” The scene in Scorsese's film is as described in the novel, except that May’s wedding dress is spotlessly clean and without a sign of a tear. How can we talk about this difference between film and novel, this absence of the “torn and muddy wedding dress”? I call it a mistake. An inexplicable oversight. An unaccounted-for error. 

I begin with this example, simple to signal that there are cases in which we can discuss the relationship between a literary work and a film in these terms. The director missed something or something went wrong somewhere. Once we admit this possibility we can begin to look at those changes which are matters of interpretation or intentional shifts from the themes and ideology of the literary work. An obvious example of the latter would be Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The novel is a series of stories of women striving for and achieving independence from patriarchy. The novel’s heroine, the blues singer Shug Avery, resists all domination by men, most especially her own father who is an evangelical preacher. However, in the musical climax of Spielberg’s film, Shug Avery spontaneously and inexplicably decides to go to her father’s church and ask for his forgiveness, thereby contradicting not only the plot but the central theme and ideology of the novel. Spielberg’s attempts to privilege male-female relationships and male characters become laughably obvious in the conclusion of the film as Spielberg makes the character identified as "Mister ---" the hero of the film through changes to the plot and then desperately reinforces this point through a series of shots and slow dissolve superimpositions not only intertextually connected to the film cliché of the hero riding off into the sunset but graphically reminding us that there is a man behind this film’s happy ending.



My sense of outrage at the Spielberg film is somewhat tempered when I come to consider the Milos Forman adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest. There is a parallel in the cases in that the Kesey novel is an explicit defense of masculinity to the point of suggesting that mental illness and male suicides are a direct result of emasculation and the suppression of masculine sexuality, desires and values, which the Forman film significantly under-plays.

In an essay entitled “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation,” Robert Stam argues:

The concept of intertextual dialogism suggests that every text forms an intersection of textual surfaces. All texts are tissues of anonymous formulae, variations on those formulae, conscious and unconscious quotations, and conflations and inversions of other texts. In the broadest sense, intertextual dialogism refers to the infinite and open-ended possibilities generated by all the discursive practices of a culture, the entire matrix of communicative utterances within which the artistic text is situated, which reach the text not only through recognizable influences, but also through a subtle process of dissemination.

Intertextuality, then, helps us to transcend the aporias of “fidelity.”

Although I agree with Stam in general terms, the question which his claim gives rise to in my mind is: Can the concept of adaptation survive in any meaningful or practical sense if “intertextual dialogism” generates “infinite and open-ended possibilities”?

If we cannot find and argue for at least some meaningful, definite, assured points of contact and closure in the comparison of film and literary work, then what is it that prevents us from simply bracketing the concept of adaptation and completely divorcing novel from film in order to treat, analyze and interpret each independently. Despite the temptations of such a divorce, however, it seems clear that there will always be some sort of relationship between the film and the literary work upon which it is based. In fact, Stam goes on to argue for a defined set of relationships between film and novel by invoking Gerard Genette’s concept and taxonomy of transtextual relationships.

That relationship between film and literary work might be characterized as hypertext to hypotext, using Genette’s terms as Stam suggests; that is, the film hypertext could not exist as it is without the earlier existence of the literary hypotext. However, framed this way the relationship remains vague and ambiguous. In individual cases, the relationship could be one of agreement and mutual support, of premise and extrapolation, or the relationship could be antagonistic and critical. Whatever kind of relationship might exist between a film and the work from which it is adapted they fall within and can be judged and understood within some framework of coherence.

In making this claim I am very much influenced by what Bertrand Russell among others calls a “coherence theory of truth”–which is to say that statements, signs, and semiotic units cannot be judged true or false through their correspondence to objects in the world. The only way we have available to us to judge truth is by verifying the degree to which a particular statement is coherent in relation to other statements, signs, events, objects and so on. I agree with Stam’s conclusion that

[. . .] to look at adaptation is to see it as a matter of a source novel hypotext’s being transformed by a complex series of operations: selections, amplification, concretization, actualization, critique, extrapolation, analogization, popularization, and reculturalization. The source novel, in this sense, can be seen as a situated utterance produced in one medium and in one historical context, then transformed into another equally situated utterance that is produced in a different context and in a different medium.

Novel and film are separated and connected through these various transformative processes. There is a connection, a relationship between them which can be judged within an inclusive pattern of coherence. This relationship between literary work and film, which is one of mutual, connected coherence, allows us to talk about adaptations in terms of something like fidelity. Films can be judged to be mistaken, false, “in bad faith,” reduced and inferior; or apt interpretations, honest, “true to the original” and even superior works of art, as well as critiques, rebuttals and parodies in relation to a literary hypotext. We can legitimately note a mistake in Scorsese’s film, claim that Spielberg’s film is a betrayal of the feminist ideology of The Color Purple and that Milos Forman’s film is a softening of the masculinist ideology of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


As we move from literary work to a commercial film for a mass audience there is typically a softening and watering down of themes and ideological implications of the literary work accompanied by a shifting down of architextuality to reduce the perlocutionary or affective impact on the audience. When transferred to film, tragedies become satires and thrillers, satires become melodramas, romances and comedies. A classic example of this shifting down would be Elia Kazan’s film version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. In Kazan’s version, for example, the audience is prevented, by the sound of a passing train, from hearing Blanch Dubois’s speech in which she makes the metaphorical connection between raw sexual desire and the streetcar named Desire. More strikingly, although the play ends as a tragedy with a dark and seemingly omnipotent fate looming in the figure of Stanley Kowalski, the sexy gorilla, who as indicated in the stage directions: “kneels beside Stella [who is sobbing] and his fingers find the opening of her blouse.” The final line of the play is Steve the poker player’s announcement: “The name of the game is seven-card stud.” It is no accident that the last word of this play is “stud.” In the film version, Stella takes her baby upstairs to escape Stanley, promising in muttering tones that “he will never have the baby or touch me again.” The tragic drama thus becomes a satiric melodrama, with the villain Stanley being defeated in a last-minute reversal.

The shift of narratological structure and architextuality though significant does not yet approach the complexity of a comparison of film hypertext and literary hypotext which Stam has suggested. As every text is a collection, a tapestry of interwoven intertextual references, quotations, allusions and so on, a key to comparing film and literary work is through this intertextuality. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Who am I this time?” offers a clear example of what I wish to suggest because the story depends so heavily upon on intertextuality to get its satiric point across. In Vonnegut’s story, the small town of North Crawford’s theatre club decides to produce A Streetcar Named Desire. The play having been chosen, the director discovers that the town has a surplus of older, faded ladies who could play the role of Blanche Dubois, but no-one who could play her sister, the young and passionate Stella. The choice of this particular intertext, A Streetcar Named Desire, allows Vonnegut to display, in a particularly effective way, the malaise associated with the aging and near disappearance of small-town America. A second, significant intertext in Vonnegut’s story is Shakespeare’s tragedy of passionate young lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

In the made-for-television film based on this short story, the intertextual references; ie, Streetcar and Romeo and Juliet, are maintained. In the film, the satire of the short story is reduced and the narratological structure is transformed into romantic comedy in two obvious ways. The first is that the director fills street scenes with young women who are supposedly residents of the town. The film then introduces a third major intertext; the proposal scene from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being

A key to understanding any text is how it uses and/or transforms an intertext. Oscar Wilde’s play is a satire. The proposal scene, in which Earnest Worthing proposes to his love, Gwendolyn, is a parody of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s Juliet is willing to be frank, throws the rules of courtly love out the window and dares to ask: “What’s in a name?” And answer: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Oscar Wilde’s Gwendolyn, in contrast, is a dogmatic believer in the rules of propriety and has always dreamed of marrying and will only accept to marry a man named Earnest. Knowing about Juliet is the key to understanding Gwendolyn’s fetish for the name Earnest, and essential to getting Wilde’s irony and satire.

In the made-for-television version of “Who am I this time?” the scene from Earnest is flattened of its satiric import. The scene becomes a lighthearted but sincere proposal of marriage, reiterating rather than parodying the romantic and passionate love already echoed in the Romeo and Juliet and Streetcar Named Desire intertexts. It would be tempting to suggest that, in the adaptation process, if the intertext is transformed from satire to romantic comedy, then the film as a whole will perform the same transformation. Although I think such a claim would warrant investigation, I am not prepared to go quite that far at this point. What I am prepared to suggest is that we should pay particular attention to what happens to transtextual elements as we move from literary work to film and that these elements can become the concrete evidence of the transformation that has taken place in the process of adaptation. Both film and literary work are coherent structures and a change in the intertext must be accompanied by other transtextual and textual adjustments in order to maintain some sort of overall coherence in the film hypertext. With this in mind, I would like to consider two Canadian examples: The Handmaid’s Tale and Anne of Green Gables.

Peter Dickenson has already pointed out that
[. . .] the 1990 film of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale [. . .] turned Atwood’s dark dystopian and ironic feminist text into a stock Hollywood romance, complete with a traditional happy ending in which the boy presumably gets the girl.
Although I agree in general terms with this description of the adaptation process, I would like to offer a slight variation by focusing on the transformations of the transtextuality from novel to film.


Atwood’s novel opens with three paratextual citations: a quotation from the Bible which is the core of the novel and justifies the existence of the handmaid function, an epigrammatic quote from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” which clearly signals that what we are about to read is a satire, and a Sufi proverb. The film does away with these epigrams and substitutes a new paratext which establishes a new intertextual allusion to children's fairy tales. The film begins with a paragraph-long summary/comment projected on the screen: “One upon a time there existed a country called Gilead [and so on].” Rather than using any of the novel’s literary intertexts, such as the references to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the film opens with a series of filmic allusions: a James-Bondish gun battle on a snow-covered mountain, a repeated fairy-tale-like image of a female child wandering lost in the mountains, scenes of a train station and a military occupation alluding to the Holocaust, and scenes of the handmaids which give a nod to the genre of prison film. In my reading of the film, the adaptation begins to make sense as an adaptation at a very precise moment. In the film, as in the novel, the Handmaid is brought to meet Serena Joy, the Wife of the Commander whose child she will be expected to conceive. In the dialogue between Handmaid and Wife, in the film, Serena Joy pointedly mentions: “This is your first time.”

In the novel, however, Serena Joy says: “This is your third time.” Why does the film shift the situation from the Handmaid’s third to her first experience as a commander’s handmaid? In answering this question we discover the coherence of the adaptation process. The overall effect of the numerous changes made in the adaptation process are designed to transform the novel from a satire into a melodrama. In addition to its play on heightened emotions, what defines melodrama is its strict adherence to moral justice. In a melodrama, we are invariably presented with good and innocent characters threatened by conspicuous evil, a villain. The melodrama guarantees us a build-up of suspense through a predictable series of surprises and reversals leading to the last-minute rescue of an innocent victim by a good hero and in the denouement the assurance that justice has unquestionably been served. Atwood’s novel in addition to being a dystopian satire is the first-person narration of a woman’s internal struggle to survive. In the course of the novel, the Handmaid’s conscious decision to survive also implies that she must not only co-operate in her role as a handmaid but she chooses to play the role of a prostitute with her commander and then to be unfaithful to both her commander and her husband, Luc, by having an affair with Nic, the commander’s driver. The novel suggests to us that with time this handmaid might and future handmaids definitely will become adjusted and accepting of their roles and duties.

The film eliminates these sources of internal conflict and moral ambiguity by making the Handmaid a figure of innocence and restructuring the storyline around the only conflict that melodrama permits: good and innocence versus evil. The once-upon-a-time epigraph and opening images of innocence (a child wondering lost) and evil (the Holocaust) suggestively reinforce the style and structure of the melodrama. In addition, in the film, the Handmaid’s husband is explicitly shown to have been killed whereas in the novel he is thought to still be alive. Nic is unquestionably heroic and an object of love, rather than the ambiguous, ultimately unknown, target of lascivious desire and source of the Handmaid’s infidelity to her husband, Luc. The film goes on to complete the Handmaid’s story in keeping with the structure of melodrama. She defeats evil by murdering the commander and is unequivocally rescued by her lover/hero in the nick of time (no pun intended). The film's denouement confirms her goodness, innocence and the happy ending of a victory over evil. The relationship between novel and film is the relationship between a satiric hypotext with undertones of tragedy and a melodramatic hypertext with undertones of romance.

In his essay “Stand by Your Man: Adapting L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables,” Benjamin Lefebvre describes the television mini-series produced by Kevin Sullivan as transforming Montgomery’s novel from a satire of “the conventions of patriarchal romance” into “a conventional
romance." As Lefebvre points out, in the novel Anne and her friends attempt to act out Tennyson’s epic poem “Elaine and Lancelot”; however, the poem which Anne recites, in the miniseries, while floating down the river in imitation of Elaine’s funereal voyage to Camelot is Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot.” Lefebvre concludes that while “it would be worthwhile to consider the shift from Anne reenacting Elaine [. . .] to the Lady of Shallot, my point is that the intertextual referent for this scene in the 1985 miniseries is not Montgomery’s novel but the 1934 film."

I have a strong hunch that the intertexts for this scene in both audiovisual productions were the numerous paintings done of “The Lady of Shallot,” the most popular of which was painted in Gothic style by Waterhouse in 1883. Montgomery seems to assume that her readers will be well acquainted with the Elaine poem and is quite clear that Anne and her friends are. Sullivan’s production conflates the Elaine poem and “The Lady of Shallot” such that if we didn’t know better we would assume that “The Lady of Shallot” is the Elaine poem. Anyone familiar with the Elaine poem would know that Elaine is a beautiful young woman who is so stubbornly romantic that no-one can dissuade her from her decision to die of unrequited love–not her brothers, nor her father, nor Launcelot himself (the object of her unrequited love). “The Lady of Shallot” is a much more enigmatic and Gothic poem, and the Lady herself could not be connected to Anne. The Sullivan production uses the scene to promote a romance between Gilbert Blythe and Anne. In the novel, the scene between them concludes with Anne’s firm rejection of Gilbert’s offer of friendship. In the conclusion of this chapter of the novel, Anne announces to Marilla that “today’s mistake is going to cure me of being too romantic." In other words, Anne’s playing Elaine, the “lily maid,” has cured her of being like Elaine. If Anne plays the Lady of Shallot as she does in the film and miniseries she cannot be cured of the romanticism specifically associated with Elaine.

When we observe “Elaine and Lancelot” in relation to the other explicitly quoted intertexts of the novel such as “Pippa Passes” and “The Maiden’s Vow” we discover a common thread of women who remain single and chaste but have a profound effect on other people’s lives. This motif is carried forward in Anne’s life models and mentors: Old Mrs. Barry, Miss Stacy and Marilla. It also reminds us that all the male-female relationships of the novel involve strong women--Marilla, Mrs. Allen, Rachel Lind, and Mrs. Barry--and muted or absent men.

In the TV version, Pippa and the poet Browning disappear. Elaine is erased by the Lady of Shallot, “The Maiden’s Vow” in which a woman simply prays to honour her lost courtier is replaced by a historical anachronism, “The Highwayman,” in which a barmaid commits suicide to warn her American lover that the British have set a trap for him. The television miniseries transforms Montgomery’s meliorist satire on the dialectic of Romanticism and Victorianism into a romantic comedy in which young lovers must overcome the blockage of an older character, Marilla. My suggestion is that these and other film adaptations of Canadian literary works can and should be read in the context of a coherent transtextual relationship which can be analyzed, perhaps judged, and certainly better understood when we closely attend to the intertextual and textual shifts which have taken place.

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