Tell-Tale Titles Of Margaret Laurence's A Bird In The House

Tell-Tale Titles Of Margaret Laurence's A Bird In The House

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Margaret Laurence's A Bird in the House is a collection of short stories that is rich in symbols and similes. Descriptions like "claw hand", "flyaway manner" and "hair bound grotesquely like white-fingered wings" are found abundantly in the writer's novel. The Oxford English Dictionary defines symbols as, "something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation)" (reference). Yet, there is nothing coincidental about Margaret Laurence's diction and her usage of symbols in "A Bird in the House" and "The Mask of the Bear". These revealing titles effectively foreshadow the plot and character conflicts that occur in their stories.

Birds are a class of vertebrates that live in nature. Most of them are characterized by an ability to fly, free to roam the sky. They are not meant to live in captivity. Therefore, the short story entitled "A Bird in the House" suggests a theme of entrapment and a struggle for freedom, a topic that resonates throughout the novel. Vanessa is one character who experiences a sense of confinement in the story. Her family lives with her grandmother MacLeod, a tyrannical woman who loves order, and who wants to continue living like she did in the past, before the Depression, with a housekeeper to cook and clean, and to be able to make frequent purchases of table-cloths and handkerchiefs of Irish linen. Vanessa's father, Ewen, explains that, "the house is still the same, so she thinks other things should be too" (55). Vanessa experiences a physical confinement in the MacLeod house, being forbidden to enter those rooms that contained valuables objects such as her grandmother's bedroom and the living room which she calls, "another alien territory where I had to tread warily" (47). This physical confinement led to an emotional detachment. As an adult reflecting on her time growing up, Vanessa says that "the MacLeod house never seemed like home to me" (46). Moreover, Vanessa experienced some emotional confinement in the Connor house as her grandfather Connor was a domineering man who did not approve of many types of people so Vanessa grew up without the interaction with many people outside her immediate family. To combat these forms of entrapment, Vanessa would write stories about pioneers, and love and death, as an escape.

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Another person who experiences emotional confinement is Ewen. Guilt-ridden by feelings of responsibility for his brother's death in the war, Ewen came back to Manawaka and Beth, his wife, tells Edna, his sister-in-law, that, "it was only after the war that he decided to come back and study medicine," (59) probably to take Rod's place in the family's practice, forsaking his own ambitions. Ewen says, "I was never very intellectual … Rod was always brighter than I, in school … As a kid, all I ever wanted to do was go into the merchant marine" (54-55). Moreover, because of his guilt, Ewen hardly disagrees with his mother and whenever he upsets her, he quickly apologizes. Ewen hints that the time when he was at war was a time when he was free. He says "It was king of interesting to see a few other places for a change" (91). Ultimately, Ewen's guilt gives way to his mother's request to name his second child, Roderick. He also hires Noreen, a housekeeper, to appease his mother and Noreen reveals to Vanessa later on that "a bird in the house means a death in the house" (98). This insight predicts Ewen's death, and in dying, Ewen alleviates his guilt. He is now able to, "Rest beyond the river … [in] silence, forever" (105). Ewen is, at last, free from his house.

The mask in the title, "The Mask of the Bear," refers to the façade that grandfather Connor wears to hide his emotional shortcomings. Grandfather Connor is described as a "tall, husky man" (13) who wears a coat made from the pelt of a bear. He has had this coat so long that no one in the family can remember when he had gotten it. To Vanessa, the man and the bear coat are synonymous. She sometimes calls him "The Great Bear," (63) a fitting name for a surly man who did not approve of many things, including "downright worthless" (16) people. When he gets mad, for example, when aunt Edna brings Jimmy Lorimer home for dinner, he would voice his displeasure then angrily retreat to his cavern in the basement. However, Grandfather Connor's tough exterior is only a disguise to mask his own lack of affection and to uphold his wife's virtues, whom he describes as "an angel" (83). When grandmother Connor died, grandfather Connor stood outside on the porch, without his bear coat, and when Vanessa arrived, he cried to her. Symbolically, this represents the unmasking of the bear. Many years later, when Vanessa sees an Indian bear mask in a museum, she remembers that, "in the days before it became a museum piece, the mask had concealed a man" (86).

"A Bird in the House" and "The Mask of the Bear" are symbolically appropriate titles for the stories that they tell. "A Bird in the House" alludes to the entrapment that Vanessa and Ewen separately experience during their lives in Manawaka and it foreshadows Ewen's death, while "The Mask of the Bear" divulges the existence of an affectionate side that grandfather Connor conceals behind his hard demeanour. Therefore, although some people say a reader cannot judge a book by its cover, sometimes, he or she can judge its content by the title.
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