Frail Males in Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House
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- Length: 2757 words (7.9 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Kristjana Gunnars suggests that “Canada is an unhappy country. No, better still, the Prairies are unhappy. Canadian women are especially unhappy” (Gunnars 122). In Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House, the women are indeed unhappy. In the end, however, it is the women who triumph because of their solidarity. The men, due to their solitary states, are unable to maintain their traditionally powerful roles. In these short stories, the men appear to be the leaders of the household, but the women have the greater but subtler power. The men do not lend each other support, while the women are often willing to lend each other a shoulder to cry on. Thus, because of their bluntness and solitariness, the men in A Bird in the House are dethroned from their traditional seats of power in male-female relations, male-male relations, and in female-female relations where their absence is not missed.
An imposing character in A Bird in the House, Grandfather Timothy Connor’s power over his household is also a sign of his weakness. The house that he built is “part dwelling place and part massive monument” (Margaret Laurence 3). Grandfather Connor, a pioneer in Manawaka, is a monument himself and is often associated with his architectural feat. The title of Margaret Laurence’s novel is A Bird in the House; Grandfather Connor is the house that both shelters and entraps the people – especially the women – in his life with his actions. With a stranglehold on his household, Grandfather seems to fit into the traditional male role as the authoritarian but is plagued by guilt and loneliness. He uses his anger as a shield and a mask; he “demands strength because he is afraid of weakness” (Jon Kertzer 43). Early in his marriage, Grandfather Connor had an affair with a girl in Winnipeg but his wife Agnes “never told him she’d considered leaving him” (Laurence 85). This places Agnes in a position of higher power: she is virtuous, and Timothy knows that she may be too good for him. As Uncle Terence remarks: “Another person’s virtues could be an awful weight to tote around. We all loved her. Whoever loved him?” (86). Because his family loves Agnes and will happily obey her, Timothy attempts to reassert his power by being strict and demanding.
It is an unspoken rule that he is the only one in the family who is allowed to upset Agnes. In “The Mask of the Bear,” when Jimmy Lorimer visits Timothy’s daughter Edna, Timothy is irked. Grandmother Connor begs him: “Timothy – please. Be nice to him. For my sake” (71). Agnes Connor is obviously suffocating in the house that is Timothy, for she is “not a person who begged you to be kind for her sake, or even for God’s sake. If you were kind, in my grandmother’s view, it was for its own sake, and the judgement of whether you had done well or not was up to the Almighty” (71). Not paying his wife heed, Timothy chases Lorimer from his house. Soon after this event, Grandmother Connor dies. Timothy at last sheds his mask and cries to his granddaughter: “Vanessa – she was an angel. You remember that” (84). Indeed, Agnes is an angel who holds immense power over Timothy without resorting to harsh words. Not only does Timothy join Agnes’ church out of his own accord, but after he dismisses his brother Dan from the house in “The Sound of Singing,” Timothy goes after Dan to apologize when Agnes admonishes him with a sad but powerful look.
Timothy also keeps a tyrannical hold over his daughters Beth and Edna. In “Half-Husky,” Beth is uncertain if she should allow her daughter Vanessa and her son Roddie to keep the half-husky Nanuk as she is “always torn between her children and a desire not to provoke [her father]”(158). In “Jericho’s Brick Battlements,” Beth and Edna resign themselves to selling Grandmother MacLeod’s beautiful set of china because their father does not want to see them. Edna wishes to rebel, but Beth is right in remarking: “What’s the use? It’s like batting your head against a brick wall. He’d get his way in the end. He always does”(176). By not provoking their father, Edna and Beth holds power over him: they have the fortitude to remain calm but he does not. Timothy is vigilant against smoking in his house, so Edna and Beth sprays Edna’s room with Attar of Roses to hide the scent of their cigarette smoke. To Edna, this is not deception, but self-preservation (20). Again, Timothy is powerless because he cannot prevent his own daughters from smoking. Vanessa, however, remembers her Grandfather Connor’s gentler side in “Jericho’s Brick Battlements,” the concluding story in A Bird in the House. It takes her many years to reconcile her understanding of her demanding grandfather with the warm memory of her riding in his car as a child: “I was gazing with love and glory at my giant grandfather as he drove his valiant chariot through all the streets of this world” (179). Vanessa proclaims: “I had feared and fought the old man, yet he proclaimed himself in my veins” (207). Critique Jon Kertzer states that this proclamation suggests that Vanessa is ready to cope with her problems “since she has finally accepted the past, represented at its most domineering by her grandfather” (Kertzer 80). It appears that Grandfather Connor does succeed in exerting some of his power, but in the end, it is Vanessa who decides on the level of impact that her grandfather can have on her.
Grandmother MacLeod, like Grandfather Connor, is also an authoritarian. She is able to bend her son Ewen to her will even though Ewen is the sole breadwinner of the family. In “To Set Our House in Order,” Grandmother MacLeod hires a girl despite Ewen’s protest, believing that she deserves a servant even though money is scarce during the Depression. Although she does not cook or clean, Grandmother MacLeod makes others keep her house in order and “all order is subtly authoritarian. It imposes itself and demands obedience” (Kertzer 48-49). Never raising her voice, Grandmother MacLeod is able to demand obedience from her son by speaking quietly: “I see no need to blaspheme, Ewen” (44). Her stern words, however, “are misleading…because their very propriety serves to conceal fearful emotions” (Kertzer 46). Grandmother MacLeod tells Vanessa that when her son Roderick was killed, she “thought [she] would die. But [she] didn’t die”(45). These stoic words can only disguise her pain temporarily. When Ewen and Beth’s son is born, Grandmother MacLeod demands to name her grandson Rod, after her dead son Roderick. After Ewen’s death, Grandmother MacLeod is shattered: “Her men were gone, her husband and her sons, and a family whose men are gone is no family at all” (111). Nevertheless, even without the men, she is strong and her life continues with Aunt Morag.
Ewen not only does not hold great power over his mother – she has only one photo of him – he also does not seem to have an impact on the life of his son Roddie. Because he is a physician, Ewen is not home often. Grandfather Connor may be harsh, but he is honest in rebuking Ewen: “You’d think a man could stay home on a Sunday” (6). Ewen’s alienation from his own son begins at Roddie’s birth: Ewen is not allowed to name his newborn son but must call the baby Roderick in accordance with his mother’s wish. Thus, Roddie does not belong to Ewen but to his Grandmother MacLeod who names him. Uncle Roderick, whom little Roddie is named after, appears throughout A Bird in the House as memories. Ewen is plagued by the guilt of not being able to save his younger brother Roderick in the war. When he and Roderick joined the war as young men, they only had dreams of adventure and glory. Watching his own brother die before his eyes, Ewen’s opinion of war changed forever and he no longer has powerful visions of himself as a soldier. Vanessa’s Cousin Chris in “Horses of the Night” does not have illusions about the war but is forced to join while working as a door-to-door salesman. Chris, like Ewen, cannot play the traditional male role of a powerful soldier, because “they could force his body to march and event o kill, but what they didn’t know was that he’d fooled them. He didn’t live inside it any more” (153). The peaceable Chris is never aggressive even during confrontations with Grandfather Connor: he “would not argue or defend himself, but he did not apologise, either. He simply appeared to be absent, elsewhere. Fortunately there was very little need for response, for when Grandfather Connor pointed out your shortcomings, you were not expected to reply” (133).
Uncle Dan, unlike Chris, is more vocal in his relationship with Grandfather Connor. This does not lead to their solidarity or mutual happiness. Not “upright,” Dan cannot break his bad habit of trading horses. Whenever his brother Timothy admonishes him, Dan laughs and sings. To Timothy, Dan is an embarrassment and a financial burden because he never ceases to be “a no-good, a natural-born stage Irishman, who [continues] even when he [is] senile to sing rebel songs”(204). In contrast, Timothy Connor is upright and hardworking. He is dedicated to his work – even after he is retired and has sold his hardware store, he still often gives advice to Mr Barnes, the present owner of his hardware store. Bear-like, Timothy “would stalk around the Brick House as though it were a cage, on Sundays, impatient for the new weeks’ beginning that would release him into the only freedom he knew, the acts of work” (61). Thus, Timothy is a self-sufficient and proud man. In “The Mask of the Bear,” Timothy scorns Jimmy Lorimer for coming from a city because “you could live in one of them places for twenty years, and you’d not get to know your next-door neighbour. Trouble comes along – who’s going to give you a hand? Not a blamed soul” (73). This is ironic because although Manawaka is a small town, Timothy will never accept a helping hand from his neighbours. As well, he has never lived in a city, “so his first-hand knowledge of their ways was, to say the least, limited” (73). Thus, like the other men in A Bird in the House, Grandfather Connor is lonely and unhappy.
Grandfather Connor is not completely incorrect in his judgement of Jimmy Lorimer. He does, in fact, understand other men quite well. Timothy Connor’s resentment and mistrust of Jimmy Lorimer is well-founded: Jimmy soon leaves Aunt Edna and marries someone else even though he professes to love Edna. Moreover, Timothy Connor is shrewd in analyzing Michael’s infidelity in “Jericho’s Brick Battlements.” Most of the men in A Bird in the House, then, do not respect women or other men. In “The Half-Husky,” when Harvey steals Vanessa and Roddie’s telescope, Timothy is unhesitant in taking matters into his own hands instead of going to the police, because he is “unable to acknowledge any authority except his own” (167). Vanessa is surprised at her Grandfather Connor’s death: “Perhaps I had really imagined that he was immortal. Perhaps he even was immortal, in ways which it would take me half a lifetime to comprehend” (205). Timothy Connor may be immortal, but he is not inhuman. During times of defeat, he often retreats to the basement and sits on the rocking chair. The rocking chair is a symbol of old age and of femininity; its “noise expresses grievances, and how he likes to draw attention to his suffering without having to admit that he is vulnerable” (Kertzer 52). Grandfather MacLeod, like Grandfather Connor, is a lonely man and suffers a great deal. MacLeod, however, does not draw attention to his suffering; instead, he finds solace and refuge in Greek literature. These classical writings are his companions as well as reminders that he is alienated from the Manawaka community because no one but he can read Greek.
Also alienated in Manawaka is the telephone operator who is only known as “Central.” This woman has a name, “but no one in Manawaka ever called her anything except Central” (22). This impersonal treatment vanishes in the absence of males. Grandmother Connor refuses to name her pet canary because it is not “human,” yet she still calls it “Birdie.” This “naming-by-refusing-to-name proves that we cannot tolerate a world without words, because if it remains unnamed, then it is unspeakable and terrifying” (Kertzer 46). Thus, the female community in A Bird in the House is safe and non-threatening. Unlike the explosive Grandfather Connor, Grandmother Connor is confident and serene. She is undemanding when she asks Vanessa about Sunday school each week and “very nice” is her unvarying response (7). Able to say “Bless the child” genuinely (131), Grandmother Connor evokes feelings of love and trust in Vanessa, who “automatically and emotionally [sides] with Grandmother in all issues, not because she [is] inevitably right but because [she loves] her” (131). Vanessa, Edna, and Beth all coddle Grandmother Connor gladly, assuming that she needs protection (17). This stands in stark contrast to the emotional pain she endures from men such as her husband Timothy and her son Dan.
Edna, like her sister Beth, is caring and hardworking. Behind her cheerful, reliable appearance, however, is great pain and sadness. At her father’s house, no matter how long she spends on house chores, Grandfather Connor still believes she is lazy. Jimmy Lorimer, whom Edna loves, does not wait for her and marries another woman. Edna arrives at the conclusion that she hasn’t “got [Grandmother Connor]’s patience, that’s all. Not with [Jimmy], nor with any man” (82). Thus, when Edna thinks of the virtue “patience,” it is an older woman who comes to mind. To bolster her spirits, Edna spends most of her free time talking with Beth, Vanessa, and Grandmother Connor. Gunnars suggest that “the waiting, the being still, the not speaking are part of a revolutionary stance” (Gunnars 124). Grandmother Connor and Beth’s patience with Grandfather Connor exemplifies this strength and Edna is often calmed by these female influences.
When Beth is pregnant with Roddie, she continues to work hard around the house despite warnings of a possible miscarriage: “I don’t have to slow up that much, I should hope” (4). In this way, Beth is a traditional mother figure. There is much female solidarity in A Bird in the House, however. After their conversation about a possible miscarriage, Beth and Edna hug each other. Vanessa feels drawn to this action, because this “is the first time that she realizes she belongs, not only to a family with its web of demands and concessions, but to a women’s world within the family” (Kertzer 42). When Beth’s husband Ewen is dying, Beth does not need to tell Vanessa about the sad news, because “there [is] no need”(107) and they wordlessly hold each other. Vanessa, learning about caring and solidarity from the older women in her life, has the feeling that her mother needs her protection (108). After her death, Beth is buried in the Manawaka cemetery “beside Ewen, her husband and [Vanessa’s] father, who had died so long before her. Of all the deaths in the family, hers remained unhealed in [Vanessa’s] mind longest” (206). This is because there is greater power in actions than in words, and Beth does not speak much in A Bird in the House but performs daily actions of kindness and industriousness.
Forming a loving and supportive circle, the women in A Bird in the House empower each other to climb to the top rung of the traditional gender hierarchy. The men are the victims of their own independence and aggression because in these short stories, the subtleties of feminine power work best in the end. Whether they are in male-female situations, male-male situations, or female-female situations, the men in Laurence’s novel fall from their places of high power because in order to survive in the wilderness that is Canada, they must form a solidarity with themselves and with the women around them.
Gunnars, Kristjana. “Listening: Laurence’s Women.” In Margaret Laurence: Critical Reflections, p. 121-127. Edited by David Staines. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2001.
Kertzer, Jon. “That House in Manawaka”: Margarent Laurence’s A Bird in the House. Toronto: ECW Press, 1992.
Laurence, Margaret. A Bird in the House. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1974.