As for Me and My House, Sinclair Ross
Reviewed by Patrick McEvoy-Halston
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Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House excites many of those who study Canadian literature. As we read criticism of the work, again and again we encounter critics who make use of their essays to announce their delight in knowing of at least one Canadian writer who wrote something which can unapologetically be called modernist. This is the broad significance of the work: apparently, its merits are so obvious that it announces, beams like a bat-signal to all interested that Canada did manage to produce a work of fiction between the two wars that not only is not an embarrassment but which might well be a modernist masterpiece. Without it, it sometimes seems, critics of Canadian literature would have evident reason to study Victorian Canadian fiction—that is, fiction written by Canadians during the Victorian era (because nothing more could have been expected of them)—and, of course, our bounty of postmodern literature, but would not have much justification for studying literature “between the gaps” (which really could and should have been so much more.) By itself, that is, it seems to justify further explorations into the literature written in Canada between the wars (for, for such a work to exist, presumably there must have been something very worthwhile about the Canadian milieu during this time-period).
What makes it a modernist work? To begin with, since it hasn’t much been commented upon, its aristocratic tone. Our narrator, Mrs. Bentley, views much about her with disdain. She shares an attitude—a particularly modern, modernist attitude—that the unsophisticated plebs about her aren’t capable of understanding either her or her husband. Her disdain even makes it difficult to designate the book as regional literature, for it can be difficult to resist agreeing with her (indeed, some critics seem to be in love with her—e.g., Robert Kroetsch) that the particularities of those about her, of those who populate her immediate Horizon, aren’t much worth delineating or understanding at all.
The natural environment is worthy of her attention, however. And it is a ravaging environment, of the type so common in Canadian literature. But her descriptions of it tells us more about her than about her surroundings. And it is clear that Ross is mostly interested in her, in how she experiences the world, how she shapes the world about her to suit her needs—and it is also clear that she describes her surroundings to suit her purposes. The elements are more than brutal: they are, conveniently, primeval, fundamentally opposite the human community she so loathes. The elements seem at times her allies, but the house she lives in wars against her. She thinks it hates her as she hates it. And it does, in a way: for those who built it, who previously inhabited it, would have been the type to despise her had they been privy to her innermost thoughts. Her descriptions of the house are, therefore, in a sophisticated way, quite realistic, however surreal. They register both her and Ross’s superior awareness of the psychological implications irising out of being in any particular environment.
Numerous critics have noted that Me and My House challenges the straightforward conception of time as linear. They argue that the book, indeed, ostensibly like life itself, is essentially plotless, with each day the same as any other. I’m not sure about this myself, however. What I sense in the seeming sameness of the everyday goings-on, in the repetition, is Ross’s keen awareness of psychoanalysis—particularly of masochism. The ending which disappoints many critics, that is, the happy ending that seems to them so false given all that preceded it, is in fact very appropriate if we, like Ross, understand just how the masochist’s mind works. The masochist does not believe that happiness is something he/she deserves. It can be made claim to—but only after much suffering. The novel shows us this process at work. Much suffering, much failing afflicts the Bentleys. This accumulation amounts to a kind of progression, however. That is, repetition, the losses the Bentley’s suffer—of their adopted son, of their dog, for instance—is not stasis. It is instead expansion, which the Bentley’s are well aware of, and which will at some point amass sufficiently to warrant their emerging from the Horizon wasteland. Eventually, after enough suffering, the masochist feels he or she has earned some respite.
Ross is very aware of psychoanalytic theory. The encounters between the Bentleys register his own awareness of the sadism and masochism in married life. My own interest is in object-relations psychoanalysis, and Ross also seems to have an intuitive appreciation of the sort of conclusions object-relations theorists have come to regarding our behavior. Mrs. Bentley registers throughout her entries her husband’s resistance to capture. He seems both attracted to and repelled by his wife. Object-relations theory suggests that we relate to our partners as we once related to our mothers. We desire to be close to them, but at the same time fear losing our sense of selves as separate individuals while in their proximity. Mrs. Bentley’s opinion, which some feminists might identify as Ross’s sexist assessment of women’s needs, that she needs for her husband to be stronger than she herself is, to be able to resist her, is also not a surprise to those familiar with object-relations theory: for this theory holds (at least according to one of its foremost theorists, Margaret Mahler) that women, more than men, have difficulties separating themselves from their (after all) same-sexed mothers, and in fact seek out strong men to assist them in this. Latched on to such men, they feel less likely to become overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness, of being forever trapped within the maternal matrix. In short, if we are being offered sexist fair in this modernist novel, it is at the very least reasonably updated and sophisticated—modern—sexist fair.
Ross, Sinclair. As For Me and My House. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,