The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

The Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan
Reviewed by Peter Webb

Hugh MacLennan

The Watch that Ends the Night. 1959. Edited by David McKnight. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2009.


The new McGill-Queen’s UP edition of Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch that Ends the Night (1959) restores to availability one of the great Canadian novels of the fifties and the masterpiece of MacLennan’s career as a novelist. When Stoddart Publishing sank a decade ago, it took the previous edition of the novel with it; around the same time, critical appreciation of MacLennan’s work hit rock bottom. With any luck the new edition may spark a recovery, although I wouldn’t hold my breath just yet.

MacLennan’s propensity for masculine-oriented narrative, sometimes to the detriment of female characters, made him a sort of grand poobah among dead white males. His old-school focus on what used to be called Canada’s two founding cultures (Anglo-Celtic Protestants and French Catholics) to the exclusion of Aboriginals, Jews, Asians, and Eastern Europeans—many of whom built the very bridges, roads, and railways that enabled MacLennan’s sweeping vision of a bonded nation—made MacLennan the sort of writer postcolonialists and cultural revisionists love to excoriate. Few actually did, but something just as telling, neglect of his work, set in.

It is a shame because The Watch That Ends the Night, more than any other Canadian novel, captures the zeitgeist of the chaotic and transformative period between the Spanish Civil War of the mid-1930s and the early years of the Cold War. MacLennan’s academic training as a classicist allowed him to see mythic resonances in this fraught period. The novel, like one of its predecessors, Barometer Rising (1941), deploys the myth of Odysseus to enliven Jerome Martell’s return to Montreal after a ten-year absence in war-torn Europe and Asia. An amalgam of Hemingway adventurer, Bethune humanitarian, and Sartrean existentialist, Jerome is the Everyman of an age in which grand ideals sparked by the Russian Revolution come into hard contact with the ravages of fascism and the ennui of postwar consumer society. Compellingly altruistic at times, irritatingly self-centred at others, Jerome is the focal point of a complex meditation on the power of individualism in a time of social upheaval.

Whatever we know of Jerome comes from the perspective of George Stewart, the focalizer of the novel who is less of a protagonist than he is a non-descript “fifth business” figure of the Robertson Davies variety. George, like Dunstan Ramsay in Fifth Business (1971), has a desultory childhood among overbearing adults, followed by an unfulfilling career as a schoolmaster in an antiquarian boarding school (surely the standard emblem of obstinate Victorianism in modern fiction). George pines for a childhood friend, Catherine Carey, who suffers from a chronically weak heart; but as they grow older and more distant, it is the charismatic Jerome who marries Catherine instead. After Jerome bulldozes his family and career as a surgeon to go to Spain, George and Catherine revive their affections. Jerome’s disappearance, presumed to be his death, paves the way for George and Catherine’s marriage.

It is through Catherine that The Watch That Ends the Night acquires its deepest and most troubling propensities for dead-white-maleism. Unequivocally the narrative privileges Jerome’s masculine energy over Catherine’s maternal passivity. While Jerome is smart, energetic, and complex, Catherine is mawkish, reclusive, and simple. As students of mine pointed out in a recent undergraduate class, Catherine is a modern throwback to the Angel in the House stereotype epitomized in Coventry Patmore’s eponymous Victorian-era poem. It is a strange lapse for MacLennan, so often hostile toward Victorian residues. Catherine’s compulsive references to her infirmities, meant to evoke stoic resilience, come across more as self-pity. Practically every early scene involving Catherine culminates in some such passage as:

Her face broke open with happiness. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have a boat of my own when I never dreamed I could ever have anything like that. It’s like being” – suddenly her gray eyes filled – “George, it’s almost like being normal.” (58)

Catherine’s little-girl mistiness, her complete lack of self-esteem, and her refusal to protest when the man she loves walks all over her would be plausible enough in a critique of feminine subservience to patriarchal dominance. But a deep narrative flaw emerges as one tries to figure out why a firebrand like Jerome would want to marry Catherine, and why the novel’s narrator, George Stewart, spends his life desiring her.

As David McKnight’s fine introduction to the new edition makes clear, Catherine is loosely based on MacLennan’s own wife, Dorothy Duncan, who died in 1957 during the composition of the book. But while Dorothy was a recognized author, painter, and politically conscious early member of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), her fictional foil, Catherine (who dabbles in paint without getting serious about it), is a pale tribute to a far more interesting woman. Grief may have prompted MacLennan to portray Catherine with tenterhooks, but as a literary characterization it skews the novel toward the more compelling male characters.  

MacLennan’s cultural biases are less problematic given the particular time, setting, and social perspective of The Watch That Ends the Night. Jerome, George, and Catherine inhabit an anglophone-dominated and pre-multicultural Montreal, which may seem dated by today’s standards but makes sense in the context of the book itself. MacLennan’s focus is mainly on the Anglo middle classes who occupy tasteful apartments on slopes west of St. Laurent Boulevard. This is a narrative choice appropriate to the writer and the world he knows. There is no reason to expect that in the mid-1930s (when many of the novel’s flashbacks are set) or 1951 (George’s narrative present) MacLennan’s characters should have steady contact with non-British minorities or Aboriginals, largely ostracized from middle class neighborhoods (as many still are). Although The Watch That Ends the Night might chafe against a more contemporary multicultural vision, there is nothing in the book to support unfair dismissals of MacLennan as an elitist.

Jews, quite notably, are acknowledged in a reflective scene where George refers to them as “the senior people of civilization […] whose tradition I reverence” (240). More crucially he regrets that Jewish immigrants, who “knew, while the French and English blocs did not, exactly what Hitler was preparing for all of us,” were ignored in the thirties (240). George’s statements fall short of a full-blown condemnation of the anti-Semitic cronyism that plagued Quebec and the rest of Canada during the thirties—exposed more forcefully in Richler’s works of the same period. But in a novel by an author famous for popularizing the “two solitudes” of English and French Quebec, it is notable to find praise for the Jewish Quebecers whom Irving Layton, an opponent of MacLennan’s vision, termed a third solitude.

For all his flatness as a character, it is George who delivers the most profound lines in The Watch That Ends the Night. George is among other things a mouthpiece for MacLennan, whose well-known essays on the postwar condition often resemble George’s interior monologues. His meditates on a postwar society, “prosperous under the bomb,” in which “we all seem to have become atomized” (314) anticipate ideas like the ones Marshall McLuhan and George Grant would later popularize. George Stewart’s view of a world in which the bell that once tolled for humankind “now tolled for each family in its prosperous solitude” (314) exemplifies the shattering of “two solitudes” into many. 

Not every Canadian novel would inspire a popular rock band to write a hit song. Yet it is some of George’s words that, slightly redacted, form the basis of the Tragically Hip’s (and later, in The Sweet Hereafter, Sarah Polley’s) song “Courage”—subtitled “for Hugh MacLennan” on the 1993 album Fully Completely. George’s original words read:

But that night as I drove back to Montreal I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them. (266-7)

In the musical hands of Gord Downie and company they become:

So there’s no simple explanation

For anything important any of us do

And yeah the human tragedy

Consists in the necessity

Of living with the consequences

Under pressure, under pressure.

The Hip’s nod to MacLennan is more than just pop culture trivia or trivializing; the relation between The Watch That Ends the Night and “Courage” speaks to the ways in which MacLennan’s words resonate beyond their inception and narrative context to address the human condition. “Living with consequences” of one’s actions is a theme stretching back as far as written literature goes, to Homer, perhaps even The Epic of Gilgamesh. The best passages in The Watch That Ends the Night are both timeless and ever-timely; they go beyond, and partially compensate for, the awkward characterizations and implausible plot twists that mar the novel. Few Canadian writers before Alice Munro managed to attain genuine grandeur in prose. MacLennan did (along with Klein, Watson, and one or two others), and for that reason, among others, The Watch That Ends the Night deserves a permanent place in the canon of modern Canadian fiction.

The new edition from McGill-Queen’s UP is straightforward and precise, with a critically substantial introduction by David McKnight, a thorough chronology of MacLennan’s career, and text that is easily readable and (to my eyes) free of typographical errors. One questions whether MacLennan’s legacy is recoverable to the level of “great Canadian novelist” he enjoyed in the middle decades of the twentieth century. But as a gesture toward restoration—and as a book everyone interested in modern fiction should read—McGill-Queen’s edition does justice to a landmark novel by an important novelist. 

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At press time: Peter Webb is Faculty Lecturer in Canadian Literature in the McGill University Department of English. His research on war-related subjects has appeared in the Journal of Canadian Studies and essay collections from DeGruyter Press and the University of Ottawa Press. He is the editor of the recently published volume From Room to Room: The Poetry of Eli Mandel from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Work on a book about Canadian First World War fiction is ongoing.

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