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Surreality, not dull fidelity: Marian Engel’s Poetics of the Everyday

Afra Kavanagh


Les premiers récits de Marian Engel, ainsi que l’écrivain le déclare dans la préface de La Femme tatouée, ne sont rien de plus que des chroniques : des tranches de vie dont le réalisme terre-à-terre les confine dans la réclusion de la fiction mimétique. Pour pourvoir ses histoires de souffle et les doter d’âme il fallait les exposer à l'ingérence de l’absurde, à l’irrationnel. Dans les nouvelles ici abordées, Engels a recours à des procédés chers au surréalisme. Elle les emploie dans le but de mieux dépeindre et de mieux faire partager le monde brisé de ses fragiles personnages féminins. Ainsi, c’est par le biais du fantastique et de l’humour noir qu’elle parvient à dépeindre l’absurdité du banal dans la « réalité » quotidienne de ses héroïnes. C’est par des méthodes surréalistes qu’elle met en perspective les dichotomies entre enfance et âge adulte, identité privée et identité publique,  masculin et féminin pour libérer les mécanismes du désir et les tisser en complémentarité harmonieuse entre passé et présent, conscient et inconscient, vérité et imagination dans une prose bien équilibrée qui inscrit l’expérience du quotidien de la vie des femmes dans un registre qui, cette fois, est celui de l’art.

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Studied authors :

Marian Engel

Texte intégral

Said Life to Art – “I love thee best
Not when I find in thee
My very face and form, expressed
With dull fidelity,

“But when in thee my craving eyes
Behold continually
The mystery of my memories
And all I long to be.”

  • 1 . Engel read Charles G.D. (“God Damn” – as she interpreted his initials once!) Roberts’ animal stor (...)

Charles G. D. Roberts (1896)1
“Straight realistic narrative still bores me.
I don’t think it gives any meaning to reality.”

Marian Engel (“Bear Summer, 1976”)

  • 2 . “Bear Summer,” The Marian Engel Archives, Mills Memorial Library, McMaster University. Box 14, F1 (...)

1The relationship of art to life, memory and desire were the issues at the heart of Marian Engel’s literary deliberations. She had considered form, realism, and her desire to avoid telling the same old stories in the same old ways in “Bear Summer” where she wrote: “ I have until very recently been most interested in it [the novel] in its experimental variety, believing that since there are no new things to say one must find new ways to find old things ... I was very excited about the ideas about the nouveau roman in France in the ‘60's ...” (12).2

  • 3 . For example, “Transformations,” was collected into Inside the Easter Egg in 1975, and “The Life o (...)

2An important figure in Canadian fiction for almost two decades, Engel (1933-1985) published seven novels and received major awards for some of them. She also wrote short stories, a number of which appeared in women’s magazines in the 1970s. The first volume of her collected short stories, Inside the Easter Egg, was published by Anansi Press in 1975, and her second, The Tattooed Woman (TW), which contained several stories written for Robert Weaver’s avant-garde CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio show, “Anthology,” was published by Penguin in 1985, the year she died. Some of the stories in the first volume are experimental in their approach to depicting the lives of educated Canadian women at home or abroad, yet to some extent they do support her uncharitable retrospective assessment of them in her introduction to The Tattooed Woman. She wrote in 1985, many years after they were first written and published,3 that these stories in which she chronicled the everyday of personal relationships and their disintegration as slice of life narratives, sketches, and incidents, did what they were told and failed to be any kind of art; she judged that they were mired in “kitchen sink realism” and could only go so far. Engel reveals in this context a divided sense and contrary urges. She dismisses “kitchen sink realism” in one interview, but then talks about the magic of the ordinary, of “kitchen sinks,” in several places including the introduction under discussion, which was her last public writing, and probably represents her final understanding of her own difference and of her valuation of the ordinary. Referring to being sickly and in hospitals and foster homes until she was adopted by the Passmores when she was three years old, she wrote: “I wish I had started from zero, an ordinary Canadian Child in an ordinary family with her own house and her own bed, so that ordinary kitchen sinks wouldn’t still be magic to me.” But she was not ordinary. She struggled against the ordinary while she longed for it, and her inscription of the everyday of female protagonists very much like her– educated, middle-class, rebellious and hungry for fulfilment and recognition–  is far from ordinary; for even though she had started as a realist, she knew that realism was not the appropriate style for representing modern women’s lives.

  • 4 . Graeme Gibson. Eleven Canadian Novelists. (Toronto: Anansi, 1973).

3Her own writing about these issues in “Bear Summer” in 1976, and the introduction to The Tattooed Woman almost 10 years later in 1985, shows her developing thinking and her changing poetics of the short story and the everyday. What becomes evident in several of the stories in the second volume is that she felt that she had searched for and found new and effective ways to write her narratives. She had carefully moved away from realism, because as she said to Graeme Gibson in a 1973 interview, “[M]aking fictions is an opportunity to add two and two and make five. If you’re too careful, if you work it out too neatly, you’ll only get four.”4

  • 5 . Patrick French, “Tel Quel and Surrealism: A Re-evaluation. Has the Avant-Garde Become a Theory?” (...)

4In this essay I argue that Marian Engel, in order “to make five,” chose to bring about in some of her stories a recognition of the unconscious and the imagination by experimenting with free forms of association and by imitating the unchecked process of thought. Engel, in order to portray the absurdity of enforced dichotomies in a modern woman’s everyday, also used other surrealist strategies, such as startling images, black humour, and flights of fantasy. Her short stories, particularly the four discussed here, attempt to create what Patrick French claims for Surrealism, that it is “a transcendent vision of the space beyond the limit,”5 a limit imposed by social and logical constraints.

5Engel’s understanding of the everyday, that it is not simply physical or simply historical, is evident in her short story “The Confession Tree” in which the protagonist, Mary Abbott, is just home from the hospital where she has had a cancerous tumor removed. The narrative shows Mary dealing with her own grief at the same time as she deals with a demanding and unhappy mother and a sweet but needy husband. The text gives her thoughts equal space as it does the inter-personal exchange, the dialogue with her mother.  Thus Mary, who is unable to speak about her illness to either her husband or her mother, thinks, “I shall make myself a wig of apple petals,” before responding to her mother’s question, “Is that Osborne coming down?” Mary, in effect, telegraphs to the reader her grim, but imaginative, anticipation of losing her hair after chemotherapy. The story had opened with her “staring at the [freshly blooming] apple tree ... hard enough ... to be swallowed by, to enter into, that cloud of pink and white unreality” (97). Mary’s wanting to enter the tree and its blossoms represents her unconscious acceptance of her imminent death. Imagining dying as being absorbed back into nature is Mary’s way (Marian’s too, as Engel was dying of cancer herself when she wrote the story) of thinking beyond the limits of her mother’s conventional belief that death is undesirable, and must be painful. Her stance is evocative of the longing for “easeful death” expressed in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” Mary is also shown moving back and forth between the moment and the remembered past as she finds the “gears in her mind slipping, as if her father’s movie projector was running backwards and she was a child again, rising from an untidy splash backwards like a bent hairpin to the smooth rock they dived off” (99). This jolting image is a novel combination of the organic and the mechanical reminiscent of those created by surrealist artists, and together with the reference to the tree or outside reality as a cloud of “unreality,” point to the artificial divisions between the past and present, and between reality and unreality.

  • 6 . “The Salt Mines,” in Inside the Easter Egg, 34-41.

6In this and the other stories, Engel does not pin down what she means by the unconscious. It often seems a nebulous entity, a “cloud” of unknowingness (unknown-ness?). Often represented by metaphors, the unconscious is a murky underground like the salt mines6 featured in the short story of the same name. Dark and hidden, the mine in that story is the site for the protagonist’s extra-marital sexual encounter. Her initial fear of it is replaced with delight; a paradise, the loss of which is worth crying over (39), the mine contains a history of desire and pain. For Engel and her protagonists, the unconscious has the allure of the mine. It is perhaps the element of the irrational that she had to introduce into her stories to make them come alive. The unconscious is attractive because mysterious. Once discovered and acknowledged it becomes the true identifier of the female characters who suffer from too much self-consciousness. For example, in “The Confession Tree,” Mary longs to lose consciousness of herself, and gain the “unconsciousness” or un-self-consciousness of the tree, because her state of self-consciousness is intolerable. In the stories, the unconscious is favoured over the rational mind. Engel, like the Surrealists who challenged the establishment, depicted the unconscious as the seat of memory and desire and sought to valorize these elements and emphasize their importance to living creatively.

  • 7 . This and other references to Surrealism are to Andre Breton’s What is Surrealism?: Selected Writi (...)

7In his prefatory comments to The Tattooed Woman, Timothy Findlay equates the apparent “oddness” of Engel’s stories with “apartness,” a quality he attributes to “Her people [who] lived apart, making peace with life and what passed for life ... The great wonder is the way they went about their lives, working out their problems as if what they were doing was ordinary and everyday. But, of course, it wasn’t” (viii). Findlay’s assertion about Engel’s writing and her characters helps define how she writes the everyday. It is not simply the recording of daily activities, such as people getting up, brushing their teeth, or voiding their bowels. Neither is it a chronicle of the daily intake of fluids and solids, sounds and sights, but a presentation of interior reality and exterior reality, currently posited by society as in contradiction, as two elements in the process of unification.7 So she shows in “The Confession Tree” the discrepancy between a woman’s thoughts and her words and actions, processes that she wished to see unified. However, they are still unintegrated in this story, because Mary is part of a generation of women who felt that they had to hold their tongues, sandwiched as they were between their mothers and their husbands.

8Engel wrote in the introduction to The Tattooed Woman about her changing poetics for representing everyday reality. She was leaving behind realistic representation of a modern woman’s everyday because it was no longer adequate. As early as 1976, she had written, “Straight realistic narrative still bores me. I don’t think it gives any meaning to reality” (“Bear Summer,” 12). Then in 1985, she described how as she readied to write a story, her tools for writing came up “from some inner region which obeys no rules in the matter” (TW, xi). She spoke of a literary kit bag containing workshop tools such as a Hysterical Wrench and Faulkner’s Torque Assembly (x), associating in these images mechanical elements with the creative (mystical, magical, she says elsewhere) aspects of the writing process, forces also at work in daily life. But she chose to focus on the irrational, “the area where, when the skin of logic is pulled back, anything can happen.” Engel also claimed that she found the material for creating the fictive world of her short stories “when the mirror cracks,” (xii) and that more and more, the irrational dominated her work. This emphasis on the unconscious, here expressed as an inner region, a place where logic and reason have no sway, is  poetics based on a view of the world promoted during her lifetime by movements such as psychoanalysis and Surrealism; like them, she suggests, our experience is of an illogical and incomprehensible reality, and creativity emerges from the unrestrained forces of the unconscious.

  • 8 . Her “Bear Summer,” as well as several of the novels pay a tribute to librarians who steered young (...)
  • 9 . As argued by Rachel Blau Duplessis in Writing Beyond the Ending (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985).
  • 10 . Sarah Bastard’s Notebook (c1968, reprinted Don Mills, ON: PaperJacks, 1974).
  • 11 . Honeyman Festival (Toronto: Anansi Press, 1970).

9Yet Engel was a fan of the modernists, especially Virginia Woolf8 – a particularly attractive model because she had shifted the emphasis so that her fiction no longer centered on the romantic and interpersonal themes that dominated fiction by women.9  She referred to this needed shift in her comments about the novel as a form that delighted her because of its freedom. She wrote that she was very excited about the nouveau roman in France, “but now I find even Butor more or less unreadable though his theory is very pure and good. ... And perhaps the nouveau roman was a necessary attempt on the part of the French to escape the roman” (“Bear Summer” 12). So she too went beyond romances for centres and weddings as endings; her first novel rejects affairs and marriage in favour of the passionate life,10 and her second begins several babies after the “happily ever after.”11

  • 12 . “Fiction probably arises out of a need to integrate the elements of one’s life in narrative form, (...)
  • 13 . Robertson Davies wrote on January 6, 1976, to J. G. McClelland, the publisher: “ The theme of Bea (...)

10Engel included in this last volume several stories that are based on an absurd premise or a dream-like sequence and portrayed in her endings seemingly opposed elements– such as the past and the present, or the conscious and unconscious, as well as the rational and the irrational–  in the process of unification, forcing, in this way, some coherence on what she perceived as a disjointed and choppy reality.12 Like other writers and visual artists who adopted surrealist principles, she imitated “the unchecked process of thought,” and experimented with novel forms of association. An admirer of French Symbolist poetry, and of English works such as prototype surrealist works Alice in Wonderland and Tristram Shandy, Engel is most ostensibly surrealist in the premise of her award-winning novel, Bear (1976). The novel is a fabulation, a “take” on a deep and suppressed human desire; her story about a woman and a bear resonates in the imaginations and memories of readers with the power of the truly mythic.13

11Other strategies in the short stories create similar effects. For example, she uses absurd and irrational elements to create specific effects. In one story, such an element illustrates the fragile and splintered selves of her main character on their way to integration; in other stories, to produce a surreal scenario that heightens the unreality, the very absurdity of the dichotomies in day-to-day life, especially those between public and private perceptions of the self, and between male and female roles and lives.

  • 14 14. In her embargoed notebook, Engel wrote about her interpersonal problems with a husband who acte (...)

12Her early stories, she opined, “did what they were told to do and failed to be any kind of art,” until “irrationality” crept in. The reward for letting this happen is a richness that was missing before. “[H]aving written long enough to know it is no use holding anything back” (xii), she depicted the absurdity of the everyday: the repetitiveness and vacuity of actions and events, and the complete isolation of her subject. Her poetics of the short story was that “A good story comes from a single impulse ... ,” and referring to her three short stories: “Transformations,” “In the Sun,”and “Madame Hortensia, Equilibriste,” she described the impulse involved in each. “It is an absurd feeling that one isn’t there in the mirror ..., that one’s body incorporates the three-year-old one used to be, that life is a tightrope act”(xiii). The feeling that one has no real being (not in the mirror), is both absurd and a “documented” reality for the multitude of women who have problems with self-esteem. This fear manifests itself in worries about being four-feet-tall, or three-years old.14 People look in the mirror every day, but it is only in the debilitating world of female subjectivity that this becomes a self-negating act.

13“Transformations,” is a story from the first collection about a woman who can no longer see herself in the mirror. It begins by establishing that we grow into who we are depending on the models and expectations surrounding us. She writes that

Having been told that it was the highest virtue to see herself as others saw her, Lou learned in the company of the elegant to feel shabby, in the company of the shabby-genteel to feel worldly and slight, in the company of boys her own age to feel hairy, and with girls to feel inferior. She was only comfortable with two of her mother’s sisters... who ... looked on her as a kind of miracle, which she then became. (51)

  • 15 . Lizzie Borden in the play, “Blood Relations,” in Harbrace Anthology of Literature. Ed. Jon C. Sto (...)

14Lou has let others define her, and it is her husband’s complaint that she cannot pass a mirror or a store window without looking in it that is at the centre of the story. “Was she afraid she wasn’t there?” is his question, and it brings on her terrible crisis. Lou’s preoccupation with her image, however, is not anomalous; in fact, it is typical. Women have been trained to check their appearance in the mirror, to tuck in their tummies, and they always do.  However, this practice has not resulted in good vision. Women often have problems with their reflections. They see not what is actually in the mirror, but what they have been taught to expect to see – so the anorectic girl sees a fatty staring back at her 85-pound-frame. The mirror, as a symbol, has been depicted as a woman’s enemy, even in fairy tales; “Snow White,” for example, depicts the uncomfortable relationship between woman and mirror. In that story, the beautiful stepmother, a queen no less, keeps going back to her magic mirror. When the message received is that she is deficient, that she is less attractive than someone else, she condemns the mirror to silence. The mirror has been used by writers to represent a cultural tool, and women who historically have not been “subjects” in their own right, it has been suggested, become the mirror and reflect whatever is expected of them, embodying cultural values and appropriate models of sexuality. Writing about women caught in such a predicament, Sharon Pollock, another Canadian author, has her protagonist say, “I am supposed to be a mirror. I am supposed to reflect what you want to see, but everyone wants something different.” The damaging corollary to this conclusion, as Pollock’s Lizzie points out, is that: “If no one looks in the mirror, I’m  not even there, I don’t exist!”15 In our society, Pollock’s work suggests, woman may be the mirror, and therefore not a subject; or she may be, as Engel’s story suggests, a reflection, and thus an ephemeral product. She may also be for a while, like Lou, without a reflection, a ghost haunting her own form.

15When Lou turns forty, she looks in the mirror, and “she wasn’t there. She looked again, expecting one of her faces to emerge from the clouded glass; but in none of her guises was she there; ... no Lou. No one” [my emphasis](53). This metaphoric representation of a mid-life crisis is surreal and points to Lou’s lack of an identity independent of others, a self that she is sure of, or that is certain in itself. But Lou is not sure, and wonders why, “if she was so good at putting things away, she had lost herself.” (53) This statement gives rise to two questions. First, how can Lou lose something that she never had? Second, what things is Lou good at putting away? Underscored here is Lou’s perception of herself as house-wife who puts things away including her own desires in order to service an image of herself as upright and unselfish. Lou does not begin to regain her sense of self or her desire for life until she is overwhelmed by a huge wave of lust. Absurdly, “She couldn’t pass an upright branch of driftwood, let alone a suburban father in shorts playing volleyball with his four-year-old. The people two lots up had planted yuccas along the front of their property and the great phallic calyxes were thrusting up: my god, she thought, I’d do it with them too. Then laughed: it was shaming, but somehow good” (57). Accepting her own desire helps to bring her around. Her image begins to come back when she begins to feel good about herself. Lou knows “what the past meant, now, but the present was the problem.” She also begins to appreciate that she had always had an inner core, that she had always been herself (and therefore not just a construct, a mere reflection in the mirror), when she discovers that the local psychiatrist with whom she had grown up– “unpleasantly pretentious,” but solid and dignified by what he has had to do– has loved her and still admires her, and in his office, in his company, she has a reflection in the mirror. After these two sequences, Lou begins to re-emerge in the mirror; glimpses of herself begin to appear when she takes the time to be alone, to flatter herself, to speak to that self as if it were a child, “you are good, you are sweet...” She coaxes it back by writing it messages in the sand, “I love you, me.” Her child-like behaviour of talking to the mirror is discovered by a child on the beach who says to her, wisely, that only on television do mirrors speak back to people. Engel portrays Lou as going back to being a child and learning from a child in a reversal of the traditional growing and learning paradigms, in a rebelliousness similar to that expressed in the Surrealist manifesto. The story ends with the promise of Lou’s successful recovery of her reflection, and thus her self. Lou’s image is back in the bedroom mirror, but she has yet “to beat plate glass windows” (59). She is now one who understands her relationship to the mirror and to others and is working on her underdeveloped self-love.

16Engel depicts “the irrational, the area where, when the skin of logic is pulled back, anything can happen” (TW, vii) in the story, “In the Sun.” Sylvie is all women who have said secretly or aloud, I am still the same little girl inside I’ve always been; unlike them though, she literally confronts her little girl self, holds her hand and takes her along to lunch. This surreal scenario succeeds because Engel deftly moves back from Sylvie’s present downtown Toronto to her past, and her childhood which is suddenly very much with her. Sylvie, we are told is “splitting and shedding. And what she is shedding is the adult part of her consciousness; it is peeling away from her, leaving her vulnerable, soft-shelled” (130). She becomes little Sylvie, the baby, “the dumb one, stumblebum, leafhopper; the one who ran from one end of the house to the other trying to split her body against the fine force of the walls.” Now, Sylvie finds joy in looking at her image as a grown woman (131), and in seeing in the plate-glass that she is “wearing little white socks and buckle shoes and hopping; much more interesting to travel on one foot and watch the faces on one’s shoes” (131). Engel thus weaves the two selves– adult and child–  together as Sylvie approaches self-realization, and her short narrative becomes a setting for her protagonist’s effort to integrate these selves. This “[w]oman with grey-middle-aged silk bottom sits hatching outside [the] Royal Bank surrounded by heliotrope, ... takes the child like a pea out of a pod, catches her before she flies off like milkweed floss,” and immediately segues into a parenthetical question, a sample of the unchecked process of thought: “was it rubber or parachute silk people meant to make out of the milkweed pods they gathered during the war?” She sits there, “watching the child grow,” and asks, “What is all this about?” She then remembers, “Sylvie in a white dress, being an airplane, careening towards Daddy and sexual mistakes. Sylvie, tendrils sprouting from her fingers, curling around Daddy like a succubus.” This is the first time Sylvie has become aware of her child self’s sexuality and desire for her father (132). She “picks the child up tenderly, soothes and smoothes” her and promises her a stick of red licorice if she’ll grow up a little. Then she takes her hand, and begins to walk towards the hotel, to lunch. As she walks she plans, “I’ll have the sole ... it will be easier for a young person to manage.” She may also have sex with her lunch date, a nice professional man her age, a prospect she quite likes, her desire acknowledged and to be acted on. The past and the present, the conscious and the unconscious are thus depicted as realities that exist side by side in the protagonist’s psyche just as they are in the narrative itself.

17The unusual short story, “The Life of Bernard Orge,” in which the protagonist, Marge Elph, “transforms” into a man she invented, also contains surreal flights of fantasy and black humour. Engel uses allusion in a startling new way. Marge says that her sons drove her potential lovers, “from the paths of dalliance up the walls” (38). When the hospital psychiatrist asks her if she has a different name when she wears her Groucho glasses, she reports, “I lied. There are hawks’ wards and handsaws’ wards and it wasn’t for this I’d kept up my medical insurance” (43). Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s lines have a tragic effect, recalling as they do the madness and sad fate of these characters. But by attaching these lines to Marge’s daily reality of children who drive adults up the walls, Engel also uses the allusions to Shakespeare to create a comic effect both here and in Marge’s reference to “Sonnet 73", where she combines the inevitability of aging with her everyday reality and says, “Now my body is as ruined as any choir, I have big feet and I wear unisex Birkenstocks” (38).

  • 16 . Here too the mirror serves as a way to illustrate the unreality of the character’s exterior and i (...)

18Marge is in the grip of a mid-life crisis brought about by the departure of her twin sons, the incarceration of their father for killing a woman he mistook for her– she says she had earlier caught him playing hangman with their kids, and the hanged man had her face!– and the recent loss of her sexual differentiations. In a dream-like sequence, someone places a set of Groucho Marx glasses on her nose, and as soon as she looks at herself in the mirror, she says she changed, and asserts, “I am Bernard Orge.”16 This transformation is remarkable because it turns Marge into a male other. Marge deliberately sets about to create a character for this person she has chosen to become, including the detail that he “hated chairs. They reminded him of the laps of old women in church, and he fears to see bloomer and garters” (39). We accept what is happening to Marge, surreal or mad as it may seem, because we accept that we all transform ourselves into identities we invent both in dream states and reality. Like Marge, fueled by memories of our past lives and selves and a vision of what we could be–  and encouraged by psychiatrists (37)–  we seek to change ourselves.

  • 17 . John Moss wrote about Bear and the beast in his Reader’s Guide to the Canadian Novel (Toronto: Ma (...)

19Like many women at her age, Marge is faced with what seems the end of what has been her defining “everyday” –  motherhood and wifehood (35)– and has given herself over to the surreal dream of a gender switch. Engel constructs her narrative in such a way as to illustrate that Marge’s use of her imagination for fantasy and escape– despite her psychiatrist’s and doctor’s warnings– aid her to accept aging and this manifestation of her masculine self. Freely paraphrasing and adapting John Moss’ comments on Engel’s Bear, we can say that in “a meeting between myth and psychoanalysis”, Marge confronts the man within as a separate creature, and makes love to it.17 Marge writes “long, intense letters to Bernard Orge in [her] notebook,” even though she also  “is”, at the time, Bernard. A little later, hospitalized for not looking after the “heart” of this body containing this dual self, she says she knew that she had not turned permanently  into Bernard Orge, that she and he were “intertwined in a different way. He had become not a second self, but a sort of lover” (42). At first she is disappointed because she had failed to change when she had desired change so much. Absurdly, she puts an ad in the paper looking for a companion for “him.” A man shows up claiming to be Bernard Orge and speaking the script Marge had created, blurring any distinction between fantasy and reality, but Marge is happy. She is also aware that he may be an impostor(!) and could disappear from her life at any time (45).

  • 18 . Engel’s novel, The Glassy Sea, contains a diatribe by the protagonist against a society, and spec (...)

20The story ends with Marge back to her self, in her own home, with her “friend.” This story of her survival suggests that life contains fantastical elements (first, acquiring the glasses and nose, and later, breaking off the nose), and happiness may be surprisingly found in everyday things such as cooking, cats, and company. The story shows that Marge has learned that she can live with the knowledge of her masculine self, and therefore also with her female self. The separation between the two has all along been socially imposed. The narrative suggests that society does not tolerate too graciously the masculine older woman,18 as is intimated by Marge’s comment: “My friends say [of her and Bernard Orge] we are an unlikely couple” (45).

  • 19 . She wrote, “I suppose that leads to an anthropological view of history...It means finally admitti (...)

21Engel thought that in her early short stories she wrote chronicles that failed because they relied on “kitchen sink realism.” She later added a surreal element to her stories to bring them alive. The surreal in Engel’s stories aids her depiction, and our understanding, of the fragile and splintered selves of her protagonists. Using the interaction between the conscious mind and the unconscious, and the intersections between the subject’s perceptions and recollections, she presented a modern woman’s everyday as an absurd reality. Engel created surreal scenarios that served to heighten the unreality or absurdity of the dichotomies in day-to-day life between public and private perceptions, adult and child selves, and men’s and women’s roles. In the minds of her characters, which are reflections of her own,19 absurd and fantastic possibilities are entertained.

  • 20 . In this quote and the next one, regarding Hugh MacLennan’s influence, Engel seems to use the term (...)

22Engel says she did not let ordinary reality keep turning on her (xii), that she dealt with “super-reality, that element in everyday life where the surreal shows itself ..., and people have extraordinary conversations because they have confused clam and lamb soup” (xii-xiii). She wanted to represent women’s daily reality, but not necessarily in a realistic way, and her techniques and images recall the Surrealists, as do her goals. She wanted to liberate the unconscious and remove guilt, and thus envision a different space or reality for women. This was necessary because of the restraints placed on women’s sexuality, and because historically both women and women’s fiction were “bogged down” by excessive attention to the detail of domestic life and personal relations. She had a personal investment in this, as woman and author. She refers to the story, “Initram,” by Audrey Thomas in which “two writers discuss the conversion of their unhappiness into fiction,” and concludes that her fiction “goes at it the other way around. It does things to me” (TW, xiii). Her fiction, now arising from a magical impulse, did liberate what she called her “well-disciplined Ontario subconscious,”20 and made her happy. She also reported Hugh MacLennan’s statement, that “the best writing comes from a well-rested subconscious,” and used it as an excuse for “innumerable dreams” (TW, xiv)– or stories, we might say. In these stories discussed, she portrays women who grow happier – more integrated–  as they embrace their unconscious, and accept their desires: Sylvie walking happily “In the Sun” towards her sexual rendez-vous, Lou from “Transformations” with her good lust, and Ruth from “The Salt Mines” trying but failing to feel guilty over her affair.

  • 21 . Christl Verduyn, in her study of Engel’s work, Lifelines: Marian Engel’s Writings, also argues th (...)

23Engel wrote more than fifty years after the original Surrealist Manifesto (1924) which declared war on moral and social constraints over the unconscious only to find that attitudes had not changed significantly since; the Western world view still favoured reason over emotion, the conscious over the unconscious and the present over the past. In the short stories discussed here, she showed the unhappiness produced in her female characters as a result of the creation by mainstream culture of a dichotomy between these forces.21 She also created, using surreal images, a world like the one dreamed by the Surrealists and which offered a resolution. In this world, these forces are not opposed; instead, they are portrayed as equally important, indeed complementary, in the mind/body/spirit mix that each of us is.


1 . Engel read Charles G.D. (“God Damn” – as she interpreted his initials once!) Roberts’ animal stories, and studied his works for her Master’s thesis on the Canadian novel at McGill University under the supervision of Hugh MacLennan. She also went back to his works when as a mature writer she was trying to find the right approach to her story about a woman’s love affair with a bear for her award winning novel, Bear (1976).

2 . “Bear Summer,” The Marian Engel Archives, Mills Memorial Library, McMaster University. Box 14, F15 (Page dated “Tuesday 11 or 12").

3 . For example, “Transformations,” was collected into Inside the Easter Egg in 1975, and “The Life of Bernard Orge,”was broadcast on “Anthology” in 1980.

4 . Graeme Gibson. Eleven Canadian Novelists. (Toronto: Anansi, 1973).

5 . Patrick French, “Tel Quel and Surrealism: A Re-evaluation. Has the Avant-Garde Become a Theory?” Romanic Review Vol.88 Issue 1 (Jan 1997): 189-197.

6 . “The Salt Mines,” in Inside the Easter Egg, 34-41.

7 . This and other references to Surrealism are to Andre Breton’s What is Surrealism?: Selected Writings. Trans. Franklin Rosemont (London : Pluto Press, 1978). The essay “What is Surrealism?”is also available at <>

8 . Her “Bear Summer,” as well as several of the novels pay a tribute to librarians who steered young women such as her and her “protagonists” away from pulp romances and towards the writings of Virginia Woolf.

9 . As argued by Rachel Blau Duplessis in Writing Beyond the Ending (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985).

10 . Sarah Bastard’s Notebook (c1968, reprinted Don Mills, ON: PaperJacks, 1974).

11 . Honeyman Festival (Toronto: Anansi Press, 1970).

12 . “Fiction probably arises out of a need to integrate the elements of one’s life in narrative form,”  she wrote in “Bear Summer”, p. 13. Breton wrote that “there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future ... are not perceived as contradictions.”

13 . Robertson Davies wrote on January 6, 1976, to J. G. McClelland, the publisher: “ The theme of Bear is one of the most significant and pressing in Canada in our time - the necessity for us who are newcomers to the country, with hardly four hundred years of acquaintance with it, to ally ourselves with the spirit of one of the most ancient lands in the world. In our search for this spirit, we are indeed in search of ourselves.” (For Your Eyes Alone: The Correspondence of Robertson Davies, 1976-1995. Edited by Judith Skelton Grant. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc., 1999) p.3.

14 14. In her embargoed notebook, Engel wrote about her interpersonal problems with a husband who acted as if she were not there, and made her feel four-feet-tall (MEA, Box 6, F 28).

15 . Lizzie Borden in the play, “Blood Relations,” in Harbrace Anthology of Literature. Ed. Jon C. Stott, Raymond E. Jones, and Rick Bowers (Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company, Canada, 1994). 1322-1364.

16 . Here too the mirror serves as a way to illustrate the unreality of the character’s exterior and its disconnection from the interior self.

17 . John Moss wrote about Bear and the beast in his Reader’s Guide to the Canadian Novel (Toronto: MacClelland and Stewart, 1987), p.101.

18 . Engel’s novel, The Glassy Sea, contains a diatribe by the protagonist against a society, and specifically its patriarchy, that ignores and denigrates women past their reproductive years.

19 . She wrote, “I suppose that leads to an anthropological view of history...It means finally admitting that most literature is middle class and that most personae are oneself...” (“Bear Summer” 12)

20 . In this quote and the next one, regarding Hugh MacLennan’s influence, Engel seems to use the term “sub-conscious” as s synonym for “unconscious.”

21 . Christl Verduyn, in her study of Engel’s work, Lifelines: Marian Engel’s Writings, also argues that Engel believed in and sought to portray multiplicities, not dichotomies, in her works.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Afra Kavanagh, “Surreality, not dull fidelity: Marian Engel’s Poetics of the Everyday”, Journal of the Short Story in English, 38, Spring 2002, 23-37.

Référence électronique

Afra Kavanagh, « Surreality, not dull fidelity: Marian Engel’s Poetics of the Everyday », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 38 | Spring 2002, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2008, consulté le 13 décembre 2017. URL :


Afra Kavanagh

Afra Kavanagh is assistant Professor of English in the Department of Languages and Letters at The University College of Cape Breton in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her main research interest is Marian Engel though she also reads and writes about other contemporary Canadian authors. Afra Kavanagh is co-ordinator of the Annual UCCB Storytelling Symposium. She has edited two books of proceedings of the first and third Symposia.

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