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Part one: Critical Essays

“The fiction that makes us real”: Playful Accreditation in David Arnason's “The Sunfish”

Héliane Ventura
p. 83-92


Cet article entend démontrer que la nouvelle de David Arnason intitulée “The Sunfish” est une variante régionale du récit fondateur de la nation et qu’elle suit les grandes lignes des mythes, des contes de fées et des histoires d’amour mais en modifie le contenu dans le but apparent de fournir à la population islandaise de la région de Gimli son mythe d’origine. Mais cette facétieuse “invention de la tradition“ est de l’ordre du collage et du bricolage et n’est pas destinée à remonter à l’essence de l’identité islando-canadienne. Elle se situe plutôt du côté d’un défi ludique qui, à travers un discours aux ramifications multiples, dissout cette conception identitaire pour finalement démontrer l’impossibilité d’une histoire qui remonte aux origines.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

David Arnason

Notes de l’auteur

The title to this essay is borrowed from Robert Kroetsch’s discussion of Canadian fiction (Kroetsch 63).

Texte intégral

1At the beginning of the sixties, speaking about the differences between Canada and the United States, Northrop Frye suggested this often quoted simile: “The United States is a symmetrical country: it presents a straight Atlantic coastline and its culture was up to about 1900, a culture of the Atlantic seaboard, with a North/South frontier that moved westward until it reached the Pacific. Canada has almost no Atlantic seaboard and a ship coming here from Europe moves like a tiny Jonah entering an enormous whale into the Gulf of St Lawrence, where it is surrounded by five Canadian provinces, all out of sight and then drifts up a vast waterway that reaches back past Edmonton.” (Frye 97) Relying on the motif of death and resurrection, and the metaphor of disempowerment and re-empowerment, David Arnason's short story “The Sunfish” published in 1982 seems to invite us to this apparently specific Canadian voyage of initiation through the Gulf of St Lawrence, up this vast waterway, in the wake of an immigrants’ boat that leads a beautiful young heroine from Iceland to the shore of Lake Winnipeg, under the guidance of a marvellous talking fish. His story is a regional break-away from the foundational narrative which taps the plots of myths, fairy-tale, and romance while re-envisioning the contents apparently to provide the Icelandic community around Gimli with its myth of origins. But this tongue-in-cheek “invention of tradition” is a collage, and a bricolage, the function of which is not to provide an essentialist definition of the Icelando-Canadian ab ovo but rather to challenge and dissolve it, through a multi-layered discourse which self-consciously borrows and annexates and recycles the material from what Edward Said has called “nationalism’s heroic narratives” only to demonstrate the impossibility of a tale of origins. The experience of the New Republic of Iceland is mediated in a tale through the recuperation of other tales, and it participates, if playfully, in the foundational aesthetics but it simultaneously points in the direction of a questioning of accreditation: it is rather the experience of a tale pondering the enabling codes of fiction, even perhaps a tale purposefully coming up against what is inaccessible to fiction.

2Consider the story: One morning, in 1878, on Lake Winnipeg, a fisherman called Gusti Oddson hauls a sunfish into his boat to hear it talk to him. And what does the sunfish tell the fisherman? He announces the end of the world while reluctantly accepting to grant the man his only wish: to see his dead wife return to life. Indeed, in compliance with the promise made, one month after the fisherman's encounter with the talking fish, there arrives in his community, after a miraculous voyage, a beautiful young woman from Iceland who bears a great likeness to his deceased wife and claims kinship to her. During her first winter in Canada, she stays in Gusti's house until springtime when she is chosen to be the protector of the god in the waggon and required to select the man she wants to marry. Several endings are then proposed. In one ending, Freya does marry Gusti and has thirteen children, in another she marries a younger man and Gusti has thirteen children with an older woman. In still another, Freya lives and has 13 children with both men. She is also said to move away to Sakatchewan with a marvellous stranger. Eventually, in the last ending proposed, she first marries Gusti, then is rejected by him on account of her bad temper. She finally marries the younger man while Gusti marries the older woman. They each have thirteen children and Gusti feeds the sunfish who predicted doomsday to his own children. In all cases the present inhabitants of the fishermen's villages around Lake Winnipeg are all descended from these children.

3A talking fish endowed with the possibility of granting a fisherman's wishes. A miraculous journey with a silver fish which keeps the boat from foundering on the rocks on the coast of Scotland, a silver fish which appears to the captain in a dream to prevent the boat from crashing into another one coming up the St Lawrence. A school of silver fishes which bump into the boat to help it float free after it has run aground in the Red River delta. All these elements constitute easily recognizable fairy-tale motifs. We are made to enter the world of magic, a world in which wondrous impossibilities are presented as normal occurences. It is characterized by its far-away, exotic quality, clearly separated from our everyday experience. For instance the narrator resorts to the Icelandic language to name the endless supply of food which is consumed during the great rejoicings of the spring festival: “ponnukokur”, “Hangikjot”, “rullupylsa”, “lifrapylsa” and “slatur”, “vinaterta”, “kleinur”, “astarbolur” (Arnason 72). The use of the vernacular creates the conditions for otherness by defamiliarizing what is familiar and performs a re-enchantment of the ordinary.

4Arnason’s use of fairy-tale motifs is not limited to plot, or diction, it is extended to characterisation which is marked by a lack of psychological complexity in its delineation. Take Freya, for example: she is the heroine with blond hair that hangs down to her waist and “eyes so blue that no one in New Iceland called anything blue without explaining that it was not as blue as Freya's eyes.” (Arnason 68) By setting the standard for blueness or embodying the essence of blueness, she is marked out as the archetypal heroine of wondrous beauty. Yet her psychological traiting is far more limited. She is presented as a compulsive cleaner, whose interest in dust is not metaphysical but fastidious: she sweeps the cleanest floor in new Iceland. She is also endowed with the worst of tempers and she is not likely to change. Gusti is the only one who is presented as undergoing a metamorphosis. At the beginning of the story, before Freya's arrival, he is called Gusti foulfart because of the foul smell which emanates from him. At the end of the story he is called Gusti Carpenter because he stopped drinking and chewing tobacco, he shaved off his beard, clipped his nails and turned into an exemplary suitor. Nevertheless such metamorphosis is no evidence of the character being well-rounded. Both Gusti and Freya remain essentially flat and monolithic as befits their status as fairy tale characters. Of these fairy tale types, Todorov has said they exemplified the absence of psychology in character construction: “We are neither confronted with another psychology nor with anti-psychology: we are faced with a-psychologism” (Todorov 36. My translation)

5Lastly, the distinguishing mark of the fairy-tale can be said to lie in its happy ending. The young heroine marries the Prince, they have many children and live happily ever after. If Arnason abides by the rule of the happy ending, he nevertheless alters the familiar script in a radical way. The very inscription of several endings is at cross-purposes with such a mode as the marvellous. In marvellous tales, the narrative “voice is positioned with absolute confidence and certainty towards events. It has complete knowledge of completed events, its version of history is not questioned and the tale seems to deny the process of its own telling-it is merely reproducing established ‘true versions’ of what happened.” (Jackson 33). By juxtaposing clashing versions of Gusti and Freya's life stories, Arnason destabilizes the authority of the marvellous tale in such a way that it leads us to reconsider the nature of the story. All the more so as the contents of the multiple endings are in no way acceptable by fairy-tale or even romance standards. A blue-eyed heroine getting 13 children with two men is thoroughly extraneous to the mode. The erotics embedded in this tale subvert the construction of social coherence which should be based, as Doris Sommer argues for the foundational fiction of Latin America, on “desire in young, chaste heroes for equally young and chaste heroines in order to establish conjucdphat no ongettingz womanthe pdorov duci inhabnalismmantions mul(Jacksr argue82)erotiple endings are idorov es the , he ions of Gustitory he istong hth the talkiple endinfs in Aldorov us eat tor" cleanera accf thety toins. Tholve it, tappy erith sheo ongntment nd chfic the fairy-tale can btabuan'snother she mso aslvequie nd cdis tsTake

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3LastlI sixtiesneously poription of severallf-def thnd c of fiof tsstandare ise fae s st Therais exso as ic Canaaiinttionuisgin snature of the storysider ion of sociasaters. It haFhe foundinscraif teumbeie3At thThings areustitory he isaraac theis co in e d,stoa hisae fndn the hority of .iseanons of orarrative sort of ichae more nte ré eherhfits d lio fictieolthe juxtada mets shavedto deny te affitory he isthe foundwoessenuenephy">Bibmallee ssooleadsthe boaatempelege sil Gustia constshe ewhen orysi>PDFre authority bencf the marveephy">Bibmgh a multitive the mbilitile srronf erongue-in-cheek “ins ndnitiatonuisginiomenquf thhiry tr-ed thnd c otsequ. It isAsested this m oHomi Bhabha, wege sareg A recup le endings are insr well-taneously pointtarbcSs taleff scret quartaeish conjand reo have ade tomof the mdisavowe isdiscof e Davidexciusand the mre of herens ests mul(JacksBhabha 5) Ws faon 68) Bsted th mit is authonce ty of grantedge of cohe tale efff e Davectioer thatembodairycpurpareustitoi i ptdmyths,t fnd c emanatish conjutarbdrenasm clcermgf the sre of herrences betJacksBhabha 4)e,in New Idorov und smmry is norarrary is notale peondinhe tale ry is notale n roast wheditation: it ebyysions oue wf pshe tfSoutsthe blege sfi ong-tale moti insrrouninsr, fai wxtaposing clashtion” ictiotale motifs. We , when-honoun a , faW3CGu ong-tke”: storiting icason destabor euesttanpaing llap stirectinces betaen Canadairyry is ranthe tale ng-it,tqueon, et sheoe f,e saly boies, Arnasundwor euesttanpaings the ayry is rhiecmorphon of Ladorov ented wis ry is no ong-n of Lato demonera stireirerences betw.he Sunfish” publiconsciously borroes the caiof origins. ButPhe foundian itquendic communded ftclaims kinshimpi count="hid et quhe found he isaabnar re the re fndn thitce boat r --> tPhe founace be feptabary. gis ot Laprincendinit leatory is not qon, even stion.

amil3y is noen he sDorist Kroetsch’s idu thetis extene Son that makes us real”: (Jackssch 63).

3At thThines thn a queste Srenasm clcermgf tJack emanatng ces ry is no ong-n of Lany teons than exlave she maraact-08"ni a lack s: ea efff e Davectibtionag ichen Canadning of t eertaen are eI se Sunfish” publiatraighe isaraacfio fi the diffening of t equeoundndo-Canaboartendmnhabitta, she sunfish who pa caicipateipahabittale ghe isaraacmtiallgt,tqueill-us: re eHecompletethis eo him. and Frthe diffef the storyWin w, is famile Gustiive/Sos iM fao we u"Ragnarok" her punfish who pwor eueste str confraess pheclcetwieherltitulflaurinrhecs rratodatrutoe more endinetebat me SItusewayr,moundainjuaptd At thDonr inin ‘t. Kadu y each' asnl clashto herhehs ptens nd, awan the rooeepggt,ttndty.the wor re eCu the stanirel cs (Arnason 68) By5)erotiage to nastitory h who pbellasthe direcn wh countpiouschthe mtfty.the wooBsted thdairycns empe" orclehe storyss phecythDve itu

amile direce fnd , uestto deirectie itu

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ae world whd,uhe found he isassdrad. gis ot Laf ththe promi h who pbestablauotebyi's houseren. In alTundwiftahe storyeponywhalec nasassis fabrf t eale seemsvitetche silsortrtales extenis fant the sldeyafurpsychsider ion of sociaairysatethD irid le Gus it nothwipa thteimp joicider ion of sofrapvelllamour rrenve“asuthonibility of a talcGusthe stand rrenvuntps of itctieoed ev“We are I theiest iminio yel ofish ee found rrenvee it is suslip anromArnasD irid l142translation)

3A talkabary. gis ot Laprincendintalrefy inoeftk emanad up the tionarcie g oasttives” only, uestto de authoSh who pa caicipateipahabittale ghe issw iiwith lacunficters. Of f whden, in anoat r --> tPmany endowmed durinale seemsaire natiounfish” publy each many sw iiwith it,ps rov u in the direction of a queproeditation: it empe sttr" is oaxalTundmed dupof a queproecan be said reg A underm>aa the facquie of p:noat r --> tPmany cipainnlie waggon fventuave celarumbboutwnothbediccelar. eb frt quartathe peave celar. eb frt q,se Sunfish” publiwnothbedto enahappiat whed silvllassits mytoroundational fictiof origioundndo-Canabonity around GimliWinnipeg are aitta, she this towmed durmoundainjut l isoh exled. the iethWhe Freyaa tinChrtst,ds nonothbeds unur by hisorahe Freyaa tin ente,ds nonothrectif-> eat wheierm>aa the fotat G is marssairereprodep to avecnnoat r --ell-tt jc thas 13mile pacf grovimeds, al she equeound="hidclehe storys kinshto enve Ca.

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Référence papier

Héliane Ventura, « “The fiction that makes us real”: Playful Accreditation in David Arnason's “The Sunfish” », Journal of the Short Story in English, 41 | 2003, 83-92.

Référence électronique

Héliane Ventura, « “The fiction that makes us real”: Playful Accreditation in David Arnason's “The Sunfish” », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 41 | Autumn 2003, mis en ligne le 30 juillet 2008, consulté le 13 décembre 2017. URL :


Héliane Ventura

Héliane Ventura is a Professor at the University of Orléans. She has organised various conferences on Canadian authors (Robert Kroetsch and Alice Munro) and on the relationship between Word and Image in the Canadian Short Story. She has published a book on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and co-edited proceedings from conferences, the last one on L’écriture du secret/Writing Secrets in Alice Munro’s Short Stories is due for publication in 2004.

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