External Reflection of the Internal: The Usage of the Canadian Landscape in as for Me and My House and Who has seen the Wind
A number of similarities exist between the novels of William Ormond Mitchell and Sinclair Ross, who wrote Who has seen the Wind, and As For Me And My House, respectively. Both works deal with theological issues of religion and faith, and contain a fair amount of skepticism for these concepts. The novels also mirror one another in their usage of the environment and the surrounding landscape as a tool with which to illustrate a variety of feelings experienced by their respective characters. The tendency to utilize the outer surroundings of the natural world to explicate the inner thought processes and emotions of human nature is one which is indicative in a fair amount of Canadian literature (Bordessa 58). As such, both Mitchell and Ross have used the impact of the landscape and the environment on the characters in their respective works to demonstrate a definite focus on the Canadian prairies which illustrates how the beauty and loneliness of the environment creates a feeling for the reader.
In many instances, the novelists render the surrounding environment in a way which magnifies the internalizations which their principles characters deal with. This tendency certainly applies to Who has seen the Wind, in which the outer manifestations of the natural world frequently symbolize and mirror the thoughts and emotions of Brian O'Connal, a young child who learns much about the power of God. In the following quotation, in which Brian is disappointed at the fact that he has to give his new puppy to a friend to live, Mitchell uses the rain to magnify the heart-rending emotions which the child feels. "Brian watched the drops gather and slide, slowly at first, then faster, down the pane. The sky over Sherry's low house was the color of lead; the sodden leaves of the hedge were dripping. He felt inexplicably sad... He had not seen his dog for three days."
Mitchell deliberately employs imagery of a melancholy nature to show the reader that Brian is in a sad state. The references to the sky's color and to the water-soaked leaves (described as "dripping") portray images commonly associated with sadness, and provide a tangible quality to the sentiments and the subsequent thoughts which Brian is enduring at the present loss of his puppy. Such imagery provides an adequate example of Mitchell's inherent capability to show sentiment rather than explain it, while the fact that he uses nature -- which is commonly employed in the book as a motif for the sublime nature of the divine -- as the principle means of doing so in this passage and throughout the work as a whole, indicates the importance he attaches to the ability of the environment to depict loneliness.
Another fundamental similarity between the works of Mitchell and Ross in the Who has seen the Wind and As For Me And My House is the landscape itself which the authors choose to render in their works. Canada's dry, wind swept plains play an important role in each story, and can almost be considered a crucial, unspoken character. Whereas Mitchell fundamentally employs such scenery to represent the potential and beauty of a divine being, Ross uses it for a decidedly different purpose -- that of emphasizing the dreary, enduring existence of small town life which his protagonists, Mr. And Mrs. Bentley, continually feel oppressed by in their recent move to the provincial town Horizon. The greater duration of Ross's story is characterized by a relentless, overbearing wind that blows dust and drought throughout much of the town, which the author uses to symbolize the useless, unconquerable nature of small town life which both protagonists dislike and long to escape. The following quotation, in which Mrs. Bentley is writing in her journal about the day's events and the potency of the wind in particular, certainly indicates this point.
"The wind keeps on. When you step outside its strong hot push it is like something solid pressed against the face. The sun through the dust looks big and red and close. Bigger, redder, closer every day. You begin to glance at it with a doomed feeling, that there's no escape (p. 73)." Although Mrs. Bentley is literally describing the wind and its powerful effects on the dust in the plains, she could very easily be describing the draining effect of Horizon's small town mentality (and even smaller ambitions) on both herself and her husband. The reference to the "doomed feeling" with which there is no escape from certainly applies to this interpretation since one of the principle themes of the novel is the despair that both Mr. And Mrs. Bentley feel at having forfeited their own cosmopolitan desires for such a parochial existence. Yet Ross chooses to emphasize this motif through the oppressive, overbearing manifestation of weather patterns so common to the country and towns which these characters deplore. The author's doing so readily indicates that the usage of the landscape is an effective means of depicting the loneliness and inner thoughts and emotions of his characters.
In addition to the evidence offered in the text of both novels, there is also an abundance of literary criticism which supports the thesis that the authors employ the landscape to provoke deliberate feelings of empathy to the plight of their characters. Many of the fledgling emotions which Brian feels, the vast majority of which are significantly sophisticated in nature and in scope for a child his age, are evidenced through the text by the primary means of employing the natural surroundings to show the reader what processes the character is dealing with. Mitchell's adeptness at doing so with Brian has been hailed by many critics, as the following quotation, from the Canadian Encyclopedia, effectively demonstrates. "The novel's greatest strengths lie in its sensitive evocations of Brian O'Connal's "feeling," sometimes associated with his various experiences of death, sometimes with a child's fundamental, inarticulate but insistent curiosity to discover the world within and beyond himself (Besner 1)."
Mitchell's work offers several examples to justify this claim, which also provides the author with opportunities to display the beauty and wonder of a child's first-hand experiences and those of nature itself. The following quotation, in which Brian is drawing a picture of God with all the innocence and speculation of a youth his age, readily shows the author's application of nature to magnify such wonder. "He made a yellow God, yellow for the round part, and green legs, and purple eyes, and red arms, and that was God…As he drew, the curtains on the open window bellied gently out; from the high den window dropped staining light, the beveled glass breaking it up into violet, blue, and red. Brian laid down his crayons and stared at the colored patch on the rug."
This passage is fairly obvious in its dependence on nature and on the outer, surrounding Canadian environment to project the sensations which Mitchell's character is experiencing. Brian's musings of the various colors of a divine entity are conveniently reflected in the sunlight's filtration through a stained glass window. The fact that the same colors depicted in Brian's drawing are now shining outside his picture and into his window (the red and violet/purple hues) serves to reinforce the accuracy of his premonitions, if not in actuality, then certainly in his mind. Mitchell strongly suggests this notion by having Brian end the passage by pondering the colors in his house, which he had just recently been drawing. The simplicity, the beauty, and even the transcendent effervescence of such an innocent moment are all underscored by Mitchell's reliance on nature to evoke the feelings of wonder and awe which his character is experiencing.
The potency of the Canadian landscape, however, and its effects on its characters are not limited to such awe-inspiring passages. Much of the use of the Canadian prairies in As For Me And My House evidence the opposite ends of the beauteous depictions which Mitchell offers, as Ross illustrates the depression and despondency of her characters through the merciless dust storms that continually badger Horizon. Mr. Bentley's prime aspiration in life was to utilize his talent as a drawer and a painter to become an artist so he could escape the small town environment which he grew up in. To his considerable disappointment, he failed in his artistic endeavors and is largely miserable that he is instead a middle-age preacher (who does not even believe in the power, nor the word of god) in just such a small town location. The following quotation, in which Mrs. Bentley describes one of her husband's more recent illustrations since they have settled in Horizon, demonstrates how Mitchell emphasizes this fact by having Bentley's artwork drastically influenced by the oppressive weather patterns of the Canadian landscape. "It's a little street again tonight, false-fronted stores, a pool hall and a wind. You feel the wind,…