CanLit Canon Review #9: Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that shaped this country.

Two Solitudes, Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 masterpiece, sets out to do nothing less than explain Quebec to the rest of Canada and harmonize the dominion for future citizens. MacLennan attempts this with a generations-spanning soap opera featuring two families, one French and one English.

The French father, Athanase Tallard, starts off rich, exiles himself from the Catholic church and French society, gets screwed over by an English businessman, and dies bankrupt. His son, Paul, a dreamer and a writer, struggles along in bad jobs and then falls in love with Heather.

Heather is from the English family, the Methuens. Her father died in the first world war and she was, along with her mother and sister, taken care of by Huntly McQueen, the very businessman who screwed over Athanase Tallard. When Heather falls in love with Paul Tallard, Heather’s mother and Huntly McQueen are scandalized.

Amidst that melodrama, the country is forming, with the English collecting their riches on the backs of the French, and the French bound to hatred by their bitterness, “because they were a minority in a country they considered their own.”

“How could French-Canadians—the only real Canadians—feel loyalty to a people who had conquered and humiliated them, and were Protestant anyway? France herself was no better; she had deserted her Canadians a century and a half ago, had left them in the snow and ice along the Saint Lawrence surrounded by their enemies, had later murdered her anointed king and then turned atheist.”

MacLennan uses the term “two solitudes” just once, near the end of the novel, speaking to the racial divide through the plight of his star-cross’d lovers.

“This loneliness of all large cities, the solitary man reading his newsprint, the instinctive hope that there is new life just around the corner if you go to it, but around the corner always the same emptiness, the urgency which makes you want to prowl always a street further; and through everything, beating into the mind like a tom-tom, the shuffle of other people’s shoe-leather counterfeiting the motion of life. He wondered if Heather had ever felt as he did now. Two solitudes in the infinite waste of loneliness under the sun.”

Two Solitudes is not the most readable book of the canon, but it is a great book. Carrying the nation’s European history like a backpack full of bricks, it, like its characters, labours forward with enormous ambition; it’s a big angry book that desperately and self-consciously wants to make everything better.