Iconicity, Space, and the Place of Sharon Butala's "The Prize"

Ian Adam

1. Some Thoughts on Icons and Iconicity

I HAVE A THEORETICAL INTEREST in iconicity as a challenge to the doctrine of the arbitrariness of the sign, for clearly the concept of a sign analogous to its referent is so undermining. In Canadian prairie writing, dominated as much of it is by such classic images of space as Henry Kreisel's "there seemed nothing, neither hill nor tree nor bush, to disturb the vast unbroken flow of land until in the far distance a thin, blue line marked the point where the prairie merged into the sky" ("Broken" 139), this preoccupation might seem particularly appropriate, and it is with this writing (and writing about prairie writing) that I am concerned. Let me begin with some theoretical preliminaries which, at points, may become mildly polemic. I take as my foundation concepts frequently articulated in the work of the American philosopher Charles Peirce (1839-1914), who created a taxonomy of signs based on a triadic distinction between symbol (an arbitrary sign), icon (a sign which resembles its object) and index (a sign with its origin in the object). Clearly his concepts are broader than those of his contemporary Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). Most readers will be familiar with Saussure's concept of the arbitrary sign, as well as its dominating impact on contemporary literary theory and criticism, but Peirce sees the arbitrary sign (his "symbol") as only one of three modes in sign systems.

Peirce's analysis is particularly relevant to literary works, for imitative and reality-derivative forms are much more frequent in these than in ordinary discursive modes. Obviously (for example) metaphor and metonymy occur more frequently in imaginative than in factual writing; metaphor and metonymy are manifestations of icon and index respectively. Further, aestheticians and poetic practitioners have frequently noted that the heightened rhythms of poetry are linked to those of breath and heartbeat in the human body; again along with aestheticians novelists have commented on the iconicity of other formal features: point-of-view duplicating the eye's focus in close-up or panorama; the affirmation or denial of closure reflecting cultural certainties or uncertainties; larger formal features giving works like Joyce's Finnegan's Wake the qualities of dream or Kristijana Gunnars's The Prowler those of a skeptical enquiry into teleology. Post-structuralism has brought exciting developments into literary practice, criticism and theory, but over the past twenty years or so its focus on the arbitrary has led to a neglect of the distinguishing features of literary language.1

Let me expand a bit on the triad I have defined above, using one of Peirce's many definitions. Here he explains that a symbol (dubbed "token" in this particular extract) is "related to its object only in consequence of a mental association, and depends upon a habit"; an icon is "a sign which stands for something merely because it resembles it," and an index is "a sign [which] signifies its object solely by virtue of being really connected with it" (225-26). So (and I will use prairie examples), we habitually, not through any link from nature but through acquired mental association, connect the sounds we make in uttering the word "saskatoons" both with a sequence of letters in written form and with the real berries of the plant Amelanchier alnifolia: we have used a symbol. If I write "saskatoons, purple as prunes," however, I am visualizing colours which are similar and therefore drawing on the principle of resemblance that Peirce identifies with the icon. And if I speak of the "the saskatoon-stained lips of the greedy children" I am drawing on a real connection, between the greed and the colouring of the lips: I am using an indexial sign.2

But let me comment further. Some readers would suggest that with this last example I have drawn attention to a mixed rather than a pure form, and they would be right, for iconic similarity of colour links the lips to saskatoons. If they commented further that all the examples above could on analysis be also defined as mixed, they would also be right. Even the appar-endy arbitrary symbol "saskatoons" has the same real connection with its referent that most nouns do (that is, they immediately evoke it). I make this point both because I want to underline that for Peirce signs are nearly always mixed, and rarely exist in "pure" form, and because, in the discussion below my own use of the term "icon" will frequendy apply to forms which may be found on further analysis to be mixed.3

Icons can be classified variously and virtually indefinitely. A project might be a taxonomy of icons as set out in general usage: icons as flat representations (as in devotional paintings or carvings), icons as indexes (as in family names), icons as diagrams (as in geometry), icons as replicas (as in holographs), icons as cultural totems (as in John Diefenbaker). My own focus will be on iconicity in two major senses. First, I will focus on the icon in literary and especially narratological manifestations (particularly in the Butala story of my tide), whether as symbol, metaphor, metonym, or any other forms of parallelism or analogy. Second, I will be considering the icon as a broad cultural symbol — as what, so to speak, these particular literary phenomena examined "add up to" in a broader cultural context, in this case that of Western Canadian and Canadian literature.

2. A Stroll in the Country

Prairie literature presents icons that are determined by historic and geographic particulars. While (of course) it is not unique in this respect, it may be outstanding in the persistence, dominance, and power of these: at least in my reading I have found this to be so, and my findings are echoed by other critics. I want to focus on three groups of icons: those of transience and discontinuity, those of space and distance, and those of the genius loci, the "genius of place." Examples are abundant: it is not uncommon for works to emphasize all three, as in Lois Simmie's short story "Emily," where transience is rendered through the one brief summer in which the narrator meets and then parts from Emily forever, space and limidess distance are iconicized in the lake of the story, and the genius of place is the deaf-mute and profligate Emily herself. Or one might consider Gunnars's poem "I think the wind is between us," where the corresponding elements are the lost lover, the "miles of cold prairie," and the bitter wind. I propose to explore such iconicity with illustrations from several Western writings and writers, but to focus particularly on its manifestations in Sharon Butala's short story "The Prize," from her collection Fever.

This is a long short story which raises many issues: of violence and bigotry in a small prairie town, of die creative process, and of the rural-urban tension. In it a prize-winning first novelist moves from the city to that town, buying a house there which was originally the childhood home of a man who subsequently became a great author. He writes there4 (the prize-winner is a man). There are several prominent iconic elements in the story: notably an indelible stain in the ceiling of a room in the house, the product of a failed chemical experiment carried out by the great author as a child, and a fossil from an emergent dinosaur skeleton discovered by the narrator in a walk through the hills around the prairie town.

Prairie writing contains few icons expressing long-standing human setdement; it is non-monumental and sometimes (as I hope to demonstrate) even anti-monumental. In it icons of permanence are replaced by those of transience. Wallace Stegner's town dump in Wolf Willow is given reruns in Margaret Laurence's Stone Angel (26-27) and The Diviners (57-58); Robert Kroetsch in Seed Catalogue juxtaposes the Parthenon and the Heisler hotel (which burns down). The registers of human presence in dwelling places and institutional edifices have none of Europe's relation to antiquity and indeed, like sod huts, were created in haste and through the expedients of poverty with little thought of permanence. Continuity with the past was present in the natural world and in aboriginal culture but those continuities were violendy broken with agricultural settlement. The native peoples and the nature tiiey inhabited, the vanquished and vanished, compose a plangent catalogue. Andrew Suknaski's poetry provides some powerful images of such loss. If, as Paul Carter's thematic in The Road to Botany Bay would have it, place is space with a history, then here it is space defined as much by resonance or echo as by sustained inscription.

Butala's variant on this iconicity lies in her polarizing two kinds of transience: that of die past of the village and die land, and that of the author's personal past in an urban world. The village is particularly embodied in the traces of the great author in the house and the land in the dinosaur remains. These are icons of absence/loss, but it is absence/loss which is given the powerful resonances I have referred to. They are in sharp contrast to the author's personal past in the city, which is described in broad outline and made of little ultimate consequence. His life there, with "the constant hurry, the obsession with matters of style and taste, the driving passion to get ahead, the unspoken urge to transcend it all" seems now to be "dreamlike": he has trouble conjuring it, and more significandy he increasingly does not bother to try (61). The visit of his friends at the story's end and their futile efforts to persuade him to return to this way of life express the point diegeticaily. This is a story in which a dominant image of transience is to be a materially substantial but spiritually bereft presence; the city has no reverberations. Here the story is actively anti-monumental rather than non-monumental; the monument is not Europe but the related urban civilization; the refusal to iconicize is the ultimate dismissal. (Readers of Butala's The Perfection of the Morning will recognize the thematic.)

Wallace Stegner, the historical figure iconicized as the great author in this Butala story,5 writes of space as the dominant quality of the Western landscape: "In the West it is impossible to be unconscious of or indifferent to space.... Western writing turns out, not surprisingly, to be largely about things that happen outdoors" ("Variations" 112, 113). I would suggest that the icons of space so frequently found in prairie literature are encouraged not merely by geographical immensities but also by the absences perceived in them. On the flip side of space lies the transience and evanescence discussed above; when things disappear only the place where they were remains. In Butala's story space is where the dinosaurs were: "Then I walked slowly back to the house where my manuscript waited on the table beneath the window that had the view of the hills and the mouth of the coulee where the dinosaurs had walked" (76).

I also note in the above passage that the narrator views the landscape through a window, though viewing is also implied in his walk back to the house. Both framing and implication embody strategies characteristic of the story.6 Echoing Stegner, we can certainly say that much of Butala's story happens outdoors. But not always explicitly so. Explicit outdoor settings are, in fact, few, and often they are framed by the margins of that opening from an interior. If the author is outdoors in the walk where the dinosaur bone is found, the countryside is also viewed from his car as he drives from city to town or through a window as he works at night. Such framing enhances as well as makes new our sense of prairie space: it becomes the vista beyond confinement. Space becomes a border function; an indefinite — perhaps infinite — extension beyond personal identity. The implicatory strategy has similar effect, but here the meeting point is more often with the community than with the individual. As well as that suggestive house, we have the town's cafe or its beer parlour; the country comes to town, so to speak, in icons of home cooking, Hutterite door-to-door sales, or the yawn of a visitor from the city attributed to the country air.

The outdoors is also present in the stylistic and formal qualities of the work. They lie beyond a border suggested by the author's first novel. It is pardy implied as an intense and concentrated work, but the author speaks explicidy of a "driving energy-filled narrative" and "its wry angry tone" which now fluctuates with "a calm, almost meditative voice that I didn't recognize and that was becoming harder and harder to break free of (61); it is this latter manner which is iconicized in the story itself. The narrative has a looseness, a casualness of structure, a country sprawl if not drawl. It abandons its own centres, and takes a walk in their surroundings. It is inclusive of fragments: of the vaguely threatening Nick from whom the house is bought, of the neighbour who keeps dropping in, both kindly and busybody, of the glimpses of Hutterite and farm and ranch life. The inclusiveness leads to inconclusiveness: the space lies in open-endedness too. The narrator has not resolved the writing crisis that makes his first novel prize meaningless; Nick, who has generated narrative expectations, simply vanishes from the story as he vanishes from town; the match-making efforts of one of the author's visitors to reconcile him with his estranged wife are clearly going to fail; the efforts of both to tempt him back to the city are similarly futile. The major action of the story, a banal bullying of two Hutterites by a local farmer, who nurses an imagined grievance and takes advantage of their non-violence, ends without resolution, ultimately blank.

As I have suggested above, the icons of the dinosaur and the great author are as much means of recall as emblems of loss. Such presences and their latencies are common enough in prairie literature, and they are not always as spectral as a stain in a roof or some dinosaur bones: they may be living beings. Their rationale in a context of absence and space is that they somehow embody these: they are local presences as opposed to alien or foreign ones. They are genii loci, with privileged access to the mysteries of place as well as a high degree of implicit or explicit guardianship over it. Place becomes analogue, or embodiment, or (to use the old-fashioned word) symbol. The genii loci may be some kind of animal totem, like the coyote that follows Robert in a brief passage in Timothy Findiey's The Wars (I have always thought of that section [29-32] as a beautiful prairie short short story), or like a talking crow. Even more frequendy, however, the icon is human: a parent, a hired man, a Chinese restaurant owner, or the healing stranger in several of Laurence's novels. In David Carpenter's fine essay, "Shelf Life," it is the "keeper of lost memories," Stan Foster, manager of the General Store in Borden, Saskatchewan. The effort to create a local or native icon frequendy leads to the choice of the indigene as spirit of place: the outstanding examples to my mind are the figures of Almighty Voice in Rudy Wiebe's "Where is the Voice Coming From" and Jules Tonnerre in The Diviners. The title of Wiebe's story underlines a connection between the icon and voice; it may not literally articulate but it promises and often delivers the authentic accent and idiom of locale.7

It is relatively unusual, I think, to choose the figure of a major author as a genius loci of the West. In this respect the story comes closer to the practice of longer-established literatures ("Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour" etc.) which iconicize canonical figures. Postcolonial canons, more fluid and less secure, offer fewer temptations (or, perhaps, too many). But whether in the figure of author, of general humanity, or of nature the icon of prairie place seems to exist in a potentially troubled relation to characters, who to realize their stories must enter some kind of identification with it. Where the sense of identification is strong their voices assert sovereignty, but when it is weaker voices becomes less certain, more anxious. As an example of the first case one might note Maria Campbell's sense that Wiebe may be identified with the spirit of Big Bear (Mandel and Wiebe 151) or David Arnason's triumphant "The Event"; as an example of the second one might note, say, Edna Alford's "The Garden of Eloise Loon." Certainly this story falls into the second category. While the great author iconicizes place (literally, in writing about it, as well as figuratively), his successor is given only the possibility of renewal of that mission: he is shown to be still emergent and developing, certain to have abandoned the early pattern of success that led to his prize, but uncertain about the results of his writing in the new manner. Indeed, the doubling of the figure of the author is even more ironic: at the conclusion there is a sense that the spirit of writer past — a wraith-like trace — will annihilate the new inhabitant of the house:

For no reason that I could name, I had the impression that there was someone else in the room with us. The sensation was so strong that I couldn't stop myself from looking nervously around. Cheryl, seeing this, did too, then looked at me in a puzzled, questioning way.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Someone just walked on my grave," I said. We stood in the kitchen, the three of us, the normally bright room gloomy. "I'm afraid," I said. (76)

In the house of prairie fiction it is not always clear that the border to space will be crossed, or that in crossing it one may not be dissolved by whatever it is that has swallowed up so much else. Annihilation and transfiguration are here two poles of the same temptation.

3. The Prairie Monopoly

I want to conclude with some thoughts from a larger cultural perspective concerning the iconicizing of the West. It has been a necessary and to my mind desirable process; however, its partiality for the plains and the need to make redress for this should be noted. Birk Sproxton, in his essay "What the World Was Saying When I Made It," as well as in his long poem Headjrame, speaks of the occlusions of much Western writing, drawing on a background in Flin Flon on the Canadian Shield which gives him a radically different vision of the land and a very different iconography:

and reading Mitchell — "the skeleton requirements, simply," he says "of land and sky" — I sense the skeleton requires rock and lake and bush (and sky) (and fire?) the prairies an overburden prairie speech an overburden

-(Headframe 121)

Even in such an apparendy minor matter as calling Western literature "prairie literature" (by analogy with the equally misleading name of "prairie provinces"), the south is established as topographical paradigm. Such a paradigm overlooks not only the Canadian Shield to the North and the mountain barrier to the West — it also slights other regions, the Park-lands, Peace River Region, and Northern boreal areas — of far greater extent than the prairies proper. It is notable that even where Western writing is set in such regions — in Laurence, Kroetsch, Merna Summers, Wiebe, Alford, Gunnars — the prairie icon tends to overwrite them in many readers' minds. We cannot see the trees for the plains. Witness the titles of some scholarly texts: Vertical Man/Horizontal World (Ricou), Plainspeaking: Interviews with Saskatchewan Writers (Hillis), The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination (Thacker); of Dennis Cooley's and Daniel Lenoski's anthologies, Inscriptions: A Prairie Poetry Anthology and A/Long Prairie Lines — even Sproxton's Trace has "prairie" in its subtide. And such volumes as Mark Vinz and Dave Williamson's Beyond Borders echo Stegner in emphasizing the West as an homogeneous international unit, again at the expense of what lies to its north.8

The dominance of prairie icons also undermines awareness of the urban nature of the lives of most of the region's citizens. In many writers this effect of selectivity is implicit; but in Butala's story it is explicit and vaunted, echoing a theme explored in depth in her The Perfection of the Morning. In both story and book the city becomes a true absent other, whose exclusion defines the land but whose existence brings it into being, however unacknowledged that might be. I am not speaking in a merely philosophical sense, where entities require theoretical opposites for purposes of definition, but also in an historical one. One of the major factors in creating that vastness and sense of space in the prairies, after all, lies in its depopulation, first with the extirpation of indigenous peoples and wild life (most spectacularly in the buffalo herds), and later with the consolidation of small family farms into larger agronomic units in the post-World War II period, with a resulting migration of farm and smalltown people to the cities. All of us who were part of that movement have witnessed the changes, seen villages we knew in childhood abandoned, vanished from the map. Because of that migration an urban reading public sensitive to, even nostalgic for, the perceptions of prairie writing was created and the market for it enhanced. Though above I have critically viewed the monopoly of plains over other icons in Western writing, I have to add that one reason for the southern bias is that this urban market is largely southern, not extending north of the parklands.

In The Urban Prairie (1993) George Melnyk speaks of the cities of the West as five major city-states containing seventy-five percent of the region's population and yet systematically ignored "in the search for what is truly western." He speaks of the need to correct the imbalance:

We have been obsessed with the land and its meaning for more than a century. Perhaps it is time now to reflect on the cities we have built and seek to understand how our identity is expressed through them. Such an exercise could herald a cultural renaissance. ("The Five" 150)

It seems to me that some of that redress has taken place and is continuing. As early as 1985 I edited Glass Canyons, the first Canadian urban anthology, based on Calgary; I also think of Ken Mitchell's Wandering Rafferty (1972); or (to take a more recent example) of Carpenter's Saskatoon in Courting Saskatchewan (1996). Nevertheless, undoubtedly more needs to be done. In particular, consistent with Melnyk's thesis that far from being homogeneous clones of Toronto, each of the Western cities has its distinct character which owes something to that of the land around, I would look for further sensitive mapping.

If cities derive some of their character from surrounding countryside, so do city dwellers. They visit, view, and seek recreation in it; it is their retreat, their solace, their renewal. We seem to be less aware, however, that the reverse is true, that country-dwellers visit, view, and seek recreation in the city, and that the country-city influence is two-way. Indeed, if the land provides emotional and spiritual renewal it is the city, with its cosmopolitan resources including centres of higher education, that provides an intellectual one. We can then note how frequendy it is university-educated authors who create these rural icons of place. I am more confident about possibilities emerging from the exchange between southern cities and the land around them than I am about adequate cultural representation of the northern two-thirds of the west; paradoxically the presence of cities in the south is some kind of warranty for the survival of the plains as plains.9 But there simply is not the same degree of exchange between our south and north; consider the lack of public outcry about the strip-mining of Alberta's northern forests and what the response would be if the prairie were similarly ravaged. Here, I think, Melnyk's arguments about cultural representation by population (city 75%/land 25%) are at their weakest; to accept them would be to ignore vast areas, and equally important, the populations of natural life within them. These have neither voice nor vote: it is important that they be represented and that their claims to the land be honoured.

4. Conclusion

This essay has explored the icon from a theoretical, practical, and cultural perspective. It has attempted to show a range of possibilities in iconic signing, both in theoretical taxonomy and artistic practice. The world is truly a forest of icons! The concluding cultural analysis underlines, I believe, a partiality inherent in such imitative or reality-derived signing systems, one which may not be immediately obvious because of their persuasive links with the real. Prairie iconocraphy humbles hubris, evokes nature, provokes spirituality, and recalls the lost: these are by no means trivial functions. But even the best of icons will benefit from critical and corrective scrutiny.10


1John K. Sheriff provides the best study of the implications of Peirce for literary practice and study; he provides a careful analysis which establishes a major problem in post-structuralism's monofunctionai view of language. I have reviewed Sheriff in ARIEL 23:4 (July 1992).

2Some readers will have noted the resemblance between Peirce's concept of index and Derrida's "trace." Derrida derides metaphysics, but I find "trace" to be somewhat more metaphysical than "index": trace is an elusive spectre hovering at the edges of the signifier; the index is as tangible as a fingerprint.

3 Mixed modality is strikingly evident in a black and white photograph. Consider: it is arbitrary/symbolic (we have to translate the shades of light and dark into colours); it is iconic/representational (in its images); and it is indexial (pointing to originals).

4Robert Kroetsch has noted how often it is Canadian women writing who write reflex- ively about writers writing (Neuman and Wilson 155-56); Butala provides a new example.

5 He is never mentioned by name, however.

6There is a problem, after all, with representing wide open spaces and big skies; though an inescapable staple of the landscape they are also cliche^; authors must work hard to avoid the hackneyed and stale. Wayne Tefs, in his excellent summary of prairie rendering of space and distance in Birk Sproxton's collection Trace shows how the icon of landscape is overrid den/overwritten in such writers as Kroetsch and Geoffrey Ursell in favour of comic and hu man-centred perspectives. In the same volume Henry Kreisel, in his famous essay "The Prairie: A State of Mind," shows how others displace the traditional icons with imagery of the sea, just as Lois Simmie uses a lake in "Emily." For a send-up of various hackneyed prairie icons (send-ups go back to Hiebert's Sarah Binks) see Bowering, Chapter 15 (55-56).

7It goes without saying that such presences violate post-structuralist principles. One thinks, for example, of Foucault's analysis of the "author-function" in contrast to this mys tical and romantic identification of entity— animal, indigene, natural phenomenon or ca- nonical figure — with place, authority, and, implicitly if not explicitly, authorship. (Who is the crow, the wind, the diviner?).

It can be argued that in any case that Foucault has got it wrong: while authors can be reduced to functions of class, gender, race, place and the like, the uniqueness of their works seems to be a function of non-reducible elements more consistent with Romantic paradigms. Though determinants of class etc. are trans-individual and would persist in an author's absence, the works themselves would not come into being. In this respect the "function" theory of creation appears to apply to scientific rather than artistic achievement; it seems likely that the theory of relativity would have been discovered if Einstein had never appeared, but impossible that The Sound and the Fury would have been written in the absence of Faulkner. The simultaneity of scientific discoveries (nitrogen by Rutherford and Scheele 1772, 1773; telephone by Bell and Gray, 1876; etc.) and the absence of parallel instances of literary creation (two Canterbury Tales) underlines the points. There are several hundred known instances of simultaneous or near-simultaneous scientific developments. See Farb, 102, for a partial list.

8George Melnyk in Beyond Alienation does pioneering work in strongly challenging this homogenization, see his "Magpie and Tortise."

9I would note, however, recent writings about the far north by Rudy Wiebe (1989, 1994) and Aritha Van Herk (1990) as important steps in the right direction, which for purposes of this paper is to the near north.

10I should indicate that the stories by Amason, Kreisel, and Simmie referred to in this essay are conveniently available in Forrie et al. (below), as well as in the author specific collections.


Adam, Ian, ed. Glass Canyons. Edmonton. Ne West, 1995.

—. Rev. of The Fate of Meaning: Charles Peirce, Structuralism, and Literature, By John K. Sheriff. ARIEL 23.3 (1002): 121-123.

Alford, Edna. "The Garden of Eloise Loon." The Garden of Eloise Loon. Lantzville: Oolichan, 1986. 134-142.

Arnason, David. "The Event." 50 Stories and a Piece of Advice. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1982. 77-84.

Bowering, George. A Short Sad Book. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1977/

Butala, Sharon. "The Perfection of the Morning, Toronto: Happer Collins, 1994.

—."The Price."" Fever. Toronto: Happer Collins, 1990. 45-76.

Carpenter, David. Courting Saskatchewan. A Celebration of Winter Feasts, Summer Loves and Rising Brookies. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1996.

—. "Shelf Life." Writing Home: Selected Essays. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1994, 40-42.

Catter, Paul,, The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History. New YorkL Knopf, 1987.

Cooley, Dennies, ed. Inscriptions: A Prairie Poetry Antbology. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1993.

Farb, Peter. Man's rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. New York Dutton, 1968.

Findley, Timothy, The Wars. 1977. Markham: Penguin, 1985. 29-32

Forrie, Allan, Patrick O'Rourke, and Glen A. Sorestad, eds. The Last Map is the Heart: An Anthology: Western Canadian Fiction. Saskatoon: Thistledown, 1989.

Foucault, Michel, "What is an Author?" Language. Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977. 113-38