Volume 3 Number 2, 1978


W. J. Keith

Most careful readers, I suspect, have found Caleb Gare's death in the muskeg at the end of Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese both highly memorable and awkwardly unsatisfying. On the one hand, it is melodramatically appropriate; even if we like to see ourselves as sophisticated literary critics, we cannot help rejoicing that the villain has gained his just deserts. On the other hand, we recognize the death as too convenient a device for unravelling the plot; by at once making possible Judith's escape and burying forever the secret of Mark Jordan's birth, it allows a "happy" ending that does not arise either naturally or artistically out of the moral terms implicit in earlier sections of the novel.

Perhaps the most hostile response to Caleb's death'occurs in a letter that Frederick Philip Grove wrote to Austin M. Bothwell soon after Wild Geese first appeared: "His [Caleb's] end is twaddle. A man like that does not by mistake run into a slough which he knows. That end, untrue and silly, destroys the one tragic possibility of the book."1 This comment is not strictly accurate, though Ostenso proves characteristically a little vague about the precise details: "The earth seemed to be playing him a trick.... [He] rushed toward the muskeg.... He ran on blindly, conscious only of the direction in which the flax field lay."2 It would be possible, therefore, to question Grove's "by mistake," but he is surely right to object that, in stage-managing Caleb's death, Ostenso evades the larger issues raised in the earlier pages and so "destroys the one tragic possibility of the book." In other words, she has cut through the Gordian knot that she has failed to untie.

In his recent study of prairie fiction, Unnamed Country, Dick Harrison has offered a symbolic reading. He notes that in the Book of Numbers Caleb urges the children of Israel to take possession of the land of Canaan immediately, "for we are well able to overcome it" (Numbers 13:30), and, two verses later, those sent to spy out the land report that it "eateth up the inhabitants thereof." Harrison comments: "Ostenso may not have intended Caleb's death in the muskeg as an instance of the land eating up its inhabitants, but she certainly presents Caleb as seeking the promised land at all costs."3 The remark is valuable in its insistence that Caleb is not presented consistently as a prairie-farmer within the realistic tradition. Harrison stresses his biblical ancestry; I would add a parallel ancestry in literary tradition.

I suggest that, in describing the death of Caleb, Ostenso may have been influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by at least two fictional analogues. The first is the death of Ravenswood in Sir Walter Scott's Bride of Lammermoor. (It so happens that one of the observers in this scene is Ravenswood's servant, whose name is also Caleb. This fact plays no part in my argument, though I believe that the added connection between the two books may not be wholly coincidental.) Ravenswood has been challenged to a duel by Colonel Ashton and is hurrying to keep his appointment:

    Observing him take this course, Caleb hastened to the eastern battlement, which commanded the prospect of the whole sands, very near as far as the village of Wolf's Hope. He could easily see his master riding in that direction, as fast as the horse could carry him. The prophecy at once rushed on Balderstone's mind, that the Lord of Ravenswood should perish on the Kelpie's flow, which lay half-way betwixt the Tower and the links, or sand knolls, to the northward of Wolf's Hope. He saw him accordingly reach the fatal spot, but he never saw him pass further.    Colonel Ashton, frantic for revenge, was already in the field.... The sun had now risen, ... so that he could easily discern the horseman who rode towards him with speed which argued impatience equal to his own. At once the figure became invisible, as if it had melted into the air. He rubbed his eyes, as if he had witnessed an apparition, and then hastened to the spot, near which he was met by Balderstone, who came from the opposite direction. No trace whatever of horse or rider could be discerned; it only appeared that the late winds and high tides had greatly extended the usual bounds of the quicksand, and that the unfortunate horseman, as appeared from the hoof-tracks, in his precipitated haste, had not attended to keep on the firm sands on the foot of the rock, but had taken the shortest and most dangerous course.4

My second analogue is drawn from the climax to R. D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone. John Ridd has confronted the villainous Carver Doone close to a "black and bottomless bog"5 called the Wizard's Slough. Ridd is victorious in the violent wrestling-match and is willing to spare his enemy:

    "I will not harm thee any more," I cried, so far as I could for panting, the work being very furious: "Carver Doone, thou art beaten: own it, and thank God for it; and go thy way, and repent thyself."    It was all too late....    The black bog had him by the feet; the sucking of the ground drew on him, like the thirsty lips of death. In our fury, we had heeded neither wet nor dry, nor thought of earth beneath us. I myself might scarcely leap, with the last spring of o'er-laboured legs, from the engulfing grave of slime. He fell back, with his swarthy breast (from which my gripe had rent all clothing), like a hummock of bog-oak, standing out the quagmire; and then he tossed his arms to heaven, and they were black to the elbow, and the glare of his eyes was ghastly. I could only gaze and pant: for my strength was no more than an infant's, from the fury and the horror. Scarcely could I turn away, while, joint by joint, he sank from sight.6

I am not, of course, suggesting that Ostenso is deliberately imitating either Scott or Blackmore. The circumstances are very different, and all three books are independent of each other. But just as I believe that Blackmore was writing within the tradition of Scott, so it seems to me likely that Ostenso had read both The Bride of Lammermoor and Lorna Doone and that her knowledge of them affected the construction of her own fictional climax. Above all, both Scott's book and Blackmore's are more accurately classified as romances rather than as novels, and Ostenso's climax – if not some of the earlier chapters – belongs within the same literary tradition. The resemblance extends beyond surface similarities of plot – the literal descent into the earth that raises all sorts of mythic and symbolic associations; more important, it involves the tone of the passage: a heightened, sensational effect that trembles between sublimity and absurdity just as Caleb himself is caught between fire and water.

The uneasy relation between realism and romance in Wild Geese has often been discussed (most recently, and perhaps most convincingly, by Harrison). A considered evaluation of the novel depends ultimately on the extent to which we believe that Ostenso succeeds or fails to hold in balance these two aspects of her subject-matter. And here, surely, the characterization of Caleb is paramount. While on occasions he appears as Ostenso's version of the prairie patriarch, on others he is offered as a larger-than-life, mythic figure having nonecessary connection with the environment in which he is placed. The analogues I have offered here help to establish the literary ancestry of Caleb Gare; they involve works which, like Wild Geese, contain a frequently effective but sometimes disturbing alliance of realistic and romantic elements. They may not alter our response to the "split" effect in Ostenso's central character, but they can serve a useful purpose in clarifying the nature of that split. This is, I believe, a necessary prelude to any assessment not only of Caleb's characterization but also of Ostenso's novel as a whole.

University College
University of Toronto





1The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove, ed. Desmond Pacey (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), p. 26.

2 Martha Ostenso, Wild Geese, New Canadian Library (1925; rpt. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961), p. 236.

3Dick Harrison, Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1977), p. 112. Harrison gives the references to Numbers as chapter 14, but 13 is correct.

4Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor (1819; rpt. New York: Crowell, n.d.), p. 312.

5R. D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone (1869; rpt. London: Dent, 1961), p. 561.

6Lorna Doone, p. 563.