“A Lightning Burst of Knowingness”: What Chris Reveals About the Connor-MacLeod Family in A Bird in the House




By Paisley McKenzie

July 2019
(UBC Arts One LA2, Prof. Brandon Konoval)


In Margaret Laurence’s collection of stories, A Bird in the House, the story “Horses of the Night” begins with Vanessa’s cousin Chris coming to stay at the Brick House while he attends high school in Manawaka. Unbeknownst to the reader as he first steps in the door, the story of Chris’ interaction with her family will become arguably the most useful of all the fictional memoirs of Vanessa’s life for tying together the themes that are present in the other stories. As an outsider disrupting the usual way of life in the Brick House, Chris sheds light on the different ways Vanessa’s family engages in arguments and conflict, and the ways they try (though they don’t always succeed) to communicate with one another. He also personally engages with the larger theme of future prospects, as his own future suffers terribly as a result of the fact that he is growing up at the time of the Great Depression, as well as the theme of escape and freedom—­both outwardly, by going overseas to see the world, and inwardly, by taking refuge in his imagination. These central themes in Chris’s story are also relevant to the larger category of Canadian literature as Margaret Atwood analyses it in her thematic guide, Survival: the desire to escape the confines of one’s family, which Chris shows so desperately in “Horses of the Night,” fits Atwood’s model of the typical family unit in Canadian literature; the conflicts between generations, and how each generation reacts to adversity also fit her model of the roles of grandparents, parents, and children within that family unit. Perhaps Chris’s personal predicament is not noteworthy on a national scale, but it does contain themes that are.

Though her relations attempt to keep Vanessa from worrying over the Great Depression that is making life difficult for everyone in Canada while she is growing up, it is nonetheless a constant presence in her story. She describes its effects as “external and abstract, malevolent gods whose names I secretly learned although they were concealed from me, and whose evil I sensed only superstitiously, knowing they threatened us but not how or why,” so it is important that Chris brings this challenge into plain view for her in “Horses of the Night” (Laurence, 126). It is no less important for readers to see the context of the time period plainly, despite the young Vanessa’s slightly unreliable narration, and Chris is the perfect character to introduce it to both her and the reader. Vanessa first comes to terms with the Great Depression when Chris, a good student who is full of imagination and enthusiasm, is unable to get into university after high school, even after running away to Winnipeg to do so. Though he tries his hand at various professions such as selling vacuum cleaners and sock-knitting machines, he is unable to raise enough money for tuition and, as his prospects are dashed, he has to return home. Despite his wishful theory that “anybody can do anything at all, anything, if they really set their mind to it…. [and] have this total concentration,” he is simply not given a chance by the difficult times he happens to live in (Laurence, 129). The reader gets the sense that had he been a pioneer like Grandfather Connor, at a time when “anyone could make a go of it…. if they were willing to work,” he would have done very well for himself, as he was prepared to put in all his effort to study, work, and get away from his squabbling family and into the wide world he had always dreamed of. As Pam Chamberlain describes his situation in “Community and Class in Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House,” Chris trusts the “North American Dream—that through hard work and personal virtues, he can elevate himself to the upper class and leave poverty behind. But escape is not meant to be for Chris…; after all, this is the Great Depression; society has failed, and society fails him” (Chamberlain, 31). It is an economic escape as much as a personal one that Chris strives for, and his lack of success shows just how desperate the times are, because it is no longer the case that anyone with an “upright” work ethic can succeed. In the eyes of “the founders of Manawaka, including Grandfather Connor, work equals worth. Those who do not work hard enough are lazy, immoral, and worthless,” which could be seen as the same wishful theory shared by Chris quoted earlier, but Chris’s story shows how that mindset no longer works (Chamberlain, 21). By the end of “Horses of the Night,” Vanessa realizes that “all [Chris’s] life’s choices had grown narrower and narrower: he had been forced to return to the alien lake of home, and when finally he saw a means of getting away, it could only be into a turmoil which appalled him and which he dreaded even more than he knew,” the grim result of not being able to get into university (Laurence, 141–142). Chris, like so many others in Vanessa’s family, had not been able to escape his family and his small town, any more than he could escape the fateful reach of the Depression.

Escape seems to be a prominent wish of everyone in A Bird in the House, especially escape from the confinement of the family in the Brick House. This is not a phenomenon that is unique to the Connor-MacLeod family, however. In Survival, Margaret Atwood notes that in Canadian literature, the structure of a family often entraps its members:

If in England the family is a mansion you live in, and if in America it’s a skin you shed, then in Canada it’s a trap in which you’re caught. The Canadian protagonist often feels just as trapped inside his family as his American counterpart; he feels the need for escape, but somehow he is unable to break away…. But the Canadian protagonist’s sense of entrapment is likely to be balanced by an equally strong sense of preservation, not self-preservation, but group preservation, Survival again. (Atwood, 144)

This perfectly describes the situation of Vanessa’s family in “Horses of the Night,” as well as the rest of the stories in the collection. Consigned to the Brick House by duty or dependence, the family members argue constantly and unhappily, but they remain together because of the external threat of the Great Depression. When Chris attempts to escape to university, the Depression forces him to return to the safety (and misery) of home, which sets up the fear for both Vanessa and the reader for the rest of the book that even the most creative and driven may not be able to escape.

It is also significant that the specific roles within the family, as described in Survival, are filled almost perfectly by the Connor-MacLeod family. Atwood outlines three generations of the typical family in Canadian literature: the Grandparents, Parents, and Children. Grandparents, who can also fall under the category of Settlers, are described as “obsessed by work; [with] unbending wills and sets of ‘principles’…. They are grimly religious, and more than willing to police and censor the morals of others. They rule, or attempt to rule, their children with a rod of iron” (Atwood, 147). While this sounds a lot like Grandfather Connor—and Grandmother Connor to the extent that she has a very strong set of principles, though that includes the principle of being ladylike which keeps her from enforcing them on other people—an analysis of his character would not be complete without noting that he is also a Settler figure, as he was the first of their family to come to Manawaka and make his living there.

Settlers, by occupation, are described in Survival as attempting to “change Nature’s order (which may look to man like chaos) into the shape of human civilization…. [They face] the problem of trying to fit a straight line into a curved space” (Atwood, 130–131). With the land settled and the Brick House built, Grandfather Connor’s will is thus turned to straightening out other kinds of “curved lines,” namely, any capacity in which his family doesn’t conform to his “upright” principles (Atwood, 147). Chamberlain describes this exact action by remarking that:

Even within his immediate family, Timothy Connor judges and punishes those who do not meet his standards. Grandfather Connor cannot bear to think that his own family does not share his values or behave as he would. He knows the “price of exposure” of family secrets and mistakes “is a fall off their particular rung of the [social] ladder onto a lower one.” He cannot empathize with or forgive his family for their faults; instead he rages against them. (Chamberlain, 18)

This can be seen very clearly in “Horses of the Night” when Grandfather Connor belittles Chris’s father for being a “simpleton” for starting a farm in Shallow Creek (Laurence, 122). The fact that he built up their family’s station and reputation in Manawaka makes Grandfather Connor feel he can make everyone else in the Brick House follow his principles; it’s no wonder, then, that the defining factor of Beth and Ewen’s generation, the Parents, is their attempted escape from the harsh rule of the Grandparents.

Atwood explains that the parents’ desire to escape is unfulfilled because “they have internalized the guilt foisted on them by the Grandparents, and they…lack the will, the attachment to the land and the metallic strength of their parents, but they have been unable to replace it with anything more positive” (Atwood, 149). Both Beth and Ewen are trapped in their family homes (initially Grandmother MacLeod’s house, and then the Brick House) by duty to both their own parents and their children, and so for them there is no hope of escape. There is, perhaps, a little more hope for Chris and Vanessa’s generation, the Children. They are defined in Survival as trying “to escape both previous generations. They desire neither the Calvinism and commitment to the land of the Grandparents, nor the grey placelessness and undefined guilt of the Parents” (Atwood, 149). For Vanessa and Chris, there is the very real prospect of being able to make their own way in the world if they manage to leave the Brick House and Manawaka to attend university and pursue their respective dreams of writing and being an engineer. For Chris, however, his prospects are dashed by the Great Depression, and in his desperation to escape he goes mad in the Second World War. The example of Chris as a third generation Child who is unable to escape the confines of his family dramatically raises the stakes for readers, as it demonstrates how far Vanessa has to fall if her struggle for autonomy fails.

Escape and freedom are two very important ideas in all the stories, but they are highlighted especially in “Horses of the Night” as Chris comes so close to freedom before his return home, which Atwood might call inevitable as it is the only place of safety, however uncomfortable it might be. While many of the characters would like to have the freedom to escape the Brick House, or even to escape Manawaka altogether, they must be content with other, smaller ways of escaping the claustrophobic pressure of the argumentative small-town Canadian family. For Grandfather Connor, escape comes in the form of retreating to his squeaky rocking chair in the basement, or, more often, from “the acts of work,” which are described as “the only freedom he knew” (Laurence, 56). This is fitting, seeing as everything he does, and even his personal freedoms from responsibility, include work in order to fit into the “upright” character he prides himself on. Edna finds personal freedom in playing loud ragtime tunes on the piano, and eventually (and more productively) by getting married and moving out, while Beth’s freedom is more vicarious, as she admits that “maybe I can’t get out. But [Vanessa and Roderick] will” (Laurence, 174). While he lived, Ewen also wished for the freedom to see the world, and admitted that he found that during his time in the First World War it was “kind of interesting to see a few other places for a change, that’s all” (Laurence, 87)—possibly the form of escape that Chris himself sought out in his own World War. For the rest of his life, Ewen kept a collection of books and magazines such as National Geographic depicting far-off places, which Vanessa finds in “To Set Our House in Order,” though he never got the opportunity to leave Manawaka, as his responsibilities as a husband, son, and doctor kept him there.

Chris seems to have a similar ambition to be “a traveller,” of the world outside of Manawaka (Laurence, 131). When he brings up the topic of the impending Second World War to Vanessa, Chris tells her that “plenty of guys would think it was a godsend, and who’s to say they’re wrong? It would be a job, and you’d get around and see places” (Laurence, 140). Evidently he does not cope well with the violent demands made of him when he actually goes to war, but he is so desperate to find some avenue to make his way in the world that it seems he saw no other option after his prospects for university were dashed by the Depression. When things seem hopeless, Chris finds yet another escape, this time an internal one, in the depths of his imagination; even to Vanessa he mentioned that he “can always think about things [by himself]. You don’t actually need anyone to talk to” (Laurence, 139–140). He escapes so often by withdrawing into his own thoughts, whether during family battles or literal ones, that eventually he can no longer connect to reality (Laurence, 141). The reader knows, especially after finding out about his fantastical accounts of his home in Shallow Creek, that Chris has always used imagination as an escape, but initially it was meant to improve his situation, as he dreamed of the future and how much better things could be. When he loses hope completely, this escape becomes escapism, through which he gives up on his goals. Chris, however, is not the only character who uses imagination as an escape: in “A Bird in the House,” despite having a life that others described as dull, Noreen, who comes to work in the MacLeod house, imagines the world around her in a wildly superstitious and religious way. Vanessa states that Noreen’s “life had not been drab at all, for she dwelt in a world of violent splendours,” not unlike the way Chris imagines how his life could be much more exciting if there were racehorses and lake-monsters in it (Laurence, 93). Even Vanessa herself uses her stories as a way to escape into her imagination, and it is probably noteworthy that she writes most often about women as lovers and pioneers and companions to explorers—roles that all have a certain freedom to them (Laurence, 59–60, 166). Vanessa and Noreen, however, are able to keep from falling into escapism, and thus maintain a better connection with the rest of the world than Chris. In Vanessa’s case, this could be because of her awareness of Chris’ fate, which was important in showing her the consequences of losing that connection with the world.

It is no wonder that such a great deal of the family wishes for escape and freedom from the Brick House, as the familial situation inside it is one of great and unceasing conflict. Chris fulfils his role as a guest and outsider once more by shedding a light on just how frequently the family argues, and the different methods each member has to deal with conflict. For his own part, Chris is not an aggressive person, even when Grandfather Connor is yelling at or about him. Vanessa states that “he gave no sign of feeling anything…. Chris never seemed, like myself, to be holding back with a terrible strained force for fear of letting go and speaking out and having the known world unimaginably fall to pieces. He would not argue or defend himself, but he did not apologize either” (Laurence, 123). Even within the arguments at his own home, which Vanessa witnesses when she visits Shallow Creek, he “closed himself off from squabbling voices just as he used to do with Grandfather Connor’s spearing words,” employing his usual escape into his own thoughts (Laurence, 136). This less confrontational method of dealing with conflict is not unique to Chris, however. Grandmother Connor also rarely engaged in arguments, and Beth argues less and less over the course of the collection: the two instead retain a “ladylike” composure and make requests of the other family members more often than demands. This has the effect, purposeful or otherwise, of making other characters feel guilty, especially Vanessa and Grandfather Connor. Vanessa even describes her mother as “making [Vanessa] feel that [she] was placing an intolerable burden on her,” which she felt bad about (Laurence, 90). Thus, Ewen’s declaration—that Beth looks “as though a puff of wind could blow [her] away. But underneath, by God, [she’s] all hardwood”—is especially telling: Beth, as well as Grandmother Connor and Chris, all have a sort of internal confidence that allows them to react to conflict with less confrontation, feeling secure in the fact that they are doing the right thing (Laurence, 89). For Chris especially, this is a productive strategy, as it allows him to divert his energy and attention to the pursuit of his goals instead of being mired in conflict with other family members. Being non-confrontational was part of Chris’ ambition to pursue his goals, not his failure to achieve them, and Vanessa’s success did not come from having more ambition than Chris did per se, but from the financial aid her mother canvassed from various family members—the sort of aid which Chris never received. Chris sets an example for Vanessa for the rest of the stories, and though she does not always follow it, it presents an alternate way of dealing with conflict, as opposed to Grandfather Connor’s more argumentative insistence on having his way.

There are others in the Connor and MacLeod families with much less conviction, though: namely, Grandfather Connor, Vanessa, and Aunt Edna. These characters are more likely to shout, argue, or mock their way out of a confrontation, which is typically in order to conceal the fact that they are not so confident that they are in the right. The particular similarity in the ways Grandfather Connor and Vanessa argue is evident when the pipes catch fire and Grandfather Connor demands “with more force than logic, [what] could the fire brigade do that he couldn’t do?” (Laurence, 178) This is mirrored closely when Vanessa “shout[s] at him, as though if [she] sounded all [her] trumpets loudly enough, his walls would quake and crumble” (Laurence, 187). Like Vanessa, Aunt Edna also goes up against Grandfather Connor, but typically with a more mocking attitude that Uncle Terence explains is “more like hi[m] than you might think” (Laurence, 80). Edna herself notices that she and Vanessa are often the most likely to argue with Grandfather Connor, and mentions in “Jericho’s Brick Battlements” that it will be Vanessa’s turn to be the main force for argument against his strict regulations once Edna escapes the Brick House by getting married, effectively passing the torch to someone of a younger generation more likely to succeed in rebelling against his principles (Laurence, 177). The contrast between the confrontational and non-confrontational types of argument used by the household are important throughout all the stories, but they are especially shown in detail in “Horses of the Night” as Chris responds to each type of argument. His internal confidence and ability to circumvent argument, rather than view it as an obstacle that can only be overcome by brute force, makes a notable impression on Vanessa for the rest of the stories.

As well as family conflict, communication and miscommunication are an important part of Vanessa’s childhood in the Brick House. Vanessa finds her age to be a barrier in communicating with the rest of her family, most of whom are older than her, and spends a good deal of time eavesdropping on them as she grows up, as though a surreptitious seeker of forbidden knowledge. She feels that she cannot connect with the adults she knows “because of the freezing burden of [her] inexperience,” being so much younger than them, and this is no surprise, given that the different generations of the Connor-MacLeod family have such wildly different worldviews (Laurence, 65). She feels similarly about Chris almost as soon as she hears of him in “Horses of the Night” (Laurence, 119), and spends most of the story worried that “the distance between [them] was still too great” for them to really understand each other (Laurence, 139). Problematic communication is not simply a reflection of age differences in A Bird in the House, however. The idea that connection and shared experiences are essential for communication appears in many stories in the collection, including “The Loons” when Vanessa meets Piquette, the Métis girl her father treated as a patient, once more after they went to her family’s cabin, and states that “I could not reach her now any more than I had then. I was ashamed, ashamed of my own timidity, the frightened tendency to look the other way,” as well as times when various characters remember instances of missed communication because they lacked understanding at the time (Laurence, 114). This is seen especially with Ewen’s recollections that his father “must have been a lonely man, although it never struck [him] that way at the time… maybe he would have liked to talk to somebody about these [ancient Greek] plays,” and how Vanessa does not understand until later how much it cost for Grandfather Connor to speak to her about Grandmother Connor after her death (Laurence, 47, 77). Even in the present time when they are face-to-face and of the same age and relative experience, characters have difficulty communicating—the adults of the Brick House included. They spend a good deal of the story treading carefully around topics they don’t wish to discuss and arguments they don’t want to bring up, which makes communication difficult at the best of times. However, in “Horses of the Night,” Chris shows that it is important to at least try to communicate, because the alternative would be a rather dangerous isolation that threatens the safety-in-numbers sought by characters in Canadian literature who are besieged by some sort of challenge like the Great Depression. When they are at the lake in Shallow Creek, he attempts to make Vanessa understand his loneliness and wish to escape the arguments of his family and small town because he needs to share his sentiments with someone. In the end, it is true that they have enough in common in experience and worldview that she can understand how he feels, but by the time she does, it is too late, and he has already gone off to war, recalling somewhat Ewen’s late recognition of his own father’s loneliness. Vanessa states that “I recognized, at least a little, the dimensions of his need to talk that night. He must have understood perfectly well how impossible it would be, with a thirteen-year-old. But there was no one else…. I had listened to his words, but I had not really heard them, not until now” (Laurence, 141–142). Chris and Vanessa are a striking example of how communication is attempted despite their differences, which is an important part of Vanessa’s childhood and influences her later attempts to talk with various characters such as her mother, despite not having much in common. Vanessa’s attempts at communication find more success than those that Chris makes because, while his fell on barren ground, hers were better-received, seeding her future escape.

“Horses of the Night” is particularly important to the collection of stories A Bird in the House because it sheds so much light on themes such as the effect of the Great Depression on characters’ future prospects, the freedom to grow up and explore the world, and the way the Connor-MacLeod family argues, communicates, and miscommunicates. These themes are also significant because of their relation to the greater genre of Canadian literature, which can be connected to A Bird in the House using the analysis of Margaret Atwood’s guide Survival. The importance of these themes to the rest of the collection is demonstrated so well because of the inclusion of Chris as an outsider who observes and interacts with the family, which allows their reactions and impressions of him to show the themes clearly to the reader. It is arguably the best story in the collection to tie these themes together because of Chris’s imagination and ambition, which are both catalysts that cause Vanessa to mature and learn more about the world.





Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1972.

Chamberlain, Pam. “Community and Class in Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House.” Short Story Criticism, edited by Jelena Krstovic, vol. 157, Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420106233/LitRC?u=ubcolumbia&sid=LitRC&xid=6d39b49e. Accessed 2 Apr. 2019. Originally published in Narratives of Community: Women’s Short Story Sequences, edited by Roxanne Harde, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, pp. 37-56.

Laurence, Margaret. A Bird in the House. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2017.