Impression and Identity: How Margaret Laurence Reveals Character Through Observation and Reflection in A Bird in the House’s “The Mask of the Bear”

 

Photo by everydaywanderer on Pixabay

 

By Gabriel Dufour

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

 

First impressions do not fully comprehend identity. They can be effective tools to make basic judgments and broad assumptions; however, in terms of interpretation, their insights are extremely limited. A person’s physical and social traits contribute to these shallow representations of character, while their personal history and motivations are completely excluded from the analysis. Identity is much more dynamic than an impression due to its layers of complexity; furthermore, impressions are created in an instant, while true identity is constantly in development, continuously being molded by the environment around it, shaped by powerful moments of the past, and forged by dreams of the future. Many great Canadian authors have explored the relationship between identity and impression, but few have mastered the topic quite like Margaret Laurence. Throughout her career, Laurence created rich landscapes of literature that won her several prestigious awards, as well as numerous critical appraisals of her work, such as Colin Nicholson’s Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Margaret Laurence; Patricia Morley’s Margaret Laurence; Clara Thomas’ The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence; and Jon Kertzer’s “That House in Manawaka”: Margaret Laurence’s A BIRD IN THE HOUSE. Each of these analyses praises Laurence’s skill, while assessing different aspects of her writing, including her use of language in storytelling, the importance of a character’s history and cultural placement, and her work’s implications for Canadian heritage and identity. Laurence pursues the concept of identity, to varying extents, in all of her work; however, one of her finest explorations of the topic is portrayed in her collection of short stories, A Bird in the House, in which a woman must reflect on her past in order to be at peace with her stern grandfather’s death, as well as his lasting impact on her identity.

Each of the eight stories in A Bird in the House follows Laurence’s protagonist, Vanessa, as her initially relatively simple views of the world develop with increasing maturity. Vanessa consistently stands in a place of observation, establishing a correspondingly consistent perspective through which readers frame their interpretations of the characters in the story. Vanessa observes her relatives’ routine actions toward one another as a child, and uses their behaviors to develop an initially shallow understanding of her family. These underdeveloped perspectives are what Laurence provides the reader; however, she connects and delivers the stories with the voice of an adult Vanessa reflecting on her past. The retroactive aspect of the story broadens Vanessa’s Manawaka world beyond the restricted horizon of childhood, and it provides the opportunity for both the audience, and her as a character, to learn from her simple memories, creating a strong awareness of her heritage and, consequently, her identity. Vanessa’s re-evaluation of her adolescence hinges on her investigation for greater understanding, and is entirely dependent on the belief that there is more to her family than she initially observed. In many ways, the short story “The Mask of the Bear” can be referred to as revealing the reason the adult Vanessa chooses to reflect and re-evaluate. In the story, Vanessa encounters several experiences in which her assumptions of character are completely dismantled by vulnerability. Without seeing her intensely reserved grandfather cry in the story, Vanessa would not have the ability to sympathize with his responses to different types of pain. “The Mask of the Bear” is an essential part of A Bird in the House, as it provides a turning point in Vanessa’s life in which she learns to see beyond people’s behaviors, and understand that there are many complex circumstances that shaped them into who they are.

For both readers and Vanessa as a child, A Bird in the House’s use of “first impressions” (Kertzer, “That House in Manawaka”: Margaret Laurence’s A BIRD IN THE HOUSE, 18), is an “essential part of interpretation, [and] part of the struggle to comprehend”(Kertzer 18) its characters. “The Mask of the Bear” opens with Vanessa as a child, and consequently, her perceptions of her family members are rather naïve. As noted earlier, Vanessa often participates in the role of an observer: whether it is at one of her “listening posts” (Laurence, A Bird in the House, 70), or even standing in plain sight of the adults, Vanessa takes advantage of her situation by analyzing the behaviors that her relatives exhibit, in order to further understand their identities. Due to her innocence and inexperience, Vanessa is as yet incapable of fully understanding the context of her relatives’ actions, which causes her to develop assumptions about their identities on her own. Unfortunately, for the majority of her childhood, the family’s actions and attitudes towards one another often occur habitually, whether in the form of Grandfather Connor demanding dinner an hour early, Aunt Edna making wisecracks to cope with the stress of the Great Depression, or Grandmother Connor and Vanessa’s identical discussions about the Bible every Sunday. Without her relatives displaying any abnormal behavior, Vanessa has little reason to doubt her surface-level assumptions. Early on in Vanessa’s development, her family’s routine reactions and responses to one another solidify her presumptive impressions of character in the Connor household, impressions founded on the belief that the behaviors a person practices envelop and penetrate their entire personalities.

In “The Mask of the Bear,” Vanessa uses her imagination to form her understanding of the Connors into caricatures that she can easily comprehend; and while her evaluations capture the essence of their spirits, their exaggerated images overlook key components of her relatives’ true identities. Aunt Edna is a charismatic, unmarried woman that argues against her subjection within the household: in Vanessa’s imagination, she becomes a vibrant and independent Egyptian queen. Grandmother Connor is peaceful woman who is seemingly neglected by her husband: she is the caged canary. Grandfather Connor is a stubborn, angry man who wears a dominating fur coat: he is a bear. By using object-associations to classify her relatives, the young Vanessa is able to unquestionably admire and elevate her Aunt Edna, defend Grandmother Connor, and, internally, defy her grandfather, who is such an oppressive force on the women of the family. Beyond supporting biased emotions towards her family members, Vanessa’s assumptions also allow her to conceptually understand their actions. If Vanessa simply saw her grandfather as a bear, it was both simpler for her to dislike him, as well as justify his rude actions towards people in general. Once she categorized him as a mean, stubborn man, Grandfather Connor’s attempts to embarrass Aunt Edna’s admirers, whether in the form of debate, or an exceptionally noisy rocking chair in the basement, become scenes that do not require to be analyzed. In Vanessa’s perspective as a child, Grandpa Connor was acting rudely because he was a mean man, and that was all. Before “The Mask of the Bear” exposes Vanessa to a rare glimpse of weakness from Grandfather Connor, Vanessa had no reason to adjust her view that her grandfather was as brutal as a bear. Vanessa initially rationalizes her impression of him based on his behaviors towards others; however, her perception is forced to change once she becomes aware that there are many complex motivations, histories, and hidden emotions in her family that are unknown to her. “As Vanessa quickly learns, we get only obscure glimpses of the truth…. [Later,] she is amazed by all the shields and masks people raise to hide their intimate selves from others, and even from themselves” (Kertzer 28).

The inexperience of childhood explains Vanessa’s interpretations of her family members, but the events of “The Mask of the Bear” strip her ability to use that excuse as a justification for her views. Where before, Vanessa used caricatures to justify routine behavior, the story challenges her perspective by disrupting the lives in her family, revealing slivers of raw emotion that contradict her assumptions. “The Mask of the Bear” has several moments that raise Vanessa’s awareness for the hidden complexities in her family, but two stand out as the most influential: Aunt Edna weeping in solitude after rejecting Jimmy Lorimer, and Grandpa Connor, in tears, embracing Vanessa after the death of his wife. These keystone moments open Vanessa’s eyes to the masks of character that her relatives wear, and cause her to realize that “clothing, masks, and shields are necessary because in part, though not in total, society is a system of common illusions, which we may criticize, but we all share” (Kertzer 29). “The Mask of the Bear” opens Vanessa’s eyes to the emotions her relatives truly felt, but for some reason would not, or perhaps could not, demonstrate. In Patricia Morley’s critical analysis of Laurence, Morley notes that, “Before Grandmother’s death, Vanessa is unable to understand that her grandfather loves his wife; before Vanessa overhears Edna crying, she is ignorant of her loneliness” (Morley, Margaret Laurence, 115). These two instances disrupt Vanessa’s views, as the weaknesses she discovers completely undermine the caricatures she created. However, not only are her exaggerated impressions of her relatives contradicted, but even their legitimate personalities as well. Vanessa’s understandings of her relatives were solely based on their behaviors, and by witnessing uncharacteristic moments of weakness, Vanessa realizes that her basic interpretations of them were founded on the images they wanted her to see, rather than their true internal emotions. Vanessa’s images of two seemingly independent and invincible figures are torn down, and her relatives’ raw expressions of grief and mourning leave Vanessa in a state of shock, and more importantly, doubt. “The Mask of the Bear” includes an essential lesson in Vanessa’s development, in which she realizes that there is more to be understood about a person than can be learned simply from their behavior. However, the story is also accompanied by the revelation through which Vanessa becomes aware of the restrictions her inexperience causes her. Where before she could anticipate every move within the Brick House, the vulnerability that the events in “The Mask of the Bear” reveal leave her feeling detached from her environment, causing her to be “chilled by childhood” and frozen by the “burden of [her] inexperience” (Laurence 65). This unsettling discovery disturbs Vanessa, because she “records anything that comes before her, whether she understands it or not” (Kertzer 41). Vanessa continues to be an observer throughout “The Mask of the Bear,” but as she learns more about her family, she becomes aware that the filters and masks in her environment prevent her from truly understanding it. The story forces Vanessa to doubt her previous assumptions by offering rare insights of true character, but as Kertzer explains, “The truth does not enlighten her, it casts her further into darkness. She does not feel wiser or better, only guilty and confused” (Kertzer 55).

As Vanessa becomes aware that concealed things are going on around her, she recognizes that their mature complexities are beyond her comprehension. While she has the power to clearly hears the words, Vanessa learns that her inexperience restricts her from dissecting the subtext of Jimmy saying “What if the old leopard actually changed his spots” (Laurence 76), or conceptualizing the emotional turmoil that Uncle Terence implies when he suggests that “Another person’s virtues could be an awful weight to tote around” (Laurence 86). In becoming aware of her ignorance of past events, Vanessa struggles with her inability to understand the context of her family’s hidden emotions; however, her observational skills allow her to recognize that they are being hidden in the first place. Edna crying alone; Grandfather Connor coatless on the porch; Grandmother hiding the knowledge of her husband’s affair: all are instances in which Vanessa learns that her relatives concealed their pain from one another, and that only truly traumatic situations caused them to shed the masks they wore in public. These revealing events consequently expose Vanessa to the use of repression as a response to grief. Unfortunately, as she learns of her family’s repressed pains, she too begins to suppress her emotions from the family. When Vanessa isn’t invited to her Grandmother Connor’s funeral, she decides to mourn her passing by reading the Bible to the canary, the creature she had previously associated with her grandmother. However, when her family arrives through the door, Vanessa responds by the only means she knows how: by quickly hiding her things so that no one would know how she felt. Earlier in the story, when Vanessa eavesdrops on Edna and Jimmy’s conversation, she begins to recognize a person’s need for privacy when she “all at once felt, for the first time, sickened by what [she] was doing”(Laurence 71); but by hiding the Bible, Vanessa truly experiences empathy for the desire for private emotions. More than any other story, “The Mask of the Bear” demonstrates a person’s need to hide themselves from the rest of their prying world: whether it involves Vanessa’s grandparents harboring secrets from each other, or Edna putting on a cheery face to befriend Vanessa, each character that “The Mask of the Bear” exposes behaves according to how they desire to be seen. Although “masks shield and protect us from the truth…they are also clues to the truth…. We wear a disguise to hide out personality, but the choice we make is a reflection of our personality” (Kertzer 52).

If “The Mask of the Bear” was told from the direct point of view of Vanessa as a child, the story would simply capture the growing maturity of a girl learning that there was more to her family dynamic than she assumed. The story would demonstrate a shift in her life, where for the first time she realized that behavior did not always reflect honest character, and instead could be used as a mask for grief. Finally, “The Mask of the Bear” would showcase her growing awareness of her innocence, and the acknowledgment that her youth and inexperience prevented her from putting the pieces of her family’s traumas together. Many core elements of the story would remain untouched, but they would only acknowledge the presence of mystery and there wouldn’t be an eventual understanding that creates a fulfilling conclusion. However, “The Mask of the Bear,” along with the collective narrative of A Bird in the House, is not delivered so simply: it is written as confessional memoir. When writing A Bird in the House, Laurence specifically wanted to avoid the simple narration of a child. She intentionally decided early on in the writing process that:

“What I tried to do was definitely not to tell the story as though it were being narrated by a child. This would have been impossible for me and also would have meant denying the story of one of its dimensions, a time-dimension, the viewing from a distance of events which had happened in childhood” (Laurence, in Morley, 110).

 

Jon Kertzer’s That House in Manawaka: Margaret Laurence’s A BIRD IN THE HOUSE, explores Laurence’s use of the confessional memoir style in great detail. By having Vanessa tell her story in terms of reflection rather than simple experience, the reader gets to witness a development, and eventual acceptance, of her and her family’s identity. Had the story been presented entirely by the child persona of Vanessa, the character would never experience closure by truly understanding her family; therefore, “Vanessa’s memoir is used as a technique for comprehension” (Kertzer 15). Laurence uses Vanessa’s memoir as a means to push her maturity beyond her youth, and cause her to learn from reflection similar to the ways she learned from observation. Once Vanessa “can honestly tell the whole story of [her] life,” by reflecting on her memories, and attempting to enrich her understanding of her relatives, Kertzer believes she “becomes whole” (Kertzer 20). The confessional memoir enriches the reader’s experience of the novel, because where “Vanessa, the child, was aware of all the surfaces of events…Vanessa, the adult, draws from each remembered experience more than the sum of its surface parts”(Thomas, The Manawaka world of Margaret Laurence, 104). Laurence’s unique decision to connect her stories with a memoir line of consciousness gives A Bird in the House a larger purpose: using re-evaluation to help Vanessa learn from her raw observations as a child to deepen an understanding of her, and her family’s, identity as an adult.

The reflections of Vanessa’s memoirs help her understand the roots of her identity. By looking back, unbiased, into the world of her Manawaka youth, Vanessa is able to source the moments in her life that shaped how she behaves as an adult. The eight stories of A Bird in the House help Vanessa to recognize the development of her impatience, temper, and her tendency to repress her grief. While many of these traits are common in several characters living in the Brick House, the most influential figure in molding Vanessa’s life was her Grandfather Connor. Throughout the narration of A Bird in the House, as Vanessa increasingly becomes aware of her Grandfather’s perspective in life, his actions become increasingly understandable. As a child, “The Mask of the Bear” showed Vanessa that her grandfather was capable of emotions other than anger and disappointment, such as love and melancholy. However, as “The Mask of the Bear” is written in the form of a short story, this information is never directly acknowledged again. What Laurence implies is that, in order for him to be understood, Grandfather Connor’s actions throughout the entirety of A Bird in the House must be re-examined, like a memory. “The Mask of the Bear” contains the only occasion in which she sees her grandfather cry; however, as Vanessa reflects on her childhood, she realizes that it was not the only moment he showed love. Where before his actions of harassing boys at the dinner table—whether for Edna’s sake or Vanessa’s—was presented as being rude and uncalled for, they now become symbols of his love for his family. Grandfather Connor knows what type of man will be unfaithful, having been one himself, and uses his rough demeanor to protect his family from the harm he caused his wife. He cannot directly express his emotions for his daughter and granddaughter, but he can interrogate their boyfriends to determine whether or not they can be trusted, or threaten the neighbor that steals their spyglass. Grandfather Connor is most commonly seen as an obstacle for Vanessa and her relatives to overcome, but the history and vulnerability Laurence explores in “The Mask of the Bear” prove that there is potentially love behind his snarls; snarls that were intended as protection, but were often regarded as meaningless anger.

In his own eyes, Grandfather Connor did everything he could in order to create a happy and secure life: he pioneered across the country by foot, he built the area’s first Brick House, he was prudent with his finances, and he housed his large family while providing them food to eat and expensive wood to burn. However, his accomplishments were not enough to earn the love of his family: “In his own inarticulate way, he had loved his wife and had been as pitifully bewildered by the circumstances that defeated and distorted him as he had been justifiably proud of his many strengths and achievements” (Thomas 100). During Vanessa’s childhood, Vanessa’s grandfather was constantly confused by the inexplicable economic environment of the Depression, as well as his disconnection with his family. While Grandfather Connor is commonly vocal about his frustrations with committing actions of assistance, he becomes hospitable whenever it is required of him. When times were tough, he opened his doors to Edna, Chris, and even Vanessa’s immediate family; and when Vanessa has the chance to go to university, Grandpa Connor pays for it, even though he traditionally did not believe in education for women. As Vanessa reflects on the actions of her grandfather, she is able to realize that he reached out for a connection with his family many times; however, since they could not see past his bear-like persona, he was continuously rejected. Unfortunately, Vanessa realizes that over time her grandfather became disheartened by his family’s rejection, and retreated behind his mask of anger. Grandpa Connor was painfully alone in his Brick House, and became, “in some way, untouchable. What-ever his grief was, he did not want us to look at it and we did not want to look at it either”(Laurence 84).

Grandpa Connor’s mask in A Bird in the House wonderfully demonstrates Kertzer’s theory that “his mask reveals how he would like to be seen” (Kertzer 52): independent, and even alienating at times. However, when Vanessa identifies his interactions with the family, it can be difficult for her to distinguish the protective grandfather from the overly critical one. It would have been easier for a writer to frame Grandfather Connor as an unseen victim, but this approach would have reduced his depth. Laurence creates tension in her stories by having Grandfather Connor, in a response to his personal alienation, purposefully inconvenience the family in order to establish his presence in the home. Laurence addresses the idea of maltreatment creating monsters in the story “The Half-Husky,” and she applies the same theory to Grandfather Connor’s actions: Laurence portrays him as a lonely character, and she explores how this would lead him to become a nuisance for the family. Grandfather Connor has many layers of motivations to his actions, and much of Laurence’s success in creating a character that causes Vanessa to “take half a lifetime to comprehend” (Morley 112) is due to the fact that she too had a bear-like grandfather of her own.

Margaret Laurence was born in 1926, and grew up in her grandfather John Simpson’s Brick House. The house was located in the small Manitoba town of Neepawa, and many events of her childhood serve as foundations for A Bird in the House. Similar to the way Vanessa struggles with her past, Laurence saw that:

“I had to come to terms in some way with that environment which I had, at the time, rebelled against—I wanted very much to get out—I couldn’t wait to get out of that town. Then, years later, I found I had to come back and examine all those things, examine my own family, my own roots and in some way put to rest the threat that had been there” (Laurence, in Thomas, 99).

 

Vanessa’s journey towards understanding is exceptionally developed, and her struggles with acceptance are well thought out. The reasoning behind this is that Laurence did not simply imagine the stories of A Bird in the House: she lived them. Laurence, just like Vanessa, grew up under the stern regime of a pioneer grandfather, and although they constantly argued, she could not deny his importance in her life. By writing A Bird in the House, Laurence effectively demonstrates the frustration of growing under such a repressive force, as well as creating sympathy for their responses to pain and disconnection. In A Bird in the House, Vanessa’s ability to heal the separation between her and Grandfather Connor’s legacy is completely dependent on her understanding of his perspective, as well as his limitations. When writing the characters, Laurence had to reflect on her own life and find that “I could realize that even though he had been a very hard man, he had had a very hard life and he had characteristics of strength and of pride that were admirable—and the other side of that coin was his inability to show affection” (Thomas 102). A Bird in the House establishes realistic depictions of Canada’s historic pioneers, and stories such as “The Mask of the Bear” help demonstrate their human emotions, even though many restricted themselves from displaying their own.

Colin Nicholson, in Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Margaret Laurence, argues that, “in Canadian Literature, Grandfather Connor is the most powerfully realized portrait of the patriarchal pioneer, the self-made man. He is proud, tough, self-disciplined and demands obedience from others…. He never shows love… only… anger” (Nicholson 238). For Laurence, and many other Canadians of her generation, there was a disconnection between them and their pioneer ancestors. By providing glimpses of pain, emotion, and rich motivations, Laurence is able to strip the “rough-pioneer” stigma many Canadians associated with their personal histories. Laurence’s stories “enclose us all in recognition of the inevitability of estrangement and the possibility of understanding between generations and among all men and women” (Thomas 107).  Through stories like “The Mask of the Bear,” Margaret Laurence demonstrates to her readers that people often hide their true emotional identities from others; and her beautiful memoir-style delivery combines her stories into “an odd volume that is not quite a novel, not quite a collection, not quite an autobiography, but something of all three” (Kertzer 17).

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Laurence, Margaret. “A Bird in the House.” New Canadian Library No. 96. 1974. ISBN 07710-9196-6

Kertzer, Jon. “That House in Manawaka: Margaret Laurence’s A BIRD IN THE HOUSE.”

ECW Press. 1992. ISBN- 1-55022-124-8

Thomas, Clara. “The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence.”  McClelland and Stewart Limited. 1975. ISBN- 0-7710-8460-9

Morley, Patricia. “Margaret Laurence”. Twayne Publishers. 1981. ISB- 0-80576433-X

Nicholson, Colin. “Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Margaret Laurence” Macmillan. 1990. ISB- 0-333-46069-3