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Athabasca University

Symbolic Grotesque: The Double Hook

by Margot Northey, Queen’s University

To describe Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook as "symbolic grotesque" may seem odd, since it is evident that most if not all grotesque literature has a symbolic element. The reason for so describing it lies in the greater emphasis on symbolism in this variety of grotesque, an emphasis which is linked with the directed nature of most symbolic grotesque works. In the symbolic grotesque, the symbols tend to be explicit or conventional and to fit fairly neatly into the underlying moral or philosophic framework; they are an integral part of the story’s message or direction. In disruptive grotesque fiction by comparison, where there is no such direction or underlying purpose, the symbols frequently have a diffused or diverse suggestiveness, with a tangential rather than integral relationship to each other. They tend to enrich and broaden the meaning of the work but are not necessary to a basic understanding of it.

In The Double Hook, the symbolism clearly has a central, directive role, and when it is combined with Watson’s careful, measured use of words, the effect is similar to those modern gothic novels described by John Aldridge as "pure, neat and carefully refined as symbolist poems." Yet unlike many symbolist poems, this modern gothic novel offers an obvious moral or philosophic position underlying the story.

The message of The Double Hook is religious. It is a story about redemption written from a Christian vantage point. In this respect as in several others, it resembles the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, who is also concerned with redemption and writes within a Christian symbolic framework. O'Connor maintains that the Christian writer has the sharpest eye for the grotesque; he will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortion to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural, and he may well be forced to take even more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.

Watson’s grotesque novel would seem to follow O’Connor’s reasoning, but whereas The Double Hook shows salvation within reach at the ending, Flannery O’Connor’s stories usually finish with defeat and destruction, only indirectly pointing to the path of Christian redemption through the abysmal effects of evil, anti-Christian behaviour and attitudes.

Despite the optimism of The Double Hook’s ending, at its center there is as bleak a picture of existence as ever painted by Flannery O'Connor. The short tale contains repeated scenes of violence, cruelty, and victimization — traditional evils of gothic fiction. James murders his mother and seduces Lenchen; Lenchen becomes pregnant and is abandoned by James and her mother; Greta commits suicide by setting fire to her house; James blinds Kip.

Moreover despite the absence of the gross physical abnormality or monstrosity found in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction as well as in that of Marie-Clarie Blais there are no cripples, amputees, or hideously deformed individuals — the characters are nonetheless grotesques. Part of this grotesqueness is attributable to the one-dimensional quality of their portraits. In none of the characters do we get much complexity in response or attitude. The only picture we get of Mrs. Potter is of an old women ferociously fishing, and the widow Wagner is reduced to a cardboard figure who repeats "dear God" over and over. Such single-sidedness or single-mindedness is of course one of the marks of human grotesqueness in literature, as Sherwood Anderson has pointed out, but in The Double Hook it reaches the point where it is easy to interpret the various characters as representatives of certain types. Although there are no strictly allegorical figures boldly labeled Greed, Sloth, and so forth, the characters are flattened, and certain symbolic qualities are stressed. In his introduction to the story, John Grube states that Mrs. Potter is a symbol of death and William is the man of "reason, order and commonsense." Similarly, Felix represents spiritual awakening through love, and Kip is a symbol of amoral instinct or innocent perception.

Although Coyote plays a more complex role than many of the characters, he can be seen as a variation of the conventional Faustian figure. Leslie Monkman has discussed at length Coyote’s position as a trickster, an immoral source of seduction and death who functions in satanic opposition to the Old Testament Jehovah. Until the end, Coyote is not seen by the inhabitants, who only hear his call or mark his footprints, and it is this sense of mystery surrounding him which raises the fear in the people to gothic proportions. Cleverly utilizing the terror he arouses, Coyote seductively lures Greta with the charms of death and tempts the widow with forgetfulness. Both Mrs. Potter and Kip become agents of his dark ways.

The landscape in The Double Hook is as grotesque as the characters. The parched, cracked land in which creeks and grass have dried up, cattle are stunted, and dust is everywhere seems monstrously deformed and ugly. The drought is a major cause of the hardship and suffering of the characters, forcing their awareness of the cruel mysteries of life. The landscape, however, is also symbolic; it is a spiritual wasteland which reflects the inner sterility of the characters.

The symbolism which Sheila Watson uses in creating this spiritual landscape is guided by her Christian perceptions and conviction, as various critics have pointed out. Following the story’s familiar pattern of spiritual death and rebirth, and of regeneration through love, many of the natural features have dual, symbolic functions, representing both the unregenerated and regenerated sides of existence. The natural world as a whole has a double side. On the one hand, it is menacing and cruel, as when Ara sees the sky like a "raw skin … drawn over them like a sack." When Lenchen seeks refuge at Felix’s house, "in the sky above evil had fathered strength." The rain which falls at the beginning of the book is "like a web," and it has the effect of beating upon the characters "with adder tongues. With lariats. With bullwhips." When Ara envisages Mrs. Potter fishing, she sees the rising creek as death: "As she watched the old lady, Ara felt death leaking through from the centre of the earth. Death rising to the knee. Death rising to the loin" (21).

On the other hand, when the characters’ lives become regenerated, nature increasingly reflect the change. Previous images of sterility and death are counterbalanced by the traditional, Christian image of water as symbolic of spiritual rebirth. The clearest image of redemptive nature occurs when James returns home to begin afresh with his people; he goes through "a meadow of wild hay, watered by some hidden spring." Correspondence between the internal and external state is emphasized with the description of the widow as she decides to find her daughter, "her face stirring like ground cracked above a growing shoot."

The recurrent play upon fish and fishing also illustrates Sheila Watson’s deliberate use of a single symbol for multiple effects, as opposed to two contrasting symbols. The fish is, of course, a conventional symbol of Christ. Mrs. Potter is repeatedly seen by the other characters, fishing in the fried-up stream, but her catch, unlike Christ's, never feeds the multitude of her neighbours. Rather, Mrs. Potter in her fishing is a kind of death symbol and anti-Christ, who "throws her line" against God and against any loving relationship with her family. Both she and James, by attempting to "fish for :glory," catch dear and darkness on their hooks. Moreover, as Grube points out, the "kettle of fish" prepared by the prostitute in the brothel is rejected by James as a kind of false hope. It is symbolically fitting that before he sees his way to any redemptive role. Felix stands meditating with a fish spine in his hand. The regenerative implications of the fish symbol are evident in the final chapter, as Ara prophetically sees a "great multitude of fishes/" Significantly it is "St Felix" who catches a fish in a stream and shares it. The reversal of James’s previous role and that of his mother is suggested during his return to the settlement, when "fear unwound itself again like the line from his mother’s reel."

Although the underlying Christian framework is a major factor in the symbolic directedness of the story, there are clearly other levels of suggestiveness which have no Christian reference. The symbolic figure of Coyote is from American Indian myth, and, as Grube mentions, Sheila Watson uses a symbolic pattern of the elements — fire, earth, air and water — that are basic to the "collective unconscious" of the human race, to the "racial memory of man." One also finds conventional cowboy story symbols in the story. In the cowboy story use of a stark, desert setting, the stereotyped black-and-white characterizations, and the ideas of justice, revenge, and outlaws, The Double Hook provides a North American variation of the wasteland story. In its directedness, the cowboy story may also be considered a North American rendition of the old morality play.

Nevertheless, it is also possible to interpret the cowboy features as a disruptive rather than directed grotesque element. Sheila Watson herself refers to the story as an "anti-Western," a comment which suggests her parodying purpose. She may be attempting to explode the clichés she exploits by emphasizing the dehumanized, crabbed lives of people who live like literary caricatures — a converse of the earlier interpretation in which characters follow literary convention to direct us towards their mythic or universal human qualities.

Whichever way one chooses to interpret the cowboy motifs, it is evident that in her use of conventional religious symbols Sheila Watson provides a deliberate duality which underscores her view of the unavoidable duality of existence. Kip’s comment about James, used as the epigraph to the story, stresses a central theme of The Double Hook: "He doesn't know you can’t catch the glory on a hook and hold on to it. That when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too. That if you hook twice the glory you hook twice the fear" (61).

This theme underlies gothic fiction in general, which attempts to shock the reader into a recognition of the dark or evil side of life which people try to ignore or explain away. The universe which The Double Hook presents is dark with cruelty and inexplicable suffering. Sheila Watson demonstrates that the habitual reactions of the members of the settlement aggravate and expand their misery and make grotesque their lives. One the one side there are those who react passively. Such passivity can be seen as an aspect of the dominant Calvinist ethos, which stresses the insignificance of man and his work beside an omnipotent and stern God, and sees salvation bestowed upon the chosen few rather than earned by right actions. Thus the attitude to God is mostly one of helpless fear, as the widow Wagner indicates:

Dear God, she cried. Then she stopped short.
Afraid that he might come.
Father of the fatherless. Judge of widows.
Death and after death the judgement. (55)

Fear of death is entangled with fear of God’s harsh justice after death: "Dear God, she thought. How easy death would be if there was death and nothing more." This passive fear of death and darkness leads to the death-in-life existence which is characteristic of much gothic and grotesque fiction. The habitual posture of waiting for something terrible to happen contributes to the atmosphere of tense expectancy and of nameless menace which is characteristic of the book. Before Mrs Potter’s death, all her family had lives "suspended in silence" and inaction:

They’d lived waiting. Waiting to come together at the same lake as dogs creep out of the night to the same fire. Moving their lips when they moved them at all as hungers talk smelling the deer. Edged close wiping plates and forks while the old lady sat in her corner. Move their lips saying: she’ll live forever. And when they’d raid their eyes their mother was watching as a deer watched. (43)

The whole world seems hung in passive apprehensiveness. The boy notices that "All about him as he rode into the year he could hear the breathing of his animals. Close to the house waiting." And the widow despairs: "The country. The wilderness. Nothing. Nothing but old women waiting." At times the passive response to suffering makes death itself seem a desirable escape, an escape which Coyote offers. Coyote calls to James, "in my fear is peace," and the boy also hears is beckoning cry, "in my mouth is forgetting/in my darkness is rest." The deadening encroachment of fear up in those who respond passively shows itself in a repression of all human warmth and sympathy. Angel has been married to Felix for several years and has borne his children, but Felix knows they lived together "by necessity. By indifference." Theophil, to whom Angel turns, wants even less real involvement with her. "All the time, he thought, people go shutting their doors. Tying things up. Fencing them in. Shutting out what they never rightly know" (58).

Fear of human attachment is mixed with fear of sexuality. The widow rejects Lenchen when she can’t face the same of her daughter’s pregnancy. Greta, who turns everyone away from her house, can stand only the embrace of Coyote’s seductive death call:

And Coyote cried in the hills:
I’ve taken her where she stood
My hand is on her head, my right hand embraces her. (85)

Angel realizes that she lives in a community of "empty spaces." Later she discovers there is no escape from such isolation by moving elsewhere: "But if loneliness is being in one’s own skin and flesh, there’s only more lonely beings there than here." An adjunct to the repression of emotion is the preference shown by some of the characters for ignorance rather than knowledge or vision, since such knowledge or vision might demand action of involvement in the community. Thus Theophil "lets fear grow like fur on his eyes," and tells Kip "sometimes, too, it’s better for the eyes to close."

Although the characters’ passive response to their suffering contributes to a more fearful, repressed, and lonely existence, some of those people who respond actively also bring darkness and destruction upon themselves and others. Mrs. Potter chooses actively to defy God and to assert herself in God’s place:

If God had come into the valley, come holding out the long fingers of salvation, moaning in the darkness, thundering down the gap at the lakehead, skimming across the water, drying up the blue signature like blotting paper, asking where, asking why, defying as answer. She would have thrown her line against the rebuke. (20)

Because she is more strong-willed than the others, Mrs. Potter is able to dominate her family. Her will turns the passive compliance of her son and daughter into seething frustration. She brings destruction upon herself and her children. She is the cause and recipient of her son’s murderous explosion and the indirect cause of her daughter’s insane self-destruction. Mrs. Potter’s dominance continues after her death. People report that they see her; she remains in their minds despite her physical absence. She still influences her children’s actions. Greta tries to assert her will as her mother had done before her, and James, after his one act of defiance against his mother, returns to his fearful defensiveness and distrust of others. In his desire for self-importance, he also "fishes for glory," copying the very attitude of his mother that he hated.

Kip is another one who reacts actively, who reaches out for God-like "white glory" through a controlling knowledge of the weaknesses and strengths of those around him. Like Mrs. Potter, he becomes the agent of Coyote’s darkness, as the boy himself notices: "Get out of here, the boy said. Wherever you are there’s trouble." Ironically, despite Kip’s perception about others’ foolishness, he foolishly goads James into blinding him.

In the end Coyote himself is fooled, since out of the destruction comes signs of a new life built on help and love for each other. Felix and the widow come to the aid of Lenchen, and Felix and Angel renew and vitalize their marriage. James returns to the place and to the people he tried vainly to forget; in his resolve he finds escape from his despair. However, Sheila Watson suggests not that the power of darkness is eliminated, but that it is recognized and faced with new honesty and determination. The difficulties and the inexplicable suffering are still there, and man will still need a straight back "to carry around what the world will load on his shoulders." Moreover, even though the families of Felix, the widow, and James have come to terms with Coyote and his temptations, the downward slope into despair and destruction is yet a danger for the new baby and for all those who set their feet "on the sloping shoulders of the world." Although fear is conquered, darkness remains.

Despite the precariousness of the settlement’s achievement, the communal feeling at the end points toward redemption. In this final optimism, The Double Hook resembles the medieval morality play’s spirit more than it does and modern grotesque works, where pessimism and anguished despair seem to pervade. The symbolic nature of the grotesque in The Double Hook also brings it close to the medieval drama. Obviously Sheila Watson’s novel does not have the same degree of direction as those early models. Her symbolism, as he have seen, contains a deliberate double-sidedness and is sometimes more suggestive than specific. Nevertheless the symbolic structure of the story places The Double Hook within a conventional Christian context, in which redemption is made possible through love and charity to one’s neighbour. Such familiar directioning to the story has a real danger of seeming trite or artificial to the modern mind. The Double Hook avoids this pitfall, retaining a literary freshness through the grotesque originality and the spare, elemental style with which the story is presented. Sheila Watson only points the reader toward the regenerated land of her traditional religious vision after leading him through some uniquely haunting territory1.


1This essay is from Margot Northey’s The Haunted Wilderness: Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973). This essay and the notes below are produced here with the permission of Prof. Northey.

Extra Notes

  • Sheila Watson, The Double Hook, with introduction by John Grube (Toronto: New Canadian Library, 1969). First published in 1959.
  • Quoted in Malin, New American Gothic, 8.
  • Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 33-4.
  • Sherwood Anderson, Winseburg Ohio, 25.
  • Leslie Monkman, "Coyote as Trickster in The Double Hook," Canadian Literature 52 (Spring 1972) 70-56.
  • It also appears to be strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot.

Gothic and Grotesque

The original application of both "gothic" and "grotesque" were in the areas of art and architecture, an application which continues today. As a literary term, "gothic" was first used in the early eighteenth century as a supposed characteristic of the Middle Ages and referred to a romantic — as opposed to classical style — of writing. Originally a term of reprobation, whether with reference to architecture, art, or literature, "gothic" stood for something barbarous, unpolished, or in bad taste. It began to acquire a more favourable meaning, however, with the publication in 1768 of Horace Wapole’s The Castle of Otranto, which in the second edition was subtitled A Gothic Story. The Castle of Otranto began a flood of gothic works which continues until the 1820s. With Horace Wapole and his imitators, of whom Ann Radcliffe was the foremost craftsman, the term became associated with tales of gloom and terror.

In the twentieth century, the grotesque has become an ever more frequent mode among writers. At the same time the definition of grotesqueness, like that of gothicism, now includes new psychological and philosophical ideas. Increasing it has been linked to cosmic pointlessness of the kind exhibited in the dramas of Pirandello and his followers in the Theatre of the Absurd. Thus Wolfgang Kayser provides a three-fold definition of the grotesque of the estranged world, a play with the absurd, and an attempt to invoke and subdue the demonic aspects in the world. By contrast with this absurdist perspective Flannery O’Connor proposes that the writer with Christian faith will be most inclined toward the grotesque, as a result of his awareness of the distortion of modern life. Moreover, although Kayser attempts a distinction between the grotesque and the tragic by suggesting the meaningless behind the former and the possibility of meaning in the latter, other critics suggest that the grotesque is simple a merging of the comic and the tragic.

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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