by Joseph J. Pivato
“Without these bloodthirsty mosquitoes it would be a dream”
The French title for Georges Bugnet’s most famous novel, La Forêt, is in the feminine. In both Roger’s and Louise’s minds the ever-present forest does take on a personality which can be described as feminine. This impression is easier to maintain in the French version of the narrative where all the nouns, pronouns and adjectives are in the feminine form to agree with la forêt. This literary device of personification is all the more powerful since it can have confirmation in the real experience of pioneers and homesteaders in the boreal forests of northern Canada. Bugnet knew the forest and made plants a life study. And so it is a happy coincidence that he gives the forest in his famous novel a powerful personality.
The seasons in north central Alberta change quickly so that it is easy to believe that a forest is sapient. One day you are looking at a wall of bare branches, gray and apparently dead. Two days later those same branches are covered in bright green leaves, almost flourescent in the spring sunshine. One day you see chunks of ice on Lake Majeau, the next day there are dozens of Canada geese which just flew in from Alabama on their way north. Northern Alberta lakes like Majeau (pictured above) are usually surrounded by a mixture of tree species from evergreens to willow to aspen. Because of the shorter growing seasons in northern Canada plants have adapted various strategies to procreate. The aspen reproduces new trees from its roots which travel out from the main tree underground. Thus in the novel, The Forest, Roger can spend a summer and fall clearing a piece of land of trees only to find that in a year the aspen forest near by has sent out hundreds of roots with shoots of new little trees to claim back the land. Because this process is hidden underground one can't help but feel that there is a certain volition on the part of the forest.
In the mind of Louise, Rogers young wife, the forest is a force that is frightening and so it is described in these terms:
The great woods seemed neither menacing nor welcoming. In the warm sunlight they had a life of their own, full of impeccable and incomprehensible movement. It had such force and abundance that it spread the whole world with a marvelous, living raiment, compared to which the works of man were but misshapen toys — dead, useless, soon reclaimed as fodder for the triumphant vegetation. (14)
In order to clear the land Roger is forced to spend more and more time working outside and so spends less and less time with Louise. He often speaks to Louise about the beauties of nature and wonders why she does not share his appreciation. It becomes clear that the conflict between Louise and the forest is over the attention of Roger. At one point Roger tries to resolve this conflict by promising to spend more time on his writing and with Louise, but this does not last very long. The demands of the harsh environment are too great. Louise sees Roger becoming more and more brutish. At one point he looses his temper and beats his horses until they run away. The forest seems to exert more and more control over their lives to the point of tragedy. Bugnet uses these words:
They both knew that their discord had not been sought, that it had not come from within themselves, but from an insurmountable cause — the inflexible Canadian wilderness, which would henceforth stand between them, stronger than their wills. (129)
The forest in Bugnet’s narrative does not speak like a human character, but it is ever-present from the first sentence to the final one. It is acted upon by Roger, but it is not passive since it exerts a powerful force on every aspect of the lives of Roger and Louise and their neighbours. Is the power of the forest a projection of Louise’s mind? In part, this is true. Even when Roger and Louise try to resist the influence of the bush which surrounds them they are still acknowledging its power.
Objectively, the forest is a large collection of trees and is not a menacing force. In subjective terms it takes on negative characteristics. In the experience of Roger and Louise their stay on the homestead is full of troubles. Some of these problems are due to their inexperience, some to chance, some to bad luck. It is easy to project some of the blame on the harsh surroundings. The Alberta winters can be cold.
There is a long tradition in Canadian writing of describing elements of nature in human terms. We have many stories from the traditional lore of the First Nations which treat animals in personal terms. Europeans brought a darker side to the human interaction with nature that has been described as Gothic. In these stories the unknown aspects of nature are always treated as menacing. One of the earliest examples is Richardson’s Wacousta (1832). In Quebec we have Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine (1914) in which the hero dies lost in a snowstorm. A western contemporary of Bugnet is Martha Ostenso whose novel, Wilde Geese (1924) has Gothic elements in the person of Caleb Gare and his obsession with his land. We should note that Richardson, Hémon and Bugnet were all immigrants educated in Europe and so their views of the Canadian wilderness would have the edge of danger. It is easy for writers like Margaret Atwood to take the literary conventions of the Gothic novel set in the Canadian wilderness or a farm and to find parallels with our history and society. For many of these writers who often take this environmental interpretation to Canadian writing, the forest has always been a living character in our literature, not just in Bugnet’s novel.
Atwood, Margaret. Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
McGregor, Gaile. The Wacousta Syndrome: Explorations in the Canadian Landscape. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.
Moss, John. Patterns of Isolation in English Canadian Fiction. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974.
Northey, Margot. The Haunted Wilderness: Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction. Toronto: University.
Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services