“Some novels are a version of memory. Two Solitudes is just such a novel, and in it a number of characters confront the idea of shared or cultural memory and the consequences of that sharing.”
This afterword encapsulates the complexity and richness of Hugh MacLennan’s brilliant Canada Reads novel. The title reflects a number of themes that are portrayed throughout the book – the racial divide of a country, religion, friends and even two star-crossed lovers.
"If there had been the slightest suggestion of kindliness, the least indication of a willingness to believe the best of Quebec in such men as this from Ontario, Canada’s trenchant problem would cease to exist.”
Throughout the novel there is a constant disparity: be it urban vs. rural; Catholic vs. Protestant; English vs. French-Canadian; father vs. son; or male vs. female. Politics drives a lot of the relationships but the complexity of the First World War backdrop is juxtaposed nicely into the real predicament the characters face in trying to justify their choices.
"Athanase felt the dilemma deeply within his own soul. Quebec wanted prestige but not change. By some profound instinct, French Canadians distrusted and disliked the American pattern of constant change. They knew it was ruthless, blind and uncontrollable.”
We know this constant struggle is still ongoing. As Charles Taylor in his book Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism, put it:
The “two solitudes” of Hugh MacLennan are still a fundamental reality in Canada; the ways that the two groups envisage their predicament, their problems, and their common country are so different that it is hard to find a common language. They are like two photographs of the same object taken from such different points of view that they cannot be superimposed (Taylor, 1993:24).1
Although the story enriches you with deeper sense of the history of Quebec, Two Solitudes by no means feels like a dry history book. The author does a beautiful job of weaving the story of an unforgettable set of characters into a social and political theme. As rich as the book is in giving the reader a perspective on the nation’s European history, it is even richer because of the characters and the human interactions.
1Reference: Taylor, Charles. (1993) Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.