This page last revised 3 June 1997
Text:Richardson, John. Wacousta: or, The Prophecy; A Tale of the Canadas. Ed. Douglas Cronk. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1987.
Wacousta is interesting, not because it is a "great" novel, but because it was the first novel written by a native-born Canadian, and because the interaction of the worlds of the Indian and the European in the novel is so complete; this is not a simplistic narrative of inherent Western superiority, although it does have a certain manner of privileging the West. There may be a few reasons for this. Richardson almost certainly had Native ancestry, and he knew a great deal about the local tribes, having a large amount of sympathy with their difficulties and aspirations. Nonetheless, this is primarily a novel about Europeans and European culture, where the Indians and their country represent what that culture suppresses in human nature.
The text abounds in opposites and parallels, the two most important of these being the locations of the fort Detroit and the forest. The fort is not a typical human community. It is there to serve a particular purpose, to maintain control over the surrounding territory and hence to ensure the security of the lucrative fur trade. As such, all of its procedures and structures are geared towards that purpose. Within its walls, everything is as linear and rational as possible; right angles are everywhere. The fort thus represents the European mind, which is supposedly logical and unemotional. Order is of paramount importance, and anything which contravenes that order is unacceptable. This goes some way towards explaining Colonel de Haldimar's seemingly brutal treatment of Halloway after the latter's apparent dereliction of duty. The forest, on the other hand, and the Indians who inhabit it, represent everything which is dark, disordered and irrational.
This is very much a novel about boundaries, about what happens when they are crossed, and about what lies outside the European rational mind, about what it excludes. Thus, Reginald Morton assumes the identity of Wacousta in order to bring about a series of events that could not take place in Europe. He is freed from his previous social and cultural restrictions. He and Colonel de Haldimar represent a pair of perfect opposites, as Wacousta himself describes it: " He all coldness, prudence, obsequiousness and forethought. I all enthusiasm, carelessness, impetuosity and independence." (Richardson, 347). This, before Freud, is essentially the ego versus the id. The Indian, or the white become Indian, represents uncultured man giving free reign to his animal passions, and it is terrifying. It can also, however, be pleasurable, and the figure of Oucanasta represents, for Frederick, the opportunity for a more passionate sexual relationship than does his fiancé. However, the strength of the Western system within him prevents his taking of this opportunity. His mind overcomes his bodily instincts.
Richardson has thus reduced his Indian and European characters to representations of aspects of man's nature. However, it is not simply the case that he portrays the European world as good and the Indian as evil. For instance, the fort is often an oppressive place where the rigour of the system has dire consequences for its individual members. And there are several examples of benevolent behaviour on the part of the Indians. What really interests Richardson is the inability of the two cultures to meet. The bridge is thus a crucial location in the book's symbolic structure, the site where the two worlds meet. And what we see as we read the text is that nothing good can happen on the bridge, it seems only to bring death. And ultimately, therefore, we read this as a profoundly pessimistic novel, with its implication that the two cultures are mutually exclusive, and that the same goes for the two aspects of human nature. This is really a critique of the limitations of the Western culture of the rational mind, where the Indians serve as symbols of what that excludes. Reginald Morton becomes Wacousta in order to unleash the passion of sexual jealousy and to bring the European culture as it inheres in Colonel de Haldimar crashing to the ground.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by David Harris. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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