Death, Loss, and Their Repercussions in the Stories of Alistair MacLeod

“…the tears froze to their reddened cheeks.”

Indeed, Calum’s mental interpretation of his father’s grief as a child unveils the poignant sorrow often associated with loss in MacLeod’s text. Inspired by a historical context of decaying Cape Breton traditions, Alistair MacLeod’s elegiac anthology of short stories Island provides readers with a perception of the heartbreak that is an impact of death and the passing of traditions. MacLeod’s oeuvre encourages readers to consider the bitterness of the fragmentation of families and loss of traditional lifestyles. The ramifications of loss, moreover, extend to a belated appreciation of sacrifice for MacLeod’s Cape Breton peoples. MacLeod also facilitates an understanding of the overwhelming bereavement that is an impact of death.

MacLeod delineates to readers the bitter resentment that is a corollary of the loss of traditions. In “The Boat”, MacLeod orchestrates antithesis of the mother “looking upon the sea with love and [her son] with bitterness” to highlight the antipathy that is a repercussion of a loss of family unity. Indeed, the narrator’s reflection of how his mother “of all the Lynns has neither son nor son-in-law who will go to the boat” seeks to evoke in readers memories of isolated family and friends, or even constitutes a poignant reminder of their own isolation. Such notions are echoed in MacLeod’s use of biting language in the grandmother’s dialogue in “The Return,” where she berates Angus and his brother as “lost to us the both of you…more lost than Andrew…who is buried under the sea.” MacLeod interweaves this language with the grandfather’s criticism of “being owned by [Angus’] woman’s family” to provide readers with an understanding of the older generation’s bitterness towards a younger generation that espouses individualism. MacLeod’s narratives therefore facilitate insight into the acrimony associated with dispersal and individualism.

Additionally, MacLeod unveils the belated, irremediable guilt for those who are forever lost performing the ultimate self-sacrifice of death. Through the anaphora of “it is not an easy thing to know…nor is it easy to know that your father was found…” in “The Boat”, MacLeod underscores the guilt felt by those who benefit from the unfortunate deaths of others.(See note 1) Just as his narrator ruminates on such past sacrifice when “teaching at a great midwestern university,” MacLeod leads readers who have left family and home to ponder upon and begin to grasp the sacrifices that enabled them to do so. Such a purpose is reflected in “The Tuning of Perfection,” where MacLeod presents Archibald’s “numbness” at the death of his brother, who “fought the drifts” to “bear him the news every one else on the mountain already knew.” The symbol of Archibald’s numbness represents the debilitating mixture of grief, love and guilt that overcomes those attempting to fathom deaths. MacLeod consequently guides readers to a comprehension of the guilt associated with life lost out of self-sacrifice.

MacLeod’s narratives also reveal the bereavement intertwined in death and coming-of-age, the bereavement immanent in universal human narratives of lifelong change. MacLeod’s use of metaphor in “To Every Thing There Is a Season,” where his narrator is “jabbed by his own small wound” at “being on the adult side of the world,” delineates the acute personal bereavement of a loss of innocence. MacLeod hence prompts readers to attempt to comprehend, and reflect upon, the pain they felt at times of final separation from the people or lifestyles they cherish. Moreover, the poignant language of how Archibald “thought he might cry” as he thought of his “pale unbreathing son” is employed by MacLeod to create an understanding of the overwhelming sorrow of loss. Furthermore, in “The Closing Down of Summer”, MacLeod endows narratives of death with an almost saga-like quality, as the grief of the “midnight phone call” modulates and fades “like the ballads…of the distant lonely past” into something “more bitter or more serene”. In this way, MacLeod’s narratives encourage readers to develop a perception of the complex bereavement that is an impact of death.

Ultimately, MacLeod’s polyphonic oeuvre traverses the bitterness and grief that are repercussions of the loss of lifestyle and death. Readers are hence left with an indelible and confronting understanding of the inevitability of sorrow in death. Indeed, in the words of the grandfather in “The Vastness of the Dark,” memories of loss are recollections that “will wake you up at night and never leave you alone”

The signification of emotion, drama and unhurried poetic writing style in the lyrical stories of Alistair MacLeod

“…the tears froze to their reddened cheeks.” Indeed, Calum’s poignant reimagining of the past in The Road to Rankin’s Point unveils the dramatic and acute emotion of grief that permeates MacLeod’s narratives. Inspired by a historical context of dispersal and Gaelic clanship, Alistair MacLeod’s anthology of short stories Island employs a poetic cadence, underpinned by emotive intensity, to unveil dramatic realizations of loss and unhurried reflections of love. The discursively unhurried nature of MacLeod’s stories traverses the intensity and poignance of moments of existential revelation and reflection on the past. Moreover, the lyrical cadence of MacLeod’s poetic works reveals the entrancing and heart-warming nature of love and kinship. However, the poetic and figurative style of MacLeod’s works contributes, in fact, to dramatic and powerfully theatrical scenes of trepidation and libido.

Discursive and relaxedly unhurried passages are used by MacLeod to contrast scenes of dramatic action and traverse the intensity of realization and yearning. MacLeod’s orchestration of ruminating repetition in James’ realization that “I do not know when he may die. I do not know in what darkness she may cry out…” endows his recollections with a lyrical quality and an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. MacLeod contrasts this emotive discursiveness with the dramatic scenes of the profane businessman likening the weather to “hotter than a whore in hell” to underscore the distinction between a crude and apathetic modernity and emotive revelations of the foolishness of attempting to disown family heritage. Similar to this unhurried repetition in “The Vastness of the Dark” is the ashamed and reflective repetition in “The Boat” of “it is not an easy thing to know that your mother lives alone…it is not an easy thing to know that your mother looks upon you with bitterness” that unveils the narrator’s guilt at the abandonment of his mother and his yearning to reconcile heritage with intellectual stimulation. Indeed, MacLeod employs unhurried repetition in this passage to reveal how individuals can continuously traverse the emotional states of unsettlement and shame. Hence, MacLeod’s more repetitious passages are not dramatic in quality but rather highly relaxed and reflective, providing insight into regret and epiphany.

However, MacLeod’s poetic imagery adopts a dramatic quality, filled with theatrical innuendo, as MacLeod reveals the frenetic nature of the sexual act and the existential dangers of seafaring lifestyles. In “Island”, MacLeod’s theatrical imagery of “mackerel…turning the water to black with their density” and “snapping off the flesh” from each other vividly alludes to the frenzy of sperm as they compete to fertilize an egg. Indeed, the excitement in this scene portrays the furore and ardor of carnal sexual intercourse that leaves bodies “sticky with human seed”. Contrastingly, the dramatic imagery in “The Boat” of “running between and amongst the waves but never confronting their towering might” reveals the perilous nature of the traditional occupation of fishing. MacLeod, furthermore, underscores the brutality and painfulness of the deaths caused by such occupations in his powerfully vivid imagery of the narrator’s father whose “hands were shredded” and whose “testicles…eaten by fish.” Therefore, the horrific and salacious imagery of MacLeod’s narratives unveil, respectively, the disgusting nature of death and the impetuous nature of sex with dramatic intensity.

Nevertheless, the lyrical cadence and majestic, beautiful imagery in MacLeod’s narrative synthesize to poetically unveil the contentment of love and heart-warming unity of familial kinship. Through the metaphor of a family “drawn together in the tableau of their care” around a “Christmas tree” MacLeod illuminates the radiant familial affection that is captured in memories and moments of unity. Indeed, MacLeod emotively proffers that, in spite of families being afflicted by illness that renders individuals “not too well lately” and the loss of innocence as children “journey further and further” from their lives of naivety, the indelible connectedness of families should be celebrated. Resembling this depiction of familial love from “To Every Thing There Is a Season” is the imagery of singing that “makes the hairs stand up on the back of [Archibald]’s neck” in “The Tuning of Perfection.” By likening Archibald’s wife’s signing to an “eagle at the apex of its arc” MacLeod poetically delineates how the intense emotions of romantic love and fond attachment transcend death and the passing of the years. The poetic and emotive nature of MacLeod’s work hence reveals the indomitable intensity of familial and romantic love.

Ultimately, in MacLeod’s anthology, exciting drama and discursive poetic passages combine to provide powerful insight into the emotiveness of family bonds and reflexivity. Indeed, the implication for readers is that such strong sentiments and connections are powerfully vivid and enduring or, in the words of the miners in “The Vastness of the Dark”, “bound to bust your balls and break your heart”.