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Contact in Canadian Literature Essay

Pages:11 (3347 words)



Topic:Gothic Literature

Document Type:Essay


Contact in Canadian Literature: The Use of Gothic Elements in the Negotiation of Cultural Differences between Settlers and Indigenous Nations


Common elements of gothic literature include mystery, fear, omens, curses, preternatural settings, gloomy atmospheres with a hint of being haunted, some dimension of the supernatural, romance, an arch-villain, nightmare situations, anti-heroes and ladies in distress (Mulvey-Roberts; Smith). Popular examples on both sides of the Atlantic include works by the Bronte sisters, works by Poe, and Shelley’s Frankenstein. The gothic was a popular genre form in the 19th century. It was romantic, vibrant, dark, brooding, frightening, exciting, and visceral. It resonated with readers because after a century of Enlightenment (hyper-emphasis on reason and naturalism), the romantic era had ushered in something desperately needed: feeling. Thus, authors of the 19th century, like Duncan Campbell Scott and Pauline Johnson, found elements of the gothic genre to be a useful way to explore and express their feelings and sentiments on the topic of cultural interaction between the indigenous nations and the settlers of Canada. This paper will show how Scott with his “The Onondaga Madonna” (1898) and Johnson with her “Pagan in St. Paul’s Cathedral” use the same gothic elements to shape two completely different perspectives and to create a unique, otherworldly effect that they want their words to have on the reader.

The Onondaga Madonna

The term “Madonna” was one used and reserved for the Mother of God. The great sculptors and artists of the Christian era created numerous depictions of the Madonna, most famous among them perhaps Michelangelo’s, which shows the Virgin holding her dead Son in her lap following His removal from the cross. As missionaries from Europe spread throughout the world, other ethnicities had their own Madonnas. There is the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose image is distinctly Spanish, for example. Thus, at first glance, the “Onondaga Madonna” appears to be a poem about a Madonna done in the likeness of the Onondaga people of Canada. Indeed, it may even be so—but the depiction is far from flattering. Most Madonna depictions emphasize beauty and grace; Scott’s Madonna is depicted like the mother of a doomed race, violent and stubborn. The integration of images and contexts causes the poem to have a bizarre quality that is perfectly gothic in tone.

The gothic genre is about creating an air of mystery, suspense, dread, and fear. It is about tapping into the undercurrent of nature that is primal, dark, savage, fallen from grace, and baring it for the reader in a slow burn kind of way. This is what Scott does in his poem about the Onondaga woman holding her infant child. It is not quite a parody of the Christian Madonna, but it does compare the Onondaga woman and child with the Virgin and Child image associated with the Christian Madonna. In doing so, Scott creates a kind of monster Madonna, just as Victor Frankenstein created a monster man. The difference is that Frankenstein’s monster was an accident that the creator went on to reject: he was aiming for something beautiful and the output disgusted him. Scott’s creation is deliberate and he uses irony to contrast the savage appearance of the Onondaga woman with the graceful image of the Virgin Mary that most people will automatically think of when they hear the word Madonna.

The Scott uses mystery and fear to set up the poem in the first two lines: “She stands full-throated and with careless pose, / This woman of a weird and waning race” (Scott 1-2). The first question to ask is this: Is Scott describing an actual Madonna made for the Onondaga? Or is he describing an Onondaga woman and child? The actual subject is unclear and context does not provide any hints. All that can be discerned is that the woman is not “European” and therefore she is “weird” and of a “waning race”—and this phrase suggests implicitly that the European settlers are going to drive the race of the Onondaga out of existence. Underlying these words is a dark, menacing threat of violence and death. Yet it does not come from the woman but from the author of the text, who sees her race as doomed.

Scott gives more words to help the reader see what he sees: “The tragic savage lurking in her face, / Where all her pagan passion burns and glows” (3-4). From these lines one can surmise that the author is in fact describing an Onondaga woman because he refers to her passion as “pagan”—i.e., not Christian. She is thus to be taken as a pagan Madonna, a representation of her people and her race, which is seen as “tragic” and “savage,” words that carry gothic weight along with “passion,” and the emphasis on feeling and visceral experience. Her passion “burns and glows” Scott explains, and she is like an ember dying on the fire but not yet extinguished. She is a tragic creature and therefore in the mold of Frankenstein’s monster—another weird, savage, passionate creation scorned and marginalized and pushed to violence. These words of Scott are strange and unusual for one writing about a Madonna, but Scott seems to think it is okay because he is describing a pagan, an indigenous member of the Onondaga. She is something altogether different from, say, the Sistine Madonna. The Sistine Madonna has nothing hideous in her. The Onondaga Madonna on the hand could seemingly pass for the bride of Frankenstein’s monster, if one is able to read into what Scott is saying.

She is described as one who has no decent breeding, no class, no culture, no refinement: “Her blood is mingled with her ancient foes, / And thrills with war and wildness in her veins” (5-6). Scott indicates that there is no purity of race in her, since her ancestors were likely enslaved or mixed with the slaves of other tribes taken in combat. He sees her as a type of mongrel,…

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…fires of the Onondaga "long-house," and the resinous scent of the burning pine drifted across the fetid London air.” The gothic, gloomy mood of the place is supplanted by the rich, hearty, romantic spirit of her own experiences and reveries back home. The reader is transported along with her, and the gloom and darkness is spirited away by the mysterious force that is the worship of the Great Spirit of the Indigenous people. It is this mysterious force that Scott misses entirely in his mockery of the Onondaga woman. It is not missed by Johnson who understands and appreciates it. To her it is romantic. To Scott it is dark and sinister, violent and evil. To her, the culture of the paleface is dead as a corpse, the spirit sunk out of it centuries ago. The majesty of the English bishops is nothing compared to regalia of her own “tall, copper-skinned fire-keeper of the Iroquois council” (Johnson). Her people back home know how to worship, know how to decorate themselves, know all this because they have a better sense of life, of the Great Spirit, of the romantic whirlwind that breathes and shuttles through all things in union with it. The cathedral at St. Paul’s is not one of these places, but is rather a tomb where the living dead go to gather and mumble their dead utterances.

Johnson describes the sacrifice of a pure white dog and relays the words of the Indian priest, in essence similar to those words of the English, but in matter and form slightly different. The essence is the same: there is no need for human sacrifice—but some sacrifice is required so as to show to the Great Spirit that the humans there wish to be ever closer to Him. It is Johnson uniting her heart to God—and when she finally lifts her head and opens her eyes she is back in St. Paul’s, where the service of the paleface continues on.


The gothic nature of the essay exists in the emotional distress that Johnson navigates and in the nightmarish world that she escapes so as to be back in her own. It is a world that Scott, conversely, describes as a nightmare, full of violence and rebellion, blood and wildness. For Johnson it is no such thing: it is alive, romantic, spirited, human, soulful, and honorable. For Johnson, the English way that Scott was enamored of was the dead way. Yet both use gothic elements to achieve an effect on their readers. Both appeal to the mysteriousness, to mood and atmosphere, to the supernatural. Scott appeals also to omens and curses; Johnson avoids them. She is too much in the romantic mood, in the worshipful vain to descend into the territory of curses. She uses the elements of mystery and fear as a launching pad from which she darts homeward bound to be with her own people in worship; but she never descends into the tar pits of curses leveled…

Sample Source(s) Used

Works Cited

Gray, Charlotte, and Clara Thomas. "Flint and feather: the life and times of E Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake." Canadian Woman Studies 23.1 (2003): 183.

Johnson, E. Pauline. “Pagan in St. Paul’s Cathedral.”

Mulvey-Roberts, Marie, ed. The Handbook to Gothic literature. NYU Press, 1998.

Salem-Wiseman, Lisa. ""Verily, the White Man's Ways Were the Best": Duncan Campbell Scott, Native Culture, and Assimilation." Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne (1996): 121-144.

Scott, D. C. “The Onondaga Madonna.”

Smith, Andrew. Gothic Literature. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

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