A Littoral Place: Loss and Environment in Contemporary Newfoundland Fiction

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Charman, Caitlin Jane
Newfoundland , Literature , Place Theory , Space Theory , Environment , Cultural Geography , Tourism , Trauma , Loss , Resource Management , Nostalgia , Melancholia , Mourning , Newfoundland History , Newfoundland Identity , Regionalism , Newfoundland Literature
This dissertation examines three contemporary Newfoundland novels to reconsider the relationship among loss, environment, and Newfoundland identity. Studies of Newfoundland literature often perform environmentally deterministic readings, or readings that characterize Newfoundland as a nostalgic and pathological culture fixated on loss and disaster. Newfoundlanders are too frequently understood as victims either of environment or of their colonial past. The dissertation argues that Newfoundlanders are, rather, victims of a misunderstanding of both. Using the works of philosophers Edward Casey and Arnold Berleant, I contend that these novels retell the history of Newfoundland as the story of places being treated as interchangeable sites, and criticize the consequences that stem from this misperception. Chapter 1 outlines the development of two dominant literary traditions in Newfoundland writing—“Romanticism” and stoicism—and their corresponding place myths. Chapter 2, which discusses Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998), explains Casey’s and Berleant’s distinction between space and place, traces the history of Newfoundland being treated as an exchangeable site in empty space rather than as a unique place, and sets the theoretical framework for the dissertation. I counter environmentally deterministic readings and argue that Johnston reveals Newfoundlanders’ relationship with place to be reciprocal. Chapters 3 and 4 question the assumption that “Romantic” and sentimental expressions of loss are pathological fixations. Chapter 3 examines Kenneth J. Harvey’s The Town that Forgot How to Breathe (2003), an antimodern and dystopic novel set in outport Newfoundland following the collapse of the cod fishery. I employ Svetlana Boym’s distinction between “restorative” and “reflective” nostalgia to suggest that reflective nostalgia might play a key role in re-placing Newfoundland. Chapter 4 focuses on Lisa Moore’s February (2009), which portrays the grief of a family following the loss of their father in the Ocean Ranger disaster. The chapter contends that the same mentality that regards places merely as sites for resource extraction also considers people to be dispensable, and I argue that “resistant mourning”—rather than being pathological—amounts to an ethical protest against this mentality. I conclude by discussing the difficulty and necessity of understanding the ocean as place.
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