Mar 042011


Spain has a surprisingly extensive network of Canadian studies departments, a fact that astonished me when I stumbled upon a conference program reference to this essay about my novel Elle. I tracked down the author, wrote him an email, and asked to see a copy of the paper. This was years ago. Pedro and I became email friends. He arranged for me to be invited to a conference at the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands where I met a crowd of fascinating scholars and lived in an old hotel on a beautiful windswept square in the centre of the city (which is a UNESCO heritage site). The volcanic mountain at the centre of the island was shrouded in mist the whole time I was there. I was introduced to drinks the names of which (as well as the contents) are unfortunately lost to memory. (DG is a notoriously bad traveler.) I love this paper about Elle. I love the magical message loops–someone in Spain was decoding Elle as, simultaneously, I was decoding Don Quixote and writing The Enamoured Knight. I have no idea why there is this connection with Spain. It’s mysterious. Pedro Carmona-Rodríguez is an affable, acute, and sapient scholar, a terrific reader of my work. He teaches English, Theoretical Discourses, and Anglo-American Literatures at Universidad de La Laguna /UNED in the Canary Islands. His area of research is contemporary Canadian literature with an emphasis on gender and postcolonialism, the two entwined. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Annual meeting of the Spanish Association for Anglo-American Studies (AEDEAN) at the University of Huelva (Spain) in December, 2006.[1]



Douglas Glover’s novel, Elle, engages issues of control and its refusal, which are part and parcel of any document that intertextually appropriates and interrogates the imperial text. Through its historical research, the novel shows how the dynamics to expose the functioning of empire is increasingly concerned with examining the extent to which contemporary views are inflected by colonialism. As Tiffin and Lawson argue, “[i]mperial textuality appropriates, distorts, erases, but it also contains” (1994: 6), being this containment a more or less covert tendency to silence any contesting narrative. Glover’s Elle reflects how a female wayward gender construction turns into a counter narrative of the imperialist zeal of settlement and reproduction of the same in the seemingly empty land of the other. Woman and land are here interrelated entities, since biological reproduction and the reproduction of the incoming civilisation are, therefore, parallel acts of colonialist impregnation.

Anne McClintock’s suggestion that imperialism and its deconstruction requires a theory of gender power unveils the mechanisms whereby gender and sexuality lead us into a new dimension of colonial mimicry (1995: 6). This paper is concerned with the ways in which a wayward gender configuration parallels the generic instability of the document produced by the novel’s heroine. On the one hand, Elle’s views on space, race, gender, sex or Native myths challenge the mirror of the Eurocentric technologies of representation, and their vehicular means, the travel account, to inhabit on the other side. On the other, an atypical gender inscription manufactures a peripheral location for her subject. In the meantime, the Canadian periphery, in several senses, is hailed as the stance to threat the colonialist centred textuality. Elle’s autobiographical document unwrites the marginalisation that colonialism and patriarchy have firmly elaborated for her and the Canadian space.

When the novel opens its main narrative line, its then anonymous female protagonist, a replica of the 16th century historical Marguerite de Roberval, the French woman abandoned in the St. Lawrence River’s firth during Jacques Cartier’s third Canadian expedition, is on top of a man whose penis she maintains erected as tied by a rope, while her lover, Richard, is about to throw up out of sea sickness. When the novel is about to end, in turn, the same protagonist has just murdered Monsieur de Roberval, the agent of her dereliction, in the guise of a Canadian she-bear.[2] While it seems evident that passivity and activity struggle for preponderance in Elle’s story, her act of writing back from Canada gains for her an upper hand in her fight with the vectors of imperialism and patriarchy: on the one hand, she overtly defies the humanist subject in underlining her gender, and, on the other, that same gender diminishes the relevance of the European colonialist patriarchy.

Being a literal defiance for the systems upholding the enterprise of settlement and reproduction of the French in Canada, Elle is left behind the expedition to which she belongs. Her rendition of that abandonment is transformed into a vitriolic critique of the colonialist mentality (see Hernáez Lerena, 2007; 2009). The creation of subjectivity produced by her memoir interweaves race, gender and sexuality, three elements that turn colonialism upside down. However, Elle promptly claims that “I must be the first French woman to set foot in this world, the first of the General expedition to land, the first colonist in Canada” (Glover, 2003: 37). From the opening of her text, she reveals herself as being between the colonialist and the colonised. Whereas her European origin includes her within the former group, her position as writer and story-teller endows her with the authority of the historian, and illustrates that of so many white women in the New World, who “[…] were not the hapless onlookers of empire, but were ambiguously complicit both as colonisers and colonised, privileged and restricted, acted upon and acting” (McClintock, 1995: 6). As part of that appropriated agency, Elle launches demolishing critiques, and, once, they have targeted their aim, recedes to deny her own relevance as writer and subject. Pragmatically speaking, however, the objective has already being achieved, namely, that of undermining the basis of dominance and establishing firmly a counter-narrative. Thus, she frequently makes speeches like,

I am a headstrong girl, shallow and frivolous, born to a little land in the provinces but never meant to take part in the so-called great events of my time even if I have wanted to. Instead, I wanted to read books and make love, which only made me an object of lust or ridicule and bound me to the periphery, the social outlands, to Canada. Aguyase. […] I have founded an unofficial colony in an unofficial Canada. […] Unfortunately, no one knows this, which is the nature of unofficial non-histories (and anti-quests). (Glover, 2003: 149)

That rejection of positionality starts from quite early in Elle’s memoir. The writing subject lacks a name, since ‘Elle’ is not a proper noun, but a common third person, singular female pronoun. In lacking a name, issues of position, addressing and the authority of writing are immediately affected. In other words, the author of this memoir adopts a quasi-anonymous persona that travels back and forth in time; she rejects the linear teleology and moves from 1542 to 2003, when a contemporary Elle makes love to her boyfriend by the sandy estuary of the St. Lawrence, where it all begun five centuries ago. In this form, the unity and the single voice resonant of any account of colonialism and pseudo-ethnography are broken into pieces; Elle moves in and out of her own writing and her movement, literal and metaphorical, deconstructs the fixity of the ideology and categories underneath. Her dwelling between positions of superiority and inferiority is also a rejection to inhabit a single site to be in turn in several, all-partial enclaves of writing and vision where the spectacle of travelling is mostly refused (see Siegel & Wulff, 2002: 109-122).

Her memoir also deconstructs itself, and in the process, undermines one by one the cornerstones of the linear geographical conquest and its narrativisation according to an European calendar. “[…] I find I am the subject of a story I can hardly follow. In the labyrinth of dream, I lose the power of thought”. And then, she continues, “[…] this is the unofficial account of an anti-quest. This is the story of a girl who went to Canada, gave birth to a fish, turned into a bear, and fell in love with a famous author (F). Or did she just go mad” (Glover, 2003: 131).[3] And, not only is this an anti-quest, since Elle’s descent is not followed by an ascent paralleling a learned moral lesson (see Frye, 1976), but an anti-conquest as well.[4] Hardly do we hear her comments on racial dominance or the prevalence of her moral codes. Far from that, she questions the hegemonic stance with which Europe constructs its other as well as the conveyance of any message of human progress travelling from Europe to America. “[A]nd which message”, Elle wonders, “will we bring to the New World racing through the waves to meet us at the fringes of the mist (M. Cartier says the savages call it Canada, to our ears a nonsense word something like banana, although I can easily imagine that to their ears the word France calls to mind wholly other and unworthy resonances)” (Glover, 2003: 22).

Whereas it is clear that Elle’s alleged lasciviousness motivates Roverbal’s decision to leave her behind the expedition, her learned status is never dismissed as a relevant cause for her dereliction. And, no less important, the connection between her attitude to knowledge and her challenge of patriarchal morality are never set down as trivial reasons for her exclusion. “Maroon her on a deserted island lest she spread the contagion of discontent to other girls or even men, though men are generally impervious”, Elle remembers, “Keep her away from shops and books and looking glasses and friends and lovers, forget her” (Glover, 2003: 29). Her words notwithstanding, there is no way in which she can be forgotten, inasmuch as the text we read is her own account of the events, and seldom does she let her tracks be textually undetected. She never misses the opportunity to highlight that her viewpoint presides over, and consequently, her text strikes backs the systems that attempt to stifle her liberty in every sense, and physically constrain her to an open-air prison. “I like fucking and food and reading books […]” (Glover, 2003: 37), she states to define herself in opposition to the patriarchal imperial system that restricts her freedom of thinking and movement likewise. Bearing in mind the outstanding parallelism between woman and geography, it is no coincidence that there is a shared intention to contain both of them. Whereas the contagion that Elle may bring for the men in the expedition is ended by confining her on an island, the colonialist contention of a threatening geography is carried out by means of a representation whereby cartography is the direct vehicle to overpower the unknown. Thus, when she is about to be exiled, it is Roberval’s finger that points on the map and decides the place where Elle will stay. She, in turn, points out that “maps never look like the territory. Their relation to geography, […], has always been abstract if not outright deceptive” (Glover, 2003: 28). And if the relation between subject and space is always problematic in the colonial context, it is especially so in Canada, where a great deal of attention has been paid to the description of North American nature (see Osborne, 1988). In this sense, whereas the colonial writer makes an effort of containment, Elle shows the opposite tendency, since she distrusts the power of language and representation to contain, and very especially the power of cartography (see Huggan, 1994; van Herk, 1996):

the most up-to-date geographers, cosmographers, map-makers, astrologers, admirals, kings, court jesters and merchant adventurers of Europe contend that Canada is: a) a thin strip of land running north-south and dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean; b) an archipelago of large and small islands encompassing a labyrinth of channels leading more or less directly from the Atlantic to the Pacific; and c) a continent enclosing a vast inland sea  […]. (Glover, 2003: 46).

Yet that distrust also taints Elle’s capacity to see and report, and, consequently, her memoir turns into what Graham Huggan calls “counter-travel writing” since it “interrogates the privileges that accrue historically to the genre” (2000: 40).  And that position of writing from the questioning of genre enables her to provide the reader with a counter-vision of the traditional account.  “[…] I have entered a place where the old definitions, words themselves, no longer apply, a world strange beyond anything I could have imagined […]. We have a name for such a place as this – wilderness. It is a name for the thing without a name, for everything that is not us, not me” (Glover, 2003: 38).

Her position as the non-European, paradoxically, enables her to go against the grain and interrogate more fiercely issues of foundation as well as the authority of the national fathers, and the very ontology of Canada. Thus, “[…] The mere existence of Canada constitutes a refutation of the first principle of Christian cosmology, expressed by St. Isidore in the seventh century, ‘that beyond the Ocean there is no land’” (Glover, 2003: 58; see Turner, 1994: 1-18). This creation of what could be termed a strategic marginality endows her with more authority to question issues of foundation:

And I wonder about a country founded by such disparate heroes as Richard and the Sieur de Roberval, who, if combined, still might not amount to a real man. Poor Canada, destined always to be on the edge of things, inimical to books and writing, plagued by insects in the summer and ice in the winter, populated by the sons and daughters of ambitious, narrow, pious, impecunious Protestants and inarticulate but lusty Catholic tennis players, not to mention the rest of the expedition […], every kind of rogue except heretics, traitors and counterfeiters who were deemed unsuitable to the dignity of our pious expedition. (Glover, 2003: 43)

But the act of colonisation is also filtered through the lenses of the body and a related politics of desire. It is in this context where Elle’s assertion of “I am a landscape of desire” (Glover, 2003: 53) gains special strength, since it reduces the act of colonisation to that politics of free-ride desire that has secluded her on a stranded island, and, eventually, reconciles the act of colonisation to her body mastery. In opposition to her fellow explorers, and their ideas on foundation, Elle claims “[f]ounding a colony in the New World is like the act of love” (Glover, 2003: 108). And to go further, their divergence concerning colonisation is made to rely on a gender difference that borders that comic effect with which Glover, and, ultimately, Elle punctuate their writings. “[…] I think, this is the difference between men and women: my uncle has conquered Canada by brandishing a sword over the bodies of his companions; I have conquered Canada on my back. In either case, the long term effect on the inhabitants is the same” (Glover, 2003: 96).

Thus, Elle rapidly approaches the native Itlsk, once her European fiancé dies on the Isle of Demons. The common issues of human degeneration and its coterminous claims of lack of domesticity and progress are wiped out in Elle’s reliance on her own colonial politics. The colonialist assumption of the virgin land is also disclaimed in her writing. First by her acknowledgement of the native presence, but also by using and reversing that already classical parallelism between woman and land. As Lawson and Tiffin state drawing on Peter Hulme (1995: 5), the parallel between these two entities is based on gender / sexual and racial postulates. First, the virgin woman/land is depicted as devoid of desire and sexual activity, but also waiting to be sexually initiated and impregnated, and, indeed, it cannot be overlooked that “sexuality as a trope for other power relations was certainly an abiding aspect of imperial power. The feminising of the virgin land […] operated as a metaphor for relations that were very often not about sexuality at all, or were only indirectly sexual” (McClintock, 1995: 14).

The racial factor is also significant, because the claim of native property is rapidly dismissed on the basis of white European supremacy. Racial inferiority was officially accompanied by a feminisation of the native, once again evincing that “knowledge of the unknown world was mapped as a metaphysics of gender violence  […]. In these fantasies, the world is feminised and spatially spread for male exploration, then reassembled and deployed in the interests of massive imperial power” (McClintock, 1995: 23; see Pratt, 1991). Therefore, and taken as a whole, “colonialism conceptually depopulated countries either by acknowledging the native but relegating him to the category of the subhuman, or simply by looking through the native and denying his/her existence” (Tiffin & Lawson, 1994: 5).

Elle’s abandonment can only be understood by looking at a colonialist politics of surveillance on women’s bodies and their borders. Her free ride of her sexual desire jeopardises the enterprise of conquest and settlement. Not in vain, the control of women’s sexuality ensured maternity, and the racial purity of the new empire builders. In the end, it was a question of the “health of the male imperial body” (McClintock, 1995: 47). On the contrary, female “body boundaries were felt to be dangerously permeable and demanding continual purification”. Consequently, “women’s sexuality, was cordoned off as the central transmitter of racial and hence cultural contagion” (McClintock, 1995: 47). As McClintock underlines, for the 16th century explorer and coloniser, women, of any race,  needed to be mastered for being embodiments of nature, and the unconquered, but also for being ambivalent figures, thresholds “by means of which men oriented themselves in space, as agents of power and agents of knowledge” (McClintock, 1995: 24). And, as a matter of fact, Glover’s protagonist perfectly illustrates that position of threshold. On the one hand, she is between the old and the new world, being literally transported from the former to the latter and back, but also for her position as colonised and, though unwilling it may be, coloniser. She is taken care of for her role as reproducer, and when she cannot be mastered, left nowhere. She moves not only between places, but languages; loses her French in favour of muteness, and recovers her language, but now inflected by her travelling and dwelling in the stance of the other: “[d]id I once speak fluent French, read books? Now I am mute, or my words stumble as they come out of my mouth” (Glover, 2003: 147).

And, indeed, in this novel any roles are interchangeable; any position, contingent (see Wyile, 2003). Elle is the peripheral subject writing from the margin back to a centre that her own writing sets to deconstruct. Yet her status as a white coloniser makes of that periphery an unreal centre subject to immediate threats. Her memoir is also a feeble colonialist document, which, from the edge of genre, launches a powerful assault on the textuality of empire and its dissemination of pseudo-ethnographic travel accounts. Elle’s attack on colonialism and empire does not overlook the power of books, since she is prompt in defining herself as a product of her own reading, as in the end we all are. “I have made my mistakes”, she explains in her memoir. “I blame printed books for this, a recent invention which has led us to solitary pleasures: reason, private opinions, moral relativism, Lutheranism and masturbation” (Glover, 2003: 65). For all the assertions made in her writing, the grim truth is that her account vanishes, self-deconstructs and, therefore, goes as it came, leaving the reader valuing the connection between colonialism and gender and assessing the inflection of colonialism and its textuality on our daily lives.

—Pedro Carmona-Rodríguez



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Brady, Elizabeth. 1987. Marian Engel and Her Work. Toronto: ECW Press.

Engel, Marian. 1990 (1976). Bear. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Fee, Margery. 1988. “Articulating the Female Subject: The Example of Marian Engel’s Bear”. Atlantis 14.1 (Spring): 20-26.

Frye, Northrop. 1976. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard U.P.

Glage, Lyselotte. 2000. “Introduction”. Being/s in Transit: Travelling, Migration, Displacement. Ed. Lyselotte Glage. Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V. Editions. ix-xiv.

Glover, Douglas. 2003. Elle: A Novel. Fredericton (NB): Goose Lane Editions.

Holland, Patrick and Graham Huggan. 2003 (1998). Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing. Ann Harbor: The U. of Michigan P.

Hernáez Lerena, María Jesús. 2007. “Surviving the Methaphorical Condition in Elle: Douglas Glover’s Impersonation of the First French Female in Canada”. Canon Disorders: Gendered Perspectives on Literature and Film in Canada and the UninitedStates. Eds. Eva Darias Beautell and María Jesús Hernáez Lerena. Logroño: Universidad de La Rioja / Universidad de La Laguna. 71-91.

Hernáez Lerena, María Jesús. 2009. “Visited Graves in Colonial Cemeteries: The Resurrections of Marguerite de Roverbal”. Canada Exposed /Le Canada à découvert. Eds. PierreAnctil André Loiselle and Christopher Rolfe. Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang. 343-356.

Huggan, Graham. 1994. Territorial Disputes: Maps and Mapping Strategies in Contemporary Canadian and Australian Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Huggan, Graham. 2000. “Counter-Travel Writing and Postcoloniality”. Being/s in Transit: Travelling, Migration, Displacement. Ed. Lyselotte Glage. Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V. Editions. 37-59.

Hutchinson, Ann M. 1987. “Onward, Naked Puritans: The Progress of the Heroines of Bear and The Glassy Sea”. Canadian Women Studies 8: 63-68.

McClintock, Anne. 1995. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Imperial Contest. New York: Routledge.

Osborne, Brian S. 1988. “The Iconography of Nationhood in Canadian Art”. The Iconography of Landscape in Canadian Art. Eds. Dennis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P. 162-178.

Philip, Marlene Nourbese. 1991. Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence. Toronto: Mercury.

Pratt, Mary Louise. 1991. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge.

Ryan, Simon. 1994. “Inscribing the Emptiness: Cartography, Exploration and the Construction of Australia”. De-Scribing Empire: Post-colonialism and Textuality. Eds./Intro. Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson. London: Routledge. 115-130.

Siegel, Christi and Toni B. Wulff. 2002. “Travel as Spectacle: The Illusion of Knowledge and Sight”. Issues in Travel Writing: Empire, Spectacle and Displacement. Ed. Christi Siegel. New York: Peter Lang. 109-122.

Siegel, Christi. 2002. “Introduction”. Issues in Travel Writing: Empire, Spectacle and Displacement. Ed. Christi Siegel. New York: Peter Lang. 1-9.

Tiffin, Chris and Alan Lawson. 1994. “Introduction: The Textuality of Empire”. De-Scribing Empire: Post-colonialism and Textuality. Eds. Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson. London: Routledge. 1-11.

Turner, Margaret E. 1994. Imagining Culture: New World Narrative and the Writing of Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP.

Van Herk, Aritha. 1996. “The Map’s Temptation or the Search for a Secret Book”. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 31.1: 128-136.

Verduyn, Christl. 2008. “A Canadian Bear, A Woman’s Heart: Douglas Glover’s Elle and Marian Engel’s Bear,” TransCanadiana: Polish Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 1: 74-85.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Annual meeting of the Spanish Association for Anglo-American Studies (AEDEAN) at the University of Huelva (Spain) in December 2006 and published in Proceedings of the 29th AEDEAN Conference: Universidad de Jaén 15 al 20 diciembre 2005. CD-ROM. Ed. Alejandro Alcaraz Sintes et al. Jaén: AEDEAN / Servicio de Publicaciones U de Jaén, 2006. 539-45.
  2. Marian Engel’s novel Bear (1976) and its many echoes all the way through a thirty-year-old tradition of Canadian writing are decidedly present in Elle. Here, as much as in Engel’s text, the bear is not only the savage symbol of Canada that needs to be tamed to ensure the human mastery of the landscape. In both novels, the bear is the other, near but not quite; distant but at hand to assert by opposition issues of national and personal subjectivity. In Elle, like in Bear, a too close contact with the animal brings an imminent danger for the human. Additionally, it is women that in the two novels flirt in different ways with the wild icon of Canadianness, and it is them that in distinct forms go back to a civilisation whose appearance has been remodelled by the contact with the savage lands of Canada (see Appenzel, 1976; Brady, 1987; Hutchinson, 1987; Fee, 1988; Verduyn, 2008).
  3. And indeed, it is quite late in the course of the novel when we find Elle saying “I tell you now that I am very old and writing this memoir in secret, knowing that it may be used to light fires when I am gone” (Glover, 2003: 113). Her document goes through a process of demystification similar to the one undergone by other European texts. Thus, in the early stages of her period on the Isle of Demons, she acknowledges “we have eaten the books, using the bits we found inedible to kindle the fire in desperate circumstances […]. I keep only the English Bible, much chewed by rodents, for its strangeness and the vulgar force of its language (Glover, 2003: 49). From pseudo-ethnography to European religion, all goes through an immediate act of mockery that diminishes their cultural relevance, while recognising their presence in the postcolonial imaginary.
  4. Holland and Huggan have appreciated a certain similarity between travel narratives and what they term “displaced romances”, but preserving the distinction between “the picaresque mode of comic misadventure and the pastoral mode of contemplation and elegiac reverie” (2003: 10). In its blurring of defining categories, nevertheless, Elle fluctuates between one and the other, and, whereas it is true that the comic predominates, it hardly avoids being grotesque and sad.

  2 Responses to “I Am a Landscape of Desire: Gender, Genre and the Deconstruction of the Textuality of Empire in Douglas Glover’s Elle — Pedro M. Carmona Rodríguez”

  1. Welcome to Numero Cinq, Pedro! Thanks for this wonderful addition to our little community.

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