Bildung Words to Push Them Down: Roots, Rhizomes, and Metacritical De/Construction in Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Malcolm’s Katie*

  • cc icon

    My paper performs a deconstructive reading of Canadian writer Isabella Valancy Crawford’s major work – her long poem, Malcolm’s Katie: A Love Story (1884). My reading, informed both by and against much of the critical reception of the work to date, understands Malcolm’s Katie as a hermeneutic exercise not simply in nineteenth-century gender-inscribed power relations but in the in/communicability of these using the “love story” as a dissident narrative strategy. Through a sustained reading against the grain, I argue that Malcolm’s Katie ‘doubles its doubled discourse’ by at once participating in and against both patriarchal and feminist ideologies about women’s “place” in Crawford’s time. I read the text as Katie’s bildungsroman both through and as a metacritical engagement with the im/possibilities of inscribing women’s agency, choice, subjectivity in text, indeed, as story about women’s representation per se: to manipulate a figure from the poem itself, as “speech [run] thus two different ways.”


    Isabella Valancy Crawford , deconstructive reading , bildungsroman , Canadian nineteenth-century women’s writing , maternal feminism

  • I. Introducing the P(r)ose: Love Grav’d

    Isabella Valancy Crawford published her canonic(ally) Canadian pioneering long poem, Malcolm’s Katie: A Love Story, in 1884. (For readers unfamiliar with the work, I have provided a summary in the endnotes.)1 The text has been variously taken up by critics as, among other things, a sentimental love poem, an epic to Canadian nationbuilding, an ecopoetic critique of commerce-driven colonization, a testament to “the most remarkable mythopoeic imagination in Canadian poetry” (Frye 147-48 in Devereux), and an excellent illustration of Canadian first-wave feminism.2 My reading, informed by these interpretations, particularly in relation to the text’s engagement with the “women’s issues” of its day, understands Malcolm’s Katie further as a hermeneutic exercise not simply in nineteenth-century gender-inscribed power relations but in the in/communicability of these, using the “love story” as a dissident narrative strategy. Specifically, I argue that Malcolm’s Katie “doubles its doubled discourse”3 by at once participating in and against both patriarchal and feminist ideologies about women’s “place” in Crawford’s time. In one sense, this argument is, of course, not new. But while there is an excellent history in the criticism of reading the text deconstructively, my paper intervenes with a sustained determination to read against the grain, including against some of the major (and most cogent) interpretations of the text that have governed understanding of the text, its author, and the context of the poem’s production since its appearance in Canadian letters. Against most early studies of this long poem as the maturation tale of the pioneering male protagonist Max, I read its textual clues inviting sub-version (surface, roots, both) to understand the work as a coded insistence on women’s in/dependence and, indeed, as Katie’s bildung, a view aligned with, although also expanding and diverging from, later feminist criticism. But perhaps most centrally what I contribute to the scholarship is the insistence that what reverberates throughout the text is a metacritical engagement with the im/possibilities of inscribing women’s agency, choice, subjectivity in text, indeed, a story about (women’s) representation per se: to manipulate a figure from the poem itself, as “speech [run] thus two different ways” (III.14), an insistence on de/construction as itself a figure for women’s (non)speaking in text.

    The title is an interesting test case for this reading. That Katie functions as an object for male ownership is signalled in the possessive noun -- but if the poem is supposed to offer Katie as object of transfer between men, as both the ostensible plot and several critics have suggested, the absence of (her eventual husband) Max from the title marks a significant gap. If a title is meant in some way to be an index for the whole or to encapsulate the “main idea” of a work, then the essential trajectory toward successful conclusion of this piece (with Katie’s identity ostensibly firmly entrenched as wife and mother, as Max’s Katie) is already denied before the text’s opening. Further, in the subtitle that follows, the specific reference to “story” at the head of the poem not only offends the “law of genre”4 (in the poem-become-fiction) but can be read as a key or clue to the (in)transparency of the text’s ideas: this is a narrative, a constructed piece of text that exhorts a critical engagement; that “love” is the “story” (a possible fiction) is an especially crucial cue. The text thus refuses any singular interpretation from its outset, and invites its own deconstruction to reveal an/other intensity of meaning: specifically, the text can be excavated as a contestation against the “natural place” for women in relation to home and husband in its otherwise apparent inscription of these.5

    In this deconstruction of the love story, the critical scene that opens the poem, with the symbol of Max (and Katie)’s commitment, offers a rich hermeneutic. The ring that Max places on Katie’s hand suggests, as D.M.R. Bentley has argued, inferences of a fetter or “gyve”; “gyve” returns, he argues, “later in the poem with reference to serfs (to people who, like ‘little Katie’ are attached to a wealthy man’s estate and transferred with it)” (“Sizing Up the Women” 49). Further, I argue, references like “well-prized,” “wage” and “kept through many years” refer to the ring but seem to reverberate, “handed on” (so-tospeak) to Katie who, as wearer of the ring, embodies its representation and becomes its extension. Robert Alan Burns suggests that the ring, described as made from “sacred coin,” suggests on one hand that “Max is ambitious, hardworking, frugal, and religious in his devotion to Katie” ; on the other, it implies that “love is debased to the level of the market place” (Burns 8). Simultaneously the harsh, brutal image of the ring “beaten out” suggests an underlayer (a subversion), something more sinister (Burns 8; the hammer is, he suggests, a version of the axe … it is, too, a version of the ice club). The coin-ring thus symbolizes at once Max’s pioneering spirit as he sets to make his way, out of poverty, in the world, and his bond of commitment to Katie -- equally as it represents something else: the suggestion of interconnected and reciprocal is undercut by references to commodity and by intimations of violence (both of which are recurrent concerns throughout the poem) -- in its very articulation.

    Further, because, as Max tells Katie in these opening lines, he hasn’t the skill to carve two conjoined hearts in the silver to symbolize their union, instead he “grav’d / Just ‘K’ and ‘M’ for Katie and for Max” (I.6-7). My reading explores the textual manoeuvres of de/construction to contest the very genesis of this story -- love. “[G]rav’d” resonates at the end of the line as more than an act of inscription or of art: Max’s inscription of Katie’s identity with his own (we learn through Katie’s comment that the initials are fused together) suggests a violence, a loss, a stifling containment -- a death. (Indeed, she will nearly die under the stamp of the G and M initials in the log jam.) It is interesting that the reference to “prophecy” in the following lines has no clear referent; but that it engages the Katie-Max linkage is evident: “Yet tell me, dear, will such a prophecy / Not hurt you sometimes when I’m away?” (1.13-14). Ostensibly, as evident in the subsequent lines, Max is intimating that, in his absence, Katie will strain against the bond of their connection symbolized by both the ring and the linked initials (and thus the ‘prophecy’ will ‘hurt’ her):“Will you not seek, keen-ey’d, for some small break / In those deep lines, to part the ‘K’ and ‘M’ / For you?(I.15-17). I am suggesting that the “small break” in a line, which Max intimates Katie may actively seek, in his absence, in order to cleave their union, is a metacritical coding in/by text; readers are being invited, in the moment of address to “you,” to split the line directly above, so that it is precisely the connection, severed from the meaning of the line, that leaves us with the larger sense of Katie’s “hurt.” This hurt lies not in the failure of their union but in its successful realization: “will such a prophecy (no break) not hurt you sometimes” -- the prophecy, that is, of their eternal linkage, if a reader enters a line cut at “when I’m away.” Here, I am suggesting that readers expressly follow the direction to locate the break in the “deep” (“deep” signals several meanings, including, metareferentially and synonymically, subterranean meaning, multi-layered meaning, or “full of meaning”) -- that is, in the “deep lines” above that speak to how the (promise of) union may do Katie harm. This is a startling use of a non-broken line expressly to break meaning. The textual coding is especially resonant in excavating the poem’s images immediately following Max’s resounding negation, “Nay, Katie”: his emphasis is further on “break” -- on splitting and doubleness with reference to the lilies divided by the trajectory of their togetherness (gliding by canoe; I. 18-19) and by Katie’s face, doubled in its reflection in the water, metaphorically further doubled as a “seed of love” which, cleaved into rock, splits the granite (I. 21-22). In this way, I see the text as rhizomatic -- with the “underground” stems (of sub-version) creating proliferating shoots or nodes; with each “division” of the rhizome, new shoots (of meanings) produce multiplicities of thought so that a univocal reading is not possible. Certainly, these splittings, in the poem’s metaphors of division referred to above, are images not of conjoinment but at once of rupture and damage -- and yet the injury done, as I argue throughout, is ultimately to conventional or singular readings of the poem. Indeed, while these splittings serve Max’s objective to cast suspicion on her loyalty, Katie’s response is to deconstruct this -- a deconstruction that performs a double turn itself to cast reservation on both the desirability and sustainability of their union:

    Cecily Devereux suggests Katie has agency in these lines in rejecting Max’s categorization of her swayability for choice and control in claiming Max as her love: “‘I have made /Your heart my garden’ (my emphasis), she says, thus taking creative control of the ‘love story’ (‘I have made’) and establishing her ‘version’ of the garden as the central figure of the poem, significantly reversed to represent Max and not herself as the figural body upon which the text is inscribed” (Devereux). Following Devereux, Ceilidh Hart also contends that “Here Katie interrupts him. She appropriates his metaphor of the rose and uses it not to show her inconstancy but to underscore her faithfulness” (10); Kenneth Hughes and Birk Sproxton argue that garden specifically here “stands as an image of love and fertility” (56). Informed by these insightful readings, I suggest an ambivalence in the lines that uncovers Katie’s resistance to constancy, and that unravels the “love story” elsewhere insistently espoused. What Katie communicates here is the sway of signification, the power of “only words” in a metaphor for deconstruction (particularly in her repudiation, with “only” which at once signifies “simply” and “single” -- as in lone or solitary meaning) to ostensibly communicate love and loyalty while simultaneously undoing both. Flowers as a symbol of hearts -- in turn a metaphor for love -- may indeed root and blossom, but they also die: they die in Katie’s garden, which is also Max’s heart. The garden here thus functions as “plot” in all the resonances of that word: Max’s heart is hermeneutically rendered a space of death in this “telling.” Since Katie signifies (as I have italicized in the lines above) that Max’s heart is her garden -- again, a space where flowers bud and blossom but also expire -- and “hearts are flowers,” then in Max’s heart is discovered the death of love (reinforced by the idea that heart, too, is a metonymic metaphor for love). So his love is doubly death (in the hearts-hearts extension, as both flowers and garden); Katie’s, too, is death, since his heart is her garden, again representing the death of love. So it is at once that Katie and Max’s love will endure until the literal death of the bodies represented by the metonym (in a surface reading of the poem) equally as it is her root-statement against the poem’s larger assertion of enduring devotion in the context of the patriarchal nuclear unit represented in the text’s close. This seems to me a startling and critically unexamined early repudiation of the “love story” -- but my reading works alongside and is informed by Richard Dellamora’s analysis of Crawford’s short story “Extradited,” which he reads, in part, as a contestation against “domestic normalcy” in its sympathetic portrayal of male same-sex relations in its re-telling of the Sodom narrative from Genesis (cf. Dellamora 16-32). Malcolm’s Katie, too, invites close attention, self-reflexively, here to its “words” -- in particular, to the spaces and places articulating Max and Katie’s relationship, and Katie’s self-expression, both in relation to it and to her sense of self.

    Many critics have acknowledged that Katie, as bearer of Max’s ring, is “marked”; we can understand this in particular relation to the heterosexual imperative of the nineteenth-century pioneering process, where women’s “identity” is regulated by their roles as wives and mothers. This loss of identity “contained” in Malcolm’s Katie is evident as Max names the “womenfolk” (in II. 242-53: “happy in new honeymoons / of hope themselves”) as “the good wives” (249); to him they represent, as Mary Joy Macdonald argues, a group of “undifferentiated females definable in terms of their marriages” (35). The women represent a generic commodity, a trope Max repeats both for his mother and for Katie:

    As Bentley suggests, Malcolm’s Katie “articulates the paradox that, in a patriarchal society, a woman gains her identity when she loses it, becomes most valuable when she allows her self to be fully appropriated by a man” (“Introduction” 1987 xxiv). But while Katie clearly has been engraved -- marked as the already inscribed -- the texts also performs a displacement of that identification:

    The idea of Katie’s ownership is associatively reinforced, I think, by the use of the word “di’mond,” since we are reminded of Max’s words in I. 84-86, “ But here’s the little point, -- / The polish’ddi’mond pivot on which spins / The wheel of Difference – they OWNED [caps original] the rugged soil.” But a diamond’s “table” is “the large flat facet on the top of a diamond”; 6 the text thus inscribes Katie’s marking with a de-scription: Max may appear cut through all “its” depths, but the ambiguous pronoun referent grammatically most closely speaks to “shield,” which is doubly displaced both as only part of the table and in its function as simile -- as defence. Thus while Bentley argues that “though Katie’s diamond-like strength, value and simplicity are her own, her mind is so ubiquitously inscribed with ‘Max’s name’ that little, if any, space remains there for an identity other than the one that inheres in her complete devotion to her future husband” (“Introduction” 1987 xxiv). I rather argue that the “all” of Katie’s mind is not, despite the “surface” claim, wholly dis-figured by Max’s presence there. That he is present in the “shield”(“shield” referencing a mechanism of defence against intrusion) suggests that language in this text stages a war -- that is, a war on meaning. Yes, as gemology denotes, the table is recognized as an integral component for how a stone gets read (in terms of its “fire” and “brilliance”); that Max’s name is “cut” there so visibly suggests a violence and certainly an occlusion -- or, in gem terminology, an “inclusion” (foreign body/ imperfection in the stone) that detracts from the stone’s pure autonomy, and results in its devaluation. Thus on the one hand that Max’s name there is a presence that clouds both the precious and plain (clear) qualities of Katie’s mind invites a reading that contests the ostensible meaning of holding the beloved in one’s thoughts that is supposed to uphold the love story narrative. But, on the other hand, as a transitive verb (if we play with the grammar as poetry provokes), that “shield” refers both to the ideas of to guard and to protect as well as to cover/conceal affords an insight into the complex operations of Katie’s “knowing” -- and complicates any suggestion that she is (fully) formed in/by her relationship with Max. Once more, the text codes in its catch-words with doubled meaning a reading against the (table) grain.

    Additionally, any “containment” of identity loss expected of women is subverted, partly, in Crawford’s creation of a (parallel?) masculine collapse of identity, as an attack on essentialist ideas universalizing gendered identities. I note, as have other critics, how textual details recur across descriptions of the male characters: images of granite connect Malcolm and Alfred (I. 57; IV. 249-50), as indeed, reference to metal connects all three: Alfred has “iron arms” (III. 222), Katie kisses the “iron of his [Malcolm’s] hand” (V. 73), and love “steels” Max’s arm (V. 87). Max and Malcolm have the same initials; Max repeats Malcolm’s pioneering process. Most striking, however, is the connection between Max and Alfred: Max “has a red mark on his temple set” (V. 113); Alfred has “blood red on his temple” (VI. 127). Clearly, the men in the poem represent different characters (and good arguments have been made on these connections as operations for foiling in readings of the poem as Max’s bildungsroman), but I argue that Crawford includes these sometimes startling correlations that invite us to read them differently -- that is, for me, differently the same (rather than as foils) as a strategic subversion of the classic conflation of women’s distinctiveness, an argument I will address below. Here, I simply suggest that the identity conflations across male characters in the text invite metacritical reflection on representation, in literalized repetition of individuality markers, to think about the macro-politics of essentialist Saming. Certainly, the text at least works in various ways to offer (alternate) models for gendered representation.7

    I return, for example, to the image of the ring that ‘fetters’ Katie. Crawford contests the erasure of women’s identity signalled in the poem’s title and counters expectation by depicting male identity marked by the feminine. Max wears a woman’s ring around his neck, and it is through a woman’s name that Alfred establishes Max’s identity:

    This is not an image of “equality” -- not two lines of the ring run together “M” and “K,” not reciprocal exchange in love, for Max does not wear Katie’s ring. But here, what is most startling in this “ring” of meaning is that Crawford signals for the attentive reader a marking of the matronymic. While Katie is first identified for readers in the title as Malcolm’s Katie, with a conventional expectation of exchange by the poem’s close (that she be narratively read as Max’s Katie, with patronymic substitution from Graem to Gordon, although as I have argued earlier, the title places this assumption under erasure), reference to Helen as Max Gordon’s mother but outside the mark of the patronym (her name is Wynde, not Gordon) suggests stunning alternative possibilities for women’s identities -- marked in a most significant linguistic identifier. In this way, Crawford literally names woman-into-being. That critics have left this detail critically unexamined speaks to me of the overwhelming entrenchedness of the “love story” narrative. Further, that Crawford is making a critical, castigating statement on the consequences of women’s loss of individuality, indeed of self, within patriarchal culture is evident, as critics have noted, for Katie nearly drowns beneath Malcolm’s phallic logs, “stamp’d with the potent ‘G.’ and ‘M.’” (III. 166) --also Max’s initials. And we are reminded, in that ‘stamp’ of the initials (the initial as a truncation of more full or complete identity marker) of the letters linking ‘K’ and ‘M’ in the coin/ring that symbolizes (non)union.

    1I offer the following brief summary of the poem for readers unfamiliar with the work. The poem opens with introduction of the two protagonists, secretly betrothed, Katie Graem and Max Gordon, with Max placing a ring (beaten from a coin) on Katie’s hand. Max is poor; Katie is the daughter of wealthy landowner Malcolm. When Max sets off into the wilderness to clear forest in the pioneering process to earn enough money for a modest homestead of his own for Katie and their prospective family, Katie promises (it seems) to remain faithful to Max and their love in his absence. Some important details: Katie is nearly drowned one day under the logs in her father’s mill pond; these logs are stamped with his initials, that is, “all stamp’d with the potent ‘G.’ and ‘M.’” -- which are also Max’s initials. This near-death experience occurs when she is experiencing freedom and play in Max’s absence: “Kate bared her little feet, and pois’d herself / On the first log close grating on the shore; / And with bright eyes of laughter, and wild hair -- /A flying wind of gold -- from log to log / Sped laughing” (III. 199-203). Katie is wooed by a suitor, Alfred, while Max is away; spurned, Alfred jumps into the river with Katie to drown them both but Max appears and saves first Katie and then attempts to rescue Alfred. The text closes with Katie and Max married, parents to an infant son they name Alfred.  2See also, for example, Diana Relke’s review of critical interpretations of the text 161-79.  3D.M.R Bentley in his “Letters” and Roy Daniells in “Crawford, Carmen and Scott” are, among others, early to recognize the possibility for opposite textual meanings in Crawford’s work (indeed, the text’s ambivalences and ambiguities are themes for many critics). Bentley points toward necessary tensions within any monocular reading of Malcolm’s Katie as the unproblematic affirmation of conventional expectation: “Malcolm’s Katie is far from being the straight-forward endorsement of a sentimental stereotype and the status quo that it first appears” (“Sizing up the Women” 59) but, too, that as “a mere translation of its short title -- “Daddy’s Girl” -- crisply indicates, Crawford’s story can also be read as a story of male possessiveness,” where Katie passes as object of exchange between father and (rightful) male suitor (“Introduction” 1994 vii). But there have actually been many efforts to “resolve” the text; for example, while Bentley acknowledges the poem’s multi-layered complexities, he concludes that: “In contrast to Max, self-fulfillment comes for Katie, as it did for most Victorian women, in the domestic sphere, through a dedication of herself, first to her father and then to her husband. At thebeginning of the poem an outspoken sixteen-year old who talks back to Max, by the end of it she is a dutiful wife who does not merely accede to her husband’s notion that he has created a new Eden in the North American wilderness but also uses it to flatter him (‘O Adam had not Max’s soul’, she said” (“Introduction” 1994 ix). Elizabeth Waterston argues that if Malcolm’s Katie is a feminist epic (as Frank Bessai contends), it is so only because Katie “represents a heroine set in a stereotyped mode, forced on Crawford, perhaps, by her publishers and her audience” (68). The reading challenge that Malcolm’s Katie poses is probably best addressed, I think, by Diana Relke, who suggests that the poem’s “internal contradictions . . . make a tricky business of determining the consistency of Crawford’s vision” (161).  4I am indebted to one of the anonymous reviewers of my paper for the important reminder of “a long history of narrative poetry, including poetry written by two of Crawford’s influences, Tennyson and Longfellow, both of whom wrote long narrative poems with love stories. In other words, a narrative poem does not offend the law of genre” (anonymous, from FSEL’s reviewers’ reports). This is indeed an imperative point to make, and fits expressly with Jacques Derrida’s understanding of the law of genre as always already undone -- that is, that taxonomies of type are artificially constructed by an inside/outside paradigm that cannot maintain the rigidity of distinction. By offending the law, I mean, in my argument on Crawford’s title, that the poem’s signal to “story” suggests a violation of the expectations of convention (of genre) in the literal rendering of this – that is, specifically in naming generic difference. This text is called into being as “a story” rather than “a poem” in its very title. Derrida writes of the (expectation of the) law, that "one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly or monstrosity" (224-25). Again, although narrative poetry has a long history of “story” telling, Margaret D. Stetz, in writing on genre in British Victorian conventions, states that it isn’t really until the 1890s that the “seemingly inflexible laws of genre” begin to loosen; Malcolm’s Katie appeared in 1884. Stetz argues that “These laws, of course, long had served the interests of publishers, whose lists had depended upon the enforcement of distinctions between poetry, on the one hand, and various prose forms, on the other” (Stetz). My point is simply to state, as Derrida delineates, that our very understanding of genre is, itself, discursively produced; specifically naming the poem a “story” suggests, for me, another metacritical coding of the subversive elements in Malcolm’s Katie broadly.  5The “love story” performs a discursive manoeuvre integral to the text’s performance. As Nancy Armstrong explains, “Stories of courtship and marriage offered readers a way of indulging, with a kind of impunity, in fantasies of political power that were the more acceptable because they were played out within a domestic framework where legitimate monogamy -- and thus the subordination of female to male -- would ultimately be affirmed” (29). See also King 47. But I also align myself with a number of excellent feminist analyses that read the text’s close in relation to its ironies.  6Glossary available at shtml. A table diamond is generally defined as “a thin diamond cut with a flat upper surface”; the table is the flat facet.  7See Dellamora’s analys is of Crawford’s unconventional constructions of masculinity and homosocial and homosexual desire in his work on “Extradited.”

    II. Building Bildung: Katie’s Development as the Story of Text

    So Malcolm’s Katie is at once a story of possession and woman’s subordination as the title might imply -- and everywhere a contestation against this story, as societally written, toward a description of women’s agency and self-knowledge. Katie asserts selfidentity and control of her representation using a repetition-withdifference: as Bentley argues, she only conditionally accepts Max’s inscription of her in floral terms (“Introduction” 1987 xix; “‘If hearts are flow’rs. . .If I am a bud’”; emphasis in Bentley). Further, she under-scores:

    Katie’s startling simile here for insistent voice stands in contra distinction to her (other) expressed “strategies” of influence. Diana Relke situates Katie’s passivity within the context of the 19th-century “cult of domesticity,” where women were expected to exert influence over morally weaker men to “uplift them” (which made space for women’s perspectives on prostitution, and temperance, for example) -- yet the ideology required that such influence be expressed “quietly and inconspicuously” (168). Thus, as Relke argues, Katie “is quite possibly the most passive heroine in all of nineteenth-century Canadian literature” -- and yet the most influential, with considerable paradoxical effect on the actions of the male characters around her through her passivity (169). Collett Tracy reads Katie’s lines, “I’ll kiss him and keep still” (I. 133) as indicative that “gentleness and positive affirmation are offered, by Crawford, as the most persuasive means by which women might accomplish their goals” (120) and that “Crawford appears to suggest that women’s power is to be found in silence” (124). It seems significant to me that even a slight interpretative shift opens space for multifarious readings, if we consider, here at least, that it is stillness, not precisely silence, that Katie practices. Her agency is expressed in the deconstructive act of “moving” her father not in direct doing but in the still of wait/delay and (not) yet-ness, an operation of un/doing, of différance, particularly in the space of differentiation between the meanings of her actions -- both as conventional passivity and strategy for subversion (and, for Derrida, différance is the very condition of possibility).That she uses affection and an appearance of complacency with the status quo in order to serve other ends is another figure for the text’s operations of subversion. Moreover, that Katie evokes the mandrake offers another metacritical coding: the mandrake, with its forked root, reveals two directions of growth in a single entity, another key/clue to the rhizomatic function of the text, producing off/shoots of other meaning. Further, in popular belief the mandrake was formed of the same clay from which Adam was created. As Michael Kobs identifies, “During the Middle Ages early Christianity and Christians took mandrake for the plant which originally grew on the spot from where God had taken the first soil to form Adam. Adam and Mandrake were considered to be of the same kind (see Müller-Ebeling / Rätsch 92)” (28 original; 35 online). I’m not certain if Crawford is referencing this myth, but it is possible, at least, that Katie’s identification with the mandrake might align her with the figure of Lilith, who, in rabbinic tradition, was a first woman not formed from Adam’s rib as Eve was, but rather formed from soil as his equal (and it is soil, then, that connects Adam, mandrake, and Lilith -- and Katie, in this ground of constellation, since Katie images herself as mandrake). In kabbalist myth, Lilith chose to leave the garden of Eden rather than be forced to submit to Adam as his inferior (for example, in the missionary sex position); it is said that her spirit lives in trees. The reference to mandrake reinforces ecopoetic feminism, a feminism supported in the text, as Relke compellingly argues, in a “uniquely female ethic of care and responsibility for nature” (164) -- although I will also suggest that Crawford espouses resistance to as well as collusion in maternal feminist sentiments in the text. Thierry Zarcone states: “There is no plant that embodies the encounter between humans and plants better than the mandrake, whose myth, as Arlette Bouloumié writes, ‘has the cosmic sense of a profound correlation between nature and humanity and the possibility of their merging’” (115). The mandrake was anthropomorphosed in early legend and folklore to scream, moan, sob, speak or sing; in Romantic tradition it was often not only the root but also the earth which cried out in the agony of removal (Zarcone 116; 119). Thus, it is at least possible to infer that Max’s garden (referred to at I. 44-45 as that “dear soil”; “dear” can also mean costly), as the plot from which her roots are torn, is a space for the violent purging of living things, like his pioneering quest in “slaughtering” forest. Because he destroys the trees that for Katie are “bounteous mothers” (VII. 32) and because Lilith’s spirit can be said to reside in these, we see again, in the mushrooming rhizomes of these correspondences, that Max does violence to Katie in the mandrake-Lilith-Katie bulb that I propose above. I offer these correspondences with a similar understanding to that of Margo Dunn, who contends that the textual evidence of Crawford’s works strongly suggests familiarity with, among other mythologies, Hebrew stories (55).

    Further, among the myriad of expectation-subversive elements, moments of swerve and contrary details in Malcolm’s Katie, the most obviously striking, perhaps, is that of Katie’s motherlessness. Katie has a father, lover, suitor, male child -- but she remains the only woman8 in a text centrally engaged with the “woman question.” (Her dead mother appears only in phantasmic form in the father’s dreams and anxieties.) While specifically addressing 1850-1860 American settlement novels, critic Annette Kolodny suggests that nineteenthcentury women writers paid as much or more attention to fathers, brothers, and suitors as they did to relationships among women. On the one hand, she argues, this unusual focus away from women toward male characters may characterize the “domestic fiction’s dream” of a new society modeled on masculine participation in a community governed by values of hearth and home (where men cross boundaries); on the other, the frequency of male characterization or willingness to make a male the central figure in a drama otherwise focused on the female might uncover a discomfiting awareness on the part of the writer that powerful male images need to be altered, re-dressed (223). While these possibilities serve readings of the poem, so also can this third: Nancy Theriot argues that, within the separate sphere, the mid-nineteenth-century girl spent most of her time in the company of women. Her world was composed and defined by her mother, sisters, and girlfriends (76). I argue that, outside the basic function of plot, Katie’s mother has to be absent in order to disrupt (equally as to not so obviously disrupt) the feminine domestic ideal: Katie is not “nurtured” in the poem. If, as Mary Poovey contends, women’s reproductivity served as the basis of femininity (11), encoded in all its accompanied associations of guardianship and nurturance, then surely it must be significant that Katie’s mother is absent (except as apparition; mother as phantasm) and that the poem concludes without meaningful representation of Katie in the mothering role. We are denied the motheringsocialization spectacle (both by the act of conclusion, and in that Katie’s child is not a girl). Further, the mother’s absence potentially performs a critical resistance to evolutionary misogyny in Crawford’s day. Herbert Spencer asserted a biological argument for women’s inferiority to men, since reproduction impeded the individual development of the female sex; science claimed that women’s psychological problems (!) were necessarily linked to their reproductive organs (see a review of Spencer in Theriot 100). As Rose Weitz demonstrates, women in nineteenth-century Darwinist evolutionary ideology were not seen as fully evolved as men; moreover, “Darwin argued [that] females must expend so much energy on reproduction that they retain little energy for either physical or mental development. As a result, women remain subject to their emotions and passions: nurturing, altruistic, and child-like, but with little sense of either justice or morality” (6). Again, Crawford allows us no sustained view of woman’s psychological or physical state after reproduction by absenting Katie’s mother completely from the text and, again, by concluding the poem with Katie as new mother. But it is significant, I think, that nowhere in the poem does Crawford make reference to the death of Katie’s mother or to any illness or frailty; thus the absent mother at once repeats and voids, I suggest, a subscription to the “natural frailty” of women argument expounded by misogynist evolutionary ideology -- a subversion/containment manoeuvre. But in developing my argument that Crawford refuses, in one substrata of meaning, the maternal feminism of her era, it seems significant to me that there exists in the poem a startling image of female power, a figure arguably the most powerful in the poem, represented (in the symbols of “queen” -- as in John Ruskin’s domestic goddess, and of bowl and porch) as domestic woman: “I mean the blank-ey’d queen whose wassail bowl / Is brimm’d from Lethe, and whose porch is red / With poppies, as it waits the panting soul -- / She, she alone is great!”(V. 158-61). Yet, domestic woman is, ironically and ultimately, negated: she is great nothing, void, absence, utter (self) abnegation. Death. Further, “Commerce,” as personified in the poem, is a figure of greed and colonial violence -- and imaged as a housewife (I. 98-103), an evident commentary on the linkages between the heterosexual unit and its reproductive mandate, and the imperialist imperative. My reading thus diverges from Jason King’s, which contends that “implicit in [her] ideal of feminization is a maternalist ethic that accentuates female reproductive functions in populating the North American frontier” (47) – although King also contends that Crawford’s vision of settlement is one which resists “violent and aggressive act[s] of conquest” (47).

    Crawford at once thus interrupts, I argue, the patriarchy of the nuclear pioneering narrative and the maternal feminism ostensibly espoused as women’s power in its organization.9 Katie -- silent, selfeffacing as only superficially she is -- engages, in the textual climax, in an in/action that speaks to the movements of meaning in textual performance, specifically in a figure of subversion/containment represented as agency in the supine position, that is, as she prostrates herself at Max’s feet in the poem’s penultimate ending. Macdonald suggests, at the text’s near-close, that: “As she comprehends Max’s intention to save Alfred, Katie doubly disempowers herself: by casting herself at Max’s feet, she ensures the passivity of her own hands, which will not ‘keep / [him] back with one light-falling fingertip’ (VI. 135-36); by hiding her face at the same time, she precludes even a non-verbal communication of her own desire to be comforted” (Macdonald 42). Yet, it is precisely for the excellent reasons Macdonald denies that I attempt to affirm Katie’s agency: she refuses the male support of comfort, the broad chest which, as Bentley has argued, represents both physical and figurative barrier to Katie “that keeps her small, dependent, and in need of protection” (“Sizing Up the Women”). Most important, for me, she refuses influence, the domestic woman’s power;10 this is why she hides her face, “lest the terror in her shining eye! / Might bind him to her” (VI. 140-1).11 She refuses the role, in this instance, of maternal feminism’s ‘moral arbiter,’ spiritual guardian. But what is especially interesting is that the text suspends on Katie’s refusal to “bind” Max to her. That she refuses his gaze is a willful severance of their bond; it is perhaps not accidental that “to bind” can function as a reference to the marital contract.

    Critics often read the scene of exchanged gaze that follows as a demonstration of Max’s growth to maturity out of his strength of will in attempting to save Alfred, the culmination of his quest as Canadian pioneer and land-and-home-owner. Max “grows both physically and spiritually to become an independent and prosperous self-made man” (Bentley, “Introduction” 1994 viii); for Orest Rudzik, Max “chops away at the very basis of his innocence” and “attaches himself to the national dream. It is almost like an early touch of Berton where, as the smoke rises above him in the heat thrown by the flames, he sees the future of the nation being seared” (55). Waterston argues that for Max, as a maturing hero, “The reward of his work with the axe is the achievement of an Edenic home set in a greater paradise of material prosperity and progress” (70), and John Ower contends that ultimately Max must (and does) confront and surmount “the forces of evil and negation in himself and his world” (37) represented in the “dark force” of the “magnified phallic symbol of the log” (38). Bentley concludes (“Introduction” 1994 ix) that Max becomes a Christ figure in risking death for his enemy at the poem’s (near) close. Ceilidh Hart also acknowledges this moment as Max’s maturation, but from Katie’s perspective:

    But I want to intervene in conventional readings of the male bildung into this text, read the poem as a process not (simply) of Max’s bildung, but of Katie’s, to offer an alternative view to that of Katie awakening to a conventional place within nineteenth-century ideals of domesticity “as a completely mature --which is to say, utterly selfless -- wife for Max: ‘Do as you will’” (in Bentley “Introduction” 1987 xxv). But even Tracy, who reads the text as Katie’s bildung, nevertheless concludes: “her knowledge has developed consistently through the poem. She has moved from a budding rose into a full-blown flower; from a young, innocent girl, to a mature woman who is well prepared to become a pioneer wife”(123). Katie’s near-encounter with (ritual?) death, both through her action for individual freedom in playing among the logs, met with symbolic patriarchal retribution, as well as her experience of further patriarchal violence in her near-murder by Alfred, are examples of patriarchal blockages set before women but against and despite which women can grow, develop, and triumph -- but not in taking up the mature woman’s rightful place in the heterosexual reproductive imperative. I argue that in the text’s insistence at lines VI. 132-3, “she saw within his eyes a larger soul / Than that light spirit that before she knew,” Katie is recognizing greatness within herself, her own growth and potential to achieve; this is a moment of split recognition where Max serves as the vehicle for her autonomous identity. The larger soul -- is her own. The text itself strains forward to authorize such a reading. Max tells Katie in the very first few lines of the poem to “look down amid the globes / Of those large lilies that our light Canoe / Divides, and see within the polish’d pool / That small, rose face of yours” (I. 17-20): in the conclusion she looks into his eyes “slow budding to a smile” (VI. 131) -- the gerund action can be Max’s, but “budding” suggests by flower identification that rather it is hers. More importantly, seventy-five lines before Katie looks into Max’s eyes, Katie appeals to Alfred: “‘Look in my eyes and read them honestly’” (VI. 57); the lesson she/we learn from Alfred is this:

    Thus, the text’s “mirages” make clear that looking into “other” space returns something about -- her/self; in this way, “mirage” is deconstructed to reveal a truth, the truth that fixed meaning in this text is itself the illusion.

    8Again, I am grateful for the suggestions of my anonymous FSEL referees, one of whom specifically reminds me that “the Native American stories blended into the text have female figures in them”; indeed, many of the mythological characters are represented as female, like the Moon of Evil Witches/Moon of Falling Leaves, the (Indian) summer, and the “white squaw of winter,” among others, and many of which are appropriated from Aboriginal lore. It is not my intention to overlook these figures or the significance of Indigenous references in the poem; rather, my argument addresses the absence of human women as socializing effects in relation to Katie’s development.  9As Jacquetta Newman and Linda White suggest (see pages 169-70 for a quick review), the first wave of the women’s movement in Canada was propelled by a much more conservative, indeed essentialist action than its British or American counterparts.  10See Relke’s better nuanced and different reading from my own of the “paradox” of women’s moral influence achieved through passivity, pages 171 and following.  11Interestingly, “bind” is understood in religious parlance as a “ritual found in conservative Christianity, Wicca and other Neopagan traditions to prevent a person or spirit from harming individuals,” according to the “Glossary of Religious and Spiritual Terms” at So, my argument in part undoes itself: I suggest she refuses here to influence Max’s response, but as the Glossary indicates, this abjuration can also be understood as a refusal to prevent harm -- a particular in/action by the operation of the double negative.

    III. In/Conclusion: The K(Not) of Katie’s Knowing

    In this light, the final section can at least be (also) read ironically, excavating textual agency for Katie, as some feminist critics have argued. When Katie suggests that “‘Adam had not Max’s soul,’ ”she is claiming, as both Macdonald and Tracy cogently argue, an insufficiency on Max’s part, counterpointing his patronizing comment, “‘And Eve was only little Katie’s height’” (VII. 30), since this is Katie’s response to Max invited by Malcolm. Thus Katie’s closing comment -- the reverberating note on which the poem concludes, “If I knew my mind!” is, as Wanda Campbell recognizes (34), an ironic “talking back” to Max’s condescending statement, “But womankind is wise!”, the first exclamatory statement in the poem (I. 34). As Macdonald argues, Katie’s use of the conditional begs an ironic reading of her words; the message that concludes Malcolm’s Katie is that “Katie is really of two minds, her own … as well as that which has been dominated by male figures all of her life” (Macdonald 44). Ultimately, I argue, the text “resolves” only with its own un/doing. That Katie “would not change,” in the closing lines of the text, “Max for Adam, if I knew my mind” (emphasis added) is telling: the declarative utterance “I would not change” is deconstructed by the use of the subjunctive, and interpretative possibilities take shoots. Mark Painter explains that phrases that use “if” necessitate the subjunctive as an expression of something contrary to truth. Painter briefly treats the evolution of the form from its original usage for conveying conditional thought to its establishment of “contraryto-fact conditions” (Painter). Thus the declarative certainty is placed under erasure, another figure for the im/possibilities of speaking in this text. Katie indicates she would not change Max for Adam if she knew her mind; the resulting “irreality” from a grammatical analysis would understand that Katie does not know her mind (a subscription to the era’s dominant understandings of women’s intellectual frailties, supported by representations of Katie in the surface level of Crawford’s text) – and yet thus will trade Max, a subversion of the “love story” trajectory, startlingly spoken at the text’s close. Further, the contrary-to-fact statement is itself contrary. F. R. Palmer contests the concept of subjunctive to argue, instead, a signal to tense and not (only) mood in these linguistic constructions: “English has no subjunctive. What is sometimes referred to as the subjunctive is in fact merely the past tense for impossible wishes or unreal conditions” (cited in Kaixin 92). But while the relationship between tense and mood in the use of the subjunctive has been held to scrutiny and debate by grammarians (including Zhan Kaixin’s criticism of Palmer as confused between the subjunctive and the past tense of the indicative mood, 92), nevertheless I argue that what chimes in the reader’s ear is what sounds like the past tense “knew,” suggesting the possibility of an anterior state that she has surpassed (this is Katie’s bildungsroman), and which vibrates, deconstructively, with the anagnoritic certainty that she is more, now, than that “light spirit that before she knew”(emphasis added). The subjunctive rests beside the anterior to refer to a future state, at once a not-yetness and again irreality. While of course, and as I have argued throughout, readers can un-cover, everywhere, a resistant (and developed?) Katie throughout the work, the invocation of the conventions of the bildungsroman that, as I suggest above, absorb Katie invites a particular reading of the curious mood/tense “knew.” Ultimately, her declarative utterance that she would not trade Max for Adam does not indicate that she would keep him if she knows her mind; with syntactical virtuosity, the text allows her self-knowledge as well as a rejection of Max (or rather of the demarcated and narrow space -- even the violence -- for women that he is made to represent in the imperialist heterosexual imperative)12 in the only language she has available: an absence. Her switch would not be for an Adam (he is a “want” here only as an exercise, only at the level of signification) but for the freedom to speak real choice -- directly.

    Elizabeth Waterston has argued that Crawford’s objection to expectations of women, of the ‘home,’ “would not be the one we would make today to the implied chauvinism and patronage of the Angel in the House idea, the stultifying, the belittling effect on women of the nostalgic domestic detail, the idealization of purity and modesty and self-abnegation in women” (68). Yet, it seems precisely these things that the text addresses. While it would be absurd to suggest that Crawford attacks the constructions of women in her day throughout her oeuvre or that Malcolm’s Katie, even in its “obliqueness and doubling” (to borrow Mary Poovey’s terms for nineteenth-century women’s textual strategies, as well as Bentley’s recognition of these), is uncritical of her era’s feminisms, the poem nevertheless contests traditional/expected depictions of women (and sometimes too, of men) in the very operation of their inscriptions. Fred Cogswell, already in 1979, recognized that Crawford likely could not have written otherwise: “any woman who, like Isabella Valancy Crawford, was forced by circumstances to struggle for a living [in patriarchal society] could not but be conscious of the disparity of opportunity between the sexes, the prevailing male chauvinistic attitude held toward women, and the inequity involved” (81). This un/consciousness, this recognition rendered at once transparent and oblique, is inexorably communicated: that is, it is located in the roots (the rhizomes, the lines and lineages, derivations and foundations) of language and its meanings, in the multi-leaved unfoldings of signification itself. How can the discerning reader, willing to root among her radical radicles, not discover the subversion beneath the surface of containment? Crawford gives us signs, gives us traces -- she builds words up that we must push them down.

    12For example, Macdonald argues that, in the closing image where Max twists Katie’s “hair / about his naked arm” (VII. 16–17), she “must realize that she cannot move without occasioning her own pain” (44). In this suggestion of the marital ties that bind, I don’t mean to propose that all men in Crawford’s day represented violence for women nor to submit that this is Crawford’s contention -- but the association of all the text’s men with a sexual violence serves the function of questioning real choice/agency for women, and the politics of (any) representation. Relke points out that “Malcolm and his male kinsfolk are depicted as dragging the ripping beak of the plough through knotted soil (1. 77) -- a particularly violent image of rape when constructed by a woman aware of the way she is identified with nature” (164). Alfred also images penetration as rape (not, I am arguing, to preserve women’s sexual innocence on some moral level of expectation, but to shift attention to relationships between militarism, force, and male sexuality): “To-night she conquers Doubt; to-morrow’s noon / His following soldiers sap the golden wall,/ And I shall enter and possess the fort” (V. 137-9). Ower contends that “the almost punning ‘jingle’ of ‘Max’ and ‘axe’ suggests the implement is a sort of metonymic extension of Gordon’s virility. The phallic connotations of his ‘tool’ are used by Crawford to indicate that, as a pioneer, he is dedicated to a ‘labour of love’” (36) -- but Max’s axe, as Ower recognizes, is also clearly destructive (38). Further, Katie describes the woods and fields around her as “bounteous mothers”; Max’s slaughter of the forest is resonant particularly for a heroine whose mother may have died (if one is allowed to conjecture, even as the text refuses, as I argue earlier, that certainty) in childbirth. Further, the North Wind rushes “with war-cry down the steep ravines, / And wrestl’d with the giants of the woods; / And with his ice-club [like an axe?] beat the swelling crests / ... / And smote the tall reeds to the harden’d earth” (IV. 2-4; 8); it is by the use of the word “smote” that a negative connection is established with Max: “Max smote the snow-weigh’d tree and lightly laughed” (IV. 53). Bentley identifies the word “smite” in his explanatory notes to Malcolm’s Katie as a word with strong Biblical overtones meaning “to assail”; clearly, the word is neither common nor casual, and its repetitions (in other examples across the poem) represent connections of violence. Waterston contends that “Crawford saw the dark side of the home scene” -- because she grew up with an alcoholic father and an afflicted mother (68). I do not mean to suggest a sweeping universalism in relation to male violence but to understand that Crawford’s strategies for critiquing “woman’s place” as wife and mother are textual. Please also see the discussion on identity conflations and Saming earlier in this paper.

  • 1. Armstrong Nancy 1987 Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. google
  • 2. Bentley D.M.R. 1987 “Introduction.” Malcolm’s Katie: A Love Story. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. P.xi-xlix google
  • 3. Bentley D.M.R. 1994 “Introduction.”Malcolm’s Katie: A Love Story. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. P.vii-x google
  • 4. Bentley D.M.R. (1980) “Letters in Canada.” [University of Toronto Quarterly] Vol.49 P.453-55 google
  • 5. Bentley D.M.R. (1989) “Sizing Up the Women in Malcolm’s Katie and The Story of An Affinity.” [Studies in Canadian Literature] Vol.14 P.48-62 google
  • 6. Burns Robert Alan (1984) “Crawford and Gounod: Ambiguity and Irony in Malcolm’s Katie.” [Canadian Poetry] Vol.15 P.1-30 google
  • 7. Campbell Wanda (1991) “Isabella Valancy Crawford and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” [Canadian Poetry] Vol.29 P.25-37 google
  • 8. Cogswell Fred “Feminism in Isabella Valancy Crawford’s ‘Said the Canoe.’” P.79-85 google
  • 9. Crawford Isabella Valancy 1987 Malcolm’s Katie: A Love Story. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. google
  • 10. Daniells Roy 1965 “Crawford, Carman and Scott.”Literary History of Canada. Ed. Carl F. Klinck et al. P.421-26 google
  • 11. Dellamora Richard (2002) “Isabella Valancy Crawford and an English- Canadian Sodom.” [Canadian Literature] Vol.173 P.16-32 google
  • 12. Derrida Jacques 1992 “The Law of Genre.” Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. P.221-52 google
  • 13. Devereux Cecily (1997) “Documenting His/Story, Engendering Myth: Re-Reading Malcolm’s Katie.” [Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews] Vol.41 P.85-101 google
  • 14. Diamond Helpers “Glossary of Diamond Terms.” Robert Hensley, President. google
  • 15. Dunn Margo 1975 The Development of Narrative in the Writing of Isabella Valancy Crawford. google
  • 16. Hart Ceilidh (2006) “Exploring the Competing Narratives of Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Malcolm’s Katie.” [Studies in Canadian Literature] Vol.31 P.7-22 google
  • 17. Hughes Kenneth J., Sproxton Birk (1975) “Malcolm’s Katie: Images and Songs.” [Canadian Literature] Vol.65 P.55-64 google
  • 18. Kaixin Zhan (1996) “A Modest View on the Subjunctive Mood.” [English Studies] Vol.77 P.92-96 google doi
  • 19. King Jason (2006) “The Feminization of the Canadian Frontier: Engendering the ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ Myth in the Writings of Mary Anne Sadlier (1820-1913) and Isabella Valancy Crawford (1850-1887). ” [The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies] Vol.32 P.46-55 google doi
  • 20. Kobs Michael “The Root of All Evil?--The Mandrake Myth in German Literature from 1673 to 1913.” University of Missouri, May 2009. UMI Number: 1481462. ProQuest. google
  • 21. Kolodny Annette 1984 The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontier, 1630 -1860. google
  • 22. Macdonald Mary Joy (1988) “Inglorious Battles: People and Power in Crawford’s Malcolm’s Katie.” [Canadian Poetry] Vol.23 P.31-46 google
  • 23. Newman Jacquetta, White Linda 2006 Women, Politics, and Public Policy: The Political Struggles of Canadian Women. google
  • 24. “Glossary of Religious and Spiritual Terms.” B.A. Robinson. google
  • 25. Ower John “Crawford and the Penetrating Weapon.” P.33-49 google
  • 26. Painter Judge Mark P. 2008 “Commentary: Mastering the subjunctive mood.” Lawyers USA. google
  • 27. Poovey Mary 1988 Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Ed. Catherine R. Stimpson. google
  • 28. Relke Diana M. 1999 “The Ecological Vision of Isabella Valancy Crawford: A Reading of Malcolm’s Katie.” Greenwor(l)ds: Ecocritical Readings of Canadian Women’s Poetry. google
  • 29. Rudzik Orest “Myth in ‘Malcolm’s Katie.” P.49-60 google
  • 30. Stetz Margaret D. (2006) “Ballads in Prose: Genre-Crossing in Late Victorian Women’s Writing.” [Victorian Literature and Culture] Vol.34 P.619-29 google doi
  • 31. Theriot Nancy M. 1988 The Biosocial Construction of Femininity: Mothers and Daughters in Nineteenth-Century America. google
  • 32. Tierney Frank M. 1979 The Crawford Symposium. google
  • 33. Tracy Collett 1998 “Gender and Irony in Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Malcolm’s Katie” Literature of Region and Nation. [6th International Conference.] P.114-42 google
  • 34. Waterston Elizabeth “Crawford, Tennyson and the Domestic Idyll.” P.61-78 google
  • 35. Weitz Rose 2003 The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior. google
  • 36. Zarcone Thierry (2005) “The Myth of the Mandrake, the ‘Plant?Human.” [Diogenes] Vol.52 P.115-25 google doi