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[edit] The Narrator in John Richardson's Wacousta

Over the course of the novel, the narrator of John Richardson’s Wacousta uses language and bias as a medium to expose both the complicated and greyness of Euro-Indigenous relations, as well as the contrasting values that go along within this sphere. Accordingly, the respective cultural biases of both women and Indigenous people within the novel are present, however throughout the novel, these biases slowly begin to change.

[edit] Volume 1

Wacousta by John Richardson
Wacousta by John Richardson

Social norms are constructed by one’s belief about what others do. Over time, we have seen as social norms evolve into what we consider to be appropriate in our modern society today. However, this was not always the case. John Richardson’s Wacousta reiterates the idea of applying a historical lens when considering the language and biases during a specific time period. Specifically, the Narrator illustrates racism and sexism through their use of language throughout the story.

The Narrator's use of racist language in contrast to modern social norms quickly becomes apparent during the early chapters of the book. These terms would be considered quite inappropriate today but possess a deeper meaning within the context of the story. One example of this is when the narrator states “It was that peculiar cry which an Indian utters when the reeking scalp has been wrested from his murdered victim” (30). The use of the term “Indian” and the brutally violent characterization is unacceptable in today’s society due to the history centered around the treatment of Indigenous people. The narrator within a story typically has access to all of the thoughts and feelings of people in the story. Therefore, the narrator in this case has access to the general feeling of discrimination during this time period against the Indigenous community. From a historical context, this term and conception of Indigenous culture was normalized during 1832, meaning the narrator was portraying an accurate representation of the language used during the time. The author was, in other words, playing to the expectations (and bloodlust) of his European audience.

The question then becomes why is this relevant in our current society? Through the use of language, the narrator is luring the audience into a different perspective in order to better understand the inherent racism towards the Indigenous people. This is critical when analyzing stories throughout history as it helps to give an accurate representation of what really happened during these events. Furthermore, the Narrator also uses sexist language to depict gender roles and gender discrimination during the 1800s. Females have faced intense discrimination throughout history ranging from a lack of legal rights to little independence from their husbands. In many societies, women have long been viewed as less than fully human. This is evident in Volume 1 Chapter 2 when Sir Everard says, “I pity Halloway from my soul, and feel the deepest interest in his pretty and unhappy wife; but that is no reason one should attach importance to the incoherent expressions wrung from her” (47). A lack of respect towards Halloway’s wife and her thoughts are a direct reflection of the treatment of women during this time period. This is again alluding to the concept that the narrator is exposing readers to a different perspective in history. Indeed, the subtitle of the novel gives much more importance to her so-called "incoherent expressions" as they fashion the prophecy that provides the novel and its sequel with their central narrative arc. It is British arrogance and sexism that prevents the message from seeming coherent and meaningful.

[edit] Volume 2

In this volume, the Narrator further explore biases towards women. For example, in Volume 2 Chapter 1, the Narrator portrays Babette and her father Francois having a conversation that the readers are unable to hear and learn about. By depicting Babette as not having a limited amount of agency, the Narrator adds suspense to the story because it is still unknown whether Francois will betray them or not, while also beginning to unravel some of the biases towards women (165-166). In Volume 2 Chapter 2, Francois’ daughter Babette is still given no agency, but in this case, it is not because he holds a bias against her. It is simply for the suspense that she does not speak to the two British officers. They do not speak to her because they do not want to betray their mission (170). The Narrator also shows his bias against women in Volume 2 Chapter 3 by depicting them as weak and foolish. The governor told Ponteac that “... he weakly took council like a woman from another” (198) and he makes comments about women being weak (200) and foolish (205). The Narrator’s bias slowly begins to unravel towards the Natives as he gives Ponteac agency in Volume 2 Chapters 3, 4, and 6. The governor clearly respects Ponteac and his warriors; he also uses their language as a gesture of respect (187).

Towards the second half of the Volume 2, the narrator proposes opposing ideas surrounding racial bias and the roles of women. The Narrator uses the racial bias of the British viewpoint initially to tell a specific story with specific perspectives and flips that in the second volume to remind us that things are more complex than they seem. A good example of this is the use of female characters (Oucanasta, Clara, and Madeline). The introduction of Oucanasta leaves her outside of the colonial sphere of power. She is described as a “guide” (239) and feminine despite being contrary to the regular passive expectations of the British. An example of this is when she convinces Frederick to touch her feet. The Narrator describes her foot as “anything but delicate”, (241). Frederick’s pride is described as a “defense to the weaker sex”, and yet he continues to participate in this “un-European” and “backwards” experience in order to complete his mission (240). Discarding expectations for gender for both himself and for her, this results in a “wonderful revolution” (241). As opposed to later on in the novel to the Haldimar girls, this is new. Clara is described as “Elegant”, “slight, and “petite” (295). Madeline is described as “attractive, or rather winning” with “power in her voice” (296). Oucanasta’s participation in the heat of conflict and suspense contrasts the presence of the Haldimar girls who are withheld from the action in the narrative. Clara fainting in the heat of battle, Madeline taken captive (314), both oppose this. A further example is told by the Captain of the guard on Clara’s ship. He runs into a sentry (Middleton) who is drawing an Indigenous woman. Middleton described her as “a Venus, a Juno”, promising that if the captain could find a more attractive woman, he would change his mind set (300). The Captain, upon seeing Clara and Madeline, tells him he lost the bet. These key examples both counter and enforce moments of racial and sexual prejudice associated with cultural upbringing.

[edit] Volume 3

Contradictory to Volume 1 and 2, it can be argued that by the end of Volume 3, the Narrator's bias against women and Indigenous people are predominantly unraveled. Accordingly, the Narrator's bias of women being ‘passive’ and lacking agency, is challenged through the portrayal of women having more control over the narrative. In addition, the Narrator’s bias of Indigenous people being ‘savages’ or ‘violent’ is challenged through the peaceful behaviour the Indigenous people display throughout and at the end of this volume. Although some biases about these two groups in this volume do exist, it can be argued that the depiction of the two groups do come a long way and are mostly changed by the very end of the novel.

This progressive change in narration is important as it changes the reader’s perception of these two groups to a more powerful and strong image, rather than one that is passive and/or violent. The meaning of the book changes by the end of Volume 3 as it turns into not just a narrative that reflects and reinforces racist and sexist ideologies of Canada, but instead implies the possibility of peace between Settler and Indigenous relations while depicting women as powerful agents within Canada. For example, as Oucanasta assists in guiding the de Haldimar’s, she states “the Saganaw is safe within his fort” once they arrive at Fort Detroit (540). Throughout the novel, we see as Oucanasta has agency while she aids Frederick on numerous different occasions which shows their loyalty to one another as their relationship strengthens. Because of her kindness, which Madeline and Frederick acknowledge, Oucanasta and her brother receive offerings of friendship, appreciation and gratitude from the de Haldimar’s. Through this, the Narrator explores the changing relationship between the British and the Indigenous people to demonstrate they are capable of more than just violence. Instead, as time passes on, the two groups form a friendship and “Oucanasta might be seen associating with and bearing curious presents, the fruits of Indian ingenuity, to the daughters of De Haldimar” (542-543). Even after the violent events that occur, the de Haldimar’s and Oucanasta maintain their strong relationship by giving one another gifts and interacting with each other’s future families. This peaceful relationship between Frederick and Madeline with Oucanasta and her brother is significant due to its contrast to the overall negative relationship between their two respective groups. The consistently developing respectful and trustworthy relationship they have with one another is represented as the Narrator further unravels his bias. Further, the readers see as the leader of the Indian Chiefs, Ponteac expresses “a generous determination to conclude a peace with the garrison, and henceforth to consider them as his friends” (542). This is a significant progression in the overall relationship between the British and the Indigenous people because the two were previously seen at war throughout the novel. Just as the peaceful relationship between Oucanasta and Frederick develops throughout the novel, so does the relationship between the British and the Indigenous people as seen towards the end.

It is possible that the slow unravel of these biases of Indigenous people and women were done purposely, as to indicate that a progressive change in potentially problematic ideologies as a society can be possible. In addition, it is possible that this novel is told through a third-person narration to effectively show us this ideological progression from an impartial viewpoint. To conclude, it is evident that the Narrator has a strong role in creating a changing depiction of women and Indigenous individuals as well as the meaning of the book as a whole. It is through this shift of tone in the narration and the unravel of biases however that we see the depiction of these groups and the meaning of the book change to a more positive one.

[edit] References

Richardson, John. Wacousta or, The Prophecy; A Tale of the Canadas. Edited by Douglas Cronk, Carleton University Press Inc., 1987.

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