“John and Mary fall in love and get married… They both have hobbies which they find stimulating and challenging. Eventually they die. This is the end of the story.” (Atwood para. 2) “Remember, this is Canada” (para. 15). In Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”, the reader can choose from multiple storylines. All of them, however, lead to the same “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die” (para. 17). According to Atwood, no matter which storyline is chosen, Canadian literature always ends in tragedy. In Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water, Eli Stands Alone, a Canadian Blackfoot professor, returns to the reserve, in an attempt to prevent the destruction of his deceased mother’s old log cabin. Despite his persistence, Eli loses both the cabin and his life. Throughout the novel, Eli knows that he will not win. A cultural outcast, he is secluded from his native roots. Out of luck, Eli becomes an unfortunate victim of nature. Through failures in life, Eli Stands Alone exemplifies the qualities that define Margaret Atwood’s Canadian literary hero.
In Canadian literature, the word “success” is a synonym for absurdism. Right in the beginning of the novel, King undercuts Eli as a hero destined to fail. Reflecting on his struggle with the dam company,
Eli had to admit that after all the years of arguments and threats and injunctions, he had won very little… Eli had no doubt that they would find a way to maneuver [sic] around him… and Eli and the house would be washed out onto the prairies (King 260).
Eli knows that he is fighting a losing battle against an unstoppable corporate giant and that one-day he and his house will just be “washed away” from the face of the earth. Even at the start of the novel, Clifford Sifton, the head builder of the dam, says to Eli,
“‘Bartleby the Scrivener.’ One of Herman Melville’s short stories.”
“I guess. The point is that this guy had lost touch with reality. And you know what happens to him at the end of the story?”
“It’s fiction, Cliff.”
“He dies. That’s what happens. Suggest anything to you?”
“We all die, Cliff” (141-142).
Comparing Eli’s life to that of Herman Melville’s Bartleby of Bartleby the Scrivener, King directly foreshadows Eli’s death. In Bartleby the Scrivener, Bartleby stubbornly sits in jail, refusing food until he dies (Melville line 235-249). Like Bartleby, Eli rejects monetary compensations and emotionlessly accepts his impending death. Right from the start, King foreshadows Eli’s unavoidable, gloomy future that is characteristic of Canadian literary heroes.
The path of despair, however, is never limited to only the future. Throughout most of his life, Eli is shunned as a native who “went off and became white” (King 113). When he receives a phone call from his sister, Norma, informing him of his mother’s death, Norma bluntly tells Eli, “‘Didn’t need you. Camelot [youngest brother] and I took care of everything. I was going to call, but then I forgot. I remembered today, so I called’” (112). Having eluded his culture, Eli has become an unimportant and forgotten figure to his sister and family who just “didn’t need” him. Even after Eli returns to the reserve and Norma asks him what she should tell the community, Eli responds,
“Tell them I’m dead.”
“Been telling them that for years. No one believes me anymore.”
“Then tell them I’m alive.”
“No one believes that, either” (286).
Even though Eli returns “home” (ibid.), he is detached mentally and physically to the point where even his mere existence has become insignificant. Following Atwood’s Survival patterns, King depicts Eli as a lonesome hero isolated and forgotten by society.
In Canadian literature, society is just one of many adversaries a hero must struggle against. With Canada’s unique and pessimistic ideology, even the will of man cannot conquer the power of nature. Reflective of Canada’s unpredictable climate, the sudden weather shift preceding the dam’s destruction catches Eli off guard. Expecting a day like any other, Eli pleasantly converses with the Old Indians.
“It’s going to be a good day,” said the Lone Ranger. “I can feel it.”
“You bet”, said Eli, and he arranged the coffee cups on the porch. But as Eli reached for the coffee pot, it began to rattle, then bounce (409).
At first, the day seems nothing out of the ordinary, with Eli oblivious and unprepared for what will soon come. As a hostile and uncontested force in Canadian literature, however, nature can change the mood in the blink of an eye.
In that instant the water rose out of the lake like a mountain, sucking the cars under and pitching them high in the air, sending them at the dam in an awful rush. And the dam gave way and the water and the cars tumbled over the edge of the world” (414).
The once-placid water of the lake transforms into an angry, unforgiving force of nature, recklessly throwing cars over the “edge of the world”, wreaking havoc on the man-made dam and all else in its path. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Eli experiences an unexpected and unfulfilling death. Neither purposeful nor dramatic, Eli’s death at the hands of nature’s cold wrath earns him the title of a classic Canadian hero.
Eli’s tragic story as told by King deftly demonstrates what it means to be a Canadian hero. Undercut from the start, Eli was doomed to die. Secluded from society, Eli stood alone till the end. Victim to the will of nature, Eli died an unnecessary death. Despite all this, Eli’s shortcomings help distinguish what it means to live and die Canadian. Atwood once commented, “Canada was built on dead beavers” (Wikiquote sect. “Unsourced”). Whether the breaking of the dam in Green Grass, Running Water is symbolic or ironic, there is no doubt that heroic beaver figures such as Eli Stands Alone build our national identity in literature.