"Deep in mines of old belief": Gnosticism in modern Canadian literature

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Twentieth Century Canadian Fiction
Robertson Davies
Morley Callaghan
Margaret Atwood

This dissertation offers an original contribution to Canadian literary studies by examining how – following the historical exegesis of Gnosticism in a series of publications in the late 1970s – Canadian writers began to incorporate the Gnostic heresies of antiquity into their writing as a subversive, imagistic framework or “language” with which to explore wisdom, salvation, spirituality, sexuality, and gender outside of conventional Christian thought. Using Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels (1981), Morley Callaghan’s A Time for Judas (1983), and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996) as the project’s focus, I demonstrate how these literary works use the heresy of Gnosticism as a conceit to confront both the reader and the novels’ characters with the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in knowing the self and the attainment of wisdom. Curiously, as I show, all three novels stand as exceptions within the authors’ respective oeuvres, using meta-fictional techniques such as multiple narrators, mise en abyme, and the blending of the present with an invented biblical or historical past to unsettle the possibility of achieving self-knowledge in a personal or, at times, a national sense. For each novel, the multiple narratives recapitulate the notion of multiple perspectives as found in the historical gospels. Likewise, the incorporation of Gnosticism highlights what the characters (and occasionally the authors themselves) identify as deficits in orthodox religion’s ability to account for the spiritual and moral lives of women and the individual’s role in salvation. That Gnosticism found its way into Canadian literature can be attributed, in part, to the sudden availability of Gnostic materials in translation, New Age thinking and spirituality, and – in some cases – a broader (and border) anxiety concerning Canada’s understanding of religion in terms of its own national character, and particularly in relation to its southern neighbour. To this end, a close examination of these three particular novels suggests that these are not separate, unrelated efforts; but rather, that they gesture collectively to alternative interpretations of a constructed past.

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Kathy Mezei
Arts & Social Sciences: Department of English
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) Ph.D.