The Lamp at Noon by Sinclair Ross, 1968
THE LAMP AT NOON
by Sinclair Ross, 1968
Sinclair Ross is one of Canada's best-known prairie realists. His novels and short stories present nature as a force beyond human control, one that reduces people to their most elemental selves as they struggle to survive. Lines of communication, most notably between husband and wife, break down as men and women are left isolated before nature's onslaught. Civilization is a thin facade, built upon social niceties that are easily swept away. In addition, Ross's works are often set during the Great Depression, so that the economic environment is as harsh and unforgiving as the natural one.
"The Lamp at Noon" portrays such a breakdown in communication. Paul is a farmer who refuses to give up despite years of drought. Ellen, his wife, feels trapped in their house and vulnerable to nature's fury, which is represented by the dust storm raging outside. She can no longer cope with the failure and isolation, but her attempts to tell Paul what she is feeling fail. He will not surrender, remaining oblivious to the cost of his decision to go on despite her desperation.
At the beginning of the story Ellen is lighting a lamp against the daytime darkness. The lamp is a symbol of both hope and hopelessness It is a challenge to the dust storm, but the very fact that she has to light it proves how desolate their life is. She sees the dust storm as invading her home, and we realize that it is invading her mind as well. In an often quoted passage she sees the wind as predatory:
There were two winds: the wind in flight, and the wind that pursued. The one sought refuge in the eaves, whimpering, in fear; the other assailed it there, and shook the eaves apart to make it flee again. Once as she listened this first wind sprang into the room, distraught like a bird that has felt the graze of talons on its wing; while furious the other wind shook the walls, and thudded tumbleweeds against the window till its quarry glanced away again in fright.
Her home is her garrison, but one unable to provide her with any real protection. The dust invades everywhere: "The table had been set less than ten minutes, and already a film was gathering on the dishes." Similarly, her sanity is a thin shield against the madness besieging her.
Paul, like many male characters in Ross's fiction, is stoic and impatient with displays of emotion. Ellen yearns to rush out to the stable to find him, but there "was too much grim endurance in his nature ever to let him understand the fear and weakness of a woman." They had quarreled earlier, contributing to the silence between them. What he cannot see is that her combativeness is the product of "the dust and wind that had driven her."
As a naturalist writer Ross portrays a world of inevitable hardships; all we can do as individuals is learn to cope. His characters are stripped of anything grafted on by civilization, and they are forced to grow up quickly. Although Paul is only 30 years old, for example, Ellen notices "the strength, the grimness, the young Paul growing old and hard, buckled against a desert even grimmer than his will."
Paul has placed his faith in nature, but it has betrayed him. Nevertheless, he retains hope. But rather than being strengthened by hardship, Ellen is progressively destroyed: "The same debts and poverty had brought a plaintive indignation, a nervous dread of what was still to come…. It was the face of a woman that had aged without maturing, that had loved the little vanities of life, and lost them wistfully." Unlike Paul, she does not have the hope necessary to shield her from the harsh reality of their existence. "It's the hopelessness—going on—watching the land blow away," she tells him.
Ellen tries to tell him that the farm is doomed, but he is blinded by hope and pride, and he refuses to accept the alternative—working for her father. As Ellen sees clearly and Paul will not, their lives, particularly their youths, are being wasted here, when he storms out to return to the stable, she pleads with him not to go. She is tortured as much by the loneliness as the hopelessness, and she needs his comfort and affection. But he cannot show tenderness. In the stable, as he looks out over the fields, Paul's eyes open:
Suddenly he emerged from the numbness; suddenly the fields before him struck his eyes to comprehension. They lay black, naked…. before the utter waste confronting him, he sickened and stood cold. Suddenly like the fields he was naked. Everything that had sheathed him a little from the realities of existence: vision and purpose, faith in the land, in the future, in himself—it was all rent now, all stripped away.
He now sees the truth as clearly as Ellen, but it is too late. He returns home to discover that she is missing. He finds her out in the storm clutching their dead baby, another symbol of their hopes blasted. She has gone mad and, ironically, in her madness expresses the hope that he, in his stubborn refusal to face the truth, had always expressed. Their roles are thus now reversed. It seems that the truth is so painful that only illusions, even to the point of madness, make it bearable.