The Lamp at Noon by Sinclair Ross
James Sinclair Ross was one of the most important Canadian novelists and short story writers of the twentieth century. He exquisitely captured the bleakness found on the Canadian prairie, the callousness of nature’s powers, and the futility of man’s effort in such settings. His writings are well-structured and filled with vivid imagery. Ross is well-known for his collection of short stories, The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories (1968).
Summary of The Lamp at Noon
The story “The Lamp at Noon” examines the issue confronting settlers in Canada’s unusual and forbidding terrain. The term alludes to the strangeness of encountering the Canadian landscape. It is odd to light a lamp at midday when the sun should be directly overhead. The storey takes place during a devastating dust storm that has enveloped the entire country. It has obliterated the sun and rendered the area so black that the light must be lit at noon. The two protagonists, Paul and Ellen, exemplify two settlers’ mindsets. One has a great attachment to the land and is thus willing to face challenges even at the risk of being destroyed; the other, wishing to go but unable to do so, is stuck and fearful for survival. Their child embodies the next generation, trapped in the crossfire of these diametrically opposed ideas.
Paul is a young farmer attempting to earn a living in tough surroundings. He works really hard to make ends meet but is helpless against the forces of nature that appear to combine to destroy him. He has been experiencing poor harvests for several years and is anxious for one excellent harvest in order to survive. He has aged beyond his years and become hardened as a result of his hard work. He wishes to succeed as a farmer in order to create a safe and comfortable life for his son. He is so devoted to his ambition that he fails to recognise the gravity of the grinding poverty he faces on a daily basis. He seeks refuge and escape via physical labour and hence can not comprehend his wife’s desperation, wrath, and contempt. He views her desire to return to her father’s home as a means of subjugating and enslaving him. He would rather have the liberty of his own barren farm than the comfort and security that working for his father-in-law would provide. He is opposed to such a connection and hence refuses to listen to his wife, even when the life of his child is jeopardised.
Paul exemplifies the early pioneers who fought and suffered to make their way through Canada’s frontiers. They have overcome insurmountable challenges by maintaining a steadfast faith in their work and the noble intentions that underpin every action. They have felt such a connection to the country that nothing, not even the unpredictable and harsh weather, not the unfriendly and foreign flora and animals, can change that. They have cut their way into the nation, preparing it for homesteading and colonisation. Their indomitable attitude, which has aided them in surviving the arduous experience of discovering and settling a new area, deteriorates into foolish obstinacy in the present situation, as Paul refuses to pursue better chances despite crop failures. He disregards Ellen’s advice about crop rotation and plods on obstinately, unwilling to learn from his mistakes. Paul does not acknowledge the reality of Ellen’s statements until the story’s conclusion. His hunt for Ellen demonstrates a shift in his mentality, but it occurs far too late. Ellen and the child have gone missing.
Analysis of The Lamp at Noon
Sinclair Ross is a well-known prairie realist of Canada. His novels and short stories portray nature as an uncontrollable force that reduces humans to their most primal selves in their quest for survival. Communication channels, most notably between husband and wife, deteriorate when men and women become isolated in the face of nature’s onslaught. Civilization is a thin veneer, constructed on readily discarded social niceties. Additionally, Ross’s works frequently take place during the Great Depression, creating an economic climate that is as severe and cruel as the natural one.
“The Lamp at Noon” depicts this type of communication breakdown. Paul is a farmer who, despite years of drought, refuses to give up. Ellen, his wife, feels confined in their home and exposed to nature’s wrath, symbolised by the roaring dust storm outside. She is unable to cope with the failure and loneliness, but her attempts to communicate her feelings to Paul fail. He will not give up, blissfully unaware of the consequence of his resolve to continue despite her despair.
Ellen begins the story by using a lamp to combat the daylight darkness. The lamp is both a symbol of optimism and despair. It is a test for the dust storm, but the fact that she has to ignite it demonstrates how dismal their lives have become. She perceives the dust storm as encroaching on her home, and we know that it is also encroaching on her psyche. She views the wind as predatory in an often known passage:
There were two winds: one that flew and one that chased. The one fled into the eaves, crying in fright; the other attacked it there and shook the eaves apart, causing it to run once more. As she listened, this first wind came into the room, disturbed as a bird that has felt the graze of claws on its wing; while the other wind, enraged, rocked the walls and thudded tumbleweeds against the window, till its quarry flinched away in fear.
Her garrison serves as her home, but it is incapable of providing her with enough safety. Dust seeps into every crevice: “The table had been set less than ten minutes, and already a film was gathering on the dishes.” Similarly, her sanity serves as a tenuous barrier against the lunacy that surrounds her.
Paul, like many of Ross’s male characters, is stoic and impervious to expressions of emotion. Ellen longs to rush out to the barn to find him, but “was too much grim endurance in his nature ever to let him understand the fear and weakness of a woman.” They had quarrelled earlier, which contributed to their quiet. What he fails to recognise is that her combative nature is a result of “the dust and wind that had driven her.”
Ross, as a naturalist writer, depicts a world beset by inevitability; all we can do as people is learn to cope. His characters are stripped of any traces of civilisation and forced to mature rapidly. Ellen, for example, notes “the strength, the grimness, the young Paul growing old and hard, buckled against a desert even grimmer than his will.” despite the fact that Paul is only 30 years old.
Paul put his trust in nature, but nature has betrayed him. Despite this, he maintains optimism. However, rather than being strengthened by adversity, Ellen is gradually destroyed: “The same debts and poverty had brought 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 lacks the required optimism to protect her from the harsh realities of their lives. “It’s the hopelessness—going on—watching the land blow away,” she explains.
Ellen tries to convince him that the farm is doomed, but he is blinded by optimism and pride and would not consider the alternative—working for her father. As Ellen sees plainly and Paul does not, their lives, particularly their youths, are being squandered here, she begs him not to go as he storms out to return to the stable. She is tormented equally by loneliness and hopelessness, and she is in desperate need of his consolation and affection. However, he is incapable of displaying tenderness. Paul’s eyes are wide open as he looks out over the pastures from the stable:
Suddenly, he awoke from his stupor; suddenly, the fields before him were visible to his eyes. They lay black and naked…. before the utter devastation that confronted him, he vomited and stood still. He was suddenly naked, much like the fields. Everything that had shielded him from the realities of existence: vision and purpose, faith in the land, the future, and in himself—it was all rented now, taken away.
He finally sees the reality with the clarity with which Ellen does, but it is too late. When he arrives home, he discovers she has gone disappeared. He discovers her out in the rain cradling their dead infant, another sign of their shattered expectations. She has gone insane and, strangely, in her craziness conveys the hope that he had always voiced in his persistent reluctance to confront the truth. Thus, their roles have been flipped. The truth appears to be so agonising that only delusions, even to the point of insanity, make it bearable.
Questions and Answers
Q. Describe the theme of marriage in Sinclair Ross’s storey “The Lamp at Noon”
Answer: Sinclair Ross, a Canadian writer, wrote until his retirement as a banker. Ross’s parents divorced when he was a child, and he was raised by his mother. Despite the fact that Ross never married, he frequently wrote about married life.
The story “The Lamp at Noon” is set during the Great Depression, most likely in the “Dust Bowl.” Winds and dryness were so severe that nothing could be cultivated; as a result, farmers were forced to quit their holdings. This is the story’s setting. The narration is in the third person omniscient since the reader is privy to the thoughts of the characters: Ellen, the wife; Paul, the husband; and the infant. The atmosphere is desolate and foreboding. The writer’s word choice brings to life the experience of this horrible natural phenomenon. The author’s vocabulary and descriptions depict the wind and its horrifying consequences on the farm. Ross expresses it this way: “…wind sprang inside the room, distraught like a bird that had felt the graze of talons on its wing; while furious, the other wing shook the walls.”
Recognizing the couple’s sorrow is dependent on their view of their situation. Everything revolves around the wind, dust, and thirst. Both of the main characters are pessimistic. Before her marriage, Ellen’s life had been comfortable. Her father ran a shop in town. She is now in distress. She feels alienated, alone, furious, hurt, and, most importantly, hopeless. Ellen warns Paul several times that they have no future on the farm. Nothing will grow; he has tried, but the environment just defeats him. Her infant continuously coughs and cries. Ellen tries to express her sentiments to her husband while begging for his attention. I can not take it anymore. He is constantly crying. You will go, Paul—say you will go. We are not truly living here—we are just passing through. No marriage can survive such a breakdown of communication.
Paul has worked tirelessly for the past five years to make his farm successful. He is aware that his family is barely scraping by. His creatures are in pain. He returns to his sanctuary, the barn, after tiring of squabbling with Ellen. His manhood and self-respect will not allow him to give in to her urge to try anything new. Her father had a job opening for him. Paul ignores his wife’s pleadings.
The wind does die down at the end of the storey. When Paul looks at his crops, all he sees is the aftermath of the windstorm: black, barren fields. Nonetheless, he is more loyal to the land than to his wife. Ellen is sick of battling the dust. She can not stop thinking about getting out. She tries to persuade Paul to see things her way. She begs him to listen. Paul, on the other hand, definitely loves his family; but, his pride keeps him from listening to her melancholy, loneliness, and sorrow. He is just concerned with his relationship with his property. He hears his wife but does not respond. Unfortunately, his neglect of her complaints results in a tragic outcome. When Paul arrives home, he discovers that his wife and child have vanished. He eventually finds them after much searching. The baby has died, and Ellen appears to be insane. Ellen, unable to cope with the loss of her kid, tries to relate to her husband: You are right, Paul. You claimed we would see the storm pass by tonight… Tomorrow is going to be fine.
The future will be unsatisfactory for this couple. Their child has been abducted due to a lack of communication and pride. The marriage may also be irretrievably lost.