Chapter 15: Various Tragedies
by Nancy Holmes
Here we are at almost the exact middle of the book— Chapter 15 out of a total of 31. And what a rich chapter it is, so much so that I find its title almost comically inadequate. The chapter title refers to the various glitches that Emily runs up against: getting chased by a bull, being punished for laughing at prayers, nearly losing Aunt Laura’s pearl ring to that sly creep Cora Lee, not winning the ribbon for best composition because of the prejudice of that other nasty piece of work Miss Brownell, having chapped hands, and being deprived of a donut at dinner. Except for the bull, I’ll not mention any of these Various Tragedies again for they are just the surface of Emily’s life, the things that she thinks are important at the time but that are simply ephemeral.
However these light and fluffy tragedies are bobbing on the surface of a far deeper sea. Artistically, this chapter is complex and fascinating: you can almost sense Montgomery hunkering down to really get this novel going. In this chapter, she sets the plot trap of the book and also raises the final piece of the framework of characters who will provide the structure for not only this novel but also for the two to come (I am not counting Dean Priest who is an intruder). And flowing through these pages are the key themes of this novel and the sequels: gender relations, the struggle to be an artist, and finally the duet of the marvellous physical world in play with the mysterious unknowable realm beyond reason and measurement. Emily has special access to both these worlds.
First there’s the well. It is the plot trap, literally. It is our first introduction to what will feature significantly at the end. A well is a wonderful object in general, dripping with significance. The gender themes are set up powerfully in the bull/ well scene—the female well with its inner mysteries and the very male bull that will be challenged by that jolly boy Perry Miller. The whole scene in the pasture reeks of sex, in that innocent and but somewhat coy way that Montgomery has, almost as if her plots are as “wholly unconscious” (156) as Emily’s eye-lashing deploying looks. This chapter introduces us to Perry who will become the fourth of the quartet of young people around whom the novels will swirl, their loves and betrayals and misunderstandings and sympathies that will drive so much of the series. I like how the quartet is like a solar system- Emily is at the centre and each of her three friends reflects back to her some aspect of her being—Teddy the dreamy artist with troubled mother figure relations; Ilse the fiery independent female hungry for intellectual companionship and love; and Perry the humourful, deeply practical and goal-oriented worker. So Perry arrives in Chapter 15 and you have to cheer when later in the chapter he mocks and guffaws at the odious Miss Brownell.
But back to the well! It points us towards art as well as sex. A story— the murder between two Cain and Abel like brothers— draws Emily to her sightseeing. The well is the site of a story. Later in the chapter Emily tells her father in her letter that she is reading The Alhambra (possibly Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra?) and Hans Christian Andersen (163)—she is soaking up stories and with The Alhambra, many of these are place-situated stories. The well, as Seamus Heaney tells us in his great essay on the sources of poetry “Feeling Into Words,” is where writers reach for their authentic poetic voice. As Patti Smith says in her wonderful 2015 biography M Train (I think Patti Smith is a kind of a 21stcentury grown up Emily), the well is a portal into the “secret exaltation” of stories, dreams, memories and art (Smith 105). The deep source of art is at the lips of a well, access located in a specific geographical place on earth.
For many artists and in many cultures, stories and art are attached to places. Emily’s art (and Montgomery’s—look at all the place names in her novel titles--Green Gables, Avonlea, The Island, Rainbow Valley, New Moon, Silverbush, Lantern Hill….. and on and on) works in the knots and tangles of nature and the human imprint on it that make a “place.” I think of art and imprints on the earth when Perry and Emily have their comical discussion of poetry in Chapter 15 (161-162). Emily’s poem is over-the-top romantic word-painting (“Earth is a peerless, gleaming bride”). Perry comes up with a poem that sounds like William Carlos Williams on a dull day (“Mike has made a long row/ Of tracks across the snow”), but then in her Father Letter, Emily writes the “real” poem (using prerogative of a creative writing teacher, I am altering a few words):
The cat made a row
of little tracks across the snow.
They looked so pretty, but not so pretty
as the mice tracks in flour spilled
on the granary floor.
They looked like poetry.
That infusion of poetry and practicality, mystery and earthiness is also nicely summed up in one my favorite Emily sentences in this chapter: “The spirit moved Cousin Jimmy to recite some of his poetry as he threw the turnips” (163).
Those turnips remind me of how much this novel and this chapter in particular are so heavily farm-focussed. I don’t think I noticed this much as a girl – I responded more to the romantic nature than the agricultural (perhaps because I was an urban kid)—but Chapter 15 is one of many pastoral chapters. It is chock-full of farm life: well-building, bulls, pastures, hired hands, work in the kitchen, pig killing, beef hams hanging from rafters, apples in barrels and turnips in the cellar. Yet after all this practical, earthy farm stuff, the chapter ends on theology. The physical world rubs right up against the spiritual— not the churches and Sunday schools that abound, but Emily’s very fine observation that “God is just like my flash, only itlasts only a second and He lasts always” (164). For me, that explains the flash and helps me understand this key theme in the novel— that the spiritual is always there, ready for us to access if we can find it. The way to it is often through an intense experience of the now, a vision that bypasses what we think we know and takes us to another way of knowing. The flash is the Way to enlightenment, to the holy present, to the mysteries outside of time, to what some call God.
So wow. In this chapter, we have feet on the earth and hearts tied to God. The plot is primed. The young people are on the move into their complicated lives with each other. Art spins around them tethering them to nature and their true selves. Oh my, what a chapter this is to push us down the slope of the last half of the book. Off we go!
Heaney, Seamus. “Feeling Into Words.” In 20th Century Poetry and Poetics. 5thEdition. Ed. Gary Geddes. Oxford UP, 2006. 988- 996.
Montgomery, L.M. “Chapter 15: Various Tragedies.” Emily of New Moon. McClelland & Stewart, 1923. (My very own beloved first copy I owned.)
Smith, Patti. M Train. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 89- 105.
BIO: Nancy Holmes has published five poetry collections and is editor of Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia in Kelowna BC. Her essays on Montgomery have appeared in Storm and Dissonance and L.M. Montgomery and the Matter of Nature. Nancy’s website: https://www.nancyholmes.ca/