In the early 1930s, Canada was greatly affected by the Great Depression. This economic decline had major repercussions on employment, prices and profits of every industry, as well as on education. In Margaret Laurence’s Horses of the Night, we witness the reality of the people living in the prairies during that period. A closer look at the short story allows us to draw attention on two main themes: the desire to escape reality and the access (or in this case, lack of) to education.
The events unfold over a little more than a decade. It begins when Chris, then fifteen years old, is sent by his parents to live with his grandfather. The story is told by Vanessa, Chris’ younger cousin, with whom she will develop a relationship through the years. At first, Vanessa is reluctant to the idea of her cousin she did not even know she had, coming down to Manawaka. But it does not take very long before she feels empathy for him. Even if she is only six years when he arrives, she can already see how some members of the family, especially her grandfather, seem to devalue Chris. What she notices though is that Chris is never bothered by the comments made about him. Rather, he always “appeared to be absent, elsewhere” (Laurence 133). This detached attitude can be a sign of what will become of Chris. This hints right away that he is constantly trying to find ways to escape his reality. His first attempt is through education. Chris’ family live up north in Shallow Creek. Because there are no high schools up there, he is forced to move away. His grandfather, who is paying for his education, does not refrain himself from expressing his displeasure of the situation. After he finishes high school, Chris wants to study to be an engineer and build bridges. Unfortunately for him, grandfather Connor feels that he has given enough of his money and sends him back home. His dream is no longer a possibility, but Chris still does not show that he is affected by the news. Before he goes back, he confesses to Vanessa that he now desires to become a traveller. Because of the Depression, it is extremely hard to find a sustainable job, but he still manages to find one, even one that brings him to travel: a travelling salesman. After a few years selling magazines, vacuum cleaners and knitting machines, Chris cannot find any more work and he is forced yet again to go back to Shallow Creek. During that time, now twelve years old, Vanessa goes to visit him, and she realizes that her cousin had embellished the reality of the place he grew up in. What she sees is nothing like the wonderful place Chris had described to her some years before. Once more, we can see that in order to accept his reality, Chris feels the need to Eventually, war begins, and he joins the Army. About a year and a half after he is sent to England, Chris has a mental breakdown and is discharged from the Army. At this point in the story, it is clear that what at first seemed to be a way to protect himself from the judgments of his family and his poor conditions, was in fact evidence of his mental fragility. Chris’ attempt to find ways out of his misery had seem somewhat efficient up to this point. But the horror of the war was simply too much for him. This was a reality even his fertile imagination could not protect him from.
The other important aspect of this short story is the way access to education is illustrated. Today, the universal access to education is a priority. Regardless of their age, sex, ethnicity and economic background, humans should all have equal opportunities for education. It is easy to understand though, that during the 1930s, this really was not the case. Chris’ education opportunities were really between the hands of the grandfather. Because he was the one paying for it, he had the power to decide whether or not Chris would get a higher education. And in this time of Depression, money was not something you could afford to spend so easily. Right from the beginning of the story though, the grandfather is not shy to say what we thinks of his grandson: “Wilf wasn’t much good, even as a young man. […] If the boy takes after his father, it’s a poor lookout for him.” (132) It is clear that he does not think very high of him, and that maybe he never really gave Chris a chance to prove he could actually do well. He probably felt it was a waste of his money to pay for the education of his mediocre grandson. How different would it have been if Chris were in fact, a genius? Sometimes, it seems as though that chances are more often given to the people who are actually already more blessed by life.
In the last few lines, we are left wondering on Chris’ state of mind: “Slowly, slowly, horses of the night” (154). By escaping reality, trying to be free just like wild horses, Chris was slowly drifting into the darkness of an endless night and eventually, it led to his lost.
Laurence, Margaret. “Horses of the Night.” A Bird in the House. New York: Alfred.A.Knopf, 1970. 128-154. Print.