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"To Set Our House in Order"

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Duane Arcana

on 24 September 2014

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Transcript of "To Set Our House in Order"

This occurs when Vanessa’s baby brother Roderick is safely conceived and her mother is unharmed from the birth as well, despite the failure of her previous pregnancy.
"To Set Our House in Order"
by Margaret Laurence

Literary Devices
Setting: Physical, Psychological, and Emotional
From the town of Manawaka, Manitoba
The MacLeod household
A formal, polished environment
“The veranda was embellished with a profusion of wrought-iron scrolls, and the circular rose-window upstairs contained glass of many colors which permitted an out looking eye to see the world as a place of absolute sapphire or emerald, or if one wished to look with a jaundiced eye, a hateful yellow. In Grandmother MacLeod’s opinion, these features gave the house style.” (244)
However, Vanessa finds hidden spaces within the house where she hides in act of comfort; scared for her mom
“… odd-shaped nooks under the stairs, small and loosely nailed-up doors at the back of clothes closets, leading to dusty tunnels and forgotten recesses in the heart of the house…” (243)
After WWI (Battle of Somme)
“They were both only kids. Ewen was nineteen and Rod was eighteen when they went to France. And then the Somme.” (254)
During Great Depression
Moved in with Grandmother
Living in an financial deficiency

Falling Action
Living in an environment where everything must be in Grandmother’s order (in other words, organized and clean)
Grandmother’s history consisted of hard work, which paid off to have a wealthy lifestyle
“… never had less than twelve guests for dinner parties. When I had a tea, it would always be twenty or thirty. Never less than half a dozen different kinds of cake were ever served in this house.” (246)

Situational: Grandmother Macleod's love and constant desire for order are evident in her stern and criticizing words. Her reality is interrupted by the fact that she simply does not have any real control over her life. Her life just happens to be consumed with tumult which is exactly the opposite of how she intended it to be.

In an attempt to reassure and comfort his daughter, Ewen explains to Vanessa that her mother will be alright, telling her “She’s going to be fine. Honestly she is.” (p. 423) Despite his career as a doctor, Ewen is unsure as to how the pregnancy will turn out. “He put on that difficult smile with which adults seek to conceal pain from children,” suggesting
Vanessa afraid of the outcome, but unable to express it to her Grandmother
“I had the feeling… disaster would overtake my mother. I did not, of course, mention this feeling to Grandmother MacLeod, for she did not believe in the existence of fear…” (243)
“… the MacLeod house never seemed like home to me.” (244)
Ewen and Beth are looking out for her, seeing as complications arose for the previous baby.
“She won’t be able to have any more after this. It’s partly on your account that she wants this one, Nessa. She doesn’t want you to grow up without a brother or sister.”

In Margaret Laurence’s short story, “To Set Our House in Order” embarks on the MacLeod family and how everything cannot be in order as mishaps may occur.
The themes of
hope, order, and reality
From the Grandmother’s perspective of
Family motto: “Pleasure Arises from Work” (247)
From the family’s perspective of
Hopes for the baby
From the human nature’s perspective of
Great Depression
Accidental loss of sight
Failed birth
Grandmother hires a housekeeper; not able to afford it in the setting of the Great Depression
Uncle Rodrick passing away in war due to a visual disadvantage caused by Ewen
Baby surviving birth, failed birth from the previous

The story takes pace in a family’s house (Grandmother McLeod’s) in Manawaka, Manitoba during a summer in the 1960’s (the Great Depression).

“We had moved in with Grandmother McLeod when the Depression got bad.” (244)

In the beginning of the story, already something bad takes place as the mother’s water breaks and must be rushed into the hospital immediately, a couple weeks before her due day. This sets a saddening mood toward our characters, especially Vanessa who fears for her mother as she remembers the last time her mother was in labour which ended up in having a miscarriage.

“When the baby was almost ready to be born, something went wrong and my mother had to go to the hospital two weeks before the expected time.” (241)
Methods of Characterization
Name Meaning
Physical Description
Dialogue/Reaction to Others
Physical/Emotional Setting
Grandmother McLeod vs Ewen
Grandmother McLeod has always been telling Ewen, his son to hire someone to help out Beth with cleaning the house and every time he responds by mentioning that he does not have enough money to pay anyone. However Grandmother McLeod ignores Ewen’s reason and hires someone anyways.

(In response to Ewen’s statement to unhire the housekeeper) “It seems distinctly odd…that you can afford to eat chicken four times a week.” (247)
After talking to Ewen, Vanessa questions why she has to be nice to her strict Grandmother McLeod, but then she finds out that she’s been through a lot of pain, especially after the death of her son, Roderick.

“Why can’t she be nice to us for a change…we’re always the ones who have to be nice to her.” -Vanessa (251)

When the phone rang was the point before the highest in the story. It was a time when either something really bad or good was about to happen. Fortunately for the McLeod Family, it was good news. The baby was “alive and kicking” (252) as described by Ewen and they will be returning home. Vanessa's newly born brother had survived.
After coming home Grandmother McLeod discusses with Ewen a name for the baby. She wanted him to name him Roderick as it would mean “a great deal” (253) to her. Remembering what Grandmother McLeod said when his brother passed away he agreed to it.

Edna and Beth talk about Ewen’s relationship with Roderick with Vanessa eavesdropping and how one of Roderick’s eye was harmed by Ewen’s air rifle and lost sight when he was young and soon died when they both joined the army. Aunt Edna then question’s Roderick’s death after being told about a letter about how he died “gallantly” (255).
Point of View
The story is narrated in the first person, specifically through the eyes of ten year old Vanessa MacLeod. Due to her youth, the story is viewed with a sense of ignorance and innocence. It demonstrates her lack of understanding concerning the family's current situation but also how she manages to develop emotionally and socially through those experiences.
Vanessa is the only character who experiences an epiphany. It occurs when her younger brother is successfully birthed and given the name Roderick. She arrives at the realization that life does not concern the maintenance of order, but rather how one can overcome the hardships within life itself.
Moments of Epiphany
Deux Ex Machina
Author Biography: Margaret Laurence
Margaret Laurence was an author who studied in Neepawa and at United College, Winnipeg. Her husband was a hydraulic engineer named Jack Laurence. They were wed in 1949 and had two children who were born in 1952 and 1954. They moved to various places such as England, Somaliland and Ghana. In 1969, Margaret and Jack became divorced.

Margaret started writing stories at the age of 7 and throughout high school and college. However her first published work did not release until 1954 when she was living in Somaliland. Her first work, called A Tree for Poverty was composed of Somali folktales and poetry which she translated. Her first novel was This Side Jordan was published in 1960. The inspirations of all her African fiction come from her passionate belief in the potential and dignity of each person.
Vanessa- Round & dynamic, inquisitive & ignorant, stereotypical

Grandmother MacLeod- Flat & static, stuck within the familiarity of her upbringing, constantly conceals her emotions against her family members, realistic, stereotypical grandmother

Aunt Edna- Flat & static, realistic, offers insight on certain issues to certain characters

Ewen- Flat & static, shy and faithful, realistic

Beth- Flat & static, realistic
Character Motivation: Ewen VS Grandmother MacLeod
Ewen: Ewen viewed Roderick’s death as being somewhat his fault because he was the reason as to why his brother was partially blind. His guilt causes him to feel obligated to appease his mother.

Grandmother MacLeod: Her strong her belief that God loves order drives her stay in control of the household through her son Ewen.
Character Foil: Aunt Edna VS Grandmother MacLeod
In a serious household, Aunt Edna’s usage of slang and cheerful smile contrast Grandmother Macleod’s orderly lifestyle.
“What happens is God’s will. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” (p.245) This is a biblical allusion to a verse from Job 1:21. Its significance to the context of the story is Grandmother MacLeod’s way of informing Vanessa of the uncertainty of life in terms of her mother. She believes that God has the power to grant and take life and whatever the outcome of the birth, it will be the will of God.

“[..] including Uncle Roderick who got killed on the Somme [..]” (p.243) alludes to the Battle of Somme which took place during the First World War and was fought between July 1st and November 18th in the year of 1916. Vanessa’s Uncle Roderick unfortunately died in this war, which dealt a great deal of pain and tragedy in Grandmother MacLeod’s life.
“[..] a weedy collection of anemic ferns” (p.244)
“Hibiscus and wild orchids grew in soft-petalled confusion.” (p.252)
Pathetic Fallacy
The House: Grandmother MacLeod's love for order

The Irish Linen: how Grandmother Macleod is accustomed to an affluent way of living.


Baby Roderick: fortuitous and accidental nature of life
Antecedent Action
As Vanessa eavesdrops on her father, Ewen talking with Dr. Cates through the phone very early in the story, she recalls the last time her mother went into labour, but something interrupts her thought. Not much later in the story, she recalls about her miscarriage sibling who would’ve been her sister if she had survived birth when she looked for hiding spots in the house.

“I’m only thinking of what happened the last time, and another like that would be…” (241)
“…and the baby who would have been my sister if only she had managed to come to life.” (243)

Grandmother McLeod vs Vanessa
Grandmother McLeod’s strict attitude towards Vanessa and how she is trying to teach her the proper way of doing everything as she looked at her as if she were “a cockroach that had just crawled impertinently out of the woodwork.” (245)

Edna vs Grandmother McLeod
Grandmother McLeod does not like the way Edna speaks—in a “slangy” (248) way—and believes that she will lead Vanessa to grow up in the wrong direction.

“I have never believed she was a good influence on Vanessa.” (248)


The suspense present in the story revolved around the unborn baby's future--will he make it? or not?

(In the morning after the Beth's operation, Ewen called) “When the phone finally rang, I was afraid to answer it.” - Vanessa (252)

Vanessa leaves for a bike ride and lies down in a grass field thinking of all those who have passed away and just came to her life. She realizes that accidents happen to anyone and that God actually doesn’t love order, as nothing in her life have been.
The motif within the story is a sparrow that becomes trapped within the confinements of the attic. It appears during times of Vanessa's contemplation. It symbolizes the on-going hardships that she confronts but more specifically, her social entrapment inflicted by her youth and lack of understanding.
Duane Arcana, Jamelle Smykalski and Kyle Wong
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