Review: The Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan

Review: The Watch That Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan
McGill Queens University Press

My Quick Take: This novel contained layers of theme and thought that truly satisfied, along with a story that evoked a vivid picture of 1930s Montreal.


Am I ever glad we picked this book for our Canuck Reads March readalong. Not to spoil the end of 2024 surprise, but I think this book will be on my top books of the year.

It was a Canadian bestseller for four months in 1959, and won the Governor General’s Award for literature. The title refers to a line in Psalm 90: “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” MacLennan was an English professor at McGill University, but his history is interesting to read, studded with fits and starts on his way realising his profession and writing career. He died in 1990; many of the novel’s details are likely inspired by his own life.

George Stewart has married Catherine, and is content. He has found some peace as a teacher, CBC political commentator, husband and step-father. When Jerome Martell, Catherine’s first husband long presumed a casualty of WWll, returns to Montreal, George’s fragile peace is shattered.

This is an engaging story, but the book’s strength lies in its vivid description of a segment of Canadian history: the zeitgeist of the 1930s in Canada. Certainly, the commentary concerns white, middle-class Anglophones in Montreal, but MacLennan captured the horror of the Depression, the left-over horror of the First World War (“...there was poison in the air then, and I think it spread from the rotting corpses of the first war.”), and the inevitable, ever-present spectre of Hitler’s fascism and another war.

It’s like end times. Maybe every generation feels this way; the Thirties were unique but also too familiar. MacLennan explored the quest for meaning in political movements, religion, love and relationships and even self-anihilation/suicide. Embracing life as an experience is, in a way, the only viable workaround to despair and hopelessness.

There was so much more! It’s a difficult book to write about because it is so rich. This book was the antithesis to shallow reading. (I do like good shallow reading, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes one needs to dig into a meaty novel.) An entire uni course could be taught about this book. It summoned Camus’ idea of the Absurd and it is spurring me to get on with my Camus reading project. I hope you give this book a go!


I will remember this book for its wisdom and well-crafted prose, and that this can be captured, in part, by quotations from the novel that I’d like to remember. I’m sure at some point that this book will be a re-read for me.

"I wanted to walk home in that quiet winter evening looking at the evening star at the end of Sherbrooke Street, I wanted my quiet drink and supper with Catherine and to see her new picture and to listen to her new record, and then to do a little home work and sleep in the silent city as I had done all winter long. I wanted no crisis." (p.16)

“…It must be awful to be middle-aged and remember so much and know that everybody thinks it’s natural for middle-aged people to be dull and put up with everything.” (Sally, p.47)

"I knew that Catherine loved me and that I loved her. I had no vulgar anxieties about this situation. She and I had protected and touched and greeted each other reasonably well in the past nine years, but Jerome was a part of her core, the great part of her life as a woman, and now he was alive and life was dangerous. No wonder people commit suicide, I thought, for death is so safe." (p.91)

"I tell you, there are few people who passed through the Thirties who even dare or can recall what that time was really like or what it did to human beings. Of course the sun shone and the rain fell. I was young and there were many days when I was happy. There were nights when I was gay. There were times when, being young, I allowed myself the luxury of hope. But there was poison in the air then, and I think it spread from the rotting corpses of the first war." (p.121)

"It was the bottom hole of my life up to that time. I saw then–and it is one of the most terrible things anyone can see–my own worthlessness. I told myself that if my luck had been better I too might have been better; that if I had had an opportunity for work I enjoyed and believed in it would have made the difference. But the unemployed still drifted down St. Catherine Street as the whole world drifted into the war. I heard a scratching noise and looked down and saw the front page of a newspaper dragging eastward along the pavement in the wind. Then I stared all the way down that bleak, empty street and seemed to be staring into the recesses of my own soul." (p.132)

“'If only the world would leave us alone,' she said, and stared out at the white land and the ink-black lake. 'If only it would leave us alone our days would be a paradise.'” (Catherine) (p.214)

"I looked at her and knew she was sincere, and I remembered what else Catherine had said about her, and my world rocked, for this was the first time–I had always been slow on the uptake–when I realized that under certain circumstances sincerity is the most dangerous thing in the world." (p.268)

"Happiness is one of the hardest things to write about, and the difficulty of doing so makes me long to be a musician or a painter, for painters and musicians are at ease with the supreme emotion, which is not grief but joy abounding. To be able to make a joyful noise to the Lord or a praise of colors and forms would seem to me to equate any man with gods or little children. Happiness annihilates time. We measure history by its catastrophes, we recall the weather by its storms, but the periods of peace and joy–who can describe them?" (p.310)

"In the Thirties all of us who were young had been united by anger and the obviousness of our plight; in the war we had been united by fear and the obviousness of the danger. But now, prosperous under the bomb, we all seemed to have become atomized. Wherever I looked I saw people trying to live private lives for themselves and their families. Nobody asked the big questions any more. Why think, when the thing to be thought about is so huge it is impossible to think about it? Why ask where you are going, when you can’t stop even if you wish? Why ask why, when it does no good to know why?" (p.314)

"Then a man discovers in dismay that what he believed to be his identity is no more than a tiny canoe at the mercy of an ocean. Sharkfilled, plankton-filled, refractor of light, terrible and mysterious, for years this ocean has seemed to slumber beneath the tiny identity it received from the dark river.

Now the ocean rises and the things within it become visible. Little man, what now? The ocean rises, all frames disappear from around the picture. There is no form, no sense, nothing but chaos in the darkness of the ocean storm. Little man, what now?" (p.335)

“When things become intolerable–and for you they’ve become intolerable now–you must die within yourself. Your soul is making your body revolt against what you think you have to bear. You can only live again by facing death. Then you outface it. You must say to yourself, and mean it when you say it: ‘What difference does it make if she dies? What difference does it make if I die? What difference does it make if I am disgraced? What difference does it make if everything we’ve done means nothing?’ You must say those things and believe them. Then you will live.” (Jerome) (p.357)