Chapter 4: A Family Conclave
By, Bonnie Tulloch
I find it so interesting that every reading of a novel is in essence a rewriting of it based on the knowledge we bring to our interpretations. Today, I re-read chapter four of Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon and found myself searching for evidence within the pages of something that I could hold onto. The knowledge I was bringing to my reading of the chapter concerned a life and death situation within my own family, one that heightened my awareness of the significant issues Montgomery addresses in the span of a few pages.
If I had to title my reading of the chapter, I would call it, “Catch a Falling Starr.”
There are several reasons why I would choose this title. To begin with, its play on words invites us to recognize the imagery within Emily Byrd Starr’s name. In it we find flight, but we also find light. Emily’s name essentially provides us with the image of an ascending star.
Emily, of course, inherits the Starr name from her father. And yet, the imagery associated with his character does not communicate an ascending star as much as it does a falling one. We see this image in descriptions of Douglas Starr’s death and discussions of his failure as a writer.
This image of the falling Starr is a prominent one in chapter four, which details Douglas Starr’s funeral. However, in the darkness of her grief for him, Emily inevitably catches the gift of his light. In his death, as in his life, Emily’s father serves as her spiritual guide. He is a symbol of enduring love and inspiration. The fall associated with his physical decline and death is thus balanced with the rise associated with his spiritual ascension into Heaven.
Emily tells Ellen that, “He isn’t there yet. He’s only on the way. He said he’d wait around and go slow until I died, too, so that I could catch up with him. I hope I’ll die soon” (Montgomery 35). Here Montgomery reminds readers that we are all on a pilgrimage to Heaven. Emily holds onto the hope that her father’s rise will accompany her own.
And, in a very powerful way, it does. Through the course of the chapter, Emily, like her father, transforms from a Starr of death, into a Starr of life. She rejects the death sentence passed on her by her maternal family, one that associates her father’s death with his failure as a writer. Instead of hoping for death, Emily begins to choose life, a life that allows both her and her father to live. The inheritance she embraces is one of wellness and success. She rejects the narrative of death the Murrays place on her family name.
Instead of letting them write the story of her life, she claims authorship of it herself when she records the events of the day in her account book. In this act, she claims her father’s gift of writing as her own. She catches the falling Starr, and together they rise above the darkness of the situation. Douglas Starr’s spirit lives on in Emily and because of that they can both share in the ecstasy of Heaven even though they are at different places in their journey towards it. The narrator informs us, “[i]n the writing, pain and humiliation had passed away. She only felt tired and rather happy” (Montgomery 42). Through the act of writing Emily is able to experience spiritual resurrection. This spiritual resurrection echoes that of her father, whose spirit is free from the pain of illness and the humiliation he suffered on account of his failures.
Chapter four, therefore, moves from death to life. The darkness it presents makes way for the light that is to come. In writing it, Montgomery offers readers victory over death. There are two family conclaves present. The Murrays present a conclave of death. The Starrs present a conclave of life. Emily and her father’s spirit commune in private to determine her fate. They are spiritually together even when they are physically apart. Together, they triumph over death, rewriting the narrative of hopelessness it presents.
The fact that Emily Byrd Starr becomes Emily Byrd Starr of New Moon suggests the heavenly nature of her physical and spiritual home. Physically and spiritually, an ascending Starr resides in the place of New Moon.
And that hope is something readers can hold onto. The hope of Heaven on earth is always tied to the hope of the Heaven above it.
All I can say to that is: Amen, Montgomery!
Bio: Bonnie Tulloch is a PhD student and Vanier Scholar in the iSchool at the University of British Columbia. She is the inaugural winner of the 2018 L.M. Montgomery Institute Dr. Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper. She currently has several Montgomery essays in progress, which have been accepted for publication.
Montgomery, L.M. 1925. Emily of New Moon. Seal Books, 1998.