March 1, 2013

watching and waiting | morley callaghan

Watching and Waiting | Morley Callaghan

My boyfriend is taking an online Canadian literature class as one of electives…boring. He had to do a “class presentation”, which basically means writing a long essay, adding a few pictures and publishing it online for the other students to read and review. He needed to publish it somewhere to we made a hidden page on my site.

Since publishing it I’ve noticed that my site has been getting a lot of search hits for Morley Callaghan and his story Watching and Waiting. I figured I’d move it over to the blog to make it more accessible and so that whoever may be interested could comment or give feedback.

If you happend to have read the story Watching and Waiting it’s actually pretty interesting, so feel free to have a read through and enjoy. (above photo was taken by me in Cranbrook a few years ago)


WO-Morley Callaghan was born in Toronto in 1903. He attended St. Michael’s College where he studied a variety of art disciplines, and then graduated from law school in 1928. During his time in school he was also a cub reporter for the Toronto Daily Star where he met Ernest Hemingway. Callaghan never ended up practicing law and instead decided to pursue his true passion – writing.

Due to his generalization of characters and place, rather than referring directly to the Canadian experience, Callaghan was more renowned and published outside of Canada. He eventually received widespread recognition and praise in Canada after nearly three decades of writing, receiving a Governor General’s Award in 1951, followed by the Lorne Pierce Medal in 1960 and in 1970 the Molson Prize and the Royal bank Award.

literary influences

From early in Callaghan’s career Hemingway was his mentor and read his work. Hemingway also passed along Callaghan’s work to some of his colleagues which ended up landing Callaghan with his first publication in 1926. Callaghan traveled to Paris in 1929 to visit Hemingway and others. In Paris, after supposedly knocking out Hemingway in a boxing match, the two had somewhat of a falling out.

Callaghan has been likened to Hemingway and others by several critics, most notably Edmund Wilson, who pointed out his similar ‘universal’ writing style (in order to address common societal issues). Callaghan spoke of his relationship to Hemingway and especially of Hemingway’s writing style and his connection to the common man via the simple virtues he wrote about; courage and awareness of death as part of a CBC interview after the announcement of Hemingway’s death. You can listen to the recording on the CBC website:

Callaghan’s Roman-Catholic upbringing also had a profound influence on his writing. His work often touches on the themes of morality, personal salvation and fate. Often, as in Watching and Waiting, his characters have a strong personality weakened over time by the burdens of society and struggles with identity.

Identity, especially national identity, had further influences on Callaghan. His struggles with identifying himself as a Canadian writer led to criticism from academics and newspapers. His work often abstracts the places and characters so that they have more international appeal. His struggles with identity and society also made him popular as they depicted him as a storyteller writing from the perspective of the ‘little man’; the common citizen.


concepts and interpretation

Watching and Waiting touches on several large issues for such a short story. Key among these concepts is the main character, Thomas Hilliard, and his struggles against his own moral shortcomings and his inner demons. Nature and the alienation from people and place are also key issues and contribute Mr. Hilliard’s descent into madness as he becomes unable to control his need to prove his wife unfaithful.


alienation from people and place


What immediately stuck out to me was a theme that we’ve already been well exposed to – alienation from people and place. Indeed, Watching and Waiting has many parallels to a settler narrative and, rightfully so, nature plays a big part in it.

Nature is represented as a coming storm that at first looms over the horizon, building until the final passages of the story when rain thunder and lightning coincide with the dramatic climax to the story. In one passage, nature itself is personified as a character with a surprising duality – the trainer. On the one hand the trainer, represented as a powerful storm, physically assails the fighter, in this case Mr. Hilliard, as he is “whipped across his face, slashing and cutting at him…”. On the other hand this tactic is used by a trainer to rouse the fighter from his daze and to collect his thoughts. This coincides with Mr. Hilliard’s own revelation that he must return to his wife and finally make amends. This same duality that nature represents can be seen in many of the earlier settler narratives. On the one hand newcomers to the country struggle greatly during the harsh Canadian winter, but this struggle against their environment is often interspersed with periods of serene appreciation for the incredible raw beauty that the country possessed.

The loneliness that both Hilliards experience is also a very familiar struggle of the early settlers. Hearne and Thompson experienced this alienation from their travelling companions on their expeditions but the experiences of the Hilliards resonate especially with the experience of Susanna Moodie. Like Moodie and her husband, the Hilliards move to country on a foolish dream of happiness and prosperity much like many of the first colonists. Mr. Hilliard justifies the move to himself as a way to rekindle his romance with his wife and show her his good side without the distractions and burdens of society, and in his own selfish way to have a greater sense of security against her perceived unfaithfulness. Much like in Moodie’s narrative nothing turns out as planned as he becomes even more lonely and isolated and his mistrust of her only festers and grows until it consumes him. In one passage Callaghan describes the Hilliards and their alienation from their environment  as  “…two scared prisoners in the house that was screened from the lane by three old oak trees.” (434). Moodie also uses a remarkably similar passage to describe her experience in Canada, saying her feelings toward the country were  “… very nearly allied to that which the condemned criminal entertains for his cell-his only hope of escape being through the portals of the grave.” (124)

To contrast Mr. Hilliard’s experience and his struggles to find happiness and peace with himself and the environment, Callaghan introduces the character Joe Whaley to us. Specific attention is given to Joe, a neighbour and local fisherman in the opening passages of the story. Joe unlike Mr. Hilliard has learned to thrive with nature and achieve prosperity, and this success is symbolized by the large green bass he proudly displays to Mrs. Hilliard. Mr. Hilliard on the other hand has struggled greatly since he has moved to the country, and his business has suffered as he becomes more and more preoccupied with his personal struggles.

The alienation that Callaghan describes Mr. Hilliard experiencing from both other people and his environment is key to the common settler narrative. Furthermore, this issue is so universal and powerful it still resonates today among many walks of life from migrants and immigrants to broader failures of society to incorporate all different types of individuals.


Fate, destiny, morality and the struggle with the self

Characteristic of many of Callaghan’s works, Watching and Waiting deals with the struggle of a common man against himself as he tries to resist the temptation to fall into sin. This struggle and the religious connotations behind it help shape the morality of the story.

Throughout the short story there is a looming sense of doom that builds with each passage, as the rough weather descends on the country side and grows worse with Mr. Hilliard’s own moral collapse. Here Callaghan’s Roman Catholic influences can clearly be seen as he uses Mr. Hilliard to highlight the danger of falling to temptation and entering into sin. Through his growing mistrust of his wife and his jealousy both towards the happiness and affection his wife shows towards seemingly everyone but himself, and towards the perceived success fisherman in contrast to his own failures, we can see that sin that Mr. Hilliard struggles against is envy.

Callaghan also introduces the concept of destiny and fate in Watching and Waiting. Mr. Hilliard, throughout the story, fights his own desires to spy on his wife and his own insatiable urge to prove her unfaithful. Yet, even though he is repeatedly aware of the error of his ways and the damage they could cause and have already caused, he is unable to stop himself. This inability to control his own actions, at every moral crossroads he reaches, gives the impression that Mr. Hilliard’s destiny has already been written and the actions he makes are part of a predetermined sequence of events. The way in which he fights his own desires and the coinciding changes of setting also allude to an inner demon within him, that has finally overpowered him to the point to which he is no longer able control it.

In the final scene, the morality of the story unfolds as all of Mr. Hilliard’s mistrust and jealousy and the misery they have caused, lead to his own tragic death. Yet, in his dying moments, as he grasps his wife’s hand, he is awakened to all of his misgivings and begs for redemption.  He tries to calm his wife and assure her that the suffering that she had endured was his fault (his last good act), before the others come running from the lane – an allusion to his own final judgement.


Abstraction/Universalization of character and setting

universalizationCharacteristic of Morley Callaghan’s style there is very little information given about any of the characters. This literary tool was used with great success by several of Callaghan’s peers including Hemingway to appeal to the broader issues of society.

In Watching and Waiting Mr. Hilliard is introduced only as Thomas Hilliard, the lawyer. He has no nationality, no religious affiliation and a very sparse and limited history. There is no mention of place in the story either, and relative/ambiguous descriptions are purposely used. One passage in particular highlights the generalization of the setting: “he sat there for a long time, looking out over the hills in the night rain, at the low country whose roll and rise could be followed by the line of lights curving around the lake through the desolation of wooded valleys and the rainswept fields of this country of his boyhood.” (436). This passage gives mention to no place, no specific defining feature of the landscape, and could realistically be interpreted as many different locations.

This disconnection from people and place has a powerful effect on the readers focus. We are drawn very closely to the turmoil in Mr. Hilliard’s life and are focused intently on it. This effect is most obvious in the closing passages of the story when Mr. Hilliard calls out to his wife by name for the first time and instantly the reader is flooded with compassion for Mr. Hilliard and a sense of understanding of the love between that two that had been lost.

As pointed out by Edmund Wilson, this ambiguity helps a wider audience connect with the characters and the appreciate the moral message. Callaghan especially was praised along side Hemingway as appealing to the moral and social struggles of the common man which, at the time, made the two very popular.

Watching and Waiting is a seemingly straightforward story with a major moral underlining. It preaches caution and the perils of falling into a life of sin, in this case especially envy. On top of its focus on morality and the everyday struggles of man against himself, the story also focuses on the alienation many around the world feel from either their environment or their society. This alienation is a much broader issue than just a man from his wife or a man from his environment and has several notable comparisons to the trials of the first Canadian settlers. Callaghan expertly spins the story to such a broad audience by deliberately appealing only to basic human emotions and struggles rather than specifics.



1. What effect does leaving out the name of Mr. Hilliard’s wife until the final few passages have on the story and our perception of her character?

2. While Callaghan is vague about the specific setting of the story, are there elements that reveal hints of a Canadian experience? If so what are they?

Bonus question: what (if any) is the significance of the number three in the story?

  • There are three old oak trees in front of the house
  • Mr. Hilliard travels into town three days a week
  • Marion Hilliard upon breaking down asks him why he couldn’t be like he was three years ago (presumably they were married three years ago)
  • There are only three named characters in story


List of literary works


  • Strange Fugitive – 1928
  • It’s Never Over – 1930
  • A Broken Journey – 1932
  • Such Is My Beloved – 1934
  • They Shall Inherit the Earth – 1935
  • More Joy in Heaven – 1937
  • The Loved and the Lost – 1951
  • The Many Colored Coat – 1960 (reissued as The Man with the Coat, 1988)
  • A Passion in Rome – 1961
  • A Fine and Private Place – 1975
  • A Time for Judas – 1983
  • Our Lady of the Snows – 1985 (based on his novella The Enchanted Pimp)
  • A Wild Old Man on the Road – 1988


  • No Man’s Meat – 1931
  • Luke Baldwin’s Vow – 1948 (reissued as The Vow, 2006)
  • The Varsity Story – 1948
  • An Autumn Penitent – 1973 (and In His Own Country)
  • Close to the Sun Again – 1977
  • No Man’s Meat and The Enchanted Pimp – 1978

Short fiction 

  • A Native Argosy – 1929
  • Now That April’s Here and Other Stories – 1936
  • Morley Callaghan’s Stories – 1959
  • Stories – 1967
  • The Lost and Found Stories of Morley Callaghan – 1985
  • The Morley Callaghan Reader – 1997
  • The New Yorker Stories – 2001
  • The Complete Stories (four volumes) – 2003
  • The Snob
  • The Sentimentalists


  • That Summer in Paris: Memories of Tangled Friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Some Others – 1963
  • Winter – 1974


  • Turn Again Home (based on the novel They Shall Inherit the Earth, produced in New York City in 1940, and produced under title Going Home in Toronto in 1950)
  • Just Ask George (produced in Toronto, 1940)
  • To Tell the Truth (produced in Toronto, 1949)
  • Season of the Witch – 1976




Bennet, Donna; Brown, Russel, An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 462-475)

Bennet, Donna; Brown, Russel, An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 110-137)

McPherson, H “Morley Callaghan” The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2012. Web 3 Feb 2013

“Morley Callaghan” Athabasca University Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences Centre for Language & Literature, n.d. Web. 3 Feb 2013

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