“To Set Our House in Order”, a short story by Margaret Lawrence. Margaret wrote this short story based on the 1930 great depression, which is why the characters Vanessa and her parents live in the elderly grandmother’s house. Although moving away from their own house and home was hard Vanessa’s parents showed compassion towards the elderly grandmother so they move to help and support her through tough times. Also in the story although short it emphasizes the 6 elements of fiction, plot, character, theme, symbol, setting and point of view which is what I will be explaining in my essay.
First of all it is important to know the charters in the story, this story has 3 main charters: Vanessa, Grandmother McLeod and Vanessa’s father Ewen. During the short story it reveals 10 year old Vanessa’s inner most thoughts including her confusion and curiosity about the difficult times her family is going through with money and the future baby. Vanessa also shows a great deal of interest in her mother pregnancy as problems occur and fear strikes the family, it leaves Vanessa wondering and question her grandmother in hope for answers.
Grandmother McLeod is another profound character we read about, although she does not give Vanessa all the right answers she does show Vanessa how her mind works by the answer she gives. In the story we see grandma is stuck in the past and living like she still has money. Grandmother McLeod spend money of fancy handkerchiefs and maids to clean the house which she cannot afford as grandmother says “… never had less than twelve guest 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” overall grandmother misses her money and fancy ways of life. In the story we also see that Grandma has a very dry, negative personality, she doesn’t smile or laugh very often, she always has something negative to say and this is because she is stuck living her life without her beloved husband and her youngest son Rodrick who was shot during the war, which has grief stricken her and lead her to be this way.
Although grandmother McLeod is stuck in a depressive cycle, her older son ewen and his wife try their hardest to bring her to present day and happier times, where she can enjoy the family she has and the birth of their new son. Ewen is Vanessa’s father and grandmother McLeod oldest son, throughout the story we see that ewens is a good son considering he did move into mother house so she didn’t have to be alone. The move was also so she used her money wisely since recently she has not been doing that.
Ewen is a very carrying and loving husband to his wife and family but has a hard time sticking up for himself when his mother confronts him. In the story there is other characters like Vanessa’s mother, Beth, the new baby Rodrick and Vanessa’s aunt, Edna, who comes by to help out the family in difficult times all of which have minor parts in the story but all have big impacts. This short story is told from the first person but in a past tense point of view. The story is told from the view of Vanessa, we know this because main ideas come from Vanessa, it also shows how she is feelings and her inner conflicts are shown.
Early into the story it is noted where the story takes place, a made up rural town called Manawaka, Manitoba. Although Manawaka is made up the writer describes a large house with dark red bricks, that grandmother McLeod’s husband had built when he was alive. At the time the house that grandmother husband had built seemed like a great idea but as time went on and the great depression hit, in the 30’s, which is the time period of the story, tells us that grandmother could not take care of the house all by herself.
In this story the plot is unique, Vanessa and her parents head to Manawaka to live with her grandmother in a time of need as the time setting is based in the 1930s when the great depression was in full swing. Upon arrival Vanessa’s pregnant mother water broke 2 weeks early which caused an uproar and concern about the baby’s health and life expectancy. The time frame also caused worry about paying for the doctor and other necessities of life because money was sarcoma.
To bring a twist to the story line they added Grandmother MacLeod into the mix which didn’t help the worrying, because of her stern attitude and dry personality cased tension with other family members. Vanessa is also dealing with the thought that her parents are having another baby because her parents are not satisfied with her. Grandmother MacLeod picked fights with other characters in the story, for example grandmother wanted to name the baby after Ewens younger brother who had passed away during the war.
This was something that Ewens was not comfortable with. After surgery Vernessa find out that both her mother and the new baby were fine and healthy. As the story proceeds we find out that Grandmother MacLeod is very religious which lead her to tell Vanessa that god loves order and wants each of us to set our house in order; this sparked an interest to Vanessa when she realizes that the events that have happened in just this short time does not relate to what grandmother said and in reality that if god loves anything it’s not order its health and family.
During the story there was great deal of conflict, mostly external conflict and internal conflict. Some external conflict would be Vanessa agent her grandmother, this conflict arose because Vanessa was running around the house and grandmother McLeod did not agree with that so Vanessa got punished. At the time Vanessa did not understand why her grandmother was being so hard on her which made her angry towards her grandmother causing an ongoing conflict.
At one point Vanessa says “why can’t she be nice to us for a change… e’re always the ones who have to be nice to her” One of the internal conflict in the story has to do with grandmother McLeod and her inner thoughts as she deals with her husbands and sons deaths while trying to act like everything and herself is ok. Other conflicts in the story are Vanessa’s father and grandmother as they argue about what the name of the new born son, grandmother wants it to be Rodrick but Ewen thinks it will bring up too many past memories of his younger brother and that is where the two argue.
As Vanessa learns later on in the story that things are not always what they seems, this is also the main theme of the story. This theme is important to the story because of Grandmother MacLeod and how she treats Vanessa. Grandmother MacLeod is very strict towards Vanessa’s and comes off as rude and mean but this is because grandmother is still grieving about the loss of her husband and son. Grandmother Macleod also thinks she is keeping her house in order for the love of god as she says “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”.
The house in the story shows a symbol which is how much grandmother loves order and would do anything to keep her house in order even if it means others are being hurt by the decisions. Although Vanessa puts up with the harsh treatment she does not understand why she is being treated this way especially by a family member but as the story goes on Vanessa does learn as to why her grandmother is treating her like this.
In the story there is other themes that revolve around the first main one, such as life takes many turns an example of this would be that Vanessa did not want a younger sibling but in the end she had no control if she got the younger sibling or not. The baby in the story also shows a number of symbol including, hope as they were not sure if he was going to make it which shows the ultimate hope of life, the importance of family as the baby has ewen brothers name, Rodrick. Finally Rodrick shows that life takes many turns some of which you cannot control but in the end they turn out pretty great.
In conclusion, the elements of fiction are well put within this short story, “to set our house in order”. At the end of this story Vanessa finally understand why everything happens the way it does, sometimes with the help of god and others like family but overall she realizes she does not have control over what happens in life. I have never read a short story quite like this and I did enjoy reading this short story, I also think other children can relate to the themes that were portrayed in the story as they too cannot control what life throws at them.