Tragic Compassion in David Adams Richards’s Lives of Short Duration

By Kait Pinder

A newly appointed senator, David Adams Richards is the author of more than a dozen novels and many more short stories, plays, and works of non-fiction. Richards’s creative work is usually set in New Brunswick’s Miramichi region and focuses on how characters negotiate the inter-related systems of exploitation that have shaped the Miramichi in the past and the present. Richards’s novels are perhaps best known for the “mood of unremitting sadness” that one reviewer has described as being “as emotionally draining as a month of funerals.”[1] Literary scholars have pointed out that readers may perceive sadness because of a misunderstanding of the author’s brand of regionalism. Richards’s fiction challenges pastoral conceptions of the Maritimes with representations of environmental and cultural devastation wrought by colonialism, neoliberal economic policies, and resource extraction.[2] In Richards’s 1981 novel, Lives of Short Duration, Packet Terri meditates on the relationship between the region’s history of exploitation and the suffering that characterizes his life. Packet’s questions about his life and Richards’s unique narrative style not only register the conditions that have created the sadness Packet lives with, they also reveal how violence may create what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls a tragic model of compassion.


David Adams Richards, Lives of Short Duration

Lives of Short Duration focuses on a small community along the river in the late 1970s and its history, including the story of Hitchman Alewood, the first owner of the local mill, and his young, Mi’kmaq wife, Emma Jane Ward, who was murdered by her brother. The novel follows the multiple branches of the Alewood line, especially the Terri family: Old Simon, who escapes the hospital to spend one final winter in the woods, his son George, a drunk and a hustler who can’t quite make it, and George’s three children: Lois, who just won the Atlantic lottery; Little Simon, a poacher and a dealer who kills himself accidentally in a game of Russian roulette; and Packet, the oldest, who, like his father, is prone to drink and violence, but who is also, as Alistair Macleod puts it, “a savior with too much to save.”[3] In addition to the Terri family, the novel has a multitude of characters whose genealogies intersect in ways that make their history and their personalities inscrutable to both themselves and the reader.

Richards’s style similarly complicates a direct understanding of either the characters or the causes of their suffering. Herb Wyile and Christopher Armstrong have noted that Richards develops a unique narrative style, which they term “phenomenological realism.”[4] Traditional styles of realist fiction have valued objective and transparent forms of representation, which have been interpreted as endorsing a middle-class view of the world.[5] Richards’s “phenomenological realism,” however, “allows both narrative analysis and subjectivity.”[6] While the narrator sometimes elaborates beyond a particular character’s memory or abstracts slightly from a character’s perception, he offers little to organize the chronology or setting of the novel in the way that traditional realist narrators do. Often disorienting, the narration moves freely between characters and through time, sometimes merging contemporary and historical points of view. The result is continuity between living and dead characters that resists a simple understanding of chronological time and indeed of causation. While the lives of the characters are “short,” they nonetheless endure in the history of a region that is relatively long and active in each character’s experience of themselves and the world, whether they are fully conscious of it or not.

Desiring to make sense of the violence in the community’s history and his own life, Packet Terri is thus faced with a difficult task. In the last part of the novel, Packet asks himself a series of questions. Thinking about the devastation around him, Packet describes the wreckage and brokenness he sees and repeatedly comes to a question that is comprehensive in its ambition: “all of this Packet thought – means?”[7] To quote lines from a tragedy that is an intertext for this novel, Packet resists the apparent meaninglessness of a life “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”[8] His attempts to discover an answer to his questions, however, frustrate his ability to come to a conclusive point. Reflecting on inter-generational violence, Packet asks another provocative and unanswered question: “Wasn’t there compassion […] in compulsive violence?”[9] Recalling the roots of the word “compassion”—from the Latin “to suffer with”—Packet’s question unites aggressor and victim through their shared suffering. Compulsion describes an unconscious urge, an action without or against conscious intention. The compulsive violence in Richards’s novel also points to the characters’ often limited understanding of the history that shapes their suffering, and, in the case of the beating Packet receives from his father that inspires his meditation, the history that continues to influence present and future generations.

Packet’s connection between violence and compassion echoes Nussbaum’s description of tragic compassion as a shared feeling that is characterized by “a particular type of pain.”[10] Drawing on Aristotelian notions of tragedy as a response to the fact that “a person possessed of basic human dignity has been injured by life on a grand scale,” Nussbaum underlines how literary form shapes the suffering that is shared between characters and readers.[11] In Lives of Short Duration, compassion takes on a similarly tragic structure: it is produced in violent actions that blur the distinction between the free will of individual characters and their cultural contexts. That is, the novel produces a tragic model of compassion through its attention to the history and environment that seem to determine the characters’ actions even as those characters attempt to create their lives for themselves.

Much of the sadness of Lives of Short Duration is produced by the novel’s distinctive style of realism. In its mixing of analytical and subjective positions, the novel illuminates the fact that these lives on the Miramichi are shaped by systems of exploitation in which they participate but of which they do not have full understanding or control. Moreover, while Richards draws attention to these systems of exploitation, he also obscures the network of particular causes, complicating both the characters’ and the readers’ ability to explain away the suffering he is describing in one fell swoop. Inscrutable as these lives of short duration may be, they nonetheless generate a feeling, if not an explanation, that is meaningful. As it turns out, the novel’s sad mood also indicates its tragic theory of compassion.

Kait Pinder is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Acadia University.


[1] Quoted in Tremblay, Tony. “‘Lest on too close sight I miss the darling illusion’: The Politics of the Centre in ‘Reading.’” Studies in Canadian Literature, vol. 33, no. 2, 2008, p. 32.

[2] See, for example, Herb Wyile, Anne of Time Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2011.

[3] Macleod, Alistar. “Afterword.” Lives of Short Duration, McClelland and Stewart, 2011, p. 425.

[4] Armstrong, Christopher and Herb Wyile. “Firing the regional can(n)on: liberal pluralism, social agency and David Adams Richards’s Miramichi trilogy.” Studies in Canadian Literature, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 1-18.

[5] Lousley, Cheryl. “Knowledge, Power and Place: Environmental Politics in the Fiction of Matt Cohen and David Adams Richards.” Canadian Literature, no. 195, Winter 2007, pp. 11-30.

[6] Armstrong and Wyile, p. 3.

[7] Richards, David Adams. Lives of Short Duration. McClelland and Stewart, 2011, p. 370.

[8] Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 5.5.27-28.

[9] Richards, p. 345.

[10] Nussbaum, Martha. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Cambridge UP, 2001, p. 325.

[11] Nussbaum, p. 405.

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