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Book Analysis: Expression and Identity in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees

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Today I reworked an old essay and remembered how much I love writing analytical pieces. It’s challenging and feels really creative. There is something thrilling about trying to organize and then communicate the workings of something that really gets you into the heart of whatever you’re writing about. Note to self: write more analytical pieces!

Today’s post is on a novel by Canadian author, Ann-Marie MacDonald. I was introduced to this book during my undergraduate studies and I couldn’t help being immediately drawn in to the book’s compelling narrative. MacDonald’s writing style is easy to read and the shifting perspectives really put me into the world of the characters. I found it difficult to put down because with every page, I was eager to find out what happens next. It does however, deal with pretty dark themes like sexual abuse, so it may not be for everyone.


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The Piano as a Symbol of Intimate Authenticity in MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees

In Fall On Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald uses the piano as a recurring object which conveys the necessity of accepting one’s nature and the destruction that comes with suppressing it. According to an article in Music Therapy Perspectives based on the study of the psychological and emotional associations placed on the piano, data collected showed that the instrument is viewed as enabling “emotional expressiveness” and providing individuals with “the ability to project one’s inner world and to encourage one to be authentic and real.” In addition, knowledge and experience of “one’s identity” is closely associated with the piano and piano-play (Avi, Lavi and Zilberberg 2011). Fall On Your Knees builds on the connection between intimate authenticity and the piano: MacDonald uses the piano in her novel as a symbolic object of authenticity and truth by presenting it as a catalyst for genuine expression and truthful perception when used without constraint, while associating James’ restrictions on the instrument with his militant suppression of natural expression.

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The limitations that James places on Materia and Mercedes’ playing reflect the girls’ emotional suppression caused by his neglect. On the other hand, spontaneous and unrestrained musical play allows them to sincerely express their emotions, and in turn experience momentary consolation. James’ stifling of parts of Kathleen’s identity is represented by his discouragement of her appreciation for racially diverse music. On the other hand, Kathleen’s later realization and acceptance of her natural identity in its fullness is reflected by her unrestrained enjoyment of diverse forms of musical expression. Finally, whereas James’ prohibitions placed on the Piper family’s piano is expressive of his concealment of tragic events in the family’s history, the piano’s uncensored display of reality depicts it as a symbol of acknowledgement and acceptance of whole truths.

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James places constraints on Materia and Mercedes’ piano playing, which reflect the girls’ emotional repression caused by their father’s prolonged neglect. Shortly after their marriage, James becomes increasingly frustrated with Materia’s behavior, and soon his enthrallment with the young bride deteriorates as he loses all affection for her. James neglects his wife’s emotional needs entirely, and her desire for physical intimacy with her husband in the desperate hope that she will produce a son to regain her estranged father’s love meets with complete disdain from James: “her husband wouldn’t come near her. Got angry if she touched him”(34). Living in an unfamiliar and remote town, James’ emotional neglect of Materia forces her to suppress her feelings and desires. When she is asked by the Blackville Society Tap Twizzlers on a musical tour, she “knew better than to ask” James, and counter to her true desires, declined their offer, “[crying] on the way home at the thought of how happy she and James could be, seeing the world together with a travelling show”(53). Materia is limited in her musical expression in the same way that she is forced to conceal her emotional expression. James enforces routine and order on her musical expression: “Materia was permitted to play piano again, this time exactly what was put in front of her: scales, intervals”(36, emphasis mine). This passage presents the piano as an object that symbolizes emotional expression: musical expression is interconnected and reflective of emotional expression because both musical expression and emotional expression provide Materia with personal freedom and consolation that is gained from emotional release. Rather than playing songs of her choice, James restricts her playing to only “scales” and “intervals” which represent an imposed order, and therefore a limitation, on her musical expression. Just as Materia’s expression in the form of music is constrained by James’ control over her playing, her expression in the form of emotion display is similarly suppressed by his disregard.

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Likewise, Mercedes’ musical expression is also shown to be restricted by the patriarch: “Mercedes smiles at Daddy and proceeds obediently to the front room, forces to wait dinner after all…She sits at the piano and grits her teeth at the sound of Lily giggling and running to Daddy. Mercedes opens the old Let Us Have Music for Piano and plays”(206). Describing a casual musical performance among family with words like “obediently” and “forces” indicates the imposition of order and restriction of expression that James places on her musical play. Depicting the interconnection between James’ emotional neglect of Mercedes and her restricted piano-play, the scene illustrates Mercedes obediently enacting her expected role on the piano as she disappointedly waits for James to acknowledge the supper she enthusiastically prepared for him. The constraint imposed on Mercedes’ musical expression as she “grits her teeth” while being forced to play her father’s favourite tune is mirrored by the concealment of her hurt feelings as she sits there, unappreciated.

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While James’ emotional neglect encourages Materia and Mercedes to suppress their emotions, the piano allows them to express themselves emotionally and find consolation through spontaneous play. Materia’s longing to be with her family became apparent shortly after her marriage to James and this alienation from her relatives contributed to her mental decline and social withdrawal. MacDonald contrasts the limitations that James enforces on Materia’s musical expression with spontaneous and unrestrained play. Whereas James’ control over her musical output is reflective of the emotional suppression that he cultivates in her through his neglect, her spontaneous compositions are conveyed as unfettered musical expression that reveal the fullness of her emotions: “she’d begun playing whatever came into her head whether it made sense or not–mixing up fragments of different pieces in bizarre ways, playing a hymn at top speed, making a B-minor dirge out of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel”, and all with the heavy hand of a barrelhouse hack”(23). This passage conveys the piano as enabling a form of expression that is both intimate and unchecked by restrictive forces. Playing an existing composition containing pre-existing arrangements would suggest that an imposition of order and limitation on her musical expression. However, Materia’s unique and spontaneous blending of fragmented pieces at varying tempos shows an authentic and unfettered expression of her own chaotic emotions.

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Because of Materia’s isolation and acute nostalgia for the Mahmouds, her anguish and desperate confusion in deciding to leave her family for James is communicated in all of its depth through fragmented musical pieces, arbitrary tempos, and intuitive riffs. While her piano at home allows Materia to communicate her sorrows, the piano at the Empire enables her to fully express her joy as she plays music guided by natural impulse and emotion: “she was happy as long as she could play. Down in the orchestra pit she consoled herself with the occasional embellishment”(53). Materia’s “spontaneous compositions”(52) and “occasional embellishment” on the piano provide her with consolation because of the emotional release that musical expression provides. Her performances’ leniency towards conventional arrangement illustrates her unordered, and therefore more “natural” musical and emotional expression that is unimpeded by regulation; while the “performers complained [about her spontaneous disorder]…the audience ate it up”(53). Materia’s unrestricted musical performances create intimacy with her audience through their openness of her raw and authentic expression. These experiences provide her with two things that her marriage to James lacks: the ability to freely express herself and the fulfillment that comes from another person’s appreciation of that expression.

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Spontaneous musical expression also allows her daughter Mercedes to express her feelings for Kathleen which have been suppressed by her father: although James forbids any photos of Kathleen in the house, Mercedes takes a photo of her late sister and “props it on the music ledge next to the song book…Mercedes starts to play. And to sing sincerely”(259). Because James is unable to manage his immense pain when recalling his late daughter, her memory is physically erased from sight, and forcefully repressed in the memories of the family members. However, the piano is used to symbolically uncover the family’s suppressed memories and complex feelings towards Kathleen. In this scene, Mercedes immerses herself in Kathleen’s memory by bringing it into full view when she places it on the piano. Bringing Kathleen’s portrait into plain sight is both a tribute to the existence of her late sister and the events surrounding her life and death. Just as the piano provides a physical pedestal for Kathleen’s photo, it also provides Mercedes with a physical means to “sing sincerely” to her memory.

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The restrictions that James places on the piano reflect his denial of Kathleen’s identity, through his suppression of her Lebanese background. Whereas James places physical restraints on the piano by limiting and dictating what Materia and Mercedes could play, James’ denouncement of “coloured music”(242) places mental limitations on the types of music Kathleen could appreciate. Upon first meeting Rose, Kathleen’s disregard for the pianist illustrates the firm restrictions that James placed on his daughter’s ability to appreciate diversity in music: “Rose is an extremely good pianist…you don’t notice the quality of the piano accompaniment during your lesson unless it is incompetent. But this pianist is doubly inaudible because she is black and therefore outside any system that nurtures and advances a classical virtuosa”(125). This passage conveys Kathleen’s limited appreciation for music that is identifiably “ethnic”—Rose’s musical expression is a reflection of herself and because Rose is evidently black, her music is devalued and overlooked by Kathleen. Her lack of acceptance of ethnic music reflects her denial of her own ethnic background. James’ intolerance and concealment of the family’s racial blend forces Kathleen to suppress aspects of her ethnicity, and therefore of her own true identity. This is evident in the guilt that Kathleen experiences when she listens to her mother’s Lebanese songs, and her subsequent refusal to embrace and enjoy them: “[Kathleen] tried not to understand the song. She tried to think of Daddy and light things–fresh air, green grass–she worried that Daddy would know. And be hurt”(39). This passage depicts the lack of acceptance that Kathleen has towards aspects of her identity: her need to make an effort to “not to understand” her mother shows that her racial background is an intrinsic part of her. However, James’ suppression of the family’s Lebanese side prompts her to suppress her identity in its fullness, and this is reflected in the restrictions that are placed on her appreciation for diverse music.

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MacDonald presents the piano as a catalyst in Kathleen’s uncovering and acceptance of her own identity. The piano is a central object in allowing individuals to express their whole and authentic selves—this expression of one’s individuality through music is captured in Rose’s spontaneous musical compositions: “there is no difference between her own music and her mind”(126). This passage equates Rose’s music with her individual identity and states that the two are indistinguishable. Later, Kathleen’s utter captivation and immersion in Rose’s music and life is symbolically illustrated in her sexual involvement with Rose, and demonstrates her own desire to connect to her own ethnic identity. The sexual relationship between the two women symbolizes Kathleen’s acceptance of her whole identity—an identity that is evident by being in harmony with a more heterogeneous, and authentic music: “I wanted to live in that music, no, to wear it loose around me instead of skin, and after a while I had this flooding thought that this was Rose just thinking…It couldn’t be the Lebanese side could it?”(484). This passage illustrates Kathleen’s departure from her habitual racial prejudice and her acknowledgment of her own “Lebanese side.” In addition, her desire to “wear” Rose’s music, as well as her enthrallment with the racially diverse Jazz scene in the city, symbolizes her acceptance of her own racial background and her appreciation for all of the aspects of her identity. Her father’s concealment of the family’s racial mixture forced Kathleen to form a limiting personal identity by only acknowledging her Caucasian background, while suppressing her “coloured” side. With her acceptance of her full family background, both of her racial aspects are integrated into a complete whole. Kathleen’s enthralment with Rose and the racially diverse music of the city symbolizes her separation from James and the familiar restrictions imposed on her, which finally allows her authentic self to emerge: “Kathleen is truly and utterly and completely Kathleen in New York”(122).

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James’ concealment of the dark events of the past is symbolized by the restrictions which he imposes on the piano at the Waterford home. His prohibition of Kathleen’s photographs on the piano represents his denial and inability to deal with difficult truths. When James catches sight of her portrait on the piano, where Mercedes absentmindedly placed it, he is again forced to face the reality of her death: “There are no pictures of Kathleen anywhere. Not a spinning wheel in the kingdom…and then you prick your finger.” The unexpected sight of Kathleen sends him into a rage because of the difficulty in reconciling his denial of her death with the tragic reality of her absence: “Now is the dim past. Then was the shining present…you know you’ll always be a slave to the present because the present is more powerful than the past, no matter how long ago the present happened”(260). This passage conveys James’ destructive mental state and the temporal distortion created by his refusal to accept and move on from Kathleen’s passing—James’ state of denial and suppression of past events allows him to remain a fixed “slave” to the past because it is “more powerful” and tolerable than the present reality. When Frances takes the blame for Mercedes’ mistake, her reasoning presents a stark contrast to James because it illustrates a rational acceptance of truth and reality: “Kathleen was my sister and I’d like to see her now and then”(261). However, James’ furious response to his daughter shows his refusal to alter the state of denial that he chooses to remain in and accept Frances’ accurate view of reality.

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MacDonald contrasts James’ concealment with the representation of the family piano as a place of truth and acknowledgment. Whereas James suppresses difficult truths, the piano acts as an uncensored display of truth. Mercedes’ recollection and acknowledgement of having witnessed Frances’ rape by James is represented by her view of her father’s reflection in the piano: “The piano is a mirror but Mercedes is not staring at herself, she’s staring at her father passed out beneath the crocheted blanket”(376). This passage presents the piano as a “mirror” that clearly reflects the truths of reality. Mercedes’ acknowledgement and acceptance of her dark childhood memory is represented by the piano’s uncensored reflection of James beneath the crocheted blanket, displaying a duplicate image of James on the night of Frances’ rape. While Mercedes’ religious faith provided her with the false comfort of overcoming the “Devil” by making disturbing thoughts “disappear from her mind”(153), the piano exhibits plainly the sins of real life and represents her eventual acceptance of truth and reality. In addition to accepting the truth about her father, Mercedes’ acknowledgment of Frances’ son Anthony is also represented by the piano: “Mercedes puts the picture of Anthony on the piano, closes the piano bench over the record album, kneels down and folds her hands upon the lid”(558). Although Anthony’s existence was concealed for the full extent of his mother’s life, this passage suggests a final acceptance of the whole family in their dark and complicated entirety.


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