Hungarian Immigrants To Canada Essay Research Paper

Hungarian Immigrants To Canada Essay, Research Paper

To what extent does the novel or memoir you have chosen provide useful insights into the topic mentioned?

John Marlyn’s ‘Under the Ribs of Death’ is concerned with the life of Sandor Hunyadi, a young Hungarian living in Canada. The novel follows his life as a young boy, and then as a young man in the years before the Great Depression. Sandor’s efforts to find his place within Canadian society are a dominant theme of the novel, as is the problem of poverty. Perhaps the all-encompassing term which would define Sandor’s life is struggle.

Sandor’s home life can be seen in terms of a constant struggle against poverty. Like many other Hungarian immigrants, Sandor’s father is a janitor, a low-paid, menial job. Hungarians brought with them few skills fit for the Canadian job market, and were often employed in jobs with low wages, and were highly exploited by the Canadian employers. Sandor himself was shocked and upset when he heard his father being talked down to by his employer, but this type of treatment was common for Hungarian immigrants to Canada, who were subjected to prejudice and hate. Although being shocked by his father’s treatment, Sandor is very aware of the prejudice against immigrants. He shows this from an early age when he tells his parents that “the only people who count are the English ’cause when you’re English it’s the same as bein’ Canadian”, and because of this prejudice he is determined to demonstrate that he is as Canadian as everyone else. His pride of sharing his birthday with Victoria Day is clear evidence that he is proud to be Canadian, as is his absolute fervour over obtaining a flag. The most obvious symbol of Sandor’s desire to assimilate is his decision to change his name. Sandor’s name has always caused him problems with the Canadians, and from his encounter with Mrs Crawford when he became Alex Humphrey, to his later decision to become Alex Hunter, he has always felt that his foreign name was a hindrance to his future. Marlyn couples his description of Sandor’s name change with the image of the businessmen dining in the hotel, the men who Sandor so admired and wished to become. This implied that Sandor felt his name was an infringement of his chances of progress and achieving his dream of becoming a successful businessman who works hard and can afford the luxuries that he was denied as a child. This symbolic change highlights the prejudice that many of the Hungarian immigrants encountered whilst in Canada.

Sandor’s Anglicisation of his name demonstrates not only the prejudice that many Hungarians experienced; it is also closely linked to the importance of language to immigrants. Whilst Hungarian adults continued to use Hungarian, but to a greater extent German within their communities, Sandor and his friends converse only in English, and Sandor himself could remember ’scarcely enough [Hungarian] to ask for a crust of bread’ . Sandor’s lack of knowledge of his native language is justified by Onkel Janos, with his ‘this is an English speaking country, isn’t it? What does the boy want with Hungarian?’. This kind of attitude is more consistent with second-generation immigrants, who tended to assimilate themselves more readily with the language and traditions of the host country. However, there were also immigrants like Onkel Janos who were aware that the more one was assimilated to Canadian life, the more successful one would be. Language was always a source of tension in Canadian society, and the sudden influx of immigrants from Europe during the early years exacerbated this. Politicians saw language as the unifying force for all these ‘new’ Canadians. Woodsworth in 1905 that ‘If Canada is to become in any real sense a nation, if our people are to become one people, we must have one language. The public school is the most important factor in transforming the foreigners into Canadians’ . This principle was a crucial factor in turning young Hungarians into young Canadians, and can easily be seen in Sandor’s case, with his national pride and his mastery of English. It should be noted that Sandor also speaks German, such as during his negotiations with the Kostanuiks. He also hugely enjoyed the traditional Hungarian celebrations for Onkel Janos’s arrival. This demonstrates that despite his assimilation, he has not turned his back completely on his home traditions. The Hungarian communities tried to make sure that traditions were continued in Canada. These traditions were sustained for the first couple of generations of Hungarians, but as these families became richer and moved away from the immigrant areas the traditions faded from memory and the former immigrants became Canadians.

The Hungarian communities were very important for the new immigrants. They were places where they could feel comfortable and secure, a jumping-off point for the new arrivals. One of the first places a new immigrant would live would be a boarding house, or a burdosgazda, like the one the Hunyadi family ran. These establishments could be lucrative since they utilized all the family’s spare time labour , and it is a constant source of Sandor’s frustration that his father will not charge his boarders. As well as providing a source of income for Hungarian families, these boarding houses presented the new arrivals with an instant surrogate family and community. Through this establishment, the new arrival could quickly find his place in the Hungarian-Canadian community, and also learn the workings of Canadian society. Although we are never introduced to any of the boarders properly, we can see how Onkel Janos is helped by the Hunyadi’s boarding house.

Sandor’s constant desire is to have money, to be financially secure. He can see the struggles that his parents endure to try and make ends meet, he knows the feeling of hunger, of monotonous meals, and the shame if rummage sales. He cannot understand his parents’ pride in their refusal to take from Fraulein Kleinholtz, so insistent is his desire to live without financial worry. This yearning for money is demonstrated by his charging of friends of his use of his kaleidoscope and that his desire for a job means that he turns to his church, an establishment it seems he has little time for. The fact that it is only in times of financial need that he turns to the church is quite strange, because Hungarian immigrants tended to be quite strongly attached to the church, and Hungarian churches were one of the first institutions established by the immigrant community. However, this discrepancy demonstrates that whilst one can make generalisations about Hungarian immigrants as a community at large, each Hungarian is an individual in himself, and cannot be expected to conform to the generalisations of the community.

Sandor’s strong desire for financial security is compounded by his exposure to a life completely different from his own. The Kostanuik house can be seen as an immigrant success, with their ‘floors as smooth and as polished as glass’ and mirrors with ‘heavy gilded frame[s]‘. ‘Everything was clean and rich-looking’. The use of ellipses further portrays his sense of wonder at this whole new world, and furthermore, that the Kostanuiks used to belong to his world. However, the Kostanuik’s house is nothing compared to that of a Canadian boy, Eric, for whom Sandor mows his lawn. He thought that their whole world was like ‘living in a fairytale’, as if it was a fantasy that Sandor could never even achieve. Eric’s whole life becomes Sandor’s ambition, a recurring goal, dreaming of building his house in River Heights. As his inspiration, ‘he saw Eric’s house, gleaming white in the sunlight’. This idealistic vision, with the use of positive attributes such as whiteness and sunshine, Eric’s house takes on an almost messianic role, a guiding light for Sandor’s life. It is interesting to note that Sandor would rather live in squalid conditions for longer before moving to his ideal home, rather than taking smaller steps up the property ladder. This attitude is consistent with many Hungarian immigrants, and they were surprised by the rapidity the Canadians moved house. The new homes that the Hungarians moved to were away from the slums of the Hungarian neighbourhoods, and were furnished in a Canadian style. These new homes were a great source of pride, a sign of success against the odds.

Sandor’s extreme desire for success can at times be seen as almost vulgar and disconcerting, especially when put in contrast to his father’s absolute idealism. Perhaps his father’s idealism is the driving cause of Sandor’s complete dedication to success and security to the detriment of friendship and the pleasure of family life. Sandor has seen his family struggle against the odds for so long, blaming his father’s soft heartedness for their hardships, and so sees wealth as a greater source of happiness than that of company. Losing his friendship with the gang and replacing them with his job can also be seen as a key experience in Sandor’s life, but I think that it is clear that Marlyn wants us to see the storybook that Sandor was given by Mrs Creighton as a defining feature in Sandor’s life. He sees himself as Jack, the boy who worked hard to succeed, struggling against the odds, but the book makes no mention of the profound loneliness that can come from absolute careerism. However, Alex’s loneliness can be seen by the long hours he spends at the Agency, where he ‘has no place to go’ when finished work, and the fact that ‘he had cut himself off from everything that even remotely threatened to disturb his life within these four walls’. This demonstrates that it was Alex’s choice to cut himself off; he wants nothing to come between his goal of financial success. The only distraction that Alex eventually allows himself is his relationship with Mary, and even then, it is evident that she is not allowed to take him away from the Agency. The more financially orientated Alex allows himself to become, the less a likeable character he is. Although his reasoning in this way of living is understandable, and he seems content with his life, we feel that he is letting down his family and his background by letting this burning desire for wealth come before his family and friends. In this respect, the ending of the novel, when Alex, now a poor man, but a family man, with a feeling of hope and happiness at the joy his new son brings him, leaves us with a feeling of respect for Alex, who seems to have been redeemed by his career failures, and his familial successes.

Family was an incredibly important part of Hungarian immigrants’ lives. Early immigrants continued the Hungarian tradition of having strong links with extended family, a tradition that faded as the Hungarians came to regard the family in the Canadian sense, a nuclear unit. The Hungarian ’sib’ system was doomed to die out as second generation immigrants learned Canadian values and rejected this large extended family. They did not count on the help of distant relatives, and neither did they wish to carry the heavy burden of helping them. Mutual aid, which was a dominant concept of the sib system, was rejected by the children of the immigrants . Interestingly, Marlyn does not really introduce the idea of the sib system. The immigrant they choose to help, Onkel Janos, is Sandor’s mother’s brother, and that, by American standards, would be a close relation, one whom helping would be normal under Canadian values. This contrast of novel to social science literature demonstrates that immigrants were individual units who cannot be expected to conform to the general rules. Marlyn may also have rejected this part of Hungarian life on the basis that it may have been incomprehensible to Canadian readers, or he felt that it served no purpose to the story, preferring to use Onkel Janos, a closer relation to the Hunyadi family. Consistent with background reading, a close relationship develops between Sandor and Onkel Janos, despite their age difference, a relationship which continues throughout their life.

Sandor’s relationship with his family is of central importance to the novel. The Hunyadi family is similar to the Canadian family in their desire to help Alex when he is unemployed because of the Depression, and Alex’s rejection of their help is not from Hungarian or Canadian values, but a matter of pride. However, with his final refusal to go and live with his parents again comes a sudden understanding of what it is to be a parent, the unquestioning love and acceptance of a child despite your expectations and hopes for them. This final scene leaves us with a feeling of hope, hope for the unconditional love that Alex will show his son, and hope for the renewed love and understanding between Alex and his father. This ending contains no Hungarian specific emotions or situations, and through this Marlyn demonstrates that the immigrants, whilst they were people of a special situation, they were also normal families who had problems, families who loved each other, families like families all over the world.

Marlyn’s ‘Under the Ribs of Death’ demonstrates the hardships and struggles Hungarian Canadian immigrants faced, by both incorporating the experiences typified by social science literature such as the constant battle against poverty and the institutions of boarding houses, as well as the personal experiences coming from this, such as Alex’s loneliness derived from his struggle for success, and his formative experiences at Eric’s house. The novel brings a personal edge to the traditional studies of Hungarian Canadian immigrants in the early twentieth century. Although seemingly paradoxical, the Hunyadi family is both a unique unit, but also typical of the thousands of Hungarians who crossed the Atlantic. Where social science literature brings us the varied experiences of the Hungarians as a whole, with their struggles on the Prairies and in the cities, and how they dealt with their problems as a group, Marlyn brings us the personal experience of the Hunyadis, a family, with names, faces and personalities struggling against the odds. Instead of knowing of general hardship, we learn how the hardship actually felt, the hunger, the monotony and also the shame. However, at the same time, we are also only learning about one family, and literature in this way cannot be used to make generalisations either. Not every Hungarian family lived in Winnipeg, not every family had philosophical fathers and mercenary sons. In this respect, we cannot take the Hunyadi family’s experience as truth in the historical sense. It is literature, it is meant to entertain, and it is not meant to be a teaching aid. However, it is a useful aid to bring across personal experiences of the Hungarian immigrant family. It is clear from studying both types of literature, where novels can bring the personal, social science the factual, a merging of the two can bring a new level of understanding of the immigrant experience. Each type of literature has unique attributes for furthering the comprehension of the reader, serving their own individual aim, and in this respect, one cannot condemn either for their historical or literary failures.


John Marlyn, Under the Ribs of Death, (1957, Canada)

J. L. Granatstein, Irving M. Abella, Daniel J. Bercuson, R. Craig Brown, H. Blair Neatby, “A Nation of Immigrants” in Twentieth Century Canada, (1983, Canada)

John Kosa, Land of Choice: the Hungarians in Canada, (1957, Canada)

N. F. Dreisziger, Struggle and Hope: the Hungarian-Canadian Experience, (1987, Canada)

Carmela Patrias, Patriots and Proletarians: Politicizing Hungarian Immigrants in interwar Canada, (1994, Canada)



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