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Analysis of Margaret Laurence’s Novels

The major emphasis of Margaret Laurence’s (1926- 1987) fiction changed considerably between her early and later works. In a 1969 article in Canadian Literature, “Ten Years’ Sentences,” she notes that after she had grown out of her obsession with the nature of freedom, the theme of the African writings and The Stone Angel, her concern “had changed to that of survival, the attempt of the personality to survive with some dignity, toting the load of excess mental baggage that everyone carries. . . . ” In the same article, she remarks that she became increasingly involved with novels of character, that her viewpoint altered from modified optimism to modified pessimism, and that she had become more concerned with form in writing.

The more profound psychological realism of her later novels developed after a general awareness of the intractable problems of emerging African nations had matured both the Africans and their observers. The characters in the African works were products of a now dated optimism that forced them into preconceived molds. The later novels reveal modified pessimism, but their vitality comes from Laurence’s developing concern with psychological realism, which authenticates the characters and their voices. After This Side Jordan, the point of view is consistently in the first person, the protagonist’s, and is strictly limited to the protagonist’s consciousness. Although Hagar in The Stone Angel and Stacey in The Fire-Dwellers are stereotypes, a stubborn old lady and a frantic middle-aged housewife, Laurence makes them both compelling protagonists through accurate psychological portrayals.

A theme of major importance that Laurence did not fully develop until The Diviners is the nature of language. Rachel’s concern with name calling in A Jest of God anticipates the larger exploration in The Fire-Dwellers, in which Laurence experiments with a variety of voices, using language in a variety of ways. Exterior voices, many of them bizarre, interrupt and are interrupted by Stacey’s inner voices—her monologues, her memories of voices from the past, her challenges, threats, and prayers to God. The exterior voices include radio and television news, snatches of her children’s conversations, the characteristic dialects of various socioeconomic groups, the half-truthful promotions of her husband’s company, and the meaningfully unfinished conversations between her and her husband. In order to allow language to be discussed explicitly, Laurence makes the protagonist of The Diviners a novelist.

In her first three novels Laurence uses biblical allusions to provide a mythic framework for a psychological study of character and situation. All these allusions are from the Old Testament, which made a lasting impression on her when she read it for the first time in Africa. The names she chooses for the characters in the early fiction—Adamo, Jacob, Abraham, Nathaniel, Joshua, Hagar, Ishmael, and Rachel— provide ready-made dilemmas whose traditional solutions appear contrived and psychologically unrealistic. In This Side Jordan, Joshua’s Ghanian father proclaims that his son will cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, confidently assumed to be both an independent, prosperous Ghana and a Christian heaven. These allusions contribute to the sacramental overtones in the early works, particularly at the end of The Stone Angel.

Biblical myth is replaced in A Bird in the House and The Diviners by the myths of Scottish immigrants and Canadian pioneers and Indians. Vanessa in A Bird in the House lives with the sentimentally mythologized memories of her grandparents. The dispossessed Scots and the dispossessed Métis Indians provide a personal mythology for young Morag Gunn in The Diviners, which her foster father, Christie Logan, embellishes to give the orphan girl an identity. Christie himself becomes mythologized in the mind of Morag’s daughter Pique. The theme of the search for one’s true origins plays a prominent part throughout Laurence’s fiction, but the issues become increasingly complex. Whereas a clear dichotomy between his Christian and African backgrounds divides Nathaniel Amegbe in This Side Jordan, Morag in The Diviners, a recognized novelist who was an orphan brought up by a garbage collector, is seriously perplexed by the bases of her identity. Nathaniel hopes for, and apparently receives, both worldly and spiritual rewards in a successful if simplistic reconciliation of his dual heritage. In contrast, Morag painfully learns to reject the heroic Scottish ancestress Christie had invented for her without rejecting him; she realizes that she has invented a hopelessly confused web of self-fabricated personal myth that she has to reconcile with her Canadian roots in her search for self-identity.

Throughout all her works, Laurence explores themes concerning the role of women, the injustices of sex-role stereotyping, and the inequality of opportunity. The changing roles of women in the late twentieth century are a problem for Morag, who is jealous of her daughter’s sexual freedom. Although the protagonists of Laurence’s later novels are women—women who have not always been treated well by the men in their lives—men are never treated harshly in her work, even though the point of view is limited to the female protagonist’s consciousness. Stacey generously concludes that perhaps her uncommunicative husband is tormented by fears and doubts much like her own. Morag never speculates about Jules Tonnerre’s motives—a strange lack of curiosity for a novelist. Although Laurence’s protagonists are oppressed, they never simply blame the men in their lives or the male-dominated society for their oppression. Men, almost to a man, are given the benefit of the doubt.

This Side Jordan

Laurence’s first novel, This Side Jordan, was begun in Ghana in 1955, finished in Vancouver, and published in 1960. The setting of the novel is Ghana just before independence. The protagonist, Nathaniel Amegbe, had boarded at a Roman Catholic mission school since he was seven and is now caught between two cultures, between loyalty to the fading memory of tribal customs and loyalty to the Christian mission that educated him and gave him the opportunity to better himself, in a European sense, by teaching in the city. His predicament is balanced by that of Johnnie Kestoe, a newly arrived employee of an English-based export-import firm who is trying to forget his slum-Irish background and to rise in the firm despite his antipathy for Africans. Both men have wives expecting their first child. Many of Nathaniel’s dilemmas are resolved in the end, even his fears that his father’s soul might be assigned to hell. In part, his resolution results from the salvation metaphor of “crossing the Jordan,” a feat he hopes his newborn son will accomplish.

Nathaniel’s interior monologues reveal the conflicts his dual loyalties have produced. Laurence uses this device more and more in the ensuing novels, and it culminates in The Diviners with its complex narrative techniques. Both Johnnie and Nathaniel move through the novel to a greater realization of self by means of humbling experiences, and both achieve worldly success, a naïvely optimistic conclusion made at the expense of psychological realism.

The Stone Angel

The Stone Angel was published in 1964, two years after Laurence and her children moved to London. Laurence, in “A Place to Stand On” from Heart of a Stranger, states that the dominant theme of this novel is survival, “not just physical survival, but the preservation of some human dignity and in the end some human warmth and ability to reach out and touch others.” The monument Hagar Shipley’s father had built for her mother’s tomb in the Manawaka cemetery is a stone angel, gouged out by stonemasons who were accustomed to filling the needs of “fledgling pharaohs in an uncouth land.” Laurence’s horror at the extravagance of the pharaohs’ monuments at Luxor, recorded in “Good Morning to the Grandson of Rameses the Second” in Heart of a Stranger, is similar to her reaction to the material ambitions of the stern Scotch-Irish prairie pioneers.

The story of Hagar Shipley is told in the first person and covers the three weeks before her death, but in these weeks, long flashbacks depict scenes of Hagar’s life in chronological order. Laurence gives sacramental overtones to the events of Hagar’s last days: She confesses to a most unlikely priest in a deserted cannery over a jug of wine; in the hospital where she dies, she is able to overcome her pride and to enjoy and empathize with her fellow patients; after she accepts a previously despised minister sent by her son, she has an epiphany—“Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear”; and just before her death, she wrests from her daughterin-law her last drink. Such sacramental overtones are not unusual in Laurence’s works, but in her later works they become more subtle and complex than they are here.

Hagar Shipley is an old woman, an enormously fat, physically feeble old woman, grotesque and distorted in both body and spirit. She is mean spirited as well as mean about her money and her possessions—almost a stereotype, an unlikely heroine, certainly not one who would seem to attract the sympathy of the reader. Hagar does, however, attract the reader; the genuineness of her portrayal makes her believable because of her total honesty, and the reader empathizes with her plight, which she finally recognizes as self-made. The reader feels compassion for her in spite of and because of her pettiness. Her voice, even in her old age, is still strong, willful, and vital, and the development of her self-awareness and self-knowledge is gripping.

The Stone Angel is the first work in which Manawaka, Laurence’s fictionalized hometown of Neepawa, Manitoba, serves as the childhood setting of the protagonist. She makes Manawaka a microcosmic world, the childhood home of all her later protagonists, whose memories and friends carry over from one work to another. The mythic heritage of Hagar in The Stone Angel—the Scotch-Irish pioneers and Méti Indians in Manitoba—is shared by Vanessa in A Bird in the House, Rachel in A Jest of God, Stacey in The Fire-Dwellers, and Morag in The Diviners, although Hagar is old enough to be the grandmother of the other four. Every one of these women leaves Manawaka in a search for identity and spiritual freedom, but none is able to escape her heredity and childhood environment entirely. The effects of environment and heredity were increasingly explored as Laurence became more and more concerned with the nature of identity. The Manawaka setting gave Laurence the opportunity to develop characters whose parents or grandparents engaged in a strenuous battle to open the frontier, founded what they hoped would be dynasties, and lived to see them fall because of the Great Depression. These stubborn and proud people begot children who had to find their own identities without the visible mansions their parents had built to proclaim theirs. Pride in personal success became in the next generation pride in family and origin, and Hagar’s inheritance from her father showed that the strength of the pioneer generation could destroy as well as build. The recognition of the double-edged nature of this strength enables Hagar, a stone angel in her former blindness, to feel at the end some human warmth for those around her.

A Jest of God

A Jest of God was written in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1964 and 1965, and was published the next year. The action takes place during a summer and fall during the 1960’s in Manawaka. Laurence creates a woman protagonist learning to break through the entrapments oppressing her.

Only through the first-person point of view could Laurence manage to reenact Rachel Cameron’s fearful responses to everything around her and her self-mocking evaluations of her responses; she is afraid even of herself. When she reflects upon the way she thinks, upon her paranoia and her imagination, she warns herself that through her own distortions of reality she will become strange, weird, an outcast. She continues to tell herself that she must stop thinking that way. Her fear about her own responses to ordinary life keeps her in a state near hysteria. Except for the recognizable quality of her perceptions and the color and richness of her imagination, she could indeed be dismissed as a stereotyped old-maid schoolteacher, the butt of the town’s jokes. She lives with her widowed mother, renting the upper story of her dead father’s former funeral parlor.

The mythic framework for the psychological study of Rachel is the Old Testament story in which Rachel is “mourning for her children”—in the novel, the children she has never had. When she is confident enough to love Nick Kazlik, whom she needs more as a father for her children than as a lover, he tells her that he is not God; he cannot solve her problems. Neither he nor the possibility of the child he might give her can overcome her sense of isolation, of which the lack of children is only the symbol; her sense of isolation seems to be based on her lack of spiritual fulfillment, isolation from God. God’s word is evaded in the church she and her mother attend, and she is totally horrified by fundamentalist irrationality. In the end, Rachel recognizes her own self-pity to be a horrendous sort of pride, and she starts to learn instead to feel compassion for others because they are as isolated as she.

Rachel’s situation could set the stage for a tragedy, but Laurence’s heroines do not become tragic. They live through their crises, endure, and in enduring gain strength. Rachel gains strength from the loss of Nick, which she never understands, and from the loss of what she hoped and feared would be Nick’s baby. After Rachel has decided not to commit suicide when she thinks she is pregnant, she discovers that what she had thought was a baby was a meaningless tumor, not even malignant— A Jest of God. Despite, or perhaps because of, this grotesque anticlimax, Rachel is able to make the decision to leave Manawaka; she applies for and earns a teaching position in Vancouver. At the end, she is traveling with her mother, her “elderly child,” to a new life in Vancouver.

The Fire-Dwellers

The Fire-Dwellers was written in England between 1966 and 1968; the protagonist of the novel, Stacey MacAindra, is Rachel Cameron’s sister. She is an ordinary woman—a middle-class contemporary housewife in Manawaka, anxious over all the possible and impossible perils waiting for her and her family. She overcomes stereotyping through the recognizable, likable, and spontaneous qualities of her narrative voice. Laurence’s narrative technique is more complex in The FireDwellers than in any of her earlier works. The first-person narration is fragmented by a variety of interruptions—Stacey’s inner voices, snatches of Stacey’s memories set to the side of the page, italicized dreams and fantasies, incomplete conversations with Mac, her husband, and radio and television news. At times, she is concentrating so completely on her inner voice that she feels a physical jolt when external reality breaks into her inner fantasies.

The title refers, as Stacey’s lover Luke implies, to Stacey: She is the ladybird of the nursery rhyme who must fly away home because her house is on fire and her children will burn. Although Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1915) lies unopened beside Stacey’s bed at the end of the book, as it did in the beginning, Stacey seems to understand intuitively the explanation of the primitive sexuality of fire. Stacey burns from sexual frustration and fears the burning of an atomic bomb, a threat ever present on the news. Newspaper pictures from Vietnam of a horrified mother trying to remove burning napalm from her baby’s face appear again and again in Stacey’s mind. Counterpointing the fire metaphor is that of water, here regenerative as well as destructive, which foreshadows its more important position in The Diviners.

Unlike the other Manawaka protagonists, Stacey could never be considered grotesque; she considers herself quite ordinary, and, at first glance, most people would agree, despite her apocalyptic fears. The world around her, however, is grotesque. The frightening events in the lives of Stacey’s neighbors and friends are counterpointed by the daily news from the Vietnam War. Almost a symbol of Stacey’s inability to communicate her fears, her two-year-old, Jen, cannot or will not speak. No wonder Stacey hides her drinks in the Mix-Master. Her interior dialogue convincingly portrays a compassionate woman with a stabilizing sense of humor that makes the limited affirmation of the conclusion believable; Mac and his equally uncommunicative son Duncan are brought together by Duncan’s near-death, and Jen speaks her first words: “Hi, Mum. Want tea?”

The Diviners

Laurence worked on The Diviners from 1969 to 1973, at the old house she bought on the Otonabee River near Peterborough, Ontario. Unlike the earlier Laurence protagonists, apparently ordinary women, almost stereotypes who turn out to be extraordinary in their own way, Morag Gunn is an extraordinarily gifted writer who has quite ordinary and common concerns. She is also unlike her Manawaka “sisters” in that she is an orphan reared by the town’s garbage collector; thus she is an outsider who bears the scorn and taunts of the town’s wealthier children such as Stacey Cameron and Vanessa MacLeod. She shares her humble status with the disreputable half-breed Indians, the Tonnerres, and learns the injustice of the inequality of opportunity at first hand.

The title, The Diviners, refers explicitly to gifted individuals, artists such as Morag who contribute to a greater understanding of life, as well as to her friend, Royland, a true water diviner. Indeed, Morag discovers that many of her acquaintances are, in some way, themselves diviners. At the end of the book, when Royland tells Morag he has lost the gift of divining, Morag muses, “At least Royland knew he had been a true diviner. . . . The necessity of doing the thing—that mattered.”

The Diviners is the longest and the most tightly structured of Laurence’s novels; it has three long parts framed by a prologue and epilogue. The plot is commonplace; Morag spends a summer worrying about her eighteen-year-old daughter Pique, who has gone west to “find” herself. In this action, Morag is only an observer, as all mothers must be in this situation. Her own story is enclosed within the action in the present, with chronological flashbacks such as those in The Stone Angel. The novel is presented in the first person, but with two new techniques: “Snapshots,” meditations on the few snapshots Morag has from her youth; and “Memorybank Movies,”

Morag’s memories from her past. The snapshots cover the lives of her parents, before Morag was born through her early childhood and their deaths. Aware that she embroidered stories about the snapshots as a child, Morag looks at a snapshot, remembers her make-believe story, and then muses, “I don’t recall when I invented that one.” This comment, early in the novel, establishes the mythologizing of one’s past as an important motif. Morag’s future as a writer is foreshadowed by her retelling of Christie Logan’s tales when just a girl, adapting them to her own needs. In the prologue, Morag the novelist worries about diction, the choice of the proper words: “How could that colour be caught in words? A sort of rosy peach colour, but that sounded corny and was also inaccurate.” Morag uses her hometown for setting and characters, just as Laurence herself does; the theme of where one belongs is as important to Morag as a writer as it is to Laurence.

The title of Morag’s second novel, Prospero’s Child, foreshadows the motif of the end-frame. Royland loses his gift of witching for water and hopes to pass it on to AOkay Smith. Morag realizes that she will pass on to Pique her gift, just as Christie Logan’s manic prophecies influenced her creativity. Among all Laurence’s heroines, Morag Gunn is the closest in experience and interests to Laurence herself. Each successive protagonist, from Hagar and Rachel and Vanessa to Stacy, came closer and closer to Laurence’s own identity. She said that she realized how difficult it would be to portray a protagonist so much like herself, but The Diviners is a risky novel, an ambitious book that only an established writer could afford to produce.

Because Laurence depicts human problems in terms of sex roles, the gender of the characters in the Manawaka novels is particularly important. The women protagonists of all of these novels clearly demonstrate Laurence’s persistent investigation of the role of women in society. The sex lives of Laurence’s women are fully integrated parts of their identities without becoming obsessive or neurotic. All of her protagonists enjoy their sexuality but, at the same time, suffer guiltily for it. Laurence did not admit a connection with the women’s liberation movement. Morag Gunn, however, a single head of a household with an illegitimate dependent child, could not have been as readily accepted by readers and admired before the feminist movement as she was after.

Similarly, although Laurence employs Christian motifs and themes throughout her fiction, she did not embrace institutional Christianity. Like psychologist Carl Jung, Laurence seems to find God in the human soul, defining religion in terms of a Jungian “numinous experience” that can lead to a psychological change. Salvation is redefined as discovery of self, and grace is given to find a new sense of life direction.

Presenting her characters as beings caught between the determinism of history and their free will, as individuals who are torn between body and spirit, fact and illusion, Laurence portrays life as a series of internal crises. Through the development of her protagonists, Laurence celebrates even the crises as she celebrates her protagonists’ progress. The search for self involves both the liberation from and the embracing of the past. Survival with dignity and the ability to love, she remarks in Heart of a Stranger, are themes almost inevitable for a writer of her stern Scotch-Irish background. Because these themes are of immense contemporary importance, her works explore problems that have universal appeal, a fact that goes far to explain her tremendous popularity.

Major Works
Long fictionThis Side Jordan, 1960; The Stone Angel, 1964; A Jest of God, 1966; The Fire-Dwellers, 1969; The Diviners, 1974.
Short Fiction
: The Tomorrow-Tamer, 1963; A Bird in the House, 1970.
Nonfiction: The Prophet’s Camel Bell, 1963 (pb. in U.S. as New Wind in a Dry Land, 1964); Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966, 1968; Heart of a Stranger, 1976; Intimate Strangers: The Letters of Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy, 2004 (Paul G. Socken, editor).
Children’s Literature: Jason’s Quest, 1970; Six Darn Cows, 1979; The Olden Days Coat, 1979; The Christmas Birthday Story, 1980.
Edited Texts: A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose, 1954.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: African Literature, American Literature, Canadian Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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