Margaret Laurence’s “The Rain Child,” set in Ghana during the approach of independence in 1957, exposes a host of issues of identity complicated by historical, national, racial, psychological, and linguistic issues. A story from The Tomorrow-Tamer and Other Stories (1963), “The Rain Child,” as do Laurence’s other early African stories about cultural conflicts of a white person living in a colonial state, particularly articulates such themes as the sense of home, forms of exile, and displacement through different marginal characters.
Writing in the first-person narration, Laurence allows the narrator, the English teacher Violet Nedden, to observe the outside world—colonized Ghana and the Africans—and to rest in the interior (narrative) space where Miss Nedden as a colonialist subject recounts the occurrences. The reader is first introduced to the poetic sketch of the landscape, coloring the narrative fabric with rich symbolism, which also corresponds to the narrator’s charting of consciousness and growth. Such strategic technique forms a dialogical narrative of questioning one’s “place” of being inside while feeling outside. The story starts with the “overcast” sky “when the rain hovers,” foreshadowing the emotional rainstorm of the “rain” child, Ruth Quansah, to come.
Influenced heavily by biblical stories, Laurence’s fiction usually shows a strong sense of Christian symbolism, in which central metaphors in the Bible articulate certain themes. These biblical references are also an important touchstone in the creation of character and development of theme. In “The Rain Child,” the central metaphor of exile is reinforced by biblical imagery of exodus and of the quest for a Promised Land. However, one has to note that the biblical allusion is invoked ironically in the story as a way for the writer to question and criticize colonialism and its impositions. At one point, quoting the Exodus verse “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (114), Miss Nedden indirectly points to the exilic Other as (an) alien and alienated. As David Lucking argues, the biblical verse from Exodus in the story suggests that “the shared fact of being alien can itself constitute a paradoxical basis for reciprocal comprehension, although this is not necessarily a comprehension that will release the individual from his solitude” (77). The main character, Ruth, the English-born daughter of an African doctor who returns to Ghana from London, differs from the Ruth in the Bible, who, celebrated as a convert to Judaism, understands Jewish principles and takes them to heart. Unlike loyal Ruth in Book of Ruth, the Ghanaian Ruth appears resentful about returning to her country and reluctant to be assimilated into the language and customs of her father(’s)land.
Another important theme tackles the notion of displacement through two expatriate English teachers (Violet Nedden and Hilda Povey) and marginal African children (Ayesha, Ruth, and Yindo). These characters, English or African, are all exilic strangers or “outcast children” (132) on a foreign soil. Displaced in geographical and psychological terms, they all struggle to find their place between cultures and feel dislocated and isolated in the state of being “between worlds.” Violet Nedden, a lame British expatriate schoolteacher, sees herself as an outsider in Africa even after 22 years of service in a country to which she feels deeply attached. On the contrary, her counterpart Hilda Povey, after 27 years of teaching in Africa, still considers all African parents “equally unenlightened” (106) and feels “acutely uncomfortable” with Africans. Both outsiders in the Ghanaian community, Miss Nedden and Miss Povey, nevertheless, hold different attitudes toward their displacement as the Other, conceived in both a personal and a cultural sense. Miss Nedden, notwithstanding her strong identifi cation with African culture, feels that she “must go as a stranger” (133), but Miss Povey, from the onset, has dissociated herself as a colonial subject “with a strong disciplined mind” (106) from the colonized Africans.
The title “The Rain Child” can be read as a collective noun with multifaceted representations. Laurence introduces in her story many outcast rain children who all face exile, displacement, and homelessness. The “child of rain,” Ruth’s African name, stands for her mother’s anguish about being forced to live “so far from home” (121) and for her tears from “missing the [tropical] sun so much” (121). Ruth, born and raised in London, now is repatriated to Eburaso, Ghana. Ironically, she is no longer racially different in London but more profoundly estranged in Ghana because of her refusal to assimilate and her inability to speak her own language. Another young girl, Ayesha, whose origin is unknown, was stolen as a child by slave dealers and exploited as a child prostitute in Nigeria. Recently taken to the village of Eburaso, young Ayesha, still struggling with English, “do[es] not even speak her own language very well” (114). As Ayesha is from the outside, the 16-year-old garden boy Yindo is not an Ashanti, the major ethnic group in Ghana, but “a Dagomba from the northern desert” (118), and as an outsider, he can only work on “the arid land” because of his inability to speak Twi, the local language, and his limited capacity to speak pidgin English. Linguistically and psychologically, the three African children are not only from another place but from another world. At one point, Yindo pleads with the school mistress: “I beg you. You not give me sack. I Dagomba man, madman. No got bruddah dis place” (131). Yindo’s incoherence caused by terror epitomizes his marginality: always unable to be understood and thus accepted by the natives, the center.
The most conspicuous contrast of the disjunction of “oppositional ideas of African/English, home/away, stranger/indigene” (Macfarlane 228) is articulated by the two major characters, the narrator Miss Nedden and the rain child Ruth. Miss Nedden is English, but she identifies with African food, language, climate, and landscape and accepts the local culture. To be precise, she regards Ghana as her home. Contrarily, Ruth returns to Africa as an outsider but refuses to speak the native language and does not “care if [she] cannot understand what [other African children] are saying to each other” (117). In Frantz Fanon’s words, Ruth has “black skin” while wearing a “white mask.” Ruth is African, but she reads Africa through the colonial eyes and embraces Englishness: seeing England as her “home,” refusing to eat the “awful mashed [African] stuff” (109), speaking English rather than Twi, and befriending only another English boy, David. Pivoting around the interplay of identification and identity, the narrative fuses the oppositions and contrasts into a congruous space shared by the two counterparts, who see the Other as the Self. At the end of the story, even though their “notion of ‘home’ is unattainable or undefinable” (Macfarlane 228), Miss Nedden, who is “from” England, has to return “to” England, and Ruth, who is “out of” Africa, must stay “in” Africa. They are strangers stuck between categories of definition, in other words, in a liminal space fraught with contradictions and neither-nor alternatives.
The reader can follow the narrative procession that evolves from the central metaphor, rain. The story starts with the overcast sky before the cloudburst in the village, crescendos to the downpour in the middle, but ends with the narrator’s vague reminiscence of remote England, “the island of grey rain” (133), to which she will eventually return as a stranger. As the tropical rain gives life and energy to Africa and draws Miss Nedden closer to the land, it in turn blurs the narrator’s memory of England, thus obfuscating her personal/national identity. The rain also marks Ruth’s past and origin, constantly reminding the rain child of her mother’s tears and pain of dying in a remote country of loneliness. Throughout the narrative, Laurence brings forth different rain children’s tears on the (post)colonial state, the tears behind the calamity and darkness before “the sun on the prickly pear and the poinsettia” (133).
Comeau, Paul. Margaret Laurence’s Epic Imagination. Calgary: University of Alberta Press, 2005. Laurence, Margaret. “The Rain Child.” In The TomorrowTamer and Other Stories. Toronto: McClelland and Steward, 1963.
Lucking, David. Ancestors and Gods: Margaret Laurence and the Dialectics of Identity. Bern, Berlin, Brussels, and Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2002.
Macfarlane, Karen E. “ ‘A Place to Stand On’: (Post)colonial Identity in The Diviners and ‘The Rain Child.’ ” In Is Canada Postcolonial: Unsettling Canada Literature, edited by Laura Moss, 223–237. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003.