Margaret Laurence’s novels celebrate the complex heroism of people who seem thoroughly ordinary. Stacey, for example, is utterly realistic in her fears about aging and her future, engaging in her humor, and sometimes shocking in her directness.

The Fire-Dwellers is in many ways a fictional depiction of feminist Betty Friedan’s description in The Feminine Mystique (1963) of the ailment of the 1960’s housewife, “the problem that has no name.” Stacey has achieved all of her society’s prescriptions for happiness—husband, children, middle-class respectability—yet she yearns for something more. She tries to fill the void by taking night courses, drinking, daydreaming, and having an affair. Tied to this longing is the paralyzing fear and sense of futility of modern life. Stacey has terrible visions, fueled by television news on Vietnam and her memories of World War II, of nuclear holocaust and totalitarianism. She fears for her sanity and her children’s safety. Because of society’s and Mac’s views about “soft” behavior she also worries that she is overprotective. Mac wants to “toughen” his children by demanding stoicism. Both impulses, to shelter children and to expose them to the worst of the world, come from their childhoods. Mac’s mother was saintly and emotionless, while his father demanded behavior befitting a minister’s son. Stacey’s father was mostly absent, while her mother gently admonished her about being too openly sexual and “cheap.” Both types of repression leave their marks on Stacey, Mac, and consequently their children.

The women of the novel seem to be drowning in their society’s and family’s expectations. They illustrate the text of Matthew’s sermon: “Save me, O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul.” All are struggling to transcend to the past. Tess Fogler, whom Stacey envies for her beauty and seemingly easy life, was a jittery, solemn, self-conscious child. She is now married to a man who values her mainly for...

(The entire section is 826 words.)