Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Fire-Dwellers is Stacey MacAindra’s intensely personal account of one summer. Through Stacey’s inner monologues, observations, and conversations, her outer life as respectable and invisible wife and mother of four and her inner life as troubled skeptic are revealed. Fragments of her thoughts and glimpses of her domestic responsibilities are revealed; her discontent with her body, her marriage, and her role in society is unmistakable. Stacey’s memories of a repressed childhood, her escape to the West Coast, her romance with and marriage to Mac, and her fears for her children are layered throughout.

Though Stacey deeply loves her children and values their uniqueness, she sometimes longs to escape them; she tries to find what her husband is thinking and feeling, yet he pushes her away. In the early chapters she makes brief journeys to the seaside and into her sometimes disturbing, sometimes comic thoughts. During one of her many lapses into daydreaming, Mac announces that he has a new job: selling Richalife, a vitamin supplement, to drugstores. Mac’s boss, Thor Thorlarkson, is a self-made man who takes an immediate dislike to Stacey. Mac is determined to succeed, and Stacey is left increasingly alone. She frantically senses that she is not what she appears to be, and she fantasizes escapes in the middle of mundane conversations with neighbors and Polyglam parties.

At an unbearable Richalife party, Stacey sees Mac talking to a young woman. Stacey then drinks too much, tells Thor an insulting joke, and has a fight with Mac. Though Mac has told her not to, she goes to a Richalife rally. There she sees Mac with Delores Appleton, the woman from...

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The Fire-Dwellers Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The novel is part of Laurence’s “Manawaka cycle,” a series of books focusing on the interrelated lives of women in a prairie town. The novel A Jest of God (1966), for example, explores the life of Stacey’s older sister Rachel, while the short-story collection A Bird in the House (1970) examines Vanessa Macleod, Stacey’s childhood friend. A Jest of God and The Fire-Dwellers are similarly extraordinary in approach and voice: Both lack a traditional storyline and approach, instead offering deep and complicated character studies.

The Manawaka books had an important impact on the renaissance of Canadian literature of the 1960’s, and Laurence’s career particularly influenced Canadian women writers such as Margaret Atwood and prairie writers such as Rudy Wiebe. Canadian women writers have long mentioned Laurence’s influence and inspiration; others have been impressed by her firm grasp of place—her abilities as a regional writer.

The Fire-Dwellers is often seen by critics to be less successful than the earlier and more innovative A Jest of God and The Diviners (1974), which covers Morag Gunn’s life from young childhood to middle age. The Fire-Dwellers is, however, a strongly personal book, unusual for its honest depiction of a woman’s ambivalent dissatisfaction with the role of wife and mother. Readers are inside Stacey’s head; they see all of her flaws and...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

The Fire-Dwellers Bibliography

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Cameron, Donald. Conversatons with Canadian Novelists. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1973. A close friend of Laurence talks with her about family, religious influences, travels, and sources for her novels. A revealing personal view of the writer.

Gunnars, Kristjana, ed. Crossing the River: Essays in Honour of Margaret Laurence. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Turnstone Press, 1988. A variety of essays examine Laurence’s feminism and humanism, the use of autobiography in her work, and her use of metaphor. Bibliographies and footnotes with each essay are useful for stimulating further research.

Laurence, Margaret. Dance on the Earth. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989. This book constitutes Laurence’s memoirs (completed by her daughter), which praise the women who influenced her development. Includes some valuable letters to Canadian poet Adele Wiseman, photographs, and previously unpublished work.

Morley, Patricia. Margaret Laurence: The Long Journey Home. Rev. ed. Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queens University Press, 1991. A clear and helpful analysis of Laurence’s life and work, the chapter on the Manawaka cycle examines The Fire-Dwellers in detail. Studies how Laurence makes her small-town experience universal and moving.

Thomas, Clara. The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976. A critical assessment of Laurence’s Manawaka novels. An excellent and very close study of The Fire-Dwellers; includes some of Laurence’s own comments on its writing, as well as analysis.