Margaret Laurence Essay - Critical Essays

Margaret Laurence Short Fiction Analysis

Margaret Laurence’s short stories are collected in two volumes, which display the two major places of her concern: The Tomorrow-Tamer is set in Africa and explores the effect of imperialism and colonialism on the people there, while A Bird in the House is a part of the Manawaka cycle, telling the story of a young Canadian girl and her family in a series of interconnected stories. Both collections, however, display Laurence’s ongoing concerns with the dignity of the individual; the effects of societal events on families; the politics of dominance; the themes of death, freedom, and independence; and racial, social, and gender inequities. The collections also display her skillful control of narrative voice, her ability to render the dialects of English-speaking people from a broad range of places and ages, her imaginative use of metaphor, and her delight in wordplay.

The Tomorrow-Tamer

The Tomorrow-Tamer was written out of Laurence’s experience of living in Ghana just before it gained its independence from the British, and the major themes are the pains of imperialism and the problems of independence. These are explored in stories that alternate between the tragic or ironic and the comic. While she worked on these stories, she read Psychologie de la colonization (1950; Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, 1956) by Dominique O. Mannoni, a French ethnographer, and later acknowledged his work as the only theoretical influence on her fiction.

Some of the stories in this collection would seem to have their roots in the oral tradition of the Somali works that Laurence had recently translated for her book A Tree for Poverty. For example, the title story, “The Tomorrow-Tamer,” focuses on a young man, Kofi, who has grown up in a traditional village setting, made a traditional marriage, and expects to live as his ancestors did. The government, however, has brought in a crew to build a bridge over the Owura River, seen as a god by Kofi’s people, and he is chosen by the village to be the first to work on it. In the process, he transposes his loyalties from his ancestral gods to those of the bridgemen, among whom he wishes to be counted. He knows, however, how to give of himself only as he has been taught, so that when the ironically named Emmanual, a bridgeman who travels from place to place living only for the earning of money and the spending of it, asks him what he will do next, he decides that he will be the priest of the bridge. Indeed he becomes so, as, in a moment of transcendence, he gazes at the sun while painting the peak of the bridge and as a result falls into the water. The village people see his drowning as a sacrifice from the bridge to the river. What gives the story a talelike, oral feel is that the death of Kofi becomes a legend in the village, and even his bereaved father is proud, for “a man consumed by the gods lives forever.” This thought leaves the reader with a feeling of completion, despite the tragic nature of the story.

Another story in a similar vein is “The Voices of Adamo,” which is also a tale of the inability of disparate cultures to communicate, despite good intentions. In it, Adamo is an almost epic heroic character who loses his whole village in an epidemic yet manages to survive incredible odds in the jungle, only to end up in a British regimental band as a drummer. He is taken on by Captain Fossey, the bandmaster, and he transposes his tribal loyalties to the captain. As independence nears, however, the captain, totally unable to read Adamo in any way but in terms of his own British culture, tries to find Adamo a better place in the world, while Adamo, who has very little grasp of English, thinks that Fossey is trying to dismiss him. All he can sense is that he is being sent off, another loss, like the loss of his...

(The entire section is 1584 words.)