Laurence, (Jean) Margaret 1926–
A Canadian novelist, editor, and author of short stories, nonfiction, and books for children, Laurence bases her stories on her experiences in Africa and the rural Canadian town in which she was born. Rural Canada provides the setting for her Manawaka series, in which her characters struggle against both their inner conflicts and the strangely hypnotic influence of Manawaka on their lives. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[Margaret Laurence] often casts a gently ironic eye upon the more fundamental absurdities of the human condition, particularly the discrepancy between the idealized and the actual. In … "The Merchant of Heaven," her wry humor is apparent in the contrast between the glorious mission field of Brother Lemon's apocalyptic imagination and the trying reality of his day-to-day existence as an apostle for the Angel of Philadelphia Mission. Yet, in the largest sense, "The Merchant of Heaven" also suggests a distinction between the literal Biblical word and the true spirit of Christian belief, a contrast which is developed through the distinction between the heavenly new Jerusalem of Brother Lemon's literal interpretation of Revelations, "where the walls are of jaspar and topaz and amethyst, and the city is of pure gold" and the new Jerusalem of the spirit implicit in the narrator Kitteridge's final vision. (p. 43)
The books of Jeremiah and Revelations as suggested by Margaret Laurence's African stories (The Tomorrow-Tamer and Other Stories, 1963) may appear at first glance to be a rather exotic locale … yet here, as in her prairie fiction, Laurence's affinities with Sinclair Ross are apparent. It is not just that there are often slight echoes of Ross throughout Laurence's work…. [As] demonstrated by "The Merchant of Heaven," Laurence and Ross share a central vision—a sense of the ironic discrepancy between the spirit and the letter of the religious dispensation, a discrepancy which is often explored through an essentially psychological analysis of character (particularly through the interior monologue) with reference to Biblical myth. (p. 44)
[The characters of Margaret Laurence] all live in the same little "fundamentalist town" … and they all live their lives in stifling relation to the old gods of their fathers—gods which are dead and no longer viable for today's world yet nonetheless...
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Like Faulkner, who enabled his readers to experience the rural South in his novels of Yoknapatawpha County, Laurence has bestowed a kind of immortality on the small Canadian prairie town. Manawaka is not just a town from which one escapes as soon as possible; it has a further part to play in the lives of its emigrés. It cleaves to them just as its image stayed with Margaret Laurence in her years in England, a microcosm of her native country. (p. 95)
In The Stone Angel, the first novel of the Manawaka series, Hagar sees the world much as Sartre describes it in Nausea: "every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by choice." In The Diviners, as in all the novels that have followed The Stone Angel, we see a more corrigible world. We have the impression of Laurence opening doors and rewarding struggle. She is the generous creator who endows her characters with the qualities that will save them.
Laurence's women are sensual, maternal, creative. They like men, are comfortable with their own bodies, see sex as a "conscious defiance of death."…
These are intelligent women with a good measure of self-awareness. They know what we know about them. They enjoy their own company. They are fiercely introspective and honest about their lives.
These are also self-serving women. They allow themselves to be used only to a point;...
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The Diviners is the most comprehensive [of all the Manawaka novels] in its quest and the most complicated in its structure. Morag's journey is epic in its striving and cosmological in its scope. She seeks to understand her relation to all life, all time and eternity, and the resolution she finally comes to has both sacred and secular meanings for her.
In all of her Manawaka novels, Margaret Laurence has worked with concepts of time. Hagar, Rachel, and Stacey are all enslaved by quantitative time, the man-made measurement of minutes, hours, and days that inexorably hastens Hagar towards her death, that wears away Rachel's life,… and that marks off Stacey's life in a grinding routine of household chores and family responsibilities. All these women are relentlessly in service to a schedule which is not self-determined but society-determined. In their heads, they also experience felt time, existential time, in memories and fantasies which are set in juxtaposition to the rigidly-measured minutes, hours and days of their experiential world. (pp. 402-03)
From the very beginning of The Diviners, Morag has one advantage over these other women. She is substantially free of the confines of man-measured time, and she is living largely in natural time, the flowing of day into night into day again, the changing of the seasons, spring into summer into autumn; and in her riverwatching she has the constant companionship and awareness of the water's ceaseless mixing flow. Specific signals like the ringing of the telephone recall her to man-measured time and return her to the anxieties that impel her to set out on her remembering journey. Morag herself, her very individuality, is threatened by her vulnerability to Pique's problems. Feelings of responsibility for Pique [Morag's illegitimate daughter] constantly move toward feelings of guilt that threaten to overwhelm her, and her consciousness of the inability to act threatens to debilitate and destroy her. She is also lonely—but her only defense against loneliness is to let all the past sweep back over her and, hopefully, to wrestle it into a supportive and not a destructive force for herself. (p. 403)
[While] Hagar's memories just seem to arrange themselves chronologically, Morag is always conscious of her own part in the process of remembering. Margaret Laurence has been conscious of the neat chronology of Hagar's memories as a possible flaw in The Stone Angel's technique. In The Diviners she makes Morag's part in the memory-process very clear…. Furthermore, the flow of time remembered does not stop with Morag. The memories flow together in her present consciousness and then flow out again into Pique's life and the next generation. It is the working out of this flow that gives her book a structural shape whose graphic image is also the Yoruba symbol of the continuum of time, the three interflowing circles of the serpent swallowing his tail….
Pique is extremely important in The Diviners. At the center of Margaret Laurence's own consciousness is a strong feeling for the freedom of the individual personality, held in tension by an equally strong realization of the inevitable impinging, modification, damage, support, or enhancement of one personality by another. The mother-daughter relationship of The Diviners demonstrates this concern in a wide range of interplay and effect. (p. 404)
As Morag's past and present draw increasingly closer together through the "Rites of Passage," she can understand and integrate her past selves into her present: she can also increasingly accept the necessity of Pique's own "Rites of Passage." Her former anxiety for Pique had been compounded of both guilt and love—now she is increasingly able to rid herself of the self-destructive component of guilt. She can now recognize Pique as her own person, and she can relinquish Pique to her own life, her own journey. (p. 405)
The sense of place is very strong among the women of the Manawaka works, and in various ways the town of Manawaka has represented constraint and imprisonment to all of them. As a girl, Morag was desperately anxious to leave the town where she felt so much an outsider. Now, in her remembering, she realizes that she has always fled from one constraining place to another, always seeking freedom, but always isolating herself in the process. Isolation—the position of the outsider—is not freedom, but stasis. Now she knows that "islands aren't real," not in the sense of providing emotional safety, stability, and...
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Five of Margaret Laurence's books [The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, A Bird in the House, and The Diviners] have Manawaka, a fictionalized re-creation of her hometown Neepawa, as their background if not their actual locale. But neither Manawaka nor Neepawa is "prairie" insofar as that word suggests endless plains where farmhouses sit solitary on the edge of their vast sections of the world's largest breadbasket. The essence of Manawaka is that it is small-town…. (p. 64)
This is not to deny, of course, that Margaret Laurence has a distinctively Canadian voice, nor that, though her concerns are of wider significance, they are deeply rooted in the local Canadian...
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