Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Diviners is the fifth and last work in Margaret Laurence’s cycle of fiction concerning Manawaka, a mythical prairie town based in part on her own home, Neepawa, Manitoba. Concerned most conspicuously with one woman’s search for her roots, The Diviners is also an epic tale about the origins of Canada as a whole and the Indian, French, English, and Scottish peoples who formed the nation.

Morag Gunn is the offspring of Scottish immigrants forced off their land in the eighteenth century by the Highland Clearances. Orphaned at five when both parents succumb to polio, Morag is taken in by Christie and Prin Logan. Christie, who served with Morag’s father in World War I, now serves as the town garbage collector, a fact that embarrasses the young Morag to such an extent that she spends the bulk of her life searching for her true parentage.

Laurence portrays Christie and Prin as physically grotesque but pure of spirit. Clothed in clownish overalls and wreathed in offensive odors, Christie is a Manawaka laughingstock, but from the first, he provides Morag with the heroic ancestry she craves, telling her tales of the mythic Piper Gunn, who led the dispossessed crofters to Canada:He was from the Clan Gunn, and it was many of the Gunns who lost their hearths and homes and lived wild on the stormy rocks there. And Piper Gunn, he was a great tall man, a man with the voice of drums and the heart of a child and the gall of a thousand and the strength of conviction. . . . Now Piper Gunn had a woman, and a strapping strong woman she was, with the courage of a falcon and the beauty of a deer and the warmth of a home and the faith of saints, and you may know her name. Her name, it was Morag.

This kind of mythologizing is satisfying only for a time. Despite the generosity shown her by...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Diviners, which won the prestigious Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1974 and the Molson Prize in 1975, became a source of public controversy in 1976 and 1978. The controversy centered on attempts to remove the novel from the grade thirteen curriculum in Ontario public schools on grounds that it was pornographic. The novel was attacked by conservative groups for featuring blasphemy, immorality, adultery, and fornication, but as more than one observer has noted, what these readers seem to have found most offensive was Morag’s independence.

The backlash against The Diviners was part of the conservatism that followed in the wake of the hedonism of the 1960’s. At a time when Western nations were retrenching politically and socially, Laurence’s presentation of a female protagonist who peppers her narrative with four-letter words, openly enjoys her sexuality, abandons her paternalistic husband, and chooses to give birth to an illegitimate child almost inevitably ran afoul of fundamentalist religious groups, which were beginning to flex their political muscle at the time.

The Diviners is not a revolutionary book, but it certainly played a part in the profound changes brought about by feminism in the 1970’s in its presentation of a heroine who achieves true independence on her own terms and not through the agency of a man. In an interview granted in the midst of the public debate about her book, Margaret Laurence stressed Morag’s achievement not only of financial independence but also of internal freedom. As her title suggests, Laurence’s protagonist is an individual who is able to plumb deep within and find the source that sustains her.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Bailey, Nancy. “Margaret Laurence, Carl Jung, and the Manawaka Women.” Studies in Canadian Literature 2 (Summer, 1977): 306-321. Focusing on the “female process of self-discovery,” Bailey employs Jungian psychology to examine Morag and her fictional forebears.

Buss, Helen M. Mother and Daughter Relationships in the Manawaka Works of Margaret Laurence. Victoria, British Columbia: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1985. This scholarly monograph takes a theoretical approach to Laurence’s five Manawaka works, relating their heroines’ adventures to the Demeter-Kore myth by employing various feminist and psychoanalytic methods of literary criticism.

Cooper, Cheryl. “Images of Closure in The Diviners,” in The Canadian Novel: Here and Now, 1978. Edited by John Moss.

Johnston, Eleanor. “The Quest of The Diviners,” in Mosaic. XI (Spring, 1978), p.107.

Morley, Patricia. Margaret Laurence. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Morley surveys Laurence’s entire literary career, starting with her works about Africa and emphasizing the Manawaka works as a cyclical whole. The book includes a chronology of Laurence’s life, as well as an extremely helpful annotated bibliography of secondary materials about Laurence.

New, William H., ed. Margaret Laurence. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1977. This excellent resource is an anthology of criticism on and by Laurence, including interviews with the author as well as essays written by her.

The New Yorker. Review. L (July 8, 1974), p. 79.

Piercy, Marge. Review in The New York Times Book Review. June 23, 1974, p. 6.

Thomas, Clara. The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976. One of the earliest comprehensive considerations of Laurence’s literary output. Written in a lively, readable style by one of her preeminent critics. Also includes a lengthy checklist of Laurence criticism.

Weeks, Edward. Review in Atlantic Monthly. CCXXXIII (June, 1974), p. 108.

Woodcock, George. “The Human Elements: Margaret Laurence’s Fiction.” In The Human Elements: Critical Essays, edited by David Helwig. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1978. This useful essay by the dean of Canadian literary criticism emphasizes the unity of the Manawaka cycle and the ways in which Laurence creates a whole world through imaginative re-creations of history and geography.