Margaret Laurence Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584

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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 village, his family, his place in the scheme of things, and so in despair, he kills Fossey. This is the only peace that he can obtain, the knowledge that he will be allowed to stay in his new home until he dies, which unfortunately will be very soon under the end of British rule.

In contrast to the tragic sense of the imperialistic contribution to the African continent is the story “The Perfume Sea,” which tells the tale of two people without a home, Archipelago and Doree, who run a beauty salon for European women. With the coming of independence, their livelihood is destroyed: Not only are they penniless, but also they have no resources to fall back on, like strangers in a strange land. Both misfits—one small and round (the Italian man, Archipelago), the other tall and gawky (the woman from no one knows where, Doree)—they face a bleak future until, in a moment of epiphany, they realize that there is a whole new market out there, that of African women who desire to look like city women. Their new shop begins to prosper only after Mercy, the daughter of their African landlord, tries their services and is immensely satisfied; thus they are saved, as Archipelago says, by an act of Mercy, one of the delightful puns in which Laurence occasionally indulges herself.

All the stories in this collection deal with outsiders, either native Africans who have been dispossessed by Europeans, Europeans who have settled in Africa but are forced by the independence movement to recognize that they do not belong, or colonizers who believe that they are in the right but have never been a part of the real life of the country. Archipelago and Doree are unusual outsiders, touching in their delicate affection for each other, unacceptable to the European community because they are service class and have possibly shady backgrounds but viewed by the Africans as a part of the European community. It is only when they are completely down on their luck that the African community accepts them. A number of the other stories in the collection display more typical colonial types, although never in the form of stereotype.

In “The Drummer of All the World,” Matthew, the son of a missionary, grows up playing with an African child, nursed by an African woman. His Africa is exotic, warm, and exciting, but when he returns after schooling in England, he learns that his Africa has disappeared. Although he regrets this, he realizes that he never saw the disease (and dis-ease) below the surface of his experience. Matthew is a typical European in love with an unreal image of an African world, but at the same time he is more in touch with the reality of that world than his father, an iconoclast in a nearly literal sense, since he destroys the fetishes of the people. Matthew thinks, “Moses broke the idols of his own people.”

A Bird in the House

In contrast, A Bird in the House is peopled by characters who grew up in the fictional small town of Manawaka, Manitoba, Canada. Unlike the African stories, in which Laurence employs either the first-person or the third-person voice, these Canadian stories are all told in the first person by a single narrator, Vanessa, whose voice is a true accomplishment; although she ranges in age from a very young child to a young adult, the voice simultaneously presents the experience appropriate to her age with insights of the adult mind. Also, as Vanessa is preparing herself to be a writer, she sees things from a writer’s vantage point, even though she is also involved. She is also constantly gathering material, which means that she listens closely to, even eavesdrops on, adult conversations, thus allowing her to know more of what is happening in her world than many first-person narrators would, particularly a child. Laurence has admitted that A Bird in the House is the most autobiographical of her works.

Vanessa’s world is a restricted one, hemmed in by the power of adults, particularly her maternal grandfather, who is a patriarch of the most oppressive sort, and by the breakdown of society, which results in wars (both World Wars I and II touch Vanessa’s life) and depression. She escapes this world by writing stories of the most lurid, romantic, and impossible sort; at least, she does this as a youngster, but exposure to the reality of the world around her gradually forms a more mature approach to life.

The title story, “A Bird in the House,” like many of the stories in the collection, centers on the theme of death. Vanessa’s father dies of pneumonia, and the young girl loses her faith, thus feeling more isolated from her community. Another story, “The Mask of the Bear,” depicts the loss of her grandmother and her anger and anguish over her grandfather’s implacable patriarchal coldness and selfishness. Both of these stories have epilogues in which a more mature Vanessa recognizes the disappointments and humanity of these men in her life, and how they too were trapped by their societies.

Margaret Laurence is a major world author whose compassionate understanding of what forms the individual character and the character of nations, combined with her ability to render this knowledge in clear, distinctive prose so that all who read her will feel the same (at least while reading), has added to the wealth of the global reading community.

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Margaret Laurence Long Fiction Analysis