Margaret Laurence Long Fiction Analysis
The major emphasis of Margaret Laurence’s fiction changed considerably between her early and later works. In an article published in Canadian Literature in 1969, “Ten Years’ Sentences,” she notes that after she had grown out of her obsession with the nature of freedom, the theme of the African writings and The Stone Angel, her concern “had changed to that of survival, the attempt of the personality to survive with some dignity, toting the load of excess mental baggage that everyone carries.” In the same article, she remarks that she became increasingly involved with novels of character, that her viewpoint altered from modified optimism to modified pessimism, and that she had become more concerned with form in writing.
The more profound psychological realism of her later novels developed after a general awareness of the intractable problems of emerging African nations had matured both the Africans and their observers. The characters in the African works were products of a now-dated optimism that forced them into preconceived molds. The later novels reveal modified pessimism, but their vitality comes from Laurence’s developing concern with psychological realism, which authenticates the characters and their voices. After This Side Jordan, the point of view is consistently in the first person, the protagonist’s, and is strictly limited to the protagonist’s consciousness. Although Hagar in The Stone Angel and Stacey in The Fire-Dwellers are stereotypes, a stubborn old lady and a frantic middle-aged housewife, Laurence makes them both compelling protagonists through accurate psychological portrayals.
A theme of major importance that Laurence did not fully develop until The Diviners is the nature of language. Rachel’s concern with name-calling in A Jest of God anticipates the larger exploration in The Fire-Dwellers, in which Laurence experiments with a variety of voices, using language in a variety of ways. Exterior voices, many of them bizarre, interrupt and are interrupted by Stacey’s inner voices—her monologues, her memories of voices from the past, her challenges, threats, and prayers to God. The exterior voices include radio and television news, snatches of her children’s conversations, the characteristic dialects of various socioeconomic groups, the half-truthful promotions of her husband’s company, and the meaningfully unfinished conversations between her and her husband. In order to allow language to be discussed explicitly, Laurence makes the protagonist of The Diviners a novelist.
In her first three novels Laurence uses biblical allusions to provide a mythic framework for a psychological study of character and situation. All these allusions are from the Old Testament, which made a lasting impression on her when she read it for the first time in Africa. The names she chooses for the characters in the early fiction—Adamo, Jacob, Abraham, Nathaniel, Joshua, Hagar, Ishmael, and Rachel—provide ready-made dilemmas whose traditional solutions appear contrived and psychologically unrealistic. In This Side Jordan, Joshua’s Ghanian father proclaims that his son will cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, confidently assumed to be both an independent, prosperous Ghana and a Christian heaven. These allusions contribute to the sacramental overtones in the early works, particularly at the end of The Stone Angel.
Biblical myth is replaced in A Bird in the House and The Diviners by the myths of Scottish immigrants and Canadian pioneers and Indians. Vanessa in A Bird in the House lives with the sentimentally mythologized memories of her grandparents. The dispossessed Scots and the dispossessed Metis Indians provide a personal mythology for young Morag Gunn in The Diviners , which her foster father, Christie Logan, embellishes to give the orphan girl an identity. Christie himself becomes mythologized in the mind of Morag’s daughter Pique. The theme of the search for one’s true origins plays a prominent part throughout Laurence’s...
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