Margaret Laurence World Literature Analysis
In an autobiographical essay, “Books That Mattered to Me” (1981), Laurence recalled that in college she discovered Canadian writers who were striving to understand what it meant to be Canadian. From her exposure to these writers, Laurence learned that as a writer she would have to “write out of my own place, my own time, my own people.” This declaration serves as a good starting point for understanding Laurence’s strengths as a Canadian author. She is first and foremost Canadian in her identity and in her values. Readers of her books will gain insights into the ways in which the vast Canadian landscape affects the choices and struggles faced by individuals and by families. When Laurence discovered her roots, she also discovered her strengths. In doing so, she set the foundation for her finest writing.
The importance of that sense of “place” and its relationship to a character’s identity and values is best reflected in her creation of a specific fictional town she called Manawaka, based to a great extent on her hometown of Neepawa, Manitoba, Canada. Her creation of Manawaka reflects also the primacy of the autobiographical elements of Laurence’s fiction. All the heroines in the Manawaka novels and short stories can trace their backgrounds or roots in some way to the fictional Manawaka. Often Laurence used specific settings, such as the town cemetery, her grandfather’s funeral parlor, the dance hall, or the junkyard, as symbolic settings in which her characters could interact. Just as William Faulkner did in his creation of Yoknapatawpha County (the county seat of Jefferson is based in part on Oxford, Mississippi), Laurence transformed the townspeople and the literal settings to serve the purposes of her art. It is impossible to separate the meanings of Laurence’s characterizations, conflicts, and themes from the sense of place that is generated by her blending of autobiography and fiction.
Her experiences in Somaliland and Ghana in the 1950’s certainly were formative ones in her career as a writer. The works based on her African experiences reflect the struggles of individuals from diverse cultures trying to communicate with one another and accommodate one another’s needs. Similarly, these works concern the problems faced by a country preparing itself for independence. Many of her stories emphasize the outsider’s point of view, perhaps reflecting her own status as a Westerner living in an alien culture.
Laurence was acutely aware of the theme of the insider/outsider. She was able to empathize with the plight of people who lived under the domination of colonial powers and thus were, in many respects, outsiders in their own lands because they were subject to oppression. As a Canadian author, she understood that feeling of being outside the main political and economic power base in the Western Hemisphere. As a woman, she was aware of the struggle of women to free themselves from the domination of men. In her creation of the town of Manawaka, she was identifying with the conflicts that arise between the narrow-minded citizens of a small town and the outsiders who dare to challenge the security of the status quo. Laurence gave voice in her characters to a diverse set of ideas that challenged old assumptions.
Whereas men were the dominant characters in her African stories, women are the dominant characters in her Canadian fiction. Each of the Manawaka books features the experiences of a separate heroine. Four of the women are from Manawaka; the fifth, Morag Gunn, is an outsider who seeks to escape from the town after she has become part of its fabric. Morag is also a novelist and thus perhaps most closely represents the viewpoint of someone who, like Laurence, had to stand on the outside in order to portray objectively the experiences of Manawaka natives. In many respects Laurence is a feminist author. Her women are engaged in a process of reflection and self-discovery. They resist the domination of men and seek insights into their own strengths (and even failings) of character.
Many of her novels and stories portray problems of communication between individuals. Laurence suggests that although people seek closeness and understanding in relationships, they often undermine successful relationships because of deep-seated personal conflicts that remain hidden from them. In Laurence’s fictional world relationships are fragile, sometimes fleeting, but always complicated. Characters necessarily have difficulty relating to others when they do not know themselves fully.
The Stone Angel
First published: 1964
Type of work: Novel
An old woman’s struggle with cancer stimulates her to reevaluate her life.
Hagar Shipley, ninety years old, dominates the action in The Stone Angel, the first of Laurence’s five books that treat the experiences of women whose lives intersect with the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba. Hagar tells her story in the first person, and a review of her past life is woven into the narrative. Hagar was born in Manawaka; her mother died giving birth to her. Hagar has never accepted this loss. She associates any weakness on the part of others as symbolic of the weakness of her mother, who was not able to survive childbirth. To compensate, Hagar has always been a stern, unremitting judge of others. She has lost touch with the sensitive side of herself.
Laurence provides a compelling symbol of Hagar early in the novel. The town cemetery is dominated by the statue of a stone angel placed there in her mother’s honor. In an ironic twist of fate, the carver did not add the eyes of the angel, and the author suggests that this symbolic “blindness” is reflected in Hagar’s view of herself, her relationships with her father and her brothers, her marriage to Bram Shipley, and her attitudes toward her two sons, Marvin and John. Hagar has never seen herself for who she truly is. Reared by a maiden aunt, Hagar was dominated by her father, who had a narrow conception of how a young woman should act and what role she should fulfill. Hagar tries to escape her father’s domination by marrying Shipley, an uncouth farmer who shows little promise for managing his property. Before long, Hagar and Bram argue constantly; soon they live separate lives even though they live together. Eventually, they separate when Hagar leaves with their younger son, John....
(The entire section is 2626 words.)