Margaret Laurence World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2626

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...

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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.

Hagar invests all of her emotional energy in her son John. She rears him alone and becomes blind to his character as it develops in a direction similar to that of Bram. John becomes all that Hagar desires that he not become. He defies her just as she defied her father and just as Bram defied her. John even falls in love with a woman whom his mother considers beneath him. Unfortunately, Hagar cannot see and accept the deep affection the two feel toward each other. John and his lover die a tragic death, the result of another defiant act on John’s part. Hagar never forgives herself for driving him away and, in her mind, indirectly causing his death. The day she sees her dead son in the hospital is the day her grieving heart turns to stone.

The image of stone is an important part of the symbolic meaning of the stone angel. If stone is a common symbol of the heart numbed forever by grief, stone also represents what is cold, hard, and unforgiving in the human heart. Hagar’s judgments throughout the novel are unrelenting and enduring. She refuses to change her mind once she has made a decision, and this behavior leaves her isolated from the warmth of human contact.

Hagar lives with her son Marvin and his wife, Doris. These caregivers are in their sixties and finding it increasingly difficult to live in harmony with a quarrelsome old woman. Laurence ably treats the theme of adult caregivers facing the limitations of old age while trying to provide adequate care for an older parent. Added to these concerns is Marvin’s long-standing unresolved relationship with his mother. John was always her favorite son. Although Marvin has cared for Hagar for more than twenty years, she has never recognized him for being a good son. Near the end of the novel, when Hagar enters the hospital to receive treatment for the symptoms of advanced cancer, she does acknowledge Marvin’s devotion to her. Laurence treats their interaction ironically, however, for when Hagar releases Marvin from his burden, she does so as an act of kindness toward him, not because she believes what she tells him. In fact, she calls her recognition of Marvin’s efforts a “lie”; but then reconsiders by saying that it was “not a lie, for it was spoken at least and at last with what may perhaps be a kind of love.”

Although Hagar’s interaction with Marvin reflects ambivalent feelings on her part, it reflects one of the few times in the novel that she seizes an opportunity to communicate honestly and openly with another person. An important theme in the novel is that of missed opportunities for communication. When Hagar’s brother dies, she misses the chance to share her feelings with her other brother; she never tells her father what her needs are; she never tells her husband how much she loves him; she never acknowledges Marvin’s appeals for affection when he is a boy; she never tells her son John that it would be all right to see his girlfriend in the house whenever he wants to see her.

Laurence suggests that lost opportunities for communication are related to excessive pride and a fear of dependency or loss of control. In old age, Hagar begins to realize what she has lost; before she dies, she realizes that what she has always wanted was to experience joy and fullness of life. Yet her need for privacy, her rigid exclusion of contrary points of view, and her pride held her back.

Hagar is an enigma to the end. The epigram for the novel is an excerpt from Dylan Thomas’s famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” Hagar lives out the imperative that the narrator makes to his father in that poem. Hagar “rages” from the beginning to the end of this novel. She rages against the loss of control she feels as the object of caregiving; she rages against her aging body and the cancer that afflicts her; she rages against the lack of communication between the generations; she rages at the failed choices she has made throughout her life; and she rages against God for not making the terms of communication between people more accessible and easy to follow.

The Fire-Dwellers

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

A woman overcomes feelings of self-doubt, struggles to resolve ongoing conflicts with her husband, and discovers untapped sources of strength in her character.

The Fire-Dwellers is the third in the series of Laurence’s five Manawaka books. Its heroine, Stacey MacAindra, is the sister of Rachel Cameron, the heroine in the second novel in the series, A Jest of God (1966). Whereas Rachel seemed doomed to spend her life in the narrow confines of the small town of Manawaka, her sister Stacey escaped the town and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, at the age of nineteen. At twenty-three she married Cliff MacAindra, a salesman. Now thirty-nine, Stacey is not happy with her life. She feels unattractive, trapped by the pressures of motherhood, confused by her husband’s lack of communication with her, and frustrated with her husband’s decision to begin a new job working for a man who appears to be a manipulative and overbearing charlatan.

Laurence tells the story through Stacey’s eyes, using the form of interior monologue as the character reacts to events in the present and reflects upon events in the past. Stacey’s world is dominated by her responsibilities as a mother of four children, each of whom is an individual with unique needs. At first Stacey feels she has reached an impasse as a caregiver. The burden of responding to the children’s diverse requests seems too much to bear. Stacey retreats into a private world. At one point she laments that she is neither a good mother nor a good wife.

In time, Stacey’s experiences contradict this declaration. She survives several crises facing her children. At the end of the novel she feels her strength of will renewed. Finally, she declares, “I used to think there would be a blinding flash of light someday, and then I would be wise and calm and would know how to cope with everything and my kids would rise up and call me blessed. Now I see that whatever I’m like, I’m pretty well stuck with it for life.” She realizes that she is a good mother and possesses an internal reservoir of strength and determination.

The strains in the relationship between Stacey and her husband reflect Laurence’s interest in the theme of the fragile nature of human communication. Stacey complains that Mac will not share his thoughts or fears with her. Initially, she concludes that his lack of disclosure reveals his lack of caring; eventually, she understands that his reticence masks his fears that he will not be able to take care of the family’s financial needs and that he is inadequate at his job. As soon as Stacey grasps the true state of her husband’s crisis, she is empowered to act on his behalf against all odds. By the end of the novel, she demonstrates skills for reconciliation, adaptation, and a willingness to take on new challenges on behalf of her family.

Stacey’s personal struggle to regain a sense of her own identity reflects Laurence’s abiding concern with the process of reflection and self-discovery in women’s lives. Stacey constantly seeks answers as to who she is, what her purpose in life should be, and what suitable roles she can fulfill. In despair at her inability to communicate with her husband, Stacey meets a young man by chance and begins a love affair with him. Although Stacey gains a sense of fulfillment from this affair, she does not know how to resolve her relationships at this point.

Eventually, several crises occur that propel her toward a resolution of all relationships. Stacey decides to stay with Mac after he begins to share some of his fears; she does not return to her lover; and she decides to take care of Mac’s father after the old man has a bad fall. Mac escapes his intimidating boss when the latter is promoted to a position in Montreal. Stacey cannot help but marvel at the workings of fate and human will. At the end of the novel, Laurence emphasizes a newfound harmony in their relationship after both survive respective periods of self-imposed isolation and introspection. Now the two have each other, not as each would like the other to be but as each accepts the other despite imperfections and limitations of character or will.

In a sense, Stacey has always wanted her husband to speak to her in her language—articulate, expressive, sharing openly, willing to disclose any and all feelings. Yet he cannot speak this way. After one of many family emergencies is overcome late in the novel, Stacey recognizes that Mac and her oldest son speak the same language, a language in many respects foreign to her own. Finally, she comes to accept this difference in how communication works within this family. To Stacey, the world will always be a dangerous place. Everyone is a “fire-dweller”—Stacey’s experiences in the novel reflect innumerable close calls and crises. Yet Stacey finally learns to accept the uncertainties and risks associated with the future.

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