Margaret Laurence

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Laurence, (Jean) Margaret 1926–

A Canadian novelist, editor, and author of short stories, nonfiction, and books for children, Laurence bases her stories on her experiences in Africa and the rural Canadian town in which she was born. Rural Canada provides the setting for her Manawaka series, in which her characters struggle against both their inner conflicts and the strangely hypnotic influence of Manawaka on their lives. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Sandra Djwa

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[Margaret Laurence] often casts a gently ironic eye upon the more fundamental absurdities of the human condition, particularly the discrepancy between the idealized and the actual. In … "The Merchant of Heaven," her wry humor is apparent in the contrast between the glorious mission field of Brother Lemon's apocalyptic imagination and the trying reality of his day-to-day existence as an apostle for the Angel of Philadelphia Mission. Yet, in the largest sense, "The Merchant of Heaven" also suggests a distinction between the literal Biblical word and the true spirit of Christian belief, a contrast which is developed through the distinction between the heavenly new Jerusalem of Brother Lemon's literal interpretation of Revelations, "where the walls are of jaspar and topaz and amethyst, and the city is of pure gold" and the new Jerusalem of the spirit implicit in the narrator Kitteridge's final vision. (p. 43)

The books of Jeremiah and Revelations as suggested by Margaret Laurence's African stories (The Tomorrow-Tamer and Other Stories, 1963) may appear at first glance to be a rather exotic locale … yet here, as in her prairie fiction, Laurence's affinities with Sinclair Ross are apparent. It is not just that there are often slight echoes of Ross throughout Laurence's work…. [As] demonstrated by "The Merchant of Heaven," Laurence and Ross share a central vision—a sense of the ironic discrepancy between the spirit and the letter of the religious dispensation, a discrepancy which is often explored through an essentially psychological analysis of character (particularly through the interior monologue) with reference to Biblical myth. (p. 44)

[The characters of Margaret Laurence] all live in the same little "fundamentalist town" … and they all live their lives in stifling relation to the old gods of their fathers—gods which are dead and no longer viable for today's world yet nonetheless inescapable gods. Dominated by these gods which in some cases have been assimilated into a harsh and punishing super-ego, each character lives a child-like or inauthentic existence dominated by the dead parental voices of the past. (p. 45)

Laurence's interest in the growth of the human spirit into self-knowledge and freedom is suggested by her first collection of short stories, The Tomorrow-Tamer and Other Stories (1963). There is a sense in which all of these tales are parables of salvation or the failure to attain it, a failure which is always linked to personal bondage. (p. 46)

[Laurence] consistently invokes Biblical myth as archetypes of psychological man. Her characters are most often related mythically as are Abram-Hagar, Jacob and Ishmael in The Stone Angel or Rachel and Jacob in A Jest of God and often part of a controlling myth which verges on psychological allegory. It is not, of course, allegory, because Laurence in no sense sets up rigid levels of interpretation. Nonetheless, because Hagar refers to herself as "the Egyptian" and describes Marvin explicitly as "Jacob", it is impossible to read The Stone Angel without recognizing that Hagar sees and Laurence presents the human situation in terms of Biblical allegory….

[Laurence] seems to write from a two-tiered world, ostensibly with God above and man below; a world in which there...

(This entire section contains 797 words.)

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is always the ironic possibility of a reversal of man's plans by God. Although those two worlds are ostensibly parallel, they nonetheless appear to meet in the human spirit. Laurence, like Jung, seems to locate God in the human soul and to sometimes define religion in terms of the Jungian "numinous experience" which can lead to psychological change. For modern man, the old gods of the fathers are dead, or, if they still exist, they no longer manifest themselves in the old ways and must be re-defined by each person according to his own experience. (p. 49)

Further proof of Laurence's concern with the human condition is to be found in A Jest of God which suggests some aspects of existentialist thought as Rachel must choose between the nausea of bad faith and the anguish and despair of freedom. Laurence is also existential throughout her work in Sartre's primary sense in that her focus is on man's process of becoming, a process which reveals to him his essence or spirit. However, in distinction to existentialist thought and in accordance with the conventions of Christian belief, man discovers a preexisting spirit…. (pp. 49-50)

Looking back on Laurence's work, the primary impression is that the process of becoming is most often embodied in mythic metamorphosis. Hagar, the Egyptian, stone angel and imprisoned spirit, passes through these transitory forms in her spiritual metamorphosis…. Rachel, the virgin princess, Jerusalem, the shadow queen and finally the mother, undergoes a series of psychic metamorphoses which lead to a new state of being. (p. 50)

Sandra Djwa, in Journal of Canadian Fiction (reprinted by permission from Journal of Canadian Fiction, 2050 Mackay St., Montreal, Quebec H3G 2J1, Canada), Vol. I, No. 4, 1972.

Gloria Whelan

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Like Faulkner, who enabled his readers to experience the rural South in his novels of Yoknapatawpha County, Laurence has bestowed a kind of immortality on the small Canadian prairie town. Manawaka is not just a town from which one escapes as soon as possible; it has a further part to play in the lives of its emigrés. It cleaves to them just as its image stayed with Margaret Laurence in her years in England, a microcosm of her native country. (p. 95)

In The Stone Angel, the first novel of the Manawaka series, Hagar sees the world much as Sartre describes it in Nausea: "every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by choice." In The Diviners, as in all the novels that have followed The Stone Angel, we see a more corrigible world. We have the impression of Laurence opening doors and rewarding struggle. She is the generous creator who endows her characters with the qualities that will save them.

Laurence's women are sensual, maternal, creative. They like men, are comfortable with their own bodies, see sex as a "conscious defiance of death."…

These are intelligent women with a good measure of self-awareness. They know what we know about them. They enjoy their own company. They are fiercely introspective and honest about their lives.

These are also self-serving women. They allow themselves to be used only to a point; then they take flight….

If they can be selfish to save themselves, they also have a sense of accountability. They are able to live ethical lives in spite of the world around them. They are never malicious; they can hardly bring themselves to be rude; if hurt, they are apt to blame themselves, turning their anger and rage inward.

Their morality is a product of early religious training. In her first novel, This Side Jordan, Laurence was caught up in African mysticism. But mysticism was too exotic a flower to transfer to Manawaka. The God of the prairie is more utilitarian, a winter God. He is "the stern God of our fathers," consulted frequently by Rachel, Stacey, and Vanessa. It is through his eyes that they monitor their actions, anticipate their punishments, plead for mercy. (p. 96)

Few Canadian writers can match the scope of the Manawaka oeuvre or the quality of its writing, but Margaret Laurence is most effective when her symbols are life-sized. In [The Diviners] the individual seems submerged in the nation.

In Survival, Margaret Atwood draws on Laurence frequently to substantiate her theory that the central symbol for Canada is Survival, la Survivance. Laurence is the perfect example, for her heroines with their strengths, their tenacity, their firm roots in Canadian soil are somehow invulnerable (though they are not the haggard crones—Hagar—or frustrated spinsters—Rachel—that Atwood finds them to be). They speak of the human condition as Laurence describes it in an early story from The Tomorrow-Tamer, "I have known the worst and the worst and the worst and yet I live. I fear and fear, and yet I live." (p. 97)

Gloria Whelan, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1975 by The Ontario Review), Spring-Summer, 1975.

Clara Thomas

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The Diviners is the most comprehensive [of all the Manawaka novels] in its quest and the most complicated in its structure. Morag's journey is epic in its striving and cosmological in its scope. She seeks to understand her relation to all life, all time and eternity, and the resolution she finally comes to has both sacred and secular meanings for her.

In all of her Manawaka novels, Margaret Laurence has worked with concepts of time. Hagar, Rachel, and Stacey are all enslaved by quantitative time, the man-made measurement of minutes, hours, and days that inexorably hastens Hagar towards her death, that wears away Rachel's life,… and that marks off Stacey's life in a grinding routine of household chores and family responsibilities. All these women are relentlessly in service to a schedule which is not self-determined but society-determined. In their heads, they also experience felt time, existential time, in memories and fantasies which are set in juxtaposition to the rigidly-measured minutes, hours and days of their experiential world. (pp. 402-03)

From the very beginning of The Diviners, Morag has one advantage over these other women. She is substantially free of the confines of man-measured time, and she is living largely in natural time, the flowing of day into night into day again, the changing of the seasons, spring into summer into autumn; and in her riverwatching she has the constant companionship and awareness of the water's ceaseless mixing flow. Specific signals like the ringing of the telephone recall her to man-measured time and return her to the anxieties that impel her to set out on her remembering journey. Morag herself, her very individuality, is threatened by her vulnerability to Pique's problems. Feelings of responsibility for Pique [Morag's illegitimate daughter] constantly move toward feelings of guilt that threaten to overwhelm her, and her consciousness of the inability to act threatens to debilitate and destroy her. She is also lonely—but her only defense against loneliness is to let all the past sweep back over her and, hopefully, to wrestle it into a supportive and not a destructive force for herself. (p. 403)

[While] Hagar's memories just seem to arrange themselves chronologically, Morag is always conscious of her own part in the process of remembering. Margaret Laurence has been conscious of the neat chronology of Hagar's memories as a possible flaw in The Stone Angel's technique. In The Diviners she makes Morag's part in the memory-process very clear…. Furthermore, the flow of time remembered does not stop with Morag. The memories flow together in her present consciousness and then flow out again into Pique's life and the next generation. It is the working out of this flow that gives her book a structural shape whose graphic image is also the Yoruba symbol of the continuum of time, the three interflowing circles of the serpent swallowing his tail….

Pique is extremely important in The Diviners. At the center of Margaret Laurence's own consciousness is a strong feeling for the freedom of the individual personality, held in tension by an equally strong realization of the inevitable impinging, modification, damage, support, or enhancement of one personality by another. The mother-daughter relationship of The Diviners demonstrates this concern in a wide range of interplay and effect. (p. 404)

As Morag's past and present draw increasingly closer together through the "Rites of Passage," she can understand and integrate her past selves into her present: she can also increasingly accept the necessity of Pique's own "Rites of Passage." Her former anxiety for Pique had been compounded of both guilt and love—now she is increasingly able to rid herself of the self-destructive component of guilt. She can now recognize Pique as her own person, and she can relinquish Pique to her own life, her own journey. (p. 405)

The sense of place is very strong among the women of the Manawaka works, and in various ways the town of Manawaka has represented constraint and imprisonment to all of them. As a girl, Morag was desperately anxious to leave the town where she felt so much an outsider. Now, in her remembering, she realizes that she has always fled from one constraining place to another, always seeking freedom, but always isolating herself in the process. Isolation—the position of the outsider—is not freedom, but stasis. Now she knows that "islands aren't real," not in the sense of providing emotional safety, stability, and security. She also knows that she now neither needs nor wants to be isolated as the obstinately self-destined outsider.

Morag's relinquishing of the need for "island" moves her towards the recognition of "garden." This she voices in her last imaginary conversation with Catherine Parr Traill.

I'll never till these blasted fields, but this place is some kind of a garden, nonetheless, even though it may be only a wild flower garden. It's needed, and not only by me. I'm about to quit worrying about not being either an old or new pioneer….

To Morag Gunn, Catherine Traill, who had been a settler in her area, was the patron saint of all pioneer women…. In Morag's eyes, Mrs. Traill had actually tamed the wilderness, "drawing and naming wild flowers, writing a guide for settlers with one hand, whilst rearing a brace of young and working like a galley slave with the other"…. Catherine Traill has seemed to her to be the perfect example of a woman who did it all, fulfilling her social and human responsibilities with apparent ease. And Morag, in her own eyes, has suffered in comparison. Now, however, Morag has come to a place of self-recognition and acceptance—she has "got herself together." As Catherine Traill had named the flowers and created her garden from the wilderness, so Morag now recognizes her own wild garden. She claims it, and she even recites a litany of weed names in celebration of her land…. This is her place, the space which she inhabits, and if she recognizes it as a garden, then for Morag it is one. She dismisses Mrs. Traill, "St. Catharine," for she no longer needs the inspiration or the intimidation of her example. Morag's recognition of her wild garden is not a claiming of territory as her exclusive right; it is a simple yet miraculous new "seeing" of the land, and in a real sense it frees her from the tyranny of place and the compulsion to seek "islands." (pp. 406-07)

When The Diviners was published, Margaret Laurence was widely quoted as saying that she might not write any more novels…. Not only had she closed the circle of the Manawaka works with a long, emotionally taxing, and technically complicated work, but in Morag's journey she had also written out the culmination of a spiritual journey of her own. The basic underlying theme of all Margaret Laurence's fiction, not only of the specifically Manawaka works, but of the African works as well, has been the search for home, the journey of a stranger in a strange land, the seeking of the outsider for his true place in the tribe of man. This quest has been signified overtly in the texts by the spiritual pilgrimages of her characters. It has also been based in, and reinforced by, the fabric of her language. (p. 409)

The garden-island pattern is one central mythological "signature" in Margaret Laurence's work; the concepts are related or paired; they are sometimes fused in their significance, and sometimes they are set up in a duality or dichotomy of meaning. Both can connote shelter and sanctuary. Island can be incorporated into the concept of garden, but more often, in Margaret Laurence's work, island connotes isolation, the "islanded" individual, shut away from other men and women, from a knowledge of self, and also from God. In "The Perfume Sea," for instance, a story written well before any of the Manawaka works, the garden pattern first occurred with a particular lexical density linked, as it is in The Diviners, with the island as a concept of isolation. Archipelago, the hairdresser, the "fat and frantic wizard," is true to his name, a cluster of islands. His past, his present, the gray fantasy-ladies he dreams of, and his tender and inarticulate love for Dorree are all isolated elements, guarded and defended by his urbane façade. Dorree, too, is an island, garrisoned within herself out of fear of any human contact. When these two leave their beauty shop at night, they go home to their "achieved and fragile quiet," their large green house and overgrown garden behind high green walls. The basic shelter-meaning of "house," "dwelling," and "veranda" in this passage of the story is extended by the words "domain," and "sanctuary." The concept of "garden" is also extended by a score or more of specific nouns, which name the plants that are Archipelago's delight and the birds and other creatures who live freely on Dorree's veranda. Theirs is in one sense a magic garden, made so for us and for them by its exotic flowers and birds, by its enclosure within the high green walls, and by its "peaceable kingdom" quality…. Like all magic worlds, however, this one is precarious, and its sanctuary is pitifully vulnerable. Archipelago and Dorree have been so hurt that they can only retain their emotional stability by living in isolation, even from each other. Their garden signifies beauty and safety, but it also signifies a retreat from life which is necessary for the survival of each one of them.

The Stone Angel begins with Hagar remembering the Manawaka Cemetery, an ironic garden of the dead, where the angel signifies the corporate pride of "aliens in an uncouth land" and the blindness of Hagar's own pride. Yet even here, the proper, man-made garden of the "planted peonies, dark crimson, wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly," is always challenged by the stubborn wild garden of couchgrass and cowslip…. Hagar takes refuge in a wild garden by the sea and finds sanctuary in the deserted fish cannery, but this garden is also her Gethsemane. (pp. 410-11)

The continuity of the garden metaphor is assured throughout all Margaret Laurence's work, not only by such major passages as these, but also by scores of flower references which form a part of the language-fabric of every text. Sometimes they are used simply and descriptively, sometimes symbolically as in the naming of Calla who was willing to extend her love for Rachel to an Easter sacrifice; or Flower, Stacey's speechless little girl, who finally talks and blooms; or Lilac Stonehouse, perilously and innocently wandering in a fallen world. Sometimes the stubborn vitality of the wild garden is reaffirmed and reasserted, as in A Bird in the House, where the helmeted snap-dragons stand in proper rows and the wild blue violets and creeping Charlie stubbornly grow again, even after each beheading by the guillotine lawnmower….

The novels stand as unique and separate works of fiction, not autobiography; but they do contain a powerful and continuing spiritual autobiography. The reaching of equilibrium, of fluidity in time, as well as the profoundly religious acceptance of the mystery and the gift of grace are Margaret Laurence's as well as Morag Gunn's. (p. 411)

Clara Thomas, "The Wild Garden and the Manawaka World," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1976 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1976, pp. 401-12.

Joan Caldwell

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Five of Margaret Laurence's books [The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, A Bird in the House, and The Diviners] have Manawaka, a fictionalized re-creation of her hometown Neepawa, as their background if not their actual locale. But neither Manawaka nor Neepawa is "prairie" insofar as that word suggests endless plains where farmhouses sit solitary on the edge of their vast sections of the world's largest breadbasket. The essence of Manawaka is that it is small-town…. (p. 64)

This is not to deny, of course, that Margaret Laurence has a distinctively Canadian voice, nor that, though her concerns are of wider significance, they are deeply rooted in the local Canadian experience. (p. 65)

Before she could see her own place plainly, however, Laurence, like many other offspring of small towns, had to move away from home both physically and imaginatively. Born in 1926, she spent her first twenty-three years in Manitoba and then moved with her husband to live and work in Africa. On her experiences there, between 1950 and 1957, she has based five of her books…. A Tree for Poverty (1954) is a translation of Somali tales and poems. The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963) a collection of short stories, and This Side of Jordan (1960) a novel. Her travel-memoir The Prophet's Camel Bell (titled New Wind in a Dry Land in the American edition) appeared in 1963 and was followed in 1968 by a commentary on contemporary Nigerian writing entitled Long Drums and Cannons. Interesting though these books are as the fruit of seven years' observation of countries changing from colonialism to independence, they were, as their author says, "written by an outsider … who in the end had to remain in precisely that relationship, for it could never become the close involvement of family." (pp. 65-6)

It is on … the Manawaka books that Laurence's wide fame as a writer rests.

At first sight, the heroines of the Manawaka fiction seem an unprepossessing lot…. But heroine is the right word: each of these women is a fighter who suffers, weeps, errs, wounds, despairs, sometimes seems close to going under, but who, by learning to know herself a little better and by acknowledging an instinctive though far from orthodox faith, survives. "I am haunted by the women in Laurence's novels" wrote Joan Larkin in Ms Magazine, "as if they really were alive—and not as women I've known, but as women I've been." Laurence's power of characterization is formidable; her human beings are compelling under whatever unpleasant circumstances we find them. (So convincing and authentic is Hagar that The Stone Angel is a set text not only on scores of high school and college literature courses but also on nursing and medical courses dealing with old age and dying.) What keeps us steadily engaged with these women is more than just their reflection of feminine experience; it is the vigor of their speech, variations on first-person narratives which deftly experiment with flashback devices and screen-play interior monologues, their healthy sense of humor which is often courageously directed at themselves, and their fundamental will to survive.

Like Laurence herself, each of the women is occupied in trying to weave into an acceptable fabric the different strands of her own and her ancestral past, "partly in order to be freed from it, partly in order to try to understand myself and perhaps those of my generation through seeing where we had come from."… While the quest for lost or unknown parents has been a standard pattern in fiction since the eighteenth century, the particular nature of Laurence's search for ancestral roots is distinctively North American. Only in rare cases in European fiction does one find agonized searches for racial identity—the Jews know themselves to be Jews, the Irish are Irish, however much other peoples have imposed upon them and tried to destroy them.

Scottish Presbyterian and Protestant Irish grandparents proclaim themselves in Margaret Laurence's veins, and qualities both admirable and less than admirable in her characters reflect that mixed origin: stubborn pride, respectability, hard work, commonsense, uneasiness about the body, imaginative richness and the gift of the gab. Through Morag of The Diviners, the quest for racial identity is most fully explored…. [It] is Morag who actually goes back to Scotland in search of her roots, only to find that "it's not mine, except a long way back" and that Canada, where she was born and where her immediate ancestors forged a new society, is in fact her own place.

Morag's ancestors were particular kinds of emigrants, on one side the "famine Irish" and, on the other, Scots who were dispossessed by the Highland clearances. Not only then is Morag a kind of half-breed but she is descended from victims of greedy land-owners. This accounts for the importance of the Tonnerre family in the Manawaka novels and particularly in The Diviners. The Tonnerres are Métis, half-French, half-Indian people who were dispossessed of their lands, their horses and their proud heritage at the crushing of Louis Riel's rebellion in 1885. Morag is drawn to the pride, the language, the songs, the lost heritage of the Tonnerres, and Jules Tonnerre is clearly her spiritual and physical match from the beginning. The daughter Morag bears to Jules is named after his sister Piquette, whose fiery death is an emblem throughout the Manawaka books of the white man's failure to love.

Although this draws on obviously Canadian experience, the quest for identity widens also to universal implication. We have all in a sense been dispossessed at some time … and there lingers in the general memory the image of a lost Eden from which our common ancestors were expelled and to which we all seek return. The search for the lost Eden, for Jerusalem the Golden, for "the promised land of one's own inner freedom" is undertaken in one form or another by each of Laurence's heroines. Paradise is not attainable on earth, but each is led a little closer to it in moments of heightened self-knowledge and genuine reaching out to others. (pp. 66-7)

Joan Caldwell, "Margaret Laurence: In Search of Ancestors," in Book Forum (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson River Press), Vol. IV, No. 1, 1978, pp. 64-9.

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