Laurence, Margaret 1926–
An award-winning Canadian novelist and short story writer, Ms. Laurence lived for a time in Africa and draws upon this experience for her fiction. A Jest of God, which is set in Canada, was filmed in 1968 as Rachel, Rachel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Margaret Laurence has now produced an admirable body of work: the Somaliland travel book, a volume of short stories, and four novels; one set in Ghana, the others dealing with her gritty Manawakans. Now, themes are emerging, and private preoccupations. Some are trivial—gin bottles, and underwear, and the worry about the weight; others, like Iris Murdoch's twin-fantasies and magic-women, add immeasurably to the richness of her work: the basic grimness of the determined women, the conditioned righteousness, the pendulum-swing from righteousness to the arms of the dark, forbidden outsider.
Marian Engel, in Saturday Night, May, 1969, pp. 38-9.
Set in small-town Manitoba of the Depression years, Margaret Laurence's A Bird in the House is a sequence of stories that explores themes of death and disillusion as they impinge on the mind of a child. All of which may sound drearily familiar to readers of Canadian short stories—those of us who are not necessarily suckers for the hard luck pitch, and who fear the sensitive child as we fear prussic acid. But A Bird in the House isn't much like that after all. It's a kind of Canadian portrait of the artist as a young girl; and not so much a collection of short stories as a novel with the boring bits left out….
A Bird in the House vividly and concisely evokes place and time: we see and smell the interiors of houses and church, the small-town fug, the hot dusty blue of summer sky, the white deserts of winter. The filter of a child's mind between us and the events gives them a legendary quality, heightens the emotional charge. Yet at the same time reminds us that this small-town world is gone forever, vanished with childhood—not just the narrator's childhood, but Canada's.
Kildare Dobbs, "A Certain Relish for Tears," in Saturday Night, August, 1970, pp. 26-7.
In A Jest of God, seen as formally failed by some nineteenth-century reviewers, Margaret Laurence assays a responsive vocal style, the voice in the ear pursuing Rachel's mind even into the deep places where the most superior fiction (Joyce, Beckett, etc.) comes from. Instead of doggedly getting on with the "story", the draggiest part of a book, the writing begins in its place and expands outward from the keystone province.
From my reading I have a nice visual sense of the place, looking out from those eyes. It is not the narrator's grabbing control of her scene, because she doesn't have it as a prospect. That way vocal: instead of a sifted and settled version of Rachel's summertime adventure we get close with her most private mind in the present tense. We hold a present, and it is tense. If we can do so, we should read the book aloud….
So I praise the process, beginning with place and voice, leading to that third thing hard to name, something like the risk or gift of getting naked, so that your nakedness may touch something that is not yours. The form of the novel, first-person and present tense, works as Rachel's opening-out does, to get naked. Margaret Laurence shows uncommon courage making this book, to confront social and deep personal stupidities and fears in the womb of her narrator. There is no prince charming waiting at the neck of the womb, but we inlookers are led to see Rachel finding herself, who had always been appalled by open utterance, expressing her desires physically, with tenderness and violence that both frighten and liberate her sensibilities to an extent. To an extent we are not urged to believe but simply allowed to witness….
Writing as she does, from inside Rachel's neurotic head, Mrs. Laurence feels that she has to go to some objective means of presenting the town's kitschy insularity, and the entrapment of dreams. So she presents to the reader sitting behind Rachel's eyes a number of ikons such as the children's skipping songs….
[The] catching of ordinary real dialogue is Margaret Laurence's first easy accomplishment, the stuff her earliest writing was based on, and useful here as the antagonist to Rachel's interior verbal trouble, just as the town is that speaks that way. At the extreme, Mrs. Laurence manhandles it into unconscious irony versus Rachel's overconsciousness, as when, speaking of a movie, one of the old women says, "The one next week at the Roxy is The Doomed Women. I can't imagine what it can be about."
The town teaches not only repression but also the desire to put up a good appearance. Constantly the town is accurately described to show that the outsides of buildings are misleading declarations, as Rachel's appearance might be….
Part of Rachel's quandary springs from the condition of her female-dominated world, a world that mitigates, by its condition, against her growing naturally out of her adolescence, perhaps. That condition traps her as much as the isolation of the shrinking town. Most of the males she sees are no help because they are remote or they are symptomatic of the town—Lee Toy, Hector the undertaker, Willard the school principal, the teenage boys in the coke cafe. Only James Doherty and Nick, two figures of outward, offer any surcease or hope….
I see the change in Rachel's consciousness as a result of her getting in touch with her body, that part of self the Scottish Christians preferred to cover with rough wool and to forget. Rachel's mother, poor dear, was mortified that her husband made his living by handling bodies, and kept his hands off hers. The first thing we see of Rachel is that she is displaced from her own body….
We are also quickly introduced to her fear of aging and dying, especially poignant because she hasn't gone through all the steps of the life cycle thought appropriate to a woman of her age. The mature part of her consciousness joins with her immaturity in looking for the signs of her becoming an eccentric old woman. But her mother treats her as if she were "about twelve". Rachel is displaced from her womanhood's age as well as from her body: "What a strangely pendulum life I have, fluctuating in age between extremes, hardly knowing myself whether I am too young or too old." There is an operative irony in the fact that the story is being told in the present tense.
Rachel seems to prefer her inside to her outside, because it is abstract and hidden from outsiders, hence untouchable for two reasons. But her desire to be opened does battle with her sense of good taste and behaviour….
[One version of Margaret Laurence's theme is expressed] in the words of St. Paul, as read here by Calla, who does not realize their immediate application: "If any man among you thinketh himself to be wise, let him become a fool, that he may be wise."… Rachel has pondered it another way just before hearing those words. She thinks that "if you think you contain two realities, perhaps you contain none." I like to think that the operative word here is "contain." Reach out, Rachel, fill yourself up. Something has to give. "My trouble, perhaps, is that I have expected justice. Without being able to give it," she admits to God, who is not there, of course. She is going to lose Nick, but it was his body her fingers pushed against to send feeling back into her own.
One of the lovely things about Margaret Laurence's novel is the gradualness of change. It is not that Rachel realizes steadily. Her early weakness and confusion, her thirty-five-year old character traits are still there, at the end of the book. They are just not so bad now. They are accompanied by the later knowledge and experience that alternate with them in her mind, and modify them somewhat. For example, when Rachel goes to the Parthenon Café to think about her pregnancy, her tired mind talks to Nick. At first she wants him to be there so that she can see him and speak with him, not asking to touch him. But two pages later, after she has faced her self in the middle of crisis, thinking of abortion, she admits that she could forego speaking with him if she could hold him and lie down beside him. Touch is the first thing she wants now. She manages to go again to Calla, to touch her with an admission of her trouble, to establish greater intimacy than they have ever known. At the same time, Rachel decides to shake her mother's formerly awful control: "My mother's tricky heart will just have to take its own chances." There is confiding and confidence, outside and inside.
Margaret Laurence has spoken of Rachel's experience as part victory, part defeat. The woman has managed to step outside her own mind for a little, to see the eyes looking back as not totally stupid nor totally ridiculing. While Dr. Raven is touching her womb to find life or tumour, Rachel has a moment of seeing the real world, one in which any individual person has to make his own way….
When Rachel begins to assert herself and take over control of the family affairs, including especially the leaving of the old town, her mother makes the complaint of all children being moved, that she cannot stand to leave all her playmates. Her mother says to Rachel, "you're not yourself," and either she is or she is not.
Rachel has changed somewhat, and change is life, as they say, though not often enough in Manawaka. When she encounters Nick's parents on the street back home, she is surprisedly open in introducing herself to them. But as Mrs. Laurence cautions, this is a story of real life, not a Hollywood movie set in New England. When she speaks to Nick's parents and finds that Nick lied to her about his being married, we have another in a series of unsurenesses about misunderstandings; we still have a woman near middle-age, waving her hands at the mist of life and its meetings. I am changing and coming into focus, but who am I?
One of the reasons for my attention to A Jest of God is the seriousness of the work as literature. Margaret Laurence is an unusual bird among Canadian novelists, in that she works on the premise that form (not "structure") matters pre-eminently in the endeavour to simulate reality. What happens happens in the writing, not in front of it. One sees through the eye, not with it. Mrs. Laurence is not talking about life; she is trying to re-enact the responses to it. I differ from most commentators in praising the success of the present tense and the interior, confused, first-person narrative. The subject of the book is Rachel's mind, and the realism consists in our separation from it by virtue of its unsureness and confusions. That separation brings us so close. Because we are in the position of wanting to talk to Rachel….
Mrs. Laurence engages the reader continuously this way, inviting and obligating him to evaluate Rachel's thoughts, not simply to receive them toward a narrative completion. We remember that we are at all times privy to Rachel's speaking to herself, and must, for instance, evaluate her adjectives…. The real is like the real in real life—it is mainly encountered in dialogue, encountered but never totally characterized in words.
Similarly the reality of character is found in how the person talks more than in what he says. Mrs. Laurence engages this poetic discovery as a literary approach. So the language with its rhymes and cadences reveals the condition of Rachel's shocked mind as she finds herself speaking ecstatically in the tabernacle…. What I mean to say is that Mrs. Laurence does not seek to use words to explain (L. explanare, lit., to make level.) the important things that are happening…. Rachel's mind picks things up and lays them down like a distracted woman walking through a department store. As we have seen, she gets a purchase on her life after she discovers that she is no longer the child, but something like the new mother…. Mrs. Laurence does not introduce the product of Rachel's mind. She shows the motion of the machinery. No fooling….
Certainly when one speaks to God one has to use the present tense …, as Rachel does at the end of chapter nine, through her irony, declaring her decision to have a child of her own for a change. If God is alive he may or may not be having his little joke. If this happens in the present tense, it happens to you, and that makes it more important than funny. God's jests are not just vocal—the word is made flesh, i.e. the eternal present. It is in understanding this that Margaret Laurence chose wisely to write in the present tense, to present the fool made wise by folly.
God's grace shines on fools. Poetry is hospitable to the fool's tongue, and vice versa. Rachel's acceptance speech is poetry:
All that. And this at the end of it. I was always afraid that I might become a fool. Yet I could almost smile with some grotesque lightheadedness at that fool of a fear, that poor fear of fools, now that I really am one.
George Bowering, "That Fool of a Fear," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1971, pp. 41-56.
"No Man is an iland, intire of itselfe" [Donne remarks]…. Yet this truth is only partial. Margaret Laurence in A Jest of God suggests a complementary truth, that every man is an island, a theme more typical of the twentieth century….
In her essay "Ten Years' Sentences" in the Tenth Anniversary Issue of Canadian Literature, Margaret Laurence observes that, after the African novels, her theme became "survival, the attempt of the personality to survive with some dignity, toting the load of excess mental baggage that everyone carries, until the moment of death", and adds that Rachel's partial victory in A Jest of God is due to her "beginning to learn the rules of survival". Yet Rachel's acceptance of life is attributable to her acceptance of her central predicament, her essential aloneness. She cannot escape through dream, fantasy or nightmare: "I'm on my own. I never knew before what that would be like. It means no one. Just that. Just—myself." And with this comes the simultaneous realization that every one else is alone, that even the closest human relationship cannot cross the barrier of self…. And it is Laurence's ability to capture this truth, to recreate in fiction the sense of isolation, where human beings reach out to each other and reach out futilely, which makes A Jest of God and the earlier The Stone Angel notable achievements in Canadian and in world literature….
On a superficial level, A Jest of God is a love story with an unhappy ending. Yet the central relationships are not confined, static, but multiple and ambivalent. Rachel both protects James and threatens him; she loves her father yet hates him for his rejection of her. She loves her mother "as much as most children", yet wishes her dead. She longs for a child, yet she hesitates…. She searches for permanent relationships, with father, lover, child, to escape from her sense of isolation, yet isolation too brings invulnerability, an escape from the present….
Rachel's desire for sexual love, although it seems central to the novel, is in fact another aspect of her desire to reach out, to escape out of herself into another's identity. In the early part of the novel, the dream lover serves this function, and later, Nick…. For the moment of union, flesh, skin, bones and blood are connected, but only for this moment; when they pull apart they become again two separate, inviolate personalities. And Rachel comes to realize that the Nick she knows, like her father, exists only in her mind….
But the dominant relationship of the novel is not between lovers, but between mother and child where, for a period of several months, two human beings do exist within one skin…. Even in Part II, the summer with Nick, the desire for this child to replace her loneliness is strong. The second time after she and Nick make love, she whispers urgently to herself: "Nick, give it to me"…. Nick's reply [later], "I'm not God, I can't solve anything", is primarily protection of his own independence, his ego, but it is also a recognition that Rachel demands too much of human relationships. Like her sister Stacey and Grace Dougherty, she seeks a child for her own fulfillment … and the discovery that she carries not a child but a tumour she attributes to "a jest of God"…. "I am the mother now", Rachel's apparently cryptic remark under anesthesia, indicates her acceptance of her role as adult and mother to her aging child. She comes to see that, under her mother's foxiness, her calculated emotional appeal and demands, lies a terrible fear of isolation and desertion which is the lot of every human being, even mothers…. She comprehends at last that the tie of motherhood does not ensure immunity from isolation: "It may be that my children will always be temporary, never to be held. But so are everyone's".
While human relationships are an attempt to counter isolation, death is a recognition of it, and thus it plays a central role in A Jest of God…. It is only in facing death that we are able to assess life, and to recognize our own isolation. It is because death reveals the true nature of individuality that its truth is evaded by the people of Manawaka. Hector changes "Japonica Funeral Chapel" to read "Japonica Chapel" because "lots of people aren't keen on that word"…. Yet this denial of death is healthier than Rachel's fascination with it which both obsesses and frightens her….
In Part I, Rachel's world alternates between dream and nightmare, love and horror. The images of the night are Poe-like, demonic…. The essence of Hell is its isolation, its annihilation of humanity by sucking it into the maw of meaninglessness or tearing it apart, skin from bone…. Countering these horrors are scenes of love: the dream lover with blurred features, under the sheltering wall of pine and tamarack, or the Egyptian girls and Roman soldiers…. The sexual union of the love scenes counters the isolation of Hell and death, but these scenes too merge into death….
The juxtaposition of love and death occurs not only in the dream world but in the real one. The sequence of Rachel's first visit to the Kazlik house and her conversation with Hector in the Japonical Chapel is central to the structure of the novel…. In Part II, when Nick and Rachel first make love, Nick quotes the lines of Marvel: "The grave's a fine and private place/ But none, I think, do there embrace"…. The turning point in her movement away from death and back to life occurs in the scene with Hector in the Japonica Chapel, where she relinquishes her hold upon the past and the dream of her father, not as he was but as she wanted him to be…. She refuses suicide … and faces life with resignation.
While death isolates, then, love is an attempt to cross the barriers of isolation. But isolation involves not only separation from other human beings but a separation from God….
Rachel's relationship to God is ambivalent. She observes the Sunday ritual of church to save argument with her mother, but she does not believe…. [When] she turns to God, not through "faith, or belief, or the feeling of deserving anything" but through desperation, she has not yet renounced her own desires. For having accepted life instead of death, the child instead of abortion, she is not prepared for the final irony, the tumour: "Oh my God. I didn't bargain for this. Not this"….
Thus she finally faces her own isolation. Even God cannot solve her problems….
Thus A Jest of God represents Rachel's descent into the world of nightmare, the "Everlasting No," and suggests too a return to life, a modified "Everlasting Yea," as anticipated in the quotation from Sandburg's "Losers": "[With Jonah] I was swallowed one time deep in the dark / And came out alive after all." The tone is more bitter, more ultimately pessimistic than either The Stone Angel or The Fire-Dwellers, for both Hagar and Stacey affirm the importance of human relationships to give meaning to an unstable universe. Yet despite adverse criticism, the novel is on the whole more universal than The Fire-Dwellers. Rachel's world is no more confined than our world; it has the same potentialities, the same failings. Her thoughts, however trivial and self-concerned, reflect our thoughts and momentary reflections if we record impartially. Her view of Calla, her mother, Nick, is one-sided, uncorrected by an omniscient narrator; Laurence rejects what is, after all, only a fictional device for a technique closer to reality. For this is indeed her primary message, that we can never truly know another human being, never penetrate behind their facade, since words which reveal also conceal. We must accept others as they appear to us, reach out to them in compassion, yet be free to stand alone.
A Jest of God, like The Stone Angel, deals with a universal human problem, and the protagonist is close to the primitive essentials of love, birth and death. In the moment of facing death, both Hagar and Rachel affirm life. While Rachel's predicament is essentially feminine, it is also human. If the child were real, Rachel would become dependent upon another human being for her existence; she would live for the child. But the "child" does not exist, and Rachel is forced to face the essential loneliness of the individual: [Arnold's truth] "We mortal millions live alone."
C. M. McLay, "Every Man Is An Island: Isolation in A Jest of God," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1971, pp. 57-68.
[Jason's Quest] is a tour de force, built on the quest theme, its every detail embroidered with joyful imagining. The World of Smaller Animals with its heroes and villains, its pubs, boutiques and discotèques has a most valid existence in any imagination, young or old. Its addition gives our world of everyday a splendid extra dimension.
When Margaret Laurence's inventive powers and pervasive humour are turned towards such fantasy, the result is a proliferation of details of ridiculous delight….
This is the kind of book that adults enjoy reading to children. Its double level of meaning is firmly, skillfully, but unpretentiously woven into its fabric and it was a wise decision to note "for all ages" on its dust jacket.
Clara Thomas, "Bashing On," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1971, pp. 88-90.