Margaret Laurence Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Margaret Laurence’s best-known books are the series of four novels and the short-story collection that have been called the Manawaka works, named after the fictional town in central Canada from which all the major characters originate. The series consists of The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), which was made into the motion picture Rachel, Rachel in 1968, The Fire-Dwellers (1969), A Bird in the House, and The Diviners (1974). Although this is not a series in the sense of sequels, the characters are related through their birthplace and memories, as well as some by birth, as in William Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha County.

Laurence also translated Somali folktales and poetry, published as A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose in 1954, the first collection of Somali literature ever published in English. The novel This Side Jordan (1960) tells the story of Ghanna’s emergence as a nation. New Wind in a Dry Land (1964) is an account of Laurence’s first two years in Somaliland, describing both her experiences and the life of Somali nomads; it was also published under the title The Prophet’s Camel Bell. In the field of literary criticism, Laurence wrote Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966 (1968), a study of Nigerian novelists and dramatists writing in English. She also wrote four novels for children.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Margaret Laurence is not only a great Canadian writer but also a universal voice for understanding, independence, and brave experimentation with life. Her African work helps to point up the evils of colonization, whether of a country, a people, or an individual. Her Manawaka series more specifically looks at the oppression of women by societal expectations that are irrational and sexist and that result also in the lessening of individual men.

In 1967, Laurence became an Honorary Fellow of United College, University of Winnipeg; she was the first woman and the youngest person to be honored in this way. The novel This Side Jordan won for her Canada’s Beta Sigma Phi Award, a prize for the best first novel by a Canadian, in 1960. In 1971, Laurence was made a Companion of the Order of Canada; in the following years, she was awarded seven honorary degrees. Her novel The Diviners won the Governor General’s Medal for Fiction in 1974 and the Molson Prize. She received the Woman of the Year Award from B’nai B’rith Toronto Women’s Branch in 1976 and won the Periodical Distributor’s Award for the mass paperback edition of A Jest of God in October of 1977.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Margaret Laurence published two short-story collections, The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963) and A Bird in the House (1970), and four children’s books, Jason’s Quest (1970), The Olden Days Coat (1979), Six Darn Cows (1979), and The Christmas Birthday Story (1980). She also produced a translation of Somali folktales and poems, A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose (1954); a travelogue, The Prophet’s Camel Bell (1963; also known as New Wind in a Dry Land, 1964); and a study of Nigerian novelists and playwrights, Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966 (1968). A collection of her essays, Heart of a Stranger, appeared in 1976. Because of her work on Nigerian fiction and drama, she is well known to students of African literature. Her memoir Dance on the Earth appeared posthumously in 1989.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

From the beginning of her writing career, Laurence received significant popular and critical recognition. This Side Jordan won the Beta Sigma Phi Award for best first novel by a Canadian; The Stone Angel received both critical and popular acclaim; A Jest of God earned Laurence the Governor-General’s Literary Award for fiction in 1966 and was adapted for motion pictures as Rachel, Rachel (directed by Paul Newman and released in 1968); The Diviners, despite less-than-universal critical acclaim, was at the top of the best-seller list for more than sixty consecutive weeks. Along with her popularity, Laurence enjoyed an international reputation as a consistently accomplished fiction writer. Her special contribution to the novel was recognized by Jack McClelland of the Canadian publishing house of McClelland & Stewart when he first read This Side Jordan. The stories that were gathered in The Tomorrow-Tamer and A Bird in the House originally appeared separately in such Canadian, American, and British periodicals as Prism, The Atlantic Monthly, and Queen’s Quarterly. Laurence also won respect as a lecturer and critic. United College, University of Winnipeg, made her an Honorary Fellow, the first woman and the youngest to be so honored. She received honorary degrees from McMaster, Dalhousie, Trent, University of Toronto, and Carleton University and served as writer-in-residence at several Canadian universities. Her works have been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Margaret Laurence is one of the many writers who have had to escape their home to write about it. Does it appear that her African experiences helped her to write about Manitoba?

Compare the insider-outsider conflicts in Manawaka with those in William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

At what points in Laurence’s life can be seen signs of her own self-discovery?

What benefits does a reader uninterested in Manitoba acquire from the Manawaka books?

What interpretation of Dylan Thomas’s “rage” governs Laurence’s characterization of Hagar in The Stone Angel?


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Buss, Helen M. Mother and Daughter Relationships in the Manawaka Works of Margaret Laurence. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria, 1985. A Jungian reading of the four Manawaka novels and A Bird in the House, this book raises some interesting issues about the mother-daughter relationships that Laurence depicts, although at times the archetypal readings can be somewhat dense. Includes a select bibliography of criticism on Laurence and some later feminist criticism that informs the critic’s work.

Coger, Greta M. K., ed. New Perspectives on Margaret Laurence: Poetic Narrative, Multiculturalism, and Feminism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Gunnars, Kristjana, ed. Crossing the River: Essays in Honour of Margaret Laurence. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Turnstone Press, 1988. Twelve previously unpublished essays by Canadian and international writers and critics pay tribute to Laurence’s life and work. Includes some interesting new insights.

Hind-Smith, Joan. Three Voices: The Lives of Margaret Laurence, Gabrielle Roy, Frederick Philip Grove. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1975. Designed for students and the general reader, this volume is very helpful as an introduction to Laurence’s work. It includes biographical information, at the same time providing narrative summaries of the major works.

Irvine, Lorna M. Critical Spaces: Margaret Laurence and Janet Frame. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Irvine provides chapters on early review and critiques, maturing opinions, biographical and critical studies, and the role of politics, gender, and literary study. Includes a detailed bibliography.

Kertzer, J. M. “Margaret Laurence and Her Works.” In Canadian Writers and Their Works: Fiction Series, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Toronto: ECW Press, 1987. This study is divided into the four parts, “Laurence’s Works” being the longest and most thorough section. Despite its scholarliness, this study’s clear style and extensive bibliography make it invaluable.

King, James. The Life of Margaret...

(The entire section is 881 words.)