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Margaret Laurence: Critical Reflections

David Staines

The Figure of the Unknown Soldier: Home and War in The Fire-Dwellers1

Birk Sproxton

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  • 1 Research for this paper was generously supported by a Special Grant from Red Deer College and a gr (...)

1 In the fall of 1967, Margaret Laurence took time from the novel she was struggling with to write to Al Purdy. She describes her progress:

Thought I had discovered a sensational new narrative method the other evening—there was only one thing wrong with it; in practice, it proved to be unreadable. Thought of it in terms of the inner and outer going on simultaneously, side by side on the page—fine if you had a two-foot wide page and a reader with four eyes. (Lennox 57)

  • 2 Allan Bevan gives a succinct summary of Laurence’s narrative methods: “[1] Stacey’s thoughts (intr (...)
  • 3 Laurence uses the mindfield metaphor in The Fire-Dwellers in a crucial setting. When Stacey drives (...)

2Eventually, she found a way to suggest the simultaneity of inner and outer events, and the work became The Fire-Dwellers, a novel that marks a change in narrative method from her earlier novels. In The Fire-Dwellers, she foregrounded the paragraph as a unit of composition,2 and she accentuated linguistic play—the puns, portmanteau words, homophones, homonyms, rhyme, and other echoic devices usually associated with verse. The extended punning, a method of narrative doubling, carries over into her next novel. “To be or not to be,” we read in The Diviners, “—that sure as death is the question. The two-way battle in the mindfield, the minefield of the mind” (326). The “mindfield” portmanteau suggests the doubling and unfolding processes that make up The FireDwellers,3 With its unusual paragraph construction, The Fire-Dwellers presents itself as a novel of minding: we enter the mindfield of Stacey Cameron MacAindra, and we attend to the phonic play and interplay. We become aware of paragraph edges, of our eyes moving in toward mid-page, and then out again to another margin. Like the river in The Diviners, the narrative of The Fire-Dwellers moves both ways in time, and Laurence uses a mixed third-person and first-person narration to present Stacey MacAindra both from without and within. The text opens with a nursery rhyme, a “crazy rhyme,” says our narrator, and from there the narrative moves forward, always accompanied and enriched by recall and return.

  • 4 See Freud’s classic essay “The Uncanny.” Certainly, TheFire-Dwellers incorporates uncanny elements (...)

3Laurence’s mindfield pun suggests my theme: I take war to be the matrix of The Fire-Dwellers and a primary intertext of the Manawaka fiction. War haunts these novels, and Laurence draws much narrative power from its pervasive presence. Even as the figure of the unknown soldier refers literally (for Canadians) to distant places and events, it implicates the most intimate questions of the home place (body, gender, family, identity). The richness of the figure derives from its connections with the named and unnamed, the known and the unknown, the memorialized and the forgotten—the realm of the uncanny (das Unheimlich, literally, the unhomely home)4

4The figure of the unknown soldier appears explicitly (at least) twice in the Manawaka fiction. In The Stone Angel, Hagar uses the expression at the time when she and her sons brood over the imminent death of Bram. In the course of an argument with John, Marvin refers to his having been seventeen at the time he went off to the First World War. Hagar overhears the squabble and realizes that she knows nothing about Marvin’s war experience. In a retrospective reflection, Hagar says how she wishes she could then have asked Marvin about the war. But she did not. “He wouldn’t have said anyway. It seemed to me then that Marvin was the unknown soldier, the one whose name you never knew” (182). In this context, the metaphor stresses silence and the paradoxes of naming and knowing, how people close to you elude your knowledge, however well you know them. In The Diviners, the figure appears again in a context of crisis. Morag and Brooke argue about her having revised her first novel without consulting him. Brooke makes a sarcastic remark to the effect that she should take up teaching his honours course on the novel. Morag responds by heaving an expensive glass bowl against the fireplace. It shatters and Morag comments: “Brooke stands beside the long windows. Very very tall, absolutely straight, his face like the carved face of the unknown soldier” (213). The unknown soldier figure, now a simile, stresses the silence that speaks. The word “carved” suggests Brooke’s face is inscribed with passivity and stolidity; he has taken on the granite courage of a monument, the British stiff upper lip taken to an extreme. These two examples of the figure of the unknown soldier stress moments of individual tension; in both cases, the emphasis is upon the personal, Hagar’s relationship with her own past in one case, and the relationship between Brooke and Morag in the other. In the Manawaka fiction, the figure of the unknown soldier constitutes a significant presence, but in The Fire-Dwellers the figure assumes a dominant role in the narrative structure, character relations, and language patterns.

– I –

5In The Fire-Dwellers the unknown soldier assumes many guises. His first appearance, early in the narrative, is as a cenotaph. The placement is significant, for the cenotaph signals an expansion of Stacey’s world. It must therefore be seen in the context of the narrative opening. Before we reach the cenotaph, we are introduced to Stacey’s inner and domestic life, both characterized by routine. Chapter 1 opens with the ladybird rhyme that runs through Stacey’s head.

Ladybird, ladybird,
Fly away home;
Your house is on fire,
Your children are gone. (3)

  • 5 The mirror segment also serves as a frame. Near the end of the novel, the shot is repeated. Two ch (...)
  • 6 William James, who coined the phrase stream of consciousness, describes the substantive and transi (...)

6The rhyme initiates the stream of Stacey’s consciousness, which comprises the first paragraph. The second paragraph delivers in the third person a framing shot (a common filmic device) in which Stacey sees herself and her bedroom in a mirror.5 This paragraph establishes the movement between Stacey’s inner and outer life, between ear and eye. The rhyme and the two subsequent paragraphs, therefore, initiate the essential rhythm of the novel. We are alert to the movement of Stacey’s inner narrative with the potential for the doubling and returns of rhyme, and to her movement through a world outside herself. We sense the forward movement of the story pulling against the stasis of the tableau.6

7The story describes a journey. Stacey MacAindra sets out alone, having dropped off her youngest child at a neighbour’s, on a shopping trip for downtown Vancouver. On the spur of the moment, she gets off the bus in an area unfamiliar to her. She comes upon the cenotaph and a group of old men sitting on the steps at its base, and the tableau triggers a cluster of memories that implicate Stacey in the social conflicts of her world.

8The monument signals official recognition of past wars, and functions, therefore, as a marker or threshold, a function congruent with the visual foregrounding of paragraph edges. The cenotaph sets one space off from another, and this space is both physical and psychological. In approaching the cenotaph, Stacey approaches the bounds of her knowledge of the city. Her venture into this border zone prefigures her later adulterous adventure with Luke Venturi and triggers the release of feelings long forgotten or repressed. But first it stresses her exhilaration at trying something out of the ordinary. She gets off the bus near the waterfront and starts walking. She is not cracking up. It is just that she has lived in this city, jewel of the Pacific Northwest, for going on twenty years, and she does not know anything about it. Inexplicably and suddenly, she feels it is time she learned.

9So begins Stacey’s quest for knowledge. She then comes upon the cenotaph and the sitting men. Her response to the tableau comprises two paragraphs, the first of which foregrounds what Stacey sees and how she sees. Presented in the third person, the paragraph moves into free indirect discourse, a movement that anticipates the first-person segment to follow. The paragraph condenses a host of motifs crucial to the novel:

The pigeons are shitting all over the granite cenotaph, she is glad to see. Stacey stops and reads the inscription. Their Names Shall Live Forevermore. And on another side, Does It Mean Nothing to You. No question mark. Along the steps at the base, three old men sit in the feeble sunlight, coughing and spitting, murmuring something to one another, memories, perhaps, or curses against now. (6)

10For all the massive solidity of the granite monument, the paragraph foregrounds physical processes: shitting, seeing, reading, coughing and spitting, murmuring, cursing. These comprise both taking in, by reading and seeing, and putting out, by excreting or talking. Significantly, at this point Stacey is taking in the world around her. The paragraph also implies her visual and verbal acuity, as well as the strange mood that accompanies her moving beyond the safety of her defined world.

11The subsequent first-person paragraph, preceded by the long dash to signal Stacey’s thoughts, introduces syntactic anomalies that derail headlong (grammar-bound) reading.

—I guess they feel at home here. It was their war, my father’s war. He spoke of it once, just once. Mother was out one evening, and Rachel was seven and asleep. He told me about a boy of eighteen—hand grenade went off near him and the blast caught the kid between the legs. My dad cried when he told it, because the kid didn’t die. My dad was drunk, but then he wouldn’t have spoken of it if he hadn’t been. Mac never talks about his war, never has, not that he talks much about anything any more. Ian was ten this year and Duncan seven. Well, even if I’d had four girls, so what? (6)

12Where the first paragraph foregrounds the cenotaph as public image, the second foregrounds the flow of Stacey’s personal unspoken thoughts. The movement is from sociolect to idiolect. The sight of the men provokes Stacey’s memory of her father and, more particularly, a story he once told her about war. This story in turn implicates Stacey’s fears about her marriage, her children, and her own sexuality. The cenotaph tableau, considered as a narrative unit, constitutes a subtext, a seemingly minor element in the text that nonetheless “contains in a nutshell all the ingredients that make the novel work” (Riffaterre 58).

  • 7 See “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” and “Discourse in the Novel,” The Dialogic Imagina (...)
  • 8 Linda Hutcheon suggests that “intertextuality” might better be described as “interdiscursivity” or (...)

13The social and historical dimensions are presented first. The cenotaph stands as the focal image of a public square, that is, as a chronotope, the “representation of a point in space designed to suggest a point in time” (Riffaterre 126). The cenotaph fuses the private past of the old men, whom Stacey sees as ex-soldiers, with the public present monument. Wars distant in time and space are thus brought into the cycle of everyday life. Furthermore, a public square, as Bakhtin has taught us, implies a mingling of people and voices.7 As a memorial, the granite cenotaph speaks of endurance through time and signals public acknowledgment of heroism, patriotism, and devotion to country. The official voice of the state (official history) appears in the quotations carved in the granite, “Their Names Shall Live Forevermore,” and “Does It Mean Nothing to You.” An implied response to the rhetorical question materializes in the bombardment of the pigeons, which Stacey is glad to see. Their offerings alert us to the parodic and ironic quality of the tableau, and imply a contest of values summarized by two poems, John Macrae’s “In Flanders Fields” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.”8

14Intratextually, in terms of narrative structure, the epitaph contrasts with the nursery rhyme. The granite memorial, home to old men, plays against the home of the ladybird and her children. The cenotaph provides a home here for old men to sit and spit, and reflect on the glories of their youth. The ladybird rhyme refers to home as a place that can burn, a place children can and do flee from, a place somewhere else. The massive cenotaph implies permanence; the diminutive ladybird suggests transience. The ladybird song works by a lyrical half-rhyme, repetition, and parallel structure; the prose of the cenotaph paragraph works by a network of sound echoes. “[S]hitting” rhymes with “spitting” and the “it” syllable occurs in “granite,” in the “It” of the inscription, in the monosyllable “sit.” The syllable evokes the word id and its suggestions of undifferentiated energy. That the men sit on the “base” of the monument stresses the fundamental quality of the tableau.

  • 9 See Stovel 14ff.

15Both rhyme and epitaph deliver ambiguous messages. Your children are gone, says the rhyme, but you will remember them. They are both present and absent. The word cenotaph means “empty tomb,” another instance of presence and absence. At the phonic level, tomb implies a fundamental home-womb-tomb equation (a sentence for motherhood that Laurence elaborates at the narrative level). The womb-tomb doublet echoes with another keyword.9Doom everywhere is the message I get” (59). The repeated sounds and letters of this word-cluster call up “boom” and “bomb.” The novel as mined field, each sentence packed with implications for the larger narrative.

16“I guess they feel at home here. It was their war, my father’s war.” The sequence of nouns home/war/father/war signals absence: the soldiers’ absence from home, the father’s absence, the silence that such absence entails, and the subsequent silence about that absence. Stacey’s father’s story resubstantiates the abstract noun; the abstraction “war” is re-membered and given life. Ironically, his story speaks of sexual mutilation, or de-membering. “He told me about a boy of eighteen—hand grenade went off near him and the blast caught the kid between the legs.” The nouns carry the tale: boy, hand grenade, blast, kid, legs. This story strikes home for Stacey—she has carried it in memory since girlhood—and the tears of her father, sign of his refusal to hold a soldierly stiff upper lip, amplify its poignancy. This story of body members prompts Stacey to think of family members, beginning with her husband, Mac.

17“Mac never talks about his war, never has, not that he talks much about anything any more.” The chain now runs from silence to father/war/story (castration) and then to husband/silence. (The rhyme war/more suggests both the history of Stacey and her men and the history of the twentieth century, a history that The FireDwellers deconstructs. The rhyme echoes with “forevermore” and suggests an inscription for our time: Foreverwar.)

18The silent husband sentence is followed immediately by one about sons, “Ian was ten this year and Duncan seven,” which introduces another anomaly. The sudden shift from Mac’s silence to the names and ages of the sons initiates a sequence progressively more personal: my father, my husband, my boys (flesh of my flesh). Stacey distinguishes her family members, the ones she fears to lose, from the unknown soldier. They have both names and ages. “These boys,” she seems to say, “Ian and Duncan are mine, and they are too young to be soldiers. My boys cannot go to war. They are members of my present; they don’t need to be remembered.”

19The last sentence of the paragraph makes another leap: “Well, what if I’d had four girls, so what?” This double-take typifies both the narrative and Stacey’s resistance to war. War destroys children, she seems to say, girls and boys, and no mother’s child should have to go to war. She would feel the same whoever the soldier was, daughter or son. This is the sentence of motherhood.

20The elliptical ending of this paragraph is prefigured by the elision of the article before “hand grenade.” War as catalexis. The reader supplies the elided article; it is all but there. So too the sentences I have attributed to Stacey are there. The parallel noun phrases in this paragraph—“their war,” “his war”—move from outer to inner and imply a third phrase, “my war.” Though this phrase is not uttered, it hovers there nonetheless. “Everyone understands,” Gerard Genette asserts, “the real author of the narrative is not only [s]he who tells it, but also, and at times even more, [s]he who hears it” (262). That phrase, my war, cannot be articulated, for its utterance comprises the rest of the novel.

21In these two brief paragraphs, Laurence establishes her narrator’s dilemma: how to speak, how to speak of war, how to speak of her own war. She has also established the narrative sequence: their war, his war, that war, this war, my war. Throughout the unfolding of this sequence, a progressively personal unfolding for Stacey, we encounter the figure of the unknown soldier.

22An example. A young man comes to Stacey’s door, and he holds a pamphlet. “Safety in Time of War. Ragged crimson letters like rising flames.” Stacey is intrigued. “I did a double take and saw the smaller letters underneath. God’s War of the Last Day. Oh, that war” (21).

  • 10 Lorraine McMullen reminded me that during wartime mothers do count the ages of their children, cal (...)

23A double-take. The introduction of the names and ages of the boys may seem to be authorial intrusion, an infringement on verisimilitude.10 But the question of age links the tableau with Stacey’s extramarital affair. Once Luke tells her his true age, twenty-five, Stacey, on the brink of forty, calculates that he is young enough to be her son. If war is a circle, so is incest. Luke serves as her son and her lover, and his participation in peace marches counterpoints the military parades that Stacey remembers from her youth. The peace marchers sing their theme song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (277). This is a chain song, and the sequence of linked nouns moves from flowers, to young girls, to young men, to (unnamed) soldiers, to graveyards. The song of peace therefore plays against the silence of the war memorial. Though Stacey resists foreverwar, she cannot evade the vicious circle, for the pet name she gives her younger daughter, the child who does not yet speak, is “Flower.”

24Another example. Stacey recalls reading of a returned soldier who nearly attacked his little sister with a karate chop when she startled him. Stacey says she laughed at the story, “Conditioned into monsterdom, like the soldier” (126). The unknown soldier indeed takes many guises. “Ian nineteen, in love with the uniform he is wearing” (127).

25Stacey reflects on verbal battles with Mac. “—We go on this way and the needle jabs become razor strokes and the razors become hunting knives and the knives become swords and how do we stop?” (162).

26Stacey imagines a getaway from a future war. She and her family arm themselves with “radish seeds,” and head north for the bush, where they will grub out a living and teach their children about Shakespeare. “Only one or two snags. Neither Mac nor I could have mustered more than about two lines of Shakespeare, and neither of us would last more than twenty-four hours in the great north woods. Also, who would the kids marry? Incest was out. So I gave up on that one. It wasn’t such a hot sedative” (60).

27Cenotaph imagery circulates throughout the narrative. When Stacey confronts her husband’s boss about a company questionnaire, a story of castration emerges. In an angry mood and stoned on double scotches, Stacey complains that the questionnaire is an infringement and an intrusion. “I mean infrusion, that’s what I mean but I guess I shouldn’t have brought it up” (108). Moments later, Stacey’s purse falls open and two pink soaps she has lifted from the washroom fall to the floor. Thor, Mac’s boss, makes a sarcastic comment to which Stacey replies by telling the assembled company a joke. The god Thor, she explains, seduces a young country girl and then feels contrite for having exploited a mere mortal. He says that he is Thor. “And she says, Tho am I, but it wath worth it, wathn’t it?” (109). The double scotches, the two soaps, the punning joke turn the narrative back on itself and insist that we attend to doubleness and word echoes. A few pages later, the drunken episode is repeated. Stacey replays the infrusion portmanteau; this time she adds a detail about “disarranged” hair. Then later Stacey thinks of herself as “schizophrenic” and worries that Mac will kill her. “What would happen to the kids if that happened? Oh my guts, churning around like a covey of serpents.” The unusual word prompts a double-take. “Covey? Nest? Medusa does in summer wear a nest of serpents in her hair” (114). The stoned woman becomes Medusa, the castrating stone woman who carries her nest with her (or her “severed head” [124]). She makes stiffs, this stone woman, these hairy tresses. Stones men dead. The magazine articles that Stacey reads establish guilt for the fate of the unknown soldier, whether he is in the guise of the castrated boy-man, or the stifled husband, or the son-and-lover, or the daughter. “Nine Ways the Modern Mum May Be Ruining Her Daughter” (14), “Are You Castrating Your Son?” (15), “Are You Emasculating Your Husband?” (56), “Mummy Is the Root of All Evil?” (304).

28To read the novel we must read the cenotaph. As empty tomb, the cenotaph is an abyss, an ever-open maw to swallow the daughter-and sonflowers of this world. Here is Stacey on taking in the world. “Sometimes I think I’d like to hold an entire army between my legs. I think of all the men I’ll never make love with, and I regret it as though it were the approach of my own death” (19).

29 Ladybird, ladybird, your house is on fire. The maw-mouth is where the taste is. Stacey: “My taste isn’t anywhere. Between my legs, maybe” (139). “Better to marry than burn, St. Paul said, but he didn’t say what to do if you married and burned” (211). And again, “I would have liked to be a great courtesan, like that one in France who went on until she was about ninety-five” (308).

30Stone imagery informs the description of Thor’s secretary, the young woman who becomes Mac’s lover. Her face “is a medieval tomb carving, elongated, drawn in subtle lines of earnestness and prayer” (108). Blanc et blank. “Her skin is extremely pale, and her features are delicate, severe, withdrawn, a girl from a medieval tomb carving” (147). That she is a “girl” suggests again the incest motif. (In one scene, Thor “takes her by the hand and leads her over to the microphone” [147], as if she were unable to speak without his support.)

31 Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home. Home is where the hurt is. “(I hurt Mother. I’m scared.) (Sh, it isn’t nice.) (I hurt, you hurt, he hurts—Sh.)” (168). Think of Mac’s words to Stacey as they make love, his hands around her throat:

That can’t hurt you
not that much
that’s not much. Say it doesn’t hurt.
It hurts. (29)

32Later Stacey thinks, “Oh Luke. I want to go home, but I can’t, because this is home” (250). I’m Thor, I hurt. “I’m in forevermore...” (127).

33In The Fire-Dwellers, unknown soldiers are tombed, flowers and lovers are doomed, love is tombed.

34Imagery from the cenotaph tableau circulates through all the major episodes of the larger narrative. At that level, Stacey experiences a series of personal crises: her (failed) sexual encounter with Buckle Fennick, her affair with Luke Venturi, Mac’s revelations about his war experiences, the near drowning of her son Duncan. I start with the last of these crises.

35After the drowning scare, Stacey’s innermost fears surface. She remembers what she was thinking while her son was being resuscitated. “Unbiddenly, then, she remembers what she was thinking out there on the sand when she did not know what to do and when Duncan’s still-warm but nearly unhuman body seemed to be going beyond reach.” The word “unhuman” echoes with the opening word; this experience has threatened to un-do her. The third-person sentence is followed by an italicized representation of Stacey’s inner voice: “God, if it was anything I did, take it out on me, not on him—that’s too much punishment for me” (296). Stacey’s (con) current thoughts turn on the question of belief.

  • 11 This phrase, “they’re there,” suggests the inextricable weave of sound with sense. The phrase reca (...)

—Judgment. All the things I don’t like to think I believe in. But at the severe moments, up they rise, the tomb birds, scaring the guts out of me with their vulture wings. Maybe it’s as well to know they’re there.11 Maybe knowing might help to keep them at least a little in their place. Or maybe not. I used to think about Buckle that he was as superstitious as a caveman. I didn’t know then that I was, too. (296)

36The tomb birds are now vultures, yet they are still connected with the excremental. They scare the guts out of her. Earlier she was glad to see pigeons shitting on the cenotaph, on the public and phallic sign of the patriarchy and its more-war mentality. Now in her pain and her relief she admits that she, too, is as primitive, as superstitious as Buckle. Laurence blurs gender with the word “caveman,” a blurring that helps to explain Stacey’s earlier reflections on sons and daughters. Laurence refuses gender division in matters of love and war.

37Similarly, Stacey’s war cannot be separated from Mac’s or from her father’s. As Mac and Stacey struggle with Buckle’s sudden death, Laurence includes an extended flashback that completes the narrative sentence left suspended in the cenotaph scene.

Preceded by pipers, the men of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders marched through the streets of Manawaka on their way overseas. Stacey, fifteen, watched them go, the boymen whom she soon might have known, perhaps married one if they had stayed. Nearly all the Manawaka boys of that age joined the same regiment. That was the war, to Stacey. She felt at the time ashamed of her own distance and safety. (238; emphasis added)

38These boymen, those she “might have known,” remain unknown to her. (Luke, fifteen years her junior, is the one she has known in the biblical sense.) The past tense is significant. Laurence does not say this is Stacey’s war, for her war is more complex now, and includes the wars of all her men. Her war, in fact, is a layering of wars, one over another, for the Second World War arrived as she was coming of age.

39For his part, Mac slowly unravels the war experience that bound him to Buckle. They were in a truck in Italy, lost. They approached a bridge and Buckle refused to check it for mines. Mac climbed out and Buckle drove ahead. The bridge exploded and Mac pulled Buckle from the water and carried him to safety (a rebirth scene that anticipates the later rebirth of the boy Duncan). Also significant was the look Buckle gave Mac.

I couldn’t figure it at the time. But later on I thought maybe it was just that I hadn’t done him any favor. I hadn’t done anything he wanted me to do. (240)

40Bewildered, Stacey then speaks, haltingly—“So then you had to take him on for life? Because”—and at the same time she thinks, “Who is this guy? Why did I never know? ” (240). The question of knowing and not knowing moves to the fore again: Mac has become the unknown soldier. The man she has married and lived with and loved and fought with turns out to be as unknown to her as the eighteen-year-old soldier her father spoke of. She has been as blind and unseeing as Buckle’s mother. As blind and unseeing as a stone angel or a tomb carving.

41And yet Mac’s having spoken allows Stacey to speak. She tells Mac that she did not sleep with Buckle because “He liked it with himself but with somebody looking on” (240). She is able now to say of Buckle, “Maybe he wanted you.” And Mac too is released and able to mutter, “Yeh maybe” (241). Again Laurence erases borders and binaries. Where does heterosexuality become autoeroticism become homosexuality?

42No more do historical boundaries hold. Stacey’s war includes both the First World War, her father’s war, and the Second World War, Mac’s war, as well as the wars brought into her living room by the EVER-OPEN EYE and the radio and newspapers, and the unknown young men with pamphlets knocking at her door. All these wars are hers, for she can no more escape them than she can escape her very self. As Nora Stovel points out, Stacey’s ties to her father are underlined by her two mementos, “both souvenirs of the war: a flask and a revolver—firewater and firearms, appropriate for a fire-dweller” (48).

43Even as the stone angel presides over events in Hagar’s Manawaka, the downtown cenotaph, besmeared with pigeon droppings, stands over the unravelling of this urban narrative. The cenotaph stands as the silent counterpart to the “spoken” acknowledgments of war: peace marches, radio reports, the sounds and sights of the Ever-Open Eye. At another level, the (phallic) cenotaph stands opposed to a host of underground places and subliminal images: caves, crypts, graves, Niall Cameron’s funeral parlour, “tomb silences” (25), bomb shelters, the private parts of the body, the intimate chambers of the self. But despite these tensions and conflicts, the ending of the novel stresses orderliness. Flower learns to talk; Stacey and Mac speak with each other; their economic distresses seem to be allayed; they accept Matthew, Mac’s father, into their home. In reflecting on what will happen with him, Stacey thinks of him as a shadow, haunting her so “all I want to do is speak the unspeakable” (298). But she does not, and neither does this novel. If we trust the tale and not the teller, however, and read The Fire-Dwellers in the context of the Manawaka fiction, then we discover another unknown soldier whose story illuminates all the others.

– II –

44Unknown soldiers march through the Manawaka fiction. There is Marvin in The Stone Angel, and Niall Cameron in A Jest of God (and The Fire-Dwellers) who offers a cryptic response to young Rachel’s excitement at hearing the pipers play “The March of the Cameron Men” in a Second World War parade. “Yes,” he says, “I expect they are, Rachel. It has a fine sound, the lies the pipes tell” (Jest 70). Niall Cameron is positioned as a knowing soldier in both A Jest of God and The Fire-Dwellers, like Ewen MacLeod, Vanessa’s father. In A Bird in the House the figures proliferate, extending even to a portrait of the Duke of Wellington in the MacLeod house, whom young Vanessa has mistaken for her dead grandfather. The most important figures, though, are Ewen, his brother Roderick, and from Vanessa’s own generation, cousin Chris, and her first boyfriend, Michael. Vanessa knows her father only from her brief meetings with him, the letter and photo from a young French woman she finds in an old desk, overheard stories about Ewen’s presence at the death of his brother Roderick at the Battle of the Somme. She knows her uncle through the stories she hears and from the photographs her Grandmother MacLeod keeps. The airman Michael, whom Vanessa first falls in love with, and the one individual with whom she can speak about war and literature, unbeknownst to her, is married.

  • 12 See Kertzer 70.

45A more compelling character is Vanessa’s cousin, Chris (whose name suggests kinship with Christie Logan, probably the most unforgettable of Laurence’s returned soldiers). Vanessa’s relationship with Chris forms the centre of “Horses of the Night,” a story that turns on questions of knowing, latent sexuality, and madness. Chris leaves “the alien lake of home” (Bird 152) to join the Army, only to be discharged because of a mental breakdown to a hospital where he will live out his days. Vanessa feels compassion for the tenderness he showed her when they were younger. The toy saddle he once made for her reminds her of a line of poetry (from Ovid’s Amores)12 in which the speaker wishes to delay the arrival of the morning and the necessity of leaving a lover. Vanessa connects this remembered line, “Slowly, slowly, horses of the night,” with Chris’s situation. “The night must move like this for him, slowly, all through the days and nights.” Vanessa has grown to realize that some things can never be known. “I could not know whether the land he journeyed through was inhabited by terrors, the old monster-kings of the lake, or whether he had discovered at last a way for himself to make the necessary dream perpetual” (154; emphasis added).

46A list of unknown soldiers in The Diviners suggests their importance to the narrative: Brooke Skelton; Morag’s dead father, Colin Gunn, veteran of the First World War and buddy to Christie Logan; Christie himself, source of the tales of the Selkirk settlers and the Battle at Culloden, and the Battle at Batoche; Jules “Skinner” Tonnerre, bearer of stories about Batoche, and a veteran of Dieppe, the battle where so many Manawaka boys were killed.

47Dieppe assumes special significance in the Laurence corpus, so that one reference carries the emotional weight of all the others. In Hagar’s sardonic report, at Dieppe “the casualties were heavy, as the newspapers put it, making them sound like leaden [unknown] soldiers, no one’s sons” (Stone 244). It was Dieppe that brought the war home to Vanessa MacLeod (“sister” to Stacey Cameron and to Morag Gunn in the sense that they all three are the same age). Part of Vanessa’s shock lies in her realization that these (known) boymen have been rent and rendered utterly unknowable, and that she is experiencing first-hand what her parents’ generation has already gone through. Her emotion is therefore overdetermined, a new layer of grief and loss laid on top of an earlier layer:

When it happened, I had remembered that my father’s brother Roderick had been killed in the First World War. He, too, had been eighteen, like most of these [men killed at Dieppe], It was then that war took on its meaning for me, a meaning that would never change. It meant only that people without choice in the matter were broken and spilled, and nothing could ever take the place of them. (Bird 181-182)

48In The Fire-Dwellers, Stacey, too, was changed by Dieppe, after which “she could never again listen to the pipes playing The March of the Cameron Men” (238).

49These allusions implicate the photographs and text of Dance on the Earth. In the Manawaka fiction Laurence refers to various epoch-defining events, according to her fictional needs—Hiroshima in The Fire-Dwellers (11, 275) and the First World War, in general, in A Jest of God (127). But Dieppe, as Laurence points out in Dance on the Earth, has special resonance.

The limitations of the perceptions one permitted oneself were abruptly shattered once and for all with Dieppe. In one sense, for me, Dieppe perpetually has happened only yesterday. It runs as a leitmotif through all my so-called Manawaka fiction and, in a way, it runs through my whole life, in my hatred of war so profound I can’t find words to express my outrage at these recurring assaults upon the human flesh, mind, and spirit. (84)

  • 13 Skinner is connected to The Fire-Dwellers through his sister Valentine, who meets Stacey on a Vanc (...)

50Skinner Tonnerre, as a veteran of Dieppe, therefore assumes singular importance in the gallery of (unknown) soldiers. He gives a human voice and face to the statue, for, though the cenotaph signals the silence and absence of the unknown soldiers, a silence nonetheless inscribed with official history, Skinner speaks of Dieppe. Typically, he offers only a few laconic images. He tells Morag of a fellow Manawakan being gut-shot, and then goes on to describe the man’s eyes: “Like a horse’s eyes in a barn fire” (133). This image repeats one from “Horses of the Night” in which Chris relates to Vanessa a story told to him by her father (Bird 150-151). The repetition of the image, fire and eyes, fire and ice, echoes both with the opening lines of Skinner’s “Piquette’s Song” (“My sister’s eyes, /Fire and snow” [379]) and with the conflagration images in The Fire-Dwellers. Together, these images and the story link Skinner with the other soldiers.13

51Yet even though Skinner as a veteran belongs to the gallery, there is a crucial difference between him and the other soldiers. All of the soldiers, including Scavenger Christie Logan, live within the orbit of the cenotaph, that is to say, they are part of official history, and the cenotaphs metonymically bear tribute to them. Smelly old Christie Logan finds his place in the Manawaka cemetery beside Prin, their places marked by “Grey granite” headstones (Diviners 327). In the Manawaka cemetery the stone angel memorializes both the Currie family and the once-disreputable (Shitley) Shipleys. All these monuments, stained by droppings and earthy names, nonetheless speak of stature and status within the dominant community. They have mass and volume and solidity, these monuments. These people belong.

  • 14 The phrase “edited past” appears in The Fire-Dwellers in a passage of free indirect discourse to s (...)

52But Skinner’s history and the history of the Métis people have been severely edited.14 His grandfather’s participation in the battle at Batoche is erased from Morag’s story about (the dead) Piquette’s family. “Lachlan deletes it, saying that many people hereabouts would still consider that Old Jules back then had fought on the wrong side” (Diviners 130). So Old Jules, Skinner’s namesake, takes up no space in the Manawaka newspaper, and when Skinner’s father Lazarus dies, he, too, is denied space in Manawaka. As Skinner puts it, the town does not want “His half-breed bones spoiling their cemetery” (219). Lazarus eventually finds a home in the Métis churchyard at Galloping Mountain. There the memorial structures are simple: “No headstones there. Just wooden crosses, plain pine or whatever comes to hand, and the weather greys them” (219). How different these grey weathered crosses from the granite cenotaph in downtown Vancouver and the grey granite headstones and stone angels of Manawaka. As we are led to expect, Skinner, in his turn, takes his place in the Galloping Mountain churchyard.

53At first reading, Skinner has seemed almost to erase himself, for he refuses to allow Morag to take his picture, even with their daughter Pique (281). But this refusal amounts to a refusal of the visual. Skinner positions himself outside the frame, less substantial even than a shadow and yet forcefully present. His realm is the oral, and he establishes his presence in history through song. And in giving his gift of song to Pique, he aligns himself, not with the past (the cenotaph, official history as written so far), but with the future. So the last word in The Diviners is given to Piquette Gunn Tonnerre (her surname in that order, Scot and French, gun and thunder, perhaps a suggestion of future storms). The ending is pluralized. It ends once with Morag going to set down her title. But the last words are attributed to Pique—“The mountain and the valley hold my name”—and these places, “Christie’s real country” (319) where Morag was born, are waiting for her. The future is marked by song and the feminine. Riel country. Thus does Laurence come to terms with her ancestral past. Her ancestors, she wrote, “are not only the Scots but also the Métis; I was born in a land which they had inhabited, shaped and invested with their ghosts” (Lennox 317).

  • 15 Part of the argument in these last two paragraphs first appeared in my review of the Laurencè-Purd (...)

54The plural ending therefore denies the authority of the book, monological and masculine, just as it refuses the centripetal pull of official history. And the text itself is pluralized. As written text, the Album section made up of the songs of Skinner Tonnerre and Piquette Gunn Tonnerre functions as a metonym for a future attached to the land. But the Album also appeared as a phonograph record with the first edition hardcover of the novel. The phonograph record testifies to Laurence’s anti-imperialism and stretches the limits of textuality again. If The Fire-Dwellers can be described as a photofiction, as Lorraine York suggests, then The Diviners, in the end, is a phonofiction. Just as the Tonnerre songs mock the colonizing drive of Sir John A., who “sits in Ottawa, /Drinking down his whiskey raw” (373), so the record denies closure to the novel.15 The centre does not hold. The novel is not a completed, self-contained unit. The phonograph album asserts that there is more to be said than any book can contain, a gesture consistent with Laurence’s desire, notably in The Fire-Dwellers and The Diviners, to break down the restrictions of traditional realism.

55By the same token, the figure of the unknown soldier is multiple and transtextual. In the guise of the cenotaph, the figure dominates The Fire-Dwellers, and he stands as a metonym for all the others: Mac and Buckle, Ewen and Roderick MacLeod, Christie Logan and Colin Gunn, who readily fall into pairs, and the solitary Brooke Skelton and Marvin Shipley. Even Stacey herself. And in the shadow of that solid granite column looms the Métis warrior, a disturbing unheroic hero of the real country. An unknown soldier.



Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist; trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Bevan, Allan. Introduction. The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence. New Canadian Library. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973.

Davey, Frank. Post-National Arguments: The Politics of the Anglophone-Canadian Novel Since 1967. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘The Uncanny.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. Vol. 17. London: Hogarth, 1955.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1980.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

James, William. Psychology. New York: Henry Holt, 1907.

Kertzer, Jon. “That House in Manawaka”: Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House. Toronto: ECW Press, 1992.

Lennox, John, ed. Margaret Laurence-Al Purdy: A Friendship in Letters. Selected Correspondence. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993.

Riffaterre, Michael. Fictional Truth. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Sproxton, Birk. “Dear Margaret, Dear Al.” Border Crossings (Fall 1993): 70-72.

Stovel, Nora. Stacey’s Choice: Margaret Laurence’s The Fire-Dwellers. Toronto: ECW Press, 1993.

York, Lorraine. The Other Side of Dailiness: Photography in the Works of Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Laurence. Toronto: ECW Press, 1988.


1 Research for this paper was generously supported by a Special Grant from Red Deer College and a grant from the T. Glendenning Hamilton Fund at the University of Manitoba.

2 Allan Bevan gives a succinct summary of Laurence’s narrative methods: “[1] Stacey’s thoughts (introduced by a dash), [2] her memories (indented on the page), [3] her fantasies often in the form of SF words (in italics), [4] the news from radio or the EVER-OPEN EYE (in capital letters), [5] the narrator’s comments more or less over Stacey’s shoulder (in ordinary type and without dashes or italics), [6] and conversations (again without introductory marks)” (ix). The first four of these announce themselves as distinct paragraphs.
In “Gadgetry or Growing: Form and Voice in the Novel,” Laurence spoke of her desire to capture on the page both “Voices and pictures.” “I wanted the pictures—that is, the descriptions—whether outer life or dreams or memories, to be as sharp and instantaneous as possible, and always brief, because it seemed to me that this is the way—or at least one way—life is perceived, in short sharp visual images which leap away from us even as we look at them” (88). See also Nora Stovel’s discussion of narrative method in Stacey’s Choice: Margaret Laurence’s “The Fire-Dwellers,” 82-92. Lorraine York describes the novel as a “photofiction” (The Other Side of Dailiness 152).

3 Laurence uses the mindfield metaphor in The Fire-Dwellers in a crucial setting. When Stacey drives Mac to identify the remains of Buckle, she is “afraid she may say the one wrong or fuselike word which may make something explode in his head or heart...” (234). Later, Stacey discovers the two men were bound together by the explosion of a “mined” bridge (239). A mind-bridge.

4 See Freud’s classic essay “The Uncanny.” Certainly, TheFire-Dwellers incorporates uncanny elements, especially Stacey’s dream of the severed head. (See my discussion of Medusa below.) Lorraine York takes the dream to be emblematic. “This nightmare vision raises the question of inner and outer sight; as Stacey in her dream asks ‘How is it that she can see it? What is she seeing with? That is the question’ [124], This striking image of a woman gazing at her own bleeding head could serve as an emblem of The Fire-Dwellers and its visual method: How does one perceive one’s own torments?” (The Other Side of Dailiness 154-155).

5 The mirror segment also serves as a frame. Near the end of the novel, the shot is repeated. Two changes deserve mention, one an addition, the other a deletion. The addition concerns the disposition of Mac’s clothes. In the opening, we have: “On another chair, Mac’s dirty shirt is neatly folded” (4). In the closing frame: “On another chair, Mac’s clothes are folded neatly, a habit he acquired in the army, as he has remarked countless times” (305; my emphasis). The addition suggests, first, the importance of Mac’s army life to Stacey’s private (bedroom) life, and, second, the importance of their talking with each other. The deletion is equally intriguing. In the opening, Mac is described as “Agamemnon king of men or the equivalent, at least to her,” a hint of the war motif to come (4). The closing omits the Agamemnon reference, as if Mac were no longer kinglike, but domestic, clad in ordinary clothes. The reference ironically positions Stacey as Clytemnestra, murderer of Agamemnon, and echoes with Stacey’s recollection of an argument with her night-class instructor. “Mrs. MacAindra, I don’t think you’ve got quite the right slant on Clytemnestra. Why not? The king sacrificed their youngest daughter for success in war—what’s the queen supposed to do, shout for joy?” (32). Though Mac has not been murdered, the ending establishes Mac as domesticated in Stacey’s eyes. Lorraine York argues that the omission “suggests that Stacey’s bitterness has been exorcised, that if she no longer expects Mac to be Agamemnon, perhaps she can now cease to feel herself a guilty Clytemnestra” (Dailiness 156). For a discussion of framing devices in the novel, see Stovel 94-95.

6 William James, who coined the phrase stream of consciousness, describes the substantive and transitive dimensions of the stream. He compares the varying pace of the stream’s movement to the life of a bird, “an alteration of flights and perchings” (Psychology 160). In narrative terms, this distinction parallels the diegesis-mimesis distinction.

7 See “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” and “Discourse in the Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination, esp. 130-146 in the former, which concerns biography and autobiography (of which The Fire-Dwellers is a fictionalized variation). The image of old men reminiscing occurs also in A Jest of God. They sit in the lobby of Manawaka’s Queen Victoria Hotel “to parse the past” (193).

8 Linda Hutcheon suggests that “intertextuality” might better be described as “interdiscursivity” or “discursive pluralizing.” See A Poetics of Postmodernism, esp. chapters 8 and 9 (the quotations are from page 130). The discourse of war memorials is here embedded within the (fictional) discourse with all its intertextual echoes. W.H. New (personal correspondence) identifies Laurence’s model cenotaph as that in Vancouver’s Victory Square, on which is inscribed “Their Name Liveth For Ever More/Is It Nothing to You/All Ye that Pass By.”
For me, Laurence’s reference to a cenotaph functions as a shorthand gesture, a quotation of the commonplace. About 100 yards from where I write, there stands a cenotaph inscribed with lines from “In Flanders Fields.” Because the cenotaph is so commonplace, we tend to overlook its importance.

9 See Stovel 14ff.

10 Lorraine McMullen reminded me that during wartime mothers do count the ages of their children, calculating when they might volunteer or be conscripted for military service.

11 This phrase, “they’re there,” suggests the inextricable weave of sound with sense. The phrase recalls the “there, there” of a mother’s consolation, as in Stacey’s reflections on her role (149). The consoling phrase occurs several times in other texts: Katie uses the expression in consoling Stacey (273); in A Jest of God Hector consoles Rachel (152) and Rachel consoles her mother (233). Here Stacey reassures herself.

12 See Kertzer 70.

13 Skinner is connected to The Fire-Dwellers through his sister Valentine, who meets Stacey on a Vancouver street. Over coffee, Val reveals that Thor Thorlakson, Mac’s draconian boss, is in actuality Vernon Winkler from Manawaka. Valentine is described as a “known and total stranger” to Stacey (268). Like Valentine, Skinner is at once known and unknown, and like her, too, he unmasks middle-class pretensions. As an un/known soldier, Skinner exposes and subverts the limitations of what Laurence calls “the Upper Canadian, white Protestant interpretation of our history” (Dance 77).

14 The phrase “edited past” appears in The Fire-Dwellers in a passage of free indirect discourse to suggest Stacey’s awareness of Mac’s inclination to “forget.” “He looks at her as though they have never before met, as though she is the stranger on shipboard to whom he may possibly be able to relate his edited past” (284).

15 Part of the argument in these last two paragraphs first appeared in my review of the Laurencè-Purdy letters, “Dear Margaret, Dear Al,” Border Crossings (Fall 1993): 72. For another reading of The Diviners, with emphasis on the ending, see Frank Davey in Post-National Arguments, 23-42.


Department of Humanities and
Social Sciences
Red Deer College
Red Deer, Alberta

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