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Margaret Laurence: Critical Reflections

David Staines

Faith and the Vocation of the Author

Lois Wilson

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1 I was a student with Peggy Wemyss in Second Year Arts at United College from 1944 until 1947, when our small class, holding high our brand-new B.A. degrees, graduated. Although we were not close bosom pals in those days, we shared the same context of experience and openness that United College offered to the great racial, social, and political mix of students who then frequented its halls. If we had exchanged letters with each other at the time, they would have been along the lines of Stacey when she wrote home: “How are you? I am fine” (Fire 25).

2Nevertheless, we lived in the same world: that of frigid Winnipeg winters and searing hot summers; of “Fowl Suppers” in church basements; of Batoche and the Métis; of naval uniforms and older servicemen, and the romantic possibilities they offered; of a college community that encouraged inquiring minds and soaring spirits.

3We began to know each other increasingly well through the interchange and give and take of open discussion in the classrooms, as well as in the informal, but profound discussions that enlivened our time in “Tony’s,” the college cafeteria. She was unassuming and self-effacing, except in English class. She engaged English professors in long conversations in class, and wrote poetry and stories that were published in the college magazine Vox. She was one of the first women in our class to be married, and I held her somewhat in awe for that seemingly stupendous accomplishment.

4We did not see each other frequently, and there were years when we were not in touch at all. Yet whenever we did meet, we started right in again. She disappeared from my horizon for several years, and I became aware she had gone to Africa. But when our lives intersected again, it was not without significance. Upon her return I vividly remember meeting with her in the Winnipeg YWCA and discussing cross-cultural experiences as well as matters of faith, including the possible existence of the deity. We never engaged in just simple social small talk.

5We met on and off again over the years. I bought her books, and on reading them, discovered they uncannily revealed my history and my generation. In the mid-seventies, when we lived in Hamilton, my husband got a phone call one day. “This is a friend out of your past. It’s Margaret Laurence, and I’m here signing books and I’m bored to death. Can I come over?” My children came home immediately from wherever they had been in order to meet this famous person of whom they had only heard. We had a great catch-up visit, and not insignificant conversation. From then on, we engaged in a lively correspondence, copies of which I still have. They were all the way from a long list of Canadian fiction writers (for me to read!) and a long list of contemporary feminist theologians (for her to read!), to a wonderfully simple letter I received shortly after being elected Moderator of the United Church of Canada in 1982. It read:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

6She was involved in a great stir over the mounting of Canadian sculptor Lutkenhaus-Lackey’s Crucified Woman in the Bloor Street United Church during Easter Week, 1979. In that sculpture, which now stands publicly on the grounds of Emmanuel College, Toronto, Margaret saw a recognition by the Christian community of the terrible agonies suffered by women as victims. She knew all about that, and wrote passionately and sensitively about it in her novels.

7When my husband and I were co-ministers in Kingston, we invited Margaret to come for a weekend for a seminar on her work, but also for a dialogue sermon with me on the Sunday morning. She was not at all keen about the latter (“I’m a WRITER not a speaker!” she protested) but she was persuaded when I said that all she’d have to do would be to have a conversation with me, and congregational members could listen if they wished. We agreed on several areas we would talk about:

  • our vocations as author and minister respectively;
  • how an author deals with morals and values without becoming preachy;
  • how her experience had informed her knowledge of God;
  • her views on major faith themes such as justice, hope, grace, death, resurrection, and transformation.

8Here are some excerpts from that occasion, taken from the transcript published in the February 1980 United Church Observer.

9Laurence on vocation:

I think that almost all serious writers experience a sense of vocation. When young writers say, “Do you think I should be a writer?”, I say if you don’t have to be, then don’t do it. It’s something that you feel as a sense of vocation; you simply cannot imagine yourself doing anything else. And you have that deep sense of lifetime commitment to it.

10Laurence on morals and values:

I think also that many writers who would not consider themselves religious people in fact have a great deal of faith even though they may not define it in Christian terminology. And I long ago realized this about myself. The act of writing itself expresses some kind of faith and some kind of hope, and the very fact that the novelist is concerned deeply with the human individual and the preciousness, the value of the individual in itself is a kind of religious faith.

11Laurence on how her experience has informed her knowledge of God:

I have a feeling there has to be more recognition of the kind of female principle in God... We cannot really define the informing spirit of the Universe because that is the mystery at the core of life. Whatever the spirit is and however we receive it into our lives, there must be a male and a female principle involved; there must be the father and the mother. I think many...feel the need to incorporate that sense of both the motherhood and the fatherhood in the Holy Spirit.

12One of her favourite sayings was, “Thank you God, sir or madam.” Her fictional characters have feisty and interesting conversations with God, as I’m sure Margaret had also. There is Stacey’s wonderful interior conversation with God in the spirit of Jewish midrash:

Listen here, God, don’t talk to me like that... You try bringing up four kids. Don’t tell me you’ve brought up countless millions because I don’t buy that. We’ve brought our own selves up and precious little help we’ve had from you. If you’re there. Which probably you aren’t, although I’m never convinced totally, one way or another. So next time you send somebody down here, get It born as a her with seven young or a him with a large family and a rotten boss, eh? Then we’ll see how the inspirational bit goes. God, pay no attention. I’m nuts. I’m not myself. (Fire 168)

13Or Vanessa MacLeod in the story “To Set Our House in Order”:

I thought of the accidents that might easily happen to a person... I thought of the dead baby, my sister, who might as easily have been I... I thought of my brother, who had been born alive after all... I felt that whatever God might love in this world, it was certainly not order. (Bird 59).

14Hagar’s exchange with Mr. Troy the minister is a case in point: “‘Don’t you believe,’ Mr. Troy inquires politely, earnestly, ‘in God’s infinite Mercy?’... I blurt a reply without thinking. ‘What’s so merciful about Him, I’d like to know?’” (Stone 120).

15Laurence on justice:

Sometimes, we have to define things like justice even by the lack of it. This comes in very much in The Diviners where I talk about the plight of the Métis people. A great and deep injustice has been done these people. I am trying to point out that it is not something we can say is the fault of God or Fate. It is our human fault.

16Laurence on hope:

All my work is informed by hope. I don’t think any of it is optimistic. One would have to have a very simplistic, or very narrow, view of life to be optimistic in a world such as ours. Hope is different. Hope is something I couldn’t live without. And given God’s grace, somehow one feels the planet and its creatures will survive. I think of optimism as saying, “Everything’s fine.” Only a fool could say that everything’s fine.

17Laurence on grace:

I think of grace not as something deserved—because who could deserve God’s grace?—but just given... many writers... do have the feeling of something given. Writers will say, “When I was writing that book there were several scenes that I looked at afterwards and I thought, I really can’t write that well. Where did it come from?” And I’ve had that feeling too. I look on that as something given.

18Indeed, her very last words to me were, “It’s all grace.”

19Laurence on death:

It’s as natural an event as birth. The two are the beginning and the end of life... My sense of what happens in that kind of transformation is something I can’t define, any more than I can define God. Because it is a mystery.

20We spoke, too, of resurrection its not being the resuscitation of a corpse, but about God whose power transforms despair to hope and death to life.

21Margaret was critical of conforming traditional Christians, of hypocrisy, and of a number of conventional Christian rituals and observances. Many fundamentalists could not stomach her vocabulary and wondered why she found it necessary to use four-letter words in her novels. She explained that the integrity of her characters demanded it, if that is the way they talked. She herself tells that wonderful story of being at a seminar, seated behind a table with “drapery that looked rather like a bedspread with a fringe.” She decides to smoke surreptitiously, and suddenly becomes aware of a burning smell and a tiny line of flames. “My God,” she yelled, “I’ve set fire to the bloody tablecloth” (Dance 215). When she told me this story, she added, “But I didn’t use any four-letter words!”

22What prompted her to decide to acknowledge the Christian faith in which she had been reared, and which she had never abandoned, by returning to the United Church congregation in Lakefield? She told me that she just thought it was time. Not an easy decision for her. She had thoroughly embraced the central affirmation of Christian faith—the Incarnation—that God in all tenderness became one of us and dwells with us, but she had some difficulty appreciating the institutional expression of that belief. She told me that she just thought it was time. She had been eternally grateful for the support she had received from the Anglican and United churches in Lakefield when her work was attacked as pornographic. An intensely private person, she suffered agonies when her novels were criticized by those who did not grasp the profound morality or passionately ethical themes she explored.

23Her return to the United Church was deliberate. The first Sunday she sat in the back pew, and found that she was welcomed and integrated into the local church. She told me later of how proud she was of that same congregation when, one Sunday, she took composer and artist Mendelsohn Joe to church with her into a context which apparently she feared would be somewhat formal and judgmental. He was dressed in a most unorthodox fashion. He was, however, welcomed on all sides. “My people came through that time,” she said to me.

24She phoned me in the fall of 1986 to arrange her funeral. In that last visit, we spoke of many things. She pulled out her Bible to indicate which passages she wanted to be read publicly, and I noticed that every page, every margin, contained her written commentary on the text. She knew the text inside out, and certainly pulled on that source extensively for her novels.

25Take Morag’s revisitation of Toronto:

The city depresses Morag further. She refuses to go downtown, certain she... will meet Brooke on the street... She walks past the roominghouse on Jarvis Street where Jules used to live... Save me O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul. Psalm 69. (Diviners 337)

26Rachel, at the end of one significant phase in her life, says:

I do not know how many bones need to be broken before I can walk. And I do not know, either, how many need not have been broken at all...What are the words? I can’t have forgotten all the words, surely, the words of the songs, the psalms. Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice. [Psalm 51] (Jest 201)

27Morag negotiates Christie’s burial with Hector, who says:

“Maybe you should consider a short service here, first? And then just the few last words, there.

The Burial of the Dead. For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. [Psalm 39] (Diviners 327)

28Yet I emphasize that all her biblical references, her quotations of hymns, and even the exchanges I have quoted heretofore do not constitute the religious aspect of Margaret’s novels for me. I believe, however, that Margaret’s faith did inform her worldview and therefore her vocation as an author. Let me try to say how I see that playing out.

29There is an apocryphal story told of a rabbi who decided to do an audio-visual reinforcement of the biblical vision of the lion and the lamb lying down together in peace. So he rented a storefront with a large window, and put a lion and a lamb in the space for a week. At the end of the week, one of the congregants said to him in a puzzled voice, “Rabbi, how did you ever get a lion and a lamb to lie down together for a whole week?” “Oh,” answered the rabbi, “I had a large supply of lambs.”

30So it is that splendid visions often fail. The vision of human community has, to date, largely failed. As we contemplate our world today, it presents more of a nightmare than a vision. We talk a lot about it, but as Brooke says to Morag of her fictional Lilac in Spear of Innocence, “[S]he talks a lot, but she can’t communicate very well” (Diviners 202).

31To speak of faith and the vocation of the author is to beg the question, What is faith? I make three assumptions about the nature of faith, and all three assumptions appear strongly in Margaret’s novels.

32My first assumption is that faith is about the creating and sustaining of interdependent community.

33A contemporary twentieth-century theologian says that for generations past people have struggled with the question, What is the ultimate meaning of my life? Of life itself? Is there any meaning? And people today continue to struggle with that question.

34But, says the theologian speaking from the context of the Christian faith and community, the question has been posed in different ways according to the historical context.

35So in the early days of Christian community, the question of ultimate meaning was phrased, What happens when I die? Life and death were the presenting ways the question of ultimate meaning was posed. Christian community responded with the doctrine of resurrection.

36Then, in the Middle Ages, the same question was being asked, What is the ultimate meaning of my life? but it was phrased somewhat differently: What shall I do with my guilt? The Christian community responded with the doctrine of justification by faith, or by the creation of the penitential system.

37In the twentieth century, people still struggle with the question of ultimate meaning by posing queries about death and guilt. But a third layer has been added: Where can I find authentic human community that will affirm me in my particularity, my gender, my language, my culture, my race, but also bring me into life-giving and life-sustaining relationships with those very different from myself? Where can I find such human community that will recognize my interdependence with the created order and the Creator as well as with other human beings? That is the way the ultimate question is articulated in the last decade of this century—in terms of community.

38Margaret Laurence’s novels certainly never avoided the reality or harshness of death, nor the grappling to find its meaning. Nor did she avoid the question of guilt and forgiveness and the struggle to unearth life’s ultimate meaning in that direction. However, she was a woman of her time, the twentieth century. A good case can be made for the fact that one of the central themes of all her novels was community or lack of community. In my view, she was dealing with a question central to faith, and in that sense, her novels are profoundly informed by a religious dimension.

39There is the constant refrain of alienation and strangeness that persons feel toward each other. She writes of Stacey and Mac: “he doesn’t talk any more hardly at all can you imagine what it’s like to live in the same house with somebody who doesn’t talk or who can’t or else won’t and I don’t know which reason it could be” (Fire 197).

40She has Bram say to Hagar, “‘I sure hope it’s a boy’... In that moment when we might have touched our hands together, Bram and I, and wished each other well, the thought uppermost in my mind was—the nerve of him” (Stone 100-101).

41She writes of the difficulties her characters have in revealing themselves openly to even those intimates they trust. When Marvin says goodbye to his mother when he signs up for the army, the farewell discourse is extremely limited. Hagar thinks: “I realized I was waiting with a kind of anxious hope for what he would say, waiting for him to make himself known to me” (Stone 130).

42And of Steven, Hagar’s grandson, “What does he know of me? Not a blessed thing. I’m choked with it now, the incommunicable years, everything that happened and was spoken or not spoken. I want to tell him... But where would I begin?” (Stone 296).

43 The Fire-Dwellers is particularly rife with persons who do not communicate. Stacey wonders to herself whether her pregnancy was the start of Mac’s isolating himself from her. “Was it then he started to go underground, living in his own caves?”(Fire 22). Or Stacey’s lack of community with Ian, who, she feels, guards himself at every turn. And even her son Duncan: “I’m far from him, too. Far even from Duncan. How did it happen like this?” (Fire 119). And then there is Stacey’s wonderfully poignant imaginary letter to her mother: “Please write immediately and let me know what was actually in your mind all those years because I haven’t a clue... P.S. Did you ever dance?” (Fire 150).

44Yet at certain points, deep intimacy and a strong sense of community, clan, connectedness is written into the novels. One comes away with a distinct sense of struggle—of alienation and sometimes of reconciliation, of being lost and sometimes being found, of brokenness and sometimes wholeness. Although these themes are by no means confined to faith communities, they are profoundly the way the question of the ultimate meaning of life is articulated in our time.

45My second assumption is that faith has to do with transformation of things as they are, both personal and societal. This always includes the subject of power and a shift in interpersonal relationships, since power represents the possibility of transformation.

46This is a foundational biblical theme informing the faith community. Isaiah 40:4 uses the imagery of the non-human world to speak of the promise and hope of transformation.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low,
The uneven ground shall become level,
And the rough places a plain.

47The playwright Judith Thompson speaks of stories that affirm transformation and tell of hope—such as the fairy tale Cinderella. That is, when you’re in despair—you think you’re all alone and you’ve been abandoned—someone will come and love and nurture you. Possibly your goodness as a person will be recognized. In other words, there is some sort of redemption possible even for people who are lost. She talks about transformation. Although she does not claim to be a religious person, she does admit to having been raised in the Catholic faith. So she links the idea of transformation, an essential human myth, with the eucharist and the body of Christ as being one way of expressing and giving hope, as are her plays another way.

48Margaret Laurence’s novels are another way. So there is the story of the unlovely Hagar, toward whom Doris and Marvin and Mr. Troy showed compassion, even though she does not appear to deserve it. Yet in the end, Hagar herself demonstrates compassion and love—a transformation of sorts—as she fetches the bedpan for the young girl in the hospital ward.

49There is hope with Rachel as she leaves Manawaka and heads West to an unknown future. At the end of The Fire-Dwellers, Jen talks—a sign of transformation, promise, and hope. At the moment of the deepest despair, many of Laurence’s fictional characters gain a sense of hope that inspires them to look to the future confidently.

50My third assumption about faith is that the transformation that is characteristic of it takes place only as those on the periphery and those at the centre come together and are set free of their bondages. Where the periphery is, and where the centre is, you must decide yourself. This, too, is a biblical theme: care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor. Margaret Laurence emphasizes this theme by telling the stories of those on the periphery (Lazarus; Piquette; Prin; Christie; Jules, the Métis). They continued to feel alienated right up to and including their deaths. They never were set completely free of their bondages. Nor, more importantly, were the people at the centre of Manawaka society.

51Indeed, no character is completely set free, despite the constant hope that it might happen. Her novels end with question marks for the reader as the characters ponder an unknown future. So her novels are realistic in the sense that the transformation and the setting free of people from all bondages remains a hope only, not an accomplishment. She reflects the healthy tension that a person of faith lives with, between the present unsatisfactory state of things and relationships and the longed-for transformation that is promised and hoped for.

52Hagar, in that famous last exchange with Mr. Troy, the minister, listens to him sing Old One Hundredth, which ends, “Come ye before Him and rejoice.” Hagar thinks to herself, “I must always, always, have wanted that—simply to rejoice. How is it I never could?” (Stone 292).

53In our final visit, Margaret was at once grieving, jubilating, and raging. She loved life passionately. “Life is for rejoicing—for dancing,” she said. With tears streaming down her face, out of a mixture of physical weakness and intense emotion, she cried out to me, “And I’ve danced. I’ve danced.”

54In 1985, when the dates for Passover and Easter coincided, she wrote a “Prayer for Passover and Easter.” In it she combined her passion for peace, her profound feelings of kinship with the Jewish people, her care for children, and her sense of the interdependence of the human family—“one people in our only home, earth.” The original prayer, complete with the combined symbols of the cross and the Star of David, now hangs on my living room wall, the gift of her children Jocelyn and David, after her death. It expresses her hope for interdependent authentic human community, which, I have proposed, is the way people in this century express their faith and their commitment to the ultimate meaning of our short and vulnerable lives.


Toronto, Ontario

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2001

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