Narration in Margaret Laurence's Manawaka cycle

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Stamler, Olive
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During the decade 1964 to 1974, Margaret Laurence produced five books of fiction, four novels and a collection of short stories, all of which centre upon her fictional Canadian prairie town of Manawaka: The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1969), A Bird in the House (1970) and The Diviners (1974). My thesis is concerned with the Manawaka books as a cycle--a narrative whole--a unity that transcends their viability as individual novels. Any analysis of the complete cycle as narrative entails recognition of the texts collectively, as "narrative discourse" in Gerard Genette's sense of the term (Narrative 27), that is as a treatment of the cycle in its entirety as one signifying statement. Such analysis must necessarily be concerned with an intricate set of structural relationships: those within each novel between what contemporary critics call 'story' on the one hand and 'narrative' on the other, and those that link the novels as synecdochal units in a narrative superstructure. The internal and recurring structure of the cycle, therefore, is my focus of investigation. The new strategy should prove complementary to existing criticism of Margaret Laurence's fiction, since some interpretive critics have found the structure of the Manawaka novels from their earliest date of publication to be problematic. Controversy has centered around a puzzling conflict in each novel between conspicuous patterning of narrative time and, simultaneously, realistic portrayal of the central character. Why is an interpretive critic troubled by enigmatic tone, and why does he fault 'form' when form is at odds with characterization? The answer lies in the philosophic roots of interpretive thought. Interpretive criticism tends to privilege idea over expresssion in all literature, including narrative. In this view, language is a vehicle, or mode, that transmits pre-conceived abstract concepts. Form, to the interpretive critic, is in service to vision; it is a container for content. Laurence's narrative technique is thus, even to its kindest interpretive critics such as William H. New and clara Thomas, difficult to defend. Other reviewers, even more intent upon assessing thematic content, reject Laurence's choice of 'form' entirely. A structuralist reading offers a strategy that enables us to by-pass the dilemma by reconceptualizing the notion of 'form.' When 'form' is no longer perceived to be part of a form/content dichotomy, the notion of separable 'content' dissolves. For the structuralist writing is discourse, the written equivalent of speech, in which ideas have no tangible shape before articulation. Structuralist thought, beginning with Ferdinand de Saussure, maintains that only an enabling set of conventions in language exists prior to enunciation, and that those codes are transformed into meaning by the act of speaking/writing at the time the act occurs (Scholes 14). A field of meaning opens in that moment; the range of semantic and phonetic possibilities arises out of an author's specific word choice (diction) and word arrangement (syntax). To structuralists, therefore, the structure of discourse is inseparable from meaning, indeed is constitutive of it...