by rantywoman

Months ago I wrote about the book A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence here:

At that point I had seen the movie but hadn’t gotten around to reading the book.  My mother’s visit this holiday weekend prompted me to pick it up.  It’s a beautiful book, one that perhaps I couldn’t have fully appreciated had I read it earlier in life.  The end is ironic, in that the still single and childless thirtysomething Rachel finally becomes an adult, while her mother, who had been a wife and the mother of two children, remains a child.

Rachel reaches adulthood by finally taking the reins of her life and throwing herself into a love affair.  In the end, the romance doesn’t pan out.  The experience teaches her that she must take chances in life, despite the fact that there are no guarantees.  It is the opposite of most of what passes for “chick lit” these days in that the heroine takes a chance on love, but it doesn’t work out, and she must renounce home and family in order to find self-realization.

Reading the book I concluded that I became an adult long ago, but by remaining single, there is the ever-present fear of sinking back into, as if stepping into quicksand, a life like Rachel’s early one.

In my copy of the book, there is an illuminating afterword by Margaret Atwood, in which she writes (pp. 213-214):

Rachel’s prison is so hard for her to get out of because it is made mostly from virtues gone sour: filial devotion, self-sacrifice, the concern for appearances advocated by St. Paul, a sense of duty, the desire to avoid hurting others, and the wish to be loved.  It may be hard for us to remember, now, that Rachel is not some sort of aberration but merely the epitome of what nice girls were once educated to be.  To go against such overwhelming social assumptions, to assert instead one’s self, as Rachel finally does, takes more than a little courage and a good deal of desperation.  Desperation and courage are the two magnetic poles of this book, which begins with the first and arrives at the second.

Also interesting is the thesis paper “Redefining Women’s Worth:  The Ambiguous Nature of Female Identity in Margaret Laurence” by  Christine Styles:

Thus, Laurence effectively demonstrates what Joyce Nicholson identifies as a veritable dilemma for women: “For her is … the choice between being attractive, a socially successful person or a failure, between becoming what women are expected to be, a wife and a mother, or being considered peculiar, unsatisfied, unfulfilled” (Nicholson 27). Her novels explore the struggle to acquire and maintain an equilibrium between personal desire and social conditioning. Laurence illustrates the anti-social and self- destructive forms of behavior (including the tendency to interiorize) which are encountered when women are tom between these two restrictive and undesirable options. One means by which Laurence demonstrates the difficulties her female characters face in their specific social contexts, is through examining the manner in which society offers security and happiness based on the willingness of the female to conform. Should a woman be pretty enough, sweet enough, enough of everything socially desirable, she will be rewarded with a loving husband and children. And, of course, she will be completely fulfilled in these roles. Closely coupled with society’s constant offers of pleasure in exchange for conformity, is the promise of guilt and despair should a woman step outside her domestic domain. The modem woman’s freedom to do all things becomes the burden of having to do all things, including maintaining the sanctity of the home. Therefore, as this thesis will examine, pleasure in its many forms, particularly outside conventional norms, is closely coupled with both personal and social sanctions. Hence, women are faced with layered, ambiguous messages. Even as they are told to develop the intellect and participate in the pleasures of the body, they are constantly reminded that to do so will remove them from socially beneficial circles. Thus, women’s roles and freedoms are never far removed from political ideologies. Although the twentieth-century woman in Laurence’s novels is tempted by the possibility of creating an autonomous self, she is subject to ” … either/or” thinking: motherhood or individuation, motherhood or creativity, motherhood or freedom” (Rich 160).