Academic journal article International Fiction Review

Temples and Tabernacles: Alternative Religions in the Fictional Microcosms of Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, and Alice Munro

Academic journal article International Fiction Review

Temples and Tabernacles: Alternative Religions in the Fictional Microcosms of Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, and Alice Munro

Article excerpt

Some of the greatest Canadian novelists are regionalists who convey Canadian identity through developing fictional microcosms. Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, and Alice Munro follow in the tradition of novelists such as Walter Scott, Thomas Hardy, and William Faulkner, who created their fictional kingdoms of Waverley, Wessex, and Yoknapatawpha County. Laurence, Davies, and Munro each create a fictional microcosm in Manawaka, Deptford, and Jubilee--based on their actual hometowns of Neepawa, Manitoba, and Thamesville and Wingham, Ontario, respectively--that encapsulates in miniature what they see as defining features of a typical Canadian community.

Davies, Laurence, and Munro all convey the social stratifications of their microcosms through a delineation of their respective town's religious denominations: in Davies's Deptford Trilogy--Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975)--and Laurence's Manawaka cycle---The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1960), A Bird in the House (1970), and The Diviners (1974)--as well as in Munro's novel Lives of Girls and Women (1971), in which Munro develops the microcosm of Jubilee introduced in "The Peace of Utrecht," first published in 1960 and collected in Dance of the Happy Shades (1968). (1) Interestingly, all these texts were published within the decade of 1964 to 1975 that roughly frames the Manawaka cycle, when Canadian writers were intent on defining a national identity.

These three authors--who were all awarded the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction for one of these novels--focus on their communities' Christian churches in order to identify their cultural conditions. While there have been valuable studies of religion, especially in the works of Davies and Laurence, by critics such as Dave Little (2) and Elizabeth Potvin, (3) to name just a few, no one has yet addressed the parallels in the use of churches--both the architecture and decor of the buildings and the cultural composition of the congregation--by these three authors to characterize Canadian identity. (4)

To begin with Davies's Deptford Trilogy, in Fifth Business (1970), Dunstan Ramsay delineates the denominational demographics of Deptford succinctly: "We had five churches: the Anglican, poor but believed to have some mysterious social supremacy; the Presbyterian, solvent and thought--chiefly by itself--to be intellectual; the Methodist, insolvent and fervent; the Baptist, insolvent and saved; the Roman Catholic, mysterious to most of us but clearly solvent, as it was frequently and, so we thought, quite needlessly repainted." (5) This skeleton outline of the ecclesiastical, social, and financial stratifications of the society of the town provides a prelude to Ramsay's fascination with saints and miracles, investigation of hagiography, and acquaintance with the Jesuit Boliandists of Europe, in whose journal, Analecta Bollandiana, he publishes his research--a crucial fact that "that ineffable jackass Lorne Packer" (FB 6) neglects to mention in his "idiotic piece" published "in all its inanity" in Colborne's College Chronicle with the fatuous title "FAREWELL TO THE CORK" (FB 5).

Initially, Dunstable's determination never again to be his mother's "own dear laddie" (FB 30)--after she is transformed by his wit and experiments in prestidigitation into a "screeching fury" (FB 30) who flogs him with a pony whip--inspires his escape from Deptford by enlisting in the Canadian Army during the First World War. His miraculous salvation by the Little Madonna with the face of his Fool-Saint Mary Dempster at Passchendaele--and his renaming as "Dunstan," after the saint who twisted the Devil's nose, by Diana Marfleet, whose devoted nursing facilitates his "rebirth" from his coma--inspires his study of hagiography, which, in turn, provides an opportunity to pursue the "mysterious," seductive forbidden faith of "the Scarlet Woman of Rome" (FB 36) in the company of Jesuit Bollandists, like the intriguing Padre Blazon, on the Continent. …

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