Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Margaret Laurence: The Woman and the Masks

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Margaret Laurence: The Woman and the Masks

Article excerpt

Margaret Laurence employs references to masks to convey character in her African and Canadian fiction and nonfiction. Curiously, this significant element of her writing has not yet been explored. Because her employment of masking is complex, combining literal and figurative levels of signification, consideration of masking traditions in diverse cultures may help to illuminate her use of this trope.

Masking can conceal, reveal, or transform, as European, African, and Aboriginal Canadian masks demonstrate. Laurence includes literal African and Indigenous North American masks in her writing and employs figurative masks to convey her fictional characters. Examining instances of this trope in her texts reveals development in her use of masking, from literal to figurative. The connections she reveals in essays and interviews between her life and work suggest that her fictional characters, especially her Canadian heroines, who resemble her most closely, may be facets, or masks, of her self. Thus, "the woman and the masks" forms a two-faced approach: her "life" masks may illuminate her writing, and her fictional masks may reveal her true self. (1)

Masquerade is a complex phenomenon with roots in many cultures. Researching the significance of masks inspires conflicting views (Napier xxiv) because masking can have opposing, even contradictory, functions. Masks can be used to conceal or to reveal, functions Brian Mullen et al. label as "deindividuation" and "depersonalization" (1073). Concealment, or deindividuation, denotes a reduction in self-identity, exemplified by European masquerade, while revelation, or depersonalization, describes an increase in social identity, as in Classical Greek, African, and Aboriginal Canadian rituals.

Concealment is the simpler function of masking: to "mask" suggests disguise, implying hidden secrets. People who customarily wear masks, robbers and executioners, appear sinister. To "unmask" a person implies revealing guilty secrets. "Indeed, the general impression we have of masks--in the theatre, at a masked ball, at such festivals as Halloween--is of something sinister or clandestine," Ian Jenkins affirms (166).

Whereas mirrors encourage self-focus and self-reference, masks have deindividuating effects, for they offer the wearers anonymity. While Laurence's use of mirror imagery has been addressed by Diana Brydon in her 1988 essay "Silence, Voice and the Mirror: Margaret Laurence and Women," Laurence's use of masking has not yet been considered. Because the face is the index of our identity and register of our emotions, "a mask leads to a decrease in both self-awareness and social identity" (Mullen 1077). In Early Modern European cultures, masquerade allowed deindividuation, permitting individuals to conceal their identities: masked balls invited licentious behaviour and clandestine intrigues. Masquerade persists in Lenten celebrations at Mardi Gras and Venice's Carnevale and in grotesque Halloween masks-- "masks that leer out of the dark on Hallowe'en" (47), as Hagar Shipley recalls in Laurence's novel The Stone Angel.

Laurence's use of metaphorical masking in her fiction may be inspired by her life. She may not have worn literal masks, but she discovered early the value of figurative masking as a means of concealing her feelings. Orphaned by age ten--her mother, Verna Simpson Wemyss, died of acute kidney infection just two days after her daughter's fourth birthday, and her father, Neepawa lawyer Robert Wemyss, died of pneumonia when she was nine--young Peggy Wemyss adopted a mask to conceal her grief: "When my piano teacher said how sorry she had been to hear about my father, I just ignored her. That surly, often angry mask was my only defence" (56), she recalls in Dance on the Earth: A Memoir. Laurence often employs figurative masking as disguise: at United College, she refused an invitation to join a sorority on principle: "My principles, although relatively laudable, were also a crude mask for my own uncertainties" (94) she acknowledges in that memoir. …

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