New Perspectives on Margaret Laurence: Poetic Narrative, Multiculturalism, and Feminism

By Greta M. K. McCormick Coger | Go to book overview

Chapter 15
The Subversive Voice in The Fire-Dwellers

Mitzi Hamovitch

The double voice of Stacey MacAindra, central protagonist of Margaret Laurence The Fire-Dwellers, is plainly heard by the reader throughout the novel. In the driven internal monologue that dominates the novel, the voice is muffled and covert, hidden from other characters in the novel because it is subversive of patriarchal society. It is, however, of major importance to the feminist reader. The second voice, overt, but muted in importance, is often wistful, tentative, conformist, occasionally mildly rebellious, easily rebuffed, and sometimes fragmented. Laurence's intention is to reconcile the two voices by the end of the novel, but with the advantage of years of feminist theory, the subversive voice is louder.

Background about the existence of an important subversive voice in Laurence's novels comes from feminist theory as it related to language. In Language and Woman's Place, Lakoff describes women's language as lacking authority and seriousness, conviction and confidence. In her view, in comparison with the (ostensibly) forceful and effective language of men, women are hesitant, tentative, even trivial, and are therefore "deficient," as she puts it. Spender disagrees with Lakoff stating in Man Made Language that her research and that of others who find women's language, the language of more than half the members of society, "inferior," is based on the fallacious belief that language belongs to men in our patriarchal society, and that women somehow don't use language as effectively or persuasively as men. Spender's thesis is that the English language has been "literally man made and that it is still under male control." Women have to break that control to ensure that what women say and how they say it will be regarded as equally significant. Public discourse has been dominated by men for their own ends, and women have been either excluded or made to feel "uncomfortable," or to serve those ends, if and when, they do participate. In the words of Tillie Olsen, "Not to be able to come to one's own truth . . . even when telling the truth, having to 'tell it slant,' robs one of drive, of conviction, and limits potential stature" (339). Voice and utterance are central in the novel.

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