The Diviners is a novel by Margaret Laurence in 1974, and it was Laurence's final novel, and is considered one of the classics of Canadian literature.
The novel won the Governor General's Award for English language fiction in 1974. The protagonist of the novel is Morag Gunn, a fiercely independent writer who grew up in
The book has been repeatedly banned by schoolboards and high schools - usually by complaint from fundamentalist Christian groups labelling the book blasphemous and obscene. It is a regularly featured book on the Canadian Freedom to Read campaign.
"The Diviners" explores the coming of age of Morag Gunn, a girl who grows up in Manawaka, a small prairie town, with her poverty-stricken relatives, and then later has a troubled relationship with her own daughter, Pique. The book also explores issues of race, class and sexuality, especially in terms of her romantic relationship with a Métis man called Jules Tonnerre. The book also explores the reciprocal relationship between the past and the present and this relationship is explored through the imagery of a river than flows both ways. Additionally, every character in the book appears to be searching for something, hence the title of "diviners." While some search for water, Christie, Morag's guardian, is a garbage man, and hence he sifts through piles and piles of rubbish looking for what people threw away. In the novel, Christie's speaks about how much one can tell about someone from what they throw away. At one point he went on a rant and said "by their garbage shall ye know the...by their garbage shall ye christly well know them." This became one of the most powerful passages in the book.
Morag Gunn's search for her identity speaks particularly to the young, the female and the Canadian, but it has evidently been recognized as their own story by many other readers.
Symbolically, the water for which the diviners search is the river of history, always dangerously in movement, yet once entered always there as an expression of identity through past and present, a river that flows both ways. The loose, wide quality of the novel has brought it some denigration but this is an effect of a method which exploits memory.
To begin, two images. In the opening lines of The Diviners Margaret Laurence speaks of a river flowing "both ways." The current moves from north to south; the wind ripples the surface from south to north. Harold Innis also speaks of rivers: rivers that were for the early traders both potential transport into the Canadian continent and threatening obstacles to be overcome. But while Laurence's river is a river of time, the past flowing inescapably into the present as the present moves back through the past, lnnis' rivers represent space, part of a new land to be dominated by imperialist expansion, to be penetrated by the agents of commercial capitalism. Innis writes about the economic and social forces that structured
The Diviners, rather, is structured arourid the same concerns - the implications of oral and written communication, social power, and ideological manipulation - that inspired Innis' research. More importantly, the novel focuses these problems in a socio-historical specificity that provides the critical cutting edge imprecise theory often lacks. I want to look in some detail at the ways that Margaret Laurence's novel reassesses and redirects central difficulties, in Innis' theories.
To understand fluidity and change Margaret Laurence's heroine begins with fixity. The snapshots of Morag's childhood are the frozen images of past moments, the-now formalized presences of what is presently absent. Morag keeps them, she reminds us, "not for what they show, but for what is hidden in them,"3 that is, not for the fixed image but for the imaginative memories swirling behind the static figures. The world hidden in the early snapshots is highly suspect: bits of childhood memories, the make-believe stories and imaginary companions of a very young child, the later embellishments of the older child desperately reconstructing a suitable past. These remembrances remain to a great extent imprisoned in the static formality of the pictures. Unable to merge into the actual continuity which would constitute consciously perceived history, they are relegated to existence as isolated past moments. Thus the first six photographs represent a situation where the past does not press in upon the child's consciousness. Young Morag freely creates her own universe. Yet even the inadequate constructions of the past hidden in the snapshots lead her into the "memorybank movies." The transition from the frozen photographic image of the snapshot to the fluid motion of film marks a shift from a passive past, essentially separate from the self, to an active past pressing in on the individual, defining both consciousness and historical development. The event in the first memorybank movie - the death of Morag's parents - not only precipitates her physical departure from the farm, but also destroys, for a time, the conscious world of the child and her imaginative companions. The recognition of past time and an external social reality structuring the world of the individual is the first tentative movement towards conscious self-understanding.