The Shaman and the River: Symbolism and Self-Discovery in The Diviners

The Diviners by Margaret Laurence begins on a farm. This farm is the place of Morag’s birth and her early childhood years. In the first “snapshot,” (p.7) her parents are standing in front of a “farm gate” (p.7). Her mother is pregnant with the soon to be born Morag. Morag is the “little fish…invisible…still buried alive” (p.8). With Morag as the “fish” her mother’s body becomes the water in which she swims, the River of Life. So begins Morag’s story and a narrative which conveys the importance of what is unseen, what we carry with us, and where we belong.

On the first farm, Morag is both herself, the child with an active imagination, and the shaman, the one who sees the unseen. She sees the “invisible creatures who [inhabit] the place with her” (p.13). When her parents become ill and are kept upstairs away from her,she creates another family, “the spruce -house family” (p.15). Into this new family she is born again, connected and rooted to this place. She knows that she belongs here. Although her parents die when she is only five, leaving her orphaned, they remain hidden deep inside of her. Looking back in later years, she does not consciously remember them but “they are inside [her], flowing unknown in [her] blood and moving unrecognized in [her] skull” (p.21).

Now as an orphan Morag must go live with her new adoptive parents, Christie and Princess , in the small town of Manawaka. Her adopted father Christie works as the garbage man. He collects all the refuse for the town and dumps it in what they call “the nuisance grounds”(p.41). He is the “shaman” who can see what is unseen. He tells her, “by their garbage shall ye know them” (p.44). Being able to see what is buried beneath the surface of the trash he is the diviner for the secrets of the townspeople. Christie wants to give Morag a history she can feel proud of and a place where she can belong and so he makes up stories of bravery and honor. In his own way he is trying to replace what she has lost. He becomes Morag’s father figure although she does not accept him as such, at this time, saying “Christie is not my old man! My dad is dead” (p.82).

Trying to escape her history Morag moves away from the small town to reinvent herself in the big city. She wants to erase her past and become a blank slate without any history. When she meets and falls in love with Brooke, her university professor, she decides that “she will conceal everything about herself which he might not like” (p.227). She tells herself that “Manawaka and that –it’s over. It doesn’t exist. It’s unimportant” (p.230). However, she discovers later that she can not run from her past because “the whole town [is] inside [her] head” (p.413). Magically an important person comes from her past into her present. He is Jules, her first love. He not only brings with him her past, a reminder and a comfort of who she really is, but he also brings with him her future. Morag leaves her husband Brooke and gets pregnant with Jules’s baby. He becomes the “shaman” by changing her status from woman to mother, giving her a continuation of her own history through having a child (p.319). Now pregnant with her own little “fish” swimming in the river of her body, Morag decides that “she needs a home for herself and her child…[and] if she is to have a home, she must create it” (p.341). She moves to Vancouver and then to London. Once she is outside of Canada, in England and then Scotland, she realizes that this land does not belong to her, “except a long long way back” (p.456). She realizes that her home is “Christie’s real country. Where [she] was born” (p.456). She tells her daughter, for the first time, “we are going back home”(p.456).

Morag and her daughter return to Canada and she travels to see Christie before he dies. Recognizing the role he has played in her life she tells him,”Christy–I used to fight a lot with you…but you’ve been my father to me” (p.461). This sense of coming home to Canada, and acceptance of Christie as her father, is the turning point in the novel. Now Morag is finally home. She knows and accepts who she is. She can settle down and stop searching. Morag finds a place on a river, a “log house nearly a century old…built by a great pioneering couple [and to her this creates a feeling of] history [and] ancestors” (p.483 ).

The novel comes full circle to its final destination, back to the farm, the river, the land. Morag begins to accept herself as she is, and here, beside the river, she meets her neighbour, Royland. She calls him “old man river… the shaman…diviner” (p.336). It is he who divines for what is hidden under the ground, the unseen, and brings it to the surface. The story starts and finishes with the River: a symbol of time, history, motherhood, the seen and unseen, life, mystery, and magic: “the river flowed both ways…this apparently impossible contradiction, made apparent and possible…[it] ”seemed to be flowing both ways (p.1) Morag could now “look ahead into the past, and back into the future, until the silence.” and comprehend the connectedness of everything (p.525).

Although The Diviners is, on the surface, a story about one woman’s journey of self-discovery, her ability to be the story teller, and her personal struggle for acceptance within herself and also within the world, it is also a metaphor for the immigrant experience. Not only the immigrants who come to Canada, but people who left their homes all over the world to seek out a new home in a new place. It is the loss of one’s motherland and fatherland, being as an orphan in the world without family or sense of home and belonging, struggling to not only know who you are but also to express that to those around you, and finally having to confront other’s biases and beliefs all within this new land. In the novel, we are constantly being brought back to the river, this enduring symbol of what is above and below, what is past and present, all moving together as one, to remind us that every person brings with himself or herself a unique story, every person needs a place to call home, and everything is connected.

Works Cited

Laurence, Margaret. The Diviners . Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007