July 23, 2013 by Vicki
A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence tells the story of Rachel Cameron, a thirty-four year old teacher who lives with her mother in Manawaka. Rachel struggles against her own social anxiety to interact and connect with other human being. Through a love affair with Nick Kazilik, she learns her own strength and determination which she begins to turn toward her own life. Even her overpowering passive-aggressive mother cannot stand against the will of Rachel Cameron once it has been awoken.
I love Rachel Cameron. She is such a believable and self-aware character. She remains aware of her own pettiness and foibles throughout the novel even as she acts out their dictates and desires. I have special empathy for this character as I also struggle with social anxiety. I am very aware of the personal conversations that go on between fear and intellect. Rachel knows that people don’t judge her as harshly as her fear suggests they might. Yet, she cannot help but react to that fear. She observes her own quirks, such as grasping her pencil so tightly her knuckles turn white, and condemns herself for them thereby enforcing her own set of fears. She truly had not learned how to exist within the world and not be harmed by it, consequently she feared everyone most especially herself.
A Jest of God also tells the story of those surrounding Rachel Cameron and their interactions with her. All of the characters within the story are completely fleshed out with their own hidden motives and secrets. Mr. Willard, the school principle, secretly wishes to physically discipline all of his students as a mean of establishing his own dominance. Calla, Rachel’s fellow teacher, hopes to be granted the gift of “tongues” despite knowing that Saint Paul criticized it as a sin. Rachel’s mother fears Rachel developing her own independence. Rachel’s mother tries her hardest to appear to always care only what is best for other people. In truth, she arranges her opinion of other people’s need to suit her own needs and desires.
Rachel, on the other hand, attempts to live her life meeting the needs and desires of others so as to avoid their censorship and criticism. At one point, Rachel thinks to herself, “If I had to choose between feelings, I know which it would be. But that would be a disaster, from every point of view except the most inner one, and if you chose that side, you would really be on your own . . .” (Laurence, 139). She truly believes that if she acts true to her inner feelings than everyone would turn against her and leave her. She believes that if she does not fit in with everyone’s expectations of her than they will throw her away like yesterday’s garbage. Through the novel, however, Rachel learns that this is not true. Rachel suspects that she is pregnant and reveals it to Calla. Calla responds that she will help as much as Rachel wishes even up to moving in with her and the child if needed. Rachel realizes that she can be herself and find those like herself. She knows she will always be afraid, but she can deal with the fear as long as she can believe that she will not be alone.
I think A Jest of God explores a Canadian woman’s life; not as an example of all Canadian women but as a demonstration of how varied Canadian life can be for both men and women. Rachel Cameron is unique amongst her fellows. All secret their own fears and desires but none have HER fears and desires. She grows to learn that she cannot control what other people think of her. All she can do is live her own life to the best of her ability and try to make sure that she meets her own needs and desires. No one is easy to live with, Rachel learns, not even yourself. I thoroughly recommend A Jest of God without qualification. It is an enjoyable read with fully developed characters and an engaging plot. I could not help but cheer for Rachel as she slowly learned how to be herself without any requirements foisted upon her by others.