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The Insidious Effects of Censorship on The Diviners

By Zoe Palmer

Margaret Laurence’s classic novel The Diviners, a künstlerroman about an author and single mother named Morag, was praised by reviewers like Ms. Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, and The Observer upon its publication, but has also been the subject of great controversy over the past forty-five years. Canadian school districts from Huron to Alberta attempted to ban it several times, citing vulgar language and representations of sex deemed inappropriate for the classroom. The first and most notable instance, spearheaded by a local minister and supported by parents, was in Peterborough, Ontario in 1976. Laurence herself stayed out of the debate surrounding this first attempt, despite the degree to which the deeply private author was hurt by the largely unfounded criticism of her final novel (Cohen 101). Now, The Diviners is more frequently seen on library recommendation lists of banned books than on school reading lists. Through decades of performative censorship based on fear mongering, rather than legitimate criticism, the literary merit of The Diviners has been lost, leading to a decline in its popularity.

Those who wished to ban or otherwise censor The Diviners had several reasons to do so—some more legitimate than others. The three main objections cited by parents, school boards, and others were its morality, vulgarity, and possible effects on students. Criticisms of the book’s morality were nowhere near universally agreed upon; one parent in Gloucester compared it to “Hustler or Playboy magazines” (“Gloucester”), while another in Madoc called Laurence “the best reservoir of moral writing that we have in Canada” (Simpson). One of the most commonly cited grievances was the frequent use of “choice four-lettered words” (Ross), which one reviewer compared to Mark Twain (The Atlantic). The Diviners does contain an immense number of “curse words”: several pages feature long sequences of swearing, with five to ten words that could be objectionable per page, such as “bloody goddamn fucking garbage” (Laurence 48) and “Fuck. Shit. Bloody bloody christly hell” (Laurence 128). Critics also expressed concerns over Laurence’s depictions of sex and its consequences, from contraception to pregnancy and abortion, but rarely made the distinction between the erotic and the pornographic. Cohen describes Laurence’s own position on the subject: she saw little danger in erotic content between “consenting adults” (p. 109), but was opposed to abusive pornography (pp. 109-12). The erotic content of The Diviners has been both praised as “essential to the portrayal of the central character” (“Cannonballs…”) and denounced as the exact opposite (Sim). 

The final concern expressed by many critics was the novel’s possible effects on students who may not be ready for such adult content. One Peterborough councillor worried that rates of teen pregnancy “might have a lot to do with the books [teens] are reading” (“Novels receive…”), and other opponents argued that there was “a direct relationship between the [pornographic] novels and incidents of sexual violence in the community” (Bogdan & Yeomans 202). These concerns had no basis in fact and were, essentially, fearmongering. Although many of the objections towards The Diviners’ continued presence in schools were technically correct (characters, including Morag and other women, do swear and have sex), the vast majority of these objections were profoundly disconnected from the context and meaning of the book: the most crucial aspects to consider in any debate about censorship. The question of what is “appropriate” is a nebulous one, subject to personal morality, culture, and countless other factors; only through thorough perusal of every aspect of a book can it be fairly evaluated, and the objections toward The Diviners were neither thorough nor fair.

There are certainly some cases in which a legitimate argument for censorship can be made. Books that use racist language or stereotypes often influence younger readers to mimic the racist behavior – such as when students in Grades 7-10 at a Kitchener, Ontario-area school threw coins at Jewish students after studying The Merchant of Venice (Hornberger). The Diviners occasionally uses terms like “halfbreed,” which are offensive to Métis people, but only in contexts that clarify how hurtful the terms can be. When Morag’s mixed-race daughter exclaims to her, “What do you know of it? You’ve never been called a dirty halfbreed” (Laurence 446), Laurence does not excuse racism; she gives a concrete example of someone who suffers from it. Cohen mentions a letter from someone who supported the removal of The Diviners from Peterborough’s curriculum. This person wonders why “teachers avoid books that offend Jews and Blacks,” but “teach books that offend those who shun profanity and talk of sex” (Cohen 91-2). This argument ignores real problems with racism and antisemitism and, by comparing swearing and sex to the perpetuation of stereotypes, it links fringe fundamentalists with marginalized groups who have “understandable reasons for voicing objections” (Abeles). Laurence’s novel is not explicit for the sake of being explicit; each objectionable word or incident has meaning.

Any legitimate reasons given for the censorship of The Diviners in Peterborough are tainted by the circumstances that surrounded the protest. Many of these people had not even read The Diviners in its entirety, believing that once offensive passages were identified, the rest of the novel did not matter (Bogdan & Yeomans 200). By taking passages and quotes completely out of context, they revealed how shallow their concerns were and incited fear rather than sparking a productive debate. Rather counterintuitively, the attempts to ban the book included circulating the offending passages, exposing even more people to its so-called corruption. No one was forced to read The Diviners, either; under Ontario law, students can decide not to study a book based on moral or religious objections (Ayre 10). The Grade 13 students in question, many of them legal adults, did not particularly care about the book’s explicit content; a 1976 article in the Globe and Mail about the proposed banning of The Diviners and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (criticized for similar reasons) quotes several students who point out that they have already experienced many of the “offensive” scenarios in the books (Sallot). The title of the article itself, “‘Banning of this book an insult to my intelligence,’” shows that the students felt like they were mature enough to read about situations of sex and violence. Those who had actually read the book – the students and teachers – understood the importance of the objectionable content to the book as a whole; those who had not – the parents, trustees, and members of the clergy – were outraged with little concrete basis. 

Vulgarity in The Diviners serves an important literary purpose. When the context surrounding swearing is examined, patterns emerge. Initially, most swearing comes from Morag’s foster-father Christie, who is straightforward, no-nonsense, and not well-respected by the inhabitants of Manawaka, largely because of his job as a trash collector. Morag imitates him, but later makes a conscious attempt to swear less in an effort to distance herself from him: “If you swear at fourteen it only makes you look cheap, and she is not cheap, goddamn it. Gol-darn it” (Laurence 122). The particular use of the word “cheap” in Morag’s narration highlights her desire to improve her social and financial situation. Too much swearing would alienate Morag from the respectable people at her new job in a clothing store. Her friend and lover Jules also swears frequently, both as a child and as an adult, further othering him in the eyes of society. Swearing provides a way for Laurence to immediately mark outsiders and people who do not care about being accepted by the world as a whole. As Morag grows up and swears less, she integrates with academics and ‘intellectuals,’ people who are considered to be better than Christie and Jules. By dismissing all instances of so-called “four-letter words” as vulgar and deserving of censorship, opponents of The Diviners reveal their inability to think critically about why Laurence included them; the existence of the words is all that matters, not their significance for Morag’s growth or marking societal outsiders.

The ignorance displayed by those who wished to censor The Diviners in Peterborough brings up another key issue relating to censorship: who has the ability to decide what is or is not offensive? Should it be the students who are most affected? Their parents? Religious leaders who position themselves as beacons of moral righteousness? Teachers who have devoted their lives to literature? In Peterborough, trustees decided not to ban The Diviners; other school boards caved to pressure and made the opposite decision. Escott suggests that the power should continue to “[lie] with the people’s elected representatives,” as they can be voted out if people are unsatisfied with their work. However, the ability of citizens to vote out school board members is exactly what makes them unfit to decide what should be taught in schools. Their job is to create the best learning environment for students, but in reality, their agenda is to please the (adult) voters, not to benefit the students. One journalist even called the trustee-based book selection in Huron a “farce” (Clinton), and the British Columbia Supreme Court “ruled that trustees gave too much weight to the religious concerns of one group of parents” in banning books chosen “to help address homophobia and violence in schools” (Shariff). Teachers are hired for their knowledge of literature and ability to impart its importance to students; they choose schoolbooks based on how they might enrich students, not whether they suit the standards of a local minister. The Diviners provides students with explorations of authorship, womanhood, growing up, death, and self-determination precisely because of its objectionable content. Such complex topics are best explored in stark, unsanitized reality. By focusing on the objectionable content itself, its opponents erased these themes, transforming the novel into the shallow book they thought it was.

Although The Diviners was not banned in Peterborough in 1976, the controversy it generated had long-lasting consequences for its status as a great Canadian novel. A kind of censorship particular to schools took effect in lieu of bans: censorship through selection. Brown notes that the book “just [doesn’t] appear on school book lists anymore,” and Escott mentions an incident in which a book was quasi-banned by never being added to the curriculum. Teachers who fear backlash like that experienced by Robert Buchanan, the teacher who initially selected The Diviners in Peterborough, are inclined to leave books that may be controversial off of their syllabi. The “fine line between selection and censorship” (Shariff) gets thinner and thinner as selection becomes tinged with fear. Whether a book like The Diviners is banned outright or merely left aside, the final result is the same: it is not taught.

The actual content of The Diviners has gotten lost amidst attacks on its morality and language. While it does show casual sex, it is not portrayed in a positive light. Morag notes how unhappy her roommate Fan is deep down, and she herself is “hurt” by “the casualness of this association [with a one-night stand]” (Laurence 344). In the novel, casual sex is unfulfilling, not something to aspire to, as some incorrectly assumed. Even pleasurable sex like the kind Morag experiences with Jules has negative consequences; one contemporary review asserted that their daughter Pique was “suffering from her illegitimacy.” Laurence’s writing itself, which was initially praised for its authenticity, realism, and technique (Straub, Larkin), has become overshadowed by controversy, a common occurrence with frequently-banned books. Penguin Random House Canada’s list of “15 Frequently Banned & Challenged Books” vaguely describes why each book on the list was challenged, but gives no information about its plot or themes. The mere fact that it has been challenged becomes the most important thing about it, making it a fun fact or novelty rather than a key part of the Canadian literary canon. Angry parents in Peterborough did not succeed in banning The Diviners, but they became part of a larger movement across Canada that, through deliberate selection and self-censorship by teachers, eventually pushed its target out of high schools.

The initial calls for the censorship of The Diviners had severely flawed foundations, but were not entirely incorrect. The book contains swearing and sexual situations that are inappropriate for younger children. Among older students, however, the concerns make less sense and reveal a desire to ban a book simply because it depicts a reality that does not align with a moral ideal, a performative kind of censorship that is detrimental to education. Ultimately, The Diviners earned its presence in curricula through the skillful prose and complex characterizations that contribute to its “high literary calibre” (Bogdan & Yeomans 200) as judged by experts in literature. Its morality, good or bad, adequate or lacking, should not matter. 

Works Cited

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