Margaret Laurence

A Jest of God

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A Jest of God Summary

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Set in a small Manitoba town during the Great Depression, Canadian author Margaret Laurence’s novel A Jest of God (1966) tells the story of thirty-four-year-old spinster schoolteacher Rachel Cameron as she experiences a midlife awakening that has profound effects on her circumstances, her heart, and her future. Trapped by the confines of small-town life and her duties caring for her overbearing mother, Rachel embarks on an affair that opens a door to liberation—a newfound freedom that she must learn to accept on her own terms.

The novel opens as Rachel looks out the window of her classroom, reflecting that for the majority of her life, she has either been a student or a teacher in this very school. The children are at recess, singing a song that she used to sing as a child. Catching herself reminiscing, Rachel reminds herself that she mustn’t turn into an eccentric, a common occurrence among the schoolteachers, spinsters, and widows in her town. She has only ever left her hometown once for any significant period and that was to attend college. However, after her graduation and the death of her father, she decided to move back in to help care for her demanding mother. They live together over the funeral home that Rachel’s father once operated. The only one in the family who made it out was Rachel’s sister, Stacey, who moved to the city, married, and had four children; she rarely returns home, leaving Rachel to the often-unappealing task of dealing with the manipulative Mrs. Cameron.

Not surprisingly, Rachel feels stuck in her life. Her only joy is focusing all her love and attention on one of her seven-year-old students each year. This year, that student is James, but Rachel doesn’t let on that he’s her favorite. In a way, she pins all of her hopes and dreams on her chosen student, imagining for them a much bigger, brighter future than she could ever imagine for herself.

Rachel has a friend, Calla, whom she really feels is her only ally in life. Nevertheless, even with Calla, Rachel is somewhat reserved. Calla definitely falls into the eccentric category Rachel so studiously avoids. Calla dresses strangely and attends a Pentecostal church, which Rachel promises to attend with her one day.

After school lets out for the summer, Rachel crosses paths with an old schoolmate, Nick Kazlik, the son of the town’s milkman. He, too, is a teacher, but he lives and works in the city and is only home for the summer. Returning to his hometown brings up unresolved issues Nick has about the death of his identical twin brother many years earlier.

Rachel and Nick begin sleeping together. This is uncharacteristic for Rachel, who is in no way experienced in the ways of love and sex. Nick is gentle with her, and she finds herself blossoming in their relationship. Because of the intensity of feelings the affair generates in her, Rachel is much more serious about Nick than he is about her. She dreams of a future in which they are together, despite his hot-and-cold treatment of her; at one point, he doesn’t call her for several days. Still, she cannot deny the heat, the passion, the bliss Nick triggers deep within her; the fact that the affair is a secret, kept from her mother’s interference and the prying eyes of the town, only adds to the excitement.

One day, Rachel makes good on her promise to attend church with Calla. The religious fervor of the service is matched by the liberating sexual fervor Rachel feels inside. As the preacher works the congregation into a frenzy, Rachel’s inner passions collide with the outer world, and she begins speaking in tongues at the service. Terrified by her outburst, she runs from the church. Calla follows and kisses Rachel on the mouth. Unsure of Calla’s intentions—if they are the result of the service’s heightened emotions or the product of unspoken feelings on Calla’s part—Rachel runs home.

She continues seeing Nick, but when she misses her period, Rachel fears she is pregnant. She knows that her mother and her community will spurn her if she has a child out of wedlock. She debates committing suicide, even emptying a bottle of pills in her hand, but, ultimately, she throws the pills out the window.

Rachel goes to Dr. Raven to see if she really is pregnant. He informs her that she isn’t—what she thinks is a pregnancy is just a benign tumor. When she tells Nick, he reveals that he is actually married to a woman in the city. Later, Rachel goes to his parents and finds out that Nick is lying, that he has never been married. Heartbroken by this betrayal, she stops seeing him. With Nick out of her life, Rachel takes the sense of freedom she has attained and channels it into leaving town. At the end of the novel, she goes to British Columbia to live with her sister, finally escaping her mother, the detritus of a broken love affair, and the emptiness of an unfulfilling life.

In 1968, director Paul Newman and screenwriter Stewart Stern adapted A Jest of God into the motion picture Rachel, Rachel. It starred Joanne Woodward in the title role and Estelle Parsons as Calla, both of whom received Academy Award nominations for their performances. It was also nominated for Best Picture.