A Jest of God: The Book Review

The first cover of A Jest of God (1966)


A Jest of God is a novel by Canadian author Margaret Laurence. It was first published in 1966. It won the Governor General’s Award  for 1966 . 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 lead role and Estelle Parsons as Calla, both of whom received Academy Award nominations for their performances. It was also nominated for Best Picture.

Revised Cover of A Jest of God (1966)

About The Author

Margaret Laurence (née Jean Margaret Wemyss), was a Canadian novelist (born 18 July 1926 in Neepawa, MB; died 5 January 1987 in Lakefield, ON). Margaret Laurence was one of the pivotal and foundational figures in women’s literature in Canada. Two of her novels — A Jest of God (1966) and The Diviners (1974) — won the Governor General’s Literary Award  for fiction. She also wrote acclaimed poetry, short stories and children’s literature, helped found the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and served as chancellor of Trent University. She was made a Companion of the Order of Canada  in 1972 and was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada  in 2018.

Margaret Laurence

Storyline of The Novel

The tale of the dutiful daughter who returned home to care for her ailing widowed mother records with appalling accuracy the life of a thirty-four year old spinster schoolteacher in a small town outside of Winnipeg. The relentless confinement of Rachel Cameron‘s life is disrupted the summer the milkman’s son, now a teacher in a Winnipeg high school, returns to visit his parents. Rachel is an easy mark; her affair with Nick brings out passion after awkwardness, and the yearning for a family of her own. The understanding that Nick is married destroys the affair but not her longing, and when she thinks she is bearing his child she determines to go through with her pregnancy. The prospective infant turns out to be a tumour, benign; Nick turns out to be unmarried and the more inaccessible; but Rachel emerges from her experience with a new conception of herself and her environment. She will no longer be a victim, though she may be a reluctant jester, and she makes the needed move to a place where her old responsibilities and limitations will remain but where there will be a greater freedom. Saved from soap opera by an utter sureness and honesty of vision, from dreariness by the aptitude of its portrayals, this carries a compassionate conviction that will reach a limited but sensitive feminine readership.

Poster of movie Rachel, Rachel (1968) based on novel A Jest of God (1966)

Analysis of The Storyline

The novel gets told with difficulty because Rachel’s voice is halting, obsessive. She begins her story as an observer, watching the children in the schoolyard, watching herself both in her immediate present as a teacher and remembering back to her childhood. She thinks of the “secret language” children share. In contrast, her own language is halting, and she finds difficulty establishing a voice. She frequently interrupts to judge her voice critically. She wonders: “Am I beginning to talk in that simper tone?” . Then, as a corrective, she speaks “more sharply than necessary,” and cautions herself to “strike a balance” . But, if we read this story in Jungian terms. (as many critics do),we perceive that Rachel cannot achieve this desired balance until she accepts her shadow side. Locked in a pattern of avoidance, no wonder she finds “my own voice sounds false to my ears”.

Joanne Woodward as Rachel in Rachael, Rachael (1968)

Because she resists acknowledging her desires, she remains blocked. When she approaches a recognition of her “darker,” “shadow” selves, she retreats, and stops the story. If she fears she is entertaining “morbid” thoughts or eccentric fantasies, she admonishes herself: “This must stop. It isn’t good for me. Whenever I find myself thinking in a brooding way, I must simply turn it off and think of something else”. She retreats from her sexual fantasies : “I didn’t. I didn’t…. Rachel, stop it. You’re only getting yourself worked up for nothing. It’s bad for you”. Yet these private fantasies are colourful and engaging, in vibrant contrast to her stilted public language and constrained behaviour. Fortunately, almost in spite of herself, she comes to acknowledge her desires and to face the implications of sexual passion. Through a symbolic descent into the underworld, the womblike, tomblike mortuary presided over by Hector Jonas (/Jonah), she realizes that she has the power to affirm her passions, to choose life.

scene from Rachel, Rachel (1968)
scene from Rachel, Rachel (1968)


A Jest of God is beautifully written, a sympathetic, tender novel which sees Rachel come to a new understanding about herself, and her standing with her difficult mother. A thoroughly beautiful novel, that still possesses its relevance to today’s readers.