The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence is the story of Hagar Shipley told in flashbacks.
Hagar Shipley was a mean woman, but yet I felt sorry for her because she wasn’t a bad woman. The daughter of a successful businessman in a small Canadian prairie town, Hagar was raised with a certain class-concsiousness. So it is rather surprising when she falls in love with Bram, a good-looking, shiftless, hard-drinking farmer who definitely does not belong to her class. Perhaps because he has the allure of the bad boy, exuding danger and sex, she is determined to marry him even though it means being disowned by her family.
It is clear she thought she could change him, make him acceptable to her middle-class family. She picks on the poor man about how he dresses and how and he talks and is consternated by the fact that he doesn’t care what others think of him and has no intention of changing. Her nagging drives them apart. But she stays married to him in spite of being too embarrassed to be seen in town with him, and in spite of their poverty, because she’d be even more embarrassed and humiliated to divorce him. Plus the sex is good.
Hagar has two boys and treats them almost like she treats her husband. She wants them to be a certain way and share her concerns, her worry about appearances, and her values. Of course they disappoint her. Everyone seems to end up disappointing Hagar. She never bothers to figure out who people are, only what they are not, with the not being how they do not come up to her standards and expectations. She needs to place blame for everything that goes wrong in her life – “Why is it always so hard to find the proper one to blame? Why do I always want to find the one? As though it really helped.” Problem is, she is the one to blame for quite few things. But she is the kind of person who always has to be right and so nothing could ever be her fault.
She would be a thoroughly reprehensible character if it weren’t for her being so pitiful. At ninety she is losing her memory, falls frequently, and is found to have cancer. Her struggle to continue to be self-sufficient, her refusal to allow anyone to help her, how, despite her efforts she slowly must give over her independence, is a sad picture of growing old. The book’s epigraph is from Dylan Thomas “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Hagar does not go gentle. Nor is she completely oblivious to the way she behaves and the effect it has on others. She has self-awareness, but like a child with impulse control issues, she can’t help herself.
There are only a few times when she lets down her guard. Towards the end Mr. Troy, the minister from her son and daughter-in-law’s church visits her in the hospital. Hagar has never been nice to Mr. Troy and she is not nice now. He asks if he can do anything for her, pray perhaps? Hagar demands that he sing a certain hymn for her. Mr. Troy would rather not, but having no way to get out of it he sings. And Hagar is surprised that he has a good, strong voice. He is momentarily transformed for her and the hymn makes her cry. And she thinks to herself,
Every joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine all were forced to a standstill by some brake of proper appearances–oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched.
That has got to be one of the saddest things I have ever read.
Hagar is like the stone angel that was set above the family’s plot in the cemetery. She is an angel, always meaning well, always holding what she sees as the best interest of everyone in mind. She tries to love her husband, she tries to love her sons. And she does, but because she is stone, the love she tries to give is hard and cold. Neither can she accept the love of others; her stoniness serves well as a deflector.
Margaret Laurence tells a good story. Not once did she intrude or write a wrong word. Hagar is so truly written I am able to recognize in her bits of people I know and have known. This, to me, is a sign of a good writer; she has taken the heart of a stone angel and given it life.