How does Margaret Laurence create sympathy for Hagar, despite her negative character traits in The Stone Angel?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Laurence creates sympathy for Hagar by showing her as a complex figure.  

Hagar is more than her appearances.  If Hagar was one- dimensional, sympathy would be limited because she would be the sum total of her negative characteristics.  However, Laurence is skilled in layering Hagar with emotional intricacy.  She is human, embodying all of the shortcomings within it.

In showing her childhood, Laurence is able to develop empathy for Hagar. Hagar experiences the pain that no child should have to experience when her mother dies early in her life.  Hagar is not able to find peace with what happened because there is no emotional outreach for her.  Hagar's father does not model emotional traits that she can emulate.  Laurence suggests that children who lack emotional role models can grow up to be adults who find complex sentiments challenging.  When we feel the need to criticize Hagar because of her emotional limitations, Laurence subtly reminds us that such people are not born.  Rather, they are made into what they are. 

Hagar possesses a reflective capacity that connects to the reader.  Towards the end of her life, Hagar is introspective about who she is and the place she occupies in the world.  Her inward- looking capacity enables the reader to relate to her.  This empathy can be seen when Hagar says, "I can't change what's happened to me in my life, or make what's not occurred take place. But I can't say I like it, or accept it, or believe it's for the best. I don't and never shall, not even if I'm damned for it.”  The reader sees Hagar as more than a dominating matron.  Rather, events both within and outside of her control torment her.  She acknowledges that decisions were made and realities were forged.  In the end, all human beings can reflect what Hagar says about the trajectory of one's life.  It is complex and little in it is absolute. This is one example of the sympathy that is felt for Hagar.

Laurence paints an emotional portrait that is filled with intense emotions such as abandonment, alienation, and forlornness.  Such experiences strike pain in any human being.  When seeing Hagar experience them, the reader feels empathy.  This can be seen when Hagar confronts finality in statements such as, "Every last one of them has gone away and left me. I never left them. It was the other way around, I swear it." or "I'm choked with it now, the incommunicable years, everything that happened and was spoken or not spoken." The pain of being human are intrinsic to such statements.   They speak of the hurt in being misunderstood as well as acknowledging that loved ones were treated improperly.

Human beings make mistakes.  Sometimes, they happen in our relationships. Hagar displays this and, as a result, sympathy is generated.  In feeling bad for her, we realize that we also feel bad for ourselves as we might have made some of the same mistakes Hagar has made.  Just as she suffers, some of us might experience similar emotional realities. 

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The Stone Angel

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