(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Stone Angel offers a portrait of a remarkable character who at age ninety confronts her mortality and is terrified, for all she can see behind her is a wasteland of personal failures. Yet her terror becomes the necessary catalyst for a change of heart and a measure of grace that marks her final days.

Hagar Shipley looms large on nearly every page. The novel works mainly through the flashback memories of a ninety-year-old matron who faces the need for a nursing home. Her case is terminal, but she is not ready to die. Too many ghosts from the past haunt her memories and preclude peace for facing the future. Those ghosts are exposed through a skillful interweaving of past and present that cumulatively render an insightful examination of a fallen angel whose overweening pride led her into self-exile.

Hagar loses her mother early in life. She never makes her peace with that death. Yet her imperious, prominent, and self-made father tolerates no weakness of any kind; thus Hagar learns to shut the valves of emotion and live a life of negation and stoicism. Strong-willed like her father, she defies him when she comes of age and chooses to marry Bram Shipley, a good-looking but, in her father’s eyes, good-for-nothing widower with two children who lives on a rundown homestead that never would afford anyone a decent living. No family member attends Hagar’s wedding, and Hagar’s family relationship is never restored. Besides, she soon discovers that she has made a terrible mistake. Bram has no intention of being made over by a snooty young woman who has finishing-school and pedigree credentials and pretensions of a superior sophistication. Instead, Hagar finds herself dragged down by his crudeness, poverty, and hopeless future. Still, they have two sons together: Marvin, whom she hardly acknowledges as her own, and...

(The entire section is 754 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ninety-year-old Hagar Shipley describes the imposing marble angel that her father had erected to mark her mother’s grave; she recalls visiting the cemetery as a child. Hagar still has two pleasures: smoking cigarettes and annoying her son, Marvin (Marv), and his wife, Doris, who live with Hagar. Often, too, Hagar revisits the past.

Hagar reminisces about being six years old. She is proud to be the daughter of Jason Currie, a Manawaka merchant who favors Hagar because she is more like him than are her two older brothers, Matthew (Matt) and Daniel (Dan). At school, Hagar’s best friend is the doctor’s daughter, and she looks down on Telford Simmons, the undertaker’s son, and on Lottie Drieser, a poor, illegitimate child. One winter, Dan falls into the river and becomes desperately ill. Hagar refuses to put on a shawl and sit by Dan and pretend to be his mother. Instead, Matt does so, and he sits with his brother until he dies.

The elderly Hagar falls again. At tea, Marv broaches the subject of selling the house, but Hagar points out angrily that the house is hers, not theirs. To mollify Doris, Hagar agrees to a visit from her minister, Mr. Troy. When Mr. Troy calls, Hagar mentions that though her father had died a rich man, he left her nothing. She remembers being sent by him to finishing school in Toronto and then being kept by him from teaching. Hagar had begun to see Brampton (Bram) Shipley, whom even Lottie calls common. When Hagar’s father points out that Bram is a nobody, Hagar marries him anyway and moves out to his farm. Her father never communicates with her again.

After finding a newspaper with a marked advertisement for Silverthreads, a nursing home, Hagar again announces that she will not move from her home. She remembers hearing of her brother, Matt’s, death from influenza. She also recalls being so embarrassed by Bram’s vulgarity that she will no longer go into Manawaka with him. Marv and Doris keep insisting that the nursing home is an ideal solution for their problems, but Hagar is too busy remembering the pleasures of lovemaking to pay much attention to the two.

While she waits to see her doctor, Hagar remembers having sympathized with Bram after he had lost his favorite horse. In...

(The entire section is 921 words.)