The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 367

The character of Hagar, like Herman Melville’s Ahab and Jack London’s Wolf Larsen, is memorably rendered larger than life. Proud as Lucifer, Hagar surveys the wasteland of her life, unbending and unregenerate until nearly the end. That wasteland includes nearly every character in the book as a victim of Hagar’s pride. As Laurence imposes on Hagar the need for self-examination, each character is summoned through flashbacks and memories. Included is Jason Currie, the father whose favor she lost when she defied him. There is also Lottie Drieser, her schoolmate whom she treated as an inferior. Especially, there are the people who became her own family and should have become an intimate part of her life, yet did not. There is Bram, the man she married mostly as an act of rebellion but whose virility she loved, and yet to whom she could never give one word of approval or acceptance. There is Marvin, her first-born, docile and serving by nature, who needed her approval and acceptance desperately but for whom Hagar nurtured an undisguised scorn. There is also Marvin’s wife, Doris, who is the constant recipient of Hagar’s verbal abuse. Each of these characters becomes an embodied indictment of Hagar’s blindness to her own destructiveness. In that parade of witnesses, none is more poignant than John, Hagar’s favorite son, for whom Hagar’s blindness turns out the most destructive of all. It is John’s loss that carries the most stinging indictment and festers in Hagar’s memory like an open wound. Ironically, it is John’s death that becomes the means for Hagar’s “salvation.”

Laurence’s choice to have Hagar carry the point of view and be the sole voice of the story allows the reader to see much more than the tough, forbidding exterior that has kept all the people in Hagar’s life at a distance. Inside, Hagar is fragile, insecure, frightened by her own vulnerability and even more by the possibility that someone will discover that vulnerability. It is this dualism that renders Hagar’s character at once so complex and so compelling to the reader and establishes a sympathetic identification at the deepest level.

Characters Discussed

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Hagar Shipley

Hagar Shipley, née Currie, the protagonist, a ninety-year-old woman. She has become too much of a burden to her son and his wife, and even a hazard—bored at the age of eighty, she took up smoking. Daily matters make her aware of her aging body. Her mind is prompted by objects or sounds, such as those in her room or at the doctor’s office, to recall episodes of her life filled with her enormous pride and inwardness. As a girl, her shopkeeper father drills her about her Scottish heritage and sends her to an Ontario girls’ finishing school. She then works in her father’s Manawaka store until she disdains his plan to have her marry well. At the age of twenty-four, she arranges her own wedding without his consent, for she responds to Bram Shipley’s dancing and is attracted to his passion. Only once does she nearly express her deep feelings to Bram, whose speech and manners embarrass her. When she can no longer rear her two sons with dignity, she saves money from selling eggs in town and takes the boys to Vancouver. There she keeps house for retired Mr. Oakley, returning only when Bram is dying. Another year, she visits John in Manawaka until his accidental death. With Mr. Oakley’s bequest, she buys a house in Vancouver, which she later signs over when Marvin and his wife care for her. Rather than be put in Silverthreads nursing home, she runs away, but she becomes disoriented after alighting from the bus at Shadow Point. As she rests in the abandoned cannery near the beach, she drinks wine with vagrant Murray Lees. After hearing his story, she shares her similar loss of a son. Her collapse comes the next morning. Dying in the hospital, she emerges somewhat from her lifelong inwardness enough to help the girl in the next bed; later, she can even lie to Marvin that he has always been her favorite. Aware that her pride has interfered with her doing more than two independent acts in her life, she expires.

Marvin Shipley

Marvin Shipley, Hagar’s eldest son. In consideration of his wife’s health, he drives Hagar out to Silverthreads to get her accustomed to the place. Her flashbacks reveal that he knew his parents always liked his younger brother more. He dutifully did farm chores for his father, enlisted in the war, returned to succeed as a salesman, and reliably cared for Hagar, not merely because she had signed over her house and property. Just after Hagar says that he was “a better son than John,” realist Marvin tells the nurse, “She’s a holy terror.”

Doris Shipley

Doris Shipley, Marvin’s wife, who, in her seventies, has difficulty caring for Hagar. She is well-meaning but nosy and talkative. She talks to her, keeps her favorite things near her, takes her to the doctor, and has the minister come.

Bram Shipley

Bram Shipley, Hagar’s husband, a tall, big, and handsome widower with a black beard, fourteen years Hagar’s senior. He deteriorated from a sensuous dancer, during courtship, to alcoholism. Although he gives Hagar a crystal and silver decanter as a wedding gift, he provides few amenities on the farm. Although coarse, he continues to evoke a primal response from Hagar, but he embarrasses her. Increasingly repulsive, he drinks heavily with the town half-breed and with his son John, until his liver gives out.

John Shipley

John Shipley, Hagar’s younger and favorite son, who learned to lie about Vancouver school friends’ social status to please her. He returns to Manawaka to be with his father. Upset by his father’s death, John continues his heavy drinking and wildness. He then brings Arlene Telford home often and drinks less, until he becomes enraged that Hagar and Arlene’s mother plot to send Arlene to Ontario. John and Arlene die in a dare: He drives his car across the trestle, but a special train comes and hits it.

Murray Ferney Lees

Murray Ferney Lees, the stranger whom Hagar meets in the abandoned cannery. He willingly shares his bottle of wine and his life story. He had loved the Advocate tabernacle of his grandfather, who was ignored by his mother and father, owners of a shoe store in Blackfly. After marrying Lou, from Bible camp, he continued to sell insurance. He misplaced his faith, though he prayed with her. He blames his drinking and smoking in the basement for their house fire, in which son Donnie died. This prompts Hagar to express her own loss of a son, John, something she previously had been unable to do. After a drafty night and Hagar’s collapse, Murray calls Marvin, whose number was in her purse.

The Characters

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The personality of Hagar Shipley is revealed through her memories. Despite the limitations of first-person narration, the characters Hagar recalls are realized with a remarkable fullness, yet they are ultimately significant only to the extent that they contribute to the development of her character.

Early in the novel, before the threat of the nursing home has emerged, Hagar recalls her father, Jason Currie, and the family pride which he had instilled in her, a pride which is symbolized by the Clanranald MacDonald’s war cry he teaches her: “Gainsay Who Dare!” She vividly re-creates the rigid social hierarchy of Manawaka which fostered her youthful pride but ostracized her when she defiantly married Bram Shipley, a shiftless local farmer. Hagar relives the sting of social rejection, the embarrassments of poverty and squalor, and the indignities she suffered because of her graceless husband. The humiliations of her initiation into sex and childbearing are poignantly evoked as she analyzes the reasons for her aloofness from Bram and Marvin.

Hagar’s coldness toward Marvin is tied to her rejection of Bram. Abasned by her sense of propriety, she was ashamed to accompany her husband in public for fear that he would make a spectacle of himself. Even in their lovemaking, some sense of feminine decorum prevented her from admitting to the “secret pleasure” she felt. Hagar’s alienation from her husband extends to her feelings for her first son. While on the way to the hospital before Marvin’s birth, Bram asked Hagar if she was scared. Instead of sharing her apprehension with her husband, she silently summarized her resentments: “What could I say? That I’d not wanted children? That I believed I was going to die, and wished I would, and prayed I wouldn’t? That the child he wanted would be his, and none of mine?” Ironically, Hagar now realizes that it is Marvin, the child she rejects even before his birth, who most desired her love and approval and takes care of her in her old age: “If Marvin hadn’t been born alive that day, I wonder where I’d be now? I’d have got to some old fo]ks home a sight sooner, I expect.”

Hagar’s tenderest and most painful memories are of her second son, John, whom she loved from the moment of his birth and upon whom she projected all of her thwarted Currie pride and ambition. In order to offer John a better life, Hagar took him, when he was twelve years old, to Vancouver, where she found a position as a housekeeper to a wealthy shipping merchant. Hagar’s pleasant memories of John’s adolescence, however, are supplanted by anxious memories of his adulthood. In his twenties, John returned to Manawaka to care for his alcoholic father. Two years later, when Hagar visited her dying husband, she discovered that her son, too, had become an alcoholic.

John’s death in an automobile accident when he was nearly thirty years old lies at the heart of Hagar’s most repressed memories. Hagar had argued with her son moments before he left the house on the day of his death. She feels partially responsible for the anger which precipitated the reckless, drunken drive across the trestle bridge, ending in a fatal collision with an unscheduled freight train. Unable to face her guilt, Hagar has fabricated a fiction about her son’s death in the war. Not until Hagar, uncharacteristically drunk, hears Mr. Lees’s confession of guilt about the death of his son is she able to remember honestly and confess her own guilt. In her confusion, she mistakes Mr. Lees for John and, believing that she is delivering her belated apology directly to her son, she undergoes a climactic emotional release. Hagar’s stay in the hospital during her last days provides her with an opportunity to learn to embrace life with the joy she had denied herself in her youth and which had been stifled by grief and guilt after John’s death.


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Daniel Currie
Daniel Currie is the son of Jason Currie. He is four years older than his sister, Hagar. Called Dan by his family, he is delicate, lazy, and often in poor health. He dies at the age of eighteen of a fever after falling into an icy river.

Jason Currie
Jason Currie is Hagar's father. He was born in Scotland to a good family but his father lost all his money in a business deal. Currie immigrated to Canada from the Scottish Highlands with nothing to his name. However, he worked extremely hard, and as owner of Currie's General Store in Manawaka, he became wealthy. Stern, authoritarian, and a harsh disciplinarian, Currie prides himself on being a self-made man and he expects others to conform to the high standards he sets for himself. He is impatient with his sons, and refuses to let Hagar become a schoolteacher. He regards Hagar's husband, Bram, as lazy, and cuts Hagar off without a penny in his will. While stern at home, he is public-spirited, donating money for the building of a new church, and leaving all his wealth to the town.

Matt Currie
Matt Currie is the first son of Jason Currie, and Hagar's brother. He works hard in his father's store but he is clumsy. Ambitious, he dreams of becoming a lawyer or buying a ship and entering the tea trade. He marries Mavis McVitie and moves away from Manawaka. He dies of influenza while still a young man.

Lottie Dreiser
Lottie Dreiser is Hagar's childhood friend. She was born out of wedlock and is mercilessly teased because of it. The boys call her "No-Name." Lottie and Hagar never really like each other. Lottie marries Telford Simmons and she meets Hagar again when Hagar pays her a visit to express disapproval of her son John's plans to marry Lottie's daughter, Arlene.

Elva Jardine
Thin, tiny, and old, Elva Jardine is a patient in the same ward of the hospital that Hagar is admitted to. She talks a lot and tries to befriend Hagar, who slowly warms to her.

Murray F. Lees
Murray F. Lees is a middle-aged man who goes to the fish cannery at Shadow Point to find some peace and quiet. He meets Hagar there and they share their experiences of life. Lees has worked for an insurance company for twenty years. He tells the story of how his son was killed in a fire at the family home when he and his wife were out at a meeting of the Redeemer's Advocate, a Christian sect that preached the end of the world was imminent.

Mr. Oatley
Mr. Oatley is the owner of the house that Hagar lives in with her son John after she leaves her husband. He is a kind, elderly man, and Hagar is his housekeeper. When he dies he leaves Hagar some money in his will.

Henry Pearl
A big farm boy, Henry Pearl is one of Hagar's childhood friends. He marries and has three sons. He brings Hagar the news of John's accident and drives her to the hospital.

Mrs. Reilly
Mrs. Reilly is a patient in the hospital ward with Hagar. She is very large, and speaks in a melodious tone.

Bramford Shipley
Bramford Shipley is a widower who marries Hagar. Bram is tall, black-haired, and bearded, and a good dancer, but he is also vulgar in speech and manner, and largely uneducated; he never reads a book. Fourteen years older than Hagar, he has two daughters, Jess and Gladys, by his previous wife, Clara, and he fathers two sons with Hagar. He has plans to prosper and start a business raising horses, but he is lazy and never applies himself consistently. Nor does he have a good head for business. Eventually he makes himself a laughingstock because his big plans never come to anything. However, Bram does not care what others think of him and he acquires a low reputation in Manawaka. On one occasion he is threatened with jail by a policeman for relieving himself on the steps of Cur-rie's General Store. Bram has more affection for his horses than for the people in his life. He is deeply affected by the death of his favorite stallion, Soldier, but cares nothing when his wife leaves him. Several years after Hagar's departure, Bram becomes sick, and his son John looks after him. When Hagar returns to live at his house, he is so ill he does not recognize her, saying only that she reminds him of Clara, his first wife.

Doris Shipley
Doris Shipley is Marvin's wife, and Hagar's daughter-in-law. In her early sixties, Doris has the principal responsibility for looking after Hagar. She finds this increasingly difficult, and takes every opportunity to point out, with as much tact as she can manage, that Hagar has become a burden. It is Doris who has to push Marvin into moving Hagar into a nursing home. However, while she is caring for Hagar, Doris fulfills her duty as well as she is able, and she finds comfort in religion. Hagar regards Doris as unintelligent and rarely has a good word to say about her.

Hagar Shipley
Hagar Shipley is the ninety-year-old narrator of the novel. Irascible, uncharitable, and impatient with the faults of others, she fears that she is about to lose her independence by being placed in a nursing home by her son Marvin and his wife, Doris. Although tough-minded, she is physically frail, often in pain, forgetful, and confused. She speaks impulsively and sometimes regrets her harsh words even as she speaks them. She often surprises herself by crying without warning. Hagar lives as much in the past as the present. Her memories go back as far as when she was six years old, being brought up by her father, Jason Currie, a stern disciplinarian, who would on occasion beat her with a ruler or a birch twig. Hagar's mother died giving birth to her, and the female influence in the house came from the housekeeper, Auntie Doll. Although Hagar was brought up in a religious household, she has always been skeptical about religion. She received a good education at an academy in Toronto, and she prizes the ability to speak correctly, criticizing and correcting those who do not. As a tall, black-haired, handsome young woman she had pride and willfulness. She married beneath her, to the coarse Bram Shipley, in defiance of her father's wishes. After twenty-four years of marriage, during which she gives birth to two sons, Marvin and John, she once again asserts her independence by leaving her husband and taking a job in another town as a housekeeper. Although she dotes on her younger son, John, Hagar's negative attitude towards others eventually alienates him, and he returns to live with his father. Even as a ninety-year-old, Hagar retains her independence of spirit, fleeing her home and taking refuge in an abandoned building near the sea. But at the end of the novel she realizes that it is her pride that has stopped her from achieving happiness or peace of mind. Her son Marvin sums up Hagar's character when he calls her a "holy terror."

Jess Shipley
Jess Shipley is the daughter of Bram Shipley by his first marriage, to Clara. Hagar does not get along well with her, and they argue about where Bram should be buried.

John Shipley
John Shipley is Hagar's second son. He is nearly ten years younger than his brother Marvin, and is Hagar's favorite. Handsome, with straight black hair, John is inquisitive, a quick learner, and possesses a lot of energy. As a child he often tells lies and gets into fights at school. When he is a teenager he makes friends with the Tonnerre boys whom Hagar distrusts. As a young man, John tires of putting up with Hagar's negative frame of mind and returns to Manawaka to live with his father, Bram Shipley, whom he takes care of until Bram's death. John plans to marry Arlene Simmons but they are both killed after he takes on a bet that he can drive a truck across a railroad bridge. The truck gets hit by a freight train.

Marvin Shipley
Marvin Shipley is Hagar's son, married to Doris. A plodding, unimaginative man of nearly sixty-five who has settled for a quiet, respectable life, Marvin makes a living selling house paint. He dislikes conflict and tries to keep the peace in the family, but he often feels caught between Doris and Hagar, who sometimes exchange sharp words. He has to summon all his courage to inform Hagar that she is being moved to a nursing home. Marvin was never very close to his mother as a boy. Hagar hardly regarded him as her own child, and he has none of her restless and cantankerous spirit. When he was seventeen, Marvin joined the army and fought in World War I. After the war he did not return to Manawaka but worked as a logger on the coast, and then as a longshoreman. He and Doris have a son, Steven, and a daughter, Tina. Hagar frequently thinks disparagingly of Marvin. In her eyes, he is a slow thinker who finds it difficult to express himself verbally.

Steven Shipley
Steven Shipley is Hagar's grandson. He is an architect and visits Hagar in the hospital. Hagar is fond of him.

Tina Shipley
Tina is Hagar's granddaughter who has recently moved out of the family home. She does not appear directly in the novel, but Hagar refers to her with affection.

Arlene Simmons
Arlene Simmons is the daughter of Lottie and Telford Simmons. Fair-haired and pretty, she becomes the girlfriend of John Shipley, and they plan to marry. Arlene is killed along with John when the truck John is driving across a railroad bridge is hit by a train.

Billy Simmons
Billy Simmons is the owner of the funeral home in Manawaka when Hagar is a child. He is poor and has a reputation for drinking too much.

Telford Simmons
Telford Simmons is the son of Billy Simmons. As a boy he has curly hair and a slight stammer. Later he becomes a bank manager and mayor of Manawaka.

Mrs. Steiner
Mrs. Steiner is a talkative resident of Silver-threads Nursing Home. Hagar meets her when she visits the home.

Auntie Doll Stonehouse
Auntie Doll, a widow, is Jason Currie's housekeeper while Hagar is growing up. She takes care of the three Currie children, acting as a surrogate mother.

Charlotte Tappen
A doctor's daughter, Charlotte is Hagar's best friend when they are children. She and her mother put on a wedding reception for Hagar.

Tonnerre Boys
The Tonnerre boys are three brothers who become friends with John Shipley. Their father, Jules, was friends with Matt Currie. The Tonnerres are "half-breeds," a mixture of French Canadian and Indian blood.

Mr. Troy
Mr. Troy is a young clergyman who visits Hagar several times at the request of Doris. He attempts to chat politely, but Hagar is impatient with his religious platitudes.

Sandra Wong
Sandra Wong is a sixteen-year-old girl of Asian ancestry. She shares a room in the hospital with Hagar, and undergoes surgery for the removal of her appendix.

Themes and Characters

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In all five novels that Laurence wrote about people from the fictional town of Manawaka, there are a few ongoing characters—in particular the half-breeds who lived outside the community, "up Galloping Mountain way" as the local expression went. The Tonnerre family function to some extent in The Stone Angel as what the esteemed author Robertson Davies called "fifth business": an opera term for the character who is neither the hero nor heroine, rival nor villain, but one who holds an important part of the story. Without the "fifth business" character, the hero does not win and the story cannot be completed.

If Hagar could ever know why Bram Shipley and his son John walked away time and again from the farm labor to be with the Tonnerres, talking and trading and drinking with them, she might have known why she married Bram and why she later left him.

Among the friends with whom Margaret Laurence corresponded about writing and about their lives was Adele Wiseman. When this novel was still a rough draft, Laurence wrote to Wiseman several times about the process of composing and editing Hagar's story. "This book of mine, you see, has been written almost entirely without conscious thought," Laurence wrote in 1961, and Wiseman quotes her in an afterword to the 1988 New Canadian Library edition of The Stone Angel. "Although the conscious thought will enter into the rewriting, on the first time through I simply put down the story as the old lady told it to me (so to speak) & let it go where it wanted, & only when I was halfway through did I realize how it all tied together & what the theme was. I didn't know it had a theme before, nor did I know the purpose or meaning of some of the events & objects in the story, until gradually it became clear."

The theme, simply, is Hagar's unbending pride that will not allow her to reach out to take or to give the simple human comfort that is all any of us have of value. Ancestors (good or bad) are dead, inheritances wither, material wealth is spent or sold, finery clothes bodies that reach out for touching, and our children are lost to us through work, time and even death. When Hagar learns to understand herself and her past, she begins at last to be able to be kind to others. It is a small and hollow comfort, but there is no other.

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