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.
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....
(The entire section is 796 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 671 words.)