Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851
The Stone Angel examines the patterns that damage successive generations. Hagar’s hatred of emotionality, instilled by her father, blunts her enjoyment of life and ensures her harsh and overly critical attitude toward other people. Hagar comments on the stone angel’s blindness, but she does not see that she herself also unseeingly tries to force people into her own model of proper behavior. Later the angel is desecrated: After Hagar has married and left Bram, she briefly returns to Manawaka to find that, to her horror, the angel has toppled. When John grudgingly raises her, Hagar sees that the angel’s mouth has been garishly lipsticked. She tries to scrub away the red, but a stain remains. After that day, the angel crookedly marks the Currie-Shipley resting place. Hagar’s experiences have similarly knocked her from her pedestal, and she is also “crooked” in the way in which she sees the world. Only at the age of ninety does she realize that she wanted to speak her heart’s truth, unrestrained by pride and propriety. Like her father, she was shackled by a pride born of fear.
Laurence juxtaposes Hagar’s parallel stories. Hagar’s present, as an unwillingly frail and often tyrannical old woman, is carried throughout, but Hagar’s memories and explanations of the past are equally important. There are nineteen major changes between past and present time, often triggered by Hagar’s present sensations: For example, a painting, children playing on the beach, or a flowered dress can spark her painful and often comic memories. The first four chapters detail Hagar’s thoughts before she runs away from Marvin; the next four focus on her actions and thoughts while at Shadow Point; and the last two center on the hospital and her last days before death. In the last chapters, past and present become blurred: Hagar’s remembering becomes so intense that she essentially relives the pain and happiness that she experienced. Toward the end of the novel, Hagar begins to think about events from others’ points of view—insights that have been all too rare.
Laurence unflinchingly reveals Hagar’s many faults—intolerance, pride, discontent—but she also shows Hagar’s determination, her struggle for independence, and her reluctant love of her family. Hagar’s voice is pugnacious, ironic, and bitter. She has an odd ability to freeze a memory and to examine her past self, an ability that brings about some of the novel’s tragicomic moments and poignance. The “re-seeing” of her past leads to her enlightenment at novel’s end.
Hagar rails at the frailties of her aged body, likening herself to a firmly rooted stump or an old hawk caught in a net. Images of the natural world run throughout: Like many women, Hagar felt torn between “natural” impulses and social restraints. Hagar twice escapes to nature from the “civilized” world of town and hypocrisy. The first is when she marries and lives with all the brutality and beauty of the farm, but because of her sense of superiority she will not allow Bram to know how she feels. The second time is her escape to Shadow Point, where she relies on nature to shield her. Her desperate escape allows her to “confess” to Murray Lees.
Thirst is another important metaphor: Bram and John both drink for recreation, and Bram’s wedding gift to Hagar is a cut-glass decanter. Hagar thirsts for self-knowledge, and the novel focuses on this quest. At Shadow Point, she remembers to bring food but not water; Murray Lees gives her wine and the sparrows point her to rainwater. When she awakens after her night in the abandoned fish cannery, she can only think of water: Her grief of the previous night has parched her. As Hagar lies dying, she cries out that she is thirsty, but she insists that no one can give her the water. She must drink it herself, or spill it, just as she chooses.
Hagar’s physical escapes are futile; she is still chained by pride and her uncompromising nature. Each escape demands sacrifice: Her marriage causes her to renounce her refinement and sensitivity and to isolate herself from her family. When she leaves Bram, she gives up her sexuality; when she flees Marvin, she endangers her health and also hurts Marvin deeply. At Shadow Point, Hagar digs deep into her self and her past and tries to reconcile them. Murray Lees’s guilt in the death of his baby son prompts a storm of memories about John’s last months with Hagar and forces her to remember her role in his death. Befuddled by wine and exhaustion, she mistakes Murray Lees for John and apologizes for her bad temper, saying that she needs no one but him, that he can have Arlene to the house whenever he wants. As Hagar refused to do for her brother all those years ago, Murray Lees plays the role of someone long dead and reassures Hagar that everything is all right. In this last and desperate physical escape, Hagar has found some measure of spiritual redemption.