Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641
Margaret Laurence published three books before The Stone Angel, all three set in Africa; The Stone Angel is the first of her works set in Canada. This novel was followed by three more and a collection of fiction, also set in and around Manawaka, a fictional place based on the real town of Neepawa, where Laurence’s family had long been established and where the author herself lived as a young child and teenager.
Two of the Manawaka books, A Jest of God (1966) and The Diviners (1974), won the Governor General’s Award for fiction, and A Jest of God was adapted for film (Rachel, Rachel, 1968). A film version of The Stone Angel was released in 2008. Laurence’s Manawaka books are considered her highest achievements, works of a writer who is often ranked as the finest Canadian novelist of her generation.
According to the letters quoted by Adele Wiseman in her afterword to The Stone Angel, as early as 1957, Laurence had been considering making an old woman the subject of a novel. However, after she began to write the work, she could see that it was hopelessly dull. Four years later, after an obnoxious old lady invaded her imagination, she found herself able to proceed. Laurence said that initially, she simply let her testy character tell her own story. Also, she had finished writing half the novel before realizing its structure and theme.
Laurence’s decision about the structure of The Stone Angel proved to be brilliant. Instead of making the novel a collection of memories, presented either in a random fashion or in some psychological pattern, she organized it as two narratives, each written in chronological order, with spaces to indicate clearly each movement between the present and the past. Laurence’s artistry is also evident in her strong character Hagar Shipley, who dominates the novel. Hagar provides the excitement in what could have been simply a sentimental story about a dying old lady. Her defiance of life and death alone makes her a heroic figure.
Along with her heroic qualities, however, Hagar does have serious flaws. Because she views any opposition as a challenge, she makes some disastrous decisions. As she later comes to realize, Lottie Drieser’s denigrating comment about Hagar’s future husband, Bram, makes Hagar even more determined to marry him. Moreover, she eventually admits to herself that her capacity for empathy is limited. Even though she knows her brother Dan is dying, she cannot bring herself to sit by him in their dead mother’s shawl. Though she knows how much her brother Matt wants to go to college, she makes only a halfhearted attempt to persuade her father to send him; when her father disagrees with her, she quickly drops the subject and waltzes off to Toronto.
As she relives her years with Bram, Hagar moves from remembering how vulgar he had been to focusing on her own deficiencies. She later recalls how often she had criticized him and how seldom she had said anything kind to him. Now she can understand why he is so surprised when she says she is sorry that his favorite horse has died. Remembering Bram’s awkward apologies after they had made love, Hagar asks herself why she had never told him how much she enjoyed their nights together. She does, however, eventually display empathy for Murray Lees and for her fellow patients in the hospital, and she even tells her son Marv a charitable lie.
Laurence is too fine an artist to destroy the feisty old woman she has created by making her cower before death or before God, and certainly not before her daughter-in-law Doris. Though at the end of the novel Hagar is no longer as blind or as unfeeling as the stone angel marking her mother’s grave, she dies heroically, holding her own glass.