Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666

When The Stone Angel was first published in 1964, most reviewers recognized it as a major achievement. Robertson Davies, in The New York Times Book Review, praised Laurence's insight into character as well as her "freshness of approach . . . her gift for significant detail." The most notable quality of the novel, according to Davies, is "her form and style. . . . She has chosen to relate the story of Hagar in a series of flashbacks, and in the work of writers whose sense of form is defective this device can be wearisome and confusing. Mrs. Laurence slips in and out of the past with the greatest of ease, without arousing any doubts of chronology." Davies also admires the language of the novel, its "good firm vocabulary, congruous with the mind of Hagar herself." Honor Tracy, in New Republic, bestowed equally high praise: "It is [Laurence's] admirable achievement to strike, with an equally sure touch, the peculiar note and the universal: she gives us a portrait of a remarkable character and at the same time the picture of old age itself." A reviewer for Time described The Stone Angel as "one of the most convincing—and the most touching portraits of an unregenerate sinner declining into senility since Sara Monday went to her reward in Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth."

One of the few dissenting voices was an anonymous reviewer for London's Times Literary Supplement, who wrote: "It is a bleak, forbidding book. The life-denying qualities of the character which dominates it spread a chill over its pages, and in choosing to tell the story in the first person—a vast, senile soliloquy—Mrs. Laurence puts a strong check on her genuine creative gifts."

More than any other single work, The Stone Angel established Laurence's reputation not only in her native Canada but in the United States and internationally. The novel has stood the test of time. In 1981, Patricia Morley, in her book Margaret Laurence, referred to it as "Laurence's best known and most deeply respected work, a novel hailed as a Canadian classic."

The portrayal of the character of Hagar has generally been the most admired aspect of the novel. William New, in the introduction to the 1968 edition of the book, wrote: "So sympathetically has Margaret Laurence created Hagar that we see the world through her. In following the track of her mind as it travels back and forth in its personal narrative, we are moved—not only with her, but also by her—and we come at least to understand a little more about being alive."

More recent critics have explored The Stone Angel from a number of different angles. Feminist critics have been attracted to it because of the strong character of Hagar. Brenda Beckman-Long, in "The Stone Angel as a Feminine Confessional Novel," has identified the novel as a "feminine confessional narrative that gives voice to a peculiarly feminine experience." Helen M. Buss, in Mother and Daughter Relationships in the Manawaka Works of Margaret Laurence, has taken the approach of archetypal criticism, examining the novel in terms of the mother archetype as first identified by Carl Jung: "As Hagar moves toward the unconsciousness of death she reaches for acceptance of the mother on three levels: her memory of the personal mother; the rescue of her own repressed feminine self; and the experience of the numinosity of the Great Mother."

In addition to the accolades of critics, The Stone Angel has had an influence on later Canadian writers. David Staines, in his essay on Laurence in Dictionary of Literary Biography, points out that writers such as Jack Hodgins and Dave Godfrey saw in Laurence a model for what they were trying to achieve in their own work: "Hodgins acknowledges the importance of the novel as the first he read with a voice and a world directly related to his western sympathies."

Because of its compelling portrait of the problems associated with old age, The Stone Angel has also been used as a training text in geriatric nursing schools.

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