Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2017
Poor Hagar Shipley. Unreconciled to old age and approaching death, relentlessly critical, unable to reach out to others, always ready to think the worst of people, Hagar is a stone angel indeed. Imprisoned in her own mind, she is unable to bring light to herself or to those around her. However, although the weight of the novel is on the negative aspects of Hagar's behavior, she eventually goes some way towards breaking down the walls she has built around her, and finding redemption.
The word redemption is appropriate because there are biblical echoes that suggest the novel may be interpreted as a spiritual journey. In an interview with Rosemary Sullivan, Laurence commented, "My novel in some way or other parallels the story of the Biblical Hagar who is cast out into the wilderness. . . . The natural frame of reference [is] the Biblical one."
In Genesis, Hagar is an Egyptian slave who bears a son to Abraham, then quarrels with Abraham's wife, Sarah, and is temporarily cast into the wilderness. The story is turned into an allegory by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians (4:22-31), in which Hagar represents bondage to the flesh, without the knowledge of divine grace, whereas Sarah represents freedom.
Seen in this light, Hagar in The Stone Angel is a wanderer in exile, cut off from the experience of connection to God and to others. Her task, although she may not consciously realize it, is to break out of her isolation, to return to true human community that will take her beyond the confines of her own skin.
Hagar's difficult, halting spiritual journey begins about halfway through the novel, when she concocts a hare-brained scheme to thwart Marvin and Doris's plan to put her in a nursing home. She flees to a quiet place in the country. As she sits down on a toppled tree trunk she realizes that she likes this spot in the open air and muses, "Perhaps I've come here not to hide but to seek. If I sit quietly, willing my heart to cross over, will it obey?"
This is the most urgent question for Hagar to consider. Although consciously she may be referring to her own demise, her heart must "cross over" in another sense—to express compassion for others—before she can reach the safe oblivion of death. Only then will she have learned the lesson of how to live in freedom.
These lessons initially come to her obliquely through several incidents involving the natural world. As she looks down at the moss-covered tree trunk on which she sits, Hagar notices some fungus, "the velvety underside a mushroom color," and reaches down to touch it. She finds that "it takes and retains my fingerprint." After a long reverie, she comes to herself and finds that she is holding "a hairy slab of coarse moss in one hand." At her feet, a "blind slug hunches itself against one of my shoes." In these small symbolic ways, Hagar is reconnecting herself to life through the forms of the natural world.
Shortly after this, when she takes shelter in an abandoned fish cannery, Hagar notices half a dozen june bugs at her feet. They are dead, but they retain their natural beauty: "Their backs are green and luminous, with a sharp metallic line down the center, and their bellies shimmer with pure copper. If I've unearthed jewels, the least I can do is wear them." She arranges the june bugs in her hair, looks into her purse mirror and finds the effect pleasing: "They liven my gray, transform me."
The effect is rather like the garland of flowers that adorns the head of Shakespeare's King Lear, when he too goes through a painful experience of spiritual rebirth. Significant also is the fact that in order to put the bugs in her hair, Hagar must first remove the "prim domestic hat sprouting cultivated flowers" that she is wearing. She casts off the artificial in favor of the natural. This positive step harks back to the beginning of the novel, when in the description of the neatly kept cemetery, the artificial, civilized world of Manawaka's respectable citizens is contrasted unfavorably with the wild freedom of nature. The "wild and gaudy flowers" that grow untended, and have always done so, are more alluring than the "pompous blossoms" of the "portly peonies" that have been planted there. Man's desire to control his environment, to be "civilized" and orderly, leads only to rigid conformity and repression of the natural impulses of life.
Another moment of catharsis arrives when Hagar, still in the fish cannery, relates to Murray Lees, her unexpected visitor, the story of the death of her son John. She finds herself weeping over an event that took place over thirty years ago, something she was unable to do at the time. It is clear that Hagar is on a painful road of healing by coming to terms with her past and her true feelings.
When Hagar enters the hospital, her world shrinks to a single hospital ward, then to a semi-private room. She makes a dark joke about the next room (her coffin) being the smallest of all. And yet as her outer world shrinks, her inner world, painfully, in fits and starts, begins to expand.
But progress is slow. When Marvin visits, Hagar is surprised at how pleased she is to see him, but is unable to tell him so. What comes out of her mouth instead is a long list of complaints. A short while later, she complains about the bland diet she had been put on. But this time she is more reflective, wondering why she always needs someone to blame when things are not as she thinks they should be. Then in another moment of calmness she realizes that Marvin is concerned about Doris's health problems simply because he is fond of her. Hagar knows that this is only natural, "But it seems unfamiliar to me, hard to recognize or accept."
Another significant moment comes in the hospital ward. Initially, Hagar loathes being there, but eventually she discovers that Elva Jardine, the patient in the adjoining bed, comes from a town close to Manawaka, and they have some acquaintances in common. The fact that when Hagar is moved to a semi-private room she feels a sense of loss, as if she has been cast out, suggests that her brief friendship with Elva has served as a reminder of the links formed by human community, the barrier such community erects against the utter solitude of each human life.
Hagar also finds it in herself to recognize the links between generations. In an act of sudden generosity, she gives her mother's sapphire ring, which means a great deal to her, to her granddaughter.
There is nothing sentimental in any of these small steps that Hagar takes toward freeing herself from her mental prison. For most of the time, she remains her usual crotchety, unregenerate self. A few moments after giving the ring, she gets impatient and regrets her generosity. Never for a moment does the novelist imply that transformation is easy, or that the long habits of the past can simply be discarded without a trace.
Whatever are the forces that are gathering to aid Hagar in these last days of her life—and the agnostic Hagar would not be one to speculate—they finally produce a moment of self-realization. As Mr. Troy, whom she has always ridiculed, sings a hymn to her about rejoicing, she realizes that that must be what she has always wanted to do, but has never been able:
Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by some brake of proper appearances. . . . When did I ever speak the heart's truth?
Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me on was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all that I touched.
This realization is bitter because Hagar knows that nothing can erase the errors of the past. But it is a breakthrough nonetheless.
Hagar's redemptive journey culminates in two incidents. First, she befriends Sandra, a sixteen-year-old girl who shares Hagar's hospital room. When Sandra needs a bedpan in the middle of the night, and cannot summon a nurse, Hagar struggles the few steps to the bathroom to fetch it for her. She shuffles and lurches, gets out of breath, almost falls, and ignores stabs of pain. But she is determined to succeed. Nothing compels her to do this, other than concern for another person. After a nurse arrives and reproaches her, Hagar and Sandra laugh together over the incident. As Patricia Morley points out in Margaret Laurence, the pronoun "we" occurs four times in as many lines (such as "Convulsed with our paining laughter, we bellow and wheeze. And then we peacefully sleep") which makes it clear that at least for a moment, Hagar has overcome her sense of separation from others.
The second incident is a moment of rare intimacy between Hagar and Marvin. Her son apologizes for being impatient with her and clasps her hand. Hagar realizes what he needs to hear and tells him that he has always been good to her. She is at last able to see a situation from a point of view other than her own, understanding that "I ... can only release myself by releasing him."
Later Hagar decides that these two acts—helping Sandra and comforting Marvin—are the only two free acts she has performed in all her ninety years of life.
As the novel closes, there are hints of metamorphosis. Earlier images of Hagar in the hospital suggest entrapment: she is caught "like a fish in a net"; she feels "like a trussed fowl." But now she lies in a "cocoon," which suggests the possibility of transformation, of rebirth.
Another hint of a subtle alteration in Hagar's condition is the cluster of references to angels. Hagar's words to Marvin quoted earlier allude to the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and demanding a blessing. Hagar views Marvin as Jacob and acknowledges that she is casting herself strangely as the angel. A flashback follows in which Hagar recalls a visit to the cemetery where the stone angel presides over the family plot. Then she speculates about whether life in another realm after death will be surprising in ways that she cannot imagine, just as a newborn baby must be surprised when he discovers that life on earth requires him to breathe. "If it happened that way, I'd pass out in amazement. Can angels faint?" Hagar asks herself, a question which seems to associate her at long last with the other half of the stone angel image of the title. Hagar has been like stone, hard and impenetrable, for long enough; now, perhaps it is time for her to reflect the other side of the image— messenger of truth, symbol of the eternal operation of divine love and light in the human world. It is not that stubborn Hagar herself becomes angelic, but she has pushed open a door just wide enough for light to penetrate. No longer stone, she expresses something more fluid, and it is appropriate that the final transformative image is of water. Hagar's last act is to hold in her hands a full glass of water, wresting it away from a nurse who tries to hold it for her. This is much more than a final affirmation of independence and dignity; for the glass of water held freely at life's end surely also symbolizes the inexhaustible "living water" of the New Testament that signifies divine grace, for grace, like Hagar's glass of water, is also "To be had for the taking."
Source: Bryan Aubrey, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6665
"We judge her less harshly than we might because we acknowledge the power of those forces which have worked against her. At the same time, we admire Hagar's pride precisely because it is a form (however twisted) of resistance to those forces—a statement, in fact, that Hagar Shipley is her own woman."
The Stone Angel is a carefully organized novel which operates on two obvious levels: the present time of the novel which takes us through Hagar's last days on earth, and the past time of memory which moves us in strict chronological order through the major events of her life to explain the old woman whom we see now. In support of this structure, we are made to sense the physically decrepit Hagar as a mask behind which the true Hagar continues to reside. The novel is also elaborately based upon the biblical stories of Hagar and Jacob and upon sacramental patterns of confession and communion, so that the reader may well arrive at yet another sense of the novel's two dimensions: in the foreground (both past and present) we have the realistic tale of a woman's pride, and in the background (where confirmations or hidden meanings are supposed to lie) a Christian context within which we are to measure the significance of that pride. Thus, we might suppose that Hagar's pride is something like Eve's and that it is seen by the author as reprehensible, the cause of her fall from the garden. Yet here we falter. In the realistic foregound we feel that Hagar's pride is not merely her downfall, but also her salvation—and we may question what sense to make of that within the religious context. Our difficulty is compounded by Hagar's refusal to capitulate finally to that insistent religious dimension. While she does clearly make certain accommodations, it is equally apparent that Hagar approaches her death still in the spirit of those lines from Dylan Thomas which Laurence employs as epigraph: "Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
The difficulty which has been described here comes from our expectation that background and foreground should cohere, and perhaps from an assumption that any extensive use of the Bible and sacraments will very probably signal belief. Some of this difficulty can be resolved if we approach The Stone Angel from a feminist perspective. If we consider the role of Christianity in Hagar's life as a woman, we may find another justification for the weight which is given to Christianity in this novel and a partial explanation for Hagar's resistance to it. We will also discover another significant area of backgrounding, an area of feminist concern which explains or corrects our vision of the foreground in which a woman is chastised for her mistreatment of men. These various backgrounds—the past time of the novel, the religious and feminist dimensions—must be considered together if we are to understand The Stone Angel as a whole. They cohere as an historical explanation of how Hagar came to be the woman she is at the point of death.
The feminist dimension of The Stone Angel can be described as a kind of backgrounding because there is almost no overt consideration of these themes, and because the foreground may seem to be occupied with antithetical ideas. If Hagar is Everywoman, she is apparently a woman on trial for her crimes against men. Indeed, Hagar sees in the woods of Shadow Point the imaginary props and players for a jury trial in which she will summarily be found guilty; her sense of guilt is also indicated when she finds an old scale with its weights missing. But if the trial were a fair one and her attorney as eloquent as Margaret Laurence, there is little question that Hagar would be let off on compassionate grounds. The Stone Angel is told in the first person, by Hagar Shipley—so that Laurence must do all her pleading behind the scenes. In that background she prepares a devastating brief, a full-scale feminist analysis which operates as counterweight to the crime of pride. While she admits Hagar's share of responsibility, Laurence also cites patriarchal society as a kind of instigating culprit; and she argues that men and women alike have been injured by the forces which lead to Hagar's intractable, compensatory pride. The novel avoids polemic by this fortunate circumstance, that Hagar cannot herself articulate (because historically she does not know) the feminist view of her case. Thus, Laurence is compelled to embody these ideas rather than to discuss them, and she does so ultimately in defence of her heroine. Hagar is consistently identified with the stone angel which is the central image of the novel, indicative obviously of her pride and blindness. But the angel is in fact a monument to Hagar's mother, "who relinquished her feeble ghost as [Hagar] gained [her] stubborn one." The association between angel and mother will require our careful attention, for it is obscured by Jason Currie's evident lack of interest in his dead wife and by our knowledge that the stone angel is essentially a monument to his own pride. Indeed, so thoroghly has she been obliterated that even her name is missing from the text. Hagar has supplanted her mother, rejected her image, and chosen instead to mirror her father's pride. But in the shadow of that stone angel which she becomes is another angel, ministering and mild—the kind of woman we take her mother to have been.
This stone angel is an imported creature, not anything original to the Canadian soil. The would-be pharaoh Jason Currie has purchased it from Italy, presumably because he thinks he can establish his pre-eminence in Manawaka only through an image crafted abroad. Clearly his is the colonial sensibility which looks to the old world for its values and for a continuation of class privilege. By the time Hagar is an old woman, Jason's pretensions (like those of Ozymandias) will have turned to dust: the Currie-Shipley stone will be recognized by a new generation as simply Canadian, marking the graves of two pioneering families with little to choose between them. The angel itself is "askew and tilted"; and even marble does not last forever— as we know from the description of Hagar's aged skin: "too white ... too dry, powdery as blown dust when the rains failed, flaking with dryness as an old bone will flake and chalk, left out in a sun that grinds bone and flesh and earth to dust as though in a mortar of fire with a pestle of crushing light." In the light of truth, which is partly the recognition of our common mortality, the proud marble angel will finally be dissolved. But there is another angel which also must be laid to rest. And that is the image which Jason Currie seems to have imported from Britain: the Victorian image of woman as "The Angel in the House," a seminal conception of the Victorian era which is celebrated in Coventry Patmore's poem of the same name. This angel is soft, but it is ironically as rigid in conception as the marble image which Jason Currie erects over the corpse of a wife driven to an early grave—a woman puzzled, we may suppose, that her accommodation to the feminine ideal has served her no better than this. The stone angel in this sense expresses Jason Currie's privilege as a man, as well as the privilege he enjoys as a man of substance. Jason had little use for women, and little reverence for those feminine virtues which inspired men like John Ruskin or Coventry Patmore to such absurd heights of idolatry; but he shared their more significant belief in male superiority, and he accepted their notions of what behaviour and what education were appropriate for a lady.
Hagar very naturally wishes to exhibit whatever qualities are consistent with her pride and are admired by others. Her nearest judge is Jason, who encourages the male virtues in her and neglects certain of the feminine virtues which he will expect her eventually to display. Proud of her refusal to cry in the scene where he beats her with a ruler, Jason remarks that she has a "backbone" and takes after him. He is proud also of her intelligence, but wishes it had been granted to his sons instead. So Hagar is courageous, proud, brainy—everything that her father admires; and she is also female, so that these virtues are perceived as useless. Moreover, they prevent the subservience which Jason ultimately expects of her. The tender virtues are not developed in Hagar: she perceives them only as weakness, a malleability which is unacceptable to her sense of self. She repudiates the silliness of other girls, dislikes anything flimsy or gutless. Only when she becomes aware of the standard which holds Lottie Drieser's china doll prettiness superior to her own strong-boned handsomeness does Hagar begin to share her father's view that a genetic irony has transpired in the Currie family: she should have inherited her mother's "daintiness", and the "graceful unspirited boys" should have had their father's ox-like strength. Symbolically, however, Hagar's backbone and other insistent bones preserve her from the repulsive formlessness which is stereotypically assigned to women, even as they condemn her in another sense to the rigidity of a stone angel.
In particular, Hagar loathes the vulnerability which she associates with the image of her mother, and which she perceives is equally despised by her father. Jason Currie would occasionally squeeze out a tear at the thought of his late wife, for the edification of "the matrons of the town, who found a tear for the female dead a reassuring tribute to thankless motherhood." Margaret Laurence reminds us here of the perils which attended childbirth in the days before antibiotics, and which required that women be rather forcibly locked into a notion of themselves as mothers to the race. Hagar has no wish to be a martyr; thus she approaches the birth process seem repulsive—as when Hagar observes the "mammoth matriarchal fly ... labouring obscenely to squeeze out of herself her white and clustered eggs." As a child Hagar refuses to be lulled by her father's crocodile tears; she knows that her mother was "the brood mare who lay beneath [the monument] because she'd proved no match for his stud." So Jason Currie pays his token dues to womankind in pretending to honour his wife for her status as victim, but Hagar—instead of feeling compassion or anger on her mother's behalf—merely shares in his contempt for the biological slavery of women.
Jason's wife, in the daguerreotype which Hagar keeps of her, is "a spindly and anxious girl. . . [who] peers perplexed out of her little frame, wondering how on earth to please." That little frame is, of course, the straitjacket which Hagar wishes to avoid in her own life. It requires of women that they live to please others, and it is clearly pernicious. But Hagar reacts too extremely, becoming hidebound in pride—so that only at the point of death can she engage in "truly free" acts of maternal tenderness. The first of these, involving the pursuit of a bedpan for her young roommate in the hospital, is possible only because Hagar has been liberated from an actual straitjacket. The second of her free acts also signifies a release from constriction and a motherly reaching out to others, as Hagar breaks the death hold of her wrestling match with Marvin (in the role of Jacob) to give her son the angel's blessing. Although she does not remember her mother in these last hours of life, Hagar as she approaches her own grave has achieved something like a reconciliation with that other angel. So it is that Hagar's last thought, as she holds the glass of water triumphantly in her own hands, taking what is there to be had, is "There. There." These are the mother words, which she has failed to supply for others in their deepest need—and which should have been as free as water. At least three times before in the novel these words have appeared, once when she thought but could not say them to Bram, once when she was trying to calm herself into remembering the name of Shadow Point, and once when she congratulated herself for standing upright in the woods: "There. There." Motherless, Hagar has for nearly all her life been unable to give a mother's love and consolation to the people who needed her. In these last words, she appears as mother to herself: it is a beautiful resolution of her independence and her need. . . .
We come now to one of the most insistent themes of the novel. Hagar is unable to let Bram know the satisfaction she feels in their lovemaking; her pride as a lady forbids any admission of that kind, so that ironically she cannot profit fully from her choice of a virile man. Immediately following her memory of this forced coldness in Bram's bed, Hagar is seen as an old woman lying flat on her back and "cold as winter" in another bed, remembering how children lie down in snow to make "the outline of an angel with spread wings." Significantly crafted in childhood, this snow angel recalls obviously the whiteness and chill of marble as well as the chastity of the Victorian angel. The root cause of Hagar's dilemma is religion, by way of Jason—for her father's dour Presbyterianism holds that sexuality is evil. Accordingly, his affair with "No-Name Lottie Drieser's mother" is perceived as dirty, something to be concealed from decent folk. Jason's partner in crime is a Victorian stereotype, abused and dwelling in shadows: "her face soft and blank as though she expected nothing out of life ... she began to trudge up the hill." Because women like this exist, others may remain pure ... so absurdly pure in fact, that Hagar is condemned to enter marriage with absolutely no information about what will happen on her wedding night. The sum of Jason's teaching is that "'Men have terrible thoughts,'" a notion which explains in part (for there are also economic motives) the Victorian allocation of chastity to women: as angels they must compensate for the bestiality of men, keeping humanity as far as possible out of Satan's grasp. Particularly was the lady to be unimpassioned, while women of a lower order (harlots and half-breeds) might be lascivious in the service of any man who chose to risk perdition. Hagar is not devout, but she is Presbyterian and Victorian enough to associate sex with stable beasts and the lower classes, with men who cannot help themselves, and with ladies least of all. In this way is her body victimized—not that she must endure her husband's embrace, but that she may not labour in love for their mutual satisfaction. She is paid for her sacrifice in being known as a lady. Again and again. Hagar relinquishes her claim to a full humanity—always in order that she may remain a lady, always failing to perceive that this apparent superiority is a ruse.
Hagar's exposure to genteel poetry and art have also contributed to her view of love as asexual: "Love, I fancied, must consist of words and deeds delicate as lavender sachets, not like things he did sprawled on the high white bedstead that rattled like a train." Bram has proven more rough Indian than Hagar had any reason to suspect. She brings to his house a print by Holman Hunt which she had acquired in the East (always the avenue for Victoriana): "I did so much admire the knight and lady's swooning adoration, until one day I saw the coyness of the pair, playing at passion, and in a fury I dropped the picture, gilt frame and all, into the slough, feeling it had betrayed me." Significantly, this picture is juxtaposed against another of horses—which Bram dislikes, despite his passion for horses, because he is annoyed that Hagar prefers the picture of the thing to the reality. The horses here (recalling Jason as stud to his wife's broodmare) obviously signify the truth of sexuality, in contrast to the myth which is perpetrated in Holman Hunt's picture. But Hagar knows that she has been betrayed, is angered not by the harsh reality of love so much as by the fact that lies such as these pale images of Holman Hunt have cut her off from authentic passion.
Hagar enters in her marriage to Bram a new kind of subjugation. She has escaped the destiny of Victorian females who sacrifice everything to their parents, a fate like that of the poor Manawaka spinster whose tomb inscription reads: "Rest in peace. From toil, surcease. Regina Weese." But sexual experience is not liberating for her, and the work site must perform for a houseful of men is still drudgery. That ox-like strength she would once have exchanged for daintiness takes her through twenty-four years of hard labour in which she becomes increasingly like Bram's first wife. Clara Shipley, "inarticulate as a stabled beast," was fat, her voice gruff as a man's; likewise, Hagar gains bulk (for lack, she believes, of a proper lady's corset) and wears a man's overcoat without remembering to object. But internally she remains Hagar Currie. She is contemptuous of Bram's daughters by Clara, coarse women who cannot in any way transcend their condition. At the same time, she is reduced in the fashion of all such farm wives to cheating her husband on the egg money and never questions that what little Bram's farm makes is not his own entirely. She is Hagar the Egyptian bondwoman of Genesis, no happier in her servitude than was that other Hagar. Always she rejects the satisfactions of martyrdom, the support which Clara Shipley received from what Hagar calls her "morbid motto": "No Cross No Crown. " Even as an old woman, Hagar will recoil from the martyrish attitudes of her daughter-in-law, despising that slavish Christianity which looks for its reward in another world. Hagar is too proud to grovel for profit, and we may honour her for that—even as we deplore her failure to appreciate the labours of Doris, and of those other women with whom she denied kinship. Finally, Hagar decides to leave Bram. The offence of her pride has become unendurable, and she is anxious to provide another sort of environment for John, the favoured son in whom she believes the Currie heritage will flower. Ironically, she must become a servant in earnest—a woman in uniform, no longer veiled as daughter or wife—in order to earn money and to live in the sort of house she thinks is appropriate for a Currie. Also ironically, her new position echoes that of Auntie Doll, housekeeper to the Curries, in relation to whom Hagar had supposed herself "quite different... a different sort entirely." That she has gone from bad to worse is suggested by the peculiarly unsavoury manner in which Mr. Oatley, her employer, has made his fortune: he has shipped Oriental wives into Canada, allowing them to plummet through the false bottom of the vessel whenever Immigration became suspicious. This grisly practice obtrudes oddly in the book, until we realize that it announces the author's concern with the wrongs which have been perpetrated against women by male society.
In a male fortress, then, a house founded on the death of women, Hagar lives quietly with John and at night (but only then) yearns for the body of her husband. She has resumed a version of the place she held in Jason Currie's house, and in her retreat to such spurious prestige has re-created for John the prison of her own childhood. John is deprived of Bram, as the Currie brothers were deprived of their father's love; and he is raised to hold himself aloof in pride, in circumstances which reveal the foolishness of pride. When the Depression strikes and his prospects are reduced to zero, John returns to Manawaka. There he presides over the death of Bram, caring for him as Matt had for Dan—again as a substitute for Hagar, who comes finally but is not recognized. This is a kind of retribution for her unwillingness at Dan's death to bend and assume another's role: now Bram, the one person who called her Hagar, mistakes her for "his fat and cow-like first wife," Clara.
During this and a subsequent visit to Manawaka, Hagar observes the love which is growing up between John and Arlene Simmons, who is Lottie Drieser's daughter. Arlene's position in Manawaka society is superior to John's, a neat reversal of the time when Hagar could hold herself superior to Lottie. Thus, John thinks at first that he is Bram-like for Arlene, illicit and therefore attractive as an opportunity for rebellion. But Arlene is free of such considerations. She has abandoned the sense of class superiority and with it the sense of sex as something a woman cannot enjoy without demeaning herself. She loves John and is capable of redeeming him for a life of joy—not of changing him exactly, as Hagar (thinking of Bram) warns her that she cannot, but of being open to him in such a way that John will change and grow of his own volition. That "stiff black seed on the page" of her Sweet Pea Reader, at which Hagar had stared as a child, hoping it would "swell and blossom into something different, something rare," shows signs of doing just that in the relationship of Arlene and Hagar's son. Seeing how freely Arlene can show her passion to John, Hagar finds it "incredible that such a spate of unapologetic life should flourish in this mean and crabbed world"—incredible perhaps, but for an instant she believes in this new, miraculous life for men and women.
Then she conspires with Lottie to separate their children, symbolically to stamp out their life, just as once before she stood by as Lottie trampled on the chicks emerging from their shells; in both cases death is accomplished presumably for the good of its victims. In the same punishing spirit, Jason Cur-rie had claimed that he beat his daughter for her own good; thus he forbade her marriage to Bram. In fact his motive was self-interested, and the motive is what counts. Hagar, in need of water (her well in the wilderness) at Shadow Point, will quote Coleridge and ask "What albatross did I slay, for mercy's sake?" She will wound a gull (the spirit of love) and think "I'd gladly kill it, but I can't bring myself to go near enough." The significance of this seems to be that Hagar's fastidious pride keeps her from an act of mercy, as it had when she refused to wear the plaid shawl to ease Dan's death. In causing the separation of John and Arlene, however, their mothers do not kill "for mercy's sake," but for their own. John (whose mother will not allow him independent life) regresses to the recklessness of an embittered child and kills both himself and Arlene in a car crash. Their life is coolly stamped out. And Hagar's albatross, the guilt she feels for John's death, will be appeased only when Hagar in the role of the ancient mariner can look into her heart and admit the failure of love.
The circumstances surrounding John's death are repressed by Hagar (and kept from the reader) until the turning and gathering point of the novel, which occurs at Shadow Point. Hagar has run away from her house in Vancouver because Marvin and Doris intend to put her in the nursing home which Hagar the Egyptian thinks of as "a mausoleum": she is running still from incarceration, from any imposed image of herself as feeble or subject to another's will. Twice before Hagar had fled—from her father's mausoleum to Bram's house, and from there to Mr. Oatley's death-like mansion in Vancouver. Her destination now repeats the flight to Bram's house. The abandoned house in which she first seeks shelter is unpainted, as the Shipley place had been; but now Hagar takes satisfaction in its weathered state, thinking how Marvin (the proper son, who sells house paint) would disapprove as once she relished Jason Currie's disapproval. Her second shelter, the cannery, with its "rusted and unrecognizable machinery" and the "skeleton" of a fishboat, also recalls the Shipley place, where "rusty machinery stood like aged bodies gradually expiring from exposure, ribs turned to the sun." These connections are important, because at Shadow Point Hagar will confront the deaths associated with the drought-plagued Shipley place— Bram's death, and finally John's. Hagar, we may remember, is herself a figure of the drought: her aged skin is "powdery as blown dust when the rains failed . . . left out in a sun that grinds bone and flesh and earth to dust as though in a mortar of fire with a pestle of light." But she will also, when she has suffered enough of such fiery enlightenment, be granted the mercy of water before her own death comes in fact.
Significantly, she must descend a stairway to arrive at the place where her genuine freedom will begin. There may be echoes here of that staircase she climbed up in Jason's house to begin her tenure as his chatelaine. Now, as the stone angel topples, as a lady would come down from her pedestal, so Hagar laboriously descends the half-rotted steps which lead to the beach. "It's not a proper stairway, actually"—it is returning to its natural condition, just as Hagar, "feeling slightly dizzy," abandons propriety to enter the depths of her own nature. On the way down these steps she feels the "goatsbeard brush satyr-like" against her—as Bram had done when they met; and she sees a kind of wildflower called the Star of Bethlehem, which (together with the Pan images) implies the spiritual rebirth which is waiting for her at Shadow Point. She delights in thinking of herself as Meg Mer-rilies, from the poem by Keats—an old gypsy woman (common, by the world's reckoning) whose house was "out of doors," whose "book" (like Hagar's) was "a churchyard tomb." It is as Meg Merrilies that she will encounter Murray Lees, her spiritual double, and drink the wine which is referred to in Keats' poem. They will exhibit toward one another something of that easegiving generosity which is also contained in the poem: "She plaited mats o' rushes, / And gave them to the cottagers / She met among the bushes." Old Meg is compassionate; she sings and decks her hair with garlands (as Hagar does with June bugs); she rejoices in nature; and she dies. The model of womanhood she offers to Hagar on the eve of her own death is also one of independence and of undiminished pride: "Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen/And tall as Amazon." This is the resolution of compassion and pride which Hagar seeks.
On the beach, Hagar sees a small boy and girl playing house. These children are later compared to John and Arlene, and there is also a connection with Hagar and Murray Lees, who take up residence together in the cannery. The girl is nagging at the boy, fussing about appearances; and Hagar wants to warn her that she will lose him if she continues to be so critical, so niggardly of praise. Again, the drought metaphor is employed: "The branches will wither, the roots they will die, / You 'll be all forsaken and you 'll never know why." When she intervenes, however, the children cling to one another—and this show of unity makes Hagar think that she has underestimated them, as clearly she does in the case of John and Arlene. Rather strangely, Hagar has claimed that she was herself forsaken: "I never left them. It was the other way around, I swear it." In any case, she is at last beginning to know why. She acknowledges here that love is the water required for growth, and that false pride can kill as surely as the drought. When love fails, each partner is forsaken; both lose, and blame is not the crucial issue.
The turning point comes with the arrival of Murray F. Lees. Almost her first remark to him is " 'I hope you'll excuse my appearance,'" but soon Hagar relaxes enough to share his wine and listen to his tale. What she hears is essentially her own story: a tale in which religion plays an important role, where the chief villains are a concern for appearances and the denial of sexuality, and where the catastrophe involves the loss of a son. Murray's story is about two women, his mother and his wife. Rose Ferney was his mother's name, "'A delicate name, she used to say,'" but Rose was in fact as tough as a morning glory vine. Ironically, Hagar fails to see herself in Rose: " 'Fancy spending your life worrying what people were thinking. She must have had a rather weak character.'" The point, of course, is that the proverbial clinging vine takes many forms, both strong and weak; the frailty of women can be deceptive (as in the case of Rose or Lottie), and the tenacity which is shown in an obsessive regard for appearances is also weakness. Murray's grandfather was a circuit rider, an evangelist who greatly embarrassed his Anglican daughter-in-law; yet Murray preferred " 'hellfire to [his mother's] lavender talcum,'" and became himself a Redeemer's Advocate. The passion of that sect became still more attractive when he met Lou at Bible Camp, for here it seemed was a religion in which "'prayer and that'" were not the "'odd combination'" which Hagar thinks they are. Then Lou got pregnant and began to worry (as Murray's mother always had) about her reputation. They married, but her concern grew with the arrival of a child too big to be premature—and her heart went out of sex. She thought that God was punishing her, and her religion became (like Jason's Presbyterianism) a denial of the flesh. But the real punishment came for Lou and Murray, as it had for Hagar, in the death of their son—and not his birth, which was the fruit of love. Thus, the child is killed in a fire while Lou is in the tabernacle with Murray, "'begging for the keys of heaven.'" They are punished symbolically, as Hagar is throughout her life and especially in John's death, for the denial of sexuality which Laurence opposes so vehemently in this novel. In Lou's original sensuality and its demise, we see clearly what Laurence believes has been done to women in the name of religion and propriety; in Murray's deprivation at the change in his wife, we see how this process has worked also to the disadvantage of the male.
Hagar does not come to any conscious realization of her error in listening to Murray's story. But it works on her subconsciously, as in a sort of dream she admits the guilt which is parallel to Murray's, and he assumes the role of John in order to forgive her. She also exhibits forgiveness toward Murray, first in trying to assuage his guilt over the fire, and second in pardoning him for the broken promise which brings Marvin and Doris to the cannery. Strictly speaking, Hagar is wrong when she tells Murray that "'No one's to blame'" for his son's death. Yet there are times when compassion requires us to act and speak not strictly in accordance with some ideal of truth, but with a clear sense of the other's plight. That same generosity in which Hagar has failed so often, and which she is learning with such difficulty now, must in the end be applied to her. We judge her less harshly than we might because we acknowledge the power of those forces which have worked against her. At the same time, we admire Hagar's pride precisely because it is a form (however twisted) of resistance to those forces—a statement, in fact, that Hagar Shipley is her own woman. She will not beg at heaven's gate, or cite excuses; if there is a God, he must take her as we do—for better or worse.
With the arrival of Marvin and Doris at the cannery, we learn that Hagar is dying. She is taken to a hospital, where her pride seems to be thriving still as she insists that Marvin get her a private room. A ward full of helpless women, where you sleep “as you would in a barracks or a potter’s field, cheek-by-jowl with heaven knows who all,” is not the place for Hagar. Although she has just been comforted by a night in the proximity of Murray Lees, “Nothing is ever changed at a single stroke.” In fact, the ward is exactly what Hagar needs, and she is kept there long enough to make friends with Elva Jardine, a common woman—as if to repeat in another key her experience of comradeship with Murray Lees. It is at this point in the novel that the theme of sisterhood becomes apparent. After a lifetime of despising women, Hagar is at last compelled to join the ranks of her own sex. Her democratization (the lessening of class pride) takes the form of a movement toward her fellow women in order to suggest that Hagar has turned to pride of class partly as an escape from the humiliations of her sex.
Elva Jardine recalls Mrs. Steiner, the woman at Silverthreads Nursing Home who had seemed briefly to hold out the promise of friendship for Hagar. It was she who spoke of the comfort to be had from daughters (a point also made by Lottie), and who articulated Hagar’s own astonishment at the way a woman’s body can travel from puberty through childbirth to menopause with such harrowing speed that the mind seems left behind at every stage, aghast and wondering. Hagar liked Mrs. Steiner immediately, but saw her as a trap designed to make Silverthreads and resignation seem attractive. She ran from that “oriental shrug” which accompanied Mrs. Steiner’s ironic question: “‘Where will you go? You got someplace to go?’” Having run from “oriental” (or submissive) womanhood as far as she was able, Hagar at last can run no more; the body is insistent, and now what it insists upon is death. Thus, she confronts her human fate simultaneously with her identity as woman, which she recognizes through Elva and other women in the hospital. It is important for Laurence that Hagar should make this connection before she dies.
Hagar doesn’t like Elva immediately, for her pride interferes, and she recoils as usual from the sort of woman who seems “flimsy as moth wings.” But Elva is tough in spirit, as well as compassionate toward other women and tender in the love she exhibits toward her husband. All of this is a lesson for Hagar, one that strikes to her roots because Elva (by a fortunate coincidence) is from Manawaka. Thus, Hagar can return in imagination to claim Bram instead of Jason (whom she might have used to impress Elva) and to admit through Elva her kinship with those common women of Manawaka she had once denied. Like Mrs. Steiner, Elva Jardine faces her own imminent death as a woman and with courage, revealing to Hagar that the two are not at odds. And she offers another lesson in the way she handles the indignities of bowel and bladder which have been so oppressive to Hagar in her infirmity. She struggles to the bathroom on her “‘own two pins,’” but will accept help when she needs it—as well as offer help, in the shape of a bedpan for Mrs. Dobereiner. Hagar proves that she has learned what Elva has to teach when (valiantly, but with an appreciation of absurdity) she gets the bedpan for Sandra Wong, her final room-mate. Those bedsheets which Doris washed so frequently, without complaining to Hagar until the end, are recalled by these events—so that we have a sense of many women joining together to admit the realities of the body, and to deal with the indignities that oppose them.
In Sandra Wong, Hagar confronts the changes which have occurred in women’s lives. Laurence makes her Chinese so that Hagar can imagine her as “the granddaughter of one of the small footbound women whom Mr. Oatley smuggled in, when Oriental wives were frowned upon.” But Sandra “speaks just like Tina,” Hagar’s own liberated granddaughter—which places Hagar squarely in that generation of women whose feet were bound. The corset of a lady was more appealing to Hagar, and would seem more natural; but it is not dissimilar in function, as both forms of binding work to restrict the movements of women and reduce their size. And all of this occurs for the delectation of the male, whose vanity is flattered by an implicit comparison to his own superior mobility and stature, while ironically the vanity of woman is provoked to make her collaborate in the process of diminution. In effect, woman turns to self-love in order to avoid self-hatred; she defeats herself in order to save herself when she embraces pride of class or personal vanity as her defence. This image of constriction (the footbinding) connects with that straitjacket of pride from which Hagar must be released in order to get the bedpan for Sandra and to bless Marvin—her two “truly free” acts—and so reveals the deep interpenetration of these themes in the novel. Hagar’s own complicity is further implied when she thinks, “Maybe I owe my house to her grandmother’s passage money. There’s a thought.” She does not pursue that thought, but we may—and we realize that Hagar’s mistake has been to join forces with the oppressor (all that Jason Currie has represented in the way of patriarchal, Victorian arrogance), and that she has done so for her own profit, although that profit has been illusory. In fact, she has been deformed as badly as those other women from whom she had hoped to dissociate herself. As their feet were crippled, so in her compensatory pride Hagar has been kept from the natural, healthy development of feeling which was her birthright as a woman and as a human being.
Hagar welcomes the changes which have come about for women, that the young nurse has training which allows her independence and that Sandra Wong can refer knowledgeably to hysterectomies, but she knows that nothing changes all at once: “The plagues go on from generation to generation.” With Tina, however, it seems that progress has been made, for contrary to her grandmother’s expectation, Tina has found “a man who’ll bear her independence,” and Hagar sends her a sapphire ring as a wedding present. With this ring, the novel comes a full circle. It had belonged to Hagar’s despised mother, and should have gone (as Hagar tells Doris in a gesture of reconciliation) to her despised daughter-in-law first of all. It might also have gone to Arlene, of course, if Hagar had possessed the wisdom then that she shows now in sending the ring to Tina. Hagar does not envision here a future for women without men, but a situation in which both men and women will be free to love one another and to respect each other’s needs. She cannot undo the past. She will not deny the person she has been. But in the act of ring-giving, Hagar succeeds in linking four generations of women with some faith that whatever plagues continue, of pride or other oppression, there will also be increasing joy.
Source: Constance Rooke, “A Feminist Reading of The Stone Angel,” in Canadian Literature, Vol. 93, Summer 1982, pp. 26–41.