Essays and Criticism
The Spiritual Journey of Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel
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...
(The entire section is 2017 words.)