Form and Content

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Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel is told through Hagar’s ninety-year-old eyes, with small events triggering flashbacks that reveal her history. The novel’s title is explained in the opening pages: The stone angel was a monument erected by Hagar’s father for his wife, who died giving birth to Hagar. Intended to impress, the angel is doubly blind: Made of unfeeling stone, she is also eyeless, and harkens people to heaven without knowing them. As Hagar’s narrative reveals, she has similar faults: Her pride and her unswerving sense of superiority often “blind” her to other people. Hagar is not apologetic about her past, but she does desire understanding.

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Hagar’s thoughts of the angel spark memories. As youngest child and only daughter of the town’s storekeeper, Hagar is sure of her high place in the world. Her father is strict and undemonstrative, and he teaches Hagar these qualities. Inordinately proud of his position in the town, he will not jeopardize it. Laurence shows Manawaka’s social hierarchy: “No-Name” Lottie Dreiser is barred from the Curries’ house, and the “half-breeds” on the fringes of society are unacknowledged—although the Currie children secretly socialize with both.

Hagar’s fear of weakness is shown with her brother Dan’s death. Matt realizes that their dying and delirious brother wants to see their mother. He asks Hagar to wear her old shawl and to comfort Dan. Hagar refuses, remembering what she has heard about her mother’s meekness and frailty—qualities she detests. At age eight, Hagar has chosen her father’s steeliness and determination.

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At eighteen, Hagar is sent to finishing school, where she learns social niceties such as embroidery, menu planning, and managing servants. Her father is pleased with her polish. Refusing Hagar’s wish to teach, he asks her to stay in Manawaka to act as his hostess. Bitterly, Hagar does his bidding for three years. To her father’s horrified disapproval, she then recklessly marries Bram Shipley and begins life on his farm. She hates Bram’s shiftlessness and vulgarity. Though he is unaware of it, Bram appeals to her sexually; Hagar will not admit her feelings for him because she sees the expression of love as a weakness.

Her life of grinding hard work and humiliation from Manawaka’s townspeople becomes increasingly difficult. One day Hagar, unkempt and overweight, realizes that she resembles Bram’s cowlike first wife. She has become what she most loathes. After selling her few heirlooms, she deserts Bram. She and her son John settle in Vancouver, where ironically Hagar becomes a housekeeper for a man much like her father. Though Hagar is glad to be independent, she is lonely and often wonders about Bram. She is jealous, however, when John returns to live with his father, saying that he might fit in better back on the farm. Two years later, she hears that Bram is ill and returns to Manawaka.

Like her father, Hagar abhors the thought of her child marrying beneath him. After Bram’s death, John wants to marry Arlene Simmons, Lottie Dreiser’s daughter, over Hagar’s strenuous objections. Hagar claims that the Great Depression has made them too poor to marry and that they are too young (though John is nearly thirty). Hagar knows that Lottie shares her feelings, and the two mothers scheme to have Arlene leave for a year. John, who has stopped drinking and carousing, despairs at the thought of being alone again. That night, he and Arlene are killed in a drunken accident.

Hagar says little about the intervening years; her employer dies the next year and leaves her enough money to buy her own home. Her son Marvin and his wife, Doris, both in their sixties, eventually move in with her. Hagar details her efforts to maintain her dignity and privacy through the humiliations of endless discussions of her physical, spiritual, and mental health. When Marvin and Doris discuss placing Hagar in a nursing home, she escapes again to Shadow Point. She tells much of her story to Murray Lees—not realizing that she has revealed more of herself to this stranger than to anyone in her family. Her tears before him show her renunciation of her previous steely calm and her regret for her “lost men”—her brothers, her son, and her husband.

At Shadow Point, Hagar is able to sort out her feelings, but Marvin “rescues” her and takes her to a hospital. As she lies in bed trying to think of some free and unconstrained action in her life, only two things come to mind: One is to tell Marvin that he is a better son than John. She admits to herself that this is a lie, but a well-meant one. Her new openness becomes painfully evident when she tells Marvin that she is frightened of what will happen to her. When a minister comes to see her, Hagar realizes that she has wanted all her life simply to rejoice. Her joy in life has been stymied, though, by worries about “proper” appearances. The novel ends with Hagar’s insistence on fighting to the very end, as befits the epigraph “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”

Context

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The Stone Angel is applauded as a Canadian classic and Laurence’s best work. Beloved in Canadian literature and widely studied, it is one of the few authentic and unsentimental views of old age and dying; Hagar’s voice is truthful and uncompromising. Laurence, who was only thirty-eight when the novel was published, made Hagar’s complexity believable; she once proudly wrote that the novel had been studied in hospital geriatrics courses. The Stone Angel, along with Scottish writer Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori (1959), is one of the few novels to focus on the disintegration of the body, the role of memory in aging, the pride in independence, and the struggle for identity among older people.

Laurence, a feminist and activist, often wrote about the damage done to the individual by internalizing standards of “proper” behavior. This novel is part of her “Manawaka cycle,” books that focus on a small community. Manawaka’s hypocrisy and condemnation of those who breach acceptable standards leads Hagar to rebellion and, later, despair. The town’s (and her father’s) attitude to the illegitimate Lottie and the half-Indian children reinforced rigid intolerance. The pride of Hagar’s father in his social standing made him reject his children when they needed him. Pride’s painful results culminate when Hagar objects to her son’s marriage because she believes that John’s background is superior, and this attitude leads to John’s and Arlene’s deaths. After this tragedy, Hagar says that she has turned to stone. Until the end of the novel, when she confesses her pain, she is unable to weep or show great joy.

Hagar is admirable for her courage, her willingness to strike out on her own, and her strength; as Marvin says, she is a “holy terror.” As in several of Laurence’s other works, the main character’s motherlessness is important: Lacking strong female role models, Hagar becomes as inflexible and distant, and as blind, as her father. Her father repeatedly tells her of men’s “terrible thoughts”; Hagar consequently denies her sexuality and sees love as a weakness. Hagar is hurt by the double standard that denies women’s enjoyment of sex and need for independence. Laurence described herself as a religious writer, and Hagar’s enlightenment at novel’s end, though not specifically religious, shows hope for even the most “unregenerate sinner.”

Historical Context

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An Authentic Canadian Literature
Laurence once declared that Canadian literature came of age around the time of World War II. It was then that Canadian writers ceased to look to British or American writers for models, but created stories based on Canadian themes and Canadian identity, using specifically Canadian language. One notable example was Sinclair Ross, whose novel As for Me and My House (1941) is set in a prairie town during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Laurence, who thought of herself as a prairie writer, acknowledged Ross's work as an influence on her own.

Laurence also named Hugh MacLennan as belonging to that first generation of Canadian-inspired writers. MacLennan's first novel was published in 1941, and he is also noted for his strong sense of place and Canadianness.

Laurence placed herself among the second generation of these specifically Canadian writers, but commented that during the 1960s and 1970s, which includes the time when The Stone Angel was written, it was still a struggle for such writers to gain appreciation. She said in an interview with Alan Twiggin 1981, "[I]n those days we never valued what we had as a nation. For instance, when I was in high school we never read one Canadian book. Then at university I studied the contemporary novel but all the writers were American. This was when Hugh MacLennan and Gabrielle Roy were writing some of their finest work."

By the 1980s, this had changed. In the same interview, Laurence said, "Now there's a whole new generation of Canadian writers who can almost take this 'valuing' of ourselves for granted. I like to keep reminding them that we owe a lot to that generation of writers before me. They worked in terrific isolation. A book wasn't considered any good if it didn't get a seal of approval in London or New York."

The Origins of Manawaka
The Canadian quality of Laurence's work is most noticeable in the flashback portions of The Stone Angel that take place in the fictional town of Manawaka. Manawaka is based on Neepawa, the prairie town in southern Manitoba that Laurence grew up in during the 1930s.

Neepawa was established in the late nineteenth century by Scottish settlers who made their way west from Ontario. The first general store was built in 1880 (in the novel, Jason Currie builds the first general store in Manawaka), and the decision of the Manitoba and Northwestern Railway to build a station in Neepawa ensured that the town would flourish. Laurence's own grandfather was the lawyer who incorporated the new town in 1883. The population then was 308.

Although Laurence commented that Manawaka is an amalgam of many prairie towns and is not to be wholly identified with Neepawa, two Manawaka landmarks which appear in The Stone Angel do have their real-life counterparts. Neepawa's Whitemud River, where Laurence skated as a child, becomes in the novel Wachakwa River, where Hagar's brother Dan falls through the ice. And the cemetery on the hill where the stone angel stands is based on the Riverside Cemetery in Neepawa.

Early Neepawa, like Manawaka, was a close-knit community steeped in its Scottish Presbyterian heritage that emphasized hard work and religious faith. In the novel, this heritage is embodied in Jason Currie, who was born in the Highlands of Scotland. Like many of the early settlers of Neepawa, he made his way from Ontario without a penny to his name, hoping for a new beginning in the West. Hagar recalls the "Scots burr" of his voice, and the rigid work ethic to which he adhered. Currie, who never missed a church service, embodied the qualities of self-reliance, self-discipline, orderliness, social conservatism, and dour, Calvinist religious faith that characterized these settlers of the Canadian west.

Such hardiness of body and soul served Neepawa well in the early days. By the mid-1890s the town was thriving. The area was a wheat-growing region—Neepawa is a Cree Indian word meaning "land of plenty"—and Neepawa served as an agricultural trading center. In The Stone Angel, a few years after Hagar marries, "all the farms had bumper wheat crops ... the Red Fife growing so well in the Wachakwa valley." Local industries in Neepawa included lumber milling, farm equipment manufacturing, and dairy goods production. In the novel, Hagar sells eggs for extra income to the Manawaka Creamery and to town families.

Setting

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The novel has two settings: a frame and a narrative, both set in a realistic representation of Canada. The narrative is set in Hagar Shipley's memory, mostly in and near the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba, where she was born and grew up, and where her husband and younger son John died. The frame is set in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Hagar lives with her older son Marvin and his wife Doris.

Literary Style

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Setting
The present-day setting of the novel, in an unnamed town in Canada, is unremarkable, but Hagar's memories of Manawaka over the years presents a rich portrait of small-town western Canada in the early days of settlement and in the Depression era.

While Hagar is a child, Manawaka is just being established. Hagar's father built the first store in the town, and the house Hagar grows up in is only the second brick house to be constructed in Manawaka; most of the other houses are still poorly built shacks and shanties. Early Manawaka is bleak and isolated. Hagar describes the immediate environment: "the bald-headed prairie stretching out west of us with nothing to speak of except couch-grass or clans of chittering gophers or the gray-green poplar bluffs." It is a harsh, unforgiving environment, in which the temperature in winter sometimes drops to forty degrees below zero.

There are many glimpses of life as it was lived in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In the absence of modern techniques of refrigeration, for example, Manawaka has a town icehouse, where ice blocks cut from the river in winter are stored all summer under sawdust.

Manawaka is a farming community, and in the 1930s there is a drought which has a devastating effect on the town. Machinery stands idle and rusting, and the whole environment presents a sad sight:

The prairie had a hushed look. Rippled dust lay across the fields. The square frame houses squatted exposed, drabber than before, and some of the windows were boarded over like bandaged eyes. Barbed wire fences had tippled flimsily and not been set to rights. The Russian thistle flourished, emblem of want, and farmers cut it and fed it to their own lean cattle.

Point of View
The novel is written in the first person, and is narrated by Hagar. This means that everything is seen from her point of view. It is her thoughts, memories, and impressions that make up the novel; there is no direct information about what other characters are thinking and feeling. They must be understood by their words and actions as Hagar reports them. Of course, Hagar is often a biased witness. It is clear that Marvin and Doris, as they try to do what is best for Hagar, are worth more than the contempt that Hagar heaps upon them.

The limitation of the first-person point of view is that it can only relate events in which the narrator is a direct participant. In The Stone Angel, the author overcomes this limitation on several occasions by having Hagar overhear conversations between others. One example is when she takes some family treasures to Jess, her husband's daughter by his first marriage. She stops outside the kitchen and overhears a conversation between Jess and John, Hagar's son.

Structure
The narrative weaves back and forth between the present and the past through the technique of the flashback. Usually, the transition is prompted by something in the present that triggers Hagar's memory. For example, the nursing home she is taken to visit reminds her of a hospital, which prompts a reminiscence about the birth of her first son.

Hagar's memories are presented in chronological order. Many critics found fault with this aspect of the novel, pointing out that memories are more random and haphazard; they do not usually occur strictly in chronological order. Laurence was aware of this problem. She wrote in an essay, "Gadgetry or Growing: Form and Voice in the Novel":

In some ways I would have liked Hagar's memories to be haphazard. But I felt that, considering the great number of years these memories spanned, the result of such a method would be to make the novel too confusing for the reader. I am still not sure that I decided the right way when I decided to place Hagar's memories in chronological order.

Imagery
The imagery in the novel is frequently drawn from the animal world. Often this is used by Hagar to present a person in an unflattering light. One of Hagar's main targets is Doris, "who heaves and strains like a calving cow"; or is seen "puffing and sighing like a like a sow in labor." Doris gapes at Marvin "like a flounder"; her voice squeaks "like a breathless mouse."

Sometimes this type of simile is used to comic effect, as when Hagar recalls that her husband "used to snort and rumble like a great gray walrus." Sometimes it is directed at Hagar herself, as when she describes herself as a "fenced cow meeting only the barbed wire whichever way she turns," or when she glares at the doctor "like an old malevolent crow, perched silent on a fence."

Symbolism
The recurring bird imagery sometimes acquires symbolic importance, as when Hagar injures a sea gull and it lies on the ground beating its wings helplessly. The sea gull symbolizes Hagar's own state of non-freedom. The bird batters itself "in the terrible rage of not being able to do what it is compelled to do," an apt description of the reality of Hagar's life, in which her desire to live independently, which her pride demands, is no longer possible.

Another symbol is the stone angel that stands over the family plot at the Manawaka cemetery. The novel opens with a description of how this white marble statue was brought from Italy by Hagar's father at great cost. It dwarfs all the other monuments in the cemetery, and is a symbol of her father's pride, which Hagar inherited.

The stone angel also symbolizes Hagar herself. Like stone, Hagar is hard and will not bend. When her son dies, she is "transformed to stone" and cannot weep. Like the stone angel, which was carved with blank eyeballs, Hagar is blind, in that she can view things only from her own self-centered point of view. She lacks insight into herself.

Literary Qualities

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When Laurence began her literary career, to describe oneself as a Canadian female writer from the Prairies was almost to apologize three times. The emergence of women's writing during the latter half of the twentieth century was different in Canada from the powerful polemics written in America or Britain; in Canada, the writers characteristically expressed themselves in fiction. The early novels of Margaret Laurence were not instantly highly esteemed by all critics, some of whom preferred the work of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. Now it is those reviews that seem narrow-minded and small, compared to Laurence's precise and compassionate depictions of realistic women like Hagar, at a particular time of life. If such lives are worth living, it seems Laurence is telling us, then it is certainly worthwhile to write and read about them. Laurence transcended the narrow-minded world in which she lived, even as she wrote about narrow-minded Hagar.

The Stone Angel is the most widely read of Laurence's novels, partly because it is included on secondary school curriculums across Canada. It is not the finest example of her writing—that is arguably her novel The Diviners, which has even more autobiographical elements. It is, however, the most accessible of her Manawaka novels: quicker and lighter than The Diviners, less complicated than the multiple tracking of thoughts, spoken words and radio news broadcasts in The Fire-Dwellers, and far less depressing than A Jest of God. The narrative is very visual in focus though easily read aloud. Her use of language is correct and precise; her characters are identifiable and highly realistic; and her plot finds merit in the substance of real life experiences.

Social Sensitivity

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The character Hagar holds strong moral beliefs and forms lasting opinions about the merits of every person she knows. She is not shy about expressing these opinions, in spite of the fact that her words rarely help the situation.

This is a good novel to read before discussions about consequences to moral or ethical choices. We are shown the consequences of every choice Hagar ever makes. Hagar believes that her morals and ethics are the best, and it is devastating to her to discover when her clothing, statements or behavior are no longer proper. Hagar learns little regret throughout her long life, but what she learns of compassion redeems her.

Many novels have been written about murder, religious conversion, or betrayals—but only a master author could write about a woman looking in the mirror and have the readers as profoundly affected by the consequences as we would be if Hagar had fired a gun.

Throughout her writing and her life, Laurence worked passionately for what she believed in, but she resisted all political or social labels. Her novels were never didactic, though her characters wrestled with timely moral dilemmas. Sylvia Fraser wrote of Laurence in an afterword to the 1988 New Canadian Library edition of The Fire- Dwellers that "her basic themes were universal—decent, recognizable people groping for understanding of themselves and others, struggling through lost innocence to maturity, through pain to wisdom and an acceptance of their unique, often humble place in the universe."

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: Presbyterian clergyman Ralph Connor, one of the earliest of Canadian writers of the West, writes best-selling novels that draw on his Scottish heritage.

1940s: Distinctive Canadian fiction, celebrating Canadian identity, begins to emerge in the work of Sinclair Ross and Hugh MacLennan.

1960s: Margaret Laurence writes most of the Manawaka series.

Today: Canadian writers such as Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood are in the forefront of world literature.

1890s: The economy in Manitoba is based on agriculture, with manufacturing and transportation later becoming important.

1930s: One out of every four workers is unemployed, and Manitoba is devastated by drought.

Today: Agriculture remains the backbone of rural Manitoba, where wheat is the most important crop, followed by barley and canola.

1890s: Educational opportunities for women are very limited. Like Hagar Shipley, women typically work unpaid in the home, looking after the children and performing household tasks.

1930s: Fewer than four percent of Canadian women work outside the home.

1960s: The women's movement emerges, calling for equality with men.

Today: Over ten percent of women in Canada hold a university degree. Women make up more than fifty-three percent of full-time undergraduate students at Canadian universities, and account for forty-five percent of the Canadian labor force. However, in many jobs they continue to earn less than men.

Media Adaptations

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A version of The Stone Angel on audiocassette is available from Northwest Passages, 628 Penzer Street Kamloops, BC, V2C 3G5, Canada. Web site: www.nwpassages.com

For Further Reference

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Challenging Territory: The Writing of Margaret Laurence. Edited by Christian Riegal. University of Alberta Press, 1997.

Crossing the River: Essays in Honour of Margaret Laurence. Edited by Kristjana Gunnars. Turnstone Press, 1988.

Kertzer, Jonathan. Margaret Laurence and Her Works. ECW Press, 1980.

King, James. The Life of Margaret Laurence. Knopf Canada, 1997.

Laurence, Margaret. Dance on the Earth: A Memoir. McClelland and Stewart, 1989.

Margaret Laurence. Edited by William New. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1977.

Margaret Laurence: First Lady of Manawaka (film). Edited and directed by Robert Duncan. National Film Board of Canada (NFB), 1978.

Morley, Patricia. Margaret Laurence. Twayne Publishers, 1981.

Morley. Margaret Laurence: The Long Journey Home. McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991.

Our Kinda Talk: An Introduction to Margaret Laurence, videocassette 928.2. Directed by Duncan. NFB, 1993.

Trewes, Calra. The Manawakan World of Margaret Laurence. McClelland and Stewart, 1975.

A Place to Stand On: Essays by and about Margaret Laurence. Edited by George Woodcock. NeWest Press, 1983.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Beckman-Long, Brenda, "The Stone Angel as a Feminine Confessional Novel," in Challenging Territory: The Writing of Margaret Laurence, edited by Christian Riegel, University of Alberta Press, 1997, p. 48.

Buss, Helen M., Mother and Daughter Relationships in the Manawaka Works of Margaret Laurence, University of Victoria Press, 1985, p. 11.

Davies, Robertson, Review, in New York Times Book Review, June 14, 1964, p. 4.

Laurence, Margaret, "Gadgetry or Growing: Form and Voice in the Novel," in A Place to Stand On: Essays by and about Margaret Laurence, edited by George Woodcock, NeWest Press, 1983, p. 83.

Laurence, Margaret, "Sources," in Margaret Laurence, edited by William New, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1977, p. 15.

Morley, Patricia, Margaret Laurence, Twayne, 1981, pp. 78, 81.

New, William, ed., Margaret Laurence, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1977, pp. 141-2.

Staines, David, "Margaret Laurence," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 53: Canadian Writers Since 1960, first series, edited by W. H. New, Gale, 1986, pp. 261-69.

Sullivan, Rosemary, "An Interview with Margaret Laurence," in A Place to Stand On: Essays by and about Margaret Laurence, edited by George Woodcock, NeWest Press, 1983, p. 68.

Review, in Time, July 24, 1964.

Review, in Times Literary Supplement, March 19, 1964.

Tracy, Honor, Review, in New Republic, June 20, 1964, p. 19.

Twigg, Alan, "Canadian Literature: Margaret Laurence," in For Openers: Conversations with 24 Canadian Writers, Harbour Publishing, 1981, pp. 261-71.

For Further Study
Cameron, Donald, Conversations with Canadian Novelists, Macmillan of Canada, 1973.

Includes "The Black Celt Speaks of Freedom," an interview with Laurence.

Coger, Greta M. K. McCormick, ed., New Perspectives on Margaret Laurence: Poetic Narrative, Multiculturalism, and Feminism, Greenwood Press, 1996.

Eighteen essays on all aspects of Laurence's work, including three on The Stone Angel, suitable for advanced students.

Gibson, Graeme, Eleven Canadian Novelists, Toronto, 1973.

This includes a wide-ranging interview with Margaret Laurence, as well as with other Canadian authors, including Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Mordecai Richler.

Kuester, Hildegard, The Crafting of Chaos: Narrative Structure in Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel and The Diviners, Rodopi, 1994.

The chapter on The Stone Angel is scholarly but readable, and includes an interesting section on the genesis of the novel, in which Kuester examines an earlier typescript version and compares it to the final version.

Lennox, John, and Ruth Panofsky, eds., Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman, University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Laurence conducted a forty-year correspondence with her friend and fellow novelist, Adele Wiseman, and nearly four hundred of those letters are included here. There are numerous comments about The Stone Angel.

Morley, Patricia, Margaret Laurence: The Long Journey Home, McGill-Queens University Press, 1991.

A biographical and critical study which shows the links between Laurence's African and Canadian writing and her evolving sociopolitical concerns.

Thomas, Clara, The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence, McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

This readable survey of Laurence's fiction is one of the best introductions to her work.

Bibliography

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Cameron, Donald. Conversations with Canadian Novelists. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1973. In one chapter, a close friend of Laurence talks with her about family, religious influences, travels, and sources for her novels. Laurence discusses the influence of her grandfather and the women in her family on The Stone Angel.

Coger, Greta M. R. McCormick, ed. New Perspectives on Margaret Laurence: Poetic Narrative, Multiculturalism, and Feminism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Features a variety of critical approaches by national and international contributors.

Gunnars, Kristjana, ed. Crossing the River: Essays in Honour of Margaret Laurence. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Turnstone Press, 1988. A variety of essays examine various themes in Laurence’s work. Two essays focus on The Stone Angel: one on Hagar as storyteller and the other on the work as a novel of “completion.” The bibliographies and footnotes are useful in stimulating research.

King, James. The Life of Margaret Laurence. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. A candid biography that exposes the vices as well as the virtues of the subject.

Laurence, Margaret. Dance on the Earth. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989. Laurence’s memoirs, which praise the women who influenced her development. Biographical connections to her novels are discussed. An invaluable source for in-depth knowledge of her inspirations.

Morley, Patricia. Margaret Laurence: The Long Journey Home. Montreal: Queens-McGill University Press, 1991. Offers a clear and helpful analysis of Laurence’s life and work. The chapter on the “Manawaka cycle” examines The Stone Angel in detail, especially Laurence’s use of religious imagery and tragicomedy.

Thomas, Clara. The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976. This critical and biographical study illuminates the connection between the author’s place and literary works.

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