Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 323

Laurence’s own perception of the meaning of her novel evolved over the years. Initially, she thought that she had written about the nature of freedom through Hagar’s struggle for her own independence and coming to terms with her own past. Later, she noted that the theme was really about survival, the human need to survive until the moment of death with some kind of dignity and sense of personal value. Much later still, Laurence observed that Hagar at the end learns what constitutes her true significance: the ability to give and receive love.

The Stone Angel is about all of these things. It surely is about the many mental and emotional barriers that can stultify the freedom to be what one deep down wishes and needs to be. Psychic and spiritual survival requires that those barriers be recognized for what they are. Only then can a person be free to relate truly to others. The essence of relationships, Hagar discovers, is the ability to communicate and love. She does just that in her waning hours, though the habit of long neglect makes the efforts both poignant and comical.

Laurence has steeped her story in biblical allusions and imagery. The most obvious is the allusion to Hagar, Abram’s Egyptian maidservant whose pride forced her to flee to the wilderness and whose son Ishmael was destined to be “a wild donkey of a man.” Desert images of drought abound; the dominant color is gray, and the flowers are mostly those associated with death. In this environment, Hagar turns into a “stone angel.” The water imagery at the end of the book signals the turning point of Hagar’s revival, recovery, and redemption. Yet the ending, though redemptive, is hardly triumphant. What prevails in the reader reflects Hagar’s own state of mind: a profound sense of regret that nearly a whole lifetime had been wasted on appearances, victimizing both self and others.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

Vivid and intact, Hagar’s memories often fuse with present reality to produce a temporal counterpoint which lends the novel its flashback structure. Indeed, at the novel’s climax, past and present coalesce so completely that Hagar relives the night of John’s death and revises its history. She imagines that John has returned safely from his night out and that she is given the opportunity to apologize which, in reality, she missed. Mr. Lees becomes the tangible medium through which this intersection of past and present, of reality and desire, takes place. Hagar touches him, believing that she is touching her son. Empathetically recognizing her emotional need, Mr. Lees plays along with Hagar’s delusion to its conclusion, allowing her to exorcise her guilt. That night, Hagar is at last able to sleep peacefully.

Hagar’s peaceful sleep on her last night at the cannery foreshadows her death several days later in the hospital, but her conscious approach to death is by no means peaceful. In the hospital, Hagar begins to struggle with the meaning of her life more tenaciously than ever. She emerges from the cocoon of memory in which she has been absorbed and begins to overcome her alienating pride and to experience life with joy.

While listening to Doris’ clergyman sing the verses of a hymn of rejoicing, Hagar has an epiphanic insight into her own willful role in her life’s unhappiness: “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....” Hagar’s insight leads to her repentance for her pride (“Pride was my wilderness”) and her regret for the misery she had caused her husband and son (“Oh my two, my dead. Dead by your own hands or by mine? Nothing can take away those years”).

To the end, Hagar defiantly refuses to pray, even in private, for God’s forgiveness, but her internal confession and repentance lend a mood of Christian reconciliation to her final, spiritual journey into herself. Just before she dies, Hagar recognizes two truly free acts she has done in her life, both of them recent. The first, which she calls “a joke,” is her successful struggle to bring a bedpan to the young woman who shares her hospital room; the second, which she calls “a lie,” is her assurance to Marvin that he has been a better son than John. Hagar excuses and even celebrates the lie not merely because “the dead don’t bear a grudge nor seek a blessing” but also because in the lexicon of compassion which she has finally adopted, it is “not a lie, for it was spoken at least and at last with what may perhaps be a kind of love.”


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112

The dominant theme of The Stone Angel is that of pride. As Hagar herself realizes in a moment of insight near the end of the novel, "Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear." By pride, Hagar means a number of related qualities, such as stubbornness, rebelliousness, willfulness, and a refusal simply to respond naturally to her own feelings. Pride made her cover up her real emotions and reactions to people and events. She was always too concerned with what others would think. In old age she says, "What do I care now what people say? I cared too long."

The novel is strewn with examples of Hagar's pride. As a girl, she refuses to cry when she is whipped by her father, and he grudgingly admits she has "backbone." As a young woman, she is unbending. When her dying brother Dan, delirious, calls out for his deceased mother, Matt tries to persuade Hagar to don her mother's old shawl and pretend to be her, in order to comfort her brother. But Hagar, although she wants to, cannot bring herself to do this. She cannot bear to imitate the frailty of the woman who died giving birth to her, because she prides herself too much on her own strength. Later, pride also stops Hagar from enjoying sexual relations with her husband. She never lets him know when she feels pleasurable sensations, because she is ashamed of such feelings. "I prided myself on keeping my pride intact, like some maidenhead," she says.

Hagar is very concerned about keeping up appearances in front of other people. She is always aware that she received an education at a private academy and therefore knows how to behave. She looks down on those who do not speak or behave well, and this includes her own husband. She refuses to go to church after Bram has embarrassed her there with his rude comments. And in old age Hagar recalls how on countless occasions she would say to Bram, "Hush. Hush. Don't you know everyone can hear?"

Hagar's pride also results in the suppression of her real feelings. When her son John dies, she refuses to cry in front of the nurse; she will not allow a stranger to see her emotions. But then when she is alone, she finds that she is unable to cry at all. Similarly, she will not show her emotions to her first son, Marvin, when he departs to fight in World War I: "I wanted all at once to hold him tightly, plead with him, against all reason and reality, not to go. But I did not want to embarrass both of us, nor have him think I'd taken leave of my senses."

The indignities, infirmities, and fears associated with old age are continually present in the novel. Hagar must bear many things. Her memory, although razor-sharp when she recalls the events of her youth and middle age, falters when it comes to the immediate past. She forgets, for example, that her granddaughter, Tina, left the home more than a month ago, and asks Doris whether she will be home for supper. She confuses the name of her doctor with that of the doctor who practiced in Man-awaka when she was a child.

Hagar has many physical problems, including an unexplained pain under her ribs which is sometimes so severe it takes her breath away. She falls frequently and also suffers from constipation and incontinence. Unaware of the latter, she accuses Doris of making it up. Her physical problems and senility have made her a danger to herself, although she does not know this until Marvin points out that one night she left a cigarette burning and it fell out of the ashtray. When Marvin and Doris tell Hagar they plan to get a sitter so they can go out one evening, she reacts so angrily to the notion that, like a child, she needs a sitter, that they change their minds about going out.

In her old age, Hagar dislikes her appearance. She regards her overweight, unreliable body with disgust, and as she glances sideways in a mirror she sees:

[A] puffed face purple with veins as though someone had scribbled over the skin with an indelible pencil. The skin itself is the silverish white of the creatures one fancies must live under the sea where the sun never reaches. Below the eyes the shadows look as though two soft black petals had been stuck there. The hair which should by rights be black is yellowed white, like damask stored too long in a damp basement.

As a consequence of her pride, Hagar has cut herself off from the natural flow of human sympathies. In her old age, trapped in her own negative perceptions and long habits of mind, she is unable to relate harmoniously with others. She is suspicious of people's motives and rejects their attempts to be pleasant. Sometimes she would like to be more reasonable, but a bitter or sarcastic remark will escape her mouth instead, in spite of herself.

Hagar's extreme alienation, the product of a closed heart, sometimes produces unexpected effects. Because she rejects others, she expects them in turn to reject her, so a simple act of kindness from someone else may produce a sudden burst of tears, as when a girl gives up her seat for Hagar on a bus.

Hagar's alienation finds expression in her attitude to religion and to God. She never declares herself to be an atheist, but she has no belief that the universe is under the care of a loving God. She admits to Mr. Troy, the minister, that she has never been able to pray, and she pours scorn on the literalistic Christian picture of heaven: "Even if heaven were real, and measured as Revelation says, so many cubits this way and that, how gimcrack a place it would be, crammed with its pavements of gold, its gates of pearl and topaz, like a gigantic chunk of costume jewelry." Nor does Hagar accept the religious belief that everything that happens in life is for the best: "I don't and never shall, not even if I'm damned for it."

Towards the end of the novel, Hagar makes two small but significant steps that lessen her alienation. She tells Marvin that he has always been good to her, because she senses that that is what he needs to hear; she no longer thinks entirely of her own needs. And though it costs her considerable effort, she fetches a bedpan to ease the discomfort of Sandra Wong, her sixteen-year-old fellow patient in the hospital.

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