The Stone Angel

by Margaret Laurence, written in 1964.

Hagar is born on the prairies of Canada, raised by her store-keeper father to be “better” than those around her. This endeavour culminates in her being sent to finishing school, where she learns embroidery, French, menu-planning for a 5-course meal, poetry, how to take a firm hand with servants, and the most becoming way of dressing her hair. In other words, nothing of any use at all, except to alienate her from her surroundings.

She becomes enamored of and marries a man exactly wrong for her, the opposite of that which her father would have hoped for.

Her life is filled with unhappiness and disappointment: the son who grows up to tend to her in her old age treated with bitterness and suspicion; the son she pinned all of her hopes on becomes the image of his father, uncouth and coarse, and dies tragically on a dare.

Hagar struggles against her age, her loss of independence, her fear that her surviving son and his wife want only to sell her house and her “things” — things which bear great sentimental value for her despite their commemoration of moments less than satisfying.

There’s a moment of radiance: when visited in the hospital by the minister of her daughter-in-law’s church, he appeases Hagar by singing a favored hymn.

I would have wished it. This knowing comes upon me so forcefully, so shatteringly, and with such a bitterness as I have never felt before. I must always, always, have wanted that–simply to rejoice. How is it that I never could? I know, I know. How long have I known? Or have I always known, in some far crevice of my heart, some cave too deeply buried, too concealed? 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–oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?

Her reproaches return within moments, followed immediately by her regret. Oh, I am unchangeable, unregenerate. I go on speaking in the same way, always, and the same touchiness rises within me at the slightest thing.

This dichotomy defines the book — Hagar in turns plaintive, needy, defensive; determined, remorseful, even occasionally kind. [I am reminded of my grandma — candid, opinionated, full of fire until the last.] She becomes caught up in her memories and her regrets, losing contact with the present while recognizing its absence. In one of the closing passages she recounts a passing visit to the graves of her husband and father, the stone angel which marks her father’s grave teetering, weathered and worn. Despite her panic upon a previous visit, when the angel had been deliberately tumbled, and vandalized through the mortifying application of lipstick, this time she doesn’t bother to set it to rights, knowing that really it doesn’t matter; that what remains there, and what was, is over.

As in many places in this book, this realization, this profound insight, is short-lived; perhaps the most powerful, and real, revelation of them all.

1 Response to “The Stone Angel”

  1. January 14, 2012 at 3:56 am

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