Sunday, March 02, 2008

Biblio Brat's Review of The Stone Angel

The Stone Angel (1988)
By Margaret Laurence
Fiction, 308 pages

The branches will wither, the roots they will die,
You’ll all be forsaken and you’ll never know why.

Hagar Shipley is ninety years old and is finding herself more and more pulled by the past, forced to reflect upon events which she felt she had no control over; but in truth, did.

Does that make her want to change the way she was, or even change the way she has become? No. She is strong-willed and tenacious; holding onto whatever little life she has left, just as she has all her life. She knows in reality, nothing can be changed – not even her indomitable nature. At times she feels she must make an attempt at tact and civility, but knows all too well the difficulty in trying to be something you are not:

“I will be quiet, I swear, never open my mouth, nod obligingly, keep myself to myself for good and all. And yet, even as I swear it, I know it’s nonsense and impossible for me. I can’t keep my mouth shut. I never could.”
Pride is her protection; her barrier against being perceived as weak. Others would welcome help, accepting it as an act of compassion and mercy. Not Hagar. To her, their ministrations are derived from pity, and she has no use for others feeling sorry for her:

“I’ll drink from this glass, or spill it, just as I choose. I’ll not countenance anyone else’s holding it for me…I wrest from her the glass, full of water to be had for the taking. I hold it in my own hands.”
In The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence skillfully uses flashbacks to reveal to us, and Hagar, how this unflinching personality has affected her life and relationships:

“How is it my mouth speaks by itself, the words flowing from somewhere, some half-hidden hurt?”
This hurt, this pain half-hidden in her mind will not show itself easily. And it is not until the end of her life, and the end of the book, we see why.

“I’ve waited like this, for things to get better or worse, many and many a time. I should be used to it…I don’t even know what I was waiting for except I felt something must happen – this couldn’t be all.”
In this statement we see her true ‘frailty’, her ‘weakness’. Her life was built around expectations that no one, not even she, was able to meet. She has paid a high price for her obstinacy, and it is not until she is facing her own death that she able to consider coming to terms with what she has done, and who she has been.

Time is finite. We all are limited in the life that we are given. As Hagar Shipley faces the end of hers, she sees that her pride was not the best part of her character. But this is who she is, and all she could ever be. She never knew any other way but her own.

“I can’t change what’s happened to me in my life, or make what’s not occurred take place. But I can’t say I like it, or accept it, or believe it’s for the best. I don’t and never shall, not even if I’m damned for it.”
It is not a path many of us would take. And that is why I liked this book. I get to see someone else go down a road I could not, so through her eyes I see what could have been, or, perhaps, what could be.

I really did not care for Hagar Shipley. She is not a very likable person. However Margaret Laurence has done an excellent job in developing the story and her characters. If this story was simply about Hagar in her youth, I doubt that I would have ever come to feel anything but contempt. But as an old woman, facing death and struggling against the frailty she has fought so hard against all her life, I cannot help but feel sympathy and compassion. She is stubborn and prideful, yet she is brave. She faces everything head on and never gives an inch. You have to admire someone who remains true to their character so completely.

I am giving The Stone Angel 3 of 5 Stars as I do like the story and the telling of it, however it was not one that was so compelling that I couldn't wait to finish it or felt bad about letting it sit around for a day or two before picking it up again.

Cross posted here.


Kate S. said...

You've summed up Hagar's character beautifully here. In focusing on her resistance to change, you've made me think about the extent to which The Stone Angel flouts novelistic conventions. Generally we expect a novel which focuses on one character, and particularly one that covers so many years of that character's life, to track how they change and develop. Yet here we have a novel which is all about the main character's refusal/inability to change. Fascinating!

Danielle said...

Rereading those passages it's striking just how difficult she was. She certainly never pretended to be anything else, but I think when she was younger she never had the ability (foresight) to be anything else. She is a hard character to like, but sort of remarkable nonetheless.

Dorothy W. said...

I loved this novel because of all the various things it made you feel about the main character -- nothing is simple or straightforward here, and Laurence makes you deal with uncertainty and ambiguity all the way through.

Imani said...

Isn't it odd when you read one of those books that you can't get excited about but do regard them as excellent enough to be recommended to others? I never had a reading experience like that until I started reading blogs.

J.C. Montgomery said...

Thanks to all who have commented thus far. I think I learn just as much from these as I do reading your blogs and your own reviews.

Kate: As usual you are insightful and eloquent.

Danielle: I agree about the younger Hagar and her inability to be anything else. And in a way, it was the same when she got older.

Dorothy: Laurence did very well in creating a story and characters we grow to feel strongly about, whether it is positive or negative. It really speaks to her skill as an author.

Imani: It seems counterintuitive doesn't it? To recommend books to others which I myself may not consider good enough to become one of my 'favorites'. However, I cannot deny that this is a good story, which I know others will like - maybe even more than me. I guess that is what I was trying to get across, but didn't do so well in conveying it.