Friday, February 29, 2008

A Holy Terror

Rereading The Stone Angel was a repetitive experience. My reactions moved along a similar trajectory to the first time when I knew nothing about the novel. The beginning, I thought, was nice enough but it did not promise much excitement. Doubt lingered as to whether this Canadian classic would prove to be much more than a decent read. Over time I became more aware of how the Hagar Shipley character had completely won me over. As I turned the last page my stomach was tense and filled with awe, anxiety, painful pleasure and the knowledge that I had reached another personal literary touchstone. My last had been William Blake and Ayi Kwei Armah in 6th form.

My other rereading experiences last year, for pleasure, held a wholly different quality, in part because they were 3rd or 4th rereads unlike The Stone Angel, my first. Lines in Jane Eyre and The Lord of the Rings echoed like old friends as I read along; and though my LOTR reread corrected me on or reminded me of several story details obscured by repeated viewings of the extended DVD editions, my sojourn was a comfortable one of familiarity. With the Laurence novel it was as though I had opened a new book.

That impression can also be explained by the fact that I am a different reader now, post-blog, compared to the early ’00s. I was not such an actively critical reader, keenly aware of the possibility of patterns and connections, or noticing prose style.

One response that carried over from the first read was my intense reaction to Hagar’s vulnerability as an elderly person dependent on others. She is 90 years old at the start of the novel. As the first person narrator, we are privy to each painful humiliation when her mind or body fails her — she who is a human realisation of her Scottish ancestor’s family motto “Gainsay who dare” — and she is forced to depend on her daughter-in-law Doris to dress her for bed, to take her to the bathroom, sometimes to remind her of where they are. When she accidentally falls it takes both Doris and Marvin, Hagar’s son, to lift her up, and then they speak in front of her, about her, “as though I weren’t here, as though it were a full gunnysack they dragged from the floor”. I don’t often come across such old protagonists in fiction, especially one whose elderly life the author gives as much attention to as the earlier past.

What struck me as new were the notable moments in the novel when Hagar recalls a hymn. They provoke the reader to consider how she lived her life in strict opposition to the reverent sentiments the hymns conveyed, the novel’s overall tragic irony.

The first came in Hagar’s first long recollection about her childhood. She was 8 and at church with her father who just heard his name called out in a list of major church donors. He remarked to Hagar “with modestly bowed head” that he, Jason Currie, and the lawyer Luck McVitie (called out first) must have given the highest amounts. Then they sang a hymn adapted from Psalm 121:

Unto the hills around do I lift up
My longing eyes.
O when for me shall my salvation come,
From when arise?
From GOD the LORD doth come my certain aid,
From GOD the LORD, who heaven and earth hath made.

Currie was one of the many Scots who travelled to Canada in the 19th century to make a new life for themselves and family in the prairies. He stressed his success in the merchant business as a self-made one to his family both to buttress his ego and to pass on that pioneering spirit to his children. He coached Hagar and her two older brothers, Matt and Dan, in their family history and exhorted them to expect no one but themselves to help achieve their own success. In any case, as one of the prominent town families in Manawaka, Manitoba, there weren’t that many others around who were fit company. Whatever religious ritual he indulged in was for tradition and public appearances. In childish trust Hagar described her father thusly:

Auntie Doll was always telling us that Father was a God-fearing man. I never for a moment believed it, of course. I couldn’t imagine Father fearing anyone, God included, especially when he didn’t even owe his existence to the Almighty. God might have created heaven and earth and the majority of people, but Father was a self-made man, as he himself had told us often enough.

Hagar took to that stubborn, ambitious egotism wholesale and in some moments it is clear that her father regrets that the two older sons were less dynamic and outgoing or that she had the misfortune of being born a girl. Her mother died in childbirth and, curiously, Hagar fixated on her as symbol of everything she did not want to be — passive, meek, weak and amenable — for look how she ended up. Instead, Hagar was haughty, proud, and loathed to humble herself to anyone whether it was to apologize for a mistake, for impulsively inflicted pain, to admit to a fear or to face such a weakness in others. Her constant refrain throughout the novel is “I never could.” She said it as if, for her, it was physically impossible.

Her older brothers, in physique and manner, were more similar to her mother. Dan, especially, was a sickly child but Hagar believed he faked illness more often than not in order to be pampered. It took unfortunately drastic circumstances to convince her otherwise. One day while playing with friends out on the ice Dan falls into an unseen hole and catches pneumonia. Hagar and Matt, conscious of their father’s acute sensitivity to public exposure, never think of taking Dan to the nearest house but bundle him straight home. Their father lectures and Auntie Doll tends to him and all seems well until the next day when his fever gets much worse and he becomes delirious. No adult is there with them so Hagar runs to get the doctor but he is out of town and, due to the weather, won’t be back soon. Their father is working late. Matt, probably recognising how serious things are, does not send for their father, for that isn’t who Dan wants. Apparently Dan had been calling out for his mother, who died when he was four. He still kept one of her old plaid shawls. Matt asks Hagar if she could wear it and pretend for a while that she’s their mother for Dan’s comfort. But she could not bring herself to do it. To even imagine herself as that frail, weak spectre, everything she rejected as wrong, to someone who had “inherited” that frailty “was beyond me”. She cried but she refused.

Matt does it for Dan and holds him as he dies. Through that and other hardships Hagar learned that there was no indomitable God keeping her and her family “preserv[ing] you from all evil”. And even if he was offering a helping hand she would refuse it for that would place her in submission.

In many scenes she rejects God and his expectations in favour of her own will. When, in old age, Doris called over Reverend Troy to talk with Hagar, her thoughts are dismissive and condescending, with the odd moment of pity for the intimidated minister.

“Sometimes, you know, Mrs. Shipley, when we accept the things which we can’t change in this life, we find they’re not half as bad as we thought.”

“It’s easy enough for you to say.”

“Oh yes, indeed.” His smooth face goes pink as a Mother’s Day carnation.


“Have you tried asking God’s help? Prayer can do wonders, sometimes, in easing the mind.”

So wistful is his voice that I’m on the verge of promising I’ll try. Then the lie seems not inexpensive but merely cheap.

“I’ve never had much use for prayer, Mr. Troy. Nothing I prayed for ever came to anything.”

“Perhaps you didn’t pray for the right things.”

“Well who’s to know? If God’s a crossword puzzle, or a secret code, it’s hardly worth the bother, it seems to me.”

“I only meant we should pray for strength,” he says, “not for our own wishes.”

“Oh well, I’ve prayed for that too, in my time, but I never thought it made much difference…I prayed like sixty when trouble came, as every person does…But nothing ever came of it.”

As her name suggested she is not counted among the tribe of Israel, God’s chosen.

The second hymn occurred later in the novel, this time in her old age, and she is the one who sang it. She learned, after noting the meaningful glances Doris and Marvin exchanged, and subtle hints from Doris’ pastor, that she was to be sent to a nursing home. To regain a moment of freedom she plans and successfully executes an escape to a beach where she spends two nights in two different abandoned buildings with only a small bag of provisions and a bucket of rain water. During this time she slips in and out of lucidity, mentally chiding Doris for keeping the heater too low. When she is cognizant she reproves Marvin for his tardiness in locating her. In an awkward, unsure moment at sunset she looks at how the sun’s rays hit the abandoned fishing equipment that surrounds her “filled with shadows” and sings a verse of “Abide with me”. (Full lyrics here.)

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

She gains no comfort from it, in fact, is bit embarrassed that she bothered at all. “I might as well be singing the directions from a knitting book, for all the good it’s doing me.” Hagar is no longer that “czarina” young girl secure in her place in the world and of her future. The hymn moves away from the triumphalism of Psalm 121’s “My help comes from the LORD/Who made heaven and earth” for the anxious plea behind “O Thou who changest not abide with me”. J.R. Watson’s commentary on the hymn that he wrote in The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study highlights almost too perfectly how it related to Hagar’s last days and how she and Henry Francis Lyte, the hymn writer, approached the circumstances in different ways.

Lyte was Scottish too and lived without a mother, in his case because his father separated from her and moved to Ireland with his son. Lyte never saw her again. His father also enacted a sort of separation from his son, only visiting him occasionally, and eventually presenting himself as his uncle and his new wife as Henry’s aunt. Watson asserts that this influenced Lyte’s work, coming through in his sensitive use of parental imagery with tender, protective overtones. “The Spirit of the Psalms” is considered Lyte’s best work, a collection which includes “Abide with me”. On that hymn Watson writes that

¹It is a reminder of the coming of darkness, of human loneliness and helplessness. In this situation, human beings become dependent on God, as a child looks to its mother or father when faced with the coming dark….The first lines signal to the reader that this is more than an evening hymn: it is a meditation on life, on its transience and its anxieties.

The bitter irony is that, even “with the coming dark”, Hagar strove to remain as independent as she could from everyone around her. And during her life she tried to wrangle those in whom she invested her affection into her ideas of them rather than make much effort to see who they truly were and wanted to be. She separated from her husband, Brampton Shirley, after about two decades and whisked her favourite son Johnny away to the coast in pursuit of the better life she thought he deserved, a move she never considered doing for her obedient, manageable Marvin who did all that she asked but was passed over. Johnny grew and went his own path which led him right back home to the old farm, wiped out by drought and depression, and his father. When Bram is near death Johnny tells her and she returns to confront an old, bowed man in whom little of Brampton Shirley remains. In a lucid moment in which he reveals feelings for her, feelings she somehow never discerned in all her years with him, she’s filled with a rage “not at anyone, at God, perhaps, for giving us eyes but almost never sight”.

What she did know and see was the “transience of life” but, although she seems to believe in heaven and hell, she fully expects to be sent to hell and one suspects that if God offered to forgive her she’d spit in his eye and reject his pity. Like Milton’s Lucifer — a comparison Laurence made in the novel -- “To bow and sue for grace/With suppliant knee…/…that were low indeed,/That were an ignominy and shame beneath/This downfall”.

The last hymn occurs near the novel’s and Hagar’s end. Marvin and Doris find her and although she is relieved she cannot admit it and suggests with grim knowledge that no doubt they’re shipping her straight off to the prison of a nursing home. (A whole other essay could be done on the novel’s theme of imprisonment.) Marvin tells her that the doctor advised that it was too late for that she needed to be taken to the hospital. Hagar automatically complains about this prison change so Marvin, to end her complaints, reveals the (apparently dire) test results from the hospital that, from her reaction, are not unlike a death sentence.

In the hospital Reverend Trevor visits her for the last time while she is alive and, under pressure from her request, sings “All people that on earth do dwell”, (one of my favourites) based on Psalm 100. (Full lyrics here.)

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with joyful voice.
Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell;
Come ye before Him and rejoice.

At this moment Hagar has a kind of epiphany. She realises that, after everything, this is all that she had truly wanted “–simply to rejoice”. But because of her demonic pride it led her to a “wilderness” from which she never escaped. Her husband and favourite son Johnny had died, both of them not knowing how much she cared for them, how she was sorry, after all this time. And now she is alone.

One result of this is that she lies for the sake of her Marvin, bestowing a favour on him that she does not think, even now, that he deserves — as she likes to say, no one ever changes after any single moment of revelation — but the reader, with a clearer eye, knows is the simple truth. When he leaves the room a nurse says to him

“She’s got an amazing constitution, your mother. One of those hearts that just keeps on working, whatever else is gone.”

A pause, and then Marvin replies.

“She’s a holy terror,” he says.

For Hagar there is no better description. Even in her last moments she struggles to assert her will, her independence, her singularity, never giving, challenging everyone in so many ways to Gainsay who dare! Dylan Thomas’ famous poem that Margaret Laurence quoted at the beginning of the novel, seemed to have been written for Hagar Shipley.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

¹Watson, J.R. The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Crossposted at The Books of My Numberless Dreams.

Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles

I enjoyed Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel immensely, although it’s a difficult read at times — not difficult to understand, but difficult to deal with the emotional content. It tells the story of Hagar Shipley, who has reached her nineties and, understandably, is declining in health. She lives with her son and daughter-in-law who are now threatening to place her in a nursing home. Passages set in the present alternate with flashbacks to significant moments in Hagar’s life, her small-town upbringing; her (rather inexplicable) marriage to Bram Shipley, a rough, isolated, uncouth farmer; the birth of her two sons; her decision to leave her husband; and, most dramatically, the fate of her younger son John.

Mirroring the flight she took from her husband in her earlier years is Hagar’s second dramatic exit: when she feels as though she is being forced to enter the nursing home, she takes off to some abandoned buildings along the sea and holes up there as long as she can. She is in no shape to be out walking around on her own, but her fear of losing her home is stronger than her fear of physical danger.

Hagar is a stubborn, strong-willed woman, with an antagonistic attitude toward the world; it does not do to cross her, as her father discovered when he tried to keep her from marrying Bram, and as her son discovers when he tries to move her into the nursing home. The novel is narrated in the first person from Hagar’s point of view, which means that we get Hagar’s explanations and self-justifications. She’s not an unreliable narrator, exactly, but we are left to infer what effect her harshness has on others rather than seeing it directly. And she has inflicted her share of psychic damage on those around her; she is harsh and unloving to her sons and is unable to express even the small amount of affection she feels for her husband. Now that she is in her nineties and is losing her grip on reality, she has an unfortunate habit of speaking whatever is on her mind without censoring it, sometimes without knowing that she is saying anything at all. The effects of these unintentional outbursts can be devastating.

Hagar is a difficult person, but the novel leads us to feel sympathy towards her, and, in fact, the interest of the novel lies in the tension between our sympathy for her and our horror at the damage she causes. This tension plays out particularly well in the story of John; throughout the early parts of the novel it is clear that some mystery surrounds his life, but the characters don’t want to talk about him, as even his name causes them pain. It is no secret that Hagar has always preferred John, and it’s obvious how much pain this causes the older son Marvin — his “flaw” is that he reminds Hagar too much of Bram, the mostly unloved husband. Obviously this is not his fault, and it illustrates just how cruel Hagar can be. But we’re also made aware of how much Hagar has suffered because of what happened to John, the son on whom she has pinned her hopes for a better life. When we find out his fate, the news is devastating.

Equally devastating is the way the novel depicts old age and the nightmare of approaching senility. The novel moves back and forth between the present moment and flashbacks, and often when a flashback ends, Hagar finds herself in the middle of some situation she cannot understand — she has been speaking out loud unknowingly or has ignored those who are trying to get her attention or has simply spaced out, and she is disoriented and confused. The first person narration captures this confusion painfully well.

Hagar suffers and inflicts suffering; in my more depressed moments I might say that’s everyone’s story. But the beauty of the prose and the liveliness with which Hagar tells her story keeps this novel from descending into unbearably dark depths. The stubbornness and spirit that has caused her suffering in the past is now what keeps her going, and as much as we might judge her, we also can’t help but admire her strength.

The Stone Angel

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence is the story of Hagar Shipley told in flashbacks.

Hagar Shipley was a mean woman, but yet I felt sorry for her because she wasn't a bad woman. The daughter of a successful businessman in a small Canadian prairie town, Hagar was raised with a certain class-concsiousness. So it is rather surprising when she falls in love with Bram, a good-looking, shiftless, hard-drinking farmer who definitely does not belong to her class. Perhaps because he has the allure of the bad boy, exuding danger and sex, she is determined to marry him even though it means being disowned by her family.

It is clear she thought she could change him, make him acceptable to her middle-class family. She picks on the poor man about how he dresses and how and he talks and is consternated by the fact that he doesn't care what others think of him and has no intention of changing. Her nagging drives them apart. But she stays married to him in spite of being too embarrassed to be seen in town with him, and in spite of their poverty, because she'd be even more embarrassed and humiliated to divorce him. Plus the sex is good.

Hagar has two boys and treats them almost like she treats her husband. She wants them to be a certain way and share her concerns, her worry about appearances, and her values. Of course they disappoint her. Everyone seems to end up disappointing Hagar. She never bothers to figure out who people are, only what they are not, with the not being how they do not come up to her standards and expectations. She needs to place blame for everything that goes wrong in her life - "Why is it always so hard to find the proper one to blame? Why do I always want to find the one? As though it really helped." Problem is, she is the one to blame for quite few things. But she is the kind of person who always has to be right and so nothing could ever be her fault.

She would be a thoroughly reprehensible character if it weren't for her being so pitiful. At ninety she is losing her memory, falls frequently, and is found to have cancer. Her struggle to continue to be self-sufficient, her refusal to allow anyone to help her, how, despite her efforts she slowly must give over her independence, is a sad picture of growing old. The book's epigraph is from Dylan Thomas "Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Hagar does not go gentle. Nor is she completely oblivious to the way she behaves and the effect it has on others. She has self-awareness, but like a child with impulse control issues, she can't help herself.

There are only a few times when she lets down her guard. Towards the end Mr. Troy, the minister from her son and daughter-in-law's church visits her in the hospital. Hagar has never been nice to Mr. Troy and she is not nice now. He asks if he can do anything for her, pray perhaps? Hagar demands that he sing a certain hymn for her. Mr. Troy would rather not, but having no way to get out of it he sings. And Hagar is surprised that he has a good, strong voice. He is momentarily transformed for her and the hymn makes her cry. And she thinks to herself,
Every joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine 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?

Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched.
That has got to be one of the saddest things I have ever read.

Hagar is like the stone angel that was set above the family's plot in the cemetery. She is an angel, always meaning well, always holding what she sees as the best interest of everyone in mind. She tries to love her husband, she tries to love her sons. And she does, but because she is stone, the love she tries to give is hard and cold. Neither can she accept the love of others; her stoniness serves well as a deflector.

Margaret Laurence tells a good story. Not once did she intrude or write a wrong word. Hagar is so truly written I am able to recognize in her bits of people I know and have known. This, to me, is a sign of a good writer; she has taken the heart of a stone angel and given it life.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

The Stone Angel

Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel is a memorable novel. Certainly Hagar Shipley, the narrator, is a character that will stay in my mind for a long time to come. Ninety-year-old Hagar is a proud and very formidable woman. She can also be extremely difficult and curmudgeonly. There were times I wasn't so sure that I even liked her, but I always felt sympathetic towards her. I'm not sure how Laurence managed it, but this woman wrenched my heart despite her incessant bad-temper. And if you've read the book--don't you think Hagar would hate that I just said that?

Born in the mid-19th century in the western Canadian prairies to Scottish parents (her mother died at her birth), she's the only girl in a family of three children. It's not hard to see where she gets her strong will. Her father, a successful merchant, is a tough task-master who's not easily pleased. The story effortlessly moves back and forth between Hagar's childhood, her unhappy and disapproved of marriage to Bramwell Shipley, the years she raised her own two sons, and her old age. In old age it is her older, and less loved son that takes responsibility for caring for her.

It's as a fragile old woman, suffering the indignities of a body no longer under her own control that crushed my heart most. Something none of us want to think about, but most of us if we live such a long life will likely face. A once independent-minded woman is reduced to being cared for rather than being the caregiver. At the end of her long life she now looks back at how she lived her life and the decisions she made, and it's sometimes painful to watch. I read this somewhere--"she is sometimes regretful, but rarely penitent" and it seems so very fitting.

I'm not sure I would have appreciated this book when I was younger. I understand it is widely taught in Canadian schools, and I wonder what students must think of Hagar. I think Laurence is brilliant in her evocation of a woman looking back and seeing her mistakes (and through the passing of time and experience can face and accept them), and she does it in such a deft and sophisticated manner that you don't ever feel sickly sentimental about it. Not to say that she didn't elicit a few tears, but Hagar would probably have hated that, too.

This is the book The Slaves of Golconda chose to read. There is a discussion at the Metaxu Cafe (I started the thread last night, but it was being temperamental and didn't save my actual messages, hopefully it will cooperate today), which you are welcome to join. If you haven't read The Stone Angel, this is a book I highly recommend. It's thoughtful and well written and definitely one of the best books I've read this year!

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Stone Angel Film Adaptation

Hi all. Just a reminder that we'll be discussing Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel on Friday the 29th of February. Is everyone aware that the book has been made into a movie? It is due to be released in Canada on May 9, 2008. There is no release date set yet for the film in the US. Kari Skogland, the film's director (she also wrote the screenplay) has kindly agreed to join in on the discussion. I'm looking forward to a good discussion and I think Kari will be able to add an interesting dimension to it. See you on the 29th!