Friday, February 29, 2008

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.


Anonymous said...

It was the indignities of aging that got to me too. And you're right, Hagar would hate almost everything you said about her. I, on the other hand, concur with everything you said :)

Rebecca H. said...

Yes -- it was so painful to read about her frailty! The book forces you to think about what old age is like in ways that are really uncomfortable. The contrast between Hagar's weak body and her strong spirit is very powerful.

Danielle said...

Stefanie--I'm pretty wimpy compared to Hagar, but I can understand why she was at times so crotchety! When you're young you never think that will be you, but while I'm still quite young in comparison, I can at least now imagine what it might be like!
Dorothy--There is really so much to think about when it comes to this book. She was a really strong person, wasn't she, even if less than perfect and being in such a frail body was obviously extremely difficult for her!

Imani said...

Yeah, I was about 20 when I read it for the first time and it really shook me up. I've been kinda curious about how teenagers deal with it in school. It's one of those classics on Amazon that get annoyingly stupid bad reviews and not more than a few seem to be from frustrated high school students. :/ I'd like to think that at that age I would have enjoyed it as much as I do now, but who knows? *shrugs*

I watched and interview of her from the CBC online archives and, in her day, her books like "Stone Angel" and "The Diviners" won't taught below grade 11/12.

Anonymous said...

I like what you say about the way old age is represented through Hagar, Danielle. For all her meanness, it's better to see an old lady with a bit of rebellious spirit than a submissive one, I guess. But it's still heartbreaking, nevertheless. Lovely review.

Kate S. said...

Danielle, I can't remember if I first read The Stone Angel as a school assignment or if I picked it up on my own, but I did read it as a Canadian high school student and I loved it. I very much enjoyed rereading it now and trying to identify the source of the power that it held for me back then. Thanks for putting it forward as a Slaves of Golconda read! I'm glad that you enjoyed it as well. I think you've got to the crux of it when you write in your post: "I'm not sure how Laurence managed it, but this woman wrenched my heart despite her incessant bad-temper." I very much want to figure out how Laurence managed it! As a writer that would be an extraordinary thing to learn from this book.