Monday, March 03, 2008

The Stone Angel Then and Now

(Cross-posted at Kate's Book Blog)

I was fifteen when I first read Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and it made an enormous impression on me. I welcomed the opportunity to reread it when it was voted this month’s selection by the Slaves of Golconda, but I was a bit nervous as well. What if it fell flat for me so many years later? I need not have worried. The novel has retained all of its power for me, and this time around I had the added pleasure of being better equipped to understand the source of that power.

What I recall most vividly about my teenage response to the book was that, after reading it, I never looked at my grandma quite the same way again. My grandma was in her late seventies then and was nothing like Hagar Shipley, the ninetysomething narrator of The Stone Angel. My grandma survived into her nineties as well and must have had a ribbon of steel at the core of her. But she chose the path of least resistance always whereas Hagar runs headlong at every obstacle no matter how fruitless her opposition may seem in any given circumstance. Nevertheless, witnessing Hagar showing the face of a rather meek and sentimental old lady to the world on the bus home from the doctor’s office, yet knowing the passion and anger and regret that roil within her all the while, I couldn’t help but realize that a great deal more than I could know must also be going on beneath my grandma’s cheerful old lady facade and, indeed, in the hearts and minds of random old ladies that I encountered on buses.

I also clearly remember from my teenage reading of The Stone Angel how strongly I identified with Hagar throughout. The conventional wisdom of those who market books to teenagers seems to be that to get kids reading you have to give them characters that they can “relate to” which much of the time translates into giving them characters of roughly their age who are grappling with what are thought to be universal teenage problems. Perhaps then my firm identification with Hagar was surprising. But, then again, perhaps not. After all, that sense of being at the mercy of others, of being perfectly capable of making decisions for yourself but being prevented from doing so, is something shared by the young and the old. Although the primary source of frustration for the young teenager is being thwarted while on the very cusp of independence, whereas for the very elderly it must run much deeper, having once had that independence and now being deprived of it with no prospect of ever regaining it. I think that Laurence plays on this identification directly, albeit briefly and subtly, in the relationship that develops between Hagar and the girl in the next hospital bed near the end of the novel.

That was The Stone Angel then. What about now? What did I see in the book as an adult reader that may have escaped me as a teenager? I think that this time around it was much more apparent to me how skilfully Laurence structured the novel and depicted Hagar’s character such that the reader is drawn fully into her head yet can simultaneously see her from the outside. She’s such a strong character and the reader can’t help but stand with her and rail against the indignities she suffers by virtue of her failing body, and also the wrongs that have been done to her by unsympathetic characters throughout her life. But at the same time, the reader can’t help but recognize how impossible she is, how difficult she must be to care for, and also to recoil at the wrongs that she has perpetrated against others throughout her life. Hagar is a thoroughly unsympathetic character herself who nevertheless generates much sympathy. This double vision is made possible and made incredibly vivid, I think, by virtue of the fact that Hagar shares it. And ultimately that’s the chief tragedy of the book. She has gained enough self-knowledge over the course of her life to be able now, at least periodically, to see herself as others see her, but she can’t go that step further to change how she behaves, even toward those that she loves most deeply.

The other facet of the novel that I was very much struck by this time around was the earthiness of it, both in the depiction of Hagar’s physical decline and in its evocation of sex. Sex and sexual desire are described euphemistically, as one would expect given Hagar’s vintage and character, but never coyly. The enduring sexual desire that she felt for her husband that she was never able to communicate even to him seems to me another of the great tragedies of her life. This aspect of the novel may have been somewhat controversial when it was first published in 1964. I’m not sure about the history of this novel in particular, but I know that several of Laurence’s novels were banned on the basis of sexual content and that this caused her much anger and pain.

This has been a rather rambling post, but rereading The Stone Angel sent my thoughts spinning in a number of directions. I relished the experience and I’m keen now to reread the rest of Laurence’s Manawaka novels. For those of you new to Laurence’s work, she set several novels in and around the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba, Hagar’s hometown. But each focuses on different characters from different segments of the town’s population and they range across different time periods, so you may catch glimpses of characters from one novel in another, but only peripherally. For example, the Tonnerre family with whom Hagar’s son John gets up to no good is mentioned only in passing in The Stone Angel but plays a central role in The Diviners. I would recommend any of Laurence’s novels, but the ones that stand out for me particularly are The Diviners, which I consider her masterpiece, and A Bird in the House, which is an early exemplar of the linked short story collection.


Danielle said...

Wonderfully written Kate. It's interesting to read both yours and Imani's thoughts as you've both read this before. I'm glad to hear it stood up to the test of time. I was also wondering what her attraction to Bram was, too. Maybe aside from generally annoying her father--choosing the least likely marriage candidate--perhaps that physical aspect was a draw, too. If no one even calls her by her own name, that touch must have been powerful to her if she'd not really been shown any affection. I wonder now, too, what's behind those sweet facades of old ladies! I'm planning on reading more of her work now, and The Diviners is one of the books I've ordered.

Anonymous said...

Yes Kate, very well done.

Your insight on several points was helpful. I too though a lot about Hagar's relationship with her husband Bram. It remains the one thing about this book that I am continually drawn back to, how she could love someone so deeply yet not express it completely - at least not to him. It led to this one line that still haunts me:

"...but I'd waken, sometimes, out of a half sleep and turn to him and find he wasn't beside me, and then I'd be filled with such a bitter emptiness it seemed the whole of night must be within me."

Thank you for the wonderful post.

I will definitely take your recommendations to heart regarding her other novels.