The Stone Angel: Book Review

To read my review of the movie The Stone Angel (2007), Click Here.

I first read The Stone Angel years ago. In Canada, if you miss it in Grade 12, you’re bound to read it in your university literature class. Now that the movie adaptation has just been released, I dust off my old copy and re-read it, wondering how much of the book I actually could appreciate when I first read it as a teenager.

The epigraph containing Dylan Thomas’ famous lines sets the atmosphere of this classic Canadian novel by Margaret Laurence:

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Readers soon find Hagar Shipley, the 90 year-old protagonist, doesn’t just rage against the dying of the light. Throughout her life, she has been raging against most anyone who wants to have a say in her life, first her father, then her husband, and ultimately, The Giver of that very Light.

Born the daughter of Jason Currie, a storeowner of Scottish descent and one of the founding fathers of Manawaka, Manitoba, Hagar takes after her father in her tenacity and brimming family pride. Fiercely independent, she has always sought her own way, and heeded only the bidding of her own will. So was it when she refused to comfort her dying brother Dan when she was a child, so was it when she despised her remaining brother Matthew’s meek acceptance of death when he too later died, so is it now as she rebels against her son Marvin’s decision to send her to a nursing home. Pride is her fuel, and she intends to use the very last drop to sustain her independence.

Telling her story in first person narrative, Hagar switches in time as her failing memory randomly darts back and forth. From these glimpses of her past, she frantically grasps whatever that can remind her of her own self: her childhood, marriage, motherhood, and now, her old age.

In her younger days, Hagar’s father had tried to stop her from marrying Bram Shipley, a widowed farmer fourteen years older than Hagar. “Common as dirt…lazy as a pet pig”, her father said of Bram. But she insisted her way:

There’s not a decent girl in this town would wed without her family’s consent” he said. “It’s not done.”

“It’ll be done by me,” I said, drunk with exhilaration at my daring.

As a result, she was disowned by her father, who upon his death, gave all his inheritance to the town instead of his only child left.

Was it love at first sight that Hagar decided to marry Bram Shipley after dancing with him in the townhall? Or was it her admiration for his raucous demeanor and rough independence, accountable to no one, to spite his class-conscious father? Regardless, by marrying Bram Shipley, she chose to live a life in poverty and crude existence. Yet this is the story of Hagar, like the Hagar in the Bible, an outcast from the house of Abraham, wandering in the wilderness, struggling for her own survival and striving for some sort of dignity.

Banished from the Curries, Hagar later in her marriage left Bram and took her younger son John to live on her own, working as a housekeeper, a self-imposed exile. And now in her old age, she flees to escape the plight of confinement in a nursing home. Hagar’s life is one of exiles and wanderings. John, her beloved son, was to her an anchor in her drifting existence.  Yet he only brought her heartbreaks and utter despair. His tragic end turned an already callous heart to stone-cold.

Hagar’s escape finally ends as she comes to terms with the tragedies that have riddled her life. During this last escapade, she takes shelter in a derelict shed. The inner turmoil and pains are verbalized as she unknowingly thinks out loud, sharing her past with a stranger there, someone by the name of Murray F. Lees. Yes…Flees.

Her son Marvin finds her the next day and she is hospitalized. By this time, her ailing body cannot sustain another flight. As Mr. Troy the pastor visits her, Hagar asks him to sing:

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.

Upon hearing the words in the hymn, she asks herself:

I must always, always, have wanted that–simply to rejoice. How is it I never could?

Thus sends Hagar to an awakening, however fleeting:

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. Oh, my two, my dead. Dead by your own hands or by mine?

The stone angel, which stands hovering over the Currie-Shipley grave, has long been Hagar’s conception of the divine, cold, blind, and mute. But as she rages against fate, or God, she finally sees her own part in the tragedies of her life, a harsh reality she has long been escaping, too painful to face, until now.

Like the stone angel, she has also been blind to her own self and circumstances.  At her death bed, she finally sees Marvin as the true Jacob, gripping her tightly for her blessings.  The reconciliation is poignant but short-lived, for soon after she recoils into her own prideful cocoon.  Wrestling the glass from the nurse, she will not be helped.  Laurence finishes the story of Hagar Shipley with this final image:

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 hold it in my own hands.  There.  There.

And then–

Turning such a piece of literary work, so full of internal turmoil, symbolism and deep characterization into a movie? An arduous endeavor indeed. I look forward to the visual experience.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

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