Monday, April 28, 2008


                                                                                          cover photo by R.Bobak

                          THE STONE ANGEL: THE PRICE OF PRIDE

                                                 By R. Bobak

Hagar’s proud character and her journey of self-realization are the core narratives of Canadian writer Margaret Laurence’s 1964 novel, The Stone Angel.

Hagar Shipley’s weakness was that she was too strong. Continually throughout The Stone Angel in her reminiscences, she refers to her uncompromising pride, her determination to survive, her abhorrence of weakness in others.

Throughout her life she feared being open and honest with herself and her family. She was “anxious to be neat and orderly, imagining life had been created only to celebrate tidiness.” p 3 Not only tidiness in dress or housekeeping, but also in emotions – her life was tidily sterile and emotionless. Most noteworthy is her constant aversion to crying, of regarding it as an embarrassing admission of weakness, no matter what the reason.

It is almost as if she was battling nature, never letting it out of her control, because she, like her father, was a ‘self-made’ person, who had led a ‘hard life’. Even nearing the end of her life she proudly tried to retain her independence: “oh, I hate being helped – I’ve always done things for myself.” p 246

Her father, a strict Protestant businessman, in the traditional pioneering sense, has some effect upon her nature, if only by being an object for Hagar to contest and surpass. She does not cry as he straps her, and with exhilaration refuses to marry up to her father’s standards.

Her marriage and family life seems in retrospect an emotional disaster, much of it her own doing. She recalls that she and her husband "had each married for those qualities we later found we couldn’t bear, he for my manners and speech, I for his flouting of them.” p 69

Having defied her father, she attempts to instill herself upon husband Bram. She could never be honest with him, and, consequently with herself, although she now sees “I no longer know why it should have shamed me…I never spoke of it to anyone…I prided myself upon keeping my pride intact, like some maidenhead.” p 70

Apparently the sacrifice of emotional involvement wasn’t obvious nor important to her then. She was emotionally frigid even during extreme intimacy: “Hagar, please,” says Bram. “What is it?” she replies. p 75 Interestingly enough, though, she does hesitate before answering him: “I wanted to say “There, there, it’s all right,” but I did not say that.” p 75. We see that she knows, if rather vaguely, that her words are an inadequate reflection of her thoughts – yet she does not yet begin to question why.

It must have made Bram exasperated, and eventually passively subdued. After an argument he patronizes her with an apology: “It’s over and done with. I’m sorry. Is that enough?”

“You think it fixes everything to say you’re sorry. Well, it doesn’t.”

“Judas priest, woman, what do you want me to do? Get down on my bended knees?”

“I only want you to behave a little differently”

“Well, maybe I’d you different, too.”

“I don’t disgrace myself.”

“No, by Christ, you’re respectable – I’ll give you that.”

The argument shows his realization of her faults, and her own blind ignorance of them, or their possible effects.

Leaving Bram, and thereby stating her strength and superiority over him, causes her later to feel a twinge of “bitter emptiness” without him. Yet, she continues “But in the morning I’d be myself once more…with calm deliberation…with hands so steady…” p 141 She acknowledges, on one hand, her need, then immediately dismisses it, and carries on as usual without the slightest sign of assessing herself to see if, in the long run, she can justify herself.

She does not change, and her denunciation of an association with Bram as he lay sick, shows her power of contempt. "And I, more than anything, was doubly shamed recalling how I’d thought of him at night these past years.” p 152 “It made me sick to think I’d lain with him…a part of me could never stand him.” p 162

She realizes “…there was nothing I could do for him, nothing he needed now…” p 162 Now? Is she acknowledging that maybe, she might have been able to do something before? And she does say, too: “yet at that moment, I’d willingly have called him back from where he’d gone, to say even once what Marvin had said (which was “I’m sorry”)… not knowing who to fault for the way the years had turned.” p 162 The notion of apportioning blame, of assessing causes, was dawning upon her. Yet she noted, “But when we buried Bram…it was John who cried, not I.”

The scene in the present where Hagar watches the boy and girl playing on the beach is a symbolic allegory of her own marriage, and her blossoming awareness of fault. She watches the boy collecting clamshells and the girl tidily organizing them, and setting up house, thinking: “Stupid girl. She knows nothing. (albeit Hagar now does?) Why won’t she praise him a little? She’s so sharp with him. (An awakening to her own experience?) He’ll become fed up in a minute. I long to warn her – watch out, watch out, you’ll lose him…Take warning, my girl. You’ll be sorry…How neatly she’s set the table…”   "See" she says smugly “They go like this…Oh, you’ve wrecked it!” she shrieks “Stupid! You’re a stupid, bloody bum!”…I’d wash your mouth out with soap for that, young lady, if you were mine…” p 168

A little later on, still in the present, as she sits on a log, again she imagines herself as guilty of some crime, becoming increasingly open to herself: a “…judicial owl holding court…retains my fingerprint…the scribe…condemns me…” p 171 Yet still, she does not specifically face up to what her guilt is.

Through Hagar’s relationship with her brothers and sons, her recollections show a missing link, yet one which she still can’t define.

When her brother asked her to wear the shawl for Dan, she was “unable to bend enough.” She looked at Dan’s resemblance to “that meek woman”, her mother, “from whom he’d inherited a frailty I could not help but detest…To play at being her – it was beyond me.” p 21 Her later reaction: “… if I had spoken and tried to tell him – but how could I? I didn’t know myself why I couldn’t do what he had done,” p 22, shows both her young self-ignorance, as well as an “awful strength.” p 51

Her departure for the East was emotionless. “I looked at him squarely and said good-by so evenly and calmly…Later in the train, I cried thinking of him, but of course, he never knew that, and I’d have been the last to tell him.” p 36 She realizes something is preventing her from true communication, yet, she does not ponder upon it, merely keeps it hidden away.

As her son Marvin left to war: “I didn’t know what to say to him. I wanted to beg him to look after himself, to be careful…I wanted all at once to hold him tightly, plead with him, against all reason and reality not to go… (and here is her climax) But I didn’t want to embarrass both of us, nor have him think I’d taken leave of my senses.” p 114 (A sensible rationalization?) As she hesitates, battling the temptation to “speak what we feel, not we ought to say,” (closing quote by Edgar from Shakespeare’s King Lear), Marvin makes the first move (“I won’t be seeing you for quite awhile. Think you’ll be alright here?” p 114 He’s concerned for her – and he’s the one going off to war!) which then “releases (her) from (her) dithering, making (her) practical once more.” p 114

Marvin’s last hesitant attempt to speak to her is particularly poignant: “Mother -”

“Yes?”…I realized I was waiting with a kind of anxious hope for what he would say, waiting for him to make himself known to me.

“Well, so long. I’ll be seeing you.”

She is constantly alienated in her closeness, constantly unable to play her role as mother, wife, sister, or old woman (as she runs away from the care of Marvin, independently spirited.)

When her son John is in the hospital, a strange interchange takes place.

“Mother, it hurts… Make them – give me something.”

I was going to tell him I’d go find a nurse, a sedative needle. But before I could speak or move, he laughed, a low harsh laugh that increased his pain.
“No,” he said distinctly. “You can’t, can you? Never mind. Never mind.”

He put a hand on mine, as though he were momentarily caught up in an attempt to comfort me for something that couldn’t be helped.” p 215

John had condemned and forgiven her. Her awareness of her failure is increasing, especially in the context that this revelation is being said aloud to Murray F. Lees. Incorrigible as always after John’s death she “wouldn’t cry in front of strangers, whatever it cost (her)… that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life, to stand straight then.” p 216. Her courage must be admired, however it may be judged. She found the price she’d paid – ‘I found my tears had been locked too long and wouldn’t come now at my bidding. The night my son died, I was transformed to stone and never wept at all.” p 216 She was The Stone Angel, “an exterior cold and rugged but with an inner longing for human love and compassion.” (S.E. Read, B.C. Library Quarterly, July 1974)

She realizes “I had only one thought –I’d had so many things to say to him, so many things to put to rights.” p 216  Many times we see her wanting, always wanting to say or do something, and then lest she become compromised, put it down to a lower priority. She sees then that her procrastinations and withholding of feelings could have somehow alleviated matters – yet, years later, back into the present, we see her still attempting to truly clarify her intentions, as she talks with Steve: “I’m choked up with it now, the incommunicable years, everything that happened and was spoken or not spoken. I want to tell him. Someone should know. This is what I think… I would have liked to tell him he is dear to me. And be so, no matter what he does with his life or what he’s like. But he’d only have been embarrassed and so would I.” p 265

Hagar’s breakdown and crying after recounting the story of John’s death finally shows a coming change, an ability to show feeling. Who knows if she was crying for what her ‘lost men’ would have gained had she been different, or, for what she has lost for being as she is. She brings herself down (or up?) to the level of truly forgiving Lees about having brought Marvin and apologizing about his boy. What had brought about such changes? In her previous talk with Lees, she heard his views about his family’s death.

“He thinks he’s discovered pain…I could tell him a thing or two…I can tell him nothing”, she thinks.

“I had a son, and I lost him, “ she says.

“Well” he says abruptly, “then you know.” p 208

This is in contrast to the situation when the priest, Mr. Troy, was talking with her.

“I had a son” she says “and lost him.”

“You’re not alone,” says Mr. Troy.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” she replies. p 106

With Lees, she found indeed she was not alone. And what’s more, her own already increased awareness of apportioning blame was not dulled by Lee’s discussion of the causes of his family’s deaths.

“I can’t figure out whose fault it could have been. My grandfather’s for being a…Mother’s for making me… Lou’s for insisting… Mine, for not saying…

He realizes a profound answer, preceding Hagar’s confused thoughts.

“Why does he go on like this? I’ve heard enough.”

“No one’s to blame,” he finds. p 209

Hagar learns “that what’s going to happen can’t be delayed indefinitely.” p 229 Her final frolic with independence is over. The hospital is her last home. “I’m mollified a little and yet embarrassed, unwilling to give in, for I know I’ve been unreasonable. It’s not Marvin’s fault - -the soft disgusting egg, the shrunken world…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.”

She can’t find anyone to blame, neither anyone to give help. She refuses Mr. Troy’s religious advances. Characteristically, she says she admires someone who’ll do something even if it kills them, when Mr. Troy was about to sing.

Laying in the hospital, permanently ill and dependent on painkillers, Hagar finds her consoling answer and flaw.

“This knowing comes upon me so forcefully…I must always have wanted that – simply to rejoice…How is it I never could…I know…How long have I known? Or have I always known?...Every good joy I might have held, in my man, or child…all were forced to a standstill by some break of proper appearances – oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?”

A sad realization, too late to be of much use.

“Pride was my wilderness…I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me and shackled all I touched.” p 261

She has admitted her realization openly.

And what of the long lost consequences?

“Oh my two dead. Dead by your own hands or by mine?” She cannot begin to blame or explain. “Nothing can take away those years.” P 261

Yet amazingly again, (would we expect different of her?), as she cries while rationalizing her true failures, she puts her “hands over (her) eyes so he wouldn’t see. He mustn’t think I’ve taken leave of my senses.” P 261

“Oh, I am unchangeable, unregenerate.” She knows. “I go on speaking in the same way, always, and the same touchiness rises within me at the slightest thing.” P 262

She does some out-of-character actions, like using slang with Sandra Wong and sharing a joke with her and giving her family ring on to Tina. And finally, she meets Marvin and finds it impossible to lie emotionally.

“I’m frightened, Marvin,” she admits. “I’m so frightened.” p 271

Confronting him after all those years, this attitude was a step she had never reached before. He holds her hand tightly, and she realizes she “can only release myself by releasing him.” P 271 And she does – though lying through her teeth, yet not lying, “for it was spoken at least and at last with what may be perhaps a kind of love.” P 274

Strong to the end, she depends on herself and her self-reliance. “Bless me or not, Lord, just as you please, for I’ll not beg.” P 274

When Doris tries to help Hagar with the cup of water, she refuses, yet knows that “I only defeat myself by not accepting her.” She clearly understands this. “I know it very well. But I can’t help it – it’s my nature.”

Hagar has risen from her young ignorance to a realm of knowledge through experience and retrospect.

Her tragedy was that it had taken this long.
The pages I referred to in my above essay on Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel were from Bantam-Seal’s paperback version, printed Oct. 1979. With a film adaptation of Laurence’s great Canadian novel to be released in May 2008, it will be interesting to see how her great saga will translate to the screen.
This review of the novel, The Stone Angel: The Price of Pride, was written by Roman Bobak ©1979.

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