The following week, Mr. Troy calls on Hagar—but he has picked a bad day to visit. Hagar is feeling unwell. The pain behind her ribs has returned, and her belly roils as her “locked” bowels leave her feeling bloated and “weighted down.” Mr. Troy speaks in contrived platitudes as he asks Hagar about her life back in Manawaka. Hagar’s answers are combative and cynical, and she reveals that her father, though a wealthy man, never gave her a “red cent” of an inheritance. Hagar again begins slipping into memory, recalling “that Hagar with the shining hair,” the younger version of herself going off to a young ladies’ academy in Toronto to be schooled.
Every aspect of Hagar’s present life is painful and embarrassing, from her physical ailments to her memories of rejection and disenfranchisement within her own family. She retreats into memory to reflect on better times and better things, and avoid her painful reality.
When it was time for Hagar to go to college, she knew that her brother Matt should be the one to benefit from higher education, but their father was staunch in insisting that only Hagar would be allowed to go away because while Matt could “learn all he needs right here,” there was no one to “teach [Hagar] how to dress and behave like a lady.” The argument settled, Hagar was shipped off to school, and never told anyone how she cried tears of guilt on the train the whole way there.
Hagar’s education is not meant to prepare her academically or practically to take care of herself—it is meant to make her more feminine, and educate her in the ways of womanhood. Hagar always saw this as a waste, an opportunity better spent on educating Matt in earnest, but she complies with her father’s wishes anyway.
Two years later, Hagar returned from school knowing French, embroidery, menu-planning, poetry, hairdressing, and other womanly skills—“hardly ideal accomplishments for the kind of life [she’d] ultimately” lead, but still a source of pride for her father. Though Hagar confessed that she wanted to use her new skills to teach back East, Hagar’s father insisted she stay in Manawaka and help him keep the accounts for the store, throw dinner parties, and remain under his watchful eye, away from men. Hagar ruefully agreed to stay, and though she went through the motions of keeping house, playing hostess, and working on the books, she “snubbed” every man her father brought home to introduce to her and looked forward to the day she could “reimburse” her father for her education and strike out on her own.
Hagar’s education superficially prepares her in the ways of womanhood, but leaves her feeling trapped, lonely, and without any control over her own life and choices. Hagar longs for the day when she can at last determine her own fate, and she envisions in more and more detail the moment she’ll finally break free of her father’s grasp.
After three years back in Manawaka, Hagar met Brampton Shipley at a local dance. Bram had a ruddy face, a thick black beard, and “crescents of ingrown earth” below his fingernails; a hardscrabble widower fourteen years older than Hagar, he had a reputation in Manawaka for being as “lazy as a pet pig.” At the end of the night Bram complimented Hagar’s dancing, and offered to show her his “place” in the valley just outside town sometime. On her way out of the dance, Hagar was stopped by Lottie Drieser, who warned her that Bram was “common as dirt” and known to take up often with “half-breed girls.” Hagar dismissed Lottie’s words as “silly.”
Despite Bram’s bad reputation all over town, Hagar cannot help her attraction to him—and perhaps even finds her desire to be with him inflamed by the fact that it will allow her to flout social convention, defy her father’s plans for her, and take control of her own life.
Some time later, Hagar received a marriage proposal from Bram, and told her father of her intent to accept. Jason was infuriated and forbade Hagar from marrying anyone. Hagar implored her father to let her, pointing out that she’d been working for him for three years—she defiantly said she’d marry without her father’s consent, even though in Manawaka such things were “not done.” Jason roughly grabbed Hagar’s arm and told her not to “go”—but she “went […] all the same.” No one from Hagar’s own family attended the wedding, and she received no gifts from them either. Charlotte Tappen’s mother gave a small reception in Hagar and Bram’s honor, and Hagar was certain that in time her father would “soften and yield” as her influence on Bram took hold and he “prospered, gentled, learned cravats and grammar.”
In marrying Bram, Hagar severs herself from her family—and from her elevated social standing—in one fell swoop. She defies convention while still believing that she’ll be able to influence Bram, and mold him to her liking. She does not yet realize that Bram is as incorrigible as she herself is, and that she’ll actually be the one forced to make changes over the course of their relationship.
Hagar moved into the Shipley house right away, and was immediately disheartened by how dirty it was, and how “shoddy and second-hand” the furnishings were. No sooner had Hagar set foot in the house than Bram commanded her to disrobe so that he could see what she looked like “under all that rig-out.” Hagar complied, but found making love with her new husband painful and unenjoyable. The next day she set to work cleaning the house, having no money for hired help.
Things are not working out for Hagar the way she planned—she is new to sex and sexuality and doesn’t see it as a pleasant thing at all, but rather an obligation. Meanwhile, she is too poor to afford the lifestyle to which she’s accustomed, and yet determined to recreate it in her new home—even though she fled it at first opportunity.
Back in the present, Mr. Troy marvels at the story Hagar has been telling. He asks if she has any friends nowadays—“contemporaries […] to talk with, and remember”—but she says she has none. Mr. Troy prays briefly with Hagar and then leaves, and Hagar is overcome with paranoia that Doris and Mr. Troy are working together to get her out of the house.
Even a nice afternoon and a pleasant conversation with the minister arouse Hagar’s suspicions—she knows what a burden she is to Doris, and is just waiting for the moment Doris chooses to get rid of her.
Sure enough, walking back into the kitchen from the garden, Hagar finds a newspaper ad for a nursing home called Silverthreads laid out on the kitchen table—“Only the Best Will Do for MOTHER,” it reads. As Hagar reads the advertisement, she feels the pain behind her ribs flare, and can hardly breathe. She feels a terrible panic come upon her. She recalls how when he was a child, her other son John used to hold his breath during tantrums until either she or Bram would smack him and make him breathe in through a shout—she now forces herself to continue breathing just as Doris enters the kitchen. Doris seems aware that Hagar has seen the advertisement, but does not mention it, and instead asks about her visit with Mr. Troy. Hagar replies that Mr. Troy is a stupid man with bad teeth.
Hagar has been suspecting for a while now that Marvin and Doris want her out of the house, and the advertisement confirms this fear. It almost seems as if they’ve left the ad out on purpose so that Hagar could discover it herself—clearly, Marvin has been avoiding having whatever conversation needs to be had about Hagar’s care.
Doris replies that at least Hagar looked nice for the visit, pointing out her flowered dress. Looking down at her own body, Hagar feels embarrassed by its girth, and recalls the twenty-inch waist she maintained as a girl through the use of corsets. It was only when Bram ridiculed her corsets that she stopped wearing them and began growing heavier.
Hagar resents herself in the same way that Marvin and Doris resent her. She herself feels that her body has become unmanageable and unrecognizable, and she longs for the days she felt a sense of control over it.
Doris shakes Hagar from her reverie. Hagar, momentarily confused, desperately pleads with Doris not to sell the house or place her in a home. Hagar suggests Marvin and Doris move out and leave her alone in the house with all of her things. Doris urges Hagar not to get “worked up,” but when Hagar continues escalating the argument, Doris resignedly admits that she simply can’t lift Hagar when she falls anymore—her own health is catching up to her.
There is more at work here than simple frustration and resentment—Doris is growing older, too, and cannot physically keep up with the demands of sustaining herself, Marvin, and Hagar, too.
Hagar goes to sit in the living room and looks around at all of her things. She cannot believe Doris and Marvin “regard the house as theirs.” As Hagar looks around at the knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, and family heirlooms that surround her, she feels wistful and pained at the thought of leaving it all behind. When she lingers on a framed picture of herself at twenty—still “handsome” and oddly beautiful—she again dives back into reverie, recalling her brother Matt’s death.
Hagar has sacrificed greatly and endured a lot of pain in order to make a life for herself, and her many possessions represent the journeys she’s been on and the things she’s overcome. As she sits among them, she feels nervous at the thought of leaving them behind—and of having nothing to show for all of her hardships.
Matt died of influenza during a terrible season that his wife Mavis nursed him through. He was only in his twenties, and passed on without ever having had children. Matt’s wife soon remarried a farmer, raised three healthy children, and received “a few decent cards” in the hand fate dealt her. Meanwhile, Hagar was disappointed to learn that even after the death of his second son, her father still did not want a relationship with her. Even when her son Marvin was born, he still refused to come to the Shipley farm—Hagar now suspects that Jason didn’t feel that Marvin was truly his grandson.
Hagar’s family life has long been a lonely one—the losses of her brothers compounded with her alienation from her father left her without anyone to lean on or reflect upon the past with. Hagar is, and has always been, very much a loner.
Hagar continues looking around the living room and thinking about what she’ll bequeath to her granddaughter Tina, an independent and headstrong young woman who has not yet married. Hagar becomes emotional at the sight of Bram’s decanter, which was always filled with wine during their years together. Hagar considers the chair she is sitting in—something she took from her father’s house after he died, though he willed her no money or possessions and instead left his fortune to the town of Manawaka. Hagar isn’t angry that she didn’t inherit anything from her own account, though she always wished she’d had some money to pass on to her boys.
Hagar’s possessions have been cultivated and collected throughout her life—every object has a sharp, clear significance that cuts through the veil of time and takes her backwards through her life.
Doris comes into the room to tell Hagar it’s almost time for dinner, and Hagar begins asking which of her own possessions Doris’s children, Steven and Tina, might like to have after she dies. Doris warns Hagar not to talk about such things, as the thought of Hagar dying upsets Marvin, but Hagar curtly replies that Marvin never gets upset—“not even at what happened to his own brother.” Hagar then tries to change the subject, and asks if Tina will be coming for dinner. A concerned Doris replies that Tina lives hundreds of miles away, and has been gone from home for over a month. Hagar quickly pretends that the fact just “slipped [her] mind,” but Doris, worried, goes into the kitchen and tells Marvin what Hagar’s just said. Hagar overhears Marvin reply: “We’ve got to have it out with her.”
Hagar is clearly confused—not just now, but seemingly often—and this contributes to Marvin and Doris’s concern for the woman and their desire to place her in a facility where she can be properly watched over. There is plainly a lot of painful family history that exists between these people, contributing to the tense and uncomfortable present moment, but no one seems to want to talk about anything of consequence for fear of further rocking the boat and really making the situation at home untenable.
Marvin comes into the living room and Hagar asks him to fetch her cigarettes for her. Doris appears and says she’ll go, as Marvin is tired, but Marvin insists he can go upstairs to get them. Hagar apologizes for being so much trouble. Doris tells Hagar that she and Marvin want to go to a movie and have arranged for a neighbor to come sit with Hagar while they’re out. Hagar protests and says she doesn’t “need a sitter, like a child,” and a fight breaks out between the three of them. Marvin tells Hagar that last night she left one of her cigarettes burning, and it fell down to the carpet—if Marvin hadn’t found it in time, the whole house might have gone up. Hagar apologizes for being a burden, and the exasperated Marvin tells Doris to cancel their night out—it’s not worth it.
This passage shows just how miserable things are in the house—every request Hagar makes is seen as a burden, because caring for her and doing all the things she needs take up all of Marvin and Doris’s time. When they do try to carve out time for themselves, Hagar becomes jealous and indignant, and her refusal to accept that she needs help makes her even more of a burden to her frustrated, put-upon son and daughter-in-law.
Hagar sits in a large armchair in her room, relieved to be away from Doris and Marvin if only for a little. She looks through the pictures she keeps in her room: photographs of herself as a young girl, of her father, and of her second son, John. She has no pictures of her ex-husband, Bram. Looking over the pictures, Hagar slips back into memory, and recalls how after her marriage to Bram, something “changed” between her and the friends she’d had in her youth, especially Charlotte Tappen.
Hagar can no longer stop herself from slipping into memory again and again—with nothing ahead of her but pain and rejection, her life seems to exist only in retrospect now.
Anytime Hagar and Bram went into town and saw her old friends at the store or in the street, Bram spoke coarsely towards them, and yet at the same time Hagar noticed that her friends and acquaintances would “bait” Bram and try to provoke him into saying something rough or controversial. Slowly, through these uncomfortable interactions and the quickly-spreading rumors of Bram’s impropriety, Hagar became distant from everyone else in town, and soon let Bram run errands on his own so that she wouldn’t have to be seen with him.
Hagar’s life slowly begins to change right before her eyes—all while she stands by and allows it to morph into something unrecognizable. Through her own stubbornness, she begins to lose not just her family but her friends as well, and becomes isolated by the knowledge that she made the wrong choice in marrying Bram after all.
Marvin knocks at the door and asks to come in. When he opens the door, Doris is beside him, and she urges Marvin to do what he “promised.” Marvin, visibly uncomfortable, explains to Hagar that he and Doris, in declining health themselves, can no longer look after Hagar. Between her frequent falls, nighttime coughs, and bedwetting—the last of these things something Hagar had been unaware of—they simply can’t keep up. Marvin suggests that Hagar needs a full-time nurse and would be better off in a place where people would care for her all the time. Marvin says that in a nursing home, Hagar could be around people her own age and have access to the care she needs. Hagar knows that Marvin is simply parroting the advertisement, and she repeats the printed words back to him and laughs.
Marvin and Doris’s argument for Hagar’s admittance to a nursing home is soundly and even gently delivered—and yet Hagar is so on edge, so worried about suffering further indignities, and so afraid of being forgotten by the only people she has left in the world that she cannot stomach the suggestion.
Marvin and Doris continue begging Hagar to see reason, but Hagar insists that “if it were John,” he wouldn’t “consign his mother” to such a place. Marvin starts an argument about John, stating that his brother wasn’t exactly “marvelous with Dad.” Doris begs the two of them not to bring up “ancient history,” and an argument is averted. Marvin suggests Hagar go for a checkup with her doctor, Doctor Corby, and see what he says about going into a home. Hagar begins wondering privately whether she could really be forced to leave her own house, but soon cannot contain her thoughts and begins begging Marvin and Doris not to make her leave her home and her things. Hagar’s emotions clearly frighten Marvin and Doris, and they drop the issue and get her ready for bed instead.
It's unclear what happened between Hagar, Marvin, John, and Bram, but what is clear is that Hagar obviously favored John his entire life and has only erased his shortcomings since his loss. Marvin clearly experiences pain over being second-best, and longs to placate his mother in order to keep her from becoming too upset or irate—out of a desire to keep her from causing herself any pain, surely, but also out of a desire to keep himself from falling any further from her good graces.
Hagar cannot sleep, and when she gets up to relieve a cramp in her foot, she knocks over a lamp, shattering it on the floor. Doris flies into the room, asking what the matter is, and “moans” about the broken lamp. Hagar tries to downplay the incident, but Doris is shaken, and insists on helping Hagar to and from the bathroom. Back in her bedroom alone, Hagar lights a cigarette, reminding herself to put it out properly when she’s done. As she sits on the edge of the bed and looks at herself in the mirror, she hardly recognizes her bloated, veiny face and body. She knows that if Bram were alive, he wouldn’t see her as the burdensome “Mother” Doris and Marvin believe she is—she’d still be “Hagar to him yet.”
Doris and Marvin’s life has been completely overtaken by Hagar and her needs. Hagar knows this, and resents their hovering as much as she resents her need to be hovered over. She hates being the burden that she knows she is, and wishes there were someone alive who remembered the old her.
Hagar retreats into memory, recalling her passionate but adversarial relationship with Bram. Her deep, intense attraction to him was what forged their relationship and kept it going even though they disagreed on almost everything and quarreled often. Hagar “never let him know” how much erotic power he had over her, and took pride in keeping the depths of her feelings for the man to herself. Coming back to the present, Hagar puts out her cigarette and laments that now, she has no one to turn to or speak with late in the night—her bed is “cold as winter.”
Hagar is lonely, frail, and elderly, and relies on her memories of the passion of her youth to sustain her through the pains and indignities of aging. Even in her prime, though, Hagar kept a firm hold on her desires, repressing her femininity and sexuality to maintain the illusion of control.