There is a tall, expensive, sightless stone angel carved from marble that stands watch over the grave of Hagar Shipley’s long-dead mother, Regina, “who relinquished her feeble ghost as [Hagar] gained [her] stubborn one”—in other words, she died giving birth to Hagar. The stone angel is thus Hagar’s twin in a way, and throughout the novel comes to symbolize Hagar’s painful, demoralizing journey through life. The stone angel was brought into the world around the same time as Hagar, and suffers the same weathering, embarrassment, and indignity that Hagar herself endures throughout the course of her life. Hagar, a character who wrestles with her own agency and the ways in which the choices she has made pile up and become her identity, is in many ways as unseeing as the stone angel herself. Hagar, too, often “topple[s]” both physically and emotionally, and though her sons have helped to right her time and time again, she knows a time is approaching when no one will even “bother” to right her—to fix her mistakes, to clean up her messes, to attend to her in moments of pain or suffering.
The stone angel has been carved “with[out] even a pretense of sight”—whoever formed her “left the eyeballs blank.” The angel was expensive to procure, and was imported from Europe by Hagar’s father Jason, a self-made man whose recent windfall of money was a point of pride for him and perhaps the only thing that sustained him through the loss of his wife. Throughout the events of the novel—over the course of about ninety years—the stone angel remains in the cemetery. Her wings grow “pitted” and worn, occasionally she topples, and once she is even defaced and smeared with garish lipstick; but through all the events of Hagar’s life, the stone angel remains, watchful yet unseeing. Hagar is wary of the stone angel in her youth, and only as an older woman—who has to bury her husband Brampton and, later, her youngest son John—does she begin caring about how the angel fares. When she visits the cemetery with John before his death, she finds that the angel has been toppled and defaced. With John’s help, she rights the angel and cleans its face—though the novel implies that it was perhaps a drunken John who overturned and painted the angel in the first place, symbolizing the often painful, thankless role of motherhood. The final time Hagar sees the stone angel in her life—on a visit to Manawaka as an old woman, accompanied by her son Marvin and his wife Doris—the angel appears “altered” through lack of care. She is “askew and tilted,” and Hagar knows that one day “she’ll topple entirely, and no one will bother to set her upright again.” As Hagar and her family contemplate the angel together, a caretaker at the cemetery comes over and, failing to recognize who they are, begins telling them the story of their own family, and of the stone angel who has stood watch over their plot for years and years.
The Stone Angel Quotes in The Stone Angel
Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.
Summer and winter she viewed the town with sightless eyes. She was doubly blind, not only stone but unendowed with even a pretense of sight. Whoever carved her had left the eyeballs blank. It seemed strange to me that she should stand above the town, harking us all to heaven without knowing who we were at all. But I was too young then to know her purpose, although my father often told me she had been brought from Italy at a terrible expense and was pure white marble. I think now she must have been carved in that distant sun by stone masons who were the cynical descendants of Bernini, gouging out her like by the score, gauging with admirable accuracy the needs of fledgling pharaohs in an uncouth land.
Winter was the right time to go. A bell-voice, clear in the cold air, cried “All aboard!” and the train stirred and shook itself like a drowsy dragon and began to move, regally slow, then faster until it was spinning down the shining tracks. We passed the shacks and shanties that clustered around the station, and the railway buildings and water tower painted their dried-blood red. Then we were away from Manawaka. It came as a shock to me, how small the town was, and how short a time it took to leave it, as we measure time.
Into the white Wachakwa valley then, past the dump grounds and the cemetery on the hill. Peering, I could see on the hill brow the marble angel, sightlessly guarding the gardens of snow, the empty places and the deep-lying dead.
The marble angel lay toppled over on her face, among the peonies, and the black ants scurried through the white stone ring lets of her hair. Beside me, John laughed.
“The old lady’s taken quite a header.”
I turned to [John] in dismay. “Who could have done it?”
“How should I know?”
“We’ll have to set her up,” I said. “We can’t leave it like this.”
“Oh, all right,” he said. “I’ll do it, then.”
He sweated and grunted angrily. His feet slipped and he hit his forehead on a marble ear, and swore. His arm muscles tightened and swelled, and finally the statue moved, teetered, and was upright once more. John wiped his face with his hands.
I looked, and then again in disbelief. Someone had painted the pouting marble mouth and the full cheeks with lipstick. The dirt clung around it but still the vulgar pink was plainly visible.
“Oh, Christ,” John said, as though to himself. “There’s that.”
“Who’d do such a thing?”
“She looks a damn sight better, if you ask me. Why not leave it?”
I never could bear that statue. I’d have been glad enough to leave her. Now I wish I had. But at the time it was impossible.
[The nurse] put a well-meaning arm around me. “Cry. Let yourself. It’s the best thing.” But I shoved her arm away. I straightened my spine, and that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life, to stand straight then. I wouldn’t cry in front of strangers, whatever it cost me.
But when at last I was home, alone in Marvin’s old bedroom, and women from the town were sitting in the kitchen below and brewing coffee, 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. When the ministering women handed me the cup of hot coffee, they murmured how well I was taking it, and I could only look at them dry eyed from a great distance and not say a single word. All the night long, I only had one thought—I’d had so many things to say to him, so many things to put to rights. He hadn’t waited to hear.
I guess they thought it odd, some of the Manawaka people did, that after the funeral service was over I wouldn’t go out to the cemetery. I didn’t want to see where he was put, close by his father and close by mine, under the double-named stone where the marble angel crookedly stood.
Doris returns. She fusses over me, fixes my pillows, rearranges my flowers, does my hair. How I wish she wouldn’t fuss so. She jangles my nerves with her incessant fussing. Mr. Troy has left and is waiting outside in the hall.
“Did you have a nice chat?” she says wistfully. If only she’d stop prodding at me about it. “We didn’t have a single solitary thing to say to one another,” I reply. She bites her lip and looks away. I’m ashamed.
But I won’t take back the words. What business is it of hers, anyway?
Oh, I am unchangeable, unregenerate. I go on speaking in the same way, always, and the same touchiness rises within me at the slightest thing.
“Doris—I didn’t speak the truth. He sang for me, and it did me good.”
“If I’ve been crabby with you, sometimes, these past years,” he says in a low voice, “I didn’t mean it.” I stare at him. Then, quite unexpectedly, he reaches for my hand and holds it tightly. Now it seems to me he is truly Jacob, gripping with all his strength, and bargaining. I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And I see I am thus strangely cast, and perhaps have been so from the beginning, and can only release myself by releasing him. It’s in my mind to ask his pardon, but that’s not what he wants from me.
“You’ve not been cranky, Marvin. You’ve been good to me, always. A better son than John.”
The dead don’t bear a grudge nor seek a blessing. The dead don’t rest uneasy. Only the living. Marvin, looking at me from anxious elderly eyes, believes me. It doesn’t occur to him that a person in my place would ever lie.