Throughout The Stone Angel, as Hagar Shipley reflects on her past and struggles against an unhappy, embarrassing, and undignified present, she attempts to figure out how she has arrived at the moment she’s in: elderly, antagonistic, willful, and yet weak in mind and body and entirely dependent on the care of her least favorite son Marvin and his bumbling wife Doris. As Hagar looks back on the choices she’s made, Margaret Laurence shows how swiftly—and often slyly—the choices people make become their identities, and argues that every person is ultimately the sum of the decisions they’ve made.
Raised in a respectable household in Manawaka, the young Hagar—a beautiful, black-haired young woman with dreams of being a schoolteacher—is very different from the Hagar Shipley of the present day—a stubborn woman who condescends to everyone and everything and whose worn, bloated face and body have become unrecognizable even to Hagar herself. The novel, comprised of Hagar’s memories interspersed with scenes from her difficult present, unpacks the choices that have made Hagar who she is. In the early years of her life, Hagar describes feeling stifled by her small town and few friends, threatened by her violent father, and confused by her own impulses and desires. She remembers being given the chance to comfort her brother Dan as he died from a horrible fever by wrapping herself in a shawl and pretending to be their mother in order to bring him comfort—and yet, she balked at the idea of doing so, and instead her brother Matt assumed the disguise and held Dan in his arms until his dying breath. Hagar also remembers watching one of her school friends, Lottie, stamp on some recently-hatched chicks that were dying in the sun at the town junkyard, abandoned by their mother. Hagar knew that Lottie’s decision was “the only thing to do,” and yet recalls being “troubled” by her own inability to take action and make a choice. The stagnancy of Hagar’s youth shows how the choice not to make a choice is often an important decision in and of itself. Her refusal to comfort her brother in his hour of need or to do the right thing and end the baby chicks’ painful, doomed lives haunts Hagar as the years go by—and as she grows older, she finds herself making decisions often just to make them, starting herself down a path that will forever change the course of her life.
At one point towards the middle of the novel—after her marriage to the crass Brampton Shipley and her subsequent fall from grace in Manawaka society, disinheritance from her father Jason’s will, and trying role as mother to her and Bram’s two boys—Hagar stops to use a public restroom on Main Street while out running errands and finds herself shocked by the person she sees in the mirror. “I stood for a long time,” she remembers, “looking, wondering how a person could change so much and never see it. So gradually it happens. […] My hair was gray and straight. I always cut it myself. The face—a brown and leathery face that wasn’t mine. Only the eyes were mine, staring as though to pierce the lying glass and get beneath to some truer image, infinitely distant.” Hoping to distance herself from her father—and from the waffling indecision of her youth—Hagar has struck out on her own, married someone her father does not approve of, and borne two children to a man whose values, outlook, and beliefs do not align with her own. Feeling unmoored in her own hometown, embarrassed by her lifestyle, and aged beyond her years, Hagar realizes that the choices she’s making are changing the course of her life forever—and that she’ll perhaps never be able to get back to the “infinitely distant” root of herself.
Throughout the novel’s “present” timeline, set in the 1960s, there are many references to Hagar’s astonishment at how time, age, and disease have warped her body. She experiences the host of pains, discomforts, and embarrassments she suffers daily—constipation, pain, poor balance, loss of bladder control—with a kind of detached awe. As Doris and Marvin try to warm her to the idea of accepting their plan to put her in a nursing home, Hagar lashes out verbally and physically and at last full-out runs away in an attempt to retain some semblance of control over what happens to her life and her body. Just as she too late came to understand the perils both of ignoring memory and overindulging it, Hagar has overcorrected again in her old age, this time in regard to agency and decision-making. Afraid of remaining stagnant and pliable as she was in her youth, Hagar instead pursues the bullish, blind rebellion that categorized her adulthood. Though she doesn’t know it, she is veering even further off course despite her age, and making choices that affect not just her own health, well-being, and happiness but that of her adult son and his wife as well.
In the end, Hagar remains as incorrigible as ever. She knows that the choices she has made and continues to make are just that—choices—and yet she “can’t help” her reliance on old, familiar ways of behaving and speaking. Lying in her bed one night, Hagar tries to “recall something truly free that [she’s] done in ninety years,” and can only think of “two acts”—acts that remain ambiguous—that she feels were really her own decision. Nevertheless, Hagar’s life has been a series of choices and consequences, and though the events of the years have molded her mind and body into someone she hardly recognizes, she has indeed played a part in everything that’s happened to her—whether she can identify this or not.
Choices and Identity ThemeTracker
Choices and Identity 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.
“Do you know what he’s got in his dresser, Hagar?” Matt went on. “An old plaid shawl—it was hers. He used to go to sleep holding it, as a kid, I remember. I thought it had got thrown out years ago. But it’s still there.”
He turned to me then, and held both my hands in his, the only time I ever recall my brother Matt doing such a thing.
“Hagar—put it on and hold him for a while.”
I stiffened and drew away my hands. “I can’t. Oh Matt, I’m sorry, but I can’t, I can’t. I’m not a bit like her.” “He wouldn’t know,” Matt said angrily. “He’s out of his head.” But all I could think of was that meek woman I’d never seen, the woman Dan was said to resemble so much and from whom he’d inherited a frailty I could not help but detest, however much a part of me wanted to sympathize. To play at being her—it was beyond me.
“I can’t, Matt.” I was crying, shaken by torments he never even suspected, wanting above all else to do the thing he asked, but unable to do it, unable to bend enough.
We saw a huge and staggering heap of eggs, jarred and broken by some wagoner and cast here, unsaleable. July was hot that day— I can feel yet its insistence upon my neck and my wringing palms. We saw, with a kind of horror that could not be avoided, however much one looked away or scurried on, that some of the eggs had been fertile and had hatched in the sun. The chicks, feeble, foodless, bloodied and mutilated, prisoned by the weight of broken shells all around them, were trying to crawl like little worms, their half-mouths opened uselessly among the garbage. I could only gawk and retch, I and the others, all except one. […]
[Lottie] looked at the chicks. I didn’t know whether she made herself look, or whether she was curious.
“We can’t leave them like this.”
“But Lottie—” that was Charlotte Tappen, who had an exceptionally weak stomach, even though her father was a doctor. “What can we do? I can’t look, or I’ll throw up.”
“Hagar—” Lottie began. “I wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole,” I said. “All right,” Lottie said furiously. “Don’t, then.” She took a stick and crushed the eggshell skulls, and some of them she stepped on with the heels of her black patent-leather shoes.
It was the only thing to do, a thing I couldn’t have done. And yet it troubled me so much that I could not.
“Do you—” I hesitate. “Do you ever get used to such a place?”
She laughs then, a short bitter laugh I recognize and comprehend at once. “Do you get used to life?” she says. “Can you answer me that? It all comes as a surprise. You get your first period, and you’re amazed—I can have babies now— such a thing! When the children come, you think—Is it mine? Did it come out of me? Who could believe it? When you can’t have them any more, what a shock— It’s finished—so soon?”
I peer at her, thinking how peculiar that she knows so much.
“You’re right. I never got used to a blessed thing.”
"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 like you different, too.”
“I don’t disgrace myself.”
“No, by Christ, you’re respectable—I’ll give you that.”
Twenty-four years, in all, were scoured away like sandbanks under the spate of our wrangle and bicker. Yet when he turned his hairy belly and his black haired thighs toward me in the night, I would lie silent but waiting, and he could slither and swim like an eel in a pool of darkness. Sometimes, if there had been no argument between us in the day, he would say he was sorry, sorry to bother me, as though it were an affliction with him, something that set him apart, as his speech did, from educated people.
It’s better to know, but disappointing, too. I wonder now if I really want to fling this door wide. I do and don’t. Perhaps the thing inside will prove more terrible even than one’s imaginings.
Meantime, Doris feels it behooves her to bolster Marvin.
“It’s just as Marv says—the doctor says you’d be much better off—”
“Oh, stow it,” Marvin says, all of a sudden. “If you don’t want to go there, Mother, you don’t need to.”
“Well, I like that!” Doris is outraged. “And who’ll do the laundry, I’d like to know? You, I suppose?”
“I don’t know what in hell I’m supposed to do,” Marvin says. “I’m caught between two fires.”
A Rest Room had recently been established in the town. I’d never been inside it, not fancying public conveniences. But I told John to let me off there that night. One room it was, with brown wainscoting and half a dozen straight chairs, and the two toilet cubicles beyond. No one was there. I made sure of that before I entered. I went in and found what I needed, a mirror. I stood for a long time, looking, wondering how a person could change so much and never see it. So gradually it happens.
I was wearing, I saw, a man’s black overcoat that Marvin had left. It was too big for John and impossibly small for Bram. It still had a lot of wear left in it, so I’d taken it. The coat bunched and pulled up in front, for I’d put weight on my hips, and my stomach had never gone flat again after John was born. Twined around my neck was a knitted scarf, hairy and navy blue, that Bram’s daughter Gladys had given me one Christmas. On my head a brown tarn was pulled down to keep my ears warm. My hair was gray and straight. I always cut it myself. The face— a brown and leathery face that wasn’t mine. Only the eyes were mine, staring as though to pierce the lying glass and get beneath to some truer image, infinitely distant.
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.
My room has been prepared for me. The mattress is mildewed, it’s true, and musty from never being aired. But it’s here and mine. From the bedroom window I can look out to the darkening trees and beyond them to the sea. Who would have thought I’d have a room with a view? Heartened, I plod back down the stairs, and then return, bearing my bag and my hat.
To move to a new place—that’s the greatest excitement. For a while you believe you carry nothing with you—all is canceled from before, or cauterized, and you begin again and nothing will go wrong this time.
It was a becalmed life we led there, a period of waiting and of marking time. But the events we waited for, unknowingly, turned out to be quite other than what I imagined they might be.
And here am I, the same Hagar, in a different establishment once more, and waiting again. I try, a little, to pray, as one’s meant to do at evening, thinking perhaps the knack of it will come to me here. But it works no better than it ever did. I can’t change what’s happened to me in my life, or make what’s not occurred take place. But I can’t say I like it, or accept it, or believe it’s for the best. I don’t and never shall, not even if I’m damned for it. So I merely sit on the bed and look out the window until the dark comes and the trees have gone and the sea itself has been swallowed, by the night.
John put an arm around the girl’s shoulders, smearing her white pique dress.
“See you around, eh?” he said, and we left, he whistling and I bewildered.
“You could have been a little more polite,” I reproached him when we were out of earshot. “Not that I was much impressed with her. But still and all—”
“Polite!” He snorted with laughter. “That’s not what she wants from me.”
“What does she want—to marry you?”
“Marry? By Christ, no. She’d never marry a Shipley. It tickles her to neck with one, that’s all.”
“Don’t talk like that,” I snapped. “Don’t ever let me hear you speak like that again, John. In any case, she’s not the sort of girl for you. She’s bold and—”
“Bold? Her? She’s a rabbit, a little furry rabbit.”
“You like her, then?”
“Are you kidding? I’d lay her if I got the chance, that’s all.”
“You’re talking just like your father,” I said. “The same coarse way. I wish you wouldn’t. You’re not a bit like him.”
‘That’s where you’re wrong,” John said.
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.
What could I possibly tell her, I wonder, that could do her any good? She knows a lot more than I did when I married. Or maybe she doesn’t, really, but who’s to tell her? I haven’t a word to send her, my granddaughter. Instead, I tug at my right hand, pull and shake, and finally wrench off the ring.
“Send her this, Doris, will you? It was my mother’s sapphire. I’d like Tina to have it.”
Doris gasps. “Are you—are you sure you really want to, Mother?”
Something in her eyes saddens me, makes me want to turn away.
“Of course I’m sure. What use is it to me? I should’ve given it to you, I suppose, years ago. I could never bear to part with it. Stupid. Too bad you never had it. I don’t want it now. Send it to Tina.”
“Mother—” Marvin has a very loud voice sometimes. “Are you sure?”
Speechlessly I nod. Why all this fuss? In another moment I’ll take the wretched thing back, to shut them up. Doris pops it in her purse, as if she’s been thinking the same thing.
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.
“You took your time in coming, I must say. Hurry up, now—” I must get back, back to my sleek cocoon, where I’m almost comfortable, lulled by potions. I can collect my thoughts there. That’s what I need to do, collect my thoughts.
“You’re so slow—”
“Sorry. That better?”
“Yes. No. I’m—thirsty. Can’t you even—”
“Here. Here you are. Can you?”
“Of course. What do you think I am? What do you take me for? Here, give it to me. Oh, for mercy’s sake let me hold it myself!”
I only defeat myself by not accepting her. I know this—I know it very well. But I can’t help it—it’s my nature. I’ll drink from this glass, or spill it, just as I choose. I’ll not countenance anyone else’s holding it for me. And yet—if she were in my place, I’d think her daft, and push her hands away, certain I could hold it for her better.
I wrest from her the glass, full of water to be had for the taking. I hold it in my own hands. There. There.