At the heart of The Stone Angel is a story about the ways in which families sometimes foster feelings of pain, anger, confusion, and resentment rather than feelings of love and comfort. As Hagar Shipley remembers her own fractured family, and the new one she attempted to build with her husband Brampton Shipley, she is forced to confront the ways in which resentment—not love—has calibrated her relationships with her brothers, her father, her husband, and her own sons. As Hagar wrestles with pain and resentment, her son Marvin and his wife Doris struggle behind the scenes to weigh their love for the woman they both call “Mother” against the quickly-snowballing resentments they feel towards her as old age makes her more and more of a stranger to them. Ultimately, Laurence suggests that resentment and love—or “anger and tenderness”—are unavoidable and even necessary emotions within a family unit, and can coexist side-by-side.
Throughout the novel, Laurence shows time and time again how within the book’s families—both born and made—there exists a tenuously-balanced blend of love and resentment. The most profound example of love and resentment coexisting is found in the novel’s present-day timeline, set in the 1960s. As the elderly Hagar enters into steep physical and mental decline, her already-difficult relationship with her son Marvin is further strained by the fact that Marvin and his wife Doris are Hagar’s caregivers and must contend with her poor attitude, stubborn stoicism, and increasingly frequent falls and bed-wettings. The three individuals love one another more out of obligation than anything else, and harbor strong resentments towards one another that only deepen as the novel unfolds. When Doris and Marvin decide that they want to put Hagar into a nursing home to relieve the burden of caring for her from their shoulders, Hagar becomes frightened and irate. She sputters and rambles any time the nursing home comes up, and on the one occasion they take her to the facility to visit, she runs away from the main building and gives them a fright. Doris, Marvin, and Hagar are, for the majority of the novel, trapped in a horrible standoff: the more sharply Hagar declines and the greater a burden she is to her son and daughter-in-law, the more they resent her. At the same time, the more they attempt to find ways to relieve the burden and stop the vicious cycle of frustration and anger, the greater Hagar’s resentment of them grows as she begins to believe that not only do they not love her, but actively hate her.
Hagar’s past, too, is rife with love-hate relationships which vacillate between tenderness and resentment. Her marriage to Brampton Shipley—a bear of a man whose crass language, indifference to the opinions of others, and free-living existence on a farm at the outskirts of town all appeal to Hagar in her youth—quickly sours, and in Hagar’s description of her and her husband’s volatile relationship, Laurence shows that this dynamic has followed Hagar all her life. Hagar chose to marry her husband Bram because he represented the first time in her life that she could make a choice for herself: though he was very different from her and a little bit intimidating, she knew that choosing to marry him would provide her with the radical change in her life—and the distance from her oppressive father—that she craved. As Hagar’s relationship with Bram evolved, though, she found herself embarrassed and even disgusted by his crass behavior, his callous speech, and his rejection of societal norms. At the same time, Hagar, in the present, recalls her intense desire for the man: “his banner over me was only his own skin,” she says. Though her physical desire for her husband was intense and constant, she “never let him know,” and instead “prided [her]self upon keeping [her] pride intact.” Hagar’s twinned emotions of love and desire for—and resentment and loathing towards—her husband of many years reveals that even in the families one chooses to make or build, these two opposite but intertwined emotions often take root. Hagar eventually left Bram, unable to abide him any longer, but when she received word that he was nearing the end of his life, she rushed to be by his side and cared for him even though his brain had grown so addled by his alcohol addiction that he barely recognized her. During the final days of Bram’s life, Hagar still felt the peculiar mix of tenderness and repulsion that defined her relationship to him in her youth.
Towards the novel’s end, Marvin, talking with one of his mother’s nurses, remarks: “’She’s a holy terror.’” Hagar, still awake in her room, can plainly overhear the exchange. She reflects on what she’s just heard: “Listening, I feel like it is more than I could now reasonably have expected out of life, for he has spoken with such anger and such tenderness.” This passage shows that Hagar understands what a hard time she’s given her eldest son over the years, and the resentment she has inspired in him—and yet, at the same time, she can hear in his inflection how much he cares for and even admires her, in spite of it all. Love and resentment are often intertwined, and can be felt in the same breath.
Family, Love, and Resentment ThemeTracker
Family, Love, and Resentment 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.
"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.”
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.”
“Don’t you remember how you used to give me pennies to buy jaw-breakers, when I was a kid? Mom used to be livid, thinking of the dentist’s bills.”
I’d forgotten. I have to smile, even as my mouth is filled once more with bile. That’s what I am to him— a grandmother who gave him money for candy. What does he know of me? Not a blessed thing. I’m choked 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. Some one really ought to know these things.
But where would I begin, and what does it matter to him, anyway? It might be worse. At least he recalls a pleasant thing.
“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.
As he goes out, I hear the nurse speaking to him in the corridor. “She’s got an amazing constitution, your mother. One of those hearts that just keeps on working, whatever else is gone.”
A pause, and then Marvin replies. “She’s a holy terror,” he says.
Listening, I feel like it is more than I could now reasonably have expected out of life, for he has spoken with such anger and such tenderness.
“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.