Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel is narrated by Hagar Shipley, an elderly woman looking back on her life as a way of escaping, or perhaps understanding, her dire present-day circumstances: she lives uneasily with her son Marvin and his wife Doris, whose care she requires but continually shirks even as she battles senility and a debilitating gastrointestinal condition. As Hagar looks back on her youth, her contentious marriage, and her difficult relationships with her children, her stories are imbued with both nostalgia and embarrassment, longing and revulsion. In telling Hagar’s story, Laurence shows that for Hagar—as is surely the case for many—the past often feels more alive, more vital, and more important than the present moment, even though the events contained within it may have been anything but pleasant. Ultimately Laurence suggests that memories are dangerous things: to deny their potency and importance is to do oneself a disservice, but to linger in them too long is to risk ruining one’s “real” life in the present.
Towards the end of the novel, as Hagar lies dying in the hospital, one of her nurses tells her that she’s “lucky” to have had so many years of life. “Nothing,” the nurse says to Hagar, “can take them away.” Hagar “dryly” responds, “That’s a mixed blessing, surely.” Over the course of the novel, Laurence shows how memory is indeed a “mixed blessing.” At the start of the book, Hagar describes herself as an individual who, though “rampant with memory,” doesn’t choose to very often “indulge” in her remembrances of the past. She believes the old trope of elderly people living in the past is “nonsense,” and seems to view memory as a kind of luxury she can’t really afford. She tries to prevent herself from looking back on the past, but even as she tells herself she “will not” think back on her “lost men,” she finds herself slipping into memories of her girlhood, seemingly pulled into the abyss of the past by forces beyond her control. The past’s hold on Hagar, despite her contempt for the concepts of memory and nostalgia, shows how vital her past is to her. She attempts to deny its power, but when she does at last dive into memories, her recollections are plentiful, vivid, and sharply detailed. The past is full of pain, though, and as Hagar reflects on the beatings her father inflicted on her and her brothers, the casual violence she and her schoolmates witnessed throughout their hometown, and even the death of her brother Dan, she tries to stop herself from returning to such a painful time. Even her memories of pleasant things, such as the scent of the lilacs that grew around her old house, are memories of their “seasonal mercy”—a brief reprieve from a difficult status quo.
As the novel progresses, Hagar finds herself having a harder and harder time keeping her memories at bay. She begins spending longer chunks of time lost in the past, and when she comes back to the present moment, she’s often confused and disoriented. She is “mortified” by these lapses, and often can’t remember what was happening or being said when she drifted off into her recollections. She begins losing more and more time as the story of her past speeds toward the most painful event within it: the death of her youngest and favorite son, John. There seems to be a direct correlation between the emotional difficulty of what Hagar is recalling and her inability to stop stewing in it. Even though her memories get more and more painful, she finds herself lingering in them for longer and longer amounts of time. She is risking becoming all but lost in the maze of her past mistakes, cruelties, and sorrows, when she at last, for the first time in her life, finds a way to properly mourn her son John’s death—by telling the story to a stranger, Murray F. Lees. By sharing the story with someone else in her present, she stops the cycle of her memories existing only as personal, private demons that torment her without end, and takes a step—if a small and shaky one—towards living in the present. Shortly after this breakthrough, though, Hagar receives the news that she has stomach cancer and will have to be admitted to a hospital—which she may not ever leave.
Hagar previously spent too much of her life regretting the past, denying its events, and shoving down her emotions—at the start of the novel she has reached a tipping point, it seems, and begins swinging the other way, becoming lost in her memories as the book progresses. Ultimately, Hagar learns that she cannot survive this way either—as she becomes a danger to herself and loses her awareness of space, time, and what’s happening to her own body, she realizes that she must pull back and commit to living in the present. She learns her lesson, some would argue, too late—by the time she has exorcised the demons of her past, she is diagnosed with stomach cancer and sent to a local hospital to await her death. This final irony proves too much for her, and as her condition worsens and she becomes more and more reliant on pain medication, which lulls her into a “sleek cocoon” of oblivion, she longs to go to that place more and more often to “collect [her] thoughts.”
Throughout the novel, it becomes evident that Hagar is, in many ways, very like the stone angel that keeps watch over her mother’s grave at the cemetery in Manawaka—hardened to her surroundings, all-seeing, and helpless to stop the passage of time. Hagar’s journey through her own memories is painful and burdensome—though she wishes she could change the mistakes of her past, she cannot. Towards the end of the novel, Hagar at last accepts the permanent and unchangeable nature of the past, knowing that to continue lingering in memory and shut out her present moment will only lead to her own spiritual “defeat.”
Memory and the Past ThemeTracker
Memory and the Past 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.
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.
“You girls are so slim these days.”
She smiles. She’s used to the inane remarks of old women.
“I’ll bet you were just as slim, when you were young, Mrs. Shipley.”
“Oh—you know my name.” Then I remember it’s on a card at the foot of my bed, and I feel a fool. “Yes, I was quite slender at your age. I had black hair, long, halfway down my back. Some people thought me quite pretty. You’d never think so to look at me now.”
“Yes, you would,” she says, standing back a little and regarding me. “I wouldn’t say you’d been exactly pretty— handsome is what I’d say. You’ve got such strong features. Good bones don’t change. You’re still handsome.”
“That’s kind of you. You’re a nice girl. You’re lucky, to be young.” I wish I hadn’t added that. I never used to say whatever popped into my head. How slipshod I’m growing.
“I guess so.” She smiles, but differently, aloofly. “Maybe you’re the lucky one.”
“How so, for mercy’s sake?”
“Oh well—” she says evasively, “you’ve had those years. Nothing can take them away.”
“That’s a mixed blessing, surely,” I say dryly, but of course she doesn’t see what I mean.
“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.
“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.