The complicated duties and burdens of womanhood are laid bare over the course of The Stone Angel as the elderly Hagar Shipley reflects on her life. Hagar’s story encompasses her childhood, her coming-of-age, her uneasy début into womanhood, and her steady decline in health and spirit over the years. In Margaret Laurence’s careful hands, Hagar’s story becomes an indictment both of the societal and economic forces that devalue and oppress women as well as the ways in which those forces can drive women to make poor choices out of desperation or exasperation. As Hagar struggles against the trappings of traditional womanhood, Laurence argues that to be a woman is to be in a state of constant becoming—clearing hurdle after hurdle only to find that more obstacles to contentment undoubtedly lie ahead.
Throughout the novel, Hagar has an uneasy and even adversarial relationship to her own womanhood and the demands womanhood makes of her. As the novel traverses an enormous span of time—from roughly the 1880s to the early 1960s—Hagar experiences changes, advancements, and setbacks in her journey through life as a woman, and, in a cruelly ironic turn, begins aging out of her ability to care for herself and assert agency over her own body just as the women’s liberation movement is about to dawn.
As a young girl being raised by a single widowed father, Jason Currie, in Manawaka, Manitoba—with two brothers at her side—Hagar finds herself pushed and pulled by her family and her friends alike, and always feels like something of an outsider. Her uneasy relationship to the demands of moving through life as a woman is encapsulated by an early instance in the novel. When Hagar’s brother Dan, fevered and on the verge of death, calls for his dead mother, Hagar’s other brother Matt urges her to wrap a plaid shawl around her head and approach the delusional Dan, pretending to be their mother, to comfort him in his final moments. Hagar is terrified and even repulsed by the task. She stiffens up and tells Matt she can’t do it—she’s “not a bit like [their mother,]” who has been described to Hagar as having been meek and frail. Hagar balks at the idea of being forced “to play at being her,” and even “detest[s]” Dan for longing to be comforted by such a presence. Hagar’s reluctance to embody the presence of her mother—a woman she never knew, but has grown wary of because of her frailty and early demise—shows that she does not want to participate in traditional womanhood, and would rather deny someone she loves a moment of grace than “play at” being weak, feminine, or motherly even for a moment.
As Hagar grows older, she attends college for two years and then returns to Manawaka with dreams of being a teacher. Though it’s a stereotypically female occupation, Hagar longs to teach so that she can leave her hometown and go East, where she can have more freedom and agency. Her father refuses to let her go, though, and instead she stays at home, keeps his store’s accounts, and “play[s] hostess” at parties he throws for friends and acquaintances. After three years of this life, Hagar meets Brampton Shipley, and begins seeing him as a way of escaping the boring, undignified, traditionally feminine life she’s leading. Of course, after marrying Brampton, Hagar finds herself veering farther and farther off-course—she is still subjected to wifely duties around the house and eventually becomes mother to two boys, forced to watch as they grow older and participate in the world in a way she never can. She attempts to control her favorite son John’s increasingly dangerous, boyish behavior—playing on train tracks with his friends, getting into other various troubles around town—perhaps as a way of making sure that he’s not able to have any adventures she herself could not as a girl. She finds herself confronted, as she grows older, with her failures as a wife and a mother—failures that are a blend of her own poor choices and a set of societal expectations she never wanted to reach—and when she runs into women she was friendly with as a girl around town, is reminded starkly of the ways in which she herself has tried to reject femininity and womanhood when she sees their traditional lives and families.
Towards end of the novel, Hagar—having become an overweight, raving, flatulent mess—finds herself on a public women’s ward, surrounded by others who have faced the same trials of love, loss, pain, suffering, and embarrassment that accompany the many stages of one’s emergence into womanhood. As she makes friends with these women—the first real female friends she’s had in her life—she feels solidarity and recognition of her struggle in others’ lived experiences for the first time, and is surprised to find herself comforted and bolstered rather than repulsed. Just as Hagar is learning all her other lessons too late, she now learns on what is perhaps her literal deathbed that in denying the complexities of womanhood all her life, she was doing herself a disservice, and only isolating herself more.
“’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.” One of Hagar’s nurses in the hospital speaks these words to her towards the end of the novel, symbolizing and cementing Hagar’s journey through her own womanhood. She is a “handsome,” not “pretty” woman: she has never wanted to get lost within the traditional trappings of womanhood, and has sought to make a life for herself in which she can be bold, free, and inoculated against the indignities and responsibilities so often thrust upon women.
Womanhood 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.
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.
“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.
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.