Monday, March 03, 2008

The Stone Angel Then and Now

I was fifteen when I first read Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and it made an enormous impression on me. I welcomed the opportunity to reread it when it was voted this month’s selection by the Slaves of Golconda, but I was a bit nervous as well. What if it fell flat for me so many years later? I need not have worried. The novel has retained all of its power for me, and this time around I had the added pleasure of being better equipped to understand the source of that power.

What I recall most vividly about my teenage response to the book was that, after reading it, I never looked at my grandma quite the same way again. My grandma was in her late seventies then and was nothing like Hagar Shipley, the ninetysomething narrator of The Stone Angel. My grandma survived into her nineties as well and must have had a ribbon of steel at the core of her. But she chose the path of least resistance always whereas Hagar runs headlong at every obstacle no matter how fruitless her opposition may seem in any given circumstance. Nevertheless, witnessing Hagar showing the face of a rather meek and sentimental old lady to the world on the bus home from the doctor’s office, yet knowing the passion and anger and regret that roil within her all the while, I couldn’t help but realize that a great deal more than I could know must also be going on beneath my grandma’s cheerful old lady facade and, indeed, in the hearts and minds of random old ladies that I encountered on buses.

I also clearly remember from my teenage reading of The Stone Angel how strongly I identified with Hagar throughout. The conventional wisdom of those who market books to teenagers seems to be that to get kids reading you have to give them characters that they can “relate to” which much of the time translates into giving them characters of roughly their age who are grappling with what are thought to be universal teenage problems. Perhaps then my firm identification with Hagar was surprising. But, then again, perhaps not. After all, that sense of being at the mercy of others, of being perfectly capable of making decisions for yourself but being prevented from doing so, is something shared by the young and the old. Although the primary source of frustration for the young teenager is being thwarted while on the very cusp of independence, whereas for the very elderly it must run much deeper, having once had that independence and now being deprived of it with no prospect of ever regaining it. I think that Laurence plays on this identification directly, albeit briefly and subtly, in the relationship that develops between Hagar and the girl in the next hospital bed near the end of the novel.

That was The Stone Angel then. What about now? What did I see in the book as an adult reader that may have escaped me as a teenager? I think that this time around it was much more apparent to me how skilfully Laurence structured the novel and depicted Hagar’s character such that the reader is drawn fully into her head yet can simultaneously see her from the outside. She’s such a strong character and the reader can’t help but stand with her and rail against the indignities she suffers by virtue of her failing body, and also the wrongs that have been done to her by unsympathetic characters throughout her life. But at the same time, the reader can’t help but recognize how impossible she is, how difficult she must be to care for, and also to recoil at the wrongs that she has perpetrated against others throughout her life. Hagar is a thoroughly unsympathetic character herself who nevertheless generates much sympathy. This double vision is made possible and made incredibly vivid, I think, by virtue of the fact that Hagar shares it. And ultimately that’s the chief tragedy of the book. She has gained enough self-knowledge over the course of her life to be able now, at least periodically, to see herself as others see her, but she can’t go that step further to change how she behaves, even toward those that she loves most deeply.

The other facet of the novel that I was very much struck by this time around was the earthiness of it, both in the depiction of Hagar’s physical decline and in its evocation of sex. Sex and sexual desire are described euphemistically, as one would expect given Hagar’s vintage and character, but never coyly. The enduring sexual desire that she felt for her husband that she was never able to communicate even to him seems to me another of the great tragedies of her life. This aspect of the novel may have been somewhat controversial when it was first published in 1964. I’m not sure about the history of this novel in particular, but I know that several of Laurence’s novels were banned on the basis of sexual content and that this caused her much anger and pain.

This has been a rather rambling post, but rereading The Stone Angel sent my thoughts spinning in a number of directions. I relished the experience and I’m keen now to reread the rest of Laurence’s Manawaka novels. For those of you new to Laurence’s work, she set several novels in and around the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba, Hagar’s hometown. But each focuses on different characters from different segments of the town’s population and they range across different time periods, so you may catch glimpses of characters from one novel in another, but only peripherally. For example, the Tonnerre family with whom Hagar’s son John gets up to no good is mentioned only in passing in The Stone Angel but plays a central role in The Diviners. I would recommend any of Laurence’s novels, but the ones that stand out for me particularly are The Diviners, which I consider her masterpiece, and A Bird in the House, which is an early exemplar of the linked short story collection.

To read what other bloggers have to say about The Stone Angel, head over to the Slaves of Golconda, and to participate in a discussion of the novel, drop by the Metaxu Cafe forum dedicated to that purpose.


Bibliophylia said...

The book sounds interesting. I haven't read it, but I'm going to add it to my list.

Kerry said...

Oh you've inspired me! Have scheduled it in for a reread. I really appreciate your thoughts on it.

Lisa said...

I've never read anything by this author, but I've heard so many positive reviews of The Stone Angel that I think I must now give it a try. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

Oblique Poet said...

I vividly remember reading _The Stone Angel_ in high school. I, too, identified with Hagar - championing her cause all the way through the novel - and she remains one of my all-time favorite characters. Oddly enough, I ended up working with the elderly throughout my twenties; I'm sure Hagar positioned me to carry out this sort of work with compassion and empathy.

Imani said...

Darn it! Stupid blogger lost my looong comment. Basically, I said that your commentary on the parallels Laurence made between old age and childhood and her fairly frank treatment of Hagar's sexual relations were also two things that struck me the second time around.

And I'm gratified that you enjoyed it as a teenager because I've long been getting the impression from friends and Amazon reviews that such a situation was nigh impossible.

It always angers me when educators who supposedly love Literature treat it in such a reductive manner so that teens are seen as only interested in books about themselves. And in any case isn't education supposed to be lifting them above that kind of stuff, anyway? Make things more challenging?

Well, shan't rant. :) I've read A Jest of God too and have Fire-Dwellers but not The Diviners. I've noticed that there have been new editions of the last in stores though so I must get one.

Dorothy W. said...

Like Imani, I appreciated your connection between the experience of old age and youth, and your explanation of the scenes with Hagar and the young girl in the hospital makes a lot of sense. I'm interested in reading other Laurence novels, so thanks for the background on her other work.

Melanie said...

I read this one first in Grade 12 as well, and fell in love with Hagar. I've read it numerous times since.

Wei said...

This book's on my ISU list this year. I also have a copy of it lying around somewhere- a gift from my English teacher last year. It sounds interesting; I'll give it a go.

Walter said...

I did not think you rambled at all. As someone who first read the novel in their twenties and returned to it every few years,I thank you for confirming many of the impressions this book has made upon me. I remember well the first time I read the paragraph that starts with "It was spring that day..." when Hagar was on her way home with Bram after being married. It remains my favorite, as I turned the page it was like someone tapping me on the back of the head "hey buddy, that was something special."

I wonder if you have ever read the Stone Diaries from Carol Shields, another book that has Manitoban settings. I wonder how you would compare the two novels. Just curious.