I have been meaning to read The Stone Angel for a long time. Reaching letter ‘L’ in my A-Z CanLit Challenge was the perfect chance to finally do it.
It was a delight to finally get to know Hagar Shipley. Not that she is a delight. In fact, she is snarky and cantankerous, but that’s part of what I like about her. Basically, this book is about a bitter, proud old woman who, long ago, gets married to spite her friend and her father, and ends up paying for it for the rest of her life. We get to hear all of her bitter thoughts and memories (peppered with cynicism and sarcasm) as she looks back on her long life, and as she deals with the realities of her old age.
I am past ninety, and this figure seems somehow arbitrary and impossible, for when I look in my mirror and beyond the changing shell that houses me, I see the eyes of Hagar Currie, the same dark eyes as when I first began to remember and to notice myself.
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.
For 17 years, Hagar has been living with her son and daughter-in-law, who themselves are starting to feel their age. They have been accommodating and have done their best, while putting up with her abusive and cross remarks. As she doles out her bitterness, she finds herself wishing she wouldn’t. As she remembers the past, she finds herself wishing that she’d done some things differently. Many times over in her life, her pride has been her downfall.
Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill of some brake of proper appearances- oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?
Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched.
What makes this book exceptional is that it is so human. We have all made mistakes that we regret, we have all said things that we wish we hadn’t, we have all been too quick to judge, too proud to admit our faults. We are all getting older whether we like it or not. Many of us are married and work hard at it, many of us have been married and couldn’t continue, many of us have had a child and have experienced the many emotions that go along with being a mother, many of us wonder what will become of us when we are too old to take care of ourselves. We want to remain independent, but we don’t want to be a burden. We want to be remembered fondly and be missed, rather than be remembered as an inconvenience. We want to be able to look back and know that our lives have mattered, that we have left something meaningful behind. Okay, you get the idea. This book is relatable on so many levels, even if you are not anything like Hagar.
I got so much out of this book, and there are so many passages I made note of, too many to share them all. There are many things I feel like I have left out; the laugh-out-loud moments when reading about a woman whose thoughts are not kept secret from us, the feelings of powerlessness she must have felt in her current situation, the moments of wisdom she shares with us, the way she is herself until the very end. Her story is moving, insightful, and deeply human, and leaves all of us feeling richer and wiser for having read it.
Here are some examples of Margaret Laurence’s insight into human nature shining through her protagonist:
The door to my room has no lock. They say it is because I might get taken ill in the night… So they may enter my room any time they choose. Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young. Sometimes very young children can look at the old, and a look passes between them, conspiratorial, sly and knowing.
On the passing of time:
Mr. Troy: “I guess life must have been quite difficult in those days, eh?”
Hagar: “Yes. Yes, it was.” But only because it cannot be otherwise, at whatever time. I do not say this to Mr. Troy, who likes to think that half a century makes all the difference in the world.
On doing what we think is right:
John: “He’s getting what he needs… It’s all right. I know what’s best.”
Hagar: “You do, eh? You’re sure of that, you think?”
John: “Were you?”… with fearful gentleness. “Were you?”
On dignity in old age:
How it irks me to have to take her hand, allow her to pull my dress over my head, undo my corsets and strip them off my, and have her see my blue veined swollen flesh and the hairy triangle that still proclaims with lunatic insistence a non-existent womanhood.
I’d be the last one to maintain that marriages are made in heaven, unless, as I’ve sometimes thought, the idea is to see what will happen, put this or that unlikely pair together, observe how they spar. Otherwise, now. Why should He care who mates or parts? But when a man and woman live in a house, sleep in a bed, have meals and children, you can’t always part them by willing it so.
Hagar’s relationship with God:
Bless me or not, Lord, just as You please, for I’ll not beg.
In the Afterword, written by Adele Wiseman (a novelist and friend of Margaret Laurence), we find out that Margaret Laurence was hesitant to write a book about an old lady. She didn’t think anyone would want to read it.
And someday I would like to write about an old woman. Old age is something which interests me more and more- the myriad ways people meet it, some pretending it doesn’t exist, some terrified by every physical deterioration because that final appointment is something they cannot face…
…Then this daft old lady came along, and I will say about her that she is one hell of an old lady, a real tartar. She’s crabby, snobbish, difficult, proud as Lucifer for no reason, a trial to her family, etc… The whole thing is nuts- I should have my head examined. Who wants to read about an old lady who is not the common public concept of what an old lady should be? Obviously, no one… But I can’t help it, Adele. I have to go on and write it.
Adele Wiseman’s succinct and nicely articulated interpretation of the story:
… the old lady, in her continuous monologue, discovers herself, carves out and completes the shape of her own life, comes fully alive at last before she dies.
The quote from a Dylan Thomas poem at the beginning of the book that is so fitting:
Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Now I’m kind of glad that I waited this long to read The Stone Angel. I’m pretty sure I would have liked it when I was younger, but I might not have seen the brilliance of it.