Hagar Shipley's Rage for Life: Narrative Technique in The Stone Angel
In The Stone Angel1 Margaret Laurence extends the range of first-person point of view by selecting and arranging elements of the narrative to form an intricate network of associations in which one part is related to another and adds to its meaning. Verbal motifs, images, and symbols gain greater significance each time they appear in a new context. In addition, one part of the network modifies another so that the import of the completed pattern is greater than that of the sum of its parts. With these techniques Laurence is able to communicate more than Hagar Shipley actually tells us about herself and to create a multifaceted portrait of a complex and self-contradictory woman.
Examination of the structure of the first chapter and of how the ideas Laurence introduces there gather meaning as they recur throughout the novel will demonstrate how skillfully she has composed her picture of Hagar and will reveal qualities for the reader to consider in assessing this complicated character.
In the brief reverie which opens the book, Laurence identifies personal values which shaped Hagar's character and communal attitudes which were the foundation of her society and presents images associated with these concepts. For Hagar, the stone angels in the Manawaka cemetery are symbols of passive, weak-spirited women who acquiesced with death because they did not have the strength to cope with life. Her sympathies are with the rugged, strong-willed, albeit irascible, women who survive. She has more respect for the "ungrateful, fox-voiced" Mrs. Weese, a "disreputable lady" who rose from her sick bed and lived for another decade, than for her martyred daughter, Regina, a "flimsy, gutless creature, bland as egg custard." Hagar's own mother "relinquished her feeble ghost" at the same time that Hagar gained her "stubborn one." For ninety years Hagar has lived with vigor and determination and has raged against the limitations of life.
The graveyard area and the flowers that grow there represent two social groups in Manawaka. Within the cemetery bloom the cultivated peonies, with their "funeral-parlor perfume." Hagar associates them with both civilization and death.