The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

One of the members of our book club is Canadian and so her choices are often of Canadian authors, this one being no exception. It is a book she studied at school – I’m not quite sure how old she was – and we are reading it now. I can see exactly why it might be studied at school apart from it being an author of the country. It has interesting themes to discuss, is well written but is clear and does not make the reader work too hard. It also has some distinctive language features that could be explored in a classroom.

It is the story of a 90 year old woman, Hagar, looking back over her life as she is cared for by her son and daughter-in-law. She is stubborn, independent and shows few feelings for other people having refused to show them over the course of her life. As she is about to be moved into a nursing home, she once again packs up and leaves only this time to a dilapidated building taking no clothes with her. She meets a man who is also escaping and together they drink and talk until he leaves to go back to his wife and home. Eventually, she is rescued/found and taken to hospital where just before she dies, she tells her son that he was the best.

This has to be the most depressing and pitiful book I think I have ever read. The horrors and indiginities of getting older are shared with us all, and are particularly oppressing when the thoughts about your life are that you never allowed yourself to feel pleasure for yourself or anyone else.

Anyway, here are our questions for the book:

  1. How important is the setting in the book? i.e., A small Canadian prairie town called Manawaka.
  2. What did you think of Hagar’s flashbacks? Did they help you to understand her and perhaps your sense of nostalgia about the past? They were a really important way to reveal her life at various times without having to be chronological. Triggered by sights and smells, they highlight aspects of Hagar’s life.
  3. Describe your response to Hagar Shipley. – Overwhelming sadness for her in old age as she looks back over her life. You can see the traits that have ensured that she survived so long but now are deeply ingrained and are what first comes out of her mouth when she opens it even though she wouldn’t always want to say it. She has always been an independent spirit and the thought of being moved into a home, even her son and daughter-in-law caring for her, irritates her and upsets her. Her belongings, some from when her mother died, are very dear to her as is the house. Who wants that ripped away from them and put somewhere to wait to die? The indignities of old age are believable – medical appointments, constipation and farting, forgetting, not quite understanding, wetting the bed – it’s all in there with nothing made of it, just recorded matter of factly. It is a very closely observed depiction of an older person having to relinquish their hold on their life.
  4. Does your reaction to her change during the novel, and if so, in what way?
  5. Was there any part of the plot or aspects of the characters that frustrated or upset you? I was incredibly irritated by Marvin who felt a bit like a wet blanket, avoiding conflict and leaving his wife hanging during several conversations about Hagar moving into a nursing home. It is hinted at that Doris, Marvin’s wife, is not well herself with her heart and therefore no longer able to cope with Hagar.
  6. This book is fundamentally about aging. It is about a proud woman facing her death in her own way. What are some typical problems that arise when people care for an elderly parent and how are these shown in The Stone Angel? How to balance your own life with the needs of their lives so that you don’t both become consumed by aging and turn inwards. The constant worry, medical appointments and then the worry again. Sleepless nights with everything seeming to be dictated by this other person, not you as a couple. But there are also things that aren’t shown in this book such as the love, the laughter, the fun the enjoyment of simple activities such as sitting in the sun along with the desire to look after them out of love.
  7. Did you relate to the issues that occurred as a result of Hagar living with her 65-year-old son and his wife? Oh yes.
  8. Please comment on Margaret Laurence’s writing style. Plenty of alliteration

In summer the cemetery was rich and thick as syrup with the funeral-parlour perfume of the planted peonies, dark crimson and wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly, too heavy for their light stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves and the weight of the rain, infested with upstart ants that sauntered through the plush petals as though to the manner born.


Plenty of emphasis on /p/ in this quite long sentence. The cultivated flowers hinting at something slightly dark and unpleasant – the smell, the look of the blossoms and then the ants who are behaving as if they own the flowers.

If I cry out, who would hear me? Some gill-netter passing the point might catch an echo, perhaps, and wonder if he’d imagined it or if it could be the plaintive voices of the drowned, calling through the brown kelp that’s stopped their mouths, in the deep and barnacled places where their green hair ripples out and snags on the green deep rocks. Now I could fancy myself there among them, tiared with starfish thorny and purple, braceleted with shells linked on limp chains of weed, waiting until an encumbrance of flesh floated clean away and I was free and skeletal and could journey with tides and fishes.


Quite an image here. The voices from the sea with the seaweed moving with the waves. I love the idea of the sea creatures decorating her until her flesh, and for this I read life, floats away leaving her free. Her earthly heavy body that is slowing down and gradually stopping, and describing how death might be. I like the use of the verb ‘tiared’ to go with ‘bracleted’.

Now I am starting to think like a teacher but there is some great use of tenses – sometimes all three, one after the other. The future, the present and the past with the use of modals for the future.

I’ll have a cigarette. I must be careful not to set the place on fire. That would be a joke, to burn in a rainstorm. Puffing, I feel better. I recalled part of a poem today – can I recall the rest?


There’s quite a lot of symbolism – water including rain, sea and rivers, flowers which are cultivated versus those which are wild and then there is the stone angel in the cemetery both standing and toppled and clothes representing class – artifical silk or the real thing.

There are several occasions when Hagar compares herself to a bird:

I lie here huge and immovable, like an old hawk caught, eyes wide open, unblinking.


I glare like an old malevolent crow, perched silent on a fence, ready to caw and startle the children when they expect it least.


Imposing birds, predators with the crow having a hint of menace around it and the hawk enfeebled by such a wild creature being caught. In fact, there is quite a lot of comparison with animals including a constipated cow, a grin like a serpent, her hatred of horses because they are large and uncontrollable, pain beating its wings against her chest, breathing like a bird fluttering in her chest and being hauled out of sleep like a fish in a net. I’ll stop here because there are many more. I quite like the idea of her dental plate clicking like a snapping turtle and Mrs Reilly, lethargic as a slug. The use of the animals conveys emotions that are often complex in simple ways. We can all imagine a bird fluttering whilst it hangs there to feed and then imagine that feeling inside our chests. What she is saying by using these images is that she, Hagar, is also of the animal world – no more, no less and certainly no different. For all her concerns about how she looks, what others think of her, she is of the animal world and wild.

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