The loss of lucidity by Margaret Laurence's central character in The Stone Angel, Hagar Shipley, is, although important, only a small part of a much larger and influential allegorical message. The story that follows Hagar's meandering diatribe is superficial to her rebirth through her progressive death. The gradual progression of the novel is paralleled by Hagar's continual battle with both a failing body and mind. In a somewhat paradoxical state, Laurence makes life and death bedfellows in the same act: Hagar must die before she can truly live. This downward spiral towards salvation is accentuated by Laurence's effective use of narrative and descriptive passages to document Hagar's descent and provide the reader with an enveloping story. Although this technique forms an important part in developing the story, it is the liberal use of symbolism throughout the novel that provides the integral mechanics for the development of Hagar's character.
The central role of symbolism is highlighted by Laurence's introduction of the stone angel so early in the novel. The proximity between the symbolic beginning and the introduction of Hagar as the central character forces the reader's attention to the similarities between Hagar and the sculpture. The doubly blind and unyielding statue is strikingly representative of Hagar's emotionally cold and enduring spirit. If this comparison is accurate, it is reasonable to conclude that the angel's association with life after death can then be applied to Hagar. Thus, it is no surprise that Hagar's eventual discovery of life is central to The Stone Angel. This eventual rebirth, however, is tempered by the need for death to precede life.
The first indication that death is integral to life is presented very early in the novel; Hagar's observations of and comments about the cemetery immediately centre the reader's attention on death. This theme reoccurs throughout the novel as Hagar must constantly confront both her own mortality and the deaths of other character. Some of the most defining moments stem from the deaths witnessed / experienced by Hagar. Each loss tears away at the structure that she has carefully built up to protect herself. As each relationship disintegrates into a shadow of its former self, Hagar is pushed closer to death.
One needs only look towards the effects of John's or Bram's death to see that Hagar immediately seeks to steel herself but only succeeds in reinforcing the walls that prevent her emotional emancipation. It is, however, only when she lacks the strength to maintain her characteristic persona that the possibilities of a new emotional life begin to emerge. The idea of emergent life as a function of death is also introduced very early in the novel. Once again Laurence uses symbolism to raise an issue not only in Hagar's character but also the reader's interpretation of the novel's major themes. Hagar's fascination with the cemetery flowers is unusual insofar as the flowers play a minor role in both character and plot development. Although the role of the flowers appears rather superficial, they are actually representative of Hagar's natural, subconscious emotions and thoughts; just as the flowers are kept in check by sentient people, Hagar's conscious decisions are quick to isolate her natural feelings from the outside world.
Moreover, Hagar's comments regarding the fleeting exposure to and appreciation of the flowers parallels her interactions with her feelings. For example, following Bram's death Hagar feels the need to bury his body in the Currie family plot; although Hagar is unable to describe her motivation for this action, it is not unreasonable to conclude that her subconscious feelings for Bram are at work. These introduction s to death, however, are not the only part of The Stone Angel's life-through-death allegory. Hagar's final acceptance of her self forms the last and most important part of the novel. Traditionally a novel peaks at the denouement following the rising action and climax; in a somewhat counter-intuitive methodology, Laurence has defined the rising action of The Stone Angel through the deterioration and near destruction of Hagar Shipley.
This buildup of weakness is essential to the climax: Hagar's mental and physical breakdown allows an increasing number of feelings and thoughts to push through her stone-like resolve. These 'flaws' eventually result in her admission to hospital; Laurence uses the opportunity to reinforce, through symbolism, the premise that Hagar is dying to undergo a rebirth. Hagar's neighbours in each of the common and semi private rooms are representative of her transcendence from a world of old to young. Moreover, granted the public ward refers to Hagar's old values, her unwillingness to leave parallels her resistance to and eventual acceptance of the thoughts that will lead to her epiphany. The acceptance of change introduces another event that is symbolic of Hagar's plight: the young girl, representative of Hagar's eventual rebirth, suffers from an inflamed appendix. The appendix, much like Hagar's close-heart existence, must be removed if the girl is to live.
Although there are numerous symbolic references to life-through-death throughout the novel, it is only very near the end that Hagar's conflict is resolved. The denouement occurs through a most unexpected person: Mr. Troy. Through his song Hagar has her epiphany: I would have wished it. This knowing comes upon me so forcefully, so shatteringly, and with such a bitterness as I have never felt before. I must always, always, have wanted that - simply to rejoice...
When did I ever speak the heart's truth? (Laurence, 261) The strength and conviction of this statement clearly show that Hagar has managed to confront her jailer and see that chains that .".. shackled all [she] touched" (Laurence, 261). The effects of her realization are apparent in the remaining portion of the novel. Hagar, nearly free from the bounds that guided her old life, begins to expand her boundaries in the few remaining pages of the novel: not only does she share a rather uncharacteristic laugh with Sandra but also admits her fear to Marvin. Perhaps the starkest contrast to the mannerisms that characterize Hagar throughout the novel can be found on page 271, "And I see I am thus strangely cast, and perhaps have been so from the beginning, and can only release myself by releasing him" (Laurence). Here Hagar realizes the limitations of control and the importance of freedom.
Although each of these events testifies to a new life, Hagar's rebirth is not complete until just before her death. In the final scene of The Stone Angel Hagar recollects the birth of her second son. This use of imagery succeeds in drawing a complete circle between life and death within Hagar's life: just as her son gasped at the unfamiliarity of air, Hagar is now dealing with her newfound thoughts. This full-circle approach is reinforced by Hagar's desire for water as she dies. Laurence's choice of water has significant value as a symbol for final rebirth. Water is commonly regarded as the fundamental element for life; without it, life as we know it is not possible.
On a similar note, Carl Jung's psychoanalytical investigations led him to believe that water was symbolic for rebirth because only water is capable of providing the security and warmth of the mother's womb. Most importantly, however, through death Hagar became free from the shackles of her previous life. The stone angel, despite its fortitude and regal stature, was limited to watching over the dead; Hagar Shipley, despite her pride and unyielding nature, lived in an emotionally devoid world and only found freedom through death. Superficially, it seems The Stone Angel is nothing more than a fictional biography. Beyond the story, however, lies a thought provoking investigation into one woman's conflict with herself, and it is only though her deterioration and eventual death that she finds freedom from this conflict. The Stone Angel is not about Hagar Shipley's life and death; it is about her emotional and mental rebirth..