Religion was a very vital part of life during the time of Hagar Shipley in the novel, The Stone Angel. It comes as no surprise that there is a strong presence of religious imagery throughout the novel. Through the positive and negative views on the church and religion portrayed by the characters and the comparison between the story of Hagar Shipley and the biblical Hagar of Genesis, Margaret Laurence makes the religious imagery very clear. There are many similarities between the stories of the two Hagars.
The story of the biblical Hagar is very similar to that of Hagar Shipley in the novel. The two are not only similar in the events, but also in the characters of both Hagars. The parallels between the Hagar of Genesis in the bible and Hagar Shipley are clear. Both women work as maids at one point in their lives, Hagar Shipley for Mr. Oatley and Hagar of Genesis for Sarai and Abram. Another similarity between the two characters is that they both creatures of the wilderness. In the bible, Hagar ran away from her home because “Sarai treated Hagar so cruelly” (The Good News Bible, Gen. 16.6). Hagar also left her father’s home for the wilderness of the Shipley farm. Hagar Shipley shows us what the Shipley place was like when she says, “The Shipley house was square and frame, two-storied, the furniture was shoddy and second-hand, the kitchen reeking and stale, for no one had scoured there properly since Clara died” (Laurence 50).
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This shows the reader that the life at the Shipley house was nothing like the life that Hagar was used to. One of the major similarities in both stories that is not very well known is that the two characters of Hagar both encounter a theophany. For Hagar of Genesis, her theophany came when she was confronted by an angel of the Lord at a spring on the road to Shur. The Angel said to Hagar, “Go back to [Sarai] and be her slave…I will give you so many descendants that no one will be able to count them” (The Good News Bible, Gen. 16.9-11). Hagar of Genesis realizes the reasons for her getting pregnant and goes back to be Sarai’s handmaid and bares Abram’s son. In the case of Hagar Shipley, her theophany is not quite as straightforward. Earlier in the novel, when Hagar and John are at the cemetery fixing Hagar’s mother’s grave Hagar says, “I wish he could have looked like Jacob then, wrestling with the angel and besting it, wringing a blessing from it with his might” (Laurence 179). It wasn’t until very close to her death that Hagar realizes who her real Jacob is. In Hagar’s own words:
“I stare at him. Then quite unexpectedly, he reaches for my hand and holds it tightly. Now it seems to me he is truly Jacob, gripping with all his strength, and bargaining. I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. 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 304).
This is a very significant quote in the novel. This quote shows the reader that Hagar has a religious awakening and realizes that the biblical Jacob that she had been so longing for was not John, it was Marvin. It was only in realizing this that Hagar could go peacefully. The presence of religion is not only shown in the structure of the novel, but also in the characters.
There are many characters in the novel that express positive views on the church and religion. Three of the most predominant characters are Jason Currie, Doris Shipley and Mr. Troy. Jason Currie is described by Aunty Doll as
“God-fearing man” (Laurence 16). Jason Currie saw the church as a way to gain social status in the community. This is very apparent when the minister at the Currie’s church was thanking the members of the congregation for their donations towards building a new church. Hagar remembers that her father “sat with a modestly bowed head, but turned to me and whispered very low: ‘I and Luke McVitie must’ve given the most, as her called our names first'” (Laurence 16). This quote shows that Jason Currie felt that the more he gave to the church the more people would respect him. Doris Shipley also sees religion in a very positive light. Hagar points out that “Doris is very religious. She sees it as a comfort” (Laurence 38). Doris feels that everyone should share her beliefs. Doris is always telling Hagar that she should come to church with her.
Doris once said to Hagar, “I’m going to evening service, Mother. Care the come? You’ve not been for some time now” (Laurence 38). This quote shows that Doris want Hagar to be more religious and feels it would be good for her to go to church. Another very obviously religious man is Mr. Troy. Mr. Troy is the minister at Doris’ church. Mr. Troy often comes and speaks to Hagar and tries to comfort her. Hagar says that Mr. Troy “speaks of prayer and comfort, all in his breath, as though God were a kind of feather bed or spring-filled mattress” (Laurence 53). This shows how Mr. Troy sees God as a very kind and gentle person. Mr. Troy also has positive views on the church and religion. Just as there are arguments about the positive aspects of religion, there are also those who have a negative view.
Murray Lees has the most negative view on religion and the church. Murray grew up having very positive views of the church. Later in his life, various events caused him to “lose his faith” as he says. When Murray was young, he got his girlfriend Lou pregnant. They were forced to marry much earlier than they had planned. Murray remembers that “‘she planned to tell everybody the baby was premature” (Laurence 228). When the baby was born nine pounds twelve ounces, it was a problem. Murray feels that “God was punishing her” (Laurence 228). Murray shows us that he feels that God is someone to be feared and that He will punish those who do wrong. Murray Lees definitely has a negative view about the church.
The presence of religious imagery is very strong in The Stone Angel. Through Margaret Laurence’s use of comparisons between the stories of the two Hagars and the character’s positive and negative views on religion and the church, this presence is very clear and helps to enhance the reader’s understanding of this novel.
Laurence, Margaret. The Stone Angel. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964.
The Good News Bible. The British and Foreign Bible Society, gen. ed. Great
Britain: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1976.
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