- Yes, the one that was due in October – because I posses the unique ability to accidentally write a critical when I was supposed to write an AP essay. I am just the epitome of a highly functional Grade 12 AP student, aren’t I? 🙂
Take Flight with Leaden Wings: The Impact of the Past on an Individual’s Present
Prompt: In many works of literature, past events can affect, positively or negatively, the present activities, attitudes, or values of a character. Choose a novel or play in which a character must contend with some aspect of the past, either personal or societal. Then write an essay in which you show how the character’s relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. (2007)
The dismal colours of the past have a way of tinging the reality through which one may perceive the events of the future. As individuals live bitterly through such clouded perceptions, they are forced into a vicious contention with the personal past that fails to allow them any semblance of growth. For such individuals, the innate desire to succumb to past values – monikers of certainty – in order to guide future actions fosters a frigid pride that limits any true understanding in both oneself and those around them. This reality finds its fruition through the character of Hagar Shipley in Margaret Laurence’s novel, The Stone Angel. Hagar’s actions throughout the course of her life are spurred by a personal past of pride – that is, the selfish desire and continuous struggle for self-preservation owing to her fear of fragility – out of fear towards the uncertainty she feels in her relations with herself and others. Seeking the comfort in the past as a means to reconcile her uncertainties towards the future results in Hagar forsaking her dying brother Dan, her father Jason, and her son Marvin. Her relationship with utilizing her past as a means to reconcile uncertainty illuminates the novel’s message of discarding pride and an obsession with the past when acting for the sake of the future. Through Hagar Shipley, one comes to realize that individuals may find a means through which they may soothe their fear of uncertainty by establishing a past built on the basis of pride – resulting in the stagnation of self-growth. When confronted by uncertainty in the future, they will subsequently attempt to act on the legacy of their past in which they may find comfort, but a growing discrepancy – escalated as a result of their pride and past actions – results in the realization that acting on the past has prevented the development that occurs as a result of uncertainty. Finally, upon the realization that acting on the remnants of a fear-based past has only reduced their personhood, an individual may seek to leave behind a new legacy; they may reconcile their certain, prideful personal past with their uncertainties of the future, willingly embracing their fear as they forge a new path.
The course of human nature is, on an instinctual level, driven by fear. Motivation to act in a greedy pursuit of self-preservation – that is, pride – is derived by the fear one holds towards the notion of uncertainty; therefore, individuals will often center their lives around the pursuit of archaic pride in an attempt to hide their fear and feign strength. Upon falling into a frozen river, Hagar’s older brother Dan – already frail – is on his deathbed. Hagar’s other brother, Matt, pleads with her to play the part of a mother – as she had passed away – and comfort Dan in his delirium. Hagar, however, thinks only of “…that meek woman [she’d] never seen, the woman Dan was said to resemble so much and from whom he’d inherited a frailty [she] could not help but detest, however much a part of [her] wanted to sympathize. To play at being her – it was beyond [Hagar].” (25) Hagar is unable to comfort her dying brother; she sees her mother as a weak, fragile woman, and her fear of succumbing to the uncertainty of a fragility she has never known – of action based on selflessness at the expense of her values of pride – sickens her. Hagar’s determination towards self-preservation – in this case, the maintenance of her reputation – bars her from escaping her legacy of pride in the face of uncertainty, thereby solidifying her tendency to return to archaic values of the past in order to seek certainty. She is blind to the dimensions of depth that the pursuit of uncertainty can allow one to achieve, impervious to the fact that the dynasty that she so proudly claims as her own has done nothing but enslave her. Her ability to experience humanity and growth on the highest of levels is secondary to the weight of the Currie legacy that she bears on her shoulders – translating through into her years of marriage with her husband Bram, and her sons John and Marvin. In acting on selfish impulse, she freezes – an inability to allow herself to experience the vulnerability associated with uncertainty results in stagnation that fails to foster growth in herself and in her relationships. Hagar’s relentless pursuit of self preservation and her fear-based motivations stop her from realizing the true nature of those around her, causing her to act only on a superficial level and thereby purposefully blind herself to any tenderness she may experience and act upon. She has induced a separation between herself and the emotional facets of her identity, disillusioning herself in that she believes she is the epitome of practicality when really she is a slave to her faulty, prideful past and her fear of uncertainty. When an individual willfully blinds themselves to the strength and dimension they may experience through the lens of uncertainty for the sake of preserving a prideful past, they are disillusioned into believing that an absence of uncertainty offers self-mastery, when in fact, it is their fear that has taken over and uprooted any semblance of self-realization and growth in their hearts.
Upon establishing that a lifetime of pride and acting out of fear towards uncertainty has done nothing but decimate one’s claim to the human pursuit of growth, the layer of delusion that had comforted the individual begins to dissolve. An inability to reconcile with one’s truth – and therefore, one’s fragile, emotional facets – results in said individual acting once again on the fear-filled legacy of their past. Instead of reaching for dimension and developing independence from their past, they will run away from uncertainty in an attempt to claim independence from the fear that has lead them for so long. When Hagar is filled with uncertainty at the prospect of being sent to Silverthreads Nursing Home by Marvin and his wife Doris, she is once more dominated by fear, and it is the realization of her fear – “liv[ing] unfed by air for that seeming eternity” (55) – that causes her to push through and act out of dependence on her past. When she steals the cheque from Doris and goes to the bank in order to cash it in, she is terrified that they will realize that she has no claim to be here. She feels like a burden living with Marvin and Doris – with them, she is treated as though she is fragile. When Hagar is all at once forced to confront her reality – the fact that she has lived her whole life in the throes of impracticality and been a slave to fear – and not just a deluded perception of it – she now refuses to come to terms with it. This is seen through her taking leave of the Shipley place, paralleled by her attempts to leave behind Bram when she left Manawaka. Her fear, however, results in a disillusioned attempt at self-actualization – as fear is all Hagar has known, she assumes that it is through fear she will come to redeem her certainty and past. Once again, she has disillusioned herself into believing that what she desires is escape, when what she actually wants is connection, a sense of value – a revival of the reputation to which she so desperately clings, that has left her enslaved in the first place, because if nothing else, it is at least familiar. Hagar pushes herself away once again from her right to vulnerability and uncertainty, and therefore a course of action directed by foresight and embracing uncertainty instead of selfishness. By running away from Marvin, she attempts to isolate herself from the legacy of fear – the label of fragility – she never wanted. As she details to Murray Lees, she knows “very well” the impact of her pride – her transition from freeze to flight – “[b]ut [she] can’t stop it” (245). She is slave to the dynasty she once thought she owned, because of her stubborn adherence to her prideful past and subsequent denial of emotional vulnerability. An individual who comes to realize that the life has been directed by fear of uncertainty will turn once more to fear – and thereby conform to the past they have always known – as a means through which their actions transpire. However, this serves only to push them away from self-actualization and growth once more; when visceral instincts become the only means through which one acts, they will seek comfort in such impulses until they attempt reconciliation by embracing uncertainty.
Through the reconciliation of uncertainty and the role reconciliation plays in pursuing freedom from a past legacy of fear, one may finally come to redeem their course of actions by embracing uncertainty and rejecting the conformity that had stunted their development their whole lives. When Hagar has been found by Marvin and Doris, and is nearing the end of her days in a hospital bed, she gains the means to confront the years of her life subject to fear and a false sense of self-preservation through her confession: “I’m – frightened. Marvin, I’m so frightened-” (303). She recoils, realizing that never in her life has she made such an admission – never has she allowed herself the right to be vulnerable, fragile, and open to her own emotions – uncertain. When she realizes that Tina, her granddaughter, is getting married, she removes her sapphire ring, her last remnants of the dynasty of pride that trails her, and passes on instead a legacy of realization and self-actualization to those who will remain.Her vulnerability in confronting her fear of uncertainty – both in the face of death and in the dynasty of pride she has concurred – gives her the strength to move forward – from freeze to flight to, finally fighting for the right she has to emotional fragility and growth. Hagar is able to reconcile her deluded perspective of a life based on her prideful past and confront, accept, and move past always using fear of uncertainty as a means through which to dictate her actions. She becomes privy to the depth that fragility provides her when she graces Marvin for the first and last time, embracing and reconciling the uncertainty in their relationship instead of fearing for her reputation – “And I see I am thus strangely cast, and perhaps have been so from the beginning, and can only release myself by releasing him.” (304) In this way, she seeks to redeem herself from a prideful past through Marvin, and therefore achieve self-actualization through acknowledging a long-suppressed aspect of herself, growing on the cusp of uncertainty. When Hagar dies, she is able to do it on her own terms, in that she has freed herself from base motivations driven by fear, and has learned to act instead for causes other than self-preservation and pride – embracing the uncertainty she feels and initiating growth. Through the life and death of Hagar Shipley, it can be seen that only when an individual seeks to question and confront the source of the self-isolating legacy of their past – that is, their fear of uncertainty – through embracing uncertainty and forgoing the path of personal pride will said individual reach a point of self-actualization and fulfillment – both for themselves, and for those around them.
Within every individual, there lies the desire to act with understanding and strength, in order to allow their own individual truths to rise and flourish. The ignorance towards the dismal reality of conforming to a pride-filled past impairs an individual from the occurrence of growth and development within them, giving rise to action based off of the fear of uncertainty. An individual who remains in the constant pursuit of pride and self-preservation of their reputation will forever be lead on by fear – a shallow outline of the true potential they hold. When they realize the legacy they’ve left behind – faced with the reality that all their lives, they have been subordinate to their own fears instead of their true self – they will act once more on their impulse of fear and run away from it in a delusioned attempt at self-actualization. It is only when they open themselves to the notion of fragility and uncertainty – by way of which actions stem from selflessness and hope instead of false notions of pride – that they will come to reconcile their actions with their truth, releasing themselves from the wilderness of their own delusions.