The Stone Angel – Survival of the Elegant Weed

Prompt: Write an essay analyzing how a symbol functions in the work and what it reveals about the characters or themes of the work as a whole. 



Values and ideals are principles by which individuals choose to live their lives and dictate their actions and beliefs. These values and ideals are generally established as a part of one’s identity during childhood, as certain ideals that are prevalent and heavily instilled lay the foundation for individuals’ sense of self in a positive way. However, when certain values and ideals are strictly pursued by morally rigid individuals into adulthood, those same ideals can begin to control and consume said individuals to the point where all is lost for the sake of upholding the principles in the individuals’ lives. This deterring effect of ideals may result in the weakening of character and relationships, as the need to maintain and abide by principles may injure individuals’ initial sense of identity and moral stature. This overpowering nature of a certain ideal is depicted in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, as the protagonist, Hagar Shipley is raised in a prideful upper class of Manawaka and thus leads her life in the pursuit and preservation of pride and poise. This leads her to sacrifice all relationships and sense of self at the cost of maintaining her pride. This portrayal of pride is done through the symbolic use of floral imagery, as Hagar perceives herself through certain flowers with which she develops a connection. Using floral imagery in The Stone Angel, the author depicts how one’s excessive pursuit of a certain ideal can unintentionally result in the destruction of their relationships and original sense of self, as the act of seeking to preserve the ideal to maintain identity can contrarily weaken said individual.

When an individual is raised in the dominance of a certain value or ideal and views it as a strength and significant component of themselves, the individual will tend to adopt the value as their own by incorporating it as a part of their identity; in Hagar’s case, this development of identity is depicted through the description of peonies.  As Hagar reminisces about her childhood and life during the 1870s in Manawaka, she discusses her fascination with the town graveyard and particularly the floral growth in the Currie section of the cemetery. She notes the “funeral-parlor perfume of the planted peonies” which “hanging leadenly, too heavy for their stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves”. (3) , Laurence’s usage of peonies as the glorified flowers in the depicts Hagar’s self-perception, as it is mirrored through the peonies that are featured. This is supported by the fact that, since the late 1800s, peonies were representative of elegance and beauty and were commonly used for floral bouquets as a representation of pride and status. Hagar’s reflection of how she sees herself is symbolized through her appreciation of peonies, as she interprets her own development of pride to be her admired and distinguishable quality, acting to her advantage and enhancing the way she is perceived by others. The fact that the peonies are rooted in the Currie section of the cemetery implies the origin of her perception to be her nurturing and growth as a Currie. Since her family, mainly her father, Jason Currie, embodies the quintessence of the Scottish line of Curries, the peonies symbolize the growth of Hagar’s identity and associated pride as being a product of Jason Curries instilled values, resulting in the majestic bloom of an admirable quality. In terms of botanical survival, peonies are further recognized as perennial plants; therefore, Hagar’s pride is conveyed as being an associate factor with her stubbornness and rigidity in maintaining her status, as her pride is depicted to facilitate her willingness to grow her identity as a permanent characteristic. Further in the quote, the author illustrates the peonies as hanging downwards with the weight of their own petals. Initially in the quote the petals and luring vibrancy of colour of the peonies is described as being the strengthening factor of the flowers; however, the description of the petals weighing the flowers downwards implies how, in excess, the supposed strength of the flower contrarily causes it to bend to the extent of its ultimate deterioration, as they are “too heavy for their stems”. This ultimately foreshadows the nature of Hagar’s pride, as her pursuit of pride after a certain extent leads to her downfall, deterring her strength and reputation rather than enhancing her character and how she is perceived by others. In reality, when individuals grow in the presence of certain values and ideals, they are prone to adopt the values as their own. As the individuals learn to develop their sense of self in correspondence with the values and ideals, they use the ideals to their advantage by finding ways to enhance their identity using them, thus positively incorporating them as a part of themselves. However, when individuals choose to maintain the identity developed using the ideals, they begin to give importance to them, which may detrimentally lead to the ideals dominating individuals’ understanding of self.

When an individual seeks to maintain the sense of identity established by the ideal by rigidly upholding the principles, the individual may allow the ideal to dominate them, leading to the point where it starts to control said individual, as shown through the inclusion of lilacs. Upon return to the Shipley House, Hagar demonstrates this in the line, “The lilacs grew with no care given them, and in the early summer they hung like bunches of mild mauve grapes… the scent of them was so bold and sweet you could smell nothing else, a seasonal mercy.” (30). While putting on her favourite lilac dress with Doris’ assistance, Hagar reflects on her past days of youth and continued adulthood, as the lilac shade of her dress causes her to immediately think about the lilac flowers that she planted in the barren Shipley gardens. As the author implies attitudes and perceptions through her indication of certain flowers, the lilacs directly suggest the characteristics of wealth and status, as shades of mauve are typically representative of status and royalty in literature. Hagar’s direct connection with this shade symbolizes her persistent pride and attitude regarding her status as a Currie. Her development and nurturing of connections to pride and status through her paternal family are carried forward even though she now is married into the Shipley family, which is portrayed as being the contrary through its lack of status and defamed reputation as a rural family. In terms of botanical significance, when lilac flowers are studied for their ability to grow, they are known as being ornamental flowers due to their visual appeal and graceful scent. Typically, ornamental flowers tend to be delicate and fragile while living for only a short while at the peak of their beauty; however, lilacs are uniquely known as sustaining and hardy plants, which bloom before any of the other commonly known rose flowers and wilt after them as well. The fact that Hagar associates herself with lilacs particularly when she is at the peak of her adulthood with Bram Shipley implies how her pride and self-confidence is sustaining through her conditions of entering a poor family, as it is acting as her strength and facilitating her ability to remain steadfast in the testing circumstances. The ways that she has transformed into perceiving herself as a peony during childhood into a lilac illustrates how her pride is now becoming her dominate characteristic by which others perceive her due to its firm survival. This dominance is further depicted through the part of the line, “the scent of them was so bold and sweet,” as pride is symbolized as being Hagar’s profuse quality that is prevalent over all else. Furthermore, this dominance of pride in Hagar’s character implies Hagar’s control gradually molding according to the pride, as the growth of the lilacs “with no care given to them” and with a “scent… so bold and sweet you could smell nothing else” symbolizes the overpowering nature of this ideal of pride that Hagar has grown to adopt as a part of herself. At this point in the text, the author foreshadows Hagar’s nearing downfall due to the control this ideal is growingly having over Hagar’s actions and beliefs, as her peak of flourish and survival of identity using pride as a strength is beginning to consume her sense of self in excess. In reality, when in testing circumstances individuals will tend to bring out their most dominant qualities and ideals to sustain their sense of self and identity, however, when this dominant ideal is pulled out in excess, it begins to overpower the way one perceives themselves and others perceive them, ultimate affecting sense of self. When this overpowering ideal is unknowing fed continuously for the sake of sustaining identity, it begins to consume and control, which contrarily deteriorates individual’s self-identity.

When a defiant individual chooses to pursue this controlling ideal to such an extent through the supposed understanding of self-sustenance, it begins to consume the individual and acts as a deterring factor rather than a strength, thus injuring the initial identity. This is depicted using lilacs as well as marigolds through the line, “The leaves of my lilac bushes were burnt yellow, and the branches snapped if you touched them… my marigolds were a dead loss by this time… only a few wizened ones remained.” (183). Right before Hagar submerges into her flashback and reminisces about her adulthood over the past 90 years, she sinks into delusion in the bed at the Shadow Point house she enters. She at first is aware of her decision to wander away from Marvin and Doris, however, loses her understanding of reality by assuming she is at her house right before thinking about Manawaka. In her flashback, Hagar reflects on her return to Manawaka when told that Bram Shipley was ill and remembers the state of the gardens that she used to tend. Once again the lilacs are present and addressed when the setting is described, as they are depicted as being dried and wilted. Initially, by addressing the lilacs as “my,” Hagar acknowledges her association with the symbolic interpretation of lilacs, as she directly reinforces her self-perception through the flowers. By describing them as “burnt yellow,” the author reinstates the concepts of control, as Hagar’s pride has controlled her to such as extent by driving her to leave her marital life, to the point where it has consumed her. Before, Hagar’s pride and ideal of being proper was her strength by allowing her to sustain in the Shipley household by molding it to represent her as much as Bram. However, after Hagar left Bram and used her pride as her driving force to avoid any attempts of re-establishing her relationships, this principle of hers lead to her downfall, as its pursuit in excess left her “burnt”. Further by pointing out the marigolds, the author ultimately symbolizes Hagar through the characteristics of the marigolds’ survival. As marigolds are typically known as being unattractive flowers that persistently grow despite harsh conditions, the transformation in the way others perceive Hagar  is shown through this flower, as pride has survived through Hagar’s attempts to perverse this part of her identity but is no longer her source of beauty, and instead what hinders her liking by others. Furthermore, when in the cemetery with John in Manawaka, Hagar remarks how “The peonies grew as lushly as ever, although the wildflowers and the grass outside the square were withered and drained of colour until they looked like the dried petals in a china jar…” (192). This floral imagery illustrated by the author ultimately returns back to the symbolism of the peonies, as they initially represented Hagar’s admirability. As the overpowering nature of Hagar’s pride lead her to destroy her most significant relationships for the sake of upholding the pride and its survival, the fact that only the peonies in the cemetery have survived in the surrounding barren land symbolizes how Hagar has become so blinded by pride to the point where she continued to perceive herself as ‘handsome despite her external portrayal as unsightly, however, has managed to sustain her pride. Consequently, Hagar has maintained her pride in hopes of self- sustenance at the cost of her original sense of self and relationships. The fact that the peonies continue to grow amongst the drought and dying plants ultimately symbolizes how Hagar’s past identity has been destroyed by the overpowering pride, as she has served her purpose but at the cost of herself and others.

Overall, when an individual is nurtured by certain values and ideals in their childhood, they are likely to adopt the values as their own as a part of their identity by emulating the ideals that they are raised with. These family values tend to influence an initial positive reaction as they are incorporated in identity as strengths, however, when certain principles are heavily pursued into adulthood by morally rigid individuals, those same principles lead to the individuals’ downfall, as relationships and sense of self deteriorate. This excessive pursuit of a certain ideal is demonstrated in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel using floral imagery, as Hagar Shipley initially uses her nurtured pride to her advantage, as the peonies symbolize her development of pride causing her external admiration. Further on in testing circumstances, when Hagar starts to establish her marital life, she plants lilacs to symbolize her continued self-perception of pride and status yet continues to use it as her strength to help her sustain her sense of self at the Shipley household. Ultimately, floral imagery is used to depict the destructive nature of the pursuit of an ideal in excess, as the wilting of lilacs and survival of marigolds and peonies during the drought represent how Hagar managed to preserve her pride but at the cost of her relationships and original sense of self. In conclusion, when a positive value and ideal are pursued in excess in hopes of maintaining the initial identity and abiding by the ideal, the ideal begins to contrarily act as a weakness as it ultimately destroys the original sense of self and relationships by blinding an individual’s perception.




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One thought on “The Stone Angel – Survival of the Elegant Weed

  1. Dearest Preet,

    – I really like your title; it unifies the essay as a whole
    – I like the way your explained that your symbol was floral imagery; it was very clear and straight to the point
    – I think your choice of symbols is really fitting and brings your ideas full circle; peonies represent Hagar’s perceived elegance and poise, lilacs as “characteristics of wealth and status…”, marigolds as a ‘survivalist’, and back to peonies to her blind maintenance of pride.
    – Your initially, then, finally ideas are straightforward and understandable
    – I love this line: “This ultimately foreshadows the nature of Hagar’s pride, as her pursuit of pride after a certain extent leads to her downfall, deterring her strength and reputation rather than enhancing her character and how she is perceived by others.” I really liked how you were able to draw significance and meaning from the imagery of the hanging petals; it was very concise!
    – Your ability to bring out meaning from the characteristics of the flowers is exemplary!

    To work on’s:
    – I would suggest that you change the variety of sentence structure when you begin each body paragraph; all of them start with “When an individual…”
    – Be careful of run-on sentences; sometimes your intentions can be lost if your sentences are too long (use more commas!)
    – Spelling in “Laurence’s usage of peonies as the glorified flowers in the (?) depicts Hagar’s self-perception…”

    All in all, your essay clearly followed the prompt and your ideas were truly fascinating. Great job, Preet!

    Many hugs,

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