Audrey Thomas Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas, Audrey


Thomas, Audrey 1935

(Full name Audrey Grace Thomas) American-born Canadian novelist and short story writer.

Often presenting her stories from the perspective of female characters, Thomas describes modern human relationships, particularly the discouraging prospects for caring, nurturing bonds between men and women. According to Carole Gerson, Thomas creates "penetrating expositions of characters and their unresolvable muddles, which lead the reader along the delicate filaments of the tangled relationships we all spin for ourselves as parents, children, spouses, lovers, and friends."

Biographical Information

Thomas was born in Binghamton, New York, to a high school teacher and a housewife. Family life was strained due to constant quarreling by her parents about financial troubles. Contrasting the relationship of her mother and father with that of better-suited couples, Thomas stated: "It was years before I realized that husbands and wives actually shared one room." Furthermore, she has observed the influence of their unstable marriage on her own development: "When you have parents who behave like children, parents who refuse to take charge of their own lives, then how can you ever be a child yourself?" Thomas wrote poetry as a young girl but had little enthusiasm for her studies at the local high school, where she was unhappy. However, she secured a scholarship to a boarding school for her final year of high school and subsequently attended Smith College on scholarship. In order to afford a year abroad studying in St. Andrew's, Scotland, Thomas worked for two summers as an orderly at the Binghamton Asylum for the Chronic Insane, which locals referred to as The Hill. About her job then she observed: "If anything made me a writer (if writers are made, not born) I think it was The Hill. For although my family life was pretty terrible emotionally, I had, in fact, led a sheltered existence. . . . I had not known there were people like this in the world." While abroad for her junior year, Thomas traveled to many European countries and, after graduating from Smith in 1957, she worked in Birmingham, England, teaching primary school. She married in 1958 and returned to North America in 1959, settling near Vancouver, British Columbia. From 1964 through 1966, her husband held a position at a university in West Africa, necessitating their relocation to Kumasi, Ghana. While there, Thomas suffered a late miscarriage, a traumatic experience that served as the basis for her first published story, "If One Green Bottle . . . ", which appeared in 1965 in The Atlantic Monthly. This story generated interest on the part of the publisher Bobbs-Merrill, which signed Thomas to a contract for a book of short stories and a novel; the collection Ten Green Bottles was published in 1967. In 1969 she moved to Galiano Island, British Columbia, and became a Canadian citizen in 1979. Thomas has held posts at several Canadian universities.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Thomas has stated on several occasions that her fiction is autobiographical. In a CBC Radio interview quoted by Larry Scanlan, she expressed this opinion: "I think everybody writes autobiography. I think everybody writes one story, has one thing that really interests them, and I suppose what really interests me is the relationship between men and women." Her short stories are set in many different locales, including British Columbia, Africa, Mexico, Greece, Paris, and Scotland, but a few themes recur throughout her collections: emotional abuse and neglect, loneliness, the demands of motherhood and marriage, male chauvinism, gender politics, unhealthy relationships, self-exploration, and independence. In the story "Aquarius," a husband wallowing in self-pity blames his condition on his wife's vitality. "Harry and Violet" is about a relationship that suffers because the man resents his lover's child.

In "Out in the Midday Sun" a woman hides a letter from a publisher who has accepted her manuscript, knowing that her husband will be jealous of her success. The stories of Ladies & Escorts tend to focus on female characters who are in the process of gaining self-assurance and independence. The collection Real Mothers portrays single women who face the challenge of parenthood alone or while pursuing new relationships. Described by Kathryn Barnwell as "an often-painful exploration of gender roles as they have been constructed in the post-Second World War period," The Wild Blue Yonder depicts women who seek companionship but instead endure the misogyny of men. Published in one volume, Thomas's novellas Munchmeyer and Prospero on the Island are interrelated: the first is an account of Munchmeyer, a vain, pedantic, and unsuccessful writer who leaves his wife and family to live out his rather vague creative impulses; the latter is about a woman writing a novel about Munchmeyer while living with her children in a cabin on an island. The works are highly literary and allusive, incorporating metafictional commentary, wordplay, and extensive references to noted writers and works of literature. Here Thomas addresses the nature of writing and the relation between authors and their fiction.

Critical Reception

Because many of Thomas's stories revolve around female characters and the difficulties posed for them in maledominated cultures, some critics consider her work feminist fiction. Evincing little formal experimentation, her short stories revolve around characterization and the moments that define and illuminate her characters' lives. In general, readers prefer Thomas's short fiction to her novels. As Joel Yanofsky has commented: "Thomas is at her best within the boundaries of the short story; she is at her most effective creating a fiction that is subtle and fragile, that is made up of hard choices and vivid moments."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Ten Green Bottles 1967

Munchmeyer and Prospero on the Island (novellas) 1971

Ladies & Escorts 1977

Real Mothers 1981

Two in the Bush, and Other Stories 1981

Goodbye Harold, Good Luck 1986

The Wild Blue Yonder 1990

Other Major Works

Mrs. Blood (novel) 1970

Songs My Mother Taught Me (novel) 1973

Blown Figures (novel) 1974

Latakia (novel) 1979

Intertidal Life (novel)...

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Margaret Atwood (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Audrey Thomas: Ten Green Bottles, Ladies and Escorts," in Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, Anansi, 1982, pp. 268-71.

[Internationally acclaimed as a poet, novelist, and short story writer, Atwood is a major figure in Canadian letters. She has helped to define and identify the goals of contemporary Canadian literature and has earned a distinguished reputation among feminist writers for her exploration of women's issues. In the following positive review of Ten Green Bottles and Ladies and Escorts, Atwood discusses the strengths of Thomas's short fiction. ]

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Audrey Thomas' debut as a writer....

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Eleanor Wachtel (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Contemporary Triangles," in Saturday Night, Vol. 97, No. 4, April, 1982, pp. 51-2.

[A commentator on the arts, Wachtel has worked as a writer, broadcaster, and host of radio programs produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In addition, she has edited two works about domestic abuse against women and coauthored a study about the legal rights of women in Women and the Constitution (1991). In the following review of Real Mothers and Two in the Bush, and Other Stories, Wachtel perceives Thomas as a skilled recorder of the problems and dynamics of modern adult and family relationships. ]

For a while, it looked as if feminism had...

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Wayne Grady (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Journies to the Interior: The African Stories of Audrey Thomas," in The Canadian Fiction Magazine, No. 44, 1982, pp. 98-110.

[Grady is the editor of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories (1980), The Penguin Book of Modern Canadian Short Stories (1982), and the journal Books in Canada. In the following essay, he states that Thomas's stories set in Africa present women at various stages of self-discovery.]

When Margaret Laurence arrived in North Africa in the 1950s the first real African she met was the man who was to be her steward, Mohamed, so eager to help and yet so difficult to understand. In The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963)...

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Barbara Godard (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: A review of Real Mothers, in The Fiddlehead, No. 135, January, 1983, pp. 110-14.

[In the following review, Godard explores the relationships of language and narrative to meaning in Real Mothers.]

Any doubt as to whether Thomas is one of our major writers should be dispelled in this new collection of short stores [Real Mothers]. Containing some unpublished works like "Déjeuner sur l'herbe" and some which have appeared in periodicals like The Capilano Review (such as "Timbuktu"), it also includes three prize winning stories: "Harry & Violet" (1980 National Magazine Awards), "Natural History" (1980 CBC Radio Literary Competition)...

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Audrey Thomas with Eleanor Wachtel (interview date 1985)

SOURCE: An interview, in Room of One's Own, Vol. 10, Nos. 3 & 4, March, 1986, pp. 7-61.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in August, 1985, Thomas discusses her literary themes and interests and biographical influences on her writing.]

[Wachtel]: You describe your own childhood as unhappy.

[Thomas]: When I think about it now, that was not the right word; I was absolutely terrified, I spent my whole childhood in a state of terror.

Terrified? Why?

Because my parents . . . somebody had to be the adult. It was interesting, Robert [Bringhurst] and I got to talking .. . about our...

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George Bowering (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Munchmeyer and the Marys," in Room of One's Own, Vol. 10, Nos. 3 & 4, March, 1986, pp. 86-98.

[A leading Canadian experimental writer, Bowering devises inventive literary forms and techniques to explore themes related to art, language, and identity. His preoccupation with art and language is tempered by irreverent humor, sensuality, and an abiding concern with Canadian society and culture. In the following essay, Bowering studies the structures of the interrelated novellas Munchmeyer and Prospero on the Island, which he perceives as commentaries on writing as a source of pleasure and a means of escape from reality.]

I have always been...

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Frank Davey (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Alternate Stories: The Short Fiction of Audrey Thomas and Margaret Atwood," in Canadian Literature, No. 109, Summer, 1986, pp. 5-14.

[A Canadian poet, educator, and critic, Davey has exerted significant influence on contemporary Canadian literature as the editor of the journal Tish. Davey has stated: "The writing I value unmasks conventions, traditions, mythologies, all things that are a static or valorized shape in experience, even the conventions one inevitably establishes in one's own texts. " In the following excerpt, Davey contends that Thomas's short stories call attention to archetypes, traditional roles, and social expectations that rob women of the opportunity to...

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Joel Yanofsky (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Thinking Small," in Books in Canada, Vol. 15, No. 5, June-July, 1986, pp. 12-14.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Goodbye Harold, Good Luck, Yanofsky finds Thomas's talent for depicting poignant moments well suited to the short story form.]

[In Goodbye Harold, Good Luck] Thomas writes about day-to-day regret and loneliness with an unflinching eloquence. It's almost as if she's testing the resilience of her characters, particularly the females. Edging their way out of a failing marriage or a bad relationship, they discover that independence brings with it a whole new set of restrictions. In the title story, there is this revealing...

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Ronald Hatch (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Goodbye Harold, Good Luck, in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXVI, No. 761, August-September, 1986, pp. 34-5.

[In the following review, Hatch identifies strengths and weaknesses in the collection Goodbye, Harold, Good Luck.]

In the introduction to her new collection of short stories, Goodbye Harold, Good Luck, Audrey Thomas comments that although she thinks of herself as a novelist her readers often prefer her short stories. The reason for this preference is obvious. With the exception of Songs My Mother Taught Me and Munchmeyer, Thomas' novels experiment radically with both form and subject matter. Mrs. Blood, Blown...

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Margery Fee (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Story Postponed," in Canadian Literature, No. 115, Winter, 1987, pp. 218-20.

[In the following review, Fee contends that Thomas 's best fiction in Goodbye Harold, Good Luck combines traditional subjects with subtle experimental techniques.]

[In Goodbye Harold, Good Luck, once again] Audrey Thomas creates compelling images: a man offering a woman a captured hummingbird to hold, another man tearing a tentacle off an octopus and throwing it to a girl who winds it around her wrist "like some horrible bracelet," a set of children's sandals in graduated sizes, a jar full of baby teeth, a message appearing magically on a steamy hotel mirror. Once again...

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Gillian Mackay (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Walking Wounded," in Maclean's Magazine, Vol. 103, No. 44, October 29, 1990, p. 85.

[In the following review, Mackay praises Thomas's presentation of emotionally scarred women in The Wild Blue Yonder.]

Pointing out his own romantic shortcomings, a husband in one of Audrey Thomas's new short stories ruefully asks his dissatisfied wife, "Whoever heard of a prince with a bald spot on the top of his head?" She replies, bitterly, "Whoever heard of a princess with stretch marks?" For all of the characters in The Wild Blue Yonder, Thomas's third short-story collection, life is distinctly unlike a fairy tale. Flesh turns to flab, romance burns to ashes, and...

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Aamer Hussein (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Shadow of World Events," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4611, August 16, 1991, p. 23.

[In the following review of The Wild Blue Yonder, Hussein observes that Thomas treats "the seemingly insignificant texture of our lives. "]

Described by Margaret Atwood as one of Canada's finest writers, Audrey Thomas was almost unknown in Britain until the appearance of her collection Goodbye Harold, Good Luck. Her early novels are fragmented and experimental, sharing with her short fiction an obsession with language and word-play; her narrators are often writers preoccupied with the meaning of words and the struggle to construct a coherent written text out...

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Ellen Quigley (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Characters and Strategies in Audrey Thomas's Feminist Fiction," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 47, Fall, 1992, pp. 43-50.

[Quigley is an editor for the journal Essays on Canadian Writing and ECW Press, where she works on the Canadian Writers and Their Works series. In the following essay, she studies The Wild Blue Yonder as feminist fiction.]

Probably more than one reviewer has commented that he is tired of all the negative male characters that populate Audrey Thomas's work, but, if the reader can get past them, there are also a lot of interesting female characters and strategies in her fiction. And, if patriarchy was not...

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Further Reading


Barnwell, Kathryn. "Tales of Gender." The Canadian Forum LXIX, No. 796 (January-February 1991): 29-30.

Observes that The Wild Blue Yonder is about "male anger directed not only against women, but also against men who refuse to be 'manly'."

Butling, Pauline. "Thomas and Her Rag-Bag." Canadian Literature, No. 102 (Autumn 1984): 195-99.

Asserts that Thomas creates fiction that permits the presentation of new female character types. Butling focuses on the collections Ten Green Bottles, Ladies and Escorts, and Real Mothers.

Colvile, Georgiana. "Mirrormania: Audrey Thomas's...

(The entire section is 494 words.)