The Stone Diaries (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
With The Stone Diaries, Canadian author Carol Shields has undertaken a formidable task—to relate a woman’s very ordinary life in a way that will engage the reader, while constantly calling into question the very effort itself. Thus, the protagonist, Daisy Goodwill Hoad Flett, becomes the means by which the author explores the concept of autobiography and the inherent difficulties encountered when trying to recount a life accurately.
The novel begins in 1905 with the unexpected birth of the protagonist, Daisy, to mild-mannered Canadian quarrier Cuyler Goodwill and his simple, portly wife, Mercy. Mercy was reared in the Stonewall Orphans Home in Manitoba, Canada; hence the origin of her maiden name, Stone, the name given to all the children whose parentage was unknown. Not much is known about Mercy except that she lived a quiet life, becoming housekeeper for the orphanage by the time she turned twenty. She was also an excellent cook, who unfortunately grew to immense proportions. Her great bulk stood in contrast to the figure of her husband, Cuyler, a slight but sinewy man who was employed at the Stonewall Quarries when he met and became inexplicably smitten with Mercy.
After their marriage in 1903, the couple had moved to the village of Tyndall, thirty miles away, where Cuyler had a job in the new quarry. Two years passed contentedly enough, with kindly neighbor Clarentine Flett befriending the young and bewildered Mercy....
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The Twentieth Century
Published in 1993, The Stone Diaries mentions historical events and social changes that span the whole of the twentieth century. The novel begins with Mercy Goodwill's at-home labor and delivery of her baby, during which Mercy, who did not even know she was pregnant, dies of eclampsia. Houses in this village do not have electricity or telephones; Abram Skutari runs for the neighbor, Mrs. Flett, and then runs for Dr. Spears. The doctor comes to the house, and husband and neighborhood witnesses sign the birth certificate. In a remote village such as Tyndall, Manitoba, in 1905, childbirth at home was the norm. It would be commonplace to enlist the help of a neighbor woman who had already given birth and considered unusually fortunate for a physician to be in attendance.
In the early 1900s household conveniences were rare: when Mr. Flett buys a Labrador zinc-lined ice chest, he shocks his wife and impresses the neighbors who have virtually no way to keep food cool. Transportation was by horse and wagon for short distances and by train for longer trips, such as the fifty-eight kilometers from Tyndall to Winnipeg. The train trip in 1905 took fifty-three minutes; in 2005, by car the trip might take just about the same length of time. But in 1905 the train crossed open farmland, stopping at many little villages along the way, whereas in the early 2000s people from Tyndall drive through the suburban greater...
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The title of a novel is a sign pointing toward its central subject. In this case, the title suggests diaries made of stone or diaries written by a person or family named Stone. From the pyramids to grave markers, stones provide the solid pages of recorded events, and characters here descended from Mercy Stone leave their reports and interpretations regarding her daughter, Daisy. Mercy Stone Goodwill leaves no record of her own. The only surviving text of her life is the flat marker on her grave, and that marker is completely obscured by the Goodwill Tower built of limestone, which her husband, Cuyler Goodwill, erects over it. Finally, in terms of geology, the earth's crust holds the incomplete record of the millennia of life and death on its surface, as the research performed by Lewis Ray and Victoria Louise Flett on the Orkney Islands points out.
Shifting Tense and Point of View
In this novel the tense shifts continuously from past to present and back again to past. In some passages the text reads like social history, describing how Winnipeg or Bloomington was built during the twentieth century; in other passages it zooms in with the immediacy of present tense, filling in and amplifying a long-past moment and bringing it alive as drama in the here-and-now. Similarly, the point of view shifts. First person provides immediacy and personal insight, while third person can provide an overview for which...
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The use of overlapping and various narrative voices has become common since the metafiction of the 1970s broke the traditional linear mold for contemporary fiction. Rarely, though, are the parts so seamlessly joined together as in The Stone Diaries. By the time Shields wrote this novel, she was already an accomplished poet and playwright, and it shows in her careful attention to language and the convincing dialog. The Stone Diaries is a monument of words, with little in the way of a conventional plot, that gets right to the heart of human feeling and consciousness.
"When we say a thing or an event is real, never mind how suspect it sounds, we honor it," Shields writes. "But when a thing is made up—regardless of how true and just it seems—we turn up our noses. That's the age we live in. The documentary age." Shields explores the question of whether any life, no matter how ordinary or thrilling, can be fully comprehended, even by the person living it. The autobiographical form is limited, but as is pointed out our society values documentation, so slyly Shields documents her fictional tale with photographs, letters, lists, various accounts, whatever she can collect. By the last chapter, Daisy is reduced to a series of lists, recipes, and obituaries.
Shields examines the split between Daisy's life and her narrative voice. Her story is told in the first-person present tense, with parts in the third person from various points of...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
The Stone Diaries is a complex novel with much to mull over even after the last page is read. As a collaboration between writer and reader, there remains a great deal of interpretation left up to the reader. Readers will no doubt be eager to discuss such things as whether or not Daisy can be counted upon as a reliable, accurate narrator and why Shields gives us this variety of other narrative voices throughout the work.
1. Why do you suppose Shields "left out" what would usually be key events in portraying the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett? How much of her story is remembered either by her or her "witnesses" and how much imagined?
2. A critic once accused Shields of "engraving beautiful script on the head of a pin" (Andrew Garrod, Speaking for Myself, 1986). Why the precise detail given to what could be called mundane subjects?
3. How do we take her unreliability as a narrator? Is Daisy trying to deceive her readers either by misleading or simply omitting details or does she just have trouble keeping the facts straight?
4. Only at the end of Daisy's life, long after her children are grown and have children on their own, do they discover that she was married previously. How is keeping secrets viewed in this work?
5. How important are women's relationships in The Stone Diaries: relationships between mothers and daughters, relationships between sisters, the friendships between women? Do the...
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From her remarkable birth in the kitchen in 1905 to how she imagines her obituary will read in the 1990s, this fictional autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett spans a lifetime and most of the twentieth century. Hers is a life formed by a string of small accidents, with few conscious decisions on her part to shape her own destiny; her plight is enigmatic of the women of her generation.
As legend would have it, Daisy's parents were an odd match. Her father, stonemason Cuyler Goodwill, surprised everyone by marrying Mercy Stone, an obese, orphaned housekeeper at the Stonewall Orphans' Home. In her vague way, Mercy seems to have missed large chunks of what it means to be married, including her own pregnancy. When she went into labor, she was bewildered, uncomprehending, and died moments after the birth, from what must have been equal parts shock and eclampsia. Daisy's birth was witnessed by a small group of people brought together to assist her by little more than chance. "History indeed!" Daisy comments, "As though this paltry slice of time deserves such a name. Accident, not history, has called us together," voicing the traditional thinking of her day that women's lives were not worthy of being recorded while at the same time subverting that view by telling her story anyway.
We follow Daisy as she is raised by a neighbor, "Aunt" Clarentine, who soon leaves her dour husband and moves with Daisy to Winnipeg, where her son, Barker, lives. At age...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1930s: Construction of the Empire State Building is underway in 1930. The art deco building is made of Indiana limestone and at 1,250 feet in height is famous for being the tallest building in the world.
Today: The Taipei 101 building in Taipei, Taiwan, is completed in 2003 and at 1,671 feet is the tallest building in the world.
- 1930s: For long distances, travel by train is the common method. On May 20 and 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh Jr. makes the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight; however, transatlantic travel continues to be by ocean liner.
Today: Attacks involving airplanes destroy the World Trade Center Towers in New York. Film footage of the plane crashes contributes to a sharp reduction in people flying on U.S. airlines. Reduction in flight travel threatens the viability of some U.S. airline companies.
- 1930s: Born May 28, 1934 in Corbeil, Ontario, the Dionne quintuplets become celebrities. The Ontario government makes them wards of the state, removes them from their parents, and operates a theme park, Quintland, where the identical sisters are on display twice a day to thousands of tourists. Their doctor, Allan Roy Dafoe, becomes famous and rich. In the novel, Daisy Goodwill sees the quintuplets on display.
Today: In 1965, the quintuplets publish their bitter autobiography, We Were Five, and in the...
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Topics for Further Study
- Visit a local quarry or rock store and purchase a sample of limestone and a fossil. Do some research on these materials. Bring them to class and make a presentation in which you explain what geological connection may exist between them.
- Read Spoon River Anthology (1916) by Edgar Lee Masters. Select one of the grave marker poems in this collection and imagine the life story of the speaker. (You may have to do some research on the period during which the speaker is said to have lived.) Then using first-person point of view, write the speaker's autobiography.
- Research the materials used in the construction of the Empire State Building. Write an essay in which you connect what you learn to Cuyler Goodwill's 1927 speech on the anticipated growth in the limestone mining industry and the development of buildings and monuments in New York City and Washington, D.C.
- Browse through library copies of women's magazines published between 1947 and 1955. Then write a paper on how they portrayed wives and mothers and how their views anticipated or contradicted comparable images promoted in women's magazines in the early 2000s.
- Make a genealogy of your family, using the one provided in The Stone Diaries as a model. Interview relatives to learn the names and dates of your ancestors. Use a poster to write your genealogy and write a story based on an interview session you conducted or on a story a relative told...
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Shields is now included among an internationally known and well-respected group of contemporary Canadian writers that includes Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Shields has a talent for writing about women's lives, portraying women that have an intellectual life that is very much a part of who they are as individuals, and this is something she shares with Atwood and Munro.
In several interviews, Shields has expressed an admiration for Mavis Gallant and cites, as one of her early influences, John Updike. There are clear similarities to Updike in much of her work, specifically the use of almost mundane, ordinary characters and their ordinary lives as subject matter, but even Shields's style of writing shows some Updike influence.
The Stone Diaries in particular, though, shows signs of another possible influence; that of the "magical realism" of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other South and Central American writers. Their use of extravagant, extraordinary events that are thoroughly grounded in everyday life may have influenced some of the more striking incidents in The Stone Diaries. It seems fantastic, for instance, that Daisy's mother, however obese, could go for nine months without any inkling that she was pregnant; or that Daisy's first husband could, on their honeymoon, fall to his death out a window (perhaps because of her sneeze), and she never spoke of it, or him, again; or that Magnus Flett memorized every word of Jane...
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Unlike some of Shields' earlier fiction, The Stone Diaries does not have a companion piece to fill out the lives of some of the peripheral characters, but readers might also enjoy her first two novels, The Box Garden (1977) and Small Ceremonies (1976). These paired books portray the lives of two very different sisters, Judith Gill and Charleen Forrest. Like The Stone Diaries, relationships between women are paramount and enrich the story of their childhood and their shared memories. It is interesting that even in these early works, Shields is clearly fascinated by how our perspective changes events as we remember them. Happenstance (1980) is another novel by Shields that provides more than one perspective on a story; in this case we read the husband's and the wife's view of their relationship in separate sections of the novel.
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There have been two audiocassette editions of The Stone Diaries. The Recorded Books unabridged (13 1/2 hours on 10 cassettes) edition is read by Alyssa Bresnahan, and the abridged (3 hour) Reed edition is read by Connie Booth. Both received favorable reviews. Diane Turbide, in "A Prairie Pulitzer" (Maclean's, May 1, 1995) reports that Cynthia Scott, a National Film Board director in Montreal, had plans to make a motion picture of The Stone Diaries, but to date the project has not come to fruition.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Shields's three volumes of short stories (Various Miracles, The Orange Fish, and Dressing Up for the Carnival) are collected in The Collected Stories of Carol Shields, which was published by Random House of Canada in 2004. The collection also contains Shields's last and hitherto unpublished story, "Seque."
- In her biography Jane Austen, published by Penguin Group in 2005, Shields uses her own appreciation of family life and its dynamics as she describes the early nineteenth-century novelist, Jane Austen, in her domestic scenes at Steventon and Bath, England. She also explores Austen's intense relationship with her sister, Cassandra, and Austen's broken marital engagement. The biography is perhaps most important because it explores how great fiction is created.
- Shields's novel, Unless, which was published by Harper in 2003, tells the story of Reta Winters, forty-four, an author of light fiction and a nominee for important prizes, as her successful life crumbles in the face of her oldest daughter's decision to drop out of college and become a street person and panhandler. The novel explores the nature of goodness as it tracks the family response to this daughter's choices.
- Ian McEwan's popular novel, Atonement, which was published by Doubleday in 2002, is set in England, on one day in 1935 and a subsequent day during the retreat from Dunkirk, early in World War II. Written in prose...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bell, Karen, "Carol Shields: all these years later, still digging," in Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada, Vol. 31, No. 3, Winter 1998, pp. 4-6.
Ermelino, Louisa, Review of The Stone Diaries, in People Weekly, Vol. 43, No. 25, June 26, 1995, p. 32.
Hughes, Kathryn, Review of The Stone Diaries, in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 6, August 20, 1993, p. 40.
Joyce, Alice, Review of The Stone Diaries, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 11, February 1, 1994, p. 995.
McGill, Allyson F., Review of The Stone Diaries, in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall 1994, pp. 32-33.
Shields, Carol, The Stone Diaries, Vintage Books, 1993.
Review of The Stone Diaries, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 50, December 13, 1993, pp. 60-61.
Great Events, 1900–2001, Salem Press, 2002.
This illustrated, eight-volume set gives descriptions of well over one thousand major events in the twentieth century, including national and world politics, civil unrest, disasters, and important scientific and medical discoveries.
Kinnear, Mary, A Female Economy: Women's Work in a Prairie Province,...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Bell, Karen. “Carol Shields: All These Years Later, Still Digging.” Performing Arts and Entertainment in Canada (Winter, 1998): 1-3. Analyzes works in the light of Shields’s experience. Particular emphasis on her novels and plays.
The Carol Shields Issue. Vancouver: Growing Room Collective, 1989. An interview with the author and collected critical essays focusing on her works; the thirteenth volume in a series entitled Room of One’s Own.
Turbide, Diane. “A Prairie Pulitzer.” Maclean’s 108, no. 18 (May 1, 1995): 76-78. Focuses on Shields’s publishing history, recounting her many awards and honors. Notes the natural connection between The Stone Diaries and film.
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