What are the themes in Unless by Carol Shields?

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Unless by Carol Shields was published in 2002. The novel is narrated in the first person by Reta Winter, and it is inspired by Carol Shields’s life. The novel opens in Toronto, Canada in June 2000.

The Reality of Unconditional Love

The family’s love for Norah—who has left college and run away from her life to live on the streets of Toronto—helps both them and Norah live through this difficult time. Norah no longer speaks, and she sits on the street with a begging bowl while wearing a cardboard sign with the word “goodness” on it. The whole family makes an effort to show how they unconditionally love Norah during this dark time. They learn that to love someone unconditionally means to love them even when they push everyone away, like Norah does when she is begging on the streets.

Despite her daughter’s continual silence, Reta travels to see her every Wednesday. Norah’s sisters, Natalie and Christine, go to see her every Saturday morning instead of playing volleyball, their favorite game. Additionally, the whole family visits the hostel where Norah is staying to inspect it. Even her grandmother, Lois, keeps asking where she is. The entire family sacrifices their time and energy to make sure Norah gets back on her feet. They show concern and care for a woman who is acting in a seemingly irrational and confusing way, proving that they truly do love Norah unconditionally.

The Search for True Goodness

Norah has left the family in order to search for goodness in the world, which is exemplified by her cardboard sign reading “goodness.” She even gives away the majority of the money that she makes from begging to other people who live on the streets. As her daughter Norah sits on the street searching for goodness, Reta tries to truly understand what the word means and goes on her own search to discover its meaning. Through writing about the nature of the world—and specifically through writing about the experience of females—Reta tries to discover what goodness means and, more importantly, whether or not it can truly be found on Earth.

The Negative Impact of Alienation

Reta and the family are alienated from Norah, and this separation takes a toll on them. Additionally, Reta and her husband, Tom, are alienated from each other, showing little interest in one another’s work or hobbies. There is also no significant relationship between Reta and her mother-in-law, Lois, adding to Reta’s sense of confusion and loneliness. Despite the shattering family circumstances, the characters make no effort to console one another in their state of confusion and grief. Alienation makes Norah more difficult to communicate with, and it leaves Reta feeling disoriented and alone in this harsh world.

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