Audrey Thomas Thomas, Audrey (Vol. 107) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Audrey Thomas 1935–

(Born Audrey Grace Callahan) American-born Canadian short story writer, novelist, essayist, and radio dramatist.

The following entry presents an overview of Thomas's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 13, and 37.

One of Canada's most respected fiction writers, Thomas is primarily concerned with examining feminist issues in her works, which frequently depict deeply intimate moments in human relationships. Admittedly fascinated with language, Thomas often uses wordplay, etymology, and selections from dictionaries and reference sources to delineate modern women's search for selfhood and independence.

Biographical Information

Thomas was born in Binghamton, New York, in 1935. At fifteen she left her unhappy childhood home to attend boarding school in New Hampshire, which led eventually to a scholarship at a Massachusetts finishing school. In 1953 Thomas entered Smith College, graduating with a degree in English in 1957. During her junior year at Smith, Thomas attended St. Andrew's University in Scotland with her best friend, where she thrived intellectually. While overseas, she traveled to Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. After graduating, she returned to Britain to take a teaching position in the slums of Birmingham, England, at Bishop Rider's Church of England Infant and Junior School. In 1958 she married Ian Thomas, a sculptor and teacher at the Birmingham College of Art. The couple moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1959, where Ian had accepted a teaching position. Thomas taught school for a year, then enrolled in the Master's program at the University of British Columbia, which she completed in 1963. She went immediately into the doctoral program, concentrating in Anglo-Saxon poetry. At this time, Thomas was also beginning to write fiction. She shared some of her work with professors, but found the academic atmosphere patronizing toward young women writers, who, she found, were expected to write only children's books if they wrote fiction at all. When her thesis on Beowulf was rejected, Thomas left academia to concentrate on writing fiction. Her first story, "If One Green Bottle …," appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1965 while Thomas was in Ghana, Africa, where her husband held a teaching position at the University of Science and Technology. Thomas's experiences in Africa later strongly informed much of her writing; Mrs. Blood (1970), Songs My Mother Taught Me (1973), Blown Figures (1974), and Coming Down from Wa (1995), as well as many short stories, all contain Thomas's African themes. In 1969 Thomas began writing full-time. She and her husband moved to Galiano Island, British Columbia; they separated in 1972 and later divorced, another personal experience that Thomas explores in her work. In 1971 Thomas returned to Africa alone for a three-month tour of that continent. Partly because of this trip, the theme of women traveling alone recurs in her fiction. To support herself and her three daughters, Thomas returned to teaching, taking posts in creative writing departments at several western Canadian universities. She has been involved with many Canadian literary organizations and has won numerous awards for her writing.

Major Works

While not widely considered an experimental writer, Thomas does use distinctively post-modernist methods, such as stream-of-consciousness narrative and collage, in much of her work. Drawing from other sources, including reference works, historical records, advertisements, and newspaper clippings, and creating visual images with words on the page, she often weaves together a variety of disparate and nonlinear elements to tell her stories. Thomas used this technique most explicitly in her novel Graven Images (1993), which recounts the relationship of two middle-aged women seeking information about their ancestors. Characters traveling abroad or searching within themselves for meaning and selfhood is another common thread running through Thomas's works. The stories in Goodbye Harold, Good Luck (1986) are set in Canada, Greece, Scotland, and Africa. While Thomas's characters are usually women attempting to carve their own paths in a male-dominated world—as in the stories in Real Mothers (1981) and The Wild Blue Yonder (1990), where in many cases the women in question are both emotionally and physically threatened by the men in their lives—Thomas used a male protagonist in Coming Down from Wa (1995). In this novel Thomas returned to the African setting she had used earlier in Mrs. Blood, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Blown Figures, and other works. In Coming Down from Wa, a young art history student travels to Africa to do research on both his thesis project and the mystery of his parents' self-imposed isolation in western Canada after their return from a volunteer effort in a small African village called Wa in the 1960s. Autobiographical elements, such as her experience in Africa, are also a major characteristic of Thomas's writing. Mrs. Blood and "If One Green Bottle …" (published first in the Atlantic Monthly and later in the collection Ten Green Bottles [1967]) both feature women coping with miscarriages, which Thomas herself underwent. Real Mothers, published after Thomas's divorce, includes several stories centered on the effects of divorce on women and children. In Munchmeyer and Prospero on the Island (1971), Latakia (1979), and Intertidal Life (1984), Thomas explores the tension writers often feel between their work and their personal lives, particularly women writers, who—like Thomas and many of her female characters—must balance motherhood with their careers and with their psychosexual needs.

Critical Reception

Critics almost unanimously consider Thomas a complex, demanding writer whose work continually moves in new directions. But because of her experimentation with textual forms and her aversion to simple, happy endings, some find her overly didactic and lacking in humor. Nonetheless, Thomas's exploration of the conflicts of modern sexual relationships, the constant clash of self and other experienced by twentieth-century women, and the need for both understanding of the past and independence in the present have received high praise from critics, particularly Thomas's acute ability to capture moments of intimacy and epiphany. Feminist critics in the 1980s and 1990s have commended Thomas's experimentation with language as an attempt to break free of traditional male-centered discourse and to deconstruct stereotypically romantic images of women and relationships, replacing them with more realistic notions of womanhood that allow for less ideal feelings such as confusion, pain, and anger. Margaret Atwood has written of Thomas: "[With] each of her books, the reader feels that the next will not only be better but different in some unimaginable way."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ten Green Bottles (short stories) 1967
Mrs. Blood (novel) 1970
Munchmeyer and Prospero on the Island (novellas) 1971
Songs My Mother Taught Me (novel) 1973
Blown Figures (novel) 1974
Ladies & Escorts (short stories) 1977
Latakia (novel) 1979
Real Mothers (short stories) 1981
Two in the Bush, and Other Stories (short stories) 1981
Intertidal Life (novel) 1984
Goodbye Harold, Good Luck (short stories) 1986
The Wild Blue Yonder (short stories) 1990
Graven Images (novel) 1993
Coming Down from Wa (novel) 1995

Donald Stephens (essay date Autumn 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mini-Novel Excellence," in Canadian Literature, No. 38, Autumn, 1968, pp. 94-6.

[Stephens is a Canadian educator, critic, and editor for the journal Canadian Literature. In the following review of Ten Green Bottles, he lauds Thomas as an exemplary practitioner of the short story.]

The short story expresses a succinct and personal reaction to some specific aspect of life that has moved the writer at a particular moment; the short story exists as a separate point on the canvas that is the writer's experience, yet it exists as a point that is linked, irrevocably, to other points within that experience. The fortunate thing about the short story is...

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Herbert Rosengarten (essay date Winter 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Writer and Subject," in Canadian Literature, No. 55, Winter, 1973, pp. 111-13.

[A Canadian educator and critic who has published editions of works by Charlotte and Anne Brontë, Rosengarten served as an editor for the journal Canadian Literature from 1977 to 1986. In the following excerpt, he offers a favorable assessment of the novellas Munchmeyer and Prospero on the Island.]

[In Munchmeyer] Mrs. Thomas uses such devices as the diary "confession", dream sequences, and waking fantasies to convey the spiritual confusion of one Will Munchmeyer—graduate student, père de famille, and frustrated novelist. Munchmeyer's sense of...

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Audrey Thomas (essay date Spring 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Basmati Rice: An Essay about Words," in Canadian Literature, No. 100, Spring, 1984, pp. 312-17.

[In the following essay, Thomas discusses her fascination with words and language.]

My study is on the second floor of our house and faces East. I like that and I get up early to write, perhaps not simply because I enjoy the sunrise (especially in winter, when all has been so black, and then gradually light, like hope, returns) but out of some atavistic hope that my thoughts, too, will rise with the sun and illumine the blank pages in front of me.

We live in a corner house and my study is right above a busy street. People whom I cannot see often...

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Pauline Butling (essay date Autumn 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thomas and Her Rag-Bag," in Canadian Literature, No. 102, Autumn, 1984.

[In the following essay, Butling argues that Thomas's use of autobiographical details in her short stories allows her to create female characters who are more "real" than those of other women writers in that they resist falling into paradigmatic female categories.]

Many recent women writers have worked at re-defining the images of women in fiction—Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Jane Rule, to name a few—but because they haven't changed the form in any significant way, because the traditional structures of fiction frame the story, the character types inherent in those forms remain. A...

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Coral Ann Howells (essay date March 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "No Sense of an Ending: Real Mothers," in Room of One's Own, Vol. 10, No. 3/4, March, 1986, pp. 111-23.

[In the following essay, Howells examines Thomas's story endings in Real Mothers, noting that their indefiniteness signals the still-unexplored territory in modern women's lives of revising male-centered myths of human relationships.]

And she doesn't look back. In my story, that is. She doesn't look back in my story.

Audrey Thomas, "Crossing the Rubicon"

This is the ending of Audrey Thomas' last story in her collection Real Mothers, and while it may be...

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Sharon Thesen (essay date March 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Who to Feel Sorry For: Teaching 'Aquarius'," in Room of One's Own, Vol. 10, No. 3/4, March, 1986, pp. 103-04.

[In the following essay, Thesen recounts teaching the story "Aquarius" to college freshmen, revealing to them the distrust they should have of the story's narrator, a disgruntled husband.]

Audrey Thomas' "Aquarius" (in Two in the Bush and Other Stories) is a story I frequently teach in first-year college fiction. The class is usually composed of about 60% males and about 40% females. They are young, middle or upper-middle class people of the North Vancouver variety; sometimes quite cute; born in 1966 or something ridiculous; jeans and...

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Keith Garebian (review date July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Goodbye Harold, Good Luck, in Quill & Quire, July, 1986, p. 59.

[Garebian is an India-born Canadian writer and educator. In the following review of Goodbye Harold, Good Luck, he praises Thomas as a keenly sensual writer.]

In her introduction to this collection of 13 short stories [Goodbye Harold, Good Luck], Audrey Thomas describes how her mind works through correspondences. "Connect" appears to be a guiding principle in her fiction, and she moves into thought only through her senses—particularly her visual sense.

The sensorium gets full play in this collection, in which the various stories are given...

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Susan Rudy Dorscht (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Blown Figures and Blood: Toward a Feminist/Post-Structuralist Reading of Audrey Thomas' Writing," in Future Indicative: Literary Theory and Canadian Literature, University of Ottawa Press, 1987, pp. 221-27.

[In the following essay, Dorscht explores Thomas's interpretation of the notion of self as it is depicted in language.]

Blank pages, comic strips, quotations, jokes, dreams, rhymes, newspaper clippings, ads, etymologies, multiple selves, silence: what we have traditionally referred to as the writing of Audrey Thomas is obsessed with the contextual, contradictory meanings, and meaninglessnesses, of words, with the ways subjectivity is represented, in fact...

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Larry Scanlan (review date August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Economy of the Moment," in Books in Canada, Vol. XIX, No. 6, August, 1990, pp. 28-29.

[In the following review of The Wild Blue Yonder, Scanlan notes Thomas's ability to capture intimate and sometimes painful moments in human relationships.]

Five years ago someone asked Audrey Thomas if at the age of 50 she had reached her peak as a writer. She coyly wondered if her questioner meant pique, or perhaps peek, and went on to blame her father—who would say, "What's for dinner: Mother?"—for the awful puns, word play, and curiosity about language that mark both her fiction and her conversation. Thomas will disinter old jokes and word games,...

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Kathryn Barnwell (review date January-February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tales of Gender," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXIX, No. 796, January-February, 1991, pp. 29-30.

[In the following review, Barnwell praises The Wild Blue Yonder, observing that Thomas expertly portrays women made cynical by the brutality of the male arena.]

Audrey Thomas's latest collection of short stories is an often-painful exploration of gender roles as they have been constructed in the post-Second World War period. The stories themselves are woman-centred, candid and at times deeply disturbing, revealing the frightening vulnerability of women to the "charming" ineptitude and, indeed, the murderous misogyny of men.

Many of the men...

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Carole Corbeil (review date January-February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Wild Blue Yonder, in Saturday Night, Vol. 106, No. 1, January-February, 1991, p. 50.

[In the following review, Corbeil lauds Thomas's aptitude for making her stories fresh and new.]

There is very little formal experimentation, and zero posturing in Audrey Thomas's latest book of short fiction [The Wild Blue Yonder]. The thirteen stories are, in fact, brimming with what some would consider old-fashioned virtues: the author has compassion for her characters, respect for their struggles no matter how small, and she writes unforced narratives in a transparently lucid style.

Although the surface of Thomas's world is...

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Ellen Quigley (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Quigley analyzes Thomas's depiction of men in her fiction, as well as her use of a wide variety of ethnicities in her secondary characters.]

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 institutionalized in our private and public lives, there would be no reason for feminist...

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Elisabeth Harvor (review date March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mistress of Tart Remarks," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXII, No. 2, March, 1993, pp. 46.

[Harvor is a Canadian educator, poet, and fiction writer. In the following review, she voices a mixed opinion of Graven Images, finding the novel's collage style superficial but praising Thomas's evocative descriptive language.]

In Terrorists and Novelists, the critic Diane Johnson, writing about Charlotte Brontë, describes her as a writer who had the "artistic daring to risk heroines so deviant as to be plain." These words came back to me as I was reading Graven Images, Audrey Thomas's new novel; they recalled an early Thomas story, "A Winter's Tale,"...

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Gwendolyn Guth (review date July-August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Imaging the Writer," in Canadian Forum, July-August, 1993, pp. 39-40.

[In the following review, Guth finds Graven Images challenging and complex, but somewhat inscrutable for the reader.]

Audrey Thomas' Graven Images is primarily a novel about writing, about the ambivalence of anchoring the flux of life in words. Thomas plays with the idea that the images that carve themselves irrevocably into memory are both fluid and fixed, both inspiration and impediment to the writer of fiction. Images graven on memory (grave images, images of the grave) expand and glow in the mind of writer-narrator Charlotte Corbett, but they illuminate only obliquely the...

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Laurie Ricou (review date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Word Work," in Canadian Literature, No. 135, Winter, 1993, pp. 139-40.

[Ricou is a Canadian writer and educator. In the following review, Ricou assesses The Wild Blue Yonder, concluding that Thomas's wordplay creates in her stories tension, irony, and at times unparalleled beauty.]

Audrey Thomas's typical form emerges in [The Wild Blue Yonder] as the sketch engagé/dégagé. She finds an impetus, a core story, in recent history, usually violent—the Hungerford massacre, Tiananmen Square, a generic newspaper story of a young murderer who preys on older women. In reshaping this story, Thomas expresses her strong social commitment, but more...

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Virginia Tiger (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The I as Sight and Site: Memory and Space in Audrey Thomas's Fiction," in Canadian Women Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Mississippi, 1993, pp. 116-25.

[Tiger is a Canadian writer, educator, and broadcaster. In the following essay, she analyzes Thomas's autobiographical construction of her characters' memories and its effect on her definition of female space and self-exploration.]

Novelist of memory, Audrey Thomas has hewn from autobiographical momenta both stable and unstable narrative foundations for her houses of fiction. That fiction, thematically and structurally, is recognizable by its continuous delight in repetitions....

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Jerry Horton (review date September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Coming Down from Wa, in Quill & Quire, Vol. 61, No. 9, September 1995, p. 68.

[In the following review, Horton concludes that while Coming Down from Wa lacks drama, Thomas's evocative imagery makes the novel compelling.]

Audrey Thomas's Coming Down from Wa begins with its protagonist's recollection of a childhood gift: when William Kwame MacKenzie turned six he received a box of 64 crayons from his paternal grandparents in Montreal. Marvelling at the colours suddenly available to him, he made his first forays into art, only to be stifled by a Sunday school teacher who insisted that trees must be green and little boys must...

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Lynne Van Luven (review date October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Looking for Betrayal," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXIV, No. 7, October 1995, pp. 35-37.

[In the following review, Van Luven praises Thomas's exploration of new themes and subject matter in Coming Down from Wa, but finds the novel "not wholly satisfying."]

A mystery lies at the heart of William Kwame MacKenzie's childhood years, and he is determined to solve it. And so Audrey Thomas's new novel trundles readers through the red soil of West Africa and the shifting sands of memory as William's trek of discovery labours through past and present.

The fully-fledged male protagonist found in Coming Down from Wa is a rare creation in...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bellamy, Robin V. H. "Audrey Thomas: A Select Bibliography." Room of One's Own 10, No. 3 & 4 (March 1986): 154-75.

Compilation of writings by and about Thomas, including book reviews by writers such as Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence.


Sherrin, Robert G. "In Esse." Room of One's Own 10, No. 3 & 4 (March 1986): 68-74.

Recounts a trip the author made with Thomas to her birthplace in Binghamton, New York.


Amussen, Robert. "Finding a Writer."...

(The entire section is 306 words.)