Critics generally divide Carol Shields’s novels into two groups: those novels written prior to her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries and those following. Shields’s first four novels, Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden, Happenstance, and A Fairly Conventional Woman, are domestic in focus and realistic in style. Set in her adopted Canada, they trace the lives of ordinary women in commonplace circumstances who are striving to discover who they are through relationships with other people in their lives. The search for identity is a common theme in these works. The titles of the works suggest the insularity of the women’s lives through words like “small,” “box,” and “conventional.” What marks Shields’s early work is the contrast between the quiet personalities and lives of her protagonists and the strong impression they make on readers, who see versions of their own lives, those of ordinary women, represented on the pages.
Shields’s later novels bear trademarks of postmodernism, a literary style characterized by fragmentation and multiple narrative voices. Whereas modern novelists quest after meaning in their works, postmodern writers question the very possibility of creating meaning through words. Shields’s use of multigeneric forms and multiple, competing narrators places her within this movement. Even prior to The Stone Diaries, her 1987 novel Swann exhibited traits of postmodernism. In Swann, the questionable circumstances surrounding the title character’s death are relayed by four separate narrators, and the final chapter is written as a script. Using this unconventional format, Shields unravels the mystery genre even as she reconstructs the murder of Swann, a once obscure Canadian poet made famous in death. Swann is a precursor to The Stone Diaries, a novel that, in its unconventional approach to chronicling the life of Daisy Goodwill, deconstructs the genre of fictional autobiography. Increasingly, in her later works, including Larry’s Party and Unless, Shields became more emboldened in the use of structures and styles associated with postmodernism.
While at the University of Manitoba, Shields was encouraged by her professors to try her hand at fiction in addition to literary criticism. Her first novel, Small Ceremonies, published in 1976, manages to blend both elements. Inspired by Shields’s scholarly thesis, the novel features a narrator who, mirroring her creator, conducts research on Canadian author Susanna Moodie in order to write a literary biography of Moodie’s life. Although classified as realistic fiction, the novel nevertheless hints at the more postmodern forms that emerge in Shields’s later works. Present already is the metatextual element: Shields writes about a writer who writes about a writer.
Clearly this novel draws on autobiographical elements. Similar to Shields at the time, the novel’s protagonist, Judith Gill, is a literary scholar who is married with children. Reminiscent of Shields’s relocation to England during her husband’s graduate studies, Gill’s husband’s sabbatical takes his family to Birmingham and to the residence of a family that has traveled to Greece. These parallel circumstances offer a family living abroad in the home of a family living abroad. The novel begins with the Gill family recently returned to Canada and traces events across three seasons, autumn through spring. A central theme in the novel is identity, both personal and national. In the process of researching the life of Susanna Moodie, Gill examines her own. Both inquiries lead to reflections on what it means to be a writer, mother, wife, Canadian, and traveler abroad. Gill contemplates the effects of life abroad on her family’s return to Canadian life and on her writing. In another connection between author and character, Shields has Gill step aside from her scholarly book on Moodie to attempt to write a novel.
The Stone Diaries
In The Stone Diaries, Shields’s multilayered narration reinvents the fictional biography. The story of Daisy Goodwill is told at intervals in the first and the third person. Wherever Daisy leaves off telling her version of events, or is unable to speak for herself, a second narrator steps in and continues her story. In this manner, Shields blends together biography and autobiography in a fictional setting to create a hybrid genre. Witnessing is a major motif in the novel, beginning with the neighbors who view Daisy’s birth and her mother’s resultant death. Shields suggests that a person’s life is too complex for a single voice to be sufficient—to acknowledge a life, there must be outside observers. The third-person narrator, in addition to recounting scenes from Daisy’s life, offers commentary on that life and on the nature of autobiography. The metatextual elements that emerge—an autobiography that explores the nature of autobiography—are a continuation of techniques that Shields began employing in Small Ceremonies.
Divided into ten chapters, The Stone Diaries records life stages. Chapter titles such as “Birth,” “Childhood,” “Marriage,” “Love,” and “Illness and Decline” progress until “Death” is reached. The novel ends with the nondescript eulogy delivered at Daisy’s funeral, one that appears to negate her existence. This last testimonial to Daisy’s life offers little that is memorable. We learn from the minister that she was a wife, a mother, and a citizen, but who Daisy was when she was not filling these roles is omitted. From her own account, what gave her the greatest satisfaction in life was not marriage or children but writing a gardening column, a job taken from her and given to a man. In the final verdict of her life, Daisy becomes simultaneously an everywoman and a no woman. The novel is unsettling as it leaves readers with little comprehension of the value of Daisy’s life. There remains a sense that it was worth more than what was recorded. The character’s own dissatisfaction with the remembrances accorded her is clear in her dying thought, “I am not at peace.” In her chronicle of Daisy, Shields manages to create a fictional biography about the invisibility of most women’s lives.
In her final novel, one written with knowledge of her own impending death, Shields returns to the life of a woman writer, the subject of her first novel. In Unless, Shields expands the scope and intensifies the depth of her inquiry. The lead character, Reta Winters, despite her facility with words, which has allowed her to pen a successful first novel and begin a second, finds herself unable to communicate with friends and, more painfully, with her reclusive college-age daughter. Complicating matters is an envious editor who insists she rewrite her female heroine into the background of her second novel in order to elevate the status of a minor male character. Unless explores the role of women in modern society and culture, and the pain that often accompanies women’s efforts to achieve visibility and voice. Critics consider Unless to be Shields’s most postmodern and most feminist work.
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