Carol Shields Shields, Carol (Vol. 113) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carol Shields 1935–

American-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Shields's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 91.

A Canadian-American born and raised in Chicago, Shields achieved a historic literary feat when her novel The Stone Diaries (1993) earned Canada's Governor General's Award and the American Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, and was short-listed for Britain's Booker Award.

Biographical Information

Shields was born June 2, 1935, to Robert and Inez Warner in Oak Park, Illinois, a prosperous suburb of Chicago. She has described her years growing up as safe and happy, but also insular. Shields earned a bachelor's degree from Hanover College in Indiana; while studying for a year in England, she met Donald Shields, a Canadian engineering graduate student. The two married in 1957 and Shields moved to Canada. For the next few years, Shields focused on family, giving birth to five children and following her husband across Canada as his career progressed. Shields took a magazine writing course at the University of Toronto and sold stories to the Canadian Broadcasting Co. and British Broadcasting Co. In her late twenties, she revived an earlier interest in poetry writing. When the family moved to Ottawa, Shields enrolled in the graduate department in English at the University of Ottawa, writing a masters thesis on Susanna Moodie. It was at this time that Shields began writing fiction; in 1976 she published Small Ceremonies. The book received critical acclaim in Canada and Shields was encouraged to continue writing. While she attracted a modest Canadian following with her subsequent works, she did not gain attention outside of Canada until publishing Swann (1987), which was short-listed for the prestigious Governor General's Award. Following the success of Swann, many of Shields' earlier works were released in the United States and Britain. Shields has resided in Winnipeg, Manitoba for a number of years, teaching English and creative writing at the University of Manitoba, where she is now chancellor.

Major Works

Shields's fiction has focused on the common, almost banal, events of middle-class, middle-age characters. However, far from being uneventful, these characters' lives are marked by identity crises, self doubts, and anxieties. Her first published novel, Small Ceremonies, set in early 1970s Canada, focuses on Judith and Martin Gill, an academic couple, and their children. Through Judith's efforts to write a biography and the family's interaction with one another and others, Shields poses questions about public and private knowledge and how people construct identity. Happenstance (1980) and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982) continue Shields's exploration of how people come to know themselves and others. Later published in a single volume, the two works follow a married couple during one weekend; Happenstance is written from the husband's perspective and A Fairly Conventional Woman from the wife's. Together the works illustrate the isolation that occurs within the marriage and the degree to which the characters misunderstand one another and themselves. In Various Miracles (1985) and to a greater extent in Swann: A Mystery, Shields began to experiment with form while remaining constant in theme. Swann consists of five chapters, with each of the first four written from the perspective of one of the characters and the final chapter written as a screenplay which reveals crucial information about the cast. The novel focuses on the illusive identity of Mary Swann, a poor farmer's wife from rural Ontario, whose single volume of poetry was published after she was killed by her husband. To each character Swann and her poetry represent something different, and each character struggles to create an identity for her, even as the artifacts of her life begin to mysteriously disappear. The Stone Diaries is written in the form of a journal recording the life of Daisy Goodwill Fletts. In it Fletts discusses the events of her life as she attempts to define its meaning. Larry's Party (1997) focuses on similar concerns of self-identity, but is written from the perspective of an average middle-aged man. In addition to her novels, Shields has written two critically acclaimed short story collections and three poetry collections.

Critical Reception

Critics are consistent in their praise of Shields's work. From the beginning of her career, critics have commended Shields's descriptive powers and ability to capture the nature of everyday life, comparing her with A. S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro. In reviewing her first three books, Julie Beddoes wrote, "Shields can create vivid and often picturesque characters with such sympathy that one is convinced their eccentricities are the stuff of everyday life." Elizabeth Benedict remarked, "Shields is wickedly accurate about the intricacies of marriage, parenthood and the battle of the sexes, and an astute observer and satirist of social trends." However, most critics agree that Shields began a transformation of her literary career with Various Miracles and has built upon this with each subsequent work. In her review of Swann, Diane Turbide concluded that the novel's plot was better developed and less banal than her earlier works. Other reviewers have noted that nothing truly frightening threatens Shields's characters, although she has captured a more urgent tone in her later books. In addition, some critics have questioned the accuracy of classifying her as a feminist.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Others (poetry) 1972
Intersect (poetry) 1974
Small Ceremonies (novel) 1976
Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (criticism) 1976
The Box Garden (novel) 1977
Happenstance (novel) 1980
A Fairly Conventional Woman (novel) 1982
Various Miracles (short stories) 1985
Swann: A Mystery (novel) 1987
The Orange Fish (short stories) 1989
A Celibate Season [with Blanche Howard] (novel) 1991
The Stone Diaries (novel) 1993
Thirteen Hands (play) 1993
Coming to Canada (poetry) 1995
Larry's Party (novel) 1997

Bruce MacDonald (review date July 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Quiet Manifesto: Carol Shields's Small Ceremonies," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, July, 1976, pp. 147-50.

[In the review below, MacDonald praises Small Ceremonies and places Shields within the Canadian literary tradition.]

At a time when some Canadian writers are getting on cultural bandwagons, or are partially blinded by the myths which they have created for themselves, it is refreshing to come across a novel like Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields. Her novel, as the title suggests, concerns itself with the small acts of a quiet family in a relatively peaceful Canadian academic community. Very little happens in the novel,...

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Malcolm Page (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Small Ceremonies and the Art of the Novel," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 29, 1980, pp. 172-78.

[In the essay below, Page discusses Shields's observations about fiction, biography, and sources in Small Ceremonies.]

Carol Shields' first novel, Small Ceremonies (1976), is short, light and readable, a first-person study of nine months in the life of a woman of forty, scrutinizing herself and her circle. Thus reviewer John Parr appropriately describes it as "a familiar enough life story of quiet desperation except that Judith Gill, who tells her own tale of woe, enlivens it with many satiric flourishes." Another reviewer, Robert A....

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Maria Horvath (review date November 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ordinary People," in Books in Canada, Vol. 11, No. 9, November, 1982, pp. 18-19.

[In the following review, Horvath argues that A Fairly Conventional Woman fails to live up to the high standards Shields established in her earlier novels.]

Carol Shields began her writing career as a poet, and her first three novels reflect a poetic view, a lyrical perspective. Two of them, Small Ceremonies and Happenstance, were especially notable for their imagery and for Shields's skillful handling of the musings of the main characters. In them Shields portrayed suburban life in great detail, but her descriptions, even of the prosaic, were almost always...

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Carol Shields with Harvey De Roo (interview date Winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Little Like Flying: An Interview with Carol Shields," in West Coast Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, Winter, 1988, pp. 38-56.

[In the following interview, Shields discusses genre, form, and her writing process as they relate to several of her works.]

[Roo:] You display a good deal of formal versatility in your writing. You have published poems, short stories, novels (and a film script within one of them), and are working on a play. What dictates your choice of form?

[Shields:] This question of form! I am, to tell you the truth, more indifferent to the boundaries between literary forms than your question indicates. Recently I went to Ottawa to...

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Eleanor Wachtel (essay date May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Telling It Slant," in Books in Canada, Vol. 18, No. 4, May, 1988, pp. 9-14.

[In the following essay, Wachtel provides an overview of Shields's life and career.]

Four years ago, when Carol Shields turned 50, her writing turned a corner. The titles tell all. Before: Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden, Happenstance, and A Fairly Conventional Woman. After: Various Miracles, Swann: A Mystery, and now, The Orange Fish. "You get older and braver," she says, "braver about what you can say and what can be understood."

Her first four novels presented reliable pictures of middle-class, domestic life. Shields is expert at...

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Donna E. Smyth (essay date July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shields' Swann," in Room of One's Own, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2, July, 1989, pp. 136-46.

[In the essay below, Smyth explores the meaning of identity for the protagonist in Swann.]

We believe we are at home in the immediate circle of beings. Beings are familiar, reliable, ordinary. Nevertheless, the lighting is pervaded by a constant concealment in the double form of refusal and dissembling. At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary.

(Martin Heidegger, Origins of the Work of Art)

Who is Swann? This question haunts the text, teasing readers and...

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Clara Thomas (essay date July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Slight Parodic Edge: Swann: A Mystery," in Multiple Voices: Recent Canadian Fiction, edited by Jeanne Delbaere, Dangaroo Press, 1990, pp. 104-15.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1989, Thomas discusses Swann's illusive and complex nature.]

No writer has shown us more clearly than has Carol Shields in Swann the paradoxical and illusory nature of things we covet, collect, think we possess and, in the end, lose. In Swann exactly 125 of the poems of the murdered Mary Swann were printed in a collection called Swann's Songs by the eccentric, crotchety journalist, publisher, humanist and editor, Frederic...

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Ursula Hegi (review date 20 August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Carrion Conspiracy," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 20, 1989, p. 2.

[In the following review, Hegi discusses the issue of stolen identity in Swann.]

What happens when literary criticism takes a writer's work so far from her intent that, finally, it loses its essence? Carol Shields asks disturbing questions about the nature of theft in her novel, Swann. Who is the real thief—the person who steals the last rare copies of a murdered poet's book, the scholars who use her poems to seek recognition for themselves, or her husband who brutally murders her?

Fifteen years after Canadian poet, Mary Swann, is killed without an apparent...

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Anita Clair Fellman (review date December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A World Made of Words," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, No. 3, December, 1989, p. 16.

[In the following review, Fellman discusses Shields's interest in form and personality in Swann and her investigations into order and chaos in the stories in Various Miracles.]

Now that the US and Canada have signed a free trade treaty, perhaps it will be possible for more than one or two Canadian women writers to slip past the US cultural border. High on my list of imports is Carol Shields, whose fifth novel, Swann, and collection of short stories, Various Miracles, have just been published in the US. Shields, who was nominated for a Governor...

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Herb Weil (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From 'Dying for Love' to 'Mrs. Turner': Narrative Control in Stories by Carol Shields," in Contemporary Manitoba Writers: New Critical Studies, edited by Kenneth James Hughes, Turnstone Press, 1990, pp. 163-76.

[In the essay below, Weil considers structure and narration in Shields's short stories.]


My first thought this morning is for Beth, how on earth she'll cope now that Ted's left her for the dancer Charlotte Brown. I ask myself, what resources does a woman like Beth have, emotional resources? ("Dying," Made)

These two sentences begin Carol Shields' "Dying for...

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Isobel Armstrong (review date 3 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Designs for Living," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4587, January 3, 1991, p. 21.

[In the following review of the expanded edition of Happenstance, Armstrong discusses the significance of daily events in the lives of the two characters.]

The two novellas between the covers of Happenstance are arranged so that which story you read first is a matter of chance. Whichever end of the book you start with will actually be a beginning. The stories are not arranged as a sequence, but read from front to back and from back to front of the book, so that their endings converge in the middle, printed upside down to one another. Likewise, the histories of...

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D. O. Spettigue (review date Autumn 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Impressions," in Canadian Literature, No. 130, Autumn, 1991, pp. 149-50.

[In the following review of The Orange Fish, Spettigue compares Shields' writing with the work of Alice Munro.]

Twelve stories in the post-post fashion. They begin casually, they wander about, sometimes they have little story line, perhaps no closure. They have theme, though; they have, usually, a consistent point of view. Carol Shields is a critic, is a novelist, is an excellent writer of short stories; she knows how these things work. She must remind her readers of Alice Munro.

Not that you would confuse Shields and Munro, though the worlds they draw many of...

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Rita Donovan (review date April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Fine Romance," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXI, No. 3, April, 1992, p. 40.

[In the following review of The Republic of Love, Donovan argues that Shields has taken the typical romance and infused it with depth and realism.]

Carol Shields a romance writer? In her latest novel, The Republic of Love, Shields takes the reader on a foray into the cold landscape of the late 20th century. Her two protagonists, Fay McLeod and Tom Avery, personably document their respective states: Fay. a recently involved, now single folklorist who is studying the mermaid myth, and Tom, a lonely late-night talk-show host with three failed marriages under his belt. That...

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Susan Elizabeth Sweeney (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Formal Strategies in a Female Narrative Tradition: The Case of Swann: A Mystery," in Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 19-32.

[In the following essay, Sweeney argues that in Swann, Shields focuses on the meaning and ambiguity of feminist literature.]

My department, like many others, is debating how best to incorporate minority authors, marginalized texts, and unconventional genres into the canon—into the canon, that is, which we teach our sophomore majors in a two-semester course entitled "Traditions of English Literature." At a departmental discussion on...

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Gail Pool (review date May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Imagination's Invisible Ink," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, No. 8, May, 1994, p. 20.

[In the following review of Happenstance and The Stone Diaries, Pool argues that while similar in nature and focus, the latter is more complex.]

You would expect that good books from a country as close to us (in every sense) as Canada would quickly find American covers. Apparently not. It has taken more than a decade for the first US edition of Carol Shields' Happenstance to appear, and I suspect we might not have it even now if her latest work, The Stone Diaries, had not been short-listed for last year's Booker Prize. Whatever their literary...

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Mel Gussow (review date 10 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Celebrator of the Little Things," in New York Times, Vol. CXLIV, No. 50057, May 10, 1995, p. B2.

[In the following review of The Stone Diaries, Gussow provides background on the Shields's life and career.]

The Stone Diaries, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a rich, panoramic novel in the guise of a biography. As Carol Shields traces the life of Daisy Goodwill, from birth to death, through the 20th century, she creates a family tree and inserts an album of family photographs in the center of the book to underscore the tangibility of her characters.

"When I read biography," she said during an interview, "I...

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Christine Hamelin (review date January-February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sadness and Light," in Canadian Forum, Vol. LXXIV, No. 846, January-February, 1996, pp. 46-7.

[In the following review of Coming to Canada, Hamelin praises Shields's poetry, stating that in it readers hear the same poignant voice of her novels.]

It is difficult to read Carol Shields' collection of poetry, Coming to Canada, without preconceptions; by now, we know her voice well and find ourselves looking for glimmers of Daisy Goodwill and shades of Mary Swann. And in fact the poems in this retrospective—which includes selections from Others (1972), Intersect (1974) and an earlier volume also entitled Coming to Canada (1992),...

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Eunice Lipton (review date April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Smaller than Life," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 7, April, 1996, pp. 17-18.

[In the following review of Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, Lipton compares the protagonists from each novel.]

Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, Carol Shields' earliest published novels, unfold in Canadian suburbs and cars; they portray the lives of decent people who slowly pull meaning, sometimes wisdom, out of mundane pain and familiar satisfactions. Indeed, the books are like laboratories where Shields peruses the commonplace and discovers her metier. There is nothing in them that is larger than life. There is something, however,...

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Diane Turbide (review date 29 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Masculine Maze," in Maclean's, Vol. 110, No. 39, September 29, 1997, pp. 82, 85.

[In the following review of Larry's Party, Turbide writes that once again Shields focuses on characters' self-evaluations although this time from the perspective of an average man.]

By the end of a sunny Monday earlier this month, Winnipeg novelist Carol Shields had been put through the wringer. She had gingerly made her way through a scraggly hedge and leant against a tree to accommodate a magazine photographer. ("Make sure you show the manicure," she teased him, flashing russet-colored nails. "It's a rare thing.") She had been interviewed twice, once for print and...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Addison, Catherine. "Lost Things." Canadian Literature, No. 121 (Summer 1989): 158-60.

Argues that Swann is reflective of Shields herself.

Beaton, Virginia. A review of A Celibate Season, by Carol Shields and Blanche Howard. Books in Canada XX, No. 8 (November 1991): 51.

Argues that A Celibate Season is well-written and believable.

Beddoes, Julie. "Sweet Nothings." Books in Canada 10, No. 5 (May 1981): 31-2.

Argues that although Shields is successful in...

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