Carol Shields

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Kate Grimond (review date 12 February 2000)

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SOURCE: Grimond, Kate. “Putting the Hum in Humdrum.” Spectator 284, no. 8949 (12 February 2000): 33.

[In the following review of Dressing Up for the Carnival, Grimond asserts that Shields is at her best when describing details of everyday life, holding that the stories are varied, enjoyable, and contain elegant prose.]

A concert harp falling from an upstairs window knocks a young woman to the ground in the snow. It chips a fragment off a bone in her leg, and the unhappiness in her life is exposed. An elderly couple living placidly in the country are put under great strain when meteorologists go on strike and there is, as a consequence, no distinguishable weather of any sort. Another couple, both artists, block up all the windows of their house in order to avoid paying a window tax. Their relationship begins to fall apart and it is not until they paint a window on the inside of the blocked openings that a rapprochement comes about. These are brief outlines of stories in this new collection by Carol Shields [Dressing Up for the Carnival].

Shields likes to glance at people's lives and relationships by way of objects (keys, for instance, in one story) or by the displacement or removal of something crucial (the windows, or, in another story, mirrors). A significant alteration of circumstances, whether fantastical or humdrum, allows her to reveal the pain or the dreams or the paradox in otherwise ordered lives. A farming community in Manitoba is disrupted by the discovery of Roman remains on their land. In the last story, ‘Dressing Down’, a respectable man from southern Ontario goes every summer to a nudist camp; it is his passion. His wife's tendency is to cover up and not only does she dress in layers of vests, camisoles, slips, cardigans, aprons, but she covers the furniture too. ‘By the following summer slip-covers dressed the wicker porch furniture. Scarves in broderie anglaise adorned every bureau.’ Through this curiosity of their life we see, through the eyes of their grandson, the awkwardness in their marriage and the effect on their family. Shields's touch is light and faintly skittish.

She is most at home, it seems, in a literary world or on a campus. In ‘A Scarf’, a middle-aged writer is displaced from her domestic life of cooking and looking after her daughters by winning a minor literary prize for her first novel and embarking on a low-key promotional tour around American cities. Her behaviour alters and her presumptions are overturned while away—and the beautiful scarf she has uncharacteristically and painstakingly bought for her daughter is snaffled by the disappointed leader of her old writing group with whom she has lunch in Baltimore. The account of book-signings in out of the way bookshops rings true and stories such as this contain many enjoyable aperçus. This is a world where she can cast an amused eye on the inhabitants without always doing so by means of some upheaval. It is her best territory. In ‘Ilk’, during a discourse on narration conducted in a miasma of Eng lit jargon, a professor attempts to offer a younger female colleague a post while she is trying to work out what one word it was that his wife is known to have written before hanging herself from a water-pipe. The story is a parody on the one hand and a clever play on narrative on the other.

The stories are set in Canada, the United States and Britain. Most, but not all, are written from a woman's point of view and many contain...

(This entire section contains 851 words.)

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a hint or more of betrayal by men. They are exceptionally poised and fluent, and although they have an overall academic feel to them, the well-timed details of food or clothes or little domestic arrangements keep them tied to ordinary life. As she has shown in her novels, Carol Shields likes the everyday. She likes the way a favourite thing or a pleasant habit (buying flowers, say) can unexpectedly see you through a moment of despair.

A tragic narrative, unbearable, except that the recurrent episodes—of ecstasy, shock, loss and lament—are similarly, cunningly, hinged to a saving capacity for digression and recovery, for the ability to be called back by clamorous objects and appointments.

She also enjoys the odd jeu d'esprit. In ‘Absence’ a writer has a faulty keyboard which refuses to print one character, a vowel, ‘a slender, one-legged vowel, erect but humble, whose dot of amazement had never before mattered’. Unable to mend the machine, she resolves to write her intended short story avoiding this vowel. The practical difficulties that follow and the consequent heart-ache she suffers are described by Shields, but without using the vowel either. Nowhere in this story will you find the letter ‘i’. A thesaurus, therefore, can be consulted by the writer but not a dictionary. These stories, in their variety, in the elegance of their prose—‘with sentences that melted at the centre and branched at the ends’, as she puts it in one of them—with their optimism and unexpected puzzles leave the reader with a sense of admiration.


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Carol Shields 1935-2003

(Born Carol Ann Warner) Canadian-American novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, biographer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Shields's career through 2003. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 91, 113.

Canadian-American writer Shields is best known for her highly celebrated novel The Stone Diaries (1993), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Canada's Governor General's Award. Shields, whose novels have achieved best-seller status, has been recognized for her experimental use of narrative form in fictions that examine the everyday lives of average men and women with honesty and compassion. Her recurring thematic concerns include personal identity and self-perception, as well as love, marriage, and family. Shields has stated in interviews that a central preoccupation running through her works is “the idea of women being fully human.” In an interview with Reuters, she commented, “I love the idea of home, and I think that is, in the end, what serious novels are about: the search for home.”

Biographical Information

Shields was born Carol Ann Warner on June 2, 1935, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The daughter of a schoolteacher and a candy factory manager, she has described her childhood as an essentially stable and happy one. She attended Hanover College in Indiana, graduating with a B.A. in 1957. During a semester studying at Exeter University in England, she met Donald Shields, a Canadian graduate student whom she married upon completion of her college degree. The couple lived in Canada, and Shields worked as a homemaker, raising their five children while her husband pursued an academic career in engineering. During this time, Shields wrote several journalistic stories, which were sold to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) and the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). At the age of 33, she enrolled in the graduate program in English at the University of Ottawa, where she completed a thesis on the nineteenth-century Canadian writer Susanna Moodie, earning a master's degree in 1975. Shields's first book of poems, Others, was published in 1972. Small Ceremonies, her first novel, was published in 1976. Shields taught as a professor of English at the University of Manitoba from 1980 until 2000, and served as Chancellor of Winnipeg University from 1996 until 2000. Upon retirement, she moved with her husband to Victoria, in the British Columbia province of Canada. Shields died of cancer on July 16, 2003, at the age of sixty-eight.

Major Works

Shields's career as a fiction writer developed in two distinct phases. Her early novels and short stories were conventional in form, exploring themes of individual identity and interpersonal relationships. Small Ceremonies,The Box Garden (1977), Happenstance (1980), and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982) all belong to this first phase. Small Ceremonies concerns a married couple living in Canada during the 1970s. Both husband and wife are academics, and the wife's research for a biography reflects the interpersonal dynamics within the family. Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman are companion novels, relating the events of a single weekend, first from the point of view of the husband and then from that of the wife. While these early novels were well received by critics and popular with readers in Canada, Shields was not well known outside of Canada. In the second phase of her career, however, she developed a wider international readership. Mary Swann: A Mystery (1987; published as Mary Swann, 1990) and her subsequent novels maintain her early thematic concern with the everyday lives of everyday people, but are distinguished by bold experiments in narrative voice and form for which Shields has been widely celebrated. Mary Swann concerns the life and work of the fictional Mary Swann, a farmer's wife who lived in rural Ontario and published a single volume of poetry before she was murdered by her husband. Mary Swann is described from the perspective of four different narrators, for each of whom Swann's life and work takes on a different set of meanings. A final section of the novel brings together the voices of all four narrators in the form of a screenplay. Mary Swann was adapted to film as a major motion picture released in 1996. A Celibate Season (1991), co-written with Blanche Howard, is an epistolary novel, comprising the letters between a husband and wife over the course of one year during which they live one thousand miles apart, in Ottawa and Vancouver. Shields and Howard built their fictional narrative through a process in which Shields wrote the letters attributed to the husband and Howard wrote those of the wife. The Stone Diaries, Shields's most highly celebrated work, is a biography of the fictional Daisy Goodwill Flett, beginning with her birth in 1905, and following the course of her life over a period of eight decades. In the person of Daisy, Shields portrays the life of an ordinary woman, including marriages, deaths, children, and a brief stint as the writer of a newspaper gardening column. Through the use of both first-person and third-person narrative voices, Shields explores the tensions between Daisy's inner life and her outer life. Larry's Party (1997) centers on the protagonist's forty-seventh birthday party, revealing the story of his life through an examination of his interrelationships with friends and family. Like most of Shields's main characters, Larry is a rather ordinary man—except for the fact that he makes his living designing and building complex mazes out of shrubbery. The motif of the maze functions as a symbol for the complexity of both Larry's relationships with others and the structure of the narrative itself. Critics have noted that, while Daisy in The Stone Diaries represents a sort of Everywoman, Larry represents the Everyman. Diagnosed with cancer in 1998, Shields wrote Unless (2002) with the awareness that it was to be her last novel. Unless, set in the year 2000, is narrated as the interior monologue of Reta Winters, a forty-three-year-old novelist, happily married, with three teenaged children. Reta experiences unhappiness for the first time in her life when her nineteen-year-old daughter Nora suddenly drops out of university and takes to sleeping in homeless shelters and begging on the streets of Toronto with a sign around her neck that reads “Goodness.” In struggling to cope with this family crisis, Reta comes to the conclusion that her daughter has internalized the realization that women continue to be marginalized in modern society. Reta thus embarks on an intellectual journey of feminist consciousness-raising in an attempt to come to terms with her daughter's seemingly inexplicable behavior.

Critical Reception

Shields has been widely praised for elegant prose and skillful use of detailed description in depicting the everyday objects and quotidian actions of men and women leading outwardly unremarkable lives. Gail Godwin observed that Unless, like The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party, “presents itself, almost insistently, as a story about ordinary lives. But then, through her sensitive observations and exacting prose, the author proceeds to flip them over and show us their uncommon depths.” Shields has been called a “miniaturist” because of her close attention to the details of everyday lives; however, Shields herself has stated that critics who refer to her as a miniaturist are marginalizing her work by relegating it to the realm of domestic women's fiction. Critics have noted that Shields's best novels effectively capture the essence of an individual life with all of its elusive ambiguities. As Clare Colvin commented, Shields's novels “suggest that the pattern of people's lives is in the detail, which they are inclined to disregard as being not sufficiently important to count as living.” The Stone Diaries, for example, has been praised as a work that portrays the entire lifespan of an ordinary woman in a way that demonstrates the extraordinary qualities of even the most mundane lives. Critics have been especially impressed with Shields's experimental use of narrative structure and shifting point of view in her later novels. Her experiments with non-chronological narrative structure have been highly praised, in works such as Larry's Party, in which she utilizes an elliptical narrative structure that frequently doubles back on itself, while telling the story of one man's life from birth through middle age. Lynne Sharon Schwartz praised Shields's use of the maze in Larry's Party as a metaphor “for a life shaped, like most lives, by wrong turns and arbitrary choices, the frivolity of coincidence, the benighted promptings of will and destiny.” Reviewers praised Shields's explorations of the elusive nature of biography in works such as Mary Swann, in which different narrators attempt to reconstruct the life of a fictional dead poet, based only on incomplete and fragmentary information. Critics offered high praise for Shields's last novel, Unless, asserting that it is her most powerfully feminist work and explores the marginalization of women in a bold and honest way.

Margaret Walters (review date 25 February 2000)

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SOURCE: Walters, Margaret. “The Beckoning World.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5056 (25 February 2000): 21.

[In the following review, Walters praises Dressing Up for the Carnival as a fine collection of lively stories, and lauds Shields's use of vivid detail.]

The title story of Carol Shields's fine new collection, Dressing Up for the Carnival, is set in a small town, as people prepare for an evening's festivities. A girl chooses clothes, then out in the sunshine feels transformed: “no longer just Tamara, clerk-receptionist for the Youth Employment Bureau, but a woman in a yellow skirt. A passionate woman dressed in yellow. A Passionate, Vibrant Woman About To Begin Her Day. Her Life.” Roger, thirty and divorced, breaks from routine to buy a mango, and suddenly feels that “the shrivelled fate he sometimes sees for himself can be postponed if only he puts his mind to it”. An older man who sometimes “waltzes about in his wife's lace-trimmed nightgown” gazes from his window; it seems as if “the evening itself is about to alter its dimensions, becoming more (and also less) than what it really is”.

Shields's eye for the sensuously vivid detail, for the telling moment when a whole life seems transformed, enlivens story after story. Her characters are often overwhelmed by moments of physical delight. In “A Scarf”, a woman searches for a gift for her daughter, eventually finding one that matches her imaginings: subtly patterned in blue, yellow and violet, “its shimmer dazzling … its touch icy and sensuous”. In “Dying for Love”, a woman is distracted from suicidal misery by recalling the small pleasure of buying olives and honey; in “Soupe du Jour”, an anxious child suddenly remembers the forgotten item on his mother's shopping list. “He says it out loud, celery, transforming the word into a brilliantly coloured balloon that swims and rises and overcomes the tiny confines of the ordinary everyday world to which, until this moment, he has been condemned.”

Occasionally, the brevity of the stories works against Shields's talents; a few are little more than lists. “Dying for Love”, conjuring up not just one, but three heartbroken women, has moments of piercing tenderness, but reads, overall, like the first sketch for a novel. “Keys”, in which the title alone connects the various characters, never gets off the ground. Occasionally, the need for brevity seems to force wit into whimsy. In “Weather”, for example, the meteorological workers go on strike and the main character begins to miss what she took for granted, wind, rain, seasonal variation. The conceit is too slight to sustain meditations on “the alternating rhythm of light and darkness that provides continuity … to live frictionlessly in the world is to understand the real grief of empty space”. “The Harp”—about a girl injured by a falling harp—is almost, but not quite, surreal; the fairy-tale “Stop!”, the story of a queen who locks herself away from every reminder of time passing, but overlooks her own heart and its “deadly arithmetic” proves grimly effective.

The finest of these stories are as coolly pointed as fables, but Shields's amused intelligence is complicated by the poignancy with which she can evoke turning points in people's lives. The last lines of “Mirrors”, the story of an elderly couple who once decided on a whim to do without mirrors in their country house, catch a lifetime in an instant: “their eyes held, caught on the thread of a shared joke: the two of them … had become each other, at home behind the screen of each other's face. It was several seconds before he was able to look away.” An interest in words, in the way people use and misuse them, runs through the volume. “Ilk” is a maliciously witty, but in the end unexpectedly touching, sketch of two academics, warily circling each other at a conference on “Narrativity and Notation”. They both use literary jargon to keep each other at arm's length; “to narrativize is to step back from spontaneous expression”, remarks the heroine, as she suppresses her longings. “The Next Best Kiss” is a reprise on the same theme: two professors gabble compulsively, “one talky voice drinking the other dry”. It is not long before they talk themselves out of the possibility of love.

Several of the most memorable, and perhaps most personal, of the stories in this volume are about writers: from the first-time novelist in “The Scarf”, embarrassed but unsurprised when nobody turns up to readings, to the elderly and famous Edith-Esther, whose biographer wants to bully her into acknowledging the spirituality in her own work. Perhaps the most intriguing story of all is “Absence”, about a woman who sits down at her word processor only to discover that one key is broken: “the very letter that attaches to the hungry self”. She decides “to work around the faulty letter”, and Carol Shields comically but sympathetically evokes her difficulties: “between stutters and starts, the sheen was somehow lost: the small watery pleasures of accent and stress were roughened up”. The woman tries to cut through the problem by opting for objectivity. “Why had she stayed so long enclosed by the tough lonely pronoun of her body when the whole world beckoned?” But the story—Shields deftly avoids the missing letter herself—turns into a meditation on the subjectivity that is, and must be, the source of all true storytelling.

Principal Works

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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

*Mary Swann: A Mystery (novel) 1987; published in the United Kingdom as Mary Swann, 1990

The Orange Fish (short stories) 1989

A Celibate Season [with Blanche Howard] (novel) 1991

The Republic of Love (novel) 1992

Coming to Canada (poetry) 1992

Happenstance [includes Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman] (novels) 1993

The Stone Diaries (novel) 1993

Thirteen Hands (play) 1993

Larry's Party (novel) 1997

Anniversary [with David Williamson] (play) 1998

Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1998 [editor] (short stories) 1998

Dressing Up for the Carnival (short stories) 2000

Jane Austen (biography) 2001

Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told [co-editor, with Marjorie Anderson] (essays) 2001

Unless (novel) 2002

Dropped Threads 2: More of What We Aren't Told [co-editor, with Marjorie Anderson and Catherine Shields] (essays) 2003

*Also published in various editions as Swann: A Mystery and Swann: A Literary Mystery.

Ruth Scurr (review date 28 February 2000)

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SOURCE: Scurr, Ruth. “Not Quotidian.” New Statesman 13, no. 594 (28 February 2000): 58-9.

[In the following review of Dressing Up for the Carnival, Scurr comments on the thematic links within each story, maintaining that Shields is a powerful storyteller who uses an experimental narrative style and playful inventiveness in her stories.]

“Absence,” a story in Carol Shields's new collection [Dressing Up for the Carnival], echoes Georges Perec's La Disparition in both name and conceit. Famously, Perec set out to write a novel without using the letter “e” and succeeded. Shields matches him, discreetly, with a story about a writer and a broken keyboard from which the letter “i” has disappeared: “She would be resourceful, look for other ways, and make an artefact out of absence. She would, to put the matter bluntly, make do.” Making do, cheerful canny compromise, reappears in “Invention.” Initially inspired by uxorial devotion, the unexpected commercial success of the steering-wheel muff results in marital breakdown. The special strain of creativity on domestic relations is picked up in another story. “New Music.” Here a woman is up early, typing away at a secondhand word processor while her family sleeps on. The work in progress is her biography of the composer Thomas Tallis, undeservedly overlooked for so long. There is a similar attempt to redress critical orthodoxy in “The Next Best Kiss.” Sandy works on a 19th-century botanist, a little-known autodidact whose thoughts paralleled Darwin's. She also has a weakness for the strong, silent kind of male portrayed in old films. Unfortunately her lover is a garrulous academic who can even talk himself into jealous rivalry with the long-dead rustic botanist.

Casual thematic links occur within, as well as between, the stories. The best example is the title story, “Dressing Up for the Carnival,” which introduces a sequence of disparate characters through the small props that support them in ordinary life: a favourite yellow skirt; a bunch of daffodils; a defunct plastic ski pass. Somehow, out of this shambolic collection of odds and ends, Shields conjures a seamless and compelling narrative. In “Keys,” she goes a step further. Not only is this story a seemingly random collection of anecdotes about keys, but it also describes a woman throwing a random selection of objects out of her apartment window for no apparent reason. And among these randomly selected objects is a cracked teacup containing flotsam and jetsam. Once again, from complete chaos a narrative pattern emerges.

Shields's power as a storyteller will come as no surprise following the success of The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party. What is riveting, however, is the extent to which she continues to push her luck, launching improbable experiments and stretching her powers to bring them under control. “Flatties: their various forms and uses,” for example, is a short treatise on unleavened bread, a strange combination of fiction, social anthropology and mysticism. “Windows,” on the other hand, links fiction to political theory. It recounts the struggle of two artists to express their creativity under a regime that has imposed a window tax. “Stop!”—shortest and oddest of all—is centred on an absent queen who has gradually withdrawn, on grounds of allergy or intolerance, from all that is commonplace: music, fresh air, nourishment, even speech.

Amid Shields's playful invention, an attitude of cheerful common sense covers, protects and decorates much that is searingly original in her prose. Some mistake it for the quotidian: “The triumph of the ordinary” according to the Guardian last month. And sometimes this seems fair enough. In the tongue-in-cheek story “Soup du Jour,” for example, a woman is learning French: “Naturally, she favours those regular, self-engrossed verbs—manger, penser, réfléchir, dormir—that attach to the small unalarming segments of her daily existence.” In “Eros,” another woman puzzles over Le Monde, and each time she manages to translate a sentence she congratulates herself.

Shields, characteristically modest and unassuming, recently described her own writing as “incremental”, patched together like a patchwork quilt. She could have easily compared her latest book to Perec's La Vie Mode d'Emploi, another text pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle and frequently compared to James Joyce's Ulysses.

But perhaps Shields doesn't realise how good, how important, how eminent she is? Sure. And I'm an elephant's eyebrow, as the female academic in Shields's novel Mary Swann would say. She knows, but she chooses to cover up. This is her prerogative. It may even be part of her point.

Abby Frucht (review date 21 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Frucht, Abby. “Between Rhapsody and Lamentation.” Washington Post (21 May 2000): 6.

[In the following review, Frucht asserts that Dressing Up for the Carnival is an important and highly entertaining work.]

Dressing Up for the Carnival is Pulitzer Prize-winner Carol Shields's third collection of stories and 12th work of fiction, and anyone who imagines that all this time the remarkable author of Larry's Party and The Stone Diaries has been holding back a few sparks of her peculiar genius is incorrect. It's not sparks but flames she's been tending in secret. These 22 stories emerge from a state of willful, artistic derangement in which the wry despair and vexed compassion of Shield's other works erupt in weird, extravagant light—and not simply for the fun of it but because they need to.

Behind this book lies the recognition that all the good things of this world need fresh encouragement if they are not to be overtaken by the bad things threatening to wipe them out. The world's woes are not articulated here, but the sadness to which they give rise is this book's quiet underpinning. Still, if what we see on the news invites desperation, Shields gives that desperation a mind-altering adrenaline rush. To make sense of things isn't advisable now, she might explain. Better to unhinge them and see them as they would be, instead of as they are.

A surreal intersection between rhapsody and lamentation is where this collection resides. What happens in the story “Windows,” for instance, when the government levies a tax on glass? To up the ante, the story is told by a painter, married to a second painter, their house and studio a celebration of daylight until they need to board up the windows to save cash. “Inside was trapped the darkness of a primitive world” followed by “a curious amnesia of the self … We kept to our separate corners … this was a flat, dull width of time.” Without passion, too, until the painter forgoes her dark canvas and paints the boarded-up window instead. Like many of these stories, “Windows” pays homage to the resourcefulness of love. “One of us reached forward to apply a final brushstroke … not real light … but the idea of light—infinitely more alluring than light itself.”

Likewise, in “Absence” a writer whose word processor no longer includes a certain vowel, and who finds that “the broken key [demands] of her a parallel surrender,” asks “why … had she stayed so long enclosed by the tough, lonely pronoun of her body when the whole world beckoned?” In “Harp” a woman injured by a falling harp is “awarded the unexpected buoyancy of flight,” and in “Mirrors” a man and woman who decide to rid their house of mirrors find themselves unable to look away from each other, their eyes “caught on the thread of a shared joke … at home behind the screen of each other's face.” “Weather” tells of a couple weathering the time when not only the meteorologists but the climate go on strike, and in “Soup du Jour” a forgetful child sent shopping for celery feels “thunderous” gratitude, freed of the “confines of the … everyday world to which … he has been condemned.”

“We cannot live without our illusions,” declares one of the characters in this book, but what is significant here is that illusion is neither defense nor escape. Rather, it is transformative, and in story after story these whimsical characters stake their hopes, and their hearts, on it. Whether they choose to do so, or are helpless not to do so, is a question neither openly posed nor resolved. But from fantasy springs a kind of necessary innocence. These narrators are painstakingly gullible, instantly credulous of the strangest events. What's more they never once pause to question, or to doubt, their own significance but rather indulge in a delighted self-consciousness that mirrors Shields's own.

Along with being an important work, Dressing Up for the Carnival is an endlessly levitating entertainment. The narrator of “Invention” proudly claims to be descended from the inventor of the comma and to be related to the inventor of the hyphen as well. She also claims lineage with the inventor of daydreams. “Some of us are needed who merely keep the historical record,” she adds, though “sometimes we risk our small emendations.” This book insists upon an emended world, and we should be humbly delighted to be ever so distantly related to the person who created it.

Further Reading

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Coyle, Jim. “Carol Shields Had a Unique Gift for Unravelling Life's Mysteries.” Toronto Star (19 July 2003): A21.

Coyle provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.

Dvorak, Marta. “Carol Shields and the Poetics of the Quotidian.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 38 (spring 2002): 57-71.

Dvorak offers a post-structuralist analysis of Shields's representations of everyday life in the stories of Dressing Up for the Carnival.

Ferguson, Sue. “Cries and Whispers.” Maclean's 116, no. 17 (28 April 2003): 50.

Ferguson praises the anthology Dropped Threads, co-edited by Shields, for fresh, imaginative prose and a broad range of perspectives.

Godwin, Gail. “For Goodness's Sake.” Washington Post (5 May 2002): 3.

Godwin describes Unless as a story that reveals the unexpected depths of ordinary lives. Godwin compares Shields's novel to the myth of Persephone and Demeter.

Heltzel, Ellen Emry. “Carol Shields again Gives Voice to Women's Concerns.” Chicago Tribune Books (12 May 2002): section 14, p. 2.

Heltzel describes Unless as an illuminating novel that explores the dark side of the feminine experience.

Johnston, Ann Dowsett. “Carol Shields.” Maclean's 114, no. 52 (24 December 2001): 29.

Johnston hails Shields as one of the most outstanding Canadians of the year.

———. “Her Time to Roar.” Maclean's 115, no. 15 (15 April 2002): 49-51.

Johnston praises Unless, asserting that it is both Shields's most powerful and most overtly feminist novel to date.

Additional coverage of Shields's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84, 218; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 51, 74, 98; Contemporary Canadian Authors, Vol. 1; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 91, 113; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz (review date May/June 2000)

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SOURCE: Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. “The Allures of Form.” New Leader 83, no. 2 (May/June 2000): 35-7.

[In the following review, Schwartz compares the stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival to Shields's novels, observing that the stories are more rooted in ideas than in character. ]

A spotlight on one book, however well-deserved, can cast the rest of a writer's work into shadow. Carol Shields, who has lived in Winnipeg for many years, is known to American readers for her 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Stone Diaries. But she is the author of eight earlier novels, and is a poet and playwright as well. To read her is to encounter a restive, experimental writer, one for whom the allures of form are paramount. The final section of Swann (1987), about four critics' discovery of a great unknown poet, purports to be the script of a film made at a literary symposium (the very notion provokes levity), A Celibate Season (1991), written with Blanche Howard, is an epistolary novel. Happenstance (1994), is presented from both a wife's and husband's viewpoint, and has to be turned upside down halfway through.

Given the success of The Stone Diaries, it seems disingenuous to claim that Carol Shields—praised for her “honesty,” “grace,” “humor,” and “depth”—is underappreciated. Yet her fiction isn't discussed with the reverence accorded to her widely known compatriots, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies.

Honesty, grace, et al. are often ascribed to able women writers, as are the other virtues of The Stone Diaries that were hailed: generosity of spirit, acuteness of observation, elegance of execution. Such generic praise might have suited Shields' early works, which are pleasing yet not especially distinctive or profound. But her fiction has steadily gained in allusive richness and force. In fact, it has undergone such a sea change that the benign terms no longer sufficiently or specifically describe what is found on the page. Beneath the limpid surface, the animating vision is hardly benign. The world of her last two novels, and even more of her new short stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival, is unsettling, perilous and passing strange.

Larry's Party (1998), the wonderfully eccentric novel that came after The Stone Diaries, was received in the spirit of bland respect that commonly follows a triumph. It deserved better. In it, before hero Larry's birth, his British mother unwittingly causes her mother-in-law's death by botulism, having served her home preserved and inadequately sealed green beans. As a consequence, the family flees England for Canada. They can never utter (or forget) the word “beans.” Larry becomes a builder of ever more complex garden mazes, a metaphor for a life shaped, like most lives, by wrong turns and arbitrary choices, the frivolity of coincidence, the benighted promptings of will and destiny.

The first marriage of Daisy Goodwill, orphaned heroine of The Stone Diaries, lasts all of eight days. On her honeymoon somewhere “in the middle of France,” her drunk husband falls out of an open hotel window before her very eyes while tossing coins to the children below. The marriage is unconsummated—he's been drunk and possibly uninterested all week. Later she marries a man 23 years her senior and passes two mild decades until his death. Neither husband is much missed; they barely registered. “To live frictionlessly in the world,” notes a character in the new story collection, “is to understand the real grief of empty space.”

The event that has registered for Daisy, deeply and perpetually, is her unexpected birth on a kitchen couch. Her mother dies, so obese and innocent that she's been unaware of her pregnancy. Daisy is left unmoored in the world. Nothing that happens later can allay that stern fact. The author's ability to present such bizarre incidents with cool humor only sharpens their terror.

The stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival do not have the specific gravity of Shields' novels; they are altogether something else, more delicate and subtle, more rooted in ideas than in character (unlike her previous fairly conventional collections, Various Miracles [1989] and The Orange Fish [1992]). A good number are finely wrought excursions along a path of metaphorical inquiry—into the meaning of keys, or the difference between invention and interpretation (that is, between artist and critic), or the emotional reverberations of weather. Occasionally the reader gets attached to the characters only to find they are being deployed as mere illustration.

Shields is purposely subverting expectation. “A narrative isn't something you pull along like a toy train, a perpetually thrusting indicative,” one character (a literary critic) declares. “It's this little subjunctive cottage by the side of the road. All you have to do is open the door and walk in. Sometimes you might arrive and find the door ajar. … Other times you crawl in through a window.” In a handful of stories, the window is too narrow, the narrative simply an elaboration of a conceit, the vital material too thinly spread. But at their best, they are virtuoso performances, the sort of thing a writer can risk only when she is fully at ease with her craft.

Shields certainly cannot be described as a minimalist; her imagination is too fertile. But she thinks in terms of technical and emotional economies. A pervasive theme of Dressing Up for the Carnival is deprivation—selective, often voluntary, sometimes imposed. “Emptiness has weight,” one narrator remarks. “Absence gestures at meaning. A doorway is privileged over an actual door in its usefulness and even its beauty—to give a homely example.” In “Keys,” a lonely character is “seized by an impulse to purify her life” and begins throwing her possessions out the window.

The married couple in “Mirrors” decide to do without mirrors in their summer house, a “curious strand of asceticism.” Over the years this renunciation has an unintended result: Mirrorless, they finally see themselves behind each other's faces. Sounds cozy, but it's not: “They still apprehend each other as strangers.”

As in Shields' novels, anatomies of marriages abound. But while the novels generally adhere to the rigors of realism, the stories explode with fantasy and whimsy. In “Weather,” the National Association of Meteorologists goes on strike and all weather stops. “We were suddenly without seasonal zest,” says the wife, “without hourly variation, without surprise and complaint, dislocated in time and space.” This becomes the salient image for a difficult, sometimes arid marriage, but one that intermittently clicks back into connection, the partners as relieved and grateful as they are for the resumption of wind and storms.

The queen of a mythical realm in “Stop!” has renounced everything. Like some pan-allergic people, she can't abide any sensory stimuli, down to “the shape of a spoon in her mouth.” Unable to bear time itself, “she no longer speaks or thinks, since the positioning of noun and verb, of premise and conclusion, demands a progression that invites that toxic essence, that mystery.” But she can't escape the rhythmic beating of her own heart, “insisting on its literal dance.”

Since life does insist on going on, a more practical response to deprivation is making do, a strategy that Shields' novels examine at philosophical leisure and the stories treat swiftly—with a calligrapher's pen as opposed to the muralist's brush. “Everything is coming out these days for the pleasures of ordinary existence. … ‘The quotidian is where it's at,’” she announces, citing an imaginary syndicated columnist (and maybe taking a poke at narrow readings of her own books). Beneath the therapeutic soup making and embroidery and hot baths in “Soup du Jour,” though, is the determined denial of a volatile affair, an unacknowledged child and exile.

The spirit of making do transcends the quotidian in “Windows.” When the government imposes a window tax, forcing people to board up their sources of light and vision, two painters whose love and work are threatened paint a window over their boarded-up one. Beyond relief, it yields an esthetic. “Not real light, of course, but the idea of light—infinitely more alluring than light itself. … a window that had become more than a window, better than a window, the window that would rest in the folds of the mind as all that was ideal and desirable in the opening, beckoning, sensuous world.”

Inquiries into the nature and making of art are the other passionate preoccupations of Dressing Up for the Carnival, from the large metaphor of a better-than-real window, down to the minuscule matter of a broken letter, the “i” on a computer keyboard, that plagues the writer-narrator of “Absence.” How can she write her intended story without “the very letter that attaches to the hungry self?” Frustrated after hours of effort, deprived of the first person pronoun, the gerund, the most common verb, she persists, the absence becoming a challenge like the restrictions of a sonnet or a Rothko palette: “The broken key seemed to demand of her a parallel surrender, a correspondence of economy subtracted from the alphabet of her very self.”

In her own parallel surrender, Shields writers the three-and-a-half page story without using an “i,” an unobtrusive feat that would have been too clever had it gone on any longer. (Although, come to think of it, the French novelist Georges Perec wrote an entire novel, A Void, without the more common “e.”)

Yet another writer-propagandist, bumbling her way through a book tour in “The Scarf,” discovers that even shopping for her daughter, if done properly, can become an art form. “It was the desire to please someone fully, even one's self.” An envious friend fingers the treasured scarf and says, “‘Finding it, it's almost like you made it. You invented it, created it out of your imagination.’” Heartwarming, yes, but hardly the last word. The friend takes possession of the daughter's scarf, leaving the shopper empty-handed. Another deprivation, another absence: “Not one of us was going to get what we wanted.”

About half the main characters in the collection are artists or writers, which can grow claustrophobic. So a witty, circuitous story called “Invention,” about the genesis of art, is a salutary change. It wanders lightheartedly from an account of the invention of the steering wheel muff (by a woman pained to see her husband's hands chilling on the wheel), to a medieval monk's invention of the space between words, to the invention of the hyphen, and culminates with an ancient Greek shepherd boy: Driven by boredom on the job, he discovers that he can dream by day, eyes wide open, as well as by night. “‘A daydream,’ his father says, full of wonder.” “‘You have chanced upon something of great value,’ his mother says.”

A hypersubtle sensibility is something of great value too. Like the scarf her heroine chooses—practically invents—for her daughter, Shields' work is “brilliant and subdued at the same time, finely made, but with a secure sense of its own shape. … Solidity, presence … but in sinuous, ephemeral form.” Some of the stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival are too ephemeral, but in the end the collection is greater than the sum of its parts. It shows a writer who has evolved from competence to mastery, whose imagination is always in search mode, who can transform her “subjunctive cottages” into labyrinthine castles.

Joyce Carol Oates (review date 29 June 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6070

SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “An Endangered Species.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 11 (29 June 2000): 38-41.

[In the following review, Oates discusses Shields's Dressing Up for the Carnival along with several other recent story collections by various authors. Oates comments that Shields's stories are intelligent, provocative, and entertaining.]

The short story is a minor art form that, in the hands of a very few practitioners, becomes major art. Its effect is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative; a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts. In isolation, striking and original as individual stories might be, it's likely that they would quickly fade from literary memory, as a few scattered poems of Emily Dickinson, separated from the poet's great body of work, would have long since faded into oblivion.

Yet one might argue that collections of short fiction have been among the major literary accomplishments of the twentieth century. Surely the astonishing stories of Franz Kafka (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “A Country Doctor,” “A Report to an Academy,” “The Hunger Artist,” among others) are a greater accomplishment than his uncompleted novels. Thomas Mann's shorter works—“Death in Venice,” “Mario and the Magician,” “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” among others—are an achievement equivalent to that of the lengthy, ambitious, doggedly cerebral great novels.

In a very different vein, there are the brilliantly realized short stories of Katherine Mansfield, who never wrote a novel. There is Jorge Luis Borges, whose wonderfully original, idiosyncratic work consists almost entirely of enigmatic ficciones, some of them very brief. The short stories of Ernest Hemingway, including the entirety of his remarkable first book, In Our Time, are a greater accomplishment than the novels that brought him wealth and celebrity; no novel by Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Peter Taylor, Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, among others, is the equivalent of their short stories. J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories is at least the equivalent of the immensely popular adolescent saga Catcher in the Rye, and of more abiding interest to adults. And there is the example of Raymond Carver, who wrote short stories and poetry exclusively, and who has ascended since his premature death in 1988 to near-mythic status as “the American Chekhov”: a posthumous celebrity that suggests a certain bleak irony if one is acquainted with Carver's personal life.1

The perennial question “Is the short story an endangered species?” would seem to assume a perilous contemporary climate for the survival of this purely literary form. Despite the present-day profusion of literary magazines of varying degrees of excellence, and recent publications of outstanding short story collections by writers who have made the form their primary mode of expression, among these Tobias Wolff, Thom Jones, Lorrie Moore, the late Andre Dubus, and the veterans Grace Paley and Alice Munro,2 one doubts that the twenty-first century will be as hospitable to short story writers as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been. Short stories, unlike novels, are invariably “literary” and the audience for serious literature is said to be static; in some quarters, it's likely that the perusal of reviews of books has replaced an actual reading of “primary materials” (i.e., books).

In this radically diminished landscape, the generally reliable, heroically edited, and accessible annual anthologies The Best American Short Stories,Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and The Pushcart Prize: The Best of the Small Presses are invaluable.

No more beautifully cadenced and moving collection of short fiction is likely to appear this year than Colum McCann's provocatively titled Everything in This Country Must, a gathering of two stories and a novella. “This country” is Ireland, the time is the near-present, and the subject is the Troubles, pervasive as mist obscuring the green countryside. It's an era when political strife is unavoidable even by those who hope to define themselves as apolitical, and when no family, Catholic or Protestant, has been untouched. Wounds are fresh, though rarely discussed; forgiveness, though reasonable and necessary, simply isn't possible for many who have suffered personal losses. The title story begins ominously, with that air of melancholy beauty and resignation that characterize McCann's understated, luminous language:

A summer flood came and our draft horse got caught in the river. The river smashed against stones and the sound of it to me was like the turning of locks. It was silage time and the water smelled of grass. The draft horse, Father's favorite, had stepped in the river for a sniff maybe and she was caught, couldn't move, her foreleg trapped between rocks.

The narrator is a young farm girl named Katie who may be somewhat slow; through her limited perspective we are brought into the lives of a Catholic family devastated by the loss of family members struck by a British army truck:

… I could hear in Father's voice more sadness than when he was over Mammy's and Fiachra's coffins, more sadness than the day after they were hit by the army truck down near the Glen, more sadness than the day when the judge said Nobody is guilty, it's just a tragedy, more sadness than even that day and all the days that follow.

McCann sustains a mood of dreamlike suspense and mounting anxiety through an adventure that involves young British soldiers vainly trying to help save the draft horse, and ends in a gesture of anguish that's both unexpected and inevitable: “Oh what a small sky for so much rain.”

From a very different perspective, the second story, “Wood,” depicts a Protestant family at a time when the father, a miller and carpenter, has had a stroke, and the mother must take on responsibility for the household. Here too the perspective is that of a child, a boy who comes to a realization of his parents' precarious situation in a tensely politicized Northern Ireland; his father has distanced himself from local anti-Catholic activity (“Daddy says he's as good a Presbyterian as the next … but it's just meanness that celebrates other people dying”), while the boy's mother is more willing to cooperate, and to provide poles to carry banners in the annual Orangemen's march. The story builds to a dramatic pitch yet isn't finally dramatic, still less melodramatic. As in the Joycean model of poetically rendered, elliptical fiction, the conclusion is only a poignant trailing off from overt confrontation:

I looked at the oak trees behind the mill. They were going mad in the wind. The trunks were big and solid and fat, but the branches were slapping each other around like people.

The novella “Hunger Strike” is a more ambitious, and more painful, depiction of a young person's agitation at a time, presumably in the early 1980s, of intense political confrontation in Northern Ireland. A fourteen-year-old Belfast boy has been taken by his mother to live in Galway for the duration of a hunger strike by IRA prisoners in a Belfast prison; one of the prisoners is the boy's twenty-five-year-old uncle, his deceased father's younger brother, whom the boy has never met but whom he reveres. The novella takes us into the boy's most intimate experience in his involuntary exile. He's transfixed by the hunger strike, which lasts for over fifty days; with mounting terror and fury he thinks constantly of his uncle: “He was one of four prisoners on the strike—already, for each man dead another had replaced him and the boy found it strange that the living were stepping into the bodies of the gone. The dying, he thought, could go on forever.” While the boy endures his uncle's martyrdom at a distance, he also is susceptible to frequent outbursts of destructiveness and vandalism; his rage is barely contained. In Northern Ireland, too, violence erupts anew in response to British refusal to grant the striking prisoners political status:

The riots back home were full-scale now. Some prison guards had been shot. Two joyriders had been gunned down in Twinbrook. A young girl, bringing home milk, had been hit in the head with a rubber bullet and she was in a coma. Somebody had slit the throats of a whole herd of cattle because they belonged to a Catholic farmer and the herd had been strung together to make the word NO in the field.

McCann's powerfully imagined elegy for the passing of youth's idealism suggests both the bittersweet, unsentimental lyricism of Edna O'Brien's early Irish stories and those novels by Bernard MacLaverty, Cal and Grace Notes, in which the tragic shadow of the political falls across the lives of sharply rendered, individualized men and women. At the end of “Hunger Strike,” the bereft boy is forced to realize that “… the uncle he didn't know was all the uncle he'd ever know.” Perhaps this is a way of speaking of the ambiguous relationship of a young generation of Irish writers, some of them expatriates (McCann, born in Northern Ireland, currently lives in New York City), to Ireland itself.

There's this frantic but good-hearted guy Johnny Loop, born loser, just released from two years in a Galveston prison and now “frying across the Texas panhandle” in July to arrive in Vegas where he meets up with Fruit Loop his stunted but busty and hippy and blond-as-bleach younger sister in her wedding dress who's about to be married to built-like-a-bull semi-pro football player Breezy Bonaventure of the Sarasota Panthers, except there are complications involving considerable violence when a pervert in a nearby hotel conspicuously leers at Fruit Loop and Breezy and the entire Panther team, obliged to seek vengeance, beat him up and Johnny Loop left to ponder his existential dilemma, while downing numerous cans of beer:

I do not like to gamble and done Vegas too many times. I am not lucky. Some people are lucky. The big finger in the sky is pointed at them. The big finger in the sky never so much as took the time to poke me in the eye.

In a casino bar Johnny Loop is approached by a beautiful woman who is ten times better looking than any woman who ever looked at him twice in his life, a schoolteacher from Iowa dressed all in shiny spangles. She smiles at him, and next thing Johnny Loop knows it's hours later, he's waking from a nightmare, his sister Fruit Loop and Breezy Bonaventure are married and gone on their honeymoon, and it's being explained to Johnny Loop by a doctor how lucky he is to be alive because it seems that a crucial organ has been surgically removed from his body. But to elucidate any further would be to cheat the reader of the opportunity to discover how Tom Paine works out this wild, wacky, finally poignant title story of his virtuoso collection Scar Vegas.

There are ten remarkable stories here, with singular idiosyncratic voices, characters in extremis like Johnny Loop, and a passionate political vision underlying the inspired chaos of the plots. Scar Vegas is a bold and original first book rendered for the most part at breakneck speed. In the opening story, “Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?,” a young American male of the privileged Caucasian class (“The world loves me”) suffers an accident on a single-handed sailing trip out of the Bahamas and bound for St. Barts, endures hardship in the killing sun, and begins to hallucinate:

The third day the sea was glass, and then the wind whispered at noon and feathered the glass in running swaths. For hours, Eliot watched the swaths dapple in the sun. … When he awoke, his throat was on fire, and he wanted to drink from the sea and he swallowed, and the salt burned like acid down his throat. … He closed his eyes and saw the boom over the fieldstone fireplace in the pastel living room of his house in Locust Valley and saw himself standing under it telling the story of his shipwreck. There were many people in the room listening, but they were all strangers.

In this cruel parable of First and Third World experience, Eliot Swan is joined at sea and his life saved by desperate Haitians who have fled their country seeking asylum in the United States, their battered wreck of a boat adrift for twenty days. The story would seem to be gearing up for a fairy-tale happy ending … but when American rescue workers arrive in a helicopter to save the privileged Mr. Eliot, we don't find out whether he will insist that they save the Haitians, too.

Among Paine's dramatic stories of winners and losers, the privileged and the victimized, the companion piece to “Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?” is a surrealist horror story, “A Predictable Nightmare on the Eve of the Stock Market First Breaking 6,000,” tracing the physical and mental degradation of a female investment banker (her Cheeveresque name, Melanie Applebee) who has been fired by her superiors for having told them about her discovery that a colleague was trading illegally on inside information. Melanie Applebee has been a highly productive employee of a wealthy capitalist organization:

She had been praised by Hart's management for her plan for a restructuring. The plan closed down marginal stores, bought a chain of cut-rate drugstores, slashed the pension program, reduced employee stock options, severely limited the health plan, and cut wages. [An associate] she went on a blind date with at the time told her everything she and he were doing was probably pure evil.

As in a medieval allegory in which “evil” is suitably punished, beautiful, blond Melanie with her MBA winds up as a piece of merchandise herself, sold by an enterprising young capitalist to an Arab sheik, and to be transported “to Mexico City, then to Oman. Or Dubai. Where the market wills.”

Clearly these savagely politicized stories are not in the fastidious, psychologically subtle mode of the mainstream modern short story that has descended through the decades from Chekhov, Joyce, and James; these are tales that play boldly with caricatures, stereotypes, and large moral issues that, in the hands of a less gifted writer, would make for unconvincing reading. In “General Markman's Last Stand,” a Marine hero revealed as a cross-dresser prepares for his public humiliation on his last day of service. In “The Battle of Khafji” a “clean-cut Burlington [Vermont] boy” joins the marines and is shipped to fight in Operation Desert Storm, with tragic consequences (“… It was like a party: We were finally going to get some trigger time”). As this summary suggests, these are emboldened tall tales that thrive upon excess, and if the gifted Paine has any weakness it's his very energy, which can become wearing; paragraphs dense with detail fly by us like a conveyer belt whose speed is ever accelerating, and the precarious humanity of Paine's characters is overshadowed by the very ambitions of his prose.

Despite its fatuous cover—the torso of a chunky ballerina in green chiffon, with a cutely blank Magritte-mirror for a head—Carol Shields's third collection of stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival, is an intelligent, provocative, and entertaining collection of variegated prose pieces, both conventional and unconventional. Of the twenty-two stories a few are admittedly slight and overly whimsical; several of the more promising fade disappointingly, as if the author had lost interest; but the majority are deftly, even sunnily written, and bristling with ideas, reminding us that fiction need not be emotionally devastating or “profound” to be worthwhile.

The quicksilver opening story, a sort of musical overture, “Dressing Up for the Carnival,” glides rapidly about an unspecified Canadian city (Shields, an American, lives in Winnipeg, Ontario) with Woolfian bravura: “All over town people are putting on their costumes.” In thumbnail sketches we glimpse women and men in private moments as they reinvent themselves by way of eye-catching clothing or ornamentation, or impulsive, exotic purchases (a mango, for instance, or a big bouquet of daffodils), or sporting a “smart chignon.” Shields both celebrates and gently mocks the human need to mythologize the self, in however trifling and evanescent ways. Thinks a middle-aged man who sometimes, in secret, waltzes about in his wife's nightgown, “We cannot live without our illusions.” The “shriveled fate” these anonymous citizens perceive for themselves can be postponed, it's believed, by such hopeful acts.

Shields suggests that “dressing up” is what we are all doing, and certainly what writers must do, in the service of creating and sustaining the illusion of art. Several of her most winning stories are about thoroughly unromantic, self-doubting women writers. Like the middle-aged female protagonist of “The Scarf,” they have come to the writing life not by way of passion and vision but indirectly, having first been editors and scholars. The author of My Thyme Is Up is puzzled by her novel's “sparky sales,” and has been made to feel guilty in the light of the lack of success of a more gifted but less “accessible” woman writer friend; she is awarded the Offenden Prize, given annually to a novel of literary quality that has “a beginning, a middle, and an ending”—which confirms the book's minor status. (Shields won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries in 1995.)

In a companion story, the mildly satiric “The Next Best Kiss,” two academic writers meet and begin a love affair at a conference on the fin de siècle crisis: the male professor gives a paper titled “End of the Self” (“Todd confided to Sandy that the text … might eventually find its way into the New York Review of Books, although the editors were asking for substantial changes”); the female professor presents a seminar titled “Diatribe and Discourse in the Twenty-first Century” which is “loaded with allusive arrows” to Lacan. The love affair, such as it is, would seem to have been concocted out of sheer verbiage, as well as groveling need on both sides. It ends abruptly, when the woman utters an unintended truth the man isn't prepared to accept, for all his pose of unflinching honesty.

In any case, what is happiness, in contemporary times?

… Those twin demons, happiness and sadness, had lost their relevance. Happiness was a crock; no one … really had it for more than a minute at a time. And sadness had shrunk, become miniaturized and narrowly defined, a syndrome, a pathology—whereas once, in another time, in a more exuberant century, in a more innocent age, there existed great gusts of oxygen inside the sadness of ordinary people. … Sadness was dignified; it was referred to as melancholy. … It was a real affliction, like color blindness or flat feet.

A more ambitious story about writers is “Edith-Esther,” which describes the uneasy relationship between an elderly woman writer of distinction and her intrusive male biographer, who turns the writer's lifelong religious agnosticism inside out in the service of writing an “up-lifting” biography that, ironically, will sell better than his subject's novels have sold. Edith-Esther knows that her biographer will misuse her, as he has misused his previous biographical subjects, but how can she protect herself?

She understood how careful you had to be with biographers; death by biography—it was a registered disease. Thousands have suffered from it, butchery by entrapment in the isolated moment. The selected moment with its carbon lining. Biographers were forever catching you out and reminding you of what you once said …

Edith-Esther can escape her biographer only by dying.

The weakest prose pieces in Dressing Up for the Carnival read as if they've been spun of whimsy, to be hurriedly typed out even as inspiration fades: what if the National Association of Meteorologists were to go on strike, and we had no weather for weeks; what if the Queen vanishes, and the “progression of seasons” ceases. Shields is amusing, but not very interested in pursuing where these hypotheses might lead, so these pieces tend to trail off.

The strong concluding story, “Dressing Down,” however, is a chill counterpoint to the opening story of dressing up: a young boy's grandparents become permanently estranged over the issue of a summer nudist camp in southern Ontario, to which the grandfather is devoted. Encouraged by the grandfather to spend time with him at the camp, the ten-year-old boy is shocked and sickened by what he sees, not liberated as his grandfather had hoped:

People with their limbs and creases and folds were more alike than I thought. Skin tones, hairy patches—that was all they had. Take off your clothes and you were left with your dull suit of invisibility.

What I witnessed led me into a distress I couldn't account for or explain, but which involved a feverish disowning of my own naked body and a frantic plummeting into willed blindness. I was launched into the long business of shame, accumulating the mingled secrets of disgust and longing. …

In a final defiant gesture, the boy's grandmother leaves instructions that after her death her naked body be placed in a coffin to be kept open at her wake; of course, the family, mired in convention, refuses to obey.

Where Carol Shields is swift, effervescent, and inclined to ideas, Alice Elliott Dark is introspective, brooding, willing to risk a kind of Jamesian stasis in the hope of deepening our engagement with her characters. Unlike Shields's women and men, who bounce about the page like balloons, Dark's women, men, and children are defined by and often burdened by their histories; they are individuals not to be glibly defined in terms of class or types, though they might seem, from a distance, to be of a singular species: educated, upper-middle-class, Caucasian suburbanites for whom financial security, social status, and politics are not issues. They don't reside in Locust Valley, like Tom Paine's privileged ugly American Eliot Swan, nor are they near neighbors of the alcohol- and lust-driven inhabitants of John Cheever's Shady Hill. The citizens of Dark's suburban village Wynnemoor (an inspired name) are unexceptionally intelligent, decent, and hopeful; even the adulterous are desperately eager to do the “right” thing, and no action is performed that isn't mulled over, conscientiously.

Dark's characters are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, almost exclusively family-defined; quite a few are middle-aged or older; it's rare that one can say of himself: “I was a bachelor unto myself and complete. I'd never married or even fallen in love” (“The Tower”): One of the collection's most moving stories, “Home,” takes us into the experience of an elderly woman whose invalid husband has just been admitted to a nursing home, on the day she's informed by her married daughter that her husband and the rest of the family are selling the house she'd believed was hers, and making arrangements for her to live with her husband in the nursing home. When she objects, she's informed that she has no choice, for she has no property or income of her own. This subtly rendered story becomes by swift degrees a horror story, the more terrifying for its domestic setting. The good, dutiful wife of sixty years, Lil is coldly informed by her daughter:

You should have stood up to Dad years ago. … I hate the thought of you losing this house. You're like one of those Indian women being thrown alive onto her husband's funeral pyre. A suttee.

In the Gloaming is a collection of ten beautifully composed, quietly narrated short stories reminiscent of the stories of love and loss of the late Alice Adams. Each story exudes the gravitas of a radically distilled novel; though, in well-crafted short story fashion, we begin near the story's climax, we are brought through flashbacks into the protagonists' lives, and come to assess them in ways they aren't able to assess themselves. The much-admired title story, which was selected by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century, is a love story of a special kind: the emotional experience of a woman who discovers that her gay son who is dying of AIDS is “the love of her life,” and not her husband, who has been largely absent from his family but made into a “benign image” concocted by the wife herself, “a character of her invention, with a whole range of postulated emotions.” This elegiac but toughly unsentimental story is utterly convincing in its depiction of the dying son's last days, and the urgency both mother and son feel about exploring their new, romantic discovery of each other: “You're where I come from,” the son, Laird, says. “I need to know about you.” Their conversations become increasingly candid:

“I'm asking about your love life,” she said. “Did you love, and were you loved in return?”


“I'm glad.”

“That was easy,” he said.

“Oh, I've gotten very easy, in my old age.”

“Does Dad know about this?” His eyes were twinkling wickedly.

“Don't be fresh,” she said.

So skillfully is “In the Gloaming” written, so subtle the presentation of the mother's mental state, that the reader comes to share in her delusion that the afflicted Laird will somehow not die, and that their journey of discovery will continue indefinitely, as if the bond between mother and son weren't predicated entirely upon Laird's fatal illness. If Laird were well, the last place he'd be would be in Wynnemoor, in his parents' home. Yet the mother can console herself, in the twilight, “the gloaming,” of their life together:

How many mothers spend so much time with their thirty-three-year-old sons? She had as much of him now as she'd had when he was an infant—more, because she had the memory of the intervening years as well, to round out her thoughts about him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked that if a writer begins with an individual, he may end up with a type; if he begins with a type, he will end up with nothing. Alice Elliott Dark would seem to refute this theory by presenting us with characters who, at first glance, appear to be familiar types: the callow young husband/adulterer in “Close” who makes a pilgrimage to his boyhood home, quixotically seeking a sign to help him with his life; the boastful bachelor in “The Tower” who falls deeply in love, for the first time, with a young woman who is the daughter of a former mistress and who might, or might not, be his own daughter.

In the volume's concluding story, “Watch the Animals,” a suburban stereotype named Diana Frick (one of Wynnemoor's “moneyed blue bloods, the descendant of a signer”), dying of cancer and needing to find homes for her numerous rescued animals, is confronted by stereotypical gossipy neighbors who ponder the older woman's behavior, which differs so markedly from their own:

[Diana's animals] were not purebreds, or even respectable mutts. She collected creatures that others had thrown away, the beasts left on the side of the highway or confiscated from horrific existences by her contacts at the ASPCA; the maimed sprung from labs, the exhausted retired from dog tracks; the unlucky blamed for the sins of the household and made to pay with their bodies. … Immigrants from hell, she called them. …

She took these animals that otherwise would have ended up euthanized at best, and she trained them and groomed them and nursed them and fed them home-cooked foods until—we had to admit—they bore a resemblance to the more fortunate of their species. They behaved, as far as we could tell. But from a practical standpoint, could they ever be considered truly trustworthy? Who knew what might set them off?

Yet these clucking old biddies reveal themselves, finally, as fully human too. “Watch the Animals” is a perfect ending for the elegiac stories of In the Gloaming, bringing together Dark's commingled themes of impending loss and unreasonable hope. The Wynnemoor community embraces Diana Frick only when she signals to them that she is as vulnerable as they, and as mortal.

If George Saunders's hyperkinetic dark-fantasist-satirist prose in the mode of Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme, and DeLillo is an acquired taste, it's a taste quickly acquired. This master of low-mimetic lunacy can make you laugh aloud even as you wince at his deadpan excess and the manic, compulsive syntax that mimics, as in a ghastly echolalia, those thoughts we might consider our own, and “normal.” There's an admirable boldness, too, in the way in which Saunders recycles motifs (America as theme park, for instance) from story to story. The six talky, bizarre tales of his new collection, Pastoralia, are very like the seven talky, bizarre tales of his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996); like the entrepreneurial zealots whom he satirizes, Saunders exploits his material with slight variants, improvising upon a formula of stream-of-consciousness black humor that sometimes, but not often, spills over into sheer comic-book silliness but occasionally, as in the new collection, engages us unexpectedly.

Saunders's brain-damaged and frequently physically handicapped characters will perhaps be more amusing to readers with no qualms about mental retardation, autism, senile dementia, and physical disabilities, but it should be kept in mind that satirists from Aristophanes and Rabelais to Swift and Céline and Lenny Bruce have been outrageously cruel, and our current politically incorrect humor is especially so:

The first great act of love I ever witnessed was Split Lip bathing his handicapped daughter. We were young, innocent of mercy, and called her Boneless or Balled-Up Gumby for the way her limbs were twisted and useless. … She was scared of the tub, so to bathe her Split Lip covered [her] couch with a tarp and caught the runoff in a bucket.

(“Isabelle,” in CivilWar Land)

From Pastoralia, the final minutes of a child named Cody who's afflicted with a mysterious “nosehole”:

The boy on the bike flew by the chink's house, and the squatty-body's house, and the house where the dead guy had rotted for five days, remembering that the chink had once called him nasty, the squatty-body had once called the cops when he'd hit her cat with a lug nut on a string, the chick in the dead guy's house had once asked if he, Cody, ever brushed his teeth. Someday when he'd completed the invention of his special miniaturizing ray he would shrink their houses and flush them down the shitter while in tiny voices all three begged for some sophisticated mercy, but he would only say, Sophisticated? When were you ever sophisticated to me?

… But then oh crap he was going too fast and missed it [running over a neighbor's hose], and the announcers in the booth above the willow gasped in pleasure at his sudden decisive decision to swerve across the newly sodded lawn of the squatty-body's house. His bike made a trough in the sod and went humpf over the curb, and as the white car struck him the boy and the bike flew together in a high comic arc across the street and struck the oak on the opposite side with such violence that the bike wrapped around the tree and the boy flew back into the street.

The America of Saunders's uninflected prose has become a virtual-reality America of theme parks, amusement enterprises, and private habitations like Sea Oak (“no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx”), where characters watch TV programs like How My Child Died Violently and The Worst That Could Happen. They live with physically impaired relatives, whom they are obliged to care for, with limited resources. And try to earn a decent living! The hapless narrator of the title story plays a prehistoric cave dweller in a theme park, but business is falling off; his mate keeps forgetting her scripted role, jeopardizing both their jobs by speaking English (“No freaking goat?” “What a bunch of shit”). Nor is romance a likely possibility for the cave couple:

She's in there washing her armpits with a washcloth. The room smells like her, only more so. I add the trash from her wicker basket to my big white bag. I add her bag of used feminine items to my big white bag. I take three bags labeled Caution Human Refuse from the corner and add them to my big pink bag labeled Caution Human Refuse. …

She's fifty and has large feet and sloping shoulders and a pinched little face and chews with her mouth open.

As if aping primitive cognition, the title story, “Pastoralia” is excruciatingly long, and slow, as a centipede is slow, moving its legs in deliberate sections, unhurried. Here is a purposefully clumsy prose that presents a considerable obstacle to the reader, yet the effort is usually worth it, as with the effort required to get through the companion stories “Winky,” “The Barber's Unhappiness,” and “The Falls,” in which the unattractive, seemingly moronic characters work themselves up to decisive acts, or almost. “Winky” is the funniest, its opening scene a parody of an EST-like self-help seminar held in a Hyatt, under the direction of Tom Rodgers himself, founder of the Seminars:

Now, if someone came up and crapped in your nice warm oatmeal, what would you say? Would you say: “Wow, super, thanks, please continue crapping in my oatmeal”? Am I being silly? I'm being a little silly. But guess what, in real life people come up and crap in your oatmeal all the time—friends, co-workers, loved ones, even your kids, especially your kids!—and that's exactly what you do. You say, “Thanks so much!” You say, “Crap away!” You say, and here my metaphor breaks down a bit, “Is there some way I can help you crap in my oatmeal?”

All the protagonist, Neil-Neil, wants is the courage to tell his mentally retarded sister Winky to move out of the apartment they've been sharing for too long, but when he's put to the test Neil-Neil fails. Of course: “He wasn't powerful he wasn't great, he was just the same as everybody else.”

In their original settings in the columns of The New Yorker, amid glossy advertisements for high-priced merchandise, George Saunders's goofy riffs on the travails of freaks and losers who sometimes manage to rise, only just barely, to the level of the human, suggest the voyeuristic fascination/revulsion of those eighteenth-century European aristocrats who visited asylums to be entertained by the spectacle of lunatics. Yet Pastoralia is less stridently dystopian than CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and the author's vision, if that's an appropriate term, is less cruel. At the end of the final story, “The Falls,” a man is drawn to attempt the rescue of two girls in a sinking canoe, as if David Lynch and Norman Rockwell were suddenly conflated: “… Making a low sound of despair in his throat he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water.”


  1. The romance of Raymond Carver's posthumous career is a literary phenomenon akin to the papal sanctification of a martyr. Carver was no romantic himself, however, and explains candidly in his essay “Fires” his reasons for concentrating on short forms:

    During [the] ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn't have the time, or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy. The circumstances of my life, “the grip and slog” of it, in D. H. Lawrence's phrase, did not permit it. The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else. … If I wanted to write anything, and finish it, and if ever I wanted to take satisfaction out of finished work, I was going to have to stick to stories and poems. The short things I could sit down and, with any luck, write quickly and have done with.

    In his twenties, Carver “always worked some crap job or other,” sawmill jobs, janitor jobs, delivery man jobs, service station jobs, stockroom boy jobs, even tulip-picking in Arcata, California. His desperation to find time to write was conjoined with an equal desperation to make enough money to support his young family. “There were good times back there, of course; certain grown-up pleasures and satisfactions that only parents have access to. But I'd take poison before I'd go through that time again.”

  2. Tobias Wolff's short story collections include Back in the World (1983) and The Night in Question (1996); Thom Jones's include The Pugilist at Rest (1993) and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine (1999); Lorrie Moore is the author of the much-acclaimed Birds of America (1998); and Dubus, Paley, and Munro have published their collected stories.

Donna Coates (review date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Coates, Donna. “Re Marriage.” Canadian Literature, no. 164 (spring 2000): 175-76.

[In the following review of Happenstance, Coates discusses the role of employment and work in the lives of the two central characters.]

In a recent interview, Carol Shields confessed that she was “furious” when she came out of Four Weddings and a Funeral because “absolutely no one in that film had a job. People's work lives are written out of novels, too.” Shields never writes people's work lives out of her fiction, though; in Happenstance (1980) and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982), re-issued as the two-volume set Happenstance: Two Novels in One about a Marriage in Transition (1991, 1994, 1997), work is a (pre)-occupation, one which she has continued to explore in The Stone Diaries (1993) and Larry's Party (1997). The clever packaging of Happenstance, apparently Shields' idea—the novels open from opposite sides, each upside down to the other—reflects her belief that the cultural conditioning imposed upon women and men in the 1950s which encouraged them to value work differently was detrimental to both.

At the outset of “The Husband's Story,” Jack Bowman thinks, correctly, that his life is going well: he has a solid marriage and a good job as an historian at the Great Lakes Institute in Chicago. But when his wife of twenty years goes to a convention in Philadelphia, leaving him in charge of the couple's two children for five days, it starts to fall apart: the housekeeping degenerates; he quarrels with his son; his next-door neighbour tries to kill himself; and his best friend's marriage collapses. But worst is when Jack learns that an ex-lover is publishing a book on the topic he's been half-heartedly researching for years, thereby exposing his biggest problem—complacency. In the 1950s, when jobs for men with master's degrees could be had for the asking (those were the days!), he landed this one straight out of graduate school, but the job has placed too few demands on him: if he doesn't publish, he won't perish. (Obviously, what Jack needs is a probationary, tenure-track appointment.)

Jack is ill-equipped to deal with his problems because he's been coasting, oblivious to the fact that the hiring practices and values of the workplace are changing. The institute has hired a male secretary; highly skilled and educated women have entered the workforce; and PhDs are nipping at his heels. (It also looks as if his adolescent daughter, who can fix anything, is headed for a non-traditional career as a mechanic or engineer.) Jack is further impoverished because, unlike his wife who delights in sisterhood, he has been socialized to hide his feelings and thus can't bring himself to “share his pain” with his only male friend.

Meanwhile, in “The Wife's Story,” Brenda is experiencing an exhilarating series of “firsts” at the crafts convention. She gets drunk, attends a lecture by a feminist who argues that traditional quilting patterns are comprised of orgasmic and phallic symbols (Shields' dig at theorists?), receives honourable mention for her “Second Coming” quilt, and nearly succumbs to an affair with a sensitive (naturally) Canadian. At forty, Brenda's life couldn't be better, but she's paid her dues for, like Jack, she is a product of time and circumstance. In the fifties, she was encouraged to make marriage her “career,” which she did with a vengeance. But by the late 1970s, realizing that marriage and motherhood have “detained her too long in girlhood” and that history is passing her by, she falls out of love with Jack and into a deep depression. She toys with the idea of returning to work but finds typing, the only skill she possesses, boring.

By happenstance, Brenda takes up quilting, an occupation which rescues her from domestic entrapment and brings her economic reward and a modicum of prestige; she makes art, not craft. While nineties feminists may be disappointed that Brenda works at home and hasn't yet achieved financial independence, Shields, we recall, published her first novel at forty, and likely wrote it at home. It's also important to stress that Shields is not writing about working-class women (although Brenda's and Jack's origins are working-class), or suggesting that women's brains turn to mush if they don't earn money outside the home: one of Brenda's most insightful friends does volunteer work. For Shields, then, any activity which releases women from domesticity and brings them pleasure is “work.”

The endings of these novels “converge” in the middle, just as Brenda and Jack “converge” at the Chicago airport. (Shields is seemingly fascinated by arrivals and departures.) Brenda's absence has made Jack's heart grow fonder, and at the end of his story, he's reaching out, gratefully, to her. But at the end of her story, Brenda is thinking in the future tense, calmly going over in her mind the familiar routines which she knows will follow. Just before sleep comes, however, Brenda shifts into the present tense and “drifts away on her own.” She's reclaimed her life (her “Second Coming?”), formerly defined by Jack, by motherhood, by marriage. Her marriage is still “working,” but only because she is, too.

Douglas Glover (review date July/August 2000)

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SOURCE: Glover, Douglas. “Amiably Elegant Shields, Raw and Passionate York.” Canadian Forum 79, no. 890 (July/August 2000): 39-41.

[In the following excerpt, Glover maintains that the stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival are elegantly written but ultimately lacking in depth.]

Carol Shields's Dressing Up for the Carnival is a gentle, jocular, pixilated (the word comes from the old James Stewart movie Harvey about the rabbit only James Stewart can see) collection of short stories, some of which aren't exactly short stories in any conventional sense but rather riffs or variations on a theme or magical inventions or even sketches.

For example, the title piece is eight pages long and moves serially through ten different unrelated characters. Shields shows us each character starting his or her day, focusing on what she or he dresses up in for the carnival of life. Dressing up here isn't quite the right phrase—one young woman carries her lunch in an old violin case; a middle-aged man prances happily around the bedroom in his wife's nightgown. The story is about the intimate and individual objects of apparel humans use to create an image, dream or fantasy. Of the middle-aged man in the nightgown Shields writes, “Everywhere he looks he observes cycles of consolation and enhancement, and now it seems as though the evening itself is about to alter its dimensions, becoming more (and also less) than what it really is.” The story projects a sweetness and generosity towards the human condition, a mild, tolerant amusement at human foible. But the premise here is thin, gossamer-light, and—mostly on the strength of Shields's amiable and elegant prose—barely floats the text above the surface of existence.

Other stories in the book are based on magical or absurd premises. In “Reportage” archeologists discover the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in a Manitoba field. A reporter interviews various neighbours and local figures about the effects of this imaginary monstrosity. “Absence” is about a woman writer who has a faulty keyboard on which the letter i doesn't work. As far as I can tell, there isn't an i in the story. This is a tour de force of some sort—I can imagine Shields had fun composing the story—but the effect is more cute than impressive.

Shields, of course, also writes stories in a more conventional sense: a series of actions related to a couple of characters and a central conflict. “Dressing Down,” the last piece in the book, is about a staid Ontario man who discovers a penchant for nudity. He founds Club Soleil for like-minded people. His wife is never happy exposing herself, though she accedes to his wishes over the years until, in middle age, she refuses any longer to go naked in front of her grandchild. The story runs on past his death to her death. She demands, finally, to be displayed nude at her funeral—a gesture of reconciliation, the narrator thinks, which comes too late. “She would have forgotten,” the story concludes, “that nature's substance is gnarled and knotted in its grain, so that no absolutely straight thing can come of it. They should have understood that all along, those two. It might have become one of their perishable secrets, part of the bliss they would one day gladly surrender.” Again, Shields pulls back the camera and delivers the genial homily about wayward humanity, gentle and a little lost.

In some of these pieces, the gossamer-light premise turns to fluff. In “Windows” a government edict puts a high tax on windows. A couple, two artists who depend on light for their work, muddle along in their windowless house and then, almost unconsciously, paint the picture of a window together.

Sometimes I am reminded of Italo Calvino's whimsical side, but a Calvino who has been reading too many back issues of Ladies' Home Journal. In “Flatties,” for example, we discover a strange archipelago of islands where the distinctive dish is a scone-like bread, the flatties of the title. Each island has a slightly individualized recipe.

The niceness and cuteness here mount up and the genial vision of a slightly errant humanity saved by its good heart and comic pratfalls begins to feel ever so slightly sentimental rather than earned. But always there is Shield's lovely, orotund phrasing. Her rhythmic and complicated sentences carry forward her comic inventions with a relentlessly amiable energy. Shields seems determined to stay elegantly on the surface of things.

Olivia Glazebrook (review date 2 September 2000)

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SOURCE: Glazebrook, Olivia. “A Bicycle Not Made for Two.” Spectator 285, no. 8978 (2 September 2000): 36-7.

[In the following review, Glazebrook asserts that the two central characters in A Celibate Season are unsympathetic, and comments that the novel as a whole cannot overcome the limitations of the epistolary form.]

A happily married couple are forced to live 1,000 miles apart for one year only. Can their marriage survive?

It may sound like a new fly-on-the-wall docudrama for Channel Four, but this, in fact, is the premise of A Celibate Season. Financial circumstances force Charles and Jocelyn—or ‘Chas’ and ‘Jock’, as they will have it—to separate: Jocelyn skips off to Ottawa to act as legal counsel for a commission studying ‘The Feminization of Poverty’, and Charles is left in Vancouver holding the baby—or, more accurately, the two teenagers. The pair spend nine months firing letters off to each other and the result is an epistolary novel, with Carol Shields assuming the voice of Charles, and Blanche Howard that of Jocelyn.

Initially, both husband and wife get a thrill from the role reversal. Jocelyn enjoys independence, breadwinning and being fancied by goaty old men as ‘single’ totty. Charles confines his kicks to home-making, hiring a saucy cleaner, and taking poetry classes. But Christmas, their first reunion after four months, is the inevitable disaster: tears, recrimination, outbursts. Jocelyn feels undermined, violated and threatened: her home isn't hers any more and why is the cleaner joining them for Christmas dinner? Charles feels defeated: his once placid wife is hurling abuse, and in French, no less. Jocelyn, seething, goes back to Ottawa for another five months of personal growth and a hurt Charles firms up his relationship with the cleaning lady and the poetry teacher. Inevitably, both husband and wife are unfaithful (this we learn, and it's rather a cheat, from the letters written but never posted). Neither confesses, Jocelyn returns and married life resumes with both parties that little bit wiser.

The book's main drawback is that Charles and Jocelyn are an unsympathetic pair, and the endless, claustrophobic analysis of feeling and emotions is exhausting and monotonous. When Howard and Shields neglect the task in hand—marriage analysis—the novel is filled with fresh air: there are passages of lovely unfussiness which evoke a tone of intimacy and amusement. Jocelyn's fear and Charles's bewilderment are subtly managed, both striving to disguise a rising sense of panic as their marriage seems to founder beyond their control. But Jocelyn in particular has little to recommend her, becoming shrewish and unreasonable as her family manages without her. She is scornful of her husband's new friends, snobbish, mean and jealous. As well she might be: Charles falls into one obvious trap after another. The cleaning lady? The poetry teacher? It's all too obvious.

The trouble is that a collaboration is more likely to be a drawback than a bonus, and so is a novel in letters. A Celibate Season cannot overcome the limitations of an epistolary novel—the ‘letters written but not sent’ trick feels shabby, and the fact that Charles and Jocelyn are writing letters at all rings false, even though they explain that phone and e-mail are beyond their budget (E-mail too expensive?) Both writers have painstakingly balanced the novel so that neither plays the bad guy, but they have been too generous, and the result is a lack of conviction. It is, of course, the sensible way for a brace of writers to collaborate, but the letters feel like a gimmick, a convenient writing exercise, and the book lacks the solidity of a novel. As the sublimely annoying Jocelyn might say, ‘Quelle dommage’.

Candice Rodd (review date 15 September 2000)

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SOURCE: Rodd, Candice. “Middle-Class Marital.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5085 (15 September 2000): 24.

[In the following review, Rodd asserts that A Celibate Season makes pleasurable use of the co-written epistolary form, but judges the story as complacent and lacking the depth of Shields's previous novels.]

This good-natured book [A Celibate Season], written in the early 1980s but only now available in Britain, is a curiosity on several counts. It is an epistolary novel of the old-fashioned kind that relies on stamps and postal delays rather than the quick-fire benefits of e-mail; it is a co-production by two little-known writers, one of whom has since built an international reputation; and its theme of role reversal in marriage shows how quickly social norms can shift; what writer today would take for granted the reader's sympathy for a cash-strapped house-husband whose only recourse, when faced with a grimy kitchen floor, is to advertise for a cleaning woman?

The husband in question is Chas, a forty-seven-year-old Vancouver architect happily married for twenty years to Jock (Jocelyn), a lawyer. Chas has lost his job because of the recession—the novel takes place against a background of public-sector strikes—and when Jock is offered a nine-month contract in distant Ottawa as legal counsel to a government commission investigating “the feminization of poverty”, financial pressure as much as tentative ambition makes her suppress her doubts. Chas will stay at home to job-hunt and care for their two increasingly independent teenage children, and the couple will keep in touch by letter.

As Blanche Howard explains in her introduction, the epistolary form was attractive to two writers whose real-life friendship had often been sustained by post, but even so there are some awkward moments. Would 1980s professionals really be intimidated by the “disembodied mechanical device” of the telephone or, given their willingness to pay for domestic help, cavil quite so much about call charges? But once the authors find the courage of their conventions, the advantages are clear: ample opportunities for expansive description, comic cross-purposes and the occasional hiatus. With Carol Shields writing Chas's letters and Howard Jock's and with, according to Howard, little advance planning, part of the pleasure of the book is seeing the writers nimbly negotiating each other's narrative trip-wires.

Arriving in a milieu peopled by suave politicians and academics (and one dismayingly stereotypical, fat, farting, lesbian feminist), Jock is nervous, as anxious about the suitability of her clothes as her professional competence, sick with guilt and longing for home; even the snow in Ottawa is mournfully different. Chas's early letters proclaim his domestic inadequacy. Gradually they grow comfortable in their new territories. Jock's eyes are opened to the realities of politics and of grinding (as opposed to temporary and genteel) poverty. Chas gets to know his neighbours and enrols in a creative-writing course. Jock grows thin and alluring; Chas discovers the importance of coffee cake and casseroles. Their letters, if affectionate and well-meaning, become ever more self-absorbed and each is curiously deaf to warning notes sounded by the other. Chas is incensed when Jock fails to respond to a poem he has faxed to her, yet himself seems impervious to her mentions of an attractive and unattached colleague. She seems hardly to register the news of her moody son's unexplained night-time absences from home and barely objects when told that the hired help—a young single mother—has moved into the basement. She might have done well to protest more on learning that Chas has disposed of the kitchen curtains. By the time she comes home for Christmas, her house is a building site of demolished walls and plastic sheeting, because Chas has decided to open up the space to let in more light. The family festivities pass in icy rage, the longed-for conjugal reunion indefinitely postponed.

The novel's graceful symmetries, the equitable ping-pong of letters back and forth (even the postscripts develop a reassuring rhythm) do not encourage expectations of seismic upheavals, and it would hardly be in the spirit of friendly collaboration for one of the authors to kidnap the narrative and run with it in wholly surprising directions. Jock and Chas are each allowed one moment of irresponsible self-abandonment and one confessional letter that is never sent, before deciding which side their bread is buttered on. As Chas had earlier remarked, with more self-satisfaction than is entirely attractive: “The good old middle class has, after all, been good to us.” This, really, is the book's agenda, and it is elaborated with some feeling in Blanche Howard's foreword. “We don't lack for novels that crawl into the many hearts of our darkness”, she sternly asserts, and goes on to praise her collaborator's fiction for its “intelligent and articulate witness to the ordinary and often happy lives of women and families”. This is perfectly true as far as it goes, which is nowhere near as far as Shield's best work. Reading A Celibate Season with Mary Swann (1987) or The Stone Diaries (1993) or Larry's Party (1997) in mind, it is precisely the dark heart of the more ambitious and mature work that one misses. Despite consisting entirely of private letters, the early novel is too occupied with cheerful narrative momentum to allow for much inwardness. Without the rigorous meditations on aloneness, resilience, love, ageing and death that give the later novels their heft, A Celibate Season's celebration of marriage risks seeming complacent. Even so, there are hints in Chas's letters of rich things to come. Hovering self-effacingly at the edge of the narrative is a curmudgeonly old right-wing neighbour with whom Chas establishes a delicate, grunting rapport. Carol Shields fans will spot him as precisely the sort of character who, brought centre-stage in a different novel, might have proved quietly and movingly extraordinary.

Lisa Allardice (review date 5 February 2001)

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SOURCE: Allardice, Lisa. “Maiden Aunt.” New Statesman 14, no. 642 (5 February 2001): 51-2.

[In the following review, Allardice asserts that Shields's Jane Austen is a sincere and balanced biography that offers enlightening readings of Austen's work.]

Ever since Colin Firth strode out of the pond at Pemberley wearing skintight jodhpurs and a transparent shirt, in the latest BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen scholarship has never been the same. The much-loved maiden aunt of old has been banished to the cobwebs, and a racier, more experienced lady novelist has emerged in her place. In this brief biography [Jane Austen], the novelist Carol Shields reiterates the case that Austen's life was not so uneventful, nor her world so small, as we had cosily imagined.

It is fitting that the novelist who famously worked in miniature should be commemorated in a series of short lives. (Sylvia Townsend Warner's sparkling 29-page life of Austen is hard to find today). Neither an academic nor critic, Shields—often compared to Austen for her elegantly plotted, deceptively domestic novels—is an inspired choice of biographer. She writes compassionately as a fellow novelist and “devoted reader” (once past some ominous trans-Atlantic throat-clearing about the Jane Austen Society of North America).

Instead of telling Austen's “story” as we might have expected, Shields provides illuminating readings of her work, informed by what she calls a “contemporary sensibility”, but never forgetting the cultural differences of a 21st-century reader. Without being in the least bit theoretical, she is drawn to the glances, silences and shadows of Austen's life and fiction. Notwithstanding her own rather opaque intention to “read into my own resistance”, the result is sincere and balanced; the book's brevity leaves Shields mercifully free to concentrate on the author in question, unlike recent biographers who have been forced to root around distant relations and secondary characters.

Taking her cue from Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life (1997), Shields perceives a pattern of displacement, beginning with Jane's exile to a country wet-nurse, continuing with her brief spell at a girl's boarding school and culminating with her family's traumatic departure to Bath when she was in her mid-twenties. Austen was always a home-girl, and her novels can be read as a search or return to a true home—exemplifying Shields's contention that this, not current events, wars or politics, is the real subject of “serious fiction”.

The novels enact further wish-fulfilment in the second and third chances allowed to their heroines thwarted in love. Such a happy ending was sadly denied poor Jane, whose tentative romance, in her 20th year, with the clever Tom Lefroy was brutally aborted by his family as an impecunious match. In an episode worthy of her own work, Austen accepted the offer of a marriage of convenience from the appropriately bumptious Harris Bigg-Wither, only to retreat in embarrassment the next day. Austen repeatedly created young women able to overcome foolish parents and social disadvantage through their own wit and intelligence. They are each rewarded with a independent existence, something she herself—an unmarried, dependent daughter—craved but which always eluded her.

Shields is particularly interested in the young writer's apprenticeship—her reading, juvenilia and experiments with genre. With three impressive novels under her bonnet by the time she was 25, Austen makes today's literary prodigies seem positively tardy. (Those publishers who passed over Harry Potter might console themselves by remembering the editor who declined Pride & Prejudice “by return of post”.)

Austen criticism often focuses on character at the expense of technical accomplishments, so Shields's understanding of “the architecture of the novel” is especially satisfying. Plot dynamics make a welcome change from speculation about Aunt Jane's sleeping habits. Shields empathises with her subject as a novelist, chummily sympathising with the frustrations and excitement of seeing a work of fiction, one of Austen's “darling” children, through to publication. Austen never enjoyed Emily Dickinson's “heaven”, a solitary space upstairs, or Virginia Woolf's room of her own, writing instead in the downstairs parlour. Shields takes the conventional view that Austen's ten-year silence in Bath was the result of a disruption in her military work routine, not that she was too busy letting her hair down.

It is perhaps unnecessary and uneconomical to brief English readers on the history of “Bath, in Somerset … about 100 miles from London”. There is rather too much careless repetition for such a short book. All the favourite quotes are here, however, which show just how many words have been spun out from a relatively slender legacy of letters and recollections. This is an affectionate, sceptical appraisal of Austen's life and work. And even if by the end we do not feel we know the elusive, cherub-cheeked lady on the cover any better, we suspect somehow that she might have approved of such a trim, thoughtful study.

Jonathan Keates (review date 3 March 2001)

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SOURCE: Keates, Jonathan. “Not So Plain Jane.” Spectator 286, no. 9004 (3 March 2001): 48.

[In the following review of Jane Austen, Keates praises Shields's depiction of Austen and her career, and values the focus within the biography on Austen's artistic development.]

Until recently, the popular image of Jane Austen's life was that of an untroubled idyll, led against Regency backdrops which combined English pastoral cosiness with the dash and frou-frou of Bath as portrayed for us on boxes of ‘Quality Street’ chocolates. She wasn't lucky with men of course, but then, cynics might argue, who is? Her death from an unspecified disease was premature and quite possibly agonising, yet she faced it with Christian resignation in a nice house in Winchester, where her brothers interred her in the north aisle of the cathedral, under a ledger stone which, while praising ‘the extraordinary endowments of her mind’, completely failed to mention the six novels which have guaranteed her immortality. We were encouraged to believe that she was happy, secure in the love of a close family and confident of burgeoning success as an author. With its occasional diversions, in the form of trips to London and the seaside, and the presence of nephews and nieces to whom she played the role of indulgent maiden aunt with suitable verve, it was the kind of life we could have wished her to lead. A husband, after all, might have expected her to give up the famous ‘little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush’. Look at what happened to poor Charlotte Brontë when she married that dreary curate of her father's!

In the past two decades this bromide has been largely thrown away and a more acrid mixture submitted for our consumption. Biographers like Park Honan, Claire Tomalin and David Nokes have delved deeper into family backgrounds, local scandals, contemporary attitudes and expectations regarding women and the possible bearing of Austen's life on her fiction. The result is a far less serene prospect unfolding around ‘England's Jane’, as Kipling called her in one of his not so good poems. Paradoxically the turbulence enables us to see her more clearly, whether as the ‘little husband-hunting butterfly’ recalled by a malicious contemporary or as the woman who wrote of herself, ‘If I am a wild Beast, I cannot help it. It is not my own fault.’ Now we want to blame the Austen family, having formerly seen them as ideal cherishers of the flame. Her sister Cassandra is taken to task for burning, censoring and generally sanitising Jane's letters, while her father's attempts at promoting her literary career are viewed as not wholly altruistic, given his overstretched finances. We must make what we can of Austen's silence on the subject of her handicapped brother George, let alone the existence of an aunt jailed for shoplifiting, set free but probably guilty as charged.

Why did such things not find their way into her fiction? Carol Shields, herself a novelist of outstanding gifts, is careful not to take works like Emma and Pride and Prejudice as baffled or transmuted essays in autobiography. She prefers instead [in Jane Austen] to examine their evidences of Austen's artistic development, the way in which each book is individualised by the novelty of a particular creative challenge, invigorating the narrative to a point at which we can catch the echo of the author's own laughter or rage. The authentic voice of Pride and Prejudice becomes ‘a cry of youthful anguish’ at the ‘non-Darwinian emergence of brilliance from a dull dynasty’. Within the satirical framework of Northanger Abbey she identifies a similar cri de coeur in Catherine Moreland having ‘reached the age of 17 without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility’.

The central crisis in Jane Austen's life, or at least the one most easily understood from Shield's reading of it, was created by this very same isolation. Company indeed she had, almost too much of it, so that the most trenchant episodes of her novels, Anne's final meeting with Wentworth, the Box Hill picnic, the visit to Pemberley, are always designed with a sense of what has to be suppressed because others are present. Solitude, coveted though it might be by her Romantic contemporaries, was precisely what she didn't need as a writer. Each novel was ‘my own darling child’ and she was as vulnerable as the rest of us to the lack of critical attention from a wider literary community.

‘Whatever she produced’, wrote her nephew Edward, ‘was a home-made article’ yet this very same detachment from the mainstream, as Shield's study shows, validates her greatness. Other reviewers have stressed the book's debts to Tomalin and Nokes, but I don't think this matters. The point of this series is not straight biography but famous names encapsulating their celebrated avatars of past times in 150 pages. In Shields's hands Jane Austen appears less elusive, warmer to the touch and altogether more vulnerable than earlier writers have allowed her to be. The wild beast has been captured but, thank God, not tamed.

Coral Ann Howells (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Howells, Coral Ann. “In the Subjunctive Mood: Carol Shields's Dressing Up for the Carnival.” In Yearbook of English Studies 31, pp. 144-54. Leeds, Eng.: Maney Publishing, 2001.

[In the following essay, Howells discusses two stories from the collection Dressing Up for the Carnival, asserting that Shields's writing displays “a subversive carnivalesque energy.”]

Diurnal surfaces could be observed by a fiction writer with a kind of deliberate squint, a squint that distorts but also sharpens beyond ordinary vision, bringing forward what might be called the subjunctive mode of one's self or others, a world of dreams and possibilities and parallel realities.1

Any fiction with ‘carnival’ in its title promises some kind of challenge to traditional structures of social order and possibly of literary convention, ‘dressing up’ in anticipation of celebration and festivity, where for a brief space of time dailiness is transcended, split open to allow other more chaotic energies to express themselves. These celebratory gestures may be collective and robustly corporeal as Mikhail Bakhtin has shown in his study of Rabelais,2 or they may be more individualistic and subjective in our own fragmented contemporary world, which Carol Shields calls ‘this torn, perplexing century’,3 though in either case resistance to prescribed limits is the promise of the carnivalesque. In her most recent short story collection [Dressing Up for the Carnival] Shields acknowledges the impulses towards celebration and (modest) abandonment, by writing in what she has described as the ‘subjunctive mode’, looking at what human beings may do or might have done or would do, which is the territory of ‘dreams, possibilities and parallel realities’. In the language of traditional grammar describing the modalities of verbs, ‘The indicative presents an event as a fact, whereas the subjunctive expresses it, as for example, a possibility or an aim, or calls it into doubt or denies its reality, or expresses a judgement on it.’4 By invoking the subjunctive, Shields opens up possibilities for shifts of emphasis, not only cracking open the ‘diurnal surfaces’ of realism but also writing beyond the ‘phantom set of rules about what a story should be and how it must be shaped’.5 It is the odd association between the carnivalesque and the subjunctive mood that I shall explore in my readings of the two stories framing Shields's most recent collection, ‘Dressing Up for the Carnival’ (the title story at the beginning) and ‘Dressing Down’ at the end.

Carol Shields is a Canadian writer, an immigrant from the United States, born and brought up in Oak Park Illinois, who met her Canadian husband when on a student exchange to Exeter in the late 1950s and who has lived in Canada ever since (in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Winnipeg) interspersed with longish visits to Britain and Europe. Since the first British publication in 1990 of her novel Mary Swann,6 Shields has gained a wide readership this side of the Atlantic. The Stone Diaries was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993, Larry's Party won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1998, and all her fiction (seven novels and three short story collections) are currently available in Britain. Her fictions cross national borders, moving easily between North American and European locations, just as her novels cross generic borders (between fiction, history, biography, and popular romance) and between genders (Happenstance,The Stone Diaries, and Larry's Party). However, it is with her experiments in the short story genre that I am concerned here. Shields has written about how in the early 1980s she broke away from the traditional short story structure, which she describes with a sly hint at its gender affiliations as ‘that holy line of rising action that is supposed to lead somewhere important, somewhere inevitable, modelled perhaps on the orgasmic pattern of tumescence followed by detumescence, an endless predictable circle of desire, fulfilment, and quiescence’.7 In the next paragraph of the same essay she elaborates on the alternative structures that seem to characterize women's storytelling: ‘I noticed that women tended to deal in the episodic, to suppress what was smoothly linear, to set up digressions, little side stories which were not really digressions at all but integral parts of the story’ (p. 248). The result of Shields's resistance against linear plots and conventional narrative expectations was her collection Various Miracles.8 Of course, as she rightly observed, short story writers had been breaking the phantom rules ‘forever’, and she rolls out a list of her predecessors of both sexes: ‘John Cheever, William Gass, Ursula Le Guin, Clark Blaise, Alice Munro, not to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne and Anton Chekhov’.9 But my interest here is in the consequences of Shield's own deliberately squinting view in Dressing Up for the Carnival, where the stories both individually and collectively display a subversive carnivalesque energy while offering new inflections on the concept of carnival itself. As one reviewer has commented: ‘Dressing Up for the Carnival, far from being an inventory of the quotidian, is crammed full of oddity and downright peculiarity, stories of outlandish inventiveness, jostling with pieces of sly knowing comedy and tender, pathos-filled tales of loss and grief’.10

‘Dressing Up for the Carnival’: the title story is like an overture to the collection, a sequence of apparently random moments in the lives of eleven people of different ages and sexes all of whom are out on the streets of an unnamed North American city on a spring day. A short introductory sentence sets the tone of eager anticipation that some kind of social celebration or fancy-dress party is about to begin: ‘All over town people are putting on their costumes’, and it is the narrator's promise that provides a thematic linkage between the heterogeneous anecdotes that compose the story.11 The narrative voice is heard throughout, selecting and introducing this collection of people, though it quickly slips away from diurnal surfaces into something more subjective via indirect interior monologue. We are led through ordinariness into private worlds of dream and unspoken desire and where the inner life of the streets assumes new dimensions in its celebration of possibilities.

The first segment begins with a rush of optimism. It is early morning and we are introduced to a young woman who is getting dressed to go to work: ‘Tamara has flung open her closet door; just to see her standing there is to feel a squeeze of the heart. She loves her clothes. She knows her clothes. Her favourite moment of the day is this moment’ (p. 1). Already the italicized words generate Tamara's excitement and energy and as she chooses a yellow cotton skirt and a white blouse, the narrator (squinting deliberately) gives the impression that this young woman is creating the sunny morning herself: ‘She never checks the weather before she dresses; her clothes are the weather’ (p. 2). Through her imagination Tamara invents the world she wants to live in, and as she waits at the bus stop the narrator lets us see a small miracle of transformation. Skipping over the limits of her daily life as a clerk-receptionist into the spaces of daydream, Tamara becomes a glamorously seductive figure: ‘A passionate woman dressed in yellow. A Passionate, Vibrant Woman About to Begin Her Day. Her Life’ (p. 2). The repetition with its slight variations creates the effect of a star's grand entrance as Tamara begins her private performance in the theatre inside her head. (Virginia Woolf described a similar moment in her early short story ‘The Mark on the Wall’ as ‘dressing myself up in my own mind’, and it seems to me that Woolf's modernist sketches provide a suggestive intertext for Shields's story.)12

The second segment has no connection with the first, but it attracts the narrator's attention because it is an odd sight. A young man (‘Roger, aged thirty, employed by the Gas Board’ as the narrator informs us) is walking along the street at mid-morning carrying a mango in his hand, having just bought that instead of an apple. The short anecdotal history of the purchase, told through Roger's indirect interior monologue, emphasizes the appeal of unfamiliarity and the exoticism of the fruit as he tries to find an image that fits it. Is its ‘tight seamless leather skin enclosing soft pulp’ like a ‘first-class league ball’ or is it like an ‘elliptical purse’? Enticed by his speculations beyond the normal boundaries of the morning, Roger suddenly catches a glimpse of himself in a new light and breaks out into the festive mood of a Latin American carnival where the mango in his left hand is transformed into a ‘set of castanets’ and his feet itch to begin the cha-cha-cha. Like Tamara, Roger sees himself outside the story of his ‘shrivelled fate’ of ordinariness, and although his carnivalesque vision outside the Gas Board will fade as soon as he walks in the door, nevertheless that moment of surprise generates a kind of inexplicable joy. As Margaret Atwood has remarked: ‘And who is better at delineating happiness—especially the sudden, unlooked-for, unearned kind of happiness—than Carol Shields? […] It's her descriptions of joy that leave you open-mouthed.’13

In all the segments, some of which are longer and more detailed than others, ranging from short anecdotes of three sentences to mini-narratives of five or six paragraphs, there is a similar pattern of surface reportage followed by indirect interior monologue. All of them open out into moments of escape from dailiness, as men and women imagine themselves either being someone else or being elsewhere. There are the Borden sisters in the third segment, teenage girls back from a ski-ing holiday a month ago, still carrying the thrill of ‘powder snow and stinging sky’ in their healthy young bodies and still wearing their ski passes on their jackets as written evidence of their experience: ‘I SKIED HAPPY MOUNTAIN’. Repeated twice like ‘a kind of compulsion’ this slogan is the magic incantation that lifts them soaring above the city streets and the parking lot back to the remembered, already legendary snow slopes.

With the long fourth segment about ‘Wanda from the bank’ the tone changes as fantasy shifts into a different dimension, closer to pathos than to celebration. Wanda, ‘an awkward woman, who was formerly an awkward girl’ can be seen walking along the pavement pushing a large new English pram ‘high-wheeled, majestically hooded, tires like a Rolls Royce’ (p. 4). Wanda is not a mother but a bank employee; the pram is empty, and it does not belong to her but to the bank manager who has bought it for his baby son (on impulse, like Roger's mango) and she has been asked to deliver it to the manager's home. Gradually the narrative slips into the rhythms of this woman's thoughts, tracing her shifts of feeling as she advances from unfamiliarity with the pram to a new sense of authority and harmony, encouraged by the smiles and admiring comments of passers-by, so that she takes the final corners of her journey with ‘grace’. It is towards a moment of grace that Wanda has been walking, as we realize when she bends down into the empty pram to settle an imaginary baby: ‘Shhh,’ she murmurs, smiling. ‘There, there, now’ (p. 6). Wanda's masquerade of maternity belongs to what Shields would call the ‘subjunctive mode’. There may be nothing there, but the dream gesture lingers like Wanda's own smile, observed by no other eyes than the ones ‘inside her head’.

It is the word ‘smiling’ that provides the associative link between Wanda's story and old Mr Gilman's in the next segment, though the two stories share a more significant similarity for they both focus on gestures closer to fantasy than to reality and on possibilities always deferred but always hoped for. Anyone glancing at Mr Gilman on the street late in the afternoon would notice only one remarkable thing about this old man: he is carrying a large bunch of daffodils wrapped in green paper, and it this ‘blaze of yellow in his arms’ that the narrative investigates. Why should he be carrying them, and who are they for? Gliding straight into the old man's consciousness, the narrative hints at a chronicle of loss, for Mr Gilman at the age of eighty has become one of life's ‘leftovers’, like the meal to which his inhospitable daughter-in-law has apparently invited him. The flowers are for her, and they are his ‘offering’, his ‘oblation’ (p. 7). They may not win the daughter-in-law's heart, but these flowers are shown to have remarkable powers, for they are the agents which transform Mr Gilman's day. Carrying the daffodils about with him (and one wonders how fresh they will look by the evening), Mr Gilman finds himself cast in a new role. Like Wanda with the pram, he is cheered up by people's courtesy and casual friendliness and suddenly finds that he has become somebody else in the eyes of others: ‘He is clearly a man who is expected somewhere, anticipated’, and preening himself on the bus he is lifted out of his isolation for a brief space, fancying himself ‘a charming gent, elegant and dapper […] bearing gifts, flowers’ (p. 7).

The remaining segments all recount momentary self-transformations and invented roles, like a ten-year-old girl called Mandy Eliot racing along the street carrying her adored elder brother's football helmet, who in a moment of sympathetic identification becomes the school hero herself; or more enigmatically, Jeanette Foster who is seen ‘sporting a smart chignon’ and so prompts the narrator's unanswered question, ‘Who does she think she is! Who does she think she is?’ (p. 9). This question, repeated with different emphases lends its provocation to the final figure of the story, Mr X, ‘an anonymous middle-aged citizen’ who likes dressing up in his wife's lacy nightgowns when she is out at bingo. (Who does he think he is?) However, by now the narrative has moved off the streets behind closed doors as the evening draws in. Mr X is not part of the street parade we have been witnessing, though in many ways he is the most transgressive and carnivalesque figure of all. Instead, he is an unseen watcher who lifts the corner of the bedroom blind an inch, viewing the world outside with a kind of ‘deliberate squint’, occupying a position analogous to that of the reader and the narrator. It is he who offers a kind of metafictional comment on the action: ‘We cannot live without our illusions’ (p. 9). Seen through his eyes the story opens out in new directions: ‘Everywhere he looks he observes cycles of consolation and enhancement, and now it seems as though the evening itself is about to alter its dimensions, becoming more (and also less) than what it really is’ (p. 9). Consolations, yes; but reality is not easily or permanently transformed by the imagination. As the phrase in parenthesis suggests, there is an inevitable thinning down and surely the night is about to descend.

The carnival so eagerly anticipated in the title and the opening sentence is already over. And yet it has happened; the story assures us of that with all its anecdotes of street performances, such as Tamara's dressing up, Roger's metaphorical castanets, and the masquerades of Wanda and Mr Gilman. So what is missing? It is perhaps Shields's comment on the fragmentation of contemporary urban life that there is no shared sense among these people of any communal activity, for all the acts of celebration are performed silently and in isolation. Taken together, they represent a collective social revelry, though it requires the fiction writer's ‘deliberate squint’ with its sharpness beyond ordinary vision to project the necessary framework of sympathy through which the concept of the carnivalesque might be reconstructed in its etiolated postmodern form.

‘Dressing Down’: the final story, ‘Dressing Down’, would seem to be the opposite of ‘Dressing Up’, and the carnival ends here with the death of two grandparents. This is a grandson's first-person narrative about his grandparents' marriage; significantly it is not a grand-daughter's, so it is not surprising that the opening emphasis is on the grandfather, a famous Canadian (‘He was, of course, a social activist of national reputation’ (p. 232)) whose biography has already been published. That grandfather was also ‘the first serious nudist in southern Ontario, the founder of Club Soleil, which is still in existence, still thriving, on the shores of Lake Simcoe, just north of Toronto’. This explicitly Canadian context offers a new perspective on the carnivalesque, for what of Bakhtin's grotesque bodies and collective festive excess when relocated in the rigidly Protestant Ontario of the 1920s?

The grandson, like so many of Shields's protagonists (and like Shields herself) is fascinated by the problems of biography and by the unanswered questions about the lives of the dead: ‘How had my grandfather become a nudist in the first place? […] And, another question, how did he reconcile his nudist yearnings with his Wesleyan calling, with his eleven-months-a-year job as YMCA director for Eastern Canada?’ (p. 233). Some of these questions are answered, like his conversion to naturism as a young man at a beach on the Atlantic coast of France, where for the first time this young Canadian experienced the ‘untethering miracle’ (p. 235) of exposing his whole body to sun, wind, and water, and felt that he had entered paradise. He is presented as a heroic figure in the high Protestant moral mould and certainly not as a carnivalesque one, though his grandson's alternative description of the ‘miracle’ as ‘that pants-dropping moment’ suggests a certain scepticism that borders on the mock heroic. The focus at the beginning is almost exclusively on the grandfather's worldly achievements: not only his successful efforts to establish his nature camp in Ontario but also to affirm his social reputation as a respectable upright citizen. Again irony creeps in, for as the grandson notes, an important factor in his success in that puritanical society was his sexuality, made all the more provocative by the contrast between what was seen and what was famously hidden. While his public image was that of ‘suited, shirted, necktied manliness’ (p. 237), everyone in the community was aware of the ‘imagined presence of this young, muscular, unclothed body, released to nature, to prelapsarian abandonment’ every summer. Word had got around about his nudist camp, just as his young wife had predicted it would, and he is described as ‘clever and compelling—especially to women’.

Yet this story is not only about the grandfather; it is about the grandmother as well, and her attitude to her husband's passion for naturism raises other more troubling questions in the narrative. When her views are taken into consideration the emphases are subtly shifted, so that instead of its being the story of an exceptional man, it becomes a story about sexual politics within a long marriage contracted shortly after the First World War, or even the untold story of a wife's humiliation, anger, and revenge. None of this sounds very carnivalesque, though I think we are encouraged to see the Club Soleil as a kind of carnival observed with a ‘deliberate squint’ and the story finally recuperates many traditional features of the carnivalesque, albeit within the subjunctive mode. (And that, we may remember, is the ‘territory of dreams, possibilities and parallel realities’.)

The grandmother's resistance to her husband's enthusiasm for summertime nudity is signalled several times early in the narrative, though it only takes central place after his credentials have been established. Her attitude is unambiguous: ‘My grandmother's disinclination for nudity would not have surprised those who knew her well. Her interest was in covering up, not stripping down’ (p. 237). Her clothes and her household furnishings all expressed the traditionally feminine notions of modesty which might have been expected in a gently brought-up girl from a wealthy Ontario farming family. She was happiest when enclosed in ‘layers of underclothes, foundation garments, garters and stockings, brassieres, camisoles, slips, blouses, cardigans, lined skirts, aprons, and even good aprons worn over the everyday aprons’ (p. 238). For a woman whose identity was defined by established social decorums of dress and behaviour, nudity was not only a social transgression, it was a sin: ‘Naturism was not her nature. Nudity was the cross she bore.’

There follows an extraordinary account of a heated argument about Club Soleil between the young husband and wife, when she raises her objections to it on social, hygenic, and religious grounds, only to have them all overruled. Though at first he ‘reasons’ with her ‘gently’, she is finally defeated by his announcement that they would abstain from sexual intercourse during all their time at camp. Shocked into submission, she rightly feels that she has been trapped, and that this is a very ‘bad bargain’. I have called this an extraordinary account for several reasons: for its sexual explicitness and not less for the fact that a father of that generation would tell his son about that private quarrel many years later (which is how the narrator learned it from his own father). Yet it is most extraordinary for the ironies it generates around issues of nature and culture. The grandfather's naturism is revealed to be a very puritanical concept which recognizes the body as a ‘holy temple’ but denies its sexuality. Apparently what shocks the young wife most is her husband's reason for prescribing abstinence: ‘To prove to you, conclusively, that going unclothed among those we trust has nothing to do with the desires of the flesh’ (p. 242).

What did his grandmother really think about this? ‘All right’ she is supposed to have said (p. 243), but the tone in which she said it is one of the crucial gaps in the story which the grandson can only speculate upon in the light of his grandmother's subsequent behaviour. Such teasing puzzles are the fate of the biographer, as Shields remarked when discussing her novel Small Ceremonies (about a woman who is writing a biography of the nineteenth-century Canadian pioneer Susanna Moodie):

One of the interesting things about Susanna Moodie is the silences in her work, the things that she doesn't say. … How do you retrieve someone who is dead and try to build up with the nib of your pen that personality who was, in a sense, voiceless about things that mattered?14

Enough has been recounted of the two voices in that argument to suggest that neither husband nor wife could have thrown off their socially constructed masculine and feminine identities just by throwing off their clothes, for gender identity is a complex network of acquired behavioural characteristics that constitute ‘the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes’.15 In Gender Trouble Judith Butler defines gender as ‘the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly regulatory frame that congeals over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being’ (p. 33). Her theoretical discussion is very relevant here, though Shields's investigation takes an altogether different direction. Whereas Butler focuses on the extent to which social practices of gender formation constitute identity and on the instabilities within these constructions, Shields's scenario from the 1920s emphasizes the power of cultural assumptions around gender identity within a traditional marriage relationship. Ironically, the husband wins the argument for nature by replicating patriarchal strategies endorsed by his society. He is the one who makes the rules, and it is he who insists on renouncing sex at camp, while his wife, trapped inside her own feminine conditioning, can do nothing except cry and submit unwillingly to a long succession of summers without clothes and without sex. As her grandson shrewdly assumes, ‘a jolt of anger must surely have accompanied her acquiescence, the beginning of a longer anger’ (p. 243).

The grandmother's opposition casts a critical light over the activities of the Club Soleil, which seemed to her like childish games, ‘Playing Adam and Eve at the beach’, as she had described it in that memorable early argument (p. 241). The grandfather may have won the argument, but it is clearly her view that was passed on to their son. (He always took his family on fully clothed summer holidays to Muskoka Lodge, on a different lake.) That same view is adopted by the grandson. As he describes it, the nature camp becomes a site of conflict, not only between his grandparents but also between the concepts of nature and culture, for the gender hierarchy is reinscribed there with his grandfather as the personification of patriarchal order, ‘Lord of his own domain’ (p. 246). Life at the Club emphasizes nothing so much as the artificiality of constructions of the natural for its worldly clientèle, ‘city lawyers, physicians, charity organisers, household matriarchs’ (p. 234), as they make their way carrying their daily ration of one clean towel between the flower and vegetable beds and the volleyball court towards the dining hall.

Indeed the Club might be seen as a kind of carnival in reverse. There are naked bodies in abundance, but these are described in rather unsavoury terms as dishes of cooked meat (not available on the Club's vegetarian menu): ‘living hams and haunches’ or ‘white-jellied breast flesh jiggling in the Ontario sunlight’ (p. 234). The female body is described with its ‘pale protrusions, its slopes and meadows and damp cavities’, but this is the suffering young wife's body and implies no joy at all, just as the earlier description makes a very doubtful appeal to the appetite for food. Notably, any hints of sexual appetites and eroticism are erased. The Club encourages communal activities of sun worship and summer rituals, but the overwhelming impression is that its celebrations are so rigidly codified in practice and so shadowed by self-consciousness that the carnivalesque spirit is outlawed. Possibly this critical perspective, which is the grandson's, may have been affected by his own embarrassment when he was first taken to the camp as a ten-year-old boy by his grandfather. Schooled to regard nakedness as an awkward joke (‘buck-naked, stark-naked. Starkers’ (p. 245)), he finds the spectacle of sexual difference not liberating but distressing, and he is plunged into an agony of self-consciousness and shame. Again, social codes of dress, or what the grandfather might call the deformations of ‘cultural ignorance’, are shown to be as powerful for identity construction in the adolescent male as in the grown-up female: ‘Naturism was not his nature’ either. His visit is shadowed by his grandmother's refusal to come to the camp that year and to appear naked before her grandson, and that refusal serves to underline her silent agonies of humiliation over so many summers.

The last section of the story switches in time and location from summers at Lake Simcoe to the grandparents' funerals, with dead bodies on display and a late return to the carnivalesque mode. The shifts in tone here are very complex, registering first the sight of the grandfather's naked dead body lying in its bare coffin without any covering at all, and secondly the grandson's note that this was at his grandmother's insistence. How do we read that harsh decree of hers and her attempt to forbid one of the Club's most devoted women members to attend the funeral, except as an expression of hostility towards her late husband? Everyone in the family assumes that to be the case, but ‘by then all of us had learned to shrink from the anger that deformed her last years’ (p. 248). With her own death eighteen months later, the word ‘grotesque’ is used for the first time, referring not to her dead body but to her bizarre request that she too would lie unclothed and that her coffin should be left open, so making a spectacle of herself at her own funeral. (The family did not obey her wish, and the coffin was closed after all.) The grandson is faced with the problem of how to interpret his grandmother's final and uncharacteristic request. Was it an act of defiance and a kind of revenge for all those summers spent against her will at Camp Soleil? ‘That's what I thought at the time’, the narrator confesses. However he continues, ‘Now I think of that final gesture differently’ (p. 248), representing a shift of feeling reminiscent of Alice Munro's revisions of narrative perspective over long periods of time.

His second interpretation is far more optimistic, for he has come to believe that his grandmother's ‘grotesque’ gesture might have been an extravagant act of acquiescence to his grandfather's wishes, a gesture she was unable to make in her lifetime. That story ends with his imagining her vision of heaven as a restaging of the Club Soleil in a space beyond the binaries of flesh and spirit where the naked lovers would greet each other ‘rapturously’ and embrace ‘without restraint’ (p. 249). That glimpse of transcendent eroticism is perhaps the ultimate carnivalesque, belonging as all those verbs with ‘would’ in them seem to indicate, to the space occupied by a parallel but forever indeterminate reality.

Yet the story does not end there. It returns to a recognition of the inevitable duality of the human condition: ‘It might have become one of their perishable secrets, part of the bliss they would one day gladly surrender’ (p. 249). We are led back into the grandparents’ story again (for the grandson's earnest wish is to believe in their eventual reconciliation), and then we are seduced by the word ‘bliss’ into the joys of sexual love in this world. We must finally pay attention to the grandson who has been telling the story. He longs to be able to fill in the gaps in his grandparents' story and to write a celebratory ending, but that parallel reality can only be imagined in the subjunctive mood.

So, what does ‘carnival’ mean in these frame stories? As we ask the question we may hear the grandfather's voice shouting the word ‘Semantics’ at us. (‘My grandfather, it must be remembered, lived in the day when to snort out the word semantics was enough to win any quarrel’ (p. 240)). Certainly, these stories are marked by the absence of any noisy collective celebration, and there is no evidence of physical excess or those other traditionally carnivalesque features listed by R. J. Howells: ‘rituals, feasting, exchanging, fighting, talking, narrative; sexual and all other kinds of intercourse […] practical jokes and laughter’.16 Yet these narratives express a longing for disruption, a dissenting urge to burst out of the skin of everyday order, so that taken together all the isolated fragments add up to a collective figure of male and female desire. This represents, I would suggest, Shields's postmodern version of the carnivalesque, in the subjunctive mood.


  1. Carol Shields, ‘Arriving Late: Starting Over’, in How Stories Mean, ed. by John Metcalf and J. R. (Tim) Struthers (Erin, Ontario: Porcupine's Quill, 1993), pp. 244-51.

  2. For a brief discussion of Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the ‘carnivalesque’ developed in his study of Rabelais, see Robin Howells, Carnival to Classicism: The Comic Novels of Charles Sorel (Paris, Seattle, and Tubingen: Biblio, 17, 1989), pp. 9-12.

  3. Carol Shields, ‘Mirrors’, in Dressing Up for the Carnival (London: Fourth Estate, 2000), p. 68. All further page references to this volume will be included in the text.

  4. L. S. R. Byrne and E. L. Churchill, rev. by Glanville Price, A Comprehensive French Grammar (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), p. 342.

  5. Carol Shields, ‘Arriving Late: Starting Over’, p. 246.

  6. Carol Shields, Mary Swann (London: Fourth Estate, 1990); first published in Canada as Mary Swann: A Mystery (Toronto: Stoddart, 1987).

  7. Carol Shields, ‘Arriving Late: Starting Over’, p. 248.

  8. Carol Shields, Various Miracles (Toronto: Stoddart, 1985). For two penetrating critical discussions of this collection, see Simone Vauthier's essays, ‘Closure in Carol Shields's Various Miracles’, in her Reverberations: Explorations in the Canadian Short Story (Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1993), pp. 114-31, and ‘“They say miracles are past” But They Are Wrong’, Prairie Fire, 16.1 (Spring 1995), 84-104.

  9. Carol Shields, ‘Arriving Late: Starting Over’, p. 247.

  10. Alex Clark, ‘Sapphire and Steel’, Guardian, Saturday Review (5 February 2000), p. 9.

  11. This story shares many of the structural features and narrative functions of the title story in Various Miracles, and I am indebted in my reading to Simone Vauthier's analysis of that story in ‘“They say miracles are past”’, in Prairie Fire.

  12. Virginia Woolf, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ and ‘Kew Gardens’, in A Haunted House and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973).

  13. Margaret Atwood, ‘In Praise of Shields: Hilarious Surfaces, Ominous Depths’, National Post (22 October 1999), p. A19.

  14. Eleanor Wachtel, ‘Interview with Carol Shields’, Room of One's Own, 13, 1/2 (1989), 5-45 (pp. 30-31).

  15. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), p. 6.

  16. Robin Howells, p. 10.

My warmest thanks to Faye Hammill, University of Liverpool, who lent me her unpublished annotated Carol Shields bibliography while I was preparing this essay.

Rachel Cusk (review date 29 April 2002)

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SOURCE: Cusk, Rachel. “My Heart Is Broken.” New Statesman 15, no. 704 (29 April 2002): 47-8.

[In the following review, Cusk offers high praise for Unless, calling it a remarkable novel about the realities of women's marginalized place in society.]

I have always taken a pleasure in Carol Shields's novels that was slightly indistinct. Perhaps it was her composure—the membrane of absolute competence around her prose that seemed also to be a form of reticence—which rendered the soul, the motivation of her writing, opaque. That isn't a criticism: reading Shields is like talking to a good friend, someone reassuring and wise who, out of modesty or sympathy, keeps her own heart a secret. Like Jane Austen, Shields is a mysterious presence in her own fictions, a sort of shaded figure, and it seems to me that, with this remarkable novel, her narrative has finally turned to that figure and unveiled her.

Unless is a formidable meditation on reality: it takes the vessel of fiction in its hands and hurls it to the floor. Shields's unambiguous prose is here put to the service of her intellectual daring, and the result is a book that speaks without pretension about its strange and singular subject: the relationship between women and culture, the nature of artistic endeavour, and the hostility of female truth to representations of itself. I don't think I have previously read a work of literature that succeeds in bringing that last point to life. It might be said that a woman cedes cultural centrality the closer she comes to the fact of her sex, and likewise that a great woman is never more than an impostor.

Reta Winter is a writer. But she has other things on her mind. “It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now,” she states in her opening line. We are, then, already far from that other country, that cultural centre where women spend all their ingenuity in the hope of remaining. Reta's past literary achievements include, as well as “light” fiction, a career of service to Danielle Westerman, poet and feminist thinker, whose considerable works she has, over the years, translated from the French. Danielle Westerman is Simone de Beauvoir's spiritual daughter. She has lived the ascetic life of the female intellectual, free of fleshly association. She is hanging on by the skin of her teeth to her place among the male monuments of literary achievement.

Reta herself has not lived such a life: she has a husband and three children, and is, as she tells us, going through a period of great unhappiness and loss. Her eldest daughter, Norah, is what she has lost—not to death, but to a mute estrangement. Norah has dropped out of university, and sits begging on a street corner in Toronto. Around her neck hangs a sign on which is written the word “goodness”. Danielle Westerman's theory is that Norah “has simply succumbed to the traditional refuge of women without power: she has accepted in its stead complete powerlessness, total passivity”. Reta sees in Norah's protest her own despair at the futility of female endeavour. “My heart is broken,” Reta writes on the wall of a toilet cubicle in a Toronto restaurant. In public, she cannot be so concise.

Though in pain, she continues to live, while on the street corner snow falls and the temperature drops far below zero. She meets her women friends weekly for coffee: this used to be a writers' group, but now it's more like a service station on the compassionless motorway of experience. In her spare time, she picks up her pen without relish, and tries to write the sequel to the novel she wrote before her daughter left her. She writes letters, too, the sort that don't get sent. They are addressed to people whose habit of conferring cultural invisibility on women has come to her attention. She submits her work-in-progress to her editor—who says that, if she consents to shading the heroine into the background of the novel while bringing the principal male character centre stage, they might well have a masterpiece on their hands.

For a moment, it seems that Reta will walk through the broken window of her sex, but in the end she does not. Her emotional life, after this long period in abeyance, is brought back into flow by a series of chances. Her daughter is retrieved; her novel remains “light”: she is reincorporated into that invisibility, ploughed back into that fertile, unexceptional loam of female being. And yet this is itself a novel. Are we witnessing an act of self-immolation, of martyrdom? I don't think so. Shields has produced a very, very clever book about motherhood, honour, art, language and love. It is a lament, a punch in the face, an embrace. It is, in a strange way, a feat of translation. I want to call it a masterpiece—but I think I'll leave that for a man to say.

Sophie Ratcliffe (review date 3 May 2002)

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SOURCE: Ratcliffe, Sophie. “Typing while the World Howls.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5170 (3 May 2002): 22.

[In the following review, Ratcliffe offers high praise for Unless, asserting that the story demonstrates Shields at her tragi-comic best.]

In a teasing gesture towards critics who have suggested that she “doesn't do sadness very well”, Carol Shields begins her latest novel [Unless] on a low note. Reta Winters has led a good life so far—three children, a career as a novelist and translator, and a happy marriage. But, as her opening sentence reveals, she is “going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now”. Reta appears in Shields's last collection of stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival (2000), losing a scarf that she has just bought for her daughter. Now she seems to have lost the daughter too. Norah has dropped out of university and sits on a Toronto street corner “cross-legged with a begging bowl in her lap”:

Nine-tenths of what she gathers she distributes at the end of the day to other street people. She wears a cardboard sign on her chest: a single word printed in black marker—GOODNESS.

Reta still has, friends remind her, her writing—“A murmuring chorus: But you have your writing, Reta.” However, the plot of her latest comic romance gets sidelined, as she attempts to understand her daughter's virtuous action. The subsequent narrative, working through ideas of goodness, giving and giving up, shows Shields at her tragicomic best.

Reta is a soixante-huitarde, a product of Helen Reddy tracks, placenta-feasting and the “good scrambled liberated days”. But during the novel's course, Shields intimates that Reta's feminist rhetoric has become flatter than its founders' Dr Scholls. Norah's vanishing becomes the impetus for a change in writing style. Gradually, Reta starts to believe that Norah's self-sacrifice is gender-related, that her daughter perceives herself as one who can have “goodness but not greatness”. Reta begins a letter campaign, corresponding with critics and authors, living and dead. As she tells the organizers of a “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual World” home-learning course:

I have a nineteen-year-old daughter who is going through a sort of depression … which a friend of mine suspects is brought about by such offerings as your Great Minds of the WIW, not just your particular October ad, of course, but a long accumulation of shaded brown print and noble brows … all of it pressing down insidiously and expressing a callous lack of curiosity about great women's minds.

The Shieldsian analogue to Bellow's Herzog is extremely funny. Resembling a modern version of the Elizabethan complaint, it holds up the narrative with a refrain-like sense of critical injury. Indeed, Reta's tone often veers towards the explicitly Shakespearean, intimating the way in which we try to speak in “sympathy of woe”, mistranslating others' pain. While Norah sits, like Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, “silent tongue and burnt hands”, Reta's rants block and smother the gaps. Shields has commented that she “used to be quite a woman's writer … but lately less so”, and Unless shows unease about the way straightforward feminisms might slide into complacency, drowning out less assimilable voices that are harder to hear.

In some ways, Unless resembles Anne Tyler at her best. Thematically, however, the novel edges around territory touched on in Nick Hornby's investigation of domestic spirituality, How to Be Good. But Shields's roots also lie in the nineteenth century. She takes her epigraph from the narrator's caution in Middlemarch that “if we had keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence”.

With this sensitivity in mind, it seems that Shields is attempting to be “lately less so” in a more fundamental way. Norah's stance asks a central question as to whether lessness might be the sole integrity, for “what really is the point of novel writing when the unjust world howls and writhes?” The question is Reta's, but, as in many of Shields's texts, comparison between author and protagonist is invited. Small Ceremonies played on such relations, while The Stone Diaries included photographs of Shields's own family. More recently, “Absence” recognizes that “No one … pretends that the person who brought forth words was any other than the arabesque of the unfolded self”.

Unless is full of such autobiographical coincidence. Like Reta, Shields was initially published by a local press, and like her heroine, she has been subject to accusations of whimsicality, of there being, as Reta puts it, something “just a little bit darling” about her work. Similarities are more pressing when Reta writes a letter to a Chicago Tribune critic who has styled woman writers as the “miniaturists of fiction”—in a 1999 interview, Shields criticized a Kirkus reviewer for terming her “a miniaturist [who] has come full bloom”. Reta's fictional heroine is a female writer, and she is “aware of being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing”. From the beginning of the novel, where Reta is “desperate to know how the story will turn out”, to the moment when she wonders over the “tidy conclusions” of her own fictions, Shields anticipates and points up connections.

Such narratological subtleties can seem intrusive, a touch “darling” in their own way. This is, perhaps, the point. Any novel, Reta tells us, is “a story about the destiny of a child” (a comment made by Shields in her biography of Jane Austen, who described Pride and Prejudice as her “own darling child”). Reta's attachment to Norah, “constructing a tottering fantasy of female exclusion and pinning it on her daughter”, is a powerful example of the way in which, as another of Shields's heroines puts it, “women can never quite escape their mothers' cosmic pull”. But Reta's articulation of Norah's plight also provides a parallel to the way in which, in attempting to give voice, Shields suggests, we may also be taking; that narrative can never be truly selfless.

For Shields also has her writing. Each section of the novel is headed by a preposition, adverb or conjunction—the bold italics of “Otherwise', “Instead”, “Thus” and “Yet” stand in front of Reta's narrative, as if to perform some sort of authorial holding exercise. The noisy voice of the self gives a peculiar, and peculiarly stressful, power to Unless. As a writer who has been consistently concerned with relationships and relations, especially with the ending of relations, it is unsurprising that Shields puts special importance on what Reta calls these “little chips of grammar”. Any ending, after all, as George Eliot puts it, “is at best a negation”, and these joining words provide a way of holding on. But they also provide a way of letting go. In the gaps between the prepositions that stand at the head of each chapter Shields creates an alternative narrative that remains unwritten, a subjunctive otherworld.

Though the words “Not Yet” stand at the head of Shields's final chapter, it is “unless”, as Reta puts it, “a word breathed by the hopeful or by writers of fiction wanting to prise open the crusted world and reveal another plane of being”, that provides this novel's heart and banner. Shields has said that she doesn't believe in happy endings, but perhaps in happy middles. The narrative she spins around “the little subjunctive mineral” of her title, is such a middle. It offers the idea of possibility, and, with its “elegiac undertones” of double negativity, pays tender tribute to that other side.

Anita Brookner (review date 4 May 2002)

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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Women Talking to Women.” Spectator 288, no. 9065 (4 May 2002): 39-40.

[In the following review, Brookner assesses Unless as a charming novel that addresses the marginalization of women in society.]

It is hard to describe what makes this resolutely old-fashioned novel [Unless] so beguiling. Even the themes are old-fashioned: feminism, sisterly solidarity, a hippy search for purity (of a non-specific kind), and yet it keeps one reading on, slightly puzzled, to an old-fashioned happy ending, or at least a comfortable one. Perhaps its charm comes from its simplicity, a quality rarely encountered either in fiction or in the real world. The curious title is taken almost at random from a group of words—thereof, theretofore, despite, since, hardly, not yet—which are used to link passages of writing that must be connected if they are to move a narrative along to another mode. They are essential words that are rarely employed in direct speech, but the narrator of this particular novel is a writer and she knows how much development they are destined to convey.

The plot too is simple. Reta Winters, a Canadian woman of 44, living in Orangetown, north of Toronto, is blessed with three daughters, a loyal partner, a large house, and a group of stoutly supportive female friends. She is a writer who has made her name by translating the memoirs of Danielle Westerman, a Simone de Beauvoir clone who has in addition survived both the Holocaust and maternal abuse. Reta is then emboldened to publish a light romance which does surprisingly well, so well that she embarks on a sequel, and eventually a trilogy. Her young editor, who has been brainwashed in a publishers' workshop, urges her to change the names, the locations, and the professions of her characters, a move she wisely resists, while at the same time making him comfortable with a log fire and a bottle of wine. She mourns the death of her previous publisher who was courteous and seemly and had a sandwich sent up for lunch. Lunch is now part of the publishing business. Reta, fortunately, is too domestic a creature for lunch, and anyway she has a lasagne and an artichoke salad already prepared.

Tragedy enters her comfortable life in the form of her daughter Nora, who has taken to sitting on a street corner with a begging bowl and a sign proclaiming GOODNESS. Just what sort of goodness is here being attempted is less than clear, though it may have to do with self-denial, since Norah gives away all the money she collects. Her mother takes this with remarkable equanimity: she is busy writing her novel, which is about a pair of lovers who break up at the heroine's request because she is no longer satisfied with the arrangement. We are to intuit something grandiose here: a woman's dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Reta herself, the putative author, is given to writing letters to eminent critics in which she berates them for not including women in their canon. Another major theme here: women's exclusion. But Reta learns, or tells herself, that women's dissatisfaction stems from another source. Pace Freud, what women really want is to talk about themselves. This is demonstrated when her editor and her mother-in-law meet in Reta's house, and the older woman launches into an account of her life. Why has she not opened up before, queries Reta. Because nobody has ever asked her to is the answer. Perhaps the editor who started her off will retrain as a therapist. A Freudian, naturally.

The reason for Norah's turning her back on the world is never fully explained, but it was triggered by an incident which she witnessed and which so traumatised her that only the most radical of solutions could be envisaged. It is when the people at the hostel where she sleeps notice the burns on her hands that her thinking becomes less obscure. There is a slight flaw in this argument: the trauma should have been internal, developmental, rather than inflicted from outside. It is the damaged hands which give the game away, although self-mutilation would have been more convincing. However (another useful word), she is moved to a hospital, her parents are alerted, and she is brought safely home. Her future is unclear: the last chapter is headed ‘Not Yet’.

In her acknowledgments Carol Shields mentions the names of 29 people, only five of whom are men. Sneakily one reflects that a little more masculine rigour would have enhanced the writing, until one remembers that this is a book about women, in which the token male character is slightly ridiculous. Whether female solidarity wears as well in the 21st century as it did in the 1970s is open to polite doubt. Women are now the new men. And yet it would be pleasant to join that group of women at the Orange Blossom Tea Room and to immerse oneself in loving companionship. These women share the sort of weightless occupations—novel-writing, dance therapy, theology—that enable them to examine wider issues from a stable starting point. They offer consolation, advice, and complete understanding. Underneath Reta Winters's conformist exterior there beats a feminist heart. She loves her daughters, deals with them efficiently, but does not attempt to indoctrinate them. Unlike Carol Shields she is not particularly subtle. But then Reta Winters is not the sort of novelist that Carol Shields has become, and if we question the one we wholeheartedly applaud the other.

Ron Charles (review date 9 May 2002)

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SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “My Troubles Are Bigger than Your Troubles.” Christian Science Monitor 94, no. 16 (9 May 2002): 15-16.

[In the following review, Charles describes Unless as a mischievous monologue that is remarkably subtle and unsettling.]

You wouldn't expect it from her, but Carol Shields has written a naughty book. Put your yellow highlighter down: There's no sex, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Stone Diaries is doing something indecorous here—ribbing our notions of grief, even snickering at what inspires us.

Her latest novel, a mischievous monologue called Unless, begins with lamentations. Reta Winters once had it all: a loving partner who's a successful doctor, three smart daughters, a beautiful house outside Toronto, and a stimulating career as a translator. She had heard of sadness and pain, of course, but she confesses, “I never understood what they meant.”

Until now. “Happiness is not what I thought,” she concludes. “Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it's smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.” Now, in this new dark world, it's clear to her that the past was filled with “impossibly childish and sunlit days before I understood the meaning of grief.”

Who needs a downer like this? That's what's so strange: It's a very funny book. Even in the middle of her anguish, she suddenly looks into the camera and says with deadpan sarcasm, “I am attempting to ‘count my blessings.’ Everyone I know advises me to take up this repellent strategy.”

But nothing can alleviate the pain caused by her daughter's decision to drop out of college and “live a life of virtue.” For months now, 19-year-old Norah has been sitting on a street corner, begging, with a sign around her neck that says, “GOODNESS.” She won't speak to her parents and friends, or even acknowledge their presence.

For Reta, this calamity calls everything into question, particularly her family's baffling reflex to carry on with normal life. The melody of their pleasant days stays essentially the same; only the beat changes. At night, her husband sets aside his study of trilobites to investigate mental illness. She checks out a few books on the nature of goodness.

Like the friends of Job, everyone offers Reta reasonable, but ultimately unsatisfying counsel: Norah must be depressed; it's just a phase; her hormones are out of balance; she's had a nervous breakdown; she broke up with her boyfriend; she's suffering from post-traumatic stress. All reassure her that it has nothing to do with the quality of her mothering, but Reta knows better.

And then she slides around again and realizes that her daughter must be responding to the powerless condition of women by rejecting the chauvinistic world and retreating into “a kind of impotent piety.”

Aha—a cause to flight! Suddenly, her women's group seems more relevant than ever. The gains of the feminist movement were paltry, and the movement itself is stalled. There are letters to write, outrage to be registered (calmly), and corrections to be made (without sounding shrill).

Shields has captured something remarkably subtle and unsettling. Reta's grief would be so much cleaner if she weren't cursed with such ironic self-awareness, with moments of realizing that's she's a “self-pitying harridan.” How can she speak of her bottomless agony while translating the work of a Holocaust survivor? How can she stomach the embarrassment of reading her own “whining melodramatic scrawl”?

On the other side, she can't keep her own wit from corroding every moment of inspiration. No sooner does she sigh with teary relief than she realizes such moments are “fake jewels—twin babies in snowsuits”—that allow her to be tipped from skepticism to belief.”

Even as she begins studying virtue, she feels compelled to note: “I am not, by the way, unaware of the absurdity of believing one can learn goodness through the medium of print. Bookish people, who are often maladroit people, persist in thinking they can master any subtlety so long as it's been shaped into acceptable expository prose.”

As a writer, Reta can't resist the reflex to stand outside herself, analyzing, calling into question every motive, pushing her emotions and thoughts in one direction or another just to see where they lead.

She also begins writing a comic romance, knowing full well that she's retreating from the stubborn problems of her real life to enter a fictive world under her control. But how, this wily novel asks, can a placebo work if you know it's a placebo? What can keep the witty, self-aware person from ricocheting between gassy inspiration and bitter shame? In her own sophisticated way, Shields has sneaked a whoopee cushion under the soft pillow of self-pity.

Nothing is more surprising, though, than the story's ending. In a weird translation into comedy—with some brilliant commentary on the publishing world—the novel suddenly wraps everything up neatly. Of course, Reta notices this tidy denouement, too. After all, throughout the story she's one step ahead of us: “Novelists,” she admits, “are always being accused of indulging in the artifice of coincidence.”

Since we first met her, Reta's taunts have trained us to be skeptical of all such artifice, but, come on, Shields suggests with a wink, everybody needs to rest sooner or later. And ultimately, what other indulgence can we enjoy more than the wonderful coincidence of being alive together? This is one of those books that make you regret that reading is a solitary pleasure.

Jane Ciabattari (review date 12 May 2002)

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SOURCE: Ciabattari, Jane. “The Goodbye Girl.” Los Angeles Times (12 May 2002): 4.

[In the following review, Ciabattari judges Unless as a consummately poignant and artistic novel.]

Unless, Carol Shields' 10th novel, is a thing of beauty—lucidly written, artfully ordered, riddled with riddles and undergirded with dark layers of philosophical meditations upon the relative value of art, the realistic possibilities for women “who want only to be fully human” and the nature of goodness, that enduring human dilemma also worked thoroughly by Saul Bellow. What is goodness? How can goodness survive in the face of evil? How should a good woman—or man—live?

Shields, who was brought up in Oak Park, Ill.—Hemingway's birthplace—has spent her adult life in Canada, where she raised five children and taught literature before beginning her literary career with the novel Small Ceremonies, published when she was 40.

This makes her that rare creature, a writer eligible for American as well as British and Canadian literary prizes. She has won many, including a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Stone Diaries, (1994), the lyrical and profound “biography” of Daisy Stone Goodwill, an Everywoman whose life spans the tumultuous 20th century, and Britain's Orange Prize for Larry's Party, her 1997 novel about an “ordinary” man with two ex-wives, a teenage son and a growing sense of his own vulnerabilities (“Larry Weller stars in his own life movie, but in no one else's. This is hurtful to admit, but true”).

Shields knows her way around postmodern conceits. Unless is a novel about a woman who is writing a novel about a woman who writes. Shields plays with fact and fiction, weaving in events such as the contested U.S. election of 2000, then gently putting them in their place (“People enter and exit the world; that's the real news”). Her emphasis is on emotional depth as well as dazzling wordplay.

“Novels help us turn down the volume of our own interior ‘discourse,’ but unless they can provide an alternative, hopeful course, they're just so much narrative crumble,” muses Reta Winters, the novel's narrator. “Unless, unless … unless you're lucky, unless you're healthy, fertile, unless you're loved and fed, unless you're clear about your sexual direction, unless you're offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair.”

Winters, nee Summer, has great self-awareness and panache. The Orangetown, Ontario, resident is a translator of Danielle Westerman, an octogenarian French-born poet. She is also an editor, scholar and novelist (author of “My Thyme Is Up,” a light romantic comedy), a doctor's wife and the mother of three teenage daughters, the eldest of whom has dropped out of college to sit cross-legged on a Toronto street corner with a begging bowl in her lap and a cardboard sign on her chest printed with the word “GOODNESS.”

Her daughter's actions baffle Winters, plunging her into a period of great unhappiness and loss. She struggles to understand what has happened and why Norah has cut her loved ones out of her life. “Norah seems … stung by the tang of misery, nineteen years old, with something violent and needful beating in her brain,” Winters muses. “It's like a soft tumor, but exceptionally aggressive. Its tentacles have entered all the quadrants of her consciousness. This invasion happened fast, when no one was looking.”

Winters' other daughters are suffering, too—Natalie is having trouble sleeping, Chris is falling behind in math. They spend Saturdays sitting on the corner with their sister, but as months pass, they give it up and get on with soccer and other activities. Winters and Tom, her husband, consult a psychiatrist who counsels “non-interference” and suggests that Norah is giving herself “the gift of freedom.” While Tom looks into whether Norah has suffered some sort of trauma, Reta speculates that she has begun to perceive the limits of her gender. “A deterioration has occurred to the fabric of the world, the world that does not belong to her as she has been told.”

Winters is comforted by three women friends she meets weekly for coffee. They discuss acts of goodness as ethical choices—what about the newspaper image of a woman giving birth in a tree during a flood in Mozambique—“What did we do about that? Did we transform our shock into goodness?” one of them asks. Another mentions the Muslim woman who set herself on fire in downtown Toronto. “Someone did try to help her. … Someone tried to beat out the flames. A woman.” They worry that Westerman is right, that women are doomed to “goodness but not greatness.”

Perhaps, Winters thinks, her daughter is pursuing “a process of self-extinction” that parallels Westerman's theory that “inversion is … the tactic of the powerless, a retreat from society that borders on the catatonic.” She considers Westerman's lifework: “What does her shelf of books amount to, what force have these books had upon the world?” She thinks about the books her daughters read in school. “Imagine someone writing a play called ‘Death of a Saleswoman.’”

Meanwhile, Winters is at work on a sequel to her novel. One deliciously tart element in Unless is a satiric romp through a series of set pieces from a writer's life: The author interview, in which a book columnist asks hideously invasive questions about her daughter (“he was the barking terrier, going at [my] ankles”), then allows her to pick up the tab, confiding that, like most journalists, he is underpaid; the booksigning (“My impulse was to apologize for not being younger and more adorable, like Alicia in my novel”); the winning of the Offenden prize, which damns her to minor status by honoring accessibility (“A beginning, a middle and an ending … is that too much to ask?” is its motto); and the encounter with the boorish young editor who wants her to reframe the sequel with a male protagonist—under a male pseudonym—because, she realizes, he can't imagine a woman being the moral center of a novel or a female author writing a serious book.

As Winters struggles through this thicket of despair and comes to hard-won insights about her daughter's enigmatic behavior and her own place in the world, Shields carries us into a moment of illumination not unlike the ending Winters visualizes for her novel: “… the gathering together of all the characters into a framed operatic circle of consolation and ecstasy, backlit with fiber-optic gold, just for a moment on the second-to-last page, just for an atomic particle of time.”

Like Winters, Shields has the wisdom to know that in art, as in life, this harmonious design will quickly be supplanted. “We only appear to be rooted in time,” she writes. “Everywhere, if you listen closely, the spitting fuse of the future is crackling.”

In this consummately artistic and poignant novel, Shields touches gently upon some of life's harshest surprises, acknowledges the fleetingness of happiness and reminds us how precious life is.

Faye Hammill (review date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Hammill, Faye. “‘My Own Life Will Never Be Enough for Me’: Carol Shields as Biographer.” American Review of Canadian Studies 32, no. 1 (spring 2002): 143-48.

[In the following review of Jane Austen, Hammill comments that Shields provides a genuinely new perspective on Austen's life while highlighting the speculative nature of biography.]

My debt to Jane Austen herself is incalculable,” writes Carol Shields on the last page of her new biography [Jane Austen] of Austen (154). The biography sheds light on Shields's relationship to Austen, and it also offers a subtle exploration of the problems and pleasures of biographical research—a subject which has preoccupied Shields in much of her earlier writing. These aspects of the book will increase its appeal to admirers of Carol Shields and scholars of her work, although the intended audience is the general reader seeking an introduction to Austen's life. Jane Austen is part of the Weidenfeld and Nicholson Lives series, a set of short, extremely readable biographies, whose authors are themselves well-known figures. Devotees of Jane Austen will find no new information here, but they will find in some passages a genuinely new perspective on Austen's life, born of the understanding that one novelist can bring to the life of another.

In her prologue to the biography, Carol Shields describes a trip that she made with her daughter (also a writer) to present a joint paper at a meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. This opening emphasis on two authors, mother and daughter, together exploring the writing of a predecessor, immediately raises the idea of a female tradition, and constructs Austen as a literary foremother to Shields. Austen's influence is discernible in much of Shields's fiction—her postmodernist fascination with language and narrative notwithstanding. Shields's domestic settings, her concentration on (and upholding of) marriage and family life, and her ability to convey the subtleties of brief human interactions all invite comparison with Austen, and the plot of Shields's novel, The Republic of Love (1992), is basically the same as Austen's recurrent courtship plot. The orientation of the book towards the popular romance is also broadly comparable to Austen's response to the sentimental fiction of her day. In an interview conducted shortly after the publication of this novel, Shields said: “I feel a particular affinity with early 19th-century writers such as Jane Austen,” adding, “they did understand the love story. They understood the importance of finding the other and weren't ashamed of it” (Anderson 145-146).

In another interview, on a BBC arts review program in March 2001, Carol Shields was asked how she could bring herself to write Jane Austen, given that her fiction was so skeptical about the whole enterprise of biography. She replied, revealingly: “I thought of it as an essay, with a biographical spine, and along the way I would talk about novels in general, novels of her time, the writer's dilemma, particularly their day to day problems as fiction makers” (Lawson). So, for example, Shields pays attention to the different places where Austen composed her fiction—the familiar but noisy rooms at her two homes (Steventon and Chawton), where she wrote her major novels, and the “alien territory” of Bath, where she lived in cramped, uncomfortable lodgings and wrote nothing except her unfinished book, The Watsons, described by Shields as “a harsh cry of rebellion and outrage” against “the impossible bargaining position of single women” (97). Of Austen's first appearance in print, Shields comments:

The difference between a published and an unpublished author is enormous … published authors … are filled with a new and reckless confidence in their own powers. Jane Austen, thirty-six years old, travelled to London in March of 1811 so that she could work at correcting the proofs for Sense and Sensibility. The very phrase “correcting proofs” must have excited her imagination. She stayed in the Sloane Street house of Henry and Eliza, who drew her into a whirl of theatre going and parties, galleries and museums, modest shopping for printed muslin which she characterized as “extravagant.”


Drawing on a mixture of historical detail, twenty-five years' experience as a (female) writer of fiction, and a lifelong habit of character observation, Carol Shields invites us to imagine Austen's response to the various events and circumstances of her life. She is clearly fascinated by her subject's inner life, and in her novel Small Ceremonies (1976), she suggests that this is the case with most biographers. The protagonist of Small Ceremonies, Judith, is a biographer, and says of her work: “My two biographies, although they had been somewhat successful, had left me dissatisfied. In the end, the personalities had eluded me. The expression in the voice, the concern in the eyes, the unspoken anxieties; none of these things could be gleaned from library research, no matter how patient and painstaking. Characters from the past, heroic as they may have been, lie coldly on the page” (53).

In Jane Austen, Shields again acknowledges the impossibility of accurately capturing a human personality through biographical research, and in several passages she explicitly comments on the nature and difficulties of biography. These reflections do not, however, displace the primary narrative—Shields has not written a “metabiography,” to use a term coined by Lucasta Miller to describe her recent book The Brontë Myth. Miller's focus is not the Brontës themselves, but the different versions of them that have been purveyed by biographers, filmmakers, and critics. Shields, by contrast, keeps her attention on her subject, but she does emphasize the ultimate unknowability of figures from the past, and her prose highlights rather than concealing the speculative element in biography. She presents almost everything that is not absolutely factual in terms of probability rather than actuality. She says, for example, of Austen's visits to her wealthy brother at Godmersham: “Jane Austen's satirical powers would have be en stirred by the exuberant culture of the newly rich, and everything we know about her tells us she would not necessarily have hidden her response … Probably Austen never got over the sense of being the poor visiting sister” (54). These formulations alert us to the biographer's strategy of extrapolating from the known information in order to understand the subject's possible feelings.

Shields also points out the gaps and contradictions in the documentary evidence. Regarding Austen's appearance, she asks: “Was she dark or fair? There is wide variation even on this topic by near and distant witnesses, and the single lock of her hair that has survived is too discoloured by time to tell us much” (7). Shields adds that Cassandra Austen's portraits of her sister may have been “unreliable or even vindictive” (7), and that the recently discovered silhouette—which represents a prettier woman than do Cassandra's sketches—cannot be proved to depict Jane Austen. This is reminiscent of Shields's novel The Stone Diaries (1993), in which she includes a set of photographs ostensibly showing the relatives and friends of her protagonist, Daisy. On closer inspection, it becomes evident that the photographs do not match the written account of the characters' appearances, and the reader is forced to consider whether the pictures are mis-identified or whether the narrative is untrustworthy, and also how there can be photos in a novel in the first place, and why there are none of Daisy. This is only one of Shields's many strategies in The Stone Diaries for blurring the boundary between biography and fiction, and examining the partial and subjective judgments that are necessarily a part of every biography. In Jane Austen, though, Shields never attempts quite such radical questioning: Austen remains enigmatic but she is not erased from her own story as Daisy is. Shields attempts to gratify the reader's curiosity as far as she can, pointing our that: “Jane Austen's appearance is of interest to the reader partly because it satisfies a curiosity we all feel, but chiefly because it is known that, at the time, exceptional beauty occasionally gave an advantage to women of little means, which was exactly what Jane Austen was” (7).

Shields's cautious treatment of letters and other subjective accounts also draws attention to the delicate, uncertain nature of biographical research. Jane Austen once wrote to her sister: “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter” (Austen 45). In fact, as Shields points out, Austen's letters are by no means innocent outpourings: she was using a letter-writing technique that was encouraged in her time, and “the scattered and somewhat breathless nature of her correspondence is the result not of carelessness but of deliberation” (6). There is detailed analysis of the persona that Austen constructed in her letters, and what it might reveal about the relationship between the sisters. Shields dismantles the eighteenth-century ideal of the letter as pure self-revelation, and here, again, there is a parallel with her fiction. Letters are embedded in the texts of most of her books, notably Swann (1987), The Stone Diaries (1993) and Various Miracles (1985), while A Celibate Season (1991, co-written with Blanche Howard) is a full-blown epistolary novel. All these books include self-reflexive comments on the process of letter writing. “Pick up a pen and a second self squirms out” says Sarah Maloney in Swann (23), and in Jane Austen, Shields remarks: “A letter, even to an intimate, brings another self forward.” She argues that “there is in Jane Austen's letters to her sister a witty, distracted performer at work, and one who longs to lessen the distance between herself and Cassandra by sharing the minutiae of daily life” (37-38).

Like all Austen biographers, Shields is dependent on the extant letters for much of her information, but she never treats them as transparent indicators of personality. Instead she includes different possible interpretations of individual passages, and retreats from endorsing one reading in particular. Of the letter in which Austen, in her final illness, says she could not always manage the stairs and so rested on three chairs, leaving the sofa for her mother, Shields enquires:

What can we make of this improbable scene? Did her mother not notice the unusual furniture deployment? Or was Jane Austen in the throes of a bizarre martyrdom? Were the mother and daughter playing out an old and rivalrous claim? Or was Mrs Austen—and this is the interpretation that has hardened in the record—a demanding and self-absorbed woman, careless of her daughter's comfort and too insensitive to see the signs of serious illness?


The inclusion of so many sentences cast as questions is an acknowledgement that we can rarely be certain of the answers, and also emphasizes the curiosity and constant questioning that motivates the biographer's research. “I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me,” (179) says the biographer in Small Ceremonies. In Jane Austen, Shields asks unexpected questions, which lends a freshness to her biography. Her narrative stance locates her close to her audience: she presents herself not as a scholarly authority on Austen, but as a curious reader of her fiction and letters. “What makes a child of twelve or thirteen a satirist?” (25) asks Shields; and, in reference to Austen's alleged reaction to the news of her family's move to Bath, “Can she really have fainted, she who in her earliest work mocked extravagant emotional responses?” (73).

Yet, despite Shields's self-confessed fascination with the intimate details of Austen's life, this biography is strikingly free from gossip and prurience. Shields skates over or omits certain episodes to which other biographers have paid substantial attention—Jane's possible romance with a young man in Lyme Regis, the doubtful paternity of her aunt Philadelphia's daughter Eliza, and Eliza's blatant flirtation with her much younger cousin, Jane's brother Henry. Shields avoids the temptation to impose the patterns of fiction (romance, tragedy, scandal) on her subject's life, but a novelist's touch is perceptible in her shaping of Austen's story. She was once asked in an interview what it was about biography that intrigued her, and her response identifies both the nature of her fascination with other personalities and also the reason why she is primarily a novelist rather than a biographer:

I think it's the only story we've got. The only story with a nice firm shape to it is the story of a human life, but so much of it is unknowable. And this is why I like fiction because fiction can go where biography can't. It can go where most of it happens, which is inside the head. … So I can see the weaknesses of biography, but I'm very attracted to the shape of it. … And … I'm interested in what acts on a human personality to make a difference in that person's life.

(Wachtel 28)

Works Cited

Anderson, Marjorie. “Interview with Carol Shields, May 1993.” Prairie Fire 16 (1995): 139-150.

Austen, Jane. Selected Letters. 1955. Ed. R. W. Chapman, new int. Marilyn Butler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Lawson, Mark. Interview with Carol Shields. Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 6 March 2001 7:15 p.m.

Shields, Carol. Small Ceremonies. 1976. London: Fourth Estate, 1995.

———. Swann. 1987. Toronto: Stoddart, 1993.

Wachtel, Eleanor. Interview with Carol Shields. Room of One's Own 13.1/2 (1989): 5-45.

Laura Moss (review date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Moss, Laura. “‘The Quotidian Is Where It's At.’” Canadian Literature 172 (spring 2002): 194-96.

[In the following review of Dressing Up for the Carnival, Moss comments that the best stories in the collection focus on love and marriage and highlight Shields's experimentation with narrative form.]

In her introductory remarks at a reading at the Harbourfront Reading Series in Toronto, Carol Shields remarked on her frustration at the critics' tendencies to focus on the “ordinary” in her works. In response to this incessant focus she read “Soup du Jour,” a story from her recent collection Dressing Up for the Carnival. The parodic story begins: “Everyone is coming out these days for the pleasures of ordinary existence. Sunsets. Dandelions. Fencing in the backyard and staying home. ‘The quotidian is where it's at,’ Herb Rhinelander recently wrote in his nationwide syndicated column. ‘People are getting their highs on the roller coaster of everydayness, dipping their daily bread in the soup of common delight and simple sensation.’” This is the playful beginning to a sad story about life, love, and obsessive counting. As in most of the other stories in this collection, Shields flouts the conventions of ordinariness but she does not relinquish them. By the end of the story we still know about all the ingredients required in the soup. This is a slow read, not because of the density of prose or the complexity of plots, but because it is best to read the stories in isolation from each other. These stories are emphatically not linked. That this is not a page-turner is its success.

While several of the stories are extrapolations on “what if” stories (what if Roman ruins were found in southern Manitoba, what if meteorologists went on strike, what if you have a sexual encounter at a dinner party with a man you've just met), the best ones are imagistic flashes. Shields shares with poetic imagism a focus on crisp, clear, precise, concentrated images and an emphasis on clearing away the clutter. This is well illustrated in the title story. It is a series of portraits of characters: “A Passionate, Vibrant Woman About To Begin Her Day. Her Life”; a man carrying a mango in his left hand; a bank teller fantasizing about an empty baby stroller; a young woman reading a great classic; and an anonymous middle-aged citizen who waltzes about his bedroom in his wife's lace-trimmed nightgown: “Everywhere he looks he observes cycles of consolation and enhancement, and now it seems as though the evening itself is about to alter its dimensions, becoming more (and also less) than what it really is.” This is a fitting metaphor for this book of short stories. If Shields writes about sunsets and dandelions, detailing the “pleasures of ordinary existence,” she places them beside observations on “cycles of consolation and enhancement.” She presents more and less what really is.

The stories range from accounts of love to a report on ceremonial foods. There is the whimsical story, written without the letter “I,” about a writer who must write a story without the letter “I.” There is the story of an artist's response to the darkness and light that ensues after the government imposes a window tax. There is the story of the weather-less state that comes out of a strike by the National Association of Meteorologists and the love in a marriage that is restored when the strike is over. Perhaps most beautifully, there is the story of an author's odyssey to buy the perfect scarf for her daughter. Only one story in this collection, “Flatties,” falls flat. Shields is not at her strongest in this fantastic landscape. Her vignettes about the inconsistencies of love, the way lovers stumble onto each other, and the long-haul nature of marriage provide more satisfying reading.

The collection goes well beyond exploring the intricacies of love, though. As if responding to the inadequacies of contemporary literary criticism, Shields also engages with misreadings in many of the stories. Perhaps the sharpest criticism of a misreading comes in “Edith-Esther.” It is a story about the imposition of a persona on an eighty-year-old writer by her official biographer. Echoing the famous story of why Alice Munro chose to have a character dressed in brown (not because of its earthy connotations, but rather, because she liked brown), Edith-Esther is admonished by her biographer because she has always “rejected any sense of subtext” when she attempts to explain her own phrase, “her lips form a wound in the flesh,” as a reference to chapped lips or perhaps even cold sores rather than as a reference to the wounds of Christ. The biographer is so heavily invested in portraying her “kernel of authenticity” by recreating her as a spiritual woman that he ignores her avowed repudiations of religion. Shields, however, seems particularly determined to suppress outdated notions of authorial authenticity. In a sense, she has answered the readers who have misread her work as a simple fleshing out of the quotidian by presenting a collection that intensely points to her own forays into experimentation with narrative structure in Happenstance,Swann, and The Stone Diaries.

Reading Getting Lucky, Matt Cohen's posthumously published final collection of short stories, is like reading his canon in miniature. It brings to summation a lifetime of writing. Several of the stories, including the title story, “Darwin's Jars”, “Napoleon in Moscow” and “The Anatomy of Insects,” evoke the Eastern Ontario landscape of Cohen's Salem novels of the 1970s and of Elizabeth and After, the novel published shortly before his death in 1999. In “The Anatomy of Insects”, an unusual story about a son coming to terms with his father's death, Cohen writes: “At some point in the last few miles the landscape has shifted. A sudden transition Lawrence never expects, never remembers, but it always arrives this way, and once he has come this far, to this place that is home, the loose whirring keys align themselves, lock into position, thunk, and suddenly he is whole again, home again, back to the place he is always so eager to escape, so reluctant to return.” In this and many other stories, geography and landscape are intertwined with a reluctant sense of peace, comfort, and home.

Glimpses of Cohen's other work can be seen throughout. As in Dressing Up for the Carnival, these stories are technically diverse. They range from the stark realism in a story about a man who must choose between a family he loves and a cabin he needs, to the macabre elegance of a story written in the tone of Freud: The Paris Notebooks about a boy, his father (the “literary executioner”), and Dostoyevsky. (As if to anchor even “Inventing Dostoyevsky” in some kind of reality, Cohen describes at length the sound of the thin chocolate coating of chocolate marshmallow cookies cracking between teeth.) Further, the whimsy in the story of Stephen Leacock's private secretary is reminiscent of the humour evident particularly in Café Le Dog. The meek English teacher, Winter, is clearly a descendant of the ineffectual professor in Nadine (although not as disconcertingly compelling). Missing from the collection, however, is the sadness of Last Seen. These stories were completed when Cohen knew that he was dying of lung cancer. However, the collection lacks any kind of morbidity. It seems that he did not want to burden his final fictional work with self-pity or with anger.

These stories are fuller than Shields's tales. The collection reads more like a series of short novels than a row of images. As a result, however, some of the stories are dense and rewarding, while other stories seem incomplete or prematurely finished. On the one hand, “Getting Lucky” and “the Anatomy of Insects,” for example, end with an uncharacteristically neat tying-up of the storylines using rather conventional proposals of marriage. They stop abruptly with an optimism that appears false in the contexts of the stories. “Darwin's Jars,” on the other hand, is a rich twenty-page novella that ends with the haunting image of a country man, Walt, showing off his collection of bones. What seems to be a story about the pleasures of ordinary existence, helping a neighbour's child, becomes a horrific vision. When we enter the barn with the drunken narrator and his host, we are just as surprised as he is to find a human skeleton in a large glass coffin. “Every bone has been meticulously cleaned and varnished. Walt must have taken the whole thing apart, worked on it for weeks or months, then put it back together, just like his reconditioned car.” Polished exhumed human remains are simply, and without comment, compared to a refurbished forty-five-year-old Ford. We are left wondering if this image is meant to be cinematic hyperbole (a theme running throughout the story) or an exposition of the potential for horror inside every character.

Perhaps the most stirring story in the collection is “Edward/Eduardo,” the story of the adoption of a boy from Guatemala and his subsequent disappearance. After telling the story of Kiki—the dog that killed a cat to become a mother—a character asks “Which is the worst part? That the agent was telling me I would kill to be a mother or that because of me Edward would think he was a dog instead of a cat?” The answer, it is clear, is both. The “real worst part” however is “how much everyone enjoyed watching the grotesque spectacle that Kiki and her children provided.” Cohen shows the depth and complexity necessary to write about home. The desperation of motherhood, separation, and desire are presented not as grotesque spectacle, but as elements of the ordinary. While it is true that, like Dressing Up for the Carnival, the quotidian is where it's at in Getting Lucky, it is also true that Cohen is “back in his own country, known rhythms of wind.” Given the controversy over his memoir, Typing: A Life in 26 Keys, this is perhaps his best final legacy.

Nino Ricci (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Ricci, Nino. “A Tribute to Carol Shields.” Brick, no. 69 (spring 2002): 170-73.

[In the following essay, Ricci offers a personal account of her encounters with Shields as a fellow novelist. Ricci praises Shields's experimental narrative structure and shifting points of view in The Stone Diaries.]

I first met Carol Shields in the fall of 1990. That was the year my own first novel came out, and as part of the promotional activities for the book my publisher had arranged for me to do a reading at a small bookstore in Winnipeg.

Now it just so happened—and it has since been my experience that there are many things of this sort that just so happen in that gauntlet of humiliation known as the Book Tour—that another reading had been scheduled in the city on the same evenings as my own, featuring a writer much more famous than I was. I later heard that this other writer had attracted a crowd of some three hundred or so. But back at my own little bookstore, the appointed time arrived and what had seemed at first just the lingering end-of-day remnant of uncommitted browsers turned out in fact to be my audience—a total of six, as I remember, including the store's owner and my publisher's book rep. Among the rest, however, were two people whose presence I had no right to expect: one was Sandra Birdsell and the other was Carol Shields. Coming from Toronto, I was not accustomed to seeing writers of stature attending the readings of two-bit first-time novelists. But there they were, mucking in like that to show a bit of support for the new kid. What struck me in Carol was the complete lack of any pity or embarrassment on my account for the poor showing—we're all here, her attitude seemed to say, so let's have a reading. In the end, rather than feeling sorry for myself for my meagre draw I felt sorry for the poor sod across town who hadn't managed to pull in Birdsell and Shields. That night still stands out for me now as one of the first times, with my intimate audience of six, that I felt myself to be a real writer, and also as a time when I understood what it might mean to be such a thing, to form part of a community that cared about words and took the trouble to support other people in their similar care.

Some two years passed before I saw Carol again, this time in the much different venue of the International Festival of Authors' Hospitality Suite. Any of you who have ever been near the Festival Hospitality Suite will know the strange, heady air that breathes out from the place, at once exhilarating and oppressive, the room so volatile with liquor and talent and ego you hardly dare to light a match. Somehow, in amongst all the luminaries packed into the room, Carol and I managed to come together at one point. There, amidst the flowing gin and the talk of New York agents and the drunken sixty-year-old poets pursuing young Harbourfront interns, Carol had the audacity to actually talk to me about writing, asking me, in her frank, down-to-earth way, how my own work was going. Again, living in Toronto, I was not accustomed to other writers ever making enquiries about one's work, much less listening if one dared to reply. But something in the directness of Carol's question and then in the unfaltering gaze she held me in, as if she wasn't anxiously waiting to move on to someone more important than me but actually expected, or more correctly demanded, a response, led me to set aside the usual evasion I tended to reserve for such questions and to offer an honest answer.

At the time I was well into the writing of my second novel and was encountering some serious problems of structure that had to do with trying to tell a story from the very beginning to the very end rather than starting in medias res, in the middle of things, the favoured method since Homer. We talked about the matter for a bit, and then Carol said something that floored me.

“Have you thought about starting over?” she asked, without a trace of irony.

No, I bloody well haven't, it was on my lips to say, thinking as I was about the years of work I'd already put into the thing and how I'd better get another book out soon or everyone would forget about me. None of these concerns, of course, had much to do with writing; while Carol's question, in fact, had been very much to the point. She hadn't hesitated to ask the obvious, namely was I committed enough to my own work to put everything about it into question.

I finally stuttered some response to her along the lines of not being able to bear the thought of such a thing, which was more or less the truth. But afterwards I felt strangely honoured that she had taken me seriously enough to put such a question to me, and felt confirmed again in the sense that I stood before a true writer, who put the writing, and its voracious demands, first.

In our discussion, Carol had referred only in passing to her own project of the moment, which turned out to be a novel called The Stone Diaries. I read it when it came out and was at once reminded of the discussion we'd had in the Harbourfront Hospitality Suite—it was a book that solved brilliantly all those thorny problems of structure that I'd felt so daunted by, beginning at the very beginning and ending at the very end but still managing to capture, in that framework, not only the movement and drama of a life but more importantly the spirit of it, what seemed to remain when what was inessential was stripped away. And it did all this with a seeming casualness and ease that belied the novel's delicate layering of nuance and emotion and with no trace of the plodding inevitability to which many beginning-to-bitter-end narratives are prone.

There is no shortage of novels, of course—some of them great classics—that like The Stone Diaries simply follow the lives of their protagonists from the cradle to the grave. A life, in fact, is in some ways the very model of narrative form: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; every part in it tends to build toward the subsequent parts; and there is always a death in the final moments to bring an appropriate sense of closure. But novelistically, the recounting of a life in such a dogged, linear way poses certain often intractable problems. For instance, there is the problem of making the story sufficiently dramatic, so that you end up not with dull summaries of the endless series of events that make up a life but instead with a few select and vividly realized single moments, which must be illustrative of all that has been left out without seeming forcedly or artificially so. Then there is the problem of the connective links between these single moments, of imposing meaning, structure, and narrative drive on an entity, a human life, that often lacks such things, and again of doing so in a way that seems natural and inevitable, but not predictable. The virtue of beginning in medias res is that most of these problems are removed by virtue of having a plot: the Trojan War begins, rages, then ends; Odysseus sets out, has many adventures, arrives home. Within such boxes there is room for a hundred characters and themes and for a thousand flashbacks to whatever bits of background we need to make sense of things, all of this swept along by the rush of dramatic action. A life, on the other hand, has events, but generally no plot; it takes the art of the writer to sort one out, and to arrange things so that they seem to lead us in some sort of meaningful direction.

What struck me when I was reading The Stone Diaries, however, was how lightly it seemed to wear its cradle-to-grave structure, indeed using it as an opportunity for a playfulness and inventiveness that help give the book its peculiar air of buoyancy. More than that, it somehow managed to be a page-turner, though certainly not in the usual way of piling dramatic event on dramatic event, or of holding back some terrible secret which must at last be revealed, or of leading the protagonist along a trail of increasing dissipation or hubris that must inevitably lead to her demise. Rather, the novel seemed exactly to work against such conventions: the most dramatic event in the book is over by the end of the first chapter, and happens before the protagonist is even conscious; much of what happens to the protagonist afterwards is in the way of missed opportunities and small successes and not-quite-realized hopes that would have to be described, if they were told in simple summary, as decidedly unnovelistic. Along the way the protagonist has no overwhelming insights, makes no great contribution to civilization, commits no memorable act of humanity; and then finally she dies, slightly muddled and dissatisfied and embittered, and not at peace.

Of course, any life can be the stuff of a novel if it is well-told. But even in this, The Stone Diaries seems to defy the usual logic. Structurally the book is a dog's breakfast, a hodgepodge of recipes and letters and epigraphs and floating snippets of conversation and reflection, with a shifting point of view that, in defiance of contemporary fashion, is forever flitting from character to character, hardly ever alighting, in the end, on the consciousness of the main one, Daisy Goodwill Flett. Then even in the more traditional narrative sequences there is almost nothing like the standard dark-and-stormy-night setting of scene and building of tension that is fiction's stock-in-trade. Instead, the most dramatic moments pass nearly unremarked, and many of the narrative passages are filled with the sort of introspection and editorial commentary that in a lesser writer would soon have fallen beneath the editor's red pencil. Indeed, the novel seems to break almost every rule that we writers traditionally trot out whenever we give writing workshops. Except that in the end it fulfils the only rule that really counts: it works.

What makes it work would be the stuff for a book at least as long as the novel itself. But even then we would be left inarticulate before the simple genius of the thing, the spirit that moves through it like the throb of our own unexpressed selves. Somehow it is exactly through its mess of broken rules and illegal devices, its mongrel heaping up of the flotsam of a life, that the novel seems to overleap those dilemmas I had felt stymied by, finding the elusive balance between the general and the particular, the summarized and the dramatized, the individual moments of tragedy and joy and fear that mark an existence and whatever it is that floats above them, and makes a life whole. It was this that most impressed me when I first read the novel and that still impresses me now, that sense in the book of seeing the entirety of a life spread before us, not artificially synthesized and made dramatic or instructive but kept in all its bumps and irregularities and indigestible fragments. And the magic of the book is how it still imbues such a life, despite its pettinesses and its disappointments, with its own beauty and mystery and grace.

When I first read The Stone Diaries I wanted to write a letter to Carol to tell her how moved I was by it, and how much I had learned from it. But the time passed and I did not write; and then the book was being so continuously showered with accolades that I hardly dared anymore to add my own little voice to the chorus. I regret now that I did not write that letter, and so am glad to have had this chance to redress, in part, that failure. I'm glad as well of the excuse this evening gave me to reread The Stone Diaries. What struck me in this recent reading was how much the book is about reinvention, about the possibility of reinvention, of one day turning a corner, or picking up a pen, or stepping on a train, and becoming new. And it seems to me that Carol's life is one that has been marked by her own ongoing reinvention, from academic to mother to poet to novelist to playwright to University Chancellor, and from someone doggedly working away for many years somewhat at the fringes of the Canadian literary establishment to Pulitzer Prize winner and international best-seller. But throughout it all she has remained what she first seemed to me when I met her: a true writer, someone who has stayed dedicated to her work through good times and bad, and who serves as a model to all of us in her unflagging commitment to the written word. It is that commitment that we celebrate tonight, for when most others would have been content to rest on their laurels and their legacy she has given us instead the gift of another book, for which we thank her.

Barbara Frey Waxman (essay date spring 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9483

SOURCE: Waxman, Barbara Frey. “A New Language of Aging: ‘Deep Play’ in Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries and Alison Lurie's The Last Resort.South Atlantic Review 67, no. 2 (spring 2002): 25-51.

[In the following essay, Waxman asserts that The Stone Diaries provides a fresh, positive, playful perspective on old age and death.]

Author May Sarton observed in 1973 that old age is a “foreign country” that Americans know little about—nor do they care to—until they must travel there themselves. Yet there is a growing clientele for this “foreign travel” and at age 54 I number myself among the travelers. I do not want to wait until age 65 or 70 to figure out how to live fully the rest of my life, what retirement means, or how to prepare philosophically for a good death. Nor do I accept many of our culture's received notions about later life: that it is a life stage of passivity, deterioration, and increasing isolation. The ageism of these stereotypes is unacceptable to aging baby-boomer feminists like me, who have been resisting oppressive “-isms” for decades. Sarton and an increasing number of other authors have been introducing readers like me to this foreign country over the past quarter-century through memoirs and novels. Their depictions of older characters help to challenge negative stereotypes of the elderly and encourage readers to consider the possibilities of retirement, the emotional and spiritual opportunities for growth in later life. Works such as Sarton's At Seventy and As We Are Now, Doris Lessing's The Diaries of Jane Somers and The Summer before the Dark, Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn, Philip Roth's Patrimony, and Terry Kay's To Dance with the White Dog may convert readers' trepidation about old age into positive anticipation or enthusiastic participation.

These writers offer both readers and literary gerontologists older characters that represent a range of responses to later life. Kathleen Woodward notes that fictions of aging can “speak complexly, not reductively, to our experiences and anticipatory phantasies of aging” (17). Anne Wyatt-Brown also observes that during the 1990s literary gerontology entered “a higher stage of scholarly maturity,” especially through the use of literary theories that open up literary texts in many ways (67). With this new complexity in literature of later life and literary criticism about it, we may avoid one-dimensional views of elders; I agree with Thomas Cole, who has cautioned against a dualistic and judgmental construction of a “good” versus a “bad” old age (Cole 91, 229, 233). In this essay, I hope to complicate readers' thinking about elders and later life.

Because novels and memoirs of aging are cultural artifacts, they are capable both of reflecting and transforming cultural “beliefs and practices … by particular literary acts of praising or blaming,” as literary theorist Stephen Greenblatt reminds us (226). Hence, I want to examine here some of the beliefs and practices regarding later life that are depicted and tacitly endorsed in contemporary fiction about elders. I want, in particular, to show how two novels by prize-winning authors, Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries (1993) and Alison Lurie's The Last Resort (1998), present three characters whose evocations of later life have the power to change readers' attitudes toward aging and death. Two of the characters, females, distance themselves from their own decrepitude by making fun of it; they also learn how to transcend their egos occasionally; and they become playfully intimate with death. The third character, a male, presents an interesting contrast to the other two characters. At first, it seems as if he could use more of this playtime in his life. Lurie gently ridicules his self-preoccupation and tendency to feel sorry for himself. However, readers are invited to watch as he learns to take himself, his ills, and his mortality a little less seriously. His character usefully depicts how even an unlikely elder can play and reap the emotional and philosophical benefits of play.

As J. Huizinga, author of Homo Ludens (1950), a seminal work on play in culture, observes, play serves important biological and cultural purposes in human society. It is a completely absorbing behavior that allows us to dwell temporarily in a “sphere of activity [beyond] the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites” (Huizinga 8-9). Play activity creates a temporary, but perfect and orderly, space (Huizinga 10-11, 13). At any age, play may be a significant pathway to good health and happiness, but it can have unique benefits for elders. The elderly characters of Shields and Lurie bring a meditative kind of playfulness into the conduct of their lives to cope with the physical problems of senescence and to face death's intimidating mystery. By engaging in private meditation and public wordplay about old age and death—puns, jokes, and metaphors—and by imagining later life and death as intriguing alternative states, these characters “domesticate” their own terror of dying. When they play, they move “out of common reality into a higher order” (Huizinga 13) where their perspectives widen and become more complex, and where they exchange trivial distractions for spiritually or psychologically rich experiences. These characters extend Huizinga's notions of play into a more meditative mental domain. What they are engaging in has been clarified for me by writer Diane Ackerman's concept of “deep play.”

Deep play is an ecstatic state of intense meditation and absorption either in one's surroundings or in a space that transcends time and self. Deep play is a state of higher consciousness where the individual encounters some risks, physical and emotional challenges, as he or she travels “into a zone of ambiguity” (Ackerman 73). The deep player, Ackerman notes, resembles the Zen monk who can make contact with the sacred or transcendent in the ordinary things of daily life (73), including the world of nature. Such contact has a cleansing or purifying effect (Ackerman 89). It can heal us, perhaps by triggering endorphins in us as we inhale the fragrance of salt air at the ocean's edge or watch cardinals and robins foraging for food outside our window: “We drink briefly from [nature's] miracle waters. We inoculate ourselves against the aridity of a routine, workaday life” (Ackerman 156). Cleansed and inoculated, often shielded from daily work's relentless demands, an older deep player can let slip the self and contemplate the universe, perhaps more freely than the person fully enmeshed in the work world. The deep player's imagination is fed by nature: “nature is an ideal place for creative play” (Ackerman 170). While a natural setting may trigger deep play, the player actually moves beyond the initiatory setting. Detachment from self and surroundings are characteristic symptoms and effects of deep play (Ackerman 194). This detachment may be a pathway to a wider perspective available to elders.

Ackerman does not reflect much on deep play in relation to later life, nor do I use her idea of deep play to portray old age as a stereotypical second childhood. Deep play is not child's play, but the profound activity of deeply focused adults. However, some of Ackerman's ideas about where and how to pursue deep play are more applicable to youthful and exceptionally fit adults rather than to elders, literary or real. For example, her chapter “Into the Death Zone” explores stressful, death-defying physical activities such as climbing Mount Everest that send these thrill-seeking participants into the arena of deep play. Trekking in Antarctica or comparable exotic, intense, and risky experiences energize the imagination of the physically fit and extend the edges of the known and knowable. As people grow older, according to Ackerman, the risk-taking aspects of their deep play often shift from the physical to the mental, to “the high plateau … where one feels the rapture of witnessing and appreciating” (207). Mental activities are readily available to the less fit and to older deep players in the world of nature, the space and time of religious meditation, and the realm of poetry and wordplay. Ackerman explains, “To reach deep play sometimes means tackling activities more complex than one encounters in everyday life (such as chess), or simpler than one usually encounters (such as sitting still and watching every movement of a deer)” (118).

Older deep players who have scaled back on their work schedules (not all do so nowadays) are able to give attention to these more complex or simpler activities, such as: close observation of nature; playful reading of poetry (“Every poem is a game, a ritual dance with words” 133); and uninterrupted contemplation of friendships, love, and death. This deep play may be entirely serious or “rich with laughter” (Ackerman 196). Deep play seasoned with humor lessens the cynicism, despair, or boredom that may develop as a person ages and becomes more limited in physical capacity or conventional productivity. And deep play may allow elders to put death in its place vis-à-vis life, thereby encouraging fuller living: “given something like death, what does it matter if one looks foolish now and then, or tries too hard, or cares too deeply? A shallow life creates a world flat as a shadow” (196). So, in the face of death, an older deep player courageously takes this risk of looking foolish as she or he risks learning new ways of being, seeing, acting, and interacting with others. The older deep player gambles with her self-pride and develops a sense of humor about human nature and about herself.

I find in my own life that I now take myself less seriously when I venture into new areas for deep play. Absorbed in acquiring a fluency in Spanish, in learning how to create a web page, or in mastering a new kind of tennis strategy, I feel less inhibited than in my youth and I matter-of-factly expect failures along the way to mastery. In fact, the failures are often as necessary to get to the mastery as is a sense of humor about failing. I imagine that this gambler's tendency in myself, this disregard for my own foolishness as I play, will increase—even as I continue to stumble over a verb form in the Spanish subjunctive, mess up a hyperlink on my web page, or send a tennis ball into the net. In these activities I am a deep player and the mental concentration moving me toward mastery itself becomes an intoxicating elixir that I seek more and more.

Older deep players, then, may gain perspective, experience moments of rejuvenating insight, achieve self-acceptance (Ackerman 20, 24), or just have more fun. Like Nancy K. Miller, I believe we can learn from older individuals, including literary ones, who have “journeyed in time” (Miller 14). Fictional older characters who are deep players may have something to teach us about receptivity to our surroundings and to other people in our lives, about how deep play makes us “feel whole” (Ackerman 12-13). In this essay, I consider what we can learn about the benefits of deep play in later life through Shields's Daisy Goodwill Flett, as well as Lurie's Molly Hopkins and Wilkie Walker. I also consider how these elders grow in self-knowledge, in part through deep play.

The Stone Diaries narrates the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett from birth to death. I focus here on the last third of the novel, which traces Daisy in her seventies as widow, retired newspaper columnist, grandmother, great aunt, and friend, and then explores her contemplative inner life as an old woman of 80. Perhaps Daisy's earlier years prepare her for this period of deep play when she has retired to Florida. In those busy pre-retirement years, she devoted herself to raising three children and being the ideal wife and mother, in the self-effacing, Other-centered style of the 1950s Better Homes and Gardens woman. Even in those years, when her life seemed “frittered away by [the] detail[s]” of making the perfect Jello mold for her family (Thoreau 63), she had the potential for deep play in her passionate gardening. In that natural setting, she had moments of transcendence, using her creativity to design and cultivate her own garden. That potential developed in another arena during the early years of her widowhood when she wrote a successful column about gardening for a major newspaper (taken over from her deceased husband).

Two worlds of work thus filled Daisy's life. Contrastingly, in retirement, Daisy's life seems to take on an insubstantiality. Not much happens externally to change its course; Daisy's narrator takes readers inside her head: “No one told her so much of life was spent being old. Or that, paradoxically, these long Florida years would scarcely press on her at all” (280). Shields suggests in this reverie of Daisy's that although many people have long lives in our culture, we commonly think that the external events of later life are not exerting any significant influence on elders like Daisy. A cursory glance at such a woman's later years might yield the sense that her life is dull and shallow.

Yet drawing such a conclusion about Daisy's old age would be wrong, for it would fail to note that she has more time to engage in inner dialogues about what makes life meaningful, what her roles in life have been, and who she has become. Her hours alone invite a deep play of the imagination, contemplation that allows her “to muscle into life and feel its real power and sweep … [and] to drink from the source”; Ackerman would argue that her attitude of meditative receptivity during deep play makes her “open to whatever drama may unfold. With innocent surprise, one regards life's spectacles and underpinnings” (22-23). Readers privy to Daisy's mental odysseys see her attaining some core truths about her own life and the human condition. Shields also shows the shifting of Daisy's priorities and values through this sort of deep play and reveals her struggle “to position herself in the shifting scenes of her life” (282). In the final chapters of the novel, Daisy learns to accept with less self-consciousness and more humor her aging body and face; fights isolation by journeying to meet her father-in-law and by forming new friendships with women; undertakes the life review that gerontologist Robert Butler has observed in many elders; and envisions death imaginatively.

Following Ackerman's recipe for deep play and its common ingredients, Daisy adopts an open, questing spirit, at age 72, when she risks traveling to the remote Orkney Islands (part of Scotland). She seeks her long-lost father-in-law and a sense of connectedness to family. Her experience in the Orkneys is fueled by “a desire for self-knowledge, and harmony with [her] surroundings” (Ackerman 73). Sightseeing with a new acquaintance, she reads on a tombstone in a churchyard, “‘Behold the end of life!’” This inscription, which at first struck me as cynical and grim (death's finality seems to be stated and the notion of an afterlife is perhaps being mocked), triggers the deep play of Daisy's imagination and an epiphany; it is “as though she has seen a vision or heard a voice speaking through that exclamation point, announcing a fountain of radiance glimpsed at life's periphery” (Shields 298). Daisy has a joyous vision of life, death, and a radiant eternity.

Soon after, she goes on another sightseeing expedition, this time fittingly to a sacred natural space—a common locale of deep play—“at the edge of … shining, slippery stone terraces,” a place called God's Gate (300). In a transcendent moment bathed in sunlight, as she surveys the vast, rugged landscape, Daisy acknowledges to herself an ecstatic feeling of aliveness:

It seemed to Mrs. Flett, blinking in the late afternoon sunlight, that she was all at once dwarfed by the hugeness around her: the overwhelming height of the rock formation, the expanse and violence of the sea below, and the high wide-spreading desolate moorland. … This lightness she felt!—her body suspended between the noise and the immensity of the world—what was it? … and then it came to her: happiness. She was happy.


This intense moment for Daisy has required preparation: the risky journey to the rugged Orkneys, the imaginative vision in the graveyard, and a growing capacity for wonder toward nature. But now she has achieved a vision of cosmic affirmation at age 72. The symptoms she feels correlate to those of a deep player; Ackerman writes: “Playing in nature rejuvenates the spirit while deepening insight. … One can achieve a stance that minimizes the finite self in the vast sprawl of the universe, and identifies with unseen forces supreme in power and reality, exalted and mysterious” (170). Ackerman emphasizes here that the player experiences self-transcendence or the sense that while the self may be finite, it is connected to infinite forces of the universe that endlessly energize all living things. This moment in the Orkneys is the beginning of Daisy's movement toward self-transcendence, and the beginning of her creation of a fresh language of old-age-unto-death.

Another way in which Shields creates a new language about old age and death is through her depiction of the relationships Daisy develops with her age cohort, a group of women called the Flowers (Myrtle, Gladys, Lily, Daisy). The Flowers play together, creating rituals, ceremonies, and repetitions of joke-telling that unify them. The Flowers take pleasure in each other's company and have fun; they “love a good laugh; … they're always on the cusp of laughter” (318). Together they develop a deeply comic view of life that is an aspect of their deep play (remember that Ackerman says deep play may be extremely serious or “rich with laughter” [196]). And they create a witty language to conceptualize old age and death, which enables them to transcend a melancholy preoccupation with their own mortality. One way they address old age is by creating a rallying-cry or slogan, “Fading fast, but holding firm” (319); this slogan reflects their realistic view of aging, but also their commitment to full living. The wordplay may be a way to accept the ravages of time or to escape them with bravado. If, as Nancy K. Miller argues, aging is “a project of coming to terms with a face and a body in process” (4), then the Flowers' playful interactions contribute to this project.

Daisy and her friends especially like to trade witty and irreverent barbs about death during their family-like celebrations of each other's birthdays:

on these occasions one or another of the Flowers will be sure to say: “Well, here's to another year and let's hope it's above ground.” This … is the joke they relish above all others, a joke that shocks their visiting families, but that rolls off their own tongues with invigorating freshness, with a fine trill of mockery—a joke, when you come right down to it, about their own deaths.


The Flowers' humor about death is a form of deep play. The younger relatives are horrified by the richness of the Flowers' laughter, by this daring disrespect for death's authority and mystery. But as a team the Flowers summon the strength and laughter to deflate the intimidating aura of death and to diminish the sense of isolation that contemplation of one's own mortality often brings. They are rejuvenated as together they play with thoughts of death, strengthened as death's sting is lessened. For precious moments they transcend death as the tragic notion of their individual self-extinction is softened.

This playfulness carries over into Daisy's contemplation of decline in her own body and mind in later life. Self-mockingly and with exaggeration she reports the ravages of time, the white hair and sunken eyes, “the appalling jowls or the slack upper arms that jiggle as she walks along the beach in the early evening” (280). In actuality, she is not so appalled by her sagging jowls and jiggling arms because she can acknowledge them without obsessively dwelling upon them. She also satirically overstates her increasing forgetfulness with a catalogue of mock-ageist epithets: “In the middle of writing a check she forgets the month, then the year. She's gaga, a loon, she's sprung a leak, her brain matter is falling out like the gray fluff from mailing envelopes” (335). Witty hyperbole, metaphor, and simile reflect Daisy's good-natured acceptance of the aged mind. And the imaginative demands of clever wordplay may even forestall or slow down this mental deterioration. If the brain is a muscle, then linguistic games will exercise it and preserve its elasticity. Daisy's playful self-scrutiny of her aging mind and body is a way not only to self-acceptance, but also to understanding the place of old age in human life.

Near the end of the novel Daisy articulates a positive and playful outlook on life. Her outlook is not an example of the profound wisdom typically ascribed to elders; in fact, Shields may be suggesting that aging does not automatically confer sageness upon on old person. (Most of us probably know plenty of wrongheaded elders). But she does depict Daisy as embracing an insightful, basically playful, philosophy of life, which probably began with her trek in the Orkneys: “It surprises Grandma Flett that there is so much humor hidden in the earth's crevasses; it's everywhere, like a thousand species of moss. … Who would have thought that comedy could stretch all the way to infirm old age?” (336). Daisy the elder witnesses and taps into this cosmic comedy. Ackerman might call Daisy's optimistic viewpoint that of a deep player who feels “affectionate curiosity for the whole bustling enterprise of creation” (23). Her comedic perspective now enables her to see that she is not the center of the universe and provides another pathway to both deep play and self-transcendence.

Orphanhood, however, complicates Daisy's playful outlook. She has a melancholy perception of human existence's essential aloneness, a condition that may become more comprehensible to us as we age. This perception is distinct from those obtained through deep play. While Ackerman optimistically argues for the “healthy interrelatedness of all things,” made manifest through deep play (158), Daisy often feels disconnected from others in her life and is depressed by her loneliness. Her orphaning at birth is an extreme instance of Rachel Rosenthal's view of human development as a “process of orphaning oneself” (266). In frail old age, more profoundly than in midlife or in her “Flower period,” Daisy meditates upon reasons for her loneliness: “the larger loneliness of our lives evolves from our unwillingness to spend ourselves, stir ourselves. We are always damping down our inner weather, permitting ourselves the comforts of postponement, of rehearsals” (297). This compelling insight—which struck me with the force of a major epiphany and which I have tried to apply to my own life—is that life is not a rehearsal; it is the play itself, for each of us to enact as we reach out to one another. If we do not spend ourselves emotionally on the “stage” of our own life, if we do not seek more moments of deep play in relationships and in engagement with our surroundings, we will not have fully lived. And, if we have not fully lived, we will dread death, as, all alone, we face its approach. Daisy's insight brings to mind these words from the Talmud by Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Rabbi Hillel urges real engagement with and concern for others without loss of self, active performance of one's life, as only that person can perform it—and without procrastination. This is how we may assuage the loneliness of the human condition.

Daisy gains this insight about human loneliness from reflection upon the conduct of her marriage and from husband Barker's regret-filled deathbed letter to her. While she and Barker “worked” hard at their marriage, there were many moments of blocked communication, many lost chances to share a transcendent love, many missed opportunities for deep play. Daisy reviews her marriage, understanding at last “the deep, shared common distress of men and women, and how little they are allowed, finally, to say” (Shields 359). Ackerman writes enthusiastically about love as potentially a prime arena for deep play: it is “a sacred kingdom. … Love is a voluntary mysticism. They [the couple] become a cult of two. … The lover is like a shaman who rises into steep ecstasy and thus is able to see into the heart and soul of the beloved” (20). As a widow, Daisy regrets not entering this sacred kingdom more often with Barker.

This assessment of her married life not only enables Daisy to see the limitations of her marital relationship but also, paradoxically, increases her closeness to her late husband. Sara Ruddick has insightfully remarked on the potentially powerful effect of the life review:

The usefulness of life review … depends upon the transformative power of its principal activity of directed remembering. … [A] person may actually remember more compassionately, with a sharper sense of context and complexity … remembering itself can be turned from obsessive reenactment of all that “you have done and been,” transforming itself into a pleasurable experience of undirected, forgiving reminiscence.


Perhaps this compassionate review of her marriage enables Daisy to remember Barker more forgivingly and to forgive herself for her own inadequacies in maintaining a loving relationship with her husband. Now Daisy sees, fleetingly, into Barker's heart and soul and enters for a moment into love's “voluntary mysticism.”

Daisy's insights at 80, gleaned through deep play and other kinds of reflection, are both optimistic and melancholy. They do not total up to a coherent vision of human existence, but do seem to act as Shields's cautionary message for readers, encouraging us to find ways to minimize life's loneliness and maximize opportunities for productive, intense interactions with other people. It is too late for imaginative, deep play between Daisy and Barker, which might have diminished her lifelong loneliness somewhat, but it may not be too late for us and our significant others.

During her last weeks, as Daisy lies dying, she fully enters a state of deep play beyond human relationships, experiencing most of the signs Ackerman describes: “withdrawal from the world; alert relaxation, mental cleansing or emptying; a release from previous habits and knowledge … self-hypnosis … [and] a strong sense of detachment from the relationships and trappings of ordinary life” (Ackerman 194). Now she receives the “bright, droll, clarifying knowledge” that she is entering another bodily state and imagines that the strokes which have paralyzed her are turning her into stone; Stone is becoming, literally and metaphorically, the essence of her identity: “Stone is how she finally sees herself, living cells replaced by the insentience of mineral deposition” (Shields 358). She is imagining death as a process of calcification or petrifaction, an innovative image that aptly describes her decreasing mobility and vitality. Daisy's vision is iconoclastic: she rejects the traditional notion of the body turning to biblical dust. In a self-hypnotic trance, as her imagination plays deeply, Daisy grasps her true identity, claiming for herself the “stony,” silent mother she never knew. She also acquires the deathbed insight that instead of a “petrifying” or frightening event, death is for her a calming, mystical process of petrifaction, marked by surrender of control, cessation of pain, transcendence of ego, and detachment from her body: “She's miles away now from her clavicle. … Her brain is purest mica. … [The stony form] embraces her, allowing her access, at last, to a trance of solitude” (359-60). This statuesque “Grecian” stillness, or Buddhist selflessness, is not a terrifying vision of death, but, rather, a view of death as stasis, without the capacity for change—a somber, yet somehow peaceful vision gained through deep play.

In sum, the thoughts and language of Daisy the elder unite wisdom about human relationships with a self-knowledge grounded in a playful attitude about herself and about her mortality. Her discourse reflects the pleasure she takes in late-life friendships; yet it is tempered by recognition both of life's loneliness and of death's imminence. Daisy's old age involves not only the retrospective glance of self-assessment, but also a revised understanding of her entire life, as well as the experience of being engaged clear-eyed and “quintessentially alive … in the eternal present” (Ackerman 119). Shields's novel thus ends with an unflinching vision of old age and death that is sweetened by the play-full-ness of meditative living. Shields suggests a new way to think of the end of life: as offering opportunities for philosophical and psychological development. Her book challenges the more traditional notion of this life-stage as simply the end of socially useful productivity. Daisy's last weeks reinforce gerontologist Margaret Urban Walker's assertion that old age for retired women is more than merely leisure, more than just an empty “space at the end of the life course” (105). Shields comes close to envisioning later life “as a period for the culmination of a spiritual career” (Walker 106), as an opportunity to “belong to or with something other than or larger than oneself” (Walker 108).

In Lurie's novel, which takes place in Key West, the 81-year-old widow Molly Hopkins evolves her own language for retirement, old age and death, which we can compare to Daisy's. While Molly is not the novel's protagonist, she is, arguably, the author's moral spokesperson (like Molly, who is an artist, Lurie is a contemplative, creative older woman who spends several months of her year in Key West). Molly acts as an interesting foil to the male protagonist, 70-year-old Wilkie Walker. Lurie considers through Molly's interior monologues what it means to be mature: “There were so few grown-ups around, so few sensible people left alive in the world” (26). Lurie's narrator reveals Molly's comfortable private conviction that she is one of the sensible ones: living into her 80s has enabled her to develop confidence in her capabilities. Wilkie does not seem quite as mature as Molly, or as knowledgeable about people, or as aware of himself. Through his character, Lurie seems to be challenging the common assumption that wisdom is “automatically” conferred with age. Readers are privy to Wilkie's confused, damaging thoughts about himself, his work, his family, and old age for much of the book.

Interestingly, while she considers herself a sensible woman, Molly rejects, with some amusement, the idea that she is a fount of wisdom. Lois W. Banner has written in her book In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality (1992) about the prevalence of “notions of aging women as wise creators,” and of a tradition of women as “progenitors of knowledge and insight,” occurring as far back as Plutarch's times (116, 118). Yet Molly wittily deflates this stereotype when an unhappy young character, Barbie Mumpson, asks for advice about her marital troubles: “once she [Molly] became elderly, she was assumed to be wise—perhaps a survival from an earlier age, when simply to live into old age suggested that you were both shrewd and lucky” (116). This assumption is outmoded, Molly implies. Nowadays, it does not take much personal wisdom to become an octogenarian, just some advances in medicine. Anne Wyatt-Brown would concur with Molly that “one can exaggerate the wisdom of aging” (84). Lurie complicates readers' ideas of the elderly by playing with this notion of wisdom among crones and by having her elderly character do so, too. Perhaps this playfulness suggests that age stereotyping obscures the truth that all of us continually struggle for wisdom about life and for understanding of other people, regardless of our age.

Like Daisy, Molly spends large amounts of time alone, prime opportunity for the deep play of her imagination. And like Daisy, Molly also focuses on important psychological and philosophical issues in her life, including contemplation of her mortality. Molly's interior monologues about her own death are creative and witty. Her artistic imagination personifies death as “an army of flying red dinosaurs … stupid, greedy reptiles [that] cruised forever over the Earth, occasionally and randomly swooping down to snatch someone in their long carnivorous jaws” (31). These clumsy creatures sometimes drop the victims back to earth where they temporarily suffer diseases of later life until the dinosaurs return for them. Molly characterizes herself as among those dropped: “As a result she now had bad eyesight, a wonky heart, and crippling arthritis” (32). She anticipates the creatures' return for her soon, and when in pain she desires their reappearance. Nevertheless, in her reveries, while she admits that her arthritis sometimes makes her cry, she also playfully compares her illness to a cow's invasion of a parlor: “That was exactly what Molly's arthritis was like: as if some big old cow had got into her house and wouldn't go away. It just sat there, taking up space in her life and making everything difficult, mooing loudly from time to time and making cow pies, and all she could do really was edge around it and put up with it” (164-65). Such witty analogizing lets her accommodate this chronic ailment in her life, lets her accept more cheerfully old age's “narrative of decline.”

Elsewhere her imaginings about death blend with the Key West landscape: “even death, Molly imagined, would be different here, easier—a kind of slow dissolving into the almost perpetual heat and moisture of Key West” (307). Here she pictures death as a transcendentalist like Thoreau might: as an easeful merging with a benevolent Floridian nature. Such dwelling on “the high plateau” of meditation, with nature as the object of reflection, affords Molly the pleasures of the moment; she often “invite[s] deep play into [her] life” and, firmly planted in the present, feels joyous (Ackerman 207).

Most of the time, with the dinosaurs in the background, Molly has a deep player's avidness for life, a youthful, adventurous curiosity about what the next day may bring, and an artist's enthusiastic receptivity to life's wonders. Her playful use of metaphors and similes from the arts to describe daily life reveals her joie de vivre: she wants to witness the ongoing “soap operas” of her own life and others'; she is eager to read the next episodes of her children's and grandchildren's lives, which “were like long-running, richly populated comic strips”; she does not want “to miss the next installment” (32-33). Molly has a basically positive philosophy of living: to de-emphasize “the knowledge of approaching illness and death” by emphasizing “the things you can like and enjoy” (38). The sources of pleasure for Molly are usually sensory; she allows herself to become entranced by the beauty of the Key West flora, the sounds of birds and insects, and the people in her life. Often digging, observing, and meditating in her own garden, like Daisy, Molly becomes the deep player as artist and nature-lover, fully engaged in the present: “As many artists have found, nature is an ideal place for creative play” (Ackerman 170).

To her work as an artist and her artist's vision of life Molly remains steadfast, although her arthritis and diminished senses make execution of her artistic vision difficult. Molly really never retires from being an artist (just as I—and probably many other academicians—foresee my continuing activity as scholar-writer after I stop teaching). Even when not painting, she still sees like an artist. In one passage, her friend Jacko's cat “poses” in a wicker chair for her artist's eye:

That would make a good picture, Molly thought in spite of herself, for she had given up art. Every few weeks lately she made up her mind not to draw anymore: it was too hard to see the paper, too awkward and painful to hold the pen. … But then something would catch Molly's eye: a spider and her web in a shop doorway, a bearded monkeyish man with a live monkey on his shoulder, a sweet-lime tree swarming with ragged black and white children.


Here Lurie's typically spare prose bursts with the sights, sounds, and fragrances of painterly imagery to describe Molly's intense artistic perception of her surroundings. This acute vision keeps her avid for art and for life even when she is not actively working.

By the end of the book, Lurie actually turns Molly from spectator to active participant in art when she has Molly take on the job of doing two dozen illustrations for Wilkie and Jenny Walker's ecology book, The Copper Beech. Lurie's tacit message seems to be that creative practice and creative energies need not end in later life despite the physical limitations imposed on some elders. In fact, elders like Molly may find the deep play of their imaginations moving into high gear, in part because there may be fewer demands on their time by family and routine work. People like Molly who work at creative pursuits may find that the concept of a clearly delineated retirement is not applicable to them. I take pleasure in this liberating notion that long after I “retire” as a university professor I may be fortunate enough to sit before my computer and develop my thoughts into essays and monographs.

Molly's creativity extends to her domestic and social life, too. She exhibits resourcefulness as well as kindness when she hires the troubled Barbie Mumpson to move in with her and do some housework, repairs, and shopping. In this innovative way she solves the problems of her own physical limitations and loneliness, as well as Barbie's loneliness and financial worries, while obtaining independence for herself and her new friend. In a book about the psychology of men and women in later life, gerontologist David Gutmann has examined case studies of older women that give credence to “the proposition that older women will proactively … assemble networks that will sponsor their maturation, even when these networks are not ready-made for them” (176). Molly seems to be doing just that: enabling herself and Barbie to be independent while mentoring Barbie's maturation and pursuing her own further development with Barbie's assistance.

Whether working or meditating or observing, Molly is intensely present in life. She shares these qualities with another character, an impassioned middle-aged woman named Lee Weiss who embarks on an intense affair with Wilkie's wife Jenny. Both women display the attitude and conduct of the deep player. Both are risk-takers, Jenny perhaps for the first time in her life. At the novel's close, Lee articulates to herself what seems to be Lurie's philosophy of life; Lee's words could also be Molly's: “as you grow older and the future shrinks, you have only two choices: you can live in the fading past, or, like children do, in the bright full present” (Lurie 320). Both Lee and Molly make the second choice, and this philosophy informs the novel. Both characters live with intensity in the present, imbued with the deep player's “sense of innocence and wonder” (Ackerman 211). Yet their perspective of innocence, wonder, and optimism does not mimic a child's: it is enriched and deepened by a lifetime of complex experiences and relationships.

A different attitude toward later life and mortality is evident in Wilkie Walker, who has at 70 retired after a prominent career as naturalist, professor, acclaimed author, and the center of his wife's existence. Retirement, especially the resulting decrease in his professional mastery and societal power, is difficult for Wilkie. Gutmann observes that older males, with estrogen rising and testosterone falling in them, tend to move from an “active to passive mastery” while the reverse is true for women; hence older women often become leaders in the business world, in their families, and in their communities in later life while men's power in these arenas diminishes (133; 158; 182). This generalization seems applicable to Molly and Wilkie: she rises to a leadership position in the social life of her Key West community and Wilkie, feeling like a “cowardly, cranky has-been” (Lurie 17), takes a long time to acquire passive mastery. Until the end of the novel, he exhibits little mastery of his own life and exerts little influence on his community (more on his manifestations of passive mastery later). Wilkie cedes his power in the home, the community, and the workplace, with-drawing from wife, children, and friends as he morosely contemplates what he believes is his imminent death. His depression is like Daisy's at her loneliest moments of orphanhood. He dwells miserably upon his aging body, unable to summon the playfully self-deprecating humor that sustains Molly and Daisy. In fact, his direct linking of his ailments with old age is rather ageist: first, not all elders suffer from ill health; and second, his types of aches and pains are experienced not only by elders, but also by active younger people. He seems an unlikely candidate for deep play.

Lurie develops Wilkie's ageist interior monologue quite extensively. Suffering from an aching hip caused by an old injury, Wilkie imagines, in graphic detail and with disgust, his orthopedic interior: “He could picture how the bones must look, lumped with calcium deposits that grated against the adjoining muscles, tendons, and nerves. That hip would never totally heal now; probably it would get worse and worse, until he was permanently stiffened and crippled, permanently in pain” (15-16). There is no tone of affection and tolerance for his aging body here, none of Daisy's sense of wonder about developing calcification. Wilkie fears losing his mobility, losing control over his life. His interior monologue reveals this man's anger and pessimism about aging's narrative of decline, his self-loathing and fear of intensifying pain. Compare the lumps of calcium on his hip to Molly's imagined cow pies and dinosaurs and to Daisy's fantasy of becoming purest mica. Wilkie's pessimistic anatomical fantasy yields none of the joy and self-transcendence usually present with deep, meditative play. He just cannot seem to let his ego and his anxieties go during his reveries.

Mourning the deaths of his three closest friends during the previous three years, then seeing blood in the toilet bowl over the previous six months and connecting it to discomfort in his bowel, Wilkie becomes convinced that he is dying of colon cancer. Readers—especially we hypochondriacs who eagerly pore over health magazines in search of the most balanced vitamins or hormones, the healthiest foods, the most beneficial exercises that we hope will keep illness and decline at bay—will surely understand Wilkie's dire thinking about his symptoms and his aging, especially after learning that Wilkie has been hale and hearty most of his life. He fears becoming “the weak, exhausted victim of a colostomy, weakened further by chemotherapy and radiation, dragging through what was left of his life with a plastic bag of his own shit strapped to his body” (16). Such fears may be more prevalent among men than among women in our culture as men are taught from youth to prize bodily vigor and self-mastery (or Gutmann's “active mastery”). Wilkie also, understandably, fears the deterioration of his mind, in contrast to Daisy's joke-telling about her failing memory. His brain has been his source of identity and his livelihood. Worse than death for Wilkie—the professor, writer, and thinker—is “brain damage, a coma, paralysis” (Lurie 20). In these interior monologues of Wilkie's, the play of his imagination is realistic, earthbound, and scientific, not transcendent. He does not yet exhibit a real ability or desire for deep play.

Wilkie is certainly not alone in his fears of mental and physical decline in old age. As an academician who relies on the functioning of my mind in the classroom and in my scholarship, I related to his fears of mental deterioration. In addition, a study by M. Powell Lawton, which appeared in the August 1999 issue of The Gerontologist, shows how widespread these fears are. The researchers interviewed a variety of 600 healthy and chronically ill elders, 70 and older, “to measure quality of life …, mental health, and … valuation of life” (406). They found that elders rejected life without functional mental and physical health and that “pain was less threatening than either functional or cognitive decline” (413). The researchers theorized that cognitive loss is feared most because it is felt to be least under a person's control to overcome. Wilkie, of course, dearly loves to be in control, like many American men. To reassert control over his body, mind, and length of life, before cancer takes him to a state of weakness, pain, and mental stupor, he plans to kill himself. His efforts to execute this plan become a major element of the plot line.

This preoccupation of Wilkie's with physical and mental decline and physical dependency is more extreme than Molly's. Why? The Lawton study does not consider gender difference in attitudes about quality of life after age 70. However, Wilkie is responding psychosomatically to a widespread gendered phenomenon, observed by many anthropologists cross-culturally: the social decline and loss of power of older men, and “a shift toward greater female dominance in later life … [the unofficial matriarchy]” (Gutmann 156). Wilkie's morbid preoccupations may be due to his loss of identity, so strongly linked to his work. It may also be that Wilkie has been more accustomed than Molly to being in control of his life so that ceding control is more humiliating; it represents a kind of death. Moreover, in comparison to Molly, Wilkie's “phantasies of the fragmenting body in old age” (Woodward 182-83) are more negative because Wilkie accepts hegemonic ageist beliefs about later life. He fears emasculation as an old man, and attributes a recent period of sexual impotence simply to being 70 (despite the well-publicized research that shows many young-old men in their 60s, 70s, and beyond do have active sex lives—with and without Viagra). He worries about eventually losing his sexual drive altogether and assumes this loss will be inevitable. He is letting his ageist worries about a diminished dark future prevent him from living “in the full bright present.”

His ageism is also evident as Wilkie contemplates nursing homes such as Skytop. To him, Skytop is a “pathetic institution” where some of his retired colleagues live, “miserable, senile, ailing individuals [who] are made to survive past their natural life span” (143). He reflects with cynicism—and perhaps a touch of paranoia—on the “scheming” of the administrators of the various facilities available at Skytop:

the proprietors of Skytop were gambling that you would become disabled or die quite soon; the longer you lived and occupied your apartment—or a room in the hospital wing—the less profit for them. … Wilkie Walker did not envisage a concealed staff policy of euthanasia, but wouldn't there be, sometimes at least, an unconscious bias in that direction?


Even in his cynicism here, one can detect the fear of ceding control to the administrators of such an institution.

Yet Wilkie does, arguably, engage in a little deep play in this speculation upon Skytop—a darker side of deep play that may be characteristic of some elders. With black humor, he plays linguistically upon the name “Skytop,” noting its euphemistic connotations, which he thinks conceal dark events daily transpiring within its walls: “Its name alone disgusted him. No doubt it had been chosen to subliminally suggest that all its residents would go to heaven—most unlikely, in Wilkie's opinion, when he considered some of those whom he knew” (56). Sarcastically questioning the state of the elderly residents' souls here, Wilkie reveals his dislike of the older people with whom he would be forced to live. Molly, in contrast, likes elders and has a network of retired friends, so the possibility of living in close quarters with other elders in the future does not alarm her.

Perhaps Lurie implies that contemporary women such as Molly are more prepared than men for old age and death because they have a group of longstanding friends who have also retired or friends from a non-work setting. Women in our society are also more resourceful at creating emotional support systems, a competency that would continue to be put to good use within a nursing home. In fact, Gutmann has observed case studies of older women who often are “cutting new channels” or creating dynamic social roles for themselves in retirement communities and nursing homes (158). In contrast, Wilkie likely feels cut off already from his primary social network, the workplace. In his view, an institution like Skytop would only further isolate him from other people. So he continues to ridicule and denounce this institution in his grim fantasies about the place.

Wilkie imagines that ultimately the Skytops of the world would wrest all control from their inmates, including the mode and time of death; his fantasies are darkly elaborate and anxiously playful here: “You wouldn't know when your turn was coming, but the longer you stayed, the more likely it would become that you would be chosen” (57). Unlike Molly and Daisy, Wilkie dwells in horror upon the powerlessness of the institutionalized, a powerlessness which he associates with old age and mortality. His anger and anxiety about losing control does not yet permit him to experience the self-transcendence of the deep player confronting death.

When Wilkie tries to control his death through suicide, the playfulness of Lurie is evident: she blocks his suicide attempts three times through silly circumstances. He learns that it is difficult to control the mode of one's end; even suicide attempts can be botched. Moreover, instead of death, Lurie gives him a gallstone attack that sends him to the hospital and reveals that he does not have a terminal illness, only an uncomfortable and undramatic one (243). I think Wilkie feels a bit foolish that he “only” has gallstones when he has been so obsessed with a dire death. This foolishness may actually facilitate more forays into deep play about death. Sheepishly, Wilkie will begin to rethink his histrionic and menacing (and hackneyed?) image of Death as an “Ingmar Bergmanesque figure: tall, pale, stern-faced, skeletally thin, wearing a black, hooded cape and carrying a scythe and an hourglass full of dark sand” (252). The image he has evoked is stereotypically menacing, derivative of the cinema, less playful than Molly's vision of death. It may be time for a more homey and more intimate fantasy of death.

Although he only dabbles in deep play, Wilkie does reflect intensely upon the place of work in his life and consequently has a change of mind after his perceived brush with death. Reviewing and evaluating his career, he acknowledges—with a tinge of humiliation rather than with a sense of integrity—that he has been merely a popularizer of environmentalist causes, not a serious scientist. Acknowledging his limitations lessens Wilkie's egotism. But perhaps Lurie is parodying in Wilkie the Eriksonian task of moving toward a sense of integrity in later life through the life review. Maybe she is suggesting that it is not possible, or even desirable, to total up one's life neatly and either claim a full sense of integrity or learn that one's life has lacked integrity. In fact, often elderly people are still revising their lives until the very end, as Jaber Gubrium has observed in his case studies of nursing home residents: “the residents taught me that endings are made, constructed, and reconstructed, even at the very end. … [Life-endings exhibit loose ends,] variety, complexity, improvisations” (188). In any case, Wilkie's meditations about his life and work are analytical and increasingly honest, if not exhibiting the self-transcendence of deep play. At least he attains a deeper knowledge of himself through these reflections and a more accurate, less egocentric, notion of his place in the world.

Although formerly a perpetrator of ageism, in retirement he now becomes the victim of it himself, being treated as a professional relic. To his credit, he reacts with playful sarcasm as he experiences our ageist society's casual dismissal of the elderly professional: “If you're over seventy … nobody important in the media wants to hear from you anymore. Their attitude is, Wilkie Walker? Is he still alive?” (15). With the help of this mildly self-deprecating humor, he can now accept his new professional role of elder statesman, witnessing younger people's deference to him because “he had ceased to be a competitor. … He and his books were too out-of-date now to be attacked: instead they were patronized or even acclaimed as historical documents” (308).

Yet Wilkie also discovers that he can still have an impact on his profession and his community, albeit in a capacity that feeds his ego less than his pre-retirement work: he can redirect his expertise and volunteer his time as an activist to help preserve declining species of animals. This work is important to him, preserving the values of ecology that his books had advanced and even earning him a few new admiring friends. David Gutmann might observe a “passive mastery” in Wilkie as he assumes the new role of “culture-tender”; culture-tenders are older men who often “add their accrued experience to the general knowledge store, and … build culture. … Under proper conditions, ‘normal’ old men disengage from their life in society while enhancing their life in culture” (216). These men may “become the interpreters and administrators of the moral sector of society. They become the norm bearers” (226). Wilkie exhibits this morally concerned role in his volunteer efforts as ecology activist. And perhaps he will have new opportunities for deep play in nature as he gets closer to the manatees that have become his political and ethical cause.

Like Molly, Wilkie has, by the end of the novel, reprioritized his activities, taking more time for public service and also for his wife Jenny, who has devoted herself to him and his career. He makes a little more space in his inner life for others besides Wilkie Walker. Now that his anxiety about dying is being domesticated, he may even become more disposed and equipped for the self-transcendence of deep play.

Lurie's and Shields's novels of later life, then, revise our generally negative vocabulary of old age and modernize our discourse about elders by offering portraits of playful, meditative, and imaginative elders, and by giving readers access to their inner lives. Readers can look in at these characters' witty self-discoveries, optimistic redirecting of their priorities, and creative imaginings of death. Daisy, Molly, and even Wilkie by the end of The Last Resort, exhibit some of the spirit of deep play, “spontaneity, discovery, and being open to new challenges” (Ackerman 38). This adventuresome attitude “carries [them] across fear and uncertainty toward the slippery edges of possibility, where one must use oneself fully. … It encourages discovery and growth” (Ackerman 38). Daisy, Molly, and Wilkie gain some insights into themselves and identify some of life's true meanings, finally understanding the power of death to intensify our lives. All three also clear a space in their lives for new friendships. And both Molly and Wilkie reconceptualize what their ongoing work will be: Molly's resourcefulness enables her to work as a book illustrator despite arthritis and Wilkie cultivates a more generous persona working for environmental causes. Through them, readers learn how the place of work in old age must be redefined, with increased emphasis on relationships, acknowledgement of physical limitations, and recognition of the work of the next generation. All three characters, through deep play and intense introspection, also learn how to live in the bright full present, where they discover new ways to contribute to their communities and new ways to experience joy.

Because both Lurie and Shields and other writers like them create a contemporary language of aging and mortality that is deeply playful, they take the edginess off these complex and sometimes frightening issues. Their books help us to consider the issues more deeply in our own lives and prepare us to welcome later life with less trepidation. It is somehow empowering to be able to smile at and become more playfully intimate with that which we have most feared.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Diane. Deep Play. New York: Random, 1999.

Banner, Lois W. In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality. New York: Random, 1992.

Cole, Thomas R. The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Culture.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 225-32.

Gubrium, Jaber F. Speaking of Life: Horizons of Meaning for Nursing Home Residents. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1993.

Gutmann, David. Reclaimed Powers: Toward a New Psychology of Men and Women in Later Life. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1950.

Lawton, M. Powell, Miriam Moss, Christine Hoffman, Richard Grant, Thomas Ten Have, and Morton H. Kleban. “Health, Valuation of Life, and the Wish to Live.” The Gerontologist 39.4 (August, 1999): 406-16.

Lurie, Alison. The Last Resort. New York: Holt, 1998.

Miller, Nancy K. “The Marks of Time.” Woodward, Figuring Age 3-19.

Rosenthal, Rachel. “Aging Between the Ears.” Woodward, Figuring Age 264-67.

Ruddick, Sara. “Virtues and Age.” Walker, Mother Time 45-60.

Sarton, May. As We Are Now. New York: Norton, 1973.

Shields, Carol. The Stone Diaries. New York: Penguin, 1994. First published 1993; Viking Penguin.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden/Civil Disobedience. Ed. Sherman Paul. Boston: Houghton, 1960.

Walker, Margaret Urban. “Getting Out of Line: Alternatives to Life As a Career.” Walker, Mother Time 97-111.

———, ed. Mother Time: Women, Aging, and Ethics. Lanham: Rowman, 1999.

Woodward, Kathleen. Aging and Its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

———, ed. Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999.

———. “Inventing Generational Models: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Literature.” Woodward, Figuring Age 149-70.

Wyatt-Brown, Anne M. “Literature and Cultural Studies/The Future of Literary Gerontology.” Handbook of The Humanities and Aging. 2nd Ed. Ed. Thomas R. Cole, David D. Van Tassel, and Robert Kastenbaum. New York: Springer, 1999. 67-99.

Elaine Showalter (review date 11 July 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “How to Be Good.” London Review of Books (11 July 2002): 13.

[In the following review, Showalter describes Unless as a novel that takes aesthetic and imaginative risks and debates questions of women's art and its reception.]

The debate about women's writing—is it too restricted, domestic and love-obsessed, in contrast to the more sweeping, historical, socially aware and experimental novels of men?—has been going on since Jane Austen's day. Charlotte Brontë was one who rejected Austen's plot, which she called ‘a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden’. Recently Gillian Beer even announced the death of the traditional women's novel: instead of the masochistic themes of unrequited love, she said at the Hay Festival, ‘women have freed themselves to write more forcefully about much larger networks, wars, families, communities, national change, terrorism and history.’

Not all women novelists would agree that such transformations are a liberation, however. In her recent biography of Austen [Jane Austen], Carol Shields was also writing about her own credo as a woman novelist whose subjects have been domestic, whose endings have been happy, and whose literary ambitions have been trivialised. First, she insists, ‘Austen's short life may have been lived in relative privacy, but her novels show her to be a citizen, and certainly a spectator, of a far wider world.’ Second, and more controversially, she argues that ‘the true subject of serious fiction is not “current events”, ongoing wars or political issues, but the search of an individual for his or her true home.’

Shields's first point is easy to understand. Not only has Austen's relation to history been explored by feminist and postcolonial critics, but Shields herself has been belittled as a novelist of private and narrow themes. Kirkus Reviews backhandedly described The Stone Diaries (1993) as the work of ‘a miniaturist who has come into full bloom’. ‘It's a subtle put-down,’ Shields told an interviewer, ‘like calling someone “Jane Austenesque”. It means that whoever is being talked about isn't very good or hasn't attempted very much. You never hear about men being called miniaturists, but you certainly hear it about women.’ In fact, the miniaturist charge has also been used against men's anti-epic writing. ‘It's the British novelist's disease,’ Adrian Mitchell wrote, ‘to stay small, to create perfect miniatures, to take no major risks.’ On the other hand, you could say, as John Gross has done, that the fault is in the eye of the beholder: ‘While Americans think we're miniaturists, English people tend to think Americans suffer from gigantism.’

Shields responds to such charges more indignantly in her latest novel, Unless, set a few miles north of Toronto in 2000. Her novelist heroine, Reta Winters, suffering ‘a period of great unhappiness and loss’, writes an angry letter to a female critic who has called women writers ‘the miniaturists of fiction’, trying to find ‘universal verities in small individual lives’ rather than ‘taking a broad canvas of society’ like Don DeLillo or Philip Roth. Well, Winters retorts:

way back in high school we learned that the major themes of literature were birth, love, understanding, work, loneliness, connection and death. We believed that the readers of novels were themselves ‘small individual lives’, and so were their writers. They did not suffer, as you intimate, from a lack of range in their subject matter. These lives apprehended the whole world in which they swam.

Such dismissive and obtuse criticism, Winters goes on, dooms women to ‘miniaturism’ as human beings.

Shields's second point, that the serious novel is about the search for a true home, is harder to understand. In Unless, Reta's eldest daughter, Norah, has abruptly dropped out of university and started begging on a Toronto street corner wearing a sign that says ‘Goodness’. What her true spiritual home may be, or what the genesis of her behaviour may have been, is one of the subplots of the novel. But Shields is also suggesting that the search for a true home is the novelist's search for a true voice, for a tradition and a style. Unless is formally less complex than her earlier novels, notably the brilliant and inventive Mary Swann (1987). It had a difficult and interrupted process of composition, because of the author's treatment for cancer. ‘Carol didn't know whether she was going to live to finish it,’ Christopher Potter, her editor, told a journalist. ‘As soon as she had a few chapters she sent them to me and they were quite rough compared to what I was used to.’ He and Shields worked together on smoothing out the manuscript.

But Unless takes large aesthetic and imaginative risks. The title had been in Shields's mind for twenty years, since a colleague who taught philosophy at the University of Manitoba told her that ‘his favourite lecture was called “Unless”, a concept meaning nothing is absolute.’ In the novel, Reta Winters calls ‘unless’ the ‘worry word of the English language’. It is one of 37 ‘little chips of grammar (mostly adverbs or prepositions)’ that Shields uses as chapter titles—among them, nearly, once, thus, yet, hence, despite, hardly, since, hitherto and not yet—which provide continuity and coherence in a narrative fraught with the dread of accident and unexpected disruption.

Shields has written repeatedly of the fragility and historical contingency of women's lives, even when those lives seem placid and safe. ‘They say you write the same novel over and over,’ she has remarked, ‘and the idea of women being fully human has always been a preoccupation.’ One of her favourite techniques is to juxtapose a contemporary middle-class woman writer or academic with a mythic or marginal female figure from the past. These doublings help her to go beneath the surface plots, the day-to-day events, of her heroines' lives, and to engage the problem of the female psyche and female destiny, at deeper and darker levels. In Small Ceremonies (1976), the heroine is writing about the Canadian frontier poet Susanna Moodie; in Mary Swann (published in the UK the same year as A. S. Byatt's Possession), Shields invents, and writes the cryptic verses of, a lonely Dickinson-like poet who becomes an academic cult-figure after she is murdered by her husband. In The Republic of Love (1992), the heroine is a folklorist writing about the double imagery of mermaids: ‘The mermaid's abundant hair gestures toward sexual potential. In one of her hands is a comb, representing love and entanglement. The other hand, which is uplifted (waving or perhaps beckoning), symbolises a deep longing for completion, the wish for rapturous union, a hunger for the food of love.’

In Unless, the heroine's double is Danielle Westerman, a Beauvoir-like sage and Holocaust survivor whose essays, memoirs and poems, with such titles as ‘Pour Vivre’, ‘Les Femmes’, ‘Le Pouvoir’ and ‘Eros’, Reta has translated. A European feminist intellectual, Westerman is uncompromising in her rejection of marriage and men, her philosophical darkness, her emotional isolation. Reta's name is an anagram of ‘tear’, and she is lachrymose, but she writes light comic fiction. Her maiden name is ‘Summers’ and her first ‘jokey novel … a novel for summertime’, called My Thyme Is Up, sold well, but was reviewed as ‘very much for the moment, though certainly not for the ages’. She has won the Offenden Prize, which ‘recognises literary quality and honours accessibility’—almost more of a booby prize than a compliment. Now she is trying to write a sequel, ‘Thyme in Bloom’, ‘about lost children, about goodness, and going home, and being happy and trying to keep the poison of the printed page in perspective’.

She meditates on the rules of the light novel, its need for ‘tidy conclusions’, unglamorous and flawed heroes and heroines, family and genealogy, a network of friends: ‘I like to sketch in a few friends, in the hope that they will provide a release from a profound novelistic isolation that might otherwise ring hollow and smell suspicious.’ But Danielle Westerman distrusts fiction, and Reta confesses that ‘she is such a persuasive force that I often find myself agreeing with her; what really is the point of novel-writing when the unjust world howls and writhes?’ Reta has so far been protected from tragedy and injustice: now she suddenly finds her placid world destroyed by her daughter's mysterious desertion.

As she sees it, ‘an intelligent and beautiful girl from a loving family, grows up in Orangetown, Ontario, her mother's a writer, her father's a doctor, and then she goes off the track. There's nothing natural about her efflorescence of goodness, it's abrupt and brutal. It's killing us.’ Reta's women's writing group believes that Norah is going through a phase, having a breakdown, or suffering from a hormonal disturbance. They variously advise kidnapping or deprogramming, counselling or non-interference. But Westerman, the alter ego, sees Norah in terms of her namesake, protesting women's powerlessness through ‘total passivity, a kind of impotent piety’. According to Westerman, ‘subversion of society is possible for a mere few; inversion is more commonly the tactic for the powerless, a retreat from society that borders on the catatonic.’ Norah's effort at martyrdom, she argues, signifies women's exclusion from culture, their condemnation to ‘goodness but not greatness’.

Here Shields brings together her longtime obsession with critical condescension to women and her spiritual interest in the meanings of ‘goodness’ as both a term of value and a moral condition. In Larry's Party (1997), she told the Atlantic Monthly, she was trying to ‘write about a man who wasn't heroic, but who was good. A man who had some sense of wanting to be good. I'm interested in this idea of goodness. What is that all about? What is it for?’ Her protagonist, the allegorically-named Larry Weller, is married to a scholar interested in the question of

feminine goodness, that baffling contradiction. Why, in the centuries when women were denied, ignored, oppressed and tortured, did they continue to fashion themselves into vessels of virtue? … Was it … that their smaller, more vulnerable body size drove them into wily strategies, so that arming themselves with holy rectitude they were able to solicit the protection of men? … Or maybe … women simply long to be good for the sake of goodness; maybe they're predisposed by evolutionary mapping to commit acts of charity so that the race commanded by men might not implode.

By the end of the novel, Reta and her family have solved the problem of Norah's search for goodness: it is a form of posttraumatic shock that occurred after she tried to prevent the self-immolation of a Muslim woman on a Toronto street corner. But this historical or political twist does not displace the novel's fundamental debate about women's art and its reception. Reta's first novel is praised for its ‘subversive insight’ by a noted critic who is both male and Yale; she is planning a new book that will combine the Reta and Danielle sides of her persona, which will have both ‘stillness and power, sadness and resignation, contradictions and irrationality. Almost, you might say, the materials of a serious book.’

Kate Sterns (review date summer 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2704

SOURCE: Sterns, Kate. “How Goodness Is.” Queen's Quarterly 109, no. 2 (summer 2002): 283-89.

[In the following review, Sterns asserts that a fundamental weakness of Unless is Shields's failure to adequately define or sufficiently explore her central thematic concern with the concept of goodness.]

One night, in 1981, when I was an undergraduate. I sat drinking with two friends in the bar of the Plaza Hotel in Kingston: Ontario. Unlike its ritzy counterpart in New York, this Plaza was a dive offering cheap booze and a suitably crepuscular atmosphere to the rough crowd who comprised its regular clientele, and cheap thrills to students, such as myself: tourists who came to gawk and flirt with wildness.

My two friends happened to be men: that night, they were being generous and picking up the tab. It was as simple as that. Or so I thought until a crumpled dollar bill landed on the table in front of me. A woman I had noticed earlier drinking alone—the only other female in the place—had suddenly materialized by my side. Jabbing her finger at me, she said. “You're on a downward course and you'd better do something about it!”

A dollar still bought something back then, and God only knows how she had earned it. Parting with her money was generous enough. Even more so. I think, was the fact that, in rescuing me from the degraded life she was undoubtedly imagining for me, she left herself vulnerable to the kind of assumptions about her that people like us were likely to make. It was all too clear how she thought I would end up paying for my drinks, and it was quite probable that she had repaid similar debts, in a similar way, during the course of her life.

Still, deeply touched as I was by her concern for me. I was peeved that she had ruptured a very pleasant evening, and stung by her rebuke. It disturbed the image I was cherishing of myself that night as a good-time girl, a far remove from the shy, plain and unhappy girl that I actually was.

To this day, I think of that woman often although, to my shame, I could not describe her then, or now. By the time I had collected myself enough to run after her and return her money, she had vanished and I was left, like Milton's devil, to stand abash'd and feel how awful goodness is.

This episode has been on my mind ever since reading Carol Shields' new novel, Unless which deals, at least in part, with the notion of goodness. At the heart of this rather discursive book is the crisis faced by the narrator, Reta Winters, when her 19-year-old daughter, Norah, defects from her life as a “good, obedient little girl.”

Norah sits cross-legged with a begging bowl in her lap and asks nothing of the world. Nine tenths of what she gathers she distributes at the end of the day to other street people. She wears a cardboard sign on her chest: a single word printed in black marker—Goodness.

In the desperate way of parents whose children's lives have been derailed, Reta follows in Norah's path—“the path to goodness”—searching grimly for clues as to how the wreck occurred. Boyfriend troubles? A disagreement over Madame Bovary in Eng. Lit. class? Adolescent angst? Nothing adds up apart from the rolls of twenty-dollar bills that Reta and her husband, Tom, continue to drop into Norah's lap each week.

Apart from the why (and that is only revealed at the very end of the novel). Norah's begging begs another question. At an earlier point in her life, just before her departure for the streets, Norah tells her mother, “I don't need any money. That's what's so astonishing. I can give up my scholarship.” That's all very well, but is it good? Surely an act of goodness requires at the very least a little inconvenience to the do-gooder. To give away what you have neither earned, nor want, therefore, does not strike me as being particularly virtuous. If hanging a sign around our necks was all that was required, most of us could qualify for sainthood.

In his short story, “The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator.” Flaubert proffers a portrait of goodness in all its awfulness and complexity, especially since Julian began life by being neither good, nor obedient:

The Leper turned his head.

‘Take off your clothes so that I may feel the warmth of your body!’

Julian stripped, and then, naked as the day he was born, he lay down on the bed again. And against his thigh he felt the Leper's skin, colder than a snake and rough as a file.

Selfless actions—because we are self-centred as a rule—usually lead us to ask ourselves whether we, too, are capable of this kind of behaviour. Could I lay, “mouth to mouth, breast to breast” against someone so afflicted as a leper? I am not at all certain that I could. On the other hand, could I engage in a sullen and wordless rebellion against my parents while at the same time allowing them to bankroll me in my rebellion? Undoubtedly. It is called adolescence.

The problem here is that Shields neglects to define her terms. She, like her character, sits behind a cardboard sign and remains mute as to what she means by it. This is exactly the sort of simplistic reading of goodness that goaded the British journalist, Christopher Hitchens, into a sustained campaign of equal parts wit and vitriol against that modern-day icon of virtue. Mother Teresa. He argues, and very persuasively, in his book. The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, that much of what she did in the name of goodness was anything but: the media and the public, however, swallowed her act whole. “Virtue is performance” is a line of Yeats' recalled in Unless, and it also captures the essence of Hitchens' meaning very well. The goal of a performance is, after all, to convince an audience that something false is, in fact, true. Mother Teresa, Hitchens claims, was ostentatious in her poverty for affect, her motives for presenting herself in this way less than pure. Whether or not you side with him is not the point here; instead, the point is that there is generally a cost, as well as a value, to every transaction made in the name of goodness and both, in the end, must be calculated.

The idea that the nature of goodness is such a complicated matter tends to be overlooked in Shields' novel. Reta, for example, asserts that frequenting the local library instead of buying books on is an act of goodness. She is not entirely wrong in this assumption. Libraries, after all, serve the public weal whereas Amazon serves the great god Profit. And it may be that Shields' intent is to champion the idea that the core of goodness is made up of ordinary gestures, which we are all capable of making. And yet, as in the old nursery rhyme: of sugar and everything nice we have plenty, but where, oh where, is the spice?

Goodness is an abstraction, states one character, and an early episode in the novel helps to demonstrate Shields' general approach to such notions. Reta and her husband are entertaining their friend Colin, a physicist, at dinner.

I was the one who invited him to launch into the subject. Relativity is a piece of knowledge I've always longed to understand, a big piece, but the explainers tend to go too fast or else they skip over a step they assume their audience has always absorbed.

Colin obliges with an explanation, using the tablecloth and a cherry to demonstrate. Almost immediately, Reta is distracted by the cherry (four dollars a pound), the threat of coffee stains to her tablecloth, Colin's marital history (his wife left him for another man) and so on. This might be both the strength, and the weakness, of Shields' writing. Most of us will recognize ourselves in Reta as the person who, theoretically, wants to know the theory of relativity, but who drifts off in the midst of the lesson. The problem is, Shields raises these complex issues—goodness being one of them—and then veers off, without exploring them thoroughly, into meditations on dog hairs on a sleeve. Now, Shields' admirers will defend this very thing. The “poet of the everyday” is a term frequently applied to her. But I am at a loss as to why the abstract and the concrete, the philosophical and the practical, cannot co-exist as they do, for example, in the novels of George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf—or, in a more contemporary vein, in the works of Pat Barker, Penelope Fitzgerald, or Beryl Bainbridge.

I have been very careful just now to cite women authors as examples since this is another of Shields' pre-occupations. Reta, searching for reasons for Norah's behaviour, has come to believe that her daughter, because she is a woman, has been “shut out of the universe” and that silence and passivity are her reasoned, and reasonable, responses to this fact. As Reta glances at advertisements for courses on Great Minds of the Western Intellectual World (all men), articles (by men) and author interviews (with men), she meditates on the lack of public acknowledgement of women and their accomplishments. Rallying to the cause, Reta takes up her pen and writes, but never sends, letters to those male authors and thinkers, chiding them for their neglect which, she feels, has contributed to, if not outright caused. Norah's malaise.

I don't think you intend to be discouraging in your book. I think you have merely overlooked those who are routinely overlooked, that is to say half the world's population. By the way, you may not be able to catch my tone in this letter, but I am trying to put forward my objection gently. I'm not screaming as you may think. I'm not even whining, and certainly not stamping my little lady-size foot.

Well for goodness' sake, why not? Why not allow a stamp or a scream? Why apologize? Why this disavowal of genuine emotion? This extends, I think, to the book as a whole. At one point, Reta enters a restaurant bathroom in which there are chalkboards provided for graffiti. On one, Reta scribbles, My heart is broken, even adding a picture of a heart with a squiggle down the middle. Almost at the same moment in which Reta describes a sense of release, “not unlike jubilation,” she denounces the act as “whining and melodramatic.” (Which, in fact, it is. Shields saves herself here from criticism by immediately copping to it. But it is a bit like drowning the puppy and then rescuing it, asking us only to admire the rescue.) At any rate, it is hard to know whether it is Shields or the character who is so afraid of being angry, or even mawkish, if the occasion calls for it. Whatever the reason, the result is a novel that seems emotionally flat throughout.

This flatness is belied by the odd sense of urgency conveyed by the small word that titles it.

Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence.

Shields has been admirably frank about her illness and about the fact that Unless will be her final novel. So, it is not surprising that this slender book, like the evocative conjunction that is its title, should carry some of that urgency to tell. Indeed, in a recent (14 April) New York Times Magazine interview Shields talks about the writing of this novel:

It was completed last summer in a rush of clarity. Shields says, adding that it must have been at least partly “hormonal or chemically induced” as a result of chemotherapy. “I never want to sound at all mystical about writing,” she says, “but this book—it just came out.

As a consequence, the book is at times more breathless than breathy. Shields leaps along from character to character, from digression to digression, from thought to thought so that the chapters (many of them titled by conjunctions, those syntactical hinges) resemble an endless series of doors leading us ever onward, but to where?

Well, if you are a woman, it is to a life of “goodness but not greatness.” Reta believes that “the world is split in two, between those who are handed power at birth” (men) and those who are not (women). Women, apparently, are handed a recipe for lasagne and told to get on with it.

For more than twenty years I've been responsible for producing three meals a day for the several individuals I live with. I may not be conscious of this obligation, but surely I must always at some level be calculating and apportioning the amount of food in the house and the number of bodies to be fed: Tom and the girls, the girls' friends, my mother-in-law and various passing acquaintances.

And far from descrying this state of affairs, the cessation of these duties for a brief period causes Reta to be filled with terror. What kind of feminism is that? At the very least, feminism gave us a right to complain about doing the household chores.

“Because Tom is a man, because I love him dearly, I haven't told him what I believe.” Why, if he is so powerful, this need to protect him? Surely he can withstand a dribble or two of ladylike complaint? It would appear, however, that Tom needs a great deal of protection, not least from housework. As far as I can see, he never lifts a hand to help with the cooking or cleaning.

I am hoping that Shields' sense of humour is at work when she gives Tom an obsession for fossils, because he himself appears to be one. On the other hand, he fares better than the other men who, for all their supposed potency, are presented as buffoons. Are these men really responsible for silencing half the population, including Norah? Actually, no. That task is left to Shields, who keeps Norah, apart from one brief scene, mute throughout the book. Portraying her as a victim appears to me to be an easy way out. Is this the signal Shields wants to send? That a young woman's only recourse is to sit by the sidelines and meekly accept whatever alms may be tossed to her? (She was not handed power at birth, so why bother?) Shields' intentions are good, no doubt, but she does commit one particularly egregious injustice. She appropriates a woman's tragedy—the true experience, I believe, of a Muslim woman who publicly immolated herself—as a mere narrative device. Her story, mentioned in passing early in the novel, turns out to be central to Norah's although the impetus behind the Muslim woman's action remains a mystery. Again, I think that Shields has left us to infer too much; in this case, that for women, being Muslim equals being oppressed, and that is not necessarily true. Under the circumstances, Shields may not have had the energy, or the time, to elaborate. But, rather like the ugly stepsisters cutting off their heels in order to fit into the glass slipper, there is a sense that important bits have been left out. The result is a book that, while it limps along well enough, tends to be messy.

I am not, I admit, Shields' Ideal Reader. I want the bur under the blanket, the irritant that causes friction, that makes me less comfortable with the world and makes me think in new ways. Shields' work is too cosy for my liking. Having said that, though, the elements of her writing which appeal to so many readers and which I certainly admire—her compassion, her attention to detail, her wry sense of humour—are all here. As Reta says towards the end of the novel:

There you have it: stillness and power, sadness and resignation, contradictions and irrationality. Almost, you might say, the materials of a serious book.

Sue Bond (review date 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 870

SOURCE: Bond, Sue. Review of Unless, by Carol Shields. Journal of Australian Studies, no. 75 (2002): 164-66.

[In the following review, Bond describes Unless as a powerful and funny novel that provides insight into the process of writing.]

unless, with its elegiac undertones, is a term used in logic, a word breathed by the hopeful or by writers of fiction wanting to prise open the crusted world and reveal another plane of being, which is similar in its geographical particulars and peopled by those who resemble ourselves.

(p 208)

So thinks the main character, Reta Winters, at the end of Unless by Carol Shields. It forms a frame for this funny and very strong novel with the epigraph from George Eliot, with its ‘roar which lies on the other side of silence’, for there is an event that needs to be uncovered in order for Reta and her family to know what has disturbed her daughter so much that she has gone to live on the streets of Toronto with a sign around her neck that reads ‘Goodness’. The title and the adverbial chapter headings are characteristic of Shields' style. As in other books she has used clever and interesting devices. They are not there just for show, but form a vital part of the storytelling.

Reta is a writer and translator, with three children, Norah (nineteen), Christine (seventeen) and Natalie (fifteen). Reta changed her name by deed poll early in the relationship with her long-term partner Tom Winters because her former surname was Summers, and ‘we could become a standing joke or else one of us could change seasons’ (p 37). Her mother-in-law Lois lives next door, and comes to have dinner with them every night when she sees Reta pull the red kitchen curtains shut. Reta has worked for many years translating the works of Danielle Westerman, an eminent thinker and poet who is forty years her senior.

Before Norah started to live and beg on the streets, Reta did not know true sadness. Carol Shields shows us a mother in grief, who must also ‘carry on’ with all the other aspects of her life, including her writing, whilst her mind and heart are really on the street pavement with her daughter as she collects coins from passers-by (most of which she gives to other street people). But Reta does admit to not being someone who concentrates on ‘being sad’. She finds writing and cleaning very helpful because they allow her to think and ‘stand outside my child's absence’ (p 74).

There is a moving scene in which the whole family sit in their car after visiting the hostel where Norah sleeps, and no one says anything for a while. Reta touches her husband, and he collapses into sobs, which allows the others to do the same. It is written finely and carefully, never becoming overblown.

Reta spends a lot of time discussing the writing of her novels, and the development of her characters, Alicia and Roman. For example, in the chapter headed ‘Thereof’, she tells us that characters in books need childhoods, and in ‘Ever’ she stresses the importance of every character having some sort of work, and being shown engaged in it. Shields shows us how skilfully a writer can write about writing. Without pretension and indeed, with a wink and a smile, she provides insight into the process.

Linked in with Reta's distress for her daughter are several letters she writes to various authors and editors in response to their writings. For example, she questions Emily Helt on her review of a novel by Susan Bright, wondering why she comments that women write about things like ‘small individual lives’ in contrast to men like Don Delillo and Philip Roth who write from a large canvas:

Way back in high school we learned that the major themes of literature were birth, love, understanding, work, loneliness, connection, and death. We believed that the readers of novels were themselves ‘small individual lives’, and so were the writers. They did not suffer, as you intimate, from a lack of range in their subject matter.

(p 165)

Reta does not send any of these letters, except perhaps the last one, at the end of which she writes her real name and address. This last letter is the strongest; in it she tells the writer of a short story that he has grossly offended her, and that he should ‘get a grip’. His character has expressed disgust at the sight of a mastectomy bra in a medical supply shop window, and held a knife over the body of his sleeping wife. She writes to the author: ‘I have suffered a period of estrangement from my daughter … and the period of our separation has been very like having a cold knife lodged in my chest’ (p 206). Shields wipes away the ridiculousness of the male character's concerns by showing Reta responding vehemently, taking the knife of the disgusted male character and placing it near her own heart, where true grief has laid.

This is a novel, and a writer, I highly recommend, for Shields writes engaging stories with believable characters who have serious matters to wrestle with, stories of ‘small individual lives’ that could be any one of ours.

Mary Eagleton (essay date spring 2003)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7944

SOURCE: Eagleton, Mary. “Carol Shields and Pierre Bourdieu: Reading Swann.Critique 44, no. 3 (spring 2003): 313-28.

[In the following essay, Eagleton applies the theories of French poststructuralist Pierre Bourdieu to a discussion of Shields's Swann as a work of metafiction.]

Carol Shields's Swann provides fertile ground for an exploration of issues relating to literary production, particularly women's literary production, and matters of sexual politics and the gendering of discourse figure prominently in the text. The novel has been read as a mystery; indeed, in various editions the full title appears as Swann: A Mystery or Swann: A Literary Mystery. It unravels the strange disappearance of not only all the volumes of poetry produced by the now dead Mary Swann but also everything connected with her literary production, the single clear photograph of her, and even the lectures and notes of two critics studying her poetry, Syd Buswell and Morton Jimroy. As in Antonia Byatt's Possession or Jane Gardam's The Sidmouth Letters, the research process is itself seen as a kind of theft—almost, Shields suggests, a form of “cannibalism” (231), as if the critics who fight over Swann's life and texts consume her body and soul.1 That self-consciousness about the process of research links with the novel's metafictional dimensions. Shields's sharp satire encompasses the production of Swann's writing, its distribution, its critical evaluation, and—as a result of the activities of Brownie, a book dealer—its wholesale expropriation. The action of the novel circles round the absent center of Mary Swann. Her status as author is radically uncertain, but that does not stop all her critics and readers from constructing her as author according to their own needs and preferences.2

My thesis in this essay is not at odds with any of the above. However, I am suggesting that a further productive way of understanding Shields's novel and, moreover, problems of cultural production generally, is to ally these approaches with the ideas of French theorist, Pierre Bourdieu. With certain notable exceptions, Bourdieu has been underrepresented in Anglo-American literary thinking.3 His sociological, empirical, and materialist approaches have not been the dominant modes in the American and British academies in recent decades, as poststructuralism, postmodernism, and psychoanalysis have held sway. Though Bourdieu's interests have ranged widely during his writing career of more than forty years, matters of culture have been central. Literature, art, photography, television, journalism, museums, and aesthetic theory are among his concerns; Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and, particularly Flaubert are among the authors about whom he has written. Toril Moi situates Bourdieu among “the philosophers of agency or praxis” (306); Bourdieu, she says, sets out “to understand human beings as embodied creatures trying to make something of what the world makes of them” (304). His approach is always flexible, grounded in precise detail and observation about the workings of social power, averse to any crude base/superstructure models. As sociologists “can find in literary works research clues and orientations that the censorship specific to the scientific field tends to forbid them or to hide from them” so literary scholars may find in Bourdieu insights into the construction of cultural fields and the process of creativity (Bourdieu and Wacquant 206). Carol Shields's Swann particularly lends itself to a Bourdieuian analysis because the text actually dramatizes the construction of a literary field. To say this is not to reduce literature to sociology. On the contrary, it is to recognize the astuteness and inventiveness of Shields as she brings to fiction concerns about its own production and about the establishment and endlessly intriguing power play of the literary field. In this essay I want first to introduce briefly some of Bourdieu's key terms for readers unfamiliar with his work and then to ask three questions that I believe would interest both Shields and Bourdieu: How does Swann become a poet? How can Swann be situated in the literary field? and one of Bourdieu's own questions, “Who creates the ‘creator’?” (Cultural Production 76).


The concept of the field is central to Bourdieu's work. Here is one of his many explanations of the term:

A field is a structured social space, a field of forces, a force field. It contains people who dominate and others who are dominated. Constant, permanent relationships of inequality operate inside this space, which at the same time becomes a space in which the various actors struggle for the transformation or preservation of the field. All the individuals in this universe bring to the competition all the (relative) power at their disposal. It is this power that defines their position in the field and, as a result, their strategies.

(On Television 40)

We can see in the language that the term field has no bucolic associations: this is the field as in “field of war,” with forces and struggles for power between the dominant and the dominated; it is also a force field in that it imposes conditions on those who enter. On other occasions Bourdieu uses the language of game playing, but serious, competitive, and strategic game playing like chess or poker. He mentions players, tokens, hands, clues, bluff, stakes, trump cards.4 As Bourdieu indicates, the normal vicissitudes of social relations mask a battle for power, a desire to amass the relevant forms of capital and, hence, to dominate the field. For Bourdieu capital is not only economic. It may be the social capital of influential connections, the educational capital of qualifications, cultural capital of knowledge and accomplishments gained through the experience of living in certain social circles, or symbolic capital, that is honor, reputation, prestige. We could see Shields's novel not as a structured social space but as a structured narrative space and the interrelations between characters, whom Bourdieu would call players or agents, often take the form of overt or covert struggles for dominance. Shields's narrative is poised at a particularly hazardous moment when a specific cultural object—some poetry—is on the verge of being legitimated and so transformed into symbolic power. The arguments, insecurities, jealousies exhibited by the characters of Swann indicate that this engagement is no easy one. Where forms of capital are at stake the struggle will always be, in Brecht's words, “contradictory, fiercely fought over, full of violence” (465). The position of agents in the field is never static even when significant power is achieved; there are always further possibilities of gaining and losing. The different positions and position takings, the varied quantities and kinds of capital, and changing valuations of different capitals mean that all is in flux. Few literary critics nowadays see themselves in idealist terms as “perfectly disinterested, unblemished by any cynical or mercenary use of culture,” blind to the symbolic profits they are earning (Bourdieu, Distinction 86). Yet few of us would want to admit to the highly interested, opportunist, needy forms of cultural investment that Shields satirizes so cannily. Admit about ourselves, that is; like the critics in Swann we might be quite happy to point the finger at others.

Like all materialists Bourdieu argues that what we might call the act of creation or the work of art is not the product of an exceptional genius whose creativity is inexplicable to mere mortals but the product of “the objective relationship between, on the one hand, a habitus shaped in certain social conditions […] and, on the other hand, a particular position in the field of literary production” (Sociology 143).

Habitus, which Bourdieu describes as “the product of a practical sense,” “a socially constituted ‘sense of the game’” is an equally important term (Bourdieu and Wacquant 120-21).5Habitus is our finely tuned understanding of how to behave appropriately within the fields we inhabit, “a sort of ontological complicity, a subconscious and pre-reflexive fit” (Bourdieu, In Other Words 108). In his construction, habitus eliminates the distinctions between conscious and unconscious, intentional and unintentional. Bourdieu is antidualistic in his thinking; hence the difference between Bourdieu's approach and that of poststructuralist literary criticism with its preoccupation with binary oppositions (Moi 306). Habitus can account for the fact that people usually aspire to and act within what is expected of them without any manifest pressure: it is “that regulated disposition to generate regulated and regular behaviour outside any reference rules” (In Other Words 65). Though Bourdieu refers to amor fati, the love of one's fate, this is not a patrician view that the poor and ignorant are happy with their lot or a fatalist view that we should all, of necessity, give up the struggle. Rather, Bourdieu wants to answer the question, “[H]ow can behaviour be regulated without being the product of obedience to set rules.” In so doing he rejects a determinist position of the subject as conditioned and without agency, as much as a humanist notion of free choice (In Other Words 64). He stresses the “astonishingly close correspondence that is found between positions and dispositions, between the social characteristics of ‘posts’ and the social characteristics of the agents who fill them” (Cultural Production 64). But he also stresses that habitus is “an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies the structures” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 133). Like language, habitus is both structured and endlessly innovative, structured by one's past but also involved in an active, ongoing structuring.

Swann is a closely realized exploration both of the construction of a literary field and of that shifting configuration of openness and limitations of which Bourdieu speaks. That the uneducated wife of a poor farmer in rural Ontario should become the subject of PMLA articles, Modern Language Association meetings, books, and conferences is evidence of openness. But, given what we know about the field of literary production and given what we learn about the dispositions of Mary Swann, it is still a wonder that she ever became the poet. In her case there is little evidence of “close correspondence […] between positions and dispositions.” How did “the ongoing dialectic of subjective hopes and objective chances” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 130) ever productively synthesize in the person of Mary Swann? All the critics tussle with this problem; and in the course of their tussling, they create Mary Swann and sustain their literary field. In the terms of Bourdieu, Swann is in danger of being lost, as have so many similar writers before her, because the literary fields has few positions for working-class, rural, female writers and, conversely, the dispositions of those same writers do not match the available positions in the field. Bourdieu recognizes that the relation between position and disposition “can yield a variety of outcomes ranging from perfect mutual fit (when people come to desire that to which they are objectively destined) to radical disjunction” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 130). One way of looking at the events of the symposium that ends the novel is to see it as an attempt to fit Swann to the post of poet. The success of the conference will depend on establishing at least an adequate fit, for there is no point in having a literary conference on a figure who is judged to have no literary dispositions.


“Certain activities seem suited for certain people, while others seem inappropriate, even unthinkable,” says the narrative voice in Swann (140)—a view that Bourdieu would endorse and would find interesting to account for. To understand how Swann became the poet entails a careful weighing of what Bourdieu calls the possibles but also, we can add, the impossibles and the less-than-likely. Bourdieu writes: “The subjective relationship that a writer (etc.) maintains, at each moment, with the space of possibles depends very strongly on the possibles which are statutorally granted her at this moment, and also on her habitus which is originally constituted within a position itself carrying a certain right to possibles” (Rules 261). In democratic cultures no possibles are legally prohibited to the woman writer; but, as feminist criticism has amply revealed, the material, formal, and ideological limitations on the woman writer, and especially the working-class woman writer or the woman of color, have been legion. The only possibles open to Swann are the ones to which she responds, that is secret writing and, in terms of entry into the public sphere, publication in local newspapers and personal contact with someone (Cruzzi) who has greater educational, symbolic, and economic capital. The habitus of Swann, shaped in social conditions of rural isolation, patriarchal and class oppression, mean poverty, and maternal expectations makes it surprising that she is able to act on even these limited possibles. Swann's habitus does not carry “a certain right to possibles” in the field of literary production. She might well have felt that such an aspiration was ludicrous, pretentious or, as Bourdieu often says, “not for the likes of us.” However, Swann must have had “subjective hopes” ready to meet with “objective chances” because she sends poems to the local papers, and she takes her work to Cruzzi. But those hopes are tentative and vulnerable. If Swann had been writing a few years later or living closer to a major center she might have benefited from other possibles—writing groups or access to various educational programs for adult learners.6 If she had been like Sarah Maloney, a generation younger, middle-class, educated, metropolitan, she might have enjoyed Sarah's dispositions of self-confidence and a strong sense of autonomy and purpose.

It would not have been that remarkable if Swann had turned out occasional ditties for “The Poet's Corner” in the local newspaper. What is unusual is that seemingly without any knowledge of the field, without any of the relevant capitals, and without any of the expected dispositions of a mold-breaking poet, she writes poetry that is neither conventional nor formulaic. Once visible within the field, the improbability of Swann as a poet fuels the interest in her. As we hear from Sarah, Swann appears to have discovered her own unique form of modern poetry; her lines carry “the mark of the prototype” (55). When Bourdieu talks of the dispositions of unconventional avant-garde writers in the late-nineteenth century, he refers to their “disinterestedness and daring,” their “self-assurance, audacity and indifference to profit” (Field 63, 68). Swann might have the final attribute, though she is pleased to have received a check from the Elgin paper for her poetry, but she has none of the others. The neighbors in Nadeau remember her as “queer in her ways,” “one of your nervous types” (142); “kind of shy,” “sort of countrified,” “looked scared,” “a regular rabbit-type woman” (143). Cruzzi recalls that she was “excessively anxious,” “timid,” “nervous” (212). Bourdieu points out how the expansive, confident dispositions of the avant-garde artist will often depend on possession of substantial economic and social capital. In Virginia Woolf's essays, particularly in her demand for £500 a year and a room of her own, she constantly emphasizes how economic and social independence are essential if the woman writer is to have the necessary dispositions and a freedom to write without always feeling the specter of the Angel in the House or the censorious male critic at her shoulder. The writer with economic and social capital can both afford to take risks and know where those risks might be most productively focused. Swann can do neither.

Bourdieu would argue that the fact that Swann writes in verse is connected to her uncertain relationship with the field and her class habitus. Writing in 1992, Bourdieu claims: “poetry today still incarnates the idea which the least cultivated consumers have of literature. [… T]he members of the working class and the petit-bougeoisie who embark on writing have (almost without exception) too high an idea of literature to write ‘realist’ novels; and, in fact, their production consists essentially of poetry—very conventional in form—and secondarily of historical studies” (Rules 386).7 Woolf also links genre, class, and gender when, in A Room of One's Own, she muses on the reasons why so many nineteenth-century women writers were novelists: “Had it something to do with being born of the middle class, I asked” (60). Woolf suggests that the social relations of the sitting room, that key location for the middle-class woman, become the subject matter for novels. Moreover, she believes, the more discursive form of the novel could be better accommodated within the frequently disrupted daily life of the middle-class woman, often at the call of husband, children, servants and a large network of family and neighbor contacts. In “Professions for Women” she further comments on writing as a relatively unthreatening activity for women—“The family peace was not broken by the scratching of a pen”—and, famously, on its economy—“The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in the other professions” (101).

Bourdieu's work shows a minute attention to the details of difference. He would fully appreciate how for Woolf and Shields even writing paper has a gender and class dimension. Much is made in Swann of Swann's Parker 51 pen, a kind of sad, ironic counter to the phallic pen that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar find in the hands of male authors.8 A ream of paper is possible for Woolf's middle-class woman author, but it would be unthinkable for Swann. Her poetry is produced on “small pieces of paper in varying size” (214); the paper is lined, “torn from a spiral notebook and [bearing] a ragged edge” (215). Swann's notebook, which Rose Hindmarch gives to Sarah, is a “small spiral notebook, the kind sometimes described as a pocket scribbler” (45). In short, Swann's materials are those of the dispossessed. She has no sitting room in which to write and she is fully occupied, not by visits—an investment of social capital important to middle-class life—but by endless drudgery. Woolf thinks that “[l]ess concentration is required” for prose than poetry or play writing (Room 60). That is debatable. But one advantage in writing short poems for someone in Swann's situation is that they can be composed in the head while working on the domestic tasks that are the stimulus to the writing. So the sitting room, the table, the lighting, the leisure time, and the paper for structuring plots, drafting, and writing at length are all unnecessary. In Mary Swann a working-class reverence for poetry meets with material conditions that permit only the writing of short poems. In this particular respect there is a correspondence between disposition and position.


One of the most likely positions that the literary field can offer Mary Swann is that of feminist writer. Swann was murdered in 1965; her poems were published by Cruzzi's press in 1966; Sarah Maloney's first article, published in the early 1980s, was instrumental in initiating Swann studies; five years later the first Swann symposium takes place. The dates, the Canadian location, the oppressed life, and the violent end of a woman poet and the involvement of a young, aspiring female academic with the relevant dispositions render it highly determined that one of the ways Swann will be constructed will be within the context of feminism as a lost woman writer. She could be seen as excluded by the patriarchal forces of both her domestic life and the literary field but rescued by a sister (Sarah) and reinstated, albeit with a rather uncertain position.

The arrival in the field, from the late 1970s on, of feminist critics, educated in the rules of the game but also with dispositions for change, has been central in the rediscovery of lost women authors. Sarah encounters Swann just as she is finishing her feminist-informed thesis and is about to enter the academic field as a lecturer. She is an ideal agent for Mary Swann; and, though obviously Swann has no view on the matter, each in a sense can provide what the other needs and legitimate the other's activities. For instance, Swann offers the perfect material for a young academic making her way in the field. Because Swann is an unknown writer with a small output, which, as she is dead, will not be increased, Sarah can relatively easily gather a competence and a return on her investment of time. An established author, with a large output already well worked by critics, is a daunting prospect for a new academic. At the same time, Sarah's feminist habitus, linked to her close relationship to her mother and to her experience of a controlling husband, Olaf, allows her to read Swann in an intimate way, though Shields humorously hypes the rhetoric. Sarah sees Swann's poetry as “a limpid expression of female sensuality,” as about “birth and regeneration” and as “a piercing statement of a woman severed from her roots” (50). Moreover, Sarah and Swann have a shared disposition in their mutual regard for the habitual and commonplace, a disposition that feminism has generally been eager to sanction in its reevaluation of women's lives. For Sarah, then, position and disposition come together readily in the post of a feminist critic. But, as Bourdieu suggests, nothing is fixed; habitus is “constantly subjected to experiences.” By the end of the story Sarah's feminism is reforming. The radical-feminist shibboleths that she expressed in her feminist best seller, The Female Prism—the need to be hard-line, the advocacy of female power, the positioning of men as the enemy and marriage as a compromise—are proving difficult to reconcile to her newly married and pregnant state.9

A second strategy for locating Swann within the literary field is to look to sources, influences, and precursors as a way of situating her. A similar move takes place at the end of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale when Professor Pieixoto relates the work of the missing woman author to Chaucer. Swann's work is associated with Burns, Jane Austen, Rilke, Stevie Smith, Rashid, and Emily Dickinson. Indeed, the blurb on the back of the Flamingo edition reinforces this practice by naming Mary Swann as “a latter-day Emily Dickinson”; in The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, the creative association shades into misreading, and Swann is described as “an obscure 19th-century American woman poet” (574). In each case the attribution tells us something about the constitution of the field, how the author is being positioned, and the motives of the particular spokesperson. Morton Jimroy is most energetic in this regard; with no evidence to support him, he links Swann to Dickinson, Stevie Smith, and Jane Austen. For some members of the symposium, Jimroy has enough symbolic capital to make these bogus claims sound authoritative; a research student making the same claims would have had more difficulty. Though the evidence is spurious, the method Jimroy employs is common in the literary field. It is important to mention high-status literary associations. If Jimroy could only prove that Swann has a legitimate place in a line of female authors from Austen to Dickinson and through to Stevie Smith, then Swann can be “consecrated,” her literary significance confirmed, and Jimroy will be seen as one of the “agents of consecration,” the critic who perceived the line of influence (Bourdieu, Field 121). Jimroy is well placed to take up this task because his biographies of Pound and John Starman, his three honorary degrees, and his recent role at Stanford as Distinguished Visitor have already won him considerable symbolic capital. Although I can only aspire to Jimroy's status, one could argue that my positioning Shields alongside Atwood, Byatt, and Gardam is a strategy similar to Jimroy's.

Jimroy's linking of the names of female authors is certainly not informed by any feminist motivation to discover lost women writers and construct female traditions. Jimroy would think it wise publicly to pay lip service to that activity and, incidentally, earn himself more capital for his liberal open-mindedness; but, in truth, what unites women writers for Jimroy is their oddity and their threatening impenetrability. His handling of sources is selective and duplicitous. In his lecture, Jimroy does not mention Edna Ferber or Gone with the Wind,Five Little Peppers or the Bobbsey Twins books—the books that constituted Swann's major reading, according to Rose Hindmarch and Swann's daughter Frances—but he does select from the list a form of writing that, with some sleight of hand on his part, can be incorporated within the literary; and he gives the form distinction by naming it as a “genre of verse”: “Mrs. Swann's daughter has confided […] that her mother was familiar with that genre of verse commonly known as Mother Goose” (261).10 Just as Pieixoto connects the fragmentary work of Offred to the recognizable genre of autobiography with his allusions to “The A. B. Memoirs” and “The Diary of P.” (Atwood 313), so Jimroy selects from the list of possibles the one with most literary potential and through the use of the word “confided” places himself in a position of special privilege. His strategy is half successful. Because one of the field's prime activities is to police its boundaries, designating what is legitimate or beyond the pale, it is not surprising that some symposium members accept the nursery rhyme link whereas others are aghast.

Thus, one completely unfounded line of critical investigation suggests that Swann had knowledge of the literary field and was consciously or unconsciously influenced by it. To create Swann, these critics manipulatively “situate [her] in the space of artistic possibles, citing in relation to [her] works and authors no doubt unknown to [her] and, in any case, profoundly alien to [her] intentions” (Bourdieu, Rules 245-46). The second line, which is in play in the field alongside the first, happily admits to her lack of mainstream literary knowledge and turns this absence to advantage by positioning Swann as a naïf, primitive, or regionalist. Such contradiction—at one moment, a sophisticated intertexualist; at the next, an innocent or only of local relevance—are no problem within the field because debating the differences of view and the anomalies of the evidence maintains the field and Swann within it, though whether her position is major or minor is precisely what is in dispute. Sarah is uneasy about the process and how capital might be distributed; she laments Swann's description as a “poète naïve” (17) and sees clearly that her “narrowly rural” background, as Lang describes it, has been interpreted by some as rusticity and, thus, minor. Burns is introduced into the critical debate as an example of a major rural poet against whom Swann fares badly (18).

The differing understandings of local and regional and how these terms might relate to distinction or nondistinction are crucial to the evaluation of Swann. The poets with whom Cruzzi and his wife Hildë have been associated encompass the whole gamut from nondistinction to distinction and are expressive of varying aesthetic philosophies. There is the doggerel of the “local poets” (200) who send work to “The Poet's Corner”; the regional, “frontier” (203) poets of the Peregrine Press; and, if Jimroy is to be believed, the poet of international reckoning in Mary Swann. Cruzzi has to reject the poetry Kurt Weismann sends to the newspaper on the grounds that “It was unrhymed. It had no regular metre. It did not celebrate nature, or allude to God, or even to Kingston and its environs. It did not tug at the heart-strings or touch the tear ducts and was in no way calculated to bring forth a gruff chuckle of recognition; in short it was too good for ‘The Poet's Corner’” (202). From this response we can deduce both what is expected of the popular aesthetic and how the dominant aesthetic associates poetry of distinction with technical assurance and experimentation, a rejection of conventional subject matter, the absence of sentimentality and, as the reference to Kingston illustrates, a willingness to extend beyond the local. Peregrine Press poets are required to aspire to these attributes of distinction. Hildë repeatedly explains to enquiring poets that the Press is looking for “[n]ew sounds […] and innovative technique, but work that turns on a solid core of language” (203). Though the regional as local and parochial is discredited, the regional as the marginalized, nonmetropolitan is valued. Peregrine Press is “interested in regional poets whose work [is] not sufficiently recognized” (165) or, as Hildë suggests rather more flamboyantly, “fire along the frontier” (203). The regional can accrue value in a postcolonial contex, and thus Kurt Weismann, rejected by “The Poet's Corner” as too good, wins acclaim as “a fresh new Canadian voice” and takes on national significance (202). Even though regionalism has a place within the field, as the title of one of the symposium papers indicates—“Regional Allusions in the Poetry of Mary Swann” (287)—it still carries connotations of the minor. Lang's charge must be refuted and any sense of the regional occluded if Swann is to achieve the highest status. She must enter that limitless region of the universal.


The enthusiasts at the Swann symposium showed no lack of effort to rediscover Mary Swann; but, as in The Handmaid's Tale, the lost woman author remains remarkably resistant to the investigations of the literary field and intriguingly out of reach. The meetings, the critical writings, the nascent biography produce theories with only tenuous supportive evidence. In the texts the problem is compounded: The literary output is limited (and in Swann fast disappearing), and crucially, the authorship of the existing material is in doubt. Just as Professors Pieixoto and Wade transcribed, arranged, interpreted Offred's words, so Cruzzi and, especially, Hildë virtually co-authored Mary Swann's poetry. To make amends for the incident when Hildë unwittingly uses Mary Swann's poetry to wrap up some fish remains and effectively destroys sections of the verse, Cruzzi and Hildë employ guesses, deduction, invention, textual analysis, personal preference, and emendations to fill the gaps in Swann's verse. Hildë, an unpublished woman poet, becomes an active author adding lines and even a significant part of a stanza. Cruzzi and Hildë's motives are more altruistic, less vainglorious than Piexioto's and Wade's, and they intend to check their work with Mary Swann, but that very night she is killed.

The different terms used to describe the source material are always indicative. Again we can compare with The Handmaid's Tale. Piexioto refers variously in his lecture to “document,” “blocks of speech,” “transcription” (312-14), each term carrying implications concerning the status of the material. Sarah Maloney, desperate to make sense of Swann's paltry observations in her notebook, moves within a paragraph from “journal” to “diary” to “cryptogram” to “notebook” (50), each term representing some attempt at giving meaning to the meaningless. A crucial shift of attribution for Mary Swann's poetry occurs when Cruzzi and Hildë begin “referring to Hildë's transcribed notes, and not the drying, curling poems on the table as ‘the manuscript’” (222). Their subsequent actions are conspiratorial—more so than Piexioto's and Wade's. Cruzzi and Hildë appear never to reveal the full extent of their intervention, whereas Piexioto is only too happy to vaunt the work he and his colleague have done. The text is unclear about how Cruzzi might explain the loss of the manuscript to Swann readers, though the wet fish story is known in the Swann community. One would have expected that the authenticity of the poems would have furnished subject matter for the symposium because the members are keen to discuss all other enigma surrounding Swann's production. The single interrogation comes in an earlier letter from Sarah to Cruzzi. In his reply, he deems the word “manuscript” quite inappropriate for the “odd clutter of paper” and “heap of scraps” that Mary Swann had given him (192). The comment is reminiscent of Foucault's enquiry concerning Sade's “rolls of paper onto which he ceaselessly uncoiled his fantasies during his imprisonment” (143). For Foucault, the writing becomes a legitimate text only when Sade is dignified as “author,” and for Cruzzi, the clutter and scraps become “the manuscript” only through the authorizing function of Hildë. Cruzzi invokes the tradition of oral verse, dismisses manuscripts as “a crude representation of that step between creative thought and artefact,” and sees the road to truth as better through a “jumbled vision” (192). Cruzzi has no wish to discredit Swann, and his comments give witness to the broad internationalism of his background, but his emphasis on the phonocentric as opposed to the logocentric and his collusion in awarding Hildë a key role in the authorizing function are suspect. As with the critics, aesthetic disinterestedness proves to be a chimera; and, though Cruzzi is not concerned with symbolic or economic gain, he is motivated by other powerful interests, namely his love for Hildë and his guilt concerning his violence toward her. It is difficult to understand how the critical Swann sharks have let Cruzzi get away for so long with that convenient fuzziness about the origins of the “manuscript.”

At the end of the disastrous symposium, the participants reconstruct one of Mary Swann's poems, “Lost Things.” Certain lines apply as much to Swann's predicament as to the lost objects: “As though the lost things have withdrawn / Into themselves;” “without history, / Waiting out of sight;” “Without a name / Or definition or form.” The critical field, which we see working so actively in this text, hopes to bring her back into view. Like Foucault or Barthes, Bourdieu refutes what he calls the “charismatic ideology” that makes the author “the first and last source of the value of his work” (Field 76). To the question that he poses on numerous occasions, “Who creates the ‘creator’?” Bourdieu answers that “the artist who makes the work is himself made, at the core of the field of production, by the whole ensemble of those who help to ‘discover’ him and to consecrate him as an artist who is ‘known’ and recognized—critics, writers of prefaces, dealers etc.” (Rules 167).11 Thus for Mary Swann we could list as ensemble members the newspaper editors who printed some of her early poems; Rose who acts in a way as Swann's literary agent by mentioning Cruzzi and who later becomes designer and curator of the Mary Swann Memorial Room; Cruzzi himself as Swann's publisher; Hildë as—to be tactful—Swann's editor; Jimroy as her biographer; Brownie and Book Browsers Inc. as book dealers; the numerous critics, symposia committee members, and delegates; and lastly, and in the hierarchy of literary authority definitely least, the common reader in the form of the neighbors in Nadeau.

Certain selected people in the ensemble can act as “symbolic banker” to the new author, offering “as security all the symbolic capital (they have) accumulated” (Bourdieu, Field 77). Their prestige might make or break the newcomer. Sarah is highly conscious of the slipperiness of positions in the literary field; in fact, all the critics are in tense and vituperative competition with each other for their own place of recognition as queen-maker. So, Sarah can say: “In a sense I invented Mary Swann and am responsible for her” (30). She calls herself “Swann's watchwoman, her literary executor, her defender and loving caretaker” (31)—that is, she is the “creator of the creator” (Bourdieu, Field 77). When trying to persuade Cruzzi to come to the symposium, she flatters him with the notion that he had “midwifed the original text” (191) just as Lang flatters her by introducing her at the symposium as “the person most responsible for the rediscovery of Mary Swann” (265). Bourdieu would argue in response to Sarah's half-serious claim that she invented Mary Swann that she is not the “creator of the creator,” nor is Cruzzi or Lang or any other significant individual. To suggest such is to get caught in “an endless regress in the chain of causes” (Field 77). Jimroy likes to think he has that godlike role. He sees himself as both “creator of the creator” and “source of the source” and happily becomes the lead link in “the chain of causes”: His Mother Goose comment, for example, positions him as source of the source (Frances Moore) of the source (Mary Swann). Bourdieu would insist, instead, that literary value is created in the field of production, defined as “the system of objective relations between these agents or institutions and as the site of the struggles for the monopoly of the power to consecrate, in which the value of works of art and belief in that value are continuously generated” (Field 78). Not only the symposium but also the various exchanges that precede it offer us numerous examples of battles for the “power to consecrate.”

If, within the coterie of critics, one of the accepted acts of professional politeness is for each deferentially to offer the laurel wreath to the other, it is clear that this is only a pretence at magnanimity. For example, Sarah views Lang's courtesy as “a token dropped in a bank to permit future withdrawals” (30), a monetary metaphor that would appeal to Bourdieu. Each critic is keen to gain as much capital as possible at the expense of the others; most are unwilling to practice the reflexive strategies Bourdieu advocates for sociology—strategies akin to feminism's consciousness-raising—and hold up for analysis their own positions and dispositions. Sarah is the most clear-eyed, though by no means innocent. Both her youthfulness and her gender place her, if not on the margins of the field, at least some critical distance from the center. She appreciates only too well the difference between rhetoric and real power and, despite the blandishments, recognizes her subordinate place vis-à-vis Lang in the creation of Swann: “Willard being the authority, while S. Maloney (me) is given the smaller, slightly less distinguished role of discoverer” (30). If Mary Swann were still around and at all interested in these games, it would be Lang whom she would be wise to cultivate. The balance of credits and debits between author and critic can change over time. Swann might fail to achieve status and then the critic who rallied to her cause will lose symbolic capital. For example, Sarah ponders on Jimroy's possible response to the Swann notebook she holds, “disappointed by the notebook itself, disappointed by Mary Swann, and also, I have no doubt, by me” (50). However, if Swann becomes prestigious, canonized, then the critic will profit accordingly. One can imagine that at a later symposium someone might say: “There goes Lang/Maloney/Jimroy; s/he's the world authority on Swann, you know.” The most experienced members of the field know where to invest their capital. As Sarah comments on Jimroy and Lang: “A man like Morton Jimroy wouldn't be bothering with her if he didn't think she was going to take off. Willard wouldn't be wasting his time organizing a symposium if he didn't believe her reputation was ripe for the picking” (32). Sarah sees not only the general workings of the field but the part that gender plays within it. It is the rivalry of powerful men over the literary output of a powerless woman that raises Sarah's feminist and protective responses.

Toward the end of the book, Sarah, Rose, Cruzzi, and Jimroy try to account for the loss of Swann's work. Cruzzi's view is that a combination of “scholarly greed” and “sheer monetary value” (280) is responsible. The strange behavior of Lang (the scholarly) and Sarah's sighting of Brownie (the monetary) at the climax of the symposium support that interpretation. In Lang the need for ever-increasing amounts of symbolic capital has run to extremes. He has become like Dr. No, a mad collector of cultural assets, whereas Brownie had always said “he'd cheat his own granny to make a buck” (15). But, as Sarah points out, their strategy might be self-defeating; neither economic nor symbolic capital can be generated unless the texts are in circulation. Rose's answer to the conundrum, culled from the many thrillers she reads, is “extortion,” the desired objects will be put back into circulation at a higher price, rather as stolen works of art are returned to the walls of galleries through the efforts of police, art experts, insurers, and shady intermediaries. As so often in the novel, Rose finds herself in the role of the naïf, the amateur enthusiast who, because of her ignorance of the rules of the game, brings problems into the field. Equally, the amateur, unfamiliar with the field, might see the unlikely explanation that others cannot. In this instance, Rose's perlocutionary effect is positive and she even earns some symbolic capital for herself: Shields's screenplay directions read, “JIMROY: (addressing Rose, now, with respect)” (299).

If Mary Swann is lost as in dead, lost as in without records—she had no driving license, no doctor's notes, and her only child was delivered at home—lost in the thin, sporadic memories of the neighbors or the repressed memories of Frances Moore, lost in that her work has been stolen, lost in that the literary field has no obvious place for her, lost in lacking the usual dispositions to be an author, then what hope is there? Even the indefatigable Jimroy has to conclude small likelihood of finding Swann through his biography. Not only is documentation missing—and what there is indicates “one of the dullest lives ever lived” (76)—but Jimroy's traditional biographical method is inadequate to the task. His strategy of amassing detail, “small careful proofs” (49); his search, in his most self-deluding moments, for “that epic wholeness that is human life” (118) and “uncovering the core of personality” (269); his attempt to construct the life as an ordered progression, referring, for example, to “Mary Swann's middle period (1940-1955)” (118)—all inevitably fail.12 We are left with a small body of poetry of uncertain authorship, a sketchy history of a multiply oppressed life, and the faintest traces—if we are to believe Cruzzi—of a feeling, affective woman who for him suggested something “sensual” (213) in her mannerisms and something “intimate and dignified” (215) in her voice.


  1. Other examples of how the cultural text—a painting or a literary text—provokes, at the very least, suspect behavior would include Henry James, The Aspern Papers; Vladimir Nabakov, Pale Fire; J. M. Coetzee, Foe; Michael Frayn, Headlong; and Carol Shields, Small Ceremonies.

  2. Examples of varying critical responses to Swann would include: Burkhard Niederhoff, “How to Do Things with History: Researching Lives in Carol Shields' Swann and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 35: 2 (2000): 71-85; Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, “Formal Strategies in a Female Narrative Tradition: The Case of Swann: A Mystery,Anxious Power: Reading, Writing and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, eds. Sweeney Singley, and Carol J. Singley (Albany: SUNY P, 1993) 19-30; Clara Thomas, “Reassembling Fragments: Susanna Moodie, Carol Shields, and Mary Swann,” Inside the Poem, ed. W. H. New (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1992) 197-204; Clara Thomas, “‘A Slight Parodic Edge’: Swann: A Mystery,Multiple Voices: Recent Canadian Fiction, ed. Jeanne Delbaere (Sydney: Dangeroo, 1990) 104-15.

  3. The notable exceptions in the area of literature would include Claire Colebrook, New Literary Histories: New Historicism and Contemporary Criticism (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997); Bridget Fowler, The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991) and Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory (London: Sage, 1997); Elizabeth W. Harries, “‘Out in the Left Field’: Charlotte Smith's Prefaces, Bourdieu's Categories, and the Public Sphere.” Modern Language Quarterly 58: 4 (December 1997): 457-73; Toril Moi, What Is a Woman? (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999). A Bourdieuian approach also influenced Moi's Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

  4. See, for example, Bourdieu, Sociology in Question, 34 and Bourdieu and Wacquant, 98.

  5. For further references on Bourdieu's concept of the field and his use of the term habitus, see Bourdieu and Wacquant, 94, n. 42 and 120, n. 5; Bourdieu. The Logic of Practice, 52-65.

  6. For example, Celia Lury writes optimistically in The Difference of Women's Writing: Essays on the Use of Personal Experience (Manchester: U of Manchester P, 1987) of the potential for women's writing groups, which she sees as presenting “a challenge to the traditional organisation of literary culture and conventional relations of production and consumption; and that this may lead to a partial re-definition of literature itself” (5).

  7. Interesting comparisons can be made here with Tony Harrison's “The Queen's English,” Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984) 136 and Ursual Fanthorpe's “Local Poet,” Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) 120-21. Both poems turn on the self-consciousness and embarrassment of the poet of distinction when offered the poetry of “the least cultivated”.

  8. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's study of nineteenth-century women authors and the difficulty they had in getting access to the tools of literary production begins with the question: “Is a pen a metaphorical penis?” See The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) 3.

  9. I hasten to add that I do not believe that this description constitutes the radical feminist position. Shields is playing to a rather populist view of what feminism is about.

  10. One is tempted to think that the description of Pearl Buck's most famous novel, The Good Earth, as “dramatizing the belief that honest toil may bring happiness but that wealth and luxury may destroy the spiritual meaning of life” might explain its attraction to poor Mary Swann. See James D. Hart, The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste (New York: Oxford UP, 1950) 252. The Five Little Peppers and the Bobbsey Twins series were popular and long-running series for girls. Note how Frances distinguishes them from “quality,” English children's literature: “I never heard of Winnie the Pooh and the Wind in the Willows until I had a child of my own” (93). On the other hand, Sarah, higher up the social scale, reads The Wind in the Willows at age eight (20).

  11. In addition to The Field of Cultural Production and The Rules of Art, see also relevant discussion in “But Who Created the “Creators”?” in Bourdieu, Sociology in Question 139-48.

  12. For Bourdieu's work on biography, see “The Invention of the Artist's Life,” Yale French Studies 73 (1987): 75-103, which links with Bourdieu's other work on Flaubert, and “The Biographical Illusion,” Working Papers and Proceedings of the Center for Psychosocial Studies 14 (Chicago: Center for Psychosocial Studies, 1987). Note also Bourdieu's comments in The Rules of Art 244 and 385, n. 45. His reference to “naifs” who have no “biography” in the sense that a biography is traditionally conceived is obviously relevant to Swann.

The author would like to acknowledge the helpful support of colleagues at Leeds Metropolitan University, particularly Dr. Simon Gunn, and at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland where an earlier version of this essay was presented at a research seminar. I am also grateful to the Critique reviewers for a number of useful suggestions.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. London: Virago, 1987.

Brecht, Bertolt. “On Rhymeless Verse with Irregular Rhythms.” Poems 1913-1956. Eds. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. London: Eyre Methuen, 1976.

Byatt, Antonia. Possession: A Romance. London: Vintage, 1991.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Routledge, 1989.

———. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson. Cambridge: Polity, 1993.

———. In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology. Trans. Matthew Adamson. Cambridge: Polity, 1990.

———. The Logic of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Polity, 1990.

———. On Television and Journalism. Trans. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. London: Pluto, 1998.

———. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Trans. Susan Emmanuel. Cambridge: Polity, 1996.

———. Sociology in Question. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Sage, 1993.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc J. D Wacquant. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity, 1992.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Theory. Ed. Josué V. Harari. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979, 141-60.

Gardam, Jane. The Sidmouth Letters. London: Abacus, 1981.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Moi, Toril. What Is a Woman? And Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Sage, Lorna, ed. Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Shields, Carol. Swann: A Literary Mystery. Toronto: General Paperbacks, 1987.

Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women” (1942). The Crowded Dance of Modern Life. Ed. Rachel Bowlby. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993, 101-06.

———. A Room of One's Own (1929). A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. Ed. Michèle Barrett. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

Clare Colvin (essay date 18 July 2003)

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SOURCE: Colvin, Clare. “Carol Shields.” Independent, no. 5226 (18 July 2003): 17.

[In the following obituary, Colvin provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.]

The success of Carol Shields' novels lies in the immaculate style of her writing and her feeling for the detail in everyday lives, together with a darker undercurrent that acknowledges how provisional is life itself.

Shields herself had to face the arbitrary nature of tragedy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, soon after winning the Orange Prize for her novel Larry's Party. After undergoing a mastectomy, she embarked on several courses of chemotherapy, knowing that this was a palliative measure to prolong her life rather than a means of recovery. While fighting the illness, she wrote a biography, Jane Austen (2001), and a final novel, Unless (2002), about a woman writer immersed in a family crisis when her beloved daughter inexplicably becomes a vagrant. The first sentence—“It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now”—mirrors Shields' own reaction on learning her cancer was incurable. Unless was shortlisted both for the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and for the Orange Prize earlier this year. Shields was too ill to be present at the awards ceremonies.

Her first novel, Small Ceremonies, was published in Canada in 1976 when she was 40, followed by The Box Garden (1977), Happenstance (1980), Mary Swann (1987) and The Republic of Love (1992). Mary Swann, an exploration of a poet's life, her murder and posthumous mythologisation, launched Shields internationally. In 1990 it was picked up by Christopher Potter, then a commissioning editor at the independent publisher Fourth Estate. Until then, Shields had been overlooked outside Canada, but Potter said he knew instantly that here was an unusual and major voice. He bought all her other novels for publication in Britain.

In 1994 The Stone Diaries, an 80-year chronicle of a woman's unfulfilled life, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and won the Pulitzer Prize a year later. Shields was heralded as a feminist writer and authority on the condition of women. In her next novel, Larry's Party, she applied her perceptive skill to the condition of men, winning the 1997 Orange Prize for women's fiction. Her early novels had been written in a chronological form but in The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party she worked within a carefully devised structure. Larry's life was approached from different aspects, occasionally doubling-back in chronology, as if imitating Larry's art as a maze-designer.

A source of irritation to Shields was the tendency by some reviewers to classify her novels as “women's fiction” and to patronise the characters as “ordinary”. She said,

Most novels are about ordinary people. There is a gender prejudice here. When men write about “ordinary people” they are thought to be subtle and sensitive. When women do so, their novels are classified as domestic.

Her novels suggest that the pattern of people's lives is in the detail, which they are inclined to disregard as being not sufficiently important to count as living, while they wait for a dramatic event, which when it arrives is often arbitrary and unwelcome.

She was born Carol Ann Warner in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, in 1935, the third child of a sweet-factory manager and a schoolteacher. It was an ordered childhood, with church on Sundays and family meals, but she was saddened by the lack of conversation with her parents, who never talked to their children. “Ours was a quiet house, reserved … I do not come from a storytelling family,” she said later. It is significant, perhaps, that many of the characters in her novels have a frustrated longing to communicate.

She became a student at Hanover College, Indiana. Her course took her on a study-abroad programme to Exeter University, where she met a Canadian engineering student, Don Shields. They married in 1957 soon after her graduation, and went back to Canada. They lived first in Ottawa, where her husband taught civil engineering at the university, and later moved to Winnipeg. It was an era when couples married early, through the social and moral pressures of the time. Their marriage was, she said, happy through good luck, in that she and Don were lucky enough to have a “fit” with each other.

For most of the first 18 years of her marriage, Carol Shields occupied herself with raising their five children. She saw herself as “a typical woman, a typical housewife, a living statistic”. She was of the last generation where domesticity was seen as the sole fulfilling purpose of a woman's life. But underneath the contentment, a need for another form of expression was making itself felt. At the age of 33, Shields returned to college to study for an MA.

She taught English literature, and wrote poetry and fiction while the children were at school. She published two volumes of poetry, Others (1972) and Intersect (1974), a study of the 19th-century Canadian writer Susanna Moodie (Susanna Moodie: voice and vision, 1977), and began to work on a novel, partly to see if she could do it and also because no one seemed to be writing novels she wanted to read. This became Small Ceremonies, published in 1976.

Domestic and academic life featured largely in Shields' novels because it was part of her own life. She spent 20 years as Professor of English at the University of Manitoba, and her last post was as Chancellor of Winnipeg University; she saw academia through an acerbic eye in some of the short stories in her collection Dressing Up for the Carnival, published in 2000.

Her last novel, Unless, appeared on the surface to have an autobiographical heroine—Reta Winters, a writer and mother, who is working on a novel about a female writer, and worrying about “being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing”. In that theme, it echoed the subject of Small Ceremonies and Mary Swann, both of which involved the search for the truth about the life of a woman writer.

To meet Carol Shields was to be charmed by her warmth and goodwill. Small and delicate, with a soft voice and an unassuming manner, she gathered around her a large and devoted band of friends, in whose lives she took an active interest. When she and her husband retired from their academic posts, they moved to Victoria in British Columbia, as the climate was milder than the harsh winters of Winnipeg. The house was large enough to provide ample room for her five children and 10 grandchildren. Until near the end, she continued to write because she loved “having one foot in one world and another in the real world”.

At the end of The Stone Diaries, the heroine makes a list of things she missed out on during her life. For herself, Shields said she was unable to think of anything she regretted. “I don't feel I've missed out at all—I've got my friends, my family, my writing … I think I've done pretty well.”

Claudia Levy (essay date 18 July 2003)

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SOURCE: Levy, Claudia. “Carol Shields, Acclaimed Novelist, Dies.” Washington Post (18 July 2003): B7.

[In the following obituary, Levy provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.]

Carol Shields, 68, whose empathetic and witty novels about the lives of ordinary people included the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries, died July 16 at her home in Victoria, B.C. She had breast cancer.

A native of Illinois who had lived in Canada since 1957, Mrs. Shields published her first novel at age 40. She soon became a respected author in her adopted country, but was relatively unknown in America until publication of The Stone Diaries, which won her international recognition, including the 1995 Pulitzer for fiction.

The book became a bestseller and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States and the Governor General's Literary Award in Canada. It was also shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize.

Mrs. Shields said her story of a woman named Daisy Goodwill, who progresses from miserable beginnings to fulfillment in old age as a garden columnist, was basically about “birth, life, love, work, death …” In part, it reflected Mrs. Shields's own awakening to the women's movement of the 1960s, a period in which she was raising five children and composing poetry in snatched moments.

Daisy, she wrote, was “a middle-class woman, a woman of moderate intelligence and medium-sized ego and average good luck.”

“I've been witness to this huge change for women in the second half of the 20th century,” Mrs. Shields said in an interview. “They say you write the same novel over and over, and the idea of women being fully human has always been a preoccupation [of mine].”

In another of her well-received novels, Larry's Party, about a man regarded by his acquaintances as “an unmemorable smudge in the yearbook,” Mrs. Shields turned her sympathetic eye to the lives of men.

“Men are portrayed as buffoons these days and I was trying not to do that,” she said in an interview, “but men are the ultimate mystery to me. I wanted to talk about this business of men in the world.” Larry's Party was awarded Britain's Orange Prize for novels written in English by women.

Mrs. Shields wrote 10 novels, including several after her cancer diagnosis more than five years ago. Her work Unless, published last year, was a Booker Prize finalist. She also wrote plays, biographies, three collections of short stories and three collections of poems. She taught English at the University of Manitoba, where she was university chancellor.

Carol Warner Shields became a naturalized Canadian with dual citizenship after her marriage in the 1950s to civil engineer Donald Shields. They met at the University of Exeter in England, where she was on an exchange program from Indiana's Hanover College.

She had five children in the decade of her twenties, and regarded it as a normal course of events that she would devote her life to family. Then she read Betty Friedan's watershed book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), which Mrs. Shields later described as “like a thunderbolt.”

“I came to feminism late,” Mrs. Shields told National Public Radio's Terry Gross on the “Fresh Air” program. “I knew there was something wrong, I just didn't know what it was.”

“I was astonished. I had no idea women thought like that or women could be anything other than what they were. … It did change the way that I thought about myself. I did begin to do a graduate degree part time, thought about doing some writing. It gave me courage.”

Some of her poetry was published in small journals and eventually in two books. She began part-time work editing a small literary journal and she wrote short stories that were broadcast on radio. She went on to receive a master's degree in English literature from the University of Ottawa.

Her first novel was Small Ceremonies. Other books included Swann,A Celibate Season,Thirteen Hands and a biography of Jane Austen.

Survivors include her husband and five children.

Dennis McLellan (essay date 18 July 2003)

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SOURCE: McLellan, Dennis. “Pulitzer-Winning Canadian Writer Explored the Lives of Everyday Women.” Los Angeles Times (18 July 2003): B12.

[In the following obituary, McLellan provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.]

Carol Shields, an acclaimed Canadian writer whose novel The Stone Diaries earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, has died. She was 68.

Shields, whose novels portrayed ordinary people, particularly women, in everyday situations, died Wednesday in Victoria, Canada, after a long battle with breast cancer.

Born in the United States, Shields was an English graduate of Hanover College in Indiana who moved to Canada as a 22-year-old newlywed in 1957. She raised five children, published two books of poetry and one of criticism and earned a master's degree before her first novel, Small Ceremonies, was published in 1976, when she was 40.

She became one of Canada's most respected writers, known for her stylistic inventiveness.

In all, she wrote 10 novels and three collections of short stories in addition to poetry, plays, critical studies and a biography of Jane Austen. She recently served as co-editor on the second of two volumes of Dropped Threads, an anthology of women's writing.

Shields achieved international fame—and leaped onto the bestseller lists—with the publication of The Stone Diaries, a fictional biography of Daisy Goodwill Flett. The character is a middle-class Canadian “woman of moderate intelligence and medium-sized ego and average good luck” whose life spans eight decades and demonstrates, as one reviewer wrote, that “there are no small lives, no lives out of which significance does not shine.”

A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review wrote that Shields “explored the mysteries of life with abandon, taking unusual risks along the way. The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.”

The novel, published by Random House Canada in 1993 and by Viking in the United States in 1994, not only earned Shields the Pulitzer—an American award for which she was eligible because she had kept her U.S. citizenship when she became a Canadian—but also the National Book Critics Circle Award and Canada's Governor General's Literary Award.

The book also was short-listed for the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award.

In an interview, Shields said: “I've been witness to this huge change for women in the second half of the 20th century. They say you write the same novel over and over, and the idea of women being fully human has always been a preoccupation.”

In the wake of the acclaim for The Stone Diaries, the government of France named Shields a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, and a number of universities bestowed honorary degrees on her.

The novel's success enabled Shields to buy a summer home in France, which she dubbed “Chateau Pulitzer.”

Her 1997 novel Larry's Party—about an “ordinary” man with two ex-wives and a teenage son—won England's $70,000 Orange Prize, which is awarded for the best book by a female writer in the English-speaking world.

For Jane Austen, a short biography of the English novelist for the Penguin Lives series published in 2000, Shields was awarded Canada's $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for the best literary nonfiction.

Unless, her final novel, a Booker Prize finalist last year, is about a middle-aged Canadian woman—a writer—who is struggling with a daughter who drops out of college to live on a Toronto street corner, where she wears a cardboard sign on her chest that says, “Goodness.”

Although Shields' work had achieved great critical acclaim in recent years, her four early novels, including The Box Garden,Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman, were not taken seriously by some critics.

“When I first started publishing novels in the '70s, there were reviews that called them ‘domestic’ novels and ‘women's’ novels, and spoke of them quite lightly,” Shields said in an interview with Reuters last year.

“But, you know, that didn't bother me at all,” she said, “because I knew the lives of women were important, and I thought these critics were wrong and I was right.

“I think it's time that we acknowledge that we all have a domestic life. Every person in the world has a domestic life, but you wouldn't know that reading Hemingway.

“I love domesticity,” she added. “I love the idea of home, and I think that is, in the end, what serious novels are about: the search for home.”

Shields was born June 2, 1935, in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. She was the youngest of three children whose father managed a candy factory and whose mother taught fourth grade.

At Oak Park High School, Shields wrote for the campus literary magazine and dreamed of becoming a writer.

“I got this reputation as the ‘literary kid,’” she told the Chicago Tribune in April of this year.

Her parents and teachers encouraged her to be a writer, she said. “I think writers must live in a place where writing is honored.”

At Hanover College, she continued writing stories and what she later deemed “terrible poems.”

She met her Canadian husband, Don, then a young engineering graduate, during her junior year abroad in England. They were married the week of her graduation in 1957 and settled in Canada, where Shields took on the role of what she called “a typical 1950s housewife.”

“Then in the 1970s,” she told a British journalist, “I took a master's degree, got involved in left-wing politics, learned French and gradually woke up.”

From 1980 to 2000, Shields taught literature at the University of Manitoba, in addition to serving the last four of those years as chancellor of the University of Winnipeg.

She was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer just before Christmas 1998. She underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments—and continued writing as she and her family came to terms with her approaching death.

In the months before she died, she was working on another novel, which remains unfinished.

“I've stopped writing several times, through some of the worst phases” of cancer treatment, she told the Chicago Tribune in April. “But I always start again. It's a kind of consolation. And there's something about wanting to go home to write that final book.”

In addition to her husband, a retired engineering professor, Shields is survived by her children, John, Catherine, Meg and Sara and Anne; 11 grandchildren; a brother, Robert Warner; and a sister, Barbara Hipple.

W. M. Hagen (review date October-December 2003)

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SOURCE: Hagen, W. M. Review of Unless, by Carol Shields. World Literature Today 77, nos. 3-4 (October-December 2003): 95-6.

[In the following review, Hagen lauds Shields's “realistic focus” on her characters's lives in Unless, maintaining that Shields “is one of our best” contemporary writers.]

Somewhere in the middle of her life [in Unless], Reta Winters is on tour in Washington, D.C., to promote her first novel. Bookstore signings are over, she has an afternoon free, so she visits no less than twenty boutiques in search of the perfect scarf for Norah, her oldest daughter. It will be a birthday gift for the very daughter who, unaccountably, will drop out of college and end up begging on a street corner. Strangely, the episode marks Reta's first encounter with shopping passion. She shares the experience with an old friend, who adores the scarf and immediately appropriates the gift for herself! Reta recalls that she said nothing and rationalizes that her daughter was aware of the “big female secret of wanting and not getting.” Less than one-third of the way through a novel entitled Unless, one is advised to suspend judgment, which is difficult to do.

Both as a mother and a novelist, Reta is obsessed with the problem of her daughter: if she can't understand and help her own daughter, how can she hope to create characters who will seem authentic? Friends expect her troubles to feed her writing; her husband, a doctor, searches for a definitive trauma that caused Norah's sudden withdrawal; Reta, groping, can only think of some women's tendency to “shut down.” The novelist distrusts such notions, even as Shields plots them into her novel. In one form or another, all are enacted, even as they are interrogated. Thus, to question Reta Winters's decision to give away a valued gift meant for her child—as I did—on the grounds of fictional probability or character morality is to find yourself in a world that has been carefully prepared for you.

Carol Shields ghosts the engaged readers: Reta writes letters to authors and reviewers who have irritated her; her family, friends, and editor repeatedly advise her on life and fiction, thematizing to suit their own preoccupations. This is not ordinary metafiction or reflexivity to create a dry comedy of inside and outside, as in the recent work of John Barth. A fiction-conscious narrator, shifting perspectives, and suspensive irony certainly mark the novel, but a realistic focus on lives in process, the suffering engagement of a character with other characters, give Unless a profoundly moral dimension. The prepositional and adverbial titles of chapters are not pieces of some linguistic puzzle; they imply sentences that point, defer, qualify, and finally imitate the rhythm of before and after in human experience.

In the last chapter, Shields speaks of “unless” as opening into a world, a sign of hope; in the end, it's a future rather than a conclusion. Although not as life-encompassing as Stone Diaries or Larry's Party,Unless is more warmly felt in its commitment to a character who seeks to break through the solitude that a writer's consciousness can impose. Carol Shields is one of our best, and this is one of her best.


Shields, Carol (Vol. 113)


Shields, Carol (Vol. 91)