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.”
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.
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.
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.