Themes and Meanings
Life suspended in stone is one theme of the book. Daisy as narrator often focuses on passionate attachments of those she is describing, and Daisy’s life begins in her parents’ lives: Cuyler Goodwill a skilled stonecutter and Mercy Stone a heavy and still woman. Cuyler believes his marriage to Mercy and his passion for her dislodged “the stone in his throat” and gave him the power of true speech. Cuyler builds a stone tower to mark Mercy’s gravesite, work in which passion and stone interplay in his carving of the images for some of the stones in the tower, leaving him to feel the presence of God in his work, life within stone.
Under his final stone production, the pyramid, Cuyler places a time capsule the small contents of which include Mercy’s wedding ring. He has been unable to find the right words to accompany the ring and give it to Daisy; he finds it far less troubling “to bury this treasure beneath a weight of stone—his pyramid, dense, heavy, complex, full of secrets, a sort of machine.” Cuyler’s treasure beneath stone is echoed when Daisy, her great-niece Victoria, and Victoria’s boyfriend Lewis Roy visit God’s Gate on the Orkney Islands, where the niece and Lewis Roy closely examine the outcropping rock to “find a microscopic tracing of buried life. Life turned to stone.”
The final working of this theme appears as Daisy, aware of dying, returns to the stone images: “Stone is how she finally sees herself.” In her death, Daisy feels herself reunited with her mother, no longer orphaned and alone, life now suspended in stone.
Shields’s novel also reveals consistent missed connections and failures of understanding, perhaps best exemplified by the fairly cool relationship between Daisy and Barker. Daisy reads women’s magazines and tries to follow advice offered on keeping her husband happy, advice that never addresses the ultimate loneliness of each of them: their failure to connect. The failure to understand also appears in Daisy’s not recognizing her niece Beverly’s need when she stops for a visit to the family. With Beverly, however, Daisy later has and takes advantage of the opportunity to make connections, offering the young woman a home in which she can bring up her child, Victoria.
That ordinary life is a worthy subject for a novel is a theme that has had its place in all of Shields's fiction. Even when surprising events occur in the novel, they are presented as accidents, and accidents happen to everyone. Daisy's first husband, for example, falls from a window to his death, perhaps startled by Daisy's sneeze. It is odd, but still somehow convincing. Shields explores the experiences and inner lives of unremarkable, unnoticed people with careful detail. The Stone Diaries is a collection of almost mundane details: memories, dreams, gardening advice, letters, recipes, and many lists—grocery lists, a list of Daisy's illnesses, to-do lists, and the like. These accounts all make Daisy's world more convincing. The characters cook, hang laundry on the line to dry, weed the garden, clean house, laugh together, reminisce, keep secrets, economize. These incidentals aren't glossed over to get to the next plot device; in fact, plot is less important in a novel such as this as eliciting an empathetic understanding of the internal workings of her characters' minds, including their flaws. Shields convinces us that Daisy and the rest of her family are no more purposeful or dedicated to a particular goal than her readers are today.
The Stone Diaries reveals the life of a fairly average woman, giving it shape and significance, just as we all bring meaning to our own, ordinary lives. However, the voice of Daisy is not the only one we hear; Shields writes from a variety of sometimes conflicting perspectives. She is interested in exploring how our stories often differ from the stories of others who recount the same events. Yet this is not so much a story to correct impressions or fill in the gaps others have...
(The entire section is 3,129 words.)