Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1880
In Unless (2002), Carol Shields’s tenth novel, she tackles some of her familiar subjects—family relationships, the importance of writing and storytelling, and finding one’s place in the challenging modern world—but places them in the larger framework of women’s understanding of their place in that same milieu. Though Shields’s work often contains strong female characters, she rarely makes direct or strident feminist statements. In Unless, however, Shields deviates from her standard fare by including a very angry message about women’s treatment in a postfeminist world. By having the crises of the novel told from a strong, first-person narrator who is part of family and community settings, however, Shields also uses the larger arcs of the novel to comment on familial and interpersonal themes which are more common in her oeuvre.
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The narrator of Unless, Reta Winters, appeared earlier in the short story “The Scarf,” taken from Shields’s collection Dressing Up for the Carnival(2001). Shields even includes a summary of the story’s action within the first few chapters of the novel. The Reta of the earlier story, however, was caught in the humorous situation of having to buy a scarf for a daughter who did not seem to want very much. Never one for shopping or worrying about purchasing for others, Reta begins to see that the process of buying the scarf can become an artistic act. Her search in this story is a search for perfection: the need to get the most appropriate scarf for her daughter. At the end of the story, she retells the story of the search to a writer friend. Because Reta has not made it clear she was shopping for her daughter, the woman mistakenly believes Reta has purchased the scarf for her. The most appropriate scarf for her daughter becomes the most appropriate scarf for someone else, thus undercutting the relevance of Reta’s philosophic search. Though the focus on Reta’s internal search will inform her investigations in Unless, the story turns on Shields’s penchant for exploring relationships, couched with humor concerning the characters’ flawed interpretations.
The narrative that follows from this story, however, is anything but humorous. At the outset, the reader learns that Reta’s eldest daughter, Norah, has abruptly left her normal life in Toronto and shown up on the street with a sign that says “Goodness.” She leaves her comfortable apartment, which she shares with a boyfriend, as well as her classes at the university. She does not speak to her family and behaves as a homeless person. Even in the cold Toronto winter, Norah sits at the same corner, then spends the night in a nearby homeless shelter. Much of the novel is, in effect, Reta trying to work through the implications of Norah’s actions, trying to figure out what would drive her daughter, a happy, privileged girl of the upper middle class, to make such an unprecedented move. To convey Reta’s puzzled and frantic behavior, Shields includes many internal monologues which have the feel of journal entries, as well as letters and other forms of writing; Reta’s voice reconstructs the story of Norah’s abdication and the aftermath. Though Norah’s story takes precedence in Reta’s mind, it is not the main narrative thread in the novel. Beyond the facts of Norah’s problems and their implications for her future lies Reta’s inability to deal with the complexity of such unprecedented grief. Her need to reconstruct Norah’s flight and then interpret her choice of the word “Goodness” constitute the majority of the novel. Reta’s search and her quixotic, intellectual probings showcase Shields’s proclivity for exploring character and motivation in practical and imaginative ways.
Despite the fact that Shields has a clever command of linguistic irony and verbal wit, most of this novel’s humor shifts from her typically light-hearted banter to comedy of a decidedly black nature. For example, about midway through the novel, Reta begins writing letters to various people who have angered her. Since she does not send these letters, her writing of them is a decidedly feeble way to react against society. She writes these letters to odd people, such as a man whose obituary she finds offensive to women. At the conclusion of each letter, she indicates her main gripe, then signs the letter with a fictitious name and hometown—typically a variation on her real antecedents. Reta’s manner in these letters is jocular, much like her persona. Yet the messages themselves are chilling, even as they are delivered with comic timing. In one letter to literary critic Alexander Valkner, Reta discusses her problems with his article “The History of Dictionaries.” In this article he notes many great writers who might use a thesaurus, but does not name any women in his list or in his article. Reta sees this omission as one typical of most male literary critics. Yet she also indicates that most women would let such an oversight go unchallenged, thus perpetuating the exclusion. The letter builds in intensity until the final passage, which attempts to show what such careless omissions can communicate to women, Norah in particular: “Women are forced into the position of complaining and then needing comfort. What Norah wants is to belong to the whole world or a least to have, just for a moment, the taste of the whole world in her mouth. But she can’t. So she won’t.” Reta’s letters, such as this one, allow her a platform for vocalizing all the injustices which have pushed her daughter—and by extension, all women—to the margins.
Shields’s texts within the text showcase Reta’s ability to comment on the catastrophes around her. These observations reflect her writerly self and often include comic portrayals of some of the characters: the book editor who is overly attentive, the mother-in-law who brings the homemade dessert to every evening’s meal, and the librarian who wants to marry the Indian doctor in town. Yet, despite these charming, realistic portrayals of local friends and acquaintances, Shields presents many of the males as harboring a sexist agenda and many of the females as either remarkably savvy about their place in the world or sadly displaced as a result of their status. In one of the most comic, yet poignant, scenes of the novel, Reta’s elderly mother-in-law begins to detail various points of her life to Reta’s editor, a man whom she hardly knows. When asked why she felt compelled to tell this complete stranger, rather than her family, about her woes, she replies: “Because no one [had ever] asked me.”
Reta’s primary preoccupation during the novel involves her need to intellectualize the reasons prompting her daughter’s behavior. This search becomes an internal search into her own problems and, as such, enables her to articulate more gracefully her concerns to others. Norah’s sign “Goodness” becomes the sign which Reta has to decipher in order to make sense of her life. Thus, the entire novel is Reta’s interrogation of that sign, weighing the import of the word “Goodness” and how that might figure into her daughter’s—and her own—life.
Ironically, Reta searches outside herself for her answers. She looks to her friends, to her own literary pursuits, to her family, to books, but each source seems to diminish the importance of her daughter’s quest. Reta wants her daughter to be a part of a mission rather than simply another crazy person on the street. She finds importance in discovering the relevance of the act. When her doctor husband Tom begins to think Norah’s actions might have a psychological, perhaps medical, root, Reta seems unable to come to terms with such an answer. She distrusts the practical, scientific nature of this answer, believing instinctively in her own philosophical, feminist interpretation: Norah has chosen the street because the world has conspired to keep her from understanding and embracing her own sense of goodness because she is female.
Like Reta’s search, the text becomes a bit disjointed. The narrative moves from Reta’s remarks on her own writing methods to her relationships to her husband and her friends to her earnest and poignant sadness over her daughter. In between, the reader learns about her struggles with translating Danielle Westerman’s prose and her own fledgling writing career, which somehow parallels and qualifies her relationships to others. While this changeable structure demonstrates the level of upheaval in Reta’s world, it does not allow for the clear narrative thread that has been a staple of Shields’s other longer works, including the novels Larry’s Party (1997) and The Republic of Love(1992). In many ways Unless combines an amalgamation of Shields’s techniques in an attempt to represent what the narrator finds nearly impossible to represent: a clever, intellectual, first- person female narrator, a complex and potentially catastrophic family dilemma, and multiple, epistolary methodologies. Yet Reta cannot explain her daughter’s tragic falling away from her family and her ultimate rejection of modern society.
Despite these flaws, however, the novel also displays some of Shields’s most strident and eloquent feminist remarks. In Reta’s point of view, women “are too kind, too willing—too unwilling too—reaching out blindly with a grasping hand but not knowing how to ask for what we don’t even know we want.” Reta’s dawning realization about her place as a woman comes at the price of her daughter’s actions, and yet her realization never seems glib or forced. Rather, Reta learns how to stand up for herself with her editor, how to broach and discuss difficult topics, and how to verbalize inequities to a variety of audiences. Her sadness and lost faith in humanity force her into self-actualization and action.
By the end of the novel, Reta and her family learn of the organic reasons for Norah’s behavior. Her burned hands, covered during most of the novel, indicate the genesis of her flight from the real world. Watching an Islamic woman immolate herself on a Toronto street corner, Norah rushes in and tries to put out the flames, which burn her badly. Unable to deal with the aftermath of such horror, Norah retreats into the world of the homeless, searching for “Goodness.” The novel’s twist at its conclusion serves two purposes. First, it allows for Reta’s interpretation to be viable. Though her comments sometimes bordered on feminist hyperbole, the real reason her daughter chose a life on the street seems to be metaphorically borne out in her reaction: The Islamic woman represents all women who are silenced by their culture. Yet her husband’s more logical, male perspective becomes a viable interpretation as well. By allowing for this sort of dual ending, Shields melds together the logical with the intuitive and makes possible the reinforcement of both.
Sources for Further Study
Book: The Magazine for the Reading Life 21 (May/June, 2002): 76.
Booklist 98 (March 1, 2002): 1053.
Library Journal 127 (March 15, 2002): 110.
New Statesman 131 (April 29, 2002): 47.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (May 12, 2002): 8.
The New York Times Magazine, April 14, 2002, p. 32.
The New Yorker 78 (May 20, 2002): 113.
Publishers Weekly 249 (April 29, 2002): 42.
The Spectator 288 (May 4, 2002): 39
Time 159 (May 27, 2002): 61.
Time International 159 (April 8, 2002): 65.
The Times Literary Supplement, May 3, 2002, p. 22.