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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Unless, Shields’s heroine, Reta, is struggling in her career as a writer and translator. Shields herself experienced similar challenges as Reta in her writing career, and Unless is somewhat darker than her earlier works. Reta is the translator for an aged and renowned writer, Danielle Westerman, who consoles Reta, calling her "my true sister." Westerman, however, functions as Reta’s severe, self-confident opposite. Westerman is a proud feminist, while Reta pays less attention to her role in the world as a woman. She is, however, well aware of women’s predicament of "not knowing how to ask for what [they] don’t even know [they] want."

Reta's daughter disappears from her university to sit on a corner in downtown Toronto, begging with a sign reading "Goodness." She is not missing—she can be found anytime by her parents on this corner—but her actions are nevertheless tragic for her mother. Her new existence imbues her mother's days with a veil of sadness. It stands between her and her acquaintances in her small town, although their reactions are almost without exception supportive. Reta cleans her house assiduously as an antidote to "the absurd notion… that silence is wiser than words, inaction better than action" that has infected her daughter. Danielle takes a taxi downtown and confronts Reta's daughter. Afterwards, she delivers her judgment that Norah has "simply succumbed to the traditional refuge of women without power: she has accepted in its stead complete powerlessness, total passivity." Reta is struck by her words, but she has to reject them to preserve her hope that Norah will suddenly regain her senses and return to normalcy.

Aside from her housecleaning, Reta seeks refuge in fantasizing about the lives of others and in writing her second novel. Writing "enables her to stand outside [her] child's absence." However, she cannot escape the belief that it was her failure as a mother that led to Norah's "dereliction." Worse yet is her realization that "there wasn’t going to be anything [she] could do to save Norah from herself." She writes letters to a magazine hawking the condensed works of "The Great Minds of the Western World," to the author of an essay on "The History of Dictionaries," and to the author of a short story revolving around the sight of a mastectomy bra. She chastens them for rendering women invisible. She mentions Norah in the letters, and it is clear that she blames not only herself but also the anti-feminism in print for her daughter's plight.

In the final pages of the novel, Shields upends her whole narrative when Norah's family discovers that she had tried in vain to extinguish the flames engulfing a young Islamic woman who had set herself on fire. This harrowing experience left Norah with burns on her hands and a desperate desire to find some “goodness” in the world. Norah took to the streets, hoping to find that goodness among the homeless.

In attempting to understand Norah’s actions, Reta’s husband suspected there might be psychological factors, while Reta insisted that there was a deeper meaning. In a way, both are correct in the end; Norah has been traumatized, but her search for “goodness” appears to carry the greater, symbolic weight that Reta was seeking.

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