Carol Shields’ Political Project

Reviewed by Bettina Cenerelli

In this short but dense and well-rounded analysis of six novels by Carol Shields, Brenda Beckman-Long points out the consistency in fiction and criticism by the prized author. Beckman-Long argues that during her entire writing career, Shields pursued a coherent and purposeful political project and positioned herself “as part of national and international traditions of women’s life writing” investigating “the potential for fiction to offer a feminist critique of dominant discourses such as autobiography and critical theory.” In her opinion, the abstract ideas of literary theory in relation to women’s lives become concrete in Shields’ writing, and reading turns into a dynamic act.

The analysis, based on doctoral and postdoctoral research, examines in chronological order earlier works (Small Ceremonies 1976) and The Box Garden 1977), Swann (1987), and the later works: The Republic of Love (1992), The Stone Diaries (1993), and Unless (2002). The book is structured around the questions of genre (resistance to autobiography as a genre), author (author-construction in close connection to Foucault), body, subject (multiple narration), and feminism as an object of inquiry. The author supports her theoretical framework with references to writers and critics such as Nicole Brossard, Michel Foucault, and Philippe Lejeune; in addition to archival work, she repeatedly quotes two interviews with Carol Shields done in the 1980s by Harvey De Roo (West Coast Review, 1988) and Eleanor Wachtel (Feminist Journal of Literature and Criticism, 1989).

Like the labyrinth-maker Larry Weller in Larry’s Party (1997), Shields uses the “communicative function of the text” to embed additional discourses, allowing her to place comments on criticism or contemporary writing. Those mises en abyme blur the lines of identity and sources, allow the author to experiment with multiple perspectives and the communal voice, and seem to serve an educational goal: “[Shields] advances the feminist movement in Canada to address the next generation.” Interestingly, Shields does not create a portrait of one single person, but rather represents a literary community. In relation to Swann, whose life story Beckman-Long parallels with that of Pat Lowther, she states:

In her fiction Shields exaggerates the very real image of the woman as a victim, in order to show how this image limits Swann’s reception and relegates her to the rank of a minor poet. In her resistance to this gender stereotype, Shields reaffirms the value of women’s writing as an important, though neglected, contribution to literary history.

The multiplicity of voices reaches perfection in The Stone Diaries, in which other parallel texts—additional “cultural and historical forces that shape a representative female life”—will impact the family narrative that will include Shields’ own family comments, pictures, or quotations from her mother’s journal: “It is a life that is interconnected with the lives of others, not a monument to an autonomous male self.” With Unless, Shields becomes the writer-critic that she has been preparing for and the community of women writers becomes the centre of interest, presenting feminism’s liberating possibilities: “Shields thus creates a narrative space to re-examine the feminist subject; at the same time, she deconstructs notions of identity and the autonomous self. In this way, Shields becomes not only a writer but also a theorist, positioning herself as a writer-critic.”

This review “Carol Shields’ Political Project” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 125-126.

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