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Women We Know

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Women we know: a biographical critical analysis on Unless by Carol Shields

Belo Horizonte

Introduction 3

Men and Women 4

Writers and Readers 7

Goodness 9

Mothers and Children 10

Referências 13 Women we know: a biographical critical analysis on Unless by Carol Shields


Unless is the last novel written by Carol Shields, before she passed away of breast cancer in 2003. The novel is structured in a first person narrative; the narrator is Reta Winters, a 44-year old writer and translator. Throughout the narrative, the reader follows a linear chain of thoughts by Reta on the central theme of the novel, which is her quest to find out why her daughter Norah decided to drop out of university and live on the street with a sign on her chest written "Goodness". The essay will be developed through research in primary sources – interviews – in order to analyze Carol Shield’s work using mostly, but not only, her own concepts and reflections on Literature, writing and being a writer, and composition process of Unless. Many scholars have made researches on the novel, especially about language resources, metafiction and gender issues. The most cited work is Nora Foster Stovel’s ““Because she is a woman”: Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shield’s Unless”. By investigating her compositional process in interviews, the intention of the essay is to create an analysis on the novel; the focus of the analysis will be on the preoccupation of showing and perceiving the human conditions, society and the individual, as well as portraying women in a broad range of age. During the late twentieth-century, literary criticism aims towards the critical notions and aspects of Literature, keeping distance from the reflections on the human conditions – that is, Literature students and critics learn first of all what the critics have been talking about a certain work, and not what the work itself is about.[1] This issue is discussed by Tzvetan Torodov in Literature in Danger; the author claims the danger is that the formalist critical approach will distance most readers (the ones who read literature in order to find and give their life meaning). Torodov’s concerns are especially regarding Literature produced in the 20th century filled with metatextual elements. In order to have a new perspective, without having less quality in literary critics, an effective manner of theorical support is by using author’s reflections on their role as writers and their process of composition.[2] Eneida Maria de Souza also reinforces this idea and claims that this type of research “desloca o lugar exclusivo da literatura como corpus de análise e expande o feixe de relações culturais”[3], since biographical criticism is between theory and fiction, document and literature. These primary sources could be seen as a fair way of Literature investigation, social issues, external bonds of a writer’s production etc; and it could also be a means of communication between literary theory and the object itself. Regarding the interview genre, which will receive more focus in the essay, both Eneida Maria de Souza and Rachel Esteves Lima believe that since it is out of the private space of correspondence, for instance, the interviewee assumes a “perfomatic” aspect, which contributes a lot to the image and myths of a given writer.[4] There are different topics being discussed in Unless; on a higher level, though, the reader is constantly presented with several images of women. In an interview given for BookBrowse, Shields stated that Unless is a book “about four things: men and women; writers and readers; goodness; and mothers and children”[5]. Respecting this order, this is how the article will be structured.

Men and Women

The representations of women in Unless comprises a great variety: middle aged, adolescents, mothers, lesbians etc; on the other hand, there are few male characters: there is Tom, Reta’s husband, Mr. Scribano, Reta’s editor; Roman, Reta’s character in her novel on progress, and later on the narrative, due to Mr. Scribano’s death, Athur Springer, her new editor. Reta’s relationship with Tom is discussed in a couple of chapters; they have a stable relationship, they still have sex, they are caring with their daughters, and hitherto, do they love each other? “The question of love is not relevant in our case, not for the moment. The question can be postponed. We live in each other’s shelter; we fit.”[6] Reta Winters was originally Reta Summers, she changed her surname after marrying Tom Winters: “What’s confusing to people is that I’ve taken his name. (…) We could become a standing joke or else one of us could change seasons”[7]. The binary surnames suggests a creation of a ying-yang duo. This notion was identified in the interview for The Guardian, within a reflection on Carol Shields’ previous novels: “with books such as Small Ceremonies, The Stone Diaries, and Larry’s Party, Shields’ speciality has been the subtle ying-yang, the eternal ‘dind-dong’, if you will, of human condition – young and old, happy and sad, confused and determined, male and female.”[8] Even though the idea of men and women being combined in a slight balance crosses Shields’ work, in Unless Reta gives up her surname, that is, gives in on “the traditional submission of the female to the male.”[9] The disappearance of Norah is what triggers Reta to express her thoughts (“but here, in my thoughts, I will register the fact”[10]), transforming them in a sort of feminist manifesto[11], since she agrees with the thesis of her mentor, Danielle Westerman – a renowned writer and academe – that Norah’s condition is a result of her realizing that for men greatness is reserved and for women is only goodness, “goodness but not greatness”[12], says Danielle. This manifesto accompanies Reta throughout the narrative, leading to a preoccupation not only in society, but also in the literary tradition, which makes her write some letters to scholars wanting them to acknowledge women’s existence: “there is not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article”[13], and “you neglected to mention Danielle Westerman or Joyce Carol Oates or Alice Munro (…). You might have dropped in the Sylvia Plath”[14]. Later in the story, Shields addresses the matters of gender and literary tradition in the passage that Reta encounters her new editor, Arthur Springer. Arthur suggests that Reta publishes her novel under the name of R. R. Summers. She replies to the suggestion: “Using initials though, might make it sound like, you know, that I’m a male writer”[15], Arthur responds that it would not matter because she is “dealing with universal themes” which is “beyond the gendered world”[16], as well as stating that Roman – her novel’s character – should be the focalized character instead of Alicia, her mainly character: “(…) there is the matter of Roman. His interiority. His desire to make a pilgrimage to the land of his fathers.”[17]. The word “fathers” in this context could suggest favoritism for patriarchy. Also, Arthur implies that his suggestions would prevent Reta’s novel from being a light comic novel – as she intended – to be “one of the great books of the new century”[18]. Carol Shields’ statement is relatable to Arthur’s wishes on the change of focus of Reta’s narrative (which would influence the genre) and the changing of her artistic name: “When men write about ‘ordinary people’, they are thought to be subtle and sensitive. When women do, their novels are classified as domestic”[19].

Writers and Readers

The previously mentioned letters by Reta are also a way of connection between writer and reader, in two dimensions. The first one is fictional, in which Reta arguments her unhappiness as a reader with writers that seem to neglect women in their articles. The second one is towards readers in the bigger scale, the readers of Unless, the letters could be interpreted as warnings; it feels like Shields is telling her readers to pay more attention to their own readings, to be more critical of it. Following the idea of warnings to the reader through the story is the idea of suggesting a bibliography for the readers. Reta is constantly making references of authors and book titles and also making strong statements about some of them: “Too much Derrida might be the problem”[20] or in the moment Reta is watching an interview on the TV and the writer was asked about his influences and he responded saying that it was mostly Proust, she thinks: “what’s the matter with this man? Hasn’t he ever heard of Virginia Woolf?”[21], or even “Blame it on Hemingway, blame it on Conrad, blame even Edith Wharton, but the modernist tradition has set the individual, the conflicted self up against the world”[22]. Shields declares having strong affinities with nineteenth-century writers[23], which could be interpreted as an opposition to the twentieth-century modernist texts. The majority of names that the narrator refers are female ones: Alice Munroe and Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, Julian of Norwhich, amongst others; as well as making indirect references of feminist texts (The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar and A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf). It is known later in the narrative that Norah’s condition is due post-traumatic shock, after trying to help a Muslim woman who set herself on fire in the middle of the street. Clues are given to the reader that this is the reason of Norah’s defection, as in the episode of Reta’s regular coffee with her girlfriends, during a conversation about woman and goodness: “And remember”, Sally said, “that woman who set herself on fire last spring? That was right here in our own country, right in the middle of Toronto.” “In Northon Phillips Square.” “No, I don’t think it was there. It was in front of –” (…) But someone did try to help her. I read about that. Someone tried to beat out the flames. A woman.”[24]

As well as using words such as “incinerate”[25] when talking about Norah and when describing her as “an incendiary object”[26]. Also, Reta goes for Norah’s Professor, Dr. Hamilton to get a clue on her disappearance; the Professor tells Reta that Norah’s view on Madame Bovary “was that Madame Bovary was forced to surrender her place as the moral centre of the novel”, and as Nora Foster Stovel mentioned, this is one of the most literary clues to the story[27], since Reta’s new editor wanted her to surrender her fictional heroine Alicia in her novel. Finally, Carol Shields was asked to give a tip to readers so that they would navigate better through Unless, she responded: “ask: Does a reader demand a sense of closure, and what does that mean?”.[28] In order to answer the question, it is necessary to notice that another inner combat of Reta was the sense of ongoingness of life. In several passages she seems confuse about how to proceed with her own life, since Norah’s disappearance was seen as a tragedy, was she supposed to stop her life in order to get closure? Should she move on with her life? Should she stop everything and wait for Norah to snap out of it? She decides then, with helps of her former editor Mr. Scribano, to write a sequel to her novel – that is, she options to move on with her life, she decides to keep going, she options for life’s ongoingness. This notion of ongoingness is presented on the last chapter called “not yet”, which contributes to the idea that closure is not needed for a reader, especially given the last paragraph where life continues with everything in place: Day by day Norah is recovering at home, awakening atom by atom (…). She may do science next fall at McGill, or else linguistics. She is still considering this. Right now she is sleeping. They are all sleeping, even Pet, sprawled on the kitchen floor, warm in his beautiful coat of fur. It is after midnight, late in the month of March.[29]

Supporting this idea, on the interview for The Guardian, Carol Shields claims “For me, endings are never really endings. They’re just there for the shape of the book”.[30]


In the same interview, Shields says that another question to be made about Unless is “What has this book done to reinforce my feelings, or, reverse of that, to ruffle my sense of self-worth?”[31]. The process of ruffling the sense of self-worth starts with Reta when she learns about her daughter’s sign: “If I am sincere about achieving genuine goodness in my life and thereby finding a way to reconnect with Norah (…)”[32] Also, it makes Reta ponder about women’s place in society and consequently about herself as woman, writer, mother, housewife, her daughters and her mother and mother-in-law. Goodness leads to ethics. Reta’s girlfriends, thought, have a negative but realistic perspective of goodness: “Goodness is a luxury for the fortunate”[33]. As Stovel mentions, what is being discussed is “the ethical question of whether or not women can constitute a moral centre in life and in literature”[34]. Even though Reta is in a serious quest to dissect goodness, she can’t. Carol Shields admitted also not being able to define it and compared it to modern art: “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.”[35]

Mothers and Children

Unless deals with the relantioships between mothers and daughters. Reta’s relantionship wit her three daughters are exposed throughout the story – her anxieties, her fears, her content. Besides, there are other mother-daughter relationships in the novel; there is Danielle Westerman (her mentor) who had a bad relationship with her mother and refuses to talk about it; there is her mother-in-law; and there is her own relationship with her mother. Mother-daughter relationship is particularly important in Unless, but it has been a continuous topic in Carol Shields’ work. She declared “I think the saddest thing about my parents’ generation was that a lot of people lived their entire lives without having a proper conversation.”[36] Thereof is the chapter in which questions are raised about her relationship with her daughters and the starting point is when Reta reckons about he fictional characters: should she give them parents? She wonders: “Parents influence children, stiffening or weakening their resolve, and no credible novelist is going to reverse that assumption.”[37] What she does then, is go back to the relationship with her mother, trying to understand hers: “There was nothing hard to hang on to. Any minute I would lose my balance and then I wouldn’t be little Reta anymore. Like Norah, I wouldn’t be anything.”[38] Carol Shields also make revisions using mother-daughter relationship “like so many feminist writers, to emphasize the fact that women have been excluded”[39]. Nine months is the narrative time suggesting the human gestation period; also Norah is at home recovering by the time of the New Year “suggesting a fertility figure – reflecting of the cycle of death and rebirth embodied in the Persephone myth[40].” Persephone was a greek goddess that got married against Demeter, her mother’s will and had to spent a period with her husband in the underworld and a period with her mother on earth. In Unless the revision is due to the satisfactory victory of the mother whom was able to bring the daughter back from the underworld.[41]. A revision of Grimm’s tales Sleeping Beauty and Snow White also appears in order to benefit the mother: “Norah was asleep, with an oxygen tube connected to her nose, Snow White in her glass case, and the girls and I are gathered around the bed like curious dwarves. (…) My darling Norah.”[42]

When the prince is replaced by the mother, Shields is “privileging the mother-daughter bond over the marital union, so that they parallel the Demeter-Persephone myth.”[43]
Carol Shields once said that she started writing because she could not find any novels about women she knew[44]. Most of all, Unless is a novel about women, about women writing and about being a woman – a modern woman; “Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re clear about your sexual direction, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair. Unless provides you with a trapdoor, a tunnel into the light, the reverse side of not enough.”

This passage summarizes what it is to a mother, a worker, a housewife, a human being: women we are and women we know.

ANDERSON, Marjorie. Interview with Carol Shields. In: BESNER, Neil Kalman. Carol Shields: the arts of a writing life. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Prairie Fire Press, 2003.

COMPAGNON, Antoine. O demônio da teoria: literatura e senso comum. 2. ed. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2010.

FREITAS, Marcus Vinicius de. O Escritor e Seu Ofício: em busca da Literatura. In: Aletria, v. 20, n. 2. FALE/UFMG: Belo Horizonte, 2010.

POE, Edgar Allan. Filosofia da Composição. In: ____. O corvo. Org. Wanderley Rodrigues Corrêa. São Paulo: Expressão, 1986. p. 5-14.

ROY, Wendy. Unless the World Changes: Carol Shields on Women’s Silencing in Contemporary Culture. In: Carol Shields: The Arts of a Writing Life. Ed. Neil Besner: Prairie Fire, 2003. p. 125-32.

SHIELDS, Carol. “Narrative Hunger and the Overflowing Cupboard.” In: Narrative Hunger, and the Possibilities of Fiction. Eds. Edward Eden and Dee Goertz. Toronto: University Toronto Press, 2003. p. 19-36.

SHIELDS, Carol. 1997 Interview with Carol Shields. [?, 1997]. Oregon: Portal April Henry Mysteries. Entrevista concedida a April Henry. Disponível em: < http://april>. Acesso em: 27 de novembro de 2012.

SHIELDS, Carol. An interview with Carol Shields: entrevista. [?, 2002]. Saratoga: Portal BookBrowse. Entrevista concedida a BookBrowse. Disponível em: < http://www.>. Acesso em: 27 de novembro de 2012.

SHIELDS, Carol. From the archives: Carol Shields talks about Unless with Shelagh Rogers: entrevista. [28 de dezembro, 2010]. Toronto: Portal CBC Books. Entrevista concedida a Shelagh Rogers. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 27 de novembro de 2012.

SHIELDS, Carol. Human Shields: entrevista. [28 de abril, 2002]. Londres: Portal The Guardian. Entrevista concedida a Barbara Ellen. Disponível em: . Acesso em: 27 de novembro de 2012.

SHIELDS, Carol. Unless. Toronto: Random House, 2002.

SOUZA, Eneida Maria de. Crítica cult. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2002.

SOUZA, Eneida Maria de; MIRANDA, Wander Melo (Orgs.). Crítica e coleção. Belo Horizonte: UFMG, 2011.

SPIVAK, Gayatri Chakrovorty. Pode o subalterno falar?. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2010.

STOVEL, Nora Foster. “Because she’s a woman”: Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields’s Unles. In: ESC: English Studies in Canada, V. 32, Issue 4, December, 2006. p. 51-73. Disponível em: . Acesso em: 7 de dezembro de 2012.

TODOROV, Tzvetan. A literatura em perigo. Trad. Caio Meira. São Paulo: Difel, 2009.

[1] TODOROV, Tzvetan. A literatura em perigo, p. 26-27.
[2] FREITAS, Marcus Vinicius de. O escritor e seu ofício em busca da Teoria da Literatura, p. 190.
[3] SOUZA, Eneida Maria de. Crítica Cult, p. 111.
[4] LIMA, Rachel Esteves. A Entrevista como gesto (auto) biográfico. p. 41.
[5] SHIELDS, Carol. An interview with Carol Shields: entrevista
[6] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 184.
[7] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 56-57.
[8] SHIELDS, Carol. Human Shields: entrevista.
[9] STOVEL, Nora F. “Because she’s a woman”: Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields’s Unless, p. 57.
[10] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 60.
[11] STOVEL, Nora F. “Because she’s a woman”: Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields’s Unless, p 63.
[12] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 115.
[13] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 165.
[14] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 164.
[15] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 282.
[16] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 282.
[17] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 283.
[18] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 283.
[19] SHIELDS, Carol. Human Shields: entrevista.
[20] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 4.
[21] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 100.
[22] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 121.
[23] ANDERSON, Marjorie. Interview with Carol Shields, p. 65.
[24] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 118.
[25] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 179.
[26] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 213.
[27] STOVEL, Nora F. “Because she’s a woman”: Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields’s Unless, p. 68.
[28] SHIELDS, Carol. An interview with Carol Shields: entrevista.
[29] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 320.
[30] SHIELDS, Carol. Human Shields: entrevista.
[31] SHIELDS, Carol. Human Shields: entrevista.
[32] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 37.
[33] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 115.
[34] STOVEL, Nora F. “Because she’s a woman”: Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields’s Unless, p. 62.
[35] SHIELDS, Carol. From the archives: Carol Shields talks about Unless with Shelagh Rogers.
[36] SHIELDS, Carol. Human Shields: entrevista.
[37] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 140.
[38] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 140.
[39] STOVEL, Nora F. “Because she’s a woman”: Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields’s Unless, p. 56.
[40] STOVEL, Nora F. “Because she’s a woman”: Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields’s Unless, p. 58.
[41] STOVEL, Nora F. “Because she’s a woman”: Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields’s Unless, p. 55.
[42] SHIELDS, Carol. Unless, p. 301.
[43] STOVEL, Nora F. “Because she’s a woman”: Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields’s Unless, p. 69.
[44] SHIELDS, Carol. Human Shields: entrevista.…...

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