Carol Shields | Critical Essay by Herb Weil

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Carol Shields.
This section contains 4,085 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Herb Weil

SOURCE: "From 'Dying for Love' to 'Mrs. Turner': Narrative Control in Stories by Carol Shields," in Contemporary Manitoba Writers: New Critical Studies, edited by Kenneth James Hughes, Turnstone Press, 1990, pp. 163-76.

In the essay below, Weil considers structure and narration in Shields's short stories.

I

My first thought this morning is for Beth, how on earth she'll cope now that Ted's left her for the dancer Charlotte Brown. I ask myself, what resources does a woman like Beth have, emotional resources? ("Dying," Made)

These two sentences begin Carol Shields' "Dying for Love," a story that has been reprinted twice within a year of its original publication (1989). After the first paragraph, the story-teller (perhaps better conceived as what we used to call "the implied author") unobtrusively vanishes—or at least does not explicitly refer to herself until the final paragraphs of the first segment:

Despite my uneasiness about Beth's ability to cope emotionally, and despite her insomnia, she somehow manages to get up most mornings….

Beth … wonders what would happen if she took all twelve pills plus the gin. She doesn't know. I don't know either.

This section is the first of three segments in the story. Each is devoted to one woman who may be in danger of dying (because of love or the absence of love). After we learn that Beth empties the gin down the sink and grinds the pills down the garburator, the first segment concludes, "Life is a thing to be cherished, she thinks, and this thought, slender as a handrail, gets her through one more night." Does this last line involve the narrator more intimately than does traditional omniscience? Unnamed, she presents explicitly only feelings, attitudes, and especially worries that are directly relevant to her characters and their situations. (Different readers will quite appropriately weigh differently phrases, rhythms, tones that suggest the technique of leaving insecure any distinctions between teller and creator.) How important is it that Beth and Ted have no last names while Charlotte does? Do all readers sense that the speaker in the second paragraph, partly by revealing intimate details, is constructing the characters?

Habits accrue in that time, especially habits of the night when bodies and their routines get driven into hard rituals of washed skin…. Beth curls, but sinuously; her backbone makes a long smiling capital C on the bedsheet, or used to, before Ted told her he was leaving her for Charlotte.

Within this brief story, and in most of her work, Shields creates a wide variety of relations between narrator and characters, situations, actions; between narrator and "implied author"; between each of these and her readers. Often we feel less encouraged to treat the events as if they had happened to the author than we do in other overtly "confessional" fiction, as, for example, by Alice Munro. Nor do we find here the "conspicuously" artificial sub-genre of alleged autobiography—at least in the literal sense best typified by Machado de Assis in which the speaker (after his own death) tells his story, or more typically, when the narrator is of a gender or an age, or lives in a time, that we know cannot be that of the author. In "Dying for Love" most readers will recognize a very self-conscious narrator, playing with some of the tones implied by her title. How strongly does "dying for" resonate of trite clichés, of transitory pleasures? Do these overtones make it far-fetched to take the phrase literally? Why then does "dying for" rather than "love" dominate in creating the tone?

As we read the story, how convincing are the threats that the cliché-sense will turn into actual death because of what the character, at least, continues to feel is love? But does the narrator feel it as love? Does the author? The second segment begins, "But then there's Lizzie in Somerset; my fears for Lizzie grow day by day. Her predicament is clear and so is her fate, although I would do anything, or almost anything, to assist her in the avoidance of that fate." Then the narrator again disappears. Four pages later, in the closing lines of this segment, she returns.

Who can tell.

One of the advantages in my relationship with Lizzie is my freedom to discard those possibilities she can't yet imagine. All she understands is that both love and the lack of love can be supported.

From the vagueness or false precision of "almost anything" the narrator advances with her character to the finely tuned tone of this final sentence that blends calculation and self-reassurance.

The final, shortest segment begins, "Elsewhere, nearer home, a woman named Elizabeth is lying on her bed in the middle of the afternoon with a plastic dry-cleaner's bag drawn up over her face…." How important for the reader is the change to the overt absence of the "I" from this sequence until the very last sentence of the story? Surely the first three words of this segment remind any alert reader of her presence. But how firm is the pressure? Need the good reader make much of this? Or of the apparently gratuitous "named"?

The segment and the story end in two long sentences. The first presents the apparently factual—if emotionally loaded—statement, "She is a woman whose life is crowded with not-unpleasant errands…." How decisive should we consider the change of tone with the return of the author in the final sentence?

Not that this is much of a handrail to hang on to—she knows that, and so do I—but it is at least continuous, solid, reliable in its turnings and better than no hand-rail at all.

Shields encourages many different responses: of hope, of worry, of emphasis upon strengths or upon fragility. In this final sentence, for the first time, the "I" knows precisely what the character knows. The story has moved from an extremely nervous series of questions about another person, allegedly external, with whom the "I" feels strong empathy: "The nights will be terrible for her, I'm sure of that…." Does the possible sense that the narrator (as well as the actual author) may have created the characters make her detachment much less? And consequently her handrail much more fragile? We sense here an implied author in a well-controlled but insecure relation to the narrator she has created.

Ii

In vivid contrast to Beth, Lizzie, and Elizabeth is the focal character in "Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass." Few would be less likely to die for love. Unlike the three distinct "heroines" who share variants of the same first name but receive no other, Mrs. Turner seems at first to be captured in that title of address. Not until the third page, after our sense of her has been well established, do we learn that the high school girls on their way home

are ignorant of that fact … that she, Mrs. Turner, possesses a first name—which is Geraldine.

Not that she's ever been called Geraldine. Where she grew up in Boissevain, Manitoba, she was known always—the Lord knows why—as Girlie Fergus….

This story, a frequently anthologized prize-winner and favourite of many of Shields' readers, begins:

Oh, Mrs. Turner is a sight cutting the grass on a hot afternoon in June! She climbs into an ancient pair of shorts and ties on her halter top and wedges her feet into crepe-soled sandals and covers her red-gray frizz with Gord's old golf cap—Gord is dead now, ten years ago, a seizure on a Saturday night while winding the mantel clock.

At first, this story seems more conventional and familiar than much of the author's recent work. The tone of these first statements seems detached, the unnamed and undescribed narrator hardly sympathetic to her[?] subject. We assume that we are in the world of satire, perhaps of broad comedy (with the temporal jump between sentences), as the story races along with the unencumbered mower:

The grass flies up around Mrs. Turner's knees. Why doesn't she use a catcher …[?] Everyone knows that leaving the clippings like that is bad for the lawn….

… [And worse] Roy is far more concerned about the Killex that Mrs. Turner dumps on her dandelions….

… But he and Sally so far have said nothing to Mrs. Turner about her abuse of the planet because they're hoping she'll go into an old-folks home soon or maybe die, and then all will proceed as it should.

High-school girls on their way home … are mildly, momentarily repelled by the lapped, striated flesh on her upper thighs….

The things Mrs. Turner doesn't know would fill the Saschers' new compost pit, would sink a ship, would set off a tidal wave…. Back and forth, back and forth she goes with the electric lawn mower, the grass flying out sideways like whiskers. Oh, the things she doesn't know!

Smoothly, almost glibly, convincingly, the things Mrs. Turner does not know—not just about grass clippings but about Neil Young, cellulite, "the vocabulary of skin care," the concerns of the chorus of neighbours, and apparently of the narrator—give way to facts that the passing girls and the young parents do not know. Sharply in mid-sentence, the story turns. Until its final paragraph, roughly four-fifths of the story tells us about matters that the girls and the young married couple next door would want to know, but do not even suspect. And finally we learn, too, about the fame of Girlie Fergus, a public persona that she herself does not imagine.

Let us return to look more closely at the major shift in mid-sentence from the "present tense" of an old lady cutting the grass, an old lady so ignorant of facts about contemporary life that she does not even seem to inhabit the same psychological world as any of the unsympathizing characters mentioned. When the narrator moves from the chatty, relaxed, somewhat superior present tense that confidently invites readers to share the story-teller's views, we find the author there waiting to be noticed. There is nothing insistent. Shields gives us a life story that few could have predicted, but which includes only what could well have happened. With the greatest tact, the author creates a past that seems far-fetched but possible. She encourages a range of interpretation: many readers will skim happily along assuming a simple mimetic narrative. Others will feel more aware of an author neatly constructing people and events. The story will work well for both sorts of audience.

In the next paragraph, we quickly learn that Girlie was "the one who got herself in hot water…. Girlie got caught one night—she was nineteen—in a Boissevain hotel room with a local farmer, married, named Gus MacGregor." By the next paragraph Girlie has escaped, sneaking out to catch a bus to Winnipeg, another to Minneapolis, to Chicago, to New York City. However wretched the journey, New York is "immense and wonderful." She loves her job as usherette at the Movie Palace in Brooklyn, quickly moves in with "a man named Kiki…. His skin was as black as ebony…. [She has a baby] boy, rather sweetly formed, with wonderful smooth feet and hands." Deserted by Kiki, she leaves her baby in a beautiful carriage on the porch of a house that "she particularly liked…. She has no idea what happened to Kiki … [or] to her son," but she doesn't worry much. She returns home a year later. Frighteningly embraced and accepted by her family, she quickly leaves to marry "a tonguetied man … who loved every inch of his house…. And he loved every inch of his wife, Girlie, too, saying to her once and only once that he knew about her past … and that as far as he was concerned the slate had been wiped clean." In the single brilliant fast-paced paragraph devoted to this marriage, we learn too of the one time on a passionate picnic when he worshipped Girlie, or at least her body. We barely have time to wonder whether it matters that his sense of knowing all about the past stops at Boissevain. What would he think about New York? What should we?

After Gordon Turner dies, Girlie and her two sisters travel. To Disneyland, to seven countries of Europe, to New Orleans, to Mexico; finally, "three years ago they did what they swore they'd never have the nerve to do: they got on an airplane and went to Japan." This trip and one of its "results," a book of poems, receive the most extensive treatment in the story. Another tourist in the group, the "Professor," a bald, "trim," unsuccessful poet, almost continuously jotting, after his return publishes "a solid little book" which becomes very popular. The favourite poem, always demanded in readings, is his "A Day at the Golden Pavilion":

[It] was not really about the Golden Pavilion [in Kyoto] at all, but about three midwestern lady tourists who … had talked incessantly and in loud, flatbottomed voices about … indigestion, sore feet, breast lumps … who back home in Manitoba should receive a postcard…. They were the three furies … who for vulgarity and tastelessness formed a shattering counterpoint to the Professor's own state of transcendence….

One of the sisters … particularly stirred his contempt, she of the pink pantsuit, the red toenails, the grapefruity buttocks….

Always this reading evokes laughter and self-satisfied applause from the students who know "the irreconcilable distance between taste and banality."

Again in mid-paragraph the narrator steps in and corrects her last statement. A new distance combines with a new strong commitment: "Or perhaps that's too harsh; perhaps it's only the difference between those who know about the world and those who don't." Here the distance, strongly reinforced by the assertion that begins the next paragraph—"It's true Mrs. Turner remembers little about her travels…. What does it matter? She's having a grand time"—suggests a range of legitimate responses for the readers in deciding the stance and tones of the implied author. The irony toward the youths who already know so much about taste and banality at first offers a range of tones for the implied voice. The revision, "that's too harsh," even modulated by "perhaps," forecloses possibilities, ensuring that with more acute precision we see through the smug students and even more through the self-satisfied poet. (Even Gus MacGregor had received a name—if no physical, social, or other description.)

The three concluding paragraphs return us to the present, primarily in Winnipeg, with an explicit yoking of celebration and irony: "Her sisters have long forgotten about her wild days." To the Local History Museum, Em has donated her father's pipe, her mother's wedding veil, and "a white cotton garment labeled 'Girlie Fergus' Underdrawers….' If Mrs. Turner knew the word irony she would relish this. Even without knowing the word irony, she relishes it." This past and her "fame" contrast vividly with the way in which the poem brought her, however nameless, into the consciousness of so many audiences. With careful vagueness, the narrator leaves the patronizing professor who has won "an important international award" and who has sold rights to "a number of foreign publishers." Circling to the first six paragraphs, the final one returns to Mrs. Turner. But now, we see things only through her vision—and that created by the narrator—never through that of the high school girls or the neighbours, or, in another world, of the college students. Mrs. Turner waves to the girls (who have become timid), "she hollers hello to Sally and Roy…." And finally, the narrator makes overt the vision she shares with her heroine, a vision that Mrs. Turner could never come close to formulating: "She cannot imagine that anyone would wish her harm. All she's done is live her life." Mrs. Turner would never make such claims, but she would no doubt feel pleased, if embarrassed, should she read this description (so unlike the crude ungenerous satiric poem). Only now does the author dare to conclude, with symbolic images and finally with her first explicit celebration: "The green grass flies up in the air, a buoyant cloud swirling about her head. Oh, what a sight is Mrs. Turner cutting her grass and how, like an ornament, she shines."

The author has chosen a subject and created for her a biography that very few of her readers are likely at first to find appealing. She leaves open crucial questions. How can the deserted child, the devoted husband be so quickly dropped? But her movement from satire and irony to the final praise permits her to lead her reader (as Jane Austen did with Emma and Mrs. Bates) away from participating in the narrow-minded alleged superiority of characters early in the story. That we accept as well the contrasting didactic style which the ending incorporates and transforms suggests how skillfully the narrator has earned our trust.

Iii

"Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass" and "Dying for Love" succeed, I think, for most readers, both those who focus upon the strategies of the implied author and those more casual (say, for example, readers sympathetic and alert, but not studying the stories or, at least, not these aspects of the stories). If one attends to the careful timing and tones of authorial control one should have a richer, more complex appreciation, but those only intermittently aware of this craft need never feel excluded from the audience addressed. Two other stories in Various Miracles, however, make, in their very distinct ways, much more explicit demands upon their readers. The brief title story ["Various Miracles"] (placed first, just before "Mrs. Turner") immediately confronts the reader with the presence of a strongly manipulating author. Even the title, like that of the earlier novel, Small Ceremonies, links a vague or weak initial adjective that normally would not arouse any special interest with a stronger noun which has overtones (or at least distant memories) of religion. The nouns have a formality usually denied by the adjectives, and this makes us aware of a creator intentionally starting with the weaker word.

The initial terse paragraph, both casual and authoritative, establishes the tone: "Several of the miracles that occurred this year have gone unrecorded." Each of the six "miracles" begins with a date and an almost identical form of presentation, although after two very brief miracles, each new one receives a longer description. The first sets the pattern: "Example: On the morning of January 3, seven women stood in line at a lingerie sale in Palo Alto, California, and by chance each of these women bore the Christian name Emily." While some readers will think more of coincidence than of miracles, others will stress the way, perhaps arbitrarily, that the "author" (for the narrator never receives distinguishing traits or past experiences and never explicitly refers to her[?]self) creates and arranges the examples. But the third miracle (dropping "Example") adds a different order of reality.

On March 30 a lathe operator in a Moroccan mountain village dreamed that a lemon fell from a tree into his open mouth, causing him to choke and die. He opened his eyes, overjoyed at being still alive, and embraced his wife … she was dreaming … that a lemon tree had taken root in her stomach … she began to tremble … with happiness and intoxication … her face radiant. What he saw was a mask of happiness so intense it made him fear for his life.

By now, the earlier convincing mimetic realism may seem to have become completely irrelevant. The "miracles" lie in the power of the creator's imagination and skill. To refuse (or fail) to delight in this exultant artifice would leave the reader incapable of enjoying this story.

Particularly deft in expressing another completely different relation of story-teller to material is the much more extended "Dolls, Dolls, Dolls, Dolls." Starting with a long unquoted letter she has received from a friend who was visiting a doll factory in Japan, the narrator then recalls how she herself was given one doll every year until she was ten. She goes on to describe a visit in the suburbs of Paris to "one of the finest archeological museums in Europe" where her daughter insists that the pre-Christian icons might be dolls. The story-teller feels "sick with sudden inexplicable anger" when her husband tries to correct the child, but then immensely relieved when he shrugs, smiles, and says, "'You might be right. Who knows'." The fourth section, corresponding to the final repetition in the title, presents a story in itself as the speaker and her sister share both recollections and a strange forgetfulness about their childhood. These lead the speaker to remember the terrible murder of a little girl, "ten years old, my age" and especially her own horrible fears and attempts to cope with them for the rest of that summer. A battered old doll, Nancy Lynn, "protects" her, although "I knew she was lifeless…. Human love, I saw, could not always be relied upon. There would be times when I would have to settle for a kind of parallel love."

In this vivid story, close to a meditation, Shields presents us with nothing that could not be factually or autobiographically true. In this example of an increasingly widespread subgenre, she achieves a brilliant success, comparable to the best stories of the unheralded master, James McConkey. The work can be considered as memoir, as autobiography, or as fiction. But unlike the stories of McConkey or the gripping monologue No Place Like Home by Shane McCabe (the outstanding critical and popular favourite at the 1990 Winnipeg Fringe Festival), "Dolls" would be in no way diminished if its facts were no more literally true than those of "Mrs. Turner" or of "Dying for Love." Shields achieves here a convincing effect of autobiographic truth in which we never go outside the thoughts and the memories set off in the extremely credible narrator, who might well be the author. We read the story as if its events and feelings were true.

To discuss the oeuvre of Carol Shields in mid-career would require consideration not only of her 11 books, including novels, stories, poems, and a play, but also of her uncollected reviews. Instead, by focusing upon four stories—especially through extensive quotations—we can see how central to her work is the range of tones rather than of subject matter or of location. We can often hear an effective speaking voice, especially in its needling humour. We always find carefully crafted comments upon characters and their situations, but how often do we consider these apart from our awareness of their construction? When her command of various tones results in our immediate assent, we will often subsequently find how our noticing the artifice increases the vividness and the resonance of the scene. Readers may well differ in deciding whether the word "miracle" should apply to extreme coincidence or to the comeback of a losing player or to the creation suddenly bursting out from unpromising material. But we should all share the delight, as we read, when, contrasting the initial description of Mrs. Turner's attire, we discover the exquisite tact of the final sentence in the story: "Oh, what a sight is Mrs. Turner cutting her grass, and how, like an ornament, she shines."

Running as sub-texts through this essay have been the varying relations of reader-response theory to the narrator and to the author. More overt have been the relations of the implied author (sometimes the "I") to the characters, the ideas they embody or express, and the events of the stories. Some of Shields' more intriguing resonances come if we now attend consciously to a sequence of relations leading from those internal ones we have discussed to those of the work to the reader. In "Mrs. Turner," for example, as we have seen, the reader is engaged from the first lines in a wide variety of ways. But the reader's retrospective engagement will prove quite unlike his/her initial response. At first, most of us may well share the views of the teen-age girls, the selfish ecologically minded neighbours, or the poem about Mrs. Turner—however little we may identify with those characters in other respects. By the end of the story, most of us will agree that Mrs. Turner is an ornament, for Shields has transformed this initially unattractive character through a final vision without mockery or condescension.

Some will not want to stop at this closure. Isn't the poet, especially, treated with mockery and condescension? However important or unimportant one feels one's answer is to this last question, readers of Carol Shields may suspect that she is—or was—prepared to write other stories about these other characters she has created—so that in the vision of the whole, mockery and condescension give way to compassion and celebration.

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