The Stone Diaries
The Stone DiariesIntroduction
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields is the story of an ordinary woman's life, told in an unusual combination of shifting first- and third-person points of view. Daisy Goodwill Flett is both the narrator and the subject of her life's story, which spans and reflects the changing social and family scenes in North America during the twentieth century. A work of fiction, The Stone Diaries presents itself as a mix of autobiography, biography, and historical memoir and contains as well a compilation of papers and family photos which purport to belong to or be relevant to the protagonist. To read this novel is to feel on some level as though one is compiling a report from various sources regarding the protagonist, Daisy Goodwill Flett. The 1993 novel was exceedingly well received in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain, and established Shields as one of the twentieth century's finest novelists writing in English.
Carol Shields was born June 2, 1935, in Oak Park, Illinois, to middle-class parents, her father the owner of a candy store, her mother a teacher. Interested in writing during her teen years, Shields attended Hanover College in Indiana and spent a semester abroad at Exeter University in England where she met her future husband, Don Shields. The couple was married in 1957, settled in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and eventually had five children.
By the time Shields was thirty-three, she aspired to obtaining a master's degree. She graduated from Ottawa University in 1975. Thereafter, she began working, at first editing part time from home and also writing short stories. Material she had found while conducting research for her master's essay provided Shields with a plot for her first novel, Small Ceremonies, which was published in 1976. Next, she wrote The Box Garden and Happenstance, works that some criticized for being too domestic but which nonetheless identified Shields's chosen subject, women at home with their families.
With an established readership in Canada, Shields gained both U.S. and British recognition with her 1987 publication of the novel Mary Swann. But far and away more successful was her 1994 novel, The Stone Diaries, which won awards in Great Britain and in North America. In the United States the novel won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize.
Following the 1997 publication of Larry's Party, the first Shields novel with a male protagonist, the author was diagnosed with breast cancer. She retired from her two-decade-long tenure at the University of Manitoba, and she and her husband moved to British Columbia. While receiving treatment there, Shields wrote and published in 2002 her last novel Unless. Shields died at the age of sixty-eight on July 16, 2003, at home in Victoria.
Epigraph and Genealogy
The Stone Diaries begins with an epigraph, which is identified as a quotation from a poem, "The Grandmother Cycle" by Judith Downing, published in Converse Quarterly in Autumn, no year given. Judith Downing is a granddaughter of Daisy Goodwill Flett. The quotation, which appears on the page before the genealogy, stresses the failure of communication to convey exactly what is intended; yet it affirms the value of the individual who attempts to communicate. Despite the discrepancy between intention and statement or action, a person's life is still important, the quotation asserts, and "could be called a monument." This epigraph, which claims to be a quotation from a published poem written by a real person, initiates the pretense maintained throughout that the text is a factual record and not fiction. Moreover, the point that the life lived is a person's true monument counteracts the effect of the stone monument Cuyler Goodwill erects over the grave of his first wife, Mercy Stone Goodwill. Ironically, that stone monument hides altogether the grave marker which records the dates of Mercy's brief life and thus the monument eclipses the facts of the life it seeks to memorialize.
The genealogy includes four generations of the Goodwill and Flett families. The span of years encompasses just about all of the twentieth century. Daisy is born in 1905 and her death sometime in the 1990s is later than all the other years listed. Her life spans the century; the stages of her life parallel the periods or stages of that century, and she is the link between the present of the 1990s and the previous generations, now dead.
Chapter One: Birth, 1905
In July 1905, at age thirty, Mercy Stone Goodwill dies in the process of giving birth to a daughter. Mercy begins labor while fixing a Malvern pudding for her husband, Cuyler Goodwill, who does not eat with interest but who appreciates Mercy's homemaking skills. Unlike her husband, Mercy loves food. The narrator says: "Eating was as close to heaven as my mother ever came." Obese and uninformed, Mercy is unaware that she is pregnant and does not know what is happening to her when her water breaks and labor begins. The narrator projects what would happen that day if it were like other days: Cuyler would come home at 5 p.m., wash up, and come to the table at 5:30 p.m. But on this particular day, while Mercy ponders how to cool the pudding, her labor pains begin. The narrator describes Mercy's months of indigestion, her menstrual periods of which there have been only two, her sexual relations with Cuyler, and her chronic illness (pregnancy).
Next door, menopausal Clarentine Flett hangs out the wash, and the narrator tells about how she has become estranged from her stingy husband, Magnus, and isolated in their house. She realizes she is "no longer willing" to be Magnus's wife. Clarentine has heard Cuyler pronounce his love for Mercy. The narrator describes Cuyler as a short, slight man who is dwarfed by his morbidly obese wife. Now, as Clarentine considers her neglected garden, she thinks about inviting Mercy to tea.
The neighborhood peddler, Abram Skutari, comes across the yard and grabs Clarentine, urging her to come quickly to help Mercy, just as Cuyler is walking home from work along the dusty road. From Abram's shocking view of Mercy, the narrator slides into a history of Cuyler. He grew up in an ugly run-down house in nearby Stonewall, where his parents did not care about him. He worked in the dolomitic limestone quarry from age fourteen to twenty-six, and then one day he visited the local orphanage and met Mercy Stone, the housekeeper there, age twenty-eight, who called to have a doorsill repaired. He fell in love with her, admiring her gentle housekeeping, her softness. He took coffee and bread from her as payment for repairing the sill. When Cuyler and Mercy married in 1903 they moved to nearby Tyndall where he took a job in a new quarry. He revels in their sex life and her "lavish body."
Abram Skutari, Dr. Horton Spears, Clarentine Flett, and Cuyler Goodwill are present when Mercy gives birth at 6 p.m. and then dies of eclampsia (convulsions during labor). The baby is "the uninvited guest" at the scene. The witnesses to this birth and death "are borne up by an ancient shelf of limestone."
Chapter Two: Childhood, 1916
This chapter begins with description of the bachelor Barker Flett, Wesley College professor of biology, age thirty-three, and how his female students admire him. Unaware that they find his hand gestures erotic, he describes for his students the sex organs of flowers: pistil, stigma, ovary, stamen. World War I has begun, and most male students have enlisted, but not Barker Flett. He supports his mother and a child others assume to be his niece, age eleven. Now the narrator presents teachers' views and information gained by the dentist and observations from the church congregation, all different perspectives chiming in on Barker and his family. Barker suspects "love is no more than a diminutive for self-injury." He was happiest alone at age twenty-two in the summer of 1905 when he was writing his dissertation on the western lady's-slipper, a flower he loves, but that was before his mother left his father and moved in with him, bringing a baby with her.
That fall 1905, Mrs. Flett arrived with a baby she had named Daisy, having left no note for Cuyler and traveled fifty-three minutes by train to Winnipeg. The narrator shifts here, and a group of letters are presented which date from the years between 1905 and 1916. Barker wrote his father about money, and Clarentine wrote Cuyler about Daisy's development and about her allergies and asthma, and she thanked Cuyler for the money he regularly sent her. The Fletts heard of and read about the Goodwill Tower, which Cuyler built to honor Mercy's memory. In 1916, Clarentine dies; Barker's response to a condolence from Cuyler reports that Barker intends to move to Ottawa, and being a bachelor living alone he cannot continue to provide for or live alone with a female child, to whom he is not related.
Cuyler felt Mercy's simple grave was "pitifully inadequate" and began piling unusual stones around the flat marker. He used balance and gravity to hold them in place. As he worked he wondered why Mercy did not tell him she was pregnant (the answer is she did not know). He would wake at night, "his head soaked with the sweat of memory." He thought of it as a betrayal. In the time of the composition of this text, the narrator, Daisy, looks back and wonders if his sense of Mercy's withdrawal caused Cuyler to be incapable of loving her.
Barker has suppressed sexual feelings for the child Daisy as they live together in 1916 in Winnipeg. Now, as if writing history, the narrator describes how churches are built, and Winnipeg is fast becoming a stone city. Young people take summer train trips to Tyndall to see the Goodwill Tower. They peer down into it, but they cannot see the grave marker. Cuyler is interviewed by journalists. He reports that "a person starts a piece of work and the work takes over." The grief over his wife's death has dimmed as have his memories of her. Cuyler receives a letter from Barker raising questions about Daisy's future, and at the same time Cuyler gets a job offer from the Indiana Limestone Company in Bloomington. Barker moves to Ottawa. Cuyler takes Daisy on a train to Bloomington, talking to her nonstop all the way: "Her father's words came toward her like a blizzard of dots."
Chapter Three: Marriage, 1927
This chapter opens with quotations from the social page of the local newspaper, reporting a luncheon, a tea, a kitchen shower, and white dinner held locally for bride-elect, Daisy Goodwill, and groom-to-be, Harold A. Hoad. The couple is to marry in June. Cuyler gives long-winded speeches on Bloomington's "white Salem stone." He uses patronizing, artificial, and ornate language. His longest speech engulfed Daisy on their three-day trip from Winnipeg to Bloomington. On that journey, Daisy was queasy and dreamed of her home in Winnipeg, of Aunt Clarentine and Uncle Barker. In this way, even as a child, she realized "the absent are always present."
Historical information about Canada and emigration to Montreal leads into the life of Magnus Flett, born 1862, who traveled to Canada as a boy, married there, and had three sons. Some time after his wife Clarentine left him, he decided to return to the Orkney Islands where he was born. Having spent forty-six years in Canada, he took a train to Montreal and from there a ship to Liverpool, an eight-day Atlantic crossing. He took along only a few possessions, one of which was a photo of the Ladies Rhythm and Movement Club. He believed this photo proved that Clarentine was happy during her marriage to him. He had gone repeatedly to Winnipeg to see her but had lost his nerve each time. In her absence, he had discovered Clarentine's romantic novels and read them; he especially liked Jane Eyre, a novel he in time wholly committed to memory. Over the years he practiced romantic statements and whispered his wife's name, Clarentine.
A week before the wedding, Daisy has lunch with her future mother-in-law. A few days before the wedding, she has a final fitting with her bridesmaids, Fraidy and Beans. The father of the groom, Arthur Hoad, committed suicide when Harold was seven years old. Mrs. Hoad explained to Harold and his brother Lons that Arthur knew he was going blind and did not want to be a burden to her. Her statement is unconfirmed; there is no letter, no doctor's report. Later, Harold heard rumors about financial problems and a "woman 'friend'" in Bedford.
Suffering (he thinks) from "congenital cynicism," Harold wants to know the details, but he is daunted by his mother's fictions: his father's suicide morphed into "a sacrificial act"; Lons was "'artistic'" not "mildly retarded." In truth, Mrs. Hoad's "creative explanations had the effect of making Harold feel perpetually drunk." According to Bloomington society, he is "[a] first-class example of America's young manhood." Daisy sees a less attractive side to him. Rich and handsome, Harold is also a cheat and a drunk.
Barker Flett has heart pangs after Daisy's letter arrives, in which she announces her impending marriage. He does not want to admit feeling sexual about her. Now forty-three, he remains a bachelor, by others "thought to have frosty reservations" about intimacy. Detached from the real world, Barker can list varieties of lady's-slippers but knows nothing about the foxtrot or Charles Lindbergh. As wedding gifts, he sends Daisy $10,000, the proceeds from the sale of his mother's flower shop, and a book on Canadian wild flowers. Her father gives her a stone elf he carved himself. This gift is crude and embarrassing. Cuyler's gift of speech is as exhausted as is his artistic ability.
Before the wedding Daisy and Harold walk in a garden. He strikes delphinium with his cane, knocking off the blooms. She tells him to stop and he does. He wants to be checked by her. She is twenty-two and marrying because it is time, and she believes she can change him. He is drunk during the wedding ceremony and continues drinking on the train to Montreal. They are both seasick crossing the Atlantic. Still drunk, Harold rents a car "black as a hearse" and drives them from Paris to the Alpine town of Corps. In a hotel room, Harold gets onto a windowsill and throws coins to children in the street; Daisy closes her eyes and tries to sleep. When she opens her eyes he is no longer in the window. He has fallen to his death, his body hitting the pavement with "a crashing sound like a melon splitting."
Contained within this chapter are a group of photographs much like those that might appear at the center of an autobiography or memoir. These photographs purport to be of some of the characters in this novel; however, they are actually photographs of the author's own family and thus suggest that the novel may be autobiographical of Shields's life. There is no photograph said to be of Daisy. Other photographs do not concur with the text description of the characters. Photographs of two different women both bear the name of Clarentine Flett. The discrepancies these photographs present speak to the inability of the record to be accurate or complete.
Chapter Four: Love, 1936
The narrator states at the outset that "real troubles … tend to settle on the misalignment between men and women." The narrator states that men are "honored by the stories that [erupt] in their lives" while women go "all gray and silent beneath the weight of theirs." For years following Harold Hoad's death, Daisy Goodwill Hoad is defined by Bloomington society in terms of various interpretations of the spectacular story of his death, her actual personality and feelings quite eclipsed by it.
Cuyler Goodwill goes to Italy in search of stone cutters and comes home with a bride, Maria, age twenty-eight, who speaks Italian only and whom no one other than Cuyler understands. With his new wife, Cuyler is suddenly silent, his "tongue … stilled." Daisy decides to take a trip to Canada. She goes to Ottawa and meets Barker Flett. He is fifty-four; she is thirty-one.
Magnus Flett went from Montreal to Liverpool in the summer 1927, the same summer as Daisy and Harold made their transatlantic voyage. Magnus vomited overboard his painful memories, landed light as a boy, and headed north by foot. He arrived at Stromness, his home, and believed life could now be sweet and he would live forever.
Barker wrote Daisy every other month for twenty-two years. During that time, he lived detached from passion and secured by exactitude and classification, sublimating his libido by obsessing about "the pockets within pockets" of his flowers. His letters survive; her responses, which were so girlish they disappointed him, do not. Now as Daisy approaches Ottawa, she realizes she cannot go home to Bloomington to live in Cuyler and Maria's house. She seeks Barker as a "refuge."
Daisy and Barker marry on August 17, 1936. In his sexual relationship with Daisy, Barker realizes that "[t]here is a part of the human self that is unclassifiable." Next are presented various views on the unexpected marriage. The chapter concludes by stating that Daisy's "own thoughts on her marriage are not recorded." Mrs. Flett has come to think it would be embarrassing for others to read a journal of her private thoughts. This concluding paragraph is one of many instances in which the novel suggests that no matter how much information is given and deduced and manufactured about an individual, the individual is never fully revealed or known by others.
Chapter Five: Motherhood, 1947
This chapter opens at dinnertime in the Flett Ottawa household. Barker is nearly sixty-five and soon to retire. He and Daisy have three children, Alice, now nine; Warren, seven, and Joan, five. The children are presented individually. Alice learns separately about sex and is disgusted; Warren likes being told he was born "[i]n the early days of the war" and is reassured when his mother says she is too old to have another child. The "other child," Joan, has secrets, an imaginative life.
Mrs. Flett's niece, Beverly, presents her views of the children. Cousin Beverly is the daughter of Barker's brother Andrew. A letter from Beverly's mother, Frances, is included here. Cuyler and Maria sell their Bloomington house and move to a country home, in the back garden of which Cuyler sets about to build a miniature pyramid, twenty-seven square yards at the base. He plans a time capsule to be hidden inside and asks the Flett children to send him items to include in it; they send a stamp, a maple leaf, and a news headline from 1947 announcing the upcoming marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Cuyler adds the gold ring of Mercy Goodwill, which had been destined to go to Daisy. Cuyler feels like he has "lost his way in life."
The narrative repeats and shifts into a distant third-person voice. For example, though she has already been introduced, readers are told again Maria is Cuyler's "second wife" and "Fraidy Hoyt and Daisy Goodwill Flett went to school together back in Indiana." The headings "Mrs. Flett's Old School Friend" and "Mrs. Flett's Intimate Relations with her Husband" make the text sound like someone quite detached from Daisy is tabulating information about her life. Several times readers learn that Barker goes off on business trips. Daisy tries to follow the marital advice offered in Good Housekeeping, McCalls, and The Canadian Home Companion. Barker likes to have sex before he leaves and upon his return. But Mrs. Flett does not know how to demonstrate "ardor and surrender." Again, the accident that killed Clarentine Flett is described, but this time the boy on the bike is named, Valdi Goodmansen.
Daisy expects Barker back from the dedication of the Clarentine Flett Horticultural Conservatory and thinks about her own mother and how she has nothing from her. Barker feels cut off as he approaches retirement; Daisy feels "the loss … of any connection in the world." She has "gusts of grief." She suffers even now from "orphanhood" and is "anointed by loneliness." The chapter concludes with information under the heading, "Mrs. Flett's House and Garden," which includes a description of the Ottawa house interior and Mrs. Flett's "dearest child," her paradise of a garden.
Chapter Six: Work: 1955–1964
This chapter consists only of letters, presented here as though drawn from Mrs. Flett's personal and business files. Events occurring in this period are thus presented indirectly to the reader by references made in the correspondence. Obviously, the first-person point of view shifts from one letter writer to the next. As with her twenty-two-year-long correspondence with Uncle Barker, the letters Daisy receives are kept, but the letters she writes are lost. Thus, readers of the novel only learn about Daisy's life through inferences they draw from letters written to her and not through her own words.
The first letter presented, dated April 25, 1955, is from solicitor W. W. Kleinhardt, who refers to Mrs. Flett's "late husband." In this indirect way, readers learn that Barker Flett has died. The next letter is from Barker himself, written April 6, 1955, in which he sums up Daisy's financial circumstances, lectures her on his collection of lady's slippers, and closes with a description of how she embraced him on the day when he experienced his "first terrible headache." He mourns "the waste of words that passed" between them. The third letter, from the Recorder editor Jay W. Dudley, contains an invitation to Mrs. Flett to attend a memorial ceremony for her husband and comments in passing that the annual tulip festival will not be covered by Mr. Flett this year. Letters from Dudley and from readers of the column by Mrs. Green Thumb trace Mrs. Flett's successful work in writing for publication on gardening and horticultural events. Beverly Flett, unmarried and pregnant, offers to come to Ottawa and work for Mrs. Flett. Fraidy writes on May 29, 1955, to extend her condolences to Daisy regarding her father's death. Readers of Mrs. Flett's newspaper column write with questions and appreciation for her expertise. Subsequent letters from Jay Dudley imply his increasing admiration of her work and suggest that he is becoming sexually involved with her. Letters from Alice tell about her college experience. Both Fraidy and Beans write regarding an April 1956 trip to Chicago the three friends take during which Mrs. Flett visits the Chicago Horticultural Conservatory in order to write a review of it for the Recorder. The professional snare involving Pinky Fulham begins to unfold in these letters, as he writes the column while Mrs. Flett is in Chicago. A letter from a Recorder reader confirms that Mrs. Flett knows more than "Pinky What's-his-name."
In their abbreviation of years, the letters provide a sense of how things change over time. Beverly's daughter Victoria is born, and Alice resents her bedroom being used for the baby, but a year later Alice writes that she cannot wait to see Vicky again. Also, the budding relationship between Mrs. Flett and Jay Dudley, a widower of three years when he meets Daisy, jumps ahead, along with Alice's marriage and her move to England, the birth of Alice's baby Ben Junior, and Daisy's loss of her job when Pinky Fulham takes over the column. Letters from Fraidy and Alice that conclude the chapter comment that Mrs. Flett has not been writing back. Though they "[h]ope all is well," the suggestion is that it is not. Mrs. Flett, a successful writer, stops writing letters when she loses her job at the Recorder. The point may be that work provides professional identity; others see the worker as a person in her own right. But when a person loses her job, it is as though her whole identity is erased.
Chapter Seven: Sorrow, 1965
This chapter begins in the third person: "1965 was the year Mrs. Flett fell into a profound depression." At age sixty, Daisy was full of resignation, which "hardened into silence, then leapt to … blaming estrangement." After this introduction, the rest of the chapter consists of people's theories about Mrs. Flett's depression. These interpretations demonstrate how differently others view a person and how disparate views can each contain valid points. Like the letters of the previous chapter, the theories here are written in first-person point of view; they come from Alice, Fraidy, Cousin Beverly, Warren, Joan, Jay Dudley, Beans, Cora-Mae Milltown (Cuyler Goodwill's Bloomington housemaid), Skoot Skutari (grandson of Abram Skutari), and finally from Mrs. Flett herself.
Alice's theory is the self changes, that it is not carved in stone. She recalls coming back to her old bedroom after completing her first year at college and suddenly feeling compelled to repair a crack in the ceiling. Next, Alice decided "to grow kind." She burned her old diaries and began to modify her personality. Now she offers "a diagram" of the family before and after her father's death. She notes that while her father was alive the nuclear family was traditional and habitual and that her mother "was part of that mid-century squadron of women who believed in centerpieces." After Barker died, her mother was "a different person, a person who worked." "It was as though she had veered, accidentally, into her own life" as a writer on horticulture. Then Cousin Beverly arrived. In 1954, the Fletts were an ordinary family: a father and breadwinner, a stay-at-home mother, and three children; by the end of 1955, the household contained one working parent, an unwed mother, and three teenagers. In the chaos of that second stage, her mother seemed happy. Nine years later, Mrs. Flett lost her job. At fifty-nine, she is out of work and feels so stunned by the sudden change, "she's like some great department store of sadness with its displays of rejection and inattention." Alice comes back from England to check on her mother and finds her unable to "get over this."
Fraidy's theory begins by discounting Alice's. Fraidy has known Daisy since they were girls in Bloomington. Alice is married to a professor and has written a book on Chekhov, and, according to Fraidy, is way too focused on work. While Alice thinks "We are our work!" Fraidy maintains that work is not the self. Fraidy says the work ethic was too strong in the Flett family, that it buried them in "fairy dust," which leads "to the unpacking of lies and fictions … scraps of inbred history." Fraidy assigns the depression to sexual frustration, to Daisy's life with "plodding Barker" followed by "a brief flutter with an editor," in sum, a lifetime of erotic experience equal to "about one and half bean sprouts." Fraidy goes to Ottawa to see if she can relieve Daisy's depression. She thinks a candid conversation between friends may help. Confessing to some fifty-four sexual partners, Fraidy wants to speak about the "sexual spasm" and "the realm of the ecstatic." But the visit is a disaster: Daisy cannot be coaxed from her dark bedroom.
Beverly theorizes that the children got Daisy down. Warren thinks his mother mourns "the squandering of herself"; he thinks, "Something, someone, cut off her head, yanked out her tongue." Warren thinks his mother is on the edge and about to fall off. Joan thinks her mother cannot let go of the injustice of her column being given to Pinky Fulham, that her mother relishes hating him. Jay Dudley admits feeling guilty about Daisy's depression; he admits to realizing she had "a more permanent arrangement in mind" and yet he knew all along that being married once was enough for him. His wording, that "it seemed best to put a little distance between us," suggests that giving Daisy's column to Pinky was Dudley's way of removing Daisy from his professional and personal life. Beans, here referred to formally as Labina Anthony Greene Dukes, a woman who has been married three times and knows what disappointment is, thinks women are "breakable." Reflecting much of her own disappointment in love relationships, Labina concludes: "It's … like a thousand little disappointments raining down on top of each other. After a while it gets to seem like a flood, and the first thing you know you're drowning."
Looking back to 1916, Cora-Mae Milltown speaks of being in the Bloomington house working as a maid when Cuyler Goodwill arrived with eleven-year-old Daisy, "this washrag of a girl," a "poor motherless thing." Cora-Mae realizes she is all Daisy has by way of a mother, so she takes particular care of the child. Back then, with Daisy just a little girl, Cora-Mae looked into Daisy's future and could not imagine she would be able to find happiness. She imagined Daisy headed for "the blackest night." Looking back to 1905, Skoot Skutari tells the story of his grandfather Abram who was permanently changed by witnessing the birth of Daisy, by receiving the "final glance" of Mercy Goodwill, and by his blessing of the ignored baby. Abram remembered how he stood with the doctor and how "[t]heir tears mingled." Abram grieved for that baby, "so alone in the world," and for its sadness. Finally, the "nut case" Mrs. Flett herself presents a theory: "sorrowing … has limits." "[I]n the thin bony box of her head," Mrs. Flett knows "her immense unhappiness is doomed to irrelevance." Mrs. Flett assumes life will resume in the details of polishing jars and licking stamps.
Chapter Eight: Ease, 1977
Victoria Louise Flett, twenty-two, is a student at the University of Toronto. She is touched by how women scrutinize genealogical records at the library. Her great-aunt Daisy lives in Florida, preoccupied with thoughts of two dead fathers, Cuyler Goodwill and Magnus Flett. Daisy moved to Florida and bought a condo near her friends, Fraidy and Beans. Victoria spends her vacations there. At seventy-two, Daisy has an easy life, is in good health, and has money enough in her savings. The Ottawa house was sold in 1967; Victoria's mother Beverly died in 1973. Cuyler Goodwill's earlier death in 1955 is described, how he was working in his back yard when he had a heart attack and fell to the ground. Maria, his wife, was shopping and taking her time walking home. He lay on the grass, his mind slipping away. He thought in his final moments of his parents, "now firmly erased," and of his first wife, whose name he struggled to recall.
In Florida, Great-aunt Daisy ponders how much of life is spent being old. She moves along, "[n]umbly." Victoria talks Daisy into taking a trip to the Orkney Islands. Victoria and her instructor (later her husband) Lewis Ray plan to conduct research on local fossils. Remarkably, Magnus Flett is still alive at age 115. Mr. Sinclair, the hotel owner, drives Mrs. Flett around and out one day to the site where Victoria and Lewis are excavating. There, at God's Gate, a rock arch at the shore, Mrs. Flett feels happiness. They are so tiny against the immensity of the rock, like insects. Lewis and Victoria seek traces of life in the stone, of "Life turned to stone."
Mrs. Flett visits Magnus Flett, who has made a reputation for himself by living into such great old age and by being able over the years to recite from memory much of Jane Eyre. On this meeting, however, the "barely breathing cadaver" can only recite part of the novel's first sentence. He cannot respond when Daisy asks about Clarentine, his wife. He mouths the word, "Clarentine" and "Dayzee" but not in recognition. She touches his covers from which rises the "scent of decomposition."
Chapter Nine: Illness and Decline, 1985
With a heart attack, broken knees, and cancer in one kidney, Daisy Goodwill Flett lives now in "the wide-open arena of pain, surrounded by row on row of spectators." She drifts between sleep and waking "[i]n the pleat of consciousness." In the hospital, Mrs. Flett is visited by Reverend Rick. She feels insulated by the medicine, disoriented, unable to communicate, floating in a peripheral reality interrupted moment to moment by hospital activity. Her room is decked with flowers and an inflated giraffe from Warren and his third wife, Peggy. At 5 p.m., Alice telephones from England. Alice speaks in a soothing, reassuring tone, trying to encourage her mother. To Warren in New York, she uses another voice, emphatic, pessimistic.
The children feel guilty about not being there, but they have their reasons: Alice cannot come until the end of her teaching semester; Warren's new baby daughter has Down's syndrome and she and his wife need his presence; Joan's four teenage girls and unfaithful husband cannot be left unsupervised; Victoria, now with twins in Toronto, writes every other day but a visit is not possible. The family is so scattered, Mrs. Flett has trouble picturing them grouped together in one place. Her local friends, called collectively The Flowers, visit her every two to three days. They laugh at death. They pose the toast: "here's to another year and let's hope it's above ground." The secret Mrs. Flett cherishes is that someone in Admissions left off her married name from her identification bracelet, which now reads Daisy Goodwill. This point leads into a series of labels people assign to Mrs. Flett: "a fighter"; "a sweetheart"; "a real lady … of the old-fashioned school." All of Mrs. Flett's possessions are in one metal hospital drawer; she laments: "So much shrinkage."
Reverend Rick visits Mrs. Flett in a convalescent home. He confides in her his desire to tell his mother he is gay. Mrs. Flett says his mother knows and he should not mention it. As her mind goes, she sees there is a lot of humor even in old age and "[v]anity refuses to die." She has pictures of herself in her head; in all of them, she is alone, without a witness. She repeats herself, "[t]o keep the weight of her memories evenly distributed." Sitting with her mother, Alice realizes, "the moment of death occurs while we're still alive."
Chapter Ten: Death
This chapter contains various summaries of Daisy Goodwill Flett's life, such as an obituary, a poem, statements people make during a funeral and reception, a list of physical problems in chronological order, her bridal lingerie list, books she read, a recipe, a list of addresses in chronological order of places in which she once resided, and a final comment about the flowers at the funeral, no daisies included. The children comment on their mother's personal belongings and discover that Daisy was married before she married their father. They assume incorrectly she was too broken up over Hoad's death to talk to them about it. They remark that they were unable to talk to her about death, and they agree that their "genes are pure granite."
Alice Flett Downing
Oldest child of Barker and Daisy Flett, Alice Flett marries Ben Downing and moves to England, where the couple has three children, Benjamin, Judy, and Rachel. Later, the marriage falters and Alice and Ben separate. Alice takes Daisy's maiden name, Goodwill, as her last name after the divorce is final.
Jay W. Dudley
Jay W. Dudley is editor of the Ottawa Recorder, which publishes a column, "Mr. Green Thumb," written by Barker Flett. After Barker dies, the column is renamed, "Mrs. Green Thumb," and is written by Daisy Flett. Jay Dudley becomes socially and sexually involved with the widowed Daisy Flett and then abruptly ends the relationship. He replaces her as author of the "Green Thumb" column with a full-time employee, James (called Pinky) Fulham, claiming company policy in doing so. The suspicion is he uses this opportunity to distance himself from Daisy Flett. The sudden loss of this relationship and her work puts Daisy into a long-term depression.
Barker T. Flett
The oldest son of Magnus and Clarentine Flett, Barker Flett was born in 1883. He earns a master's degree in science and becomes a professor of biology at Wesley College in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His students wonder at his remaining a bachelor, suspecting him to be "one of those men who feel toward women both a delicate sensibility and a deep hostility." When his parents separate, Barker Flett supports both his mother and the child, Daisy Goodwill, whom Clarentine Flett rears to age eleven. After years of separation between Barker and Daisy while she lives with her father in Bloomington, Indiana, and Barker works in the Department of Agriculture at Ottawa, the couple reunites and marries suddenly in 1936. They have three children, Alice, Warren, and Joan. In the spring 1955, Barker Flett dies of a malignant brain tumor.
Daughter of Barker Flett's brother Andrew, a Baptist minister, and his wife Frances, Beverly Flett joins the WRENS during World War II and is stationed in England. Back home in Saskatchewan, Canada, she is impregnated by a married man. To keep secret her pregnancy, she moves to Ottawa and into the home of the recently widowed Daisy Flett. Beverly gives birth in 1955 to a daughter, whom she names Victoria Louise. Beverly Flett dies of pancreatic cancer in 1973.
Unhappily married twenty-five years to Magnus Flett and mother of three sons, Clarentine Flett at age forty-five is the neighbor of Mercy Goodwill in Tyndall, Manitoba. Inclined to depression, she is described as "a woman whose desires stand at the bottom of a cracked pitcher, waiting." Mrs. Flett is present when Mercy dies in the process of giving birth to a daughter. Clarentine leaves her husband and takes the newborn, whom she names Daisy, to live with her son, Barker, in Winnipeg. Clarentine Flett has a successful life there selling flowers and caring for the young child. She dies of complications resulting from an accident in which she is hit by a bicyclist.
Daisy Goodwill Flett
Daisy Goodwill Flett, born in 1905 in Tyndall, Manitoba, narrates part of this novel, a work that is presented as both an autobiography and biography of her life. Describing herself as a newborn "out of reach" of "that filament of matter we struggle to catch hold of at birth," Daisy is as disconnected from her mother as Mercy Stone Goodwill, an orphan herself, was from hers.
Raised by Clarentine Flett and Barker Flett until age eleven and then by her widowed father, Cuyler Goodwill, Daisy obtains a bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts from Long College for Women in 1926. In 1927, she marries Harold Arthur Hoad, who dies on their honeymoon, and then in 1936, at age thirty-one, Daisy marries the fifty-four-year-old Barker Flett. They have three children, Alice, Warren, and Joan. The third-person narrator refers to Daisy variously according to the stages of her life: Daisy, Mrs. Flett, Great-aunt Daisy, and Grandma Flett. Daisy Goodwill Flett dies sometime in the 1990s.
Born in the Orkney Islands in 1862 and immigrated to Canada as a boy, stingy Magnus Flett prefers a plain house and plain food. His control of the household money to the point of denying his wife Clarentine the fee for a dentist appointment drives her away from their home in Tyndall, Manitoba, to Winnipeg to live with their oldest son Barker. Left alone, Magnus rehearses romantic words and rereads Jane Eyre in hopes that if his wife returns to him he will be able to communicate his love for her. In time, Magnus returns to his native Orkney Islands and dies there at the ancient age of 115.
Victoria Louise Flett
Born out of wedlock in 1955, Victoria Louise Flett is the daughter of Beverly Flett, Barker and Daisy's niece, who comes to live and raise her daughter in the Ottawa household of the widowed Daisy Flett. Victoria becomes a student at the University of Toronto where she studies paleobotany under instructor Lewis Ray, whom she eventually marries. Victoria spends her vacations with her great-aunt Daisy in Sarasota, Florida, and as a result of the niece's initiative Daisy visits the Orkney Islands and meets for the first and only time her father-in-law, Magnus Flett. Living in Toronto, Victoria and her husband have twins, Sophie and Hugh.
The only son of Barker and Daisy Flett, Warren Flett is born in 1940, "[i]n the early days of the war." As a young man he studies music at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, and when his mother goes through a period of depression he assesses the situation with a distanced academic attitude. Warren, who is a musicologist in the Lower Manhattan public schools, marries three times. With his third wife, Peggy Ambrose, he has a Down's syndrome child, Emma, whose immediate needs prevent him from visiting his ailing mother in 1985. Nonetheless, Warren and Peggy do visit the elderly Daisy before she dies.
The bridge group, The Flowers, consists of four elderly women who play cards together at the retirement home: Lily, Myrtle, Glad (short for Gladys, not gladiola), and Daisy. These women enjoy a game every day, joking about age and mortality and showing off their exclusive friendship to other, more isolated residents. Though the remaining three women visit Daisy in the hospital, they are unable to travel the considerable distance to visit her in the convalescent home. The loss of their friendship heightens the ailing Daisy's sense of alienation and isolation.
James Fulham, whose nickname is Pinky, is a full-time writer for the Ottawa Recorder, and with some knowledge of plants, he aspires to taking over Mrs. Flett's column. Eventually he is given the column and thus is the immediate cause for Daisy's losing her job with the paper. According to editor Jay Dudley, it is a simple case of the rights that full-time employees have over part-time workers, but for Daisy it signifies loss of self-worth and a personal rejection by Dudley. James Fulham is killed when a vending machine overturns and crushes him.
Born November 26, 1876, Cuyler Goodwill grows up in Stonewall and when he is married lives nearby in Tyndall, Manitoba. An only child raised in a dirty house that faced the lime kiln of Stonewall, Cuyler left school at fourteen to work in the quarry and add his wage to the family's "jam pot." He has no schooling but a naturalist's love of stone. More than anything else, though, he adores his obese wife, Mercy Stone Goodwill, "[b]ody and soul." When his wife dies unexpectedly in childbirth, he takes the fact that she did not mention her pregnancy as signifying a betrayal or withdrawal, though in truth she did not know herself that she was pregnant. In the pangs of grief, Cuyler builds a stone tower over Mercy's grave in tribute to her memory and as an expression of his undying love. Later, he takes a job in Bloomington, Indiana, where Daisy goes to school and marries. Here, the diminutive but long-winded Cuyler rises in the quarry business and is described as having a "silver tongue" because he gives long speeches. On a trip to Italy he meets Maria, whom he takes as his second wife. Cuyler Goodwill dies in 1955.
The second wife of Cuyler Goodwill is Italian by birth and knows very little English when she relocates to Bloomington to live with her husband. While Cuyler maintains that he understands her, most people do not. After Cuyler's death, Maria takes a small amount of money from the estate and relocates without telling anyone her whereabouts. She perhaps goes back to Italy or she may begin a relationship with an older man in Bloomington. Ultimately, what happens to her remains a mystery.
Mercy Stone Goodwill
Obsessed with food and obese, Mercy Stone Goodwill, who was raised in the Stonewall Orphans Home where all the orphans have the last name of Stone, grows into womanhood adept at cooking and housekeeping. She marries the diminutive stonemason, Cuyler Goodwill, and then dies in childbirth at age thirty. Without blood relatives, Mercy "stands apart from any coherent history." An illegitimate child left at the home, Mercy Stone Goodwill may be Ukrainian or Icelandic.
Mrs. Arthur Hoad
Mrs. Arthur Hoad, mother of Harold Hoad and widow of Arthur Hoad, a suicide, appears first in the novel at lunch with Daisy Goodwill, her future daughter-in-law. Mrs. Hoad takes this prenuptial opportunity to tell Daisy how she should speak, eat, and act when she is married. She also gives her information about Harold's bowel movements and what she can do to keep them regular. Mrs. Hoad is an expert on keeping up appearances, and she creates acceptable stories to mask the hurtful embarrassments in her life, namely her husband's financial difficulties and infidelity, her one son's cruelty and alcoholism, and her other son's retardation.
Harold Arthur Hoad
Harold Arthur Hoad, Daisy's first husband, dies on the couple's honeymoon. His father, Arthur Hoad, shot himself in the East First Street stone castle where the important quarry owner lived with his wife and two sons, Harold, age seven at the time, and Lons. Harold's mother explains the suicide as a result of her husband's knowledge that he was going blind and his wish not to become a burden to her. Traumatized by his father's death and frustrated by his mother's inability to speak the truth, Harold is cruel and alcoholic. He comes to his own wedding drunk and engages in a drunken binge on the honeymoon trip which prevents sexual intercourse and results in his accidental death in a fall from a hotel window. His mother manufactures a story regarding his death, interpreting the fact that the suddenly widowed Daisy remains a virgin as proof of her frigidity which, Mrs. Hoad concludes, drove Harold to drink.
Daisy's college friend and bridesmaid, Elfreda Hoyt, fondly referred to as Fraidy, is worldly, sexually experienced, and good humored. She has been to France and can explain what a bidet is, and she has seen a nude male in life drawing class. As a young woman Fraidy swears in 1920s style, for example, spelling out the common swear word "h-e-double toothpicks." Though she remains unmarried, Fraidy keeps track of her sexual encounters in a little journal. She visits Daisy after Barker Flett dies and tries to cheer her up. In the 1970s, Fraidy becomes senile.
Daisy's college friend and bridesmaid, Labina Anthony, fondly referred to as Beans, marries Dick Greene one month after Daisy marries Harold Hoad. Not as close a friend of Daisy as Fraidy is, the supercilious Beans distances herself from others by giving everything a pious or cliché interpretation. In all, she marries three times; she dies suddenly in the 1970s.
Maid to Cuyler and Daisy Goodwill in their Bloomington house, Cora-Mae gives her notice when Maria arrives, since the new Mrs. Goodwill does all the work around the house herself, even answering the door in her apron and with her hair tied up in a scarf.
Instructor and future husband of Victoria Louise Flett, Lewis Ray is a post-doctoral student at the University of Toronto. Together with Victoria and her great-aunt Daisy Flett, he travels to the Orkney Islands to do research on fossils along the rugged coastline. After they are married, Lewis and Victoria have twins and live in Toronto.
Reverend Rick, a chaplain, visits Daisy Flett during her final illness. Instead of comforting her, he takes her politeness and motherliness as an invitation to confide in her that he is gay. He is troubled that he cannot discuss this subject with his own mother. Daisy tells him that his mother already knows and that he should not bring up the subject with her. He says he "'can't go on living a lie,'" to which Daisy responds, "'Why not?… Most people do.'"
Born in Prizren, Albania, the son of a rabbi, the Sephardic Abram Gozhdë Skutari, age thirty-four, is a peddler in Tyndall where Clarentine Flett refer to him as "the old Jew." Abram is present at the birth of Daisy Goodwill and receives Mercy Goodwill's "final glance." He signs the birth certificate, and the fact that he is able to write is a surprise to the other witnesses. In later years, he becomes the millionaire founder and owner of a nationwide chain of retail stores that sells whatever Eaton's mail order catalogue does not, including bicycles. Abram's grandson, Skoot Skutari, compiles a history of the family that goes back to the fifteenth century. Ironically, Abram, whom Clarentine Flett so looks down upon, has a distinguished lineage and becomes an exceptional success in business. The bicycle involved in the accident that causes the death of Clarentine was sold by his company.
Joan Flett Taylor
Joan Flett is the youngest of Daisy's children. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with four teenage daughters and her unfaithful husband, Ross Taylor.
Autobiography and Biography
The complex nature of autobiography and biography is a central subject in The Stone Diaries. Autobiography, a first-person account of one's own life, and biography, a third-person account of someone else's life, are both the form and content of this novel. The novel examines whether it is possible for such an account either about oneself or another person to be in any sense a complete and accurate picture of an entire life or of an evolving person's character. The novel suggests that the text is always less than the whole story, always less than the sum of a whole personality or psyche as a person changes over time. Regarding the summary of Cuyler Goodwill's early years, for example, the narrator says: "The recounting of a life is a cheat … our own stories are obscenely distorted." However one writes the story, the story itself is an abridgement of the total life experience. It cannot contain everything and it is not the life itself, but rather a text about the life. Life itself slips away moment by moment, much experience fading from awareness even as it is lived.
Topics for Further Study
- Visit a local quarry or rock store and purchase a sample of limestone and a fossil. Do some research on these materials. Bring them to class and make a presentation in which you explain what geological connection may exist between them.
- Read Spoon River Anthology (1916) by Edgar Lee Masters. Select one of the grave marker poems in this collection and imagine the life story of the speaker. (You may have to do some research on the period during which the speaker is said to have lived.) Then using first-person point of view, write the speaker's autobiography.
- Research the materials used in the construction of the Empire State Building. Write an essay in which you connect what you learn to Cuyler Goodwill's 1927 speech on the anticipated growth in the limestone mining industry and the development of buildings and monuments in New York City and Washington, D.C.
- Browse through library copies of women's magazines published between 1947 and 1955. Then write a paper on how they portrayed wives and mothers and how their views anticipated or contradicted comparable images promoted in women's magazines in the early 2000s.
- Make a genealogy of your family, using the one provided in The Stone Diaries as a model. Interview relatives to learn the names and dates of your ancestors. Use a poster to write your genealogy and write a story based on an interview session you conducted or on a story a relative told you about an ancestor.
- Read The Diary of Anne Frank and write a paper on how the diary was treated after it was found by Anne Frank's father at the end of World War II. In your paper describe how the text of the diary was changed before it was published.
That sense of losing track of experience, of one's things, oneself, is countered by an act of the imagination which in the writing of the life story conjures, retrieves, and creates in order to fill in the blanks left by missing information. For example, the narrator describes a time when the child Daisy is ill and lies for weeks in her darkened Winnipeg bedroom. The child realizes that life goes on outside the house even though she does not participate in it. Sequestered in a sick room, the child is "erased from the record of her own existence." In order to counteract this sense of leaving no mark or not existing in the world, the narrator states the following about Daisy: "She understood that if she was going to hold on to her life at all, she would have to rescue it by a primary act of imagination, supplementing, modifying, summing up the necessary connections … getting the details wrong occasionally." In other words, reflecting on one's experience and on one's own self is essentially a form of story-making, of writing fiction. The person selects and edits life experience, emphasizing some parts, omitting other parts. Even all of the remembered parts are not included. Elsewhere the narrator states: "There are chapters in every life which are seldom read, and certainly not aloud." For various reasons the storyteller censures some material. Thus, in this fictional work, a novel, autobiography and biography are subjects discussed in order to show the way in which these forms of writing reinvent the life that is their subject.
The novel begins with a genealogy of four generations in the Goodwill and Flett families. This information pinpoints each character in relationship to all others and in relationship to the twentieth century. The book, which appears to be a composite of letters, different theories, family photographs, and other documents connected to Daisy Goodwill Flett's life, pretends to present a family history. The combined information from disparate parts, though, does not make a whole, any more than genealogical research brings forth a complete record of a family's past. The genealogy and the varied texts included in the novel invite readers to think about the elusive essence of ordinary lives and the incomplete record those lives may leave behind. In this respect, the narrator pieces together the found parts in the hopes of making sense, if not providing a complete picture. Proof that the effort fails lies in the discrepancy between parts. For example, different theories or interpretations are presented side-by-side, showing the various ways in which the subject can be viewed and how these views in a sense change the subject. Similarly, discrepancies exist between the photographs (for example, two photographs are identified as being of Clarentine Flett and yet close examination reveals they are of different women) and between photographs and the texts which describe them (for example, Cuyler Goodwill is said to be shorter than his first wife, Mercy, yet the photograph shows him to be taller; the outfits portrayed in the Ladies Rhythm and Movement Club photograph do not match in-text description of them).
Stone is at the center of this novel, both literally and metaphorically. Limestone itself is a central subject. Stonemasons, quarries, the stone industry through the twentieth century, the development of cities filled with stone buildings, sculpture and architecture in stone, and research into fossils, all are subjects explored in the book. Female softness and interest in flowers, Clarentine Flett and Daisy Goodwill Flett's interest in gardens, and Barker Flett's fascination with lady's slippers, all represent the other end of the continuum in which through ages of decomposition organic life becomes inorganic limestone. Cuyler Goodwill explains in his lecture how certain geological factors converged to produce limestone. The geological record is the "written" history of the physical world; organisms live, in death their bodies decompose, in time the sediment of their matter becomes stone, in some of the stone, fossil marks of organic material can be found. Workers mine the stone, carve it, erect monuments and buildings of it, and then in time these creations erode, as the Goodwill Tower over Mercy's grave is vandalized and the pyramid Cuyler attempts in his backyard rounds and eventually falls apart. Add to this literal focus on stone, the fact that the orphans in Stonewall all have the same last name, Stone, and Daisy Flett's children say they have "genes of pure granite." The book is a layering of texts, composite "diaries" much about stone and family members descended from a woman named Stone.
The epigraph at the beginning of the novel states the discrepancy between what one says and what one intends to say. Indeed, talk fills this novel and often the talk is not aligned with the truth or with the intended meaning. The novel is self-consciously focused on how language use marks an individual's development and that person's place in society or in a given time. For example, Cuyler Goodwill is much characterized by his use of language. Born "bereft of language" and reared among people who were not expressive, Cuyler was at the outset reticent and reserved. After he married, though, he believed "the stone in his throat became dislodged" during sexual relations with his beloved first wife, Mercy. Daisy theorizes that Cuyler's language was influenced by his study of the King James Version of the Bible after Mercy died. From this text, she believes, he appropriated his "archaic formal locutions." In addition, as Cuyler was repeatedly interviewed by journalists regarding the Goodwill Tower, his "tongue learned … evasion … fiction and distraction" and his "voice … became the place where he lived." In Bloomington, he gives long-winded speeches and is known to have a "silver tongue." His speeches keep people at a distance, prevent intimacy. Years later, he marries a woman who speaks only "a dithyrambic mixture of Italian and English that [Cuyler] alone … seemed able to understand."
By contrast to Cuyler Goodwill who is fluent and verbose, Magnus Flett is described as taciturn and noncommunicative. He came to believe his wife Clarentine left him because he failed to speak his love for her. In the years of her absence, Magnus practiced saying his wife's name tenderly, practiced romantic phrases he learned from reading the novels she left behind in their Tyndall house. On his deathbed, Magnus could quote some of the first sentence from Jane Eyre because by his old age he had memorized much of that novel. In his use of language Magnus Flett illustrates how imitative speech patterns are. A similar point is illustrated in the slang expressions Beans and Fraidy use as young women. Speech patterns are also a matter of fashion. No character illustrates this point more completely than Mrs. Hoad, who coaches Daisy Goodwill on how her future daughter-in-law should speak ("we invite people to dinner, not for dinner") and whose "creative explanations" made her son Harold stumble "under the unreality of her fantasies."
Daisy Goodwill Flett speaks for herself as a first-person narrator and is spoken of by a third-person narrator. Others express their theories about her, and documents such as letters she receives, newspaper articles, obituary statements, and lists convey information about her. However, letters she wrote over the years do not survive. En route to Ottawa, she lost her journal, and after that she gave up writing her thoughts. In her final decline, her mind drifts between dreams with certain phrases rattling in her brain. In these and other ways, the novel comments on the effects and limitations of language, differences in fluency and levels of inhibition, which facilitate or hamper communication. While the novel is a portrait of one woman's life, it also explores, paradoxically, the ways in which language obstructs such a portrait from conveying the whole person that is its subject.
The title of a novel is a sign pointing toward its central subject. In this case, the title suggests diaries made of stone or diaries written by a person or family named Stone. From the pyramids to grave markers, stones provide the solid pages of recorded events, and characters here descended from Mercy Stone leave their reports and interpretations regarding her daughter, Daisy. Mercy Stone Goodwill leaves no record of her own. The only surviving text of her life is the flat marker on her grave, and that marker is completely obscured by the Goodwill Tower built of limestone, which her husband, Cuyler Goodwill, erects over it. Finally, in terms of geology, the earth's crust holds the incomplete record of the millennia of life and death on its surface, as the research performed by Lewis Ray and Victoria Louise Flett on the Orkney Islands points out.
Shifting Tense and Point of View
In this novel the tense shifts continuously from past to present and back again to past. In some passages the text reads like social history, describing how Winnipeg or Bloomington was built during the twentieth century; in other passages it zooms in with the immediacy of present tense, filling in and amplifying a long-past moment and bringing it alive as drama in the here-and-now. Similarly, the point of view shifts. First person provides immediacy and personal insight, while third person can provide an overview for which distance is required. Sometimes the perspective abruptly shifts, even in one sentence. For example, the following sentence, which describes how the eleven-year-old Daisy was sequestered during a long illness, shifts from first to third person: "The long days of isolation, of silence, the torment of boredom—all these pressed down on me, on young Daisy Goodwill and emptied her out." The point here may be that in autobiography the narrator is both the speaker and the subject. The narrator exists in the present tense of the text, telling the story of Daisy's life; Daisy, the subject of the story, is conjured forth in past moments that are dramatized. Thus, the past exists in the present as memory exists in present thought. It is not the past itself, but present conceptualization of it. Similarly, a life story is not the life itself, but a way of imagining that life as it was. This sense of how the past permeates the present is relevant to the writing of history in general, whether it is the personal history of one's own life or of a selected other person or the history of a city, say Winnipeg, or a decade, say the 1950s. In this seamless shifting of tense and point of view, Shields provides a sense of how fluid and incomplete any conceptualization or story of the past is. Memory writes a story based on past experience and information that survives in all kinds of records of it, and in thinking about what has happened people come to better understand who they are and how they have changed over the years. This dynamic interaction between past and present is at the core of any writing of autobiography or of any history.
Vividness is achieved by rendering detail through the use of the five physical senses. Sensory description is specific and concrete; it conveys a clear picture of its subject. For example, Mercy Goodwill loves Malvern pudding, both the pudding and its name: she "thrills to see the dish … oozing juices … she loves the words too and feels them dissolve on her tongue like a sugary wafer." Effective use of simile (the comparison of two different things using "like" or "as") conveys meaning through fresh combinations. Mercy's first labor pain is described as "a squeezing like an accordion held sideways." The echoing loss of her mother at birth fills Daisy with "gusts of grief." In her final illness, in the mental state between sleeping and waking described as "the pleat of consciousness," Daisy Goodwill Flett marches "straight into the machinery of invention," her mind filled with "[c]ertain phrases, remembered and invented." Sensory descriptions use the five physical senses to convey what may be hard to describe otherwise. The apt image or the unusual comparison helps convey what often may seem indescribable.
The most important literary allusion (reference to another work of literature) in The Stone Diaries is the many references to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), another autobiographical novel. Jane Eyre is written in first-person point of view and tells the story of an orphan between the ages of ten and twenty from the perspective of that girl now a woman of thirty. The intelligent, honest Jane Eyre proves to be an exceptionally capable person who rises, with a good dose of luck, above social, familial, and educational obstacles to create a place for herself, complete with work and family. Brontë's Jane Eyre presents a literary point of departure, a work of comparison and contrast to the present work. The Stone Diaries is another story of the foundling, but it follows the trajectory of that life all the way into old age, whereas Brontë's novel concludes at the high point with its protagonist married ten years and raising the couple's son. The effectiveness of the literary allusion depends on the knowledge shared by the author and the reader. The well-chosen allusion informs the work in which it is mentioned by creating a frame of reference and by shedding light on that work through various parallels, echoes, and differences.
The Twentieth Century
Published in 1993, The Stone Diaries mentions historical events and social changes that span the whole of the twentieth century. The novel begins with Mercy Goodwill's at-home labor and delivery of her baby, during which Mercy, who did not even know she was pregnant, dies of eclampsia. Houses in this village do not have electricity or telephones; Abram Skutari runs for the neighbor, Mrs. Flett, and then runs for Dr. Spears. The doctor comes to the house, and husband and neighborhood witnesses sign the birth certificate. In a remote village such as Tyndall, Manitoba, in 1905, childbirth at home was the norm. It would be commonplace to enlist the help of a neighbor woman who had already given birth and considered unusually fortunate for a physician to be in attendance.
In the early 1900s household conveniences were rare: when Mr. Flett buys a Labrador zinc-lined ice chest, he shocks his wife and impresses the neighbors who have virtually no way to keep food cool. Transportation was by horse and wagon for short distances and by train for longer trips, such as the fifty-eight kilometers from Tyndall to Winnipeg. The train trip in 1905 took fifty-three minutes; in 2005, by car the trip might take just about the same length of time. But in 1905 the train crossed open farmland, stopping at many little villages along the way, whereas in the early 2000s people from Tyndall drive through the suburban greater metropolitan area in order to reach the city limits of Winnipeg.
In Bloomington in 1927, Cuyler Goodwill gives a speech in which he forecasts a boom era for the building industry. He takes as proof of future prosperity the fact that Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. (1902–1974) has just completed the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight. Cuyler also describes how much stone is being shipped to Washington, D.C., and New York City, and he anticipates the construction of the Empire State Building in New York City, which in fact began in 1930. Industry owners and upper management enjoyed great wealth in the years just prior to the Great Depression (1929–1939), and the stone mansions on East First Street in Bloomington reflect that affluence among successful industrial owners and company heads.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the post—World War II era, middle-class women were encouraged to marry and be stay-at-home mothers. They read magazines about housekeeping, about how to meet their husband's every need and wish, and about parenting techniques. The 1947 description of Daisy Goodwill Flett preparing dinner and urging her three children to wash up quickly since their father will be home soon from work reflects an era which idealized the nuclear family with the father as the breadwinner and the mother at home teaching the children good table manners and proper social behavior. This era was also known as the Baby Boom period, since family size at an average of four children was large by comparison to later decades of the twentieth century.
As in earlier decades, a husband's death often required the wife to go to work to provide income for the household and dependent children. Women at mid-century increasingly achieved college educations and through the 1950s and 1960s, greater numbers assumed they would have professional lives concurrently with rearing their children. At the same time, though, an unmarried woman was often considered unfortunate in love or someone to be pitied. Even more acute, the unwed mother was an embarrassment to her family and friends. In many cases an unmarried pregnant woman was obliged to leave her hometown, gestate and give birth elsewhere, and commonly expected to give up her baby for adoption. Beverly Flett's situation illustrates these assumptions and her choice to keep her baby anticipates the subsequent shift to more common acceptance of the unwed mother raising her child herself.
Increasingly through the 1970s and 1980s, adult children moved great distances from their parents' homes, pursuing professional lives of their own. In the mobile culture, these long distances caused separated family members to rely on occasional flights home and frequent long-distance telephone calls to remain in touch with aging parents. Alice telephones from England to Florida to check on her ailing mother; when she has time off from work, she hops on a transatlantic flight to visit her. Left without extended family members to care for them on a day-to-day basis, aging parents retired to Florida or other warm-climate locations, lived first in condos and then as their needs increased frequently moved into assisted care institutions. They died often times among strangers in hospitals and convalescent care centers, with children perhaps reaching their deathbeds in time to say good-bye. The Stone Diaries dramatizes all of these social patterns.
Compare & Contrast
- 1930s: Construction of the Empire State Building is underway in 1930. The art deco building is made of Indiana limestone and at 1,250 feet in height is famous for being the tallest building in the world.
Today: The Taipei 101 building in Taipei, Taiwan, is completed in 2003 and at 1,671 feet is the tallest building in the world.
- 1930s: For long distances, travel by train is the common method. On May 20 and 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh Jr. makes the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight; however, transatlantic travel continues to be by ocean liner.
Today: Attacks involving airplanes destroy the World Trade Center Towers in New York. Film footage of the plane crashes contributes to a sharp reduction in people flying on U.S. airlines. Reduction in flight travel threatens the viability of some U.S. airline companies.
- 1930s: Born May 28, 1934 in Corbeil, Ontario, the Dionne quintuplets become celebrities. The Ontario government makes them wards of the state, removes them from their parents, and operates a theme park, Quintland, where the identical sisters are on display twice a day to thousands of tourists. Their doctor, Allan Roy Dafoe, becomes famous and rich. In the novel, Daisy Goodwill sees the quintuplets on display.
Today: In 1965, the quintuplets publish their bitter autobiography, We Were Five, and in the late 1990s, the three surviving Dionne sisters who are poor sue the Canadian government for compensation for exploiting them as children and profiting from them. The sisters are awarded $2.7 million.
Critical Overview Shortly upon its publication in 1993, The Stone Diaries began to receive high praise and win awards. That year it was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Booker Prize; it won the first of these two in 1994. Also in 1993, Publishers Weekly listed it as one of the year's best books and the New York Times Book Review identified it as a "Notable Book." In the August 20, 1993, New Statesman & Society, in an excellent review of the work, Kathryn Hughes described the novel as "a sharp-as-tacks investigation into the limits of the autobiographical form." While Hughes pointed out that "[w]hole tracts of [Daisy's] life … appear to have been emptied of meaning," it is precisely "into those voids and gaps that Shields inserts her narrative, filling up the ruptures in Daisy's interior life with an account of the strange double-headed family (no mother, two fathers) that produced her." Hughes explained that "Shields holds fast to the conceit that this is no novel, but rather a documentary account of an ordinary Canadian woman's life of the type that became so central to recuperative feminist history in the 1970s." Finally, Hughes pointed out the "wonderful prose" that is both "abundant and particular." In December 1993 a review in Publishers Weekly stressed that "Stone is the unifying image here: it affects the geography of Daisy's life, and ultimately her vision of herself"; this review praised the novel for its "succinct, clear and graceful" prose style.
Alice Joyce, writing for Booklist on February 1, 1994, described the novel's subject as "the commonplace but never mundane life of Daisy Goodwill." Joyce praised the "finely crafted fiction" as "[a]ltogether satisfying" because it "reveal[s] the transformation of an unremarkable life into a reflecting pool of change." In the same month, Allyson F. McGill wrote a review of the novel for Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women. McGill explained how Daisy Goodwill Flett's life is "extraordinary" even though it "follows the familiar trajectory," that for example in her brief marriage to Harold Hoad, Daisy's quite typical life is "touched by the grotesque." Noting the shifting point of view, McGill states: "By writing her life in the third person [Daisy] becomes her own observer, knowing that the outer person and the inner self often diverge." McGill also noted that Victorian-bred Daisy Goodwill, who lives through the feminist era of the 1960s and 1970s, at times cannot speak for herself, "the spirit within unable to find true expression in the conventions allowed to her."
The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and positive critical attention continued. For example, Louisa Ermelino, in the June 1995 publication of People Weekly recommended the novel as an "absorbing, subtly comic, beautifully crafted narrative that teaches, entertains and moves to tears." In 1998, Karen Bell, writing for Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada, praised Shields's twenty-two-year writing career. Bell explained that the prolific writer used "a disciplined approach," writing an hour a day once her five children were all in school. In all the work, Bell saw the main subject to be "Love, friendship, families and memories … rendered tenderly and with considerable understanding."
Monahan has a Ph.D. in English and operates an editing service, The Inkwell Works. In the following essay, Monahan explores the limitations and contradictions implicit in autobiography as it is handled in The Stone Diaries.
Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries (1993) is a work of fiction which maintains throughout the conceit (an ingenious and fanciful idea) that it is an autobiography augmented by a compilation of other kinds of documents (biography, letters, photographs, and background historical information), all intended to accurately record the life of a real person, Daisy Goodwill Flett. In large part the novel accomplishes its aim of being one thing (fiction) yet appearing to be something else (autobiography), and in this double function the novel examines the limitations and contradictions implicit in autobiography while it also engages in telling the story of Daisy's life. While it follows Daisy through her more than eighty years, including perspectives and theories from those around her, the novel also demonstrates how its subject disappears behind a text that intends to define her. In its effort to draw a portrait of her, the text also draws attention to those aspects omitted from that portrait. Writing autobiography is a creative act that produces a work of fiction. No matter how complete the record of a life is, an autobiography is, the narrator explains, merely "an assemblage of dark voids and unbridgeable gaps." Events are obscured with passing years and writing about them is a process of recreating them: Daisy "understood that if she was going to hold on to her life at all, she would have to rescue it by a primary act of imagination, supplementing, modifying, summoning up the necessary connections, conjuring." In this way the novel is an examination of the limits of autobiography as a form in which to catch the whole of a life as it is lived. To show how this works, Shields articulates some parts of the story while deliberately omitting or being self-contradictory about other parts. It is as though to show Daisy, the narrator must also demonstrate how she cannot be seen. This essay examines parts of the novel which illustrate how Daisy Goodwill Flett is hidden by the very record intended to expose her.
The day the baby is born is vividly portrayed. There are those moments in that hot kitchen as Mercy Stone Goodwill prepares a Malvern pudding for her husband, Cuyler, and the scene next door in which Clarentine Flett pauses as she hangs out her wash to think about her life, her marriage, and her garden that needs attention. But from the absolute beginning, from the moment of birth, the baby itself is not seen. The baby whose advent causes Mercy to die is wrapped in a towel and laid on the kitchen table, virtually ignored. Abram Skutari describes the scene this way: "[n]o one [paid] attention to [the baby]. It was as though it wasn't there. As though it was a lump of dough left by mistake."
When eleven-year-old Daisy Goodwill is sick with measles, she is wrapped, even smothered, in feather pillows and comforters to which she is allergic while the world goes on as it always has outside her darkened bedroom windows. She feels during those weeks as though she is eclipsed from life itself, left out, blotted out. At eleven, Daisy realizes that she can be "erased from the record of her own existence" and that "if she was going to hold on to her life at all, she would have to rescue it by a primary act of imagination … getting the details wrong … exaggerating or lying outright, inventing." The life itself can be totally eclipsed, just as a little girl smothered in a down comforter is lost from sight; writing the life into text is a creative act which requires imagination and filling in what one does not know or cannot substantiate.
News of Daisy Goodwill's 1927 marriage to Harold A. Hoad is presented indirectly to the reader via announcements rendered in social page journalism of an engagement luncheon, tea, kitchen shower, and white dinner honoring the bride-elect. Readers hear Cuyler Goodwill's long speech at the wedding reception, learn later that the groom showed up at the church drunk and remained intoxicated as the couple traveled afterward to Montreal. The facts of seasickness on the transatlantic journey and intoxication during the drive to an alpine village are given. At the moment Harold balances on the hotel room windowsill and then falls to his death, Daisy has her eyes closed, and she sneezes, still allergic to feather pillows. Daisy's first wedding is presented on the periphery of the event, the text routed around the subject rather than dwelling directly on it. Missing are the obvious subjects of how Daisy feels during the ceremony, descriptions of her dress, the church and her father's giving her away; these key parts of the wedding are suppressed.
In the aftermath of Harold's honeymoon death, Daisy becomes known to others in terms of the story they tell about her. That is, people see the story of his sudden death on their honeymoon rather than seeing her. The narrator explains that "[t]he real troubles in this world tend to settle on the misalignment between men and women." That "misalignment" is seen, at least in part, in the different ways in which the sexes cope with the story. The narrator explains: "Men, it seemed to me in those days, were uniquely honored by the stories that erupted in their lives, whereas women were more likely to be smothered by theirs." Men "strut" around in their adventures, wearing them like medals, but "women [go] all gray and silent beneath the weight of theirs." In a sense this misalignment results, perhaps especially in the late 1920s, from men being known by their public lives, while the stories that are the stuff of rumor and gossip regarding women blot out their often more commonplace domestic lives. Thus, Daisy herself is subsumed by the extraordinary story of Harold's death; she is gobbled up by the gossipy version that paints her as a young widow with a broken heart. No matter what she does, the narrator explains, "wherever she goes, her story marches ahead of her … and cancels her true self." Thus the person behind the subject of the story is covered up by the story. The story fabricates a version of her, which in effect hides the actual person she is.
Daisy Goodwill leaves her father's Bloomington home after his remarriage not so much because she wants to go somewhere as that she no longer feels she can stay where she is. Motherless from birth, bereft of her surrogate mother Clarentine Flett from the age of eleven, Daisy finds refuge in Ottawa, in another father figure, Barker Flett, who is twenty-two years her senior and age fifty-four at the time he marries her in 1936. About their marriage, the text includes "The Things People Had to Say About the Flett-Goodwill Liaison" (the prime minister's view, Barker's housekeeper's opinion, Fraidy's thoughts, along with Mrs. Hoad's disgust), but Daisy's "own thoughts on her marriage are not recorded." Her two decades of letters to Barker do not survive; no photographs of Daisy survive. In the photographs included in the novel, none of them is said be of Daisy herself. While readers follow her life, her own words and her own image are pointedly omitted from it.
The description of Mrs. Flett preparing dinner for the family in 1947 hangs like a scrim over the true nature of the woman Daisy Goodwill Flett. Her apron, the jellied veal loaf, the stereotypical urging of children to wash quickly because their father will be home in "three shakes," all suggest the extent to which Daisy has taken on a superimposed role. As a wife and mother of three, Mrs. Flett relies on women's magazines for her parenting style, for recipes and centerpiece ideas, even for directions on how to demonstrate "a rise in ardor" during intimate relations with her husband. Even in her sexual expression, she acts on cue, expecting sexual intercourse with her husband, before he leaves for a trip ("a sort of vaccination" for him, she thinks) and upon his arrival home. For these moments she prepares as if donning a costume, appropriately by getting herself "bathed, powdered, diaphragmed, and softly nightgowned." She is confused by the magazine directions, how ardor and surrender are communicated by the loving wife by a single gesture of the body. Daisy's "brain, heart, and pelvis" struggle to imagine what such a gesture might be. As Barker rocks "back and forth above her," Daisy thinks of a movie. Spontaneity is absent; emotion is checked. "The debris of her married life rains down around her."
What Do I Read Next?
- Shields's three volumes of short stories (Various Miracles, The Orange Fish, and Dressing Up for the Carnival) are collected in The Collected Stories of Carol Shields, which was published by Random House of Canada in 2004. The collection also contains Shields's last and hitherto unpublished story, "Seque."
- In her biography Jane Austen, published by Penguin Group in 2005, Shields uses her own appreciation of family life and its dynamics as she describes the early nineteenth-century novelist, Jane Austen, in her domestic scenes at Steventon and Bath, England. She also explores Austen's intense relationship with her sister, Cassandra, and Austen's broken marital engagement. The biography is perhaps most important because it explores how great fiction is created.
- Shields's novel, Unless, which was published by Harper in 2003, tells the story of Reta Winters, forty-four, an author of light fiction and a nominee for important prizes, as her successful life crumbles in the face of her oldest daughter's decision to drop out of college and become a street person and panhandler. The novel explores the nature of goodness as it tracks the family response to this daughter's choices.
- Ian McEwan's popular novel, Atonement, which was published by Doubleday in 2002, is set in England, on one day in 1935 and a subsequent day during the retreat from Dunkirk, early in World War II. Written in prose similar to that of Henry James and concerned with an accusation that ruins two lives and a subsequent question about whether it was justified, this novel explores the way in which past events can be reexamined and reinterpreted years later.
- Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart, published in 2002 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, is set on Long Island one summer in the 1960s. The story pertains to fifteen-year-old Theresa and her visiting cousin Daisy, about their fantasies and emerging sexual awareness.
- Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's novel, A Woman of Independent Means, which first appeared from Viking in 1978 and was reissued by Penguin Group in 1998, has certain similarities to The Stone Diaries. The life of Hailey's protagonist Bess Steed Garner extends from the early 1900s to the 1960s, and it is told by a compilation of documents, letters, newspaper articles, telegrams, and announcements. Bess has the money and determination to survive through a less than perfect marriage and difficulties with children, and she defies a society which expects her to conform to its standards.
After Barker dies, readers view Daisy's life through a shuffling of letters, legal, friendly, consoling, directive. The letters allow Shields to snap from one prose style to another, from one way of seeing the subject to another. Readers learn about Daisy's depression through theories regarding its cause given by an array of other characters. When at last Daisy's own theory is given, there is the small prediction "sleeping inside her" that she will recover and that "her immense unhappiness is doomed to irrelevance anyway." The letters responding to Daisy's newspaper column comment on her writing style, her ability to personify plants, use metaphor, make a story while providing information; in all of this, readers of the novel only "hear" about what she has to say, but they do not read it directly in her own words.
Total eclipse slowly arrives through scenes in her Florida retirement, final illness, and decline. Her parents, long since dead, are "firmly erased." As she thinks about her situation she feels a generalized shrinkage, of things "lacking in weight"; she remarks to herself that "[n]o one told her so much of life was spent being old." It is as if she is already disappearing into the dust that death makes of the body, and the "real and the illusory whirl about her in smooth-dipping waltz time." Her vision in the Orkney Islands of that "barely breathing cadaver," Magnus Flett, gives the outward forecast of the dying process of which in the final chapter the text presents in Daisy as an inward journey of rattling thoughts.
Throughout the novel, it is as though Shields shows readers that in autobiography, in the text that is the record of a life, the human being occupies the white space around the words, fills the place no one sees, inhabits the shadow of what is said to be the person. To put into words is to grab the grains of time and try to hold on to oneself and others caught in them. No matter how much it intends to define and convey, though, the text is at once sieve and lens, filtering some parts, distorting others.
Source: Melodie Monahan, Critical Essay on The Stone Diaries, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Carol Shields with Elgy Gillespie
In the following interview conducted just before the U.S. publication of The Stone Diaries, Shields discusses her background, her thematic concerns, and her audience.
When her latest work is described by the seemingly innocent phrase "a novel with an appeal to women," Carol Shields seems to shudder delicately. And yet, the appraisal is contained in an overwhelmingly favorable review of Shields's The Stone Diaries in a review written by none other than Anita Brookner in a recent issue of the Spectator. And the phrase arrives knit to the flattering qualifier, "but of an altogether superior kind." Still, a faint distress registers somewhere within the outwardly placid Shields.
"No," she says slowly and carefully, shaking her small round head with its acorn-shaped blonde bob and still wincing at what she appears to view as the "women" put-down. She does not, she believes, write for women first, last or always. The reality of her writing life is instead somewhat more complicated. Shields is willing to consider the possibilities calmly, and from more than one angle. Her voice is light and uninflected; her manner is sweetly conciliatory.
Already thriving in literary Britain and Canada, Shields is poised now to reach new American readers with the March publication by Viking of The Stone Diaries (Fiction Forecasts, Dec. 13, 1993), her fictional life story of heroine Daisy Goodwill, as well as with the first American publication of Happenstance, a pair of linked novellas, in paperback by Penguin. In short, this writer shouldn't worry. The winner of major awards, from the prestigious Governor-General of Canada Prize to a Booker Prize nomination for The Stone Diaries, Shields has drawn a devoted international following.
We are sitting in her kitchen inside a converted warehouse building near Berkeley, Calif., where her husband Don holds a yearlong visiting professorship in techno-engineering at the university. The old cinderblock walls have been artfully renovated; sculptural, vast and white, they leave hardly any room for the kitchen. But in what room there is, PW and Shields hunch over coffee—very strong and black—and wine, decent and drinkable. Clearly, Shields attends to human needs; despite her frequent absences from her home in Winnipeg and her annual travels to France, she knows how to make the most challenging rented space into a cozy ersatz kitchen.
Kitchens come up quite a bit in The Stone Diaries, perhaps partly because in 1905 Daisy Good-will is born in one—in a rural Canadian kitchen, in fact, where her mother has spent a good deal of time concocting a special pudding before Daisy makes her surprise entry into the world. The mother is fat, so much so that the pregnancy has gone unnoticed, and, like Tom in Shields's The Republic of Love (Viking, 1992), she is a changeling. Daisy, motherless, gradually finds a new home and family for herself, and the 20th century seems to flow softly around her slow life in a Canadian border town. Then she moves south to Indiana, back again to Canada and on to motherhood of her own; at length, the novel tails the elderly Daisy to her residence in a Florida rest home. We follow her from astonished first cry to gloomily overripe old age via widowhood and breakdown. She somehow muddles through, a Canadian Candide.
Details of successive eras abound in the novel. Conveniences for keeping food cool, like ice chests, and other kitchen innovations, like Mix-masters, occupy Daisy's homes and her life, which coincides generously with the century. The novel is also replete with unexpected quasi-documentary elements, including the character's own amusing album-style "family photos," although none are provided depicting Daisy herself. Shields embellishes the story with love letters, clips, ads, botanical ramblings and diaries.
To enrich the effect of Daisy's womanly evolution, the author read old newspapers and 1902 Eton mailorder catalogues in the library, adding a "Ladies Rhythm and Movement Club" photo from the South Manitoba Folk Museum, a photo found at a Paris postcard fair, a snap located by her London editor Christopher Potter and photos of her own children, who look disarmingly like her. "But I don't want you to think I spent a lifetime in the library," she protests, denying any scholarly ambitions and protesting that she was reared on The Bobbsey Twins, The Five Little Peppers and Tales of the Limberlost.
Written in a poetic manner (Shields began her writing life as a poet), the novel deals—despite some demurrals from the author—with the business of being a woman. Much of Shields's fiction does. And her women—usually in their 30s or 40s, and like their creator, mothers, take in a broad range of experience. A serious, intelligent champion of romantic love and marriage who never insults her readers—either by condoning and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after fairy tales or by impugning testosterone—Shields believes in the possibility of happiness. Her themes are not just love, courtship and marriage, but also children and the nature of male and female sensuality, compared and contrasted. These are indeed subjects of some interest to women, though also, one guesses, to men.
"Oh, I think there's some truth in that," she concedes warily about the relevance of the "women" category to her work and her readers, when asked again. But in fact, her male characters are just as fully realized as the female. There are set pieces in both The Republic of Love and Swann (Viking, 1989)—when deejay Tom endures memorably, hilariously bad sex in Republic, or when elderly reporter Cruzzi passes through a fit of rage against his wife—when Shields's kindness toward men is unfashionably apparent. Clearly she feels sympathy for them and for what she reckons as their newfound vulnerability.
"I hope men will be interested in what it's like to be a woman," she says, referring to likely readers of her work. She adds, "I mean, men have to be a little bit curious [about that] nowadays." She has watched some battling of the sexes from her quiet campus office at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, where she teaches literature, and concludes, "I mean, if men weren't curious about it all, they'd be a bit foolish. They do want to know what it's like [to be a woman] nowadays, don't they?"
Even if they don't, without a doubt women do. "When you think about what women read," Shields observes, "you're actually thinking about nearly all the novels that were ever written. Because over 70% of readers are women anyway. So maybe I'm fooling myself by thinking my readership is balanced." Do men attend her readings? "Sure." Her hunch: "[They are] husbands buying books for their wives." She remembers the man who once came up to her after a reading to tell her that he would have bought her book—if only it hadn't come out too late for his wife's birthday.
"Men have changed, because they've had to change," Shields asserts. Her male voices may ring persuasively to the ear, but she believes she is fair-handed. Like Daisy Goodwill's men in Diaries, one of whom falls out of a window on his honeymoon, Shields's men are sometimes confused but never utterly wicked. She attributes her mostly generous and thoughtful gallery of men—from Tom in Republic to Frederic in Swann—to a fond and loving father, brother, husband and son in her life.
Born in Oak Park, Ill., to a candy manufacturer and his wife, Shields left to study at Hanover College in Indiana, then earned a master of arts in literature at Ottawa University, where she met her future husband. She has lived in Winnipeg for 16 years.
However, she has also spent long periods living with her family in the French Jura while her husband was at work there; hence the French interludes that appear in her short stories. "I feel I belong to all three places, in a sense," Shields says, meaning Canada, France and America. "But I find this which-country-reads-me-and why stuff so difficult to deal with. Novels are individualistic; they don't break down along nationalist lines." In purely personal terms, she feels considerable loyalty to Canada, having lived there since she was 22. And in her books, Shields's affection for the country is plain; she may mock it gently, yet she cherishes it, too.
How did her career as a writer begin? "My writing life was a case of very slow and late evolution," Shields modestly explains. Not until her 40th birthday in 1977 did the letter arrive from McGraw-Hill accepting Small Ceremonies, her first novel. Why not sooner? "I had all these kids." For years she had written poetry and stories fitfully at dawn while the children slept, and she had no agent. "In those days," Shields says, "you didn't need one in Canada."
Her habits have changed. The five younger Shieldses are now in their 20s and 30s. The parents have downsized their Winnipeg house accordingly, take plenty of sabbaticals and travel abroad as they like. Shields's American agent is Virginia Barber; in Canada, she is represented by Bella Pomer. When at home, she writes daily at her office, and she is currently at work on a play (plot as yet undisclosed). Her last two did well at home, and Thirteen Hands—about a women's bridge team—was twice taken up and performed by amateur American repertory companies. Shields's acknowledged influences include Mavis Gallant, and she counts Alice Munro and Newfoundland writer Joan Clark as literary confidantes.
These days, she is happily computerized—and, she says, just barely edited. Her Macintosh Classic can be heard upstairs, where her husband Don is making pinging noises with it. But the computer entered her life with an odd result, initially: when she first changed over in the middle of writing Republic, she found that digital fluidity made her unbearably verbose.
"Luckily, that novel was edited by Mindy Warher at Viking in New York. It was the first time any novel I'd written was drastically cut. Mindy was wonderful; she cut two huge chunks and about a thousand smaller ones. Yes, I felt a tiny bit of pain. But at the same time, she had a kind of genius for making me think it had really been my idea to do the cuts." Shields attributes her growing American success to Warner's astuteness, and she's been careful not to let her keyboard run away with her again. "I get a parentheses tic easily, so they all get taken out now."
Happy though she is with Warher, she claims, "I was quite the literary slut. I have a promiscuous history with editors and went through four before Swann." Her first novels were published in Canada by McGraw-Hill Ryerson, "but they kind of got out of the novel business after Happenstance , my third. So I went to Macmillan Canada for the fourth [A Fairly Conventional Woman, 1982]. But that didn't work out in any way—they just didn't seem to have much faith in the book."
Realizing that she'd have to move, Shields chose the Canadian house, Stoddart Publishing. "I had a really good editor, Ed Carson. He worked hard with me and for me. People call him one of the best editors in Canada. So I stayed with Ed for Swann and Various Miracles [Stoddard, 1985; Penguin 1989]. But Ed was an ambitious young man, so when he moved to Random House, I moved with him." She's still with Random in Canada, while in England she is published by the Fourth Estate imprint, also the publisher of Annie Proulx.
Like Brenda Pulaski, the housewife heroine of Happenstance, Shields learned she was an artist only when she reached the cusp of middle age. The discovery came slowly. Only now, in her 50s, does she feel that she has committed herself to writing. "There was a time," she concedes, "when I shrugged off my writing in embarrassment."
Her readers seem as committed to her work as she does. Many write to her, receiving postcards in reply. "That's much the best kind of review," Shields remarks of this mail. "I dash off several postcards a day. That connectedness is an important part of my life."
From three slim poetry collections, Shields has graduated in less than 20 years to a 30,000-copy first printing at home in Canada, and she has an upcoming tour for Viking of American cities. She is no longer That Other Canadian Novelist.
Source: Elgy Gillespie, "Carol Shields: Life in America, Canada and France Has Influenced Her Booker-Nominated Fiction," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 9, February 28, 1994, pp. 61-62.
In the following essay, Pool explores the characters and viewpoints in Happenstance and The Stone Diaries.
You would expect that good books from a country as close to us (in every sense) as Canada would quickly find American covers. Apparently not. It has taken more than a decade for the first U.S. edition of Carol Shields' Happenstance to appear, and I suspect we might not have it even now if her latest work, The Stone Diaries, had not been short-listed for last year's Booker Prize. Whatever their literary merit, awards are good promotion even for finalists, encouraging publishers to furnish early and out-of-print work. In Shields' case this is all to the good, and I hope we will soon see her earlier novels, Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden. Her work should be read in its entirety, that entirety hangs together so well.
Shields staked out her fictional territory early in her novel-writing life, and has explored it inventively ever since. Her realm of interest is the chronicling of lives, our efforts to find stories that give them shape and meaning. Underlying her own chronicling of people chronicling lives is the point that no one ever really knows enough. Shields' characters may be professional biographers or ordinary folk trying to make sense of their lives; all confront a picture that is inevitably incomplete. Beyond the mysteries of life (the role of fate or choice), we each have a particular perspective that determines what we see and miss, an individual framework that leads to readings that are sometimes comically, sometimes poignantly wrong. Nor do we readily enter other perspectives: in Shields' world, people misconstrue each other regularly, even if—perhaps especially if—they sleep together nightly.
With her eye on perspective, Shields plays nicely with viewpoints, shifting not only within books but even between them. In Small Ceremonies, the central character is biographer Judith Gill; in The Box Garden, the protagonist is Judith's sister. The setup offers great potential to enrich both books, but shields uses it only modestly here, as if trying it out.
In her next two novels, though, she works this construction ingeniously. Happenstance, which first appeared in 1980, follows historian Jack Bowman's lift over five days when his wife Brenda, a quiltmaker, is away at a handicrafts exhibit; A Fairly Conventional Woman, published in 1982, examines the same five days, focusing on Brenda. Together the novels create a vital portrait of a marriage, as the subtitle of this new edition suggests, it is a marriage "in transition." Fittingly, in this volume, the two are bound together but open from opposite sides of the books, each upside down to the other.
Jack's story takes place in Chicago, where Shields, now a Winnipeg resident, was born and raised. The Bowmans' suburb is comfortable, a world that applies equally well to Jack. At 43, he has a secure, unpressured research position. Married twenty years, he has two healthy if adolescent children. He meets his good friend Bernie Koltz weekly to discuss such topics as entropy or the death of God. As he sees it, he owes his good fortune to "happenstance," which has "made him into a man without serious impairment or unspeakable losses."
But during Brenda's absence, comfort disappears amidst a slew of comically depicted disasters: Bernie turns up, announcing his wife has left him; a neighbor, an amateur actor, is trashed in a review and attempts suicide; Jack's son has stopped eating; in the background, housekeeping degenerates, the kitchen overflows with gnawed bones, dirty glasses, wadded-up napkins.
Worst of all, Jack confronts a crisis. He learns that a book on the same subject as the one he is writing will soon appear; he may have to drop his project. If truth be told, it would be a relief. Only in chapter six after three years, he can barely face the boring text. "I'm a man who has lost his faith," he says dramatically, posing a bit for this crisis much as he has posed at writing his book.
A philosophizing fellow, Jack has trouble grounding himself in everyday reality. By contrast, there is nowhere else that Brenda lives. So we realize as, during her five days at the conference, she remembers her unmarried mother and missed father, and reflects on her years as a housewife and her recent quilting success.
For Brenda, these are heady days. A woman who hasn't traveled alone, she calls room service for the first time in her life. She wins honorable mention for her quilt, is interviewed by a reporter, meets feminists at the conference, is shaken to find her hotel roommate having sex, gets horribly drunk and sick, meets a man for whom she feels an affinity, not everything is wonderful, but everything is new.
Shrewdly depicting the same moments as seen by each spouse, Shields reveals different visions of the past as well as different views of the present. In Jack's story, the comedy depends partly on Brenda's forth-coming, continuing presence, which he never doubts. In Brenda's, though her love for Jack is clear, we find her reflecting on her anger, wondering if it means her life has been a mistake. Ruminating guiltily about taking over the guest room for her work, she realizes she deserves it: she is more serious about her work than Jack is about his. This, in view of their history, seems to me the most startling realization of all, one that Jack has yet to come to, though it lies just ahead.
Sheilds is expert at combining satire and sympathy. Alongside the gaps in Jack and Brenda's comprehension of each other lies the substance of all they share. Canny and unsentimental, this double chronicle captures not just this couple but men's and women's lives and marriage in our time.
If Happenstance is ingeniously constructed, it is nonetheless straightforward compared to The Stone Diaries, an intricate novel and complex commentary on living and telling lives. Simply described, it is the autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her birth in Tyndall, Manitoba, in 1905. to her death in Florida in the nineties. It is very much a woman's story.
Starting with her birth and advancing approximately by decades, Daisy describes how her mother Mercy Stone died when she herself was born; how a neighbor, Clarentine Flett, cared for her and, in the midst of change of life, changed her life, abandoning her husband, Magnus, and taking Daisy to her son Barker in Winnipeg; how at Clarentine's death, Daisy's father, a stone worker, took her to Bloomington, Indiana, where he flourished in business; how she married a handsome alcoholic who fell out a window on their honeymoon; how, feeling swamped by her "tragic" story as orphan and widow, she went to Canada at 31, to visit—and marry—Barker Flett; how she lived as housewife and mother for twenty years, thrived in widowhood writing a gardening column, fell into depression when she was fired; how she moved to Florida and made a comfortable life. The final chapters, unsparing and grimly funny, chronicle her decline and death.
Throughout, Daisy generally refers to herself in the third person, perhaps because she has stationed herself as an observer, perhaps because she fells an absence in herself, an absence of self. Her detailed chronicle includes stories and descriptions alongside commentary about life, men and women, autobiography in general and the one is writing.
Shields plays intriguingly here with invention and truth. The novel has not only a family tree, easily conceived of as pure invention, but also family photographs, which are sure to give a reader pause: pictures of whom? Daisy's narrative constantly raises the question of veracity. She cannot know what happened at her birth or past her death, though she relates both. And all her wonderful stories—including the ones about events she could never have witnessed.
Consider one of my favorite tales (unfortunately, condensed here): the laconic Magnus Flett, abandoned by Clarentine, misses her intensely. He doesn't understand why she left. Discovering her stash of novels, her reads them; he especially likes Jane Eyre.
It astonished him, how these books were stuffed full of people. Each one was like a little world, populated and furnished. And the way those book people!… Some of the phrases were like poetry, nothing like the way folks really spoke, but nevertheless he pronounced them aloud to himself and committed them to memory, so that if by chance his wife should decide to come home and take up her place once more, he would be ready.
Magnus practices: "O beautiful eyes, O treasured countenance, O fairest of skin."
But Clarentine never comes home. Magnus returns to his homeland, the Orkneys. Years later, Daisy, who never met her father-in-law, visits the Orkneys and discovers he is still alive. At 115, he is famous as the oldest man in the British Isles. But he is still more famous as the man who could recite Jane Eyre by heart.
Now I find this story both moving and hilarious. But what is true here? The "facts" are few. Magnus did, for example, return to the Orkneys. It is interesting to imagine the various routes by which Daisy might have arrived at her tale.
Daisy doesn't hide the fact that her autobiography abounds in distortions and inventions. She warns us often. "The recounting of a life is a cheat," she observes. Daisy, she says,
is not always reliable when it comes to the details of her life; much of what she has to say is speculative, exagerated, wildly unlikely…. Daisy Goodwill's perspective is off. Furthermore, she imposes the voice of the future on the events of the past, causing all manner of wavy distortion. She takes great jumps in time, leaving out important matters…. Still, hers is the only account there is, written on air, written with imagination's invisible ink.
Daisy knows the power of storytelling: it way by this "primary act of imagination" that she determined to hold onto her life. She is also aware of different perspectives: she records with humor varied explanations of her breakdown, from her new-generation daughter's theory that it was the loss of her job to her friend's assertion that it was sex. And she is aware of her own perspective: her abiding sense of motherlessness and abandonment, the feeling of being "erased from the record of her own existence" (no picture of Daisy appears among her photographs) have influenced the story she tells. So we construct our life stories, the book suggests, seeing or inventing what we need, filling in the picture we cannot truthfully complete.
Tue or invented, a distinct person emerges from these pages, her story is a quietly riveting chronicle of an ordinary life. valiant and tedious. If we finish Happenstance feeling "yes, this is a marriage," we finish The Stone Diaries feeling "Yes, this is a life."
Source: Gail Pool, "The Stone Diaries," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 8, May 1994, p. 20.
Bell, Karen, "Carol Shields: all these years later, still digging," in Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada, Vol. 31, No. 3, Winter 1998, pp. 4-6.
Ermelino, Louisa, Review of The Stone Diaries, in People Weekly, Vol. 43, No. 25, June 26, 1995, p. 32.
Hughes, Kathryn, Review of The Stone Diaries, in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 6, August 20, 1993, p. 40.
Joyce, Alice, Review of The Stone Diaries, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 11, February 1, 1994, p. 995.
McGill, Allyson F., Review of The Stone Diaries, in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall 1994, pp. 32-33.
Shields, Carol, The Stone Diaries, Vintage Books, 1993.
Review of The Stone Diaries, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 50, December 13, 1993, pp. 60-61.
Great Events, 1900–2001, Salem Press, 2002.
This illustrated, eight-volume set gives descriptions of well over one thousand major events in the twentieth century, including national and world politics, civil unrest, disasters, and important scientific and medical discoveries.
Kinnear, Mary, A Female Economy: Women's Work in a Prairie Province, 1870–1970, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999.
One hundred years of women's work in Manitoba since the province's admission into the Confederation in 1870 are presented here largely through women's own views.
Osmand, Donald, ed., The Orkney Book, Birlinn Limited, 2003.
This book presents an overview of the sixty-seven islands that make up the Orkneys, which lie north of the Scottish mainland. These islands, half of which are inhabited in the early 2000s, have been occupied since 3500 b.c. and boast the highest concentration of prehistoric monuments.
Robertson, Brian C., Forced Labor: What's Wrong with Balancing Work and Family, Spence Publishing Company, 2002.
The premise of this book is that the 1960s shift in attention from home to work was caused by certain ideologies, governmental policies, and corporate pressures, and these converged to cause parents to think a family could not exist on only one income.
Staebler, Edna, Edna Staebler's Diaries, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005.
Excerpts from the diaries describe this Canadian writer's life and professional development. Staebler kept a diary from age sixteen to well into her nineties, years which span most of the twentieth century.