"Because She's a Woman": Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields's Unless

By Stovel, Nora Foster | English Studies in Canada, December 2006 | Go to article overview

"Because She's a Woman": Myth and Metafiction in Carol Shields's Unless


Stovel, Nora Foster, English Studies in Canada


IN THE CANADIAN POSTMODERN (1988), Linda Hutcheon observes the inherent conflicts between postmodernism and feminism. But Carol Shields succeeds brilliantly in combining her feminism and postmodernism in Unless (2002). Her last novel, Unless is her most explicitly feminist and her most intensely postmodernist text. She remarked, "I think I was the last feminist to wake up in the world: (1) She was braver about expressing her feminist beliefs in Unless because she did not think she would be alive to read the reviews. The narrator of Unless echoes these sentiments: "I am willing to blurt it all out, if only to myself. Blurting is a form of bravery. I'm just catching on to that fact. Arriving late, as always." (2) As Wendy Roy writes, "Unless is Shields' most explicitly feminist novel" (125). (3) Shields's feminism embraces egalitarian liberalism, however, not radical, militant feminism. For example, Shields and her Unless heroine both practise "bean-counting"--noting the exclusion of women from lists of the modern world's greatest thinkers and writers. (4) In her "Playwright's Note" to her play Thirteen Hands (1993), Shields asserts her commitment to the "redemption of women artists and activists" and her desire to reclaim these women, "to valorize those lives." Shields's daughter, writer Anne Giardini, confirms her mother's mission to address the "erasure" of these "invisible" women, "lost heroines," because this "obliteration is a tragedy" (12).

Shields employs myth and metafiction to convey her feminism in Unless: she revises myth in a manner employed by feminist writers from H. D. to Atwood, and she employs metafictionality, fiction about the art of fiction, to critique women's place in a "withholding universe" (220). All Shields's novels are metafictional--beginning with her first novel, Small Ceremonies (1976), in which Judith Gill is writing a novel, through Sivann, in which critics cannibalize the poet Mary Swann, to The: Stone: Diaries, in which Daisy Goodwill Flett, who writes under the pen name Mrs Green Thumb, narrates her own autobiography-but Unless is her most explicitly metafictional novel, for her narrator uses fiction to reflect and resolve her real-life dilemma. While all Shields's heroines are writers, the heroine of Unless writes novels, like Shields herself: in contemplating her heroine's destiny, she revises her conception of the "happy ending" of marriage for women.

Shields employs myth to present the problem in Unless and metafictionality to seek a solution. In "Literature and Myth," Northrop Frye defines literature as a "developed mythology" (35). To convey this, her most feminist fiction, Shields draws on that most female of myths, the ancient Greek tale of the fertility goddess Demeter's search for her missing daughter Persephone. (5)

Shields frames this quest as a mystery in Unless. Reta Winters appears at age forty-three (the oldest point at which a woman could still exert sexual allure, as Shields then thought) (6) to have it all: three engaging teenage daughters named Norah, Natalie, and Christine; a twenty-six-year-old loving partnership with their physician father, Tom; a sprawling one-hundred-year-old farmhouse in Orangetown just one hour north of Toronto; and a successful career as translator and novelist.

But suddenly her eldest daughter, Norah, the most thoughtful and literary of the three sisters, drops out--out of university, out of her Annex apartment with her boyfriend, Ben Abbott, out of her family, and out of life--to sit in silence on a street corner with its own "textual archaeology" (ii), beneath the lamppost where a Muslim woman recently immolated herself--with a begging bowl and a sign around her neck reading "GOODNESS" (11-12). (7)

The question is Why? Unless is a novel of interpretation--how to interpret Norah's defection from life. Theories abound. Each member of Reta's kaffee klatsch--a parody of the ancient Greek chorus-has a theory: "A phase, Annette believes. …

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