Carol Shields’s Tale Of Secondhand Life
A popular and critical success when it appeared in 1994, Carol Shields’s novel The Stone Diaries chronicled the life of a woman who almost disappears in the story.
The Stone Diaries is the story of a woman’s life told by everyone but the woman herself, a life so quiet and unoccupied that its most climactic event is the writing of a gardening column for a local newspaper. As Carol Shields writes of her heroine, Daisy Goodwill, “Her autobiography, if such a thing were imaginable, would be, if such a thing were to be written, an assemblage of dark voids and unbridgeable gaps.” The Stone Diaries is that autobiography, and the novel’s power derives from those dark voids and unbridgeable gaps. Daisy’s life spans the 20th century, a century in which American women recognized that too many of them had been cast as bystanders in their own lives, and began to tell their own stories.
Yet women were still being cast as bystanders in the cultural narrative during the year of the novel’s publication. The woman most widely identified with feminism in 1994 was Lorena Bobbitt, whose castration revenge on her abusive husband made her a heroine for the misogynist revanchism then in full flower. Few feminists actually took up her cause, but that did not stop Bobbitt from becoming a national bogeywoman among those who used “feminist” as a pejorative. Mona Charen, the conservative columnist, called her a “feminist pin-up girl”; Alan Dershowitz called her a “feminist Dirty Harry.” “Lorena Bobbitt has committed the ultimate revolutionary act of contemporary feminism,” chimed Camille Paglia. A similar tone could be detected in the angst directed at Hillary Clinton, two years into her term as “the first feminist first lady,” who was then leading the charge for health care reform, and also in the widespread editorializing over Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, a jeremiad by the philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers. PBS ran a program featuring Sommers and Paglia called “Has feminism gone too far?” Many in 1994 were certain that it had.
The enormous popular and critical success of The Stone Diaries—the novel spent nearly a year on the best-seller list, and Shields, an American citizen living in Canada, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker—suggested that readers were not yet ready to forget what advances had been made, and what still remained to be achieved. But the novel is not in the least a call to arms. Daisy Goodwill is not a traditional heroine. She is not anyone, really.
The Stone Diaries is a mystery novel, the mystery being the nature of Daisy’s identity. Like any good suspense novelist, Shields is a master of evasion and sleight-of-hand. This is evident from the novel’s earliest pages, when what seems at first glance to be a conventional story about a conventional woman takes a sudden left-hand turn into Tristram Shandy country. In a chapter titled “Birth, 1905,” Shields defers the moment of her narrator’s birth as long as possible. She moves swiftly from the story of Daisy’s mother, a young woman in a tiny Manitoban village who is so unworldly, and so obese, that she doesn’t realize she’s pregnant, to the impoverished inner life of the next-door neighbor, Clarentine Flett, a housewife in an unhappy marriage who is “half-crazed by menopause and loneliness, and in mourning for her unlived life.” Clarentine would appear to be a predecessor to Daisy, whom she later adopts, but Shields is too sophisticated a writer for such a facile device. Daisy’s fate, it will turn out, is to be far quieter than Clarentine’s.
So quiet, in fact, that it is drowned out by the voices of everyone around her. Much of the second chapter, “Childhood, 1916,” is an account of Barker Flett, Clarentine’s son and Daisy’s future husband; “Marriage, 1927” concerns itself with the inner monologues of Daisy’s father and father-in-law. “Motherhood, 1947” is about Daisy’s children, and “Work, 1955-1964” is composed entirely of Daisy’s correspondence, with her own letters deleted. Even events that might easily be played for drama, such as the honeymoon suicide of Daisy’s first husband, occur without great emphasis; when her husband jumps out of the window of their hotel room before their marriage can be consummated, Daisy lies motionless on the bed “for at least a minute,” unsure whether to be sorry or relieved. “It was as though she had veered, accidentally, into her own life,” writes Shields elsewhere. If any dominant personality trait can be ascribed to Daisy, it’s bewilderment.
The most dramatic moment of Daisy’s life occurs after the death of her second husband, when she takes over his weekly gardening column in the local paper. Though we don’t know exactly how she feels about it—this is the chapter composed entirely of letters she receives from friends and colleagues—we can gather that, for the first time in her life, she has found satisfaction. But after nine years, during which time she has an affair with the newspaper’s editor, she is fired, passed over for a male colleague who, using the excuse of seniority, snatches the column away from her, and she takes to her bed.
“Sorrow, 1965,” the following chapter, is composed of first-person statements in which Daisy’s friends and family members speculate on the source of her depression. Several of them, including a friend who cites Betty Friedan’s exaltation of work as salvation, blame her dismissal from the column. But Shields parries, and as speculation piles on speculation, the truth slips out of the reader’s grasp. Perhaps, alone with her thoughts for the first time in her life, Daisy has finally apprehended the “terrible yearning she’s been suppressing all her life.” Or is she “in mourning for the squandering of herself”? Perhaps the loss of her column is instead simply the latest of “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.” Is loneliness to blame? Exhaustion? Boredom? Regret? “Somewhere along the line she made the decision to live outside of events,” Daisy herself concludes, writing about herself in the third person; “or else that decision was made for her.” The only convincing answer is all of the above.
Even the valor of tragedy is denied to Daisy, “a woman born with a voice that lacks a tragic register.” Daisy Goodwill, like so many women of her generation—of her century—has been denied something even worse than freedom, or equal rights. She has been denied experience. Which is another way of saying that she has been denied life.
“This mean old sentimental century,” writes Shields in the novel’s final pages. “It smothered her. Like a curtain. The kind you can’t see through.” The inscription on Daisy’s tombstone puts it most succinctly. “Daisy Goodwill Flett,” it says, “wife, mother, citizen of our century. May she rest in peace.”
Daisy’s final words: “I am not at peace.”
Other notable novels published in 1994:
As Max Saw It by Louis Begley White Man’s Grave by Richard Dooling Louisiana Power & Light by John Dufresne The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips
The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
National Book Award:
A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis
Bestselling novel of the year:
The Chamber by John Grisham
About this series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.—Nathaniel Rich
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux1992—Clockers by Richard Price2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington1924—So Big by Edna Ferber1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith1954—The Bad Seed by William March1964—Herzog by Saul Bellow1974—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig1984—Neuromancer by William Gibson