Ordinary lives : extraordinary narratives, the transformation of character and theme in the fiction of Carol Shields
O'Neill, Rebecca Jane M.
Master of Science
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The primary objective o f this thesis is to examine the ways in which the ordinary lives that Carol Shields describes in her fiction are transformed into extraordinary narratives. I will use three of Shields’ novels as anchor texts—The Stone Diaries Happenstance and Marv Swarm—in the sense that I will focus closely on these novels in my close textual analysis and draw from them my arguments about Shields fiction. Yet, the ideas and arguments presented here have not been based on these novels alone as the fuller context of Shields’ work —her other novels Small Ceremonies and Various Miracles as well as her poetry and short stories — have informed my opinions, as has my wider critical reading. Also, I have been assisted greatly by the opportunity to meet and interview Shields herself in Winnipeg during February 1996. In order to be able to meet my primary objective successfully, I have divided discussion into four chapters. In the first I will consider the ways in which Shields’ fiction is underscored by visual politics which challenge power relations in her texts and necessitate the inclusion of photographs, letters and other graphics, as part of the narratives. These visual components disturb the narrative and provide visual counter-narratives without destroying the original voice so multiple layers are formed. The effect o f these visual disturbances is to bring the dynamics of reading into focus as the reader begins to “read” the narrative thread presented in the visual inclusions as well as the narrative threads that are presented as written text. The challenges to traditional power relations that I identify that Shields’ makes in her fiction are continued in the second chapter. Here there will be a concentration on Shields’ narrative constructs and an attempt to come to an understanding o f the exact nature of her works’ narratological features as Shields experiments with new voices and new ways of telling. I will attempt to identify the exact voices that can be seen to exist in the polyphony of voices that her novels create and sustain. The third chapter will identify the gender dynamics at work in Shields’ fiction through the ways in which she depicts relationships between men and women, the dynamics of same sex friendships and also the ways in which familial relationships are affected by gender. Also, I will examine the ways in which Shields foregrounds a parallel male and female experience in an attempt to draw the sexes together on common ground through shared experience rather than forcing them apart with the threat of irreconcilable differences. The final chapter will examine in close detail the way in which Shields’ narratives can be seen to explode generic expectation by presenting a collage of disparate parts drawn from many disciplines, such as, art, psychology, medicine, literature and (auto) biography. This chapter primarily concentrates on (auto) biography as Shields makes huge leaps forward in manipulating this recognisable form for the benefit o f ordinary voices that have been silenced for too long. Also, (auto) biography is Shields’ favourite theme in her work and she returns to it frequently. Ultimately, Shields’ fiction aims to take the stigma away from the ordinary and commonplace aspects of life and bring a new respect and understanding to them. This thesis attempts to outline the ways in which she achieves this goal and is able to transform ordinary lives into extraordinary narratives.