A Feminist Study Of Carol Shields English Literature Essay

This study is about Carol Shields’ most famous novel The Stone Diaries. “This novel”, according to Malashri Lal, “subverts the usual concepts of Western ideology of truth and reality and becomes explorations of the concepts of literary and familial relationships. It fades out the distinctions between the factual and the imaginative” (103). Shields’ prize winning novel, The Stone Diaries focuses on an ordinary woman and her journey through life to find her place. This woman, Daisy Goodwill Flett, narrates the story herself; so simultaneously she is the narrator and the subject of her narration. But occasionally the point of view shifts to the second or third person narrators which can be a demonstration of Daisy’s shaky internal life. Moreover, Shields was attentive to the smallest details like the ingredients of a pudding or Daisy’s possessions in the hospital on her last day. Her use of meticulous details makes the bases of her genre, diary writing, unsteady. Daisy’s narration is in the mould of an autobiography; however, it eventually reflects the fallibility of life writing. Daisy Goodwill, the narrator in The Stone Diaries tells us:” Her autobiography, if such a thing were imaginable, would be, if such a thing were ever written, an assemblage of dark voids and unbridgeable gaps” (75-6).

Moreover, Daisy’s narration of eighty-year chronicle of her unfulfilled life reflects North America changes in the society and family relationship during the twentieth century.

The protagonist, Daisy, was born in 1905, on a kitchen floor of a stonemason’s cottage in a small quarry town in Manitoba, Canada. The flow of life has swung her a lot: she spent her childhood in Winnipeg under the protection of a kind woman who had witnessed Daisy’s birth and her mother’s death. As an adolescent and a woman, she spent her life in Bloomington (another Quarry town). She married twice, became a mother, lost her husbands (her first husband died while he was trying to open the window for his wife to breathe the clean air when they were staying in a hotel for their honey moon and the second one left her alone out of his serious illness) and attempted to find a job in Ottawa. During these phases, she experienced the roles of a child, daughter, girl, wife, widow, mother, nurse, editor, gardener, and advisor hoping to find her genuine role in the society. Unable to draw an appropriate conclusion, she took refuge in writing a novel about her own life story and found the limitations of writing an autobiography. Daisy’s life is full of incidents, but at the time of weaving the strands together to form a coherent whole, she feels powerless. It sounds as if she were not able to find some connections between the happenings of her life. Carol Shields wrote her autobiography in The Stone Diaries, but unlike her heroine, Daisy, did not feel she led an unfulfilled life. As Clare Colvin in The Independent newspaper on 18 July 2003 quoted Carol:” I don’t feel I’ve missed out at all, I’ve got my friends, my family, my writing.… I think I’ve done pretty well.”

II) Statement of the Problem:

The Stone Diaries, the fictional autobiography about the calamitous birth of Daisy, her various far- away journeys, and her roles as a wife, mother, and widow up to her death, as it first seems is based on a series of trivial details such as memories, dreams, letters, recipes and many lists. On a higher level, it concentrates on Daisy’s attempts to challenge the old rules, conformities and needs of genre to disclose the concept of identity or the absolute self.

Some critics, mostly male, observing just Daisy’s meandering life categorize it as women’s novels retelling tedious tale of womanly domestic life. Many criticize it because of the frank characters, their apparently optimistic view of life and the occasional happy ending, and dreadfully dismiss this novel from literary fictions.

The other group and unexpectedly Daisy herself find the other faults of this self narration. They insist on the impossibility of being able to tell a true story especially and paradoxically when the story is the narrator’s own life story. As Daisy herself says, any attempt to write someone’s life story will result in a narrative that is full of gaps and voids.

Surviving from the storm of criticisms and ignoring them, The Stone Diaries concerns itself with personal identity and self perception and concentrates on domesticity, ordinariness, women condition, love, marriage, and family.

Observing the traces of feminism both in the plot of novel and in Carol’s own ideas involving female authorship, genuine female identity, women vital roles in the society, her dependence on a woman as a protagonist and her life incidents as central subjects in the novel, the researcher tries to reread The Stone Diaries in the light of feminism.

In this process, answering to the some questions may lead the reader to significant results. These questions are:

1. What is Shields’ attitude toward autobiography and its limitations?

2. How do gender roles and its inequality determine the orientation of the novel?

3. Where is the lost identity? Is it possible for a woman to find it?

4. What is the effect of many cities mentioned in the novel?

5. How is “Female Authorship” observed? How does “Women Creativity” play its role?

6. What are the effects of overlapping narrators?

III) Significance of the problem:

Contradictory facts have usually interested the readers. So the paradoxes in the life of Carol Shields, reflected in Daisy’s narration, and in distinguishing The Stone Diaries as a prize winning novel may attract attention.

Carol’s marriage led her to a new phase as a typical or a domestic woman. She was interested in this domesticity up to the time of reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in which the silent frustration of millions of women was given voice. Influenced by this book, her aim was not just domesticity in her life anymore. She required an essential transition from her previous ordinary life to open new horizons for herself. Being a good wife, mother and housekeeper, she yearned to do her MA studies. Then she began writing career and her masterpiece, The Stone Diaries, accomplished the American Pultizer Prize and the Canadian Governor General Award. It is the only book which has acquired this honor up to the present time.

The Stone Diaries was celebrated in the universities and academic literary circles and unbelievably between common people and brought her writer an international fame. On the contrary, it was classified as women’s fiction and its characters as ordinary. This was the source of irritation for Carol and in an interview in The Independent newspaper on Friday, 18 July 2003, she expressed: “Most novels are about ordinary people. There is a gender prejudice here. When men write about ordinary people they are thought to be subtle and sensitive. When women do so, their novels are classified as domestic.”

Carol’s successful upheaval in life and profession reflected in Daisy’s life story has been and will be an ideal for girls and women around the world. It can serve as an awakening factor for hearing their internal voice to revive their routine lives and make a difference.

IV) Delimitation:

Carol Shields is known as a prolific writer. She has written in different genres such as novel, drama, short story, poetry and movie scripts. However, her fame mostly is heightened by her successful novels. Among her different novels, The Stone Diaries is outstanding and has gained The American Pulitzer Prize and Canadian General Governor Reward.

In The Stone Diaries, the chronicle of a Canadian woman life, Daisy Flett narrates her bewildering quest on finding her identity, role, and contentment through marriage, motherhood and out-of-home career. In spite of her sufferings, she never truly understands herself, her story and destiny.

Carol Shields’ feminist ideas and emphasis on a female protagonist’s life (Daisy) mirror her general feminist theories. “Feminism, as a collection of social theories, political movement, and moral philosophies” concerning the liberation of women has been an interesting field for many readers, writers and specially critics. Although it has a long history and in comparison to other literary theories is not a new approach, its general orientation and multilateral supportive attitudes toward woman surpass time borders and keep it up to date (Seldon 207).

In addition to its old age, it covers a broad domain of thoughts and includes numerous diverse branches. Among these variations the second wave feminist criticism, started by the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and concentrated on women’s experience and sexual difference, French feminist critical theory, the capable advocate of breaking down conventional male-constructed patterns and Hélène Cixous’ discussions for a positive representation of femininity and her theory ‘écriture féminine’ are very influential in the research. Moreover, Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis, dominant in French feminism and Cixous’ theory particularly, has an extended application.

V)Methodology and Approach:

Feminism is a combination of different approaches. Although some approaches like Marxism, Psychoanalysis, and Post structuralism, which contribute to feminism are diverse, they share common assumptions that investigate the sexual biases, literary language and topics revisited in literary works particularly those written by male writers. Through emphasizing different aspects of different approaches, feminists attempt to discover, understand, and define themselves as true women in their own terms.

French Feminism, one of the latest approaches of feminist studies, attracts more attention. It is the key part of second wave feminism originated in France and influenced by Simon de Beauvoir’s perception of women as the “other”, and focuses on language as the domain in which male-constructed stereotypes are built and women’s language through which these constructions are broken. It has been deeply influenced by psychoanalysis, especially by Lacan’s reworking of Freud.

Among the advocates of this approach, Hélène Cixous is an influential figure in this research. She follows Lacan’s psychoanalytic paradigm in which “the child arrives at a sense of identity by entering the ‘symbolic’ order of language, which is made up of relations of similarity and difference” (Seldon 224).

She is critical of phallogocentric Western cultural systems and structures and believes that they are based on the priority of special concepts in the set of binary oppositions such as “Activity/passivity, Sun/Moon, Culture/Nature, Day/Night, Father/Mother,… (Bertens 164), in which the first terms are more significant than the second terms; “for Cixous, this never-ending privileging of the masculine, which results from what she calls ‘the solidarity of logocentrism and phallocentrism’, damages us all, female and males alike, because it curbs the imagination and is therefore oppressive in genera (Bertens 166).

She believes in the differences between men’s and women’s unconscious and their sexual, psychological attributes. Therefore, she encourages women to collapse masculine ideologies and establish their own ones. As a result, she herself coins the phrase ‘écriture féminine’ to discuss this notion of feminine writing. She does not consider ‘écriture féminine’ the women’s exclusive domain and expects both men and women to find it an appropriate field for trying to improve women’s condition in Western society.

According to Ian Blyth, “She distinguishes écriture féminine from existing forms of speech/writing, and in so doing she is associating feminine writing with existing non-linguistic modes” (44).

With an overall look, two strategies are very useful in studying this novel. These attitudes involve a woman writer and a womanly writing.

A decade ago, noticing the condition of women in the society, a woman made her mind, identified her goal, took her pen, held it firmly and started writing a story about another woman who could be the representative of women not only in a special society but all over the world. These facts make appropriate reading this novel from a female critic’s point of view who believes writing is that somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition of the patriarchal system (Blyth and Sellers).

On the other hand, a prevalent spirit is sensed between the author, protagonist and critic. All of them always challenge the worn out conformities and reject the patriarchal boundaries of Western ideology. They are seeking a new possibility or a different framework to express themselves. They desire an open shutter which is closed on fixed one-dimensional masculine discourse. Perhaps they want a new language with fluid concepts and multiple, unstable meanings.

Applying both of these opinions, female and feminine writings, the study of traces of French Feminism in The Stone Diaries consists of five chapters. The introduction is concerned with the general background, the statement of the problem (argument) and the definition of key terms mentioned in the research. The second chapter presents an investigation through the French Feminist approach and imposed social constructs especially on the women. In the third and fourth chapters, the novel will be scrutinized within the framework of Cixous’ theory and the achieved findings of French Feminism will be highlighted. And the last chapter offers the conclusion.

VI)Review of Literature:

Hooks in Ain’t I a woman: Black Woman and Feminism defines feminism as “female or male’s liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression; thus it is a movement to abolish the domination, pervasive in Western culture for the benefits of the whole society” (195).

Christopher Lehman Haupt’s obituary of Carol Shields introduces her chronologically and at the same time describes her works such as novels, short stories, poems. It expresses the changes in her views and life, the crisis she has undertaken and the responsibilities she had to carry on her shoulders, almost lonely.

Charming Fictions and Guilty Repetitions by Emily Carson is a dissertation which compares the two modes of authorship from non-Western and Western points of views. It states the two positions of the authors in the process of writing, to show the shared interest in a storytelling or to demonstrate charming resistance to it.

In The Invisible Woman: Narrative Strategies in The Stone Diaries, Katherine Weese is focusing on the speaking strategies which are incompatible in the portrayal of Daisy’s narrative voice. The writer believes that in Carol’s novel the narration has a both/and position rather than either/or.

The writer of Fictional Fossils: Life and Death Writing in Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries, tells that the complex relationship between life, death and text is at the center of Carol Shields’ fictional (auto)biography. The Stone Diaries reflects on the limits and responsibilities of life writing, of life becoming text, and the story of her life in her own voice.

Feminism, Motherhood, Jane Urquhart, Carol Shields, Margaret Laurence, and Me represents Canadian women and mothers in the fiction of the Urquhart, shields and Laurence. Each one has created strong maternal narratives in her creative work and commented on both feminism and mothering experiences.

Sidney Hill in her thesis ‘She must write herself’: Feminist poetics of

deconstruction and inscription (six Canadian women writing) , analyzes the author’s strategies of deconstructing dominant ideologies from a poststructuralist feminist perspective. She continues to tell that these six writers have used writing as a

subversive, dangerous, powerful and a creative act.

Malashri Lal in the book Feminist Spaces: Cultural Readings from India and Canada tells:” in The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields undertakes an imaginative ‘autobiography’ of a woman. It appears to be a straight ‘buildungsroman’ but becomes an artist’s search for roots and relationships” (100). He continues in the eighth chapter, that “Feminism sought to rewrite the Western ideological concepts of truth and reality and consequently, alternating versions of reality and multiple interpretations of the world became possible. Such writing that came from the margins of gender and social constructs interpreted and created a reality that was in many ways reactionary and imaginative” (94).

Contemporary Canadian Women’s Fiction: Refiguring Identities by Carol Ann Howells in the fourth chapter named Identities Cut in Freestone: Carol Shield, The Stone Diaries discusses the pivotal subject of lost identity of women and their attempts to retain it.

Ling Wang in A Comparison of the Narrative Strategies in The Stone Angel and The Stone Diaries focuses on the different means of narration and the effects of them on the development of plot.

Marta Dvorak and Manina Jones edited Carol Shields and the Extra_Ordinary. This book introduces some subjects related to Shields’ style of writing such as biography, archive, short story and novel; moreover, her beliefs about (extra) ordinary world of girls and Women are stated.

The other book which may be useful during this process is Carol Shield, Narrative Hunger and the Possibilities of Fiction by Dee Goertz and Edward Edeen.

Helene Cixous Live theory includes some interviews with Helene Cixous in which she tells her influences and aspirations, her thoughts on writing and the need for a new language.

VII) Definition of Key Terms:

Ä-criture Féminine

A French word which covers Hélène Cixous’ belief for a positive representation of femininity in a discourse.” It is a celebrated manifesto of women’s writing which calls for women to put their bodies into their writing” (Seldon 227). It subverts masculine symbolic language imposed by the phallocratic system and creates new identities for women.


The traits that constitute what is masculine or what is feminine. They are culturally constructed and were generated by the patriarchal biases of Western civilization.


A term means ruled by the father .According to Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms Western civilization is “male centered and controlled and is organized and conducted in such a way as to subordinate women to men in all cultural domains: familial, religious, political, economic, social, legal, and artistic” (234).


A concept employed by Derrida through deconstruction in which spoken words are privileged over written words. Cixous believes it is hierarchical in nature and insidious in effect.

Phallogocentric System

This term is combination of Lacan’s Phallocentric system and Derrida’s Logocentric system. It focuses on “Derrida’s social structure of speech and binary opposition as the center of reference for language, with the phallic being privileged” and definition of women only by what they lack (Seldon, 144)


Cixous’ reference to the openness to the other sex is called bisexuality.

It is the psychic imprint made when one admits the presence of both sexes in the mind, something similar to what Woolf called androgynous mind.

Ix) Tentative Outline:

I) Introduction

A. General background

B. The Argument

C. Thesis Outline

D. Methodology and Approach

E. Definition of Terms

II. Feminist Theory

A. Second Wave Feminism

B. French Feminism

C. Cixous’ écriture féminine

III. Gender

A. Gender Constructions

B. Gender Inequality

C. Female lost Identities

IV. Genre Disruption

A. Autobiography and its limitations

B. Ordinary vs. Extraordinary

C. Overlapping Narrators

V. Conclusion

A. Summing Up

B. Findings

C. Suggestion for further readings

VIII) Bibliography:

1. Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory, The Basics. London: Routledge, 2001.

2.Blyth, Ian and Sellers, Susan. Helene Cixous Live Theory. London, New York: Continuum books, 2004.

3. Carson, Emily Charlotte Pederson. “Charming Fictions and Guilty Repetitions:Authorship

Other (-) Wise by Calixthe Beyala and Carol Shields”. Diss. University of Illinois, 2007.

4. Coutler, Myrl Louise.”Feminism, Motherhood, Jane Urquhart, Carol Shields, Margaret

Laurence and Me”. Diss. University of Alberta.2007.

5. Dvorak, Mart and Manina Jones, ed. Carol Shields and The Extra-Ordinary. Montreal:

Mc Gill-Queen’s Press_ MQUP, 2007.

6. Goertz, Dee and Eden, Edward. Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger and the Possibilities of

Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

7. Hill, Sidney Margaret.” ‘She must write herself’: Feminist poetics of deconstruction and

inscription (six Canadian women writing) (Daphne Marlatt, Carol Shields, Betsy Warland,

Madeleine Monette, Madeleine Ouellette-Michalska, France Theoret).” Diss. Carleton


8. Hooks, Bell. Ain’t I a Woman? Black Woman and Feminism. Boston: South End Press,


9. Howells, Carol Ann. Contemporary Canadian Women’s Fiction: Refiguring Identities.

England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

10. Lal, Malashri. Feminist Spaces: Cultural Readings from India and Canada. India: Allied Publishers, 1997.

11. Lehman _Haupt, Christopher. “Carol Shields Dies at 68; Wrote ‘The Stone Diaries”:

[Obituary (obit)].New York Times. (Late Edition (east Coast)).New York, N.Y: Jul 18,

2003. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=370643151&Fmt=3&Clienld=61833&RQT=309& VName=PQD

12. Seldon, Raman, 3rd ed. A Reader’s guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. The University of Kentucky, 1993.

13. Shields Carol. “The Stone Diaries”. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

14. Wang, Ling. “A Comparison of the Narrative Strategies in The Stone Angel and The Stone Diaries.” China: Harbin Institute of Technology, 1999.

15. Wasmeier, Marie_Lois. “Fictional Fossils: Life and Death Writing in Carol Shields’s

The Stone Diaries.” Forum for Modern Language Studies. Oxford: Oct 2005. Vol.41.


16. Weese, Katherine. “The Invisible Woman: Narrative Strategies in The Stone Diaries.”

Journal of Narrative Theory: JNT. Yp silant: Winter 2006. Vol.36.


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