Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Stone Diaries

Lilies by Childe Hassam, 1910

The Stone Diaries by the Canadian author, Carol Shields, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and tells the life story of one Daisy Flett (nee Goodwill), a Canadian by birth who then lived for a time in Indiana, went to live with her husband in Ottawa, and then retired for her final years in Florida.

Although Shields, who died in 2003, is considered and considered herself to be a domestic novelist, that is, writing about the domestic work of women in her novels, I would beg to differ with this categorization. Although she writes of scenes in which Daisy plans and carries out domestic activities, because the heroine's heart is not in her work, it remains a cold and rather dull activity.

The book chronicles Daisy's life, but for the most part only as seen by those around her, and we learn more about these characters than we ever know about Daisy. Some of these characters love her--her father, her husband, her children, and the next-door neighbor, Clarentine Flett, who took Daisy in as a wee infant when her own mother died giving birth to her. We also see Daisy through the eyes of the town wags, or hear about her in announcements of her major life events in newspapers, letters by friends, and other assorted specks of prose such as lists, real estate clippings, luncheon menus....

Throughout this Daisy remains nearly opaque to herself and also to us. We are led to believe through the course of the novel that the only thing about which she felt truly passionate was her writing of a garden column for the local newspaper. When she lost this job after eight years she went into a morose depression, from which she noiselessly emerged to resume her life as mother, grandmother, and friend.

Before she dies, Daisy writes an epitaph for herself:
Flowers gratefully accepted in remembrance of Daisy Goodwill Flett, who embraced as well as she was able most growing things
gardens children balloons
of memory
though she feared greatly the encircling shadow of her solitude and silence which she came to equate with her own life
Daisy Daisy give me your answer true
Day's eye, day's eye
The face in the mirror is you
There are undoubtedly some people who go through their life this way. We are led to believe that the source of Daisy's anomie is that she lost her mother at birth. The only mother she knew was the generous gardener, Clarentine, who loved Daisy, as she had loved her friend, Daisy's mother. Although Daisy's gardening may be a tribute to Clarentine, Daisy seems to have no depth of feeling for Clarentine or anyone else close to her, including her husband, Clarentine's son. Daisy is fixed on the loss of the mother she never knew.

But Daisy is not portrayed as emotionally aberrant but as every woman, at least of her time--Daisy was born in 1905.

Now it is true that there may be a part of us all that feels the way Daisy does about her life--that is in a quandary, feels no real connection with others, is ceaselessly grumbling over life's disappointments, even those that can't be remembered, and suspects the impossibility of meaningful activity. It's the atavistic part of ourselves we generally try to ignore in favor of getting out of ourselves and going about the business of life, and if we try to think of who we are, it is impossible to contemplate ourselves without bringing to mind all those we have loved and who have loved us.

Shields, though, seems to say that reality is the grey dusty doubt and withdrawal that is her portrait of Daisy. Such is the mode of modernity.

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