Carol Shields is often seen as a minaturist, as a writer who writes about the small and homely details of life, rather than a teller of sweeping sagas about great and important doings, and this choice (as is suggested by a largely male group of great literary critics who control admission to the canon) limits the greatness possible in such work. Such tales are told in women's words, set in women's worlds, and thus cannot compare. Such novels, says the literary doyen, can at best be good (while, of course, bring womanly) and never great.
Reta Winters, Shields' protagonist, is a mother whose beautiful and intelligent daughter Norah has left home, left her boyfriend, left college, left the normal rhythms of life, to spend her days sitting on a busy city street corner with a sign around her neck that reads, simply, "goodness." Among the clues Reta has that may explain why Norah has taken this frightening journey away from life is this comment from one of her professors:
Well, yes, we did have one or two altercations, you know how things go these days. Could Flaubert possibly imagine himself into a woman’s life? The class divided on that issue, it happens every year. Norah saw Madame Bovary as a woman blandly idealized by Flaubert, and then reduced to a puff of romanticism, and capable of nothing else but kneading her own soft heart. Your daughter’s view, and it is a perfectly viable view, was that Madame Bovary was forced to surrender her place as the moral centre of the novel. Others, needless to say, disagreed.
Reta is a writer working on a sequel to her first novel, about Alicia a woman whose essential quality - according to Reta's editor Arthur - is goodness. But Arthur is pressuring Reta to make this new novel more "universal" - by making it not at all about Alicia but instead about Alicia's fiance Roman, because "A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking." Because Alicia as a character, and hence any book about Alicia, possesses "goodness but not greatness."
And on multiple levels, that is precisely what Unless, Shield's final novel, is about. The exclusion of women from greatness, and the meaning of what, in the eyes of a patriarchal society, remains to them - goodness. Shields articulates this quite clearly in the novel, in a letter she writes (but does not send) to a literary critic:
It happens that I am the mother of a nineteen-year-old daughter who has been driven from the world by the suggestion that she is doomed to miniaturism. Her strategy is self-sacrifice. I know what that feels like. She can have “goodness but not greatness,” to quote the well-known Dr. Danielle Westerman. It is, as you say, a “tricky proposition.” And she has been tricked.
As it turns out, Norah has, instinctively, automatically, in the manner of a hero, tried to do something that is not only good, but great. But it has also been traumatic, physically and psychologically. And it has ben an event involving the silencing, the erasure, of yet another woman - and, for a time, of Norah herself.
In this, which has been described as Shields' most explicitly feminist novel, all the small daily conversations and observations of Reta's life as wife, mother, friend, author and translator, add up to one overwheming conclusion:
... the world is split in two, between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang.
Unless is many things: it is a story about real people living the kind of lives any of us could be living, and the kind of loss and personal tragedy that any of us might face; it is an iteration of the value that is placed on women's lives, thoughts, feelings, place in the world, steeped in a feminist consciousness; it is an exploration of the nature of goodness. It is also an examination of the creative life. Shields's narrator is herself a writer - and during the course of the novel is working on a comic romance novel about a woman who writes. Shields draws attention to this, in Reta's thoughts about the novel she is writing:
I too am aware of being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing. I know perfectly well that I ought to be writing about dentists and bus drivers and manicurists and those folks who design the drainage beds for eight-lane highways. But no, I am focusing on the stirrings of the writerly impulse, or the “long littleness,” to use Frances Cornford’s phrase, of a life spent affixing small words to large, empty pages. We may pretend otherwise, but to many writers this is the richest territory we can imagine. There are novelists who go to the trouble of cloaking their heroes in loose crossover garments, turning them into painters or architects, but no one’s fooled. This matters, the remaking of an untenable world through the nib of a pen; it matters so much I can’t stop doing it.
Unless is in many ways a litany of instances of women's words and women's silences, and at the end, a celebration of women taking charge of their own voices despite a world that devalues them.