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Small Ceremonies

by Carol Shields

Carol Shields’ debut novel, Small Ceremonies (1976), is about a “modern” woman named Judith Gill who balances a budding career as a writer with the more traditional life of a wife and mother. When Judith isn’t researching her biography of Canadian pioneer Susanna Moodie, she’s at home in an unnamed suburb cooking dinner, doing chores, or just sitting around the TV with her professor husband and her son and daughter.

But even in these domestic moments the writer’s mind is never at rest. A true biographer, Judith is forever studying people, forever trying to suss out their deepest hidden selves. Not even her family is exempt from her analytical gaze. In one passage, Judith notes how her 16-year-old daughter, Meredith, has “a delicious water-colour softness, and if she were braver she would be beautiful,” while in another, she watches her husband install a doorknocker and notes “that it proves what I have always known, that despite his socialism, he is 90 percent an aristocrat.”

Shields’ chief aim with this episodic, mostly plotless novel is to illuminate the classic dilemma of analytical types like Judith, which is: does being an observer of the world prevent one from being a participant in it? For the most part, Judith is happy in her marriage and in her relationship with her children, but she feels, as she says in the novel’s opening line, that she “ought to be happier,” and that there maybe ought to be more to life than analyzing others. “What is the matter with me?” Judith wonders as she stands off to one side, observing her children go about their day. “Why am I always the one who watches?” Later, she seems more reconciled to her fate: “My own life will never be enough for me. I am a watcher…. it is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life.”

Since reading is a form of watching, it’s likely that anyone who picks up Small Ceremonies will identify with Judith’s existential quandary at least a little bit. But I couldn’t help feeling that Shields misdiagnosed her heroine. Judith’s disease isn’t watchfulness at all, but bitchiness. As far as I can see, her enthusiasm for observation is mostly about tearing away people’s facades and finding ways in which she can reduce or belittle them. Here is Judith on her colleague Eberhardt Furlong, a Robertson Davies-type great man of letters: “His sophistication is problematically wrought […] he is uncertain about salad forks, brandy snifters, and how to use the subjunctive; he finds those Steuben glass snails charming and he favours Renoir […] he is spotted, oh, he is uncommonly spotted.” Or here is Judith on a man she hasn’t even met, but in whose house she is staying: “Poor John Spalding, how I added him up […] querulous and slightly affected, drinking too much at staff parties, writing essays for obscure quarterlies; John Spalding, failed novelist, poor John Spalding.”

The novel is awash with these sour little assessments, and they lead you to expect some sort of self-reckoning in Judith’s future. Shields even encourages you to expect this by allowing her heroine some flickers of awareness. At one point, Judith describes herself as “incorrigibly curious,” only to add: “Curious is kind; I am an invader, I am an enemy.” But by novel’s end, Judith’s grand realization is simply that she thinks too much and that maybe her life would be better if she would just reconcile herself to the fact. So much for self-reckoning.

I’ve begun to worry that Judith represents some sort of CanLit archetype: the intelligent, embittered woman who consoles herself with sharply observed ironies. There is, in fact, a passage in Small Ceremonies that would seem to confirm this. Throughout the novel, the literate characters frequently find themselves discussing the state of Canadian letters and musing on the Canadian theme of survival (which had, of course, just been articulated by Margaret Atwood a few years before). Judith reflects at one point that Susanna Moodie’s survival in the wilderness must have been mostly due to her sense of irony. “Irony, it seems to me, is a curious quality, a sour pleasure,” she says, seemingly oblivious to her own dependence on it. “[It is] a double vision which allows pain to exist on the reverse side of pleasure. Neither vice nor virtue, it annihilated the dichotomy of her existence. Smoothed out the contradictions, forestalled ennui and permitted survival.”

If irony is indeed the Canadian woman’s traditional tool of survival, one would hope that our greatest novelists would demonstrate how limited and self-defeating a tool it ultimately is. In Small Ceremonies, Shields takes us about halfway there and then seems to lose her way. Her Judith probably is some sort of archetype, but without the benefit of deeper authorial understanding, she’s an archetype without reverberations.