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Volume 34, Number 2 (2009)

A Human Conversation about Goodness: Carol Shields’s Unless

February 23, 2010


Asked whether she believed in God, Carol Shields answered, “No. Human goodness is the only thing I believe in.”  Human goodness is challenged in Shield’s novel Unless by the self-immolation of one woman and the physical and mental damage to another who tries to help her. The burns left on Norah’s hands inscribe her attempt to reach across the barriers of her normalized culture to help a woman in a burning burka, but the catastrophe reduces both women to silence. Norah sits wordlessly on a street corner in Toronto with the word “GOODNESS” written on a sign hanging around her neck and a begging bowl in her lap. The hurried desire of her family to move beyond the incident and reintegrate her into upscale Toronto normalcy risks not only a denial of Norah’s altered state but also an erasure of the unidentified and unidentifiable dead woman who haunts the text.