Words by Carol Shields

In Words by Carol Shields we have the theme of language, connection, powerlessness, frustration, global warming, love and sacrifice. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Shields may be exploring the theme of language. Prior to falling in love with one another both Ian and Isobel explored one another’s language (English and Spanish). It is through their use of language that they connected with one another and if anything Ian first fell in love with Isobel’s voice rather than her looks. This may be important as Shields may be suggesting that words have an importance that is underestimated. Something that is clearer to the reader when Ian attends the conference. The language and tone of the conference has not changed over a ten year period. Action to halt global warming needs to be taken however nobody apart from Ian, who by taking a vow of silence, is prepared to take any action. If anything it is possible that Shields is suggesting that mankind when it comes to the issue of global warming needs more than words to change the state of affairs that exists with regard to global warming.

However the first step must be words and then commitment though as mentioned the only person who appears to wish to make a commitment or sacrifice in order to stop global warming is Ian. Something which costs him dearly when his relationship with Isobel begins to deteriorate. It is as though they are no longer a couple but rather two strangers who happen to live in the same home. Such is the strength of feeling that Isobel has when it comes to the sacrifice that Ian has made. Though some critics might consider that Ian has shown some honour by refusing to speak again in many ways his actions have been selfish as change does not occur. Things remain as they are when it comes to the issue of global warming. Ian may have thousands of followers or supporters who like Ian have taken a vow of silence but in reality their efforts are pointless as they do not appear to wield the power that is needed to implement change. Though Ian’s abilities to connect people with one another should not necessarily be dismissed. It is just a case that Ian’s good intentions have fallen on deaf ears. The powers that be have a preference for financial wealth rather than securing the Earth’s future.

It might also be important to consider that just as Ian might feel powerless. Isobel too remains powerless without the benefit of having Ian speak. However Isobel does join a poetry group which becomes an outlet for her to express herself. Though it is clear to the reader that Isobel has been forced into this position by Ian’s silence. Which may be the point that Shields is attempting to make. She may be suggesting that language or communication is an essential part of a healthy relationship. An individual needs to be able to express themselves with the one they love. If this is not the case the results will only lead to an individual feeling frustrated. Something which is very much the case when it comes to how Isobel feels. It should also be noted that due to the lack of communication between Ian and Isobel. Ian starts to become suspicious and thinks that Isobel may be seeing another man. Again this would highlight to the reader the importance of language or communication between two people. If there is no dialogue mistrust sets in.

The end of the story is also interesting as there is a sense that Ian has an epiphany or moment of realisation after he hears Isobel’s voice in the poetry meeting. Though he fights the urge to communicate to her by way of his voice. The feeling of love for Isobel becomes too much for Ian and he manages to say Isobel’s name. It is as this point that the reader realises just how isolated Ian is from the world when he has to be taught by Isobel to speak again. Just as they shared each other’s language before getting married. It is the same when Isobel begins teaching Ian words. It is as though both Ian and Isobel are falling in love again and is for this reason that the reader is hopeful that their fractured relationship will repair itself. However the same cannot be said when it comes to the matter of global warming. The reader left feeling that things will not change till the language used by those in power changes. Though this may not be matter that is of any importance to Ian and Isobel. Both may feel as though the most important thing for them to do is to heal their relationship. To rebuild their lives in the hope that they might fall in love again.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Words by Carol Shields." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 22 Sep. 2018. Web.


  • I think this story is about the importance of words in life but their inutility when it comes to change. Ian decides to talk a vow of silence because he wants to show the world that it is not words that will save the earth from global warming but actions. This short story tells us that we must stop petty talks and arguing and try to work together and act up to make things change.

  • When first reading the story, I thought that the message in Words was both environmental and about the importance of communication.

    On one hand, it talks about global warming and how it destroys the planet and must be stopped but on the other it’s also meant to be sort of a metaphor for the importance of communicating ideas and thoughts to others especially if they can help them out. The whole conference scenes are there only to remind the reader that you have to speak up and tell others what you think and that others will listen and some will agree. Ian could normally only speak for a minute but stayed longer because he expressed himself in a way no one else did. It shows that you shouldn’t go with the flow and follow the herd movement. You have to tell what you really think.

    The love story is to show how others help some express themselves verbally and the fact that Isobel is Spanish and the main character as a northern accent is to show that humans can communicate ideas and thoughts despite accents and different languages.

  • I believe the story is just about someone who went too far in his actions. He wanted to protest against politicals not acting but only talking about climate change and he ended up forgetting how to talk and distroying his relationship

  • I don’t like the story much, because if the author would like to spread their word, then they should make the story have a clearer meaning, so that everyone interprets exactly that, what the author wants them to interpret.

  • I agree that the story was about the significance of language. It seemed like without language, Ian lost himself (since Isobel had to teach him how to speak again). I also liked how they compared talking and action during the conference because only speaking will not solve anything. This might also prove that silence won’t solve anything, which is an important thing I learned from this story.

  • In my opinion, this is a great story due to the fact that it abstractly describes the importance of communication in an individual’s life. In the meantime, Shields also proved that communication is necessary in a relationship.
    It has proven a great point by writing about global warming, which is an essential topic that is still being discussed today.

  • Upon reading the review, I wholeheartedly agree with the points to the message of the story. One thing I would’ve like to see is at the end, there was a line describing the “unbearable heat”, which, if we take it at face value, could allude to the fact that, due to a breakdown of communication – likewise with Ian and Isobel’s relationship – the progress combating climate change, which would result in the exponential heat.

    It could also be a metaphor, which represents the heat from his “fever” after falling in love with Isobel again shortly after he was able to muster up the courage to barely say her name.

    All in all, I heavily agree with the review.

  • Personally I think that this story’s message is about the importance of words and communication. Like the article said, relationships need communication and not having that can seriously damage the trust between two people. It is also ultimately about choosing what is more important to you, Ian had to pick between healing the relationship with his wife or continue this futile attempt at convincing the authorities to do something about global warming. You can see that as Ian is following Isobel to her poetry class the text uses words such as “unbereable heat”, “smoldering stairs” and “thick with smoke” as if getting near words is quickly warming up the Earth again. What I got from this story is that words are necessary for humans to communicate and that sometimes you’ll have to pick between having this communication or use it for a greater cause. Overall I think the story was pretty interesting and this site definitely helped with analysing it. Thank you!

  • My personal opinion about this story is that it’s really interesting to see a man putting himself through all of this pain just for people to change their ways and end global warming. It’s also intriguing to see Ian falling in love with Isoble just because of how beautiful her voice is rather than how she looks.

  • I agree with how language is a crucial part of our lives. I think the message the story is trying to tell is how despite language being extremely important, some sort of action is needed to support what he/she is saying.

  • I think this review is very detailed and I totally agree with it. Because Isobel and Ian are both from different countries and they both speak different languages. In the story Ian took a vow to not speak at all for the rest of his life. But I think the main point of the story is communicating. If Ian doesn’t talk to Isobel, there would be a misunderstanding between them.

  • In my opinion, this story is both talking about the importance of taking action on global warming and also the importance of communicating and words. In the story, both Ian and Isobel is passionate about global warming, joining a conference which is where they met. In the first climax of the story, it states how Ian was so passionate and emotional when he decided to take a vow of silence, which Isobel of course disapproves. As time goes on, they slowly start to forget each other. We can infer from this that communication is essential for a healthy relationship. Towards the end of the story, we can see that Isobel attended a poetry club which the author carefully described, which shows what silence can do to a person. Isobel misses languages so much she was forced into this situation. This story shows how communication is important in every part of our daily lives and that we can’t live without words.

  • I read the story and I agreed with you. The story gives a warning towards the global warming crisis that is currently happening around the world. Just as what Ion did in the story, although many people do have the passion to save our planet, their words are not heard, or not being taken seriously, nor into action. Thus, they turned silence, but silence wouldn’t be able to solve anything, not the global warming crisis, or relationship problems between people and people. Just as mentioned above, Ion and Isobel’s relationship was broken apart due to Ion’s action of taking a vow for silence, and they became like strangers living in the same house. Isabel, at the same time, couldn’t cope with the silence, so attended poetry classes, which made her suspicious in Ion’s eyes. Communication is the foundation of connections between humans, it is also a way in which we can express our passions (such as wanting to help the global warming crisis). Being silence is one of the choices that we can make, but communication is also an important part of our lives and passions.

  • Personally I think the theme of this story is frustration, global warming, love and sacrifice. When Ian chose to take this vow of silence he said it because he was so emotive that he couldn’t control his emotions, he blurted out for a vow of silence. What he did wasn’t selfish, he did this out of love for his family, he wanted to make a better world for them to live him. Isobel might have reacted too strongly about this, but she made the right of choice of going into her poetry club. We can all understand the reason she went a little bit crazy. Not having a single voice in the house for months is hard to endure for her. In the end of the story we can see that Isobel truly still cares about Ian. She was worried about him, she helped him. In the end she has so much patience for him. This is just my own opinion. Thank you!

  • The story “Words” has a theme of language, powerless, global warming, connection and sacrifice. Carol Shields uses different languages to symbolize how everyone is different, but words are what bring us together. Global warming is something that can not be changed by simply talking about. Shields show that although they have talked and discussed about improving global warming, no one has taken the first step to change and improve global warming. Ian and his followers are the only ones that are ready and willing to make the change. In the story, they show this by taking the vow of silence.

    Isobel shows the important in language and words as it brings us together no matter where we are from. Shields has specifically written that Ian fell in love with Isobel because of her voice. This could symbolize the courage to speak as well as remind the reader how they have gotten together at this International Conference.

  • The main focus in this story is the excessive use of words, their meaning or lack of any words at all.

  • In my opinion, I believe this review of Words by Carol Shields is similar to my idea of this short story. This is due to the fact that despite the ambiguous message of global warming, love and sacrifice, “Words” could also be a way of expressing language through literature. Furthermore, I do agree that the message of this story is to show how significant communication and actions define when it comes to critical views and topics. Through out this story, there are various climaxes that build up like layers which contrast smoothly. The relationship Ian and Isobel had is mysterious. Not only is their connection entirely based on words and language, but their differences such as nationalities, and voice, attract each other like a magnet. Therefore, because Ian made a vow of silence to never talk again just to support the environment, Isobel was annoyed since their love was through language. In the end, after a few years, Ian ends up having this lump in his throat, meaning he cannot hold it any longer, after not talking or communicating with his family for such a long time. He ends up linking up with his wife again after saying her name, restarting their relationship from the very beginning.

  • In the story “Words” by Carol Shields it is expressed how two environments who want to make change in their world fall in love through the use of their different languages/cultures. After marriage, the couple decides that the male of the relationship (Ian) is the chosen adult to attend these international conferences on behalf of the both of them. However after several years of listening to the same repeated speech by a supposedly wise delegate, Ian finally requests to speak, to speak his mind of this atrocious issue that everybody in that same room has pointlessly addressed for the past decade. His wife and family at home drives the passion behind his words as he is speaking what needs to be heard, the truth. Furthermore after his bold speech, he stupidly raises his foolish hand in front of thousands and announces that his is the first to take a vow of complete silence. As soon as he realises what he has done, a shadow of guilt begins to weigh down on him because he now knows that he is the same as everybody else that was in that room. He got too wrapped around the attention and the spotlight that he was never in before and deeply disappointed not only himself, but his loving wife and kids.

  • In my opinion, the point that Shields is trying to make is that communication is necessary, not the problem but that communication is the first step for action. At the beginning of the story we see that global warming is a huge problem in the world and that they are making conferences to discuss the topic and to solve it, even though they were holding the conferences there was no action taken. To solve this problem Ian takes a vow of silence, which in my opinion is a mistake. Later in the story Ian’s relationship with his girlfriend Isobel deteriorates, but Ian then realizes his love for Isobel through language and starts talking again, which repairs his relationship. In short communication is necessary even if it doesn’t do anything because if there isn’t any communication nothing will happen.

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