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.