The Socially Aspiring Woman Comedy Trope

socially aspiring woman Hyacinth Bucket and her husband Richard

Recently the Woman’s Hour podcast talked about a gendered comedy trope which I’d never really noticed was gendered: the socially aspiring, snobbish female.

Hyacinth Bucket is a standout example, along with:

  • Linda Snell from The Archers
  • Audrey fforbes-Hamilton from To The Manor Born
  • Margo from The Good Life (Penelope Keith is especially good at playing these characters)
  • Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) from Keeping Up Appearances
  • Sybil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers
  • Doreen from Birds of a Feather

In literature, Britain has several archetypal socially climbing women:

  • Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair
  • Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice

These women living in the 1800s had no choice but to be socially climbing, because for them, living in a patrimony, marrying well was a matter of life or death.

Although the trope is very old, the socially climbing female a little out of fashion at the moment. Note that those sit-com examples listed above are concentrated in the 1970s and 80s.

The standout modern example in England right now is Pauline from Mum, written by Stefan Golaszewski, who grew up on those older sit-coms. However the tone of Mum is quite different. Margo can laugh at herself on The Good Life, but Mum is ‘impenetrable’.

We do still see them as a part of a wider cast in a show starring a different kind of comedic character. Fleabag’s step mother (from Fleabag) is another modern example of the socially aspiring woman.

You tend to see these women in the following situations:

  • She affects an accent which she perceives to be higher class, but gets it wrong.
  • She is completely self-absorbed and blind to other people’s wishes.
  • Her fashion choices are over the top, whatever that means for her milieu. Her choices are perceived by the actual powerful class as kitsch (‘stuff other people unaccountably like’)
  • There will be something about her home environment which stands out as very ‘her’. With Hyacinth it is her home decor, full of flowers and perfectly dusted. She’s often holding a duster.
  • There will be a skeleton in the closet which comes off in each episode to great comedic effect. This is the ‘mask coming off’ comedy trope.
  • If she’s a mother she’s either overbearing or distant.
  • This is a white and heterosexual archetype.
  • If she’s married, her husband is henpecked and mild-mannered.
  • She is disgusted by people who she perceives as lower rank than herself.
  • These women strive to be powerful (that’s their Desire) but they are not in fact powerful. They therefore surround themselves in people who are less powerful than themselves. They may have a kind of lackey best friend.
  • As you can probably tell, her psychological shortcoming and moral shortcoming is perfectly set up and inherent to the trope — she feels inferior and she steps all over others in an attempt to rise above her own station.
  • This lackey best friend (or neighbour, or sister) will be a ‘see saw’ character, who is very, very nice and a people pleaser. Other people pleasers are vicars, postmen, people working in service industries, and they all tend to crop up to allow this woman full comedic flight. It’s not as fun to watch her come up against someone with more power than herself because we don’t really want to see her get quashed, but in a show such as To The Manor Born, it is satisfying to see Richard, with far more actual power, afford her a certain respect.
  • It may be necessary for the audience to feel a little sorry for these women, in lieu of actively ‘liking’ them. We will usually be shown her ‘behind the scenes’ self. That might be the character without her make-up, with her hair looking wild; her poor relations; her economically destitute situation.
  • The archetype rests upon the stereotype that women are impossible to please; flighty, capricious — for husbands there is ‘no winning’. These women are insatiable, unable to be satisfied, so you shouldn’t even try. Pacifying her is your best bet. This stereotype can be deployed with much malice or less — the degree of sexism depends partly on how it is written.
  • She is commonly depicted as gabbing into the telephone. This plays on the wider cultural idea that women and telephones make natural companions, because women do love to chat! Hyacinth Bucket and Sybil Fawlty are frequently depicted using the telephone. In both cases, the telephone is associated with a memorable catch phrase, “Oh I knoooow!” and “It’s Bouquet.”
The Call Country Gentleman Magazine, March 25 1932. Art by J.F. Kernan.
The Call Country Gentleman Magazine, March 25 1932. Art by J.F. Kernan. Since telephones made their way into homes, women were seen as enthusiastic (slightly crazed) up-takers of this new technology while their laconic husbands stood by, failing to understand why their wives needed to gab so damn much.

Despite the prevailing view that talking by telephone was frivolous, and favoured by women, the telephone became a key technology the telephone became a key instrument in keeping people connected during the outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918-1920. Initially seen as a luxury, the telephone quickly became a necessity.

THE SOCIALLY ASPIRING WOMAN IN AUSTRALIA

Australian audiences understand this comedy trope perfectly. Our own standout example is Kim from Kath and Kim. Kim is stupid rather than wily, which is what keeps her in her position of no power.

However, it is said on Woman’s Hour that this trope is a specifically British one which we don’t really see much in America. The closest example they could think of was Monica from Friends, who aspires to have everything tidy, but it’s not really the same thing.

THE SOCIALLY ASPIRING WOMAN IN AMERICA

Why don’t we see much of this woman as a comedy trope in America? Probably because social climbing is actively encouraged. Why would you not aspire to have more capital, economically, socially and otherwise?

I do think America has a related trope: the woman who wants to be more sexually alluring than she is perceived by those around her. It’s the Bouquet/Bucket dichotomy only in relation to sexuality. This gag only works if the woman in question is not perceived by the audience as sexually alluring, in the same way the Bucket joke doesn’t work unless we all read B.U.C.K.E.T. as ‘bucket’. The actress who plays her cannot conform too well to the Western female beauty standard.

Sometimes the character is indeed sexually alluring by everyday standards, but that’s the only nice thing about her. Every other attribute is exaggeratedly terrible. Regina George from Mean Girls is the stand out example of that. We see this archetype in British comedy as well, for example Jen’s insistence on wearing too-small shoes in The I.T. Crowd.

However, I do think America is starting to embrace this comedic archetype, perhaps because the culture is starting to question the American story that everyone can rise above their station given enough work.

I’m thinking of Moira Rose of Schitts Creek, whose accent is a comedic affectation. This character considers herself queen of the town despite being widely disliked. However, Moira Rose does have an admirably wide vocabulary:

Moira owns a vast collection of precious wigs, which is the classic trope of putting a headdress on yourself as a ‘crowning’ glory. Moira is a very camp character as well — she revels in putting on ‘the mask’, and knows exactly what she’s doing. Someone like Hyacinth Bucket doesn’t seem to realise she’s wearing a mask at all.

Perhaps Moira Rose is the modern, ’empowered’ version of the socially aspiring woman: she has no power, but she takes it anyway, knowing no one is about to give it to her for free.

The lyrics to Jolene are regressive and speak to the weakest place in a woman. But they strike me as the meditation of a woman who is far more interested than this other woman than in… her man.

The lyrics of Candy by Doja are from a harsher, dirtier narrator, but I notice similarities to the older Jolene:

She’s just like candy, she’s so sweet
But you know that it ain’t real cherry, know that it ain’t real cherry
She’s just like candy, she’s so sweet

But you know that it ain’t real, know that it ain’t realI can be your sugar when you’re fiendin’ for that sweet spot
Put me in your mouth, baby, and eat it ’til your teeth rot
I can be your cherry, apple, pecan, or your key lime

Types Of Invisibility

How To Disappear

As a teenager I loved Fade by Robert Cormier. Fade is a creepy young adult novel about a teenage boy who learns he has inherited the superpower of invisibility. If I revisited it again today I’d probably find it even more creepy than I did then — stalking is sexualised, women are objectified, etc. Time puts a fresh spin on that story, though the taboo is part of its appeal. (Flowers In The Attic works the same way.)

Fade is an example of literal invisibility in storytelling. This is invisibility as a kind of wish fulfilment; what would you do if no one saw you do it? Personally, I would enjoy walking at night in summer, free from high UV, harsh Australian sunlight and the occasional scary street harassment.

When women on Twitter were asked what they’d do if men had a curfew in October 2018, many answered the same: We’d go outside and enjoy the freedom. Turning invisible would be similar, and I think it serves the same basic wish fulfilment: The wish to move freely in the world.

In storytelling, invisibility is a fairly common trope, but it doesn’t always serve this exact purpose. Writers use it in a variety of different metaphorical ways.



THE INVISIBILITY OF MIDDLE AGE

This is an example of non-literal invisibility. Age is a great leveller; no matter how good-looking and attractive you were as a young person, age will take some of that away. Some struggle with this. Others see it as a great freedom:

When I grow up I want to be like Louise. Louise a woman at that peculiar age when women become invisible to others, neither old nor young, just invisibleThere is an age when women become invisible. It can be curiously and accurately charted from the first time you go into a restaurant and the waiter calls you ‘Madam’ while he clears away the other place set on the small table for two you have chosen. He knows instinctively that no one else will ever be there. There are seldom tables for one in restaurants.

The Lonely Margins Of The Sea, Shonagh Koea

THE INVISIBILITY OF FAT

Fat activists such as Lindy West point out that, for fat people, it doesn’t take middle age to become invisible. If you are a fat young person, you are socially invisible long before that.

And while fat is a feminist issue, men do suffer from culturally imposed body shape expectations: a man explains what it’s like to be treated differently after turning from a chubby boy into a muscled grown-up.

Advertisers do their best to teach us that being invisible is the worst possible thing you could be. ‘Stand out’, we are told by the advertising team for the Mitsubishi Outlander.

But I remember my high school soccer coach transporting five of us to a match in her rattly Toyota. A team mates pointed out a flash sports car stopped at the lights and the coach said, “When choosing a car I try NOT to stand out.” (I don’t remember her teaching me any maths, but I remember that off-the-cuff life lesson.) However, Western picture books tend to preach the message that it’s great to stand out from the crowd. This message usually starts with a character who stands out even if they don’t to. Elmer is a patchwork elephant when all the others are grey; Freckleface Strawberry doesn’t want her freckles. In every case, the child learns that to be different is a strength.

To be seen by others is perhaps at the bottom of the hierarchy of human needs. Australian social commentator Hugh McKay certainly believes so, as explained in his book What Makes Us Tick? and also in The Art Of Belonging.

In modern churches across the globe, leaders assure their flocks that even if we feel unseen, God is looking after us. This hardly subverts the the idea that attention equals worth:

From Pastor Jeff Owens: “The richest people here tonight…have not the value of the widow’s mite. Have not as much worth in God’s eyes as those of you who put one dollar in the plate. To me you can never be little or lost of insignificant because to God you can never be little. There are no little things in this world. No little deeds, no little sins, no little acts of kindness, and no little people here tonight!

This message of worthiness is balm to those who do the thankless work of this world and suffer the purest snub of all: invisibility. Most people here tonight do not have careers; they have jobs, and they exist as part of the background of the lives of the professional and semiprofessional middle classes. After all, somebody has to groom the dogs and wire the doctor’s new $60,000 kitchen. Somebody has to collect all the quarters from the Laundromats and drive the semitrailers to the Pottery Barn warehouse.

Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant

INVISIBILITY AS PURITY

As living organisms, we are primed to accept the idea that clear running water is safer than muddy puddles.

I expect to see the invisible = pure trope used more and more in advertising as eco-conscious consumers are encouraged to leave smaller carbon footprints. If we are invisible, we inflict less damage to our environment, or so goes the idea.

Mercedes Benz has made use of this invisibility metaphor:

(Of course, it’s not ‘us’ who are invisible. We still wish to be acknowledged for our eco-conscious choices.)

INVISIBILITY AS SEAMLESS INTEGRATION

Why are amateur photographers in the Nokia Lumia 1020 commercial taking photos with empty hands? They are trying to tell us the device is so streamlined that taking a photo on a device is not an intrusion into your ‘real life’. Also, it takes such good photos that it’s like you’re really there, even when looking at the photo, not the actual event.)

INVISIBILITY LEADING TO NEGLECT

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; see the annotated version by Leonard Marcus

The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth

“Milo’s lesson on perspective continues in the twin cities of Reality and Illusions. Since the residents of Reality have decided to block out their perceptions by turning their heads down and hurrying from place to place, their city has become literally invisible. The city of Illusions is even worse; it does not even exist as anything but a mirage. Here Juster seems to be referring to the tendency of people to rush past the important things in everyday life.”

Sparknotes

The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

In The Lost Thing, adults have become so world-weary that they no longer notice things around them, including things which need their help. Only a young person is able to see what’s really there, due to his childlike curiosity.

The Lost Thing cover

INVISIBILITY HIDING INEQUALITY

If everyone really understood how inequality works, surely we’d be so seething with rage that we would take to the streets.

The truly rich are so removed from ordinary people’s lives that we never see what they have. We may notice, and feel aggrieved about, college kids driving luxury cars; but we don’t see private equity managers commuting by helicopter to their immense mansions in the Hamptons. The commanding heights of our economy are invisible because they’re lost in the clouds.

Our Invisible Rich from The NYT

Wealth invisibility is just one example of problematic invisibility. Fortunately, more and more is being said about invisible labour and also invisible disability. While visibility doesn’t always mean acceptance, which doesn’t always mean inclusion, visibility is a necessary first step for marginalised groups.

neglected children
An advertising campaign from The Australian Childhood Foundation

When the media fails to report on human rights abuses, we turn a blind eye. This explains the difference in response between an American refugee crisis and an Australian one. In Australia, the refugees were deliberately hidden from media, and by proxy, from Australians.

Symbolic annihilation is a concept which applies to narrative — when certain groups do not appear in a story, they have been annihilated symbolically. This is another form of problematic invisibility, and because we are so used to seeing certain groups in story from birth to grave, we don’t automatically notice it’s a problem. This needs to be pointed out.

Deep Holes by Alice Munro

“Deep Holes” is a short story by Alice Munro. You can find it in the June 30 2008  edition of The New Yorker. I’m very much reminded of Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer and the real life of Christopher McCandless.

But “Deep Holes” is not the story of the son — it’s the story of the mother, left behind to deal with the loss of a child in this way. How does a mother cope with that?



It follows that this is also a story centred around the emotional labour and mental load of mothers, and how children can grow to resent mothers for it, reserving respect for fathers who do far less.

I’ve heard it said that older people are happier, and this is partly because they have learned to be happy. The rise and fall of happiness over the course of a lifetime is known as the U-bend.

Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter; anger declines throughout life; sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.

The Economist on Medium

CAST OF CHARACTERS IN “DEEP HOLES”

  • Sally — Mother, who at beginning of story has two boys as well as a six month old baby. Her three children have been spaced out. (Similar to Alice Munro’s own children.)
  • Alex — Sally’s husband, an inconsiderate geologist. Retires but continues his work, using Sally as his assistant. The pair become close during this time as Sally catches his geological curiosity. Later in life he goes into hospital for an operation but never comes home again. (Alice Munro was married to a geographer — a sort of similar line of work, I suppose. This was her second husband. They married in 1976. He died in 2013. Alice Munro’s first husband, James, died in 2016. So although Alice Munro has now lost both great loves of her life, she hadn’t, at time of writing, lost either of them yet.)
  • Kent — son of about 10-12 with a lot of reckless confidence.  In his teen years he decides he’ll become an important scientist. Studies the hard sciences. Very smart kid. Later becomes a monk and changes his name to Jonah. Upon reunion, Kent asks Sally if his self-consciously pretentious language is a kind of ‘cant’. Cant = hypocritical and sanctimonious talk, typically of a moral, religious, or political nature. I wonder if Alice Munro chose the name Kent for the near rhyme of it.
  • Peter — six year old son. When grown, goes into medicine. A minor character in the story.
  • Savannah — six month old daughter, named after a geological feature. When grown, goes into law. Smart, knowing, close to her mother.

STORY WORLD OF “DEEP HOLES”

The story opens with a deeply foreboding tone. This is how a horror movie starts. The fear of falling into a hole is very visceral.

As a toddler, my brother’s friend’s father fell into a long drop. This is a story very much peripheral to my own life, and though my brothers joked about it frequently, it is terrifying. I think of Colin any time I have to make use of a long drop.

I guess most people can recall some childhood landscape redolent with threat. For me, growing up in New Zealand, our family went on weekend tramps (or what every other English speaking country calls ‘hikes’). We’d walk through forests, cross little streams, and sometimes walk one at a time over those swing bridges suspended over deep, blue rivers. Inevitably we’d end up navigating some dangerous winding track shallow-carved into the side of a bluff, with a deadly sheer drop  should we stumble and fall in the wrong direction. I rarely stumbled normally. But that’s what really scared me.

When it comes to dangerous holes in the ground I’m reminded of South Australia’s Coober Pedy, a mining town out in the desert. Drive through on the state highway and you’ll see these signs. They’re almost comical (didn’t the third guy notice the first two had come to grief?), but you just know people have died in this way.

Warning Sign, Coober Pedy, Outback, South Australia, Australia

CREATING A THREATENING AMBIANCE

There are many ways to do this.

Word usage and imagery:

  • deviled eggs
  • a sign saying ‘caution’
  • deep chambers… some the size of a coffin
  • not enough greenery to make any sort of a cushion over the rubble below

Telling the reader that this place is not threatening at all, which invokes reverse psychology:

The entrance to the woods looked quite ordinary and non-threatening.

Narrative insertions which are obviously the result of hindsight:

  • They said O.K., and he proceeded, carrying the picnic basket and apparently believing that no further fatherly warning was necessary.

Munro even uses the horror trick of scaring us then revealing that nothing has happened, yet:

He gave a cry of arrival and display, and the boys hooted with true astonishment.

(The husband is simply marveling at the view.)

THE SYMBOLISM OF ALTITUDE

Munro is using the full space when painting the arena of “Deep Holes”. She uses the height of the bluff juxtaposed against the depth of the holes.

The entrance to the woods looked quite ordinary and unthreatening. Sally understood, of course, that these woods were on top of a high bluff, and she expected a daunting lookout somewhere. She did not expect the danger that had to be skirted almost immediately in front of them.

Deep chambers, really, some the size of a coffin, some much bigger than that, like rooms cut out of the rocks. Corridors zigzagging between them, and ferns and mosses growing out of the walls. Not enough greenery, however, to make any sort of cushion over the rubble below. The path went meandering between them, over hard earth and shelves of not quite level rock.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “DEEP HOLES”

SHORTCOMING

Alice Munro is an expert at depicting the emotional labour of motherhood. I’m sure most women will relate to it immediately, and men should understand it too, since she depicts Sally’s interiority so well.

Sally’s shortcoming, therefore, is that she exists in service to her husband and family. Her husband is typical of his era — he considers the work of organising a picnic the wife’s job, but that extends far beyond just preparing the picnic. It extends to jobs he isn’t even aware exist: Remembering who likes how much mustard on their sandwich then divvying them up accordingly. The worry of danger nearby and the tug between being an ‘overly anxious mother’ and letting the children run free.

These attitudes are conveyed via details such as who has packed the picnic, who carries the baby, who is worried about the boys, who looks at who in an attempt to keep the marriage alive. (Sally, in every instance.) The husband’s attitude towards breast-feeding is sadly still common today. Except now, unlike then (my mother’s era), women are roundly shamed for ‘choosing’ not to breastfeed. At least in the era after formula became available, switching to formula was considered a viable option. (This is not an argument in favour of formula — breastmilk is clearly the healthier choice when breast-havers are able to offer it.)

Sally’s connection to her family is shown in other, subtle ways. When Sally wonders why ‘deep-holes’ is hyphenated on the carpark sign, I read that as Sally being joined, literally in the case of the baby, to her family. They have not yet bifurcated as people.

DESIRE

Mothers and wives in Munro’s short stories are not permitted world-changing desire lines — theirs are quiet desires which allow these women to continue fulfilling the roles they have been channeled into, without rocking the patriarchal boat. The women are never blamed for the milieu which formed them. They are not expected to be ‘strong female characters’. Finding a way to live happily as a wife and mother is its own kind of strength.

Clearly, however, and Sally would love to reconnect with her estranged son.

OPPONENT

Sally’s son in “Deep Holes” is very much a Chris McCandless archetype — bright, unmotivated by sex (probably asexual — an orientation rarely depicted in fiction). He fancies himself spiritual, is scathing, reckless with his own health and dismissive of the people who have given him the most.

This personality type is fascinating, and I’m not surprised Jon Krakauer wrote an entire book on Chris McCandless. We never really do learn who McCandless is, though. Such men are unknowable, and that’s their aim.

However, Krakauer did see himself in McCandless. As a young man he felt himself invincible, evidenced by his attitude to rock climbing, a sport which shaped and filled his youth. The estranged son in Munro’s story is perhaps an exaggerated version of young men everywhere, who almost always distance themselves from their mothers to a degree.

PLAN

This is an example of a story in which the Opponent drives the Plan.

Kent calls the shots, as the daughter points out. Sally has no choice but to wait for her son to get in touch. When he does, of course she takes up the opportunity to meet him. Even then, she goes along only to see what she can make of the meeting.

BIG STRUGGLE

Alice Munro’s Battle scenes often take place in kitchens, or sitting down in a living room. So it is here. We could parse this scene onto a chase in an action film, but of course it’s nothing like that on the surface. When Sally thinks of running away, and knows she couldn’t jump the fence at the back, and when the son comes back after a full half-hour, surprised to see his own mother still there, this is a more moving kind of chase than in any action film I’ve ever seen. Munro has subverted the chase scene.

ANAGNORISIS

Munro uses a few tricks to lead us to Sally’s Anagnorisis, which is this: She may never patch things up with her son. It will always be a ‘maybe’. He is not the son that she knew. He even has a different name.

Therefore, Sally must learn to live with this distance. She will continue to imagine herself on an island. She will hope that Kent has found his own island of happiness as well.

At the point in a story when a character has a Anagnorisis, there is often the feeling that the main character has become very small, the landscape has become very large, and also that we see them from above, as if in an establishing shot at the beginning of a movie. In other words, the character (as we do) now has the ‘bigger picture’.

SYMBOLISM OF THE MINIATURE

Alice Munro turns Sally into a tiny figure within a vast landscape:

She reminded him that she knew nothing about rocks, and he said never mind that, he could use her for scale, in the photographs.

So she became the small figure in black or bright clothing, contrasting with the ribbons of Silurian or Devonian rock or with the gneiss formed by intense compression, folded and deformed by clashes of the North American and the Pacific plates to make the present continent.

This is a woman who has lived her entire life in service to her family, so there’s the feminist reading, of course. A good writer makes statements like that. But a great writer such as Alice Munro stretches the metaphor further.

She sort of flips it, actually. By the end of the story Sally has regained control by taking the juxtaposed isolation/extreme closeness of motherhood and turning it into a neat psychological trick she can use in service of her own happiness.

By the way, The Overview Effect goes hand-in-hand with the miniature.

THE OVERVIEW EFFECT

Since first noticing it, I keep seeing The Overview Effect utilised in story, especially in short form storytelling, where it is particularly useful in creating the illusion of a vast time and space (within a very short time and space). The Overview Effect is linked to the miniature effect utilised in the same paragraph (above). Here’s the continuation:

Gradually [Sally] learned to use her eyes and apply her knowledge, till she could stand in an empty suburban street and realize that far beneath her shoes was a crater filled with rubble that had never been seen, because there had been no eyes to see it at its creation or through the long history of its being made and filled and hidden and lost.

NEW SITUATION

“Deep Holes” is a tragedy, because Sally does not get what she desires. She does not reconnect with her son. The meeting has driven them further apart.

Now she must live with that.

Like many of Munro’s older woman characters, Sally has developed psychological tricks to help her cope with her inferior, older-woman status and widowed situation — she has a lifelong habit of imagining herself on an island. In narrative, islands are pretty much always heavy with symbolism.

In her imagination, these islands are real, geolocatable places. As we are told earlier in the story, she is careful not to make up any of the details. If she hews her imagination to reality, these islands serve her better. Also, I believe it’s important she never actually visit those islands. They’re better off existing as fernweh.

How is Sally using the imagined islands? As the remainder of this story makes clear, these islands are a psychological trick which help Sally to remain her own person, if only inside her head. This ability to separate herself from members of her family, even after providing the most care anyone can ever give another person — a womb, the breast, remembering whether you like mustard on your sandwich or not — becomes especially necessary when one of her sons shucks her off.

Sally’s ‘separateness’ is symbolised, quite obviously, by the lasagne-for-one she eats after the disappointing, enraging visit:

She heats up a single serving of lasagna. She buys these separated, precooked, and frozen portions now. They are quite good and not too expensive when you think that there’s no waste.

In the same paragraph we see Sally continues with her own life, and her own life is full, because she is now reaping the rewards of a lifetime in service to others: She has friends who call and leave messages. She enjoys small luxuries such as a glass of wine with her meal.

And the final paragraph reveals: Sally looks to people even older than herself, who have learned to live on their own islands, because they have had to.

Header photo by Andrew Gook on Unsplash. It’s actually Scarborough Bluffs Park, but also in Ontario.

Free Radicals by Alice Munro

free radicals

My reading of “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro (2008) is highly metaphorical. To me, this is a story about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and the new vulnerability older women feel when their male partner dies before them.

Read literally, though, and this is the story of one woman’s brush with a serial murdering intruder — a rare crime story from Alice Munro.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “FREE RADICALS”

The structure of this short story is exquisite: a metadiegetic narrative within a dream sequence within a framing story.

Before diving deep into “Free Radicals”, refer to the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, especially as adapted for Story. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is famous for her research into grieving and end-of-life psychology. Her stages of grief have since been mapped onto a narrative arc. (This psychology applies to anything major and shocking in our lives.)

Kubler-Ross Change Curve for Story

There are various versions of this chart because psychology has changed over the decades. Here’s another one adapted for the Shawn Coyne way of looking at story:

Kubler Ross Shawn Coyne
Kubler Ross Shawn Coyne

Alice Munro lost a baby daughter soon after giving birth in her early twenties. By the time Munro published “Free Radicals” in February 2008, she was no stranger to ageing, ill-health and grief.

The interaction in the kitchen between Nita and the intruder forms a mini-grief story in its own right. Refering to the chart: At first Nita is Shocked by the man as he stands in the doorway. She is shocked again when he demands something to eat, but she plays along with the situation, trying to tell herself — and him — that she’s not scared. Denial.

There’s a metadiegetic narrative nested one level deeper in the kitchen scene, when Munro transfers the Anger stage of Nita’s grief onto the (imaginary) intruder, who has just murdered his own family.

Why did he murder his family? Because he couldn’t face the care responsibilities imposed upon him without warning. It wasn’t what he was expecting as ‘part of life’s deal’. So he abdicated his responsibility entirely, as Nita perhaps feels her own husband did to her.

Nita feels residual guilt about what happened with her husband’s first wife. Thus, due to the ghost set up in the first section of the story, Nita imagines herself as this man. It is easy for her to imagine she is just like him. She tells him they are as bad as each other.

She also imagines this man as her husband who, likewise, took off without hanging around to fulfil his obligations of care (to Nita, rather than to the disabled sister).

See how Alice Munro masterfully achieves both proxy amalgamations at once?

This is how Nita works through her grief — imaginatively. This melodramatic kitchen incident is our explanation for why she is so scared to go down to the cellar — terrible things come up from there.

In the symbolic dream house, the cellar is a place where dark things happen. As the dream house predicts, bad things come up the stairs from the cellar. The cellar is the housing equivalent of the fairytale forest — it is the subconscious. It’s all very Freudian. But Gaston Bachelard is the go-to guy for reading all about that.

SHORTCOMING

Nita is grieving and that is her main psychological shortcoming. It is kept as a reveal that she herself is dealing with cancer and will be dead within the year. Her much older husband, who just received a clean bill of health at the doctor’s, has died suddenly. She is therefore in shock. She feels betrayed.

Off the page but important: Nita’s husband is not going to be around to take care of her now. Nita will face the worst of her illness completely alone. Unlike her husband’s swift death, her demise is a slow one. Unlike Rich, Nita needs to find a way to cope with all that fear.

We are offered a few clues about Nita’s vulnerable psychological state. I’ve written separately about my theory that she’s a candidate for hoarding disorder. But this is not a story about that. And really, the hoarding disorder interpretation is a bit of a stretch on my part because it tends to come on a year and a half after a sudden and expected loss, not immediately. I still find it fascinating and, in some counter-intuitive way, an intruder coming to take Nita’s husband’s car might actually be an easier way to get rid of the darn thing rather than her having to sell it herself, thereby offering up for sacrifice yet another remnant of him.

Nita is immensely vulnerable now. She can’t drive, for example. She no longer has a driver in her husband. Worse, there are places in her own house where she won’t even go. Nowhere is safe. Life itself is not safe.

She doesn’t even consider this her own house anymore. She came by it in a slightly underhanded way, she feels. We learn this via backstory — she was the other woman who broke up her husband’s first marriage. Especially in earlier eras, ‘the other woman’ was always blamed in such situations.

Munro reminds us of that, but doesn’t parse the unfairness of it. That’s up to us. Munro simply tells the reader that Nita lost her office job because of it. Rich kept his job, but — perhaps only in his head — he feels he missed out on a promotional opportunity that was owed to him. (This is how we know he’s a white man — his sense of entitlement.) Important to remember: It wasn’t young Nita who cheated. It was the husband, who betrayed the trust of his first wife.

This relationship history (her moral shortcoming) is Nita’s ghost — an event from the distant past affects her psychology in the present. Munro weaves this backstory concisely throughout the story of the present. (Is there such a word as frontstory?)

DESIRE

In a bereft state does anyone truly desire anything, other than to reverse time and get their loved one back? Since no one can do anything about that, this deep desire doesn’t make for a satisfying story.

As for the surface level desire, living from day to day, Nita would like to clean up the house. She knows she needs to deal with the logistics of losing her husband. She needs to sell his car, for instance.

Clearing out his stuff means she has to go into parts of the house that scare her, which neatly joins ‘desire’ to ‘shortcoming’. (All of the best stories do this.)

This is what she wants to do in this particular story, or rather in the second portion, when she’s starting to come out of her Shock.

OPPONENT

Nita’s husband has let her down. He was supposed to stick around and take care of her. Rich is her opponent.

But rather than be angry at Rich, who is dead, and who didn’t die to spite her, Nita invents a proxy upon which to paste the Anger stage of her grief.

Perhaps within the real world of the story a man does come to check the meter and then leaves. I think Nita makes up the story about the serial killer intruder. She either imagines this scenario while the man is down in her cellar, or she imagines it later, after the police officer tells her that her husband’s car has been stolen. Perhaps the police officer and the stolen car is imagined as well. But since it’s not melodramatic, I decode that section as real.

The main clue: Nita feels vulnerable in her own home, ‘unable to sit down until he’s gone’. When this meter reader arrives and apologises for startling her, insisting on removing his shoes, this is completely at odds with the man he reveals himself to be. That’s not to deny that trickster criminals exist, of course. Besides that, I find this story implausible on a literal level. And a crime story about an encounter with a psychopathic murderer doesn’t fit well into Munro’s oeuvre. An imaginary encounter fits much better.

In fact, I believe Nita is a fairytale trickster and the intruder is a fairytale fool. Poison itself is very fairytale, harking back to stories of witchcraft. Hence, I propose the incident is imagined.

In case we missed that Nita has invented this story for the (imaginary) intruder, she makes sure to tell us, which is an interesting choice. Some critics have said that if she hadn’t told us, we’d never have known.

But the very idea that it would be easy to kill someone with rhubarb leaves is a bit of a stretch in itself. Sure, they are poisonous, but you’d have to eat a LOT of it. So much that you’d definitely know you were having it:

The chemical villain in rhubarb leaves is oxalic acid, a compound also found in Swiss chard, spinach, beets, peanuts, chocolate, and tea. Chard and spinach, in fact, contain even more oxalic acid than rhubarb—respectively, 700 and 600 mg/100 g, as opposed to rhubarb’s restrained 500. Rhubarb’s killer reputation apparently dates to World War I, when rhubarb leaves were recommended on the home front as an alternative food. At least one death was reported in the literature, an event that rhubarb has yet to live down.

Oxalic acid does its dirty work by binding to calcium ions and yanking them out of circulation. In the worst-case scenario, it removes enough essential calcium from the blood to be lethal; in lesser amounts, it forms insoluble calcium oxalate, which can end up in the kidneys as kidney stones. In general, however, rhubarb leaves don’t pose much of a threat. Since a lethal dose of oxalic acid is somewhere between 15 and 30 grams, you’d have to eat several pounds of rhubarb leaves at a sitting to reach a toxic oxalic acid level, which is a lot more rhubarb leaves than most people care to consume.

National Geographic

(Did the guy who died on the war front really die from rhubarb leaves? Or was it perhaps something else entirely…?)

PLAN

Imaginatively, Nita’s plan is to convince the murderer that she is also a murderer. If they each keep the other’s confidence, he may choose to let her live for a while longer.

BIG STRUGGLE

As I’ve already proposed, the kitchen is the Battle scene, but it’s a proxy for the psychology of grief.

(The real Opponent is Nita’s dead husband, who isn’t there and so cannot take the blame.)

ANAGNORISIS

Nita realises how very much she misses her husband. This probably marks the moment where Nita moves past Anger into something darker but more real (Depression).

I found myself lingering on the following sentence, absorbing the weight of it:

Rich. Rich. Now she knew what it was to miss him. Like having the air sucked out of the sky.

NEW SITUATION

Unless we interpret the intruder as a dream sequence, how to explain why Nita wouldn’t tell the police about him?

The policeman (who I interpret as real within the story) gives Nita a ‘stern lecture’ about leaving keys in a car. He puts the wind up her, when she really doesn’t need that. He has underestimated how vulnerable she already feels. The story ends with “You never know”, repeated.

Then again, perhaps Nita finds it comforting on some level to imagine the worst almost happened to her in her own kitchen, yet didn’t.

Imagining worst case scenarios is one common way of coping with fear. I notice it especially when women are advised to buy weaponry for self-protection. People are quick to suggest this, thinking a gun in the handbag can save you. The statistics don’t hold up. Your own gun is far more likely to get you killed than to kill your assailant. Yet we like to imagine that if we only concoct a strong enough plan, then that plan will protect us, if worst comes to worst.

If only. If only. Stories about the ‘if only’ are emotionally resonant.

Likewise, Nita has a plan for living in her house as a single, ailing old woman. If this meter reader who startled her at the door does turn out to be a psychopathic murderer on the run, she’ll tell him she is, too. She’ll draw on a past event and tell him as catharsis. They’ll build empathy, she’ll give him the car (because she needs to get rid of it anyhow) and he’ll leave her be.

That’ll definitely work.

We know our worst-case-scenario imaginings won’t work, yet we imagine them anyway.

OTHER WRITING TECHNIQUES IN “FREE RADICALS”

the narrative pause

Apart from the story nested inside a dream, there’s an especially noteworthy technique Munro uses in this story. She speeds us up then applies the brakes.

A little while ago I started looking more carefully at how stories are paced. I’d read Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode.

According to that continuum, the slowest pace a narrative can achieve is the Pause. In a film, that’d be a freeze frame. But how is the ‘freeze frame’ achieved in the case of the written word?

Alice Munro uses two separate techniques for achieving the Pause in “Free Radicals”.

  1. She describes what is Not rather than what Is. Nita walks into the rooms of her house and all she notices is that her husband is not there.
  2. The intruder has a photographs. Well, two photographs actually — the second is gruesome and produced as a jump scare. When the narrator describes that photo, the narration is now on a different kind of Pause. (This is a technique known as ekphrasis — writing about art used to be very popular and a subgenre in its own right. Before artworks and photographs were commonplace, that is.)

These deliberate pauses slow the story right down to a standstill, yet at other parts of the story we get summary. This is Munro speeding the story up then slamming on the brakes. Psychologically, Munro is replicating the feeling of grief. At times there’s the never-ending weight of it, the feeling it will never leave you. Then there’s the looking back in time, realising how fast life seems to have passed you by.

TRAIN MOTIF AS FATE

Which brings me to trains. Alice Munro is a big fan of trains. A writer can eke a lot of symbolism out of trains, for sure.

What about the train thread in this story? First, the sexe en plein air near the tracks, between Nita and Rich. Later, the train reappears and now it is a symbol of fate.

“You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.”
“There’s hardly ever a train.”

The train track itself led the murderer to Nita’s house. There was nothing she could do to stop him. This fate was set in place the moment she started the affair with Rich. (And even that was probably fate.)

It is comforting, sometimes, to think that certain events set our lives in motion and that there was nothing we could possibly have done to change them. I watched an episode of Insight (with Jennie Brockie) once in which mothers talked about losing their young children. One woman stood out as different from the others. She appeared to be dealing much better than they were with the loss of her daughter, who was pushed off some train tracks into the path of an oncoming train. She reasoned it like this: The child was only given so much time on earth. And when her time was up, it was up.

I wish I could believe that. I think that view would be helpful, more than the view that our choices determine everything, in which case our decisions could imaginatively extend our own lives, or the lives of our loved ones. If only we had lived life differently.

THE TITLE

Its title suggests an additional version of the operations of possibility-space and its constitution. These radicals are highly reactive, which makes them likely to take part in chemical reactions, but only in so far as they do it according to their own pre-coded set of possibilities. Being an atom with unpaired electrons, the radicals seek balance by stealing an electron from another atom that then becomes a free radical. A chain reaction is caused. As the metaphor for a story that features a woman visited by a dangerous murderer, there seems to be a chain reaction caused by a miserable childhood. However, it is suggested in the story that bad or good are not features so easily dug out, and as the metaphor suggests chemical reactions can be both bad and good.

Ulrica Skagert

The health significance of this title will probably get lost over time, but I definitely remember a time when health media was all about avoiding free radicals. Certain wonder foods would get rid of them. Nobody but scientists actually knew what they even were, except we knew they were very bad.

Then there was an about face, as with all dietary messages. Now we were told that a certain number of free radicals are essential for human health. (The same applies to cholesterol, viruses and a bunch of other ‘bad’ things.)

Free radicals have long been associated with tissue damage. A new study shows that they also promote regeneration.

an article from 2018

Antioxidants may encourage the spread of lung cancer rather than prevent it

Science news from 2019

As part of all this scaremongering, the public were told that free radicals cause cancer. Hence the cancer link in this story. But there’s also the feeling of betrayal at work here, I think. Nita was betrayed by by the message that red wine is good. She still got cancer. (This explains the constant reference to drinking, too.)

In the early 2000s, Alice Munro herself underwent major heart surgery. She came through it well, but has said in interview that she couldn’t understand why a major artery was fully blocked. She’d done exactly as she thought she was supposed to — she ate well and exercised daily. Her doctor told her she was simply old. She had to face up to the fact of ageing. I hesitate before mapping an author’s life too closely onto a the life of their fictional inventions, because it’s never a one-to-one correspondence. But I feel that experience of heart surgery must have partly inspired this story.

We are all betrayed eventually, even if we manage to avoid health news parsed by the media. Old age is one long betrayal. We are betrayed by loved ones dying around us. We are betrayed by our own bodies. Long before that, we are betrayed by this message that if only we are sufficiently well-behaved, if only we can control ourselves, then we can dodge death.

See how this all links up to the kitchen scene? Nita dodged death. But only for now.

WHAT TO SAY TO THE RECENTLY BEREAVED

  1. I’m Sorry You’re Suffering, from Persephone.
  2. When It’s Not God’s Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers from AlterNet
  3. What To Say and Do For The Recently Bereaved at Medium, who recommends this book:
  4. Joan Didion’s essay on grief

MAYBE NOT

A dead creature is in every respect identical to a live one, except that the electrochemical processes that motivate it have ceased.

from Here on Earth (by Tim Flannery)