Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson series are genius examples of funny, endearing, broad-audience picture books. There’s so much to learn. Today I take a deep dive into Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig.
Eugenia and Baby Lincoln may live next door to a pig, but that doesn’t stop them from living a gracious life. And the amiable Mercy Watson is equally determined to follow the delightful scent (and delicious taste) of the pansies her thoughtful neighbors are planting to beautify their yard. “Where have all the flowers gone?” shouts Eugenia, who is finally ready to take extreme measures —- and dial Animal Control! Has Mercy’s swine song come at last? Or will her well-pampered instincts keep her in buttered toast?
— marketing copy
Mercy’s appetite has got her into trouble again. When Eugenia Lincoln’s pansies go missing, Animal Control Officer Francine Poulet arrives on the scene. But as she soon discovers, not just anyone can think like a pig. Especially when that pig is porcine wonder Mercy Watson!
“The Lumber-Room” by H.H. Monro (Saki) is one of the short stories from Beasts and Super-Beasts, published 1914, though it was first published in a newspaper. He died two years later in the war. Significantly for this short story, Saki was gay.
There’s something very Peter Rabbit about this short story for adults. Peter Rabbit was widely read to children at the time Saki’s story was published. It’s conceivable that the fictional adults in “The Lumber-Room” believed all children (as proxy rabbits) want to get up to mischief in gardens because they had read Beatrix Potter’s tale over and over.
“Ernestine and Kit” is a short story by Kevin Barry. It has been made into a short film by Simon Bird if you can get a hold of it.
This is black humour at its best. I was captivated with this crime story from beginning to end — the suspense is well-paced, and the reveals well-positioned, because we don’t know at first what these two are up to. By the time we see the two women carry out their plan it comes as a bit of a shock.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
“Ernestine and Kit” is sort of like Thelma & Louise meets “The Child” by Ali Smith. In fact, one of the children in “Ernestine and Kit” is called Allie, and I wonder if it’s a nod to Smith’s well-known short story, in which a woman finds a child in her supermarket trolley, takes it home and learns it’s a little bastard.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988), from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is one of the few genuinely child centred films in existence. In contrast, most films out of DreamWorks and Pixar contain dual levels of meaning, including jokes only the adult co-viewer will understand, or emotional layers inaccessible to children.
For instance, in Toy Story3 Andy says goodbye to his childhood when he says goodbye to his toys. This evokes the emotion of nostalgia and sadness in adults. Test audiences revealed that children under about 13 have a completely different reaction to this scene — they identify with the toys and feel happy, probably wondering why the adults are tearing up. Nostalgia is one of the few specifically adult emotions.
In contrast, The Good Dinosaur (2015) didn’t garner great reviews. Some critics suggested it’s a fine story for kids, but adult viewers expected a layer aimed specifically at them. But there is no ‘adult layer’ to The Good Dinosaur, which ranks as Pixar’s second-worst rated movie(above Cars 2). In the West adults have been trained to expect kids’ films with separate layers just for us.
My Neighbour Totoro is different altogether.
When My Neighbor Totoro , directed by Hayao Miyazaki, came out in 1988, the public treated it only as a “child pleaser”. Yet Japanese people soon realized that My Neighbor Totoro was something more; it is actually a thought-provoking film. It is now considered one of the most acclaimed films for children and adults.
Here’s my thesis: Studio Ghibli achieves what Pixar and DreamWorks have thus far not managed:
A film which appeals to all ages
without alienating the preschool viewer from any single part of it.
Adults and children will be laughing at the same moments
experiencing very similar emotions simultaneously.
I first watched Totoro in 1995 as a 17-year-old exchange student in Japan, where it was aired on national TV one wintry Sunday afternoon. The air time suggests family viewing — a film for all ages. I’d be surprised if I ever met a Japanese person who hadn’t seen this film, regardless of age or whether they have children of their own.
Fast forward a sociological generation, My Neighbour Totoro was one of the first films I showed my Australian daughter. As I expected, she was captivated as a toddler.
We rewatched it last night. When she first saw it she was the age of Mei; now she is the age of Satsuki. Although it had been years since last viewing, her delight showed me the imagery remains deeply etched in her memory. Revisiting the world of Totoro felt like revisiting a holiday destination from early childhood.
Ponyo is another Studio Ghibli film aimed squarely at a very young audience.
STORYWORLD OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO
I much prefer the Studio Ghibli films set unambiguously in Japan. The European-inspired Japan as depicted in films like Kiki’s Delivery Service fall into uncanny valley for me. Totoro is set in Japan.
The story is meant to be set in Tokorozawa. If you’re using Chrome as your browser, here it is on Google Earth. This is where Miyazaki lives.
If you would like to visit the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, make sure to book your tickets from outside Japan, because overseas bookings are given preference. Perhaps unfairly, Japanese people booking from within their own country must book many more months in advance.
It’s not easy to guess at the era of My Neighbour Totoro unless you watch it very closely and can read Japanese. (Bear in mind that the main audience — Japanese toddlers — also cannot read Japanese.) The story could be set anytime from Miyazaki’s own boyhood until the 1980s when it was released.
Adult fans have looked really closely and realised it could be set in any number of years within the 1950s. Hayao Miyazaki has been pressed to divulge when, exactly, it’s meant to be set. He replied, “It’s supposed to be 1955, but we weren’t terribly thorough in our research. What came to mind was ‘a recent past’ that everyone can relate to.”
Note that Miyazaki uses the word ‘everyone’. That includes children. He hasn’t created any part of this world that 1980s children would be unable to understand without explanation.
Apart from the minor calendar clues within the intratext of the film, My Neighbour Totoro could easily have been set when it was made, in the 1980s. We don’t get a glimpse of life in the cities because the story arena is contained to a very small part of Japan.
The second year I went to Japan (1999) I stayed in a dormitory attached to a university. This dorms were nestled under a mountain, which sounds lovely, except it hadn’t benefitted from a single bit of maintenance since it was constructed at the end of the second world war. If I hadn’t ever visited the city, I might as well have been living in post-wartime Japan. This was a hugely different experience from my high school exchange student year in Yokohama, one train ride from Tokyo, tech mecca setting of futuristic fantasy. I recognise the house from My Neighbour Totoro — the tiled sink, the wooden items, the country manners.
Country Japan has always been bifurcated from urban Japan — a point of pride and also a point of ridicule. The word ‘inaka’ might loosely translate as ‘rural/country’ in English, but it sounds pejorative and insulting as well. (Imagine ‘bumpkin’ on the end of it.)
However, this is not Miyazaki’s view of rural Japan. For Miyazaki, the natural parts of Japan contain ancient magic, and a visit into wilderness afford a trip into the deep subconscious. The forests which surround this old homestead of My Neighbour Totoro function as a forest functions in a fairytale.
IS THIS A UTOPIA?
Does the storyworld of My Neighbour Totoro count as a genuine utopia? According to Maria Nikolajeva, there are seven requirements of a utopian setting and Totoro almost fits, except for number six: Absence of death or sexuality. The sick mother in hospital is a constant reminder that loved ones can die. Satsuki and Mei are terribly worried about their mother and this drives their actions.
Miyazaki adapted Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (released as The Secret World of Arrietty), which also includes the spectre of death with the child sick in bed. Perhaps Miyazaki wants to avoid sentimentality, which is a danger in creating genuine utopias. Genuine utopias are also quite difficult to set a film-length story in, because suspense must come from somewhere. Perhaps ‘unease’ is a better word than ‘suspense’.
Helen McCarthy is the author of Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation and has said that Death in Totoro is simply ‘there’. Death is presented as part of being alive.
Miyazaki does two very difficult things in this film with considerable delicacy and grace: he makes a film at a child’s pace and on a child’s level; and he allows death to assume a major role in the movie without demonising or personalising death.
— Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation
The house itself might be considered a bit of a death trap. Our own pergola fell down a few years ago and it was a mission keeping everyone away from it for their own safety. But here, the girls come closer to calamity than they realise when they use the rotting post as a play thing:
This traditional old homestead also has a well — another common death trap, though it exists only as part of the background scenery.
The soot gremlins may or may not indicate the presence of evil. The girls no longer have a safe home. I believe young children will find this house as creepy as the characters do.
However, we might put forward the argument that any Hayao Miyazaki film is a moral utopia:
[T]hose who are familiar with Miyazaki can trace the film’s modern success to his stubborn moral mind. Reluctant to put his characters into straightforward ‘good’ and ‘evil’ boxes, the Ghibli stalwart nevertheless rewards the pure of heart and punishes greed and gluttony. It’s a trait that wasn’t missed by Roger Ebert, who described Totoro’s small kingdom as, “the world we should live in, not the one that we occupy.”
Despite the English translation of the title, ‘tonari’ does not just mean ‘neighbour’ as in ‘those who live in the place next door’. Tonari is a wider word than English ‘neighbour’ suggests, and can mean ‘next to’, or ‘alongside’. Imaginary creature Totoro is ‘alongside’ the girls at every step of their journey (as well as dwelling ‘nearby’.)
One rule of portal fantasy — there is a transition between the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’. The audience must be allowed to linger in this transitional space for a little while. Ideally, a scene or two will be set inside the transition, or right beside it. In this case, it’s the tunnel made of branches. The father even joins the girls there, blurring for them the sensible, rational adult world and the fantasy play world they have created.
It appears as if someone—probably Big Totoro himself—has invited Mei into the fantasy world. Awakened by the little girl, he appears to be startled not by her presence but by her audacity. Mei’s seclusion has led to Totoro’s invitation to his world; the child archetype acquires the protection of nature, alone and away from motherly care. Mei’s entrance into the fantasy world reminds the audience of the beauty and splendor of nature, which the present generation seems to have forgotten.
One of the first games we see the Kusakabe girls playing is a Cowboys and Indians fantasy. I haven’t seen modern children mimic the war cries of Native Americans — Westerns have evolved into anti-Westerns, we are a little more enlightened. There is no longer the romance of American expansionism — we no longer buy toy cowboy costumes for our boys as par for the course. This childhood game does plant the story quite firmly in the 1950s when, even in Japan, American culture was having a big influence on children’s fantasy lives (as well as in every other way).
Later the girls are disappointed to find their acorns won’t sprout. But in a fantasy scene quite clearly inspired by English tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk”, they use arm movements to create a magical force. The trees grow huge in an instant.
MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO: THE JAPANESE WIZARD OF OZ?
We Westerners like to view non-Western art through the lens of Western art. It has been suggested that My Neighbour Totoro is ‘The Japanese Wizard of Oz’. This may be useful as a hook for a Western viewer otherwise disinclined to watch anime on its own terms.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Totoro’s success is that everyone has their own interpretation of what it means. While the physical appearance of the title character has been compared to everything from an owl to a seal to a giant mouse troll, on a metaphysical level the theories run even deeper. In Miyazaki’s book of essays ‘Starting Point: 1979-1996’, Totoro is described as a creation of Mei and Satsuki’s imagination, a gentle giant who guides them through their mother’s illness.
Some believe Totoro to be a Kami (a spirit tied to nature) belonging to the camphor tree which Mei falls into the belly of while she’s out playing. The tagline on the original Japanese poster translates as, “These strange creatures still exist in Japan. Supposedly,” which summons thoughts of old souls and endless wisdom. Ultimately, you can project whatever you want onto Totoro.
If you grew up in non-Scandinavian country, what was your first introduction to trolls?
Near the end of the film, Satsuki and Mae are shown reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff on a futon with their mother. The creature on the book looks like the creature Totoro, which suggests Mei imagines him up, inspired by the Norwegian folktale.
When Mei ‘meets’ him, she knows exactly who he is. “You’re Totoro!”
In Japanese Three Billy Goats Gruff translates to 三びきのやぎのがらがらどん (Sanbiki no yagi no gara gara don) in which the ‘gara gara don’ is onomatopoeia for the tripp trapp, tripp trapp of the first written Norwegian version (modified only slightly for English, without the double ‘t’s.)
But maybe Mei read a European version — the ‘trot trot’ of the goats sounds a little like Totoro. It’s significant that Japanese is a heavily onomatopoeic language. Children are excellent at making up their own, original onomatopoeia and I put it to you that Japanese children are excellent at i. Is Totoro Mei’s phonetic rendition of trotting?
Alternatively, ‘troll’ is transcribed as ‘tororu’ in Japanese. A small Japanese speaking child could easily pronounce the word wrongly and come up with Totoro, because Totoro is easier to say than Tororu.
STORY STRUCTURE OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO
At first glance, My Neighbour Totoro does not follow The Rules Of Story as described by numerous (Western) story gurus. It just feels… different, somehow.
The story [of Totoro] is made up of a series of incidents or episodes, almost none of which I’d classify as a plot point, per se. The only truly tense moment comes late in the film, when Mei runs off to the hospital by herself, worried her mother is in danger. This turns out to have been a false alarm, and everyone is soon reunited. The whole thing is resolutely low-stakes and gentle, its narrative lumpy and relaxed.
I have no trouble doing my usual breakdown of it, but here’s the thing we need to understand about My Neighbour Totoro: It is much more like a picture book plot than a Pixar plot, and it’s important to understand the concept of the Carnivalesque. (This is why My Neighbour Totoro has been compared to Where The Wild Things Are — the stand out Western example of carnivalesque children’s literature.)
Satsuki and Mei are enduring an upheaval — in common with the beginning of many children’s stories, they are at the tail end of having been moved from some unknown prior location to a creepy big house in the country.
Before they can feel at home here they must face their fears of the unknown.
There’s a much bigger unknown which the girls are initially able to put to the back of their minds, distracted by the newness of the creepy house: Their mother is ill. Like Satsuki and Mei, the audience doesn’t know the nature of this illness. We are kept in a state of ignorance, which may be worse than actually knowing. This is the common experience of childhood — even when children are told things, we don’t know what it means. Not really. This makes childhood scary.
But Mei in particular is the Divine Child archetype, both vulnerable and invincible at once. (Jungian.) The audience understands this contract from the beginning, even if we don’t know Jung’s word for it — nothing really bad will happen to Mei.
The sibling duo in which the younger child is at one with fantasy and imagination while the older child is on the cusp of adulthood, is common in storytelling:
Unlike Mei, who fully enjoys her childhood, her elder sister is about to enter womanhood. Satsuki resembles Wendy in Peter Pan, who must work to believe in Peter, while her younger brothers have no problem believing in Neverland.
At the deepest level, Satsuki and Mei want their mother to get better and to join them in their new house. But this doesn’t make for a story. There needs to be a more specific desire, one that the characters might actually achieve.
This is where the story turns carnivalesque. Started by the younger and therefore more imaginative Mei (in a sequence reminiscent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), they invent (or discover) a magical world as proxy for their subconscious. By entering into this world they will:
Have heaps of fun (carnivalesque)
Face their deepest fears (mythic)
In a carnivalesque children’s story, supernatural/mythic creatures appear and they may appear scary. In this case, it is the large Totoro’s size. Notice how Mei at first encounters small, rabbit-sized Totoros — this correlates to how her fears intensify over the course of the story. In Japan, these totoros are known as Big Totoro, Medium-sized Totoro and Little Totoro. (This reminds me of The Three Bears.)
But Totoro is also furry like a welcoming great bed.
Despite this, Totoro has an element of danger. I’m thinking, if the creature rolls over, Mei could easily be squashed. The scene with Mei and Totoro contains a minor ‘Battle’ of a big sneeze, as Mei fiddles with Totoro’s whiskers. Many children’s picture books feature an outsized bodily function as the climax, most notably in fairytales such as The Three Little Pigs, but also in Yertle The Turtle and Julia Donaldson’s Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou!
In a cosy story like My Neighbour Totoro, the main characters will meet allies (helpers) along their mythic journey.
Then there is Granny. Mei is scared of her at first, perhaps because she is new, perhaps because she is old, perhaps because she is associated with a scary house. The Granny, like many elderly characters in children’s stories, lives in her own version of a fantasy world. She tells the girls quite confidently that if their mother ate her fresh homegrown vegetables, her illness will clear right up. This is not an especially responsible thing to tell a child, and it is what sets Mei off on her journey to deliver the corn cob to her mother. (This has been foreshadowed by Mei telling her father that she is a big girl now and is off to do ‘errands’. The father thinks nothing of this at the time.)
The boy next door (Granny’s real grandson) is positioned as a natural opponent because he is a boy. Satsuki declares that she does not like boys. However, Kanta reveals his kindness by offering the girls his umbrella — a well-known trope in Japan, where people will indeed share their umbrellas with you if you are caught in a downpour. (Downpours are common during rainy season — when Kanta is chastised by his mother for failing to take an umbrella, there was a surefire bet it would rain heavily.)
Totoro turns up at the bus stop at night — a scary prospect for the girls, whose deeper fear is: “What has happened to Dad?” Dad hasn’t turned up when expected. Without their father, the girls would be utterly alone in the world. So once again, Totoro turns up as a proxy for their fear, and the girls transform him (or her — where did those mini Totoros come from?) into a non-threatening, childlike creature who is so unassuming he is startled by heavy raindrops falling onto the umbrella lent to him by the girls.
In a suspenseful story for adults (say, anything from the thriller/detective genres), there will be a chase sequence. Here, too, there is a chase: Mei chases after the intriguing little creatures. In other words, it is Mei who drives the action, not the other way round. The utopian, cosy atmosphere would have been punctured had the Totoros been chasing Mei instead.
Mei also drives the action by visiting Satsuki at school.
Finally, she takes off on a one-girl mission to save her mother. Notice that before she does so, the sisters have an argument. This corresponds to John Truby’s Attack By Ally stage, found in his 22-steps method of storytelling.
The Battle sequence, in which the village searches for Mei, is similar to cross-genre ‘lost child’ sequences. We wonder if Mei is dead when a child’s sandal is found. (I wonder who it belonged to?)
Satsuki finds Mei by visiting Totoro. Totoro is able to fly, and can also summon the cat bus. Satsuki saves Mei by making use of forest magic. At least, that’s the fantasy layer of the story.
More literally, Satsuki may summon the courage to find Mei of her own accord, imagining that she has the protection of mysterious, fantasy companions that she and Mei both conjured up, thereby leading her to Mei. By entering Mei’s imaginary Totoro world, Satsuki is also able to deduce that Mei has gone to the hospital with a ‘magic’ vegetable.
Ultimately, this is a story about two children who overcome their fears. They do this with the discovery that they are an integral part of the natural world. This discovery is proxy for the more mature insight they will develop later: That in order to be alive, we must also die. For now, though, their mother is not facing imminent death.
When Satsuki and Mei see their parents through the hospital window, they get the feeling everything with their mother is going to be all right. Often in visual storytelling, when characters come to some sort of realisation they are positioned at an elevated altitude. In this case they are up a tree — ostensibly so they can see through the window — symbolically because they now have a broader view on the situation and can put their mother’s illness in perspective.
This variety of Self-revelation combines well with a Child Archetype such as Mei:
The child comes in the very beginning of life. Yet the child also symbolizes the rebirth of a new child; before the rebirth, death must come. The child archetype is an initial and a terminal creature, and represents the process of death and rebirth. When Mei sets out to the hospital to heal her mother, her family loses her for a period of time. The finding of the lost child symbolizes the rebirth of Mei. For Satsuki, finding Mei also means the rediscovery of her childhood. In the embrace of Satsuki and Mei, one witnesses the outcome of Mei’s death and rebirth. The child has combined the opposites, and the spirits are the witnesses to the event. The film ends with the happy smiles of people holding and hugging Mei and the spirits of nature looking over the cheerful scene from the top of the big camphor tree. Mei’s coming home completes a stage in the progression of human beings.
No matter what happens to the mother, Mei and Satsuki are now emotionally equipped to handle whatever cards they are dealt. They have learnt resilience by means of the power of imagination.
Worth mentioning: The original tagline was “We brought what you left behind.” Clearly this refers to Mei’s delivery of the corn cob, but also works at the symbolic level — Mei reunites her family and village with the wonder of nature around them.
THE ART OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO
There is much to be said on this topic — I’ll focus on just a few things.
Taking a condense snapshot of main colours (depicted in the poster below), it’s clear how much of this film is set in the rural outdoors (green). The blue band takes the Kusakabe girls into the sky on a flight fantasy in the cat bus. Another green band takes them further into nature. Disregarding the light orange (which indicates the credits) notice the film is bookended by browns — the brown is the home, at first new and scary, by the end a true home.
More recently I’ve been following a discussion about how scenes in Totoro break the rules of perspective, as it is traditionally taught. At first glance scenes look like cartoonified versions of photographs, but that’s not the case. People have whipped their rulers out and discovered that the animators/background artists have broken traditional ‘rules’ (made in the West) to include more information in a single scene.
This, too, is more in line with the off-kilter perspective found in children’s picture books than in animation aimed at older audiences, in which case scenes tend to be beautiful for their technical prowess.
In a film aimed squarely at children, it is perhaps unusual that Miyazaki’s characters don’t have that big-eyed, anime look.
On the other hand, the character designs are very much in line with picture books — an art form which has so far rejected the ‘anime look’. In fact, I’ve heard agents and publishers advise illustrators to steer well clear of manga-esque characterisation if the aim is to illustrate picture books.
The movements of Totoro’s characters are beautifully accurate impressions of how children actually move — in common with how the best children’s book illustrators are able to depict realistic movement in their picture books. The scene in which Mei scoots forward on Totoro’s belly could not have been achieved without close observation of young children. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his attention to detail. If he needs to depict water flowing over rocks in a stream, he will go and watch water flowing over rocks in a stream.
“Beer Trip To Llandudno” is the mythic journey of a group of middle-aged men, ostensibly on an ale-tasting expedition, metaphorically on a life journey towards death. This short story is included in Barry’s Dark Lies The Island collection (2012).
Kevin Barry won The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2012 for this particular story and I’m feeling pleased with myself because I immediately spotted the genius in this one, without knowing about the award.
Here’s Kevin Barry interviewed soon after learning he’d won it.
(It’s interesting to hear Barry say that he writes 10-12 short stories a year but only one or two of those will be good enough for publication. Therefore, one collection every five years is about the right pace for a short story writer.)
Like a number of Alice Munro stories, “Beer Trip To Llandudno” involves a plot in which two characters meet after a long absence. It is a surprise to find the other has aged. There’s nothing more confronting as a reminder that you, yourself, has aged equally (or worse). Continue reading “Beer Trip To Llandudno by Kevin Barry”
“Save The Reaper” (1998) is a short story by Alice Munro, included in the collection For The Love Of A Good Woman. This story is a re-visioned homage to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”.
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a well-known short story by American writer Flannery O’Connor, published 1953. So much has already been said about this story — I will look into its structure from a plotting point of view. It’s also about time I read this story. Without reading Flanney O’Connor’s most famous work I can’t fully appreciate Alice Munro’s 1990s spin on it.
“The She-Wolf” is a comedic short story by Saki. Clovis the prankster gets up to tricks. This is a twist on the transgression comedy. In order to write a story like this, the writer must embody the prankster. The satisfying thing about writing this kind of story is that the writer’s pranks always work on our fictional victims.
But it’s not so easy to satisfy the readers with a prank plot… How did Saki do it?
“The Love Of A Good Woman” by Alice Munro is the title story in the collection which won the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2013. It’s a long short story — about 70 pages. We might even call it a novella, though let’s just go with this:
The title story of Alice Munro’s collection, The Love of a Good Woman, provides an illustrative “example of the difference between novelistic elaboration and short story mystery and intensity.”
— from the introduction to The Art of Brevity edited by Per Winther, quoting Charles May
Here’s my best description of “The Love Of A Good Woman”: a literary Stand By Me, in which we never find out what happens, because the mystery is not the point.
Both are set in the 1950s (Munro’s story in 1951; Stand By Me in 1959).
Both feature a plot in which boys out on a day trip adventure aim to gain respect by (or after) finding a dead body.
Both are set in a fictional small town where everyone knows everyone.
Even in Stand By Me, the story is really about relationships rather than the dead body.
Stand By Me is based on a Stephen King short story (called “The Body”). Both short stories feature dream sequences.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”
The story begins with three boys finding the body of the town’s optometrist in his car submerged in the river. Although one might expect the plot immediately to focus on the mystery of the drowned man, Munro is in absolutely no hurry to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. She follows the three boys into their individual homes and leisurely explores their ordinary secretes. At the beginning of the next section of the story, Munro leaves the body and the boys altogether and focuses on a cranky dying woman, Mrs. Quinn, cared for by a lonely home nurse named Enid. Mrs Quinn tells Enid that Rupert, her husband, killed the optometrist when he saw him trying to fondle her. When Mrs. Quinn dies, Enid, who cares for Rupert, decides she must tell him what she has heard and urge him to give himself up. The way she decides to do this, however, creates the open-ended ambiguity of the story: she asks him to row her out on the river, where she will tell him what she knows, also informing him that she cannot swim. At the last minute, she changes her mind but cannot escape the situation. the story ends just before they leave the shore, so the reader does not know whether Enid confronts Rupert and, if she does, whether he pushes her in the river or rows them both back to the shore.
“The Love Of A Good Woman” begins like a novel, but instead of continuing to broaden out, as it introduces new characters and seemingly new stories, it tightens up, slowly connecting what at first seemed disparate and unrelated. It is a classic example of Munro’s technique of creating a world that has all the illusion of external reality, while all the time pulling the reader deeper and deeper into what becomes a hallucinatory inner world of mystery, secrecy, and deception.
— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity
[Alice Munro] is so gentle though, so respectful. She doesn’t make that error that Katherine Mansfieldstamped on in DH Lawrence of invading bodies and psyches as if we could ever understand others by magical omniscience rather than by empathy.
Cece Ferns — never tells his family anything. An only child. Older parents than usual. The older Cece Ferns is a heavy drinker and smoker. He abuses the son. It’s not clear if he abuses his wife or if the wife is suffering from another ailment. Cece has stepped into the role of carer.
Bud Salter — called “Buddy” by adults (he doesn’t like that). Bud comes from a bustling nuclear family with older sisters who are in the throes of romance and teenage-hood, and a much younger brother. The mother is harried and the father is presumably at work. This household feels a bit like that depicted in Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Malcolm in the Middle. Far from ‘perfect’, but also very homely.
Jimmy Box — Jimmy lives with a huge extended family. His father is disabled after polio as a 22-year-old. He has a bicycle-repair shop in the shed behind the house. This is another bustling household a little similar to Bud’s, except the family seem to genuinely get along. In contrast to Bud’s self-absorbed older sisters, Jimmy’s sisters apologise whenever they bump into one another. And his father is as nice outside the home as he is in it.
Ralph Diller — mentioned by name — another boy who could have easily been swapped out for any of the others. Not present for this particular discovery.
Mrs Willens — is out in her garden, seemingly unaware that her optometrist husband is dead in the water.
Colonel Box — related to Jimmy but slightly estranged
Mr Pollock — retired from the drugstore
Fergus Solley — ‘not a half-wit but looked like one’
Captain Tervitt — had been a real captain. Now special constable. Deaf and doesn’t normally wear hearing aids. Sleeps on the job but is nonetheless respected around town. A very prankable grown-up, in other words.
Enid — the home nurse for Mrs Quinn. Went to school with Rupert and was part of a group which bullied Rupert. Grew up next to Mr and Mrs Willens.
Mrs Quinn — says she’s age 27, on her death bed. Liver disease.
Mrs Olive Green — Mrs Quinn’s sister-in-law.
Rupert Quinn — Mrs Quinn’s husband, Olive Green’s husband. Tall. Potato Irish face. If he remembers Enid from school, he doesn’t let on.
Lois Quinn — Quinn daughter
Sylvie Quinn — Quinn daughter
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”
In its structural sophistication, richness of theme, and moral complexity, “The Love of a Good Woman” is one of the most thought provoking stories in Munro’s oeuvre, arguably her most ambitious achievement. In the two collections published in the first half of the 2000s, namely Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and Runaway, the writer continues to surprise and challenge readers, and scholars. Much in the fictive territory is familiar— the southwest Ontario settings; one narrator’s impulsive infidelity, another’s long- practiced aloofness— but the reader will notice some changes in the landscape.
Clearly, Alice Munro has never been an adolescent boy herself. But I swear she’s been following a group of them round, including inside their heads. I’ve never been an adolescent boy either, but I fully believe she’s depicted their psychology perfectly. These boys are stuck uncomfortably between being children and respected men in a patriarchal culture, expected to behave in a certain way — strong and stoic — that is their arch Weakness. Or perhaps their real Weakness is that they are prematurely wanting to be treated like men when they don’t have the skill set yet. If they could just relax and enjoy being children for a while longer, they wouldn’t have any problems, to be fair. They could’ve just told their parents about the body, after all. Alice Munro makes sure to explain why they didn’t do this, within the third person narration.
Enid is the main character of the other thread in this story, and psychologically complex. Alice Munro is a writer who understands that people behave differently according to the situation. Enid is a wonderfully kind, giving and self-sacrificial adult. Yet as a teenager she was on the wrong side of bullying. This describes many adults, I think. Munro doesn’t do anything basic like try to convince us that Enid’s utter goodness as an adult is all down to the guilt she feels about picking on Rupert in high school. This really is a matter of situational psychology — sociable people who are decent adult human beings can be drawn into the bullying system of high school due to those exact same sociable attributes.
They want to be taken seriously. But they also don’t want the responsibilities of adulthood just yet. In this particular story, this Desire is manifested in several competing desires: To earn the prestige of having found a body; to run away from the confronting reality of death.
Enid’s backstory tells us that she wanted to be a nurse, but because of she belongs to the last generation of girls who were never expected to have a job, she is persuaded away from becoming a registered nurse and instead becomes a practise nurse (less corrupting). She would obviously like to be useful and helpful. And what is her Desire in this particular story?
Who stands in the way of the boys being taken seriously? Natal families tend to stand in the way of this, no matter how ‘good’ they are. The job of the adolescent is to bifurcate oneself from the natal home and establish an independent identity. The families themselves are therefore the boys’ Opponents, as well as all the adults around the town who treat them as boys, rather than as the respectable men they are hoping to be (prematurely).
The unseen Opponent of the entire town is obviously whoever killed the optometrist. But this literary short story does not belong to the thriller/detective/murder mystery genres, and so Alice Munro is under no obligation to prioritise the importance of the murderer.
Who stands in the way of Enid’s wish to feel useful and helpful? Mrs Quinn herself achieves this by being such an unpleasant patient. This provokes unwanted, unpleasant emotions in Enid that Enid would rather pretend she never experience. So Mrs Quinn is one of her Opponents.
Enid’s mother, too, is an Opponent because this is a woman who believes women of means should not be working, and certainly not working so hard. But because she is reliant as an adult upon the income of her natal family, Enid is in a similar situation to the boys who found the body — not fully realised as an independent person. For the boys this is because of their age; for Enid it is gender.
As expected, due to their Weakness and Desire, the boys do a very responsible, adult thing by Planning to report the body to police. But when faced with the reality of the sergeant their younger selves win out, this time. They prank the old man and run away.
Once the boys have pranked the deaf old man, they disappear from the story. For them, the Battle scene was the conversation at the police station.
The reader is shown the scene of the murder via a hypodiegetic section in which the narrator summarises what Mrs Quinn has told Enid.
Unlike the novel, which would be bound to develop some sort of satisfying closure, [“The Love Of A Good Woman”] reaches a moral impasse, an ambiguous, open end in which the reader suddenly realizes that instead of living in the world of apparent reality, he or she has been whirled, as if by a centrifugal force, to an almost unbearable central point of intensity.
How else can we explain by Alice Munro left us hanging like that? This is a story about truth vs reality, and reality is presented as unattainable. Via dreams and unreliable narrators (the sick and dying; the boys; and even Mr Quinn’s testimony, whose word would be so unreliable it’s not even worth us hearing it) we live out our lives and we all need to find the particular kind of humility in which we’ll never know the full truth of any situation. We are all unreliable narrators.
Notice how Munro has set this up. She has included:
Narration about how sick people often go through a phase of extreme pessimistic and lack of confidence, all out of whack with the reality of their sometimes very nice lives.
Enid has these sex dreams which disturb her, but which she puts down to mind garbage.
Enid has this false memory in which she sees her father sucking a woman’s breast. Some people mistakenly use the phrase ‘false memory syndrome‘. Avoid that, because it’s not a syndrome in the medical sense. False memories are so common that we should in fact consider them a natural mechanism of the human brain. I have a few myself. I distinctly remember walking around as a young kid at my nana’s motel. I encountered one of the cleaning ladies in the linen cupboard. Instead of saying hello, she pushed me right over to the ground before walking past me. The ‘memory’ is as vivid as any other from my preschool years, but I don’t believe it happened. I was far too clingy a child to be walking around the motel complex without my mother, for starters.
The boys probably told someone about the dead body eventually, or perhaps someone else did. In any case, we never find out more about them. Their story feels a little like a McGuffin. But we can extrapolate what will happen to the boys, because Munro has given us enough to go on with Enid’s backstory, and the description of all the people who use the textbooks, and how people’s lives tend to go in this town after they finish their high school education.
We don’t know whether Enid lives or dies. We don’t know whether Mr Quinn committed the manslaughter. But what we do know is that Enid has reached the absolute pinnacle of self-sacrifice. Whatever happens out on that lake, she’ll never be the same again.