Forgiveness In Families by Alice Munro Short Story Analysis

forgiveness in families by alice munro short story

“Forgiveness In Families” is a short story by Canadian author Alice Munro. Find it in Munro’s 1974 collection Something I Have To Tell You.

Evident from the title, this story tackles ideas around forgiveness, so before delving into Munro’s narrative, let’s interrogate our own broad thoughts around forgiveness:

  • When was the last time you forgave someone for something?
  • Have you ever forgiven a person for something big?
  • Have you ever encouraged another person to forgive someone else?
  • What do you think happens to people who never find it within themselves to forgive others for the wrongs exacted against them?
  • Do you think there are times when forgiveness is maladaptive rather than adaptive?
  • Have you ever been baffled by another person’s willingness to forgive, when you wouldn’t have been able to in their position?

On that last question, for me a baffling true crime documentary comes to mind. In the USA, a husband murdered his wife. Not an especially American story. Happens all over the world at a frighteningly high rate. So far, so normal.

Important to note: There is absolutely no doubt that this man murdered his wife. The dead woman’s parents, both still alive at the time, also understood and accepted that their son-in-law murdered their daughter.

Here’s where the story gets memorable. The dead woman’s parents decide to forgive their son-in-law. They don’t believe in holding grudges. Their church has warned them against grudges. Unless they forgive, they cannot remain Good Christians.

As part of their public demonstration of Christian forgiveness, the parents testify in court about the good character of their son-in-law, who is otherwise a Nice Guy, in their eyes. He just did a little bit of murder this one time. Also, he’s a great father.

The jury is strongly influenced by the testimony of the murdered woman’s parents. Surely, surely, if this guy weren’t a Nice Guy who snapped that one time, the in-laws would hate him. He must be a Nice Guy after all.

Murder was downgraded to manslaughter, significantly reducing the murderer’s prison sentence.

I don’t know. What do you make of that?

This story is not an outlier. Church-connected people frequently ‘forgive’ abusers who murder their own relatives.


Margaret Atwood reminds us that forgiveness is about power — not just for the person granting it, but for the person asking for it:

But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.

Margaret Atwood

James Baldwin wrote about the power of self-forgiveness, which we might also call self-acceptance:

We all commit our crimes. The thing is to not lie about them — to try to understand what you have done, why you have done it. That way, you can begin to forgive yourself. That’s very important. If you don’t forgive yourself you’ll never be able to forgive anybody else and you’ll go on committing the same crimes forever.

James Baldwin, Another Country

Donald Maass teaches fiction writers how to craft stories. He lists forgiveness right up there with what he calls the ‘durable high moments’ that provoke emotion in a readership. (FYI, the others are sacrifice, betrayal, moral dilemma and death.) Basically, there are certain things audiences crave from stories, and as a cohort, we love it when characters find it within themselves to forgive other characters within a story:

Forgiveness is hard to give, but it’s even more painful not to give. Forgiving is important to do. It’s in the Bible. It’s in the Qur’an. It’s in novels like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Lisa See’s China Dolls, and Kristin Hannah’s Night Road, and shines in novels like Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. It’s imperative in life and in stories, but its emotional power clobbers readers for a reason that we don’t at first see.

Whatever your feelings about justice, whether you are an offender or a victim, whether you can forgive or you need time yet to heal, Wright’s passage reminds us that the act of forgiveness is a fundamental change that occurs, most important, in the one who must forgive.

Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction

As Maass points out, the concept of forgiveness is linked to religious teachings. Children’s literature, too, encourages children to forgive. Basically, when writers create stories where wrongs are forgiven — minor or major — writers are creating for us exactly what we are pacified to hear. The forgiveness plot is an inherently conservative plot.

The redemption plot is a subcategory of a Forgiveness Story. Redemption stories are especially popular in America. In this plot, a person does bad things, turns a new leaf, becomes good, reaps the rewards. In general, audiences seem to prefer a bad-guy-turned-good over a good-guy-all-along.

You can probably think of some major issues with this narrative, especially since redemption plots train us to apply certain conservative ideals to politicians in real life, who should not be trusted to clean out a fridge.

It’s easy to find advice in pop culture to support the notion that forgiveness is a Moral Good.

In studies, scientists have found that victims of severe abuse who forgive their abuser receive measurable improvements in psychological and physical health.

But here’s what forgiveness narratives can get wrong: Forgiveness is not a flick of the switch thing which can be covered lightly at the ‘Anagnorisis’ phase of a story. In reality, forgiveness is not a one-time, leave-it-all-behind moment. Forgiveness in real life is a continual, gradual process. Like grief.


Here is a breakdown of steps towards forgiveness:

  1. We grieve the pain we’ve experienced
  2. Work to understand the perspective of our abuser
  3. Make a decision to forgive them
  4. Work toward some level of acceptance or compassion toward the one who wounded us.

‘Forgive and forget’ is a memorable phrase, but forgiving and forgetting is not a thing that happens. The human brain does not forget impactful things. We shouldn’t expect it to.


[M]uch of the counsel [to forgive abusers] is downright offensive, suggesting that if we can’t forgive we are dwelling on the past, focusing on negative emotions, holding on to grudges, filled with retribution and revenge, addicted to adrenaline, marrying our victimhood, recoiling in self-protection rather than mercy, or poisoning ourselves with non-forgiveness.

These assumptions and judgments not only dismiss the real pain many people suffer; they discourage intelligent analysis of the traumas many people and groups experience. Further, the attitude behind these statements can shame people, making them think that something is wrong with going through a natural process of healing after injury or betrayal where forgiveness may not be the first (or second or third) step. The truth is that many people don’t forgive because it is not time to forgive—and taking the time to proceed at their own pace can be empowering, intelligent, and worthy.

6 Reasons Not to Forgive, Not Yet by David Bedrick (Psychology Today)

Even from a Christian point of view, it is generally believed that there are some things which cannot be forgiven until the eschaton, the end of time, because it is dangerous to prematurely forgive, say, unrepentant paedophile priests or those who commit genocide.


It would appear that forgiveness contains a paradox.

The following podcast requires a content note for war atrocities, including against children.

(Transcript at NPR)

Main points:

  • When we talk about forgiveness, we are normally talking about forgiving minor violations. Let’s make a distinction between ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’. Can there be reconciliation after the most heinous of war crimes, such as happened between neighbours in Sierra Leone?
  • If a victim is asked to forgive a person for atrocities against them, that victim is required to revisit a past traumatic event. Even if the individual is able to ‘forgive’ the perpetrator, they are still left with the traumatic consequences, and have just been retraumatised to boot.
  • So while forgiveness can be good for communities, it’s not always good for individuals. Individuals are asked to sacrifice their own well-being by forgiving perpetrators.

That’s the paradox. What’s good for the community is not always good for the individual.

This paradox also applies to the Autistic community. While society has been built on the gifts of Autistic thinkers, society as a whole is not set up for Autistic individuals to thrive. Autism, like ‘forgiveness culture’, is great for the community, not always good for the individual.


As a segue into talking about “Forgiveness in Families” by Alice Munro — a story about white people by a white Canadian author — let’s consider the perspective of a BIPOC Autistic writer, who comes at forgiveness from a vastly different set of life experiences:

If I never see another white person espouse the transformative power of forgiveness again it will be too soon. Forgiveness is a privilege many white people feel they’re entitled to because giving it to others rarely, if ever, results in their exploitation and death.

Too often white people lump much more complex emotions and responses to trauma into a catch-all of anger or resentment. Minimizing them to the equivalent of hurt feelings or disappointment, which may be true for some but can easily be twisted into gaslighting survivors of abuse.

When, I think the actual process being misrepresented as “forgiveness” is grieving. When I get burned I do not need to “forgive” the fire. I need to process my feelings and treat my wounds, and learn to avoid fire or handle it in safer ways in the future.

Maybe this is an issue of semantics or allistics [non-autistic people] doing that thing where they say it’s about forgiveness because they prefer simple lies or complex truths, but forgiving an abuser doesn’t heal trauma so much as it gives a person a false sense of power and control, which isn’t good.

The desire for power and control is rooted in white supremacy, and a huge part of why abusers abuse. Trying to create some magical thinking scenario wherein you’re placing yourself in a position of power and control over an abuser is just switching places with them. Yuck!

While it’s completely natural and understandable for a survivor, who has experienced what it’s like to have no control or power to want them back, in my opinion, replicating the domination and superiority the began the cycle is at best unhelpful and at worst perpetuates the cycle.

This is especially salient for someone with little to no social power to begin with. White people touting forgiveness as some cure-all are a huge red flag!

And it comes off as a form of victim blaming that doesn’t allow survivors, especially BIPOC, to set boundaries that help us survive.

[…] I don’t see the natural opposite of anger and pain being forgiveness. I see it as relief and calm. Sure, some folks might feel that when they grant forgiveness, likely because they’re high on control.

For me, relief and calmness comes from safety and seclusion usually by controlling my environment, not other people. Excluding someone from your life isn’t controlling them, it’s setting a boundary. Setting boundaries isn’t controlling people, it’s controlling our environment.

The whole forgiveness thing feels like a demand to retraumatize myself in order to heal, by bringing them back into my life or mind. It seems counterproductive and dangerous. Making everything about them, rather than about me and what I need. Seriously, this shit feels gross.

Granted, I may be reacting this way because it sounds like a therapist is saying the same gross shit white people say about the trauma that marginalized people deal with because of systemic racism. “It was so long ago. Let it go. You’re so much more than your skin color.”

I’m not the one who has a problem seeing my humanity! I don’t need positive affirmations. I need to know how to manage my emotions and self regulate while living in an oppressive hellscape of a society that’s constantly trying to kill me and actively blaming me for it.



The narrator of “Forgiveness In Families” is a woman in mid-life, writing a first person narrative in conversational style. This voice feels very similar to “Material” and “How I Met My Husband” in the same collection. Even more so than the previous iterations, this main character has a comedic voice, and almost performatively showcases her nutcase family dynamics both to entertain her audience and also to try and work something out.

What is she trying to work out? The baffling relationship between her mother and brother.

After a lifetime of playing second fiddle to her brother, whose chronic asthma has afforded him family status alongside his undeniable health oppression, his adult sister narrator is finally fed up when their mother suffers a fall.

The brother is supposed to be looking after their mother at the time. Instead of calling an ambulance directly he calls his sister, because she is the designated sensible one who deals with crises. He then takes off.

In hospital, the mother’s health isn’t looking good. She may die. Our narrator is so annoyed that her brother has disappeared, she doesn’t even want to call him, but she does, at the advice of her more emotionally distanced husband.

The brother doesn’t answer his phone, cementing in the narrator’s mind how very unreliable he is.

The thing is, this brother is in a cult at the time of the fall — a gaggle of hapless men who gad about in brown robes made of sacking material, sort of like the Hare Krishnas without the chanting. Won’t eat meat. Won’t eat root vegetables. Considers it murder. Munro has already introduced us to 1970s hippies in “Walking On Water“, and here we have a different sort of Seeker, juxtaposed against a no-nonsense sister.

During this phase the brother has become insufferable. A small incident in which he chided his sister for preparing a dish of beetroot one time sticks out as peak insufferability.

It’s easy to imagine why the narrator is so annoyed — men who remain forever ‘boys’ (as noted on the first page) and fail to contribute anything to a family gathering — and then complain about how the women are getting it done — are hypocrites of the first order. This behaviour is all the more vexing when expected gender roles invisibilise such hypocrisy to everyone but yourself.

The charge of ‘beetroot murder’ seems even more hypocritical once it appears as if the brother’s neglect may have contributed to the actual death of their actual mother. (Alice Munro has utilised the ‘murder’ of the beetroot in a comical spoof on literary foreshadowing.)


However, the story takes a turn for the unexpected.

The brother turns up to the hospital with his hippie mystical cult friends in robes, making a nuisance of himself to the staff and the narrator, with a performance which is supposed to mystically heal. The nurse in charge wants them to leave, as does the narrator. For the narrator, the whole thing is embarrassing. The nurses need space to do their job of caring.

The fed up nurse is the hospital-setting microcosm of what the narrator has been dealing with for years. All this time, the narrator has been doing the emotional labour and regular labour of caring for their mother. The brother turns up momentarily and contributes nothing but his ostentatious presence and a whole lot of woo-woo.

When the mother makes a full recovery, the narrator remains angry with the brother while the mother embraces him with open arms. Worst of all, their mother thanks her son for his mystical healing performance.

There is no mention anywhere in this story that the mother thanks her daughter for all that she did.

A sadly common phenomenon: The person left caring for someone is the least appreciated. Single mothers see this frequently when their children idolise an absent father, whose only caregiving duties involve something fun every second weekend. This happens also to the adult child dealing with the day-to-day needs of an elderly parent. A largely absent sibling steps in, does something memorable (in this case offers a spectacle), and wins favour with the parent.


I’ve read a few online commentaries of “Forgiveness In Families” and I’m not seeing much love for this narrator. Some readers can’t fathom what she’s got to complain about. After all, her adult brother has little to do with her. How her mother feels about the brother is also Not Her Business. Shouldn’t she let childhood bygones be bygones and focus instead on her own happiness project? Especially since the brother has asthma.

But I predict certain readers will feel more empathy for her, including but not limited to:

  • Adults who have been overshadowed by the higher needs of a sibling their whole lives;
  • Adult children who are the designated ‘responsible one’ in the family, quietly looking after people’s needs without anyone noticing a lifelong history of their own needs not being met;
  • Women readers, in particular, who are simply expected by society to take on caregiving duties without thanks, because after all, caring is in ‘a woman’s nature’;
  • Women with brothers who have always known there’s some kind of special relationship between their mother and brother, and that this ‘specialness’ is contingent upon his gender, because if she pulled a quarter of what he pulled, her mother would never let her away with it;
  • Women who see the gender injustices and blindnesses in their families, but feel they’re the only woman in the family to see it for what it is.


As you might have gathered, I don’t think this is a story of a family; I think it’s a story of gendered privilege in society, illuminated by how it plays out in this particular family. Alice Munro utilises the resonant imagery of men in cultish robes descending upon a hospital to illuminate the ways in which men are praised for doing very little actual care work. When the brother of this story insists that praying is ‘work’, but that his sister would not understand what real work is, I would hope this pushes some feminist buttons.

Is this a story about forgiveness? If so, who has forgiven who?

My take: When Alice Munro gives the mother her ‘fall’, she is literally knocking the mother out, making her blind (in a very literal way) to what’s happening before her eyes: That the real care is coming from her daughter, not from her son.

And because the mother has this block, blindness, whatever we want to call it, she doesn’t see anything to forgive.

As mentioned above:

  • Forgiveness is the word we often use to describe complex admixtures of other dynamics and emotions. In this case, we have a blasé mother, an equally blasé brother (with the annoying addition of unearned patriarchal power) and a daughter who has come of age during Second Wave Feminism, and is cognizant of things her mother will never see.
  • This daughter must somehow find it in herself to understand that her mother came of age in a completely different era. Can we ever expect a woman born at the beginning of the 1900s or late 1800s to not prioritise a man over a woman, even when it comes to her own children? That’s how women of this era were culturally conditioned, and unless they somehow found First Wave Feminism, it wholly skipped them.
  • So it’s not ‘forgiveness’ that’s at stake in any of these family dynamics. Instead, the adult daughter is yet to find a way towards understanding why her mother is like this, and accepting that she will never see things any differently. Only by understanding and then stepping back will she let go of decades of built-up resentment.
  • However, this will be very difficult for the daughter narrator because, as the girl of the family, she has no power to begin with. If we frame forgiveness as an act of reclaiming power, what are we to make of a victim who never had power in the first place?
  • The elderly mother can deal with simple lies (and probably with complex truths) but she does not have the emotional capacity to understand what’s really going on — that she was neglected by her son, and that his role in her ‘caring’ was more about himself than anyone else.
  • The Fall incident took place some time ago, before the narrator told is. We know this because the brother has since left his cult. However, she has not managed to process this incident. We feel as if we’ve just been on the end of a rant. There’s immediacy of voice here. The narrator remains in the thick of her resentment, so is very much an intradiegetic character in her own story. She hasn’t managed to get past it, which means the character hasn’t yet changed.
  • Munro is therefore leaving it up to readers to reflect on the narrator’s situation. The author offers no simple answer or opinion. Instead, Munro does what Munro does best: She presents a situation, with all of the injustices and power inequalities “as is”, visible only to readers who are ready to see them.
  • These days we hear a lot more about ‘boundaries’. The best this narrator can do is set boundaries regarding her brother. She cannot manage him, but as a powerless person in this situation, she can make an attempt to manage her own environment.


As our kids grew into toddlers, my husband and I would take turns changing diapers or taking them potty in public restrooms. My husband, again, was praised by strangers for taking his kids to the bathroom. It was bizarre. No one has, not once, ever thanked me for putting down my (always) lukewarm restaurant meal to take my frantic three-year-old to potty.

Why Does Society Praise Dads for Doing the Basics? by Rachel Garlinghouse

Daughters do the lion’s share to care for retired parents, accepting the financial and emotional responsibilities that go along with it.

Now there’s scientific research to back up the advice recording artist John Mayer gives in his hit song “Daughters.”

Study: Daughters Do Twice as Much as Sons to Care for Aging Parents from Healthline

most people – regardless of gender – do not leave their partners when they get sick. In a 2015 paper, researchers tracked 2,701 marriages using a study on health and retirement and watched what happened when someone became unwell during a marriage: only 6% of cases ended in divorce.

But that same study showed that when partners leave, it’s normally men. One study from 2009 found the strongest predictor for separation or divorce for patients with brain cancer was whether or not the sick person was a woman. That same study showed that men were seven times more likely to leave their partner than the other way around if one of them got brain cancer.

The men who leave their spouses when they have a life-threatening illness at The Guardian
Resentment: The Complexity of an Emotion and its Effect on Politics: A Discussion with Rob Schneider

In this episode of International Horizons, RBI director John Torpey interviews Rob Schneider, Professor of History at Indiana University-Bloomington, about the political effects of resentment. Schneider begins by discussing the psychological complexity of resentment and then delves into its understanding by other authors such as Nietzsche and its relationship with Catholicism. Moving forward, Schneider discusses how resentment is related to identity politics and how some sectors of the population have been neglected on the basis of the claim that they are privileged. Finally, he elaborates on the making of forgiveness in divided societies and how it is often imposed on some who are not yet ready to forgive.

Schneider is the author of The Return of Resentment: The Rise and Decline and Rise Again of a Political Emotion (U Chicago Press, 2023). 

New Books Network

On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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