Passion by Alice Munro

“Passion” is a short story by Alice Munro, published 2004 in The New Yorker.  This story has much in common with “What Is Remembered“. An elderly woman looks back to when she was young, in a vulnerable psychological state. In both, the younger woman gets into a car with a ravishing bad-boy doctor, contrasting against the hum-drum of life with her fiance/husband.

I’m making these stories sound like erotic romance, but in these short stories the focus is on character psychology. “Passion” is partly playing on the erotics of abstinence, seen also in works like Pride and Prejudice and Twilight. Will they or won’t they? Salacious interest is partly what gives the story its narrative drive.

ALICE MUNRO AND FEMINISM

“Passion” is a good example of why I consider Alice Munro a woke feminist writer. Take the following passage, which describes a young man and woman’s different response to the same movie, which touches not just on gender issues but also on economic realities:

He did take her to the movies. They saw “Father of the Bride.” Grace hated it. She hated girls like Elizabeth Taylor’s character—spoiled rich girls of whom nothing was ever asked but that they wheedle and demand. Maury said that it was just a comedy, but she told him that that was not the point. She could not quite make clear what her point was. Anybody would have assumed that it was because she worked as a waitress and was too poor to go to college, and because, if she wanted that kind of wedding, she would have to save up for years to pay for it herself. (Maury did think this, and was stricken with respect for her, almost with reverence.)

She could not explain or even quite understand that it wasn’t jealousy she felt; it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop like that or dress like that but because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men—people, everybody—thought they should be like: beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl had to be, to be fallen in love with. Then she’d become a mother and be all mushily devoted to her babies. Not selfish anymore, but just as pea-brained. Forever.

[…]

He honored her feelings about the movie. Indeed, now that he had listened to her angry struggles to explain, he struggled to tell her something in turn. He said he saw now that it was not anything so simple, so feminine, as jealousy. He saw that. It was that she would not stand for frivolity, was not content to be like most girls. She was special.

Munro italicises ‘feminine’ in the paragraph above. This man is starting with the assumption that there are feminine versus masculine attributes, and a feminine attribute is jealousy. But all women should be wary of this sort of appraisal — haven’t all women heard it? “You’re not like other girls, honey.” It’s a variation on that. Gillian Flynn’s passage about the Cool Girl from the (overall anti-feminist) Gone Girl went viral, but Alice Munro, in 2004, is demonstrating the same dynamic at work: A man is attracted to a woman; likes her; concludes she’s not like other (imaginary) women (of his own prejudicial conjuring).

STORYWORLD

“Passion” is a good case study in how to open a story with an establishing shot which zooms in slowly until we get to the level of the individual character. Munro starts by asking us to conjure a map > the Canadian Shield > lakes > lakes too small to fit on a map > the roads into the village > the village/suburb > the octagonal house > details of the materials used to build the house.

Apart from this kind of zooming in, we have a zooming in of time. Our focal character, elderly Grace, describes this lake house scene and constantly juxtaposes the modern reality against her memory of 40 years prior.

By meshing time and space in this way, the reader receives an expansive sense of setting. This is partly why Alice Munro’s short stories are said to be ‘novelistic’. You feel like you really know a place, but in so few words.

The house is also a great example of how a house can align with character. Grace is using the house as a proxy for her younger self:

Perhaps the worst thing would have been to find exactly what she thought she was after—the sheltering roof, the screened windows, the lake in front, the stand of maple and cedar and balm-of-Gilead trees behind. Perfect preservation, the past intact, when nothing of the kind could be said of herself. To find something so diminished, still existing but made irrelevant—as the Travers house now seems to be, with its added dormer windows, its startling blue paint—might be less hurtful in the long run.

See also: How Can Setting Be A Character?

Importantly for this story, Canada has been through various phases of Prohibition. In Ontario, the sale of liquor was prohibited for longer than I’d have guessed:

    • Orillia ended prohibition in 1955.
    • The city of Owen Sound continued to outlaw liquor well into the 1970s.
    • Parts of west Toronto (see The Junction) did not permit liquor sales until 2000 due largely to the efforts of William Horace Temple that resulted in the ban from 1904 to 1998.
    • James Bay Cree communities in Ontario remain dry as of 2016 (Moose Factory, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Attawapiskat), in that there is no government store selling alcoholic products. The transport of alcohol in to the communities is not generally enforced, and consumption is still common. Liquor sales are available in Moosonee, which is accessible from all communities by ice road in the winter.

— Wikipedia

Also importantly, casual sex is not an acceptable thing. This is pre-contraception. Sex can have dire consequences, hence it is taken very seriously by Neil’s parents.

PROGRESS SYMBOLISED BY ROADS

The emotion evoked by this story is, for me, strong, almost painful nostalgia. Only recently have I reached an age where I even feel nostalgia. Young people don’t. Or if they do, they’re probably preternaturally mature. Perhaps emigrating as an adult heightens the feeling. Like Grace, I have emigrated to Australia myself. “Passion” evokes memories of my own childhood towns in a different country, and how much they change each time I return.

The thing that seems to change most about landscapes of long ago: It is indeed the roads. This is why Munro focuses on roads at the beginning, but the roads are also a metaphor, and a commonly utilised one. This is another road trip story, in which a character goes on a journey and returns home (or finds a new home) having changed as a result of the trip.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “PASSION”

An old woman returns to a place where she used to live. This is used as a framing story leading the reader into the history of the couple who built the house: Mr and Mrs Travers. This story starts even before the house is built, with Mrs Travers’ first husband and earlier dwellings.

This leads into the backstory of Grace’s marriage, starting with the non-romantic ‘meet cute’ (which is no such thing), moving into how Grace fell in love with Maury’s family rather than Maury himself. Contrasting against the title of the work, their relationship is not passionate. They are both doing as expected.

This story is told using several writerly techniques which go unnoticed until you look for them

TENSE SWITCHING

The story opens with the present tense. ‘When Grace goes looking…’ This continues into the second paragraph: ‘Now there is a village’. This lends a timelessness to the place, which changes, but still exists. The switch to past tense is always hard when you’re writing, right? If you don’t make use of interim modals and auxiliaries, the switch feels too abrupt. The third paragraph opens with: ‘Grace would have turned back’. After that, take note of how Munro switches from the present perfect (She has always remembered) to the present tense. Finally, the simple past. This all happens so seamlessly we don’t notice. It’s easy to forget this is a high-level skill.

SIDESHADOWS

Sideshadowing, as Grace thinks of how much better her relationship could be, and later she’s not sure if the memory of Neil holding her tight is a false memory or a real one. There’s another related trick which is not quite sideshadowing because it really happens within the world of the story, but the car crash could easily have been our main characters. This is Munro’s way of saying, “This could so easily have happened. But didn’t. So now what?”

INTERIORITY

Paragraphs of ‘action’ interspersed with paragraphs of interiority, letting us into Grace’s psychology, including how she thinks Maury must feel. (Munro hews closely to Grace’s point of view.)

CROSSROADS

The symbolism of crossroads — how when looking back hindsight reveals the moment everything changed: ‘Describing this passage, this change in her life, later on, Grace might say—she did say—that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her.’ There’s direct mention of crossroads, and emphasis on roads in general: ‘He must have got his feeling of direction back when they came to a crossroads some miles on…’

The story as an entire unit is itself a crossroad — if she had never met Maury she’d never have met Neil, and so on.

THUMBNAIL CHARACTER SKETCHES

Alice Munro always writes masterful character sketches. There are quite a few examples in this one. I especially like the sketch of Maury’s father, perhaps because I know someone who fits this description exactly:

Mr. Travers never told stories and had little to say at dinner, but if he came upon you looking, for instance, at the fieldstone fireplace he might say, “Are you interested in rocks?” and tell you how he had searched and searched for that particular pink granite, because Mrs. Travers had once exclaimed over a rock like that, glimpsed in a road cut. Or he might show you the not really unusual features that he personally had added to the house—the corner cupboard shelves swinging outward in the kitchen, the storage space under the window seats. He was a tall, stooped man with a soft voice and thin hair slicked over his scalp. He wore bathing shoes when he went into the water and, though he did not look fat in his clothes, a pancake fold of white flesh slopped over the top of his bathing trunks.

— Alice Munro, “Passion”

But then, that’s the mark of an excellent character sketch. The reader does feel as if we have met this person (whether we have or not).

WEAKNESS/NEED

We might consider the character of Grace two people: The old woman who comes back and the young Grace who was a poor waitress. Her low income status, and her ability to see an unfair system for what it is (even if she can’t articulate it) make her an empathetic character. But I don’t think we need to think of young and old Grace separately. (My reasons for that at the end.)

Young Grace speaks with an Ottawa Valley accent. This further marks her as poor. I wonder what that sounds like but it’s apparently in decline. This regional brogue is an historical accent, influenced by Irish English.

Grace has little power, but she seems unable to take the small powers she would be granted. She doesn’t seem to realise that she has some say in whether she marries someone or not. She doesn’t seem to realise that it’s not her job to stop her boyfriend’s half-brother from drinking. Grace is not your modern ‘strong female character’. Not at all. We don’t even have a sense of that having developed as she looks back. She is a young woman typical of her era and circumstance.

DESIRE

I deduce that Grace wants out of her one-sided engagement to Maury and is passively going along with circumstances that will allow her to get out of the arrangement without shouldering the burden of having offended someone.

Of course, none of this Desire is established at the beginning. This is my post hoc reading.

As a passive character, Grace lives only from moment to moment. For example, when she cuts her foot, her desire is to get it stitched up and receive a tetanus shot. (Even this is suggested by another, less passive character.) Grace is an example of a character with no surface desire, but a strong underlying desire.

This almost compensates, but in story, can never compensate fully. The rule for writing passive characters: There must be other characters around them who pull them into their orbit, entangling them in their own desires.

OPPONENT

The opposition web is up for debate in this one, because it’s so nuanced. Who is Grace’s main opposition? She doesn’t want anything in particular, so it’s impossible to find the character with the opposite desire.

Both Maury and Neil are romantic opponents but in different ways. Both are flawed characters.

PLAN

What was Grace really looking for when she undertook this expedition?

Without a surface level desire, there won’t be a firm plan. So, like the main character in “What Is Remembered”, this is a young woman who (literally) goes along for the ride, propelled forward on her journey by a man who does have a plan. Neil’s plan is to use her for company (modern speak: emotional labour) by taking her with him on a car ride to a bootlegger’s house so he can get wasted.

BATTLE

“Passion” is an example of a narrative with what I call a psychological battle underscored by an adjacent battle.

Psychological Battle: The memory, which may or may not be real, that Neil ‘wound his arms around her, held her so tightly…’ This non-sex, maybe didn’t even happen scene would feel, on its own, anticlimactic, which is why Alice Munro decides to give us the sideshadowing of the car accident, which is not them, but could so very easily have been them.

Adjacent Battle: The car which crashed into a bridge abutment halfway down the road to Sabot Lake. This is coded by the characters as a suicide and therefore feeds into the theme of self-destruction on the part of Neil and Grace — the main thing they have in common.

SELF-REVELATION

Alice Munro tends to spend quite some time on the Self-revelation phase of a story. Here, Grace’s Self-revelation spans two long paragraphs. The revelation itself will be subtle, and hard to explain (if you’re not Alice Munro). I can only quote her directly.

First, what she learns about herself:

“You mean drinking? Why I’m drinking?” The cap came off the flask again. “Why don’t you ask me?”
“Because I know what you’d say.”
“What’s that? What would I say?”
“You’d say, ‘What else is there to do?’ Or something like that.”
“That’s true,” he said. “That’s about what I’d say. Well, then you’d try to tell me why I was wrong.”
“No,” Grace said. “No. I wouldn’t.”
When she’d said that, she felt cold. She had thought that she was serious, but now she saw that she’d been trying to impress him, to show that she was as worldly as he was, and in the middle of that she had come on a rock-bottom truth, a lack of hope that was genuine, reasonable, everlasting. There was no comfort in what she saw, now that she could see it.

Next, what she learns about the ‘plot’ of this day in her life (they’re not going to have sex — that’s not what Neil is needing):

She had thought that it was touch. Mouths, tongues, skin, bodies, banging bone on bone. Inflammation. Passion. But that wasn’t what she’d been working toward at all. She had seen deeper, deeper into him than she could ever have managed if they’d gone that way.

What she saw was final. As if she were at the edge of a flat dark body of water that stretched on and on. Cold, level water. Looking out at such dark, cold, level water, and knowing that it was all there was.

Finally, a Self-revelation about the nature of life itself (specifically the root of alcoholism):

It wasn’t the drinking that was responsible. Drinking, needing to drink—that was just some sort of distraction, like everything else, from the thing that was waiting, no matter what, all the time.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The reader assumes that the family assumes Neil took Grace to a hotel and ‘had his way with her’, so they give her enough money to be able to start a new life.

Earlier in the story there is a brief mention of the antipodes — how she’s seen many houses like this one ‘in Australia’. Australians call these houses ‘Queenslanders’ (whether they’re in the state of Queensland or not). Since Australia is narratively considered a place apart from anywhere else, it is often used in fiction to mean ‘gone basically forever’. (New Zealand is used in this way, too.)

So from that single detail near the beginning of the story, I extrapolate she has spent the last 40 years in Australia, leading a completely different sort of life.

Like me, do you wonder what that life looked like? Did she become an empowered woman? I doubt it. I think Grace probably became a meek, housewife sort of person. The clue is in the narration, and this is where “Passion” departs from “What Is Remembered” — Grace does not look back on this time in her life with significant extra insight. As a young woman she was reasonably worldly (because of her poverty and her job as a waitress), but old age doesn’t seem to have afforded her much over and above that. Instead, she is like that old house, who we now recall from the beginning — she hoped to find ‘something so diminished, still existing but made irrelevant’. This describes this period in her life, but might it also describe the rest of it?