“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”.
“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 Mansfield stamped on in DH Lawrence of invading bodies and psyches as if we could ever understand others by magical omniscience rather than by empathy.
(I happen to be a Katherine Mansfield fan, but I see what the reviewer is talking about.)
CHARACTERS IN “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”
- 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.
— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity
In other words, this plot is shaped like a vortex.
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.
“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? Continue reading “Deep Holes by Alice Munro”
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.
How is hoarding treated in fiction, if at all?
In her short story “Free Radicals“, Alice Munro portrays a woman working through the recent loss of her husband.
First, the way friends react — helpfully and unhelpfully. Funeral arrangements, immediate aftermath.
Memories, both painful and beautiful, mixed in together to paint a portrait of a rounded life.
The lonely act of walking into rooms and finding him conspicuous by his absence.
Then, the following detail stuck out to me:
She did make up the bed and tidy her own little messes in the kitchen or the bathroom, but in general the impulse to take on any wholesale sweep of housecleaning was beyond her. She could barely throw out a twisted paper clip or a fridge magnet that had lost its attraction, let alone the dish of Irish coins that she and Rich had brought home from a trip fifteen years ago. Everything seemed to have acquired its own peculiar heft and strangeness.
— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals”
Alice Munro must have observed that the recently bereft tend to hold onto things.
A few days before reading the story I listened to a completely unrelated interview between Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland. (“I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain”) Coupland happened to get talking about the psychology of hoarding.
Hoarding behaviours are often a way of dealing with trauma and grief. Hoarding tends to run in families.
Anecdotally, hoarding disorder (HD) may have links to autism and other neuro-differences, though studies don’t tend to show this.
So far, HD seems most clearly linked to obsessive compulsive disorders behaviours rather than other forms of mental ill-health.
What I didn’t know before listening to Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland speak on it (at about the 27:30 mark): Certain medications can provoke hoarding behaviours. Coupland mentions a drug for Parkinson’s disease, which also treats restless leg syndrome. This leads to hoarding behaviour in some people. This is not widely known.
Also not widely known: The genetic link between restless leg syndrome and ADHD. I’m sure this all triangulates eventually. (I have all three in my extended family.)
Kim Hill says she’s not ‘hoardy’, but admits that most people don’t think they’re hoardy. Then someone comes round and points out your massive and totally reasonable collection of dishcloths.
Psychology has much to learn about hoarding and related psychologies. But one thing is clear: Hoarding is not a moral issue. A behaviour which can be provoked by medication, or quick and extreme loss, suggests hoarding disorder could happen to any of us. You can almost set your clock to it, Coupland says. “Eighteen to twenty months later [after the loss], hoarding kicks in.” Being self-aware, knowing that you have a predilection for hoarding, makes no difference.
And Douglas Coupland, sometimes accused of being a hoarder himself, counters the museum minimalist types with this: If you live in a white box, you’re just a different kind of hoarder. You’re simply hoarding space.
So what of the proliferation of reality TV shows which make a spectacle of hoarders and their houses? Why is there so much appetite for those shows? Does it say something terrible about our natural human voyeurism? Is it exploitation? Much has been said on this matter already, and I agree with it all, but what lessons might storytellers learn about the content people crave?
I believe it comes back to ‘glamour’, in one specific sense. The archetypically ‘glamorous’ place is the store that sells containers for keeping our stuff in. We walk into those stores and are immediately charmed by the idea that we, too, could be super organised, and this would improve our lives.
We love the hoarding shows because we look at that mess and we see how much better it could be. Just hire five skips, we think. Bleach the hell out of that place and it would look so much better. Audiences widely love Marie Kondo. We love building shows, home renovation shows, move to the country shows and even cooking shows, for the same deep-rooted reasons.
This desire to improve plays into a specific wish fulfilment: for order, for constant improvement, for the opposite of entropy. For safety. For this same reason I loved Little House In The Big Woods as a six-year-old. In the fictional Ingalls’ lives, things were constantly getting better. Log cabins were getting built, food was getting preserved for winter, ground was being covered.
Now, for storytellers to meet that need without real life exploitation.
Listen to Australian podcast All In The Mind for an episode on the psychology of hoarding. (There’s also a transcript.)
The Weight Of Parental Love and Things And Time And “Help” is a post from Captain Awkward in response to a woman whose parent is hoarding.
“Fiction” is a short story by Alice Munro (2009). From the title itself we might expect it to be metafictional. Sure enough, there are constant reminders to consider the role of fiction in our lives.
The following interview, from 2006, offers some extra insight into the story, and why Munro may have written it. For a few years she owned a bookstore and people used to come in to the store and tell her, as a matter of pride, two things: They don’t read Canadian books and they don’t read fiction. However, she also says that is no longer the case.
I don’t want to map Munro’s fictional Joyce onto Munro herself, but there are some parallels:
Like Joyce, Munro divorced her first husband during the hippie revolution. Though unlike Joyce, Munro explains that ‘everyone was doing it’ during this era and people who didn’t seemed ‘almost apologetic’ for staying together. Joyce does not feel like that at all. She feels grief and anxiety.
“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. Continue reading “Passion by Alice Munro”
“What Is Remembered” by Alice Munro appears in the print edition of the February 19, 2001, issue of The New Yorker. It was also published in the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.
Looking back as an old lady, this short story focuses on several days across one young woman’s life in which she hooks up with a doctor she meets at her husband’s friend’s funeral. The memory of this event sustains her, imaginatively, for the rest of her life, and allows her to lead this parallel imagined life in which she remained single and more adventurous. In this way, “What Is Remembered” reminds me of Bridges Over Madison County.
I’m also reminded of a song by Nancy Sinatra.
One remarkable thing about Alice Munro: her ability to see aspects of psychology which only drew public attention decades later. In “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” we have a beautiful character study of a philandering man and, his self-justification for wrong-doing and what has since been called sexual solipsism. In “Queenie” Munro paints a picture of what the authorities call ‘coercive control’, or what is known in pop-culture as ‘gaslighting’ (after the 1944 movie). Continue reading “Alice Munro, Queenie & Coercive Control”
“Silence” is a short story by Alice Munro, one of three in a triptych about a woman called Juliet. The first are “Chance” and “Soon“.
All three are published in the Runaway collection (2004).
[“Silence”] brings to the foreground a theme that runs through many stories by Alice Munro—the role of silence within the network of domestic relations.
Read “Silence” online at The New Yorker.
Structurally, “Silence” is a mythic journey which spans approximately half of a woman’s entire life. The story opens with Juliet off on a trip in order to find information. Along the way she meets allies, opponents (most are a mixture of both), then returns ‘home’ a changed person after solving part of the mystery and learning something important about herself.
Usually when I break down a story into classic seven step structure, there’s a fairly clear line between each step. One masterful thing about work of Alice Munro: the lines are not there. “Silence” makes an excellent case study of a short story in which the ‘Self-revelation’ phase melts in to the ‘New Equilibrium’ stage. The reader keeps having revelation after revelation, then bang, there’s the big gut punch, right at the end. Continue reading “Silence by Alice Munro”