Sidewalk Flowers (2015), or what I might call Footpath Flowers, is a wordless Canadian picture book by poet JonArno Lawson and beautifully illustrated in ink and wash by Sydney Smith.Continue reading “Sidewalk Flowers by Lawson and Smith”
“My Mother’s Dream” is a short story by Alice Munro, and the final offering in The Love Of A Good Woman (1998). This is an absolute masterwork in how to subvert an established narrative trope.Continue reading “My Mother’s Dream by Alice Munro”
Gaslighting, parentification, spousification, self-objectification, coercive control… People living in 1974 did not have ready access to the language of psychology and found it difficult to describe emotionally abusive relationships, let alone talk about the shame. Likewise, there wasn’t the language to describe that disorienting transition from girlhood to womanhood.Continue reading “Rich As Stink by Alice Munro”
“The Children Stay” is a short story by Alice Munro, published in the collection The Love Of A Good Woman (1998). It’s very difficult to write empathetically about women who leave their husbands and children for another man, especially when it’s purely lust driven rather than depicted as ‘pure love’. This is because mothers are held to a higher standard. Alice Munro’s monumental task is to get the reader to understand exactly why a woman might do as Pauline did. This involves getting deep into Pauline’s mind. I think she manages it perfectly.Continue reading “The Children Stay by Alice Munro”
“Cortes Island” is a short story by Alice Munro, included in the 2013 collection The Love Of A Good Woman, which won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Like another story in this collection, “Jakarta“, the title of this story is set in a place away from where the action takes place. Writers often say that the characters who exist off the page are as important as the character who exist on the page (engaged in the action). The same is true of places, especially for a writer like Alice Munro. This is yet another way in which a setting can be considered a character.
In this case, Cortes Island is the place where the first person narrator’s landlady used to live as a young woman. The real Cortes Island lies off the coast of British Columbia. In 2016 it had only 1,035 permanent residents. Its school has since been closed. You get there by plane or ferry.
STORYWORLD OF “CORTES ISLAND”
“Cortes Island” is set in Vancouver, a few blocks away from Kitsilano Library, in an era when ‘television was still a novelty’. This must be the early 1950s. Most Canadians owned a television set by the end of the 1950s, though it took a little longer for TV to become ubiquitous in Canada for fear of too much American influence on Canadian culture.
The Cortes Island part of the story took place in 1923. White people hadn’t been there long. To them, the island would have seemed very wild indeed. My first instinct is to judge Mrs. Gorrie a little for failing to appreciate the beautiful scenery that would have surrounded her, but it’s hard to imagine now the level of solitude involved in living in a place like that before modern infrastructure, before adequate medical services, before help of any kind. The day-to-day basics of life would’ve been hard to come by.
Stories set on islands are, of course, often about solitude. The island functions as a metaphor for a character’s feelings of isolation. In this particular story, the island also comes to represent welcome privacy — privacy of fantasy and thought.
As a new wife the narrator lives symbolically in a basement, which is hidden from the outside world. She wants to remain hidden (to live within her own imaginative worlds) but the flip side of that — she is invisible. Or, she thinks she is. It is revealed as the story progresses that she cannot escape the watchful eye of Mrs. Gorrie nor of the older women who work in the library. They all want to know what she’s scribbling down in her notebooks.
CHARACTERS OF “CORTES ISLAND”
Narrator — This is quite distant, extradiegetic narration. By the time she writes this story she is a much older woman herself, with the benefit of lived experience and hindsight. At the time of this story she is a newlywed, living in a basement with her husband in Vancouver. Upstairs lives a woman called Mrs. Gorrie. She describes her younger self as bashful and acquiescent. The fact that she knows this about herself tells us it is somewhat performative, or perhaps this comes via hindsight. She is a shy writer. She sometimes pretends she’s not home when Mrs. Gorrie comes knocking.
Chess — The narrator’s husband. Works for a wholesale grocery firm. In hindsight, the narrator understands that Chess is in his own kind of gender prison — men were expected to submit themselves to the corporate life in order to support a wife and family. (They too often blamed women for this rather than the patriarchy.) Chess has suppressed his own desire to become a history teacher in the hope of earning more. And like a man of his time, he is dismissive of women. “What is the point of old women anyway?” (This must hurt — the narrator saw herself as his old woman one day.)
Mrs. Gorrie — The narrator’s (sort of) landlady. ‘Her face was think, rouged, vivacious, her teeth large and glistening’. Mrs. Gorrie is presented as bored, interfering and boring. She ignores boundaries: ‘Her appetite for friendliness, for company, took no account of resistance’. The house she lives in is owned by her son. Lives on Mr. Gorrie’s pension, but tells the narrator she’s not nearly old enough to collect one herself. (This is at odds with the description given, of a little old lady.) Mrs. Gorries views on socialism are revealed via her attitude towards Irene, a child with cerebral palsy. While Mrs. Gorrie expresses sympathy, she denies the girl’s humanity, saying that she thinks there should be a law that healthy people can’t get married to people like that. She gives advice indirectly using ‘I’ statements, because a woman of her generation was required to be ‘polite’, though ‘politeness’ has different outworkings. (Respecting other people’s boundaries is the greatest form of politeness.) All of this points to a solipsistic outlook on life.
Ray Gorrie — Mrs. Gorrie’s son. He comes to do maintenance on the house but stonewalls his mother. Unlike the narrator, he feels no need to be polite to her.
Mr. Gorrie — When Mrs. Gorrie takes him out he uses a wheelchair because of a stroke. Mrs. Gorrie refers to him as ‘my husband in the wheel chair’. He spends his days staring out at the street. He can manage to drag himself to the toilet and grunt, but that’s about it. The narrator has trouble looking at him — not because she is repelled by his disability but because she can’t stand looking at his very human eyes.
Mrs. Cornish — Ray lives in a house with Mrs. Cornish, somewhere in East Vancouver. Since Mrs. Gorrie can’t get anything out of her own son, she sometimes talks to Mrs. Cornish directly to get details of Ray’s life.
Irene Cornish — a child with cerebral palsy.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “CORTES ISLAND”
Significantly, the narrator is not named. I’ve found that when I avoid giving a character a name in writing, especially when the character is female, some critique partners in the past have accused me of a form of sexism in which women are not considered important enough to be granted a name. But I resist this blanket interpretation — sometimes when an author avoids giving a marginalised character a name, it’s deliberate! Unfortunately, it’s then up to the reader to understand why the character doesn’t have a name. (And not every reader brings feminism to the table.)
(I will say it’s quite annoying to write about unnamed characters. I have to keep calling her ‘the narrator’.)
The narrator’s Shortcoming is symbolised by the term of endearment she is given — ‘our little bride’, which is completely in line with her losing her real name. She no longer exists in the world as an autonomous human being, but belongs collectively to a culture in which her job is to make others feel good. She is ‘small’ as in diminished, no stature of her own. The narrator’s Psychological Shortcoming comes through best in the following sentence:
In the full spate of sex, and during its achieved aftermath, that fabric was in front of my eyes and became a reminder of what I liked about being married—the reward for which I suffered the unforeseen insult of being a little bride and the peculiar threat of a china cabinet.
If she has a Moral Shortcoming (a way in which she treats others badly) it is introduced earlier — despite knowing the old woman upstairs is lonely, she pretends to be out when the woman comes knocking. This is only a moral shortcoming if we start from a position of ‘women must be kind and giving to others at all times, suppressing their own need for quiet and solitude.’ To me, this is clearly a story which asks the reader to question how much women really owe others and, more widely, how much we owe our parents, how much we owe our neighbours. Who are we responsible for? The men in this story are abrasive to Mrs. Gorrie in a way the narrator dares not speak to her, always responding politely, despite being bored to death in the company of someone she doesn’t really like.
Though it wasn’t known as ‘anxiety’ back then, the narrator shows lack of confidence when going out for job interviews. She doesn’t believe herself capable of learning to work a cash register. This makes her economically vulnerable. Vulnerability scares her. We see this in her reaction to Mr. Gorrie in the wheelchair.
The narrator wants to cocoon herself in the safety and cosiness of marriage (symbolised by the basement) but doesn’t want to lose herself entirely (also symbolised by the basement). She wants to read voraciously and write.
Since Mrs. Gorrie is constantly seeking the narrator’s company, she is standing in the way.
More generally, though, Mrs. Gorrie is the sort of old woman the narrator does not wish to become. This repulsive side of older-womanhood is symbolised by Mrs. Gorrie’s china cabinet in particular. The older woman has such an empty life, and such an empty head, that she dusts and polishes the contents of this china cabinet every week.
The narrator is avoidant rather than proactive. With characters like these, the opposition has to be proactive otherwise there is no story.
The nasty-nice hostility between the narrator and Mrs. Gorrie transforms into on-the-surface nastiness when the narrator gets a job at the library, thereby ‘abandoning’ Mr. Gorrie.
Each thinks the other is off her rocker.
There is a hypodiegetic narrative which Mr. Gorrie asks the narrator to read to him from a book on his shelf — the story of the burned house. By the end of this article we know Mr. Gorrie’s connection to the story — the young boy used Mr. Gorrie’s boat to escape the house (which he probably burned down).
This is only a peripheral connection, but it must surely be meaningful to the narrator. How? What exactly has she realised. I believe the moment she smells his urine and unexpectedly likes it, she has embraced a wilder part of herself which will carry her through the domesticity of her later life. What led to this realisation was the story set in the utter wilderness of the imaginary (to her) Cortes Island, replete with the fairytale settings of conflagrations, boats, lakes and forests.
More generally, at a slower pacing, “Cortes Island” is coming-of-age story in which a young woman learns to become a part of the wider world rather than living in ‘life’s basement’.
Throughout the story we get hints that the narrator’s marriage is not going to last quite as happily. The Western world is on the cusp of a sexual revolution, though didn’t know it then. She didn’t realise that her attitude towards small housekeeping things would become more important later. She didn’t ever see herself as a mother with a pram, but has happened within the bounds of the story time.
After she and her husband move out, she continues having sexual dreams about the unlikely Mr. Gorrie. The setting of these fantasies is the wilderness of Cortes Island. I’m guessing this indicates the loneliness and isolation the narrator will feel in her life as an introverted 1960s housewife.
The narrator tells us that she is satisfied with this arrangement. She is able to find satisfaction in her married life by furnishing her mind with wild, grotesque and very private fantasies.
Commentators have noted that Munro’s “Cortes Island” is a new take on a long-established fairytale tradition.
See the fairytale known as “The Girl Who Married the Bear” or “The Bear Mother”. This is the Canadian/Alaskan, feminine branch of a fairytale which, in Eurasia, is more masculine.
In both the Eurasian and North American tales, a bear and his human wife have a child. That’s the similarity.
The Eurasian plot goes like this:
- The child turns into a strongman dragon slayer
- With his friends/brothers he enters an underworld
- Down there he fights and wins against some kind of Minotaur opponent (it might be a devil or a dragon, depending on the tale)
- He also rescues three princesses who have been kidnapped.
- He marries the youngest princess and becomes king.
In that form, the fairytale goes by titles such as “Strong John”, “John the Bear”, “The Three Stolen Princesses”. Clearly it exists as a masculine wish fulfilment, and is also a classic mythic journey, also known as a masculine myth. You can see elements of this tale as far back as Beowulf, an eight-century English epic in which the hero goes down to an underworld and kills a monster called Grendel.
But the North American story is quite different, and clearly has more feminine influence:
- A haughty woman returns to civilisation with her strange son after being in the wilderness for ages
- During her time in the wilderness she was married.
- She is now a raging monster herself.
In Munro’s short story, the basement is the underworld.
“Jakarta” is a short story by Alice Munro, the second in the Nobel Prize winning collection The Love Of A Good Woman. At first it baffles me why this story is called Jakarta as it is not set in Indonesia. Eventually we find out that one of the characters has previously died in Jakarta of a tropical bug. Or has he?
CHARACTERS OF “JAKARTA”
Young Kath Mayberry — has a baby called Noelle. Reads what she likes, e.g. bohemian writers such as Katherine Mansfield. Kath marries the conservative, standard pharmacist, Kent, but is secretly intrigued by how her friend Sonje lives her life. Ironically, Kath has more intellectual freedom while Sonje has more sexual ‘freedom’. We know this from the detail that Sonje has her reading material prescribed by her much older male partner, Cottar, who is full of political opinions and argues as sport.
Older Kath — at first the reader is led to wonder if she is still alive. We are told eventually that she is living in Ontario not far from Toronto. The man she lived with for a long time and built her lake house with is dead.
Young Sonje — reads a book by Howard Fast. because her husband tells her if she’s going to read fiction she should read him. Lives with Cottar in a communal house of communists with an arrangement of partner swapping.
Older Sonje — Cottar has died 30 years ago of some tropical bug in Jakarta. Was a journalist. Sonje looked after her husband’s elderly mother, who was a good friend. She has until recently been a dance teacher. There is a dance studio in her dilapidated beach home. Sonje herself has lost weight, her skin has had skin cancers cut out and she looks like the old lady she is.
Cottar — Sonje’s husband. A journalist. Older than Sonje, Kath and Kent. In his 30s he was ‘tall, narrow shouldered, with a high bald forehead and wispy sideburtns. A rushed, hushed, confidential way of talking.’ Takes delight in winding up conservative types like Kent.
The Monicas — a group of slightly older women who use the beach every day, each with three or four children.
The real Monica — the woman who invited Kath and Sonje to join the other women on the beach. She has a nice house.
Kent Mayberry — Was married to Kath. Has had a full life including multiple families. Was a pharmacist. Kent doesn’t fit in with the Bohemian crew — he is more optimistic about the way the world is being run.
Deborah — Kent’s much younger partner, a physiotherapist, ‘tactful and incurious almost to the point of indifference’.
Amy — the older woman’s husband’s mistress. A lot of make up. Cavalier about rules and health.
SETTING OF “JAKARTA”
I’m unfamiliar with this part of the world and with this milieu in general. By the time I was a young adult it was the height of the AIDs epidemic, which affected the gay community hardest but had wider reaching consequences than that. This story begins much earlier than that, in the 1960s. Most of what I know about this era comes from fiction.
I like the description of Sonje’s beach house, seen via Kent’s point of view as a visitor:
The first thing Kent noticed about the house was that it was chilly. On a bright summer day. But houses in the Pacific Northwest are seldom as warm as they look—move out of the sun and you feel at once a clammy breath. Fogs and rainy winter cold must have entered this house for a long time almost without opposition. It was a large wooden bungalow, ramshackle though not austere, with its veranda and dormers. There used to be a lot of house like this in West Vancouver, where Kent still lived. But most of them had been sold as teardowns.
The two large connected front rooms were bare, except for an upright piano. The floor was scuffed gray in the middle, darkly waxed at the corners. There was a railing along one wall and opposite that a dusty mirror in which he saw two lean white-haired figures pass.
The house, of course, is an extension of its inhabitant. We see the house from Kent’s point of view and we also see Sonje from Kent’s point of view. See also: How Can Setting Be A Character?
THE FALSE FREEDOM OF THE SWINGING SIXTIES
If we consider this story from Sonje’s point of view, Sonje has been yoked to her controlling husband her entire life, even after his death. This is ironic, since she was a participant in the swinging sixties era.
I recall the book Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein, and the work of Shere Hite, and I wonder how many of the women from that era were truly as liberated as they felt themselves to be. Munro alludes to performative sex — Sonje derived secondary pleasure from her husband’s primary pleasure. We are told she has no sexual release. Cottar tells her this is because there is something wrong with her. She agrees there is something wrong with her, without allowing herself the freedom to accept that she may be naturally monogamous. At the beach party, two women dance together. They dance for as long as they can before men come between them, separating them, choosing which woman they want for themselves.
I tell my students that party scenes are really important in fiction because a party scene can go in any direction. Sex scenes can be similar. You’re putting characters together—what happens as a result?Carmen Maria Machado
Alice Munro’s assessment of this environment is clear: ‘Sexual liberation’ was better for men overall, disregarding individual cases of genuine freedom. This was a very necessary period, and modern feminism could not have happened without it. But how free were women, really, when a woman couldn’t go to the bank and get a loan in her own name?
The flipside to the destigmatisation of sex for women has been a sense of patriarchal entitlement to sex with women.Van Badham
The later part of this story is set in the 1990s. Betsy at the Mookse and Gripes blog has this to say about a particular historical moment of the 90s:
Anita Hill had been mercilessly grilled by United States Senators during the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Hill argued that Thomas had subjected her to solicitation while she was his law clerk, and asserted that when she rebuffed him he switched to humiliation. Thomas’s Republican supporters in the Senate attacked Hill’s common sense, suggesting that she had made it all up, or that it was she herself who had had designs on the judge. Ironically, after Thomas won and was confirmed, sexual harassment in the workplace became a live wire. Could Munro have been affected by this debate? Perhaps. One other historical note is that Eve Enssler’s Vagina Monologues was first performed in 1996.
Below is a description of this era from a Gen-X American who remembers it:
The Anita Hill hearing was my first encounter with overt feminism. I was 21. I listened as she testified and was vilified by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee and the media. America didn’t believe her. In a 1991 New York Times article, one woman explains why she doubts Anita Hill: “She might have thought some of this stuff up in her head. Women have a tendency to do that sometimes.” Others brushed her off as an embarrassing spectacle. So what if her boss talked to her about porn, bestiality, and pubic hairs. Relax, Anita. Don’t be so uptight. You know you want it.
I was working as a receptionist. A mid-level manager made a habit of bringing his wife’s underwear to work and showing them to me. He carried them in his suit pocket. He’d linger at my desk describing that morning’s copulation. I’d respond in ways the ’80s taught me: Laugh and roll your eyes or make a maternal tsk-tsk face.
Besides, Anita Hill lost. Clarence Thomas was confirmed. The lesson? All you uptight bitches need to take a chill pill. Men like to have a little fun. No harm in that, is there? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Intertextuality is significant in this short story — Alice Munro sometimes tells us what her characters are reading. As a Katherine Mansfield fan, I see the immediate influence of two women sitting together on the beach a la At The Bay, and I also detect an erotic or at least a romantic charge between them.
It’s possible that this particular author (Katherine Mansfield) had a terrific influence on Munro, even though society in general ignored her in favour of guys like Lawrence. “At the Bay” had appeared in Mansfield’s 1922 book The Garden Party. It’s very important that Munro doesn’t mention the author’s name at all, as she thus makes us complicit in the general dismissal of women writers.
In their passing discussion of “At the Bay”, it occurs to Kath that Mansfield’s Stanley Burnell (a husband) reminds her of her own husband. Kath thinks: “[Stanley] is such a boy, with his pushy love, his greed at the table, his self-satisfaction.”
WHAT HAPPENS IN “JAKARTA”
Two woman friends, Sonje and Kath, are together on a beach. One of them has a baby. They are invited to join a group of slightly older women with slightly older children but they are repelled by the spectacle of overt motherhood. So after joining them once they hide behind some logs and read. Sonje reads what her husband tells her to read; Kath reads more literary work. Sonje borrows this when she can, but limits herself to one story a day. They are reading Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, which suggests to me that they are attracted to an alternative, bohemian life. This would also explain why the spectacle of motherhood repels them.
The viewpoint character is a man called Kent. We learn immediately that he is on his way to see Cottar and Sonje somewhere in Oregon. Kent’s partner is Deborah. They are on a road trip visiting family and friends, on their way back home to Toronto. It is Deborah rather than Kent who would like to stop in and see Sonje.
Munro is sure to tell us that they are all old — much time has elapsed since the earlier scene on the beach.
They approach the beach described in section one. There is now play equipment, ‘swollen out of scale’. Approaching Sonje’s house, Kent makes ‘the usual mistake’ of forgetting how much time has gone by. He wonders why Cottar’s mother is trimming the hedge when she’s blind, then realises he’s looking at Sonje — much older than last time he saw her.
In turn, Sonje mistakes Kent’s partner for Kent’s daughter. Deborah is a year younger than Kent’s daughter Noelle.
Kent observes Sonje’s house, which is just as old as she is. Kent remembers the past, to when they were all about 30 years old — he remembers himself, Kath, Sonje and Cottar in the same room with some other older hipster couple.
It isn’t revealed until section that the combative gathering called by Kent was the first time Sonje met Kent.
A flashback to a time when Cottar was headed off overseas as a journalist and Sonje was headed down to Oregon to stay with Cottar’s mother. This section is written from the viewpoint of the absent Kath, which is interesting.
There’s a lot of flower power nudity and chemistry.
A woman called Amy transforms Kath’s face with makeup. Kath is dirty dancing with a man when her husband turns up. Kath doesn’t know which way Kent came in, so doesn’t know if she saw it. Kent is cagey. Kath washes off the makeup in the bathroom.
Back in the present, Sonje tells Kent that she doesn’t believe Cottar is really dead. Sonje tells Kent that now her mother-in-law has died she’s going to try and track Cottar down. Kent thinks she’s got a screw loose. But apparently Kent’s mother had the same idea, shared on her death bed. (This could be a folie a deux situation, in which two deluded people egg each other on.)
Cottar hopes Sonje will talk more about Kath. Although Cottar hears about his first wife from their daughter, he wants Sonje to pass on how healthy he looks. But Sonje is a bit obsessed with this conspiracy theory of hers.
Outside the wind rises, matching Kent’s internal state. He’s had his pill, he’s feeling distraught listening to the theory that Cottar might still be alive. Kent also draws a parallel between Sonje’s wish to see Cottar (precisely because he’s meant to be dead) and Cottar’s never seeing Kath (precisely because he could drive to her front door if he wanted to). In both cases, their former spouses are strangers to them.
The story ends with Kent imagining himself staying here with Sonje, listening to her talk about Jakarta.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “JAKARTA”
Kent is the main character — it is Kent who has the Anagnorisis at the end.
Kent is old, his health is failing, and he’s on a road trip to visit people from his past. But he is disappointed at each visit, he tells us, because nobody gives him what he needs.
What Kent wants is left for the reader to work out.
My theory is that Kent wants to feel young. He is still concerned about looking young and healthy to his first wife, who he hasn’t seen in years (and probably won’t see). He has a younger wife. But Alice Munro keeps reminding the reader that he is not young at all. He is reliant upon pills to keep healthy and his younger wife does the driving. This is perhaps his last big trip.
By the time they pass by Sonje’s house, Kent isn’t too keen on going in to visit her. It’s the new wife who suggests it. At first I’m thinking, that’s often the case — it’s often the female half of a partnership pushing for the maintenance of social bonds. But by the end of the story it’s clear that Kent expects to be disappointed by Sonje, because a pattern of disappointment has already been established on this tour.
Since Sonje is looking so old, and since Kent and Sonje are contemporaries, Sonje stands in the way of Kent feeling young. It’s also possible she’s losing her marbles. This makes Sonje Kent’s opponent.
At the start of Kent’s trip, the plan was to visit old friends and family in the hope of reminiscing about the good times and rekindling the feelings of youth.
When Sonje tells Kent her theory, Kent thinks she’s off her rocker. He feels ill. Ostensibly this is because he’s due for his pill, but this is surely the feeling of death.
Kent realises several things at Sonje’s:
- No one from his past can successfully help him feel youthful again, because age cannot be escaped that easily.
- At this stage in life the dramas seem lesser, but also less interesting. Everything is starting to feel predictable. (Under the surface, this ‘predictability’ is surely Kent’s acceptance of impending death — the most predictable life event of the lot.)
- Although Kath is still alive, he hasn’t seen his first wife in so long that she might as well be dead to him. This revelation comes via Sonje’s inverse experience of having lost a husband but believing him still alive.
- Significantly, Kent’s much younger wife Deborah isn’t with them at Sonje’s house. She takes off to a healthfood store — the heterotopia people cling to when trying and persuade themselves that death can be staved off. Sonje’s youthful presence may otherwise stand in the way of Kent finally accepting that his own death is imminent.
When Kent wonders what it would be like to just stay at Sonje’s, listening to her crazy theories, I believe he is imagining what it would feel like to die here, an old person in an old ‘teardown’ house, alongside an equally old woman off her rocker.
This is a story in which the character goes from a place of slavery (a conservative life in a hippie era) to freedom (a big road trip with a much younger wife) back to slavery (acceptance of death).
Cover photo by averie woodard
My reading of “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro (2008) is highly metaphorical. To me, this is a story about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and the new vulnerability older women feel when their male partner dies before them.
Read literally, though, and this is the story of one woman’s brush with a serial murdering intruder — a rare crime story from Alice Munro.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “FREE RADICALS”
The structure of this short story is exquisite: a metadiegetic narrative within a dream sequence within a framing story.
Before diving deep into “Free Radicals”, refer to the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, especially as adapted for Story. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is famous for her research into grieving and end-of-life psychology. Her stages of grief have since been mapped onto a narrative arc. (This psychology applies to anything major and shocking in our lives.)
There are various versions of this chart because psychology has changed over the decades. Here’s another one adapted for the Shawn Coyne way of looking at story:
Alice Munro lost a baby daughter soon after giving birth in her early twenties. By the time Munro published “Free Radicals” in February 2008, she was no stranger to ageing, ill-health and grief.
The interaction in the kitchen between Nita and the intruder forms a mini-grief story in its own right. Refering to the chart: At first Nita is Shocked by the man as he stands in the doorway. She is shocked again when he demands something to eat, but she plays along with the situation, trying to tell herself — and him — that she’s not scared. Denial.
There’s a metadiegetic narrative nested one level deeper in the kitchen scene, when Munro transfers the Anger stage of Nita’s grief onto the (imaginary) intruder, who has just murdered his own family.
Why did he murder his family? Because he couldn’t face the care responsibilities imposed upon him without warning. It wasn’t what he was expecting as ‘part of life’s deal’. So he abdicated his responsibility entirely, as Nita perhaps feels her own husband did to her.
Nita feels residual guilt about what happened with her husband’s first wife. Thus, due to the ghost set up in the first section of the story, Nita imagines herself as this man. It is easy for her to imagine she is just like him. She tells him they are as bad as each other.
She also imagines this man as her husband who, likewise, took off without hanging around to fulfil his obligations of care (to Nita, rather than to the disabled sister).
See how Alice Munro masterfully achieves both proxy amalgamations at once?
This is how Nita works through her grief — imaginatively. This melodramatic kitchen incident is our explanation for why she is so scared to go down to the cellar — terrible things come up from there.
In the symbolic dream house, the cellar is a place where dark things happen. As the dream house predicts, bad things come up the stairs from the cellar. The cellar is the housing equivalent of the fairytale forest — it is the subconscious. It’s all very Freudian. But Gaston Bachelard is the go-to guy for reading all about that.
Nita is grieving and that is her main psychological shortcoming. It is kept as a reveal that she herself is dealing with cancer and will be dead within the year. Her much older husband, who just received a clean bill of health at the doctor’s, has died suddenly. She is therefore in shock. She feels betrayed.
Off the page but important: Nita’s husband is not going to be around to take care of her now. Nita will face the worst of her illness completely alone. Unlike her husband’s swift death, her demise is a slow one. Unlike Rich, Nita needs to find a way to cope with all that fear.
We are offered a few clues about Nita’s vulnerable psychological state. I’ve written separately about my theory that she’s a candidate for hoarding disorder. But this is not a story about that. And really, the hoarding disorder interpretation is a bit of a stretch on my part because it tends to come on a year and a half after a sudden and expected loss, not immediately. I still find it fascinating and, in some counter-intuitive way, an intruder coming to take Nita’s husband’s car might actually be an easier way to get rid of the darn thing rather than her having to sell it herself, thereby offering up for sacrifice yet another remnant of him.
Nita is immensely vulnerable now. She can’t drive, for example. She no longer has a driver in her husband. Worse, there are places in her own house where she won’t even go. Nowhere is safe. Life itself is not safe.
She doesn’t even consider this her own house anymore. She came by it in a slightly underhanded way, she feels. We learn this via backstory — she was the other woman who broke up her husband’s first marriage. Especially in earlier eras, ‘the other woman’ was always blamed in such situations.
Munro reminds us of that, but doesn’t parse the unfairness of it. That’s up to us. Munro simply tells the reader that Nita lost her office job because of it. Rich kept his job, but — perhaps only in his head — he feels he missed out on a promotional opportunity that was owed to him. (This is how we know he’s a white man — his sense of entitlement.) Important to remember: It wasn’t young Nita who cheated. It was the husband, who betrayed the trust of his first wife.
This relationship history (her moral shortcoming) is Nita’s ghost — an event from the distant past affects her psychology in the present. Munro weaves this backstory concisely throughout the story of the present. (Is there such a word as frontstory?)
In a bereft state does anyone truly desire anything, other than to reverse time and get their loved one back? Since no one can do anything about that, this deep desire doesn’t make for a satisfying story.
As for the surface level desire, living from day to day, Nita would like to clean up the house. She knows she needs to deal with the logistics of losing her husband. She needs to sell his car, for instance.
Clearing out his stuff means she has to go into parts of the house that scare her, which neatly joins ‘desire’ to ‘shortcoming’. (All of the best stories do this.)
This is what she wants to do in this particular story, or rather in the second portion, when she’s starting to come out of her Shock.
Nita’s husband has let her down. He was supposed to stick around and take care of her. Rich is her opponent.
But rather than be angry at Rich, who is dead, and who didn’t die to spite her, Nita invents a proxy upon which to paste the Anger stage of her grief.
Perhaps within the real world of the story a man does come to check the meter and then leaves. I think Nita makes up the story about the serial killer intruder. She either imagines this scenario while the man is down in her cellar, or she imagines it later, after the police officer tells her that her husband’s car has been stolen. Perhaps the police officer and the stolen car is imagined as well. But since it’s not melodramatic, I decode that section as real.
The main clue: Nita feels vulnerable in her own home, ‘unable to sit down until he’s gone’. When this meter reader arrives and apologises for startling her, insisting on removing his shoes, this is completely at odds with the man he reveals himself to be. That’s not to deny that trickster criminals exist, of course. Besides that, I find this story implausible on a literal level. And a crime story about an encounter with a psychopathic murderer doesn’t fit well into Munro’s oeuvre. An imaginary encounter fits much better.
In fact, I believe Nita is a fairytale trickster and the intruder is a fairytale fool. Poison itself is very fairytale, harking back to stories of witchcraft. Hence, I propose the incident is imagined.
In case we missed that Nita has invented this story for the (imaginary) intruder, she makes sure to tell us, which is an interesting choice. Some critics have said that if she hadn’t told us, we’d never have known.
But the very idea that it would be easy to kill someone with rhubarb leaves is a bit of a stretch in itself. Sure, they are poisonous, but you’d have to eat a LOT of it. So much that you’d definitely know you were having it:
The chemical villain in rhubarb leaves is oxalic acid, a compound also found in Swiss chard, spinach, beets, peanuts, chocolate, and tea. Chard and spinach, in fact, contain even more oxalic acid than rhubarb—respectively, 700 and 600 mg/100 g, as opposed to rhubarb’s restrained 500. Rhubarb’s killer reputation apparently dates to World War I, when rhubarb leaves were recommended on the home front as an alternative food. At least one death was reported in the literature, an event that rhubarb has yet to live down.
Oxalic acid does its dirty work by binding to calcium ions and yanking them out of circulation. In the worst-case scenario, it removes enough essential calcium from the blood to be lethal; in lesser amounts, it forms insoluble calcium oxalate, which can end up in the kidneys as kidney stones. In general, however, rhubarb leaves don’t pose much of a threat. Since a lethal dose of oxalic acid is somewhere between 15 and 30 grams, you’d have to eat several pounds of rhubarb leaves at a sitting to reach a toxic oxalic acid level, which is a lot more rhubarb leaves than most people care to consume.National Geographic
(Did the guy who died on the war front really die from rhubarb leaves? Or was it perhaps something else entirely…?)
Imaginatively, Nita’s plan is to convince the murderer that she is also a murderer. If they each keep the other’s confidence, he may choose to let her live for a while longer.
As I’ve already proposed, the kitchen is the Battle scene, but it’s a proxy for the psychology of grief.
(The real Opponent is Nita’s dead husband, who isn’t there and so cannot take the blame.)
Nita realises how very much she misses her husband. This probably marks the moment where Nita moves past Anger into something darker but more real (Depression).
I found myself lingering on the following sentence, absorbing the weight of it:
Rich. Rich. Now she knew what it was to miss him. Like having the air sucked out of the sky.
Unless we interpret the intruder as a dream sequence, how to explain why Nita wouldn’t tell the police about him?
The policeman (who I interpret as real within the story) gives Nita a ‘stern lecture’ about leaving keys in a car. He puts the wind up her, when she really doesn’t need that. He has underestimated how vulnerable she already feels. The story ends with “You never know”, repeated.
Then again, perhaps Nita finds it comforting on some level to imagine the worst almost happened to her in her own kitchen, yet didn’t.
Imagining worst case scenarios is one common way of coping with fear. I notice it especially when women are advised to buy weaponry for self-protection. People are quick to suggest this, thinking a gun in the handbag can save you. The statistics don’t hold up. Your own gun is far more likely to get you killed than to kill your assailant. Yet we like to imagine that if we only concoct a strong enough plan, then that plan will protect us, if worst comes to worst.
If only. If only. Stories about the ‘if only’ are emotionally resonant.
Likewise, Nita has a plan for living in her house as a single, ailing old woman. If this meter reader who startled her at the door does turn out to be a psychopathic murderer on the run, she’ll tell him she is, too. She’ll draw on a past event and tell him as catharsis. They’ll build empathy, she’ll give him the car (because she needs to get rid of it anyhow) and he’ll leave her be.
That’ll definitely work.
We know our worst-case-scenario imaginings won’t work, yet we imagine them anyway.
OTHER WRITING TECHNIQUES IN “FREE RADICALS”
the narrative pause
Apart from the story nested inside a dream, there’s an especially noteworthy technique Munro uses in this story. She speeds us up then applies the brakes.
A little while ago I started looking more carefully at how stories are paced. I’d read Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode.
According to that continuum, the slowest pace a narrative can achieve is the Pause. In a film, that’d be a freeze frame. But how is the ‘freeze frame’ achieved in the case of the written word?
Alice Munro uses two separate techniques for achieving the Pause in “Free Radicals”.
- She describes what is Not rather than what Is. Nita walks into the rooms of her house and all she notices is that her husband is not there.
- The intruder has a photographs. Well, two photographs actually — the second is gruesome and produced as a jump scare. When the narrator describes that photo, the narration is now on a different kind of Pause. (This is a technique known as ekphrasis — writing about art used to be very popular and a subgenre in its own right. Before artworks and photographs were commonplace, that is.)
These deliberate pauses slow the story right down to a standstill, yet at other parts of the story we get summary. This is Munro speeding the story up then slamming on the brakes. Psychologically, Munro is replicating the feeling of grief. At times there’s the never-ending weight of it, the feeling it will never leave you. Then there’s the looking back in time, realising how fast life seems to have passed you by.
TRAIN MOTIF AS FATE
Which brings me to trains. Alice Munro is a big fan of trains. A writer can eke a lot of symbolism out of trains, for sure.
What about the train thread in this story? First, the sexe en plein air near the tracks, between Nita and Rich. Later, the train reappears and now it is a symbol of fate.
“You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.”
“There’s hardly ever a train.”
The train track itself led the murderer to Nita’s house. There was nothing she could do to stop him. This fate was set in place the moment she started the affair with Rich. (And even that was probably fate.)
It is comforting, sometimes, to think that certain events set our lives in motion and that there was nothing we could possibly have done to change them. I watched an episode of Insight (with Jennie Brockie) once in which mothers talked about losing their young children. One woman stood out as different from the others. She appeared to be dealing much better than they were with the loss of her daughter, who was pushed off some train tracks into the path of an oncoming train. She reasoned it like this: The child was only given so much time on earth. And when her time was up, it was up.
I wish I could believe that. I think that view would be helpful, more than the view that our choices determine everything, in which case our decisions could imaginatively extend our own lives, or the lives of our loved ones. If only we had lived life differently.
Its title suggests an additional version of the operations of possibility-space and its constitution. These radicals are highly reactive, which makes them likely to take part in chemical reactions, but only in so far as they do it according to their own pre-coded set of possibilities. Being an atom with unpaired electrons, the radicals seek balance by stealing an electron from another atom that then becomes a free radical. A chain reaction is caused. As the metaphor for a story that features a woman visited by a dangerous murderer, there seems to be a chain reaction caused by a miserable childhood. However, it is suggested in the story that bad or good are not features so easily dug out, and as the metaphor suggests chemical reactions can be both bad and good.Ulrica Skagert
The health significance of this title will probably get lost over time, but I definitely remember a time when health media was all about avoiding free radicals. Certain wonder foods would get rid of them. Nobody but scientists actually knew what they even were, except we knew they were very bad.
Then there was an about face, as with all dietary messages. Now we were told that a certain number of free radicals are essential for human health. (The same applies to cholesterol, viruses and a bunch of other ‘bad’ things.)
Free radicals have long been associated with tissue damage. A new study shows that they also promote regeneration.an article from 2018
Antioxidants may encourage the spread of lung cancer rather than prevent itScience news from 2019
As part of all this scaremongering, the public were told that free radicals cause cancer. Hence the cancer link in this story. But there’s also the feeling of betrayal at work here, I think. Nita was betrayed by by the message that red wine is good. She still got cancer. (This explains the constant reference to drinking, too.)
In the early 2000s, Alice Munro herself underwent major heart surgery. She came through it well, but has said in interview that she couldn’t understand why a major artery was fully blocked. She’d done exactly as she thought she was supposed to — she ate well and exercised daily. Her doctor told her she was simply old. She had to face up to the fact of ageing. I hesitate before mapping an author’s life too closely onto a the life of their fictional inventions, because it’s never a one-to-one correspondence. But I feel that experience of heart surgery must have partly inspired this story.
We are all betrayed eventually, even if we manage to avoid health news parsed by the media. Old age is one long betrayal. We are betrayed by loved ones dying around us. We are betrayed by our own bodies. Long before that, we are betrayed by this message that if only we are sufficiently well-behaved, if only we can control ourselves, then we can dodge death.
See how this all links up to the kitchen scene? Nita dodged death. But only for now.
WHAT TO SAY TO THE RECENTLY BEREAVED
- I’m Sorry You’re Suffering, from Persephone.
- When It’s Not God’s Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers from AlterNet
- What To Say and Do For The Recently Bereaved at Medium, who recommends this book:
- Joan Didion’s essay on grief
A dead creature is in every respect identical to a live one, except that the electrochemical processes that motivate it have ceased.from Here on Earth (by Tim Flannery)
“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.
COMMENTARY ON THE PLACE OF FICTION IN OUR LIVES
Alice Munro is working on several diegetic levels here, and we receive several messages about the role of fiction: Fiction maps onto real life and helps us to process our own lives. The following two sentences, spanning separate paragraphs, suggest that fiction is more truthful than anything else:
You can’t believe it.
That’s why it’s true.
ON SHORT STORIES IN PARTICULAR
Munro, celebrated short story writer who hasn’t also published novels, offers the following as part of her main character’s close third-person narration:
How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.
It’s impossible not to see that as commentary as from Alice Munro herself.
ON FICTION VS NON-FICTION
First, the set up:
She often remarks that she and Matt are seldom alone together except in bed. “And then he’ll be reading something important.” While she is reading something unimportant.
Later, the reveal:
Joyce’s erudite university professor husband is mildly dismissive of fiction. He prefers to read non-fiction and to have a rant. For him, reading is a dick-waving contest (my words, not Munro’s).
Third, the thematic significance:
Immediately after their brief conversation in bed, Joyce reads fiction which to her becomes non-fiction, thereby showing the husband up to be unfairly critical of fiction.
This is the reader’s own Anagnorisis. This story asks us to consider our own personal relationship to fiction, in fiction’s various forms:
- What are the fictions we concoct about ourselves, and other people’s reactions to us?
- What are the fictions we concoct about others, via imaginary conversations and or half-forgotten settings? (Across her stories, Munro shows that memory is neither fallible nor complete.)
- Why do we take an instant dislike to certain people? Is it because they remind us of our past? Which part of our past? Can we pinpoint it and move past our prejudices?
- How do we read fiction? What role does fiction play in our lives? Alice Munro describes reading itself when she portrays a woman (knowingly) reading fiction who nonetheless layers her own life over top as she reads, synthesising aspects of her own past and present. This is a very interesting example of side-shadowing technique.
The final sentence is a punchy line which lampoons the way in which certain literary types tend to view short stories — as incapable of achieving adequate depths for a reader.
But if you’re here, reading this, you’ll know that’s not the case. What I find remarkable about short stories: Looking back on a short story, say, 10 years after reading it, the images and memories of reading that story are indistinguishable from having read another work of novel length. When it comes to creating imagery, word count is beside the point.
STORYWORLD OF “FICTION”
Like Mad Men, this is a story which starts before the counterculture of the 1960s, and maps the arcs of characters either embracing the new era (Peggy and Jon) or refusing to change until they have to (Don and Joyce).
“Fiction” is about a music teacher, so within the text, Alice Munro gives us a specific piece to set the mood. I learn that the title means “Songs on the Death of Children”, which changes things somewhat for an English speaker. Symbolic, much? This is our narrator putting to rest her memory of a child once associated with a difficult time in her own life.
In the interview above, Alice Munro describes the 1960s countercultural movement as a wave which plunged her back into feeling like an 18-year-old. She was actually 30 at the time. She was raising two daughters and had lost another. By any definition, Munro was an adult. She explains that back then, 30 was a difficult time. She says it’s probably not so difficult anymore. (I’d say it’s shifted up to 40.) Munro seems to feel that the liberating movement that happened in the 1960s is what forced her to grow up: Before then, women weren’t expected to want anything outside marriage and children, and so they didn’t allow themselves to want that.
Having your own independent desires, then, is a vital part of becoming a fully-realised adult, no matter your age.
“Fiction” is divided into two parts. Part One covers the early part of Joyce’s life, focusing on the end of her first marriage and the time immediately following. Part Two skips forward to her subsequent marriage in which we at first would define as happy. But small unhappinesses eventually reveal themselves to us, reassuring us that there’s no such thing as perfect, unadulterated happiness, partly because the past can never be separated from the present. Likewise, fiction can never be fully separated from real life.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “FICTION”
PART ONE OF “FICTION”
Before we were old enough to experience a romantic relationship we learned how cheating works, right? We learned it from Home & Away and from Neighbours, or from Coronation Street, East Enders and endless American equivalents. Here’s how it goes:
- Lots of raw, fully-articulated emotion
- An immediate dissipation of love
- The original relationship ends immediately
- The third party is a demon
- With more social capital than the one who got left behind.
- The cheated-on party is a clear victim
- And life is unilaterally terrible for them
- While the entire community watches on. talking about the broken couple behind their back.
Real break-ups are, of course, far more nuanced and varied.
But is “Fiction” really a story about ‘cheating’? Cheating requires deception, but Jon is up front with Joyce, possibly from the start. He is simply leaving his relationship, albeit for another woman. This is 1960s culture, though it hadn’t been done before, and many did it badly. Still. Jon hasn’t lied. No one can keep another person in a relationship against their wishes. Though I hesitate to use the word ‘cheat’ in Jon’s case, Alice Munro herself uses ‘cheat’, albeit near the end. But because she doesn’t use it in part one, we are encouraged to think about what cheating really means.
Basically, Alice Munro spends part one flipping a lot of the failed relationship tropes I’m bored of seeing in narrative.
Here’s how she flips it:
- Munro creates a husband who leaves his wife for someone else, but this someone has far less social capital (less beauty prestige, less intelligence).
- Joyce does not feel the marriage is instantly over. She works with Jon to get them back on track. She actively encourages him moving in with Edie, thinking this will hasten the end of limerance. But it does not.
- Joyce is devastated, but she experiences a new flush of youth. Not necessarily in a good way — Joyce experiences what has been described as ‘Imaginary Audience‘, which is more typically a feature of the adolescent mindset.
David Elkind coined the term “imaginary audience” in 1967. The basic premise of the topic is that people who are experiencing it feel as though their behaviour or actions are the main focus of other people’s attention. It is defined as how willing a child is to reveal alternative forms of themselves. The imaginary audience is a psychological concept common to the adolescent stage of human development. It refers to the belief that a person is under constant, close observation by peers, family, and strangers. This imaginary audience is proposed to account for a variety of adolescent behaviours and experiences, such as heightened self-consciousness, distortions of others’ views of the self, and a tendency toward conformity and faddisms. This act stems from the concept of ego-centrism in adolescents.Wikipedia
- Yet, despite Joyce’s regression into self-consciousness, and perhaps because of it, Joyce finds herself making a particularly good job of teaching her young music students that year. Sad and devastating as it is, she has a new lease of life:
It was the best recital ever. Everybody said so. They said there was more verve. More gaiety, yet more intensity. The children costumed in harmony with the music they performed. Their faces made up so they did not seem so scared and sacrificial.
- Meanwhile, Munro describes the social milieu of this setting, which reflects a modern reality. Divorce used to be scandalous. Suddenly, in certain enclaves, it wasn’t. Failed relationships would no longer become the focus of the local community.
PART TWO OF “FICTION”
Part Two is a snapshot of Joyce’s life some years later, when she’s semi-happily remarried to a university professor. Why this particular day? Because even when parts of our life seem to close off forever, there’s ‘always something there to remind us’, as Burt Bacharach might write.
But when looking back on former lovers, Alice Munro knows not to stick to the black and white dichotomy covered adequately by pop lyrics — either really good times or really bad.
USING A CHARACTER AS PROXY FOR ANOTHER
It’s a fairly common trick for writers to use unrelated Battles as proxy for the main character’s psychological struggle, and Munro also does this. For example, in “Passion” Munro uses a flaming car crash as proxy for the main character’s psychological struggle to break free from men who are not good for her.
But here, in “Fiction”, Alice Munro one character stands in for another. Who thought, while reading part one, that Edie’s daughter would be the focalising character of part two? She pulls a bit of a switcheroo. We don’t even know, initially, that she’s talking about the unnamed daughter (whose name has been lost to memory).
Munro could have chosen to focus memories on the ex-husband himself. Many writers have done exactly that, and the structure goes like this: Something happens in the past; many years later a memory reminds the main character of that person from the past. The memory might be depicted via flashback.
Instead, Munro pulls focus on a character only peripherally involved in the end days of the first marriage.
And how does Munro give us this filtered memory? Via metadiegetic narrative, as Joyce reads a novel and uses it as palimpsest for her own memories of the past.
Pertains to a secondary narrative embedded within the primary narrative. The secondary narrative can be a story told by a character within the main story or it can take the form of a dream, nightmare, hallucination, imaginary or other fantasy element.
Alice Munro is a master manipulator of time. Much has been written about this particular skill of hers.
In “Fiction”, this skill is in full-flight. Here’s an overview of what she does in Part Two:
- A description of a party. The very first sentence tells us exactly how much time has elapsed; exactly where Joyce is now. (This is a good writing tip in its own right. We sometimes go overboard in ‘show don’t tell’ but Munro knows when to tell. Let’s not shy away from stating things simply for the reader up front: place time, nature of the occasion, what people are doing here.
- The first sentence feels omniscient, but the point of view quickly switches to that of Joyce. Opinions of these people are filtered via Joyce. Where Joyce wouldn’t know the names, we get pronouns (another interesting technique).
- Through all this description, we have felt that Joyce is talking personally to us — newcomers to this world and to this party. It is soon revealed that she is talking to a neighbour who, like us, doesn’t know this cast of characters. In the plot, the neighbour has been invited so they won’t complain about the noise, but an outsider is very useful to Alice Munro, narratively.
- Various character sketches: first Joyce views herself as an outsider, again, showing that she hasn’t shaken the egocentrism which dominates her life.
- Next, a funny description of a cantankerous old woman who can’t be pleased, though Munro never writes full comedy characters. We really do believe these people might exist. She partly achieves this with the line ‘Sally does not seem to mind the deprivation’, which puts to bed any conflict a lesser writer might use to ‘heighten the tension’.
- Description of the group of young people, which juxtaposes youth against age. Munro has done this by bifurcating her story into two parts (Joyce young; Joyce old), and she continues the dichotomy here at the micro level.
- Introduction of Christie — a peripheral character who Joyce feels strongly about. At first she feels negatively. She doesn’t like the look of her.
- The kitchen scene is an excellent example of conflict that tends to happen in kitchens, where there are always plenty of props. We are reminded, as Joyce is herself, that she is now old. (The interview above reveals that Alice Munro had heart surgery and has been advised against dietary cholesterol: ‘Few of the devilled eggs were eaten anyway. Old-fashioned. Too much cholesterol.’)
- Via Joyce’s conversations we get hints that Joyce is ‘not in her right mind’. Munro is preparing the reader. Joyce will soon slip into that space between reality and dreamspace.
- A few days later, Joyce passes a bookstore, sees the girl she dislikes on a poster, goes into the store, buys the book. She feels she’s seen Joyce before and doesn’t immediately realise it was at the party.
- With Joyce in the bookstore, Munro says a few things about people’s general attitude towards fiction and short stories. (Mentioned above)
- Joyce reads the book in bed. Beside her, Matt is dismissive.
- Joyce finds space on her own over a cup of tea downstairs.
- Now a flashback to what we might at first think is Joyce’s own childhood. The word ‘she’ leaves us discombobulated. There’s no obvious antecedent. This melds Joyce into the child.
- After a few paragraphs, it becomes clear that Joyce is reading a fictional character in a book, mapping it onto the real life character from her distant past, and melding that child into herself. This is quite a trick Munro has pulled.
- Munro makes Joyce put the book down so the narrator can describe what’s happening, exactly. She also gives Joyce a drink of brandy, to encourage her journey into the depths of memory, where reality blurs with fiction.
- Munro reveals the hook which made Joyce think of the child from long ago: The author of the book is called Christie, and Edie’s child is called Christine.
- Prompted by a scene in the book (probably), Joyce imagines herself in idealised form, again egotistically. She is the inspirational, perfect teacher, taking Edie on a day out for ice-cream.
- Together they look out to sea. Looking out to sea tends to be highly symbolic in stories. (See “The Wind Blows” by Katherine Mansfield.)
- The imaginary child tells imaginary Joyce that she likes her bedroom, but doesn’t like how dark it is outside, which takes the reader back to the opening of this story in part one, as we see Joyce driving home after a day teaching music, allured by the rectangles of warm light juxtaposed against the dark of the forest.
- Joyce once again puts the book down. In this way, Munro takes us in and out of Joyce’s head. Now we’re observing her in the kitchen. Munro says another thing about fiction, this time modern fiction: It’s trendy now to foreshadow horror and do the worst to beloved characters.
- Fully aware that she is imagining things as well as remembering them, Munro explains which parts of Joyce’s memories are actual memories; which she thinks might be invented. The way she writes it, in that succession of incomplete sentences, feels stream-of-consciousness and exactly how memory works.
- This section, of melding memory to fiction, is explaining a hole that was left out of the plot of part one: The exact night Jon said goodbye to Joyce and Joyce handed over the keys to her own house to her ex-husband and his new lover and stepchild. We deduce as readers that this was such a painful moment for Joyce that she rarely allows herself to think on it. Even now, thinking on it, she sees herself from an onlooker’s point of view — the child, looking out of the window.
- This is where Joyce has to end her imaginings. The narrator describes that Joyce can’t fill in the gaps after that because she has left (on the ferry) and doesn’t know how the day-to-day life looked with Jon and Edie and the child.
- The paragraph beginning ‘But something happens’ is about Joyce and the child equally. You can read most of it as about both. This is where Joyce has her revelation: ‘she realizes that she no longer thinks of that time as a cheat … she was glad of it’.
- A flash forward to Friday, and back to the mundane. She has bought a box of chocolates, presumably to give to the author, who offered Joyce a kind of therapy via her fiction. But this depth of emotion is shattered, in a darkly comic way, when the owner of the bookstore announces that only books bought in this store may be autographed here, and that an anthology is not acceptable.
“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).
SETTING OF “PASSION”
“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.
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
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.
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?”
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.)
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).
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.
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 conscious 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.
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.
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.
“Passion” is an example of a narrative with what I call a psychological big struggle underscored by an adjacent big struggle.
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.
Alice Munro tends to spend quite some time on the Anagnorisis phase of a story. Here, Grace’s Anagnorisis 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, an epiphany 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.
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?
“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. For a short story with a similar structure but from a young woman’s point of view see Katherine Mansfield’s “Taking The Veil”. In that case, the young woman melodramatically imagines a future which has not played out (and probably won’t.)
I’m also reminded of a song by Nancy Sinatra. https://youtu.be/XgFtQPgHyek
CHARACTERS IN “WHAT IS REMEMBERED”
Meriel — The main character is an old widow now, but this is a story spans a few days in her late twenties, when her hair was dark and her two children were young. From the title itself we can expect a narrator looking back on an earlier time. At the end of the narrative we see Meriel as an old woman, with the benefit of long hindsight. Because hindsight and time mutes any intense experience, the story itself is quiet. We don’t see the passionate scenes with the lover — these are skipped over. In fact, Munro has let her main character forget a lot of the detail. Is she in the throes of dementia, perhaps? She might well be, but dementia is not the focus of the story. This is about how certain details resonate, and memory is a weird thing — it is only after she learns of her lover’s death that she remembers something she’d buried — his brusque (but psychologically kind) goodbye after their encounter.
Pierre — is Meriel’s husband, a teacher, 29 years old. Grew up in West Vancouver. He is painted as a steady, good husband but because he is so familiar, the excitement of limerance is absent for Meriel. We see the two early on at a recollected party, where Meriel and Pierre pretend to be strangers for a moment or two, to add a little tame excitement to their marriage. We learn that novelty excites them both.
Jonas — Pierre’s friend from childhood, who has just died, is the inverse of steady Pierre. He can’t hold down a job despite being qualified in a lucrative profession, is a hedonistic nutjob and ends up killing himself in exactly the manner you’d expect — by driving recklessly. The existence of Jonas not only sets up Pierre as steady (and boring by comparison) but also allows the reader to learn this about Meriel: She doesn’t even like Jonas, and never would have wanted to be with one of his friends (Dr Asher — a similar type).
Dr Asher — Meriel’s lover is first introduced as the doctor whose name Meriel can’t remember. Later, when it happens he’s to drive her to Lynn Valley, then she does remember her name and the reader is told what it is. This strikes me as masterful because that’s exactly how I tend to learn names at social gatherings, too. (Not at first, but eventually, if I have to.) This slow learning of his name suggests to the reader that Meriel isn’t all that interested in him as a person with a name — he’s far more useful to her as a fantasy. He functions to her a signifier, not real. That’s why, when he dies, this makes little difference to Meriel. She still has her imagined version.
Aunt Muriel — who Meriel was named after, lives at a nursing home called Princess Manor. Alice Munro doesn’t shy away from nursing homes as settings, most obviously in “The Bear Came Over The Mountain“. A visit to Aunt Muriel provides the story reason for Meriel to spend a few days on her own, but what is the thematic reason for the existence of the old lady at this earlier time period of the story?
First, this is an old lady who sees immediately (before the reader does, and before our main character does) what is going on between Meriel and the doctor. One day, as we eventually learn at the end of the story, Meriel will have the insight into human behaviour that Aunt Muriel achieved as an old lady herself.
Second, the Aunt Muriel who exists at an earlier time in Meriel’s life reminds us that Meriel, too, will get old, and this is why Alice Munro’s stories are said to be time expansive. (Annie Proulx uses the same technique — old and young together, across generations.) Aunt Muriel is young Meriel’s elderly proxy, and functions as a prolepse (flash forward) character.
In her book about story shapes, Meander, Spiral, Explode, Jane Alison describes the reasons for characters in different story which, eerily, could be describing this one:
This is refractive portraiture, creating a mosaic of other possibilities for the girl who crossed on the ferry and stepped into a stranger’s car.
Jane Alison, writing about The Lover by Marguerite Duras
I like that phrase ‘refractive portraiture‘, in which the main character meets all sorts of different characters along her journey and each character is a representation of who our main character may become, depending on choices made.
Prolepses can arouse the reader’s curiosity by partially revealing facts that will surface later. The reader is expecting something to happen between Meriel and this doctor, but Aunt Muriel’s ability to read Meriel and the doctor’s body language in the readers’ absentia confirms the existence of sexual tension The close third person narrator can’t do this, by dint of being so close inside Meriel’s head. Other types of story tend to emphasise the moral dilemma and decision. But Meriel is completely unwilling to accept her complicity in the brief affair to the point where we never see her make a decision to sleep with this man. When we see her in scenes, she is not even sure what she’s gotten herself into.
SETTING OF “WHAT IS REMEMBERED”
Various locations are dotted around the story for us, as they are dotted around British Columbia and up north. Munro is making use of West (Pierre and Jonas, linked), South (Pierre’s mother) and Northern cardinal direction (the doctor). These characters are sufficiently geographically removed from each other to allow space for imaginings and one-time-only affairs.
West Vancouver — where Pierre and Jonas grew up together, before it got big and busy due to the bridge
White Rock — where Pierre’s mother has retired to (slightly south)
Smithers — the doctor who treated Jonas has flown down to the funeral from a northern place called Smithers. ‘Smithers is a town in northwestern British Columbia, Canada, approximately halfway between Prince George and Prince Rupert. Smithers is located in the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako. With a population of 5,351 in 2016, Smithers is a service area for most of the Bulkley Valley’. This place is sufficiently distant from Meriel that she might never see the doctor again, and she does not. Unlike the suburban area where she lives with Pierre, Smithers looks like a wild, rugged place and the adrenaline-junkie adventurer’s dream.
Horseshoe Bay — Pierre has to go here to catch the next ferry.
North Shore, Lynn Valley, Princess Manor nursing home — Meriel has to catch the bus to see a friend her dead mother had admired. Aunt Muriel. (Not a blood aunt)
“The word ‘manor’ doesn’t mean anything at all anymore, does it?” said Meriel. “It doesn’t even mean there’s an upstairs. It just means that you’re supposed to think that a place is something it doesn’t even pretend to be.”
Meriel’s summary of the ‘manor’ speaks to her ability to see false fronts on things, and perhaps it occurs to her at this point that as long as everything looks fine to outsiders, other things, clandestine things, might be happening behind the scenes. She seems to have realised at this point that she could probably have an affair and get on happily with her marriage, so long as she kept doing marriage-y things.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WHAT IS REMEMBERED”
This is a road trip story, which is always a mythic journey, structurally. Meriel goes on a trip, encounters several people along the way, something life-changing happens and she returns to the same home, but everything is different from how it was before.
[Munro’s] characters are . . . separated from their home not by distance but by their own changes. They travel from country to city, from poverty to wealth, from ignorance to sophistication, but they are always looking backward, at what they have left behind.R Michael, Yale Review, 2002
Munro opens the story very much focused on the men. The first section doesn’t pass The Bechdel Test, let’s say. But this is to set up the fact that Meriel, and other young married women with kids, lived for their husbands and children (though the children aren’t mentioned). Munro’s description of Pierre’s transformation from beau to patriarchal husband (my terminology) sets up Meriel’s shortcoming: She is trapped in married life, though when the husbands go off to work, there is a sort of carnivalesque joy that happens between the young mothers. However, this plunges them into a state of childhood — not exactly conducive to feeling like a sexual being.
For these reasons, it’s absolutely typical of a woman in this era, and of this age, that she would feel uncomfortable in the car with a man like Doctor Asher. She has been acculturated her entire life into accommodating others. She is self-conscious and perhaps naive. She either fails to read his cues, or reads them and suppresses them.
Some slight forcing of courtesy, on his part, made Meriel think that she had sounded obnoxious. She was often either too bold or too shy.
Meriel’s conscious, morally upright desire is to visit her mother’s mentor in her nursing home, but her subconscious desire is to escape her mundane, suburban life for a minute.
Alice Munro is a subtle writer and does not set Meriel up as an unhappy housewife who needs to really bust free of her oppressive life. (In contrast, see Thelma & Louise.) In fact, she’s quite content being married to Pierre. The one-time-only affair she chooses (at some point) to have with the doctor is simply icing on the top of a pretty good life.
Meriel’s romantic opponent is of course the guy who has targeted her much earlier than she’s prepared to admit.
Pierre, her husband, is a different kind of an opponent — their particular kind of opposition is described for us in a vignette at the end, in which they discuss a book. By this age they have become very kind to each other and never disagree vehemently. Perhaps age has taught them that at any stage one of them might die at any moment.
The plans outlined by Munro are to do with the logistics of travel — husband and wife will travel together to the funeral, split up afterwards, do their own thing… These logistics, and geolocatable settings, make up for the narrative reality that Meriel is a character who isn’t making plans. Her affair just seems to happen. At least, that is how she views it in hindsight. As writers know, a character without a plan can feel frustrating for the reader, as we lose faith that anything is going to happen at all. So Munro focuses on the road trip aspect of the planning.
Which part is the Battle?
Munro’s big struggles are very subtle. The best way to pinpoint it is to find the Anagnorisis and ask what led to that. That’s your Battle sequence.
Because this is a ‘looking back on the distant past’ narrative, the Anagnorisis of extradiegetic Meriel is more a slow understanding, across decades of her later life, about what that day meant to her and how important it was in allowing her to live a good life with her husband.
As Munro often does, she uses the technique of side-shadowing to let the reader (via imaginative Meriel herself) see what might have happened had she not had an affair. We can see it as self-justification on Meriel’s part. (Munro’s philanderers are very good at that) or we can see it as a narrative nested inside the main narrative. It’s interesting that the Battle sequence of this story happens imaginatively, wholly inside Meriel’s head, as part of this side-shadow narrative:
She had an idea that if she had not been able to do that, her life might have been different.
She might not have stayed with Pierre. She might not have been able to keep her balance. Trying to match what had been said at the ferry with what had been said and done earlier the same day would have made her more alert and more curious. Pride or contrariness might have played a part—a need to have some man eat those words, a refusal to learn her lesson.
There was another sort of life she could have had—a life of impulse and adventure. Which was not to say she would have preferred it. It was probably because of her age (something she was always forgetting to take account of), and because of the thin, cool air she had breathed since Pierre’s death, that she could think of it simply as a kind of research that had its pitfalls and achievements.
The Anagnorisis comes next — she realises that no matter which path she’d have chosen for herself (impulse and adventure or stability) she is by nature a prudent person, and that’s all she’d have learned either way:
Maybe you didn’t find out so much, anyway. Maybe the same thing over and over—which might be some obvious but unsettling fact about yourself. In her case, the fact that prudence—or at least some economical sort of emotional management—had been her guiding light all along.
The little self-preserving movement he made, the kind and deadly caution, the attitude of inflexibility that had grown a bit stale with him, like an outmoded swagger. She could view him now with an everyday mystification, as if he had been her husband.
I find this idea fascinating: That if you’ve spent the majority of your adult life fantasising about someone, once he’s dead, and once your own husband is dead, your memories of them may be qualitatively the same — each seeming as real and important as the other was.
We extrapolate that Meriel will keep this secret for the grave. We are left with a final sentence that encourages us to wonder if the doctor had undergone any kind of character arc.