Over The Shop is a wordless picturebook by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Qin Leng, published 2021. Here’s something we all owe to the trans community: By pushing the conventional and arbitrary rules of gender, all of us are more free to be who we are. This picturebook is a celebration of these hardwon freedoms.
Rich as Stink is a short story by Canadian writer Alice Munro included in the 1998 collection The Love Of A Good Woman.
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.
“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.
Of course, no one but Alice Munro can write like Alice Munro. That is my disclaimer on each of my sporadic series of ‘How To Write Like…’ posts.
GENERAL NOTES ON ALICE MUNRO’S SHORT FICTION
Munro’s stories have grown more complex as she has grown older. Later stories are sometimes a more complex take on an earlier one.
Munro’s stories don’t cohere in the same way as chapters in a novel but together they form a unified work of art. Short stories may do a better job of highlighting certain aspects of her work than novels would have.
Something from page three will come and hit you on page thirty, but you had not registered the matter when you first read page three.
New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman
Munro reveals essential truths about ourselves in an unsentimental, yet deeply humane way.
Missed opportunities and lies are two themes that Munro approaches from many angles.
Consider Munro’s beginnings and endings as of a piece — the beginning will foreordain the ending.
Munro has said she sees stories architecturally, as a house whose various rooms one can roam in and out of, forgoing any prescribed order.
Munro has said that she admires writers of the American South, such as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers.
Munro writes with black humour.
Julian Barnes states that Munro’s short stories ‘have the density and reach of other people’s novels’.
Some of her stories are unusually longer than typical short stories.
Munro stories show an interest in love and the often hidden intricacies of marriage.
A theme is often love, or perhaps romantic notions masquerading as love.
The complications and cruelties of age and time are other themes that Munro re-visits.
She reminds us that love and marriage never become unimportant as stories—that they remain the very shapers of life, rightly or wrongly. She does not overtly judge—especially human cruelty—but allows human encounters to speak for themselves. She honors mysteriousness and is a neutral beholder before the unpredictable. Her genius is in the strange detail that resurfaces, but it is also in the largeness of vision being brought to bear (and press on) a smaller genre or form that has few such wide-seeing practitioners. She is a short-story writer who is looking over and past every ostensible boundary, and has thus reshaped an idea of narrative brevity and reimagined what a story can do.
There is plenty of multivalent detail throughout Munro’s fiction, meaning a particular detail can be read at a literal as well as symbolic level. This is perhaps why Munro’s details seem, at first glance, ‘strange’.
Even when you are surprised by a shift in a character’s thoughts, it seems completely organic. We all make those kinds of transitions in our thinking processes, even though they don’t point to an end the way a story does.
The ‘real worlds’ of Munro’s stories have settings dotted around Canada, focusing on Southwestern Ontario, where Munro has spent the majority of her life. During her first married she lived in West Vancouver and Victoria, so she knows the other side of Canada as well.
Munro’s sense of irony is invariably directed at herself more than at her characters. She has always regarded herself as an anachronism: an old-style writer, writing about a rural world she once knew, which has been transformed. Except that, although society has changed, human nature hasn’t, and this is why Munro’s understanding of life is so compelling.
The landscape of a Munro short story has been described as a consanguinity between the fictional and the real. (Meaning they both come from a common ancestor.)
The setting of the real is portrayed as affectively meaningless to us. (The fictional is as important, on a psychological level, as the imagined, or the hoped for.)
There’s been a lot of critical interest around the realism of her work, with some people making reference to magical realism.
Munro often creates a world that has all the illusion of external reality, but she pulls the reader deeper and deeper into what becomes a hallucinatory inner world which may include mystery, secrecy, and deception.
In many of Munro’s stories the willing of a destiny is overtaken by a fatality that is unnervingly spectacular. Characters are driven by something they cannot resist because they are certain they are a part of it. Munro explores fatality in many different ways across many of her stories. https://youtu.be/nvUeo5sagkA
A common Munro device is to begin in the now and hurtle back to the then.
Much has been said about how Alice Munro can write a novel in the space of a short story.
Alice Munro can move characters through time in a way that no other writer can. You are not aware that time is passing, only that it has passed—in this, the reader resembles the characters, who also find that time has passed and that their lives have been changed, without their quite understanding how, when, and why. This rare ability partly explains why her short stories have the density and reach of other people’s novels. I have sometimes tried to work out how she does it but never succeeded, and I am happy in this failure, because no one else can—or should be allowed to—write like the great Alice Munro.
Alice Munro writes many stories about women in mid-life, caught between memory and reality. Throughout the narrative they reassess and reflect.
But occasionally she writes a child character, e.g. “Trespasses”, in which Lauren is a ten-year-old girl.
For Munro’s characters, to imagine something is to understand it.
Munro’s work is interested in men with menacing water, especially hoses. (Is this sexual?)
Munro’s women are perceptive guessers, quiet visionaries, fortuitous survivors.
Families are usually complicated in Alice Munro stories. Families aren’t nuclear; marriages aren’t lifelong/faithful. In later stories, the wider network is populated with LGBT characters. This is, of course, like life.
Alice Munro’s mothers have been likened to clowns: Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro by Magdalene Redekop (a feminist work).
Is Alice Munro feminist?
Like Chekhov, Alice Munro never sets out to make a political point. She isn’t sexist, she has no axe to grind. She’s simply bearing witness to the human experience, reporting from the front lines. Yet she is making a political point, one that’s radical because it’s so enormous and so unsettling. The point is that girls and women, even those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as boys and men, those who take drugs, ride across the border, drift down the river, or hunt whales. Women’s lives, too, are driven by the great forces that drive all important experience. As it turns out, all those forces are internal: rage, love, jealousy, spite, grief. These are the things that make our lives so wild and dramatic, whether the backdrops are harpoons or swing sets. The great experiences can be set anywhere: a dentist’s office, a neighbor’s living room, a country road at night. It’s those propulsive, breathtaking, suffocating forces inside us that make those moments so vivid and shocking, it’s what’s inside us that cracks the landscape open, shocking and illuminating like a streak of lightning. She showed us that, Alice Munro.
Characters are lacking in sentimentality. Alice Munro has said in an interview regarding the death of her own daughter, soon after giving birth, that she went home and barely talked about it with her first husband because they were not a sentimental couple. This reminds me of my grandparents, who were probably the same after their own stillbirth experience in the late 1950s.
FANTASIES BUT NOT FANTASISTS
It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it.
The difficulty of authentic and complete reconstructions of events in Munro’s fiction is not, on the whole, a problem of history, and much less of an exuberant postmodern sensibility, but of a general conviction that life is comprised of “disconnected realities. […]
Though Munro’s characters are grounded in reality, characters have fallible memories. When Munro takes the reader along on remembrances of the past, at no point are we encouraged to believe every single word. (Wrong) memory can influence someone’s present as much as the past reality.
Memory, however, is fallible. It is incomplete. Munro does an excellent job of recreating how memory really works. Perhaps only older readers will appreciate this particular aspect of her stories; instead of remembering the ‘plots’ of past events, even big events, we tend to be left with resonant imagery. We forget people’s names, even if they were important to us. Minor characters become larger in hindsight. Significant characters can seem almost fictional in hindsight.
In creating a sense of imperfect memory, Alice Munro makes much use of a technique I’ve seen described as ‘side shadowing‘. It’s especially useful to the short story writer because the story seems so much more expansive. Side-shadowing is used in various ways, and Munro has numerous reasons for using it.
Here’s how Ulrica Skagert puts it:
The phenomenon of possibility permeates Munro’s stories. An investigation of this phenomenon shows a curious paradox between possibility and necessity.
Munro’s fiction most often suggests that a determinate set of events lies behind the text, but that the conflicting self-justifications of her characters undermine narrative certainty. Familiar motives and shortcomings—the everyday dishonesty fostered by self-interest; the inclination to suppress what is ugly and disturbing; and the failure to exhibit a systematic sense of responsibility in our dealings with others—animate the accounts of Munro’s characters.
The Anagnorisis at the end of Munro’s stories tends to feature an event which offers a moment of release and an ‘epistemic certainty to the characters’ (Ulrica Skagert). Epistemic means ‘relating to knowledge’. Skagert argues that via this release and certainty the characters obtain a radical, audacious sense of freedom and intensity of life. So, more of an ‘epiphany’ than uninflected ‘anagnorisis’. Characters tend to move from entrapment to freedom.
Great stories are created by a nuanced sentence, a sudden realisation, a life-changing wrong choice; they are made in the description of a knowing glance, the angle of a character’s shoulders as they walk away, in the slow anger that destroys a love and shapes memory. Character, not plot, drives her art, which explores life as lived.
And here’s the difference between a good short story and an excellent one: In a great story, the reader also experiences a Anagnorisis. However, this is not spelled out for us. The reader must generally work for it. How does Munro lead us to our Anagnorisiss? Well, the trickery starts at the beginning:
As Munro brings conflicting interests and accounts to the fore, the desideratum of [desire for] factual accuracy loses authority as the reader focuses on ethical concerns and shapes a value- rather than event-based narrative account from the discrepancies. Not surprisingly, then, Munro’s preoccupation with accurate accounts is not merely thematic, but informs the structure of many of her stories, whose meandering beginnings challenge the reader’s basic efforts at orientation.
Munro includes details which prevent her stories from slipping into melodrama. The Irish Times describes her as a ‘coolly astute observer of the ordinary’. Alice Munro writes the opposite of melodrama. Instead, terrible and life-changing events happen alongside the mundane events, mostly. Instead, terrible and life-changing events happen alongside the mundane events, mostly. For instance, a husband dies suddenly while at the hardware store (in “Free Radicals”). Instead of the wife at home, wondering what’s happened to him, “She hadn’t had time to wonder about his being late.”
VOCATIONS OF CHARACTERS
Characters are often: teachers (especially music teachers), university lecturers (philandering), carpenters and doctors (often scoundrels, despite their social standing), pharmacists — not many people have really obscure sounding jobs, but maybe no one did last century?
Piano teachers, divorced professors, country doctors, solitary widows in the country—all those small and insignificant people lead lives of enormous drama. Women lead lives of enormous drama. She has made that into fact.
The women are shown performing emotional labour in a way you don’t tend to find in stories written by men, even when men are creating female characters. Most men simply don’t seem to get the extent to which women are acculturated in this area. The opening paragraph of “Free Radicals” is a perfect example of this:
At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much. (She had been such a diligent wine drinker that many forgot that she was now forbidden to drink at all.) She held them off, without sounding nobly grief-stricken or unnaturally cheerful or absent-minded or confused. She said that she didn’t need groceries; she was working through what she had on hand. She had enough of her prescription pills and enough stamps for her thank-you notes.
If there’s drug use in her stories, it’ll be alcohol. When asked if she took drugs during the hippie era, Alice Munro replied maybe a little marijuana, but alcohol is the drug of her generation.
Munro has also talked about how women of her generation never developed their own personal desires until the hippie era hit them, and then it hit them with a force. Even at the age of 30, Alice Munro felt 18 again. Likewise, the younger versions of the women in her stories often seem quite passive. By the time these women are old ladies they’ve perhaps become a little more self-actuated, but young women are often propelled along by others, mostly men, who really did run that world. Women of Munro’s generation were expected to get married and have children. Any other kind of desire was considered unfeminine. Munro herself had exactly those desires. (Munro published her first book age 37, before her awakening. If she’d published earlier, we would’ve seen quite different work.)
YOUNG AND OLD TOGETHER
The cast of characters will most likely contain both young and old, and that’s aside from the narrator’s young and old self. For instance, a young woman will meet an old woman. This reminds her of her own mortality, perhaps, or the older lady from the past connects the main character’s older and younger self in a way that may not have been evident to the character herself. We are constantly reminded as readers that our age is not our identity; at some point we are young and, if we are lucky, at some point we are old.
CHARACTERS ARE SHAPED BY THEIR CIRCUMSTANCE
In this postI explain the difference between folk psychology and studied psychology: People do not have much in the way of enduring character — how we behave in any given situation depends largely on the situation.
A difference between genre fiction and good literary fiction — in literary fiction characters behave according to their circumstance, as people in real life would. Below, a reader explains this in a review of Munro’s collection, The Love Of A Good Woman:
Loving Munro is … easy because her ethics of care and compassion for others [is] embodied by these stories, for example by Enid, the protagonist of [“The Love Of A Good Woman”]. Yet Munro refuses to paint an icon for worship: Enid can live as she does only because of her enabling circumstances, she experiences poisoned fantasies, and her goodwill is not unconditional. The same is true for other characters: each person in the book is carefully drawn as an individual shaped by histories, enmeshed in social structures that influence, constrain, oppress, enable, direct, oppose and support them in interconnected ways. They are at least partly responsible for their fortunes and failings, but Munro never victim-blames or hero-worships.
Here’s the problem with thumbnail character descriptions and why I shy away from writing them myself: By simply describing someone, we are actively encouraging the reader to fall back on stereotypes. Without existing prejudice, character sketches can’t do their job and are useless. Why does a writer give us a character’s BMI? Is it simply to paint a picture in our mind? Or are we meant to map society’s view onto characters?
Yet if writers avoid describing characters altogether, readers may fail to paint a picture. Moreover, they’ll come up with their own picture. I once wrote a short story, put it through critique. Halfway through the story I mentioned the main character’s beard. A critique partner said that I’d ‘sprung the beard’ on them. I found the imagery of that funny, but the reason they felt that way? I hadn’t started with any thumbnail sketch.
How to write character sketches without the inevitable downsides?
Well, Munro doesn’t shy away from telling us someone’s BMI and we can easily deduce where they would fall on the beauty spectrum. (Should we avoid talking about fatness and thinness at all? That’s a whole different issue with arguments both ways.)
Such information is offset by the fact that many of Munro’s character descriptions include a line about how the person we see is not the real person at all.
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.
How he is different underneath (under his clothes)
Grace was wearing a dark-blue ballerina skirt, a white blouse, through whose eyelet frills the upper curve of her breasts was visible, and a wide rose-colored elasticized belt. There was a discrepancy, no doubt, between the way she presented herself and the way she wanted to be judged. But nothing about her was dainty or pert or polished, in the style of the time. A bit ragged around the edges, in fact. Giving herself Gypsy airs, with the very cheapest silver-painted bangles, and the long, wild-looking, curly dark hair that she had to put into a snood when she waited on tables.
How she is different underneath (she doesn’t feel as sexual as she dresses)
A description of her ‘falseness’, as viewed from a character’s POV rather than an objective narrator’s. (In the wider context, this would be how same-age men tend to see her.)
A detail of her clothing (the snood) which marks the earlier era
Mrs. Travers, however, was barely five feet tall, and under her bright muumuus seemed not fat but sturdily plump, like a child who hasn’t stretched up yet. And the shine, the intentness, of her eyes, the gaiety that was always ready to break out in them, had not been inherited. Nor had the rough red, almost a rash, on her cheeks, which was probably a result of going out in any weather without thinking about her complexion, and which, like her figure, like her muumuus, showed her independence.
There was a change in his voice—a crack in it, a rising pitch that made her think of a television comedian doing a rural whine. Under the kitchen skylight, she saw that he wasn’t as young as she’d thought. When she’d opened the door, she had been aware only of a skinny body, the face dark against the morning glare. The body, as she saw it now, was certainly skinny but more wasted than boyish, affecting a genial slouch. His face was long and rubbery, with prominent light-blue eyes. A jokey look, but a persistence, too, as if he generally got his way.
The way in which her appearance has been affected by her actions
She was a slim, suntanned woman in a purple dress, with a matching wide purple band holding back her dark hair. Handsome, but with little pouches of boredom or disapproval hiding the corners of her mouth. She left most of her dinner untouched on her plate, explaining that she had an allergy to curry.
Her allergy to curry, which the reader is encouraged not to take seriously
His hands didn’t feel drunk, and his eyes didn’t look it. Nor did he look like the jolly uncle he had impersonated when he talked to the children, or the purveyor of reassuring patter he had chosen to be with Grace. He had a high pale forehead, a crest of tight curly gray-black hair, bright gray but slightly sunken eyes, high cheekbones, and rather hollowed cheeks. If his face relaxed, he would look sombre and hungry.
How he is now different from how he presented at first
His duplicitous way of talking, which is simply a matter of changing register — we all do it, but here we are encouraged to suspect him of something sinister
The dimensions of his face
The colour of his hair (indicating middle age)
How the main character imagines his face might look different. She’s really observing him closely.
She is a lean eager-looking woman with a mop of pewter colored hair and a slight stoop which may come from coddling her large instrument, or simply from the habit of being an obliging listener and a ready talker.
two lifestyle possibilities about why she may have adopted that pose, together telling us all we need to know about this character
Munro writes third person narratives, usually focusing on a woman, moving in and out of her head from close third person to omniscient.
TIME AND SPATIAL ORGANISATION
Time often spans a lifetime, from the point of view of a woman near the end of her life. She looks back on long-ago events as an extradiegetic character. Her younger self seems like a different person to her. After a lifetime of reflection, she is often more forgiving of her younger trespasses, understands why things happened the way they did. The younger woman is often without any particular desire of her own in the story, propelled along by men and expectations.
In these narratives which can span a lifetime, Munro moves seamlessly from the present to the recent past to the long distant past. This requires knowing when to make use of three verb tenses in the English language:
Simple past tense: At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed
Past perfect tense: Rich had told her that he was going to the village, to the hardware store.
Present tense: Rich died in June. Now here it is midsummer.
The reader doesn’t notice she’s even doing this. She does it so well. Native English speakers create these tenses naturally, yet when writing a story you do have to make a decision when to use which tense, at least at some point, perhaps as part of the revision process.
At first we might think, okay, the distant past would obviously be simple past. The recent past would obviously be the past perfect. And the switch from iterative to the singulative would obviously cue a switch to the present. But look closer; it’s a bit more tricky than that.
I find it helpful to think of Munro writing a series of vignettes, each with their own entire timeline filling out the space. So, a flashback might start with the simple past, then within that same flashback it’ll switch to past perfect, so the reader feels we’re not reading a flashback at all. This is important because a constant stream of flashbacks can otherwise frustrate the reader, who is naturally more interested in the present. (Reading a flashback can feel like reading something enclosed in parentheses — we tend to skip through it, keen to get back to the ‘real’ text. See what I’m doing here?)
There’s another important reason why Munro encourages us to feel the past is inextricably tied to the present. In an Alice Munro story, the present never exists in isolation. Every life event is connected to what came before — the end of life often mirrors the beginning of life — and memories of the past absolutely influence a character’s experience of the here and now, influencing decisions which might, to outsiders, seem wacky or illogical. Once we know the backstory that is affecting her, the reader understands why she behaves the way she does.
Stories unfold as if someone is speaking to us. If you’ve ever studied speech-making, you’ll know that an audience far prefers naturalistic speaking over a memorised script. Although you might falter, you might start a sentence then switch it for another, you add fillers… This is in fact easier for people to understand than a perfect stream of words. This is why conversations with friends are easier to follow than a literary audiobook. Munro absolutely has a sense of how humans grasp story, and she tells her stories as an oral storyteller might.
What is she actually doing, though? What does this mean and how do we replicate the technique?
We might say she’s making use of reveals and reversals. Going back to “Free Radicals”, the story opens with a woman in mourning. The reader naturally wonders: Why is she in mourning? Okay, we soon learn she’s lost her husband. The reader naturally wonders: How did he die? (I think we always wonder this, even if we have the courtesy not to ask, which we should not.) Munro then tells us how the husband dies.
Note that Munro could have completely inverted this in her storytelling. She could open with a man dying outside a hardware store. But she doesn’t, because she knows how reveals work. This is a term used by screenwriters, but it applies to everyday storytelling, as well, in a smaller way.
In the same story, we are told that Nita has buried her husband in a cardboard box. The reader wonders if the relationship was terrible. We are told that in fact they planned this together in advance. Reversal: Okay, so she didn’t bury him in a box because he was terrible. They are simply unsentimental. Further reveal: Nita had expected to die first because she has a cancer diagnosis. If she’s mad at her dead husband, it’s for ‘stealing her thunder’. See the minor reveals and reversals in there? It’s masterful. We think we know this character — we’re doing our best to understand her motivations. But small, unexpected pieces of information have us constantly on our toes, reevaluating our understanding of this character.
Alice Munro makes regular use of the writing technique of describing what is not as a way in to what is. The following is a description of recent bereavement:
She thought carefully, every morning when she first took her seat, of the places where Rich was not. He was not in the smaller bathroom, where his shaving things still were, along with the prescription pills for various troublesome but not serious ailments which he’d refused to throw out. Nor was he in the bedroom, which she had just tidied and left. Not in the larger bathroom, which he had entered only to take tub baths. Or in the kitchen, which had become mostly his domain in the last year. He was of course not out on the half-scraped deck, ready to peer jokingly in the window—through which she might, in earlier days, have pretended to be alarmed at the sight of a peeping tom.
lightness — When we see women depicted in gloomy circumstances caused by patriarchal systems of repression, there is still a recurring moment of a peculiar feeling of lightness or newness that does not fit directly or simply into the condition of their social realities.
sameness — Alice Munro’s fiction recognizes life as possibility in a moment when it shows itself in its own remarkable sameness.
absence — a focus not what is there but what is absent or delayed
possibility and fatality — Munro is fascinated by the surface reality of how things are.
liberation vs restraint
contingency and fatality
There are many trains — characters inside trains, train tracks going past a house, incidents on train tracks. This makes sense, as trains are a wonderful metaphor for the inevitable passing of time. Once you’re on a train there’s no stopping it — you’ll end up where you end up, and life often seems like this in hindsight.
Munro writes ‘character’ descriptions of houses, which depicts houses as characters in their own right, inextricably linked to their inhabitants. Houses remain even after the inhabitants have long since gone. A visit to a former house brings back many memories.
Like Annie Proulx, Alice Munro’s narratives are often about outsiders coming in to invade small towns. With Munro, an older character returns to former haunts to learn that everything has regrettably changed. Highways have been built, young people have moved in, often with their tacky play sets in the yards. There is regret on the part of the characters — why couldn’t things just stay the same? On the other hand, they don’t wish for that at all. Rather, their memories are rose-tinted. In a Munro story, reality and memory do not line up.
The house had a row of cedars on one side and a railway embankment on the other. The railway traffic had never amounted to much, and by now there were only a couple of trains a month. Weeds were lavish between the tracks. One time, when she was on the verge of menopause, Nita had teased Rich into making love up there—not on the ties, of course, but on the narrow grass verge beside them—and they had climbed down inordinately pleased with themselves.
Later, in the same story, the train tracks give the impression that once a terrible situation is set in motion, there’s no getting out of it. An intruder has tricked his way into her house. Not, Nita must wait for fate to play out: Train tracks as fate.
“I was only going to get the keys.” “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.”
An affinity between the inevitable and the possible is central to Munro’s writing.
As shown in ‘Train’, Munro expertly analyses those sudden, irreparable choices in life that lead us away from our original track. The metaphor of train is repeated in ‘To Reach Japan’, where Greta’s sudden impetuous sexual liaison with another traveller leads to the disappearance of her young daughter. She is travelling to Toronto to house-sit for a friend and is due to return to the comfortable tedium of her marriage. Yet, another impulsive gesture – the sending of a letter to a man she barely knows – may take Greta away from the familiar tracks of her life.
In many stories, a character has gone missing. Perhaps they’ve dropped off the face of the planet, or another character thinks they have (e.g. “Jakarta“). A child grows up and cuts their parents off. Another form of absence is when two or more characters knew each other when young, fall mostly out of contact for decades, then reconnect when they’re old.
Munro uses the full range of narrative pace in her stories. The pacing itself maps onto the emotions she evokes in the reader. She can skip over decades, then slow the pace down to a pause (freeze frame). She is an expert at summary. Here she summarises a long journey home:
Sally gets lost, then finds her way. The bank building again, the same or possibly a whole new regiment of loiterers. The subway ride, the car park, the keys, the highway, the traffic. Then the lesser highway, the early sunset, no snow yet, the bare trees, and the darkening fields.
Ah, I have a soft spot for short stories about spinsters about town, enjoying their passions in solitary fashion. “Tricks” by Alice Munro calls to mind Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill”, especially after mention of the symbolic scarf: Miss Brill, you may recall, wears a fur. Robin of Munro’s story “Tricks” does not; she is instead disturbed by someone else’s fox scarf in the Lost and Found. If settings could collide and time elide, I imagine that ‘disgusting-looking brownish fox scarf’ was left there by Miss Brill herself. (That fur had never been the same, of course, after having her fashion choice dissed by strangers at the park.)
Like Miss Brill, Robin finds herself permanently unpartnered.
But of all Katherine Mansfield’s women, Alice Munro’s Robin reminds me most of Bertha — Bertha of “At The Bay”, who constantly imagines men (and women) admiring her and might easily fall immediately and hopelessly in love, because her expansive imaginative world keeps her primed for it. Perhaps if Katherine Mansfield had lived as long as Alice Munro she’d have written Bertha as an older woman, and then Bertha may have found the strength of character that was always evident in Robin.
THE EMOTIONAL RESONANCE OF LONGING
The final sentence of this story delivers a punch to the gut. Where does the emotional resonance of “Tricks” come from?
The plot of this story begins like that of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” trilogy. In Linklater’s initial film:
A young man and woman meet on a train in Europe, and wind up spending one evening together in Vienna. Unfortunately, both know that this will probably be their only night together.
Likewise in part one of “Tricks”, a man and a woman meet by chance encounter, start to fall in love, then are parted for a length of time. They agree to meet again in one year to recreate the romance: Same place, same dress.
Nicholas Sparks makes a meal of such longing in his love tragedies. Of all the emotions, I find the ‘yearning’ emotion is successfully recreated in many fictional simulations of it. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much of a trick to writing a moving story like this:
set up a chance encounter between two people
create some reason why the potential lovers must remain apart
then keep them apart for ages, possibly forever.
All romantic storieswill include a stretch of longing. (Approximately 120 minutes of it in fact, in a romantic film.)
The hard part these days, in a hyperconnected world, is coming up with a believable reason why two lovers can’t just get together. This particular story is starts off in the 1960s, which helps.
Alice Munro also makes Danilo Montenegrin. By prior arrangement he is going back there from Canada. (Is he going to collect his brother because ailing parents no longer can?)
Am I glossing over a few essential ingredients of writing a love story about romantic longing?
First the writer must create characters who are obviously meant for one another. This isn’t so easy. We have to like both characters and we must want them to find love.
In “Tricks”, Alice Munro presents Robin in all her defective glory. We don’t get inside Danilo’s head but we observe him as Robin sees him — he is a gentleman. Why do I think he’s a gentleman? Because he has many opportunities to murder her and does not. I tell you, the bar for strange men is low. I worry for Robin when she goes into his house. I worry again when they go for a walk along the river. (The horror riverspace of popular culture is strewn with murdered women’s bodies, thanks, Green River Killer.)
To be fair, Danilo does seem a nice man. He lends money to a stranger in need. Okay, he may have romantic motives, and if Robin weren’t wearing that beautiful green dress, would he have been so kind?
Could green symbolise longing as well as envy? Isn’t envy a subcategory of longing? (Robin’s original dress is avocado with a full skirt and a pinched waist. The replacement is lime green.)
Also important in stories of yearning and longing — if not vital then at least very common: The two romantic partners meet by chance. If any number of factors had been different, they would never have met at all.
George Michael’s “Different Corner” asks us to consider the random nature of love:
Turn a different corner and we never would have met
I put it to you that fatalism, especially when it comes to love, is a comforting worldview. It is quite disturbing to really get our heads around the statistics — why this exact combination of me and not all those other millions of sperms? Why me with all these riches? Why am I not one of the 820 million humans who still don’t have enough to eat? If I’d hadn’t gone to the pub/nightclub/party that Friday, who would be my life partner/boy friend/girl friend right now instead of the one I’ve got now (or not)?
What if? The what if question is hugely resonant in story and if you can create it in narrative you’ll be leaving the audience with something. The ‘what if’ doesn’t have to involve romance but it will probably involve human relationships. In The Wrestler(starring Mickey Rourke basically as himself) the what if spans family and acquaintance relationships as well as a romantic one.
In “Tricks”, what if Robin had not lost her handbag? What if she had not visited the Lost and Found before sitting down right at the moment Danilo happened to pass by? Turn a different corner and they never would have met.
It is common to believe when we fall in love that our lover was made for us. Solipsistic? Yes, but it’s very common. In Danilo’s absence, Robin falls into this way of thinking herself, while doing research on Danilo’s home country:
The thought of him was there when she woke up, and in lulls at work. The Christmas celebrations brought her thoughts round to ceremonies in the Orthodox Church, which she had read about, bearded priests in gold vestments, candles and incense and deep mournful chanting n a foreign tongue. The cold weather and the ice far out into the lake made her think of winter in the mountains. She felt as if she had been chosen to be connected to that strange part of the world, chosen for a different sort of fate. These were the words she used to herself. Fate. Lover. Not boyfriend. Lover.
I find it hard to get a handle on Ontario’s geography, but it seems Robin has travelled to Perth County to see As You Like It, which is where she met Danilo all those years ago.
“Tricks” is a story which seems set in a mythic, nowhere time — he’s a clockmaker, same as Belle’s father in the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. This is a vocation that goes back as far as… well, clocks. Because Danilo has an ancient profession. There must be something more to this ‘clockmaker in a timeless setting’ thing.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SPACE AND PLACE
Montenegro is a foreign, exotic place to Robin, much like Iceland is a duality of real PLACE and imaginary, mythical SPACE in “The Bear Came Over The Mountain“.
The distinction between ‘place’ and ‘space’ is important, in both stories. Harvard professor Lawrence Buell made the distinction, with his career-long interest in how literature interacts with environment (spatial theory). Buell built upon a conversation started by E. V. Walter, who wrote:
people do not experience abstract space; they experience places. A place is seen, heard, smelled, imagined, loved, hated, feared, revered, enjoyed, or avoided
In theory, it’s possible to be familiar with a ‘space’ without being familiar with a ‘place’. By going to the library and researching Montenegro, Robin has created an imaginative space without being familiar with the real world place.
This is an important distinction in the work of Alice Munro. Her characters often live, imaginatively, in a space and this space has an influence on how they act in the real world. This makes the imaginative space no less real than if they knew the place, though its influence is different.
Often these characters experience fernweh. I experience this myself — two places in particular. One is for Canada (hence my interest in the work of Alice Munro). I’ve never set foot in Canada and I don’t want to, lest my imaginative space become sullied. The other is for my home country, New Zealand. I’ve been away for long enough that my home country has changed a lot. It seems quite foreign to me now. I don’t understand the in-jokes, the TV celebrities have died or been replaced. (Or become disturbingly old.) From Australia I listen to Radio New Zealand podcasts, I read some New Zealand news, get social media updates from now-distant friends. I have recreated an imaginative space in my mind. I’d love to move back to New Zealand. It seems quite perfect to me now. Yet once I couldn’t wait to leave. I remind myself that my imaginative space of New Zealand is different from the real place.
Related: John Cheever’s “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” is also about fernweh, and imaginative space. See also Munro’s “Jakarta”. That story is not set in the place of Jakarta but in the imaginative, mythical space, created by the Canadian character.
Alice Munro’s characters don’t always pick a different country as their imaginative space. “Cortes Island” is one Canadian example, conjured by a Canadian character.
In “Tricks”, the river is another heavily symbolic place. Robin’s view of it changes over the course of the story to reflect her mood. At first it might be a horrorspace — is this man going to murder her down there? When they have their romantic evening, that same river is transformed into a romantic scene, with lamps lighting her way along its banks. After rejection she notices the black duck — the odd one out.
Part Two goes into a beachspace as setting. The changes around the beach show how much things in general change over time:
The beach is no longer surrounded by railway sheds and warehouses — you can walk on a boardwalk for a mile along the lake.
As happened to coastal beaches in Australia, the beach around Lake Ontario has become increasingly more urban as the city and its suburbs encroach further onto the sand, no longer an industrial arena but one of entertainment and relaxation.
THE SEASONS OF STORYTELLING
Part one takes place in two winter times, but at the beginning of winter. Part two takes place after Christmas. When it comes to the symbolism of seasonsin Western narrative, the beginning of winter is quite different from the downhill slide that happens after Christmas. The build-up is exciting; after the celebrations are over, there’s February to get through, and March, with little to look forward to except slush and going back to routine.
The ice is rough, in some places it looks as if big waves had been frozen in place. Workmen are out taking down the Christmas lights. Flu is reported. People’s eyes water from walking against the wind. Most women are into their winter uniform of sweatpants and ski jackets.
Once again, Alice Munro screws with my sense of time. I don’t realise until ‘Joanne has been dead for eighteen years’ that this is not the end of the very same winter. This must be deliberate, of course, otherwise it would’ve been said in the opening sentence to part two.
Why? Why is Alice Munro messing with me again? For Robin, time has stood still. This has just been described in her appearance — unlike the married women, this single woman remains a sophisticate in appearance.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “TRICKS”
Like “Trespasses”, the preceding short story in Munro’s Runaway collection, “Tricks” opens with a dramatic scene — not disposal of a mystery box, but a different kind of mystery: What’s so important about a green dress that Robin will ‘die’ if she doesn’t get it back from the dry-cleaner’s?
That green dress is the first thing we learn about Robin: She is really worried about a particular green dress. Why? What’s with the dress? Munro encourages the reader to side with the characters playing rummy nearby, who mock her for caring so much.
Why do they mock her? Why do we mock her, perhaps? This is an older woman going out on a date with herself. The media mocked Emma Watson when she said she’s ‘self-partnered‘. What does the dominant culture find so detestable about this? (Long story short, women are rendered less intimidating when viewed in relation to men.)
When Robin admires herself in the bathroom mirror, we as readers are invited to cast further judgement. She chastises herself: perhaps she lost her hand bag because she was admiring her back in the mirror. Alongside Robin, we code this behaviour as shallow and vain.
But I think there’s a bigger cultural sin here: Who, exactly, is this woman trying to impress? No one, as it happens. We mock her for caring about her dress because she is going on a date with herself. At least, that’s how Alice Munro sets it up. I didn’t initially realise the opening scene is chronologically subsequent to admiring herself in the mirror and losing her handbag. A second reading reveals this time jump to be clear, but I believe the elision of times is deliberate on Munro’s part — this episode in the bathroom is depicted as almost iterative, even though meeting the man is very much singulative.
So I don’t code Robin as shallow and vain. I see her as, well, ’empowered’ (an annoying word). She’s not sitting back and watching the world pass her by; Robin enjoys plays, so she will enjoy them alone. Loneliness does not consume her. Of course, this is exactly where you want to be when entering a new relationship: comfortable in your own company.
Nonetheless, Robin irritates me at times.
As an erstwhile cleaner myself, who handed in vast quantities of found cash (lecture theatre seats are good at flipping wallets out of back pockets), the following observation troubles me whenever I come across it — the prejudice that people near the bottom of the socio economic rung are somehow less trustworthy than those at the top:
[Robin] could imagine Joanne saying that the cleaning man had already stashed her purse away to take home to his wife or his daughter, that is what they were like in a place like this.
Despite the class prejudices, Robin possesses a reasonably woke attitude towards what we nowadays know as ‘othering‘. Othering is not a new concept but only recently do people untrained in social sciences and philosophy know what it means. Robin knows the concept but uses her own language to expres her discomfort in talking to a foreigner:
It was rude, she supposed, to keep asking him things. To make him feel like a specimen. She would have to control herself, though now she could come up with a host of questions.
Robin is an introverted character. This is not told but shown, for example by Robin’s reaction to a more recognisable, extraverted character:
Through the train window she saw rain starting. She did not even have an umbrella. And in the seat across from her was a passenger she knew, a woman who had had her gallbladder out just a few months ago, at the hospital. This woman had a married daughter in Stratford. She was a person who thought that two people known to each other, meeting on the train and headed for the same place, should keep up a conversation.
Throughout the story, Robin is infantalised somewhat. The sister keeps tabs, which is infantalising. At one point Robin ends up sitting in the back of a car with kids, surprised that she hasn’t ended up with Popsicle on her nice dress. The person who offered her a ride has obviously read her as childlike. She feels nervous before meeting Danilo, and compares her nervousness to incidents from childhood — being asked at school to demonstrate a math problem. Others treat her as a child; and at 26, she still sees herself as such. Perhaps this is why Alice Munro describes Joanne, the sister, as resembling a child. To describe Robin as looking like a child as well as feeling like a child would seem a bit on the nose. Also, the sisters are mirror characters — two sides of the same coin. Joanne, who cannot go on home-away-home adventures for health reasons, is the shut-in that Robin might easily become.
Robin’s older sister Joanne is her Opponent at home — frail, asthmatic, passively judgmental and thereby stifling.
Danilo is the Romantic Opponent. There always has to be a bit of tension/opposition in a romance story.
But first, the reader must be shown as early as possible that two characters would be good together. How does Munro show that in “Tricks”? She uses what Matt Bird calls an ‘I understand you’ moment.
The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is that the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes.
“I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.
Sometimes you can establish that the two characters understand each other before they even meet.
Matt Bird, Secrets of Story
The reader can see these two are compatible at a fundamental level because both Danilo and Robin appreciate a slow life as interested observers. For Robin, this means enjoying plays on her own. For Danilo, this means a childlike enjoyment of rides on trains.
“What are you smiling at?” he said. “I don’t know.” “Well, you can go on smiling,” he said, “because I will be happy to lend you some money for the train. What time does it go?” She told him, and he said, “All right. But before that you should have some food. Or you will be hungry and not enjoy the train ride. […] he spoke of her enjoying the train ride. Nobody she knew would speak of a grown person doing that. But he spoke of it as being quite natural and necessary.
Trains in Munro stories are symbolic — train journey as journey through life. Danilo’s attitude towards train rides signals his attitude towards life.
The plan is basic: Two potential lovers will meet in exactly one year.
At point of reunion in Part One, the plot becomes similar to that of “Louisa, Please Come Home“. Someone who wanted to meet her so badly (Danilo) doesn’t even recognise the young woman he wanted. He slams the door shut in her face.
We don’t learn what happens to Robin in the immediate aftermath of having a door slammed in her face. Instead, we learn where she is in late middle age. This is when she gets her revelation — not so much about herself — she’s had years to do that. This sequences gives her some reasons.
All these years she has been active in a theatre society. Munro slips a bit of intertextuality into the story by revealing that Robin once played a character from an Ibsen play. Hedda Gabler, in Ibsen’s play, is newly married to a man she has never loved. She married him because she thought her years of youthful abandon are over. When she gets bored with her marriage and life, she seeks to influence a human fate for the first time.
How is Hedda Gabler connected to Robin in “Tricks”? Like Joanne, the dead sister, the fictional character of Hedda Gabler serves as a mirror — Hedda got married because she thought she had to whereas Robin went the opposite direction, perhaps partly because she had that door slammed in her face.
I’m sure there are other reasons why Robin never married. She was already an established independent thinker before she even met Danilo. But it may be that the slammed-door incident has shaped her memory of how and why her life went the way it did.
Significantly, Robin now works in a psychiatric ward, caring for patients whose minds have departed from consensus realities. Robin herself let herself be deluded once — when she was young and prone to romantic fantasy. In the interim she has got her fantasy fix in a prescribed, safe manner — through her involvement in theatre. Fantasies come fully formed (e.g. by Ibsen). The patients of the psychiatric ward serve as a kind of worst-case scenario for Robin, who can probably see that imaginative power lies on a continuum, and that all of us sit somewhere along it.
At the conclusion of “Tricks” Munro gives us another man’s story, filtered through Robin. He is a patient in the mental ward, clearly deluded. Why do we get a character sketch of this man? What is his story function?
Through the retelling of this man’s story we learn that Robin has in the past slept with patients, after their release. Rather than presented as salacious, Robin has found these experiences ‘comforting’. Though I can’t imagine this is an ethical thing to do. ‘With a little encouragement, a little shift in his attention, he could perhaps fall in love with her.’ The phrase ‘with a little encouragement’ worries me deeply, and reveals Robin as the baddie of the piece; in a psychological horror, she definitely would be the baddie: the once-spurned spinster who works in a psych ward to groom mentally ill men at their most vulnerable, and use them for sex and comfort. (While Canadian guidelines may differ, and may differ again for nurses, here are the Australian guidelines for sexual boundaries in the doctor-patient relationship.)
In a previous scene, Robin thinks she sees Danilo come in as a patient from another unit. At first I think she must be correct — I trust her version — this is an old man version of a man from long ago. But then Munro tells us that his name is different. It now seems very unlikely that this is the same man. Robin uses a ‘mind trick’ to spin a story — he must have given her the wrong name all those years ago. This must be his real name.
When we blur that line between psychosis and reality, it is common to say things like, “I know this sounds crazy but…” With delusions and psychosis, a patient can often see the lack of logic and likelihood, but is nonetheless convinced of delusion as fact. This speaks to the realness of delusion. If we experience something as real, it is all but impossible to cast it aside as our own insanity.
Thus, Robin is presented as a mind situated at that border between fantasy and psychosis.
It is only after we learn that she’s been having sex with released patients that she isn’t all that wrong — this man is Danilo’s brother. Naturally they would look very similar.
Then we learn they are twins, and now for the big reveal: It was the deaf/mute brother who slammed the door all those years ago.
Now we get the big what if:
He must have gone out on an errand. A brief errand. He would not leave that brother in charge for very long. Perhaps the screen door was hooked—she had never tried to push it open. Perhaps he had told his brother to hook it and not open it while he himself was giving Juno a walk around the block. She had wondered why Juno wasn’t there.
If she had come a little later. A little earlier. If she had stayed till the play was over or skipped the play altogether. If she had not bothered with her hair.
But Robin is older now, and finally she is revealed to be sensible, however much I doubt her for her decision to sleep with patients after their release (possibly grooming them).
She is glad the relationship ended swiftly. She can’t imagine a relationship with Danilo would have been good, considering Robin’s asthmatic sister and Danilo’s deaf-mute brother.
However, ‘she is not going to spare a moment’s gratitude for the trick that has been played. But she’ll come round to being grateful for the discovery of it.’
Finally, Robin is revealed to be fully aware of the difference between reality and fantasy, and even that murky interstitial place — perhaps something akin to Edward Soja’s concept of Thirdspace — an amalgamation of reality (Firstspace) and fantasy (Secondspace), encompassing the space of history, temporality and spatiality.
That was another world they had been in, surely. As much as any world concocted on the stage.
Find “Tricks” published in the Runaway collection (2004).
“Powers” is the final story in the Runaway collection by Alice Munro, published 2004. I find this story the most challenging of the lot — as in, what in holy heck was that all about? I’m going to have to write about “Powers” in order to understand it.
Here goes my best shot. What can we learn about storytelling from this novella? About life?
If this is not an easy story to read, nor was it an easy story to write. This from her editor:
On her own, Alice did eight revisions of “Powers”. Then we worked on that ending because it was hard to finish off the story part of it and give Nancy her due.
The New York Times reviewer did not consider “Powers” a success:
“Powers” devolves into a melodramatic tale about a provincial Canadian woman, blessed or cursed with psychic abilities, and her exploitation by a charming but feckless man on the make.
‘Melodramatic’ is an unusual word to ascribe to Alice Munro — a decidedly realist writer. Why would they have said that? I put it to you that this story is melodramatic if read at a more literal level. My own interpretation is highly metaphorical, as in, I don’t think Ollie is a real person. I think he’s a creation of Nancy’s imagination.
Hear me out.
SETTING OF “POWERS”
TIME AND PLACE
Set in a small Ontario town after the First World War, the story spans about 50 years of Nancy’s life, starting as she’s about to get married, and skipping over the middle, child-rearing years.
There’s a hint of fabulism in this one, which may partly explain accusations of melodrama. Except I don’t for one moment believe Tessa genuinely has clairvoyant powers — I read this as a metaphor for people who sit on the fringes of life in general.
When Nancy takes Ollie to see her clairvoyant friend they go through a tunnel. This tunnel feels like a fantasy portal. Even when the other side of a tunnel is in ‘the real world’ (rather than some high fantasy landscape), a tunnel within a story often indicates an other-world of some kind. Hayao Miyazaki loves a good tunnel. He uses tunnels in Spirited Away (reality > fantasy), in Ponyo (reality > magic tinged reality), and in My Neighbour Totoro (reality > magic tinged reality). Since one of the ‘rules’ of portals is that the characters must pass quite slowly through them, tunnels as portals tend to feature characters walking through them, on foot. (A car would be too fast.)
The world on the other side of this particular tunnel is perhaps leading to a heterotopia; perhaps it’s simply a separated place where the rules work differently, or where inhabitants are different and ostracised.
Perhaps this tunnel is, for Nancy, a portal into her own imagination? This is at the heart of my thesis.
Could we go even further? Does Tessa exist? Both Tessa and Ollie could be part of a paracosm Nancy creates for herself to cope with an un-companionable, aloof and vocationally-oriented marriage partner. After much thought, I think Tessa does exist, though with fantasy add-ons. Tessa is possibly a disabled person who Nancy imagines has superpowers. I think it’s just Ollie she’s made up as an alter ego.
When “Powers” turns to the psychiatric institution, Munro takes us into a gothic setting. This is where Munro starts to play with scale — ‘”Gothic” biomedical models rely on a metonymic process of substitution of the person for increasingly smaller cellular and ultra cellular units’ (Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman). In the dream sequence we’ll have a character dreaming of a character (mise en abyme effect) examining a pile of dead flies on a windowsill. It is noted that Nancy (subsumed by Tessa via a dream) doesn’t have a microscope, yet her eyes seem to zoom in on these iridescent fly wings. (She’s just met Ollie — perhaps imaginatively — and Ollie has trouble reading a menu. Equally old herself, it’s unlikely Nancy’s eyes would be capable of examining the detail of fly wings in real life.)
A CULTURE BUILT ON THE CONCEPT OF FEMALE HYSTERIA
When considering the setting of a story, we can’t ignore the major cultural forces which shape the characters. One dominant aspect of early 20th century misogyny involved the idea that women are prone to hysteria.
Freud’s “discovery” of hysteria was both anticipated by, and grounded in, 19th-century realist fiction. …the dark continent that Freud called femininity was brought to life by these realist novelists. The hysterical character, she argues, conceives of every relationship as tragic, imaginatively doomed — hence the warning which forms the title of this book. Yet this character speaks for everyone. The insights of Anna Karenina, Gwendolen Harleth, or Cassandra give to them a dignity beyond pathology or their social position. They are not merely literary “femmes fatales”. It is part of being civilized, the author argues, to fear the people and things we love, particularly when they are intimate to us. Knowing this, each person is responsible for the form this apprehension takes — whether awe or panic, respect or protest, desire or denial. […] Balzac, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Tolstoy and Florence Nightingale […] are rich sources for understanding hysterical states of mind because they offer scope for interpretation that involves everyone as readers.
The blurb of Never Marry A Girl With A Dead Father: Women’s Troubled Relationships in Realist Novels
It is known that Balzac expressed his admiration for Dante. So when Munro’s character Nancy wants to delve into Dante, what is she really wanting? Insight into her own human condition? Wilf encourages against that, instead arranging a ‘useful’ life for her — one of choosing wallpapers and childbearing and mothering. This is exactly how misogyny works.
Patriarchy is what’s upheld. Sexism is why it’s upheld. Misogyny is how it’s upheld.
While reading “Powers”, look for the ways in which fiction is portrayed as fraudulent, i.e., fiction has the power to obscure the truth.
Back to my enduring hypothesis of Ollie as imaginary character: A character you invent yourself won’t necessarily tell their inventor the truth. Not immediately, anyway, though even invented characters can help their inventors discover something about themselves.
[“Powers”] explores … the ramifications of the increasing dominance of biomedical approaches to mental illness and ageing on Canadians from the perspective of patients and their caregivers. […] “Powers” repeatedly emphasizes the ethical limits of fictive consolation — by that I mean the consolation provided by fantasy and, by extension, literature.
Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman
But an imaginary world can eventually reveal as well as obscure, because people use imaginary worlds in all kinds of different ways. In the end, Tessa’s conversation with Ollie (whether real or imagined) takes place on two different levels of her mind: There’s the story he tells her and the story she knows lies underneath. Nancy teeters on that interstial space between conscious fantasy and unconscious fantasy.
Of course, this story was written later than it is set. Is Munro writing of hysteria as if it’s a quirk of the past? No, she is not, and this is what makes her a feminist writer. That old ‘women are crazy’ chestnut is still influential today and can be seen in statistics as simple as how men are prescribed more pain killers, because when men say they’re in pain, men are more likely believed.
With Freud’s claims about the female psyche mostly discredited and the advances in treatment of mental illness over the years lauded, the average bystander might conclude that we’ve come a long way from labelling a normal reaction to sexual assault “hysteria.” But a long legacy of prescriptive and sexist science remains at the foundation of psychiatric medical treatment for women. From the first diagnosis of hysteria to the present-day disparities in mental health treatment, the tradition of medicating women’s emotions has held constant. Within this context, the line between empirical treatment and medicating the lived experiences of women grows dangerously thin.
Could Tessa’s clairvoyance be an analogue for hysteria? Or rather, not for hysteria itself, but how hysteria has been viewed by the medical establishment? Early in the story, Tessa’s clairvoyance is taken somewhat seriously. It is later shown to be part of her mental illness. Or is it? In Nancy’s dream at the end, Tessa might actually know telepathically what’s in Ollie’s pocket. Despite clairvoyance clearly not being a thing (within the world of the story), despite science debunking that whole thing, there’s always a lingering what if? Science from the past continues to influence the present, and has a very real impact on women’s lives.
Some critics consider this aspect one of the most interesting of “Powers” — Munro’s exploration of dementia and hysteria, united in the power they have over us as a culture — women used to fear hysteria; now more likely fear dementia:
Whereas Tessa’s mysterious powers of consolation lie in recuperating what has been lost, Ollie’s power seemingly lies in dissociating from his own vulnerability, and reducing women — most obviously Tessa — to scientific specimens. Ollie’s strategy recalls late nineteenth and early twentieth century biomedical approaches to both hysteria and dementia, which entailed locating the disease processes in women’s minds and bodies and using them as scientific material.
Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman
DISCRIMINATION AGAINST PEOPLE WHO HAVE ‘FITS’
After World War I, when the return of thousands of disabled servicemen forced disability onto the political agenda, disabled people were hidden from history, shut away behind the walls of asylums with their voices silenced.
Disability discrimination endures into today, though its exact nature morphs over time. Today epilepsy is much better understood. But in the early 20th century and prior, people who had fits were cast out as those with lepers were cast out. The following images offer some context:
When a disease is not well understood, people worry that it may be contagious or that it may be a moral problem, or possibly even a supernatural one. This story deals with the supernatural misunderstanding of fits.
CHARACTERS OF “POWERS”
Every life in this story is marked and decided by accidents and the unforeseen. Hence the clairvoyance thread.
Munro juxtaposes two women, the brisk, self-absorbed Nancy, and Tessa, a strange girl with extraordinary, fragile powers [MIRROR CHARACTERS]. Yet it is Nancy, the skeptic and rationalist, who succeeds in peeling back the obscuring film over the past. She protests that she doesn’t want to live the past – she only wants to “open it up and get one good look.” That glimpse has such a weight of truth that though it may be dream or imagination, it is real and meaningful – like Munro’s own work.
Quill and Quire
At the beginning of “Powers” she has just finished high school. Nancy’s diary entries portray her as capricious and full of life — her youth and lack of maturity shine through. I’m reminded of Kelly Kapoor from the American version of The Office, whose focus on weddings is all-consuming — she hasn’t thought about what it will be like to be married.
But Nancy has more empathy for others than Kelly, who is utterly self-absorbed. By Nancy’s own admission, she marries Wilf because he has already been turned down, and she doesn’t want to embarrass either of them by saying no.
Nancy has been brought up in a culture in which a woman’s needs are subsumed by that of a man — she makes it a goal to find out more of Wilf’s interests so that they’ll have something to talk about. (At no point does she expect him to be interested in her — and he is not.) She becomes pregnant soon into their marriage and we learn later she has had multiple children. These children are not mentioned — the early childhood years are skipped over.
Much later, with childcare done and dusted, she is now caring for her husband with dementia. Now Nancy is asked by the psychiatric institution if she would also care for Tessa. The emotional burden heaped upon women is a thread across the stories of Alice Munro. Take for example “Deep Holes”. There is a scene early on in which the reader is made fully aware of the effort that has gone into preparing a picnic to suit the individualised tastes of each family member. These efforts go unrewarded. Her ungrateful son cuts ties with her after he grows up, and as an older woman, the main character must find a way to live with this ingratitude.
Nancy visits Tessa in the psychiatric institution. Facing a painful moral dilemma, Nancy must decide if she has it in her to care for the both of them. Don’t forget, she’s been taking care of other people her whole adult life.
The moral dilemmas throughout “Powers” revolve around balancing Nancy’s own needs against caring ‘responsibilities’ the culture has instilled in her. A lot of woman readers in particular will identify with this.
Older Nancy has undergone a character arc in the parts left out of the story. She doesn’t have the spoons to care for anyone else. She leaves Tessa at the institution and returns to her own home.
To this end, I think Ollie is an imaginary invention to help Nancy assuage her own conscience. When you’ve been brought up to put the needs of others before your own, and then you suddenly can’t, or don’t, you need to find a way to justify your own actions to yourself. Imaginary Ollie helps her with that.
Of course, none of this would explain how Tessa ended up in America. I don’t think it matters which parts of the story occur within the ‘real world’ of the story and which occur in the ‘imagined world’ of the story. It’s all highly mutable. The whole story exists is a dream space, after all.
Wilf is the thirty-year-old town doctor, who asks much younger Nancy to marry him. He’s just asked someone else and been turned down. He is portrayed as a very distant, self-contained character.
Unlike in “Tricks”, the previous story of this collection, the reader has no sense that Nancy and Wilf will be a good match. There is no “I understand you” moment” (as Matt Bird calls it).
Alice Munro has said in an interview that marriage was different when she was young — young people of marriage age just sort of picked someone and went along with it. In contrast, dating today is a game of enormous choice, made all the more confusing by the illusion of online choice, and it would now appear foolish to ‘settle’ on someone without going through an extended period of dating many partners first. Nancy and Wilf both belong to this older generation who expect different things from marriage (not friendship, for instance) and who would like to get married so they can get on properly with their adult lives.
Wilf seems to want a uterus more than he wants a partner — he tells Nancy to ‘give Dante a rest’. He doesn’t want someone who is a deep thinker or an equal in conversation. He doesn’t respect that Nancy may really enjoy more difficult things. And he knows he can mould Nancy into whatever he wants her to be. The era makes this easy — an era in which wives did as their husbands instructed. They had no other real choice.
Towards the end of “Powers” we learn that Wilf lives with dementia later in life. Nancy has faithfully served as his wife and caregiver.
As noted above, Ollie may be Nancy’s invented, male alter ego.
Ollie is supposedly Wilf’s younger cousin, Nancy’s own age (by no coincidence).
Ollie starts out wanting to be a science journalist. Perhaps if Nancy were a man that’s what she’d like to do. Her interest in Dante suggests a youthful interest in deeper things than wallpaper and mothering.
Ollie is mercenary and capitalist. He could be the human embodiment of all that is wrong with modernisation (“getting and spending”). When he thinks Tessa has psychic powers he marries her in order to exploit her for money. He runs off to America with Tessa but sticks her in a dodgy institution which is not approved by the authorities.
Why does Ollie treat Tessa the way he does? Shouldn’t he know what it’s like to be so vulnerable? Well, that’s not how lateral violence works.
Pain that is not transformed is transferred. — Fr. Richard Rohr
Readers learn that prior to visiting with Wilf and Nancy, Ollie spent three years in a TB sanatorium. As a patient he was subject to protracted, invasive treatments. Wilf, who is portrayed as an extremely dispassionate and detached physician, explains that doctors collapsed one of Ollie’s lungs so that they could treat the infection. While Wilf calmly recounts Ollies’ treatment, the latter puts his hands over his ears. As Ollie confesses, he prefers not to think about what was done to him. Instead, as he admits to Nancy, he “pretends to himself he is hollow like a celluloid doll”. Ollie’s experience as a TB patient is relevant for several reasons. First, it recalls Sontag’s discussion of the dread that attended TB — a dread that currently haunts Alzheimer’s disease. Second, Ollie’s traumatic experience may have motivated him to pass on this sense of dread. Ollie’s response is significant because it offers insight into the predicament of the elegist, who, confronted with the death of the other, recognizes his own vulnerability and mortality. In the masculine elegy, the poet responds by deifying the deceased and, at the same time, celebrating his own survival. […] Ollie’s treatment of Tessa echoes this patterns.
Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman
I find Ollie and his backstory unlikely, which is why I consider him a character inside Nancy’s imagination. Conversations she puts down to Ollie could easily be conversations she has with herself, or when other characters seem involved, what Ollie says could easily be what Nancy says, or what she would like to say.
Naturally, we can read any literary character in this way. Here’s the list of reasons why I suggest this guy be coded as Nancy’s creation:
Nancy’s diary demonstrates she wants more from life than she gets, and inventing a parallel, peopled life would be one way of getting that.
Ollie might be an invention to assuage Nancy’s own guilt — guilt that she doesn’t have it in her to care for both her own husband, own children as well as her childhood friend who winds up in a horrible institution. She can imagine she’s cared for by Ollie.
Ollie may also be an invention to help Nancy cope with loneliness within marriage.
Ollie’s hinted-at bisexuality may be more of a gender fluidity, in which Ollie is partly made up of Nancy, partly made up of Wilf (she’s made him Wilf’s cousin, after all). What she doesn’t get from Wilf (companionship and conversation) she is getting from Ollie, more or less. That said, Ollie doesn’t exactly tell her the truth. Why not invent a fictional character who at least tells you the truth? Because you may not even know the truth yourself. You can’t have an imaginary character tell you the truth until you’ve wrestled with the real situation yourself.
Imaginary worlds come and go throughout a person’s life — busy with young children, it would seem natural Nancy had no time to even conjure Ollie for all those years, explaining the time jump. It’s at the ends of her life that she has the space to invent, and think, and overthink, and blame herself, and to try and make amends.
Wilf clearly knows little about his own cousin. I accept that he’s an inward looking man, but still.
Ollie ends up on Texada island. Islands are highly symbolic other spaces — especially in other Alice Munro stories. For example in “Cortes Island” the island is an imaginary space for main characters — imagined as a way of coping with day-to-day life.
Ollie took Tessa around the vaudeville circuit. The vaudeville world itself is another fictional arena — perhaps a fictional world within a fictional world. It’s not exactly a run-of-the-mill way to live a life — more likely to occur in fiction than in reality.
The reader is not afforded a look into Tessa’s mind, except perhaps at the end as Nancy’s dream lets her look through Tessa’s eyes.
Tessa is Nancy’s childhood friend. She dropped out of school when she was 14 due to an unnamed illness, later revealed to include seizures. She is small in stature, as if illness has caused lack of growth.
Nancy cryptically explains to the reader that Tessa is “not in the world that the rest of us are in”. (This may give them something in common, if Nancy has this really rich imaginative life.)
We are eventually told that Tessa is a clairvoyant. Tessa uses these so-called psychic powers to help the townspeople find hidden or mislaid objects, sometimes even dead bodies.
Vulnerable, childlike Tessa marries Ollie, who has written an article about her, sending many people to her house. (This minor celebrity creates some havoc.) As Nancy has passively accepted her own entry into wife- and motherhood, Tessa seems to passively accept all this, and goes along with Ollie who transplants her to America.
But Ollie is a man and his caregiving capacities are limited. He puts her in an institution, which eventually closes in the late 1960s.
Like Wilf, Tessa also suffers memory loss as an older person. Dementia may combine with mental limitations caused by a lifetime of seizures — the difference is unclear and unimportant to the story.
NARRATION OF “POWERS”
The Guardian’s view of Nancy is less kind than my own:
“Powers”… is a little masterpiece of impersonation, an uncanny inhabiting of the mind of a meddling, egotistical girl and of a distinct historical period. The long range of Munro’s stories is only made possible by her apparently effortless possession of decade beyond decade of the past, her technique being the opposite of so much information-bolstered fiction of the present: she knows that life in the past was unhampered by any sense of its future quaintness, so she doesn’t explain. She gives us a past as unselfconscious as today. […] The sweep of the thing, the unfolding picture of the unforeseen life, the interlocking strangeness and ordinariness, the unravelling narrative of Nancy’s own consciousness, together make a deep impression.
“Powers” is divided into five parts each with chapter names:
Give Dante a Rest
TIME: Spring, 1927 NARRATION: first person diaries of an unnamed character
Nancy, fresh out of high school, is convinced that she is destined to live a life of importance.
She has a joking, trickster side. She startles the town doctor, Wilf, on April Fool’s Day by rocking up at his house pretending to have a sore throat.
He does not share her sense of humour at all and tells her to get out. (He’s probably a good 12 years older than she is, which would be intimidating. This scene is the inverse of an “I understand you” moment. The reader can see that these two are wrong for each other.
Rather than blaming the doctor for his lack of humour, she feels really stupid. She was only having some fun, and perhaps trying to get his attention. The difference in maturity (borne of age difference) is also a factor here.
She sends a note of apology and hears nothing back, but when she’s trying to get through a novel by Dante, the doc turns up at her door, takes her out to see some ice breaking, and completely out of the blue offers his hand in marriage.
Nancy accepts his proposal, not because she feels affection for him, but because she can’t think of a good reason to say no — she doesn’t want him to feel bad, because her friend has already turned him down.
In her diary she seems disappointed that her life has turned out so mundane after all. Like all the other eligible young women she knows, she’s going to get married. (And she’s about to marry a doctor — financial stability for life.) Her path is set now. She’ll have his babies. He assumes so, too. She’s not going to have the special life she dreamed of.
This reminds me of Angela Hayes from the film American Beauty. Angela’s biggest fear is to be ordinary.
One of the worst criticisms that can be levelled at a young woman: “She thinks she’s all that.” She has ideas about herself.
In fiction, young women with aspirations above their station will invariably have rich imaginative lives. Of course they do, right? These characters have the ability to imagine how their lives might be, and that in itself requires imaginative power.
[NANCY’S PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS] Imagination itself can be a liability when you start to recast yourself. Safer, indeed, to invent a paracosm with a wholly original cast. Keep yourself right out of it, stories tell us, time and time again. In American Beauty, Angela’s story about herself (as a sexually experienced ingenue) seeps into the real world, making the actually virginal Angela highly vulnerable in the presence of her best friend’s sexual predator father.
Alice Munro doesn’t let us in on the exact nature of Nancy’s fantasies about herself. Or does she? (Cue the invention of Ollie. Perhaps she wants to be a science journalist, freed of the burden of caring for others, living on an island.)
Girl in a Middy
TIME: several months after Give Dante A Rest NARRATION: third person
Nancy and Wilf are engaged and preparing for their wedding. Wilf’s cousin Ollie is in town to attend the ceremony. Nancy becomes fascinated by his worldly affectations.
In an attempt to impress him, she takes Ollie to visit Tessa, Tessa correctly identifies all of the items in Ollie’s pockets. Ollie seems to dismiss her, but Nancy fears he has ulterior motives.
Nancy writes to Tessa, warning her to avoid Ollie. Tessa responds, revealing that she and Ollie have already eloped to the United States. They intend to get married and test her abilities scientifically. Tessa ignores Nancy’s cruel but shrewd injunctions that Ollie only wants to exploit her gift for commercial ends.
Here’s a feature seen across Alice Munro’s short stories: There is a revelation, we expect the story can close now, but no — Munro is just cranking up. Each of these sections contains its own mini anagnorisis.
One might have thought the climax of the story occurred with the revelation that a couple had run away together at the end of “Girl in a Middy”. It is certainly a surprise, though one ushered in with little pomp, right at the end of the segment.
But if one identifies the climax of the story as falling in the third “act”, one must choose a moment other than this one, something in “A Hole in the Head”. (Well, that seems like an obvious moment, doesn’t it, but in fact that hole already existed, or never existed, or still exists. In typical Munro-fashion, each of these scenarios seems possible.)
Perhaps the moment in which one woman realizes that the other is operating under the assumption that her lover is dead, the moment at which she chooses not to correct the misunderstanding, the moment at which she turns her back on her and leaves her there, isolated and confined.
Nancy is now an ageing woman visiting an American mental hospital. Along with many such facilities of this era, the ward is shutting down. Nancy has received a letter asking that she retrieve Tessa, who has lived there for some time.
When Nancy and Tessa meet, Nancy tries to learn about Ollie and his life with Tessa. Tessa, however, cannot remember anything. Perhaps electroshock therapy has ruined her memory. Tessa claims that someone may have strangled Ollie, but recalls nothing else. Tessa then guesses that Nancy plans to abandon her at the facility. This is true. Feeling guilty, Nancy promises to write her letters. She never does.
A Square, A Circle, A Star
TIME: moves forward a few more years. NARRATION:
Wilf has died from the complications of a stroke (suggesting he had vascular dementia). It’s only now that Wilf is dead that Nancy has the spoons to consider her obligations to Tessa.
Nancy’s friends have filled in where Wilf left off, urging her against getting too invested in her own demons. They tell her to get out and about, to get involved in social activities. As she has done her whole life, despite seeming capricious in her diary entries, Nancy does as she’s told. She goes on a ghastly geriatric cruise at their behest. But now it seems she’s done with people telling her not to go deep into her own mind. Though this part is summarised rather than shown, her experience on the cruise ship seems to have switched something over in Nancy — she will no longer fill up the rest of her life with frivolities that keep her entertained on the surface.
So she visits Vancouver. What a coincidence. She bumps into Ollie. (Not a coincidence at all if you’re with me here and Ollie isn’t real.)
She and Ollie go to a Japanese restaurant, then to a coffee shop, where they continue their long discussion. Ollie discusses his travels with Tessa in the United States. He says that funding for research disappeared after World War II, forcing he and Tessa to work on the vaudeville circuit.
Vaudeville a type of entertainment popular chiefly in the USA in the early 20th century, featuring a mixture of speciality acts such as burlesque comedy and song and dance.
The only way to make any money that they discovered was to go with the travelling shows, to operate in town halls or at fall fairs. They shared the stage with the hypnotists and snake ladies and dirty monologuists and strippers in feathers.
Focusing on the burlesque aspect, I see older Nancy as a burlesque witch. (Better to click through on that to know what I mean.) The modern burlesque witch tends to view herself as a younger woman trapped in an old woman’s body. The following passage demonstrates this exact experience in “Powers”:
It happens only a few times in your life—at least it’s only a few times if you’re a woman—that you come upon yourself like this, with no preparation. It was a bad as those dreams in which she might find herself walking down the street in her night-gown, or nonchalantly wearing only the top of her pajamas [FEAR OF DEMENTIA OR ACCUSATIONS OF HYSTERIA].
During the past ten or fifteen years she had certainly taken time out to observe her own face in a harsh light so that she could better see what makeup could do, or decide whether the time had definitely come to start coloring her hair. But she had never had a jolt like this, a moment during which she saw not just some old and new trouble spots, or some decline that could not be ignored any longer, but a complete stranger [SHE HAS HAD A MAJOR ANAGNORISIS, OR REVERSAL].
Somebody she didn’t know and wouldn’t want to know.
The strain of performing gave Tessa headaches and gradually eroded her powers, but they developed a system to deceive their audiences. (Much as Nancy has ‘developed a system’ to deceive herself — the invention of Ollie.)
Eventually, Ollie tells her, Tessa died. Nancy does not contradict him but feels all through the conversation that he has not been telling the truth. Ollie drives her back to her hotel, and she is about to invite him to spend the night in the other bed of her motel room. This is because he appears to have nowhere to stay but inside his jalopy. Before she speaks, however, Ollie turns her down, as if he possesses a less magical form of clairvoyance himself. Or perhaps there’s no clairvoyance, so much as Ollie being literally of Nancy’s own mind.
Nancy feels complicit in Ollie’s lies to the point where she feels she is lying herself in not protesting at it. (If Ollie is an invented character than she is indeed lying to herself, via Ollie.)
To make things right, Nancy decides to find Tessa and bring her to Ollie. However, she does not succeed.
Flies on A Windowsill
TIME: decades later NARRATION:
Nancy’s grown children have been kept off the page, but now we learn they worry that Nancy is living in the past. In other words, they worry she’s living inside her imagination, not in the real, current world. (I suspect ‘living in the past’ is an accusation levelled at older people, whereas a young person would be accused of living ‘inside her head’.)
The story closes with a dream. Nancy falls asleep and dreams about Tessa and Ollie. They are staying at a motel. Tessa suffers from a terrible headache. In the dream, Tessa sees a messy little pyramid of flies hidden on the sill behind the curtain. Excited that her psychic powers have returned, she awakens Ollie and they embrace. As they embrace Ollie worries that Tessa can sense the papers in his front pocket, which will commit her to a mental hospital. It is implied that Tessa does indeed sense the paper’s presence. But she no longer cares what happens to her. Nancy then dreams that Ollie decides to spare Tessa. As she does so, a feeling of reprieve lights up her dream. Nancy is pulled out of it as her consciousness disintegrates around her.
It is a bold choice to end a story with a dream sequence. Do you consider this a successful short story? What did you get out of it?
“Trespasses” is a short story by Canadian author Alice Munro, included in the collection Runaway, published 2006.
This piece might challenge everything you’ve learned about how to structure a story. All the parts are there, but not as you’d expect. If Alice Munro had anonymously joined one of my writing critique groups over the years, she may well have been offered the following notes:
This is superbly written and achieves astounding psychological insight, but who is your main character here?
Perhaps you’ve started in the wrong place with two sections of throat clearing? The real story is that of Lauren, so why not maintain focalisation of Lauren throughout the entire piece?
What’s the point of the restaurant scene? We never see the old married couple again. All the more reason to nix the first few sections?
I find it hard to believe a ten-year-old is allowed that much freedom.
Okay, honestly, if someone in one of my writing groups had uploaded “Trespasses”, they may have even received those notes from me. And this is why it’s so hard to offer critique on literary short stories — the form is deliberately experimental. Is anything ever wrong? Well, yes, of course. Except these ‘wrong’ things are so very specific to any single story we can’t fall back on guidelines. This is why some writers have learned to hate guidelines (or ‘rules’) altogether. (I’m not in that camp.)
That’s because in “Trespasses”, as in all of Munro’s work, there is an explainable reason for all narrative choices. It’s just, putting these reasons into words is so hard. If we can articulate what Munro’s doing here, we can bring more nuance to the ‘writing guidelines’ we have learned.
Why would any writer want to do that? Let’s investigate.
THE OLD AND NEW MEANINGS OF TRESPASS
Despite attending a Presbyterian church, I was required to memorise the version of the Lord’s Prayer with ‘trespasses’ rather than ‘debts’.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…
I didn’t understand the archaic meaning of ‘trespass’. I’d only ever seen the word on signs. I grew up in semi-rural New Zealand — these signs were always affixed to farm gates and I knew I hadn’t been walking around on farms, so as far as I was concerned, I was sweet. I also couldn’t fathom what was so very wrong about setting foot on private property — surely there were worse sins? Maybe someone’s just taking a quiet short cut…
I now have a handle on the wider meaning of ‘trespass’, but the word is so closely linked to Christianity that as I delve into Munro’s short story the words of the Lord’s prayer are forefront in my mind. Signage aside, I rarely hear the word ‘trespass’ in everyday English.
“Trespasses” by Alice Munro will likely be a story about ‘sin’. (What story isn’t, though?) This is also a story about ‘overstepping boundaries’, making it more in line with the modern definition of ‘trespassing’ we see on signage.
The story “Trespasses” encouraged me to consider the following:
How might one kind of trespass (within a family) make a person vulnerable to a trespass from an outsider?
What is the difference between loving someone and trespassing upon them? Might love commonly co-exist with trespassing?
Can the truth be more damaging than fiction? What if the fiction is later found out? Is the damage then simply postponed?
Can too much information make a child vulnerable? Surely too little information is also bad. Where’s that line?
Eileen and Harry and their daughter Lauren [EVENTUAL MAIN CHARACTER] have recently moved to a small town where Harry has bought the town’s newspaper. While unpacking, Lauren asks about the contents of a box that seems particularly light [MYSTERY], and her father gives her the first version of some past events. [STORY WITHIN A STORY] Eleven years before, he and Eileen had a baby, soon after which Eileen learned that she was pregnant. After a fight, Eileen drove off with the infant and had an accident in which the baby was killed. The box contains the baby’s ashes. This is just the beginning of Munro’s story, however. [MANY SHORT STORY WRITERS WOULD END THE STORY HERE, AT LAUREN’S DISCOVERY.] Another woman, Delphine [MINOTAUR OPPONENT], who believes she is the biological mother of the first (presumably illegally adopted) baby, has tracked them down [ OPPONENT’S PLAN]; she also assumes that the living girl Lauren (both babies were named Lauren) is her daughter and pursues a relationship with the girl. As Lauren gradually begins to suspect, based on Delphine’s hints and indirect revelations, that she might be adopted, Harry and Eileen learn of the friendship that has emerged between the two. The result [BIG STRUGGLE] is the late-night attempt to provide the canonical narrative of the past events and the hasty, long-delayed ceremony to scatter the ashes of the baby who died a decade before.
Eileen’s husband and Lauren’s father. Used to work at a news magazine but quit his job after burning out. Has come to this new town having bought the local paper. He remembers this town from his childhood. For Harry, this is a home-away-home children’s story, underscoring his boyish nature. (Though he is revealed to be far more dangerous than any little boy.) “A broad-faced, boyish-looking man with a tanned skin and shining light-brown hair. His glow of well-being and general appreciation spread around the table…’
Harry’s wife and Lauren’s mother. Much thinner than the local women in this small country town, marking her out as a sophisticate from the city. (Munro tends to describe characters’ BMI as something meaningful.) Eileen makes coffee each morning, takes it back to bed and drinks it slowly. Eileen works in her husband’s newspaper office (so she can never really get away from him). She wears ‘casually provocative outfits’. She is beautiful. ‘Her manner in the newspaper office was crisp and her expression remote, but this was broken by strategic, vivid smiles’. Eileen is a capable woman who prefers to do things like sanding and wallpapering on her own, without help from family. She is an isolated, self-contained person. Emotional isolation is perhaps a protective thing.
We meet Delphine early in the story but are encouraged to mostly forget about her. At first I thought she might be the family dog, or some smaller animal sitting in a cage on the front seat. The story opens with someone (or something) called Delphine sitting in the front of the car with Harry. It takes a while before Alice Munro lets us know who Delphine is. This is part of Munro’s deliberate disorientation. Eventually we learn Delphine is the name of the woman who works in the restaurant. Interestingly, the name ‘Delphine’ and ‘the woman who works in the restaurant’ are only subsequently connected. Not many writers would hold off connecting the woman and the name. Munro also uses this trick in “Save The Reaper“, in which it takes the reader a while to realise two women are mother and daughter. This is so the reader can experience these two women as friends, which is the kind of relationship the mother in that story wants; in contrast, the daughter wants a mother who behaves like a mother. Using this trick, Munro lets the reader know how it feels to have a mother who behaves as a friend by tricking us into thinking the two women are simply friends.
When we do properly meet Delphine in “Trespasses”, Munro introduces her to us via Lauren’s eyes:
She had long fine hair that might be whitish blond or might be really white, because she was not young. She must often have to shake that hair back out of her face, as she did now. Her eyes, behind dark-rimmed glasses, were hooded by purple lids. Her face was broad, like her body, pale and smooth. But there was nothing indolent about her. Her eyes, now lifted, were a light flat blue, and she looked from one girl to another as if no contemptible behaviour of theirs would surprise her.
It’s a dump. Delphine said things like that. She spoke vehemently — she did not discuss but stated, and her judgments were severe and capricious. She spoke about herself — her tastes, her physical workings — as about a monumental mystery, something unique and final.
She had an allergy to beets. [UNEXPECTED DETAIL IN FICTION] If even a drop of beet juice made its way down her throat, her tissues would swell up and she would have to go to the hospital, she would need an emergency operation so that she could breathe.
She believed a woman should keep her hands nice, no matter what kind of work she had to do. She liked to wear inky-blue or plum fingernail polish. And she liked to wear earrings, big and clattery ones, even at her work. She had no use for the little button kind.
She was not afraid of snakes, but she had a weird feeling about cats. She thought that a cat must have come and lain on top of her when she was a baby, being attracted to the smell of milk.
Why does Alice Munro choose these details to describe Delphine? First, they are being filtered via a ten-year-old, and kids pick up on oddities. What have cats and snakes got to do with anything? We might also go the symbolic route — Delphine is the ‘snake in the grass’, sneaking up on this family, meaning to set up an unwanted relationship. But more importantly, I feel, Delphine is established as a woman whose mind goes to strange places. It is a fantasy that she doesn’t like cats because of an incident she couldn’t possibly remember, and almost certainly didn’t happen. This is the moment I don’t quite trust Delphine. This must also be the moment Lauren doesn’t trust her, either.
Lauren is ten years old, her exact age calculated only after her father explains the past. Until that point I thought Lauren was a few years older than that. She is given a lot more freedom than typical contemporary ten-year-olds (though this story is at least 15 years old). Lauren’s love of sugary foods marks her out as a child, though. Lauren makes her own breakfast, usually cereal with maple syrup instead of milk. Lauren is lonely at school. This much is explained by the narrator. It’s a complex situation, so the narrator steps in to describe the nuance:
Her isolation at school was based on knowledge and experience, which, as she half knew, could look like innocence and priggishness. The things that were wicked mysteries to others were not so to her and she did not know how to pretend about them. And that was what separated her, just as much as knowing her to pronounce L’Anse aux meadows and having read The Lord of the Rings. She had drunk half a bottle of beer when she was five and puffed on a joint when she was six, though she had not liked either one. She sometimes had a little wine at dinner, and she liked that all right. She knew about oral sex and all methods of birth control an what homosexuals did. She had regularly seen Harry and Eileen naked, also a party of their friends naked around a campfire in the woods. On that same holiday she had sneaked out with other children to watch fathers slipping by sly agreement into the tents of mothers who were not their wives. One of the boys had suggested sex to her and she had agreed, but he could not make any progress and they became cross with each other and later she hated the sight of him.
Lauren is thereby established as dangerously ‘precocious’ (not a word I like), and at this point I expect the worst for her. Fortunately, Lauren is still young enough to blurt everything out to her mother when things feel really bad, and I figure this is why Munro made Lauren ten and not, say, thirteen. (In stories, perhaps as in real life, a thirteen year old’s trouble is more likely to be discovered by a caring adult rather than the child breaking down and telling all.)
The Dead Lauren
The deceased baby forms the ‘ghost‘ (a.k.a. psychic wound) of Harry and Eileen and of Lauren, too. This baby was killed in a car accident due to not being strapped in properly. Eileen was pregnant with a new baby at the time (Lauren the Second).
How would it feel to find out your parents had a baby before they had you, and this baby was called the same name? I might start imagining a completely other life for myself — one in which the other Lauren had lived and I had died. Munro’s plot is an interesting, slightly complicated set up but I’ve seen similar in real life — parents have years of difficulty in conceiving a baby, go through the lengthy faff of the adoption process, adopt a baby, then immediately find themselves pregnant. Something about being around a baby seems to influence fertility rates, at least anecdotally:
One theory floating around is that women who are around babies somehow experience improved fertility. […]
“There is zero evidence of this, other than anecdotes,” Dr. Paula Amato, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, told Healthline.
The framing story, in which a family disposes of ashes, begins a few weeks before Christmas, which in Canada is winter. Something is coming to an end.
‘The sky was clear and the snow had slid off the trees but had not melted underneath them or on the rocks that jutted out beside the road.’
‘black lacy cedars’ (putting me in mind of a Tim Burton movie)
‘There was a slight crackle to the snow, though the ground underneath was soft and mucky’ (suggesting an snail under the leaf setting). This sort of sentence can be described as ‘multivalent’, meaning it can be interpreted as both literal and metaphorical. Multivalent = having many applications, interpretations, meanings, or values. There is plenty of multivalent detail throughout Munro’s fiction.
Harry’s family used to have a summer place on one of the lakes around here. There is a hotel on the main street. This hotel no longer has a liquor licence.
A Victorian mansion, now a nursing home (Gothic overtones)
He pointed out things in the dining room that were just the same — the high ceiling, the slowly rotating fan, even a murky oil painting showing a hunting dog with a rusty-feathered bird in its mouth.
The hotel serves canned green beans even though it is fresh bean season. This is another example of a unexpected detail — perhaps it is noticed for its irony. Where else in this story is irony at work?
The unwelcoming Mr Palagian and his hotel are inextricably linked — juxtaposed against each other by the unwelcoming owner versus his sign which reads ‘WELCOME’. More irony.
There is also an ironic gap between the narrator’s delightful chatter and the grim story of the dead Lauren underneath. What makes the narrator seem delightful and chatty? That’d be the ‘incidental nature’ of the discourse, cue those strange details — like your best friend chatting to you over coffee, each new recollection prompting a related, delightful and interesting one.
I’m reminded of the following meme, which is not at all how a writer plots. Instead, Munro’s narrator achieves the illusion of a ‘chatty’ storyteller, because that’s what ‘chatty’ means, right? Someone who is never short of the next thing to say, because one thing segues effortlessly into another thing:
The word ‘liminal‘ seems apt here. The ‘vacationland wilderness’ is, functionally, a heterotopia:
They had rented a house at the edge of town. Just beyond their backyard began a vacationland wilderness of rocky knobs and granite slopes, cedar bogs, small lakes, and a transitional forest of poplars, soft maples, tamarack, and spruce. Harry loved it. He said they might wake up one morning and look out at a moose in the backyard. Lauren came home after school when the sun was already getting low in the sky and the middling warmth of the autumn day was turning out to be a fraud [SHE KNOWS IT’S A SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING]. The house was chilly and smelled of last night’s dinner, of stale coffee grounds and the garbage, which it was her job to take out.
Harry’s view of the forest is utopian, but as any reader knows, a story featuring a house situated on the edge of the woods is imperilled. At best, the forest is the family’s dark subconscious. They’re about to go there — right into the deepest, darkest Jungian parts of it. When it comes to houses, the basement is the psychological equivalent of the forest. Notice how Eileen wants to send Harry down to the basement of their rented house, along with all his possessions, including their box of ashes.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “TRESPASSES”
The thirty-seven-page story is told in seventeen sections that vary in length from under a page to about six pages. It starts with a section covering the first part of the final scene [FRAMING TECHNIQUE], the four characters finding a site on a riverbank to scatter the ashes, and ends with the rest of the scene, the scattering of ashes and the beginning of the ride back into town. On one level, then, the present event of dispersing the ashes functions conventionally as a narrative frame. However, Munro develops this overt structural circularity on more subtle chronological and psychological levels, since the town is a place of childhood vacations for Harry, and since each adult character, through unacknowledged feelings of guilt, responsibility, and desire deviates from but ultimately returns to his or her version of the past events. The story thus enacts a debased version of the myth of eternal return, wherein the structural return to the oozy riverbank reflects the return of each of the adult characters to his or her muddy version of the baby’s adoption and death.
What is ‘the myth of eternal return’? Children’s stories in particular tend to contain the soothing message that no matter what happens out in the world, you can always return home to safety. Harry himself has returned to a childhood utopian setting of his — he genuinely believes this ideology.
I put it to you that this is why Alice Munro has chosen a ten-year-old as main character — books for Lauren’s age group are all about the safe return home, or finding a new and safer home.
But reality differs from children’s books. For so many people — children included, Lauren as one example — home is not safe at all. Unlike the storybooks tell her, Lauren’s home is not homely.
As well as structurally, Munro’s chosen style of narration underscores the theme, of ‘what is really true’?
One theme of “Trespasses,” as of much of Munro’s longer fiction, is the difficulty of establishing authoritative narrative accounts.
Alice Munro has chosen a roving camera for this story, which opens with an unseen narrator. Who is this person? It feels like Alice Munro herself, but that’d be a mistake. (Narrators are not authors.)
Munro orchestrates this process of deception at the level of narrative technique, employing an ostensibly reliable narrator who, beguiling readers with her intelligence and charm, surveys the narrative world and delivers a comic, apparently loosely connected, and superficial account of events. In this manner, Munro compels readers to stand quite outside the narrative world for the first five pages, in alliance with the narrator and without any hint that there will be an orienting perspective among the characters.
At first “Trespasses” looks like it’s going to be about the character of Mr Palagian, told by a storyteller narrator, much like The Great Gatsby. But this is not about Mr Palagian at all.
Why does Munro do this?? Alice, are you messing with us?
In “Trespasses,” Munro’s circuitous delineation of the ambiguity surrounding events and the evasions that sustain those ambiguities are a product of her delayed introduction of the main character (and thus the orienting consciousness), a delay that confounds the reader’s ability to prioritise and evaluate incidents and information, and so to determine narrative relevance. Typically, readers approach literature under the assumption that the author will provide a speaker, a narrator, or a character to serve as a central point of reference, focusing emotional-cognitive effort in the literary environment and, in consequence, motivating and guiding reasoning processes in the direction of constructing and sustaining narrative order. This is, in some respects, a matter of convention… the reader’s commitment to character functions is the imaginative equivalent of a real-world self, and its absence can deprive the reader of a vantage point for seeing, cognising, and acting. Thus, when Munro intentionally withholds her main character’s identity for the first six pages of “Trespasses,” she deprives her readers of the point of orientation (the character function) that will prompt for and facilitate narrative construction. Munro’s goal in thus disabling event- and fact-based narrativity is to fully reveal the psychologically disabling conditions of that main character’s life and the ethically troubling domain of her upbringing.
‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis
Here’s what I get out of that: Munro is making the reader disoriented about who the important people are because that’s how Lauren feels, too, not about a story, but about her actual life.
Munro’s delayed revelation of the story’s main character in combination with conventional features of narrative presents readers with a territory devoid of its true and necessary focalizing perspective, that of the ten-year-old Lauren. Meanwhile, Munro effectively provides the narrator as an alternative (though ultimately false) other “self” with whom readers identify. Thus standing on the perimeter of the setting rather than entering actively into it, readers are deprived of crucial information by orientational disadvantage and immobility.
Back to Mr Palagian for a minute. Here’s the description of Mr Palagian, as filtered to the reader via Harry. I mean, Harry is a writer, so he’s a natural fit as the character chosen to (indirectly) narrate someone else’s life:
Someone like Mr Palagian—or even that fat tough-talking waitress, he said—could be harboring a contemporary tragedy or adventure which would make a best seller.
The thing about life, Harry had told Lauren, was to live in the world with interest. To keep your eyes open and see the possibilities—see the humanity—in everybody you met. To be aware. If he had anything at all to teach her it was that. Be aware.
But this description of Mr Palagian is not even about Mr Palagian. ‘What Sally says about Susie says more about Sally.’ This description is about Harry. We learn that Harry’s shortcoming is as follows:
Harry is so interested in people as possible fictional inspiration that he’s not going to see what’s going on in the real world, with his very own daughter. His shortcoming is misplaced focus due to literary pretensions. He likes to tell Lauren things as her father and mentor. It is ironic that as he instructs Lauren to ‘be aware’, he fails to achieve genuine awareness himself. Something in this story is going to surprise him. Of that we can be sure. Later it bears out:
Harry was not as angry as Eileen [about Delphine].
“She seemed a perfectly okay person anytime I talked to her,” he said. “She never said anything like this to me.”
Eileen is equally preoccupied with superficial appearances. We see this in her observation of the family in the hotel dining room — she wonders how they could get so fat. She has no comment about the misogynistic joke that comes out of the old man. What’s the point of the anniversary celebration? At first it seems disconnected from the rest. First, it has allowed us to know more about Eileen and Harry and their superficial, middle-class shock (at the green beans and the fatness). Second, it introduces the theme of violence within marriage. Eileen and Harry cannot hear the old man’s joke as a joke; we learn later that violence between husband and wife is far too close to home.
I don’t find Harry an empathetic character. I find him quietly dangerous. Harry describes Eileen as ‘hysterical’, and talks to their daughter about her dead older sister without Eileen’s knowledge and consent. A father tells his daughter something in confidence, encouraging secrets within the family. Emotional incest. Some people feel the phrase ’emotional’ incest devalues the word ‘incest’ but whatever we call it, this relationship within a family a real and icky phenomenon:
Emotional incest is not sexual. Instead, this type of unhealthy emotional interaction blurs the boundaries between adult and child in a way that is psychologically inappropriate. When a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child, it is considered emotional or “covert” incest. The outcome of this family structure often produces similar results — on a lesser scale — as sexual incest.
Ironically, Harry and Eileen have brought Lauren up thinking that if she is exposed to all the worldly knowledge, the knowledge itself will protect her. Unfortunately, it’s this knowledge, and the experience of living with hipster, free-loving parents, which marks her out as more mature (faux-mature?) than her peers, and serves to isolate her from them.
“Trespasses” is one of several Munro stories in which the central character is an adolescent girl whose parents and their associates live by a lingering set of counter-cultural attitudes, which include a mild anti-establishment posture and a belief that children should be treated as adults. While the parents are deluded in their sense of superior honesty and freedom from conventional mores (they seem as repressive, viciously passive aggressive, and jealous as any of the usual human lot), these attitudes help them evade the moral and ethical consequences of their actions.
‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis
And isolation is itself supremely dangerous. In her early teenage years Lauren is the lonely new girl in town, seeking friendship outside the home as well as emotional distance from her own parents. As the story opens, Lauren is presented as dangerously vulnerable to the advances of a sexual predator.
Harry is clearly after a new start in a new town, where he can rebuild his social capital by being important at the newspaper and perhaps find time on the side to write a novel, using local personalities as inspirational fodder. Harry is recovering from some mental health issues himself, having faced ‘burn out’ at his previous job. (We don’t know exactly what this means — ‘burn out’ is a conversational term and could be major or code for something else.)
Lauren is finding her place in the world as a young teenager and craves genuine connection with equals. This is more of a psychological need which leads directly to her Desire. (Shortcoming and Desire are very much interconnected.)
Here’s why Alice Munro’s stories are famous for being psychologically complex. Sentences like the following:
It wasn’t possible to tell the whole truth because she couldn’t get it straight herself. She couldn’t explain what she had wanted, right up to the point of not wanting it at all.
Alice Munro sets up a family in opposition to each other. It’s more about what she doesn’t show than what she does: We don’t see Lauren and Eileen interacting much at all until Lauren’s confession that she’s been seeing Delphine. It’s as if Lauren Number Two is a ghost to Eileen. Eileen is mostly emotional unavailable. Perhaps she has withdrawn from her daughter, opening up the gap for the father to come in and overfill it. However, this changes towards the end.
The other opposition comes from outside the family. Who is standing in the way of Lauren finding genuine friendship? The woman who isolates Lauren from her peers, pretends to be her friend, then reveals herself to be a kind of predator.
Alice Munro at first led me to think Delphine might be a sexual predator. She seems to keep that as a reveal at about midpoint. This is what I’m thinking as Lauren learns it, up in Delphine’s attic bedroom. Perhaps this is why Munro’s narration first lets us into Harry’s head; along with Harry, we become wary of Mr Palagian instead — that old magician’s trick of misplaced focus. Or, ‘disorientation’.
There are story-external factors encouraging the reader along this line of thought — namely, the real world statistics on gender and sexual predators. A sex offender is simply more likely to be gendered male. When we think ‘sex offender’ we think of a man: a man like Mr Palagian, perhaps — uncannily foreign (intersecting with xenophobia), gruff, lacking in social graces.
Unfortunately, the most dangerous predators have very good social skills. Poor social skills make one an equally poor predator.
Delphine knows exactly how to win Lauren over. But again, I have been fooled. Delphine is not a sexual predator but with completely different intentions — she wants a connection with the girl she believes to be her adopted daughter.
Delphine’s plan, at first appears as following: to coax an attractive, vulnerable underage girl to her bedroom where she will see what she can get away with.
But my focus was (deliberately?) misplaced. Delphine is not a pedophile. She is a troubled woman and grieving mother. Her plan is to move to Harry and Eileen’s town and strike up a connection with her daughter.
Without a plan of her own, Lauren goes along with Delphine’s pla.. Lauren is only ten, so she is reactive rather than proactive. Except in fantasy and in children’s literature, ten-year-olds don’t tend to rescue themselves from adult opposition.
People respond in unexpected ways to trauma. Lauren is scared by Delphine, a trauma which follows her all the way home. Once home, she decides to eat — not because she is hungry but because she is trying to expunge something horrible. The symbolism of the whiteness outside feels like a type of cleansing:
The felling in her stomach was of both a swelling and a hollow. It seemed as if she might get rid of that just by eating the right sort of food, so when she got into the house she went straight to the kitchen cupboard and poured herself a bowl of the familiar breakfast cereal. There was no maple syrup left, but she found some corn syrup. She stood in the cold kitchen, eating without even having taken her boots and her outdoor clothing off, and looking out at the freshly whitened backyard. Snow made things visible, even with the kitchen light on. She saw herself refelcted against the background of snowy yard and dark rocks capped with white, and evergreen branches drooping already under their white load.
This paragraph reminds me of the ancient tradition of ‘sin eating’ in which the sins of the recently dead were transferred to a village person who, for a fee, consumed food & drink handed to them over the coffin. This sin-eater would be shunned by their village, much like lepers were. Mourners would pay the designated sin-eater to rid their departed loved ones from all their sins. The sin-eater would then perform a ritual. This would allow the dead person to enter Heaven without sin-free. I wonder if the sin-eaters really did believe they would be forever damned in hell after they themselves died. Apart from societal shunning, it doesn’t sound like a bad gig in a starvation economy — sin-eaters received both food and payment.
One well-known account of sin-eating goes like this:
The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given for…taking upon himself the sins of the deceased.
(Does anyone know what a maga-bowl is? If so, I’m interested.)
I wonder if Alice Munro encountered this account. I’m aware that in Canada maple syrup is a pantry staple, in which case Lauren’s penchant for maple syrup could be symbolically unloaded, but might the maple syrup be doing double (‘multivalent’) duty — an intertextual reference to the ‘maga-bowl of maple’ described above?
In any case, Lauren’s attempt at sin-eating don’t work. She throws the food back up.
Sure enough, The Lord’s Prayer has been the thematic backbone of this short story. I have this confirmed when Eileen says “Our Father which art in Heaven—”
Eileen seems to have had a Anagnorisis about her family — she knows that she can’t create a homely environment for Lauren so she’ll be better off at boarding school. Harry never realises that. He will continue in his delusion that he has found the perfect home in this little town where he owns the newspaper and they live in an idyllic little house on the edge of a vacationland wilderness.
But still, um, is this story really finished? For real?
Munro not only strains readers’ desire for narrative closure by providing information that seems incidental (apparently useless) at the outset but forestalls readers’ ability to begin sorting information and thus shaping the narrative by refusing to establish an orienting perspective within the setting. In rendering problematical the truth that readers are cognitively predisposed to pursue—initially, a factual account of past events and their connection to the present—Munro redirects attention to the self-justifications of her characters and the implications of their stories for the submerged main character, Lauren, and her potentially focalizing perspective. The story of her life, in fact, is one of a faltering, or long-deferred, orientation—in other words, of an unrealized because unrecognized self.
She was so sick of these burrs that she wanted to beat her hands and yell out loud, but she knew that the only thing she could do was just sit and wait.
Surely the burrs, too, are multivalent. We have burrs in our yard and the dog collects them. Here’s the thing about burrs: If you don’t get rid of them they bury their way right into your skin and cause a lot of pain. They can even get infected. Symbolically, a burr could stand for anything that works like that. Perhaps in this story the burrs symbolise the little bits of information Lauren gathers as she grows up.
Ultimately, since a ten-year-old doesn’t have much agency, what else can Lauren do but sit and wait out her childhood, until she can be free of these parents?
We don’t see this happen on the page, but we extrapolate that Lauren will be sent away to a boarding school. I imagine a Sally Draper future for Lauren, followed by a clean break from her ageing parents.