“The Love Of A Good Woman” by Alice Munro is the title story in the collection which won the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2013. It’s a long short story — about 70 pages. We might even call it a novella, though let’s just go with this:
The title story of Alice Munro’s collection, The Love of a Good Woman, provides an illustrative “example of the difference between novelistic elaboration and short story mystery and intensity.”
— from the introduction to The Art of Brevity edited by Per Winther, quoting Charles May
Here’s my best description of “The Love Of A Good Woman”: a literary Stand By Me, in which we never find out what happens, because the mystery is not the point.
- Both are set in the 1950s (Munro’s story in 1951; Stand By Me in 1959).
- Both feature a plot in which boys out on a day trip adventure aim to gain respect by (or after) finding a dead body.
- Both are set in a fictional small town where everyone knows everyone.
- Even in Stand By Me, the story is really about relationships rather than the dead body.
- Stand By Me is based on a Stephen King short story (called “The Body”). Both short stories feature dream sequences.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”
The story begins with three boys finding the body of the town’s optometrist in his car submerged in the river. Although one might expect the plot immediately to focus on the mystery of the drowned man, Munro is in absolutely no hurry to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. She follows the three boys into their individual homes and leisurely explores their ordinary secretes. At the beginning of the next section of the story, Munro leaves the body and the boys altogether and focuses on a cranky dying woman, Mrs. Quinn, cared for by a lonely home nurse named Enid. Mrs Quinn tells Enid that Rupert, her husband, killed the optometrist when he saw him trying to fondle her. When Mrs. Quinn dies, Enid, who cares for Rupert, decides she must tell him what she has heard and urge him to give himself up. The way she decides to do this, however, creates the open-ended ambiguity of the story: she asks him to row her out on the river, where she will tell him what she knows, also informing him that she cannot swim. At the last minute, she changes her mind but cannot escape the situation. the story ends just before they leave the shore, so the reader does not know whether Enid confronts Rupert and, if she does, whether he pushes her in the river or rows them both back to the shore.
“The Love Of A Good Woman” begins like a novel, but instead of continuing to broaden out, as it introduces new characters and seemingly new stories, it tightens up, slowly connecting what at first seemed disparate and unrelated. It is a classic example of Munro’s technique of creating a world that has all the illusion of external reality, while all the time pulling the reader deeper and deeper into what becomes a hallucinatory inner world of mystery, secrecy, and deception.
— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity
[Alice Munro] is so gentle though, so respectful. She doesn’t make that error that Katherine Mansfield stamped on in DH Lawrence of invading bodies and psyches as if we could ever understand others by magical omniscience rather than by empathy.
(I happen to be a Katherine Mansfield fan, but I see what the reviewer is talking about.)
CHARACTERS IN “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”
- Cece Ferns — never tells his family anything. An only child. Older parents than usual. The older Cece Ferns is a heavy drinker and smoker. He abuses the son. It’s not clear if he abuses his wife or if the wife is suffering from another ailment. Cece has stepped into the role of carer.
- Bud Salter — called “Buddy” by adults (he doesn’t like that). Bud comes from a bustling nuclear family with older sisters who are in the throes of romance and teenage-hood, and a much younger brother. The mother is harried and the father is presumably at work. This household feels a bit like that depicted in Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Malcolm in the Middle. Far from ‘perfect’, but also very homely.
- Jimmy Box — Jimmy lives with a huge extended family. His father is disabled after polio as a 22-year-old. He has a bicycle-repair shop in the shed behind the house. This is another bustling household a little similar to Bud’s, except the family seem to genuinely get along. In contrast to Bud’s self-absorbed older sisters, Jimmy’s sisters apologise whenever they bump into one another. And his father is as nice outside the home as he is in it.
- Ralph Diller — mentioned by name — another boy who could have easily been swapped out for any of the others. Not present for this particular discovery.
- Mrs Willens — is out in her garden, seemingly unaware that her optometrist husband is dead in the water.
- Colonel Box — related to Jimmy but slightly estranged
- Mr Pollock — retired from the drugstore
- Fergus Solley — ‘not a half-wit but looked like one’
- Captain Tervitt — had been a real captain. Now special constable. Deaf and doesn’t normally wear hearing aids. Sleeps on the job but is nonetheless respected around town. A very prankable grown-up, in other words.
- Enid — the home nurse for Mrs Quinn. Went to school with Rupert and was part of a group which bullied Rupert. Grew up next to Mr and Mrs Willens.
- Mrs Quinn — says she’s age 27, on her death bed. Liver disease.
- Mrs Olive Green — Mrs Quinn’s sister-in-law.
- Rupert Quinn — Mrs Quinn’s husband, Olive Green’s husband. Tall. Potato Irish face. If he remembers Enid from school, he doesn’t let on.
- Lois Quinn — Quinn daughter
- Sylvie Quinn — Quinn daughter
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”
In its structural sophistication, richness of theme, and moral complexity, “The Love of a Good Woman” is one of the most thought provoking stories in Munro’s oeuvre, arguably her most ambitious achievement. In the two collections published in the first half of the 2000s, namely Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and Runaway, the writer continues to surprise and challenge readers, and scholars. Much in the fictive territory is familiar— the southwest Ontario settings; one narrator’s impulsive infidelity, another’s long- practiced aloofness— but the reader will notice some changes in the landscape.
Clearly, Alice Munro has never been an adolescent boy herself. But I swear she’s been following a group of them round, including inside their heads. I’ve never been an adolescent boy either, but I fully believe she’s depicted their psychology perfectly. These boys are stuck uncomfortably between being children and respected men in a patriarchal culture, expected to behave in a certain way — strong and stoic — that is their arch Weakness. Or perhaps their real Weakness is that they are prematurely wanting to be treated like men when they don’t have the skill set yet. If they could just relax and enjoy being children for a while longer, they wouldn’t have any problems, to be fair. They could’ve just told their parents about the body, after all. Alice Munro makes sure to explain why they didn’t do this, within the third person narration.
Enid is the main character of the other thread in this story, and psychologically complex. Alice Munro is a writer who understands that people behave differently according to the situation. Enid is a wonderfully kind, giving and self-sacrificial adult. Yet as a teenager she was on the wrong side of bullying. This describes many adults, I think. Munro doesn’t do anything basic like try to convince us that Enid’s utter goodness as an adult is all down to the guilt she feels about picking on Rupert in high school. This really is a matter of situational psychology — sociable people who are decent adult human beings can be drawn into the bullying system of high school due to those exact same sociable attributes.
They want to be taken seriously. But they also don’t want the responsibilities of adulthood just yet. In this particular story, this Desire is manifested in several competing desires: To earn the prestige of having found a body; to run away from the confronting reality of death.
Enid’s backstory tells us that she wanted to be a nurse, but because of she belongs to the last generation of girls who were never expected to have a job, she is persuaded away from becoming a registered nurse and instead becomes a practise nurse (less corrupting). She would obviously like to be useful and helpful. And what is her Desire in this particular story?
Who stands in the way of the boys being taken seriously? Natal families tend to stand in the way of this, no matter how ‘good’ they are. The job of the adolescent is to bifurcate oneself from the natal home and establish an independent identity. The families themselves are therefore the boys’ Opponents, as well as all the adults around the town who treat them as boys, rather than as the respectable men they are hoping to be (prematurely).
The unseen Opponent of the entire town is obviously whoever killed the optometrist. But this literary short story does not belong to the thriller/detective/murder mystery genres, and so Alice Munro is under no obligation to prioritise the importance of the murderer.
Who stands in the way of Enid’s wish to feel useful and helpful? Mrs Quinn herself achieves this by being such an unpleasant patient. This provokes unwanted, unpleasant emotions in Enid that Enid would rather pretend she never experience. So Mrs Quinn is one of her Opponents.
Enid’s mother, too, is an Opponent because this is a woman who believes women of means should not be working, and certainly not working so hard. But because she is reliant as an adult upon the income of her natal family, Enid is in a similar situation to the boys who found the body — not fully realised as an independent person. For the boys this is because of their age; for Enid it is gender.
As expected, due to their Weakness and Desire, the boys do a very responsible, adult thing by Planning to report the body to police. But when faced with the reality of the sergeant their younger selves win out, this time. They prank the old man and run away.
Once the boys have pranked the deaf old man, they disappear from the story. For them, the Battle scene was the conversation at the police station.
The reader is shown the scene of the murder via a hypodiegetic section in which the narrator summarises what Mrs Quinn has told Enid.
Unlike the novel, which would be bound to develop some sort of satisfying closure, [“The Love Of A Good Woman”] reaches a moral impasse, an ambiguous, open end in which the reader suddenly realizes that instead of living in the world of apparent reality, he or she has been whirled, as if by a centrifugal force, to an almost unbearable central point of intensity.
— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity
In other words, this plot is shaped like a vortex.
How else can we explain by Alice Munro left us hanging like that? This is a story about truth vs reality, and reality is presented as unattainable. Via dreams and unreliable narrators (the sick and dying; the boys; and even Mr Quinn’s testimony, whose word would be so unreliable it’s not even worth us hearing it) we live out our lives and we all need to find the particular kind of humility in which we’ll never know the full truth of any situation. We are all unreliable narrators.
Notice how Munro has set this up. She has included:
- Narration about how sick people often go through a phase of extreme pessimistic and lack of confidence, all out of whack with the reality of their sometimes very nice lives.
- Enid has these sex dreams which disturb her, but which she puts down to mind garbage.
- Enid has this false memory in which she sees her father sucking a woman’s breast. Some people mistakenly use the phrase ‘false memory syndrome‘. Avoid that, because it’s not a syndrome in the medical sense. False memories are so common that we should in fact consider them a natural mechanism of the human brain. I have a few myself. I distinctly remember walking around as a young kid at my nana’s motel. I encountered one of the cleaning ladies in the linen cupboard. Instead of saying hello, she pushed me right over to the ground before walking past me. The ‘memory’ is as vivid as any other from my preschool years, but I don’t believe it happened. I was far too clingy a child to be walking around the motel complex without my mother, for starters.
The boys probably told someone about the dead body eventually, or perhaps someone else did. In any case, we never find out more about them. Their story feels a little like a McGuffin. But we can extrapolate what will happen to the boys, because Munro has given us enough to go on with Enid’s backstory, and the description of all the people who use the textbooks, and how people’s lives tend to go in this town after they finish their high school education.
We don’t know whether Enid lives or dies. We don’t know whether Mr Quinn committed the manslaughter. But what we do know is that Enid has reached the absolute pinnacle of self-sacrifice. Whatever happens out on that lake, she’ll never be the same again.