Walking on Water by Alice Munro Short Story Analysis

If you’re having a bit of trouble with “Walking On Water” (1974), know that Alice Munro herself considers this story not quite there. She’s not sure what to make of it herself.

Some readers have suggested that Munro was writing a queer story in an era before words existed to describe queer ways of being in the world.

Makes sense. Alice Munro has always been a keen observer of humans, so I’m sure that when writing certain characters she was attempting to get to the bottom of things she couldn’t quite put together back in the 1970s. She had no words, no concepts. Yet she could see something.

If so, Munro is not the first great writer to experience this particular problem:

sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Okay so let’s talk about the 1970s for a moment. I was born at the end of them, but I’m old enough to remember the attitudes of people who had come of age in the 60s and 70s. Take homosexuality. For generations already, people had understood the concept of ‘gay’, but it was never mentioned. It was a common experience to go through your entire life without ever realising you knew any gay people at all. Queer people themselves suffered from the hermeneutical injustice of not having words and concepts to describe themselves. I learned just the other day, speaking to my mother (in her 70s), that a cousin of her father had ended his own life in the 1940s because he was gay. We’d been talking about lack of access to information in decades past.

“How did the family know he was gay?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. They just knew.”

“Did they have the words to describe it?”

“I don’t know.”

My (Baby Boomer) mother didn’t knowingly encounter a gay person until the 1970s when she was a young adult who went to work at the toll exchange. (This wasn’t even her first job — as a 21-year-old woman she was paid more to transfer telephone calls than to teach a class of 40 primary school students.) The 20th century New Zealand toll exchanges were a major employer of young women and also of the queer community. (I imagine this was also the case around the world?)

There’s also a phenomenon whereby people don’t see what’s right in front of them if it’s not something they want to see.

Two generations ago, your uncle might live with another man, sleep in the same bed as him, attend functions with him, and no one would believe the couple was gay. The pair might be conditionally accepted, so long as the family could tell themselves the two men were ‘just good friends’. Nowadays we laugh at the naivety. But people absolutely knew what they were seeing. Stigma prevented them from linking 1. [illegal relationships] and 2. [people they knew and loved] in their own minds.

So when Munro wrote “Walking on Water”, published in 1974, she was living in a social environment with dissonance between observed reality and spoken reality. The hippie subculture provided a stark contrast to the silence of traditional, conservative culture. In “Walking On Water”, Alice Munro depicts the two cultures side by side.

Born in 1931, Munro belongs to The Silent Generation. I’ve wondered why The Silent Generation is called The Silent Generation. Is it because we only ever hear about the rift between Boomers and Millennials? (In which case, wouldn’t Gen X also qualify as the “Silent” Generation?)

  • Usage in England: When this generation was growing up, children were ‘seen and not heard’. They were expected to work hard without complaint. (This is reflected in the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature.)
  • USA and Canadian usage: A 1951 Time Magazine article called the (then) younger generation politically silent due to their being ‘nowhere near the rostrum’. ‘[The younger generation] does not issue manifestoes, make speeches or carry posters.’ These children had been brought up to be as ‘easy’ as possible for their parents, who were mass-traumatised by world events.

But we could easily add another reason for the “Silent” moniker, related to the British sense of the word. This generation was simply not allowed to talk about difficult things. On the list of taboos:

  • mental ill-health
  • intellectual disability
  • cancers and ailments of “private parts” e.g. breast cancer
  • congenital disabilities
  • anything to do with menstruation, abortion, childbirth, breastfeeding and birth control
  • divorce
  • sex and sex work
  • sexual harassment and assault
  • partner and domestic violence
  • all forms of queerness

Although there’s much complaint about Boomers today, a segment of Baby Boomers are responsible for setting in progress an end to such dangerous silence — ongoing work. As you read, consider the silences which limit us today. Are you confident that you can even name them? What if they’re so very hidden you can’t so much as fathom any silence remains? Consider the #MeToo movement, which brought to light the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault. Many people, especially cis men, were astonished to learn the prevalence. Yet that movement took place as recently as 2016.


Mr Lougheed, the main character of Alice Munro’s “Walking on Water” slightly precedes the so-called Silent Generation. Let’s say that in 1974 he was 65-70 years old. He would have been born in the early 1900s. This cohort is called the Greatest Generation and are known for their work ethic, patriotism, frugality, loyalty and modest living. They lived through WW1 as children and many fought in WW2 as adults. Alice Munro is familiar with this generation because they were the age of her parents.

Although The Greatest Generation is not known for their silence on political matters, they might equally be called the Silent Generation when it comes to their inability to speak about all of those taboo things which they’d find shocking if they spent five minutes in 2020s Twitter/X.

Adaptively for a man of his background, Mr Lougheed (lock head?) has mastered the art of small talk, which Munro describes as ‘skating along affably’ all the while ‘thinking his own thoughts’. As the career pharmacist in a small Canadian town, Lougheed’s job provided decades of practice in saying the socially acceptable thing while keeping another secret, silent self… to himself.

Alice Munro tells us so on the first page, and readers are thereby encouraged to wonder who Lougheed really is. What is his secret side?


In good stories, there’s always a gap between what the characters understand about themselves at the beginning compared to the extra insight they (or the readers) have attained by the end.

Here’s what Lougheed understands about his temperament already: Now that he is widowed and retired, he must fight his ‘natural tendency’ towards becoming a hermit, risking loneliness in his old age.


We’re told nothing about his deceased wife. His children moved away from their hometown. Mr Lougheed followed his married daughter to this seaside town, but she and her own family have since moved away. (“Never follow your children,” elderly parents are sometimes warned, for exactly this reason.)


I bet many of you are considering a gay subtext for Mr Lougheed. If you weren’t already thinking that, I’ve no doubt led you in that direction myself. However, I don’t think Mr Lougheed is gay. I think he’s a different sort of queer — a queerness which is even more invisible, even now: I submit for this character an asexual orientation. Mr Lougheed simply makes more sense if we consider him asexual rather than gay.


This isn’t the first asexual reading I’ve proposed for an Alice Munro short story. I see asexuality running all through her work:

  • The 13-year-old main character of “Red Dress
  • We might also argue that Del’s mother Addie in Lives of Girls and Women is asexual, having moved away from her husband at the first opportunity
  • as is Larry from “Silence”
  • or one of the marriages in “Spaceships Have Landed“, a coincidental title given how this was written in the era before the aroace community started using “Space Ace” as a term of endearment for themselves.
  • Then there’s the unexpected heroine of “A Real Life“, whose unhappily married neighbour insists she get married even though she has no interest in partnering up.

Clearly, then, Alice Munro has always been astute enough to clock that sexuality is a spectrum, and that people will sometimes sit at its periphery. Munro’s diversity of characters include those who are (allo)sexual, those who are not driven by sex or romance at all, and everyone in between, with (allo)sexuality and libido waxing and waning throughout characters’ lifecycles.



I read an article some time ago about how it’s important to have people close to you, but also — don’t underestimate the effect of casual acquaintances in staving off feelings of social disconnection. Meaning, the small interactions you have with cashier at the supermarket, the people you play cards with… These are all important. (Covid lockdowns highlighted this.)

Having more frequent, more pleasant, and in-person social interactions, as well as interactions with family and friends specifically, significantly predicted lower momentary loneliness a few hours later. Higher levels of momentary loneliness, in turn, predicted less likelihood of engaging in these types of social interactions subsequently. In addition, older adults with higher (vs lower) traits of loneliness and neuroticism experienced greater decreases in momentary feelings of loneliness after having more frequent or pleasant social interactions, or interactions with family members.

Daily Social Interactions and Momentary Loneliness: The Role of Trait Loneliness and Neuroticism

Even without the research to back it up, Mr Lougheed intuitively understands the important role of ‘acquaintanceship’ in his life, and I put it to you that all of his social interactions are acquaintanceships, as opposed to the deep friendships more frequently enjoyed by women, who are allowed such things. Note that Munro most often writes about the inner worlds of women, but here she attempts the characterisation of a man. Do you think she got in as deeply as she usually does? Or was she struggling a bit with Mr Lougheed, who not only differed from herself in gender but in age?

See also: Loneliness in Fiction


I recently learned the term ’15 minute town’, referring to a town where residents can access all essential services within 15 minutes worth of travel. I have lived in one such town in my life. At that time, my walk to work was through a public rose garden. We had a public swimming pool at one end of our street, the hospital at the other. Unfortunately I no longer live in that town (or in that country) and am heavily reliant upon a private car and our increasingly congested highway to get anywhere here in rural Australia.

But Mr Lougheed of “Walking On Water” lives in a so-called 15-minute town, which is a perfect place to retire. Your exercise is incidental, your life doesn’t close off if you are unable to renew your drivers’ licence. He travels around by bus, a foreign film club, a lawn bowling club, and also lives in a culture where people visit each other in their homes. (Compare and contrast with UK culture, where the local pub replaces the private dwelling as place of socialisation.)

We know the town of “Walking On Water” is an Ontario setting because this is Alice Munro. This town also has a strong connection to the water, evident from the title onwards. Mr Lougheed likes to go for walks along the seaside.

The ocean/sea has two different aspects to it in storytelling: There’s the surface of the water, symbolically similar to a desert, and then you’ve got the ocean deep, symbolically more similar to an alien world or outer space. Seaside towns harbour mysteries. If characters dare dive down into the deep, they risk illuminating dangerous truths.

If this short story were filmed, I’d imagine this kind of filming technique.

Is anyone else thinking this character when reading Mr Lougheed? Do you know who Richard Jenkins is playing here?

If you haven’t seen or read Olive Kitteridge and you’re an Alice Munro fan, you really must check that one out. CPR News said HBO’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ May Be The Best Depiction Of Marriage On TV. Olive’s husband is a smalltown pharmacist who in various other ways resembles Mr Lougheed.


It’s not immediately clear that Lougheed’s wife has died. On reflection, do we know for sure she’s dead, or are we just assuming?

During his years in the drugstore business he had learned how to get through all kinds of conversations with all sorts of people, to skate along affably and go on thinking his own thoughts. He practised the same thing with his wife. His aim was to give people what they thought they wanted, and continue, himself, solitary and unmolested. Except for his wife, few people had ever suspected what he was up to. But now that he was no longer obliged to give anybody anything, in the ordinary daily way, he put himself in a position where now and again he would have to, as he believed in some way it must be good for him.

“Walking On Water”

I’ve emboldened a few phrases which are doing some heavy lifting.

  1. Unmolested: Munro uses this word twice in “Walking On Water”, a short story. This is one of those charged words which writers know to use once unless they want to make a thing out of it. So this is Munro making a thing out of it. Why might Mr Lougheed feel ‘molested’? There’s a clear sexual connotation to the word. Might his wife have ‘molested’ him by asking for a sexual or romantically oriented partnership of the traditional kind when Mr Lougheed had no capacity to offer her any such thing? From this phrasing, we might deduce he went through the motions of a heterosexual marriage, but felt none of it. I do wonder how many women are silently married to men who are, unbeknown to the men themselves, asexual by orientation, ‘skating through life’ without interrogating anything much at all, basically ignoring their wives (through no real fault of their own).
  2. Note that when Alice Munro tells us Mr Lougheed ‘practised the same thing with his wife’, she is using the simple past tense, not the past participle. Later, Munro reveals that Lougheed is ‘no longer obliged to give anybody anything, in the ordinary daily way’. What the hell does that mean? I’m guessing one of two things: This couple are now living in uncompanionable silence together, with Mr Lougheed staying out of the house as much as possible, or else Mrs Lougheed is living in a retirement home with the occasional visit from her husband, who no longer tends to her ‘daily’ needs. My reading comes from knowledge of Munro’s other short fiction, which frequently tackles the lives of people entering retirement homes, or people visiting older parents/spouses in retirement homes, or women caring for ailing relatives. More so than other writers, Alice Munro will mention the retirement village located just outside the fictional town. Retirement homes and palliative care is the spectre which sits in the liminal space of any Munrovian setting.

So I put it to you that Mr Lougheed may still be married, but in name only, and there’s a slim possibility that Mrs Lougheed is still alive somewhere. Note that men of this era (and in this one) are not burdened with the duty of care that is regularly heaped upon women.

In a straight reading we deduce the wife is dead because she is not mentioned in the present world of “Walking on Water”. There’s also some death symbolism in this story which may instead suggest Mr Lougheed having difficulty accepting his widower reality.


The first thing readers learn about Eugene: Rumour of a ‘boast’ — the guy has apparently said he can walk on water, and is willing to prove it.

In a realist story, the first thing I think is mental ill health — some kind of psychosis or dissociative disorder. Munro hasn’t shied away from this topic over the years, for example in “Powers“.


Of course, there’s the Biblical reference, too. I never listened to a damn thing in Sunday school as a child, but I do have a Children’s Illustrated Bible on my bookshelf and I will occasionally reach for it when I recognise some kind of Bible reference in a story I’m trying to decipher.

This morning I read about how Jesus and his disciples went to the other side of a lake one day. When it was time to head back, Jesus said, “Nah, I’ll be right. Leave me right here. I need to go up the mountain and, ah, pray. Alone.”

The pain-in-the-neck Sunday School Skeptic of yore returns. I bet he went up that mountain so he could see exactly when the disciples were halfway back across the lake. Strangely, a storm whipped up. I’m suspicious right away, because the previous chapter in my Children’s Bible just so happens to be called “Jesus Calms The Storm”. Turns out Jesus just needs to snap his fingers and a storm will abate. Something tells me that if a guy can stop a storm, he can also whip one up. So Jesus, the prick, waits until his disciples are halfway across the lake and whips up a storm, just so he can walk across the water and show them how amazing he is. Oh yeah: He lets them struggle all night. He doesn’t bother walking across the water until six the next morning. His followers are almost dead. Hallucinating. Jesus could tell them anything happened.

Due to exhaustion, the apostles think they see a ghost. Jesus asks Peter to do the same and walk across the water towards him. According to the laws of physics this isn’t a thing, so Peter starts to sink into the waves.

Man, I will never understand how, but this whole incident is meant to be a test of faith. Jesus ends up saving Peter by reaching out an arm, which he could’ve done hours ago, mind you. The disciples are persuaded that Jesus is the true Son of God.


The character of Eugene either thinks he is Jesus or is testing his faith like Peter, I guess?

Mr Lougheed knows Eugene and respects him for his learning and his mind. There’s a word for this type of attraction these days: Sapiosexuality. That’s when you’re attracted to someone for their mind. Although it’s the aroace community who speak most about non-sexual forms of attraction, LGBTQ+ people and heterosexuals alike might identify as sapiosexual, meaning that someone’s intelligence is the most attractive thing in a partner.


Though I personally associate Positive Thinking with the 1980s, here we have a 1970s example. “There’s nothing you can’t control if you set out to.” This is positive thinking taken to supernatural examples, with a smattering of Biblical influence.

The history of positive thinking goes back much further than the 1970s, however. It’s easy to find examples from the fin de siecle.


Mr Lougheed refuses to join his two old-man peers on the lookout bench, choosing instead to stand nearby, aloof. The reader wonders why Mr Lougheed, alone, refuses to believe the rumours about Eugene’s plans to walk on water in front of a skeptical crowd. He doesn’t like how the other old men look down their nose at Eugene. Lougheed feels protective. Is this fatherly? Or something else?


Munro is using that writer’s trick whereby readers hear about an intriguing character before we meet him in a scene.

Turns out Eugene is Mr Lougheed’s neighbour in a seaside apartment block. Rather than finish the rest of his daily walk, Mr Lougheed drops in on Eugene, and finds him contorted — Mr Lougheed doesn’t know the word for it, but readers can probably deduce ‘Lotus position’. Eugene is wearing only a pair of jeans, sitting near a fully open window with the sea breeze blowing in. The guy is basically one with the ocean already.

Alice Munro makes sure we know how Lougheed observes — admiringly — the youthful slenderness of Eugene’s body. Of course, contemporary readers are led towards a homosexual reading, when actually, Lougheed could just as easily see a younger version of himself in Eugene: Someone who did not get married, but instead devoted himself to a life of the mind, free from traditional expectations of heteronormativity. I put it to you that Lougheed admires Eugene for his independence, for refusing to care about what others think of him. When he admires Eugene’s physique, he could easily be admiring his youth.


Feeling as if you’re surrounded by sex is a common ace experience (as is failing to realise when you are surrounded by sex, because you simply don’t care about it).

When Lougheed occasionally sees Eugene meditating with his door open, he feels as if he has witnessed something intimate, and as uncomfortable as catching someone in flagrante delicto.

It would appear the young people who he does catch having sex, have set him up to see it. Mr Lougheed himself suspects this, too, not just the reader. He is less annoyed at catching them in a private moment than at the feeling he is being made fun of — perhaps because of his age (since young people always think they invented the act), or perhaps because they sense an indescribable queerness in Mr Lougheed — a queerness which is yet to be named. They perhaps mean to draw something out, to make the older man legible. Lougheed does not take the bait, but this is a very Othering moment for him, and drives him closer to the independent Eugene, who seems to use meditation and spirituality in place of sex, which would give Eugene something significant in common with the asexual Mr Lougheed.

Of course, Lougheed, with his locked head, is unable to make sense of his attraction to Eugene. (And nor is Alice Munro.)

No doubt some readers will make something out of a disturbing scene from Lougheed’s youth, in which he witnessed underaged and incestuous sex in a toilet. We might read this as sexual trauma. However, asexuality — like any other human orientation — has never required trauma.

(On second read, who is ‘his’ in ‘his younger sister’? The Brewer boy’s sister, or Lougheed’s own younger sister?)

Lougheed’s aversion to sex, the narration explains, is more correctly an aversion to the younger generation’s need to show off. “They could not grow a carrot without congratulating themselves on it” sounds a lot like, “They can’t buy a coffee without taking a photo and uploading it to Instagram.” I can imagine what Mr Lougheed would make of the egotism behind social media and selfie culture, which, as Munro shows in “Walking On Water”, actually started with the Boomers. Or perhaps older generations have always accused younger generations of showing off. Perhaps as we grow invisible in our older years, we resent the magnetic power of youth, beauty and virility.


The comment about the carrots segues readers into a description of the local farmer’s direct store, where hippies guising as farmers deliver their organic produce. At first Lougheed enjoyed visiting this store because the vegetables were imperfect, covered in dirt, and reminded him of produce from his youth. But then he felt the hippie farmers were larping as something they’re not, and felt secondhand embarrassment for their ostentatious get-up. Eventually he came to despise the entire store and now refuses to go.

Through the metaphor of the fresh produce store, we can see Mr Lougheed become more and more detached from his own community, infiltrated by hippies. This change in attitude towards the produce store foreshadows (and miniaturises) his change of attitude towards life in general. As we will find out, Mr Lougheed starts to really struggle with his own relevance in the world as “Walking On Water” closes out.

The problem with the hippie movement from an asexual point of view is its emphasis on free love, which is not free at all, until everyone has the power to say no as often and as freely as they want to say yes. (This is also a feminist issue.) Coming out of the era of conservative, Puritan sexual attitudes, the pendulum swung in the complete opposite direction with the free love movement. In fact, the pendulum is yet to settle. Commentators are only recently starting to talk about ‘compulsory sexuality’ (riffing on compulsory heterosexuality). This refers to the Western cultural imperative to have as much sex as possible. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you.

For more on that, see Ace by Angela Chen and Resisting Compulsory Sexuality by Sherronda J. Brown.

I believe what Lougheed despises is this new culture of sex, sex, sex everywhere. But it’s not the sex — as he has said — it’s the compulsory nature of it. Mr Lougheed has been presented to us as a creature of habit. The young couple exposing themselves to him would have absolutely known he was coming, and heard him approach at that. When your neighbours choose to have sex with their door open, knowing you are likely to walk by, they have not asked your permission to include you in their exhibitionism. This is a consent issue.

I would imagine Alice Munro felt a little skeptical about the free love movement herself, as any astute woman ought to have been. ‘Free love’ was a marketing term. The contraceptive pill may have freed women up to have sex without necessarily becoming pregnant, but it did not free women — or men — from the obligation to say no. For that, we must achieve genuine gender equality and genuine, widespread understanding around what consent truly looks like. We are not there yet.


Next, Munro cuts to a scene in which Lougheed expresses his distaste of the hippie produce store to Eugene. Eugene prefers to call these people ‘boring’ rather than ‘artificial’, and likens them to early Christians, who would also have been very boring, according to him. (We are not told why.)

The next scene cuts back to the present, with Eugene coming fully out of his meditative state and making Lougheed some tea. Through the observant eyes of Mr Lougheed, we get a tour of Eugene’s clean and tidy apartment, with its mattress on the floor and many paperbacks lined up. Eugene reads a lot of philosophy. Lougheed doesn’t know anyone else Eugene’s age with such a good handle on the Bible. But among his university textbooks Eugene also has books on mysticism.

Lougheed tells Eugene about the rumour he has heard. Surprisingly, disappointingly, Eugene confirms it. Yes, he does plan to give a demonstration. He will walk on water.


Mr Lougheed can’t fathom it. How can a young man so well-educated believe in something so ridiculous?

I guess Lougheed hadn’t heard about Sir Arthur Conon Doyle’s genuine belief in fairies, otherwise he might understand that one’s level of education has little to do with one’s tendency to be drawn into conspiracy theories. Education is protective, sure, but not foolproof, and not in the ways we might expect. Highly educated doctors are particularly vulnerable to marketing tactics from drug companies. Why are they vulnerable? Because they believe themselves to be beyond the influence of schmoozing.

Freakonomics did an episode on this.

And I’ll tell you the biggest thing that happens in academics is that really smart people become convinced that they can trick, not just a single other person, but they can trick everyone at once. I’ve seen it a number of times where the smarter you are, the more you think you can get away with and it ends up being your undoing. The people who are really, really smart actually can run circles around people. But it’s the people who are one notch below the very smartest who I’ve seen get into a lot of trouble by thinking they’re too smart.

Freakonomics: Can You Be Too Smart for Your Own Good?

Then they talk about ‘domain transfer’ — doctors are good at medicine, and because they’re good at medicine they can sometimes assume they’re just as smart about other things.


Lougheed had worried about Eugene’s sanity when he returned home one day to find someone had painted a flower-like sign on his front door.

He approaches Eugene about it. The paint is fresh and they both assume the hippies downstairs to have done it, perhaps on a dare. Whereas Lougheed is concerned about the defacement of his door, he is worried to hear that Eugene is more worried about it (not) being some kind of mystic sign. The two men are on completely different wavelengths, despite having overlapping ideas about things such as the hippie produce store.

In hindsight, Lougheed understands this was the moment he should have doubted Eugene’s take on reality.


There’s a well-known saying: “Arguing with an intelligent person is hard. But arguing with a stupid person is impossible.” The same goes for conspiracy theorists, ‘stupidity’ aside. (How do we even define ‘stupidity’?)

Munro returns us to the tea-drinking scene of the present, and we bear witness to Eugene’s scattered thinking. No matter what Lougheed says, Eugene has a nutty answer which sounds, on the surface, like it’s following its own form of logic.

If you’ve ever encountered a cooker who believes covid vaccines are to control the sheeples, or worked alongside someone who believes 9/11 was a set up, you’ll recognise the structure of this conversation. (Haven’t we all met someone?)


Eugene, who is popular with elderly folk in general, not just with Mr Lougheed, has told two elderly ladies (one of whom is blind) that he’d show them how he can walk on water and now it is a whole big thing.

Eugene’s popularity with older folks underscores his oddness — ‘oddballs’ tend to get on better with people significantly older or younger than themselves.

What of the two women? Witch archetypes? What does it mean, symbolically, that one of them is blind?


Another addition to a so-far impenetrable symbolic layer: Lougheed finds a dead bird outside his door on Sunday morning, which he assumes has been dropped there by a cat. This extends the witch metaphor. By the way, a goodly proportion of people accused of witchcraft were men. Go back to medieval times, Eugene was ripe for the staking.

The bird is a beautiful bluejay — blue, water. Water symbolism? I see this as Alice Munro linking the land to the sea, creating a liminal space. (This trick is pretty much par for the course when writers set towns near the ocean.)

Lougheed doesn’t think much of bluejays, and recognises in himself a tendency to judge what is natural. Unlike Eugene, who is inclined to be taken away by mystical ideas, Lougheed is a pragmatist. He puts the bird in a bin — more symbolism around hiding things away.


Lougheed remembers a Miss Musgrave, who owned the rundown apartment block when Lougheed first moved in 12 years earlier. She has since died. Munro’s description of Miss Musgrave suggests a woman hooked on “Mother’s Little Helper”, perhaps a sex worker, perhaps widowed, definitely drunk. We are told how Lougheed understands this type of ‘craziness’ from his pharmacist days, and almost misses it, because he can’t make head nor tail of these hippie young people, with their unfathomable brand of warped thinking.


Lougheed has been having this recurring dream since middle age — an interesting time for bad dreams to begin. Perhaps this coincided with the death of his wife?

In this dream he is taken back to the emotional content of one harrowing night as a young boy when his father and older brother got the call to join a party of men on the hunt for a local young man who had just murdered his father and mother with blunt force trauma.

Munro’s description of how Lougheed carries around the memories of his own dead relatives these days is expertly written.

Lougheed’s generation, born at the beginning of the 1900s lived through a time of great change, and Lougheed can hardly make sense of how the world of his youth accords with the world of his late middle-age. Of course, children born at the start of the new millennium are dealing with an even greater rate of change. (Of course it depends on how you measure ‘change’. Not all historians believe technological change is the main type of change.)

Remember, Alice Munro wrote Lougheed’s description of old age while she herself was still young. Now that she is elderly herself, I wonder what she makes of old age as imagined when young, with its ‘diminished landscape’?


Munro uses the word ‘unmolested’ for the second time when describing a line of music which wafts up from the hippie apartment below, in contrast to what we can deduce are the synthesised sounds from the 1970s (“Moog Groove” and so on).


Now for the walking on water demonstration. Alice Munro writes this in comical fashion, but not in a way which makes fun of Eugene. Everyone in this scene (except Lougheed) is a comic archetype. Is Eugene any more cracked than the people who turned up to watch, regardless of whether they meant him to succeed or fail?

With “Walking On Water” being a realist story, of course Eugene does not manage to walk on water. Instead he wades as far as he can before seeming to almost drown. When he re-emerges (unable to swim) he declares he’s had some kind of epiphany but he’s keeping that to himself. Everyone else is left hanging, including the reader.

One of the hymn-singing ladies asks if the entire thing was just a joke. Mr Lougheed takes the opportunity to save Eugene from humiliation and turns it back on her. “What do you think it was?”


Lougheed collects himself over a solitary cup of coffee at the café, then visits Eugene at his always-unlocked apartment, meaning to check in on him. But he finds the young man gone.


Mr Lougheed has a bad feeling. He asks the young hippies downstairs if they’ve seen Eugene.

He is told Eugene was seen heading East — another Biblical reference. Cardinal directions have symbolic significance. To go East is to have a new beginning. (This is where the sun rises.) There’s a reason why, after sinning, Adam and Even left the Garden of Eden by heading East. Along with the rebirthing ritual of the dunking in the sea, we’ve now got two rebirth symbols.

However, like Munro’s “Walking On Water”, the East symbolism is ambivalent. It might signal some kind of epiphany and a new beginning, but if that’s where you go after sinning, the East also represents alienation from God. Destructive winds come from the east, threatening life.

While Lougheed is at the hippies’ front door we have it confirmed that it was them who painted the sign on his front door and left the dead bird.

One of the young men asks in the background, “What does he want Yew-Gene for?” with a subtext understood completely by Lougheed but not conveyed by Munro explicitly to the reader — might we understand the hippies assume the pair have been sexually involved? It seems to bother these young people that Mr Lougheed is illegible to them. This is surely why they keep trying to elicit some kind of response.

Sensibly, Lougheed refuses to oblige them with an emotional response. Instead he thanks them (for the paint on his door, for the bird?) and leaves. He has Eugene’s safety on his mind.


The hippies could have fabricated seeing Eugene, but he has no other leads. Now for the Odyssean part of “Walking On Water”, where Lougheed walks towards the golf course and the small wilderness beyond.

A golf course is a heterotopia which constitutes a tamed miniature of a metaphorical wilderness. At this end of his life, Lougheed’s life has miniaturised — his daughter has left, his wife has (probably) died, his natal family have all gone. So it is fitting that Munro uses the local golf course metaphorically to that end.

This miniaturisation is reflected in his remembered dream — the ending of which came to him earlier in the coffee shop. In the dream, a child version of himself crawls out onto an unstable peer, looks through a missing slat and sees the dead body of another boy down below. He wonders if this vision is a concocted imagery of the young man who killed his own parents all those years ago. Readers may well connect this imagery to Lochheed’s fears for Eugene. If the Eugene does not stand for Locheed himself as a young man, he could be a proxy for Frank McArter, the deranged murderer of decades ago.

The reader’s connection is confirmed: Locheed indeed worries that Eugene has ended his own life by drowning, in which case the public spectacle of ‘walking on water’ could have been a kind of rehearsal.

Alternatively, he could have escaped to the sea to save himself. If only Sylvia Plath had done the same:

If I lived by the sea I would never be really sad. I get an immense sense of eternity and peace from the ocean. I can lose myself in staring at it hour after hour.

Sylvia PlathThe Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume I: 1940–1956 ⁠—  Aurelia Schober Plath, 18th July 1951

Calla seems grimly entertained by Lougheed’s concern that Eugene has ended his own life. She professes a Zen approach to life and death, probably because she has yet to come up against death herself. Munro nudges us in the direction of ‘naïve, blasé youth’ when Calla insists Eugene was not ‘one of us’ for the reason that he was ‘quite old’. I’m finding these young people insufferable.


Lougheed is now exhausted in a new and disconcerting way. He realises he won’t be able to live here much longer because the stairs up to his own apartment suddenly look too much. He is already clinging onto the newel post of the staircase for support.

In the final sentence of “Walking On Water” we are told that Locheed may have to ‘go into an apartment building, like the rest of them,’ if he wanted to continue.

I had assumed he lived in an apartment building already, so I’m guessing Munro refers to another kind of dwelling, accessible to the elderly. Does ‘the rest of them’ refer to ‘the other elderly people’? After all, this is a complex dominated by young people, alienating a more staid lifestyle with their loud hippie music, exhibitionist sexuality and unpleasant pranks.

We can extrapolate that after Locheed ascends those symbolic stairs, he sets about making other arrangements on the morrow. This block of flats — whatever you call them — won’t be the same without Eugene.

An AI generated painting in the style of one of Alice Munro’s favourite artists: Alex Colville (1920-2013).

And once Lougheed cuts off these young people in his life, he really will feel like his life is over. Despite all his issues with them, the young neighbours have offered him a youthful, alternative perspective on life, reminding him of how things have changed, and that he is still a part of it all, despite living on the periphery. Once things stop changing, you have one foot in the grave.

In any case, Lougheed has always lived on the periphery. Munro leaves readers on some kind of periphery — on the verge of understanding something. We never learn what Eugene was thinking, partly because his scattered mind is impenetrable to any sane one. We are never told what Lougheed ‘really’ thinks about Eugene. We never know if Eugene came back the following day.

It doesn’t matter, because the journey into old age belongs to Locheed who, over the course of “Walking On Water”, has gone from being an active member of the local community to realising that he’s about done. There’s nothing more to understand, not even about himself, because some things will remain a mystery to him.

To put it another way, Alice Munro has written a lyrical short story which has emotional closure but resists hermeneutical closure.

For more on that see: Short Story Endings.


A 2018 documentary called Midian Farm offers some insight into the ‘hippie’ culture of Ontario in the early to mid 1970s.

From 1971-1977 Midian Farm was a back-to-the-land social experiment created by a community of urban baby-boomers from Toronto. Part of the youth counter-culture movement during a period of social and political re-imagining, its utopian vision eventually collapsed. More than four decades later, Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall unearths Midian Farm to memorialize a transformative piece of family and Canadian history.

Storyline, from IMDb

I put ‘hippie’ in quote marks because a so-called hippie isn’t any one type of person. As shown in the documentary, 1970s hippies did not just refer to the drug-taking, multiple sex partner kinds of people, but also referred to a completely different group of people. These youths looked to outsiders the same as the ‘psychedelic’ variety of hippie due to their dress. The women wore long dresses; the men wore long hair, tied back with leather straps.

But the hippies of Ontario’s Midian Farm were Christian young people with collectivist and egalitarian ideals. Churches at the time simply weren’t keeping pace with movements such as feminism and civil rights. Midian Farm’s mission was to collect vulnerable youth from the city (Toronto) and offer them a taste of rural Ontario life.

One of the founders of Midian Farm says near the end of the documentary, “I can’t believe how optimistic we were, thinking we could change the world.” He later adds, “It’s not like that now. It’s not about changing the world. Everyone’s trying to change themselves.”


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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