“What Is Remembered” by Alice Munro appears in the print edition of the February 19, 2001, issue of The New Yorker. It was also published in the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.
Looking back as an old lady, this short story focuses on several days across one young woman’s life in which she hooks up with a doctor she meets at her husband’s friend’s funeral. The memory of this event sustains her, imaginatively, for the rest of her life, and allows her to lead this parallel imagined life in which she remained single and more adventurous. In this way, “What Is Remembered” reminds me of Bridges Over Madison County.
I’m also reminded of a song by Nancy Sinatra.
CHARACTERS IN “WHAT IS REMEMBERED”
Meriel — The main character is an old widow now, but this is a story spans a few days in her late twenties, when her hair was dark and her two children were young. From the title itself we can expect a narrator looking back on an earlier time. At the end of the narrative we see Meriel as an old woman, with the benefit of long hindsight. Because hindsight and time mutes any intense experience, the story itself is quiet. We don’t see the passionate scenes with the lover — these are skipped over. In fact, Munro has let her main character forget a lot of the detail. Is she in the throes of dementia, perhaps? She might well be, but dementia is not the focus of the story. This is about how certain details resonate, and memory is a weird thing — it is only after she learns of her lover’s death that she remembers something she’d buried — his brusque (but psychologically kind) goodbye after their encounter.
Pierre — is Meriel’s husband, a teacher. 29 years old. Grew up in West Vancouver. He is painted as a steady, good husband but because he is so familiar, the excitement of limerance is absent for Meriel. We see the two early on at a recollected party, where Meriel and Pierre pretend to be strangers for a moment or two, to add a little tame excitement to their marriage.
Jonas — Pierre’s friend from childhood, who has just died, is the inverse of steady Pierre. He can’t hold down a job despite being qualified in a lucrative profession, is a hedonistic nutjob and ends up killing himself in exactly the manner you’d expect — by driving recklessly. The existence of Jonas not only sets up Pierre as steady (and boring by comparison) but also allows the reader to learn this about Meriel: She doesn’t even like Jonas, and never would have wanted to be with one of his friends (Dr Asher — a similar type).
Dr Asher — Meriel’s lover is first introduced as the doctor whose name Meriel can’t remember. Later, when it happens he’s to drive her to Lynn Valley, then she does remember her name and the reader is told what it is. This strikes me as masterful because that’s exactly how I tend to learn names at social gatherings, too. (Not at first, but eventually, if I have to.) This slow learning of his name suggests to the reader that Meriel isn’t all that interested in him as a person with a name — he’s far more useful to her as a fantasy. He functions to her a signifier, not real. That’s why, when he dies, this makes little difference to Meriel. She still has her imagined version.
Aunt Muriel — who Meriel was named after, lives at a nursing home called Princess Manor. Alice Munro doesn’t shy away from nursing homes as settings, most obviously in “The Bear Came Over The Mountain“. A visit to Aunt Muriel provides the story reason for Meriel to spend a few days on her own, but what is the thematic reason for the existence of the old lady at this earlier time period of the story?
First, this is an old lady who sees immediately (before the reader does, and before our main character does) what is going on between Meriel and the doctor. One day, as we eventually learn at the end of the story, Meriel will have the insight into human behaviour that Aunt Muriel achieved as an old lady herself.
Second, the Aunt Muriel who exists at an earlier time in Meriel’s life reminds us that Meriel, too, will get old, and this is why Alice Munro’s stories are said to be time expansive. (Annie Proulx uses the same technique — old and young together, across generations.) Aunt Muriel is young Meriel’s elderly proxy, and functions as a prolepse (flash forward) character.
In Meander, Spiral, Explode, Jane Alison describes the reasons for characters in different story which, eerily, could be describing this one:
This is refractive portraiture, creating a mosaic of other possibilities for the girl who crossed on the ferry and stepped into a stranger’s car.
— Jane Alison, writing about The Lover by Marguerite Duras
I like that phrase ‘refractive portraiture‘, in which the main character meets all sorts of different characters along her journey and each character is a representation of who our main character may become, depending on choices made.
Prolepses can arouse the reader’s curiosity by partially revealing facts that will surface later. The reader is expecting something to happen between Meriel and this doctor, but Aunt Muriel’s ability to read Meriel and the doctor’s body language in the readers’ absentia confirms the existence of sexual tension The close third person narrator can’t do this, by dint of being so close inside Meriel’s head. Meriel is completely unwilling to accept her complicity in the brief affair to the point where we never see her make a decision to sleep with this man. When we see her in scenes, she is not even sure what she’s gotten herself into.
STORY WORLD OF “WHAT IS REMEMBERED”
Various locations are dotted around the story for us, as they are dotted around British Columbia and up north. Munro is making use of West (Pierre and Jonas, linked), South (Pierre’s mother) and Northern cardinal direction (the doctor). These characters are sufficiently geographically removed from each other to allow space for imaginings and one-time-only affairs.
West Vancouver — where Pierre and Jonas grew up together, before it got big and busy due to the bridge
White Rock — where Pierre’s mother has retired to (slightly south)
Smithers — the doctor who treated Jonas has flown down to the funeral from a northern place called Smithers. ‘Smithers is a town in northwestern British Columbia, Canada, approximately halfway between Prince George and Prince Rupert. Smithers is located in the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako. With a population of 5,351 in 2016, Smithers is a service area for most of the Bulkley Valley’. This place is sufficiently distant from Meriel that she might never see the doctor again, and she does not. Unlike the suburban area where she lives with Pierre, Smithers looks like a wild, rugged place and the adrenaline-junkie adventurer’s dream.
Horseshoe Bay — Pierre has to go here to catch the next ferry.
North Shore, Lynn Valley, Princess Manor nursing home — Meriel has to catch the bus to see a friend her dead mother had admired. Aunt Muriel. (Not a blood aunt)
“The word ‘manor’ doesn’t mean anything at all anymore, does it?” said Meriel. “It doesn’t even mean there’s an upstairs. It just means that you’re supposed to think that a place is something it doesn’t even pretend to be.”
Meriel’s summary of the ‘manor’ speaks to her ability to see false fronts on things, and perhaps it occurs to her at this point that as long as everything looks fine to outsiders, other things, clandestine things, might be happening behind the scenes. She seems to have realised at this point that she could probably have an affair and get on happily with her marriage, so long as she kept doing marriage-y things.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WHAT IS REMEMBERED”
This is a road trip story, which is always a mythic journey, structurally. Meriel goes on a trip, encounters several people along the way, something life-changing happens and she returns to the same home, but everything is different from how it was before.
[Munro’s] characters are . . . separated from their home not by distance but by their own changes. They travel from country to city, from poverty to wealth, from ignorance to sophistication, but they are always looking backward, at what they have left behind.
— R Michael, Yale Review, 2002
Munro opens the story very much focused on the men. The first section doesn’t pass The Bechdel Test, let’s say. But this is to set up the fact that Meriel, and other young married women with kids, lived for their husbands and children (though the children aren’t mentioned). Munro’s description of Pierre’s transformation from beau to patriarchal husband (my terminology) sets up Meriel’s weakness: She is trapped in married life, though when the husbands go off to work, there is a sort of carnivalesque joy that happens between the young mothers. However, this plunges them into a state of childhood — not exactly conducive to feeling like a sexual being.
For these reasons, it’s absolutely typical of a woman in this era, and of this age, that she would feel uncomfortable in the car with a man like Doctor Asher. She has been acculturated her entire life into accommodating others. She is self-conscious and perhaps naive. She either fails to read his cues, or reads them and suppresses them.
Some slight forcing of courtesy, on his part, made Meriel think that she had sounded obnoxious. She was often either too bold or too shy.
Meriel’s conscious, upright desire is to visit her mother’s mentor in her nursing home, but her subconscious desire is to escape her mundane, suburban life for a minute.
Alice Munro is a subtle writer and does not set Meriel up as an unhappy housewife who needs to really bust free of her oppressive life. (In contrast, see Thelma & Louise.) In fact, she’s quite content being married to Pierre. The one-time-only affair she chooses (at some point) to have with the doctor is simply icing on the top of a pretty good life.
Meriel’s romantic opponent is of course the guy who has targeted her much earlier than she’s prepared to admit.
Pierre, her husband, is a different kind of an opponent — their particular kind of opposition is described for us in a vignette at the end, in which they discuss a book. By this age they have become very kind to each other and never disagree vehemently. Perhaps age has taught them that at any stage one of them might die at any moment.
The plans outlined by Munro are to do with the logistics of travel — husband and wife will travel together to the funeral, split up afterwards, do their own thing… These logistics, and geolocatable settings, make up for the narrative reality that Meriel is a character who isn’t making plans. Her affair just seems to happen. At least, that is how she tells it in hindsight. As writers know, a character without a plan can feel frustrating for the reader, as we lose faith that anything is going to happen at all. So Munro focuses on the road trip aspect of the planning.
Which part is the Battle?
Munro’s battles are very subtle. The best way to pinpoint it is to find the Self-revelation and ask what led to that. That’s your Battle sequence.
Because this is a ‘looking back on the distant past’ narrative, the Self-revelation of Meriel is more a slow understanding, across decades of her later life, about what that day meant to her and how important it was in allowing her to live a good life with her husband.
As Munro often does, she uses the technique of side-shadowing to let the reader (via imaginative Meriel herself) see what might have happened had she not had an affair. We can see it as self-justification on Meriel’s part. (Munro’s philanderers are very good at that) or we can see it as a narrative nested inside the main narrative. It’s interesting that the Battle sequence of this story happens imaginatively, wholly inside Meriel’s head, as part of this side-shadow narrative:
She had an idea that if she had not been able to do that, her life might have been different.
She might not have stayed with Pierre. She might not have been able to keep her balance. Trying to match what had been said at the ferry with what had been said and done earlier the same day would have made her more alert and more curious. Pride or contrariness might have played a part—a need to have some man eat those words, a refusal to learn her lesson.
There was another sort of life she could have had—a life of impulse and adventure. Which was not to say she would have preferred it. It was probably because of her age (something she was always forgetting to take account of), and because of the thin, cool air she had breathed since Pierre’s death, that she could think of it simply as a kind of research that had its pitfalls and achievements.
The Self-revelation comes next — she realises that no matter which path she’d have chosen for herself (impulse and adventure or stability) she is by nature a prudent person, and that’s all she’d have learned either way:
Maybe you didn’t find out so much, anyway. Maybe the same thing over and over—which might be some obvious but unsettling fact about yourself. In her case, the fact that prudence—or at least some economical sort of emotional management—had been her guiding light all along.
The little self-preserving movement he made, the kind and deadly caution, the attitude of inflexibility that had grown a bit stale with him, like an outmoded swagger. She could view him now with an everyday mystification, as if he had been her husband.
I find this idea fascinating: That if you’ve spent the majority of your adult life fantasizing about someone, once he’s dead, and once your own husband is dead, you might your memories of them may be qualitatively the same — each seeming as real and important as the other was.
We extrapolate that Meriel will keep this secret for the grave. We are left with a final sentence that encourages us to wonder if the doctor had undergone any kind of character arc.