Happily Never After: Traditional vs. True Happiness in Lives of Girls and Women

The myth of “happily ever after” has pervaded Western culture for centuries. Nearly all of our fairy tales and bedtime stories conclude with the hero and his beautiful bride riding off into the sunset. Because of these stories, the idea that marriage is the final goal in life and the source of all happiness is held intact. This is especially true in the case of literature involving female protagonists. In the words of Carol L. Bean, “the traditional conventions of the genre of fiction – whether popular or elite – have taken finding true love (with marriage as its signifier and happiness as its inevitable reward) as the major goal of women’s quests.” (Bean 330) It is this concept that Alice Munro so passionately battles in her fiction. While laden with themes of religion, sex, and other heavy topics, Lives of Girls and Women serves as a testament to Monroe’s belief that marriage does not equal happiness.We see in Lives of Girls and Women that the world of Del Jordan has already been tainted with an “Angel in the House” mentality. In fact, Munro gives us Del’s own view of and longing for the conventional fairy tale. In “Changes and Ceremonies,” Del finds out that this year’s operetta will be The Pied Piper, and finds herself “disappointed, thinking there would be no court scenes, no ladies in waiting, no beautiful clothes.” (Munro 138) Not only is the young Del enamored with the idea of fairy-tale romance, she also wishes for her real life to reflect the conventions set forth by “happily ever after” fiction. When listening to tales of her mother’s life, Del is anxious to hear of her parents’ marriage in the way that tradition has taught her to expect it: “Now I expected as in all momentous satisfying stories – the burst of Glory, the Reward. Marriage to my father? I hoped that was it. I wished she would leave me in no doubt about it.” (Munro 89) While the preservation of naivety is certainly an aspect of traditional views on happiness, Munro opens our eyes to another, perhaps even more dangerous, side of these concepts. In an attempt to perpetuate the importance of marriage in our society, many people resort to scare tactics. These people mislead their children into believing that any attempt to build happiness without marriage can have disastrous consequences. In “Changes and Ceremonies,” Naomi, working from the teachings of her mother, informs Del about the consequences of having children out of wedlock: “if a girl has to get married, she either dies having [the child], or nearly dies, or else there is something the matter with it. Either a harelip of clubfoot or it isn’t right in the head. My mother has seen it.” (Munro 132)Whether women fear the mutilation of their unborn children or, simply because they are raised to be ignorant of untraditional happiness, they succumb to the idea of marriage and family as life’s final reward. Such is the case with many of the women in Del Jordan’s life. Through these women, Munro shows us how detrimental it can be to view marriage as the sole source of happiness. Early on in Lives of Girls and Women Munro gives us the image of Aunt Moira, a woman broken and decayed by traditional female constraints: “it seemed that the gloom spreading out from Aunt Moira had a gynecological odor, like that of the fuzzy, rubberized bandages on her legs. She was a woman I would recognize now as a likely sufferer from varicose veins, hemorrhoids, a dropped womb, cysted ovaries, inflammations, discharges, lumps and stones in various places, one of those heavy, cautiously moving, wrecked survivors of the female life, with stories to tell.” (Munro 47) In contrast to this decaying victim of tradition, Munro gives us Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace. Although they seem to live for Uncle Craig, these two women have been spared from the trials of marriage and motherhood. In Del’s eyes, ”Not much could be said for marriage, really, if you compared [Aunt Moira] with her sisters, who could still jump up so quickly, who still smelled fresh and healthy, and who would occasionally, deprecatingly, mention the measurement of their waists. Even getting up or sitting down, moving in the rocker, Aunt Moira gave off rumbles of complaint, involuntary and eloquent as noises of digestion and wind.” (Munro 47-8)As depressing and horrifying as these warnings of physical damage might be, they are merely symptoms of a deeper mental damage. Monroe’s writing is full of stories of inhibited ambition. One of the most striking aspects of this constraint is society’s unwillingness to educate females. In the world depicted in Lives of Girls and Women, the desire for knowledge is viewed as “a habit to be abandoned when the seriousness and satisfactions of adult life took over.” (Munro 131) Del’s mother had to educate herself out of used textbooks, waiting for her chance to run away to high school. (Munro 87) Indeed, in much of Munro’s fiction, “self-education through books becomes indicative of an experientially and imaginatively empowering quest.” (Stich 125) Once marriage and family came into the picture, women were meant to be content with what they had. A thirst for knowledge would be seen as frivolous and extravagant. Munro shows us how society upholds this notion of the traditional woman in other stories as well. In “Meneseteung,” from the collection Friend of my Youth, Munro writes about a woman who forgoes marriage to write poetry without “the distractions of housewifery.” (Hedin 594-95) After the death of Amelda, the story’s poet, “the Vidette publishes a thinly patronizing obituary, which acknowledges her ‘sensitive, eloquent verse’ but is quick to atone for it by noting ‘her labours in former days in the Sunday school’ and ‘noble womanly nature.’” (Hedin 595) We see here that even when a woman manages to break the mold, society continues to try to confine her within the constraints of traditional female roles: those of the wife, the teacher, and the spiritual guide.The constraints of these traditional female roles rob Munro’s characters of their values and desires. Addie, Del’s mother, was once a proud young woman who defied societal norms in order to continue her education. She tossed away traditional religion in favor of her own system of beliefs and values. As Del listens to stories of her mother’s better days, she remarks, “Oh, if there could be a moment out of time, a moment we could choose to be judged, naked as can be, beleaguered, triumphant, then that would have to be the moment for her. Later on comes compromise and error, perhaps; there, she is absurd and unassailable.” (Munro 87) And compromise did indeed come in time. Addie is not allowed to continue to college and, in the end, her only intellectual pursuit comes in the form of selling encyclopedias. Her defiant views on religion give way to the more traditional views of her husband. As Del tells us, “We belonged – at least my father and my father’s family belonged – to the United church in Jubilee, and my brother Owen and I had both been baptized there when we were babies, which showed a surprising weakness or generosity on my mother’s part; perhaps childbirth mellowed and confused her.” (Munro 103-4)It is this compromise that forms a divide between Del and her mother. Viewed once with reverence, Addie is now seen by her daughter as washed out. In fact, Addie begins to give in to traditional ideas about female life. In “Lives of Girls and Women,” Addie gives Del, who is still fairly young, a picture to save for her children. Del, knowing about her mother’s past defiance of these ideas, reacts with surprise, “Her speaking of my children amazed me too, for I never planned to have any. It was glory I was after, walking the streets of Jubilee like an exile or spy, not sure from which direction fame would strike, or when, only convinced that it had to. In this conviction my mother had shared, she had been my ally, but now I would no longer discuss it with her; she was indiscreet and her expectations took too blatant a form.” (Munro 158) Even at this young age, Del recognizes how hindering traditional life can be, and feels betrayed by her mother’s acceptance of it.However, Munro is not warning women against getting married or having families. Munro herself is married. The danger Munro shows women through her writing is in defining oneself as a mother or wife. She does not believe that women should not desire families husbands, or male companionship, simply that those things should not be a woman’s only desire. Munro shows us what happens when women live solely for others. After the death of Uncle Craig, Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace, who lived to support the man and all his efforts, begin to whither. Their jokes and routines became stale and artificial. As Del describes it, “This was what became of them when they no longer had a man with them, to nourish and admire, and when they were removed from the place where their artificiality bloomed naturally.”(Munro 68)Even Del, so proud, defiant, and independent, nearly succumbs to the traditional constraints of womanhood. After her marriage to Garnet French, Del almost lets herself be baptized into a religion in which she does not believe. Not only would Del betray herself through this act, but she would be allowing Garnet to “consecrate his sense of ownership” over her. (Stich 128) Fortunately, Del sees her mistake before she allows it to become her life and “Walking out of the river away from her would-be baptizer, she ‘cut through the cemetery’ and, entering Jubilee, ‘repossessed the world’ as well as ‘my own self.’” (Stich 128)Through Lives of Girls and Women and other writings, Alice Munro shows us the dangers of succumbing to societal norms. While the values held by society can certainly help enrich life, a life defined by them is pointless and unsatisfying. Munro shows us that we must defy whatever conventions stand in the way of our own true happiness, no matter what we must leave behind to do so. Works CitedBean, Carol L. “The Pursuit of Happiness: A Study of Alice Munro’s Fiction.” The Social Science Journal 37.3 (2000): 329-345.Hedin, Benjamin. “Alice Munro: Scraping the Dirt off Gravestones.” Gettysburg Review 20.4 ( Winter 2007): 593-600.Stich, Klaus P. “Monro’s Grail Quest: the Progress of Logos.”Studies in Canadian Literature. 32.1(2007): 120-140