“The Alternative to Loving:” Sideshadowing and the Unconsummated in Alice Munro

A possibly dangerous intruder does not show up. A woman has dreams of a long dead man from her past. A child hopes to trick two teenage girls into thinking she is a ghost. A reminder that the king of France is bald. These are just a few of the obscure scenes that vaguely constitute endings throughout Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman. In its ending scene, each story resists closure, sometimes with the unexpected and stunted introduction of new characters, like the teenage girls in “My Mother’s Dream,” other times with the continued suspension of information, such as the obscured image of Cortes Island still not visible to the narrator even in her dreams, and yet other times in seemingly incongruous anticlimax, when the horrific conclusion promised by the eerie tension throughout “Save the Reaper” ultimately fails to materialize.

It is this trend of inconclusive conclusions – “virtually no conclusion[s] at all” – that John Gerlach claims “poses unusual problems for the reader” (146). Focusing primarily on the collection’s title story, Gerlach presents Gary Saul Morson’s concept of literary sideshadowing as the best approach for coping with Munro’s often abortive endings. Gerlach’s application of Morson’s sideshadowing can be extended to the collection’s final story, with the argument that Munro’s tendency to evade or obfuscate endings receives a comprehensive thematic explanation through the ideas of death and consummation in “My Mother’s Dream.” The collection’s final story surfaces in answer to Gerlach’s qualms concerning its opening one. Even if “My Mother’s Dream” flirts with a familiarly coy ending itself, as a capstone for the collection, the story provides a satisfactory thematic explanation for the inconclusive trend it too employs.

Gerlach, of course, is not the first to note this trend of elusive conclusions in Munro’s work. Noting that closure in Munro shirks even the traditional binary inherent in most open endings, resisting an “either/or” interpretation, Gerlach calls upon Catherine Sheldrick Ross and her analysis of this trend:

This long-standing feature in Munro’s work of resisting closure seems to be related to her own deepest feelings about the enterprise of writing itself: on the one hand, it is endlessly valuable to try to get it all down, to make connections, to attend to messages; on the other hand, the patterns may be wrong, the connections mistaken, and the attempt itself a sort of betrayal. (qtd. in Gerlach 150).

Ross’s understanding of this feature as “long-standing” is not unfounded, as her vaguely biographical analysis seems to evoke the fears expressed not directly by Munro herself, but rather indirectly through one of her characters in a much earlier collection. The Beggar Maid’s final story, “Who Do You Think You Are?” features a passage that expresses similar anxieties to those Ross attributes to Munro:

The thing she was ashamed of, in acting, was that she might have been paying attention to the wrong things, reporting antics, when there was always something further, a tone, a depth, a light, that she couldn’t get and wouldn’t get. And it wasn’t just about acting she suspected this. Everything she had done could sometimes be seen as a mistake. She had never felt this more strongly than when she was talking to Ralph Gillespie. (Munro 209).

This mention of Ralph Gillespie, of course, is significant in that he is the figure primarily responsible for steering The Beggar Maid away from a tidy conclusion. Not introduced until the final story of the collection, Ralph Gillespie is dropped inexplicably and unceremoniously into the very heart of the narrative, undoing much of the reader’s understanding of Rose’s identity that had been constructed up until that point. The story, and the entirety of the collection, then stumbles clumsily toward a vague and unsatisfying conclusion, burdened by the murky but heavy implications of the completely unannounced suggestion that Rose had always “felt [Ralph’s] life, close, closer than the lives of men she’d loved, one slot over from her own” (Munro, “Who” 210).

Other earlier Munro commentators have made note of this phenomenon as well. As early as 1978, Harvard Dahlie notes, “Worlds are always qualitatively changed at the conclusions of Munro’s stories, and although the causal changes have contributed to the unsettling of her protagonists, they characteristically point to an enlargement of possibilities rather than a restriction” (67). This sudden opening rather than the expected narrowing of possibility at the end of Munro’s stories fits well, as Gerlach argues, into Morson’s notion of sideshadowing. “A narrative strategy which keeps time and choice open,” Morson’s understanding of sideshadowing insists that “to understand a moment is to understand not only what did happen but also what else might have happened” (qtd. in Gerlach 151). While Munro’s “sideshadowed” conclusions certainly invite speculation, whether they provide Morson’s decidedly optimistic “understanding” of all the suggested possibilities is debatable. Nonetheless, although this sudden uncertainty at the conclusion of Munro’s stories is often jarring in fiction, this lack of closure actually far more accurately reflects real-world experience of time and events. As Gerlach points out, the end of “The Love of Good Woman” leaves the reader “at the verge of an expanding future – not what we usually expect of closure in a narrative, but it’s exactly where we usually are at any given moment of our lives” (154). In this way, the staunch dedication to an unwavering depiction of the absolute but uncertain present that leads to one of the most “haunting and disturbing qualities” of Munro’s fiction is perhaps its most realistic manifestation of verisimilitude (Dahlie 61). From this, Gerlach arrives at the recommendation to “engage in Morson’s sideshadowing, experiencing the story as we experience the present moment of our lives” (154).

While Gerlach’s reading is primarily concerned with defining and applying Morson’s sideshadowing to Munro’s fiction, it invites speculation as to why Munro employs this technique in the first place. While Ross sees Munro’s tendency to “resist closure” as a reflection of her own fears about her ability to accurately capture and report reality, the trend may not necessarily reflect such a biographical approach. Instead, a theme of preservation through the unfinished or unconsummated in Munro’s fiction, particularly throughout The Love of a Good Woman and to some extent its chronological successor, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, arises in answer to this question, emphasizing that Munro’s resistance to closure reflects these stories’ faith in the powers of the unconsummated. This notion of the unconsummated in Munro is not unprecedented. Once again, Dahlie points to this recurring “failure to attain a satisfactory or lasting human relationship” apparent in some of Munro’s earliest fiction. Borrowing the term “unconsummated relationships” from “The Peace of Utrecht,” Dahlie proposes that Munro’s fiction can “profitably be examined in terms of the themes of isolation and rejection, which unfold in situations where human relationships are rarely cemented or consummated” (58). While Dahlie sees this failure to consummate as largely negative, “characterized by undercurrents of desperation and hysteria,” alternate readings of this theme – at least in Munro’s later fiction – provide a case for seeing it as an ultimately advantageous technique of preserving possibility, or at least the illusion of possibility, in her characters’ lives.

In “My Mother’s Dream,” the unconsummated most prominently takes the form of early death. In a willful coyness characteristic of Munro’s fiction, the first character to benefit from the preservative powers of the unconsummated is an entirely peripheral and nameless one, known throughout her brief appearance only as “the girl who was crying in church and looks as if she will cry some more.” Imagining this girl as a would-be lover of the late George, Jill notes – with little apparent bitterness – that this girl is now free to “remember that she was in love with George and think that he was in love with her – in spite of all – and never be afraid of what he may do or say to prove her wrong” (Munro 307). George’s death preserves for this girl the viable notion that he could have loved her, and their unconsummated relationship – however imaginary – is free to remain a perpetually untapped but ultimately uncontested possibility. For these characters, a sudden or early death or otherwise unconsummated ending has the same effect of preserving possibility in their lives as Munro’s open conclusions do in the stories themselves. Just as Munro’s resistance to commit to closure yields numerous sideshadowed possibilities at the end of a story, untimely deaths or unfinished endings “keep time and choice open” to her characters, who are free to build and indulge in illusions of a life that will never be, but now safely could have been (Gerlach 151).

Perhaps this is why George himself exhibits such a cavalier attitude toward the possibility of his death, off-handedly declaring himself “off to die a hero on the field at Passchendaele” (Munro 301). George’s lighthearted indifference to or perhaps even vague ambition for death is less significant in itself than in its later reappearance in his daughter, the story’s narrator, whose desire for death reflects not an attempt to preserve the possibility of a love affair, but rather an independence of which womanhood will rob her. Reflecting on her recovery from her first brush with death in infancy, the narrator remarks: To me it seems it was only then that I became female. I know that the matter was decided long before I was born and was plain to everybody else since the beginning of my life, but I believe that it was only at the moment when I decided to come back, when I gave up the fight against my mother (which must have been a fight for something like her total surrender) and when in fact I chose survival over victory (death would have been victory), that I took on my female nature. (337). Here, the narrator definitively outlines a connection between womanhood and sacrifice that appears throughout the collection. The narrator identifies the struggle between herself and her mother as one for total surrender. However, once she has accomplished this – Jill’s surrender and defeat symbolized by her inability to play the violin – the narrator ultimately claims to have chosen “survival over victory.” In refusing the victory the narrator would have wielded over Jill in death, she herself surrenders. The narrator links this surrender not only to survival, but also to womanhood. Thus, the narrator establishes a link between womanhood and sacrifice, while also implying that sacrifice is necessary to female survival. The narrator sees death as victory because it would have spared her the necessity of “settling” and sacrifice. In death, the narrator would have been able to preserve her independence and unfractured identity, rather than surrender to the obligatory sacrifice and compromise demanded of her gender. Although the narrator ultimately chooses sacrifice over victory, she maintains a fascination with and possibly a vague desire for death, as the story draws to a close around her fantasy of being mistaken for a ghost.

This idea appears in a more fragmented form in the collection’s earlier story “Jarkarta.” Using an intertextual discussion of D.H. Lawrence’s “The Fox,” the story illustrates an idea that links love to female surrender, implying that love without such a sacrifice is somehow incomplete. “Jakarta” goes on to explore the main character’s simultaneous reactions against and anxieties concerning this notion as she, not unlike the narrator in “My Mother’s Dream,” struggles to preserve her identity against gendered ideas of womanhood that demand she approach wife-and-motherhood as a willing sacrifice. Munro summarizes the D.H. Lawrence story that sparks the metatextual debate: The soldier knows they will not be truly happy until the woman gives her life over to him, in a way that she has not done so far. March is still struggling against him, to hold herself separate from him, she is making them both obscurely miserable by her efforts to hang on to her woman’s soul, her woman’s mind. She must stop this – she must stop thinking and stop wanting and let her consciousness go under, until it is submerged in his. (84). Kath’s negative reaction to the story highlights her aversion to the traditional roles of wife and mother and their implications of self sacrifice. However, Kath also sees marriage and motherhood as necessarily evils, “a series of further examinations to be passed.” She writes her married name with “a sense of relief,” knowing that she has adequately passed the test (82). With the fulfillment of these expectations, however, Kath is simultaneously aware that she inevitably sacrifices her individuality – an idea mirrored in the Lawrence story. The story makes Kath “bloated and suffocated with incoherent protest.” Hearing Sonje claim that her own happiness depends on her husband, Kath is similarly shocked and disgusted. However, Kath cannot escape a kind of guilt in that she has not submitted as entirely to her husband as Sonje or Lawrence would deem suitable. Kath fears this may be evidence that she “missed out on love,” and worries, in spite of herself, that Sonje will see her as “a woman who had not been offered the prostration of love” (86).

Further uniting “Jakarta” and “My Mother’s Dream” is the appearance and thematic significance of breastfeeding, a common recurring motif in Munro’s later fiction. Significantly, both stories see breastfeeding as a form of maternal sacrifice which consummates a mother-child relationship. In an attempt to preserve their individuality by avoiding this consummation, characters in both stories struggle to some extent with the practice of breastfeeding. In “Jakarta,” Kath adamantly maintains that she breastfeeds for her own benefit as well as the child’s, “so she can shrink her uterus and flatten her stomach, not just provide the baby with precious maternal antibodies” (80). In “My Mother’s Dream,” Jill is unable to complete this sacrifice, and her inability to breastfeed signals her failure as a mother, thus again establishing a necessary link between surrender and womanhood. At the end of the story, though both mother and daughter have effectively surrendered to each other, the narrator still looks at her breastfed baby sister with disgust: “I was glad to hear that no such intimate body-heated meals had been served to me” (339). Through the rejection of this intimacy, both the narrator and her mother maintain some sense of individuality, preserving their identity against the destructive powers of consummation.

Munro’s most comprehensive illustration of the advantages of resisting consummation, however, appears in the subsequent collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. In “Nettles,” the unconsummated returns to a more literal manifestation – a romantic relationship resisting sexual fulfillment. Reflecting on a reunion with what may be tentatively called a former childhood sweetheart, the narrator remarks, “Well. It would be the same old thing, if we ever met again. Or if we didn’t. Love that was not usable, that knew its place. (Some would say not real, because it would never risk getting its neck wrung, or turning into a bad joke, or sadly wearing out.) Not risking a thing yet staying alive as a sweet trickle, an underground resource” (187). In this story, the narrator rejects and resists sexuality in her relationship with Mike, even as a child. For the narrator, sex is associated with “twiddling pleasure and frustration and immediate, raw shame,” none of which she allows to adulterate their relationship – one that seems to transcend both sexual and platonic love, establishing an intimacy that is neither like that of “brother and sister” or “wives and husbands,” but rather that of “sturdy and accustomed sweethearts, whose bond needs not much outward expression” (164). Upon their coincidental reunion in adulthood, their intimacy remains unconsummated, and thus, as the narrator explains, is preserved – “an underground resource.” Running parallel to this seems to be an idea of unconsummated thought, that is, thoughts not expressed in words. Noting Mike’s lifelong habit of saying the word “well,” the narrator remarks, “It was a word that I used to hear fairly often, said in that same tone of voice, when I was a child. A bridge between one thing and another, or a conclusion, or a way of saying something that couldn’t be more fully said, or thought.” The narrator recalls that the response to this habit was always the joke, “A well is a hole in the ground” (185). Thus, through a bit of wordplay, Mike’s “way of saying something that couldn’t be more fully said,” becomes, like their unconsummated love, “an underground resource.”

For Munro, there is deep significance in that left unsaid and that left undone. While she admits these attempts at preservation may render these unconsummated forces less “real,” according to some, she maintains that there is always more power in what could have been than in what has or will be. It is no surprise, then, that Munro’s stories reject consummation themselves, resisting closure and instead preserving an underground resource of infinite possibilities in their sideshadowed conclusions. Munro refuses to deceive her readers with the idea – so prevalent in fiction – that they can fully understand a moment as it is, forcing them instead to consent to an understanding only of what might have been.

Works Cited

Dahlie, Hallvard. “The Fiction of Alice Munro.” Ploughshares, vol. 4, no. 3, 1978, pp. 56–71. Web. 30 April 2017.

Gerlach, John. “To Close or Not to Close: Alice Munro’s ‘The Love of a Good Woman.’” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 37, no. 1, 2007, pp. 146-158. Web. 29 April 2017.

Munro, Alice. The Beggar Maid. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.

Munro, Alice. The Love of a Good Woman. New York: Vintage, 1998. Print.

Munro, Alice. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. New York: Vintage, 2001. Print.

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