Alice Munro and the Social Roles of Women
Most of Alice Munro’s major characters are women, whose social and interior lives are portrayed in great detail by their author. All of these women tend to give the reader an overview of what being a woman signifies in a society mostly ruled by men. They seem significant in society because of the domestic role they seem to undertake in their lives. However, Munro is inclined to portray women who are not essential regarding their work, and who are in some ways enabled to discover themselves and express meaningful love.
Munro depicts in her stories women who seem mainly important because they are necessary to men. They are “made” to be housewives. In “The Love of a Good Woman,” Munro describes Bud’s mother as a typical housewife, who achieves “serene severity.” She seems to have experience in ruling her house, becoming the only one controlling her children as if she was essential in maintaining order. Yet women also seem to be evolving around what society expects from them: raising their children. This shift is shown by the behavior of Iona in “My Mother’s Dream” when she takes care of Jill’s baby. The woman who was at first plain and dull in the house becomes very important: “Iona had gone from being the most negligible to being the most important person in the house.” She seems to have become someone vital to maintaining peace and order : “she was the one who stood between those who lived there and constant discordance” the same way that Bud’s mother does. She brings order and is necessary for the house to be efficiently run.
This importance of women in society and specifically in the domestic field is also brought about by the necessity they represent to men. This sort of necessity is what Munro describes in “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”: men who can’t live without women to care for them. It starts with Mr McCauley who can’t handle being left by Johanna: “He woke in the house alone, with no smell of coffee or breakfast coming from the kitchen.” Here, the absence of Johanna influencing his life is emphasized by the use of the coma straight after the word “alone,” which marks a pause in the reader’s reading. He has nobody to take care of him anymore, and the things he was used to have left at the same time that Johanna did. Munro also writes: “He belonged to a generation in which there were men who were said not to be able even to boil water, and he was one of them.” Though somewhat indirectly, Munro describes women as being necessary to men who can’t handle cooking for themselves, let alone doing the housework. Men need women to take care of them, as Munro tries to show when she portrays women undertaking stereotyped domestic roles.
However, whereas women are shown are necessary on the domestic field, they are portrayed by the author as useless, or at least less important, where professionalism is concerned. Indeed, Munro describes them as being only good in the house, not able to do anything other than take care of domestic features. Describing one character in “The Love of a Good Woman,” she writes: “he believed that his mother had no experience or authority outside their house.” Jimmy’s mother’s status is bound to her house, and she can do nothing but keep that house. However, Munro also writes: “To his surprise, she immediately phones the police. Then she phones his father.” That sentence contradicts the way Jimmy sees his mother. She takes control of the situation herself, showing her boy that women can do something other than running the house.
Nonetheless, Munro’s women are seen in society as less important than men because these women give up their work expectations for men. This is what happens in “My Mother’s Dream” when George’s “sisters sacrificed their own schooling.” Ailsa and Iona resigned to forsake a good school so that their brother could go to one. Their work and their studies were judged less important than George’s. That arrangement shows that women are seen as less important in society than men. When women are working, people are ashamed of such activity, a situation that arises in “The Love of a Good Woman” when Jimmy “hoped (…) That the others hadn’t noticed her” because “the idea of a mother dressed up every day and out in the public world of town was so strange to them that they couldn’t comment, could only dismiss it.” Jimmy can’t handle the thought of his mother having a public life, a life outside the house, a job, or simply other things to do than run her house. That sentiment shows not only that women are seen as less important as men outside their houses but also that if they are outside the house, people are ashamed of them.
The only way a woman can be seen as necessary as related to professional activity in society seems to be when she takes care of other people. In the same narrative, “My Mother’s Dream,” “Iona’s job is supposed to be to watch over their mother.” Munro uses the word “job” as if taking care of her mother was the only work Iona could do. Also, Enid works as a “private” nurse in “The Love of a Good Woman.” It seems to be the only job she can have that is suitable for a woman. She had to make a deathbed promise to her father, who asked her never to work in a hospital: “You won’t do this kind of work.” The only jobs women are important in are the ones in which they are to care for others, and even in those ones, there are some things that society or simply the men around them forbid them to do.
Finally, love is also described as being essential to Munro’s depicted society, especially when it’s given by women. Indeed, in “My Mother’s Dream,” the baby becomes female after she decides to accept her mother: “when I gave up the fight against my mother (…) that I took on my female nature.” The baby becomes a girl as soon as the bond between the mother and her child has been made. The love given by a woman also seems to be a protection against catastrophe: “she took on loving me, because the alternative to loving was disaster.” The oxymoron and the repetition of “love” and “loving” imply that without love, “disaster happens.” Munro implies that women are made to love because, without such love, society can’t work properly.
As depicted in Alice Munro’s short fiction, society expects woman to be housewives, not workers. This is what Munro describes in her stories, women who are bound to rule their houses and are important in society through their supposedly essential role of raising children and caring for others. This is how they maintain a certain order without which society can’t work properly. Their love is what wards off disaster. Those features make women important in society. However, the way they are portrayed regarding work could imply they are not in fact so important in these roles, or at least are less important than men. They give up their studies for men, women can’t have certain jobs, for example. In a certain way, Munro’s fiction portrays typical housewives who are only important when they stay in the domestic field. These are female characters, however, who seem to be on the edge of what society expects from them, and maybe the author is trying to make the importance of women in society change and evolve along with the characters themselves.
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Most of Alice Munro’s major characters are women, whose social and interior lives are portrayed in great detail by their author. All of these women tend to give the reader […]