Alice Munro Short Stories
“Identical Seeming Skins:” Identity and the Short Story in The Beggar Maid
In an oft-cited review of Alice Munro’s fourth published collection, critic John Gardner asks a pertinent question regarding “whether The Beggar Maid is a collection of stories or a new kind of novel.” While this question is not only germane, but even imperative to interpretation of Munro’s work, Gardner’s treatment of it is careless. He offers the question merely as rhetorical bait for his rave commentary, and his response is flippant: “I’m not quite sure, but whatever it is, its wonderful.” While this kind of flattering glibness is innocuous enough in quotation marks beneath the gloss of a paperback, Gardner’s question unwittingly introduces – and foolishly dismisses – a crucial argument concerning the text it praises. No greater mistake can be made in approaching The Beggar Maid than to do so viewing it as a novel – whether “a new kind” or otherwise. The collection’s primary thematic concern, the fragmented and mutable nature of identity, depends entirely on its narrative structure as a variety of distinct stories. In this collection, Munro exposes and rejects the notion of life and characterization as one continuous, linear progression, a myth inherently promoted by the novel form. Instead, Munro presents a worldview in which life occurs in isolated, sporadic moments – snapshots ungoverned by the potentially illusory laws of linear time. Identity in Munro is similarly fractured, fluid, and inconsistent. Munro’s realism in The Beggar Maid is not the cohesive, chronological realism of the novel. The thesis of fragmented identity at the heart of the collection mirrors its narrative structure, and therefore depends on its reading as a series of short stories, separate but interlocking.
Other critics have approached the boundary between Munro as a novelist and a short story writer with more gravity than Gardner’s unknowingly insouciant rhetoric. Hallvard Dahlie speculates that: “The more concentrated fictional form probably allows her to explore in a more imaginative and intense way the intangible aspects of her world: those shadowy and shifting areas between the rational and irrational, between the familiar, comfortable world and sudden dimensions of terror, and between various facets of uncertainty and illusion” (57). Addressing the issue in an interview, Munro herself displays a certain indifference to the distinction between longer and shorter narrative fiction, stating simply, “I don’t feel that a novel is any step up from a short story” (qtd. in Dahlie 57). While Munro is apt in her rejection of any inherent disparity in sheer literary value between the two, the difference between the novel and the short story is profound in terms of analysis, structure, and the ever pertinent relationship between form and content. These shifts in structure allow, as Dahlie suggests, for the profound and vaguely unsettling permeability between reality and illusion, between the real and surreal in Munro’s world.
Munro begins to dismantle any notion of unified identity merely a few pages into the first story of the collection, “Royal Beatings.” In a surprisingly lyrical description of what are alternately called “bathroom noises” and, more delicately, “nether voices,” Munro makes a first divisive cut through any traditional concept of cohesive identity: “Even the tearing of a piece of toilet paper, the shifting of a haunch, was audible to those working or talking or eating in the kitchen. They were all familiar with each other’s nether voices, not only in their more explosive moments but in their intimate sighs and growls and pleas and statements. And they were all the most prudish people. So no one ever seemed to hear, or be listening, and no reference was made. The person creating the noises in the bathroom was not connected with the person who walked out” (6). It is this last phrase that both introduces and cements the obscure and fluctuating role of identity in Munro’s otherwise determinedly realistic world. Identity in The Beggar Maid is willfully mutable, and can be fissured, dissociated, and obscured as necessary. This discussion of bathroom noises is initially called to mind in the narration by a similar illustration of Rose’s father, as Rose observes his private mutterings in his shed. Although there is nothing particularly disgraceful or obscene in these largely nonsensical monologues, Rose acknowledges a certain forbidden sanctity within them that renders her own overhearing somehow voyeuristic in nature. This tension, as well, is resolved by a compartmentalization of identity in the conclusion that: “The person who spoke these words and the person who spoke to her as her father were not the same, though they seemed to occupy the same space. It would be the worst sort of taste to acknowledge the person who was not supposed to be there; it would not be forgiven” (6). Here, Rose speaks to the unwritten rules that not only govern society, but also maintain social order on a much more intimate scale. There is a willingness – and perhaps a necessity – both within and among individuals to compartmentalize identity in this way, to make up for the accidentally voyeuristic nature of human interaction by tacitly agreeing to ignore undesirable overlaps of experience, thus preserving a calculated image of identity both in the self and the other.
Munro’s unabashed depiction of “bathroom noises” inevitably recalls the infamous defecating scene in Joyce’s Ulysses. While this revolutionary imagery defined modernism by pulling literary realism to new heights – or depths – of verisimilitude and intimacy, Munro’s incarnation of the scene in the latter half of the century pushes back, rewriting the rules of representative realism. While the Leopold Bloom who enters the “jakes” is, by all accounts, the same one who exits, Munro’s characters actively reject any assumed constant principle of identity. In Munro’s realism, the boundaries of identity that could once be safely assumed in representational literature become illusory and permeable.
This rupture or perhaps inversion of the “intimate and profound” realism frequently cited as a defining characteristic of Munro’s prose is often attributed more to her later works (qtd. in Clark 49). Miriam Marty Clark points specifically to a trend in Friend of My Youth and Open Secrets in which Munro’s increasing preoccupation with representation by intertextuality first permeates the boundaries of traditional realism, “denaturalizing realist representation and deconstructing its premises from within” (53). I would like to argue, however, that the disruption of realism that Clark attributes to these later works is strongly prefigured in The Beggar Maid. Almost two decades before Friend of My Youth and Open Secrets, The Beggar Maid’s subtle rejection of any traditional notion of constant identity had already begun to “dismantle the foundations of realist narrative” (50). The fragmented, performative nature of identity in The Beggar Maid lying just beneath the surface of Munro’s careful and detailed verisimilitude is evidence that Munro’s realism has never been transparent or strictly representational. Since even these earlier bodies of work, Munro’s stories have dedicated themselves to “undoing the illusion of transparency and advancing in reflexive, opaque, often difficult ways on the unstable world of narrative” (49).
Much of this instability in Munro’s narrative world comes from a notion of an inevitably performative nature of identity, one which dominates The Beggar Maid. This idea of performance is first introduced in “Royal Beatings,” as a focalized Rose compares her father to “a bad actor, who turns a part grotesque. That is not to say he is pretending, that he is acting, and does not mean it. He is acting and he means it” (18). With this last line, Munro establishes an insoluble link between performance and reality that renders any notion of truth or genuine experience illusory if not strictly impossible.
Later, in the collection’s – arguably – titular story, Rose’s romance with Patrick receives frequent comparisons to performance. In speaking to Patrick, Rose “felt like a character in a play” (78). In all of their interactions, she “felt a need to be continually playful,” and her approach to sex is “an unpracticed counterfeit of passion” (84). While Rose believes the performance to be one sided, Patrick, however unwittingly, does his own part in constructing Rose’s identity: “He looked right through her, through all the distractions she was creating, and loved some obedient image that she herself could not see” (85). Just as the characters confronted with “bathroom noises” in “Royal Beatings” willfully dissociate these moments of unpleasant intimacy from the identity of their creator, Patrick constructs and preserves his own image of Rose’s identity. In Munro’s world, while identity can be performed, it is also subject to the performative efforts of others. No one individual has complete authority over their own identity. Individuals can manipulate the identities of others just as they can their own.
In this world, performance and reality are so inextricably entangled it becomes impossible even for the characters to discern a genuine moment, or perhaps even for such a thing to exist. Reflecting on her marriage to Patrick, Rose occasionally has brief glimpses of potentially authentic interactions in which “it was as if they were in different though identical-seeming skins, as if there existed a radiantly kind and innocent Rose and Patrick, hardly ever visible, in the shadow of their usual selves” (99). Munro’s world is full of such impostors and doppelgangers. From story to story, characters shift in and out of “different though identical seeming skins,” leaving no indication as to which, if any, is the original and which is mere costume. Each story features characters with the potential to be entirely distinct from those of the last – their essence is nominal only. Munro does not plot the progress of a few unique, constant characters as a novel would. Each distinct story depicts a separate fragment of a character’s fractured identity.
This notion of existence-as-performance takes on another dimension in the final – and also arguably titular – story of the collection, “Who Do You Think You Are?” In this story, Munro illustrates a paradox between the obligatory nature of performance and its disparaging connotation in society through a description of the annual Hanratty parades of Rose’s youth:
“One of the most derogatory things that could be said about anyone in Hanratty was that he or she was fond of parading around, but almost everyone in town … would get a chance to march in public in some organized and approved affair. The only thing was that you must never look as if you were enjoying it; you had to give the impression of being called forth out of preferred obscurity” (195).
Here, Munro illustrates the tacit culture of performance that governs life in Hanratty and, by extension, the narrative world. This performance is further complicated by a simultaneous condemnation of such behavior, thus resulting in a culture dominated by performance within performance. That is to say, while performing, one must also give a performance of rejecting performance. Thus, in Munro’s worldview, performance and sincerity are inextricably mixed, and it becomes impossible for anyone to discern genuine thought or behavior from performance even in themselves.
Given this harsh, if paradoxical, condemnation of performance in Hanratty society, much is made of Rose’s so-called “theatrics” throughout the collection. While this criticism is often merely the subject of Hanratty gossip, Rose’s own anxieties about her performance come to light at the end of the collection’s final story. Reflecting on her theater experience, Rose worries 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.” These anxieties are not limited to the stage, however, and Rose extends them to her very existence, noting that “everything she had done could sometimes be seen as a mistake” (209). Performance, then, is both intentional and inevitable, both obligatory and regrettable. Thus, in each story of The Beggar Maid, the curtain opens on an entirely new scene, perhaps related to but entirely distinct from its predecessor. This fractured, nonlinear approach to narrative structure and identity is reflective of Munro’s own later musings on narrative form. In the introduction to her Selected Stories, Munro remarks: “A story is not like a road to follow…it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows” (17). In The Beggar Maid, Munro constructs such a house, each room containing a separate performance populated by new characters who have slipped into different though identical skins.
The error of reading The Beggar Maid as a novel is perhaps no where better manifested than in the title of collection itself, or rather, in its retitling. Originally published as Who Do You Think You Are? the collection was retitled to The Beggar Maid outside of Canada. Though seemingly innocuous, this shift in title completely ignores the collection’s complex and crucial discussion of identity, and the ways this image is reflected in narrative form. “The Beggar Maid” refers to an allusion Patrick draws between Rose and the painting of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. Thus, the beggar maid is an identity bestowed on Rose by Patrick – one which she herself largely rejects. It is an identity Rose tries on, but only ever in the interest of preserving the integrity of the performance – the “deceits and stratagems” – she acknowledges form the basis of their relationship (84). “The beggar maid” is a no more comprehensive summation of Rose’s character than any of the other identities Rose assumes throughout the collection, rendering its choice as the titular story of the collection wildly erroneous.
To read the collection as The Beggar Maid is to read it as a novel, a linear progression of a character with one unified, eponymous identity. To read it as Who Do You Think You Are? is to understand that such a question can have no answer, and moreover, to recognize that the collection does not attempt to give one. As a title, Who Do You Think You Are? gives no illusion of a cohesive narrative, emphasizing rather than obscuring the beauty of fractured identity reflected in the distinct but loosely connected stories of the collection. The Beggar Maid attempts to direct its reader down a road to follow. Who Do You Think You Are? invites them into the house to explore.
Clark, Miriam Marty. “Allegories of Reading in Alice Munro’s ‘Carried Away.’” Contemporary Literature, vol. 37, no. 1, 1996, pp. 49–61. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
Dahlie, Hallvard. “The Fiction of Alice Munro.” Ploughshares, vol. 4, no. 3, 1978, pp. 56–71. Web. 28 Feb 2017.
Munro, Alice. The Beggar Maid. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.
Munro, Alice. Introduction. Selected Stories. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.
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.
Mrs. Fullerton’s Odd Dominos of Ambition
In the short story The Shining Houses by Alice Munro, Mary is a young inquisitive mother who explores the lives of her neighbours in the community. The story follows her day on the way to a child’s birthday party, the characters in the story all have their won plan with different outcomes and motives. The central focus discussed in this text is that of Mrs. Fullerton’s house and the farm like nature of the old property, the author gives a few perspectives from the community on how to handle it. This text suggests that the impact of ambition on one’s self and on others can be a collectives strength, an individual’s persistence and sometimes an unperceived stableness.
Although the house itself is not a living thing it has a determination of its own. The first paragraph of page three speaks about the house’s self-sufficiency, unalterable layout and lack of an understandable plan yet it was “fixed, impregnable, [had] all its accumulations necessary… were there to stay” the rest of the story is about how this impacts everyone else in the community. The unperceived stableness of Mrs. Fullerton’s house is a refreshing display of luck, the house was there before the town grew, she is an elderly strange woman but of all the people Mary knows she is also the one that has her life the most sorted out (page 1, paragraph 1). The property must’ve been chaotic at first, random sets of different farming and poorly planned layouts, probably easy to get lost in it at first till you learn your way around and things stop moving. It’s important as individuals to reach a point that we stop moving everything around and agree to just let it be, whatever it may be that seems strange will become strong. By letting things fall where they may it’s easier to find our true goals that will change our lives and the lives of those around us.
For a lot of characters, the house was strange and awful, but Mary understood the security and that resulted in an ambition within herself to protect it. When everyone agreed to try to remove Mrs. Fullerton’s home Mary was persistent in her refusal to go with the crowd. She would not sign the petition despite the pressure she felt. Page seven paragraph three Mary shows how she felt to be alone in her beliefs she had hoped to be strong but instead she had offered herself up for ridicule. Every individual has felt this at some point, at the beginning it’s easy to be proud of the decisions an individual makes but once others start to know about it and the satire begins it becomes increasingly more difficult to persist.
Yet once Mary gets to the birthday party the other parents are complaining about Mrs. Fullerton’s house, the smell, the look, and how it lowers proper value of the community. Page 6 paragraph five the parents start to get a mob mentality, they were growing off each others anger. “that was their strength, proof of their adulthood, of themselves and their seriousness” they form a crowd of drunkenness and start a petition to have a lane built and destroy the house. The intent of one man created a domino effect in other’s for their zeal to have the house removed as well. This display of power illustrates how an individual’s actions can influence others. This comes in forms of peer pressure mostly, naturally everyone wants to fit in therefore most individuals find it easier to go with the crowd and fit in than to go against it and be ridiculed.
Alice Munro does an excellent job in this short story to illustrate the impact of ambition on one’s self and on others, from the house to the neighbourhood everyone has their own goal. Some goals are collective, others are individual but each creates an effect on those around them, this is where the power of intent is displayed. Ambition is contagious as the author has clearly shown, individuals can use this to their strength or it can be their downfall, by embracing the differences Alice Munro has created a beautiful yet odd short story just like Mrs. Fullerton’s house.
Revisioning Childhood: Memory and the Senses in Alice Munro’s ”Walker Brothers Cowboy”
Walker Brothers Cowboy, a short story written by Alice Munro, presents the pivotal (and perhaps formative) experience of a young, unnamed, female narrator. Munroe filters the girl’s visual and olfactory-enriched memories through the present tense thoughts of a markedly matured voice, creating a nostalgic effect which foregrounds the significance of this childhood story to the narrator. A “warm night” filled with “cracked sidewalks” and the sound of “A very quiet, washing noise on the stones of the beach” (p. 2) greet the reader; these descriptions are the substance of the narrator’s world, in Walker Brothers Cowboy. It is important that Munro creates a substantial, three-dimensional world, seen from the perspective of this young, somber girl. ‘Seen’ is indeed the key word here. The sensory effects illustrated are mainly visual, to present the reader with a lucid and inviting reality. Not only is the established setting established more solidly and made easier to enter, but also the piercing visual descriptions of the narrator reveal her pre-adolescent perspective of discovery and lucidity. Here, the narrator interprets a central theme in Munro’s writing visually:“Children, of their own will, draw apart, separate into islands of two or one under the heavy trees, occupying themselves in such solitary ways as I do all day…” (p. 2)Though the twin themes of solitude and intimacy are only indirectly related to memory in Walker Brothers Cowboy, the narrator’s penetrating visual portrayal of each of them here is important. From this example, it is evident how the reader can access the heart of the story. Without these sprinklings of sensory metaphors and interpretation, the story would be a much dimmer, two-dimensional construct. For, instead of describing a perfectly linear plot through a straightforward first person narrative, Munro takes care to sketch her story fluidly. She makes small hops across times and spaces to illustrate the characters, setting and mood, but always staying within the confines of present-tense first person to limit and define the story. Because Munro’s writing style opens so many tiny possibilities, like pricks of sunlight that come through a straw hat, (p. 7) the reader must be able to enter the story on even terms with the narrator. Munro’s scattered sensory descriptions and metaphors draw the reader’s empathy towards the narrator very effectively. Once the reader is able to view and interpret the narrator’s world from her perspective, the concept of memory comes into play. The narrator, unlike her brother, can access these events via her memory. “No worry about my brother, he does not notice enough.”(p.11) Descriptions such as “little drops form along her upper lip, hang in the soft black hairs at the corner of her mouth,” (p. 10) which contrast the narrator and her brother, infuse the story with nostalgia. The perspective and feelings behind her memories are exposed, like a developing photograph, for reader and future versions of the narrator herself to examine. Hints of nostalgia are also present throughout the piece in the narrator’s formal, developed diction. While all of the narrator’s reactions and feelings are accurate for a young girl, her rich descriptions are reminiscent of an older, mature woman who is remembering an important past event. Nostalgia is also referenced inside of the story. On page three, her father describes the flow of icecaps with his hand in the snow. The narrator becomes uncomfortable in the twist of thoughts provoked by these vast passages of time: does entropy creep into everything?Entropy, an important aspect of nostalgia, is confronted by Munro, though subtly. The narrator admits: “I wish the Lake to be always just a lake,” (p. 3) Conveying both a longing for an unchanging world and the impossibility of that longing. However, there is one place the lake will be undisturbed by entropy. The lake, “with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown,” (p. 3) does exist, unchangeable and invulnerable to time, within the communication of the story. While any real place is susceptible to time, this fictional construct will live through Munro’s writing, within the narrator’s, and of course reader’s imagination and memory.The tension between the narrator’s mother and father, who represent much of the narrator’s world, contrast more than just their character. It emphasizes two different ways of looking at the past, two kinds of remembering. One agonizes over the past, lost in entropy or misfortune or time, and one creates fond memories in the present, regarding the past with serenity. Her father would create snatches of song which incite the narrator to laughter and pleasant memory. Whereas the narrator’s mother directly relates to presently felt nostalgia several times in the story: “Do you remember when we put you in your sled and Major pulled you?”. (p. 4) The narrator’s father sees the present with good humour, modesty, and an accepting, easygoing nature. Her mother looks at the present situation “with dignity, with bitterness, with no reconciliation,” (p. 3). The disparity between parents is sharply and humorously defined in the occurrence, and later retelling of the “pee” incident. While the father later retells the event as an anecdote, built up for comic effect, he hushes the children on page four, saying: “’Just don’t tell your mother that…she isn’t liable to see the joke.’” Finally, in the end of the story, the shocking realization appears that her mother and father represent two sides to the same coin. The family’s past was lost, buried under change like the dinosaurs were buried under ice. Yet of course it still exists, in her father’s memory, and now in the narrator’s, and reader’s as well. The narrator connects the imagery of glaciers and her father’s newfound past in the last page, using the metaphor of a landscape, with “All kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” (p. 11) Munro has beautifully sculpted a significant transitional period in this young woman’s life, exalting the tiny observations to the point of nostalgia. She reaches a climax, and a thoughtful resolution with few, and small plot events. With an introspective narrator, Munro is able to implant sensory details in the reader, and illuminate the moment of realization in a way with which the reader can empathize with and understand.Source:Munro, Alice. Walker Brothers Cowboy. The Norton Anthology of Literature: The Twentieth Century. Volume F. 2nd Edition. Ed. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack. W.W Norton & Co. New York and London, 2002.3010-3020.
A Childhood Dilemma: The Effects of Parental Sacrifice or Its Absence on the Narrators of “Boys and Girls” and “The Boat”
The road from childhood to adulthood takes many turns, the choices one makes early on shape one’s adult life. Due to traditional expectations, at some point during childhood, the realization of these choices can cause a significant dilemma; to follow one’s dreams or to fulfill their family obligations. The female narrator in “Boys and Girls” written by Alice Munro and the male narrator in “The Boat” written by Alistair MacLeod both face this dilemma. Both narrators want to pursue their dreams yet, they accept the gender roles forced upon them and they struggle internally. However, the sacrifice of a family member, or the lack thereof, provides different outcomes for each narrator.
Both narrators want to pursue their dream, but they end up accepting their family obligations which are gender roles and family tradition. The narrator from “Boys and Girls” despises the female gender roles her family imposes on her, yet she ends up accepting them. Since the narrator is the only girl in the family, her mother imposes some stereotypical, traditional, “endless, dreary, and peculiarly depressing” indoor obligations on her, although “as soon as [she is] done [she runs] out of the house” to help her father with his “ritualistically important” work done outside (Munro 4). The narrator loathes domestic chores which reflects that she despises her female-oriented gender roles. These chores make her feel depressed and bored. She sees them as a “dreary” obligation and when she is done, she leaves very enthusiastically by running out. She would rather work with her father; she finds his work more valuable and fulfilling. Over time, while she “[combs her] hair and [wonders] if [she] would be pretty” she simultaneously starts to“[feel] a little ashamed” of her “father and his work” (Munro 9). As she starts to grow up, she begins to care about her appearance, conforming to the gender roles her family assigned to girls. Along with this, her father’s work which she once admired, becomes a source of shame to her. These changes in her demonstrate that even though at first she despises the female gender roles forced upon her, she ultimately accepts them. This theme of compliance towards despised obligations continues with the narrator of “The Boat” who also ends up accepting male gender roles imposed on him by his family. While Munro links drudgery with female gender roles, MacLeod links it with education and escape; the narrator’s dreams. This male narrator knows that as the only son of his family, “David Copperfield and The Tempest and all of those friends [he] had dearly come to love must really go forever” since this dream of his does not abide by the family obligations forced upon him (MacLeod 8). He loves books and book characters are his “friends”. He wants to read his father’s books and to pursue his education, but he knows that he has to continue the family fishing business. When his father gets sick and can no longer go fishing, the boy feels pressured to do what his mom expects from him; he sacrifices his high school career to provide for his family by working on the boat. He deliberately accepts the male gender roles placed upon him and forgoes his desires. In like manner, both narrators have dreams that do not conform to the gender roles imposed on them; however, they both accept these obligations later on due to family obligations.
These family obligations result in an internal struggle in both narrators. The narrator from “Boys and Girls” is continuously confused within herself. By opening the gate for the horse to escape, Munro’s protagonist “[does] not make any decision to do this; it [is] just what [she does]” inevitably (Munro 10). The narrator describes helping Flora the horse escape as not a decision but an independent action that she has no control over. Opening a gate is, in fact, a decision. While not taking action is a possibility, the narrator takes the step to help Flora further escape by opening the gate. She knows she has to close the gate to help her father but she cannot get her body to do what she should do. There is a contrast between what she wants to do and what she actually does. This contrast originates from her deep internal confusion. By labeling her decision to open the gate as an inevitable action, the narrator proves that she cannot control her actions; thus she showcases complex confusion within herself. This complex confusion is powered from her internal struggle. Internal struggles confuse the narrator of “The Boat” as well. Post sight of his sorrowful drunk father’s concert among the tourists, the boy is “ashamed yet proud, young yet old and saved yet forever lost”, thus he cannot “control [his] legs which [tremble] nor [his] eyes which [weep]” in his deep confusion (MacLeod 6). The narrator uses many oxymorons to describe how confused he is. These are conflicting adjectives, for a person cannot be young and old at the same time. In these contrasting adjective pairs, a person can either be one or the other; not both simultaneously. These oxymorons are proof that the narrator is confused internally. His trembling leg and crying are also undoubtful external signs of his internal confusion. These internal struggles confuse him. The family obligations of both narrators result in an internal struggle.
These two stories differ in the existence or absence of support and sacrifice of a family member, which leads to different outcomes for each narrator. In “Boys and Girls”, the narrator does not have family support which makes her give up her ideals. Her grandmother tells her that “girls keep their knees together when they sit down”, and her mother wishes to “use her more in the house” as help (Munro 5-6). According to her family, girls have to behave domestically and do housework. Her family members constantly critique her on how she has to sit or behave. When her father learns that she allowed Flora to escape, he excuses her on the grounds that she is “only a girl” and is unfit to take responsibility as a boy would (Munro 12). This verbal pressure they put on her makes the narrator follow her obligations. Not a single person in her family supports her aspirations, they all see her as nothing more than her gender which makes her give them up and give in to her gender roles. MacLeod’s narrator’s supportive father, by contrast, tries to protect his son from gender expectations This pushes the narrator to pursue his dream. When the narrator cannot fight back against his mother’s expectations and accepts his obligation, his father insists that he “will go back tomorrow” and thinks “it is best that [the boy] [goes] back” to high school (MacLeod 8). The intellectual father is able to foresee the value of good education. He orders him to go back to school the next day. He does not want his kid to provide for the family, he would rather have him pursue his education. He supports him, which makes the narrator pursue his dream of education and become a university professor. The support and sacrifice of his father allow the narrator to transcend his circumstances as Munro’s female narrator, who lacks this family support, cannot.
Although both narrators want to pursue their dreams, they struggle internally and both grow up to accept the gender roles and obligations forced upon them. In contrast, the sacrifice or absence of sacrifice of a family member provides different outcomes for each narrator. By opening the gate for Flora, Munro’s protagonist betrays the male code of pragmatism and responsibility which makes her family confirm her as a girl. Similarly, MacLeod’s narrator accepts his masculine obligations and provides for his family against his own wishes. Although both of these are choices, they are heavily dependent on family dynamics. As a family member can ultimately lift one up to achieve their highest potential, or bring one down to accept their predetermined outcomes; parents must encourage their children to do what is best for themselves, not necessarily what is expedient for the family.