Alice Munro Short Stories
“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.
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.
No One Likes to Be Alone: The Lonely, Independent Women of Alice Munro
Along with stone tools, the Paleolithic Era brought on the division of labor according to gender. This division eventually created the inequality between men and women, which caused the endless battles women had to fight to regain their birth rights. Scant progress had been made before the mid to late 1800s; gradually, women earned their legal rights to work and be their own individual. The negative attitude towards women working outside of home had pivoted by the 1950s. However, many women were compelled to sacrifice a family life to maintain the independence their jobs provided them. The women in Alice Munro’s “Carried Away” and “The Albanian Virgin” attempt to hide their loneliness by promoting their independence through their jobs, sexual adventures, and alienation from society.
In The Ideal Woman, Jennifer Holt illustrated the stereotypical role of the socially acceptable woman during the 1950s and 1960s and its actual effect on women. During World War II, there were high demands for women in the workforce which gave rise to Rosie the Riveter and feminist movements. Nonetheless, after the war, employers and society pushed to retake the image of the domestic women. Having gained a taste of life outside of home, women created the Women’s Movement to counter those efforts. Despite the media’s best efforts, women were determined to keep their financial, social, and sexual independence. However, “they were still bound by the oppression of the domestic ideal” (Holt 2). They continue to feel less of a woman if they were not behaving as the portrayed mother and wife should. Alice Munro’s protagonist in “Carried Away,” Louisa, was caged in this concept of the ideal woman. Despite being comfortable with her single status, as soon as Jack initiated contact with her, subtle changes began to show. Unconsciously, she felt the need to act according to what she suspected society was expecting from a wife. She attended a meeting with the women in town to knit. Regardless, it was evident that Louisa was aware that she did not fit in because she refrained from revealing her relationship with Jack. She was afraid that “they would laugh at her or feel sorry for her, […], of being kind or brazen” (Munro 12). She was not the type of woman that others suspected of being romantically involved with anyone. Jack was her chance to get out of the old maiden image. When he took that chance away, she sought solace with Jim to prove that she wasn’t lonely. Her relationship with Jim was not based on emotions as was hers with Jack. Rather, it was Louisa’s way to regain her confidence and independence. After Jim, she went back to the comfort of her job, regaining her stability and putting away the image of the ideal woman she was trying to put on.
Virginia Pruitt took a psychological approach in her article, Gender Relations: Alice Munro’s ‘Differently’ and ‘Carried Away’. Focusing on the story “Carried Away,” Pruitt wrote that Louisa’s past relationships allowed her to be able to act against societal norms in her relationship with Arthur. Starting with her relationship with Jack, Pruitt showed that despite her independent nature, Louisa desired the normalcy that love and a husband would provide. Contrary to the belief of people surrounding her, “Louisa could easily have secured a mate had she chosen to [which] is indicated not only by Jack’s fervent romantic interest in her but also by the musings of another man, Jim Frarey, a month or so after Jack has disappeared from Louisa’s life” (Pruitt 10). Therefore, it was not her beauty nor her ability to entice a man that prevented her from marrying; it was her own independence. Nevertheless, Arthur came into the picture, unlike Jack and similarly to Louisa, his way of life was leaning towards the socially unconventionality. Rather than continuing with his previous relationship like Jack did, Arthur broke everything off to pursue the deep connection he felt toward Louisa. He was not scared off by her past reputation but he embraced her innovative attitude and proposed to her. Louisa’s acceptance indicated her readiness to embark on a “normal life” in which she will gain society’s acceptance per cultural tradition while retaining her independence.
Similarly, Dorota Filipczak addressed the traditional roles of women in her article – Gender and Space in ‘The Albanian Virgin’. Filipczak analyzed Alice Munro’s short story, “The Albanian Virgin,” which intertwined the lives of two women, Lottar and Claire. Filipczak drew attention to the Albanian customs with women who are “the product of [their bodies] or [their] hands” (Filipczak 5) and their importance in attributing gender to the spaces they occupy. She also referred to Lottar’s new status as a Virgin as the gender of choice. Becoming a virgin “is perhaps the only choice she is allowed to make in order to defy patriarchy on the strength of male approval” (8). Joshua Zumbrun also directed attention to the sacrifices that this choice entitled in his article, The Sacrifices of Albania’s ‘Sworn Virgins’. Women who make this choice carry it with pride but not all of them live without regrets. The sworn virgins take the oath for reasons varying from escaping an unwanted marriage or to become the head of the family when there are no more men to take on the role. Some of them take the oath to hold on to their independence because as one virgin put it, marriage, “even when there’s love and harmony, only men have the right to decide. I want total equity or nothing”(Zumbrun 2). In a patriarchal society, the virgin oath is the best route women have to maintain their independence. Many will take it even if it means they will be alone for the rest of their lives. In “The Albanian Virgin,” Lottar took the virgin oath. In her situation, it was a sink or swim choice. As a foreigner who was taken in by the tribe, she did not have any materialistic worth. She did not own any properties nor power therefore, as the villagers saw it, the only way she could contribute to the group is by having her sold to a Muslim. Lottar was not aware of her conundrum as she was being dressed up until the priest showed up. He placed the two choices before her – marry a Muslim or become a virgin. So, in Lottar’s case, the virgin oath deemed to be the best of two evils. She was not fully aware that while it will give her independence, it will also alienate her from the rest of the society. Nonetheless, in Claire’s case – Lottar’s parallel character – she was fully aware of her path to loneliness when she walked out on Nelson after her husband left her for cheating on him.
Lottar and Claire were both running away from a relationship they felt like was being forced unto them against their will. Consequently, they both ended up alone. Lottar occupied her time by looking after the sheep while Claire took care of her bookstore. Yet, they were both highly aware that their lives were incomplete. In spite of their craving for independence, when the opportunity presented itself, both women took it. Claire went with Nelson when he came “to claim” her (Munro 127) and Lottar was reunited with the priest at Trieste. Alice Munro has captured many sides of women’s struggles through her short stories. In her anthology, Open Secrets, she illustrated the fight for balance between the working woman and the family woman. The women in the stories, “Carried Away”, and “The Albanian Virgin” tried to bypass the balance by focusing solely on their independence. It was not because they preferred to be alone but because society had made them believe that such a balance was not possible. The ideal woman had to be solely a family woman. The two stories concluded with the women finding someone to put a stop to their lonely path. Some were happy and found the balance like Louisa others were “satisfied” as Claire said in the conclusion of her story.
Bromwich, Rebecca. “Remembering the Fight for Women’s Suffrage.” National Magazine. The Canadian bar Association, 17 July 2015. Web.
Filipczak, Dorota. “Gender and Space in ‘The Albanian Virgin’.” 2016. PDF.
Holt, Jennifer. “The Ideal Women.” N.D. PDF.
Munro, Alice. “Carried Away.” Open Secrets. Random House, 1994, pp 3-51.
Munro, Alice. “The Albanian Virgin.” Open Secrets. Random House, 1994, pp 81-128.
Pruitt, Virginia D. “Gender Relations: Alice Munro’s ‘Differently’ And ‘Carried Away’.” Bulletin Of the Menninger Clinic. 2000. Web.
Zumbrun, Joshua. “The Sacrifices of Albania’s ‘Sworn Virgins’.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 11 Aug. 2007. Web.
“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.
Unorthodox Gender Roles in “Boys and Girls” and “The Yellow Wall-paper”
Judith Fetterly coined the term “immasculation” in her 1978 book “The Resisting Reader,” using it to define the process by which “women are taught […] to identify with a male point of view and to accept as normal and legitimate a male system of values” (3). In the short stories “Boys and Girls,” by Alice Munro, and “The Yellow Wall-paper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the narrators can be thought of as immasculated readers of themselves. Munro’s unnamed speaker—a young girl who initially finds more joy outdoors assisting with man’s archetypal work than in a “hot dark kitchen” with her mother—“[would] not evolve naturally into [a] gendered adult” if she did not accept her femaleness and embrace femininity (Goldman 62). Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper” is an unreliable narration that conveys gender oppression in the form of “[the female protagonist’s] well-meaning but insensitive husband” (Martin 736). At times, both Munro’s and Gilman’s narrators defy gender conventions; the young girl’s is a story of growth that features a symbolic rite of passage, while the oppressed woman seeks meaning and independence despite deterioration of the mind.Munro introduces the protagonist as impressionable and deferential to her patriarch father. The young girl views her mother in stark contrast to her father insofar as gender roles and “ritualistically important” work is concerned: “I felt my mother had no business down here and I wanted [my father] to feel the same way” (Munro 4). The main reason for the speaker’s differing from feminine ideologies concerns her great respect and admiration for her father and his gruelling, meaningful job. She “rake[s] furiously, red in the face with pleasure” when her father introduces her as his “new hired hand” to a feed salesman, to which the salesman jokingly responds, “‘Could of fooled me’ […] ‘I thought it was only a girl’” (Munro 3). For most of the story, the narrator disregards the conventional gender role for a girl of her age, instead remaining steadfast and content as a fox farmer’s assistant. Her mother, wishing to “use [the girl] more in the house,” resents the position, although Munro makes clear the girl’s aversion for her mother as well: “It seemed to me she would [try to keep me working with her in the house] simply out of perversity, and to try her power.”As her story progresses, Munro symbolizes boys and girls with two horses named Mack and Flora. Mack is described as “slow and easy to handle,” while Flora, a mare, is more unruly and spontaneous, though the family “love[s] her speed and high-stepping” (Munro). During the winter of the horses’ arrival, and in the speaker’s eleventh year, she comes to a newfound self-realization regarding her atypically-gendered state: “A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become” (Munro). When she learns of the impending death of Mack, she, along with her younger brother, Laird, locates a spot from which to witness the shooting. Afterwards, the girl’s legs are shaky and she is grateful to be down from their vantage point. This disquieting state is in clear contrast to Laird, who she finds to be “not frightened or upset;” her father, who shot the horse in such an “easy, practiced way;” and Henry, her father’s hired help, who laughed at Mack’s post-shot convulsions (Munro 6). This further perpetuates her reduction of masculine ideologies, as she reflects on the shooting with feelings of shame and begins to view her father and his work with “a new wariness” (Munro 6). Later on, during the botched shooting of Flora, the girl unconsciously throws the gate to the farm open for the horse to run free. Following this act, the girl finds herself “trying to make [her] part of [her bedroom] fancy” and “concern[ing herself] at great length with what [she looks] like” (Munro 7). Here, Munro is instilling feminine ideologies into the speaker, making it seem as though Flora’s freedom, however temporary, serves to represent the young girl’s transition into a more archetypal role.In “The Yellow Wall-paper,” Gilman creates a character isolated from “society and stimulus” by way of her controlling husband, John (2). The narrator displays a sense of naivety or ignorance to John’s dominant, oppressive ways: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage” (Gilman 1). Because he is “a physician of high standing, and [her] own husband,” the narrator is coerced into following his orders, which, in this case, keep her confined to one small room in their new mansion (Gilman 1). Initially, she “disagree[s] with [his] ideas,” desiring “less opposition and more society and stimulus,” but John forbids it, and “hardly lets [her] stir without special direction” (Gilman 2; 3). This blind faith in what is essentially man’s oppression over his wife is an example of her being immasculated.Gradually, the woman’s mind slips into psychosis. The solitary, forcedly bland confinement worsens her state of mind, until, eventually, she sees herself as an apparition inside the “repellent” yellow pattern which adorns the walls. She continues to dream of escaping, but describes “bars […] too strong to even try” to jump from the window, making for a prison-like atmosphere and further illustrating her total entrapment (Gilman 15). Despite the woman’s state of insanity, she is able to achieve an individualistic freedom. Her mind deteriorates further while she remains transfixed on this woman in the wallpaper until the climax. John, the man chiefly responsible for his wife’s state of mind, arrives to check on her and faints when he sees the torn wallpaper and his wife “creep[ing] smoothly on the floor” (Gilman 15). Exemplifying women’s liberty from oppression, the narrator exclaims, “‘I’ve got out at last’ […] ‘you can’t put me back!’” (Gilman 16). Similarly, within the last line of the story, Gilman conveys a sense of achievement and a sort of progress in the narrator, as she “‘had to creep over [her collapsed husband] every time!’” (16).The immasculation of the protagonists is evident in both Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper.” Munro crafts a storyline that witnesses the growth of a child and the opposing gender roles that come with it, while Gilman creates a woman’s journal which implies that a tyrannical, abusive husband is chiefly responsible for her mental collapse. Gender ideologies are referenced throughout either short story: “Boys and Girls” details a young girl’s change from masculine to feminine; “The Yellow Wall-paper” deals in gender oppression and, thus, women’s rights.
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.