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.
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