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Alice Munro: “Axis”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Alice Munro’s “Axis” was first published in The New Yorker‘s January 31, 2011, issue.

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It’s always nice to see that the weekly story is by Alice Munro.  “Axis,” a story that begins half a century ago, when two girls are attending college, and spans the many years to old age, does not disappoint.

When the story begins, Avie and Grace are two college girls, history majors, to be exact.  They’re carrying books home for vacation, though they will never read them.  Partly, they will never read them because that is the nature of a vacation; partly, though, because an education is not their primarily goal in college.

They understood — everybody understood — that having any sort of job after graduation would be a defeat.  Like the sorority girls, they were enrolled here to find somebody to marry.  First a boyfriend, then a husband.  It wasn’t spoken of in those terms, but there you were.  Girl students on scholarships were not usually thought to stand much of a chance, since brains and looks were not believed to go together.  Fortunately, Grace and Avie were both attractive.  Grace was fair and stately, Avie red-haired, less voluptuous, lively, and challenging.  Male members of both their families had joked that they ought to be able to nab somebody.

Both girls have potential.  Yes, they have potential in their education, but I mean here that they have solid marriage prospects.  Avie is dating Hugo.  Avie thought that having sex might make her love Hugo, but mostly it has just created the stress of a potential pregnancy.  Avie has just finished telling Grace about a terrible dream in which she has two children with Hugo; one she has locked away in the basement, the other is lively and loved.  So Avie has Hugo, but when she’s being honest with herself, she’d rather be with Grace’s boyfriend, Royce, a veteran of World War II.  Grace is a virgin, something Royce is not used to but will patiently tolerate for a time.

As happens in an Alice Munro story, once the stage is set there is no more dilly-dallying.  We quickly move in time to Royce getting on a bus to visit Grace at her home.  At one of the stops, he looks out the window and sees Avie.

He remembered that she had quit college just before her exams.  Hugo had graduated and got a job teaching high school in some northern town, where she was to join him and marry him.

Royce is tempted to get off the bus and ask Avie out, but he doesn’t.  Instead, he goes to Grace’s home and, primarily interested in one thing (somehow claiming Grace’s “vaunted virginity), he suffers through the niceties of the family, including a provincial day of making strawberry jam.

The story slows down here to allow us to experience these few days before Royce looks back on them with the following sentiment:

He remembered whispering to Grace the day before they were doing the strawberries, kissing under the rush of cold water when her mother’s back was turned.  Her fair hair turning dark in the stream of water.  Acting as if he worshipped her.  How at certain moments that had been true.  The insanity of it, the insanity of letting himself be drawn.  That family.  That mad mother rolling her eyes to heaven.

It seems like the climax of the story has passed — certainly there has almost been a climax — but Munro is not through with these characters.  She moves to Avie and Hugo, through their long years together, and finally to a time in old age when Avie and Royce again meet. 

This is a powerful story, superbly crafted.  I must say, January’s New Yorker fiction has been a great way to begin the year.

21 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “Axis””

  1. Joe says:

    This was a great story. So much to think about. I already want to reread it.

    As usual with Munro, you never know quite where it is going or which ideas will turn out to be central to appreciating the story. As Trevor pointed out, you’re never quite sure whether an event is a climax or not.

    It was especially interesting for me to read this story just after reading the article in last week’s New Yorker about Betty Freidan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” In many ways, this story is about the “before” and “after” that that book helped bring about.

  2. Betsy says:

    Joe, you say, “As Trevor pointed out, you’re never quite sure whether an event is a climax or not.” ‘Never quite sure’ sums up the slight vertigo the story produces. For one thing, the title word, axis, has 9 exact and different (almost conflicting) meanings in my dictionary. Within her story, axis occurs as a geologic term describing a main line of motion in a rock formation (I think). But Munro is playing with other meanings as well. For one thing, her characters revolve on an axis of perception and motivation that excludes them from actually understanding anyone else. As Royce says of his book and publishers, “People don’t always see in it what you see yourself.”
    Another vertiginous force in the story are the two stories that frame it, one from Avi and one from Royce.
    Just before her marriage, Avi has a horrifying dream that she has shut her howling baby daughter in a basement room and then blithely produced another baby girl who is contented. The tangent of the story suggests that the two babies are sides of herself – that in this marriage to Hugo she will have to wall up a side of herself in the basement, and will have to produce another self – a contented one. But there is also the suggestion that family can do this to its daughters, or that the culture can. This basement imprisonment is certainly no viable room of one’s own, but Avi reports that the baby survives in its cell and even talks. Grace says the dream is scary, and it is, but not because Avi is a baby murderer, but because Avi senses adulthood is going to require she control or silence a side of herself. Avi keeps reading after she has children, but not to any purpose that we can see, at least not to the purpose of the serious student she once was.
    The idea of people imprisoned in rock repeats in Royce, as he describes with excitement and satisfaction the exposed Frontenac Axis which they can see from the train, which once was lava bursting through rock, but now is frozen in place. This image resonates with our perception of Royce, unmarried, except to his work.
    Munro mentions the feminist revolution of the 60′s, but she points out that it hardly affected these characters. Life for these women and men seems to eke itself out under layers of rock. Change, here, would be in geologic terms.
    The axis of the story, though, might be Grace. Grace is the girl who cries to Royce, “Take me. Take me with you.” But what we see is that she doesn’t risk it herself – she doesn’t pick herself up and try to flee with him, risking all the uncertainty and loss that such an action would entail.
    Or the axis of the story might just be the element of horror – a couple of adults being burst in on in bed and purposely humiliated by a scheming parent. Or that the girl has planned this liaison to occur in such a stupid place with perhaps the idea that her mother will put an end to it. There’s a kind of Jamesian horror here.
    The story is a complex composition of fragments that only partially exposes the whole (like the rock formations in road cuts). Just as a little example – what is the name Avi and how is it pronounced? Trying to get a grip on the story may not be exactly what Munro intends we do – because maybe she intends the story be difficult to grasp. Look at it one way, it’s this, look at it another, it shifts. You get just a glimpse of these people. You have to make up the rest. Her own authorly opinion, her sentiment, her loyalties, all seem obliquely represented, at best. Maybe that’s one thing that makes people like Munro. The understatement, the lack of cant. Avi says of her six adult children, “After a point, you know, they’re just people.” No gush. What is that? You could wonder quite a while on just that line.
    The story’s not an instant read. I had to read it three times and sleep on it to have some patterns emerge. I suppose it takes me that long to give up on trying to bully the story into saying things that it doesn’t say.

  3. Aaron says:

    I agree with you guys, especially what Joe says, since it echoes what I think: you never know exactly where Munro is going to go with a story, and yet you trust that all the pieces will somehow connect or enhance the story, straight down to the “Axis,” the meaning of which Betsy takes quite a deal further than I do in my assessment here: http://tinyurl.com/6jfmtun.

    There are two critical moments, fifty years apart, which involve seeing an image from a moving vehicle, both experienced by Royce. There are decisions that happen in a heartbeat, ones that are either acted upon (Royce again, geology) or suppressed (Grace, which destroys her), moments that reflect Avie’s dream. There is the transition in women’s rights that passes Avie right by, for that’s never been her game.

    One of the best things I’ve read by Munro, actually.

  4. Joe says:

    Just a few more thoughts, if I may…

    Munro seems to be getting better with age, if it’s possible for her to improve upon something that was already so good. Her writing is never flashy or gimmicky, never calls attention to itself, and she always makes it look effortless.

    What I appreciate most is that there is something very grown up (for lack of a better term) about her point of view. Her stories often address regret, forgiveness, and hope — which are pretty big themes –but you never feel that she is pontificating.

    I do hope she wins the Nobel Prize one of these years!

  5. eilis says:

    Hi

    Does anyone else have problems accessing the New Yorker? Is there an easy way to access e.g. the Munro short story?

  6. Trevor says:

    Hey, eilis. I’m Assuming you are not a subscriber to The New Yorker. If you are, then I’m not sure what the issue could be because I have had no problems. There’s a link to the story abstract at the top of this page, but you must be a subscriber to access the story itself. For the last several years a large majority of the stories were available to non-subscribers, but that has changes in the last few months.

  7. Craig says:

    Betsy — I think you’re onto it with Grace as “the axis”, both for Royce and Avie, a common fixed mark, like the geology that rises into view. Seen differently by lives that might have collided and loved, but where neither character can imagine a life having been greatly or importantly different had they had their ‘fling’.

    Royce and Avie appear to be the somewhat heartless survivors of the story and Grace the victim of their abandonments. She’s a sorry figure from their views — one aspect of the baby Avie dreams she’s abandoned in a celler. Just one of many possible mothers of the babies Royce dreams he has somewhere.

    I think Munro wants our initial feeling to be pathos verging on bathos for Grace who is abandoned by Avie and Royce, who Mookse so rightly points out merely “frame” the story. They appear to be the strong survivors who found their way. But Grace, upon reflection, is the only real actor and the central event (Why did she arrange to lose her virginity this way? Royce wonders) is of her construction. And, as if to set that point in high relief, she (Munro) has the seducer Royce actually lying there waiting for it.

    Being caught sexually was likely Grace’s stratagem to get free of her stifling family. Her case of “nerves” and/or “colitis” (a hysterical pregnancy or a real one) which keeps her from returning to University and which Avie never investigates leads the reader to see Avie’s dream of abandoning a baby in the cellar as an aspect of her own abandoning nature (and the baby was not just her fear of pregnancy but her fear of Grace, of someone strangely different who she could never be reconciled to, someone with agency).

    Royce, too, seems to simply be doing the right thing for his own survival — to get away from Grace, leave her to that horrible family. “Take me,” Grace says. But she was lucky he left. The guy wasn’t up to the fabulous scene she had set. He couldn’t play the role of the hero, in her life, and as it turned out, in his own.

    Whatever happened to Grace? With an imagination like that, who knows, maybe she became… Alice Munro.

  8. eilis says:

    I am a subscriber to the digital edition – subscribed in order to get this new Alice Munro story. It used to be easy to access stories (and free!) but their new system is complicated. Possibly not compatible with some browsers – although it’s annoying that the compatibility problems arise after they take your money, not before.

    I guess the positive side is that when Alice Munro’s next collection appears, the stories will be new to me!

  9. Joe says:

    Eilis, I’m not sure if this is your problem or not, but the New Yorker web site is notoriously fussy about log-in names and passwords. I finally have it all working now, but I remember having different log-ins for my subscription, for the caption contest, and for the digital edition. It’s a pain, but you might try re-registering (and double checking that you’re using the correct password). Good luck!

  10. I would like to add another “axis” to the interpretation of the story — the frequent use in mathematics of one axis to represent “time” with the other representing distance or incidents that occur over that stretch of time. Munro makes frequent references to it, from geological eras, to the 50 year separation in the narrative, to the fact both Avie and Grace are history majors, to the hours of strawberry making. As she frequently does in her stories, incidents happen at various points along that axis — some major ones fall by the wayside as time progresses, smaller ones emerge as far more important. The sum of all this is a life, mainly Avie’s in the story, secondarily Royce’s and we are left to wonder about Grace.

    I agree about the sense of “vertigo” that is present in Munro’s best stories. It is the gaps between these incidents that occur over time which the reader is left to fill in for her/himself — and I think that process is what makes Munro such a talented short story-writer.

    Another thing that she is very good at is illustrating the different types of choices faced by men and women (particularly of the author’s generation). What is major for the woman (“vaunted virginity”) is just another conquest for the man (discovering geology as a career is “major”). Time, however, narrows those differences — the escarpment between the two becomes less obvious with the passage of decades.

    One reason why I like more recent Munro work better is a product of that effect — as the author has aged this “axis” has become extended in her fiction. Certainly, the early work is exquisite in its appreciation of detail — the more recent work has a breadth and depth that is truly exceptional.

    An excellent story but, as an Alice fan, I would expect no less.

  11. Trevor says:

    I don’t want to interrupt the discussion here, but I must briefly to thank everyone for your valuable contributions here. This discussion and the ones for the past few stories are just what I hoped for when I moved this part of my blog from the background to the foreground. Another story up to read tomorrow!

  12. Ken says:

    I always like Munro’s stories and I enjoyed this one but didn’t get a lot out of it which is why I’m really glad for the other comments this time which were very illuminating especially those of Betsy and Kevinfrom Canada.

  13. PHYLLIS says:

    Read this story along with 30 other people in a New Yorker fiction discussion group. Yes, you do have to have a subscription to the New Yorker to read almost all the stories now. They are holding on to the last vestiges of printed literature. COMPLAIN! perhaps something will be changed.

  14. Trevor says:

    I actually don’t mind that they expect readers to pay to read their work. They are also holding on to high standards of editing that are dropping rapidly elsewhere as people come up with cost-effective ways to make their content free. Their work is certainly worth the price I pay, which can’t be said of the many who are totally free now. I was always surprised by how much of their content was free. Much of it still is, including this week’s dark story by Mary Gaitskill.

    My major complaint is that they don’t offer print subscribers free content on the iPad app. If I want to read on that app I have to pay $5 per issue, despite having already paid for the printed issue. Needless to say, I have never even given the app $5 just to see how it is.

    Still, they do give print subscribers, at no extra cost, full access to all of their archives. That’s worth the subscription price right there.

  15. I am with you Trevor — with the work that the New Yorker does, I fully expect to pay. For me, the irony is that the free stories come in a much more readable format than the ones from the archive. I trust some teenager is in the process of sorting that out.

    My mild grumpiness is that so many recent “short stories” are actually excerpts — I can’t really complain since the magazine labels them “fiction” and not short stories. Still, I don’t think it would be a stretch for the magazine to indicate that the week’s “fiction” is an excerpt, not a short story.

  16. Trevor says:

    I agree, Kevin. I have an aversion to the ones that are excerpts and would like to know going in that that’s what they are. My aversion seems to be slightly unfounded since I have enjoyed many of the excerpts. Probably it’s my aversion to the idea that short stories are getting short shrift in order to publicize an upcoming book.

  17. I’d just like them to be honest. I appreciate the excerpts, but why won’t they say in advance that is what they are.

  18. Joe says:

    I also agree about excerpts. It seems to me that it would be to everyone’s advantage for the New Yorker to label the excerpts as such. That way, they wouldn’t have to rework the pieces to give them some sense of closure (I think most of the excepts that are published are not straight excerpts, but reworked versions that theoretically have a bit more integrity as separate pieces). I’ve never understood why the New Yorker is squeamish about calling an excerpt an excerpt.

  19. Tim says:

    What haunts me about this story is how quickly Grace is forgotten. She almost has no voice in the story. She reaches out to Royce when he leaves, but is left behind. Also, in her letter she reaches out to Avie who doesn’t respond. Both Avie and Royce move on. Grace is barely a memory for either of them.

  20. Trevor says:

    Nice insight, Tim! I hadn’t considered that.

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