“Haven”
by Alice Munro
from the March 5, 2012 issue of The New Yorker

I‘ve now read this story three times, and it just keeps getting better. Here’s how it begins:

All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it the seventies were not as we picture them now, or as I had known them even in Vancouver. The boys’ hair was longer than it had been, but not straggling down their backs, and there didn’t seem to be an unusual amount of liberation and defiance in the air.

We see the lack of defiance very early. Our narrator is reflecting on when, as a young girl, she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle. Her parents, Unitarians, liberal thinkers, took off to do good works in Ghana, leaving their heretofore free-thinking daughter with domineering Uncle Jasper and ultra-submissive Aunt Dawn. Munro sets the stage by presenting their first lunch conversations. Uncle Jasper is asking the narrator about her parents, poking fun at their strange beliefs:

“But they believe in doing good works and living a good life,” I added.

A mistake. Not only did an incredulous expression come over my uncle’s face — raised eyebrows, marvelling nod — but the words just out of my mouth sounded alien even to me, pompous and lacking conviction.

. . .

My uncle was satisfied, for the moment. He said that we’d have to drop the subject, as he himself needed to be back ast his practice doing his own good works by one o’clock.

Dawn is sitting silently throughout this mild confrontation. Here’s how Munro introduces her and her submissiveness:

It was probably then that my aunt picked up her fork and began to eat. She would have waited until the bristling was over. This may have been out of habit, rather tahn alarm at my forwardness. She was used to holding back until she was sure that my uncle had said all that he meant to say. Even if I spoke to her directly, she would wait, looking at him to see if he wanted to do the answering.

This home is Uncle Jasper’s. It is his haven, and it is his wife’s responsibility to keep it that way. Interestingly, he seems to be a different person when he’s not there. Outside, he is a doctor, apparently one of the finest in the community, well respected. Our narrator is shocked to find him relatively non-confrontational out there. But at home, his wife is terrified of even the slightest hint of her own impropriety that she correct innocuous statements like this one when she tells how she and Jasper met:

I was staying with a friend — I mean a friend’s family up here — and I got really sick.

It’s terrifying to see Dawn with her husband, and Munro doesn’t hold back on the cruelty. Here is Dawn refusing to commit to anything, even a simple question from the narrator:

“So what do you like?”

“I like pretty much anything.”

“You must like some things better than other things.”

She wouldn’t grant more than one of her little laughs. This was the nervous laugh, similar to but more concerned than, for example, the laugh with which she asked Uncle Jasper how he liked his supper. He nearly always gave approval, but with qualifications. All right, but a bit too spicy or a bit too bland. Perhaps a little over- or possibly undercooked. Once, he said, “I didn’t,” and refused to elaborate, and the laugh vanished into her tight lips and heroic self-control.

The story moves onward, and we meet the new neighbors at a few awkward get-togethers Jasper disapproves of. We also learn about “a thorn” in Uncle Jasper’s side: his violinist sister Mona. They have had little to no contact over the decades, but she is coming to the town to put on a concert. The story ratchets up the tension and culminates leaving a ringing in your ears.

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By | 2017-06-02T17:09:17+00:00 March 2nd, 2012|Categories: Alice Munro, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. jerry March 3, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    Two pages into this, I thought it the best Munro story i had read in several years but for me at least it tailed off at the end..and I don’t care for the ending.

    I wonder if TNY’s length restrictions are hampering Munro maybe more than others..She was known for writing long stories.

    Still any Munro story is well worth reading and this is no exception.

  2. Aaron March 9, 2012 at 5:46 am

    I’m wishing for further comments on this one, or perhaps some elaborations from Jerry. As I wrote here (http://shortaday.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/alice-munro-haven/) I pretty much despised this piece. I read it several times, struggling with some of the language, and I not only don’t know what it’s about, I don’t even really know *who* it is about. Not a single character speaks to me, and I don’t think Munro plays fair, for I can’t even really guess at the motivations that she leaves so mysterious.

    The ending, which tails off for Jerry, comes across as an utter cop out to me, and I find the shift into present tense (to say nothing of the intro’s disclaimers and second-hand narrative) to be jarring and unnecessary; not what you’d expect from an author of this caliber.

    I wish Munro had stuck with what I thought the story was about — quiet rebellion from the seemingly happy aunt, even as the rebellious niece winds up submitting to the uncle’s version of happiness — or at least had not written this suggestion so much into my mind with that initial, on-the-nose section.

    Had this been any other author, I’d have simply moved on; because it’s Munro, I’m fixated on better understanding why I don’t like this piece.

  3. jerry March 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    I can’t really help you I fear..I am not sure who or what it is supposed be about myself, the familiar Munro style is there, a narrator looking back on her younger years and how what she observed in others changed her life or at least helped fashion her.

    It kept me interested but it’s not vintage Munro..all I can really say.

  4. John of Montreal March 17, 2012 at 12:17 am

    This responds to Aaron’s post. The title is often an important key in an Alice Munro story. A haven is a place of safety or sanctuary: a home, a castle, a church. In my reading the story “Haven” documents a time – not that long ago – where women were treated as a chattel, and appeared to accept the role of a serf, subject to the will of the owner, the master, the lord, who was, of course, their husband.

    Dawn seems to be content in this role. Her life is devoted to her husband. Her most important job was making a haven for her man. “The house was his, the choice of menu his, the radio and television programs his”. “[T]hings had to be ready for his approval at any moment.” “[H]ousehold godliness was presided over by [Dawn] and arrived at by Bernice, the maid”.

    Uncle Jasper is treated like a king. Jasper was the name of one of the Magi: one of the three kings that were said to have visited the newborn Jesus, the wise men from the East. “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traversed afar”.
    Jasper Castle is his name and a man’s home is his castle.

    After Dawn disobeys him with the little party, Jasper, as a sign of his forgiveness, gives her a pendant of bloodstone on Valentine’s Day.
    Bloodstone is formed when pieces of green jasper become spotted red by iron oxide deposits.
    Early Christians believed that bloodstone was created during the cruxifixion as some of Jesus Christ’s blood dropped onto jasper stones beneath the cross. Some of that blood may have come from the crown of thorns placed on his head.

    Mona’s funeral was held at the Church of Hosannas.
    Hosanna is a cry for salvation as well as a declaration of praise.
    It was the cry of praise and adoration shouted in recognition of Jesus as the Messiah on his entry into Jerusalem. “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the lord” – Mathew 21:9 (KJV)

    Dawn is inappropriately dressed at the funeral wearing a suit of soft lilac colour and a Persian lamb jacket. Is she in sheep’s clothing or is she the sacrificial lamb?
    “She looked very pretty and seemed to be in good spirits that she could hardly subdue” Why?
    “The thorn had been removed”.
    Mona was dead.
    Jasper would be relieved of his pain “and that could not help but make her happy”

    The narrator has been influenced by Jasper. She was no longer so uncritical of people like Mona.
    “It was the music itself and her devotion to it”.
    “Devotion to anything, if you were female, could make you ridiculous”.

    Jasper arrived at the funeral and removed all traces of his dead sister’s life – her music, the one thing she had devoted her life to – by stopping the music and getting rid of her musical companions. Jasper removes the pianist and seats Bernice in her place (his surrogate is on the throne). [The meaning of the name Bernice is the bringer of victory, the bearer of victory.]

    Jasper then gestures the congregation to stand and sing ‘The Old Rugged Cross’.
    The lyrics suggest that Mona has been the cross that Jasper has had to bear all his life. She’s the “old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame”.
    The refrain they sing is, “so I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, til my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it someday for a crown”.
    Jasper, the king, can finally exchange his cross, his sister, for the crown.
    But wait! He’s trapped. He’s stranded. “He cannot turn to face the altar”.
    Everything has gone ok…but not quite as he imagined it.

    Dawn doesn’t participate in the singing. The narrator says of her “…perhaps she caught that shadow of disappointment on Uncle Jasper’s face before he was even aware of it himself”.
    “Or perhaps she realized that, for the first time, she didn’t care. For the life of her, couldn’t care”.
    And the story ends with the minister saying ‘Let us pray’.

    Dawn had arrived at the funeral dressed in the colour of a new dawn “soft lilac”. As the narrator’s parents had described funerals as a ‘celebration of life’ (meaning, of course, the life of the deceased), but Dawn is there to celebrate a new life with her husband, a post-Mona life, a life without the thorn in his side, a life without that constant pain. “She looked very pretty and seemed to be in good spirits that she could hardly subdue.”

    She has been devoted to Jasper, treating him like a god. But with his final act of revenge against his dead sister, she realizes that even though the thorn has been removed the poison will always remain and the “shadow of disappointment” will forever obscure his vision. She can’t participate in the singing. She can no longer” just trail along’ with the hypocrisy. Dawn “realized that, for the first time, she didn’t care”. For the life of her, [Dawn] couldn’t care” for Jasper. All we can do for someone like Jasper is to pray for him.

    I thought the ending was perfect, but so subtle that if you moved too quickly you might miss the epiphanic moment.

  5. Ken March 19, 2012 at 3:38 am

    Bravo, John from Montreal. You may be taking up the slack of writing the kind of admirable exegesis which the, sadly missed, Betsy had been undertaking. I loved this story and I’ll agree that I didn’t quite get it, that was part of what I liked. After 3 stories-McGuane, Chabon and Boyle-lacking in any subtext or mystery, here comes Munro with a quirky, odd, ironic and mysterious little tale. Certainly it deals with patriarchy, now-abandonned gender roles, a certain type of provinicial narrow-mindedness and it also is tantalizing in dealing with a teen who instead of rebelling becomes more of a conformist. But….beyond that there is something ineffable here. John, though, helped explain what I may have vaguely sensed.

  6. Betsy July 28, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Trevor – so glad you liked this story enough to read it three times!
    John, I loved your analysis. It rang so true, and deepened my sense of the story.

    What matters to me about this story is the feminine spirit-capture: Dawn’s, Mona’s, and the niece’s, not to mention the mother who had escaped to Ghana. Speaking of names, I notice the similarity between Munro and Mona: Munro, who escaped, and Mona, who had also escaped.

    I suggest that Dawn, Jasper’s subservient wife, had actually chosen her role after she had dropped out of nursing school. What do you do in the sixties when you fail out of nursing? There is not anything else to do except teaching, hardly any easier than nursing. (Yes, I know that Mona had made a life of classical music, but as Munro pointed out, that required “devotion” and devotion also required giving up the ordinary pleasures that life might afford. Munro is dealing here with the kind of temptation that women face – the temptation to pounce upon the ready made position of ‘the doctor’s wife’., without thinking through what sacrifices might be involved.)

    One of the terrifying tests of a democracy is making something of yourself. As attractive as Dawn is, she is a scary object lesson: if you do not “make your own way” in a democracy, what is left to you? Subservience. The fact is, even in the sixties, one could make one’s own way. There were rules and there were ceilings – but there were certain opportunities. Munro, of course, chose ‘devotion’ – learning how to write and staying with it. She’s attacking the idea that men are THE oppressor, or, the sole oppressor. Jasper’s a case, alright, but he is one right baby.

    Of course, Munro is also pointing out the shackles that dropped onto a woman’s soul the minute she reached puberty – all sorts of things she wasn’t supposed to do – like ride a bicycle, or try out a new recipe.

    Munro is sympathetic to the kingly Jasper, up to a point. Him having to work so hard to succeed when Mona got everything handed to her on a silver platter – well, that wasn’t particularly fair. But his behavior is inexcusable.

    But one has to question whether or not Dawn hasn’t been encouraging Jasper’s behavior all along. His nurse was able to manage him just fine. But what is a girl who has flunked out of nursing school doing with a local hero like Jasper, who had to talk the town out of naming the hospital after him? A point is made about the excellent make-up sex Dawn provides the king: thus making Dawn all the more scary and powerless, as her trump card appears not to be a mind (as Jasper points out) but the role of squealing: even when having sex. She has bought herself a fine mess. As they say, she who marries money earns it.

    Also, what is a girl doing marrying a surgeon who has seen her naked, anesthetized body? This is a story of a woman who has made a conscious bargain with the devil, and the devil is not really her husband, but the society in which she lives.

    Munro’s point seems to be more the way women shackle themselves, and the way that when they do, they shackle other women. In his own home, Jasper’s a fool and a baby, but Dawn seems to like it that way. Because I don’t think it was Jasper that bought the women’s magazines preaching the goodwife-gospel.

    Munro picked the seventies for the setting of this story – all the more to make her point. Dawn is “The Female Eunuch”, but much of her role she has assumed herself, the way she puts on her lovely clothes, the way she does her make up.

    Whose is the real “Haven”? Jasper, who occupation and office are his haven, or Dawn, whose immaculate house and servant are hers? And who is the bigger baby? Jasper or Dawn?

  7. roger spencer November 6, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    My take on this story, which I did not love, but found unsatifying and disturbing, borrows from the comments above except perhaps in emphasis. To me the story is about a teen, the author likely, enviegled, intimidated and charmed by a two faced monster, beloved and kind doctor that he can be, self-centered bully that he is, and his equally two-faced spouse who has bought into his Christ complex. The two powerful events, the pork and beans assault on his wife and her guests and the even ruder scene in the church at his sister’s funeral are grotesque breaches of decency and brotherly love (literally), therefore of the foundation of their common religion, which even the spouse and by extension, the narrator can’t deny. The beauty of music is rendered, the church and the home, the havens of “decent folk” like the aunt and uncle are shells to be broken into pieces, like the empathic feelings of the wife for Mona. What’s left to care about? Maybe there’s enough squeal in the marriage to hold it together. The grotesque scene includes Dawn’s clothes- the lamb being a symbol of Christ in medieval art- set against her cheerful expression in the face of Jasper’s tragic-comedy. Dawn begins to cast away the cloak of denial at the story’s end. That gives us some hope.
    rodger-lodger

  8. Betsy November 7, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Hi Roger, Welcome! I really enjoyed your take on this. Great stuff!

    I want to take up your “unsatisfying and disturbing” comment, which to me is really important. Munro is disturbing. The story I’m reading and trying to write about now is the title story of “Lives of Girls and Women”. On the one hand, that story reflects very neatly the strangeness of being a 14 year old in the fifties. On the other, Munro doesn’t stop there – she takes a part of the experience and plays it out into alien territory, and that is disturbing. As Del says in that story about its main event – ‘I don’t know what to do with it.’

    Over and over I find Munro disturbing. She has, herself, such a physically beautiful and serene appearance that it is difficult to mesh her appearance with her expression. In a way, I think that alarm that we feel in the disconnect between how she appears and how she sounds is integral to the Munro experience.

    For a woman, however, there is something very familiar to the idea that a girl or woman might appear one way and think another. The honesty with which Munro goes after that disconnect is what is ultimately satisfying to me.

    She says what women don’t say. She says what men don’t notice about women, because they hide it so well. That is what I find satisfying. Mothers in Munro often talk nonsense. Munro goes the distance avoiding nonsense.

    There is nothing stridently feminist about what she says, because over and over again, she makes women responsible for their mistakes, lies, and laziness, when they happen. A woman who is unfulfilled is often a fool, like Dawn, or worse. Munro holds us responsible for our own fulfillment. She appears to loathe the entitlement of men like Jasper, but she still holds Dawn responsible.

    Shakespeare is full of fools. So is Munro.

    So that brings me to my question! Is it that I am a woman that I find this story satisfying and that you are a man and find it dissatisfying?

    Or is it something else all together?

  9. rodger November 9, 2013 at 12:23 am

    Betsy, Thanks for your nice response. Yes, I agree that being a woman gives one a potential for greater appreciation of the subtleties and disconnects between thought and expresión, as you put it. I like Munro’s honesty and agree with what you said about her. You make a good case for the effects of one’s gender on reaction to Haven but consider the following: John and Ken loved the story. And Munro has always been one of my favorite story writers,along with others who write from a feminine perspective: McCorkle, Lee Smith, Oates, Geraldine Brooks, and many more. I like disturbing, e.g. Oates, if it’s carried to some conclusion that is not only credible but enlightening or ennobling. The problems that I had with Haven are twofold. Initially I found it compelling and authentic, as well as beautifully told as always, but I couldn’t find anyone in the first part with whom I could identify or even sympathize. I think you did. I didn’t like Jasper or his protective wife. Once the teenage narrator was corrupted by Jasper and accepted his peculiar attitude toward his sister despite her direct experience of her, I lost my tenuous investment in her.
    By the end, which I thought was weak and truncated for such an emotionally painful story, it was too late for me. It didn’t help that Dawn could go directly from pleased partner to indifferent wife. The notion that this could happen without some release or at least awareness of suppressed rage after years of self-imposed silence, some emotional metamorphosis, leaves me incrédulos. It’s the narrator or the reader who must provide the protest and outrage. But “let us pray” says the minister.

  10. Steven Wynn November 9, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    The 70’s that Munro pictures in this small town is nothing like the seventies I grew up in. I started going to gay bars at sixteen, and this was like in 1973, but of course I was in Atlanta Georgia. My brother, who was seventeen at the time, used to hide bags of marijuana under his bed. (I have to admit though that playing my brother Jimi Hendrix albums, I was frightened by the sound of the guitars).
    The movie critic Paulene Kael once said about women of the 50’s: “We weren’t the push overs that younger women think we were.”

    I mean, even in something like Jackie Gleeson’s “The Honeymooners” Alice often spoke her mind to Ralph. And these people in this story lived in the 70’s? I find the women in this story too “well behaved,” too stuck in tradition. Okay it’s a small town, but I recall going to college with girls (1976) from small towns, and they were not majoring in Home Economics! Also, there’s no sense of Janis Joplin’s Me and Bobby Mcgee-ness, or even The Jackson Five, let alone The Allman Brothers, or Jefferson Airplane in this world. I got the feeling if I turned on the radio, I would hear Moon River.

  11. Trevor Berrett November 12, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    Hi Steven. My apologies for not getting this comment up until now — it went to the spam folder :-) .

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