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Alice Munro: “The Shining Houses”

Dance-of-the-Happy-Shades“The Shining Houses” is the second story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.

“The Shining Houses” was one of Alice Munro’s very first stories, written before she had what may be considered a break through when she wrote “The Peace of Utrecht” (after which, many of her stories, including “Walker Brothers Cowboy” (my thoughts here), dug into more autobiographical and murky territory). In an interview with Metcalf, she said it was one of her “exercise stories . . . the work of a beginning writer.” It shows. The ideas and structure are a bit more plain and even simple. Still, it’s the work of an amazing writer and even has portions that shocked me.

In general, “The Shining Houses” is about one generation and its values coming in to take over — even push out — the older generation, even though the younger generation has little wisdom to recommend it, all of its energy coming from youth and arrogance. The central character, Mary, is part of the new generation, but she has some sensitivity to the past, to its complexity, and to the fact that her generation is going to deal with some shocks, regardless of how perfect their plans now seemed.

The story begins with Mary sitting on the steps of Mrs. Fullerton’s house to pay for the eggs Mrs. Fullerton sells her. Mary likes to hear stories, particularly those that show how multi-faceted the past is.

And Mary found herself exploring her neighbour’s life as she had once explored the lives of grandmothers and aunts — by pretending to know less than she did, asking for some story she had heard before; this way, remembered episodes emerged each time with slight differences of content, meaning, colour, yet with a pure reality that usually attaches to things which are at least part legend.

Mrs. Fullerton, for her part, doesn’t go out of her way to talk to anyone. She lives alone, selling eggs, in what most would consider to be a rundown house with a disheveled yard: “Here was no open or straightforward plan, no order that an outsider could understand; yet what was haphazard time had made final.” Still, for the new generation of young professionals, properties like Mrs. Fullerton’s are an eyesore, bringing down the value of their “new, white and shining houses, set side by side in long rows in the wound of the earth.”

After visiting with Mrs. Fullerton, Mary goes to “Edith’s Debbie’s birthday party.” The other parents are there, and it comes out that they have found a legal way to get Mrs. Fullerton and her unsightly property out of their neighborhood. Munro portrays these people as smart but not wise: “And these were joined by other voices; it did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assertion and anger.”

Nevertheless, they are good people, she says: “they want homes for their children, they help each other when there is trouble, they plan a community — saying that word as if they found a modern and well-proportioned magic in it, and no possibility anywhere of a mistake.”

It’s not Munro’s strongest story. But it is still a strong story with plenty to think about.

4 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “The Shining Houses””

  1. Betsy says:

    Hi Trevor ~ What an adventure you’ve encouraged us to join you on. I read “The Shining Houses” last night and thought – well, there’s the blizzard tomorrow and there will be enough time to think about both ‘Shining Houses” and ‘Images”.

    But then I reread your post and got very interested in your remark about how Alice Munro herself said that “The Shining Houses” was really part of her “exercise stories…the work of a beginning writer.”

    So that led to me reading the Paris Review Interview, summer 1994, #137. Well. I cannot recommend that interview enough. It is like a seminar with the master, where so many of the master’s remarks about life, about writing, about her own work seem central to your understanding not only of the writer and her work but also yourself!

    In this interview, Munro talks a little bit about the period during which she wrote “The Shining Houses”. She was living in a suburb of Vancouver, newly married, a new mother, and she felt:

    “There was a lot of competitive talk about vacuuming and washing the woolies, and I got quite frantic. When I had only one child, I’d put her in the stroller and walk for miles to avoid the coffee parties. This was much more narrow and crushing than the culture I grew up in. So many things were forbidden—like taking anything seriously. Life was very tightly managed as a series of permitted recreations, permitted opinions, and permitted ways of being a woman.”

    She also talks in the interview about how hard it was to write when the children were babies and toddlers.

    So I reread “The Shining Houses” with that in mind.
    One important thing to me about “The Shining Houses” is that the young suburban men and women in the story cannot imagine Mrs. Fullerton, the dilapidated woman in the dilapidated farmhouse, as having a right to her life. Of course, Munro had grown up between these two worlds – nineteenth century farm life and twentieth century town life. Perhaps this experience with suburban life was essential to Munro’s growth as a writer – she could see and feel how important her vision was – that we each have a claim to our own lives.

    A second thing that strikes me about this story is how in it, very young, Munro stakes out a sense of what story telling should be: where in the re-telling there are “slight differences of content, meaning, colour, yet with a pure reality that usually attaches to things which are at least part legend.”

    Munro follows the creation of this story with years and years of re-telling – and one does get the association with legend, say in a story like “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” But one also gets Mrs. Fullerton in this precise “exercise” – a woman who dignifies her situation in words as she says -”Husbands may come and go, but a place you’ve lived fifty years is something else.” Mrs. Fullerton has that stubborn presence in her own life that Munro admires so much, especially in women. You see it here in this very early story as well as in the “Finale” section of “Dear Life”.

    So, “The Shining Houses” may be “an exercise story” – but what an exercise. The story finishes: “There is nothing you can do at present but put your hands in your pockets and keep a disaffected heart.”

    That keeping a “disaffected heart!” What worlds does she mean by that? One is simply not losing the heart for it – the listening, the seeing, the writing – about all the things you honor, when all around you, people feel for those same things a killing disregard.

  2. Trevor says:

    Ah, I’m back and healthy, Betsy, and thrilled at your comments above. You’re right, even in this early story, when Munro is obviously testing her abilities, there is a lot going on. She’s already a master.

    I hadn’t considered the “legend making” aspect of this story.

    Very glad you’ve decided to join on this quest. We won’t stop until we’ve covered each Munro story.

  3. Sameen says:

    hey Trevor i read the post and could not do without making an observation … the last part where everyone signs the document with the exception of
    Mary comes as a sort of epiphany … any thing that you would like to add it ?

  4. Trevor says:

    Hmmm, I’d have to reread the story, Sameen. I’m afraid that while I remember the basics of the story I can’t right now remember well enough to comment. I’d be happy for your thoughts, though :-) .

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