“Images” is the third story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (click here for links to reviews of the other stories in Dance of the Happy Shades).
“Images” takes us again to the home of the Jordan family we met in the first story, “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” The connection isn’t overt, and one does not need to read one to understand the other. This time, Del Jordan (still unnamed) is our first-person narrator. When the story begins, Del is thinking back to a particular summer and to the strange people who haunted her young mind.
In truth, I had to read it three times before I felt able to even start writing here. A lot is going on: Del’s mother is sick and has taken to bed; Mary McQuade has come to help, and Del thinks she is the malicious force to blame for her mother’s condition; Del’s father, Ben, seems to have two personalities, and Del accepts each; and it appears a strange man might kill Ben one day while Ben is out trapping muskrats. It’s a bit overwhelming, “all this life going on.” Yes, life is going on, but there’s the ever-present spectre of death. Young Del does not understand it yet — it’s just on the tip of her comprehension: these strangers have come, her mother could die, her father could die.
It’s this struggle to understand that is so frightening as Del begins to come into an awareness of the life outside herself and the life she’s known. Even her mother is growing more inscrutable and frightening:
This Mother that my own real, warm-necked, irascible and comforting human mother set up between us was an everlastingly wounded phantom, sorrowing like Him over all the wickedness I did not yet know I would commit.
It’s the newness of all of this that frightens her. After all, for years she’s been aware of her father’s brutal side and she doesn’t think less of him for it: “Nor did that brutality surprise me; my father came back to us always, to my mother and me, from places where our judgment could not follow.” This brutality, as frightening as it must have been, is, at least, familiar.
The story takes a rather sudden turn toward the end. Ben asks his daughter if she’d like to come with him while he checks the muskrat traps. She waits up above the bank while he goes to check the traps, and all of a sudden she sees a man walking toward her father with an axe:
I never moved to warn or call my father. The man crossed my path somewhere ahead, continuing down to the river. People say they have been paralyzed by fear, but I was transfixed, as if struck by lightning, and what hit me did not feel like fear so much as recognition. I was not surprised. This is the sight that does not surprise you, the thing you have always known was there that comes so naturally, moving delicately and contentedly and in no hurry, as if it was made, in the first place, from a wish of yours, a hope of something final, terrifying.
It’s fascinating how well Munro mixes the terror and the power here. Finally, the worst possible thing was going to happen, and the young girl watches transfixed as an image of her fear seems about to become reality.
I want to end my thoughts here with the final paragraph, which brings the story together in such a pleasing manner. Del has come back home (with her father safe, though they’ve seen other things that are pretty terrible as they dealt with the man with the axe), and she’s not to mention the axe to her mom or Mary McQuade. It’s as if by withholding this dangerous secret, she finally has some of the same power they have over her:
Like children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who had discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvellous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared to live happily ever after — like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word.
The most memorable image in “Images” is that of the little girl spotting the feral man in the woods before her father does, the man with a little hatchet in his hand:
All my life I had known there was a man like this, and he was behind doors, around the corner at the dark end of a hall. So now I saw him and just waited, like a child in an old negative, with blazing hair and burned out, Orphan Annie eyes.
The story, in fact, is about an album the little girl’s fears: that people die, like her grandfather; that something has taken her mother, because pregnancy (which no one talks about) has so changed her; that maybe cousin Mary McQuade, who took care of her grandfather and now has come to take care of her mother, has caused all this; that maybe this feral man will hurt her beloved father, and that maybe the unspoken fear will come true — that her mother will stay permanently sorrowful, or worse, die. (But that very last is unspoken – and yet the “fact of death” is the constant current of the story.)
But the fierce little girl also fights against these fears (yet another fierce little girl!): the way she argues with Mary McQuade, the practical nurse, the way she wants to go out along the trap lines with her father, the way she wants to touch “the fact of death,” “the stiff, soaked body” of the king muskrat her father has just killed; the way she looks at Old Joe, hatchet in hand, terrified, but forthright.
What the adventure does for her is she gets to see her father tame Old Joe, the man who lives underground, the man who is compelled to carry a hatchet around, the poor man who thinks “the Silases” are after him. Later, at home, she hears her father taming Mary McQuade when she insists that Old Joe “ought to be locked up.”
“Maybe not,” [her] father said. “Just the same I hope they don’t get him for a while yet.”
She had discovered she was “like children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvelous escapes . . .”
This fierce little girl is satisfied — she is “dazed and powerful with secrets . . .”
It’s a great story. There’s a feeling of Faulkner here, even if, in The Paris Review Munro says it was Welty, not Faulkner who inspired her. Nonetheless, I feel her fighting with Faulkner here, for the right to the territory.