Alice Munro: “Postcard”

“Postcard” is the tenth 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).

Dance-of-the-Happy-ShadesTrevor

“Postcard” begins at the “tale-end of winter.” Helen is at the post office, sick of the cold weather, and in the mail is a letter — well, only a postcard — she’s been waiting for for three weeks. It’s a strange picture and a strange note from Clare, her boyfriend of some years, who’s been in Florida on his annual trip to visit his sister, Porky (though really Isabelle), and her husband. Helen never goes with him.

I had the feeling they didn’t like me, but Clare said it was my imagination. Whenever I had talked to Porky I would make some mistake [. . .] . Though I know it serves me right for trying to talk the way I never would normally talk in Jubilee. Trying to impress her because she’s a MacQuarrie, after all my lecturing Momma that we‘re as good as them.

The MacQuarries have been the rich family in Jubilee for some time, bringing them envy and scorn. But despite her own feelings toward the MacQuarries, Momma has been charmed by Clare over the years, so much that when Helen sits at dinner with them she often feels like their child. Clare is twelve years older than she, after all, “and I don’t ever remember him except as a grown-up man.” This isn’t the only place where Helen is presented as a child, though she’s got to be something over thirty.

Helen’s relationship with Clare is strange and sad. They’ve been together for as long as fourteen years, ever since Helen graduated from high school and was left behind by Ted Forgie, a boy with a tragic life who eventually left Helen behind and sent her a typed letter that basically said he was never coming back, though Helen managed to grasp onto some hope due to a few of the words. She says, “When he went away I just turned into a sleepwalker.” Apparently no one has been able to wake her up. This may be one of the reasons Helen is presented as a child; she’s never really been awake enough to grow up.

Clare is one of the consequences of her sleepwalking after Forgie left her (perhaps because Helen wouldn’t give him the affection he desired: “We used to go up on Sullivan’s Hill and he talked about how he had lived with death staring him in the face and he knew the value of being close to another human being, but all he had found was loneliness. He said he wanted to put his head down in my lap and weep, but all the time what he was doing was something else.”).

Clare proposed soon after they started seeing each other, but she told him she wasn’t interested in marriage and could offer only friendship. He said okay, but he would bide his time. They still saw each other all the time. This doesn’t mean she awakened. On the contrary, the following passage depicts her as very distanced, perhaps giving us an insight into what went on when Forgie put his head in her lap:

[Clare] didn’t expect anything more of me, never expected anything, but just to lie there and let him, and I got used to that. I looked back and thought am I a heartless person, just to lie there and let him grab me and love me and moan around my neck and say the things he did, and never say one loving word back to him? I never wanted to be a heartless person and I was never mean to Clare, and I did let him, didn’t I, nine times out of ten?

But maybe as the winter is ending so is this period of sleepwalking. When Helen puts Clare’s postcard into a keepsake box she pulls out Ted Forgie’s letter, wonders why she’s had it all these years, and proceeds to destroy it. She’s even talking with Momma about her eventual marriage to Clare (when his own mother dies, she says). Momma says she just can’t see Helen and Clare married.

Momma turns out to be right. Shockingly, news gets around that Clare is coming home married to some large girl from Nebraska, some friend of Porky’s (Clare is also large, but I’ve not considered what this means, other than confirming what we already know, which is that Clare and his family are wealthy and live freely).

We might think that Helen, though shocked and disoriented, would at least feel some freedom from her loveless relationship. The next day when she goes to work in the department store, she says, “I bet this will be a big day for Childrens’ Wear” (she works in the Children’s Wear department, another tie to her own childish tendencies). She’s right. Women from all over come to the store that day to purchase something like a pair of socks. Even her friend, as solicitous and genuinely sorry as she is, seems to have a jump in her step because, hey, finally something is happening.

But what exactly is happening, and why is all of the attention focused on Helen? Clare arrived back in town the night before, after all, and he even has a new wife everyone should be getting to know. No, there’s some bit of gossip and blame that is focused on Clare, the one who didn’t jump soon enough, the one who childishly kept Clare at arm’s length, foolish enough to think she was doing him a favor.

Well, it’s true. Helen was cold and distant and didn’t offer Clare much in the way of mutual affection. Of course, she told him this from the beginning. He’s the one who kept coming around, and if over the years Helen has finally accepted the inevitability of their marriage, so what? Helen didn’t love Clare, and from what we see here she never indicated that she did, not even during sex. Which brings up another reason we can blame Helen. Here’s Momma showcasing the classic double standard (Momma, who never brought any of this up before):

If a man loses respect for a girl he don’t marry her.

Now Helen is used to Clare, perhaps was waking up to some kind of love, and once again is left picking up the pieces while the man moves on, with no explanation, but “maybe didn’t have any. If there was anything he couldn’t explain, well, he would just forget about it.”

It’s a complex story, and for me it isn’t quite coming together. “Postcard” was originally intended to be a novel, and when she realized it was a short story Munro said she felt “horribly cheated.” I’m wondering if we’re missing something, then.

For example, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the final line: “what I’ll never understand is why, right now, seeing Clare MacQuarrie as an unexplaining man, I felt for the first time that I wanted to reach out my hands and touch him.” Does she feel this way because now she can finally respect or love him? This doesn’t seem right to me given the rest of the story. Is it that she now wants what she cannot have? Again, I’m not so sure. Is it part of her thawing out, that she threw out Forgie’s letter, that she’s finally waking up from fourteen years of sleepwalking? Maybe, but I’m not convinced this alone would have improved their relationship; her response is tied to Clare’s having returned without a wife.

The most logical explanation for that insight at the end is one that is rather sentimental. She realizes that he owes her no explanation because everyone is right: Clare moved on from Helen because she was cold and unresponsive. She has woken up to her failure to show love, which somehow makes her yearn to show love.

Though I do think the story unable to contain all it was meant to (Munro soon becomes much more able to control her stories), I still really enjoyed it and, as usual with Munro’s stories, found myself thinking about it an awful lot after closing the book.


Betsy

“Postcard” is a tour-de-force of comic pacing. It has a dry wit, depending as it does on two things: one, the reader seeing through the narrator’s guises, and two, the reader figuring out why the post card that ought to shake the narrator up doesn’t.

Don’t read my commentary first if you like this kind of thing. The story is a tart confection that deserves to be enjoyed fresh. (Of course, any story deserves its first reading as itself and only itself.)

Helen, who is telling us the story, appears to have received the postcard in question from her lover, and yet she concerns herself not at all with the message on the back. The reader sees it for what it is: a card that is three weeks late, the picture on the front like what a man would send to a buddy and slightly offensive, and on the back, a baffling, not quite grammatical message. The whole thing appears off-base, even insulting.  Helen never gives the jokey message or the odd picture any thought; she merely thinks of its arrival as her due — this man owes her a post card. Why Helen has not gone on the trip with the man is never adequately revealed by Helen, although later the reader can see she is afraid of his family, afraid of looking lower class, afraid of being vulnerable.

The story also depends (for its enjoyment) upon the fact that although Helen is the narrator, she hardly understands her own story. Gradually, we realize that Helen’s misunderstanding of the message in the card is typical of her complete misunderstanding of her situation. But in addition, what feels to me like the great appeal of the story is that we gradually realize that this self-centered narrator is not actually the main character; it is her lover who, in the end, will have had the greater epiphany, or at least, the greater escape.

The postcard in question shows a motel with a sign out front depicting a probably buxom woman saying, “Sleep at my place!” The garbled message on the reverse says, “I didn’t sleep at her place though it was too expensive. Weather could not be better. Mid-seventies. How is the winter treating you in Jubilee? Not bad I hope. Be a good girl. Clare.” Did he leave off the t and mean “thought”? Did he intend two commas to enclose “though”? Is there some reason she should be a good girl? Or become one? Or be a good sport?

Helen is the kind of beautiful woman you cannot tell a thing. (There is the feeling that the author of this postcard has given up.) She once had an affair with twenty-four-year-old Ted Forgie while she was still in high school. He made her knees “go hollow,” but after a while he left town, leaving her with the feeling she’d been “jilted” even though he’d never proposed. He did send her a letter saying how much he appreciated her “sweetness and understanding.” Helen appears to have not gotten the message, and it won’t be the last time she’s been sent an after-the-fact message.

As kind of a way to pass the time until Ted returns (fourteen years, by one accounting), and perhaps also as a kind of off-kilter revenge, she took up with a local moneyed prince: unmarried, plump, chatty, jokey Clare MacQuarrie. When he quite soon after asked her to marry him, she said, “Don’t bother me, I don’t want to think about getting married.” She also observed, “If I hadn’t been in a stupor about Ted, I might never have bothered with Clare at all.”

But as the years go by, she begins to think of marriage as the proper (eventual) payment for having put up with Clare, never seeing that he has, so to speak, moved on. There was a big grand house, after all. She does not think it at all strange for her to remark:

I used to look down at his round, balding head, and listen to all his groaning and commotion and think, what can I do now except be polite?

This is a stone-cold-woman who thinks it right to “just lie there and let him,” and a woman for whom pleasure lies elsewhere. This is also a woman to whom it has never occurred that Clare might have liked a little help with his ailing mother. Instead, Helen goes through the dining room silver while Clare is tending to the old lady. What she looks forward to in marriage is lording it over the folks at the department store where she works.

Life being what it is, Helen’s beauty turns out not to be enough to hold Clare, given her iced-over heart. Winter in Canada appears to be her natural element.

The story plays with the entitlement that some children are given, like crowns, by their mothers, and the way these children don’t grow up, both Helen and Clare being still tied to their mothers. No small thing that Helen works at King’s Dep’t Store and Clare works at the Queens Hotel.  They are childishly all mixed up, looking for love in all the wrong places, and still tied to Momma.

The story also depends on the divisions of class to work: Helen “burns” with anger when she gets caught in a grammatical error in front of Clare’s sister. Helen’s mother “thought [the MacQuarrie family] were being stuck up when they just breathed.” There’s a getting even in Helen’s coldness to Clare, a kind of usurping. There’s a similar usurping in her mother’s cultivation of Clare.

What matters, though, is whether Helen will ever see what it is she has been doing. Helen is a woman you cannot tell a thing. When her best friend tried to tell her that Clare had gotten married, she had to slip Helen a mickey in order to shut her up. So when Clare tried to tell her he’d gotten married it was by postcard of a large woman (sexy) in front of a motel saying “Sleep at my place!”

Helen claims that Clare is a non-explaining man. Actually, he has explained himself. Early on, he wanted to marry her. Later, he writes (for all the world to read), “I didn’t sleep at her place though it was too expensive.” I think he’s saying he chooses not to marry Helen because she has cost him too much already. It’s nothing that he has bought her a car. It’s at great cost that he has allowed himself any satisfaction with a woman who has treated him with such disdain, “letting him” have sex with her as she does.

In fact, with this message sent as a postcard, he informs his whole home town that he finally gets it: Helen is not his lover, she’s his kept woman, and she’s expensive. She has cost him quite a bit: money, position, children, companionship, self-respect, and, most of all, satisfying, mutual physical love. Helen’s best friend reports that Clare’s new wife “has a rear end on her like a grand piano,” but maybe plump Clare has been able to make that piano sing.

Regarding the epiphanies — Clare has escaped.

Regarding Helen’s epiphany — after Clare has humiliated her with this wedding, she realizes it’s the first time she has wanted to touch him. And yet, the nature of that touch is not clear.

As for the story’s structure, does she finally understand the postcard she received? That she has been a kept woman? That she is “winter”? That it is Clare’s wedding announcement to his buddies? That he doesn’t miss her? That he wants her to let him be?

“Postcard” is surprising and entertaining. It makes a bookend to “Thanks for the Ride” in that frigid Helen and abandoned Lois both look to be perversely ruining their own lives for the sake of power and autonomy. But the story doesn’t torment the way, say, “The Time of Death” does. It doesn’t inquire into universals the way “Boys and Girls” does. It doesn’t linger, in the manner of “Images,” and it doesn’t awe, as does “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” But it is flawless, rippling entertainment with sharp bite. I couldn’t put it down.

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