“Red Dress -- 1946” is the eleventh 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).
In “Red Dress — 1946,” our thirteen-year-old narrator is uncomfortably stepping out of the “safe [. . .] boundaries of childhood.” She’s terrified. At the same time, she’s tiring under the watch of her somewhat frail and perhaps oppressive mother. To become an adult, to leave her mother, to not become her mother. There’s actually some dark humor going on here — we may recall our adolescent concerns as somwhat silly now and recognize a bit of that here — but overall I got a strong sense of dark complexity that foreshadows some of Munro’s later work.
When the story begins, our narrator’s mother is busy sewing a fairly complicated red dress. She has good ideas, we are told, but she is “not a really good sewer.” Disappointed to the point of feeling victimized, our narrator watches her mother toil away, “getting to her feet with a woeful creaking and sighing,” all the while making remarks such as “I doubt if she appreciates it.”
I had worn these clothes with docility, even pleasure, in the days when I was unaware of the world’s opinion. Now, grown wiser, I wished for dresses like those my friend Lonnie had, bought at Beale’s store.
The dress is for the upcoming Christmas Dance, which mom and best friend Lonnie are looking forward to. Our narrator is not: “I did not want to go.”
That old building with its rock-walled clammy basements and black cloakrooms and pictures of dead royalties and lost explorers, was full of the tension and excitement of sexual competition, and in this, in spite of daydreams of vast success, I had premonitions of total defeat. Something had to happen, to keep me from the dance.
It’s not clear to us or the narrator why she feels so certain she should fail. Perhaps she’ll blame her mother’s red dress, but that can’t be it; she has never been comfortable at school: “I was close to despair at all times.” She says:
There was something mysterious the matter with me, something that could not be put right like bad breath or overlooked like pimples, and everybody knew it, and I knew it; I had known it all along.
This insight comes in a moment of mortification, but she has long suspected something “mysterious” was wrong with her, even if she — if no one — could ever put her finger on it. To get out of the dance, then, to avoid the shame of defeat, at night she opens her window to the cold: “my throat and bronchial tubes were supposed to be weak; why not expose them?” As she sits there, she says to herself the words “blue with cold,” but the day of the dance comes and she is healthy. And her dress looks beautiful on her.
At the dance we see even better just how muddled the narrator’s desires are when she sees the boys and girls:
The girls stood beside them, resting their hands casually on male sleeves, their faces bored, aloof and beautiful. I longed to be like that.
She may long for a boyfriend, but we get the sense that even more she longs for this kind of security, the ability to be bored rather than terrified.
Despite what appears to be confirmation of her worst fears about herself, fears which cause her to take refuge in a bathroom stall where she is determined to wait out the dance, the narrator does get an opportunity to distance herself from all of this. Also taking refuge in the bathroom is Mary Fortune, an older girl “who had suffered the same defeat as I had — I saw that — but she was full of energy and self respect.” Mary says she finds the girls who cling to boys silly. Our narrator thinks, “Listening to her, I felt the acute phase of my unhappiness passing.” After sharing a cigarette, Mary suggests they leave. Our narrator feels empowered; she never thought she would be capable of leaving, though surely she had been tempted.
But just as they are about out the door, our narrator gets asked to dance by a boy who was not forced. While a moment before she had felt invigorated by the possibility of escape she now feels invigorated by this reason to stay. Mary leaves anyway; the boy takes our narrator home.
I find this next passage so interesting:
Then he turned back to town, never knowing he had been my rescuer, that he had brought me from Mary Fortune’s territory into the ordinary world.
Just what is the ordinary world? A world of boys, of convention, of safety? This gets even more interesting when the narrator gets home and finds her mother waiting in the kitchen:
She was just sitting and waiting for me to come home and tell her everything that had happened. And I would not do it, I never would.
Is this tension with her mother just a stray element in this story that is otherwise a story about a young girl deciding whether to abandon convention or to succumb? Is it simply a common thread through Munro’s early stories, sometimes more prevalent than others? I’m not so sure.
I’m still working out my thoughts on this, but some clues that there is more here are in the colors. The girl’s dress is red, but her mother’s dress, when she was a little girl, was blue. Furthermore, now her mother’s physical ailments, her bulging veins, are blue. Lonnie is also slightly frail, described as “light-boned, pale and thin; she had been a Blue Baby.” Lonnie’s own dress for the Christmas Dance is blue. And it was the narrator, attempting to become sick herself, who tries to will herself to become sick: “I pictured my chest and throat turning blue, the cold, greyed blue of veins under the skin.”
This frailty, this submissiveness: isn’t this what the narrator seems to want when she gets to the dance, and isn’t this what she’s grateful to have found when the boy escorts her home? She’s let pass one opportunity to leave the “ordinary” world, and yet when she gets home she again feels how oppressive her mother can be, and she will never tell her mother what happened at the dance.
Is it with regret that she didn’t go with Mary, then, that our narrator ends the story with this?
But when I saw the waiting kitchen, and my mother in her faded, fuzzy Paisley kimono, with her sleepy but doggedly expectant face, I understood what a mysterious and oppressive obligation I had, to be happy, and how I had almost failed it, and would be likely to fail it, every time, and she would not know.
In the last story, “Postcard” (thoughts here), I didn’t feel that Munro was quite able to control all of the threads she’d woven into the story and that the eventual insight was perhaps rather sentimental. While I feel that there are perhaps even more threads here in “Red Dress — 1946,” and I’m not all that close to sorting through them, I feel that she has control, that as I consider the story and its complexities I will be rewarded, perhaps only with more complexity but not with sentimentality. I’d say this is an early example of just how complex Munro’s structure and ideas are going to get.
In “Red Dress – 1946” the narrator looks back on being a thirteen-year-old high school freshman, the first two months of which represented a time when she “was never comfortable for a minute.” Urged on by her mother and her friend Lonnie, she attends the Christmas Dance, wearing a home-made red dress. But beside her “stylish” friend Lonnie, she feels “like a golliwog, stuffed into red velvet, wide-eyed, wild haired, with a suggestion of delirium.”
(*Munro’s use of the word “golliwog” is jarring. See my discussion below.)
Obviously, the girl is not, at least initially, a success. Partway through, our narrator feels so invisible that she takes cover in the girls’ washroom, where, miraculously, an older girl, Mary Fortune, is doing exactly the same thing. When Mary offers her a smoke in the back of the janitor’s closet, she takes it and enjoys it, and enjoys even more Mary’s self-confident conversation. She even accepts Mary’s invitation to “go down to Lee’s and have a hot chocolate.” Mary is an upper classman who has acne, but our narrator sees she is “always organizing things” and is “full of energy and self-respect.” The narrator remarks, “Listening to her, I felt an acute phase of my unhappiness passing.”
As the two girls make their way across the dance floor, intending to leave for Lee’s and more conversation, a boy stops our thirteen-year-old and asks her to dance. She accepts — and waves away her new friend Mary. Later she says:
I have been to a dance and a boy has walked me home and kissed me. It was all true. My life was possible.
This particular story has the light-hearted feel of Norman Rockwell, or The Saturday Evening Post. Its self-deprecating manner barely masks, however, a couple of life’s inevitable betrayals: one, when she brushes off Mary Fortune, and the second, when she reveals her natural desire to shed her mother. The red dress is a little bit of a red herring, the issue in this story not being a question of style or a question of awkwardness; it is the question of how, when push comes to shove, we are inclined to put people aside, like a less than stylish red velvet dress. This is, of course, one of Munro’s great themes.
The story’s last sentence drops the mask and reveals the darker side:
But when I saw the waiting kitchen, and my mother in her faded, fuzzy Paisley kimono, with her sleepy but doggedly expectant face, I understood what a mysterious and oppressive obligation I had, to be happy, and how I’d almost failed it, and would be likely to fail it, every time, and she would not know.
Her mother would not know because the girl has decided to keep some things to herself, a natural and necessary step. But there’s more to it. In later stories, it will become clear that the mother is in fact not only embarrassing to the girl, but rigidly “oppressive,” and casting the mother off becomes the great subject.
*Munro’s use of the word “golliwog” is jarring. According to Wikipedia, Florence Kate Upton’s many children’s books, first published in 1909, used as their central figure the golliwog, a child-like black figure with cartoonish features, considered by many to be racist. Upton was English, and the books and dolls have been in common circulation in England for most of the twentieth century. The casual employment of the word by Munro in a comic context indicates both the provincial culture being depicted in the story and the times. Fifty years later, the modern reader remains uneasy about the author’s intent, unconscious or not. (See a Manchester Guardian article on the topic here)