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Alice Munro: “Sunday Afternoon”

Dance-of-the-Happy-Shades“Sunday Afternoon” is the twelfth 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.

Trevor

For me “Sunday Afternoon” is one of the weaker stories in this collection, though the final scene is still powerful and surprising, making the slow and predictable build-up pay off. Perhaps Munro felt similar about the first part of the story because she did a sort of revision and a sort of sequel called “The Hired Girl,” which was published in The New Yorker in 1994 and later compiled in The View from Castle Rock.

Here we meet Alva who has come to work during the summer for the wealthy Gannetts. In the first part of the story, “Sunday Afternoon” is a fairly typical fish-out-of-water story, with Alva a stranger in the rich surroundings and trying to figure out how to navigate around the matriarch. Soon, the awkwardness and trepidation simply lead to loneliness as Ava spends more and more time doing her work alone, realizing that she is isolated and invisible most of the time.

In the middle of the story, we hear Alva’s own account in a letter to her family, which shows (perhaps too clearly) just how lonely she is:

Don’t worry about me being lonesome and downtrodden and all that maid sort of thing. I wouldn’t let anybody get away with anything like that. Besides I’m not a maid really, it’s just for the summer. I don’t feel lonesome, why should I? I just observe and am interested. Mother, of course I can’t eat with them. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not the same thing as a hired girl at all. Also I prefer to eat alone.

As the summer heats up, it only gets worse. She’s not even sure she wants to go with the family to their island in the latter part of the summer. One Sunday afternoon the family is having a kind of party outside and Alva remains inside, acutely aware that she not even present enough to make a sound:

Nothing was the matter, but she felt heavy, heavy with the heat and tired and uncaring, hearing all around her an incomprehensible faint noise — of other people’s lives, of boats and cars and dances — and seeing this street, that promised island, in a harsh and continuous dazzle of sun. She could not make a sound her, not a dint.

But though it’s been rather predictable until now, something completely unexpected happens while Alva sits in the house that Sunday. A stranger who turns out to be one of Mrs. Gannett’s cousins walks in the room:

She waited, her back to the counter, and Mrs. Gannett’s cousin took hold of her lightly, as in a familiar game, and spent some time kissing her mouth.

Before leaving to join the party, he tells Alva that he will be at the island sometime in August. That’s all that happens, and we readers are appalled at the shameless cousin who trounces in, takes advantage, and then leaves, fully expecting his advance to be some kind of benediction on the head of Alva.

Which is how Alva takes it:

This stranger’s touch had eased her; her body was simply grateful and expectant, and she felt a lightness and confidence she had not known in this house.

It’s in these unexpected yet familiar contradictions that Munro excels. Here is a young woman so isolated and lonely that she accepts the advances of a stranger who simply expects her to be waiting for him when he arrives in August. Of course, it doesn’t end there. There’s an awareness on Alva’s part, something she only kind of feels, something she doesn’t want to think about yet: “there was always something she would not explore yet — a tender spot, a new and still mysterious humiliation.”

We fear for Alva as we leave her baffled and alone in that kitchen.

Betsy

In “Sunday Afternoon” Alva is the “country high-school girl” working as a maid for the summertime in a grand Canadian house, which is so spacious that it seems empty to her. Writing to her mother, she says:

Don’t worry about me being lonesome and downtrodden and all that maid sort of thing. I wouldn’t let anybody get away with anything like that.

But the fact is, she does. Her uniform is too big, making her employer, Mr. Gannett, keep asking her if she is “getting enough to eat.” Just by being in the house, the employers are getting away with things with her. Her room is too hot, for instance. When she walks in the street, she realizes she is “conspicuous” as “you never saw people walking.” Partially for that reason, she tells her mother she’d better meet her sister in town when she comes to visit. But in addition, she “never knows how Mrs. Gannett will react.”

So Alva allows herself small rebellions. She says to her mother, “Besides I’m not a maid, really, it’s just for the summer.” She uses a “tone of affected ease, a note of exaggerated carelessness and agreeability” with her employer, and she knows it has an “irritating” effect on the perfect Mrs. Gannett.

She drinks the gin out of the “bottoms of the glasses” but she notes not at all how much nor how much it might affect her. Munro observes that a “feeling of unreality, of alternate apathy and recklessness, became very strong in the house by the middle of the afternoon.” This statement at first appears to relate to the guests, but placed as it is directly following Alva’s drinking the leftover gin, the apathy and recklessness most surely applies also to Alva. She does not appear to be aware of the jeopardy she is in.

Later on that particular Sunday afternoon, one of the guests, Mrs. Gannett’s cousin, waylays Alva in kitchen and kisses her.

This stranger’s touch had eased her; her body was simply grateful and expectant, and she felt a lightness and confidence she had not known in this house.

Now she looks forward to the summer; but now also, “there was something she would not explore yet – a tender spot, a new and mysterious humiliation.”

The situation ensures this degradation; for weeks she will be without society, without friends or conversation, without equality. It’s an environment that requires more maturity than Alva has: she is in danger, despite her cool self-possession. So she makes small incursions and small thefts against this isolation. She says to her mother, “I just observe and am interested.” This, however, is a self-delusion; yes, she observes, but yes, she also puts herself in harm’s way. It’s a fine line to walk, managing the separations of class.

I admire the way Munro so deftly conveys the complexity of the situation. Munro is very sensitive to class, but she doesn’t indulge herself here. We see that Alva is in over her head, but we go along with her. At the same time, we see the white water and her absolute vulnerability.

One thought on “Alice Munro: “Sunday Afternoon””

  1. Betsy says:

    Hi Trevor, I really liked this story. Maybe you have to have been a baby sitter or maid in a house like that to enjoy revisiting this particular “fish-out-of-water” situation. You get that near-miss tingle reading it.

    Also, I am noting the different girls and their ages in this book and the way Munro is writing a primer on female psychology.

    But I have to admit that until now I have read very little Munro. So I am positively enjoying the slow start. Soon enough I may be in over my head!

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