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Alice Munro: “The Peace of Utrecht”

Dance-of-the-Happy-Shades“The Peace of Utrecht” is the fourteenth 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

“The Peace of Utrecht” may be Munro’s most famous early story. With good reason. It’s a watershed story for her personally. In 1959, Munro’s mother died after years of suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Munro confronts her mother’s illness in this story. While it may not have helped her personally to move away from the death of her mother (in “The Ottawa Valley,” published in her 1974 collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, the character says about her mother, ”And she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. To what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did.”), Munro says she finally felt like she began her real writing with this piece about the often futile desire to escape from one life that is forced upon you to retrieve what you feel should be your real life.

The story begins by telling us the end. Our narrator, Helen, is visiting her sister Maddy, and we learn right away that the visit is a failure. It’s a remarkable first paragraph that I want to quote in full:

I have been home now for three weeks and it has not been a success. Maddy and I, though we speak cheerfully of our enjoyment of so long and intimate a visit, will be relieved when it is over. Silences disturb us. We laugh immoderately. I am afraid — very likely we are both afraid — that when the moment comes to say goodbye, unless we are very quick to kiss, and fervently mockingly squeeze each other’s shoulders, we will have to look straight into the desert that is between us and acknowledge that we are not merely indifferent; at heart we reject each other, and as for that past we make so much of sharing we do not really share it at all, each of us keeping it jealously to herself, thinking privately that the other has turned alien, and forfeited her claim.

Helen’s visit was brought on by their mother’s death, some months before when it was colder outside. Helen did not attend the funeral; there was a blizzard, though likely she would not have attended anyway, and likely Maddy was more content with her absence. But when the warmer weather arrived, Helen packed up her two young children and travelled to Jubilee (chronologically, this is the first story to take place in Jubilee).

In the first section of this story, Helen tells us about her strained relationship with her sister. Years earlier their mother had contracted a disease (something much like Parkinson’s Disease, if it isn’t actually Parkinson’s disease), and the two sisters struggled to take care of someone they no longer felt they knew.

Maddy, being the older sister, struck a deal with Helen. Helen would give Maddy four years to go to college; then Maddy would return so Helen could go for four years to college. Good as her word, Maddy returned, and Helen went off to the “holiday world of school,” and she hated coming back to the “dim world of continuing disaster, of home.”

And Helen never came back. Instead, she got married and went away. Maddy has been caring for their mother, essentially alone, for ten years. Maddy has had no life, and Helen, naturally, feels guilty:

All I can think about that, all I have ever been able to think, to comfort me, is that she may have been able and may even have chosen to live without time and in perfect imaginary freedom as children do, the future untampered with, all choices always possible.

It’s a comforting, willfully self-deluding thought: at least Maddy has the pleasure of still having her own life before her.

Still, we definitely get the sense that Helen would not change anything. She recognizes that it was hard for her sister, and this is a hardship she would not assume, not for her sister, not for her mother. In a way, Helen has escaped, and now she cannot wait until she can escape this three-week visit with Maddy.

Maddy, for her part, has never had her own life. The one comfort she has is in the friendship with Fred Powell, a man who understands her somewhat because he himself is married to a woman who has become an invalid. Helen doesn’t know the extent to which Maddy and Fred seek comfort from one another.

The second section of the story shifts to the focus to their mother’s own desired (and attempted) escape from the life she’s been stuck with. Helen visits her Aunt Annie and Auntie Lou, kindly relatives who did a little to help but who also seemed to have managed to keep a safe distance. While there, Helen learns a bit more about her mother’s final days in a hospital, her attempted escape (which Munro recounts in the version of “Dear Life” that was published in The New Yorker: “If this were fiction, as I said, it would be too much, but it is true.”). It’s possible that Maddy left her there on purpose, knowing it would kill her sooner.

This is a rich story — the characters’ names say a lot: Helen, Hell; Maddy, Mad — and I’ve touched on almost nothing here.

Betsy

In “The Peace of Utrecht,” young mother Helen returns home for a visit with her older sister Maddy the summer after their mother has died. Due to a blizzard, Helen had not attended the funeral, but actually, it is not clear she would have attended in any event. Now it is summer, and the sisters are having a month-long reunion. Helen tells us in the first sentence: “I have been at home now for three weeks and it has not been a success.” One way to look at the story is to examine just what Helen means, just what Munro means, by “success.”

In fact, despite pleasantries, Helen senses between herself and Maddy a “desert” in which they “reject each other.” In a way, the first paragraph of the story is as much of an ending as is the real ending, with the stories we hear in between the explanation of how the sisters became estranged, “estrangement” being an important word in the story.

In the actual ending, Munro finishes up the story with a symbol: Maddy is preparing dinner for herself and Helen when she drops an old pink cut glass bowl. The smashed bowl neatly works as a representation of the sisters’ shattered relationship, and also as a representation of the many shards their lives encompass.

The smashed bowl feels like a reference to Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, but James uses his symbolic bowl as a centerpiece, whereas Munro uses her pink bowl almost as an afterthought, as if to say to anyone paying attention, “symbolism works, but look closer. I’ve been doing something else.”

That something else is the way she likes to wrap one story within another, and the way that she works in layers, wrapping and layering being words Munro herself uses in interviews to describe her own work. Some of the layering in this story has to do with how each character perceives what happened in the past, but some of the layering also juxtaposes separate truths. It is this juxtaposition of different versions of the same experience that makes “The Peace of Utrecht” so rich, especially against the backdrop of a story that is, in fact, tragic.

It is the interplay between the stories that is her primary artistic technique here, not the use of symbol. The “wrapped” stories represent the complex forces of life and tragedy far more efficiently than a mere symbol.

The stories that wrap around each other create a dense, overlapping experience of life itself. The fact that Munro can manage the complexity is testimony to her care and artistry. But what makes Munro a towering figure is that she is able to show how there is more than one story, more than one point of view, to any experience. In some cases, it is the juxtaposed characters who have differing points of view, and in others it is one character for whom time and experience have brought a new point of view.

In “The Peace of Utrecht” there are at least six stories wrapped one around another.

At the center is an image: the gothic figure of the girls’ mother, a woman trapped in a twenty-year prison sentence of Parkinsonism, staying alive by a kind of “egotism” when, as she says, she has “lost everything.” Perhaps due to her original ambitions, she becomes, in the grip of the disease, a “gothic” tyrant who creates around her a chaotic world of “frustration and frenzy.”

Helen and Maddy are the teenaged daughters who must care for her when she first becomes ill.

During the first half of the mother’s illness, the girls are in high school and college. Maddy says to Helen regarding going away for college: “You give me four years, I’ll give you four years.”

Maddy returns and keeps her part of that bargain, but Helen marries right out of college, becomes a mother, and never returns. So we see the origins of why the visit cannot be, in simple terms, a success.

Helen has escaped the home which had become a “continuing disaster,” where “anarchy” was the norm, and where the girls isolated their mother so as to escape the horror of being publicly associated with her. (Later, Helen thinks they should have let the town have her, “it would have treated her better.”)

Helen’s escape into marriage and motherhood is also an escape from a prison where she daily must enact “parodies of love.” But the losses live on:

I want to ask [Maddy]: is it possible that children growing up as we did lose the ability to believe in – to be at home in – any ordinary and peaceful reality?

And then, there is also guilt, as when Helen report that the girls “took away all emotion from our dealings with [their ill mother], as you might take away meat from a prisoner to weaken him, ‘till he dies.”

Part of the peace they have lost is the confidence that ordinary love is theirs to receive or theirs to give. This is something that an immature writer might use to blame other people, and yet Munro’s vision does not work that way. Everyone seems to have their own failings in this story.

Even more, Helen’s story is about the “secret, guilty estrangement” that most likely began in college – detachment, one guesses, not only from home and everything it represented, but detachment from her bargain with her sister, made, as it might have been, in the confidence of being a teenager. It is also an estrangement from feeling normal – a feeling of being stranger to the most normal emotions of life.

And how could we have loved her, I say desperately to myself, the resources of love we had were not enough, the demand on us was too great.

There is something grammatically awkward about this last thing that Helen says. Given that Munro is so careful about language, one guesses that she means the jarring syntax and punctuation to represent Helen’s own sense of estrangement from ordinary speech, ordinary life,  ordinary goodness.

Maddy’s is the story of the dutiful daughter who does not leave home, and who maintains her “ten year vigil” caring for her mother through her twenties, until she, too, cracks and commits her mother to a hospital. She had reached a point where she, too, could plead, “I wanted my life.” Of course, this echoes Helen’s run for it, but it even echoes the mother’s own desperate run for it. Realizing she has been committed, the mother escapes from the hospital in the middle of a January night in her night-clothes. Regardless of her weakness and paralysis, the decrepit mother actually runs when she sees the orderlies coming.

Wrapped, like a seed, at the center of “The Peace of Utrecht” is the image of the aged crippled mother running through the winter night, trying to retrieve her life. This image sums up all the other stories in this story. At some point, we must all, inevitably, run for our lives.

So, yes, the shattered pink bowl of ruined aspiration is a symbol, but it is a static symbol. The image of the ruined old woman running into the winter night in her flimsy night-clothes is alive with reverberation. Munroe calls it egotism that keeps the mother alive, but it is the burning force at the center of the story – the will that each character has to survive.

Another of the stories told here is Fred Powell’s, Maddy’s improbable boyfriend, the mild married man who has an invalid wife, the man who “speaks the same language” as Maddy.

Fred is a necessity in “The Peace of Utrecht” because he makes Maddy’s unbearable life possible. But he is also a necessity because he reminds us that men can actually choose to shoulder the responsibility of an invalid wife. He is the representation of the gap at the story’s center.

Munro has talked about the importance of gaps in her storytelling.

The girls’ missing father is the shimmering negative of Fred Powell. Never mentioned at all, the reader has to sense this gap, both the gap in reality and the gap in Helen’s perception of herself. Where is he? Where is the husband of the felled wife? Further, where are the other relatives? Why are the girls alone with the care of their mother? The issue of abandonment in this story is central, but while abandonment is implied, Munro never uses the word. Another gap.

At the time Munro was thinking about and writing this story, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop were experimenting with what came to be called “confessional” poetry. In their case, the “confession” was the use of their personal lives in poetry, a movement that has marked poetry for the past fifty years.

“The Peace of Utrecht” feels influenced by, or at least similar to, this movement, especially by Bishop’s use of understatement. Munro bases “The Peace of Utrecht” on her own experience with her own mother, thus making this story a kind of “confessional” fiction. What distinguishes Munro, what makes her a towering figure, is the fact that this “confessional” fiction makes every effort not to lay blame. It allows everyone their own story, and it also allows her mother her own heroism. It’s the situation more than anything that is the prison. And as for the missing adults? They’re missing. That’s it. The reader is left to guess what their story might be. The reader is left to intuit the meaning of the gap. The gap is the height of understatement.

For one thing, the gap represented by the missing fictional father illuminates the girls’ poverty, as well as their lack of guidance, help, money, and love.

Another set of stories is that of the aunts.  Aunt Annie wants to treasure the mother’s dresses, probably in an attempt to remember the mother as she once was, filled with imagination and ambition. But Helen remembers how Aunt Annie used to sneak the girls an occasional five dollar bill. We hear nothing about how the aunts actually helped the girls in their time of real trouble (another gap), except that the girls enjoyed the orderly comfort of visiting the aunt’s house as an escape from the chaos of their own. What’s five dollars to a drowning child, the reader asks. The abandonment which was their fate was in itself another kind of imprisonment.

That brings us to the story that wraps up all the others: the story of the title, “The Peace of Utrecht,” itself a story wrapped in a story. The historical story is that of the treaty that settled the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, a treaty signed by fifteen parties in the city Utrecht, a treaty that changed the balance of power in Europe, a treaty that reassigned the governance of many cities from one country to another, a treaty that took decades to play out. What is also significant is that the city of Utrecht itself, although affected by the treaty, had no say in the treaty. And thus were the lives of this family affected for years, perhaps a lifetime, by circumstances about which they had no initial voice or choice.

What is wonderful is the way Munro uses this historical event: she uses it to give the crippled mother a chance to tell her story, so to speak. Maddy has told Helen that one way to keep the mother quiet, toward the end, was to let her sort things, anything. Munro uses the historical event to voice her sense of how the events in her family are tragic – impossible, fated, and ghastly.

Months after the funeral, during Helen’s visit to the house in the summer, Helen finds some of her old history notes in the wash stand she and Maddy used as a desk. Lying on the top were her notes to “The Peace of Utrecht.” Possibly sorted to lie on top, the notes may have allowed The Gothic Mother to have her say.

(Of course, perhaps it was Maddy who left the notes on the Peace of Utrecht on top; and in that case, it is Maddy talking.)

If you grow up thinking you were unable to love your mother, and that in addition you failed her in other ways, this is a situation that is going to last a long time, probably a lifetime, with its effects feeling like a long war. In a way, Munro started the story with the question that is also its ending:

Is it possible that children growing up as we did lose the ability to believe in – to be at home in — any ordinary and peaceful reality?

In their last night together, the two sisters are as close to honesty as they can get. Getting ready for supper, Maddy drops a beautiful pink glass bowl. It’s as if they’ve dropped all pretense, all artifice. Broken glass surrounds them.

“Oh Hell, oh Hel-en,” Maddy jokes. And there it is – life is hell and beauty. That’s its name. Life is two stories, one wrapped within the other: hell and beauty, the tragic and the ordinary, inescapably interleaved.

As to whether Helen’s visit has been a success? I think it has, in fact. She has allowed herself, through her writing, to take in some new facts about her mother and to see herself and her sister more clearly. Most important, she appears to have reflected upon what she now knows.

But every word in Munro counts. At one point, Helen lets herself hear Maddy say, “No exorcising,” meaning, don’t change the past. Helen realizes she can write her story, but she must use Maddy’s vision: don’t be tempted to make things pretty.

As for another important word in the story, there is “estrangement.” Helen writes, about half-way through the story:

In the ordinary world it was not possible to recreate [my mother]. The picture of her face I carried in my mind seemed too terrible, too unreal. Similarly, the complex strain of living with her, the feelings of hysteria which Maddy and I once dissipated in a great deal of brutal laughter, now began to seem partly imaginary; I felt the beginnings of a secret, guilty estrangement.

But with her return, Helen encounters other people’s stories, each one wrapped about another: the story told through the old history notes, so carefully sorted to the top of the pile; the story of Maddy’s affair with Fred, the only person who speaks her language; the extremely important story Aunt Annie tells of the paralyzed mother’s attempted escape from the hospital. And so, with new information, Helen re-writes her own story. But still, we get it. As with the Peace of Utrecht, it will be a long process.

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