“Heirs of the Living Body” is the second piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women (click here for links to reviews of the other pieces in Lives of Girls and Women).
I’ve been wrestling with “Heirs of the Living Body” since finishing Dance of the Happy Shades earlier this year. Originally, the plan was to treat Lives of Girls and Women as a novel; we’d write one post to cover the entire thing and then continue on with Munro’s story collections. But — confession time — at the time, I just couldn’t quite build up the energy I needed to make it through “Heirs of the Living Body.” It is relatively long, for Munro, and exceedingly dense. I stalled, and when I finally got through it we were no longer in full Munro mode, though constantly yearning to get back there. I was very excited, then, when we decided to break the novel into posts about its individual chapters, each of which is a kind of short story of its own. This allowed me to pause at the end of each chapter and dig in on the ones — like this one — that stumped me. So what I have here is further conversion to the belief that Munro is one of our greatest writers. Yes, I already believed that, but then I read a story like this that feels long and convoluted and I see what people who don’t like her mean. And then I consider the story over some time and discover again Munro’s awesome powers.
In “Heirs of the Living Body” Del has aged a bit, though she is still young and innocent, though her innocence is steadily breaking down. If in “The Flats Road” we see Del discover that we all rationalize away pain — we lie to others and ourselves, and adults more than others — then in “Heirs of the Living Body” we see her discover death. More than that, we see her feel the shame of the flesh, its fallibility, its odors and embarrassments. Most importantly of all, in this story Del comes to understand that, as much as we might pretend otherwise, life is lived in the embarrassing flesh, not in the grand achievements memorialized in histories.
As the story begins, we meet Del’s Uncle Craig, the township’s clerk. He spends a great deal of his time writing down the town’s history, consisting primarily of significant dates, like when the post office was built, when the town hall burnt down, etc. He is also compiling a kind of family history, and he spends years researching just to find the three key dates: birth, marriage (if it happens), and death. For Del, these histories signify the “whole solid, intricate structure of lives supporting us from the past.”
Nevertheless, she’s most curious about other things: “These were not what mattered; it was daily life that mattered.” It’s that daily life that is transformed by a birth, marriage, or death, events that, yes, affect us in the body, mind, and spirit, but such effects are felt mostly as we continue to live our lives. That’s the drama. Indeed, Del’s view of life and of the stories it has to offer may be best conveyed by the following passage about one of her aunts:
Perhaps because of this story it seemed to me that the gloom spreading out from Aunt Moira had a gynecological odor, like that of the fuzzy, rubberized bandages on her legs. She was a woman I would recognize now as a likely sufferer from varicose veins, hemorrhoids, a dropped womb, cysted ovaries, inflammations, discharges, lumps and stones in various places, one of those heavy, cautiously moving, wrecked survivors of the female life, with stories to tell.
And we know Alice Munro is making a kind of statement here, since this is the kind of work she’ll be turning in for the next forty years, dramatizing the daily life of, primarily, women.
“Heirs of the Living Body” does much the same thing, becoming the embodiment of the artistic philosophy it conveys. Here we get dramatic events — a funeral, the taste of blood — played out in the daily life of Del’s two aunts on her father’s side and their interactions with Del’s mother, of whom they disapprove. Far from innocuous, it’s these daily interactions that form Del. Besides a physical, female body, she is inheriting all the societal shame that comes with it. As the story ends, she’s been given the privilege of inheriting her uncle’s work and the expectation of carrying it on. She knows this is false, and we see her starting to kick against what’s proper. We see her ambition rising.
“Heirs of the Living Body” resists the reader: its title is peculiar, its narration moves in clusters of this and that, and its characters are hard to like. The story culminates in a young girl reacting to the death, funeral, and legacy of a dull and preening great-uncle who was a minor civil servant and aspiring historian. When a dim-witted relative named Mary Agnes attempts to force Del to view the uncle’s body, Del responds to the young woman with a fierce bite. In the chaos that follows, Mary Agnes’s mother yells, “Your parents ought to have you locked up!”
From this structure hangs a web of concerns, primary among them the lives of girls and women, the way they can get “locked up” or trapped, the way the culture shushes them, the way they shush themselves. Two little old aunts, for instance, retire to Jubilee to a house which was like a “tiny sealed off country.” The story is scattered with traps: a coffin for the old man’s body, a lock-box for his dead history, a store-room that feels like a tomb, a cardboard box in a flooded basement, the river mud that traps a dead cow, a birth canal in which a baby is purposely trapped by its father holding the mother’s legs together, a muddy field in which an assaulted girl is left to die.
In addition to all the suffocation, “Heirs of the Living Body” is also scattered with unfinished stories: the bits and pieces of newspaper clippings the old man had collected, things said in passing, the old man’s history, the teenager’s novel. Unfinished lives, unfinished stories, forgotten bits, incomplete explanations, and misunderstood intentions practically sink this story. The story begins, after all, with the “Jenkin’s Bend” sign that Uncle Craig puts on his house, although he is not a Jenkins, although he has no interest in the man who was Jenkins, and as if he is unwittingly signaling to the world he is “around the bend.” But this sense of swirling, this sense of traps and whirlpool is important.
The emphasis on entrapment is no accident.
Munro’s daughter Sheila remembers her mother saying: “The triumph of my life is that none of the environments I found myself in prevailed over me” (Lives of Mothers & Daughters, p. 111). She might be speaking of her father’s family, who didn’t want people to get above themselves; she might be speaking of her mother, whose freethinking was thought outrageous by everyone else; but she might also have been thinking of Vancouver, where she lived amid suburban pieties for twenty years while bringing up her daughters and trying to write (a masterpiece). She also might be thinking about the swirl of life in general, the swirl that must be made into comprehensible art. Writing about Del, Munro is writing about how hard it is to prevail.
Del herself gets caught in a trap — it is fun to spend time with the great aunts at Jenkin’s Bend, sharing their work, the farm, their stories, their pranks. At the same time, the aunts’ world view weighs upon Del: that people should not get above themselves, that Uncle Craig did not push himself into public office, that a cousin gave up a college scholarship, that Uncle Craig was a great writer, that she, Del, should finish his unfinished work, should learn to copy him.
(Misguided guides litter the story as well. The aunts, the brilliant but distracted and irresponsible mother, the kind but distracted father, the bad-writer-uncle, and the grown-up cousin who is still a child: all are misguided guides.)
Another trap is the possibility of becoming swamped in emotion. Del doesn’t want to go to the uncle’s funeral. In the heat of being there, Del ends up biting Mary Agnes. She is stored in a back room to cool off, where she was swamped in the humiliation of knowing she would now be known forever as “highly strung, erratic, or badly brought up, or a borderline case.” And then, of her own accord, she gets up, leaves her cell, and goes to the funeral.
It’s probably no coincidence that Munro uses a psychiatric term — borderline — to describe Del’s state. I think she means to describe the traps an ambitious girl might fall prey to, and one of them is simply being thought unstable.
The title of this story is itself a confusing trap.
“Heirs of the Living Body” is first and foremost the name of a magazine article Del’s mother cites to her daughter as proof she should not fear death or funerals. Written in the forties, the article foresaw that organ transplants would become routine in the future. But Del’s mother takes it further, much further: “Death as we know it now would be done away with!” Perhaps even brains might be transplanted!
“Heirs of the Living Body” garbles a British law term. To be an heir of the body is to be a legal, biological descendent of a person who has died. To be an heir of the living body suggests a paradox. To be the recipient of an organ, such as an eye — or a brain — the donor would have to no longer need it, and as such be practically dead or freshly dead. Munro is playing with the paradox of Uncle Craig and his work — it is alive to him, but it is dead to Del. In essence, writers must each create their own body of work. They cannot actually use transplanted material; they cannot be the transplanted brain of someone else.
There is another garbled note to the title: you cannot read “heirs of the living body” without thinking hairs, but the association almost ridicules the grandiose hopes of the article writer, or the grandiose spinning that Del’s mother puts the article in service of: that death will be no more. It’s no accident that when Del bites Mary Agnes, she notices that arm is “downy” — as if that is the writer’s true mission, to notice it all, and notice it true.
“Heirs of the Living Body” is also a tangled version of Hamlet’s soliloquy when he says that death would
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.
The Hamlet quote nags at you when you hear the Munro title, but it’s entirely backwards. The one is a fun house approximation of the other. It’s as if Munro is pointing out how words can be appropriated and twisted until the original vision has been destroyed, or how life can be misrepresented by a writer — in this case, the writer of a magazine article, or someone miss-remembering a magazine article. Knowledge, Munro is suggesting, needs to be first-hand, so near you could bite it.
We’re put in mind, too, of the way the aunts talk:
There was a whole new language to learn in their house. Conversations there had many levels, nothing could be stated directly, every joke might be a thrust turned inside out.
A related concern of the story is the many ways one person can own another person. Uncle Craig appears to possess his sisters (and their vast capacity for work); he is the heir to the fruits of the labor of these two women, and he is also the one who benefits from their worship of his role. At the same time that he was writing this history, his sisters Grace and Elspeth were completing “morning marathons of floor scrubbing, cucumber hoeing, potato digging, bean and tomato picking, canning, pickling, washing, starching, sprinkling, ironing, waxing, baking.”
In another way, though, Del is her mother’s possession, to be molded into a similar free-thinker. Del observes that her mother’s world is one of “serious skeptical questions, endless but somehow disregarded housework, lumps in the mashed potatoes, and unsettling ideas.” It is her mother who sets about to deal with Del’s questions of death, although at first Del’s “cold appetite for details irritated her.” This led, however, a day or two later to the free-thinker’s sermon on death being simply “changing, changing into something else, all those elements that made the person changing and going back into nature again and reappearing over and over again in birds and animals and flowers — Uncle Craig doesn’t have to be Uncle Craig! Uncle Craig is flowers!”
(Later, Del sees Uncle Craig’s dead body as just what it is, up close, and in detail, and sees, too, the effect it has on her. Her mother’s re-writing of reality is just not reliable. Death, it turns out, is a force you survive.)
But it is also her mother who insists that Del must go to the funeral, even though she is “too highly strung.” Del thinks about her mother then: “Unpredictable, unreliable, still at the oddest time someone to be grateful for . . .” But it was her mother who insisted that she go, like a possession.
Linked to this is the way the family assumes ownership of its own, the way this particular family puts a high stock in lack of worldly ambition, to the degree that Del’s cousin Ruth turns down a college scholarship.
In a particularly dreadful way, possession of Mary Agnes was effected first by her father, who held his wife’s legs together on the way to deliver Mary Agnes, who was then said, by Del’s mother, to suffer from “lack of oxygen.” Later, Mary Agnes is herded by a gang of five boys to the fairground where they take possession of her, taking off all her clothes and leaving her in the mud.
The dead cow that Mary Agnes and Del find stuck in the mud of the river sums up this “lack of oxygen” which threatens all of these women; the dead cow (specifically a cow, not a bull), which terrifies Del, seems to represent all the incoherent threat that growing up seems to entail for a girl. The family appears to have a culture that owns its members. Later, when the aunts want to give Craig’s manuscript to Del, they assume she will devote her life to it. They cannot imagine any other role for her, and they cannot envision the way in which the manuscript might suck her dry. All of this “lack of oxygen” is related to the tombs and boxes that litter the story. As we have already mentioned, Del’s aunt says her parents “ought to have you locked up.”
Munro means Del to be a girl in the mold of Huck Finn — adventurous, bold, observant, and in full possession of herself. Munro means for Del to get out from under. Huck is a boy who, in the end, lights out for the territory. In a book that is about slavery as much as it is about freedom, Huck will not be owned by the Widow Douglas, who wants to civilize him, and he will not be terrorized by his father, who only wants his money. Del is a version of Huck — a girl. She is someone who must also find her own territory.
“Heirs of the Living Body” suggests this to me: that the living body is the community in all its disparate versions, and the heirs are those who know it well, love it entirely, because it’s alive, and write about it. But the heirs are also the readers who have in their hands a piece of the living body — a book, a story, an essay.
At the center of the story is Del “seeing” the cow, tapping it with her stick, and “seeing” Uncle Craig in his coffin, close enough to touch:
he was the terrible, silent, indifferent conductor of forces that could flare up, in an instant, and burn through this room, all reality, leave us dark.
Seeing Uncle Craig’s body for herself is important. She is “glad I had done it after all and survived.” That is how close you need to be to see the truth. That is how close a writer needs to be.