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Alice Munro: “Changes and Ceremonies”

Lives-of-Girls-and-Women“Changes and Ceremonies” is the fifth piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.

Trevor

“Changes and Ceremonies” is about those moments of joy, moments of togetherness, those ceremonies and rituals that make a community of disparate folk, that make intimate a few people who have always known each other but have never really seen each other before. It’s about sex. It’s about how the build up — to the ceremony, folks – can be overwhelming with promise, and how, in the end, it all might be a bit disappointing. We remain disparate. We’re disillusioned and realize we’re in tenuous orbit with a lot of vacant space in between.

The older Del telling this story is looking back to when she was twelve. So far in Lives of Girls and Women the stories dealt with sexual attraction only from a distance, as Del looked on curiously at the adults’ strange and incomprehensible behavior, behavior that wakes Del up to deceit and disappointment. Here, though, Del and her best friend Naomi are the ones who enter into the world of incomprehensible longing.

It’s incomprehensible because up till and including now, boys have shown their capacity to destroy:

The things they said stripped away freedom to be what you wanted, reduced you to what it was they saw, and that, plainly, was enough to make them gag.

Del and her best friend Naomi are suitably disgusted by the boys’ vulgarity. Nevertheless, sex is definitely on their minds. They swap rumors about who has done it, and Naomi displays some of the consequences to being “reduced [. . .] to what it was [boys] saw.” Naomi’s own mother puts all blame for bad behavior on the girl (Naomi’s mother represents a host of the destructive myths that we still see used to defend sexual behavior today).

But the destructiveness of sex itself is for another story. Here, Del’s own perspective is relatively innocent. When Del and Naomi go to the library, Naomi just wants Del to find her a book with the most suggestive sex scene. Del, for her part, goes to the library to open up her world — at this point in the story she just wants a good story – and even at the end she finds herself simply (though, it’s not so simple) longing for contact.

The catalyst for change comes with the school’s annual operetta. This year, it’s Del’s class’s turn to perform, and the cycle has again landed on The Pied Piper. They’re all very excited for the show. Preparations have disrupted the usual lessons. Several unlikely figures take the spotlight, including the two teachers who are in charge of the show: Miss Farris and Mr. Boyce. Nothing suggests Miss Farris and Mr. Boyce are remotely attracted to one another, that their relationship is anything less than professional, but kids being kids — especially at that age — a kind of romance is invented for them each year.

Another unlikely figure is Frank Wales, a quiet boy who sits behind Del in class. He’s not attractive, and Del has never struck up much of a relationship with him. However, his voice is lovely, and he’s chosen as the lead. This transforms him, for Del. She finds herself thinking about him all the time. She’s thrilled that her mom knows his mom:

I wanted to ask what the house was like, were there pictures in the front room, what did his mother talk about, did she mention her children?

The night of the operetta finally arrives, and it’s a miracle it keeps afloat, but of course it does in its way. All the kids are running around, boys and girls seeing each other in their underwear, and the community is gathered together. Again, those disparate pieces brought together.

But then it’s over. This even that has been the focal point of everyone’s attention for so long is done, and, due to a seeming misunderstanding, Frank does not offer to walk Del home afterwards.

Munro perfectly captures the post-ceremony mood:

What happened, after the operetta? In one week it had sunk from sight. Seeing some part of a costume, meant to be returned, hanging in the cloak room was like seeing the Christmas tree, leaning against the back porch in January, browning, bits of tinsel stuck to it, reminder of a time whose hectic expectations, and effort, seem now to have been somewhat misplaced.

We move quite quickly away from this communal event and see where the individual orbits have taken the people brought together that one night. Though Del thinks of him fondly for a while, nothing brings them together again. In a few years, Frank drops out school. Mr. Boyce moves away to a place where he feels more comfortable. Indeed, the final words of the story are about him: “Word filtered back that he managed to get along quite well there, where there were some people like himself.”

But before we get to those final words, we cross the most turbulent part of the story: Miss Farris’s tragic fate was to drown in the Wawanash River three or four years after The Pied Piper was put on. While people talked as if it were an accident or the sinister work of some mad murderer, most still knew, without acknowledging they knew, that she committed suicide. In the following paragraph – besides displaying a brutal streak in Munro’s writing, as she describes Miss Farris’s activities the night of the operetta and one could easily take each image and apply it to Miss Farris drowned in the icy water — shows that perhaps Miss Farris herself never was brought into the fold.

Miss Farris in her velvet skating costume, her jaunty fur hat bobbing among the skaters, always marking her out, Miss Farris con brio, Miss Farris painting faces in the Council Chambers, Miss Farris floating face down, unprotesting, in the Wawanash River, six days before she was found. Though there is no plausible way of hanging those pictures together — if the last one is true then must it not alter the others? — they are going to have to stay together now.

It’s a lonely story, one that suggests to Del that community, that connection, is mostly an illusion. The child in Del is indeed led away by the Pied Piper.

Betsy

In “Changes and Ceremonies,” art is the central subject — its lure, its power, and its dangers. What surprises about the story, given that its subject is art, is that the central character is a twelve-year-old girl. Surprising, too, is that the story encompasses the comic and the tragic, and is all the more successful for it.

The story begins with the battle between the sexes, seventh grade style. Del and Naomi are about thirteen, and they liked to stay in town after school, even if the boys yell dreadful things at them. “The things they said stripped away the freedom to be what you wanted,” observes the adult Del.

Sometimes the girls would yell back at the boys, telling them to wash out their mouths. Then the girls would go to the library, with its “evidence of so many created worlds.” The girls spent time poking around in books that tell about things like someone having a baby or a couple “taking shelter” in a barn. Going home in the winter dusk, they’d latch on to a passing sleigh for a lark. When they finally fell off they’d yell bad words at each other in a happy frenzy of twelve year old freedom.

And then it was March: the operetta. For Miss Elinor Farris, “The operetta was her passion.” She and Mr. Boyce, the local organist, were the ones in charge. The operetta took over the school, and “when the time came they would let it loose, it would belly out like a balloon, and we would all just have to hold on.” Almost everyone took part, but as Del remembers, some of the kids were “the never chosen.”

As predictable as that was, there was the enormous surprise of Frank Wales being given the lead — Frank, who was “so indifferent to the possession of such a voice, unaware of it, that when he stopped singing it was completely gone and you did not think of it in connection with him.”

Miss Farris kept costumes for six operettas stored in the attic, and the one this year was to be The Pied Piper. What an odd operetta! Art is here represented as something that can lure a person away from ordinary life to disappearance and death. Munro means us to feel that lure and that danger, both.

While Del and Naomi were a little bit boy crazy, Del sees that for Miss Farris, it’s the show that’s the thing, not Mr. Boyce. It’s the show that makes Miss Farris pink. Del loved this show, too, and she was moved by the tragedy of the Pied Piper. And so it was entirely natural when she fell in love with Frank Wales, who was turning out to be the perfect Pied Piper.

Under the pressure and business of preparing for the show, Del observes that “undercurrents of friendliness” were breaking out between the boys and girls, replacing all that alley-cat hazing. Naomi and Del confide about who they like, and they trade secrets about sex, about who had done it, who could do it, and who was responsible for what happened if they did do it.

As for Del, she was dreaming about the possibility that Frank Wales might walk her home on the night of the Operetta. That was one of the ceremonies of the seventh grade operetta. And then, suddenly, there it was — the night of the performance. Munro perfectly reproduces the seventh grade uproar, the rushing about, the nervousness, the girl who had taken four aspirin, and the way the event flashes by. Miss Farris “glittered” and “glided” and was “unlike herself.”

Afterwards, the children trooped out into the night and down the street to have their photograph taken in costume. Amid the hubbub, one of boys told Frank to walk Del home. Frank’s “gallant” reply stays with Del the rest of the night. He’d said that he would walk her home, except she lived too far out. Del thinks what he said was “lovely.” And then it was all over.

Things settled back to normal, and but when the time came, Frank Wales did not go on to high school with the rest of them, but went to work in the dry cleaners. Del’s fantasy about Frank, born of the operetta, faded slowly.

Later, when they were all in high school, Miss Farris was found drowned in the Wawanash River. Some people, most people, understood she had committed suicide. Others re-wrote the story and said she’d been dragged to the river by intruders, or at the very least, had just been walking by the river and fell in. Munro details the impossible combination of mental pictures they have of Miss Farris: skating in her velvet costume, doing make-up for the show, floating face down in the river.

She sent those operettas up like bubbles, shaped with quivering, exhausting effort, then almost casually set them free, to fade and fade but hold trapped forever our transformed childish selves, her undefeated, unrequited love.

The last word in this paragraph is love, as if it is art that is the source of love. The paragraph could be as true of writing stories as of making operettas.

In this story I recognize my own seventh grade, the performance, the boys, the girls, the frenzies, the preoccupations. I enjoy re-experiencing it all with Munro, I enjoy understanding how similar we all are, and part of the enjoyment is the exquisite detailing: the way, for instance, Del notices who gets left out. To use a word Del used about the library, I find the story comforting.

But it also is discomforting. It’s about the life of girls, and also about the lives of artists. The story starts out by noticing how the boys’ taunts “stripped away freedom to be what you wanted, reduced you to what it was they saw.” In this story, this could be true as much for artists as for girls.

When we end with Miss Farris’s death, we’ve already had a figurative death, that of Violet Toombs, who had to move away after she’d had sex in the shed with Dale McLaughlin. And we’ve had another figurative death in Frank Wales, whose beautiful voice is silenced by circumstance, given that it would have been high school that would have given him another chance. But when Miss Farris drowns, we go full circle back to the story’s beginning and to that question of freedom, especially for girls. Had Miss Farris had the freedom to become what she needed to become? To be fair, had Frank?

An important effect of pairing the operetta with the suicide is to show how, out in the country, the intense creative, communal world of the theater is both so important and so fragile. It’s odd and fitting that the operetta is the tragedy of the misunderstood Pied Piper. To be an artist in the provinces is something misunderstood and apart: “ridiculous” Mr. Boyce was understood to be “happier” when he moved to London, where there were other people like him. Frank Ware, with his gorgeous voice, moves himself to silence and disembodiment, and Miss Farris is unlike herself on the night of the operetta.

Munro, too, has talked about the loneliness she felt at the time she was writing this story, where it was just strange if a woman had any ambition other than to have several kids.

Munro makes the story as joyful as it is tragic. The children are little barbarians, and Miss Farris transforms them, saves them, really, and they know it. What touches me is the ambiguity in the sentence that talks about Miss Farris’s love. Whether it means her love of her “worlds of creation,” or her love for the children, or her love of the moment of transformation — or her love of the way she herself is transformed — is not clear. Perhaps it means all of these at once.

My dentist plays the violin in the annual local Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, which is always terrific. She says that being a part of this group is like church. They are all transformed. It’s sublime.

This story delights me, with its rowdy, touching seventh graders, and its determined (ridiculous) Miss Farris and her “undefeated, unrequited love.” (Munro loves that word: “undefeated.”) Following the silences, isolation and failures of “Age of Faith,” we see the transformative power of art at work in the world, but we get a sense of its requirements. We see Miss Farris having to interrupt Naomi and Del in the middle of flinging themselves about and swearing. Impossibly, we see her daring to give them the night of their lives, floating them, giving them the best of herself, giving them the best of themselves in an act of “undefeated, unrequited love.”

Munro was 20 when she married, and she had the last of her children at 36. During this time she tried to write, but it was difficult. For one thing, as Munro has said on several different occasions, other people could not comprehend why a housewife would write. But it was more serious than that. Sheila Munro, author of a memoir about her mother (Lives of Mothers & Daughters) says, “Often she would sit down at her typewriter and not be able to write more than a sentence or two; she’d spend the rest of the day in a morose state of inactivity. [. . .] After a time she stopped writing altogether.” Munro’s husband supported her work, but the combination of being a “wife, mother and hostess” combined with a sense that maybe she was mistaken — maybe she was not going to write a masterpiece. Sheila Munro explains that towards the end of this dark period, her mother realized that she would have to make “a series of impossible leaps.” (86-88)

Munro’s mother died, and in the summer of ‘61, the whole family traveled to Wingham, Ontario. Munro is now thirty. After that trip, she wrote “A Trip to the Coast,” “Dance of the Happy Shades,” and “The Peace of Utrecht.” She was on her way.

But reading “Changes and Ceremonies,” I see how close a call it was. Miss Farris drowns herself. We don’t know quite why. We do know that her death comes after Mr. Boyce leaves for the city, Mr. Boyce who had been integral to the production of the musical, perhaps essential. We see how precarious the artist’s life is, especially the female artist.

Sheila Munro writes tellingly of Virginia Woolf saying that the female writer must “kill” the Angel of the House — “the Victorian ideal of a woman who is self-sacrificing, good, and pure” — if she is going to escape writing that is “conventional [and] constricted.” Only then, could she “tell the truth.” Sheila Munro points out that Woolf thought no woman, not even herself, had achieved this freedom. (90) Obviously, Sheila is recommending her mother as that person Woolf was seeking.

Alice Munro emerged from her period of struggle to spend her thirties writing a new kind of work, but it was a close call. Alice Munro’s compassion for Miss Farris echoes the depth of that struggle.

Delicate, magnificent, and full of life, “Changes and Ceremonies” performs a ceremony itself: it is both a celebration of art’s sublime power and a knowing elegy for a fallen artist.

4 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “Changes and Ceremonies””

  1. Trevor says:

    Betsy, I think it’s so fascinating that we took this story in very different directions, though I think both are valid responses. I didn’t see the art angle at all, and certainly hadn’t thought of Miss Farris as an artist. As usual, thanks for the perspective.

  2. Betsy says:

    I agree, Trevor. It seems like the stories contain multiple figures in their carpet – all playing against each other. She brings it all to life. Some of these stories are so rich that to talk about them feels like it might take a book to capture all of one’s own reactions. The speed and scope of her thought is Shakespearian: all is interwoven. As you say – the story is about “those ceremonies and rituals that make a community of disparate folk” and it’s about sex. She never makes it easy on herself!

  3. John Hudson says:

    I was there, in Wingham, during the production of these operettas.
    This brings back vivid memories.
    I was a cast member.

  4. Betsy says:

    Welcome, John. How wonderful. So nice to hear from you.

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