“Lives of Girls and Women” is the sixth 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.
“Changes and Ceremonies,” the prior piece in Lives of Girls and Women, was suggestive of sex and a boy’s capacity to destroy. In that story, Del, at twelve years old, was focusing more and more on sexuality. In contrast, there is no suggestion in this, the title story. Here Del, in her first year of high school, is “fanatically curious” about the endless ways sexuality presents itself and its endless effects. She’s fascinated by what is still a mystery, a mystery which seems present in so many facets of society. But this is not a story of a girl’s sexual awakening. There’s an awakening, to be sure, and we get one of the most shocking scenes in this book — indeed, in Munro’s entire body of work — but it leads to something that I found surprising.
Del’s ambition, her feeling that she has something artistic to offer the world, has been clear for a few stories as we’ve seen her become more and more separate from the community she is describing, but it’s here, when her mother brings up Del’s future children, that she fully admits them to us:
Her speaking of children amazed me too, for I never meant to have any. It was glory I was after, walking the streets of Jubilee like an exile or a spy, not sure from which direction fame would strike, or when, only convinced from my bones out that it had to. In this conviction my mother had shared, she had been my ally, but now I would no longer discuss it with her; she was indiscreet, and her expectations took too blatant a form.
Yet the story does not dwell here. Rather, Dell — older, as she tells this story — remembers how she and her best friend Naomi would talk about sex nearly every day, talks that “took one tone, so that there were degrees of candor we could never reach. This tone was ribald, scornful, fanatically curious.”
That passage shows a link between the language used to talk about something and one’s impression about that thing — the language and the thing influencing each other, sometimes boxing us in. Here, besides being limited by inexperience, Del and Naomi’s understanding of sex is limited by language. In a way, these are limitations they impose upon themselves, but, of course, to break away, to free oneself in language in order to approach something head-on — that’s an act of courage, but also one of deliberation, and when the story begins Del is not yet conscious enough of any of this to make that act of courage.
In the first part of the story, when Del is “fanatically curious” about sex, she and Naomi talk quite often of Fern Dogherty, Del’s mother’s friend and boarder. Fern has a friend named Art Chamberlain. They are both older, yet Naomi’s mother — a woman who freely talks about the evils of sex with her child — has said that Fern and Art are having illicit relations. In what could be considered an act of courage, Del brings this up with her mother, who is convinced Fern and Art are not having sex:
“They enjoy each other’s company,” she said. “They don’t bother about any nonsense.”
Nonsense meant romance; it meant vulgarity; it meant sex.
Again, we see how the words affect Del’s own understanding of sex.
And it’s words that first get Del fantasizing about Mr. Chamberlain. One night, he is telling everyone about his experiences in Italy during the war. There, he says, men were hooking up with girls “no older than Del here.” These words shock Del. They open up a world to her, and in that world she imagines herself with Mr. Chamberlain. What follows is a lengthy passage, but one I find mesmerizing. Here, Del describes what these fantasies are composed of. We get a sense of her sense of sex and how far she allows her own mind to go, as she fantasizes about nothing more than Mr. Chamberlain seeing her naked:
It would have to be the summer holidays, when I was home from school. Fern would not yet be home from the post office. I would come downstairs in the heat of the late afternoon, a sulphurous still day, wearing only this dressing gown. I would get a drink of water at the sink, not seeing Mr. Chamberlain sitting quietly in the room, and then — what? A strange dog, introduced into our house for this occasion only, might jump on me, pulling the dressing gown off. I might turn and somehow catch the material on the nail of a chair, and the whole thing would just slither to my feet. The thing was that it had to be an accident; no effort on my part, and certainly none on Mr. Chamberlain’s. Beyond the moment of revelation my dream did not go. In fact it often did not get that far, but lingered among the preliminary details, solidifying them. The moment of being seen naked could not be solidified, it was a stab of light. I never pictured Mr. Chamberlain’s reaction, I never very clearly pictured him. His presence was essential but blurred; in the corner of my daydream he was featureless but powerful, humming away electrically like a blue fluorescent light.
Obviously, Munro herself has a fantastic control over language.
The story takes an even more disturbing turn when Mr. Chamberlain, in the presence of Del’s mother and Fern — though out of their sight — rubs his hand over Del’s breast. This initial assault leads to several more:
He went straight for the breasts, the buttocks, the upper thighs, brutal as lightning. And this was what I expected sexual communication to be — a flash of insanity, a dreamlike, ruthless, contemptuous breakthrough in a world of decent appearances.
These are Del’s first sexual experiences, “brutal as lightning,” but rather than explore how these negatively affected Del, which most of us would feel absolutely compelled to do, Munro has Del further exploring the language around sex. She finds some books in Fern’s room:
All I read now about foam and jelly, even the use of the word “vagina,” made the whole business seem laborious and domesticated, somehow connected with ointments and bandages and hospitals, and it gave me the same feeling of disgusted, ridiculous helplessness I had when it was necessary to undress at the doctor’s.
Soon, we get to that horrifying scene. As usual when writing about Munro, I don’t hold back spoilers, so feel free to look away.
Mr. Chamberlain picks Del up from school one day and drives her to an empty field outside of the city. There, he exposes himself to her and masturbates, staining her dress. It’s a scene that makes the mouth go absolutely dry. Del, for her part, goes along with it, wondering if he’s going to rape her or what, but she goes along with it because she wants more personal knowledge, something language — however adequate — can hardly substitute. Seeing it for herself, Del essentially finds sex, at least, this pathetic display, ridiculous. Suddenly, it has been stripped of its intrigue. She says the penis she sees — and describes bluntly, in stripped down language — had nothing to do with her. She examines this act impersonally, objectively, and we are reminded that “[b]ooks always compared it to something else, never told about it by itself.” Much has lost its luster on the way back in to town. Besides going through what must be shock, though Del does not dwell there, Del sees most things are not what they are chatted up to be.
She feels the urge to tell someone what happened, not necessarily to receive help but to tell a “funny, though horrifying, story.” But she’s still not found someone she can tell even her stories to. Consequently, she “did not know what to do with it.”
When talking about attraction and loneliness in my post about “Changes and Ceremonies” I said that the destructiveness of sex was for another story. Strangely — because here Del is sexual assaulted multiple times — this is not that story. We might expect an exploration of the negative impact this assault had on Del’s life. At most we get Del’s disappointment after the encounter. And we see Del getting a sense of empowerment. We see that she no longer wants the sex — if she ever did — she wants the knowledge. She wants to experience and, contrary to what society says a woman is capable of, “go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what [I] didn’t want and come back proud.”
As with all of the stories in Lives of Girls and Women, though we are watching Del develop this story stands completely alone as an examination of an adolescent mind trying to make sense of the world around her. But it leads nicely to the next story, where Del is dating a boy and “words were our enemies.”
The title story of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women is startling and rich. A reader could easily write a book in reaction to this disturbing story in which fourteen-year-old Del intentionally seeks out a sexual experience with a middle-aged man already gone gray. Although she has a graphic recall of the assault, Del’s recollections are told in a flattened tone, and Munro leaves it to the reader to judge the extent of the damage done.
In this story, “Lives of Girls and Women,” Del is “fanatically curious” about sex and sexuality. Munro explores this aspect of being a girl with no ribbons to fancy it up, no veils, no apologies. It appears that no useful information will be forthcoming from her mother, a woman who thinks of sex as “nonsense.” While Addie hopes that Del will have children, she views relationships with men as distractions.
Using these words from Tennyson, Addie warns Del against men:
He shall hold thee, when its passion shall have spent its novel force,
a little closer than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.
Addie has an asexual approach to life, and these peculiar lines are apt to Addie’s purpose. Del knows, as we learned in “Princess Ida” that her mother is not likely to be able to answer any questions about sexuality, given “the gloom that overcame her in the vicinity of sex.”
This silence on the topic of sex was complicated by Addie’s dreams for Del. Del had brains to spare, and her mother knew it. Addie’s own ambitions have gone largely unfulfilled, and she was determined for Del to succeed. Ironically, although she was determined to provide her with a better education than she had had, Addie was unable to provide what a mother should: sex education and a healthy sexual model.
Given this vacuum, Del and her friend Naomi have “almost daily discussions on the subject of sex.” These discussions, says Del, are “ribald, scornful, and fanatically curious.” They pour over Naomi’s mother’s nursing textbooks. They are barely beyond the days when they would draw exaggerated cartoons of male and female bodies that portray, in fact, their fears. Del herself (who doesn’t like the revealing nature of nightgowns) is very afraid of her own body. The girls feel so powerless they pull tricks like writing the names of the popular girls on the walls of the Town Hall toilets or pretending to have cerebral palsy.
What Del and Naomi needed was a good book about sex and sexuality written from a woman’s point of view. They also needed acknowledgment that it was normal, right and good for women to have sexual feelings. They also needed copious reply to any question they could think up. This would have been the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies Ourselves, except that it would be twenty years before it would be available. The Joy of Sex would have been very useful to them as well, but it, too, would only become available twenty years later. In contrast to these affirming points of view, what little education Del had had made her think of sex as “a flash of insanity, a dreamlike, ruthless, contemptuous breakthrough in a world of appearances.”
Into this overheated, rebellious atmosphere comes a single man, the gray-haired boyfriend of Addie’s boarder, a kind of aged gentleman caller. Mr. Chamberlain had been seeing Fern for some time. That he shares a name with Neville Chamberlain is probably not a good omen.
Watching Del and Naomi chew gum in a purposely suggestive manner, Mr. Chamberlain sees an opportunity. He grooms Del (right under her mother’s nose, right under his girlfriend’s nose) with weeks of suggestive overtures and inappropriate, furtive, and extensive touching. His seductive routine includes calling Del a “bad girl” and getting her to collude in a scheme to retrieve his letters out of Fern’s room. In her search, Del finds instead information about abortions, condoms, pessaries, and tampons. Although Del finds nothing she can give Mr. Chamberlain, he does get the benefit of proving to Del that she is, indeed, a bad girl, having broken into Fern’s room.
Del’s mother sees, or chooses to see, nothing, perhaps because she enjoys the cultured company that Mr. Chamberlain, who is a radio announcer, provides. In addition, although everyone in town, including Del and Naomi, knows that Addie’s boarder is having an affair with Mr. Chamberlain, Addie chooses to believe this is not so.
Del’s unsatisfied sexual curiosity is being fanned by all these flames. She fantasizes that Mr. Chamberlain will be some kind of sexual partner — but all she can imagine is him seeing her naked. When he appears one day in his car just outside her school and offers her a ride, she is ready.
What comes next is strange, difficult to read, and bluntly graphic. Mr. Chamberlain takes Del to a secluded riverbank, has her stand beside him, and he masturbates. Del watches him, close enough for him to stain her skirt, just as she was meant to do. Del also observes that he probably meant for her to be afraid, except she wasn’t. He comments, “Quite a sight, eh?” Then, he tries to shame her, makes her ride on the floor of the car, lets her out outside of town, and by the next day he has disappeared, leaving Fern an airy, offensive letter of parting.
Del says of the assault, “I didn’t know what to do with it.”
The reader hardly knows either. It’s useful, however, for the reader to remember that Munro has made Del’s dilemma clear. In order to be an artist, she must make sense of sex. But in order to make sense of sex, she needs guidance. What Addie has done is prepare Del to be a victim.
Before the trip to the river, Del “had been looking at fields, trees, landscape with a secret, strong exaltation.” But heading back to the car after the attack, she says, “the landscape was [. . .] meaningless.” For sure, Del doesn’t know what to do with what has happened. She thinks of herself as above being debased by Mr. Chamberlain, but if the way she perceives the landscape is any clue, she feels enveloped by the same gloom her mother felt “in the vicinity of sex.”
By story’s end, she has decided to do as men do: “go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what [she] didn’t want and come back proud.”
This feels dangerous. Depending on the experiences she chooses, she could end up dead. The reader thinks of men who have been caught after having held girls like Del prisoner for years. Does Munro know it’s dangerous? Yes, I think so.
Although the story takes place in about 1950, Munro is writing in the 60’s. Nabokov’s Lolita appeared in 1958. Before Nabokov’s novel closes, Lolita is dead. Next time, this could be Del.
One difference between Lolita and Del is that Del is a little older. Lolita is an unformed middle school nobody, while Del is a high school student known for her essays, a girl who writes poems, a girl who intends to write a “masterpiece.” Not only that, Del has a vision of her own ambition: “It was glory I was after, walking the streets of Jubilee like an exile or a spy, not sure from which direction fame would strike, or when, only convinced from my bones out that it had to.” Lolita actually dies after she leaves Humbert; whether Del is damaged is not clear, but she is alive, and she has also begun to write in earnest.
Another difference between Nabokov and Munro is that the pedophilia in Nabokov is told from Humbert’s entitled point of view. It is important to note that Nabokov’s intent was often misunderstood; he was not writing pornography, he was writing about sexual slavery. But nonetheless, Lolita’s is not the voice that tells the tale; it is Humbert Humbert who “hums” the tune.
Munro’s story, however, has answered Nabokov; it is written from the girl’s point of view. While Humbert thinks of himself as clever and delightful, Del thinks of Mr. Chamberlain as infantile, evil, and repulsive. She says his face looks blind and wobbling, like a mask on a stick. Del remembers the penis: “It did not seem to have anything to do with me.”
Del assesses Chamberlain: “self-satisfaction stretched over quite an abyss of irresponsibility, or worse.” She could have been describing Humbert Humbert. What Munro has done is give Lolita a voice. She has riffed on one of the most famous books of the fifties. In so doing, she has questioned the true nature of girls, and she has questioned the nature of art, which for so long had been primarily the province of men.
This unlikely story of a girl’s molestation can be read as a kind of Ars Poetica, in which literature and art would allow for a female point of view, and maybe specifically the point of view of a woman or girl who is also an artist. But we are not exactly talking about Addie’s triumphal bluestocking attitudes, where women’s rights and women’s education and philosophical barnstorming are the goals. We are talking about an art that sees the whole girl or the whole woman: determination and foolishness, triumphs and mistakes, mind and body, good and bad. It is an art that longs to represent people as they really are. As odd as the comparison is, there is something of the Mary Cassatt in Munro in this book, in her determination to make lives of girls and women vibrant, touching, important, rich, and whole. But Mary Cassatt belonged to a different former world — Addie’s world — a world where a woman usually had to choose between being an artist and having a family.
The feminism in this story is strange and alien: Del is not crushed by her experience with Mr. Chamberlain. At least she got a little of what she wanted: experience, knowledge, and separation from her steam-roller of a mother.
It is no mistake that the perp in this story is named Art. It’s a kind of a joke, but it’s not a mistake. For one thing, art is a twin subject in this story: opera, story-telling, novels, sculpture, and poetry are some of the arts that play a part. Radio announcing is Art’s “art.” Naming the molester “Art” suggests that there could be something fraudulent, something of an assault, something of the entitled male, something of the Humbert Humbert in art as it has been up til now. During Mr. Chamberlain’s “performance,” Del describes his face as looking “blind and wobbling like a mask on a stick,” thus blending abuse, blindness, performance, and art.
When Addie quotes Tennyson, she is quoting “Locksley Hall,” a famous poem in which the speaker believes in the supremacy of men. He has been driven somewhat crazy by having been rejected by his true love. This well-known poem has the hero imagining his right to kill the woman who has turned him down. It also imagines him cooking up a peculiar revenge in which he marries a “savage.” By using a couplet from the poem, Munro hints at an artistic atmosphere dominated by male concerns and male points of view. Although it could be argued that Tennyson himself did not share the speaker’s views, the world of “Locksley Hall” is the world of art Del has inherited. This is the world Del must enter if she is to become an artist.
Will Del become an artist? We have the negative example of Fern, who is everything a girl should not be if she wishes to become an artist. When asked if she “planned” to be a singer, Fern replies, “Well, I did and I didn’t. The work, the training. I just didn’t have the ambition for it [. . .] . I always preferred having a good time.”
At the same time, Addie has ambitions for Del, but she can only imagine Del choosing what she chose: to be an asexual woman. Neither Fern nor Addie offer possible guidance.
What is tragic is how Addie has completely misjudged what Del needs. Addie shares Del’s ambition. Addie believes in education. But her attitudes deny Del any right to a natural sexuality, and if Del is to be an artist, she needs to be a complete person, a whole person. What is equally tragic is how Addie, in her need for companionship and friendship, set Del up for Chamberlain’s miserable assault. When there is no man in the house, children are at risk from gentleman callers. Addie’s inability to imagine Art as a sexual being also puts Del at risk; that Addie let him in the house is worse, and that she didn’t see what was going on was worst of all.
Or did she see? There was that stain on the skirt. As the story closes, Addie is lecturing Del, but much as Del knows she needs the protection of a mother, Del is beyond Addie. Del is going to take her own advice now. We just don’t know if she’ll be so lucky as to survive the second time.
With all the best intentions, Addie has alienated Del from her natural self. As a result, Del has learned to become secretive, but she is not just secretive about her sexuality, she is also secretive about her artistic self. She thinks about writing a poem about the white peacock that she and Naomi saw. Naomi says, “It was beautiful.”
Del thinks: “To have her thinking about it too was almost like trespassing; I never let her or anyone in that part of my mind.”
Artistry and sexuality are both secrets to Del; they are both the province of men; and they are both areas where Del has no reliable guide. She insists she will seek experience, and maybe with experience Del will knit her several selves together. But it looks dangerous. Just look at Fern.
Nevertheless, Del is determined to take her own advice now, only her own advice.
One last thing: in the story’s first paragraph, we hear how a huge snow fell that was deep enough in which to carve a human sized arch. The newspaper took pictures of Fern and another woman standing under the snow arch. The snow arch is an elegant shape, and also somewhat vaginal. At the heart of the arch stands Fern, the sexual gal who has a sexual good time with shabby Mr. Chamberlain. Although it is a girl’s name, Fern is also a slang term for female genitalia. Munro has announced herself at the outset. Art must contain the sexual natures of women as well as men.
There is always a high-low-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality to Munro’s writing. This story is no exception. Munro is dead serious — witness her title. The girls and women of the story have at their center questions of sexuality, motherhood, education, experience, ambition, and art. In addition, the lives of girls and women can often be powerfully impacted by evil, weak, or irresponsible men, and if you are a woman who is an artist, you have the whole long history of art that believed that women are an afterthought.
Del’s rebellion has begun, and like Phaeton, she may drive too close to the sun. But the tragedy of the story is that Addie only wanted Del’s success; she never saw that making sex a secret could risk Del’s life. Like Addie, the society never saw, either, that making sex a secret created all the wrong results.
It is significant that Munro has made this the title story: in “Lives of Girls and Women,” Del chooses experience and separation from her mother over obedience and ignorance. It’s an artist’s credo to choose to live free. Choosing autonomy is not all that easy for men, and it may not be all that easy for Del, either. But it’s one of the necessary steps.