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Alice Munro: “Baptizing”

Lives-of-Girls-and-Women“Baptizing” is the seventh 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

Baptism represents the death of one life and a rebirth into another. In “Baptism,” Del is seventeen years old, and she recognizes she is about to launch her life on some trajectory, hopefully university. Her best friend Naomi has drifted away from Del, quitting school to work an office job in the creamery. Such a job is, she and Del think, the normal thing for girls to do when they’re preparing for marriage, even if it’s just a hypothetical, wished-for (or not) marriage. Del, meanwhile, bucking convention, is still at school, working hard to get a scholarship that will allow her to go to university.

Baptism also represents cleansing. Remember that the last story, “Lives of Girls and Women,” ended with Del saying she was going to live her life, ”go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what [I] didn’t want.” She’ll try to put that into practice in “Baptizing.”

In this story, though, baptism can also represent drowning. One goes under the water – perhaps waiting with futility for the new life to begin or perhaps simply forcing the old life to die – and does not resurface.

“Baptizing,” the longest story in this book at approximately 70 pages, can essentially be split into three parts. In the first, we see Del and Naomi are on different trajectories. They are splitting apart in every way possible, and Del is set in her conviction that she doesn’t want that kind of life:

What was a normal life? It was the life of the girls in the creamery office, it was showers, linen and pots and pans and silverware, that complicated feminine order; then, turning it over, it was the life of the Gay-la Dance Hall, driving drunk at night along the black roads, listening to men’s jokes, putting up with and warily fighting with men and getting hold of them, getting hold — one side of that life could not exist without the other, and by undertaking and getting used to them both a girl was putting herself on the road to marriage. There was no other way. And I was not going to be able to do it. No.

But Del does go to the Gay-la Dance Hall. She does go to a room with men who are telling dirty jokes, drinking, gearing up for sex. What does Del do? She drunkenly goes out the fire escape, essentially severing all ties to Naomi and that “normal” life.

In the second part, we meet Del’s intellectual rival at the school, Jerry Storey. He’s socially awkward, set apart from the rest of the school, yet he and Del “drifted together” at around the same time Del and Naomi drifted apart. Though everyone thinks Del and Jerry are the same — they are the two smartest in the school — they resent this, seeing themselves as very different from each other.

I though Jerry was a thousand times more freakish, less attractive than I was, and it was plain that he thought putting my brains and his in the same category showed no appreciation of categories; it was like saying Toscanini and the local bandmaster were both talented.

Jerry thinks Del is smart, but he thinks she is smart in useless areas he calls memory tests — literature, history, art. He is scientific, destined for MIT — and he teases Del that he hopes to win the Nobel Prize before the world is destroyed (again, congratulations to Alice Munro, for your win :-) ).

Jerry’s mother also sees Jerry and Del as very different, and she warns Del that Jerry’s trajectory and hers will not match:

“So you mustn’t get into trouble, you know,” she said matter-of-factly. “Jerry couldn’t get married. I wouldn’t allow it. I have seen these cases of young men forced to sacrifice their lives because some girl has got pregnant and I don’t think it’s right. You and I have both seen it, you know the ones I mean, in the school. Shotgun weddings. That’s the style in Jubilee. I don’t agree with it. I never did. I don’t agree that it’s the boy’s responsibility and he should have to sacrifice his career. Do you?”

Del is shocked to find herself discussing diaphragms with Jerry’s mother. She thinks, “The thought of intimacies with Jerry Storey was offensive in itself. Which did not meant that they did not, occasionally, take place.”

As in the first section, when Del suddenly finds herself drunk with a  bunch of men, here she finds herself — inexplicably — naked in Jerry’s bedroom (“Each of us was the only avenue to discovery that the other had found.”). The body, the unknown thrill of sex, takes over. Again, though, before anything further happens, Jerry’s mother returns home. Trying to escape this situation unnoticed, Jerry shoves Del, still naked, into his cellar. Later that night, Jerry drops Del’s clothes down the laundry shoot, and Del finds her way home, furious. Furious, probably, that she was shut up naked in a cellar, but what she says is that she was furious “to think of myself naked on that bed. Nobody to look at me but Jerry, giggling and scared and talking dialect. That was who I had to take my offerings. I would never get a real lover.”

In the third section, Del finally does get a real lover, Garnet French. He’s a twenty-three-year-old from a neighboring — and, everyone in Jubilee agrees, wretched — town. Del meets him one Friday when she’s looking for a new experience (“scientific curiosity”); she goes to a religious revival in the Town Hall where The Pied Piper was performed in “Changes and Ceremonies.” She finds the whole thing ridiculous, but it becomes much less so when she strikes up a covert flirtation with this stranger whose name she does not learn for days.

They are nothing alike. Garnet dropped out of school, he’s spent time in prison, he works in a lumberyard, he’s a fervent Baptist, and he has no interest in anything Del is interested in. Yet they become lovers. Del finds herself doing things she’d never do otherwise, like attending the Baptist Young People’s Society every Monday night. She also finds herself unable to study. Del’s calls her out on it — “You’ve gone addled over a boy. You with your intelligence.” But Del, by this time, has no interest or confidence in her mother’s asexual way of life. Del would come home after being with Garnet and find her mother on her bed, ready to read out of the university catalogs.

“Tell you what I would take — ” She was not afraid of Garnet anymore, he was fading in the clear light of my future.

Yet Del finds herself unafraid as well: “I did not fear discovery, as I did not fear pregnancy.” She doesn’t fear these because she doesn’t think they are possible. Yet, she’d be surprised to find out, she also doesn’t fear them because she doesn’t simply doesn’t fear them. She wants to end up with Garnet. That Naomi is getting married — because she’s pregnant — is shocking, but when she and Naomi talk about it, Del finds her and Naomi have drifted together again. Del says she has also had sex. She finally is able to tell Naomi about Mr. Chamberlain, from “Lives of Girls and Women.” Naomi denies to herself that she is depressed, and Del suspects it but, I think, in a way, finds it all attractive — probably because it’s what society expects of her and, as we’ve seen so far, that’s hard to escape.

Which brings us to the final moment, the moment we often find in Munro’s stories when everything slows down and we watch a scene play out in horror. Garnet and Del finish making love and go swimming. He asks her, “Would you like a baby?” She simply answers, “Yes,” and thinks:

Where would such a lie come from? It was not a lie.

Garnet tells her she needs to be baptized first, then. She doesn’t want this, she tells him. It may look like it starts out playful, but soon she finds herself in a serious struggle with Garnet, who is trying to baptize her on the spot. She genuinely thinks he’s going to drown her. Fighting under water feels like fighting in a dream.

In reflection, the whole affair with Garnet feels like a “possibly fatal game.” It still might be fatal in one way: she passes her tests but not with marks high enough to get her scholarship.

I was free and I was not free. I was relieved and I was desolate. Suppose, then, I had never wakened up? Suppose I had let myself lie down and be baptized in the Wawanash River.

She wonders about this life, “off and on, as if it still existed — along with the leafy shade and the waterstains in his house, and the bounty of my lover’s body — for many years.” It’s not easy for her to move on (would she have drowned?), but in the end she decides it’s time to “get started on my real life.” And free from the scholarship, free from Naomi, free from Garnet French, she has no idea what that might be.

Betsy

“Baptizing” tells of the delirious affair that 17-year-old Del has with 23-year-old Garnet French. This passionate affair, which lasts several months, begins when the two strangers encounter each other at a revival and make a game, like Romeo and Juliet, of intertwining their hands, bit by bit. Not long after, Del is going out with Garnet in his truck every night, a night which sometimes starts with a church social and sometimes starts with one of Garnet’s baseball games. Once they are by themselves, Del remembers:

Garnet turned to me always with the same sigh, the same veiled and serious look, and we would cross over, going into a country where there was perfect security, no move that would not bring delight; disappointment was not possible.

The memories of these trysts keep Del awake at night. She remembers the “pleasure,” the word itself seeming “explosive, the two vowels in the first syllable spurting up like fireworks, ending on the plateau of the last syllable, its dreamy purr.” These are “great gifts” that she receives from Garnet. After they actually make love, their relationship deepens even more. ”Now we made love in earnest. We made love on the truck seat with the door open, and under the bushes, and in the night grass.” She goes on to say, “We had come out on another level – more solid, less miraculous, where cause and effect must be acknowledged, and love begins to flow in a deliberate pattern.”

Del, the narrator, comments years later on the rarity of what they had:

I was surprised, when I thought about it – am surprised still – at the light, even disparaging tone that is taken, as if [physical attraction] was something that could be found easily, every day.

Del and Garnet share Eden, as the dreamy valley and the precious stone of their names denote.  Munro takes her time to tell their story, interrupting each stage with the more mundane. The slow pace of the story telling matches the story itself: “we felt an obligation [. . .] to make shy formal retreats in the face of so much pleasure.”

One of the reasons Del’s delirious affair with Garnett is so unforgettable is because they are fatally mismatched. (But aren’t all of us?) Garnet has been to jail and has never been to high school, while Del is famous for her academic triumphs and on the fast track for a scholarship to the university. Except for their physical attraction, Garnet and Del are realms apart – in age and experience, in social class, in the way they like to think and talk, in education, and in religion.

Garnet is a born-again Baptist. In “Age of Faith” Del remarks that Baptists were “extreme” and “slightly comic.” Perhaps of more importance, she also says in that story: “No person of importance or social standing went to the Baptist Church.” Part of the mismatch is engineered by the fact that that Del meets Garnet at a Baptist revival, which Del has chosen to attend out of ornery curiosity. Garnet, on the other hand, during a four month stint in jail for assault, has been saved. He readily admits that because of his tendency to drink and fight, he would end up back in jail, except for the church. So he is a steady member, even to the point of reaffirming his devotion to God during the revival. This is who Garnet is.

Del, for the sake of the sex, attends meetings at the Baptist Church every Monday night, but she is “appalled” by it and “waiting only for it to end.” Curiously, Del thinks of Garnet’s religion as being a “mask he was playing with.”

Actually, however, religion is real to Garnet. Munro leaves it to the reader to realize it is Del who is wearing the mask. She never mentions to Garnet what she really thinks of religion in general, and the Baptists in particular. She never mentions to Garnet her mother’s dreadful childhood with a religious zealot for a mother, a childhood in which she was both neglected and not protected, as we learn from “Princess Ida.” Not being religious is seriously important to Del. “Age of Faith” closes with Del looking for God, but not in church. Instead, she has long envisioned God thus:

God real, and really in the world, and alien and as unacceptable as death? Could there be a God amazing, indifferent, beyond faith?

While Del rejected organized religion as a means of making space in her soul for autonomy and art, Garnet embraced religion as a means of not ending up in jail again. Del lacks respect for the complete Garnet French. Garnet is open about how important religion is to him. Del’s position is a secret. She is the one who wears a mask.

She says that they hardly talk, given that they have no idea how to bridge their differences with talk. But perhaps Garnet’s silences are his version of a mask.

The social divisions between them are an issue. Before she ever meets Garnet, we know that Del considers people from Jericho Valley to be beyond the pale. She and her friend Jerry (both smarty-pants) watch the revival buses arrive from the country, and the two friends joke about how the folks from Jericho Valley (where Garnet is from) are inbred, “moronic and potentially criminal.” Later on, Del’s mother says, “I know who the Frenches are. Out beyond Jericho Valley. That’s the poorest Godforsaken backwoods you ever hope to see.” And yet, it is Del who admits she was happy the day she visits Garnet’s family.

Later in the affair, when her buddy Jerry refers to Garnet as a Neanderthal, Del mock-corrects him in “cheerful, shameful treachery,” saying, “No he’s Cro-Magnon.”

The mask that Del wears springs partly from her nature and partly from her age. She is only 17, while Garnet is 23. We know of his other girlfriends, but we also know that Garnet is her first meaningful relationship. The difference in their ages is key. Apart from his sexual experience, Garnet is worlds apart from Del in another regard: together, Garnet and his mother support the big family, and in his mother’s words, they are “the mainstay of the family.” This, despite no high school education and despite his stint in jail; in contrast, Del is nobody’s mainstay yet. Del is barely responsible for herself, let alone anyone else. She is, simply put, too young to understand how rare their love is, too young to respect him, and too young to know how to bridge the gaps between them.

Concealment is a theme in the entire book of Lives of Girls and Women. Del conceals her religious explorations and sexual  adventures from her mother, and she conceals her artistic ambitions from everyone. Sheila Munro, in her  memoir of life with her mother, Lives of Mothers & Daughters, says of Alice Munro that she “has spoken often of her art for dissembling, for concealment, which, for a writer can be very advantageous, allowing her to remain free and detached, almost without a self” (111). Del certainly conceals her real self from Garnet, and the result is inevitable.

I would turn, here, to another theme that runs throughout the book, which is the casual way in which men impose their ideas on women, and the case which Munro makes for the necessity women face: that they must stand up for themselves and fight for their own autonomy. Del has already had the experience of having her mother attempt to impose her asexual world view on Del, and Del has resoundingly rejected her mother, deciding in the title story to do as men do: “take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what [I didn’t] want and come back proud.” To a degree, Del’s reserve is part of fighting back, and is a part of her learning to be independent.

In the first half of “Baptizing,” Del must fight back. When she and Naomi end up in a seedy hotel room with a 28-year-old man and his buddy, the men try to manipulate the girls with (old story) dirty jokes and liquor. Although she is quite drunk, Del fights back by climbing down a fire escape and jumping to the ground, leaving Naomi (and her friendship with Naomi) behind. On another occasion, a steady beau who is neither attractive nor compelling to her, but merely convenient, convinces her to take off all her clothes. His mother comes home early, though, and the beau locks naked Del in the basement. Later, he sends her clothes down the laundry chute, and she escapes out a basement window.

What men have to say to women is, if anything, harder to escape. Magazine writers suggest that girls and women don’t think like men (of the meaning of the universe), and if they do, maybe they are just “Trying to Be a Boy.” Teenaged Del finds these assumptions difficult to wiggle out of. The young men in the hotel room tell dirty jokes, jokes which serve two functions. They mistakenly think that the jokes (with liquor) are the setting for sex, and they know that the jokes demean the girls. The man that Del had ended up with has a dirty joke that begins with this question: “You believe in equal rights for women?”

Del fights back at this sort of thing in her every-day life: she likes operas with main characters like Carmen, who has a “self-created self.”

The convenient beau is another nerd like Del, and convinced of his own superiority, he imagines himself winning a Nobel Prize. He cavalierly tells Del that while she has “a first rate memory” and “a not unusual feminine gift for language,” she also has “fairly weak reasoning powers and almost no capacity for abstract thought.” Throughout their long friendship, Jerry and his mother both treat Del as a handmaiden to their superior status as man and mother of the man. For her part, Jerry’s role is protection and exploration, and Del puts up with him, but she says: “I had indifference, a contempt, almost, that I concealed from him.”

Even her own father and the hired man have ideas about how Del should behave: she shouldn’t get into physical tests of muscle with her brother, and she shouldn’t have a beer, even when her father, her younger brother, and the hired man are having one. Her world comes furnished with masculine assumptions about women and their role. Munro’s attitude is that women have a choice. They can be victims, or they can stand up for themselves. Del, in fact, spends most of this book standing up for herself. But when you think about it, even while you are cheering her on, you know how unusual she is.

It would be easy to read “Baptizing” as a feminist fable: most of the men in this story are foisting themselves on women, and women are in danger of not being in control of their lives. These men are more espoused to their ideas about women than they are espoused to women, and their ideas run from the childish to the imperial. But to think in such simple terms is to ignore what Munro is always about. She is always interested in the complexity of life, and how when things go wrong, all sides are usually complicit. Regardless that the men are chauvinistic, Munro makes clear that the women in this story, (Del, Naomi, and to some extent, Del’s mother Addie) all have a choice to make.

To a degree, “Baptizing” is defined by its title. At 70 pages, this is a very long and convoluted short story, but throughout, Del is fighting for her life. The story is an ongoing baptism by fire in which Del must repeatedly and almost singlehandedly preserve her self. By choosing the gerund form (“Baptizing”), Munro emphasizes that this fight for autonomy, this fight for a “self-created self” is ongoing. No sooner have you climbed down one fire escape, but then you have to climb out a basement window.

The minister at the revival speaks in term of the fires of hell, and the human predicament of having to cross above it on the thinnest of rope bridges, thus echoing not only the idea of a baptism by fire, but also the Munro idea that, man or woman, life is where you fight for your life.

On first reading, I took Del’s baptism to be by Garnet – a thrilling baptism into pleasure and love. And I do think that is one of her baptisms in this story. But the final baptism is the fight she has with Garnet in the river, the one where he becomes determined to “baptize” her to be ready to marry him. This is a violent, violent event, one in which she thinks at one point he intends to drown her. So she kicks him in the belly as hard as she can and escapes. And with that, the bubble is over. Garnet and Del are done. Although now she was free (of his restrictions, of his social class, of his control), she was also “desolate.” She thinks of him, the pleasure of him, the joy of him, the rest of her life.

One thing she cannot bring herself to say is this: although he wants to marry her (he carves stars around her name), it is also possible that he understands it cannot be. And perhaps when the truck “broke down” the night before her university tests, and gave them an opportunity to have their first real sex, perhaps there was some other intention at work. Perhaps quiet Garnet was quietly arranging things just as he wanted them, and at the same time sealing the possibility that Del would not pass the test.

But even if Munro makes it possible for us to think this, she holds Del responsible. Throughout, Del has chosen not to apply the brakes, and she has chosen not to protect herself. Ironically, she is able to protect herself from pregnancy. She just cannot protect herself from falling into “having a good time,” like Fern. That she fails to nail her exams means she will not go to university; that she fails to go to university perhaps satisfies some unspoken need of Garnet’s as well. They have, to a degree, acted in concert.

This many-leveled story is deeply, deeply true to the experience of women. The love affair remains for Del a memory and a yearning for the rest of her life. But I think Munro means us to see that the baptism by fire never ends. If you want a “self-created self,” if you want to be an artist, there is no way but to fight for it, at every pass. Life is a violent event, interspersed, if you are lucky, with some pleasure. But man or woman, you have to fight for it every step of the way. Del herself says:

We had seen in each other what we could not bear, and we had no idea that people do see that, and go on, and hate and fight and try to kill each other, various ways, then love some more.

Next time, it may be that Del will fight for the relationship as well as fight for her own autonomy. To lose a love like Garnet’s twice would be more than would make sense. But that (to mesh marriage, art, and the human capacity for dissembling) would be an ongoing process. It would be a daily baptism by fire.

4 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “Baptizing””

  1. Trevor says:

    Betsy, I like that we both approached “baptism” differently, and I think both interpretations lead to wonderful insights. I credit that to Munro who has so so much going on here, none of it contradictory, none of it out of place, all of it showing how complicated a genuine examination of a life can be.

  2. Betsy says:

    Trevor, what an adventure this is. Alice Munro is layer upon layer, thread interwoven with thread, tone on tone on tone, and so many. many real people.

    I am so glad you emphasized the structure of this story – that it is in three juxtaposed parts. How Munro manages to go from the ridiculous to the sublime and make it work is actually a mystery to me, but I suspect it has something to do with the honesty she requires of herself.

    I also really liked your distinction that Del drifted away from Naomi and then drifted toward Jerry. Despite her (up til now) ferocious studying, Del is at a stage when she’s not ready to be an artist, yet. (Later, in the Epilogue, Del makes it clear that her first novel – the one written in high school – is built on a structure that doesn’t work.) This period seems to be a stage of drifting.

    You quote Del: “I did not fear discovery, as I did not fear pregnancy.” and then you remark that she “doesn’t fear these because she doesn’t think they are possible. Yet, she’d be surprised to find out, she also doesn’t fear them because she doesn’t simply doesn’t fear them. She wants to end up with Garnet. ”

    I am so glad you said that in just that way That is key to this story.

    You say that her writing shows “how complicated a genuine examination of life can be”. That sums it up.

    We’re almost ready to start our third book – “Something I’ve been meaning to tell you”. Hope somebody out there will join us. It’s an adventure.

  3. Rick Mancuso says:

    Are you guys up for OPEN SECRETS? I’d “quite” like to join you. Or…are you going in chronological order with Alice’s publications?
    RM.

  4. Trevor says:

    I’ve just posted the main post for our next project, Rick. We’re going to go chronologically, so it is Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. Open Secret is a ways down the line, but we will get there!

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