“Material” is the second story in Alice Munro’s third book, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (click here for links to reviews of the other pieces in Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You).
It has taken me some time to wrestle with the final image in this story: the narrator, a woman who is passing middle-age, is stewing at the kitchen table while grading papers. She’s been thinking about, and getting more and more frustrated by, her ex-husband Hugo, an acclaimed short story writer, which led her to be frustrated by her current husband Gabriel, who comes to the kitchen, sees she is unhappy, and walks out: “he respected my unhappiness as he always does; he respected the pretense that I was not unhappy but preoccupied, burdened with these test papers; he left me alone to get over it.”
I’m still wrestling with this image. I pity the nameless narrator. I don’t think she should get over it. But I also pity Gabriel, who is easy going, respectful, generally happy, something that irritates the narrator:
Gabriel told me when I first knew him that he enjoyed life. He did not say that he believed in enjoying it; he said that he did. I was embarrassed for him. I never believed people who said such things and anyway, I associated this statement with gross, self-advertising, secretly unpleasantly restless men.
I think it would be easy to read the last image as Gabriel’s failure to comprehend his wife, as his inability, as a man, to empathize with and understand his wife’s frustration, she who has had to sit back and support “talented incapable men, who must be looked after for the sake of the words that will come from them.” After all, the last scene follows this:
At the same time, at dinner, looking at my husband Gabriel, I decided that he and Hugo are not really so unalike. Both of them have managed something. Both of them have decided what to do about everything they run across in this world, what attitude to take, how to ignore or use things. In their limited and precarious ways they both have authority. They are not at the mercy. Or think they are not. I can’t blame them, for making whatever arrangements they can make.
But then, when she had planned to write a pleasant letter to Hugo congratulating him on a short story he’d written and that she admired, she lets all her frustration out on the paper:
This is not enough, Hugo. You think it is, but it isn’t. You are mistaken, Hugo.
And she admits: “I do blame them. I envy and despise.”
Again, I think it would be easy to read that she envies and despises them for what they have as men, which is unjust. This could be a story where that bitterness is laid out on the surface, and that’s all there is. But this is a story that explicitly brings up disguises, lies, false leads, so I don’t think we can take it at face value. There are other things going on in this story that suggest our narrator is not to be sympathized with unconditionally. So let’s go back to the beginning.
When the story starts, the narrator simply states: “I don’t keep up with Hugo’s writing.” She does see his name pop up now and then, as people fawn over them:
People, I say, but I mean women, middle-aged women like me, alert and trembling, hoping to ask intelligent questions and not be ridiculous; soft-haired young girls awash in adoration, hoping to lock eyes with one of the men on the platform.
Hugo is far from sympathetic, and I don’t want to seem like I’m giving him any slack in this post. He is conceited, and he’s abandoned the narrator and their daughter, Clea. Clea is now seventeen and knows next to nothing of her real father.
One day, Gabriel and the narrator are at a bookstore, and Gabriel suggests they get Clea Hugo’s new collection of short stories. They do. Looking at Hugo’s picture on the jacket cover, Clea says, “He looks overweight. [. . .] You always said he was skinny.” Clea puts the collection down, dismissing her father.
The narrator looks at the jacket, sees the picture, sees the author’s biography, and all she can say is: “A lie, like so much else, or at least an exaggeration.” And going through his bio is very humorous. He lists various “jobs” he’s held in the past that make him sound like an interesting person, though he held one of the jobs (well, one of the jobs in the field he lists) for less than two weeks:
You would think he came out of the bush now and then to fling them scraps of wisdom , to give them a demonstration of what a real male writer, a creative artist, is like; you would never think he was a practicing academic.
Hugo is ripe for ridicule. However, the narrator also distrusts Gabriel. We’ve already seen that she distrusts his idealism. She also wonders if his accent is fake, something to make him interesting. For all she knows he just says he’s from Romania. It is clear why the narrator despises Hugo; it is less clear why she despises Gabriel. Gabriel’s sin is that he accepts, moves on from the fact, that the narrator has been poorly treated, in a world that poorly treats women. This makes him part of that world. However, it’s notable that he has been kind and happy and good to the narrator and to Clea.
Speaking of Clea, she is barely present in this story, and I think that is intentional. When Gabriel suggests they buy Clea Hugo’s stories, the narrator’s first response is, “Isn’t it a lot of money for a paperback?”
Again, I want to stress that I find the narrator’s reponses, here and elsewhere, completely understandable, but I think Munro means us to examine the narrator closely and see what effect her relationship with Hugo has had on her relationship with Gabriel and Clea. I don’t believe we are supposed to judge her harshly, but we are to see how the effects on her also affect her current family.
I think this comes out particularly when the narrator stops to read one of Hugo’s stories and finds that it is about someone they used to know. The narrator and Hugo once lived in an apartment complex that also housed a prostitute, Dotty, the “harlot-in-residence.” She tells us a story about herself, Hugo, and Dotty, and recognizes Dotty immediately when she reads this story. It feels true:
How honest this is and how lovely, I had to say as I read. I had to admit.
It shocks her. She, who always thought Hugo was aloof and untroubled and dishonest, is shocked to find the story speaks the truth, gets to the narrative. She’s never believed in him before, not even when they were married. She decides to write him a letter to congratulate him. She’s genuinely impressed. But we’ve already been over how that unmailable letter came out. And we already saw Gabriel leave her alone to get over it.
Published in 1974, Alice Munro’s “Material” comments obliquely, wryly, on the women’s movement.
A former wife looks back on her marriage to a well-known writer. She associates him with the “bloated, opinionated, untidy men” of academia, and although she never uses the word, she is enraged by these men and by her former husband. She remarks on the fact that these men must be “looked after” by their wives. While the wives are dealing with “food and mess and houses and cars and money,” the men are out on speaking engagements, where women “fall in love with them” and “absorb the contempt of the men on the platform as if they deserved it.” She is enraged by a promo written about her former husband, and she says, “Listen to the lies, the half lies, the absurdities.” At one point, she calls him a “filthy moral idiot.” Among other things, he appears to have no relationship with the daughter they had, and he has gone on to marry two more wives, having three more children by each of them, leaving the third much younger wife to care for six children. One is put in mind of the word she uses: “mess.”
So there it is: the rant against the male-chauvinist-pig.
Consider this particular incident: Hugo deliberately, in order to sleep, turns off the pump that keeps the basement from flooding. As a result, a tenant named Dottie wakes up to a knee-deep flood in her basement apartment.
So there it is: he really is a male-chauvinist pig.
Munro herself goes the extra mile when she gives the writer a name. In order to understand the name’s significance, you have to know that Dottie is a tired, unattractive woman who may be a seamstress, but who is also probably a hooker. Munro doesn’t call the men who drop in to see her “johns,” but that’s what they are, and when Munro names the writer Hugo Johnson, it must be on purpose (the “Hugo,” of course, must be after Victor Hugo, the French novelist).
Dotty the sad, friendly woman who lives in the basement, is their “harlot-in-residence.” Hugo and his wife would “brag about her” and let their friends hide behind a curtain to see the spectacle. Later, much later, Hugo uses the woman as “material” for a very good story. So it turns out that Hugo, a kind of former writer-in-residence, makes use of the hooker himself, first for fun and then for money. Perhaps he is a kind of hooker himself.
So there it is, when Munro awards Hugo Johnson his name even Munro has joined the rant. He really is a male-chauvinst-pig.
Or is he?
That may be the case, but it is not the main case. He may indeed be a male-chauvinist-pig, but his former wife is not the completely wronged woman, either. For one thing, tucked into the rant, she admits, by the by, that when they were married, she “did not believe in him.” That little admission is the pivot of the story, the truth. As for belief in men, “she didn’t quite believe” her second husband, either, when he said that his life during the war as a Romanian child was “not so bad.” She even wonders if he is “an imposter.” So — at the center of the story is a woman who wants the romance of being married to a writer, or being married to a Romanian war refugee, but she finds it difficult to submit to the requirement that she believe in her husbands. She admits to this lack of belief, but in passing, and without conviction.
There is another side to her coin as well, regarding who is really to blame. The night Hugo turned off the pump and flooded Dotty’s apartment, the wife knew it. She calls him a “moral idiot” for what he did — but she herself decided she did not have to stand up for Dotty (who had by now become her friend) by going down to turn off the pump. She devotes a long paragraph to the ins and outs of her thinking that night, but finally, she decides, despite her friendship, she doesn’t have to turn the pump back on, because she “wanted Hugo to crash.”
There. Who is the moral idiot now? It is hard to notice, though, because we were so busy hating Hugo.
Many years later, when she reads the very good story that has Dotty at its center, the narrator wants to write to Hugo and make an acknowledgment. She admits to herself that Hugo is truly gifted. She owes him that “acknowledgment” for “having not believed he would be a writer.” When she sits down to write, however, she lapses back into the old ranty language: “This is not enough, Hugo. You may think it is, but it isn’t. You are mistaken.”
But the issue for the reader is this: Is it only Hugo who is mistaken? Who is it that has contempt for women? Only Hugo?
Munro thus calls women to task for their part in what enrages them about their relationship to men. If women are on the receiving end of contempt (as the women in the writers’ audiences are), the narrator wonders if “they half-believe they do deserve it [. . .]” That, though, is the narrator talking, not Munro. But it is Munro talking when she creates this ex-wife, who for the sake of putting Hugo in his place, for once, uses her friend, and lets him flood her apartment.
What gives the story its torque, however, is just how enraging Hugo actually is. So there is a feminist slant. But it’s a feminist slant with a humanist twist. And a love of irony, as well.
What complicates the story even more is the issue of “material.” Munro is suggesting that using other people for your stories has a touch of the john using a prostitute, even when the writer triumphs and creates a piece of writing that is “an act, you might say, of special, unsparing, unsentimental love” — which is what the narrator says of the story her husband finally writes about Dotty. The humanist key is in the “you might say.” What Hugo does when he writes may or may not be love. The truth, in Munro, is that truth is fluid, depending on which who you happen to be.
As for writing, the comparatively young Munro (at 40 or so) has her narrator say of Hugo’s writing life:
There is Dotty lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvelous jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make. It is an act of magic, there is no getting around it; it is an act, you might say, of special, unsparing, unsentimental love.
But she goes on. Dotty, she says, “has passed into Art. It doesn’t happen to everybody.”
And Munro has her close with this: “Don’t be offended [at that last crack]. Ironical objections are a habit with me.”
There are always at least two sides to the truth with Munro. That is her genius.