Alice Munro’s fiction is filled with gaps begging to be filled in. Then there’s all of the worry that what is presented as true — that elusive truth that surrounds the gaps — is actually fiction. Rather that frustrate, though, this inherent unknowability is what allows us to more fully get at the heart of the characters who do not understand what is going on around them and who lie to themselves in order to cope — or to avoid responsibility for their actions.
On its surface, “Marrakesh” is a simple story, straightforwardly told, about a septuagenarian named Dorothy who is, it seems by her tacit agreement, brought to encounter youthful sexuality when her granddaughter, Jeannette, who has grown up and gone away and come back, has a drunken one-night stand with Dorothy’s married neighbor, Blair. Dorothy, whose life has been somewhat derailed and perhaps never sexually gratifying, comes upon them and looks onward with what she calls “something like gratitude.” There, we have a nicely told story about an older generation looking, with some relief, at the sexuality of a younger (though not altogether young) generation.
But, I’ve been struggling with this story. I’m not sure it is a story about an older generation watching in awe and appreciation as a younger woman is freed from old constraints. I’ve tried to write this post many times, but I’ve never been happy with what I’ve put down — hence the delay between this post and our last Munro post (sorry Betsy!). Perhaps if I throw out my questions or concerns with the story, rather than any kind of solution, I can actually get somewhere.
To me, Jeannette is anything but sexually liberated, or, rather, any sexual liberation she has attained has done nothing for her. She and the neighbor are desperate, and they will not remember their tryst. To me, Dorothy recognizes this, though she also recognizes it’s . . . something. But if it’s not something that benefits Jeannette, who does it benefit? Why, it must be Dorothy herself, who masterminded the whole thing.
Dorothy is a strong-willed woman and always was. A schoolteacher, she was exceedingly disciplined and dedicated to her students. So confident was she in her role, she stood up to the school board when they demanded she stop smoking, claiming smoking as her only vice, and she was entitled to one.
Dorothy has always prided herself for understanding the world better than those around her, particularly her sister Viola who lives with her in their old age. And she spends a great deal of energy examining those around her, trying to read them (Jeannette, as a young girl, was a kind of unreadable hieroglyphic, Dorothy says). Still, when Jeannette comes, Dorothy is able to orchestrate a pleasant night for all by inviting Blair, her neighbor, to dinner. Blair’s wife has been ill for some time, and Dorothy knows this has taken its toll on Blair. It’s hard to read the story and not see Dorothy as some kind of puppet master. Sure, there is a lot about Jeannette she doesn’t know — but this just may be the key to opening her up.
And it works. Blair comes over, and he and Jeannette hit it off. Jeannette talks to him in a way she’s never talked to Dorothy — and Dorothy is analyzing every bit of it, with a mix of intrigue and jealousy.
At the center of this story is another story: Jeannette’s strange experience in Marrakesh some years before. It’s a terrifying story with some kind of perverse romance at its heart. Dorothy listens intently, falling back on a skill she gained from years of teaching students: listening for what is being left out.
We need to be looking at that as well. If anyone in this story isn’t showing all of her cards, it’s Dorothy. If she says, at the end, that she has something like gratitude as she watches her granddaughter have sex with her neighbor — something she knows neither will really remember the next day — then we need to look underneath that. What isn’t she saying about herself, about her own desires, about her own disappointments, about her own thrill at becoming a ” lady peeping Tom” in her seventies?
There’s a notable absence, here, but I think Dorothy’s desire to understand Jeannette is a red herring. Jeannette is as lost as Dorothy ever was, perhaps more so. And now Dorothy is able to use that to her own advantage. Dorothy wants the puzzle and the story to continue. It’s another vice, and one I think she’s convinced herself she’s entitled to.
“Marrakesh” stars a seventy-year-old retired teacher, a widow named Dorothy who lives with her similarly widowed sister Viola. Dorothy had been widowed at a very young age, but she had been left with a young son, and so she had settled into a steady of life of seventh grade teaching, becoming “a fixed star in many, many, shifting, changing, ongoing lives.” Of Viola and Dorothy, Munro’s narrator comments, not unkindly:
They drew comfort from each other’s presence in the way young quarrelsome children do, or long-married apparently ungenial couples, the comfort being so inexplicable and largely unrecognized that what showed on the surface — what they thought they felt — was mostly wariness, irritation, concern for strategy.
Dorothy’s grown granddaughter is visiting, as she often has since she was a teenager. It’s the early seventies, and Jeannette, the professor, appears to also be a hippie, a world traveler in bare feet and long hair.
Hippies, their freedom, sexuality, and flower power, are a topic in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. Two stories in this collection address these changes in society through the perspective of a retiree, both of whom have lived a rather circumscribed life. In “Walking on Water,” an old man has a series of vivid and almost unfortunate encounters with hippies in his rooming house, and his motivation appears to be the exploration of his own rather stunted experience of sexuality. “Marrakesh” takes a second look at the sexual revolution from the point of view of another septuagenarian. But, to me, this story is far more coherent and successful, perhaps because it tries to do less, ends up being far more.
Dorothy has a way with her — she refused, for instance, to give up smoking, even though the school board and the parents’ both tried to force the issue. Munro says that although Dorothy might have once treasured picturesque things, now, in her old age, “beautiful or ugly had ceased to matter, because there was in everything something to be discovered.” Viola thought Jeannette (who was beautiful) unhappy because she hadn’t found a man. Dorothy disagreed. “Adolescent was the word that came to mind, but that didn’t explain enough.” In a way, what happens in the story happens because of Dorothy’s maneuvering to “discover” what makes Jeannette tick. After all, Jeannette appears to be living a very free life, doing as she pleases, but on a much wider stage than Dorothy had ever been able to manage. Dorothy had always thought bookish Jeannette to be a “continuation of herself,” but now, she didn’t know.
Dorothy strikes up a conversation in the driveway with the next door neighbor whose wife is dying. Blair King was good-looking, but as they talk, Dorothy notes the way his looks are fraying. She thinks: “The trouble with his wife was telling on him.” Dorothy had “called out” to Blair, and then stood talking in the driveway for some time — “because an idea was coming to her.”
In short, Dorothy invites Blair for evening cocktails, and she encourages Jeannette to buy a bottle of gin and some tonic. Viola contributes some cucumber sandwiches. In the course of the afternoon, we learn that Dorothy wonders about Jeannette’s sexuality, whether it is a man or a girl who traveled with her to North Africa, for instance, what the explanation really is for her being unmarried at this point in her life.
Jeannette and Blair regale each other with travel adventures, flirtatiously, and Jeannette embarks on a very long and involved story about her encounter with some young men in Marrakesh. The story is seductive. It freely advertises her bold adventurousness. Dorothy is an inquisitive listener, and I really enjoy the way she interrogates what she hears Jeannette saying. “[Dorothy] had had a great deal of experience listening to the voices of children who were leaving things out.”
I love this! Leaving things out! This is Munro’s bread and butter — her stories turn on what has been left out. Dorothy is really Munro’s ideal reader! Dorothy even wonders if “the whole story is made-up.”
In the course of an evening of cocktails, Jeannette and Blair drink “almost the entire bottle of gin between them,” with only cucumber sandwiches to hold body and soul together.
Dorothy and Viola retire, but the drink that Dorothy had had keeps her awake, and she finally goes down to the kitchen for a glass of milk. What does she see as she enters the kitchen or happens to look out the window? Munro leaves that out, but I suspect it is that she sees Blair and Jeannette on his porch next door. Dorothy turns on no lights, goes out the front door, and she walks around to the back of the house, where she can see Blair and Jeannette on his lighted, glass-in back porch. And she walks closer.
This was what she had set in motion but she need not worry. They would have forgotten it themselves by tomorrow.
And here, Munro delivers a stunning paragraph of Dorothy observing Blair and Jeannette together, “[f]launting themselves in the light as if nothing mattered, guzzling and grabbing now, relishing and plundering each other.” And Dorothy herself thinks this wonderful thought: “Bold as they were, they looked helpless to her, helpless and endangered as people on a raft pulled out on the current.”
The story is both funny and touching. Munro shows such compassion for men caught with in a life married to a sick or dying wife. Sheila Munro says that in this story Munro was “using personal material in new ways” (Lives of Mothers and Daughters, 228). And the story ratifies the way Jeanette’s open sexuality is indeed a natural “continuation” of Dorothy’s. In a way, with this story, Munro lets an older generation of women cast a blessing on the new sexuality that younger women have embraced.
The story ends with a great, great paragraph.
What if Viola had seen any of that? More than she could stand. Strength is necessary, as well as something like gratitude, if you are going to turn into a lady peeping Tom at the end of your life.