“Marrakesh”
by Alice Munro
from Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You

Something-I've-Been-MeaningTrevor

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.


Betsy

“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.

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By |2017-08-03T22:44:10+00:00December 11th, 2014|Categories: Alice Munro|Tags: |10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Betsy December 11, 2014 at 12:43 am

    Hey – Trevor – so glad to have this up – complete with our varying takes –

    I love this sentence of yours:

    “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.”

    So I will add this thought. To me, Munro is always interested in what can be known. Jeannette’s era (the 70’s) allows Jeannette to experience things that were simply unavailable to Dorothy. She wants to know something about Jeannette’s freedom. And as you point out, she sets the scene in motion.

    But that’s great:

    “If anyone in this story isn’t showing all of her cards, it’s Dorothy.”

  2. Trevor Berrett December 11, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Thanks Betsy — I love when we differ just like I love when we hit the same note in our posts about these stories! Just so you know, “The Spanish Lady” won’t take me nearly as long to post as this one did :-) .

  3. Betsy December 11, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Looking forward to your “The Spanish Lady”, Trevor. That was the one I struggled with.

    About the need to look into what Dorothy is doing: I would agree that she has set them up, knowing that Jeannette would hook up with Blair, knowing that Blair is drowning. One could write a paper (and someone may have done) regarding Munro’s delicacy with the topic of men whose wives are so sick that sex is out of the question. I have no idea when that became the case for Munro’s father, but I believe it is a preoccupation for Munro. It is a topic in “The Peace of Utrecht”, very early in Munro’s career. When Helen returns home after her mother’s death, she finds that her sister is having an affair with a married man – a man whose wife is too ill to have sex. And it is a topic vry late, in “Dear Life”. In the story “Train”, a grown woman looks back on what preceded her father’s suicide – that he arranged to confront and “see” his naked teenaged daughter in the bathroom. We suspect that this one incident is not the only time he has gone past ordinary boundaries with her, given that she does not make it whole into adulthood, and needs JAckson to rescue her. She thinks about how sick her mother was at the time. Right at the moment Jackson appears to be leaving her, the now much older daughter thinks back on her father, and thinks that what he did was only natural, given what the marriage denied him.

    I will be curious to see if this theme reappears in the stories I have not read yet. Munro has a very definite compassion for men trapped in marriages in which the wife is an invalid. So I read some compassion into Dorothy’s interest in matchmaking. But I also read vicarious satisfaction. She would have like, I think, to be the woman to rescue Blair.

    Of course, you also have to read curiosity into what Dorothy does. But it is Blair and Jeannette who choose to have sex on the lighted porch – in view of anyone. I don’t think Dorothy can be blamed for arranging that. I also don’t want to blame her. I don’t think Munro does.

    I think what Munro does is show people who have been denied, and show the natural torque that is the result.

  4. Trevor Berrett December 11, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    You are definitely more forgiving of Dorothy than I am, Betsy, and more willing to accept that what she has put in motion is somehow a benefit to anyone but her. I don’t think you’re wrong to do so :-) ! I keep wondering how much of this is the story and how much is my own reluctance to trust Dorothy. I keep getting the impression that Jeannette and Blair gain nothing from their encounter, as much as it might release each of them temporarily from the constraints around them. Only Dorothy will remember it.

    I need to reread it again now that I’ve written this and read your thoughts :-) .

  5. Betsy Pelz December 13, 2014 at 9:15 am

    I woke up this morning wanting to talk more about this story, Trevor. I can blather on, and this post is too long (and not the first time), but it is in the cause of historical perspective – in the interests of looking beneath what we see on Dorothy’s surface, as you ask.

    It is my very personal reaction that Dorothy’s week with Jeannette (and Jeannette’s night with Blair) has to be read within the context of history and the times (as well as within the context of Munro’s sympathy for men whose wives are ill and beyond sex).

    The history of the times, for women in the United States and Canada, marked volcanic change. Freud had declared, long before the seventies, that any woman who didn’t have a vaginal orgasm was immature and “frigid”, and the word dominated women’s lives.

    Masters and Johnson changed all that. Through their research, women learned that sexual response is both more complicated and more simply explained, than Freud ever imagined, the locus of sexual response for women not being in the vagina but in the clitoris, for one, and the fact that sexual experience should be mutual, not one-sided, for another.

    The phenomenal made-for-cable series “Masters of Sex” demonstrates how one sided general understanding of sexual response was before they made their revolutionary and shocking discoveries. Their books made their research widely available to women and men, both. This was extra-ordinarily important, given that women had, generally speaking, been denied access to accurate sexual information until Masters and Johnson arrived on the scene. Men were far more able to obtain information than women, given that they had access to prostitutes and to literature that was commonly unavailable to women. That the information men received was accurate only from a man’s point of view is beside the point. They were free, from the culture’s point of view, to obtain it. Not only was the information available to women difficult to obtain, it was not accurate to women’s actual experience.

    For many women, pleasure was simply not a possibility given the knowledge, attitudes and customs of the times. When I say that Masters and Johnson created volcanic change, I mean volcanic change.

    Marriages broke up in the seventies at unprecedented rates.

    The partner with Masters and Johnson in the volcanic social change that occurred in the seventies was obviously the pill. Now women had the opportunity men had always had. They could see for themselves what sex was all about before they committed to marriage. With the pill, Masters and Johnson, and The Joy of Sex, the sense of generational divide was profound. In 1970, women who were Dorothy’s age knew they had been denied what women of thirty could freely obtain.

    If a society believes that it is natural for only men to experience sexual pleasure, and if that society suddenly realizes that it is natural for women to experience sexual pleasure, there will be phenomenal fallout.

    This story marks that change with Dorothy. Dorothy is such a great name for her. Dorothy is also the name of the girl in the Wizard of Oz (first published in 1900) – the girl who discovered that the “Wizard” was just an ordinary man. The Dorothy in this story has discovered, through Jeannette, that men are a little more ordinary than people used to think, and that women are a little more ordinary as well. Masters and Johnson had pulled the curtain on the wizardry of sex. The truth was out, and the truth was completely different than everyone thought.

    I don’t know how to make the discoveries that women made about themselves more clear. But maybe this anecdote will do it. About the time I was getting married (long ago) one of my mother’s friends (who would have been an age-mate to Dorothy – and incidentally, her name was also Dorothy) remarked in my presence that she didn’t really know if her husband loved her, that he seemed to regard her as his servant. She was talking about the requirement that she keep a perfect house and not leave the house, while he left the house all the time. But she was also talking about sex. There were many women during that era before Masters and Johnson who experienced sex as the experience of a servant.

    Now I will admit that having Dorothy admit that what she is doing is being a “peeping Tom” is upsetting. A man who is a peeping Tom is outside the law. I would argue that it is a different thing that Dorothy is doing than if her character were flipped to be a man. A seventy year old man at that time would have had a lot of access during his life to accurate information about his own sexual experience. (His information about women would have been inaccurate, but at least he would have had information about himself available to him. Agreed, there was terribly inaccurate information available to homosexual men, and that was a terrible thing.) So when a man is a peeping Tom it is very strange, given that he is doing something that to most men is unnecessary.

    So I am arguing that in this story Dorothy represents what all women wanted – information that would free them from frigidity. Because she is seventy, this is particularly true. Of course, there is something skewed in Dorothy’s use of Jeannette. Except for the part that Jeannette willingly played: she purposely flaunted her freedom in the public of Blair’s glass porch.

    My perspective on this story is that I was 30 in 1974. All the benefits for women that had occurred in the 60’s were available to me. They were not available to my mother’s generation – the Dorothies. I remember the wildness of that time and the generational divides over so many issues.

    This story could not take place in 2014; it would not have any merit. The women who are 70 now, many of them, have had completely different experiences and satisfactions. Dorothy would be just plain weird, now.

    Munro’s compassion marks her stories. People in her stories do a lot of unwise things. What I often see Munro doing is exploring why they do these unwise things. She is less compelled by condemnation than she is in exploration. She is very interested in self-exploration and in autonomy. To me, Dorothy represents a person who is sees an opportunity to understand what her life lacks.

    Nowadays, women would watch a movie to see what Dorothy saw. And no one would be particularly interested.

    Now, all that said, neither Jeannette or Dorothy are completely evolved human beings. They both are flawed. Dorothy makes use of Jeannette; Jeannette makes use of Blair; Blair makes use of Jeannette – although, I think, to a lesser degree. Relief is what these three experience, not communion. To a degree, what Jeannette and Dorothy experience is power. So we are not uplifted by what all three of them have gotten up to. But uplift, I would argue, is never what Munro is about. Knowledge is what she is about.

    I wonder if the question you are asking about Dorothy is whether or not she is evil. In Bolano – for instance – evil people are extremely evil. Munro deals in more ordinary evil. It seems to me that Munro is very interested in how people appropriate other people, dominate them, and use them. So Dorothy and Jeannette are a part of that exploration. I get the feeling that Munro is very interested in the ways mothers take over, use, and dominate their daughters, even when those mothers have their good points. Autonomy, therefore, is a repeating theme. Dorothy and Jeannette are a variation on this theme, and neither of them is a very successful or evolved version of autonomy.

    So I am not arguing that Dorothy is a heroine, or that she is good, or that she is a model. She is flawed. She’s the kind of woman who would smoke in the presence of children even when asked not to. She has taken autonomy to a drastic edge, really. But I am arguing that she perfectly represents a moment, a very real moment, in the lives of women.

    The question I wonder about is where Munro will explore the life of a woman whose life is fully realized, or more fully realized. The story in Dear Life called “Leaving Maverly” presents one possibility in Isabel. I imagine the many stories I have yet to read will be every variety of flawed, however.

    So – Trevor – you and I represent different generations, different sexes. I can appreciate that to you Dorothy seems kind of horrible – a very bad dream – and Jeannette is another kind of very bad dream. True enough.

  6. Betsy Pelz December 13, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Trevor – below are the things you say about Jeannette, and I agree they are at the heart of the matter as well. There was plenty of evidence of this mixed-up, self-indulgent, power-hungry “sexual liberation” back in the day, and now as well. That a lot of alcohol has to go with it is part of the reader’s problem. You are so economical in your writing – I just want to repeat what you have said because you are right.

    “To me, Jeannette is anything but sexually liberated, or, rather, any sexual liberation she has attained has done nothing for her.”

    “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.”

    “Jeannette is as lost as Dorothy ever was, perhaps more so.”

  7. Betsy Pelz December 13, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Trevor – I admire your method! I quote you – on that –

    “Perhaps if I throw out my questions or concerns with the story, rather than any kind of solution, I can actually get somewhere.”

    And for instance, if I were to ask myself these simple questions – would I want Jeannette for a sister? Or, more important, would I want Dorothy for an aunt? Those questions lead me to this very different conclusion.

    My aunts were happy, child-loving, doing women who laughed a lot with their husbands. I think they made very good lives for themselves and their families. I often ask myself what Helen or Johnnie would have done. Dorothy would have been such a flawed aunt by comparison. I can never imagine asking myself – what would the Dorothy of this story do in my place. Not much help there.

    And Jeannette – I can only imagine helping her out of one scrape after another.
    But these two women do talk to me about how people can get caught in things.

    So I find your method very clarifying – to ask a few questions of the text – instead of supplying solutions. I thank you for that … :-).

  8. Betsy Pelz December 13, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    But Trevor – forgive me this rant! I may not have chosen Dorothy as an aunt or Jeannette as a sister, but sisterhood requires me to say that beneath their behavior lies a lot in society that has inclined them to their behavior.

    For instance, regardless of her talents, Dorothy had had a lifetime of knowing that she was prohibited from any number of real jobs or equal pay. And more.

    But I would also be the first to say that Munro held women responsible for their behavior, and to some degree, she’s holding both Dorothy and Jeannette responsible by exposing their behavior to the light of day. Many of her stories question what kind of autonomy a women really should espouse.

    So I admit this is a very complicated story!

  9. Trevor Berrett December 18, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Yikes! Betsy, I stopped getting email notifications of new comments here and missed these! I am sorry to leave your words here with no response or acknowledgment from me! I will correct that soon!

  10. Annabel Dee December 31, 2017 at 12:37 pm

    Reading this at the end of 2017 and not sure if anyone is paying attention anymore, but just wanted to express my appreciation for these thoughtful insights. Just finished A.M.’s Marrakesh and couldn’t figure out what to do with it. These comments really helped. Thanks!

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