We’ve talked about “watershed” stories, those stories that mark a turning point, by Alice Munro before, but here is another: “Royal Beatings” was the first story Munro published in The New Yorker. According to Robert Thacker’s Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, Charles McGrath had become a fiction editor at The New Yorker in early 1976 and was soon introduced to some of Munro’s work. “Royal Beatings” was published in the magazine on March 14, 1977. In 1978, The New Yorker had a right-of-first-refusal with Munro. That contract has been renewed every year since, and by my rough count The New Yorker has published 60 of Munro’s stories since 1977 (I hope against hope that one more might find its way in those pages — or anywhere). It’s a rather famous relationship that has lasted thirty-five years, one that undoubtedly gave Munro more exposure. By the end of 1978, Munro had a contract with Knopf, who has been publishing her in the United States ever since.
When Munro published “Royal Beatings” in The New Yorker, it was the story of Nadine and her stepmother Flo. Not long after, Munro adapted the story to form part of her next book, The Beggar Maid (also known as Who Do You Think You Are?), a book about the lives of and relationship between Rose and her stepmother Flo. “Royal Beatings” is a masterpiece that stands on its own (this is a collection of short stories that cohere) while still introducing us to this complicated pair we’ll be exploring throughout The Beggar Maid.
Let’s meet Rose, a young girl in this story, who lives just on the edge of the poor side of Hanratty, Ontario. It’s close enough Rose can excuse the living arrangement — at least they don’t live farther into West Hanratty. They live behind the family store that Rose’s mother had set up before she died. Now, Rose lives their with her father, her stepmother Flo, and her half-brother Brian. It’s a rich world, built in just a few pages, but the real richness of the story comes with the royal beatings Flo promises whenever she’s having trouble with Rose. After the world is built, this lovely transition:
The royal beatings. What got them started?
Plural, so there are multiple royal beatings. But Munro chooses to hone in on one example, shifting the tense to the present, giving us the sense that these royal beatings — these moments when Flo asks Rose the question who do you think you are? and the father enters to enforce Flo’s assumed answer — are ever-present. Who do you think you are? must be answered meekly every single day, and any periodic shift must be dealt with. The example is introduced generally — “Saturday, then.” — again emphasizing the regularity:
Saturday, then. For some reason Flo is not going uptown, has decided to stay home and scrub the kitchen floor. Perhaps this has put her in a bad mood. Perhaps she was in a bad mood anyway, due to people not paying their bills, or the stirring-up of feelings in spring. The wrangle with Rose has already commenced, has been going on forever, like a dream that goes back and back into other dreams, over hills and through doorways, maddeningly dim and populous and familiar and elusive.
The ever-present question — who do you think you are? — and the appropriate answer infiltrates the ordinary: “Pots can show malice, the patterns of linoleum can leer up at you, treachery is the other side of dailiness.” Of course, that sentence is also general, suggesting that the violence of these royal beatings, of this relationship, is not the only way such “treachery” rears its head in the mundane.
So the beatings are regular, perhaps a bit routine, and they are presented also as ritualistic, as performances, complete with scripted preparations performed with a bit of reverence:
“Well we don’t need the public in on this, that’s for sure,” Flo says, and she goes to lock the door of the store, putting in the store window the sign that sais BACK SOON, a sign Rose made for her with a great deal of fancy curving and shading of letters in black and red crayon. When she comes back she shuts the door to the store, then the door to the stairs, then the door to the woodshed.
Now thoroughly set apart from the rush of the world outside, the preparations are complete, and “things can proceed.” The beating begins, and each participant seeks some distinct end, each using the brush with the liminal to establish power. Rose’s father “has never managed really to injure her, though there are times, of course, when she prays he will.” It’s a terrible ritual, indeed, and eventually “life has started up again.” But the answer to the question who do you think you are has yet to be determined.
We get to the evening after the beating, when Flo attempts to reconcile, or, rather, to ensure Rose is in her proper place. As it stands, the game is still on, Rose and Flo is each still looking for victory. Flo tries to use kindness to get Rose to submit to the comfort Flo provides by way of rare treats. There is no doubt Flo offers these treats for conflicting reasons: first, she has been shaken by the events and does feel the need to cleanse herself and offer succor; second, as stated above, she needs to establish her position as the benefactor. Rose, for her part, does not want to give in and eat the treats — she does not want to be the reliant one, does not want to be the weak one, does not know what she wants other than that — but she cannot help it. She loses when she partakes.
It’s a fascinating power struggle, where kindness and cruelty mix together, giving two people at odds a chance to measure up the tally marks made in the day-to-day.
The drama of “Royal Beatings” is intense and not entirely dissipated when Munro serves us a coda. This coda returns us to a side-story from earlier in the story and I believe many critics deride this additional element foolishly as it perfectly underscores the themes. Consequently, in some ways it is not a coda but rather is a further exploration of power struggles and quotidian violence which then settles nicely into a particular moment much later in the lives of Rose and Flo.
Two years prior to the time Rose is thinking of these past events, she place Flo in a nursing home. It would seem that in the game of Who Do You Think You Are?, Rose has come out the victor. And yet, from that moment on, Flo refuses to talk. Put in her place, Flo refuses reconciliation. Flo is the victor by depriving herself.
These are the fascinating women we’ll be reading about in the remaining stories.
“Royal Beatings” is startling, complex, demanding, and great. Written after the death of her father, it is great in the way “The Peace of Utrecht” is great: both mark a startling deepening of craft and realization.
The story is so full of suggestion that I have found it difficult to choose a tack for an essay. My solution is to list, somewhat in the nature of a reader’s journal, my many competing reactions to “Royal Beatings.”
“Royal Beatings” has at its heart the day Rose’s father, at her mother’s instigation, gave her a beating in their kitchen, a beating that made her “incoherent, insane,” a beating after which she fantasized suicide. She is not yet twelve, or maybe just twelve. Told in four parts, the story also lets us in on the lives of the mother, the father, a neighboring family, and an old man. In the course of the story, we hear about multiple beatings as well as a neighborhood murder, and two other possible murders. Rose’s narration is cool but fractured; there is much to be made of the gaps and jumps. We are asked to read in the way a therapist might listen.
The layering of multiple stories within one story creates multiple, competing meanings, and this layering of multiple stories is Munro’s primary device. At the very least, Rose’s beating is put into perspective by the stories about old man Tyde: he beat all of his children; he beat his wife and perhaps killed her; he committed incest; he killed the offspring of that incest; he was then murdered when the town had had its fill of him. He had gone too far. Obviously, Rose’s suffering was nothing in comparison.
But there are other conclusions one could draw as well. Rose believes that her father had done no real injury to her. But the reader questions that.
As an adult, later in the book, Rose seems to lack something at the center. One wonders if in the process of accepting the beatings, Rose has killed off something at her center. She is pre-occupied with suicide and murder. One wonders just what that something is that she may have killed off in the process of submitting.
Another conclusion that the reader may draw from “no real injury” is to wonder to what extent Rose validates the town’s belief: that it’s okay to beat your children, but it’s not okay to kill them.
Time is once again a part of Munro’s inquiry. How much of memory gets transformed into legend? How much is fact? Is some of what we merely sense more true than what we hear as fact? What of our “education” is really the stories our parents tell?
What is the significance of what we “forget? Hat Nettleton was one of the “useless young men” who beat old man Tyde to death. In the jumble of history, this has been forgotten, and someone goes to interview him when he is 102, as he is “a link to the past.” The real link is not his stories about horse racing; the real link is our capacity for murder and our capacity to live with murder.
Hat Nettleton is important. The way he ends the story feels half-cocked and off-base. But it isn’t if you read it as a signal — that Rose has forgotten, the way the town has forgotten, the real significance of what happened so many years ago.
“Royal Beatings” marks a crucial development in Munro’s art for the same reason as did “The Peace of Utrecht” — it is written after the death of a parent. The period after the death of a parent is a time when a writer may have access to powerful emotions, buried memory, and significant realizations. While many writers do not write so personally, it is significant for writers to acknowledge the importance of the turbulence we feel after a death. Most of us want that turbulence to subside.
But to make a comparison — there is a great poem by Maya Angelou written after the death of James Baldwin. “When Great Trees Fall.” It’s a great poem — and it’s great because she allows the turbulence space.
James Baldwin is for Maya Angelou what Munro’s parents are for her. What is so powerful about Munro is that her parents were both wonderful and terrible, and she is willing to live with that reality. The father in “Royal Beatings” is not the father of Munro’s first two books. He is strange and peculiar. But it is after the death of her own father that Munro is able to create this father.
Given the parent’s death, the writer is at the same time free to explore serious issues while using real autobiographical material. It is immaterial whether the beatings Munro received from her father were as dangerous as the beatings in this story. What is important is that Munro used whatever really happened to access something taboo at the time. It is as if the overwhelming emotion unleashed by the death of a parent is a force that Munro has used to great effect.
She also uses in this book the volcanic force of other real deaths she has suffered: the emotional force of the death of a marriage and or the lingering emotion in the small deaths and natural losses that are inevitable for any parent, and the crazy loss when you yield a child to someone else’s primary care.
The flattened tone she has begun to use should not fool the reader. Munro is writing about loss and writing about it in a new way, and means it as real loss.
I have read (and should double-check where) that Munro says she used writing “to survive.”
“Royal Beatings” is difficult for a faithful reader of Munro: The Beggar Maid marks a darkening attitude in Munro’s writing. This fourth book is a departure from the first three: gone are the notes of lyricism, wit, pleasure, poignancy, and emotionality that flicker throughout the first three books. Gone is the humor. Gone, even, are the occasional flashes of heroism. The first three books allow failure to be mixed with courage. In The Beggar Maid, failure is mixed with lesser failure. Rose, the main character, is marked by a kind of powerlessness — as a child she is beaten by her father, as a teen she is betrayed by the combination of poverty and her own choices, as an adult, having never had a true mother, she continues through life without a true guide, and she is lacking in passion. She does not seem fully alive; life seems to have been usurped. The reader is startled by this flattened perspective.
“Royal Beatings” emphasizes the theatricality of life: playing a role, assuming a costume, living within a particular set, holding a “mock-trial,” being seen in a particular light. Acting is a trope the author revisits throughout the story, but as with any device — she does it to a purpose. It seems clear to me that “playing a role” in this story is meant here to emphasize the way men and women are made to assume particular gender roles: women are to learn to submit, to learn to deny their sexuality, to learn to tamp down ambition, or to embrace suicide (or metaphorical suicide) as a means to endure life; men are meant to assume the role of “king” — as Rose’s father is meant to be the “King of royal beatings.”
“Royal Beatings,” written in the mid-seventies, is part of an explosion of interest in child abuse, a subject that had been taboo until pediatrician Henry Kempe, in 1962, with his article, “The Battered Child Syndrome” revealed what no one wanted to hear: that children often had real injuries beneath their surface bruises. No one wanted to hear that what everyone knew was true: that the culture’s acceptance of violence toward children had no proper purpose. After all, violence felt necessary.
Kempe’s x-rays revealed that some children had suffered multiple, repeated fractures. Kempe posited that these injuries were inflicted on children by parents and caretakers in a pattern of abuse, much the way Rose suffered repeated beatings between the ages of 9 and 12. What is different is that Kempe, with his x-rays, confronted the cultural denial that children rarely ever suffered any real harm. After Kempe, physicians had to consider these “bruises” as real injuries that could have been prevented.
What is important about “Royal Beatings” is that it is written about a time when the culture held that this kind of discipline was usually okay, that its results were, in fact, beneficial. Munro has embraced a taboo topic. This was more courageous than you might think, given the volume of writing that has followed. But by writing about her own childhood, she risked being misunderstood and under-estimated; she risked being pegged as just another “Tobacco Road” type; she risked being dismissed. But this risk is one of the reasons the story is so important.
While on the subject of influences, it feels very likely to me that “Royal Beatings” was influenced by the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who published The Second Sex in 1949, which argued, among other things, that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” De Beauvoir argued that women were oppressed by the role assigned to them by men, that a woman’s necessary role was to be empty, lacking authority, devoid of power and creativity, other than as a mother.
What is interesting about de Beauvoir is that she argues that men as well are limited by the role they are assigned as well.
Munro has written before about the assignation of roles to boys and girls (see, for one, “Boys and Girls” from Dance of the Happy Shades). What stands out, of course, is that the older girl gets beaten for reciting a dirty jingle, while the boy is allowed no punishment whatever, presumably because he is free to know or say what he wants.
Munro’s work emphasized the imposition of a subordinate feminine role as someone necessarily secondary. Of course, all feminists in the sixties begin with Simone de Beauvoir, but in Munro it is the interest in the roles assigned to men and women that interests me. What makes “Royal Beatings” so important is its association that these gender roles have with death to the human playing them — by suicide or murder by either man or woman — both pre-occupations of the narrator of this story. The men, in fact, in “Royal Beatings,” are subject by gender role to death by war, death by “foundry disease” or even death by furniture repair.
The casual appearance of Spinoza interests me. The father had jotted down a Spinoza thought, “all things are alive,” on a piece of paper that was later found in his work-shed. I know almost nothing about Spinoza, and Munro is teasing me. I think she actually knows something about Spinoza and suspects that like Flo, I know nothing. This is one place where she says — don’t mistake me — who do you think I am, anyway? A person might, reading about Flo and Rose, take Munro for a writer of no ambition, and Munro knows that. The Spinoza reference is for those who know. There are, after all, layers and layers to Munro.
I notice that Spinoza has played a role in feminist thought: some feminists hate him and some embrace him. But Spinoza also fits into Munro’s rejection of organized religion, and I wonder if any other Spinozian influence can be seen in Munro. As for “Royal Beatings,” I read into the leftover scribbling that the father was reading Spinoza when he was supposed to be working, that while out in the woodshed, he was going against his assigned role.
(Similarly, on her trips into town on Saturday mornings, Flo is also going against her assigned role in that she seems use these occasions to tempt masculine attention, what with her public smoking alone and walking out alone.)
While rummaging into de Beauvoir and Sartre, I came upon The New Novel, the title of a collection of essays published by Alain Robbe-Grillet in 1963 and also the sobriquet for such a theory. I was electrified by a succinct summary of this school by Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmer at this site here.
Many of the characteristics of the “new novel” typify some of Munro’s best work in her first four books. They include the way in which the new novelists “situate the reader as the site of meaning.”
The reader is given primacy because the writer eschews an attempt to “endow [stories] with a determinate meaning.”
For me, this couldn’t describe Munro’s work better. Characters are often right and wrong at the same time; characters often feel contradictory emotions at the same time. (Rose’s father is seen to feel both hate and pleasure when he finally kneels to the task of beating Rose.) People commit a murder; the town forgets who has committed the murder. All along the way, the narrator is hiding behind a flat recitation of what appear to be the facts; all along the way, the writer is playing cat and mouse with the reader — except that the writer is the mouse, a very smart mouse, a very paradoxical mouse, a very changeable, tricky and Lewis-y Carroll-y mouse, a very now-you-see-her-now-you-don’t mouse, a masked mouse, a very who-the-heck-do-you-think-you-are mouse.
The reader is at sea with this — the indeterminacy of the meaning of not only the whole story, but also of each event, and of each event in relation to another — just like the reader is often at sea in real life. The difference is, when encountering such a situation in literature, the reader is offered the opportunity to stop time and really consider the conundrum.
In addition to all this indeterminacy of purpose, the new novelists use the story-within-a-story as a primary device. The story-within-a-story replaces metaphor and symbol as the primary means to amplify meaning. Metaphor and symbol are, in comparison to the stories-with-a-story, a fairly specific guidepost to the writer’s point of view. Multiple stories are far more indeterminate of the writer’s purpose. Multiple stories jumble up against each other. Munro herself has said that she “layers” stories. The narrator usually does not tell the reader how to connect these multiplying points of view: it is up to the reader to figure it out. The reader is the site of meaning.
Anyway, I wonder about the influence of Alain Robbe-Grillet on Munro; I wonder how she has taken these ideas and improved upon them – given them a life and a moral compass that perhaps Robbe-Grillet did not intend. Moral compass, you say? Yes. “Royal Beatings,” no matter how indeterminate and contradictory the bits and pieces of the story, “Royal Beatings” does convey a point of view. Beating women exacts a toll on both women and men: a kind of suicide is the result. Living within a narrowly defined gender role exacts a toll on both women and men, creates a kind of slippery slope. Note that the father in “Royal Beatings” doesn’t live a long life; note that suicide and murder are pre-occupations that the beatings imprint upon Rose.
The moral compass appears to be the commitment to honestly represent everything that goes into a situation.
Moral compass or no, I was struck by the similarity of “the new novel” to Munro’s method.
I am interested in the repeated imprisonment imagery that Munro creates in “Royal Beatings” and also “The Beggar Maid.” Flo closes all the means of escape in the kitchen to prepare the way for the beating; Becky Tyde is thought to be imprisoned in her house; the father spends a lot of time back in his shed, whether working and conforming to his role, or evading and escaping his assigned role; Flo is later, in the nursing home, captured in a “crib.” Even the little brother escapes into the shed. I think this imagery is related to the imprisonment that gender role represents, but this is as yet an undeveloped thought on my behalf.
How and why Flo of the fourth book differs from Addie of the first three are of interest me, both in how Flo functions in the story and also in how she represents a development in Munro as a writer. Addie seems to be a means for Munro to approach the specific fact of her own mother; Flo seems to be a means for Munro to approach the generalized fact of mothers in the culture. People have made the comparison of this story to a fairy tale, and the function of a folk-tale is to access the essence of the culture, especially the essence of the family in the culture, and especially the role of violence any culture permits or requires of its families. So Flo, the wicked step-mother, appears to be a development in Munro’s artistic range, even though Flo herself is a diminishment of someone like Addie.
Flo represents hypocrisy, ignorance, self-involvement and manipulation. She especially represents the way women use their husbands to beat their daughters down, for any or all of the reasons that might apply: the daughter’s growing sexual power is a threat; the daughter’s uppity ideas must be tamped down; the drama of the family fight provides the mother access to the husband and provides emotional release; the lower class family believes that the only way to enter the middle class is through rigid acquiescence to perceived rules; the culture believes men must dominate women; the culture believes women must be taught to submit to men.
Flo may have, on one of those Saturdays, gone a little too far, may have felt the fire of it, may be punishing Rose as a means to deflect attention. Flo is suspect in ways that Addie is not.
So while Flo is at first glance a character who can hardly hold a candle to Addie, she is a character who gives Munro access to the culture at large.
Munro’s use of rhyme, jingle, and bits of remembered poetry appears to perform several functions: it’s entertaining and lively, for one; it provides a connection to the reader, because the reader may recognize these bits, just as I recognized “the buzzing of the bees in the cigarette trees”; it’s a means of revealing character; it’s a touchstone to the inner life of the culture.
The two females repeat sexualized rhymes that give them access to power. Rose incurs her own beating because she cannot resist the “spark and spit of craziness” in a randy jingle. What is important is that Rose has very little access to sex education or guidance otherwise; her mother, Flo, provides only hypocritical prudery while at the same time retailing gossip that gives her an air of sexual knowledge. Flo loves to sing some lines from “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” about the buzzing of the bees in the cigarette trees, which was originally a racy song that was later cleaned up by Burl Ives. Flo presumably knew the racy version. It seems that Flo likes to have access to sexual power and has some knowledge of sexual pleasure, but at the same time needs to severely punish Rose for wanting the same, in however a childish way.
The father’s bits of rhyme are more dreamy: a bit of The Tempest, here, a bit of language of ground-bound rhythmic doggerel there, as in “Macaroni, pepperoni, Botticelli, beans.” Thus we have an insight into the inner life of the furniture repairman — a man who delights in words, any words, and also a delight in literature, as in Spinoza. What is terribly sad is that Rose is embarrassed by her father’s interest in words, as if she knows this is a delight that gender role must inevitably dictate to be out of bounds. (This would be a class distinction, I think — a who do you think you are pre-occupation of a class that can hardly afford food, let alone books.)
Munro uses these fragments as characterization and also as echoes of the culture.
This story rankles. You can’t put this story down. You can’t settle it. You can’t easily contain it. The whole thing doesn’t sit well — it’s jumpy, jumbled up, repellant, and tangled. It is inconclusive. And yet, it’s great. Why is that? Is it because it represents what life is really like? Life is such a river at flood stage that we tumble down its rapids merely trying to survive; most of the time we do not have the scope to take in its various dynamics. Maybe this story is great because its stop-action captures the jumble. It captures the way we allow ourselves to live with great wrongs and at the same time captures how we allow ourselves to survive with the smallest of satisfactions — such as the way the father liked “to startle people with fine work.”
Munro’s method appears to aim at representing the multiple forces at work in our every situation; at the same time, I do think it is possible to hear what she thinks of the whole thing. Rose’s father beats her as he is expected to do; for some reason, Becky Tyde’s father cannot beat his children without having the whole town smell a rat. It’s too easy to go too far. And as for buying into the idea that strict gender roles is a workable thing — she surely thinks that there is evidence from all sides of people trying to escape the roles assigned them — to wit Flo; to wit, Flo’s husband.
“Who do you think you are?’ Flo angrily asks Rose. According to an assigned gender role, Rose is supposed to be meek and silent, not uppity and full of herself. She is supposed to keep house, or keep store, and serve, serve, serve. Deep inside, however, Rose imagines herself racing by on roller skates and wearing a plaid skirt. Who Do You think You Are? was the original title of the book, the one used in the Canadian edition. It is to me the more satisfactory title, the one more true to the real impulse of the book.
As a title, The Beggar Maid raises the tone. It is, after all, the name of a famous pre-Raphaelite painting. It must have made the New Yorkers less ill at ease with the whole project. It does place the book in the realm of class struggle, and class struggle is one of the pre-occupations of the book. It links up with the “royal” in royal beatings, as if in order to achieve a higher class you must submit to powerful constrictions.
But searching for personal authority, not class struggle, is the central impulse of this book. Later in The Beggar Maid, Rose struggles with her sense of imposed inferiority to Patrick, imposed on her by both him and herself. But her deepest struggle is within, searching for herself, or searching for whatever got killed off in her “education” by beating.
So I would have preferred that Who Do You think You Are? had been retained as the title of the New York edition.
What I know is this story is a great story. I think it is because I couldn’t easily nail it down and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I think it is a great story because it is unflinching, feels true, is inconclusive, eschews easy tricks, reminds me of myself or my own memories, and insists upon the great question: who do you think you are?
For anyone who has made it to the end of this undigested reader’s journal, I make this admission. I could not write a proper essay. I have still not figured out how exactly this story does what it does or who exactly this story thinks it is. I have made a stab at it. I am thinking, however, that after finishing the book, maybe I will return and write a proper essay, not just a reader reaction. We’ll see. What I think is this: you could write a book about this story.