"Wild Swans" is the fourth story in Alice Munro's fourth book, The Beggar Maid (click here for links to reviews of the other pieces in The Beggar Maid).
Though “Wild Swans” is similar to the title story in Lives of Girls and Women, in The Beggar Maid the tale of the protagonist’s willful engagement in a disturbing sexual act perpetrated by an older man is more of a transition.
In the stories before “Wild Swans,” we’ve dealt with Rose and Flo during Rose’s youth, during which time Rose’s sexual curiosity is childish. She’s learning about the destructive potential of relationships at home or in humiliating encounters at school. From here on out, Rose will have awakened. It’s just terribly sad what she goes through to get there.
As Munro has done many times since “Wild Swans,” this story of transition takes place on a train journey. Rose is traveling to Toronto — by herself (we learn in passing that her father has died) — with a bit of money. Before she leaves, Flo, the omnipresent force for good and bad in Rose’s life, tells Rose to be careful, nearly everyone is out to get you. For her part, Rose cannot believe this, nor does she believe the scandalous tales Flo tells about the members of their own community. Rose has not yet learned that everyone has a secret life. She’s about to embark on her own. Indeed, part of the reason she is going to Toronto is to perform a work in secret, a work with sexual undertones:
For herself Rose wanted to buy hair-remover to put on her arms and legs, and if possible an arrangement of inflatable cushions, supposed to reduce your hips and thighs. She thought they probably had hair-remover in the drugstore in Hanratty, but the woman there was a friend of Flo’s and told everything.
On the train ride, something happens that Flo warned about. A man asks to sit next to Rose. After an exchange of a few pleasantries, “A corner of newspaper touched her leg, just at the edge of her coat.” This simple touch, not even skin to skin, is enough to get Rose’s mind racing with fear and potential: “She had a considerable longing to be somebody’s object. Pounded, pleasured, reduced, exhausted.” She wants this to encounter to be more intimate. She wants intimacy, period. And when she realizes that she might be getting it — that the newspaper touching her might not be a newspaper — she is scared.
She could not bring herself to look. Was there a pressure, or was there not? She shifted again. Her legs had been, and remained, tightly closed. It was. It was a hand. It was a hand’s pressure.
Please don’t. That was what she tried to say. She shaped the words in her mind, tried them out, then couldn’t get them past her lips.
First, there’s fear, fear of what he will do and of what others will think. She doesn’t want to make a scene, especially one that will call to mind herself as a human object. But it isn’t just the fear. She wants this to happen, even though there is absolutely no physical (or otherwise) attraction. She is thrilled and paralyzed as the man’s hand proceeds to molest her.
This was disgrace, this was beggary. But what harm in that, we say to ourselves at such moments, what harm in anything, the worse the better, as we ride the cold wave of greed, of greedy ascent. A stranger’s hand, or root vegetables or humble kitchen tools that people tell jokes about; the world is tumbling with innocent-seeming objects ready to declare themselves, slippery and obliging.
This brings to Rose’s mind the myriad neighbors she has, most with their veneer of absolute purity but who have these same longings: “They glided into suburbs where bedsheets, and towels used to wipe up intimate stains, flapped leeringly on the clothesline, where even the children seemed to be frolicking lewdly in the schoolyards, and the very truckdrivers stopped at the railway crossings must be thrusting their thumbs gleefully into curled hands.” This realization is almost — or maybe it is — orgasmic, the comparison to “a flock of birds, wild swans, even, wakened under one big dome together, exploding from it, taking to the sky.”
This secret encounter is to remain a secret. The man and Rose do not even acknowledge it when the train arrives. They will never see each other again. Rose is left alone, though he’ll always be a part of her mind — day by day, even though those around her will have no idea. The story goes back to a story Flo told Rose once about one of Flo’s friends who looked like Frances Farmer. One weekend, this friend dressed like Farmer and went off to a resort to have some fun in her new skin. Rose admires this, as “Wild Swans” comes to an end. She marvels at the transformation, and she’s going to emerge a different person.
“Wild Swans” is about power, mis-used power, misplaced power and misunderstood power.
Rose is a teenager on her way to Toronto by train, with ten dollars pinned to her slip strap. She had won the money as a prize for her essay “Art and Science in the World of Tomorrow.” She intends to spend it on items that will hopefully ”transform” her: a blue angora sweater, a bangle bracelet, some hair remover, and a few hip reducer cushions. There is also a short list of things to get for Flo.
Flo is nervous about Rose’s trip: it will be Rose’s first trip alone on the train. Flo tells Rose in detail to watch out for “White Slavers”; she also confides in Rose about how the retired undertaker is known to seduce women into having sex with him in the plush back seat of the hearse that retired along with him. “[Rose] did not believe anything Flo said on the subject of sex.”
Once again, this story spins a thread regarding the necessity for education — the right kind of education. Flo has many fears and many dictums regarding sex, but what she does not offer is any kind of guidance about the real conduct of sex between real people: what it says, how it feels, and how many different kinds of sexual experience there are. Left without information, Rose is at the mercy of her own ignorance; Flo is, in fact, with her easy stories and vivid opinions, a kind of white slaver herself, given that she distorts human experience by giving only the lurid warnings and nothing else. Left corralled by Flo’s verbal fences, Rose is all the more vulnerable, no matter her brains and accomplishments and daring.
The major action in the story is this: a man gets on the train, plunks himself down beside Rose, begins touching her under the protection of his newspaper, moving his hand up her leg until it reaches the top of her stockings, moves, in fact over her panties and between her legs, and Rose acquiesces. Rose enjoys the acquisition of power.
The story is an echo of the title story in The Lives of Girls and Women, the one in which Del, a young teen, positively seeks the sexual attentions of an older single man, which leads to a sordid episode with the man. Both stories are shocking — the events are shocking, and that the girls both seem willing participants is shocking. The girls seem unaware of the risks, and the actual outcomes for each girl, in the end, does not indicate much good to have come of it.
“In Wild Swans,” Munro plays with the reader. There is the possibility that the little man’s seduction is merely Rose’s imagination. But then Rose says, “It was. It was a hand.”
The whole episode reminds me of Joyce and Leopold Bloom and Gerty MacDowell on the beach: the public place, the sexual episode between strangers, and the superiority that Bloom and Rose both feel (they both notice that their partner is less than physically perfect.) The While Joyce’s episode is mildly shocking, Munro’s is very shocking. Rose does not regret that she “opened her legs.” In fact, the man and the whole event becomes an important fixture in her imagination.
She never saw him again in her life. But he remained on call, so to speak, for years and years, ready to slip into place at a critical moment, without even any regard, later on, for husbands and lovers.
Regardless of how the danger in the story strikes the twenty-first century reader, I think Munro is using the episode to express the need women have to be sexual beings, first, and the need women have to be sexually autonomous to the same degree as do men. But I think she is also playing with the idea that women use sex as a form of power, and that as power, sexual power is over-rated and also not the real thing. Not real sex and not real power.
The narrator plays down the episode by tossing it all off as similar to masturbation. But the episode was not that, unless it was all in Rose’s mind. But it seems not.
A stranger’s hand, or root vegetables or humble kitchen tools that people tell jokes about; the world is tumbling with innocent-seeming objects ready to declare themselves, slippery and obliging.
The story is funny, it is strange, it is provoking, it is frightening. Written at the beginning of the sexual revolution, it is kind of a comic manifesto: girls and women have the same rights as men to sexual autonomy. But the comic tone undermines the seriousness of manifesto; instead, the story seems to be ridiculing the idea of sexual power.
The story is very frightening to a twenty-first century reader. After Pamela Smart and Ariel Castro and who knows how many other girls actually being made sexual slaves, the story now reads very differently than it might have done in 1977. There is a flatness to the telling, an ordinariness that hints to the reader that not only Rose got up to such shenanigans, but that all kinds of girls actually did all kinds of such things. But the twenty-first century reader feels a chill in the presence of this story, knowing what we know now (but I remind myself of Flo and all her warnings.)
What about the “wild swans”? The man who plunks himself down beside Rose wants to talk about the “spectacle” of a flock of swans on their spring migration. The little man who is Rose’s seducer uses a newspaper as part of his tried and true routine:
He took the sections of the paper apart, shaking and rustling them in a leisurely, rather showy, way. He seemed to her the sort of person who does everything in a showy way.
The little man is swan-like in his seduction, the white ink-stained newspapers flapping around him and Rose like wings. A modern day Zeus come in a disguise. But it’s a kind of a joke: Zeus appearing as a swan was magnificent; this little man pretending to be a minister, or pretending to be representative of God, is funny.
So, Yeats, then. What about Yeats? In “Leda and the Swan” Yeats asks, “Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” We know Rose has knowledge — she’s won the essay prize — and it feels to Flo that Rose has “swallowed the entire dictionary.” What about power? After the episode on the train, Rose has put on power, she thinks. Ever after, she is able to summon sexuality, regardless of husband or lovers — regardless, I think, of anything they have done or not done. She is not at their mercy, not their slave.
How about “Wild Swans at Coole”? Does Munro mean any connection here? The swans are gorgeous, and the little man is using that gorgeousness as his candy; the swans are mated for life, they are “lovers,” and they are “mysterious.” The little man means to appropriate all of that as part of his seduction. There’s knowledge. There’s power. But reading Yeats, there’s also passion and mystery, something Rose does not mention in this story, passion and mystery not being the way Rose speaks, in this story, in passing, of her lovers and her husband.
Curiously, though, the swan business also reminds me of “The Wild Swans” of Hans Christian Anderson. A princess has eleven brothers and a wicked step-mother who banishes the boys. It is up to the princess to rescue them. This she does, but part of her rescue requires her to be mute.
Which reminds me of Rose saying nothing as the little man molests her.
The seventies, when Munro wrote this, was a time of heady faith in the rightness of sexual power for women as well as men. As we all know, there was an element of playing with fire to all of this. People got hurt, people got used, and marriages disintegrated at a rate previously unknown.
Munro is playing with it all. It is a good thing for women to have sexually autonomous lives; it is a terrible thing to be someone’s “slave.” It is a good thing to enjoy sex; it’s a terrible thing to perceive yourself as having sexual power. One wonders if Rose will be distracted by having put on power, or if she will realize sexual power is a guise, a disguise, as well as a distraction. Will she be able to concentrate on finding out what it will be that will give her real power? Real autonomy?
I think Munro is ridiculing women who have, in the seventies, gotten completely carried away with sexual freedom, mistaking it for what it is not.
It’s a fine line, and Rose got away with her life and with a kind of transformation. Transformation is why Rose is going to Toronto. She thinks she’s going to be an all-new Rose with a powder-blue angora sweater and some bangles. She thinks:
They could transform her, make her calm and slender and take the frizz out of her hair, dry her underarms and turn her complexion to pearl.
But the real transformation is from the rebellious act she performed on the train.
Is this good or bad? Or good and bad, more like? The story details the power she now has to satisfy herself, regardless of lover or husband, but what we know is (having read the book), Rose has made poor matches for lover and husband. Something is missing in Rose, passion, perhaps. Truthfulness, perhaps. A center, perhaps.
And in a way, that’s where the “Wild Swans at Coole” comes in. Yeats’s speaker regrets the many losses of the past 19 years. He notes that of the 59 swans, many of them are still mates, are still mated, after all this time, still true and full of passion and beauty. Not so the poet, standing by the side of the lake. And not so Rose. By book’s end, she is the 59th swan, single and sad.