The two center stories in Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid — “The Beggar Maid” and “Mischeif” — are the two longest, each stretching out for 69 of the 210 pages in my version, so they take up almost the full middle third, with four stories on each side of them. In these two stories, Rose develops from the young girl in the poor area of town to the young woman who finds herself married to a wealthy yet boring and unsupportive man she just cannot quite bring herself to love: “She did want to admire him, and respect him; it seemed that was a leap she was always on the edge of taking.” But she cannot take the leap and instead engages in a streak of “mischief” that also takes her nowhere in particular. In these two stories, and in “Mischief” in particular, Rose finds that, though she’s transcended everyone’s expectations for a girl of her upbringing, she is nowhere in particular. Like the stories, Rose is stuck in the middle.
In “Mischief” the young Rose becomes a young mother. While in the maternity ward of the hospital she befriends another young mother, Jocelyn. Jocelyn is also not particularly thrilled about her marriage to Clifford, a musician who, for his part, doesn’t seem particularly thrilled about his marriage to Jocelyn. Yet the couple almost intellectualizes their relationship, to the point that later, when all are quite a bit older, they can talk frankly about it to each other with Rose in the room, as if they’re simply analyzing some problem outside of themselves. Rose, however, finds something appealing in Clifford. The two pursue, for some time, an unconsummated affair, and the centerpiece of the story is a trip Rose takes to finally have a night away with Clifford. Sadly, Rose’s attempts to escape her marriage to Patrick and to find some degree of self-fulfillment — even if that escape and fulfillment come in the form of a misguided affair with a man who does not care to go further — are deferred. Part of Rose realizes this, and she thinks that when going to meet Clifford she is “doing some sort of imitation, of Barbara Stanwyck perhaps.”
Though “Mischief” is the longest story in the book, its rather drawn-out portrayal of a meandering Rose makes it, for me, one of the weakest, particularly when looked at on its own. In his book Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel, Walter Rintoul Martin suggests that the lack of clarity of purpose seeps from Rose to the story in general, and may have been caused by Munro’s rewrites (this was originally written as a story about a prototype for Flo, Rose’s step-mother).
Personally, I think it’s weak mostly when looked at as a short story that stands alone rather than as a part of a greater whole that is The Beggar Maid. Betsy and I have chosen to deal with Munro’s two “novels” by going through them “story” by “story.” And, honestly, most of the time this is for me a rich way to approach Lives of Girls and Women and The Beggar Maid. This piece, though, seems to rely quite heavily on Rose’s better days that are to come. On its own, “Mischief” is rather bitter, rather directionless, and ends rather grotesquely. This is a nasty pill to swallow. But the next story is entitled “Providence,” and while beams of light are not to be found there, at least a sense of mooring is coming. Until then.
“Mischief” recounts Rose’s friendship with Jocelyn (whom she met in the maternity ward), her “affair” with Jocelyn’s husband, and her later “friendship” with both of them on the east coast. For much of the story Rose is 23 and has been married three years. Ultimately, the friendship with Jocelyn, the affair with Clifford, and the ménage à trois with Jocelyn and Clifford together were all more sordid than satisfying. The reader has a hard time sticking with Rose through this dismal procession of the uses we make of each other. Munro is brutally honest regarding the “mischief” they all get up to — lies, stories, stratagems, evasions, and dead-ends.
Given that we know that Rose has a child, the sexual rebellion is particularly upsetting; the child is a ghost, an afterthought, an appliance, a non-event, and, at the same time, a witness.
Throughout, we see none of Rose’s talent, none of her ambition, none of her beauty, none of her appeal. The contrast to Del is astounding. Del’s sexual rebellion wrecks her university scholarship, but we feel she has learned something about being human, and we sense that she will eventually become the artist she always intended to be. Rose, on the other hand, is rudderless.
What is going on here?
Updike had been publishing steadily in The New Yorker since 1954. Munro had had her eye on The New Yorker for a long time. She says in her interview (“The Art of Fiction, No. 137”) for The Paris Review that she had been sending her stories to The New Yorker all through the fifties, and then she stopped and began concentrating “only on magazines in Canada.” But she must have noticed Updike. By the end of the fifties, he was a New Yorker regular. In 1960, John Updike published Rabbit, Run, the first novel in his series of four, and Rabbit Redux, the second, in 1971. By 1974, Munro had published her first three collections of short stories and was receiving awards and notice. The Beggar Maid came out in 1978. Something in the Munro’s Rose relationship reminds me of Updike’s relationship with Rabbit.
What does Harry Angstrom have to do with Rose? Quite a bit, I think, and the similarity of Rose to Rabbit is a comment on how Rose is different from Del, Munro’s earlier heroine.
First of all, Updike and Munro are of an age (Munro born in ’31 and Updike in ’32), and both are from rural America (Munro from Wingham, Ontario, and Updike from Shillington, Pennsylvania). Updike, of course, went to Harvard, while Munro only completed two years of university. But by 1975, they had a lot in common, although Updike was the far more famous. They had both been writing steadily for more than twenty years.
Why do I see a common thread between Harry Angstrom and Rose? Both characters represent a writer asking “What if?” What if I had never left Shillington? What if I had never had the nerve to sit down in solitary and force myself to write, come what may? Both Updike and Munro are writing about the self they might have been. Rabbit and Rose both seem trapped in a life determined by poor choices and untapped ability. Rabbit had flared up as a basketball star in high school, and Rose had made a fabulous marriage at twenty by virtue of her beauty. But in their early adulthood, they both seem directionless.
“Mischief” specifically addresses the problem of how a person becomes an artist. Rose admits to Jocelyn that she had “wanted to be an actress but she was too much of a coward ever to walk on a stage.” Jocelyn confides that she had thought she would be a writer, but then, when she met Clifford, she “saw what real talent was.” When Jocelyn says that “women usually aren’t great artists,” Rose does not disagree.
Ironically, Clifford was as poor and disadvantaged as Rose, but somehow, maybe because he was a man, he was able to see his way into the artist’s life. What we know is that Rose had no such clear vision or path for herself.
In Rabbit and Rose, Updike and Munro express a weariness for the distractions of the 60s. Both Rabbit and Rose afford themselves the liberty of sexual rebellion, but neither is happy. Neither of them has the satisfactions that art can provide: the steady work at the craft, the gradual accumulation of skill, the time alone with the mind, the heady satisfaction of working with words, the almost protean escape that the practice of art can provide, the deeply satisfying otherness that the exploration of one’s own mind can afford.
Updike’s methods are different than Munro’s: he has a lifelong affair with his ability to seduce the reader with topographies of the body and the surfaces of the physical world; he is equally interested in the tidal flow of American life; and he does not make understatement his calling card. Rabbit interacts with the economic success of Japan and the resultant American rust belt; he does drugs, he has a conversation with black power, and his marriage is wrecked on the shoals of his own stupidity and the social revolutions of the 60s. Munro concentrates on the smaller questions: what lies do we tell ourselves? What half-truths do we tell others? How much do we understand anyone we live with? how are two lives in conjunction and collision at the same time? what are the stories we tell and how do these multiple stories reveal the real truth of existence? What conflicting desires do we have? How does one person see the same experience so differently from another?
Much of “Mischief” is concerned with “deceitfulness” and its various guises: Rose cloaks her true opinion of a lady playwright’s play; Rose could pretend to like people, when Patrick could not; when Rose had her “affair” with Clifford, Rose was able to deceive not only her husband but also her best friend; Rose holds hands with Clifford in the park and maybe when her little girl says gleefully, “I caught you!” Rose has actually been caught. So she buys off Anna’s fixation with a Fudgsicle. Deceit is everywhere. One is reminded of Emma Bovary, except that Rose escapes her captivity, and then has to live with the memories of all the “mischief.”
Years later, after Clifford seduces Rose and Jocelyn into a threesome, “Rose felt curious, disbelieving, hardly willing, slightly aroused, and, at some level she was too sluggish to reach for, appalled and sad.” Something of Munro’s distinct greatness is captured in this sentence. There are layers to existence and experience, layers that conflict with one another.
Clifford, the very successful artist, says he is torn by two desires: one to be a conventionally loyal husband and father and the other to be free. Clifford says:
It’s absolutely true that I’ve wanted out since I got in. And it’s also true that I wanted in, and I wanted to stay in. I wanted to be married to you [Jocelyn] and I want to be married to you and I couldn’t stand being married to you and I can’t stand being married to you. It’s a static contradiction.
Munro is interested not merely in topography; she is interested in the almost geologic tension inherent in being human.