“Providence”
by Alice Munro
from The Beggar Maid

The-Beggar-MaidTrevor

When I finished the prior story in this collection, “Mischief,” I was quite worried about Rose’s life (as well as Munro’s book); that story was haphazard, and I felt like it lacked direction, stretching out tentatively in various directions but never quite going anywhere until the rather abrupt, disturbing final scene, which for me did little to redeem Rose or the story. Of course, Rose’s life is a bit out of control in that story, so I was able to pass most of my misgivings off as a nice way to really make me feel the frustration. Nevertheless, my frustration at the story was real, and it carried over, with my first read, into “Providence.” Honestly, it still felt like Rose — and with her Munro — were looking in all the wrong places. Another reading has helped me come to the story with more compassion for both the character and the author, though I still think the story is rather weak in comparison with what’s come before and what is still to come. This mid-point in Rose’s life, this time of trial and error, this time when she must ask herself daily “Who do you think you are?” but with no satisfactory answers, is, for some reason, not presented quite as well as the childhood years and the elder years. I cannot accept that the feeling of faltering is only Rose’s. I don’t feel like Munro quite had it all together with these center stories either.

What, do I think, is missing? Flo. If we’re not careful, at about this time in the book we might forget that this is a collection of stories about Rose and Flo, Rose’s stepmother, and one of the most powerful and well developed characters, who has often been a powerful force in the background. But in “Mischief” and “Providence,” Flo cedes to Patrick, Rose’s husband. As this story focuses on the time in her life when she has ended her marriage and struck out on her own, Patrick is also fading a bit, and Rose seeks for some essentially unattainable combination of independence and connection.

To me, that is what this story is about: that unattainable combination of independence and connection. “Providence” begins by reminding us that in the middle of this marital mess is Rose and Peter’s child, Anna. As much as Rose wants to get away and start fresh and alone, she does not want to do any of this without Anna. And what will this do to Anna, and to her relationships with her father and mother, relationships that are contorted due to the marital strife but that for Anna are the natural way of things:

Yet for Anna this bloody fabric her parents had made, of mistakes and mismatches, that anybody could see ought to be torn up and thrown away, was still the true web of life, of father and mother, of beginning and shelter.

When the story begins, Rose has moved to the den and is on her way out. Peter is going to keep the beautiful home. The question is, where is Anna going to go? And what will her answer do to the parent who is now truly alone?

As the story progresses, Rose moves to a mountain town. She has dreams of simply living life without settling roots, without creating bonds that impinge on her independence. She doesn’t even want to straighten out her rental. But she does, and she finds it a pleasant process. She also starts up a relationship with Tom, another married man. They spend little time together, but the ability to move in and out is, at first, part of the charm.

Soon, though, it becomes a need so strong that Rose is doing her utmost to secure a meeting with Tom even though her responsibilities toward her daughter keep getting in the way, to the point Rose decides just to take Anna along as well.

While still not as strong a story as I’ve come to expect from Munro, I still think this portrayal of Rose, who is truly independent for the first time in her life, is fascinating.


Betsy

“Providence” opens with a night-terror and ends with a stroke of good luck.

In between, a young mother begins to muddle through making a new life after a divorce, and a child chooses which parent to live with. It’s a nightmare in the beginning, and yet, by story’s end, some comfort is achieved, perhaps through the hard work of experience or perhaps by good luck or some combination of both.

What interests me about the story is the way Munro deals with the reader.

The young mother has chosen to leave the marriage, and then she chooses to leave town. The young child is left to choose which parent to live with. One could interpret Rose’s choice to leave town as having chosen to abandon the child. Readers might react very badly to the proposition that this story could or should have a happy ending. So Munro co-opts the reader: the first paragraph of the story suggests that Rose clearly understands the harm she may have done and suffers gravely for it.

The story opens with a terrifying nightmare that Rose had some time after she’d left Vancouver. Rose dreams that she encounters Anna on the street, and that the child is encased in mud. The child neither notices her mother nor speaks. The dreamer makes the dream logical: oh, the reason the child cannot speak is the child is encased in mud. The reader thinks: oh, the reason the child doesn’t want to speak to this mother is because the mother has abandoned her. Then the reader reconsiders: maybe the dream is a wish-fulfillment, the mother can’t bear to hear whatever the child may say and so shuts up her mouth with mud. The dream expands: it seems the mud is decorated with branches or leaves, as if the child is wearing a “garland.” Rose thinks, “Decoration; ruination.” The mud is dripping off the child like tears. The reader thinks a little further; the scene is as if the child is a very strange bride who has been wedded to desolation. Rose thinks of the mud as clay, as if the child is some sadness she has created and molded that will never change.

With this vision as the beginning, Munro has established the bottom line: the divorce may ruin the child.

The story’s job is to now take a stand: Can any good come of the wrecked marriage and the broken home? Is the child necessarily wedded to desolation? As it happens, initially the child lives with the father for half a year, and then with Rose half a year. Munro doesn’t make it easy: Rose decides to take the child after she hears Anna say that she is happy in school, doesn’t think about the divorce in school.

Being a poor single mother was not easy. At one point in the story, Rose remembers giving in to the television, first, by buying it, and then by using it as a baby-sitter, even during dinner. Anna liked to watch the Brady Bunch and Family Court, thus providing the story with extreme bookends of popular opinion regarding family life — one filled with fantastic sentimental propositions and the other with simple solutions. In contrast, Rose’s life is messy, tacky, sad, and successful by turns — more like real life, actually.

I want to note, however, that the story, which was published in 1977, reminds me of Sylvia Plath, who died in 1963. Plath was a writer and mother whose marriage had failed. One winter day she prepared some milk and cookies for her two small children and then gassed herself dead in the kitchen.

Rose was at a similar dead-end, but she chooses escape by divorce instead of escape by suicide. Her husband had tried to choke her; she had (half-heartedly) tried to slit her wrists; and she had inexplicably ended up in the yard one night pulling up the grass. One could easily argue that suicide for real was next. Anyone would argue, regardless of the Brady Bunch or Family Court, that divorce and leaving town was better for all than suicide. And thus the narrator has begun to argue her case. The child could have been worse off.

At the same time, however, Munro makes sure the reader knows that the child heard all the fights, perhaps even the fight when the father tries to choke the mother. The reader also knows that Rose had married before she had learned how to make her own way and before she had truly ever fallen in love with someone. As for her marriage, and as for her emotional development, Rose thought: “actually the words love, don’t love, like, don’t like, even hate, had no meaning for Rose where Patrick was concerned.”

So by now, this reader sees Rose as somewhat frozen, somewhat dissociated, somewhat half-dead, and not particularly a good candidate for motherhood even if she does stay in the marriage.

Munro never lets the reader off easy. Rose, newly separated, has a deluded dalliance with a married man. Dorothy, one of Rose’s new friends, while knocking back a tall straight vodka, confides about a ridiculous affair she had had that had cost her not just her peace of mind but also a lot of money. Rose confides to Dorothy about Tom, but the reader overhearing the conversations and the shenanigans is uncomfortable. Anna is eating Captain Crunch for dinner in front of the TV while Rose is plotting how to meet up with Tom. It all seems ill-advised and messy and fraught.

Munro is hard on Rose. The reader is ready for the inevitable. The pet fish dies, the dream of the “gypsy” family life dies. Anna chooses to go back to her father.

But will the omen of the bad dream come true? Will Anna’s life be ruined? Anna seems to make a go of living with each parent. She lives with Patrick for the fall and Rose for the spring. In short, Anna seems resilient rather than ruined. In the end she chooses Patrick, and the possibility is that Patrick’s new wife is just the “Providence” that they have all been waiting for.

The story starts with a night terror image of Anna encased in mud. It ends with image of Anna counting the untold money that spewed out of a pay phone.

Bounty where you’d never look for it; streaks of loss and luck. One of the few times, one of the few hours, when Rose could truly say she was not at the mercy of past or future, or love, or anybody. She hoped it was the same for Anna.

Is it believable? That Rose could leave the marriage and leave the daughter to be brought up happily by someone else? We all know a story like this: someone else brings up the child and all is well. Lest you think that Munro is plumping for you to run off on your child, observe how rare it is for a pay phone to spew untold money. It’s probably just as rare that abandoning a child works out. Rose was just lucky. Anna was just lucky.

Although “Providence” was published in Redbook as a stand-alone story, I think it works better as a link in this series of linked stories. It provides the necessary discussion regarding the child, and it provides the necessary tone — extreme fear mixed with a casually scattershot approach to life. And it shows Rose at the beginning of her maturation. All the shouting is over. Now let’s see what she can do with her life.

This story parallels Munro’s own life, to some degree. I wonder if writing fiction, for some people, is the necessary means to deal as honestly as possible with life. This is just how bad it was. This is just how messy it can be. This is just how lucky I was. That once.

In a 2004 New York Times interview with Daphne Merkin, (“Northern Exposures”) Munro confides:

I write the story I want to read [. . .] I do not feel responsible to my readers or my material. I know how hard it is to get anything to work right. Every story is a triumph, and then I think: Now I can relax. I’ve done it. I’ve got it out.

But let’s finish where we started, with Rose’s night-terror. In the dream, mud covered Anna is “a botched, heavy headed idol.” I wonder if Munro is suggesting that our cultural biases make an idol of the broken home and the idea of its abandoned children. In reality, the story claims that Anna, safe in the attentions of Patrick’s new wife and also safe in the richness of his resources, is “satisfied.”

Of course, the narrator also lighly mocks the perfection of the child’s four-poster existence.

But it is providence, after all. Not all stories have such a neat ending.

The reader notices that there is a neat symmetry to the beginning and the end: mud is dripping off the child; coins are dripping like a fountain from the phone. One child is covered in mud, the other is covered in money. Not all children whose mothers leave have that second option, and Munro makes that clear. And the possibility remains that being brought up like a little queen wedded to money may not be any better than being brought up like a gypsy. How do you defend Rose if you are the writer? You don’t. You simply make clear what happened.

Now Rose is finally free, not because she deserves it, not because she earned it, but because she had the chance and she chose it. She had to choose it. Remember Madame Bovary. It was suicide or life. Rose has chosen life. So now let’s see what she does with her life.

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