With today’s post, Betsy and I finish up our trek through Alice Munro’s fourth book, The Beggar Maid. Fittingly, the story’s title (which outside of the U.S. is also the title of the book itself) returns us to the first story, “Royal Beatings,” in which Flo, trying to put Rose in her place during one of their battles of will, asks the devastating question: “Who do you think you are?”
It’s a question that Rose was asked often in her youth. In this final story, for example, we look back to when Rose was in grade school. Her class was asked to write the lines of a poem to memorize it. When Rose was not completing the task, the teacher called her out on it. Rose said she was not doing it because she already memorized the poem. Prove it, the teacher demanded, making Rose stand up right there to recite the poem. Rose succeeded. She memorized the poem. But instead of any apology or an acknowledgement that Rose had indeed done the work, the teacher says this:
You can’t go thinking you are better than other people just because you can learn poems. Who do you think you are?
While Rose heard this question mostly from other women who were, for various reasons, imposing their authority on to Rose, trying to put her into her place, Rose nevertheless asks herself this question over and over again. I’ve remarked on how meandering the middle stories in this book feel, even to the point I think Munro over did it a bit and seemed to be meandering herself as she quested to bring together the themes in The Beggar Maid. Still, much of that meandering is because Rose is still searching, still trying to figure out just who she thinks she is and how far from that perception she actually is. Rose becomes a relatively famous performer in shows, but she is a performer even in her own life.
In “Who Do You Think You Are?” Rose has returned to Hanratty, to the scenes of her childhood, to the stage she has forsaken, in order to help usher Flo out of this world. With her brother, she goes over old memories of the town, which has changed a great deal during the intervening years. Incidentally, her own brother sees Rose as an outsider, someone who chased down a false way of life. He must wonder under his breath who Rose thinks she is.
It’s a strange question, though, given how much flux everyone goes through in life. Rose moved away, experienced a world quite different from Hanratty, but everything changed during those years. The world of Hanratty from Rose’s childhood is gone from the physical world. But not from Rose herself. Her marriage is over, all of the affairs are in the past, but they are part of Rose still.
In this story, and a bit in “Spelling,” Rose starts to reconcile her past and present. “Who Do You Think You Are?” provides a wonderful interplay between Rose’s past and Rose’s present since most of the story is composed of Rose’s recollections of two men: Milton Homer, a kind of village idiot from her childhood, and Ralph Gillespie, one of Rose’s classmates who himself left Hanratty only to return changed. Both are outsiders, both give Rose a chance to reflect on who she is. Rose may have started to accept how life shapes us during “Simon’s Luck,” but it’s here at the end that she can finally, comfortably, disregard the deprecating question: Who do you think you are?
I may have gotten a bit frustrated with The Beggar Maid in its middle section, and I’m not fully backing down from my former stance, but I do think my disappointment in those stories led me to a greater appreciation for this final story and how it wraps the book up beautifully and completely, though not easily. Rose has much of her life in front of her. I’d love to see what she makes of them, now that she has some inkling of — or, at the very least, is a more comfortable with — just who she thinks she is. She seems ready to explore her identity rather than seek it, and I’m excited for her.
“Who Do You Think You Are?” is the last story in The Beggar Maid. The structure mirrors Munro’s better stories: multiple storylines interweave and comment on each other.
Rose is closing Flo’s house in preparation for a sale; neighbors invite her to the Legion on Saturday night. Flo is now in the County Home, but several of her opinions and anecdotes are mentioned. Forty-five-ish Rose and her half-brother Brian (and his wife Phoebe) get together, yearning for some connection. Brian allows himself to be entertained by Rose’s imitation of Milton Homer. Their laughter is a relief, given that Brian disapproves of Rose’s theatrics.
Milton Homer, now at the County Home as well, is recalled in detail. “Not all there” Milton is a grown man who lived with his aunts. In their presence, he was mostly subdued. Otherwise, however, he had an extreme tendency to mimic and mock people on such occasions as the annual Orange Walk Parade. On one spectacular occasion, when his aunts were trying to get people to sign a petition against allowing Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen to broadcast on Sunday night, Milton drew outlandish mustaches on his cheeks. People were so distracted they passed on by and the petition failed. Milton also performed a kind of baptism on every new baby in town; that was the only time he was let into people’s houses. His extremely theatrical persona appeared to be his real self.
Milton was known for his “scandalous behavior.” Rumor had it that he had a predilection for exposing himself, and that schoolboys would trick him into his performances. It was not clear, however, whether the story was “true or not, had happened once under provocation, or kept happening all the time.”
The Milton sisters, Milton Homer’s aunts, were the elite, one a teacher and the other a retired missionary to China.
One of Milton’s aunts, Miss Hattie, had been Rose’s English teacher. One day Miss Mattie assigned a poem to be written down and then memorized for homework, but Rose didn’t bother to write it down. Miss Mattie made her perform it on the spot, and also kept her after school to write the poem three times. In private, she admonished Rose:
You can’t go thinking you are better than other people just because you can learn poems. Who do you think you are?
It is not clear that Rose actually does think herself better than other people. What is clear is that people are threatened by Rose’s ability. The idea is to not encourage her ability but tamp it down.
Ralph Gillespie is a boy in Rose’s high school class with whom she shares a friendship and an understanding. They get the same jokes, and they are similar in other ways as well. Ralph shows up at the Legion the night Rose is in attendance. They talk, and Rose once again feels connected to him. Unfortunately, Ralph had been severely injured while in the Navy and now was pensioned off. In fact, he dies of a fall at the Legion some time later. The reader intuits that he has committed suicide, and that perhaps seeing Rose (who is now a TV star) had contributed to his state of mind. Ralph Gillespie, before he dropped out of school, had become adept at entertaining his classmates with imitations. He had several, but his most successful was of Milton Homer. Later, when Rose imitates Milton Homer, she bases her performance on her remembrance of Ralph Gillespie’s.
What threads hold all these disparate stories together? The idea of performance is part of the resonance in “Who Do You Think You Are?” Milton Homer performs a grotesque mockery of other people at public events. Part of his “performance” is rumored to be sexual, something that lends a tawdry air to any kind of acting. Ralph Gillespie imitates Milton Homer and gets a big laugh at school. Rose warms up her chilly brother with her imitation of Ralph Gillespie imitating Milton Homer. The injured, adult Ralph persisted in imitating Milton Homer at the Legion long into his adulthood, until some of the people in his audience had no idea who Milton Homer was.
Miss Mattie, the missionary, is a kind of performer, as is her sister, the English teacher.
By accident, Rose is forced to perform an on-the-spot recitation, which earns her the ire of the English teacher. The reader notices that Rose is completely suited to performing, given how easy it is for her to learn lines. It is sad that no one ever spotted this and put her on a stage in high school, where many an actor gets their first applause and first confidence.
Instead of majoring in drama in college, she drops out to get married. Instead of getting her feet wet in school, she has a long apprenticeship on the radio before she is ever able to break into TV. Despite her substantial eventual success, Rose is filled with a life-long shame that she doesn’t measure up.
The thing she was ashamed of, in acting, was that she might have been paying attention to the wrong things, reporting antics, when there was always something further, a tone, a depth, a light, that she couldn’t get and wouldn’t get. And it wasn’t just about acting that she suspected this. Everything she had done could sometimes be seen as a mistake.
Which brings us back to the royal beatings of the first story in this series. Her father had made it clear to her that the dreamy nature she shared with him ought to be beaten out of her. That conflict, that doubt, and that suicidal depressive voice stays with her for a lifetime. The reader suspects, however, that she really does get the depth, the tone, and the light. She is, after all, sought after and famous.
The acting trope so easily stands in for any art, or even, any endeavor. I am touched when I read about Rose thinking “there was always something further, a tone, a depth, a light.” Munro could have been speaking about writing. What further does Munro achieve in this story?
Listen to Flo when she says, “One thing, if he suffers pain, he don’t let on. Like me. I don’t let on. Weep and you weep alone.” The tone is so precise. Even Flo acts.
Observe the depth as Munro describes Milton:
Whatever it is that ordinary people lose when they are drunk, Milton Homer never had, or might have chosen not to have — and this is what interests Rose — at some point early in life. Even his expressions, his everyday looks, were those that drunks wear in theatrical extremity — goggling, leering, drooping looks that seemed boldly calculated, and at the same time helpless, involuntary; is such a thing possible?”
And about that light that Rose thinks she should aim for: does Munro aim for that as well, and reach it? I think so. Note that world-weary Rose, sophisticated Rose, Rose with an appointment to have sex with Tom on Monday — Rose feels a connection with Ralph Gillespie. She feels kindness, sympathy, and forgiveness in his presence. She felt at ease.
The story and the book ends this way:
What could she say about herself and Ralph Gillespie, except that she felt his life, close, closer than the lives of men she’d loved, one slot over from her own?
What intensifies this story is that Munro makes of Milton a doppelganger. Milton is the self that Rose has been schooled to be afraid of being — the leering, goggling, out-of-control full-of-oneself mirror image of Rose. Who does she think she is, the culture asks. The culture answers its own question. She’s nothing but a goggling show-off, nothing but a not quite all there Milton. This is Rose’s bad dream, even after she’s become successful. This is the fifties. Women pay the price for expressing their talent or being themselves. They pay a price.
Post Script: I notice echoes in “Who Do You Think You Are?” from the story “Dance of the Happy Shades.” There is a girl in “Dance of the Happy Shades” who is intellectually disabled but still a talented musician. Milton Homer is “not all there,” but he is a gifted mimic. The difference is that he has no mentor. Milton’s situation is surely more realistic than the girl in “Dance of the Happy Shades.” It is as if the stories are complementary: the one sentimental, the other realistic. After all, the concert and tea party in “Dance of the Happy Shades” is not ruined by the disabled girl, but in this story, Milton practically ruins his aunt’s lectures on China with his wildly gross attack on the food.
In the same way, I hear an echo in Ralph Gillespie to the boy-singer in “Changes and Ceremonies,” the boy with the ethereal voice whose talent is not nurtured, the boy who has to drop out of school to work in the dry cleaning business. Ralph could have played opposite to Rose in the school play — if they had had a school play — “Charlie’s Aunt,” for instance. And he could have realized he was meant to be on the stage rather than in the Navy.
I doubt very much it is laziness on Munro’s part to revisit these characters and these situations. Rather, I sense the need to expand the vision, to have the stories not cancel each other out, but work against each other to express a deeper reality.