“Who Do You Think You Are?”
by Alice Munro
from The Beggar Maid

The-Beggar-MaidTrevor

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.


Betsy

“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.

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By | 2017-08-03T18:31:35+00:00 September 24th, 2015|Categories: Alice Munro|Tags: |16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Adrienne September 24, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    I am sick today – and all I want to do is read every Alice Munro story I can find in every short story collection I have on my shelves.
    Passion, Dimension, The Office, Carried Away… I am wholly moved in a way that no other author has reached me. She has kept me company today, moving me away from my own discomfort into a place of compassion for others. Problems are not neatly tied up with a perfect solution – the endings are necessarily happy, but they are real.

    I needed to convince myself of her future importance to me as a reader, a writer, a woman by reading all the outlying stories before reading a whole collection. I am convinced beyond measure. I am stunned by her discernment, her writing craft, and her understanding of the human story.

  2. Betsy September 24, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    Welcome, Adrienne! I couldn’t agree with you more.

  3. Trevor Berrett September 25, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    Oh boy, Adrienne! This is an exciting new relationship! I feel you should also check out William Trevor. He and Munro are my two favorite living authors, regardless of form.

  4. Adrienne September 25, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    I just looked on my shelf, and I happen to have After Rain! (I am a notorious book junkie and just buy books with reckless abandon at thrift stores, yard sales etc… As a book reviewer, sometimes people just give them to me! Who can refuse a classic for a quarter or free? So I have these folks just waiting for me… It’s William Trevor’s turn next I guess…)

    Just finished Family Furnishings today… I liked it much better than The Office (a little too distant – like an essay – for me). I am just so impressed with how she fashions stories from a nugget of an idea, the craft of her writing, the humanity she encourages us to see… The stories move like life does – over, under, around, and back again…

    In an interview, she said she takes 5 months to write a story – and edits, edits, edits – to get her story where she wants it.

  5. Trevor Berrett September 25, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    Fantastic collection! Please read “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”! It may be my favorite short story ever!

  6. Betsy October 11, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    This fourth book was written when Munro was 4?, recently divorced, and recently transplanted from the wealth of her husband’s life in Vancouver to the poverty of London, Ontario. In addition, after several experiments, she was essentially freed from the responsibilities of child raising, given that when she had relinquished the primary care of her youngest daughter to her former husband and his new wife, her two older daughters were – and –. Although she had expected to be able to support herself teaching, and had at least two positions, she discovered that she didn’t like the gig at all. What now?

    After the lyricism, wit, emotionality, poignancy, and humor in the first three books, I was startled by the flat new tone of this book and its aggressive earthiness. Initially, I found it very difficult to get used to its pervasive sadness. The poverty in the little Ontario town is bitter; the father is clearly weak and clearly not idolized by the daughter; the mother has almost no redeeming features; there is a Tobacco Road quality to life in West Hanratty that was not so unremitting in Jubilee. Just notice the difference in the names of the two towns and you have the sense of someone having fallen on very hard times. Finally, after an initial run through, I decided to accept the book on its own terms: its author had just taken a leap into the dark. “The Beggar Maid” is a similar exploration into the dark.

    Another difference between The Beggar Maid and the first three books is that the note of heroism is completely missing. What typified Munro’s characterizations to date was the mixed bag of the personalities that peopled her book. Failure is mixed with courage. In the Beggar Maid, one’s first impression is failure mixed with failure. The Great Depression is not just an economic era in this book, it is the mood of the characters and the mood of the story teller.

    Finally, although Rose is spirited and thus typical of other fictional Munro girls, the book seems focused on the way power vacates Rose. Autonomy is an impossibility for her; true belonging is an impossibility. Her mother dies, her step-mother uses her, her father abdicates his loyalty to her, her husband uses her in his battle with his parents, her lovers use her in their battles with their wives. She even realizes that her young daughter would prefer not to live with her. Her profession, which she appears to have fallen into, is an enactment of her false sense of self – she is more alive when she is saying someone else’s words than her own.
    The book questions the way family violence leads the child to have difficulty ever having an authentic enjoyment of self. It also explores sex as an essentially violent, duplicitous act.

    It’s worthwhile to pause and consider the fact that the book had two titles and, in fact, two forms. In Canada, this book appeared as “Who Do You Think You Are?”, also the title of this story. In The United States, the book appeared as “The Beggar Maid”, the title of another of the stories. For me, the Canadian title captures the era, captures the problems of the women of this book, and has the down-to-earth presentation you might expect from Munro. I found “The Beggar Maid” an enticing title fir the book, but precious. The book itself was originally about two women, one an actress and the other a painter, but for the American edition, Munro re-wrote half of the book so as to have the book read more nearly like a novel, which her people told her would sell better than a book of stories.

    The numerous echoes in the book to Munro’s own life are multiple: the early marriage, the rich husband, the divorce, the child left behind, the teaching gig, the struggle to find one’s way. Knowing that Munro “writes her lives”, as Peter Thacker, her biographer, says, this book feels, like an exercise in looking back in order to discover how she ended up where she is. The challenge for the reader is to accept the fiction as fiction. The problem is this: these people and these situations are so real that you really do feel you are reading some kind of memoir.

    The necessity is, however, for the reader to abandon the quest for the real Munro and instead accept the reality of the art – these stories are creations that mimic life, but with much more depth, tone, and light than one would ever have as life just tumbles by.
    The book is a shock. There is all of this: violence, betrayal, shit, rape, lies, deceit, corruption, and shame. But there is also the effort to portray it all honestly.

    Ultimately the book is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, written at a time when Munro was at the end of her youth, and when she had taken two bold, risky leaps. She had left her comfortable life with her husband and her daughters (two of whom were mostly grown), and she had also, with this book, eschewed the lyrical style of the first three books and taken on a tougher frame of mind.

    This is dramatic juncture for Munro. Let’s see how it works out.

  7. Trevor Berrett October 12, 2015 at 11:56 am

    Wonderful comment and overview of the book and where we find Munro with this book, Betsy — thanks! I agree with much of what you’re saying, though by the end I was finding Munro more or less sympathetic to Rose, even granting her the heroism that had been missing from the first 3/4 of the book. But I’m absolutely in line with you otherwise.

    That said, this is my least favorite of her first four books. The best, for me, was The Lives of Girls and Women. That may remain my favorite of hers even as we trek into the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. It just seems quintessential and, I think, perfectly embodies her mixture of short story and large narratives, her exploration of a young girl coming of age. I’m very excited to see what we have in store!

    Later this week, I’ll post our thoughts on the first story in The Moons of Jupiter!

  8. Harri T October 13, 2015 at 7:04 am

    Flo´s promise – you are going yo get one royal beating – was a prediction how Rose´s life would take shape.

    But to end up with, she finds herself, almost understands who she now is, shaped by Flo and Hanratty and the Royal Beating of her life thus far. Like Trevor notes, sympathetic to Rose, both Munro and Rose herself, settling and tolerating.

    In the last two stories Rose accepts the importance of Flo of making her who she is. She also accepts her connection to an very unattractive place of origin and sees that she has been imitating mostly surface peculiarities.

  9. Betsy October 13, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    Ah, Trevor – you have such an expansive sensibility! I grant that Munro does allow Rose to grow, the evidence for which I cite her compassion for the elderly in the last story, and also the fact that Rose has been able to carve out a career where there had been none.

    Munro concentrates so completely on the ordinariness of life, and she is so matter-of-fact, that the reader has to work to imagine that Rose’s craft may actually be art. And that would make he heroic, given her beginnings.

    After all, Rose thinks this at the end: “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 could get and wouldn’t get.”

    Paying attention to the wrong thing. Munro is so subtle. Rose is so brave. She goes on – despite the hole at the center of things.

  10. Betsy October 16, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Speaking of art, Rose’s “shame” in “The Beggar Maid” should be added to our understanding of Munro’s own ars poetica.

    The thing that would shame Rose about acting is “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.”

    In the famous epilogue to “Lives of Girls and Women”, Munro says of Del’s aspiration:

    “…what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting.”

    Del is very confident. Rose is older, and she knows that “Everything she had done could sometimes be seen as a mistake.”
    Munro is very interested in perspective – that from one point of view, something is good, or good enough, and from another person’s point of view it isn’t.

    It interests me that the artist would admit that the artist’s doubt is that “she might have been paying attention to the wrong things…”

  11. Harri T October 22, 2015 at 7:15 am

    Maybe it is conceivable that the sentences Betsy contemplates – Rose´s apprehensiveness about a failure of perception in her acting – can be interpreted comprising besides her career also the continuous fun she is making at the expenses of her uninviting place of origin and its people, as she is the performer in her own life as Trevor so suitably puts it.

    After reading Betsy´s thought (#6 on this story) I was puzzled and had to go back to the Helen Hoy account on “Rose and Janet” to check again the link Trevor found.

    To cite Hoy (p 69), “The Macmillan edition (1978) can be accepted as definitive, since the 1979 Knopf edition….contains mainly editorial changes, some of them like the title itself, concessions to an American audience”.
    The rewriting was Munro´s own idea – costing her about $ 2000 because of the press stop – the renaming was the idea of the American publisher.

    In “Rose and Janet” Munro experimented with metafiction. The stories about Rose were written by Janet and the complexity of the situation did not turn right, or that is what Munro thought, she said that Rose and Janet were too much the same person.
    Three of the stories deleted from the book “Who Do You Think You Are” were later published in “The Moons of Jupiter” – looking forward to presentation of them.

  12. Betsy October 22, 2015 at 8:10 am

    Harri, I think you are right about Rose’s shame at using people in her background as characters in her after dinner stories, using people to merely imitate.

    And I think this shame plays into Munro’s own art – that there is a line between art and abuse, and it is a very fine line.

    Thank you very much for the comments regarding the stories later published in “The Moons of Jupiter”. Which stories are those?

  13. Harri T October 23, 2015 at 7:41 am

    # 1 and “2, Chaddeleys and Flemings I and II and the last one with the same title as the book. The name Janet only appears in the last one as far as I can remember. I have only access to five of the stories; the first, “Connection” is free on the internet and four others in a a collection of stories I have.
    Next month I´ll stay in a English speaking country and hopefully will find a copy of the book.

  14. Betsy October 26, 2015 at 11:03 am

    Harri, Thanks for that. It’s interesting to see the many processes a writer uses in editing their work.

  15. Betsy October 26, 2015 at 11:23 am

    I want to comment on the significance of the question, “Who Do You Think You Are?”. We have explored the idea that young people in this section of Canada might be disciplined for using their intelligence. Instead of guiding a student into ways to develop their talent into mastery, Rose’s teacher makes sure to indicate to Rose that she is morally bankrupt – that she is not talented, she is showing off and putting other people down by merely being herself.

    Granted, the occasion and the manner of Rose’s display of talent may have been inappropriate. But any real teacher would have thought – this girl could learn all the lines and be the lead in “Blithe Spirit”. Any teacher worth their salt would have put a play in the curriculum, or better yet, put Rose on stage to really do what she was born to do.

    But there is more to the English teacher’s admonitions. “Who do you think you are?, the teacher as much as asks. The sub-text here is not only, ‘don’t get above yourself,’ or ‘don’t give yourself airs’, or ‘don’t think you’re better than us.’

    The sub text is also ‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re a man?”

    What enraged the teacher was Rose’s assumption of autonomy. Girls are supposed to play dead. Girls, after all, play funeral games. Girls are not supposed to have autonomy. Autonomy is what men should have, it is not what women should have.

    Munro plays cat and mouse with the issue of women’s right to autonomy – she makes it clear, in story after story, that women make just as many mistakes as do men. But she also makes it clear that women have that extra hurdle ~ that autonomy is not, in Munro’s world, something to which women are assumed to have a natural entitlement.

    Just who do you think you are? A man?

    That is another reason I think the original title to be the best. ]

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    […] or liked or wrote were not considered to have value. When I first read Alice Munro’s book Who Do You Think You Are? it was like a punch to the gut, not because I identified strongly with her protagonist, but because […]

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