Lydia, the central character in “Dulse,” has crossed into a new, unwelcome phase in her life: “she had stopped being one sort of woman and had become another.” She cannot find whatever confidence she once had. She has no idea where it went. At forty five years old, she has been divorced for nine years and has recently separated from Duncan, the man she had been living with for the past year and a half. Not a stranger to breaking up and going out alone, she nevertheless feels different this time than she did after her divorce, and that has deeply unsettled her. Now she has gone on a solo holiday to Grand Manan, an island in the Bay of Fundy, to the same lodging where Willa Cather vacationed for most summers between 1922 and 1942. Lydia did not know this when she chose Grand Manan; Mr. Stanley, a kindly man in his eighties tells Lydia about Willa Cather’s residency on Lydia’s first evening. It was in one of the rooms upstairs, he says, where Cather wrote A Lost Lady.
Is Lydia another lost lady? Yes, certainly, and “Dulse” is a story about her coming to terms with this and attempting to move on, to become the strong person she once was — or maybe even understand that her strength was not based on her but on other’s perceptions, a terrible realization that would shake anyone.
She had noticed something about herself, on this trip to the Maritimes. It was that people were no longer so interested in getting to know her.
“Dulse” becomes a fascinating exploration of Lydia’s internal struggle, over the course of an evening’s stay at this picturesque hotel. She mingles with the other overnight guests — mostly men — and Munro examines her interplay with them in order to explore just how much power a man’s opinion has had over Lydia’s self-perception.
As the story moves on, we return to the recent year and half with Duncan, a year and a half when Lydia had gone to “the abdication of all pride and sense” to keep up a terrible relationship. At the guest house, Lydia is relatively numb and unable to engage fully with the others. Her mind is too muddled as well. There are, in particular, three rather vulgar but generally kind men staying the night as well, and she’s trying to reestablish herself through her interaction with them:
In the past she might have [slept with one of them]. She might, or she might not have done it, depending on how she felt. Now it seemed not possible. She felt as if she were muffled up, wrapped in layers and layers of dull knowledge, well protected. It wasn’t altogether a bad thing — it left your mind unclouded. Speculation can be more gentle, can take its time, when it is not driven by desire.
The story ends in a way that I think suggests either hope or hopelessness, depending on the interpretation. One of the men, the next morning, leaves Lydia a present: a bag of dulse, something they’d been snacking on the evening before. Munro says, “Yet look how this present slyly warmed her, from a distance.”
Is that warmth a good thing? Is Lydia recognizing some value in herself, regaining some confidence? Or is it a bad thing, coming, as it does, from a man’s gift, a man, indeed, whom she barely knows — a man who may, after all, be a brute like Duncan?
And so I sat there wondering: is Lydia, as the story ends, even more lost than she was when it began?
The central question of “Dulse” is the life of the artist (how one becomes one and stays one), but it marks an expansion in Munro’s concerns beyond the way poverty imposes on women who want to be artists. At this point, Munro rises above the inquiry into class and moves more squarely into the issue of personal responsibility (as to why some people are artists and others are not, or as to why some people are happy, and others are not), and this expansion makes the story great.
Up to this point, Munro has not been much given to using nature or any of its natural objects as the centerpiece, symbolic or otherwise, of a story. But here we are.
Dulse is a reddish branched seaweed common to the North Atlantic, often eaten as a snack in places like Ireland and Scotland. There is a note of the common man in its use, a sense of the ordinary. Scottish Gaelic is the etymological source for the name, and there is a record of dulse having been gathered in the year 600 A.D. by the monks of the Hebridean island of Iona. Two startling dulsean facts are that it tastes like bacon and is very high in protein. So it is, on the one hand, a curiosity. It lends itself to the pick-up card game that is played in this story, to the light-heartedness that surrounds the people who are sitting around the kitchen table playing cards, shooting the breeze, chatting and snacking.
On the other hand, there’s a little more to dulse than first meets the eye. But to do justice to Munro’s use of the trope, I need to explain the gist of the story.
Lydia, thirtyish, having been dumped by her entitled, supercilious, and user-loser older boyfriend, feels like a machine that has “seized up.” She seems depressed, although she says almost defiantly that “she didn’t feel at all like committing suicide.” Having sought the solace of a “doctor,” almost certainly a psychiatrist or a psychologist, she denies that she feels “desperate,” even though she has used the word. Looking at the art in the doctor’s office, she judges it (and perhaps him) “fake reassurance, provisional comfort, earnest deceptions.”
She makes a quick getaway to an island off the coast of Canada, a place where Willa Cather once stayed. At the inn where she stays, Lydia meets a Cather fan, the innkeeper and her husband, and three workmen. She has several conversations with the Willa Cather acolyte, she plays some cards with the three men who are laying telephone cable to the island, and she resists the opportunity to have sex with any of them, which is probably a good idea and a possible indicator of her return to health. In the end, one of the workmen leaves her a bag of dulse, a gift that “slyly warmed her from a distance.”
Throughout the mid-century, psychotherapy had been a literary pre-occupation; Philip Roth devoted an entire comic novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), to the analysis of Alexander Portnoy, and in her autobiographic novel, The Bell Jar (1963), Sylvia Plath portrayed the young woman’s psychotherapist benevolently, although we know otherwise about the final efficacy of the treatment. Plath, who was born in 1932, was approximately the same age as Munro, but died by suicide at 31 in 1963. Suicide, especially by artists, is a pre-occupation that runs through Munro’s stories and reappears here in “Dulse.”
But in “Dulse” Lydia is “warmed” not by therapy or her therapist but by breaking out and running off to an island. Breaking free is a continual theme in Munro; there are times it is a necessity, despite the violence of it. It is being accidentally housed with these six other people, and Lydia’s interchanges with them, that makes the difference. Although with the doctor Lydia appears to reveal her inner thoughts, there is the distinct possibility that plunging into human interaction is the best medicine. One still worries about Lydia, however. Despite the revival she experiences on the island, she could still, like Plath, manage to again choose a man who uses her or plays into her willingness to self-destruct.
Back in the doctor’s office, Lydia confronted the problem of why “[s]he made [Duncan] a present of such power . . .” In presenting herself to the doctor, Lydia “talks intelligently and ironically and in this way covers up her indefensible expectations.”
At the same time, she thinks of the “sacrifices” that she made on Duncan’s behalf as things that she did “flagrantly,” but that they were “violations.” Munro’s wording at this juncture is confusing; zipping along, the reader at first thinks that it is Duncan who has violated Lydia. But in fact, it appears that in making Duncan a present of such power Lydia has in fact violated herself.
The reader knows something more clearly than Lydia. Duncan is a tyrant. He tells Lydia about his gorgeous former girlfriends. He insults Lydia, and “at such times she felt strangled.” And the reader remembers this:
He said he hated hysterics, emotional displays, beyond anything, yet she thought she saw a quiver of satisfaction, a deep thrill of relief, that ran through him when she finally broke under the weight of his calm and detailed objections.
The question remains. Why had Lydia stayed with Duncan? The answer to this question has to be answered by the reader, and different readers would probably see the solution differently. Duncan has something that Lydia wants, and she is willing to abase herself to get it. Possibly, it is his independence, his money, or his style. Possibly it is, simply, his class. But if it is either of these things, it is also the abuse, pure and simple, that Lydia seeks. This is Lydia’s version of cutting. She cannot allow herself success; she cannot allow herself power; she cannot allow herself a vocation. Something in her forbids it — and I think she uses Duncan to do the dirty work.
Lydia complains about psychotherapy: “The worst thing is not knowing what is true about any of this.” In contrast to this confusion in the doctor’s office, when Vincent leaves Lydia a present of dulse, there is no quibbling about what is true: the present warmed her.
Munro is continually concerned about the power that men and women exert over each other and the power they yield to each other. In this story, the man lords it over Lydia.
Dulse strangely mirrors this imbalance, being a seaweed that suckers up on a rock or even on another seaweed. Dulse also lives at the continual mercy of forces outside itself, situating itself as it does between the high and low tides. In addition, the reproductive mechanism of dulse appears to be one in which the larger male plant completely engulfs the smaller female plant.
Surely Munro doesn’t actually mean any correspondence between dulse and Lydia to be this detailed, you think. At the same time, though, Munro was now living with a scientist, a geologist, with scientific ideas as a natural subject of dinner table conversation, and she had grown up with encyclopedias. So, yes, in fact, Munro could be using even the details of dulse to intensify the general problem that engulfs Lydia: that she is not a fully-fledged adult but a woman who has been continually swamped by whatever man with whom she has chosen to situate herself.
Lydia has difficulty perceiving herself as a poet; her work is marked by inaction and discouragement. In contrast, through another guest at the inn, we learn about Willa Cather, who stayed on the island. Cather was a self-propelled writer, someone who was continually at work. She also did not put herself at the mercy of a conventional marriage or conventional relationships with men, and she managed to write twelve novels, four collections of short stories, two books of essays, and one collection of poetry. The guest, Mr. Stanley, talks about Cather as “imperious,” and Lydia, somewhat perversely, thinks Cather must have been a “bitch.” What would Cather have thought of Duncan, or Lydia’s sucker-like attachment to him, or her half-hearted commitment to poetry? Not much, the reader thinks.
The suggestion here is that Lydia’s deference to Duncan is what has destroyed her prospects as a regularly producing poet, and that it may have been Cather’s capacity for “bitchiness” that gave her the freedom to devote herself to writing. When, at the end, Lydia thinks of herself as like her mother, someone who had a chronic disease and was “up and down,” the reader does not have a lot of hope for Lydia’s future, either as a poet or as a woman.
At the same time, Munro is warning the reader: in her stories, as at the therapist’s, it’s hard to know what is true. Real life is “up and down”; the difference is in the ability to right yourself. I love that we don’t know how things are going to turn out for Lydia.
Given the way Lydia has come somewhat to life after her weekend on the island, given the warmth she feels, one thinks Lydia may be recovering.
In a throwaway line, the innkeeper remarks to Lydia that she and her husband had “both sort of dropped out” but that they are “very happy.”
This is extremely important. The reader senses that Lydia is stuck, like dulse, neither here nor there, buffeted by the tides, whereas both the lowly innkeeper and the imperious Cather are fulfilled, having chosen definitely the paths (though very different) that will make them autonomous.
Lydia flirts with the idea of moving to the island and doing housework, thus freeing her up to write poetry. But when her first inquiry about the possibility goes nowhere, she lets the idea float away. One is reminded of Munro’s own life, that she says she’d done housework all her life, and that, ironically, in her forties, this Nobel Prize winner specifically chose housewifery over teaching.
I like this story immensely. Munro weaves so much into such a short space: the casual entitlement of some men to enjoy abusing women, the mindless submission of certain women to that abuse, the recurring pattern of inequality in most human relationships, the requirement that art makes of an artist to choose both autonomy and discipline, the laziness that marks some people’s approach to society’s labels, the laziness with which some people approach being an artist, and the difference between listening and assuming, which may be the difference between the artist and the non-artist.
“Dulse” ultimately dismisses Freudian disappointments as the reason a person does not succeed at being happy or succeed as an artist, and it similarly dismisses male power as the ultimate reason a woman cannot succeed as either a complete person or a committed artist. “Dulse” places the responsibility for happiness or success or autonomy squarely on the person’s willingness to embrace their opportunity for autonomy.
But which will Lydia be? Her mother, always up and down? The happy, self-defined “drop-out”? The committed artist? The one who gives away her power? The one subsumed one by a relationship? The “lost lady”? Or the one awakened by warmth?
Munro leaves it to us to write the rest of the story.
The innkeeper leaves her first husband, her partner leaves his ministry, and despite being “drop-outs.” they are both happy. It’s the choice that is the required leap. That leap to choice distinguishes the helpless from the autonomous.
I like immensely the way dulse figures in the story, it being first of all the ancient snack of the common man. But like Lydia in the therapist’s office, worrying about not being able to distinguish the real truth, dulse can stand for more than one thing. Dulse, for instance, reminds me of “dull,” which Lydia surely is, but it also reminds me of “pulse,” which Willa Cather surely is. For another, the way dulse suckers itself to kelp reminds us of Lydia’s attachment to Duncan. At the same time, the way dulse can anchor itself to a rock and thus anchored survive also reminds us of Willa Cather attaching herself to her rocky island refuge.
Ironically, it’s when dulse is unsuckered that it is the most itself: crispy, snacky, tasting of bacon, full of protein, and nothing new to the world, but rather, the food of the centuries, food of fishermen and monks. Dulse is thus not just “dull” or “pulse” but also dulce or douce — sweet: the sweetness of being able to seize your own life, à la Willa Cather, or the sweetness of choice, à la the innkeepers.