With “Accident” I’d like to step back a bit and look at one of Munro’s famous structural strengths: the extreme focus on a particular moment played against the backdrop of the expanse of time and a multitude of relationships. Many if not most writers would end the story “Accident” not long after the accident happened. They’d let us readers sit and think about how the accident — whether it was chance or some punishment from God — would affect the lives of the main character. Munro, though, uses that one event and uses it to expound on chance in a variety of ways and from a variety of perspectives. It’s a masterful story, and Munro is only going to get better at this.
The story begins in a sly, mysterious manner: Frances, a music teacher at the high school, is practically hiding from her class so that she can spy on another. Munro tells us about her clothing, the style of which has been polished and amped up lately, something that “has not gone unnoticed.” We soon find out that Frances is having an affair with another teacher, Ted Makkavala, a married man with children.
When the affair is beginning, Frances is in her early thirties. She has left the small town Hanratty once for four years, which was enough to make her a bit of an outsider, particularly when it came to actually thinking her affair was a secret in such a small town. She also still thinks her life is just beginning, that “once her mother died, once she was free, she would embark on the separate, dimly imagined, immeasurably more satisfying life that was still waiting for her.” It is “[a]n age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you’re living is your life.”
But there she is, hiding in an obscure corner of the school, listening to Ted teach, though his words are unintelligible through the walls. She finds that she is genuinely in love with Ted. She’s had a relationship before, but it was such that she wondered if every relationship was based on fake squeals of ecstasy and false assurances. With Ted she feels real excitement and connection.
After her spying session, she and Ted hide out in his science closet and just as they’re settling into their session of love-making, the schools secretary, a bit wary because she’s sure that Frances is in the closet with Ted, knocks on the door to tell Tell that his son has been killed in an accident.
I think that most writers would cut the story off after a few more paragraphs. Let’s let the reader determine how this is going to affect Ted and Frances. Will Ted think it was punishment? Even if not, will he ever be able to look at Frances again? Won’t he be disgusted by her, always remember the moment he was told his son was killed? Of course, Munro’s characters go through all of this, but this is only two-thirds of the story. It’s one event, admittedly significant, in the vast expanse of a life. In fact, after a period, Frances and Ted get married and we speed through the next 30 years that no one could have predicted. The marriage proposal itself seems to be somewhat accidental, a spur of the moment decision that deeply affects everyone involved. The accident that killed Ted’s son forced Ted’s son into Frances’s life; now there appear to be many other bits of chance that throw Frances around.
What really complicates this story, though — as if it weren’t already filled with complications — are the lives of the others, in particular, the life of Frances’s mother and Ted’s wife. These “accidents” — yes, plural, for isn’t the affair itself some kind of accident? — affect them a great deal as well, sending their own lives, by chance, onto unforeseen horizons and into the darkness.
This life that Frances is already living will continue to shift underneath her, continue to subvert her expectations and leave her in situations she would never have chosen for herself.
At the end, she stands in a funeral parlor back in Hanratty, and she has an occasion to take the measure of her life, to see herself as an individual thrown around by waves and currents, never fully in control, and we see a life so much more complicated than any of the “accidents” by themselves would suggest:
What a difference, thinks Frances . . . of course there is a difference, anybody can see that, a life’s difference . . . But inside she’s ticking away, all by herself, the same Frances who was there before any of it.
Not altogether the same, surely.
“Accident” tells how Frances, a music teacher, falls passionately in love with Ted, a science teacher, and marries him. This is no simple love story, though, in that Ted is married and has three children, and for a while he conducts his affair with Frances in the science closet, and she conducts her affair with him in the church where she is the organist. How long they might have gone on like that, except that his marriage fell apart when his son died in an accident, is a question.
Munro makes us love Frances, despite this affair, or maybe because of this affair. She and Ted were clearly meant for each other, in ways neither Ted and his wife or Frances and her cast-off fiancée were ever meant to be. Their affair is one of awakening, and it is an awakening so intense that the whole town takes notice, and so as not to disturb the loveliness of it, the whole town looks the other way, and maybe even keeps its fingers crossed for them.
Munro makes us feel the intensity of the craziness, when she lets Frances tell us about their (completely risky!) assignations in the science closet and the even riskier meetings in the church. These two are so blind-drunk-in-love they show no caution and have no common sense.
When Ted’s son Bobby dies in a horrible sledding accident, the reader is caught completely off guard. We have just been reading about Ted and Frances and sex in the science closet (and how lovely and holy, really, it was). If we have been afraid for anyone, we have been afraid for them.
We are completely unprepared for the horror of Bobby’s death. We were prepared for shame. We were prepared for embarrassment. We were prepared for complications. But we weren’t prepared for agony, or blood, or violence.
Munro makes pretty clear that Bobby’s death is not their fault, any more than it’s Bobby’s mother’s fault, any more than it’s his own rebellious twelve year old fault. It’s an accident.
Munro eschews Jamesian symbolism, as I have written before (particularly in regard to Munro’s early story “The Peace of Utrecht,” one of her most brilliant accomplishments). But what Munro does is use other stories and other events as symbol. In this story, the utter brainless violence of Bobby’s death encapsulates the violence that any marriage suffers when one of the spouses slides into an affair, or the violence anyone suffers when they try to break up their own marriage. Frances and Ted are not so much responsible for the death of the child or the death of the marriage as they are responsible for choosing the intensity of their own happiness, or their fulfillment. But the crack-up of the marriage, of any marriage, is violent.
Ted loses his job — forever — and the sorrow of that is that he was born to it. He was a born teacher.
What does the reader take away? Don’t marry the wrong person for the wrong reasons at the wrong time and in the wrong place! Munro makes it clear. Frances had been engaged to a young man she didn’t love and who didn’t love her. She was lucky. She could feel that the sex didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like anything good. She broke it off. Munro makes clear how wrong this marriage would have been. When Frances breaks off the engagement, the young man verbally assaults her in a brutal manner, letting the reader know just how he would have dealt with her later, whenever he was affronted. What would this marriage have been? Loveless, joyless, and filled with anger. Frances escaped with her life.
But Ted, maybe being a man, maybe being less attuned to the difference between mere sex and good sex, married the wrong woman, an “unsociable” woman whom most people in town didn’t like enough to warn her about her husband’s affair. Poor Ted.
But those were the days when women married at 18, right after high school, or at 22, right after college, the days when a woman married before she had any real sense of men or of sex either. And I am sure you could say the same of men. So a lot of Munro’s stories are about marrying the right person out of dumb luck or the wrong one out of dumb ignorance. And a lot of Munro’s stories are about how hard it is to retrieve yourself and your happiness, once you’ve married the wrong person. It’s a violent thing. Death, darkness, blood, agony, grief and anger are the wages of a marriage made in ignorance, since that’s what it takes to get out of it.
And Munro doesn’t make it easy. Once Ted and Frances are free of his marriage, Ted is never able to teach again. And Frances has to make the money to support his first wife.
Nowadays, in the twenty-first century, people make the other mistake. Trying to avoid the violence that broken marriages embody, people wait and wait and wait to let love in. The modern story is not about the violence and shrapnel that is inevitable in a loveless marriage. The twenty-first century story is about the stunted calm of a loveless life.
There is so much in this story to notice.
Munro sets herself the task of making of Frances (who is villain because she is the other woman) a sympathetic character. Part of why we love Frances is that she had once been engaged to a young man and broke it off just in time (as Ted did not). Not only is it clear that this fiancée did not love Frances, it is also clear that the sex Frances had with him was work, arduous and unpleasant, unlike the transport she felt with Ted. What she had with Ted was what we all want, and we all want it for her.
While their affair is proceeding, both Ted and Frances think that no one knows, when in fact, everyone knows. But no one tells. The narrator thinks that is because Ted’s wife is “unsociable”; but the reader thinks it is because everyone loves the thought of Ted and Frances being together, being so in love, being so happy.
The child’s death is, however, almost insupportable. It is the bridge that makes Ted’s marriage to Frances possible, but it is terrible, brutal, and painful. I think it works because that’s life. It also works because in order to break a marriage in two, violence and suffering are required. Bobby’s death encapsulates both the violence and the suffering.
Munro captures Ted’s immaturity perfectly. When the boy dies, what Ted is able to feel is fury, not grief. It is not an uncommon thing for a man to have no access to his own grief, and for that grief to finally express itself as anger, or depending on the man, either fury or merely irritability. Men may take exception to this assertion. I make it as it has been my experience, and I find Munro’s description of it as apt. (I would say that women, conversely, have less access to a full sense of their own autonomy, and therefore, the desire that our drive for autonomy expresses itself in us in a kind of unending complaint, whether carping or volcanic.)
And once again, there is the ineffectuality of either science or religion to satisfy the unsatisfied. Both Frances and Ted fill out the halls of science and religion with the transport of their sex.
I like this story immensely because it is so jarring and impossible. It is impossible to have the lilting happiness of true love and the jarring horror of the death of a child in the same chapter. But there it is. That’s life.
I want to close with Munro and teachers, what feels to me almost as Munro’s argument with teachers.
She loves a good teacher, but for Munro, good teachers are a rare thing. In “The Turkey Season,” Herb is able to teach his new girl not only how to gut a turkey but how to be proud of herself for being good at it. In “Changes and Ceremonies,” the music teacher brings her kids to transport with her yearly show. But in both of these stories and in “Accident,” the teacher is in danger, as if what it is that makes a teacher great is also what makes their life perilous. The music teacher dies a suicide, Herb endangers his reputation, and Ted (presumably) loses his license. Teaching is as dangerous as love.
The bad teachers in Munro abound. In “Privilege,” a teacher lets children assault each other (to the point of rape). In that same book, a student puts one over on a silly home ec teacher when she allows as how a “half a grapefruit” is her preferred breakfast. A teacher in “Who do You Think You Are?” assaults Rose for her ability, makes her abase herself because she could recite a long poem from memory. To put Rose in her place, the teacher keeps her after school to copy out the poem three times, and she asks her, “Who do you think you are?” In “The Beggar Maid,” a university professor, a spinster scholar, picks out poor pretty girls and “encourages” them, and the reader is deeply unsettled by the picture.
Ted, in comparison, is a born teacher. He delights and fascinates his students with his “antics”; he fights with the school board, he cares intensely about every aspect of the work. When his affair loses him his job, it’s a train wreck and the reader is deeply affected. Munro means us to be. Somehow, I think Munro senses in teaching the demands of art, and she regrets the many who do so much damage with their lack of heart and skill, and she regrets the difficulty that the truly good teacher faces. In Munro, the truly good teacher is always in danger. In Munro, the truly good teacher must bring to the work the energy and passion of a lover. The truly bad teachers are dead inside; the truly good ones are lit from within by their own passion for the business of the work.
When I first began reading Munro, it bothered me that her brainy heroines hardly ever attested to the teachers who encouraged them. I thought maybe Munro disdained teachers. As I am a teacher, that bothered me. Then it began to seem that really good teachers, and really good schools, are for Munro just very few and far between. A good one, like Ted or Herb or Miss Farris, has the passion required to awaken and transport their students. The girl in “The Turkey Season” experienced a kind of vision one early winter morning on her way to work. She said it was a “sense of promise and at the same time of perfect impenetrable mystery in the universe”. And she says that “Herb had something to do with that.” That’s a good teacher for you, in Munro’s book.
So part of the violence in “Accident” is how Ted is barred from what he does best. All for having married the wrong woman at the wrong time in the wrong place and probably for the wrong reason. The agony of the boy’s death is how he tied his sled to the wrong car at the wrong time, when other kids had gotten away with that trick for years. The agony is also how Ted had tied himself to Greta, like little Bobby tying himself to a car.