At this point in Munro’s career, we are used to her focusing a narrative — as vast or tight as that narrative may be — on a single person. There are rich side characters, but there is also a relatively clear central character, often a woman in some kind of inner crisis. There is such a woman in “Labor Day Dinner,” Roberta, and she’s experiencing numbing dread as she looks at her current relationship with George, a man she’s been with for about a year since she left her husband. However, as rich as Roberta’s character is in this story, the story is about several other characters, characters friends and family who are also pulled into this potentially spiritually lethal relationship between George and Roberta.
The story, obviously, centers around a Labor Day dinner. George and Roberta are taking Roberta’s teenage daughters, Angela and Eva, who are visiting for the summer, to a friend’s home. This friend, Valerie, knew both George and Roberta independently before those two had even met. Also along for the dinner are Valerie’s daughter, Ruth, and son, David, as well as David’s girlfriend, Kimberly. This is a large cast. We might think that Munro will focus on Roberta, but Munro gives each character time from the perspective of a close third-person narrator, making this a new kind of story for Munro.
That said, everyone is sensitive to George and Roberta’s relationship, which is obviously strained. We get some details of the strain early on while George and Roberta are driving to the dinner. For a few days, Roberta has known that George is unhappy with her. He hasn’t exactly said why, so she comes up with the reasons herself based on off-hand, rude comments he has made about, say, her flabby underarms, telling her to wear something with sleeves to the dinner. Hopes that things will somehow return to normal — no matter how bad normal is — are dashed on the drive to dinner:
Roberta thought that after speaking in such a friendly way to the girls, and helping them into the truck, he might speak to her when he got into the cab, might even take her hand, brushing away her undisclosed crimes, but it did not happen. Shut up together, driving over the hot gravel roads at an almost funereal pace, they are pinned down by a murderous silence. On the edge of it, Roberta feels like herself curling up like a jaundiced leaf. She knows this to be a hysterical image. Also hysterical is the notion of screaming and opening the door and throwing herself on the gravel.
Only, things haven’t been bad for just a few days. Roberta has felt the terrible pressure to please despite the futility for some time. She feels relief only by ignoring everything, by going into a dark room and lying down with a towel over her face. She cannot work. She can do nothing, it seems, of her own accord. She is putting everything into being whatever she thinks George wants that she has no time for anything else.
Others have noticed. Angela, for example, the older daughter, writes about her mom in her journal:
“I have seen her change,” Angela has written in her journal, “from a person I deeply respected into a person on the verge of being a nervous wreck. If this is love I want no part of it. [. . .] This is an intelligent woman who used to believe in freedom.”
Eva, the youngest at thirteen, may not understand all that is going on, but she recognizes the tension and does what she can to make sure she gets along with everyone. She is overheard saying:
“You know, I understand George. I don’t mind about him the way Angela does. I know how to be jokey. I understand him.”
Roberta and Valerie overhear this and Roberta smiles and shivers:
It seems to her that she has instructed them, by example, that he is to be accommodated, his silences respected, his joking responded to.
George’s own perspective on all of this is also presented:
George is enjoying his scything. For one thing, he likes working without spectators. Whenever he works at home these days, he is aware of a crowd of female spectators. Even if they’re nowhere in sight, he feels as if they’re watching — taking their ease, regarding his labors with mystification and amusement. He admits, if he thinks about it, that Roberta does do some work, though she has done nothing to earn money as far as he knows; she hasn’t been in touch with her publishers, and she hasn’t worked on ideas of her own. She permits her daughters to do nothing all day long, all summer long.
For George, it’s a matter of work — at least, on the surface. And he finds it easier to go work alone and aloof, though anger he feels that he is the only one working continues to percolate.
On the other side of the table, we have Valerie and her family. They are not as central to the drama as the others, but they emphasize Munro’s exploration of the absolute complexity of relationships, of knowing someone and not knowing them.
As the story comes to a close, Munro does something shocking to restore, if briefly, a sense of perspective and balance. As George and Roberta and the daughters travel home in silence, they are nearly struck by another vehicle. The collision certainly would have been fatal. It shocks them out of the moment completely:
What they feel is not terror or thanksgiving — not yet. What they feel is strangeness. They feel as strange, as flattened out and borne aloft, as unconnected with previous and future events as the ghost car was, the black fish.
It’s a strange ending, all these points of view, all of this past, collapsing down and flying away as we sit in shock with George and Roberta, the daughters not even aware of what just happened. The youngest simply says, “Are you guys dead? Aren’t we home?”
Just before the encounter with the ghost car, Roberta is sitting silently, contemplating her relationship with George. He has just said something that she could take as an attempt to reconcile.
Roberta doesn’t reject the offering with silence, but she doesn’t welcome it, either. She is polite. She yawns, and there is a private sound to her yawn. This isn’t tactics, though she knows indifference in attractive. The real thing is. He can spot an imitation; he can always withstand tactics. She has to go all the way, to where she doesn’t care. Then he feels how light and distant she is and his love revives. She has power. But the minute she begins to value it it will begin to leave her. So she is thinking, as she yawns and wavers on the edge of caring and not caring. She’d stay on this edge if she could.
As if — as she comes to know in just a moment — she has that much control and power. Here they’ve all sat, having a lovely dinner despite impending doom, and suddenly so much of what mattered doesn’t matter any more, and so much of what didn’t matter suddenly does.
“Labor Day Dinner” is, among other things, a continuation of Munro’s discussion of the creative process.
An aspiring book illustrator has divorced her successful husband and moved in with George, her husband’s apparent opposite: a former teacher who has thrown over the conventional life to become a homesteader. The demanding situation (the confrontation of 70s idealism with reality) is complicated by the long summer visit of Roberta’s two teenaged daughters. The story reveals itself in the Labor Day dinner party of the title, where the work being celebrated is varied: the homesteader’s work, for one; women’s work, for another; the work of the artist; and the work to acquire both knowledge and self-knowledge (contemptuously likened to “analysis” by George). Ironically, self-knowledge becomes completely available to Roberta and George, not through work or psycho-analysis, but by accident (as often happens in Munro).
If this were a novel, Munro would take us through the questions asked. We would find out if George is able to survive his mammoth undertaking. We would find out if Roberta, who is stalled, is able to pick up illustrating again. We would find out whether these two can achieve a more mutually satisfying relationship. And we might even find out whether the children survive their mother’s divorce. But Munro expects us to write those stories; she expects us to provide that “analysis” (a word used jokingly by George in the course of the dinner party, but a word that is, in fact, operative within the substance of the story).
A key facet of the story is Roberta’s failure to exercise her opportunity to draw, to think about drawing, to experiment with drawing, or to meet with other illustrators or publishers. She allows herself, instead, to be overwhelmed with the difficulties that homesteading presents. “She can feel her own claims shrinking,” she thinks, and she further thinks:
No time, nowhere to work: no room, no light, no table. No clear moments of authority, now that life has got this new kind of grip on her.
As regards the ars poetica, Munro is staking out a familiar (with her) territory: the issue of personal responsibility. Roberta feels “no clear moments of authority.” This then, would be part of the artist’s struggle, to stake out a territory in life (both geographical/temporal and spiritual/psychological ) in which the creation of art is possible. In Munro, “authority” is as essential to the individual as the artist, which is what makes these stories so important.
Typical of Munro, nowhere in the course of “Labor Day Dinner” does she make anyone but Roberta responsible for that authority. There is no fall-back. Men are not, ultimately, responsible for women’s lives. One of Roberta’s daughters, the older one, writes in her journal:
I have seen her change from a person I deeply respected into a person on the verge of being a nervous wreck. If this is love I want nothing to do with it. He wants to enslave her and us all and she walks a tightrope trying to keep him from getting mad. She doesn’t enjoy anything and if you gave her the choice, she would like best to lie down in a dark room with a cloth over her eyes and not see anybody or do anything. This is an intelligent woman who used to believe in freedom.
Of course, the daughter, being a teenager, has no idea how to tell Roberta to stand up for herself, or why standing up for herself is so difficult. She doesn’t see, for instance, Roberta’s doubts about the waning of her own beauty, and she has no clear understanding of the seductiveness that the 70s ideal for the authenticity of homesteading had for women and men both.
But the teenager clearly sees Roberta’s loss of authority. It is as if Munro is warning artists of the way situation can overwhelm you, warning the writer (or warning herself) of the artist’s central necessity: to surmount the situation and get to it. The artist must make art, and to do it you have to manage the situation. Munro is using the teenager to speak for her and this is enormously appealing. One doesn’t, after all, want to betray that passionate teenager we all once were.
Further regarding the ars poetica, the girl also writes in her journal:
Sometimes I feel like tearing out some things I have written where perhaps I have been too harsh in judging certain people or situations but I have decided to leave everything because I want to have a record of what I really felt at the time. I want to have a truthful record of my whole life.
As for Munro, “Labor Day Dinner” continues the discussion of ars poetica that appears in several stories we have already discussed (not just “Epilogue: the Photographer,” but also “Dulse” and “Prue”). Here, in “Labor Day Dinner,” there is more. In her journal, teenaged Angela frames a keenly felt principle for Munro: “How to keep oneself from lying I see as the main problem everywhere.”
A person could write a book on the fact that not lying to yourself is a terrible task. It’s enough to make you turn your face to the wall. In Munro’s own ars poetica, in “Epilogue: The Photographer,” Del requires of herself that she see and record “every last thing.” The extension here is that the artist must record terrible truths about even oneself: the crepe-y skin developing on a formerly translucent complexion, the fat accumulating in an underarm, the hollows appearing on the face when the dieter’s target was the waist, as well as the psychological truth that a partner might feel impelled to use these truths against a person when he himself is feeling low.
In this story, however, the truth goes further. In this story, Roberta is an illustrator who has allowed herself to give up.
If the artist is going to be an artist, she must not be lying on a bed with a cloth over her eyes, or wearing sunglasses so as to allow for periodic crying, as Roberta does. She must not only do the art, but she must engage with other artists, something which Roberta is not doing, given that she has allowed the homesteading situation to isolate her. She must be sending out letters and manuscripts, as George points out that she is not doing, or keeping up with other artists by reading or museum going.
She should be reading the books that her daughter is now reading, now that Roberta is lying down with a cloth over her eyes. Roberta is too overwhelmed to be doing any of this.
Here’s my own prognosis: Roberta has left her husband, but she has somehow duplicated the situation of submerged wife. It seems as if she has chosen a lover whose way of life will allow her to do what many an artist is daily tempted to do. Stall. Procrastinate. Side-step the test. Give up. She wants, in fact, to use George as her whipping boy, as if later she will be able to claim in the court of artistic appeals, “He was the one keeping me from being who I was meant to be!”
Ironically, it is not, in fact, that George wants her to do the homesteading with him. He actually wants her to get busy on her own plans. So if she wants to stay with him, she needs to get with her own program . . . something she has been avoiding.
The labor of “Labor Day Dinner,” therefore, ultimately refers to a birthing process: the birthing of Roberta as an artist.
Whether the birth will be still or live is not clear. Roberta’s confusion over what her real work is supposed to be is mirrored in the confusion of her name itself. She is “Robert” with an “a” tacked on, as if perhaps when she herself was born, she had been expected to be a boy, and being a girl, her parents just tacked on the “a.” Is she to be the homesteader’s right-hand man, with the art just tacked-on? Or is she to be an artist whose partner happens to be a homesteader?
One would feel quite hopeless about the prospects of both the marriage and Roberta’s work, except for the accidental brush with death that George and Roberta have at the end of the story. A speeding car, no lights, flashes by them at a dark intersection, just soon enough to save them horrors. The worst, of course, would be that they survive but the girls be killed. After all, George is foolishly driving with the girls in the back of the open pick-up, and Roberta has blindly assented. The reader has known about this foolishness from the beginning, and has been waiting, from the beginning, for just such a crash. But no. Through just dumb luck, the collision is narrowly averted.
What they feel is not terror or thanksgiving — not yet.
In Munro, change often occurs when, right or wrong, characters seize the day. There is the sense in this story that Roberta’s brush with death could be what shakes her up. But Munro leaves it to us to write the ending. She leaves it to us to decide whether Roberta has the right stuff to become the artist she says she is, whether she has the gumption to retake her “authority” both in her work and in her relationship.
What I love about this story is that the temptation to lie on the couch (metaphorically speaking or for real) is what anyone who has any project at hand (be it marriage or art or self-knowledge) faces every day, and that reading about a brush with the “ghost Dodge” is enough to get even me moving.