Munro’s “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux” (“The Man with Two Hats”) is a rather long and meandering look at our responsibility to family members. On the surface it looks rather mundane — we have to protect those we love — and when I read it the first time I thought it quite weak, especially when considered alongside Munro’s supreme examinations that come from her own relationship with her mother. However, there’s a darker force at work in “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux,” and the story has become, for me, an astute examination how close love can sit next to hate.
The basic premise of the story is simple and straightforward. When it begins, we look outside to see the school caretaker doing his job while wearing two hats. One happens to be a floppy, woman’s hat. This is Ross. Meanwhile, within the school, Ross’s brother Colin, a teacher, is approached by the principal: “Is that your brother out there? What’s he up to?” Munro notes that Colin hadn’t come to the office prepared to explain his brother. As the scene moves on, we realize that Colin has often been in the position of having to explain his brother, a kind of defense.
Ross was not retarded. He had kept up with his age group in school. His mother said he was a genius of the mechanical kind. Nobody else would go that far.
Through a series of scenes and flashbacks, we learn quite a bit about Colin’s life-long responsibility towards Ross who, though “not retarded,” was not normal and whose eccentricities intimate violence. The girl he “loved” in high school eventually dropped out and married at seventeen; those who knew the situation think this was to escape Ross more than anything: “Ross was too much for her.” His brushes with the unconventional introduce an element of chaos into the community.
Naturally, it’s exhausting for Colin.
Interestingly, though, for Colin, who knows Ross is not going to hurt anyone, it’s more about his own fear that he himself might do some harm. And this is where the story lights up for me: the man with two hats is Colin, who must love and protect Ross from Colin’s own hatred.
Colin has a dark center that Munro introduces gradually though with some shocking passages. For example, Colin is married to Glenna. When Colin first introduced Glenna to Ross, Ross said, “The only thing the matter with you is that I didn’t find you first!” For her part, Glenna looked and was genuinely flattered. At the time, rather than feel jealousy, Colin instead felt relief. He felt he finally had someone to share Ross with. But this is the shocking part: Colin allowed his mind to venture into a more perverse notion of sharing, though he knows that “Ross never would. Ross was a prude.”
As the years have passed, Glenna has remained faithful to Colin’s hopes she’d help with Ross. Perhaps at times too faithful. Indeed, she and Colin have been renovating their home, but she soon turns her attention to helping Ross rebuild a car, a car that might not be safe. Munro seems to be keeping Colin’s house in a state of disrepair while a vehicle to chaos is being constructed just outside.
We shift to another woman who threatens the stability of Ross and Colin’s relationship: their mother, Sylvie. Sylvie defends Ross in such a way that she doesn’t hear legitimate concerns about his well-being, actually leaving Ross exposed in ways she won’t acknowledge. This is where Colin comes in. He has to do the real defending, the kind that doesn’t worry just about the optics but also about the underlying structure. When it comes to his attention that the car Ross is building might be too small to hold the engine, people are afraid to bring it up because “Sylvie don’t take it too well when you say anything to Ross.”
This thread is less interesting to me, though. Again, part of this is because Munro has dealt with the burdens of this kind of responsibility in so many ways that are so much more powerful. The power to this story lies in this loose thread: Colin has to work very hard to protect Ross from Colin himself. Fortunately, the story returns to this and ends with a Colin’s powerful epiphany that his life will always be intertwined with Ross’s, and love needs to be strong and make hard decisions to keep the hate at bay.
The title of “Monsieur Les Deux Chapeaux” warns us right off that a man is wearing two hats, or perhaps performing two roles.
Ross seems to be working as a groundskeeper for a high school; he is, at this moment, outside the principal’s office wearing two hats — one his own and one his mother’s. By accident, Ross’s brother Colin (a gym teacher) happens to be in the office at the same time. We gather that the principal considers Colin to be his brother’s keeper. We learn from the principal that the job is seasonal and that Ross doesn’t make much of the stated hours he had been given.
Ross’s mother considered him “a genius of the mechanical kind.” Munro goes on to comment, perhaps from Colin’s point of view, that “Nobody else would go that far at all.”
Sylvia, their mother, was a woman of “careless, hopeful hospitality,” but her house was that of a hoarder, “piled high” with stuff, some rooms having been reduced to just a “passageway.” Sylvia’s husband had been dead a while. She had had a string of boyfriends, the latest one being Eddy, a twice widowed seventy-year-old whose relationship with Sylvia was possibly “on the wane.” Sylvia tended to be very busy. Colin thought of her as “clumsy and appealing . . . and maddening.”
Colin worries about the hat he had seen Ross in. Ross is, on the one hand, merely careless and unkempt. On the other, he seems to be slipping steadily more and more out of reach, as if his situation is more a variety of mania or insanity than just unrecognized genius.
Colin’s wife Glenna takes a benevolent attitude toward Ross and treats him with an affectionate, lightly teasing manner. There are stories about Ross: car accidents, mysterious cuts and bruises. (Ross is rebuilding a car; Glenna is helping him, much the way she helps Colin with fixing up their old house.)
Then there’s the story about how Colin shot Ross.
A friend comes over, Nancy, and we discover it’s she, a third grade teacher, who has told the kids to consider the strange man outside their window to be “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux.” She also tells Colin that Ross is putting an engine in the car that’s way too heavy for it, the kind of situation that can end up flipping or wrecking a car that’s going too fast.
Sylvia tells the story of how Colin got into the alcohol punch at one of her parties. But Colin remembers that he hadn’t, only that he’s found a loaded gun and fired it, somehow thinking his job was to keep Ross away from it. Colin remembers the whole thing with horror, sees the blood that could have flowed from Ross’s head, but didn’t. Thinking Ross was dead, thinking he’d killed him, Colin ran away and climbed up into the top of a bridge. Not out of remorse, but out of the feeling that everything had changed, that life had “split open.” And then, when he realizes Ross is alive, this:
Colin felt dizzy, and sick with the force of things coming back to life, the chaos and emotion. It was as painful as fiery blood pushing into frozen parts of your body.
It is at this point that he realizes the truth about things: that it is he, not his mother, who is going to have to protect both Ross and himself from catastrophe, and that it is going to be a lifelong assignment.
This story is both great and boring. The topic — the parental chaos — is important. The twin topic — kids getting into guns — is essential. We all know a family where a kid got into the gun cabinet and the consequences were lifelong and terrible. (I have three such memories, and one actually involves me.)
The difficulty with the story is that Colin is frozen with fear and yet he is the one through whom the story is told. It is interesting to see Ross brushing up against chaos and death once again as he puts an engine that’s too big into his car. The problem with the story is also its tragedy: Colin’s situation has made him wooden. Munro’s point is to make the reader notice what Colin cannot. But I don’t think it works. And yet, now that I’ve read “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux,” I don’t think I’m going to forget it.
As for the title, it is both distracting and right on the money. Life has multiple sets of two realities: what might happen and what does happen; people who take care and people who don’t; people who are intensely perfectionistic and people who aren’t; people who are basically dependent and people who are basically responsible; happy endings and tragic; calm and fear; funny and its flip side, fear; denial and terror. Actually the man wearing two hats is Colin, not Ross. He must be himself, who is a son and a brother, and at the same time, he must wear his mother’s hat. He must stay alive and he must stay imprisoned in his role. He must be his brother’s keeper. Sylvia’s still alive, she who is Ross’s mother. But it’s Colin who must take care of him.
Guns, absent parents, parentified children, accidents: all essentially great topics. It is ironic that the wooden rigidity that life has imposed on Colin also paralyzes the story. And yet, I can’t forget it.