“Fits”
by Alice Munro
from The Progress of Love

Trevor

Munro’s “Fits” revolves around a murder/suicide that occurs in a small town in the dead of winter, plows running around in the mornings, pathways hidden under layers of snow. Munro takes this story and translates it onto two marriages, one that ends in death and one that finds itself troubled because of the deaths.

We learn the basic fact at the very beginning:

The two people who died were in their early sixties.

Perhaps the reason Munro begins her story with such a basic sentence with minimal information is because “Fits” takes place in the small town of Gilmore, where there is a strong sense of who is rooted to Gilmore and who is new. The dead couple, named Walter and Nora (we learn quite late in the story), moved in only about a year ago. Sadly, most people in the community would call them something like “the two people who died.”

Another reason the facts are basic and feel distanced is because “Fits” is, at least in part, about the construction of an event by people who know almost nothing about it. Most people didn’t know Walter and Nora at all. It’s unlikely anyone knew them well. Perhaps the Gilmore residents who knew Walter and Nora best were the neighbors, Robert and Peg. After all, they’ve had Walter and Nora over before. No one saw the deaths coming. The couple looked fine. But one day Peg goes over to their home when she stumbles onto the grisly scene.

At this point, “Fits” begins feint as if its going to be something like Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” We have a community trying to make sense of this horrific event that happened under their noses, the true significance and the community’s own role in the tragedy largely hidden from any individual. However, Munro’s feint works well because it then delves into the perspective of one in the community who knows nothing and who begins to realize that this not only reflects on this event but on his own life and marriage. Robert becomes our eyes. He watches the community and his wife respond to the murder/suicide, and it scares him the more he realizes that each person is inventing a story to make sense of it all, and no story is quite true:

What happened was that [Robert] believed each of them for about five minutes, no longer. If could have believed one of them, hung on to it, it would have been as if something had taken its claws out of his chest and permitted him to breathe.

Robert himself, early on, is trying to make sense of what his wife has been through, filling in her story where she’s left it blank. Munro casts this as an aside:

(This, in fact, was Robert’s explanation to himself. She didn’t say all that, but he forgot she didn’t. She just said, “I thought I might as well take them up to the kitchen.”)

One evening, Robert goes out for a walk and finds another scary scene:

But now [the neighbors] seemed joined to their cars, making some new kind of monster that came poking around in a brutally curious way.

This is about the time when Robert realizes he might not know what exactly has happened to Walter and Nora, what argument, what stresses, what hatred, what love entered their lives together and made Walter end it all; however, this becomes beside the point: with deeper introspection, Robert realizes that he doesn’t always know just what is going on in his own marriage. He can look at Peg as a stranger. He knows her well, of course, but she still surprises him in ways that scare him. Her response to stumbling onto the violent demise of two lives, for example, baffles him. While all of the neighborhood is focused on the now widely publicized destruction of Walter and Nora, Robert quietly looks at the ordinarily unexamined bits of his own relationship with Peg.

There’s a beautiful line about living through a long winter that seems to me to be a central line in the story:

People live within the winter in a way outsiders do not understand. They are watchful, provident, fatigued, exhilarated.

From the outside, it’s sometimes hard to know what’s going on under all of those layers of provident living. With this tragedy, though, Robert is seeing just how false those layers can be, and what fits of rage can lie beneath.

Marriage knots aren’t going to slip apart painlessly, with the pull of distance. There’s got to be some wrenching and slashing.


Betsy

Munro’s “Fits” seems less compelling to me because the two main characters, a couple named Peg and Robert, seem so frozen. This feels confusing, given that at the center of the tale is a murder-suicide that takes place in the house next door. Turns out that Robert and Peg’s family name is Kuiper.

Munro on occasion uses natural phenomena as a metaphoric image, as in “Lichen” or “Gravel” or “Axis.” These phenomenological allusions can provide gravitas as well as a kind of amplification or deepening of meaning, although in this case I don’t think it is particularly powerful.

The Kuiper belt, says Wikipedia, is an area beyond the planets “composed largely of frozen volatiles (termed “ices”), such as methane, ammonia and water. Wikipedia goes on to say that “the Kuiper belt is home to three officially recognized dwarf planets.” Thus Munro alerts the reader to the possibility that Peg and Robert Kuiper are more damaged than admirable, more barren than alive, more small than large, and more frozen than is good for them.

Peg is the most self-contained woman Robert has ever known, and when Robert marries her, he is making a conscious decision to bid leave to a series of emotionally chaotic relationships. He and Peg seem relieved to have established such an even relationship, but Munro has tipped her hat to us with the name. These Kuipers are probably too even for their own good, probably even to the point of being frozen, like the barren astral bodies in the Kuiper Belt.

In the last relationship before his marriage to Peg, there had been a volcanic fight in which Robert and his lover had told each other devastating truths. They had said things “that could never be retracted.”

Similarly, before Peg’s first marriage had ended, there had been terrible fights, fights so bad her son Clayton thought maybe they would end with one of them killing him with a knife.

The problem that Munro is suggesting is the problem that son Clayton identifies — that without any conflict at all, what the Kuipers have is not actually a marriage.

Here we have two people who have had a terrible relationship with honesty and who have sought solace in reserve. But when the murder-suicide happens next door, it’s like the earth taking a fit, to use Robert’s analogy.

“Fits” devotes a certain amount of its energy to detailing how interested everyone in town is in the bloody end of the Weebles’ marriage. In contrast, Peg, who was the one who discovered the bodies, evinces almost no interest in talking about it at all. Robert is mystified and troubled by, first of all, her almost total silence on the subject, and then second, by what seems to him a puzzling non-congruence in her story and what Robert heard from the policeman at the diner.

As the story ends, Robert finds himself walking out across the snow, first toward the diner, and then just out, much as Peg’s first husband drove north to the Arctic where he had found a job. Robert’s long walk is his attempt to explore his sense of there being something wrong with Peg’s story, and maybe something wrong, also, with their marriage. Peg had said that Mr. Weebles’ leg was stuck out in the hall. But in fact, Robert knew that it was Weeble’s blown up head that was in the hall, and that for Peg to have seen the unshod toe that had pulled the trigger, she would have had to have stepped over the mess to get into the room. Or maybe she had stepped over the mess in the hall to see what it was that had happened to the wife. Possibly, the reader thinks, she stepped over the mess in the hall to find out, specifically, what it looked like when one spouse murdered another, or to find out specifically, who had murdered whom. What matters here is not what Peg did, but what it was she really wanted to know, and why she cannot talk about it at all.

It is this refusal that drives Robert out into the frozen dark to walk and walk and walk.

What he is confronting is what Peg’s son suggested — that once upon a time, the anger in Peg’s household surpassed, regularly so, even the devastating truth telling that Robert once engaged in with Lee, truth telling so emotionally violent that it “split them open.” What Robert is confronting on his midnight escape over the snow is that maybe David had actually threatened to kill Peg, or maybe she had threatened to kill him. That what Peg had to actually see with her own eyes was what it would look like if a man had murdered his wife, or what it would have looked like if a woman had murdered her husband.

What is marvelous to the reader is that none of  these people see any other possibility than extremes — volcanic anger or a frozen steppe of the heart. Robert is now gripped by the conviction that Peg is lying to him and he describes his emotional state this way:

If he could have believed [Peg . . .] it would have been as if something had taken its claws out his chest and permitted him to breathe.

Munro may be trying to show how in their second marriages, people have a tendency to opt for the opposite, or opt for calm, or opt for reserve, and how that might not be such a good choice, after all.

The problem is that at the center of this story of three marriages, the silence is deadening. The usual method of mystery and multiple stories doesn’t work with the dead silence within Peg and Robert. The attempt to liven it all up with village gossip feels merely extraneous.

Post Script: I will say that I loved it when the fourteen year old suggested to his mother that he would eat his spaghetti and meatballs in bed. The reader immediately sees a bloody mess as vivid as the body that was in the Weeble’s bed. I liked the resonance, and I liked the wacky, undisciplined thought process that a fatherless fourteen year old might employ. Would that the rest of the story had had as much life.

By | 2017-08-03T17:14:33+00:00 April 27th, 2017|Categories: Alice Munro, Book Reviews|2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Harri T May 4, 2017 at 5:16 am

    Munro accentuates the significance of winter living, as Trevor points out. This story is special for me; I lived my childhood and two lengthy adult spells in small places ‘within a winter’. The atmosphere is not much different in the Ontario snow belt 30-40 years ago compared to my side of the Atlantic Ocean.

    “Fits” is a story suited for use in education and further training of psychotherapist, an interesting case to debate – representative but also atypical, because the person giving only facts is a woman.
    The story yields to various interpretations, partly because Munro actively confuses the reader with shifts of perspective and also because of the protagonists are difficult to understand. Peg does not reveal her thoughts and Robert is an outsider.

    It´s a little unusual, after depicting Robert rather superficial and not very capable of registering details, that Munro lets her male protagonist achieve quite a lot of understanding of himself and his marriage.
    Not enough, because he chooses to think that the question is never to be asked, as it has nothing to do with him. His passions have been neatly under a cover in this marriage. Now he feels dangers, his, and certainly her piece of mind is threatened, as is the ordinary life.
    Referring to Betsy, now it would be possible to begin the real marriage.

    Peg is a state of post traumatic shock, in spite of what she admits and Robert thinks, but that is not her main problem. She has now to face her past and is reminded of that there is always a possibility for a fit.
    So far she keeps her cool, but once her harness almost breaks and Robert sees an expression of ‘helpless, unapologetic pain’ when her son talks about her first marriage.
    That should be enough to make Robert understand that time has not healed, that five years of their marriage have not sufficiently eased the knots of her previous one.

    Is there really a lie?
    One of the fits is Peggy discovering the bodies. She is naturally shocked by the discovery, smearing her garments with the blood or whatever at the door frame, but leaves it unattended for Robert to notice.
    Is the ‘lie’ protecting her innermost, setting a borderline to what she may admit herself to have seen, let alone to tell to anyone. Is it a defense mechanism, or is it simply on account of the shock that she sees a leg, like during the magic snow walk Richard´s vision gives him false signals, under less horrendous conditions.
    There is background for a breakthrough when he talks with Peg later.

    In similar circumstances today in Ontario, the standard procedure is to offer Peg crisis therapy. Maybe Robert could help her to accept it!

  2. Ray May 23, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    Unfortunately for part of this analysis, the Kuiper Belt was discovered in 1992, after the story was published

Leave a Reply