“White Dump”
by Alice Munro
from The Progress of Love

Trevor

The coda to “White Dump,” and subsequently to the whole of The Progress of Love, is taken from an old Norse poem:

It is too late to talk of this now: it has been decided.

Yet, strangely, while this is the last line of the story it is not the chronological end to the story itself, suggesting, I think, that even if an event happens, it is not too late to talk about it, and its significance is never decided.

“White Dump” is divided into three parts, each told from the perspective of a woman from a different generation: first, we have Denise; second, we have Sophie, Denises’ grandmother; and third we have Isabel, Denise’s mother and Sophie’s daughter-in-law.

Let’s begin with Denise, as Munro did. She and her father, Laurence, a successful, conservative businessman, are returning to a log cabin that has been in his family for years. Along for the ride, this time, is Laurence’s new wife, Magda. As they look around the old place, Munro sheds some light on their relationships. Denise runs a center for troubled women in Toronto; her father thinks it’s a waste of tax dollars because most of the women are probably just seeking attention. Denise’s lover (though she must be in her late thirties or early forties it doesn’t appear she’s ever had a long-term relationship) is a Marxist who thinks “successful old men, in a capitalist industrial society are almost purely evil.” We learn that Isabel and Laurence separated years before, long enough that they can look back on their memories as a family in this same cabin with more humor than resentment. That’s not to say Laurence doesn’t feel resentment, but it’s become tame and constant, like his resentment for New Democrats. No, they can look back and remember the summer of 1969, when they were all there together with Sophie for Laurence’s fortieth birthday party.

Back in 1969, Denise was interested in what drew Laurence and Isabel together in the first place, asking her mother: “What did you think when you first met him? I mean, what attracted you? Did you know this was the person you were going to end up married to? I think that’s all so weird.”

At this point, Isabel is more of an enigma than a solid character. We only know really that she is now out of the picture, and with no apparent regrets. Slowly, we come to know the woman, absent most of the story, who will become the center of the final part, and, with that, the center of the prior parts as well. Isabel, it turns out, is the one who refuses to compromise, refuses to play charades.

Isabel, seen through the eyes of Denise and Sophie, is on the outside. They’re mostly concerned with the more boisterous Laurence and the other things that beset them during the day. Which is their right. But they don’t recognize Isabel’s quiet yearning for something else, her growing unrest:

Not much to her credit to go through her life thinking, Well, good, now that’s over, that’s over. What was she looking forward to, what bonus was she hoping to get, when this, and this, and this, was over?

Freedom — or not eve freedom. Emptiness, a lapse of attention. It seemed all the time that she was having to provide a little more — in the way of attention, enthusiasm, watchfulness — than she was sure she had. She was straining, hoping not to be found out.

By the time we read those words, we know better what has happened. We’ve seen Denise dealing with it in the first section, even though “It is too late to talk of this now: it has been decided.”

As I looked around online for general thoughts on “White Dump” I often saw it listed as among folk’s favorite Munro stories. It’s not quite there for me, but I can see myself growing with it, seeing its depths better as time passes. It certainly is a strong story, and a fine way to end this portion of Munro’s career, right before we move on to her more famous later work of the 1990s and 2000s.


Betsy

“White Dump” gives the reader a hard time right from the title.

Something about this story is going to be a shitty business, “dump” being familiar slang for feces. White shit is shit that has somehow been prettied up, or it’s been around a very long time, or it’s the sign of some tremendously unhealthy situation.

What’s white in this story? What’s sick? What’s been prettied up?

The old vacation log house on the lake that had been in Laurence’s family since the twenties slowly fell on very hard times, until at least one foundation post was crumbling, until the oven didn’t work, and when so little light came in the house felt terminally damp. Laurence’s second wife, Magda, has redone the place, given that Laurence now has a lot of money. The veranda is gone, a glass extension has been put on the dining room, the walls are white and yellow, and things have been fixed up. The dump is gone, which is good, but a white slick has been put on the entire house, which may or may not be good.

That is, sometimes change is necessary, but the change we wreak may not necessarily be the right change.

Falsity pervades the place: Magda doesn’t just have a jumble of scarves, she has a “calculated jumble.” When she gives a dinner party, the effect on the reader is that Munro took Magda’s elaborately beautiful table setting straight out of a Williams Sonoma catalog. Later, we discover that Laurence’s first wife Isabel had a gift for calculating not appearances but people’s comfort. When Isabel left, Laurence and the kids probably missed her a lot. During Denise’s visit with her father and Magda, Laurence asks about Isabel (who has been gone about fifteen years) several times.

The reader notices what Magda doesn’t know — Isabel was a talented and wonderful wife and mother. Laurence’s grown daughter Denise is amazed and slightly contemptuous of Magda’s slick type of control. But Denise is at the Log House for one thing: she wants her semi — annual or quarterly check from her father for her Women’s Centre. So she maintains her “resolve.” She keeps her anger at her father under control until he writes his check. Denise re-writes her emotions; she whites them out. The reader gets the feeling the check is reparation for what happened to Denise when her mother was forced to leave. Denise, after all, was a child who was likely to get in a state, as Isabel put it.

Immediately following the narrative set-up (the re-done house, the extortion by the daughter) is an example of how things get “whited out.” Hearing a story about how Isabel bought Laurence’s fortieth birthday cake, Magda implies that she’s not much of a wife. Magda is whiting out the stove that had not worked for years, and Laurence is whiting out the care Isabel took for his every waking minute. Laurence, having inquired about and discussed Isabel (who’s now living with a commercial fisherman on the west coast) ends by insisting on a distortion of her situation. She’s married to a goat farmer, he says. They produce goats’ milk. He makes cracks about the (lack of) money to be made in goat farming. But the truth is that Isabel and her lover only rent out the land to the goat farmer. Nevertheless, Laurence whites out her reality, as does Denise, who carefully does not refer to the fact that Isabel’s affair is occasionally “unstable.” Much later, Denise edits her own utterances to her mother; while Isabel is describing what having an affair can be like, Denise holds her tongue.

Later, when we see things from Isabel’s point of view, it is as if her entire self has been whited out by the expectations and rules of marriage, expectations and rules that may have been written by Isabel herself, probably based on the primer she had imbibed from society. When she volunteers to stay behind while the others go up on the plane ride, Laurence remarks, “Sitting by herself is my wife’s greatest pleasure.”

That whites out the reality, although to be fair to Laurence, Isabel probably masked the reality from him very carefully. The reality is that she yearns for “Freedom,” or perhaps the more precise thing she wants is “Emptiness, a lapse of [necessary] attention.” Isabel whites-out herself. We hear her saying she hopes no one will ever find out how “cold at heart” she actually is.

A mere four pages into the 35-page story, the second wife senses that there are things she doesn’t understand about the course of conversation between father and daughter, and she is right. They talk about the day Isabel met the pilot with whom she had a torrid affair, but they never reveal that is why the day is so compelling to both of them. That is the day they lost the person who took care of how they felt, day after day and “hurdle” and “hurdle,” to use Isabel’s description of her days.

As for Isabel herself, Denise reveals that her mother “at least, had no regrets.” Denise remembers that Laurence wears a blindfold on his birthday. They put it on him, and he willingly wears it. It’s a meme. There was a lot that he didn’t see. For one, he never saw, in time, his wife’s yearning for freedom, for another, her cold heart, and for a third, the affair with the bush pilot that went on for a year.

The story shifts to when Laurence’s mother Sophie was alive. We learn that Sophie is from old money now lost, and we learn that fierce Sophie, a professor of Norse mythology, had Laurence out of wedlock. And we learn how Laurence made up a story about how Sophie was once married to her cousin. More white-out. Sophie is such a force that Laurence and Isabel call her “Old Norse.” Sophie is the kind of person who loves her mythic violence but at the same time is a pacifist and a Socialist. As a child, she was rich and privileged, and she had an ineffectual, childish dream of remaking the circumstances of some local poverty-stricken children. More white-out. Sophie’s braids, as it happens, are yellowish-white.

Years later, Denise hears her father use the word “Weltschmertz” as a kind of code word; he says it as if it is in quotes; it is a kind of code communication with his dinner guests. Weltschermtz is a German term for world pain, and is in itself a kind of white out — one feels the sadness of the difference between the real world and the ideal world, but the idea is that one is not able to do anything about it. Laurence is the kind of successful man who will give his daughter a big check for her Women’s Centre, but who can question the whole thing by remarking that he thinks some of the women are faking the suffering, that they are just out for “attention,” what with their “claims” of being beaten and raped. More white-out.

The vacation house is located near a marble quarry; Sophie is troubled by the garish white marble scraps that have been laid everywhere in town. More white-out. Laurence makes Isabel, a redhead, lie out in the sun to get a tan. More weird white-out of reality, given that a lot of sun for redheads is not really a safe course.

The central event, the precipitating event, of the story is more like a nightmare or a vision than a real event, but Munro makes it work. Sophie goes down to “her” lake naked to take her customary and entitled swim. Some louts steal her bathrobe, and she appears in the front yard outraged and still naked. She declines any opportunity to seek a modest exit, she makes no effort to cover herself up, she disarranges the tablecloth offered to her so that she is still very naked, and generally, speaking she seems like a demented queen taking an opportunity to rage against lost power. Laurence, Isabel and the two kids are eating Laurence’s birthday breakfast on the porch. Sophie approaches the veranda, raises one foot to the first stair, making herself even more naked, and she lectures everyone.

Isabel sees two things. One, she sees a weird power play of mother upon son — in which this reader feels a severe maternal reproach. All the money has been lost. No one has fought for her position. The son has failed to restore and protect her power. Isabel describes the old woman to herself as a “stagy old show-off” and a “[p]erverse old fraud.”

But the second thing Isabel sees is even more vivid; Sophie’s bizarre performance is a vision of her own future:

All that white skin, slackly filled, made Isabel think of French cattle, dingy white cattle . . .

Isabel saw what will be her reward for maintaining her (coldish, deadish) marriage: a sexless, “slack,” old age.

Isabel has just that morning had sex with Laurence, sex that she has had to manage just so, in order to keep the day from going wrong. I think the vision of Sophie gone to seed is like Violet’s lightning bolt, or like Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. The vision of Sophie’s powerlessness is a nightmare. Later that day, sitting in the bush pilot’s little house on the airfield, Isabel wonders:

What she looking forward to, what bonus was she hoping to get, when this, and this, and this, was over?

She answers her own question. She has that affair with the bush-pilot, and at his first touch:

She felt rescued, lifted, beheld, and safe.

So what is the meaning to be found in the very strange title of “White Dump”?

Isabel herself, home with the family after the plane ride, responds to Laurence’s wonderment at the “snowfield” of the silica mine. But what is it he is seeing? Is he seeing the mineral being mined? Or is he seeing the mine dump of what they don’t need or use? Whatever, the “snowfield” is more romantic white-out; silica also causes silicosis.

Isabel picks up on that idea of a mine dump and tells a story about a “white dump.” She is able to accomplish two things with this odd story. She is able to turn Laurence’s snow white vision of the world on its head. And she is able to confront Sophie. Everyone probably knew that Sophie’s favorite candy was Marzipan. So Isabel tells a story in which a baker throws out a mound of icing and marshmallow into the back lot, creating a mock marzipan “white dump” that the kids would climb over and eat, dirt and all. In a strange way, it’s as if the sight of naked old blaring white Sophie that morning has been called what it is — a once tempting sexuality that is now just a “white dump.”

Isabel’s having none of it. She has the affair, and many more, and never looks back.

The story seems to make of the old mores a “white dump” — a too sweet arrangement where men have every minute provided for them, and where women collude with the charade, but feel empty and cold inside. (Charades, by the way, is a game the family plays. Peter, Isabel’s son, acts out Orion, miming drinking a glass of rye and passing out, thus another white-out turning its head on black-out. But drinking, and maybe drinking to white-out, is part of the culture.)

The only problem with overturning the old family dynamic (the old white dump) is the children that get left behind.

The children are somewhat of a mine dump themselves, being scraps of the marriage, something both the story and Munro acknowledge. Later, as an adult, Denise is not married, has no children, and takes a somewhat condescending view of both herself and her Marxist, Caribbean lover. And she, the story implies, unlike Isabel, has regrets.

So what’s the shitty business that pre-occupies the narrator of this story? Power arrangements, especially power arrangements in family life. The old family dynamic is a shitty business, and one that’s been around so long it’s gone white. It’s taken on a patina, but trust me, says the narrator, it’s still the same old shit. And the new arrangements? The breaking the kids, hearts? The making no effort to reach a marital accommodation? The throwing the whole thing over? Probably a short-sighted, slap-dash renovation that might look good but doesn’t feel good. The whole thing is still a white dump.

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By | 2017-08-11T15:14:22+00:00 August 11th, 2017|Categories: Alice Munro|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Harri T August 21, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    It has again been a delight to follow your reviews through another Alice Munro book. Thank you Betsy and Trevor!

    In his Storytellers Book Club, Douglas Gibson says he wanted to call this story “St. Elmo´s fire”, but Munro decided to stick with “White Dump”. It seems the title is as essential as we hear from Betsy.
    It is true that Isabel iterates the childhood dump-pattern later in her life.The romanticized affair with the pilot turns sordid, she does not get the freedom or liberation she expected and it leads to the end of her marriage.

    There is a remarkable ‘summary’ on the theme of the book or at least on one kind of love. ‘The best part is always in the beginning’, says Isabel, at that time a veteran of affairs, but hastens to correct: ‘Perhaps even before the beginning , perhaps just when it flashes on you what´s possible. That may be the best’.

    Munro on Munro:
    In a Publisher´s Weekly pre-publication interview in 1986, after the Canadian “Progress of Love” but before the U.S.one, Munro is quoted:I want to write a story that will zero in and give you intense, but not connected moments of experience. I guess that´s the way I see the life. People remake themselves bit by bit and do things they do not understand. On “White Dump” with three generations who all spend part of their lives at a summer house by a lake, Munro explains that she wanted not to integrate those versions, but make a mosaic. Also: “A story is a spell rather than a narrative”.

    Charles McGrath was a New Yorker deputy editor at the time Munro became their regular.When I saw his piece in the June 26 issue,I remembered his opinion: Munro should probably be required reading for all men.I fully subscribe to that.

    A private pilot for forty years, I liked the chapter where Sophie hovered thousand feet off the ground, over Precambrian landscape, one of the many details in “Progress” you feel the influence of Munro´s second husband.

    Sophie, a single parent, has unfortunately raised Laurence to a misogynist. He has been a son,husband and father of preponderantly independent women. Now he is married to a traditional wife, yearning for his ex.
    Laurence´s ‘the women are just seeking attention’ is to me his game, his way of teasing Denise, something he has learned when he was growing with his mother Sophie. At that time he was the underdog, and still was on his 40th birthday, sexually embarrassed by his mother. With Denise he lays the bait.

    It´s not only Nordic landscapes. A more qualified reader could write a lot about the ‘Old Norse’ line – Munro is rewriting Edda. Perhaps Sophie is cold like his colleague Grant of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.

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