O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?
Can someone be confident they have been disillusioned? Right at the start of Alice Munro’s beautiful, complex “Friend of My Youth,” we see the first of several apparent disillusionments. The narrator (we never do learn this daughter’s name) is telling us about some dreams she used to have where her dead mother forgives her. However, she recognizes that the dreams are an illusion, and so:
The dream stopped, I suppose because it was too transparent in its hopefulness, too easy in its forgiveness.
In the dream, there is a sense of recovery that, she recognizes, is false. And yet, this story is yet another attempt — albeit one not so simple as a dream — to find some sense, some relief, even some hope for impossible forgiveness. At best, though, perhaps we can only recognize that life is complicated. Perhaps we escape one illusion and seek solace in another.
After the brief introduction to the narrator and to her mother who has been dead for decades, the story shifts to the past when her mother was building her trousseau and working for a strange family home. There she met Flora, her sister Ellie, and Ellie’s husband Robert. They are strict Cameronians (I didn’t know what this meant, neither did the narrator or her mother, but it is sussed out in the story). The home has no electricity, there is no dancing, and certainly no work on Sunday. Also, strangely, the home had been divided; Robert and Ellie had half, for their family that never happened, and Flora had the other half.
Flora and the narrator’s mother become friends. Flora accepts life’s disappointments and seems happy and convivial. She doesn’t even hold the narrator’s mother to her religious standards. However, it doesn’t take long before the awful story of the past comes out: Flora and Robert were engaged to be married, but, well, he had to marry Ellie instead.
So here we have a single woman, living in half of her own home, watching her fiancé begin life with her little sister. That life doesn’t get far, though, because Ellie is never well and, eventually, her demise is inevitable. Nurse Atkinson, a judgmental, disrespectful woman, moves in to escort Ellie to her death. Engaged herself, soon the narrator’s mother moves away and begins her own family, but before long news comes: Ellie has died, and Robert has married Nurse Atkinson. It’s shocking and terrible, yet just look at this response Flora sends to the narrator’s mother to chastise her for writing what was intended to be a consoling letter:
Back came a letter from Flora saying that she did not know where my mother had been getting her information, but that it seemed she had misunderstood, or listened to malicious people, or jumped to unjustified conclusions. What happened in Flora’s family was nobody else’s business, and certainly nobody needed to feel sorry for her or angry on her behalf. Flora said she was happy and satisfied with her life, as she always had been, and she did not interfere with what others did or wanted, because such things did not concern her. She wished my mother all happiness in her marriage and hoped that she would soon be too busy with her own responsibilities to worry about the lives of people that she used to know.
“Friend of My Youth” becomes more complicated than it already is when the narrator begins to step away from Flora’s situation and instead focuses on the presentation of that situation. Everything we’ve heard has come from her mother (interestingly, with Robert always sitting quietly in the shadows). The narrator and her mother had a wedge driven between them when — and maybe prior to — her mother got sick and started to deteriorate. At a moment when she should be giving comfort, the narrator instead pulled away. Why? Maybe for many reasons, but primarily because she couldn’t handle her mother’s ways of dealing with her pain and her imminent death. She hates how her mother sought some kind of comfort in what she considers to be “a great fog of platitudes and pieties lurking,” and this connects to Flora’s story, where Flora seems to be presented as a saint:
The wicked flourish. But it is all right. It is all right — the elect are veiled in patience and humility and lighted by certainty that events cannot disturb.
That’s all too easy for the narrator, the world view to trite, one that might even accept forgiveness in dreams. So, rather than offer comfort her mother desperately sought (even writing letters with no hope for reply to people she used to know, to the mysterious “Friend of My Youth”), the narrator takes a stand and withdraws entirely. Her mother dies, presumably alone. Now, years later, the narrator has not escaped. The dream only ever offered slight comfort, and now even that has been unmasked as just too simple to even feel.
Munro masterfully has her narrator look to her mother’s tale, the tale of Flora. Her mother, it appears, at one time wanted to be an author, and she hoped to write Flora’s story. With bitterness, the narrator thinks she knows exactly what kind of story it would be: saintly Flora, wicked Nurse Atkinson, the danger of sex. The narrator’s version: Flora is the wicked one, the one who scorned, the one who held on to some false tradition and didn’t take control over her own life and domain, the one who had an aversion to sex.
The narrator feels disillusioned here as well, but she recognizes that: “The odd thing is that my mother’s ideas were in line with some progressive notions of her times, and mine echoed the notions that were favored in mine.” How can she know just what is going on? Her version of Flora’s story is just as false as her mothers. All she seems to know as the story comes to an end is that none of the sources of comfort, the various ways of seeing the world, have yielded any real solace. The last we know of Flora is that she left the house. Did she leave her religion, too? Did she forsake anything in leaving?
Significantly and curiously given this story, Munro dedicated Friend of My Youth is dedicated: “To the memory of my mother.”
“Friend of my Youth” is a series of nesting stories: a frame story about a writer who yearns for forgiveness from her mother; another frame story about a Scottish Presbyterian who murdered a bishop and thus engendered a religious sect; an interior story about two provincial sisters; an interior dialogue regarding the nature of ideology; and another interior dialogue regarding the truth of fiction.
What makes you turn the pages is the central story, a ballad tale of forlorn, hapless, and ghastly love.
The narrator’s mother was a newly hatched elementary teacher who had to board with a family, in this case, the Grieves. It was a peculiar arrangement: the teacher boarded in a half of the house belonging to Flora, a fierce “maiden lady” of almost 40. Flora’s sister Ellie lived in the other side of the house with her husband Robert. Flora had energy and “cheerfulness,” despite belonging to a forbidding religious sect. Her sister Ellie was gloomy and bed-ridden, the victim of two still-born babies and numerous miscarriages. Flora did all the housework on the place with a kind of endless energy and “the cleanliness was devastating.” Spring would have her attacking the whole place. She had a self-possession not unlike a “gypsy queen,” and it is clear from Mother’s description that Flora’s wonderful cheekbones and long legs and “bold serenity” made her beautiful. She would ride to town on market days standing in the back of the cart while Ellie’s husband drove. Quite a presence. Quite a sight. Like a virgin queen/like a goddess.
“The story of Flora and Ellie and Robert had been told — or all that people knew of it — in various versions,” says the narrator. But the core of it was this: wild Ellie, who was maybe not quite right in the head, was devoted to Flora. When Flora came to be engaged to Robert, Ellie, who was a wild 16 year old, commenced to make a big “commotion.” There was howling and vomiting, the signs of pregnancy, as well as Robert’s necessary marriage to Ellie instead of Flora. Dead babies, sad miscarriages, bed-ridden Ellie, and Flora the constant nurse-maid was the result.
What’s not clear is whether wild Ellie is actually having these pregnancies, or whether they are “phantom pregnancies,” whether some or all of the household in the black house were folie à deux (between Flora and Ellie) or a menage à trois (which included Robert). It’s not clear whether Flora is a self-sacrificing saint or someone who has managed to have her cake and eat it too. Which version is true? Sexless Flora? Or Sexless Ellie? Good Robert? Or bad Robert? Not clear at all, not to the neighbors and not to the reader.
During her mother’s stay at the Grieves house, Ellie begins to actually die, and a nurse arrives, a nurse who trails her own set of stories and questions. Audrey smokes, has marcelled hair, and a “smart” car. People wondered if she had tricked old fools into changing their wills to her benefit. Wild Ellie is now trapped by illness and corralled by Audrey. Audrey takes charge and says things like, “That’s what [invalids] are like, they only think about themselves.”
By the time Ellie dies, the narrator’s mother is married and settled down 300 miles away. So it’s only by letter that she hears of the scandal: Audrey is to marry Robert, and in fact, the scandals do not stop. Electricity is put into the house for the first time, and Audrey’s half is painted “cream with dark-green trim,” while Flora’s half remains black and unpainted. A louche party is held to celebrate the wedding and Audrey behaves in a bold and unladylike manner. Mother writes Flora a commiserative letter, offering “sympathy and outrage.” A “well-written” letter arrives in return that “cuts [Mother . . .] to the quick,” telling Mother, essentially, to mid her own business.
Who wrote that letter? Nonetheless, the friendship breaks down, and Mother does not communicate any more with any of them.
Strangely, years later, Mother gets a letter from Flora, saying she is healthy, has moved to town, is still friendly with Robert and Audrey, and has become a clerk. She is a little like Violet, in “A Queer Streak.” Mother’s own health was not so good, and by this time her once-fine handwriting was not so good either. The narrator says there were a lot of wistful scraps of half-begun letters to various old friends “lying around the house,” but not one to Flora. It was as if Mother was disappointed in Flora not living up to the stories she had made up about her.
As the narrator has said, the locals had various versions of the mysterious story. True to form, the narrator and her mother also have competing versions. Mother confides to the narrator that she would have liked to have written Flora’s story, and she would have called it, The Maiden Lady, indicating that she knows or senses the real truth: that Flora is a saint. By this time Mother has become a “prisoner” in her own life, and the narrator felt “a great fog of platitudes and pieties lurking” in the threat of this story. The daughter feels that if she herself were to tell this story, it would be very different than the one Mother would tell. Mother would make Flora the betrayed and victimized saint-heroine, and the narrator would make of her a sex-less evil. Of course, the narrator was only 15 at the time she was making up her version.
As an adult, the narrator herself has tried to make up a variety of endings for Flora’s story. But in the end, she comes to see that her own stories would be no nearer the truth than her mother’s.
Munro makes sure to emphasize the danger of the traps life lays for us: the way we may be ultimately misunderstood, the way we are subject to other people’s rumors and gossip, the way we are subject to the fads of our times, possibly even made prisoner by the fads of our times.
Mother, for instance, was a “modern” woman for her time, a college girl and a teacher. But she was also subject to the feminist ideas of the time: that women should not be prisoners of sex, or prisoners of motherhood, and that a certain disinterest in, and distance from, sex was to be preferred. Mother thus saw Flora as a saint and Ellie as a vixen who got what she had coming. The narrator, on the other hand, was a daughter of the swinging fifties, and she saw Flora, with all her chilly aversion to men, as the witch. And then there’s the reader, who wonders if Flora had somehow managed to choose the life she wanted as a modern day Diana. (And then, there’s this ultimately contemporary idea that maybe she’d gotten to have Robert anyway, but on her own terms and with none of the being ordered around by him.)
This idea that we can be a prisoner of ideology is magnified by the Cameronian frame. Flora and Robert and Ellie were “Cameronians,” a strict group of Presbyterians who did not dance or play cards, and who attended a church that liked hours-long sermons and eschewed stained glass windows and instrumental music. The idea here is that sexuality for Robert and Ellie and Flora is warped by religious belief, and that sexuality for Mother is warped by her contemporary blue-stocking beliefs.
The issue for the narrator is not so clear because we know almost nothing about her as an adult. Would her vision be warped by contemporary beliefs about self-expression, flower power, and free love? Munro is never devoted to the idea that sexual experimentation and carrying-on leads to great happiness.
In “Friend of My Youth,” the frame story revisits the theme of the resentful, rebellious teenager who feels trapped by a dying, demanding and opinionated mother. What would be ordinary resistance in a teen is exaggerated by the burden of having to save her mother; what would be ordinary assuredness in a mother is exaggerated by the tragedy of the mother’s illness. In fact, this story has its origins in Munro’s own mother, brave in her youth, but broken by Parkinson’s by her fifties, while Munro was still a teen. In this story, while the mother was being gradually imprisoned by the disease, and making almost intolerable pleas for “love and pity,” the girl holds herself stubborn and aloof.
Of course her refusals later caused the narrator to yearn for forgiveness.
The story captures the reader right off with its yearning; the narrator tells us she had often dreamed of her mother being vigorous and healthy, having maybe only a touch of illness. And in these dreams, her mother was kind, lightly remarking, “I was sure I’d see you some day.” From this, though, we realize that the girl had moved on and had not returned, just as Munro herself had left and not returned for the final stage of her mother’s illness.
The narrator says, however, that the dreams were a hoax, a wish-fulfillment, an alternative truth. The dreams, of course, are a kind of story-telling, and the role and purpose of story-telling is another theme that Munro revisits. How much truth is there to be had in story-telling?
For instance, she tells us that although she loves to imagine alternative endings for a particular person, she also knows that that woman would “weary of it, of me and my idea about her, my information, my notion that I can know anything about her.”
So, what is the purpose of story-telling if you can’t really know anything about another person?
What she does not say, but what the reader sees, is that while she cannot necessarily know the truth about others, she can know some things about herself through the stories she writes. The narrator sees that the dream-stories offer a great yearned-for relief from the fact that she had not loved her mother as her mother would have liked. The mother’s “astonishing lighthearted forgiveness” is a terrific relief.
But she remarks that if her mother had not ever gotten sick, if she had not been trapped in the prison of her illness, the narrator would have never experienced her own “bitter lump of love.” “Lump,” here, adjoined to “love,” is disconcerting. Lump makes me think of a growing cancer. Lump also makes me think of a bit of leavened bread saved for the purpose of making the next loaf. Both of these images make me think of all the stories the writer mines from the experience of her mother’s illness. Munro herself compares the lump to a pregnancy, but if the mother had never been sick the daughter’s “bitter” lump of love would never have been; it would have been “something useless and uncalled for, like a phantom pregnancy.”
I have to wonder, however, whether in the almost tortured use of the idea of pregnancy in this story, whether Munro means the reader to understand the real living and haunted daughter as the recipient of bitter love, as the blighted and unfinished gestation of a mother, and as “phantom” herself, so completely is she haunted by the mother’s demands that she cannot fulfil.
What I have just described is the frame of “Friend of My Youth,” the beginning and end, or almost-the-end. The frame allows for N to pose her desire at the outset: her need for her mother’s forgiveness. The frame then allows for the narrator to admit at the end that she needs the knowledge of her own “bitter lump”: that which is real. It is as if writing the story provides access to what miserable amount of love she was able to feel . . . not enough, for sure, but still, a variety of love.
On the one hand, the writer nurtures herself by weaving as many threads into this story about truth and love as possible. And on the other, she “loves” her mother by trying to see her as she truly was. What the rest of the story does accomplish is a re-union between mother and daughter; the daughter experiences not forgiveness, but simply, re-union.
The story within the frame of “Friend of My Youth” is a ballad tale of forlorn, hapless, and ghastly love. The question is, how does the one story inform the other? Explain or enrich the other? Make the other more profound? Maybe only that on the one hand, the writer admits that story telling is sometimes inadequate to the task of telling the truth: that the truth is so multifarious that attempting to tell it is akin to having a phantom pregnancy. And on the other, story-telling is a means to flashes of recognition. The narrator remarks about her battles with her mother’s views of sex:
The odd thing is that my mother’s ideas were in line with some progressive notions of her times, and mine echoed the notions that were favored in my time. This in spite of the fact that we both believed ourselves independent [. . .]. It’s as if tendencies that seem most deeply rooted in our minds, most private and singular, have come in on spores on the prevailing wind, looking for any likely place to land, any welcome.
What can we make of this tale within a tale within a tale within a tale? (Cameronians murder the bishop in the seventeenth century; mother has an adventure out in the Ottawa Valley but later develops Parkinson’s; her daughter yearns to be forgiven by her mother; two sisters are trapped in servitude to each other; writer considers the traps that ideologies lay for seemingly independent people; writer wonders where the truth is in fiction.) So while the frame story of “Friend of my Youth” is about a yearning for forgiveness, the interior story, the ballad tale, is about sex, about rebellion, about being trapped, and about independence.
As for the title “Friend of My Youth,” I think it is the mystery of it that is significant. This “friend” could have been a man, for all we know! It could have been Robert! The narrator notices that “[h]e never has a word to say.” Mother mentions Robert not at all, does not quote him, does not describe him, does not tell his story. He is the true blank at the center of this story, as the narrator points out, which, in fact, makes of him a rather looming presence. We do not know who is the real friend of Mother’s youth, and it is this fact that is the second true thing we know about this story.
The real issue for the narrator is whether or not she can perceive the truth. She realizes Flora might well mock the “endings” that the narrator cooks up. She also realizes that her dreams about her mother’s forgiveness are way too hopeful. In a strangely worded construction, she says that if her mother were indeed to forgive her, it would make of her “bitter lump of love” something unreal, like a “phantom pregnancy.” The fact is, all of Ellie’s pregnancies may have been fake. We’ll never know. Time makes the truth almost unknowable.
But in fact, it is the narrator’s bitter lump of love that is the one knowable and true thing in this story.