Perhaps it’s because I’m currently reading Anita Brookner’s first few books, where we get magnificent renderings of a spate of young female protagonists who’ve been backed into the corners of life, often by parents, and have no idea how to break down the walls, but Alice Munro’s “Goodness and Mercy” felt surprisingly weak to me as it went down a similar lane. At least, that’s how I feel as I sit down to write my thoughts. Let’s see if I can talk myself through this and come out with a different position on the other side.
“Goodness and Mercy” is another Munrovian mother-daughter drama, among the many masterpieces Munro has written on the subject, though it is quite different from most of the others (“Peace of Utrecht,” “Meneseteung,” early chapters of The Lives of Girls and Women). Here the mother is sick and dying but is at least lively and doesn’t wield her illness as a weapon. Still, the daughter finds herself having to offer up a great deal of her own life to accompany her mother on her path. The daughter deals with this by living almost entirely in her own mind, inventing escape fantasies, feeding on (and perhaps blowing out of proportion) the kindness of others.
As with “Pictures of the Ice,” the prior story in this collection, “Goodness and Mercy” begins with a premonition of death. An old woman, nicknamed Bugs, is travelling by ship from Canada to Scotland. Since she is terminally ill, and she recognizes she’s fading, Bugs is not sure she’s going to make it.
Accompanying Bugs is her 23-year-old daughter, Averill. Again similar to “Pictures of the Ice,” the central character of the story is not the one we meet in the first pages, is not the one whose death has been foretold. It’s someone else whose life will go on once the story is over. Averill seems a side character, along for Bugs’s last ride. And what nuggets of wisdom can Bugs throw out while she approaches her end?
Well, if Averill seems a side character as the story begins, it’s because Averill is very much a side character in her own life. Bugs is a retired singer, famous in her day, and she’s always had a large personality that quashes Averill. Averill cannot imagine a different life, one where the attention isn’t focused on her mother.
But as the story goes one and Averill’s consciousness overtakes the page, we see a deep well of character. Averill has attempted to forge her own path a time or two in the past, but she has never done particularly well there. And so her biggest escape for the time being is to take whatever kindness people offer and elaborate on it in her mind. Whether the others are intending kindness is beside the point. Indeed, I doubt they are since they are also focused on things in their own lives; Munro makes it a point to let us know what thoughts and objects of devotion or responsibility occupy center stage of most of the characters in this story.
It’s in Averill’s mind only where we see her desire for escape. But escape is not possible, not at this stage. Even with the death of Bugs, Averill is forever locked into who she became while on another’s path.
Consequently, for me, the great strength of this story comes in its final few lines where we learn in brief that Averill married twice after Bugs died. The first marriage ends while Averill thinks “that she had chosen her husband chiefly because Bugs would have thought the choice preposterous.” Now, whether that was true or not at the time, it is clear that Bugs influence is still there. They divorce. The second marriage seems to be to a man much like Bugs, one who “either charmed people or aroused their considerable dislike.” He’s the center, presumably, and that life goes on.
While all of this is important and skillfully done, I’m just not sure Munro does much her that impressively. The themes are the strength, and she’s done it better before (and, again, I’m now seeing how Brookner did similar things in her wonderful way). I’m glad for the story as it’s only disappointing in comparison to these others, which are so wonderful most things will pale in comparison. But I cannot help it. “Goodness and Mercy” is good, but it is not great.
“Goodness and Mercy” follows Bugs, a retired singer, across the sea on a Norwegian freighter. Her daughter Averill is with her, because Bugs is in the last stages of cancer and needs a lot of attention. Bugs wishes to hide her condition from the other passengers, and it takes some doing for Averill to follow all of her mother’s orders.
Here we have familiar Munro territory: the domineering, incapacitated mother and the daughter caught in the middle. But in this case, Averill has chosen to stay with her mother (when Munro herself chose to flee.) Averill has devoted her life to Bugs, who is a sharp-tongued cynic. Averill’s lot is not an easy one, but she bears it well and makes it look almost easy. But it is clear that with Bugs taking up so much space, Averill has hardly room for a friend, let alone a lover. (Although Averill has, in fact, managed a lover or two in the past, “there was something about her participation in sex that was polite and appalled.”
The reader thinks that Averill is used and abused, and the reader wishes for some kind of escape. She deserves the “goodness and mercy” of the title, and such goodness and mercy does in fact appear, in the unlikely form of the Scottish captain. What is surprising is that the consummation is not physical, not a seduction, not the ever-present (in Munro) thrill of a man’s power and a woman’s surrender.
On the last night at sea, the captain and Averill both attend a party given by an admiring, panting passenger, and he finds himself telling a story about a burial at sea, a story in which he reveals he understands the deep complexity of Averill’s situation. There is in his story recognition that when a long period of caretaking finally ends, it is a profound relief. “It was her story.” She knew.
Just as she “finds her voice” and sings the hymn the captain was searching for, Averill also completes the story, in several variations, some of which ended in sex, and some of which ended merely in a deep consummation of understanding.
Averill believed that it was her story that he had told. . . . . Believing that such a thing could happen made her feel weightless and distinct and glowing, like a fish, lit up in the water.
And thus, the power of story-telling. The performance of which can be a sacrament, a religious ceremony.
Munro appears in these later stories to be compiling the ways in which people minister to each other outside the church, and the way their actions add up to private sacraments.
Mercy is compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within your power to punish or harm. I would say Bugs has harmed Averill, but Averill has not retaliated. I would say that the captain has the power to harm Averill further, through mockery or deliberate misunderstanding or through the use of his position and power. Instead, he offers her an artful story, intended to offer comfort.
Notice, of course, that the title is an echo of the close of the 23rd Psalm: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Munro may have rejected church, but she is not without her theology. It is Averill who saves Bugs with mercy, and it is the Captain who saves Averill with his story. She feels “like a fish, lit up in water.”
Notice also the sacrament of funeral that the Captain performs both in his story and with Averill. Munro, in these later stories, addresses the way people seek out their own means of honoring the dead.
And, by the way, notice the sacrament that is performed by the Captain and by Averill: a ritual of their own making. The captain offers a story and Averill accepts it, sings the hymn.
Storytelling can be a kind of sacrament, a kind of grace in the moment, in the flesh, complex, mysterious, and alive.
Goodness and mercy do not describe Bugs, the selfish old diva, although they may describe her singing and its effect on people. But mercy is Averill in her everyday life, and goodness is the Captain. “Goodness and Mercy” is a strange and wonderful story. Thanks be.