In much of Munro’s fiction she evokes a sense of a life separate from the objective, observable realities that surround people. For her, a conventional plot — what happens, when, in what order — is not as important as this separate life, the one that goes on inside the mind, the life that can contain irreconcilable disparities, unattainable potentialities, devastating depths, times past and future and never, a life where what did not happen is just as foundational as what did. In “Carried Away” we get a story that explores things that did not happen, relationships that never were, lives that ended in objective reality but that continued to work in another’s life.
The story, which covers the decades from the mid-1910s to the 1950s, is divided into four parts: Letters, Spanish Flu, Accidents, and Tolpuddle Martyrs. Our central character is named Louisa, though we often see her from others’ perspectives so she is sometimes just the Librarian, and sometimes she is virtually nameless, her life a bit hazy at the edges.
In “Letters,” we meet Louisa as a young woman in her early 20s in the latter days of World War I. With no parents or siblings or significant other, she is alone in the world, though she doesn’t seem to think this will be permanent. She’s already been in a relationship with a doctor who treated her for TB at a sanatorium, but that relationship has ended. When we first see her, though, it looks like another may be starting. She sits reading some letters she has received from a soldier she never met but who saw her at the library and, obviously, developed some kind of crush.
Louisa feels a connection to this man. She must be flattered, but she also loves to write to him about books. They converse, despite the significant separation in time and space. He says I love you. Of course, the separation from Louisa’s life is most likely the very thing that brings them together in this intimate manner, sharing aspects of themselves they would likely not share otherwise. By the time the war is over, Louisa is looking for some notice that he is either dead or returning home.
When he does return home, she hopes he will turn up at the library. She keeps the library open ten or fifteen minutes after hours. She even keeps the library open during the worst of the Spanish Flu epidemic, making her appear heroic to some, but she knows it was all entirely selfish. She doesn’t know what this soldier looks like, so she wants to make sure he will find her.
She had to be forgiven, didn’t she, she had to be forgiven for thinking, after such letters, that the one thing that could never happen was that he wouldn’t approach her, wouldn’t get in touch with her at all? Never cross her threshold, after such avowals?
He never reveals himself to her, though. Instead, Louisa sees a notice that he is to be married. Soon after, she gets a simple note saying, “I was engaged before I went overseas.” To me, this is heartbreaking. It means he has always known she was there. It means he’s been to see her, during all of her waiting.
This could be the end of the story, of course. A bit of a betrayal. Two people carried away by their imagined love affair, Louisa always forced to imagine even what the man looked like. But Munro doesn’t end the story there. Instead, we learn about a tragic accident that takes the man’s life. We then go further into the future, even to a point where Louisa has married and lived an entire life. Right next to this life, though, is her life that never happened in reality but that has played out again and again in her head: her life with this soldier who never showed up and who died decades ago.
At 47 pages, “Carried Away” is much longer than the typical 30-page Munro story, but there is an ambition, sweep, and scope to it that is magisterial. It covers 50 years, with an additional dive back to an actual event that happened in 1833. The story echoes the self-reliance preached by Ralph Waldo Emerson; it refers to H.G. Wells’ Mankind in the Making, which is a wide ranging exploration of reform with a socialist bent; it refers to the agnostic philosophy “be happy in this life” preached by the very influential but now forgotten lawyer Robert Ingersoll; it also refers to a famous occasion of sworn organization by workers, the so-called Tolpuddle martyrs of 1833; it follows that up by a reference to Bertram Russell’s Bolshevism — Theory and Practice; it looks into American capitalism and owner-worker responsibility; it continues the discussion initiated by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James into whether women had the right to sexual lives, education by experience, and independence; and it questions whether either men or women in ordinary life between 1900 and 1950 had the freedoms they deserved.
The story is an excursion into layers and layers of American life: philosophy, religion, politics, socialism, workers’ rights, and women’s rights.
“Carried Away” asks what is the harm:
- when young people get carried away by new ideas about independence?
- when industrialists get so carried away that they provide insufficient worker remuneration and reparation?
- when a nation’s failures or responsibilities carry it away to war?
- when ordinary people deny the open secrets with which they live?
- when we think old age and mental decline will never happen to us?
- where is the harm or necessity in secrets?
- when is getting carried away a situation that happens to you over which you have no control and when is it a choice you have made?
Then, given the adjacency of these situations in this story, “Carried Away” asks: which one these is worse?
Is the one (involving twenty year olds and new ideas and sexuality and freedom) merely being carried away, and another (getting mixed up with certain factory owners) allowing yourself to be beheaded? Is one not so bad and the other so bad at a level so serious that there is no comparison? And is sending the boys to war a decision of such magnitude that all else is dwarfed if the decisions of the country or its generals are a mistake?
Can a story bear the weight of such disparate ideas? I would say yes, because there is in this story a sense of American myth, similar in spirit to Hawthorne or James. Fitzgerald lays out a twentieth century American myth in Gatsby. Just as Gatsby is larger than life, so is Louise. She is a force to contend with: beauty and brains, as well as the confidence that is born of determination and self-reliance. While Fitzgerald emphasizes a culture of lying, Munro emphasizes a culture of denial, denial of the rights that are natural to both men and women: the right to be safe in the work place, the right to earn a fair living and be self-reliant, and the right to a full sexual life. “Carried Away” memorializes the men and women who dared to better their lot in life and it attacks the open secrets which prevent them that right.
Louisa is a young woman in her twenties who has lost both her mother and father and must make her own way. She is successful, but at the risk of her reputation. First, she works in the book department at Eaton’s Department Store in Toronto, but then she has an opportunity to go on the road as a saleswoman. With little appreciation for how her freedom strikes the people in the small towns on her route, she chooses to stay in hotels, and she chooses to have a glass of wine at dinner. When she suddenly has an opportunity to take a job in Carstairs because the librarian has died, she takes it. She stays on at the hotel, keeps drinking her glass of wine (and later, her whiskey and water), and comes up against the local dentist who decides she is not datable material, given the drinking.
The reader is aware, early on, that Louisa had an “entanglement” with a doctor when she was maybe eighteen. This affair was conducted in letters and was maybe platonic or maybe not; regardless, it resulted in the doctor losing his job. The reader is both sympathetic and skeptical. Louisa had been sent away to a sanatorium for four years for TB and was obviously very lonely. But at the same time, the reader knows she has a history; a man loses his job over her.
As the story opens, Louisa is reading a letter from a young soldier who has been injured in World War I. She has never met him, but he remembers her from the local library. He expresses his “gratitude” for her education and the way she took charge of the library’s total disorganization. By way of introduction the soldier (Jack Agnew) offers that he lived on the wrong side of town, made it only to second form in high school and then had to go to work. He adds that his dad is “even more of a lone wolf than me.” He says of himself:
I am a person tending to have my own ideas always [and] I sometimes read books away over my head.
Louisa answers this letter from the young man she does not know. She mentions Thomas Hardy and Willa Cather, and he mentions with Zane Grey, H.G. Wells, and Robert Ingersoll (Ingersoll being a very popular atheist of the nineteenth century). Louisa remarks that she is not religious. Their correspondence is a kind of courtship, and when Jack asks for a picture, she has one taken and sends it. He wonders if she is engaged or otherwise taken, and she replies she is not. He responds that although he thinks “they will never meet again,” he cannot resist this:
So I will say I love you. I think of you up on a stool at the library reaching to put a book away and I come up and put my hands on your waist and lift you down, and you turning around inside my arms as if we agreed on everything.
This, of course, is so stunningly beautiful that Louisa waits for him. But he is right. They are never to meet again. He was engaged before he left for war, and he honored the engagement when he returned.
The epistolary romance is delicate and revelatory. At one point Jack reveals how he had seen her come in from the rain and shake her hair on the radiator “and the water sizzled like grease.” I, the reader, felt as if Louisa had been seen. Later in the story we read how men are taken with her, her style, her beauty, her brains, and her elemental force. Jack used a kind of shorthand to let her know what he saw in her. Congruence. Munro often mentions sex as a means that women have to experience being known or recognized. But in these letters, this man shows he knows this woman very well.
The reader, however, senses a kind of caution about just what gave Jack the idea to write to her. The reader wonders about the drugs he might have been taking which might have clouded his sense of propriety. She reads Emerson, but maybe what he sees is a kind of flapper. She is self-reliant, but maybe what he sees is a kind of starlet. Possibly, his visions of her may not be, as Louisa later wonders, entirely real.
The elapse of time, however, is important. Jack’s and Louisa’s correspondence goes on for at least a year, maybe a year and a half. I don’t think we see all of the letters. Munro glancingly alludes to Louisa following the news of the last six months of the war, and being “excited and addicted” to it. After being sent back to the front, Canada lost 46,000 dead in the last 100 days of the war. Louisa does not seem to have any real sense of the war or its price.
Two: Spanish Flu
The flu swept the globe in two waves in late 1918 and early 1919. The epidemic was dangerous in the first and devastating in the second. The virulence of the epidemic is believed to have been exacerbated by World War I.
The fact is, Louisa waits for Jack, and even keeps the library open during the Spanish flu, when everything else was closed, and even after she herself was hospitalized. Later, she sees in the paper that he has married Grace Horne.
So why does he never appear when he returns home? That these two got carried away with themselves is obvious. That both of them are consciously pushing society’s boundaries is obvious. That it may have been a mistake for the soldier to write to Louisa while he was engaged, it was also obviously a mistake for him to not buck convention and break his engagement. That soldiers facing death on the battlefield might get carried away seems understandable, but that he would reject what was clear to both of them — that they were made for each other — is almost inexplicable.
In deciding to write to her, it is obvious he might have been recklessly attracted to her qualities as a kind of a modern woman with a “reputation,” thinking that whatever he did couldn’t possibly hurt her, or at least hurt her as much as dying on the battlefield would hurt. In breaking it off and marrying the fiancée, he may have been trying to reject his shabby upbringing on the outskirts of town by a father famous for being a “lone wolf.”
The reader wonders: Was Jack aware of Louisa’s reputation? Did he think maybe he could carry on with her from his hospital bed and it wouldn’t matter to either of them in the end? Did he think, after the war, he could continue to worship at her shrine and it would have no consequence? But it does. Louisa’s disappointment seems to lead her into a one-night stand with a pleasant travelling salesman. The reader wonders if this is actually the only incident. Louisa, the reader knows, had already been involved in an affair with a doctor, an affair that may or may not have been platonic, and one which lost the doctor his job. The reader is forced to doubt Louisa, and it has an obvious effect: there is a certain hardening to her character.
Jack becomes known, but not for abandoning his wife. He was beheaded down on the job in a completely shocking industrial accident at the Doud Factory. His wife reveals he had been going to the library all along after his marriage. But now he would just take his books, instead of borrowing them, and would then apparently sneak them back on the shelf. He had now graduated, we learn, to Bertram Russell’s Bolshevism — Practice and Theory.
We know, therefore, that despite having a wife and daughter, Jack sees Louisa pretty often. Every Saturday night, according to his wife. She is apparently his muse. One imagines the way he got beheaded is he was distracted, for a moment, or for a second. Maybe by thoughts of Louisa or thoughts of what could have been, or maybe by thoughts of work, or maybe by thoughts about Bertram Russell and socialism or organizing.
Almost by accident, Louisa ends up marrying Arthur Doud, the owner of the piano factory where Jack died. But by now, Louisa is probably thirty. Arthur had been the one to pick up Jack’s head, and in the weeks following the accident, Arthur had taken to going to the library. After a while, he and Louise had the occasional conversation. Arthur knew her and she knew him; he had been one of the ones who had hired her “years ago.”
What matters, however, is that Munro’s narrator allows us to read his mind. He notices that she “kept herself looking well” and he observes that she must manage well on her salary. He notes that she lives in the Commercial Hotel.
And now something else was coming to mind. No definite story that he could remember. You could not say with any assurance that she had a bad reputation. But it was not quite a spotless reputation, either. She was said to take a drink with the travelers. Perhaps she had a boyfriend among them. A boyfriend or two.
But Arthur is of the live and let live persuasion. Given that she wasn’t a teacher, he allowed as how she had a right to her life. Arthur himself was a widower, and he organized his life around visits to a woman in Walley who was separated from her husband.
But he is suddenly taken with Louise.
He heard a kind of humility in her voice, but it was a kind of humility that was based on some kind of assurance. Surely that was sexual.
Unlike Jack, Arthur Doud was not a reader and was not good with words.
He could no more describe the feeling he got from her than he could describe a smell. It’s like the scorch of electricity. It’s like burnt kernels of wheat. No, it’s like a bitter orange. I give up.
In this passage, Munro depends upon her trademark of ellipse. It’s not clear whether Arthur is describing how to describe a smell or describing the actual sensations that Louisa imposes upon him. What is clear is that Arthur is not a word person. When he first began coming to the library:
He was pleasantly mystified by the thought of grown people coming and going here, steadily reading books. Week and week one book after another, a whole life long.
When it came to words and ideas, Arthur is not Louisa’s soul mate. But he has one virtue that Jack did not:
He had never imagined that he would find himself in a situation like this, visited by such a clear compulsion.
He acts quickly; he doesn’t equivocate or dither, and he knows what he wants for a wife, a woman who has a kind of mysterious force.
Are Jack and Louisa the only ones carried away? Clearly, Arthur has been carried away in the scene just described. One could argue that society gets carried away labelling Jack, his father, and even Louisa herself. But deeper than all that is the story of how Arthur and indeed the entire town gets carried away by faith in the factory system that Arthur was the head of.
Arthur’s father thought of himself, in his role as owner of the factory, as a “public benefactor.” Arthur liked to think of himself as a “public servant.” Regardless, however, he took certain traditional points of view. The townspeople expected him to be generous regarding all sorts of community wants. To this Arthur thought, (cynically, to my mind):
Ask, and ye shall receive.
Arthur has just ordered a new car. For the sake of his employees and the town, he has to look the part, “else they would lose confidence.”
Although he worries about the inevitable accidents that will happen, he never considers them as anything other than inevitable. After Jack Agnew is beheaded, he never questions himself. But he should have known that safety was an issue, because another man had lost an arm in another factory accident some years before, and during his father’s tenure, a man had been killed. But Arthur does not appear to consider worker safety his responsibility. There was a slogan he liked:
Never let up for a second. A machine is your servant and it is an excellent servant, but it makes an imbecile master.
Like at least one contemporary politician:
He wondered if he had read that somewhere, or if he had thought it up himself.
Regardless of the slogans, there is no evidence of any program on behalf of safety in the factory. Workforce.com describes the actual factory safety situation in the 20s:
“In the 1920s, workplace injuries and deaths were common and, in many cases, labor conditions were nothing less than grueling. Movies played up unsafe conditions, including silent-film comedian Harold Lloyd’s iconic 1923 picture Safety Last!—where a worker is seen dangling perilously from the hands of a large clock near the top of a 12-story building. Government regulations were nearly nonexistent, workers’ compensation was still largely voluntary and labor unions hadn’t yet emerged as a significant force“ (see here).
Arthur makes a big show of being willing to pay anything for Jack’s gravestone. He senses no responsibility at all for the future well-being of Jack’s wife and child. They are in fact carried away into another life by Jack’s death, but Arthur senses no connection between Jack’s death at work at the factory and the future of Jack’s family.
Louisa asks Arthur:
I suppose there are no ways of protecting people? But you must know all about that.
He doesn’t answer and she doesn’t pursue the subject.
The local newspaper’s account of Jack’s death includes no awareness that this was a death that should have been investigated. A huge crowd of people showed up for his funeral, somehow wanting to share in the event of his death, but taking no opportunity to protest the manner and cause of his death. The factory has signs posted: “DON’T TAKE SAFETY FOR GRANTED. WATCH OUT FOR YOURSELF AND THE NEXT MAN.” Thus Munro makes clear the voice of the village: society is blind to the workers’ situation and complicit in the dangers.
So what is worse? Being a woman who has one drink in public? Being improper in love? Jilting your fiancé? Or being the cause of death by dismemberment?
One open secret in Carstairs was it was okay for men to live at the Commercial Hotel, but not for women, that it was okay for men to drink, not for women, that a man might have sexual liaisons with impunity but not women.
Another open secret in Carstairs was the man walking around town with only one arm to whom no one paid any mind. After all, Doud’s was the only job in town, and the story’s biggest open secret is that Doud’s is a dangerous place. In a sense, in a very Faulknerian sense, it is the entire town that has gotten carried away, paying way more attention to the possible irregularities and offenses of what Henry James called the “new woman” instead of demanding better workplace conditions for workers at the Doud Factory.
Four: The Tolpuddle Martyrs
In the fourth section of the story, Louisa is 65 and a widow, and devoted to running the factory where she had worked throughout her entire marriage to Arthur Doud. Her life is work, she says.
She’s in London to see her doctor, who says her heart is “wonky.” But it’s also more than that, as she is no longer driving. The wonky heart may be causing Louisa mini-strokes, and she appears to have one as the long story closes. At the appointment she had noticed that a Jack Agnew was to speak at a labor demonstration on the site of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Memorial, and she appears to go and sit in the audience. As the afternoon wears on, the scene becomes hallucinatory. Munro, of course, does not make it clear exactly what happens on this summer afternoon. Is it all a dream? Is some of it true? She actually has a bizarre conversation with Jack, whom she knows is dead, but appears to be alive. Bear in mind that Louisa is now a well to do factory owner, and mixed into her TIA inspired hallucination is her cynical take on the martyrs, who didn’t actually die, she thinks. So her old openness to Jack has undergone a sea change.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were seven farm laborers who in 1833 organized and signed a pact to refuse to do work for less than seven shillings a week. They were convicted on the charge of signing an oath and were transported to hard labor in Australia. They actually were released upon the pressure of a huge petition demanding their release. Upon their return to England, they decided to move together to London, Ontario, where they uneventfully completed their lives. They are obviously seen as founders and heroes to the workers’ movement.
Louisa imagines that it is Jack who is the handsome orator/organizer, even though she knows he has been dead for 40 years. But thus we see the power of his ideas and the effect they had on her, and the promise she knew he had.
What is ironic and sad is that now Louisa herself is the owner of the Doud Factory, a factory soon to collapse (we learn in a later story) under the pressure of low wages elsewhere. Louisa herself is also about to collapse.
But like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Jack lives on after his death. The books he has taken force Arthur to go to the library, but once there, he feels a kind of solace. Without Jack, Arthur would have not met Louisa. But Arthur only calms himself at the library; he does no learning or reforming the factory. As for Louisa, Jack’s influence on her is muddled. Louisa is completely caught up and perhaps fulfilled in her unusual role as CEO of a factory. So we hear nothing of her probable obliviousness to the lives of the workers — who anyway, were down to three during the Depression. She cannot forget Jack, but as he appears in her hallucination, she feels mostly a kind of patient annoyance. But later in this book, (in “Spaceships Have Landed”), we learn that Jack’s independent streak and his possible concern for humanity has resurfaced in Louise’s son.
After Jack failed to appear when all the soldiers were returning home, Louisa seemed to be struck by a sea-change: she stopped reading, and she initiated a sexual relationship with Jack Frarey. She yearns for a “normal life”. She marries Arthur, and becomes an owner and apparently, a conservative. She has been carried away.
As for being carried away, Louisa’s power is slowly being carried away by her mini-strokes, and soon she will be as beheaded as Jack was in the factory. It is as if Munro is suggesting that Louisa had her opportunity to use her power for the sake of the workers, but that power was time-limited. You don’t have forever. She becomes the mistress of a company, nursing it through the depression and surviving the full blast of war time. But the reader wonders what she could have achieved with Jack Agnew at her side.
The magisterial scope of this story depends upon our apprehension that Jack and Louisa and Arthur are all, in their way, mythic creatures. At the end, Louisa seems a Canadian Mrs. Thatcher, and Jack, in both his youth and in his imagined later age, seems a bit like the American Kennedys, full of ideas and optimism and leadership. Arthur, of course, is a standard issue conservative. By having Jack appear in a dream in front of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, we understand that unlike them, Jack is a real martyr to the workers’ cause — he died.
Much is required of the reader here. What of the “open secrets’ of the book’s title? What about what we all know but almost all deny? Women want the freedom for self-determination; exploration is natural to the human spirit; workers must organize to rouse their employers to provide safety and security; opposition to change is both inevitable and not necessarily right; death is inevitable; we don’t have all day to do the right thing.
None of this is clearly spelled out by Munro. The story seems a perfect example of the ideas of Alain Robe-Grillet, the French movie maker and novelist who thought it was the responsibility of the writer to force the reader to complete the story. “Carried Away” is filled with leaps, ellipses, juxtapositions, and contradictions, such that it only makes sense if the reader makes a really concerted effort to put it all together. Jack’s death, however, lends the search gravity of irony, the library lends it a sacred site, and the Tolpuddle Martyrs lend the gravity of history.
The reader is a recurrent character in Munro (“Dulse,” “Labor Day Dinner,” “Oranges and Apples,” “The Albanian Virgin,” “Free Radicals,” “Cortes Island,” “The Children Stay,” among others). Reading is a kind of experience or exploration that is especially available to women and is a type of exploration of one’s own mind. Louisa, however, stops reading when Jack fails to contact her after the war; his betrayal goes deep and alters her permanently. She begins to long for a “normal life,” thus making her self-reliant working girl life something of a phase. She seems, at 65, to have unresolved desires, however, and the giving up reading must have been a time when she turned her back on some aspects of her early independence.
The library is an important setting in Munro. Jack goes there to complete his education. Arthur goes there in complete bafflement. Louisa ends up there and puts it to rights. But Munro expects us to go there and look up stuff: history, biography, natural history, geography, psychology, philosophy. Do you remember that Rose’s blue-collar father apparently read Spinoza? I had to look that up. She was toying with me there. This is part of Munro’s own belief system, that it is your confrontation with the world that is your own best teacher, and it is the books you choose yourself (to answer your own questions) which are your own best reading. I had to look up both Ingersoll and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Munro expects that of you.
As for Robert Ingersoll, whom Jack had been reading and who Louisa was familiar with, he was “the most famous American atheist you’ve never heard of”, according to the Religious News Service. Ingersoll (1833 – 1899) was a well-sought-after lawyer who took up barnstorming against Christianity.
Apologetics Press describes Ingersoll’s belief system this way:
- Real religion and real worship were manifested by doing useful things, increasing knowledge, and developing the brain.
- Science was the real redeemer and savior for the world.
- The trinity he worshipped was reason, observation, and experience.
- When asked about the kind of God he espoused, he responded that the idea of an infinite being outside of nature was inconceivable.
- When asked if he kept a Bible at home, he produced a volume of Shakespeare.
- He said that his family’s prayer book was a bound copy of works by Robert Burns.
The Washington Post (August 11, 2012) quotes Ingersoll: ““Happiness is the only good. The way to be happy is to make others so. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here.” That article goes on to describe Ingersoll’s position, He was widely admired, a very highly paid speaker, and way ahead of his time: “I do not believe that only the rich should vote, or that only the whites should vote, or that only the blacks should vote. I do not believe that right depends upon wealth, upon education, or upon color. It depends absolutely upon humanity.?.?.”. He was also a feminist.
I include this lengthy appreciation of Robert Ingersoll because Ingersoll’s search for meaning is not dissimilar to that of Alice. I particularly note his interest in “Experience” as the best teacher. I have to say I wonder if Alice encountered this emphasis on experience first in Ingersoll, maybe at home (maybe with her father), and then later in Existentialism.
An industrial beheading also appears in another great Munro story: “Thanks for the Ride,” an early story in Munro’s first book Dance of the Happy Shades.
Transient Ischemic Attacks figure beautifully in this story, and are treated with both casual honesty and not a little sympathy. Munro experiments with mental decline in quite a few later stories and is able to move beyond the horror of cognitive decline which appears in earlier stories such as “Spelling” and “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd.” Munro, at the time of writing “Carried Away,” is about 60, and is herself approaching the decline of old age and also had just been through the decline of her husband’s mother. So one senses both curiosity and respect in the treatment of old age in these later stories, although by the time we get to “In Sight of the Lake” in Dear Life, there is an unsettling brutality with which she confronts the reader. But most famously, Munro transcends all others in the treatment of cognitive decline in “The Bear Came over the Mountain” (from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage). For one thing, in that story, there is the shimmering question of the degree to which Fiona has embraced her cognitive decline as an unusual method of confronting her life.
Epistolary Fiction: Letters play a key role in this story, allowing the writers to communicate solely by voice and word: mind to mind, so to speak. In the next story, “A Real Life,” Wilkie in Australia successfully woos Dorrie in Canada long distance by letter, but this time, as if to make a point that not everyone’s letters are filled with electric life, the actual letters are not included.
The role of the newspaper: The newspaper’s account of Jack’s death includes no awareness that the death should have been investigated.
As for the influence of Henry James, I think Munro is very coy when she says her primary influence was Eudora Welty. She is obviously also strongly influenced by Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and she is also influenced, I think one could prove, by a sense that she could match or outdo the depth and spread of contemporary Updike. As for James, though, it seems deeply possible that James’s nearly doomed heroines — Isabel, Maggie, and Millie, are touchstones for Munro. James’s naïve, hopeful girls risk everything for the chance at a life of choice and experience, and like Munro’s heroines, the path is often rocky or even tragic.
Exploration is a variety of experience. One of Jack’s books is The Romance of the Northwest Passage. Munro uses this title to remind us she is exploring the experience of the human mind — another northwest passage. Exploration (Champlain) is also a theme in the very complex and rich “Meneseteung.”
As always, I assume my readers have read Alice Munro’s story before they read my discussion. Munro has famously said that she takes several months (at least) with her stories and she expects her (real) readers to take some time to let the story sink in. Munro is so brilliant, so elliptical, so various, so complex and so demanding, that reading what I have to say without reading Munro first would be an offense. Also, reading what I have to say without at least mentally arguing with me would be an offense. The eagle’s wings with which Munro commands her stories are no ordinary eagle’s wings. Her command of history, natural history, psychology, philosophy, religion and craft are all stunning. Her imagination is stunning. Her perception of the varieties of reality is stunning. We could talk all night about one story and not be done with it. Like James in The Turn of the Screw, she leaves so much space for the reader to think. She gives us that: something to talk about, something to question, something to explore.
As for what I write, I think of these essays almost as notes for a later time when the notes will give me the beginnings of being able to think about Munro’s work as a whole.