Munro’s stories constantly interrogate assumptions about what goes on in a life. She examines the lies we tell ourselves to cope. She examines the deeply buried pain that goes on in the kitchen while someone silently cleans up. She’s constantly questioning what life is made of, what makes a real life? So it was with great interest that I started “A Real Life,” curious just how Munro would explore these themes again. Wonderfully, she does it by showing us a life viewed from so many angles we simply cannot know what is real and what is false. Somehow this works perfectly to show us just how complicated a real life is.
Munro begins the story with an assertion of the truthfulness of some matter, but it is far from reassuring:
A man came along and fell in love with Dorrie Beck. At least, he wanted to marry her. It was true.
I have no reason to disbelieve the first two sentences. Even after reading the third sentence, I still think the first two sentences are true. But that third sentence — “It was true” — that makes me question the voice that needs to find such reassurance. It sounds like however “true” that love and desire to marry was, something has shadowed that truth. It’s a subversive way to begin a story!
Though the story begins with Dorrie Beck, our central character is an older woman named Millicent. I suspect the person reassuring the truthfulness in that opening paragraph is Millicent herself. Millicent has ideas about how life should be, and if life isn’t quite lining up that way, she finds a way to realign it all. In particular, Millicent is not comfortable with sex, so she finds ways to eliminate it from everyone’s story. Here is the second paragraph where we get to know a bit about Millicent:
“If her brother was alive, she would never have needed to get married,” Millicent said. What did she mean? Not something shameful. And she didn’t mean money either. She meant that love had existed, kindness had created comfort, and in the poor, somewhat feckless life Dorrie and Albert lived together, loneliness had not been a threat. Millicent, who was shrewd and practical in some ways, was stubbornly sentimental in others. She believed always in the sweetness of affection that had eliminated sex.
Millicent herself has a husband and three children, but for years her husband has been “decent — mostly, after that, he left her alone.”
For all of this, it is Millicent herself who encourages Dorrie to move to Australia and marry the man who fell in love with her, or, at least, wanted to marry her, when Dorrie has cold feet. At first, she tries to figure out why Dorrie is hesitant.
Millicent had to take a chance, though it embarrassed her.
“If you are thinking about what I think you may be thinking about, then it could be that you are worried over nothing. A lot of time when they get older, they don’t even want to bother.”
“Oh, it isn’t that! I know all about that.”
Oh, do you, thought Millicent, and if so, how? Dorrie might imagine she knew, from animals. Millicent had sometimes though that if she really knew, no woman would get married.
Nevertheless she said, “Marriage takes you out of yourself and gives you a real life.”
And marriage seems to work out well for Dorrie. She writes a letter to Millicent telling her about all of the great things that are going on in her life. They are true. We wonder. But we also wonder just what complicated and convoluted life Millicent is living. She’s lonely as the story is being told years later. What has her life become? Mostly, not, to her, a “real life.”
For Munro, though, the “real life” is not the one that is intended, and it’s not the one that is idealized, and it is not even the one that is feared. It’s some intangible and impossible to imagine combination of all of that. The life we are living is very influenced by the life we want to live and the one we imagine we are living.
This story has a lot more going on in it than I’m approaching here. There’s another character I haven’t even mentioned: Muriel White. She’s another friend to Millicent, though, we learn, not Millicent’s first choice for “best friend.” Muriel herself is single and then ends up married as the story goes on, so each of her friends transition from some kind of half life to the real life that Millicent imagines, to varying degrees of success. The story explores these relationships wonderfully, though, for me, they are all tinged by expectations, fears, and unvoiced failings. It’s a great look at real life.
Munro places “sentimentality” front and center in “A Real Life.” On page one, Munro remarks about the main character (who is the wife of a prosperous farmer in the 1930’s):
Millicent, who was shrewd and practical in some ways, was stubbornly sentimental in others. She believed always in the sweetness of affection that eliminated sex.
These two sentences are quintessential Munro. There is a leap or a gap between the first and second sentence, as if something has been left out, and there is a discontinuity within the second sentence, as if the writer, or Millicent herself, had tripped over her own words. Millicent’s sentimental beliefs are at odds with reality. Even if Millicent is able to obliterate any awareness of sex or her participation in it, sex (and all of its loud insistence) still exists in everyone else.
Why is sentimentality such an issue in twentieth century writing? It had been very popular in the nineteenth century. There was a revulsion against it in the literature of the twentieth century, perhaps due to the horrors of two world wars, world-wide depression, and holocaust. Excess expression of emotion by ordinary people could seem, against that back-drop, lacking in proportion and self-knowledge.
In 1979, John Irving published “In Defense of Sentimentality” in the New York Times (see here).
Irving defines sentimentality as “wishful thinking.” He discusses the conundrum of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is both wishful thinking and brilliant at the same time. To me, what tames the sentimentality is the magical realism of the ghosts of Christmas. For Irving, the taming factor is Dickens’ comic voice. For both of us, the sentiment is in praise of selflessness and the success of the sentiment is that the structure makes it clear that selflessness is, while needed, rare and only wakened with the rarest of stimuli.
Millicent’s sentimental belief that she can eliminate sex from her marriage and her life through hard work and steadfast sweetness is realistically impossible. Sex will out. And yet, paradoxically, “A Real Life” places shrewdness, practicality, sentimentality, and sweetness within a narrative that is undercut with ambiguity. Balancing stubborn sweetness against ambiguous truth, the story forces us to realize, Dickens-like, how desperately we are all in need of Millicent’s determined hard work, love and sweetness.
Irving concludes his 1979 essay, (somewhat in support of Munro) by remarking:
[W]hen we writers — in our own work — escape the slur of sentimentality, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing matters.
So what is Alice Munro up to in “A Real Life”? She has posed sentimentality as the central hurdle she must overcome, and she has simultaneously undercut Millicent’s wishful thinking about the power of “the sweetness of affection” with the revelation that Millicent thinks she can keep sex at arms’ length through the power of her sweetness. This would be a tragic stance if it were not also comic.
The reader is thinking that it is a rather open secret that in general men and women like, and indeed require, sex. So how does Millicent’s husband deal with Millicent’s sweet frigidity? Later in the story we learn that Millicent has exacted a promise of sobriety from Porter, but it is accepted that while he doesn’t drink in the house, he keeps a bottle in the barn. We wonder if sex is the same, that it is forbidden in the house, but who knows what goes on in the barn?
But Munro has taken a Dickensian turn, here. Not only does she appear to be fond of her characters and touched by Millicent’s sweetness, she also intends, like Dickens, to distract and entertain us with detail and comedy. The story opens this way:
A man came along and fell in love with Dorrie Beck. At least, he wanted to marry her. It was true.
We know right from the first paragraph that the story is about “love,” or at the very least, marriage. Again, the narrator appears to trip a little: is it love? Is it marriage? Or, as the title suggests, is it real life? Again, there is the trademark Munro ellipse. Something makes Millicent say to herself, “It was true.” The reader deduces, right from the start, that not everything Millicent says or believes is exactly true, but is precisely true in the aggregate. Marriage has to do with love in all its varieties and absences and that is real life.
“A Real Life” is also an argument about whether sentimentalism can be “true.” Somehow, I think it boils down to the issue regarding the power of hard work and sweetness. In many of Munro’s stories, sweetness, while misguided, still has the power of salvation (think of Violet in “A Queer Streak,” or the aunt in “The Ticket,” and the singer/undertaker/comfortor in “Comfort”). So “A Real Life” is a comic entertainment and a love story, both of which require a happy ending, and it is also a story about real life, and as such carries a dose of the underbelly and uncertainty.
From the opening, the plot immediately turns its attentions away from Millicent and concentrates on Dorrie Beck, Millicent’s neighbor.
She glowed with resolution. She was a big, firm woman with heavy legs, chestnut brown hair, a broad bashful face, and dark freckles like dots of velvet. A man in the area had named a horse after her.
Worthy of Dickens, this is. You have to love a girl who could strike a man so powerfully (despite her lack of delicacy) that he would name a horse after her. This delighted me. And with Dorrie’s entrance, I have forgotten all about the problem with Millicent’s wishful thinking and Porter’s sweet but cold bed.
Dorrie and her brother Albert have an unconventional compact with Millicent and Porter. Dorrie’s family, once well off, has gone belly up. The house and furniture have all been sold at auction. But then, Porter buys back the empty house for Dorrie and Albert to live in. Albert was “not very well” when he came back from WWI, so he had given up any aspiration to the kind of job a college educated man would seek. Physical work was what he needed, and he became the delivery man for the local grocery store. Dorrie and Albert did not pay Porter rent. What they did was pay him in kind. Albert played the role of hired man, and Dorrie helped Millicent with the kids and housework.
It all seems rather amicable and pleasant. But were you to read the story again, you might catch a whiff of the plantation, with Albert being owned, so to speak. And that is not the only whiff of possession. Albert always told his sister that “people living alone are to be pitied,” a wisdom he gleaned from his rounds delivering groceries, a wisdom he appears to use to keep Dorrie in his house. Dorrie herself, when she was telling about her dreams of an expedition to the Arctic Circle, revealed that she could not go because:
I had my brother. I couldn’t leave my brother.
So in addition to this story’s interest in the possession of other people, there’s a associated whiff of incest, which, if not physical, is surely emotional. After probably twenty years, Albert dies, and Dorrie is lost. Munro says she “may have become a little unhinged.” This somehow embodies the idea of an incestuous relationship.
Albert having died, Dorrie is now living alone in the house: the house is a mess, and Dorrie lives and dreams hunting and trapping. She is not your ordinary blind date, and yet fate intervenes in the form of a traveling Australian, and his blind date is exactly what Dorrie becomes.
A visitor in town is the occasion for Millicent (who has always had unfulfilled social aspirations) to give a dinner party. She invites Dorrie. What a visitor! What a party! What salvation in the form of a meal!
Millicent pulls out all the stops. Out on the lawn the table holds four salads (potato, carrot, jellied, and cabbage), three proteins (devilled eggs, cold chicken, and salmon loaf), delicacies (the warm biscuits and relishes) and desserts (the angel food cake and the Bavarian cream). All of this is prepared in a day and without a refrigerator, and the preparation includes the pressed damask table-cloth, the polished silver, and the silver serving spoon. Thus Munro demonstrates Millicent’s formidable power, and her own as well. We have forgotten all about Albert, and we have forgotten all about Porter, as well.
An epistolary romance ensues between Wilkie, the Australian, and Dorrie, the Canadian. A proposal of marriage arrives. Once again all-capable, Millicent organizes Dorrie’s wedding: the dresses, the hats, the food, the service at the church. Once again, the reader is diverted with Millicent’s determined, loving and energetic generosity.
On the big day, Dorrie does not turn up. Millicent goes to see her, and Dorrie says she “can’t leave here,” and Millicent, desperate to have all her work in service of saving Dorrie succeed, is reduced to lying. Dorrie has to leave, says Millicent, they’ve sold the house. Dorrie and Millicent have an argument about that. And in the midst of the rush and the emotion, Millicent wonders if it’s sex that’s bothering Dorrie. Dorrie says:
Oh, it isn’t that! I know all about that.
Millicent wonders how . . . and the second time through, the reader wonders how as well. Was it Albert? Was it Porter? Was it the man who named the horse after her? Or all three? Does salvation come in different forms?
But Millicent can’t dwell on this question — she has work to do. She has to get Dorrie to her wedding. So Millicent cries. And promises to “look after Albert” in the graveyard. Besides — Millicent has really gone to a lot of trouble to carry this wedding off. In truth, Millicent will miss Dorrie. It has not been easy for Millicent to make friends in town, the prosperous town women not being able to accept a prosperous farm wife as an equal. But she knows Dorrie has to have “a real life.” Dorrie does finally arrive at her own wedding, and off she and Wilkie go to Australia.
The story is comically romantic and touchingly sentimental. After all, Millicent, at some cost to herself, saves Dorrie from being alone in a dirty, empty house. What is the cost? Millicent loves Dorrie and loses Dorrie. Millicent, after the wedding, tells Dorrie that Wilkie has the power to change everything, to give her adventures, to make her “a queen.” The reader wonders about that: whether Porter has, in real life, made Millicent a queen. (Maybe yes, maybe no.)
Some years later Dorrie writes to Millicent that she’s been happy. The Queen of Tonga, she says. After Wilkie dies, Dorrie reports that she:
stayed on, in Queensland, where she grew sugarcane and pineapples, cotton, peanuts, tobacco. She rode horses in spite of her size, and she had learned to fly an airplane. She took up travels on her own in that part of the world. She had shot crocodiles. She had died in the fifties, climbing up to look at a volcano.
This is all possible. It is true that all this goes on in Queensland, where Wilkie has made Dorrie a queen. Dorrie has the unusual grit required to do all this. So the reader is left with two endings. One is the sentimental ending we require (because we too love Dorrie), and one is the “real life” ending — that possibly, out of love, Dorrie has made it all up to make Millicent happy.
Somehow, the story is written so that it is possible for the reader to hold the two endings in mind simultaneously, the one where there was no hanky panky in the barn and Wilkie really was rich, and another where the irregularities of Dorrie’s life may have included incest or Porter or more, and where Wilkie wasn’t rich, and did not make Dorrie a queen, but Dorrie made the story up to make Millicent happy.
Munro makes clear that we revise life to make it fit. Millicent eliminates sex. Dorrie assumes activities normally only available to men. Porter drinks in the barn. Millicent’s friend Muriel, after quite a few years of numerous questionable affairs with married men, reforms and marries a minister.
When Muriel and Millicent are making the wedding clothes, they refashion old straw sunhats with satin. Muriel re-designs an old evening blue evening dress for Millicent to wear as maid of honor (how appropriate, given Millicent’s essential virginity). Some of the revisions involve stubborn sentimentality. Millicent is stubbornly oblivious to the fact that Muriel or even Dorrie may have been Porter’s source of sex. As for Munro, although the story purports to be about an Australian falling in love with Dorrie, the reader realizes, as in other Munro stories, that the real life and the true love are between the women, between what Millicent shares with Dorrie.
Irving asks, if a writer isn’t striving to address what we wish for, does the writing matter? Here, Munro proposes one love story and substitutes for it another; she proposes one ending and hints at another. And yet throughout, there is the sentimentalism that Irving urges upon the modern writer, the human yearning for the possibility of true love — what we all wish for.
Munro is able to get away with deep sentiment because it is always undercut with the underbelly; sometimes Irving’s longed for “wishful thinking” is laced with a loving, Dickensian comedy.
As for “a real life”? A real life in Munro is understanding that you never have a complete understanding of people’s statements, intentions, actions, or motivations. The whole thing (a real life) is a stab in the dark. Sometimes you don’t see what is going on because of someone else’s reserve, short-sightedness, obfuscation, outright lying, or emotional or mental defect. And sometimes those faults are your own. So making the best of it is the most you can hope for. You give a shape to things, you give a story to life, and you go with that. If you’re Millicent, you can do pretty well because you have a streak of sweetness and the capacity for hard work.
“A Real Life” is shot through with the weft of sentimentality and the warp of the comic-gothic, and taken as a shimmering whole, like Dickens, it succeeds. Mightily. Magisterially.