Alice Munro’s stories are always layered, but I usually am able to kind of, sort of figure out which one I want to write about. One seems more substantial than another. But in “Jakarta” there is so much going on I am not able to hone in without feeling like I’m neglecting some other layer that should perhaps be the focus. So I’m not going to try that here. Suffice it to say that this is a story that spans over three decades, is told in a back-and-forth manner, in which our main character in one thread is left in another, until the piece ends without truly ending. That’s not to say “Jakarta” is a mess. I absolutely is not a mess. It is an intricate, complex exploration of two men and two women who, at an early stage of life, seem to have married the wrong person and who, later, find themselves looking back on the ruins, no longer painful, unsure just what to make of the time that has passed.
The story is divided into four parts. Parts I and III take place in the 1950s while Parts II and IV take place in the “present,” or mid-1990s. That’s a good span of years, but we see in Parts II and IV just how the past still plays a part in the present.
In the first part we meet Kath and her friend Sonje as they spend a summer day at the shore. Kath, a young mother, is our primary perspective, and we see how she looks on the other young mothers at the beach (the “Monicas”) with repudiation.
These women aren’t so much older than Kath and Sonje. But they’ve reached a stage in life that Kath and Sonje dread. They turn the whole beach into a platform. Their burdens, their strung-out progeny and maternal poundage, their authority, can annihilate the bright water, the perfect small cove with red-limbed arbutus trees, the cedars, growing crookedly out of the high rocks. Kath feels their threat particularly, since she’s a mother now herself.
Kath is not happy where she is in life. She has married a young man named Kent. He’s up-tight, conservative, and she feels suffocated when she reads a D.H. Lawrence story, “The Fox,” and sees her relationship with Ken on display. They attend a party where Ken gets into an argument with everyone else involved. He leaves feeling like he’s won, but Kath is embarrassed. She also feels quite different about things than he does.
Things get more complicated when she realizes that, even if she and Sonje see somewhat eye-to-eye on avoiding the conventional trajectory displayed by the Monicas, Sonje seems to appreciate the relationship in “The Fox.” She agonizingly loves her husband, the older (at 38) Cottar, and she wants to be part of him and him part of her. Her views, it turns out, are rather more conventional than Kath may have guessed. And this is particularly strange when Cottar himself is a bohemian who embraces free love and encourages his wife to participate freely. Sonje finds this unpleasant. Kath finds it intriguing.
Part II starts decades later, and the perspective shifts to Kent. For some reason, he finds himself close to where Sonje moved and wants to stop in and see her. But he’s not with Kath, who doesn’t make an appearance other than in his memories. He’s with his much younger wife. And Sonje is not with Cottar, who has been dead for decades after an illness in Jakarta. Kent thinks back on the time the four of them shared together. But the question remains: why is he visiting Sonje at this point, after this many years? What is he trying to retrieve?
Part III and Part IV go back and forth in time as well, and, if I were pulling out one layer, I might look at the thought Kent has in the later years: “But he wondered about the anger in that room, all the bruising energy, what had become of it.” The young people they were, the young marriages that were, the future that was once before them — all of that is now gone, some of it long gone.
And yet it’s not entirely gone, clearly, even though two of the four people involved are not present. Perhaps this is how the title comes to play in the story. Cottar was in Jakarta when he contracted some rare illness and died suddenly. Sonje and Cottar’s mother only hear of it after he is buried, and they never see him again. Because of this — and because of who Cottar is and what he was capable of — neither believes him to be dead. He’s still out living his life while they are left behind. Kent feels this way, too, as he thinks about where Kath might be years after their divorce.
We are left, in the end, with Kent and Sonje thinking about the people and the years that got away.
Published in 1998, “Jakarta” is an exploration into what made women leave their husbands in droves in the 60s. Munro sets her case on escaping a marriage more explicitly in “Jakarta” than she does anywhere else.
Although the thirty-five page story covers a span of about as many years or more, it is a particular four-page section in Part I that interests me most. Two young married women argue about a D. H. Lawrence novella, The Fox. A soldier returning from WWI courts a woman who has been running a farm, and the soldier knows he and she will not be happy until the woman, in Munro’s words, “gives her life over to him.”
Lawrence (1885-1930) had experienced a post-war surge of admiration in the 50s. Was it the way he rose above a lower-class background? Or was it his glorious identification with nature? Or was it his celebration of sex? Due to its explosive sexual content, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (his least literary accomplishment) had been unavailable in the United Kingdom, the United States, or Canada since its first publication in Italy, France and Australia in 1928-29. The book’s 1960 London obscenity trial, which was hugely publicized and vastly entertaining, made Lawrence a household name. Lawrence was au courant. It is entirely possible that well-read young women could be discussing The Fox in the late fifties/early sixties.
Nevertheless, The Fox itself was little known. Why would Munro, thirty-plus years later, have made a point of positioning it in “Jakarta”?
I believe it has to do with Kate Millet’s 1970 groundbreaking book, Sexual Politics. In a freewheeling discussion of the ills of patriarchy, Millet dissects, among others, William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, and D.H. Lawrence. Popularly admired in the 1960s as exponents of free sexual expression, these three authors are to Millet the prime examples of the male celebration of the domination of women. Millet discusses much of Lawrence’s oeuvre in what seemed to some male critics excruciating detail, but she proves her point. Lawrence is much more interested in the domination of women than he is in their emancipation, sexual or otherwise. Millet makes the special point that all three writers have men as their primary audience, although these men are also instructing women as to their proper subordination and insignificance. To anyone who takes Millet as condemning the entire male population, she would be enraging. But if you let her have her say on Lawrence, Burroughs, and Mailer alone, she’s pretty persuasive.
Where Millet and Munro intersect is this: Millet stresses that in any depiction of sex by these three men, women are a useful tool for male satisfaction. Munro, over and over, argues that two things are necessary in a partnership between a man and a woman: one, that the woman have a kind of agency (perhaps the kind of agency that artists have), and two, that she be recognized as a sexual being (recognition is a concept Munro uses to express sexual partnership). Millet argues that the three authors she discusses in detail do not see women as having any life or rights of their own, especially sexually. Instead, Millet argues that these three men depict women as, at best, useful to men for their own sexual entertainment, and at worst, useful as objects of submission and expressions of male superiority.
While Millet’s very long chapter on Lawrence discusses most of his novels, she does not include The Fox. Twenty-five years later, Munro answers and adds to Millet with characteristic concision. Munro’s two-page dissection of Lawrence in “Jakarta” tops Millet’s fifty.
Why would Munro want to make such a point twenty-five years later? For one thing, you could argue that she has been making this story’s point all along — that some men, and society in general, have a tendency to dismiss women.
For another, however, there is the historical moment of the 90s. Anita Hill had been mercilessly grilled by United States Senators during the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Hill argued that Thomas had subjected her to solicitation while she was his law clerk, and asserted that when she rebuffed him he switched to humiliation. Thomas’s Republican supporters in the Senate attacked Hill’s common sense, suggesting that she had made it all up, or that it was she herself who had had designs on the judge. Ironically, after Thomas won and was confirmed, sexual harassment in the workplace became a live wire. Could Munro have been affected by this debate? Perhaps. One other historical note is that Eve Enssler’s Vagina Monologues was first performed in 1996.
As for “Jakarta”’s discussion of marriage and its dissolutions twenty-five years after Millet, there is also Munro’s habit of mind. Things that happened decades in the past are of great importance to Munro. Her stories frequently juxtapose some incident in the past with another in the present. These explorations are a form of wisdom in Munro.
The most likely explanation for the appearance of Lawrence’s The Fox in “Jakarta” is that The Fox neatly fit the needs of the story, and it enabled Munro to make a very direct statement about the confines of a 50s marriage, something which she explored throughout her life. In addition, typical of Munro, the story’s span of three plus decades allows her to examine the spouses who have been left behind. They seem befuddled and weak. They are still shocked at what happened to them.
But my concern is specifically with those four pages regarding D.H. Lawrence in Part I of “Jakarta”.
Kath, a young married with a baby, is friends with Sonje. Sonje and her husband are communist leaning, childless experimenters in free-love. Sexual wildness is in the air, and wife-swapping is something that Sonje and her husband try. Kath notes, however, that it is Sonje’s husband who is the decision maker. It is he who inflicts wife-swapping upon their marriage, and Kath observes that Sonje just does it to be obedient. So Munro has set up a marital situation that seems, to both Kath and the reader, as exploitive.
Kath and Sonje spend their time discussing books.
It is a natural thing that these two women might be discussing Lawrence — he being at this time one of the heroes of free sexual expression. But note: Lawrence is not the only author whom Kath and Sonje discuss.
The narrator never mentions the author or title of the second story. Readers might miss the significance of the story’s appearance entirely. (This is what my husband calls Munro playing “Catch Me If You Can” with the reader.) It’s possible that this particular author (Katherine Mansfield) had a terrific influence on Munro, even though society in general ignored her in favor of guys like Lawrence. “At the Bay” had appeared in Mansfield’s 1922 book The Garden Party. It’s very important that Munro doesn’t mention the author’s name at all, as she thus makes us complicit in the general dismissal of women writers.
In their passing discussion of “At the Bay”, it occurs to Kath that Mansfield’s Stanley Burnell (a husband) reminds her of her own husband. Kath thinks: “[Stanley] is such a boy, with his pushy love, his greed at the table, his self-satisfaction.”
Thus Munro continues setting up her position: that marriage always has in it the possibility of the overweening in men, or worse, “greed”. Always as hard on women as she is on men, Munro’s “Jakarta,” in fact, asks if it’s possible that some women actively choose to be dominated.
The submission which Lawrence advocates is an ideal for which Sonje yearns. She calls it “beautiful.” True to her word, she puts up with the wife-swapping to please her husband. Kath, in contrast, dismisses Lawrence, saying that motherhood necessarily requires independence of women, that mothers must necessarily make daily decisions.
The young women discuss Lawrence’s novella in detail. This time, though, Munro makes sure that the reader knows the title and the author, when she had explicitly made sure we did not know Mansfield’s name or the name of her story. I, for one, hardly noticed the discussion of Mansfield the first time through the story.
Munro’s narrator transliterates Lawrence for us:
The soldier knows that they will not be truly happy until the woman gives her life over to him, in a way that she has not done so far. March is still struggling against him, to hold herself separate from him, she is making them both obscurely miserable by her efforts to hang on to her woman’s soul, her woman’s mind. She must stop this — she must stop thinking and stop wanting and let her consciousness go under, until it is submerged in his. Like the reeds that wave below the surface of the water. Look down, look down — see how the reeds wave in the water, they are alive but they never break the surface. And that is how her female nature must live within his male nature. Then she will be happy and he will be strong and content. Then they will have achieved a true marriage.
Nice work if you can get it, the reader thinks.
There is a terrible progression in this account. At first the woman is stubborn; she tries to “hang onto her woman’s soul, her woman’s mind.” Then she is responsible for “making them both miserable.” Then the man must explain things to her: this cannot be. She must “let her consciousness go under.” She must be “submerged” in him. Then the man concludes — the woman must “never break the surface.” No thinking, no talking.
Kath tells Sonje she thinks Lawrence is “stupid.”
Munro is explaining what sometimes seems inexplicable in her stories: that a woman might feel impelled to escape their husbands, even at the risk of losing their children. I don’t think that Munro explains it so openly anywhere else.
According to Munro, Lawrence concludes: “And that is how her female nature must live in his male nature. Then she will be happy and he will be strong and content.”
I interject here direct quote from Lawrence’s novella, the bolding my own:
She had to be like the seaweeds she saw as she peered down from the boat, swaying forever delicately under water, with all their delicate fibrils put tenderly out upon the flood, sensitive, utterly sensitive and receptive within the shadowy sea, and never, never rising and looking forth above water while they lived. Never. Never looking forth from the water until they died, only then washing, corpses, upon the surface. But while they lived, always submerged, always beneath the wave. Beneath the wave they might have powerful roots, stronger than iron; they might be tenacious and dangerous in their soft waving within the flood. Beneath the water they might be stronger, more indestructible than resistant oak trees are on land. But it was always under-water, always under-water. And she, being a woman, must be like that.
And she had been so used to the very opposite.
Here is Lawrence depicting the man’s thoughts:
He wanted to veil her woman’s spirit, as Orientals veil the woman’s face. He wanted her to commit herself to him, and to put her independent spirit to sleep. He wanted to take away from her all her effort, all that seemed her very raison d’etre. He wanted to make her submit, yield, blindly pass away out of all her strenuous consciousness. He wanted to take away her consciousness, and make her just his woman. Just his woman.
One could argue that these lines do not define Lawrence’s ideal of the sexes. But one could argue that they define a vision he has of how things often work.
Munro transliterates Lawrence, the way a conversation would do, but the transliteration is accurate, and if anything, milder. Sonje argues that to be so submissive “would be beautiful.” Kath says that is “stupid.”
[Kath] can’t stand that part about the reeds and the water, she feels bloated and suffocated with incoherent protest. So it is herself she is thinking of, not of any children. She herself is the very woman that Lawrence is railing about.
Munro’s Kath is “bloated . . . with incoherent protest.” And that’s the whole point.
The felt “incoherence” of a fifties style marriage is at the center of Munro’s feminism: that marriage can enforce powerlessness and “incoherence.” Sexual exploration outside of marriage by Munro’s women is, over and over again, a metaphor and a kind of performance art. While a woman’s ownership of and equality in the sexual experience itself is extremely important to Munro, it is at the same time a means and a metaphor for throwing off incoherence and loss of personal agency.
Munro says of Kath and her husband that although they had had “strenuous” sex, they “had not except by chance looked into each other’s eyes.” They had not “recognized” each other, as Munro elsewhere says more than once.
The sex Kath had had with Kent was eager and strenuous, but at the same time, reticent. They had not seduced each other but more or less stumbled into intimacy, or what they believed to be intimacy, and stayed there.
It is as if all of Munro’s stories on the topic of why a woman would leave a marriage and why she would leave her children are an exploration of what this story explicitly identifies. She recognizes herself: she is “the woman Lawrence is railing against.” She is “bloated and suffocated with incoherent protest” at the idea that her duty as a wife is to “submit, yield, blindly pass away out of all her strenuous consciousness.”
She is, a hundred years later, re-enacting Ibsen’s Nora.
All of Munro’s concentration on the paralysis of mothers is actually her intense rejection of the paralysis that society seems to require of women in general and that husbands seem to require of wives. It’s not the children that confine these women. It’s their husbands.
When I first read this story, I was repelled by Kath’s casual and inconsequential wildness. I found her behavior incoherent and almost indefensible. But thinking about it now, I see the Munro-Lawrence-Ibsen argument as at the center. It is the reduction of women, the fatal desire to reduce women, the fatal submission of women, that is the point. With Lawrence’s help, Munro is able to make this point with utter clarity in “Jakarta” as she does nowhere else.
As for the relationship of the story to the book’s title (The Love of a Good Woman), I have argued elsewhere that while this phrase is usually in reference to the love and help a woman gives a man, I believe that Munro is using it to describe a good woman’s love of her children.
In this case, “Jakarta” argues that goodness in mothers is dependent upon their assumption of independence, as they must “make independent decisions every day.”
When do Kath and Kent separate? We don’t know. But we can see it coming.
What other note we’ve heard before is struck again? Kent thinks the aged Sonje is “off her rocker.” She claims that Cottar is not actually dead, but alive and well in Jakarta, and she wants to go find him. From the point of view of someone who is about Sonje’s age at story’s end, I believe it makes perfect sense (despite her disorderly house) that she wants to go out to Jakarta and locate him. Kent, after all, hopes to hear something about Kath, that she knows how good he still looks. At 70, people revisit the past and re-do it. They take up things they never finished. Even if Sonje is off her rocker, as her house indicates, her idea that she would find Cottar is actually typical of the kind of thinking of someone in their seventies. In this reunion, Kent is re-enacting what men do, from his point of view: they give definition to what women should be and should do.
There is much else to observe in this story. I note that Munro here, as elsewhere, picks names with care.
Cottar is the Scots word for field laborer; Kent, the name that epitomizes the British titled and land-owning class; Kath, the Latin for pure and clear; Sonje, a Russian version of Sophia, meaning wisdom or skill.
Ironies abound in these choices for names. Whether Sonje is actually wise is not clear at the end. Her husband has left her long ago, and he has absconded to Jakarta, leaving Sonje to care for his mother. Mysteriously, a letter arrives to announce Cottar’s death. Sonje’s wisdom may lay in the fact that she realizes that Cottar is probably not dead. Her wisdom comes into question, however, when she imagines going, at 70, to Jakarta to find him. As for Kath’s purity, that is for the reader to divine. We do not know how things have turned out for her.
Jakarta is the name that is the most important. Wikipedia tells us that the name derives from the battle in 1527 when Fatahilla drove the Portuguese from Indonesia. Jakarta means overthrow and complete victory.
Notice first that Kath and Kent seem to live in Victoria. Munro seems to ask whether an escape from marriage is “running away” or “complete overthrow.”
Jakarta is one of those places that makes you ask, Now where exactly is that? On the island of Java, it is the capital of Indonesia. It is 255 square miles and has a population of about 10 million. Decades later, Sonje thinks she will go to Jakarta to “find out the truth.” The circumstances indicate it’s way too late for that. For one thing, Munro is more interested in in women who find out the truth about themselves — not the truth about a philandering husband. Kath fantasizes that knowing “the truth” about Cottar will be important. There is an incoherence to our thoughts regarding Jakarta, just as Kent and Sonje have arrived at considerable incoherence regarding their former spouses.
Kent’s own Jakarta is that he wonders about Kath and if she would admire that he still looks pretty good. He completely misses the point that he is in a reduced and weakened state, despite his acquisition of a very young wife. Old Kent appears befuddled, and then he appears worse: “Because of the pill his thoughts stretch out long and gauzy and lit up like vapor trails.”
Now confusion and incoherence are completely his.