In “Jakarta,” one of Munro’s characters remarks on the pathway women travel that society accepts as meaningful, ideal, right. These steps — safe dating, marriage, children, support — are also measuring bars. This character, however, doesn’t know what comes after the first, obvious steps have been taken; the instructions get a bit vague. In a way, “Cortes Island” is the other side of this, with a character looking back at all of the steps, taken at the right time and in the right order (for the most part), and seeing that the steps do not make a life, do not take into consideration the dreams and quiet musings, the secrets and seductions, the passion and the pain. All that is hidden underneath the steps. And once again Munro explores this while sliding in a suggestion of murder in the shadows of the past.
In this story our narrator is an older woman looking back on her first months as a married woman. Here’s how the story begins:
Little bride. I was twenty years old, five feet seven inches tall, weighing between a hundred and thirty-five and a hundred and forty pounds, but some people — Chess’s boss’s wife, and the older secretary at his office, and Mrs. Gorrie upstairs, referred to me as a little bride. Our little bride sometimes. Chess and I mad a joke of it, but his public reaction was a look fond and cherishing. Mine was a pouty smile — bashful, acquiescent.
She and her new husband Chess are living in their first apartment, which isn’t really an apartment. They live in the basement of a home owned by Ray Gorrie. Ray’s parents live upstairs. Mr. Gorrie, following a stroke, is confined to wheelchair and cannot talk anymore. Mrs. Gorrie is a nosy woman who assumes the responsibility of getting this new wife up to snuff, usually with rude, passive aggressive comments. Mrs. Gorrie is there to help the little bride navigate the vague steps that are coming: how to clean, how to bake, how to host, how to support.
Despite Mrs. Gorrie’s suggestions she should be doing better and more, our narrator is, it seems, happy. She thinks she should get a job, but right now she enjoys reading and writing. Chess has a practical job at a market that takes him out of the home early and brings him home only late at night. Munro never has the narrator indicate anything is wrong with Chess. He is simply doing what he’s expected to.
He worked hard, not asking that the work he did fit in with any interests he might have had or have any purpose to it that he might once have honored. No purpose except to carry us both toward that life of lawnmowers and freezers which we believed we had no mind for. I might marvel at his submission, if I thought about it. His cheerful, you might say gallant, submission.
But then, I thought, that’s what men do.
If this seems conventional and the keys to being dissatisfied, Munro suggests he and the narrator do have some degree of bliss in this small, new life. In front of them is an empty horizon, and all dreams are possible. The balk at any idea they’ll have to be conventional, especially since they do have passionate routine, secret from the rest of the world, secret because it feels forbidden, or at least ignored other than in the duty to have children. The narrator is pleased with the hidden life she and Chess share.
So having a place of our own and a bed of our own where we could carry on as we liked seemed marvelous to us. We had made this bargain, but it never occurred to us that older people — our parents, our aunts and uncles — could have made the same bargain, for lust. It seemed as if their main itch had been for houses, property, power mowers, and home freezers and retaining walls. And, of course, as far as women were concerned, for babies. All those things were what we thought we might choose, or might not choose, in the future. We never thought any of that would come on us inexorably, like age or weather.
Mrs. Gorrie, though, is concerned about the little bride. Our narrator is not meeting her standards, and she doesn’t seem to be getting the hint. So Mrs. Gorrie asks if our narrator is interested in taking care of Mr. Gorrie from time to time. She can come read to him, take him out, and otherwise accompany him. And that’s what our narrator does. Over time she gets to know his grunts as if he’s speaking nuanced sentences. And one day he has her look through some old scrapbooks and read a two articles from April and August 1923 about a fire that took place on Cortes Island, which resulted in the death of a man. When the narrator finishes, he grunts:
Is she coming yet? Look out the window.
Good. But she will be coming soon.
There you are, what do you think of that?
I don’t care. I don’t care what you think of it.
Did you ever think that people’s lives could be like that and end up like this? Well, they can.
All we really know is this: the fire was set when the dead man’s wife was out of town. Their seven-year-old son was out of the house, perhaps because his father had given him some food and told him to go out, though the story is not consistent. The wife was out of town with another man named James Gorrie.
There are many questions. Is Mrs. Gorrie the absent wife? Is Ray the seven-year-old son? Was the fire an accident? If not, was it suicide? Was it murder? If murder, who committed it? Strangely, each and every possibility is painfully rich. Regardless of what happened, this is a traumatic event in the past, perhaps one brought on by passion and secrets that certainly involved Mr. and Mrs. Gorrie, in forms they once inhabited that are completely unrecognizable just a few decades later. Mr. Gorrie is now shut down in a wheelchair, and Mrs. Gorrie goes about her day perpetually worried about the girl downstairs. That’s hardly the life these two planned when they may have let their passion burn down a home.
Mrs. Gorrie is a fascinating character. She’s nosy, as I said above, but she’s a lot deeper than that. Her nosiness is a form of paranoia. It’s as if she is constantly ensuring that her past stays locked up, strangely by making sure no one else’s secrets stay buried. Does she know that Mr. Gorrie has shared the secret with the little bride, in a sense creating another secret between the two? She might suspect eventually, for her ire is strong when the couple decides to move on.
The narrator and Chess do move on. They find a better place to stay, rent a home, getting better and better each time, accumulating space and mowers along the way.
Every move we made — the rented house, the first house we owned, the second house we owned, the first house in a different city — would produce this euphoric sense of progress and tighten our connection. Until the last and by far the grandest house, which I entered with inklings of disaster and the faintest premonitions of escape.
What is the disaster our narrator senses? And why, at the end of the story, does she admit to her secret dreams with Mr. Gorrie? I think it has to do with the passage of time combined with the sense of the buried passions of the past.
It’s a rich story, and one I’m anxious to keep thinking about.
“Cortes Island” combines several disparate elements within a repeating theme of paralysis: a child in a wheelchair, an old man in a wheelchair, a young woman in the stage of paralyzed writer, a bitter old woman who continually mocks the young “modern” woman, the half evolved state of the woman who wants to be a writer but has gotten married instead. All are stages of paralysis. Threaded throughout is the dull gleam of an unsolved murder. More paralysis.
The story begins with a tallish, slightly overweight (but by whose standards?) first-person narrator informing us that she and Chess (who called her his “little” bride) were newly married, and that they were living in a basement apartment in a house owned by a Mr. Gorrie. Mr. Gorrie’s parents lived upstairs, and Mr. Gorrie himself lived elsewhere.
What is important in the story’s set-up? So very hard to tell. Maybe the relationship between young husband and young wife or the relationship between old husband and old wife. Maybe the mis-direction regarding who actually owned the house, the parents or the son. Maybe it’s Ray, the son, who is important and who lives with a Mrs. Cornish in her house and helps her with her daughter, who has cerebral palsy.
I check where Munro has elsewhere used the name “Ray.” I am struck by Ray Gorrie’s service to his parents, and also his service to the wheel-chair bound child. I wonder if Munro means me to think ray of light. I remember Ray from Munro’s last book, Dear Life, and find him, also beautiful, in “Leaving Maverly.” So will Ray Gorrie remain beautiful? Reserved? Modest? Of service?
Gorrie is a Celtic place name in Scotland and related to Gowrie and Garry. Think “gory,” however, and you wonder who has been “gored.” Is it Ray? Has he been gored by his mother, who mocks him for his service to the paralyzed child?
There ought to be a law that healthy people cannot get married to someone like that.
And yet Mrs. Gorrie herself is married to a man paralyzed by stroke.
Mrs. Gorrie has an “appetite” for bossing people around and interfering. She is “wolfish.” But then we learn that she, Mrs. Gorrie, is the person who used to live on “Cortes Island” in “the wilds” with bears and cougars. We learn that the moment of the story is the early fifties, when television is still “a novelty.”
Maybe it’s the elderly Mr. Gorrie who has been “gored,” either by stroke or perhaps by Mrs. Gorrie herself.
The narrator tells us she bristles at the “insult” of being called the “little bride.” Offhandedly, as an introduction to mentioning sex, she tells us that her husband has told her that women had to crawl up the length of the sultan, admiring him feet-first and so on. Her husband’s name — Chess — is probably derived from Chester, but it is also based on the ancient game of chess, originally from India. And it’s Latin for soldiers’ camp. All of these associations have to do with power and the manipulation of power, which the phrase “little bride” intensifies. They enjoy a lustful marriage, although they are “right at the end of the time” when people could pretend that sex was not central to life. It seems that their sexual union is different from the past, but not exactly modern.
We hear that the narrator’s real appetite, however, is for reading: Huxley, Woolf, Colette, and Bowen. And she writes — with Chess’s approval, although she throws everything away and then sits down and writes the same thing all over again. She never explains why she throws everything away. Does she not want to her husband to read what she is thinking?
Munro’s narrator devotes an entire paragraph to the cheerful “submission” of men to meaningless work with which they intended to get ahead. She thinks: “that’s what men do.”
So about here, about five pages in, I wonder, what does all this have to do with Cortes Island? With the wilds? Why do we know about the elder Gorries, Ray, and Mrs. Cornish, the narrator and her husband, and why are we asked to think about being of service, failing at writing, the end of old days of prudery and repression, and “what men do”?
I also wonder if I am going to make it to the end of the story. I am uneasy with the cheesiness of the narrator’s living conditions, the way her marriage bed seems to be a cage, and the way she throws her writing away. But I am curious about Ray. Is he another one of Munro’s saints? Or not? As for cheesy, I find the narrator annoying, because she has no sense of herself as being mutually responsible for the couple’s mutual upkeep. She explains that work is what men do, and so she excuses her completely desultory and unserious search for a job. This is the 50s. My own time as a similar kept wife was the late 60s and believe you me I worked for a living.
And right here I remember how Alice Munro herself had had to drop out of college. People constantly talk about how growing up in the depression made people hungry to save. I note how it makes, in Munro, women hungry for a self.
The narrator holds Mrs. Gorrie’s intrusive lectures about laundry in contempt. But then she remarks:
“Chess doesn’t mind [that she is being slovenly with chores],” I said, not realizing how this would become less and less true in the years ahead and how all these jobs [or wifely chores] that seemed incidental and almost playful, on the borders of my real life, would move front and center.
Munro often holds women to a different kind of equality than other feminists embrace. Here she makes the point that life requires drudgery of both men and women.
Fifteen pages in, the narrator “takes a job” being a caretaker for Mr. Gorrie three of four afternoons a week. I idly wonder if she is going to make anything of herself, make some kind of leap into adulthood. Perhaps. She indicates some understanding of Mr. Gorrie, despite the fact that he has lost most capacity for speech. He likes to have the newspaper read to him, he prefers sports and Ann Landers to the news, and he is interested in finding a particular scrap book or a particular year.
It is not the 30s or the 20s in general he searches for, but a specific date he is determined to locate: April 17, 1923. And suddenly, I cannot put the story down.
He locates in one of his albums a long newspaper article from that exact date. The article tells about the fire on Cortes Island in which one Anson James Wild died. The wife had left for a few days. The little boy was found in the woods. There is another article from a few months later: the fire is ruled arson; the seven year old boy tells a couple of inconsistent stories; the wife is still listed as away at the time. The death is ruled an accident. Talk about inconsistent — the fire is arson but the death is accidental!
The narrator doesn’t tell Chess; Chess thinks the Gorries are “grotesque” — a wry comment from Munro about the people who think her stories have a “Gothic” element, perhaps after the southern Gothic writers, O’Connor, Welty, and Faulkner. I think Munro means there’s more to what she’s doing than just grotesquery.
The narrator is hired at the library — mention is made again (there was another such mention in “Jakarta”) of the women who have to quit when they’re pregnant. She likes the library, and now, she is a working woman in a job she likes. She says:
You would think marriage would work this transformation, but it hadn’t, for a while. I had hibernated and ruminated as my old self — mulish, unfeminine, irrationally secretive. Now I picked up my feet and acknowledged my luck at being transformed into a wife and an employee.
So here is the purpose of the first wandering pages: that we recognize the cage the girl seems to be in — her bed, her undone chores, her paralyzed writing. But now, with the library (and all its open doors) she had remained mulish. One is reminded of Munro herself working nights at her husband’s bookstore.
I am reminded of D.H. Lawrence and “The Fox,” in which the male character considers it unfeminine of his girlfriend to have a mind of her own.
Maybe just because of her job at the library, Mrs. Gorrie insults the narrator one more time — about a mix-up with the pillowcases.
“I wouldn’t believe you hadn’t noticed,” [Mrs. Gorrie] said, “if it was anybody but you.”
Shortly, though, the grotesque Gorries are a thing of the past. With the two jobs, the couple can afford to move to a better apartment. They move on — the narrator has children. But Mr. Gorrie regularly appears wildly in her dreams.
Having just finished, I complete the unfinished story: it’s either Mrs. Gorrie or Mr. Gorrie who burned down the Wild house with Wild in it, and Ray is the boy from the woods, and Mrs. Gorrie is the wife, constantly accusing other people before they can accuse her. And then I remember what Mrs. Gorrie tells the girl right off — that she had been a bride on Cortes Island, had lived there for years. So you, the reader, can connect the dots and fill in the grotesque truth. Another open secret.
What’s up with this?
For one, it’s another murder that goes unsolved, like the murder in “The Love of a Good Woman,” or the murder in “The Wilderness Station.” For some, the truth is locked in, like Mr. Gorrie’s speech being locked in. For some, marriage is a locked-in situation. Women could feel murderous. For some writers, the truth is locked in. And perhaps the point is that writers who cannot live on Cortes Island, where things are “wild,” cannot write anything worth anything.
All of this is the setting for the narrator’s coming of age, which is apparently going to take years. She resists being the fifties definition of woman, then accepts it, and then writes this story, in which it is clear she has accepted a wifehood for which she is not only unsuited, but in which she will inevitably become imprisoned.
What else is there in this story? There is the delicious irony: of the narrator being called unwomanly for her writing habit by a ghastly, discompassionate woman who is also probably a murderer.
And as for Ray? He must be the boy with the inconsistent stories, inconsistency being the refuge of people born in the wrong time and in the wrong place. Note, however, Munro is not done with “Ray.” He reappears as Ray Elliott in “Leaving Maverly.”
And as for the narrator with no name except “little bride”? People find their stories and identity and vocations in all kinds of strange places. There are worse things than being a ne’er-do-well writer, the Gorries and their murderous pride being among them.
What is the single most important unsolved mystery in “Cortes Island”? What it was, exactly, that the narrator was writing, re-writing, and discarding, over and over.
How does the title help us with that mystery? Mrs. Gorrie tells us it was a wild place, the place she was married to her first husband. Mr. Gorrie tells us it was a place a man got murdered. History tells us it was a place first named by the Spanish in 1792 in honor of Hernan Cortes. Cortes was the one who conquered Mexico and subdued the Aztecs. Moctezuma was killed in 1520 and the Aztec Empire claimed by Spain in 1521. “Cortes Island” is about brutality. Hernán Cortés himself had several children by Aztec women; rumor had it that when his Spanish wife bore him no children, he killed her. Cortes is the father also of the death of the fabulously wealthy but somewhat docile Aztec Empire. Through help from other tribes, siege, starvation and disease, Cortes was able to take possession of Mexico. Despite his position as conquistador and the fabulous wealth the conquest afforded him, Cortes ended his life somewhat in the manner of Mr. Gorrie, back in Spain and paralyzed by lawsuits.
In “Cortes Island,” Munro suggests the brutality and paralysis that can typify domestic life and the various forms it can take — from vapid submission to complete paralysis. The story suggests that when the “little wife” gets her job in the library, she has begun to assume a mind of her own, and in this way, has come to life.
Now I picked up my feet and acknowledged my luck at being transformed into a wife and an employee.
But there is an ominous aspect to the transformation:
“Chess doesn’t mind [that she is slovenly with chores],” I said, not realizing how this would become less and less true in the years ahead and how all these [wifely chores] that seemed incidental and almost playful, on the borders of my real life, would move front and center.
Her real life? Within the context of the title, the young woman has allowed herself to be taken captive with no resistance, without having ever defined to herself first what a “real life” would be. The issue of empire is important. There is the empire of marriage, and then there is the empire of self, and the question of who is who in either.