Alice Munro has written dozens of stories about women working to “run away,” to escape a relationship they slid into, often due to societal conventions. Perhaps due to the rich work that has come before, I found “The Children Stay” a disappointment. Now, I haven’t read a single Munro story that doesn’t have some profound insights exceptionally articulated — and “The Children Stay” is no exception — but sometimes the story doesn’t feel like it has much at play other than the teasing out of a concept.
“The Children Stay” is a pretty straightforward path from A to B. When the story begins, we meet yet another family on holiday. Pauline is a young mother vacationing with her husband, Brian, their two children, and Brian’s mom and dad. I love my in-laws and look forward to vacationing with the family, but it’s clear Pauline is in this relationship primarily due to promises made by some past version of herself that didn’t foresee how stultifying life would be.
It’s no surprise, then, when we find out Pauline is having an affair. Not only that, but it’s with the new theater director, a man in his mid-twenties who seems to have a lot to offer to someone looking to stray from the parameters of her conventional life. He casts Pauline as Eurydice in the upcoming production by Jean Anouilh.
He’d chosen her immediately as his Eurydice because of the way she looked. But it was not because she was beautiful. “I’d never put a beautiful girl in that part,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d ever put a beautiful girl on stage in anything. It’s too much. It’s distracting.”
Pauline is attracted to his strange honesty, and I think we’re supposed to understand that it’s not so much this young director who coaxes Pauline away from her family; rather, Pauline is ready to flee, and this man is the open window. The passionate affair, then, is not so much about the other person so much as it is about the secret freedom.
That’s where this story is strongest, in it’s exploration of the price of running away. You know from the title that Pauline is going to abandon the whole family: the children stay, says Brian, and she knows he’s right. And she is willing. There’s agony there, but ultimately she pays the price.
I think from the title that Munro is not propping Pauline up as an exemplary woman. Rather, Pauline is a woman in a familiar situation, and this is how she chose to move on. This is a story about her isolation and the day she chose to abandon her family and start a new life with someone, she is shocked to discover when she is recovering from the shock of what she’s done, she does not know.
But the shock. Munro is working her perfection in describing the shock:
She believed she would never again care about what sort of room she lived in or what sort of clothes she put on. She would not be looking for that sort of help to give anybody an idea of who she was, what she was like. Not even to give herself an idea. What she had done would be enough, it would be the whole thing.
Last night when they went out and got hamburgers she found she could not eat. Presumably she’ll learn to do all these things again, they’ll resume their natural importance in her life. At the moment it’s as if she can’t quite spare the attention.
And yes, she does come out of the shock. This fateful holiday occurred thirty years ago. That’s how Munro starts the story. She ends it by showing us that Pauline and her two children have a relationship where Mom’s flight can be talked about casually, which shows it is not absent — it is a topic. Her time with the director came to an end shortly after it began. Again, he wasn’t that important to Pauline in the first place. This was about her running away and finding a life on the other side.
Again, “The Children Stay” disappointed me. I hope above I show that I admire it quite a bit still. I simply think Munro examines this and ancillary themes better elsewhere, including in stories she’s going to write over the decade to follow The Love of a Good Woman. Still, as I wrote the above, I realized that there’s a lot more to Pauline that meets the eye. I’m assuming that’s the case with the story too, so I look forward to reading more thoughts.
“The Children Stay” is a troubling masterpiece. It belongs with the many stories Munro has written about “running away,” each of which have to do with the stultifying gender role that married women find themselves having embraced: “Something I’ve been Meaning to Tell You,” The Beggar Maid,” “Miles City Montana,” “Differently,” “The Albanian Virgin,” “To Reach Japan,” and others.
In “The Children Stay” a young woman is on a claustrophobic family vacation with her husband’s parents. She gets involved in the production of a play and has a sudden, impulsive affair. She leaves her husband and becomes “one of those people who ran away.”
The sexual liberation the lover provided was both intoxicating and necessary. Her husband had been the one with whom “there can never be this stripping away, the inevitable flight, the feelings she doesn’t have to strive for but only to give in to like breathing or dying.”
The problem is that although her husband is not determined to keep her (he appears to be married to his parents), he is determined that she cannot have the children (a gift he will give his mother, this reader thinks). The battle for the children is one he wins before the battle has even opened.
This is acute pain. It will become chronic. Chronic will be permanent but perhaps not constant. It may also mean that you won’t die of it. You won’t get free of it, but you won’t die of it. You won’t feel it every minute, but you won’t spend many days without it. And you’ll learn some tricks to dull it or banish it, trying not to end up destroying what you incurred this pain to get. It isn’t his fault. He’s still an innocent or a savage who doesn’t know there’s a pain so durable in the world. Say to yourself, you lose them anyway. They grow up. For a mother there’s always waiting this private slightly ridiculous desolation. They’ll forget this time, in one way or another they’ll disown you. Or hang around till you don’t know what to do about them, the way Brian has.
And still, what pain. To carry along and get used to until it’s only the past she’s grieving for and nor any possible present.
One is afraid to learn any more about the “tricks” a woman learns to banish the pain. Surely drugs and alcohol and further affairs or overwork are part of what would dull the pain.
There is hardly anything to say about this great story except that the story makes this impossible paragraph possible.
The terrible irony is that in a very few short years, running away was not as common as it was for a while. Munro was born in 1931, was married in 1951, and by 1961, things were already changing. By 1965 over two million American women were on the pill. Women did not have to marry someone with whom “the stripping away, the inevitable flight” were sexual impossibilities. Women married later. Women had the freedom to explore their sexuality and to choose a life partner accordingly. And women had a chance to explore the world and “find themselves.”
Now, of course, the problem is not that the husband or society prohibits the woman from finding herself.
Finding oneself usually takes the form of work. The problem now is that it is work, in point of fact, that still makes it very hard to be a mother. And if the work is to be an artist or an inventor of some kind, the truth is, it’s still easier to be a man who is an artist or an inventor. It’s still easier if you have a wife.
It is not sexual expression that imprisons women. It is the cost of living that imprisons both men and women. Ironic — that in the richest county on earth, in the richest time on earth, a baby shortage would occur because, I think, earning a living and being a mother at the same time is just too difficult. Not enough child care, not enough health care, not enough housing.
And still, what pain. Although Munro’s moment in time was an exceptionally keen vise, some of the “chronic” pain that she describes can still obtain: to lose your children because the alternative is worse — if you lose your self, all is worse than lost.