“Before the Change”
by Alice Munro
from The Love of a Good Woman

Trevor

There is a lot going on in Munro’s “Before the Change,” but for me, in this reading, the central line comes well in the story. After several pages of letters our unnamed narrator is writing to an ex-fiancé, letters she does not intend to send, the narrator recounts a time when she confronted her fiancé when he wanted her to get an abortion. She wanted the baby and was ready to start their family, and while he didn’t perhaps have anything against having a baby (or maybe he did, but that didn’t come up), he was studying to be a minister. Anyone can do the math, he tells her, and will know that she was pregnant before they were married, which is unacceptable. “They’d know. There’s always somebody who makes sure that people know.” The narrator remembers:

I was astonished at these arguments which did not seem to be consistent with the ideas of the person I had loved. The books we had read, the movies we had seen, the things we had talked about — I asked if that meant anything to you. You said yes, but this was life.

Yes, but this was life. So many ideals get demolished by people who say something like that when their own life presents a challenge to their ideals. Life is complicated, we say. And we can see the narrator’s fiancé saying that, yes, in any other situation he wouldn’t be encouraging her to have an abortion when she wanted to have a child and start a family — but not in this life they are living.

“Before the Change” is a story about abortion. The change in the title is, on the surface, a reference to the change in the law: the legalization of abortion in Canada in 1969. This story is set in the early 1960s. At the beginning, our narrator has moved back in with her widowed father, who doesn’t know about her relationship or pregnancy, and they watch Kennedy and Nixon debate. Father and daughter clearly don’t have a close relationship. He seems to resent her in some way.

In the meantime, she writes these letters to the man who, until she decided not to get an abortion, was her fiancé. She only calls this prospective minister “R.” through most of the story, though we do learn his real name in a moment when the narrator seems to be confronting her past more directly. At first she is still filled with grief:

If I decided to send all this to you, where would I send it? When I think of writing the whole address on the envelope I am paralyzed. It’s too painful to think of you in the same place with your life going on in the same way, minus me. And to think of you not there, you somewhere else but I don’t know where, is worse.

It is, as I said, a story about abortion, and there are more abortions in the story, including an account of one of the procedures, than just the one R. wants our narrator to get. However, it is important to note that the change in the law wouldn’t change the relationship between R. and the narrator. He wants her to get an abortion. Its illegality is not the issue. For him the pertinent law is the social one his peers impose that prohibit sex before marriage. Whether abortion were legal or not would not affect the narrator and R. one bit.

And so, it seems to me, the story is about more than just that change. It is, I think, about all kinds of rules and laws and mores, whether cultural, social, religious, or legal. These laws exert a force upon people that is independent of the natural consequences of the illegal action. The laws, when there are ways around them, also create an opportunity for some.

Importantly, the narrator’s own father is a physician who performs abortions for women seeking “specials.” The narrator tells her father, after she comes back home, that she knows what he does, that she doesn’t mind, that she thinks abortion should be legal. He tells her never to say that word in his house. He also invokes “knowing,” just like R. did when he implored the narrator to get an abortion, only he does it differently:

There’s a difference between knowing and yapping. Get that through your head once and for all.

It takes some time for the narrator to unravel how all of this plays out. There are people who know what her father does, of course. So long as they don’t “yap” her father is okay. And, in a way, so long as the physician doesn’t yap, the community, even a community that knows, will render tacit approval. There is a character who, it turns out, is threatening to yap, to air the situation in the open where it would demand repercussion, and so her father is threatened, reminding us of how R. feels threatened.

And so, for me, this time, “Before the Change” is much more about the change to power structures that occurs when a law or rule changes:

Change the law, change what a person does, change what a person is?

It’s a fascinating question for our narrator. Look how the law has affected her father, what it has granted him the opportunity to do, what it has granted others the opportunity to do to him. Look at the social codes that terrify R. and that effectively force him and the narrator to break off their engagement. Any little change in the codes would change these people entirely. This “life” R. is so concerned about would be completely different.

I don’t think Munro is using this story to advocate for any particular changes, though she is showing how some laws and attitudes can be particularly destructive. Instead, her narrator acknowledges that a change here would simply lead to another system of codes there. She wonders about how a change in abortion laws would change her father, and then questions, “Or would he find some other risk, some other know to make in his life, some other underground and problematic act of mercy?”

It’s a fascinating story, filled with conflicts and how codes and beliefs affect those conflicts.


Betsy

Amid the emotional tumble of “Before the Change,” I hardly noticed it when one night the main character searched her boxes of books for the journals of Anna Jameson. I hardly noticed the second time through, either. I was at that point still trying to sort through the mysteries surrounding the daughter’s father, the daughter’s lover, and the father’s housekeeper, not to mention also trying to sort out what Munro actually thought about abortion. That the main character had struck up an acquaintance with a photographer at the library was only briefly interesting. Amid all that, that the young woman wanted to give the man a book by an author I’d never heard of was not very compelling. At first.

Now I would argue, however, that said author, Anna Jameson (1794-1850), prolific British writer and feminist, is the intellectual lynchpin of the story.

Jameson is perhaps more familiar to Canadians, given that Jameson was the author of Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838), written while she was briefly married to a British jurist assigned to Canada. But after her legal separation from her husband, Jameson supported herself, her mother and her sisters with her very popular books on the topics of biography, travel, and art appreciation.

She was also, however, a feminist. Her essay, “Woman’s Mission and Women’s Position,” can be found in Memoirs and Essays Illustrative of Art, Literature and Social Morals. Many of her thoughts in this essay bear directly on the situation depicted by Munro in “Before the Change”.

Although Munro has set “Before the Change” in 1960 and centered it on conditions created by the illegality of abortion, and although Jameson’s essay, written a hundred-plus years before, is in response to appalling conditions for women and girls as laborers in manufacturing and agriculture, there is much in Jameson’s analysis that applies to the legal position of women in 1960. There is also much that corresponds to the emotional situation of the main character in “Before the Change.”

Before diving into Jameson, however, I want to be clear: I make no claims as to Munro’s own position on abortion. Discussion of “Before the Change” must admit that the discussion is of a particular character and her father, a particular minister who was her lover, a hapless lawyer, and a particularly venal housekeeper who poisons everything she touches. Abortion is the set and situation and debate in “Before the Change,” and it also functions as a metaphor for other terrible losses. As always, Munro sets out a complex variety of points of view from which one might argue that Munro has a particular stand, but that is not my purpose here. In this essay I would like to show that Munro is in conversation with Anna Jameson throughout, that she is also in conversation with William Butler Yeats and his poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” and that she is, at the same time, investigating the twin issues of the education of women and the authority of women.

1.

In “Women’s Mission and Women’s Position” Jameson is writing in response to the 1800’s British report on the state of working girls and women, a state which Jameson sees as cruel and unusual. Some girls are sent out to work at three! Jameson says that being forced to work deprives the girls and women of the orderly state of home, and, in fact, being forced to work deprives some women of the possibility of husband and motherhood. Jameson also complains that those few women who are given an education are not educated well enough to enjoy teaching as a vocation. She argues that these women are poorly prepared to be teachers and governesses and that they are consequently often abused by their employers. She complains that even if the situation of lower and middle class families is that they cannot survive on the husband’s wages, England will not do what France does — which for one thing is to allow women a role in business as clerks, cashiers and accountants.

Jameson argues that at England’s core is a fundamental hypocrisy:

Woman’s Mission” of which people can talk so well, and write so prettily, is incompatible with “Woman’s Position” of which no one dares to think, much less to speak.

This reminds me of Munro’s town in “Before the Change,” a town which the doctor’s daughter suggests was perfectly well aware of his services but about which services the town both looked the other way and simultaneously withheld any other indication of their tacit approval.

Jameson also argues that the legal position of women and girls in England is complicated by this fundamental contradiction:

Man’s legislation for women has hitherto been like England’s legislation for Ireland; it has been without sympathy; without the recognition of equality; without a comprehension of certain innate differences, physical and moral, and therefore inadequate, useless, often unjust and not seldom cruel.

This is an argument that Munro’s abortionist in “Before the Change” might have used, except that his motivation for performing abortions appears to be specifically in reaction to having lost his own wife in childbirth. Jameson’s argument is one that Munro’s main character might have used to defend her unexplained position that she supports the legalization of abortion, even though she herself refused to have one when she was caught in an accidental pregnancy that ruined her career and ended her engagement.

Jameson says that English law “lays upon [its female citizens, both women and girls,] the duties and responsibilities of a free subject, though as yet it refuses her some of the dearest rights of freedom.”

Jameson is, of course, arguing about the horrific working conditions and equally horrific family situations created by the lack of a living wage for men.

There is a gestalt to Jameson’s thinking, however, that mirrors Munro’s. Jameson argues that female children are improperly nurtured by the state and by families. In “Before the Change,” Munro is clearly arguing that regardless of pieties surrounding abortion, some children are improperly nurtured by the state and by their families. Some parents neglect the children they do have in callous, blind, and driven ways. Both Jameson and Munro are talking about the possible abuse of children and the abuse of girls in particular.

Education, in Jameson’s words, is one of the “dearest rights of freedom.” In Munro, the right to education is of course important. But Munro typically extends education to mean experience of and understanding of the world. In “Before the Change”, the daughter is subjected to secrets imposed on her by her father and by society that torque her entire existence. She appears to have an ignorance of sex, for instance, that may have led to her accidental pregnancy. Her boarding school education may not have improved much on her parental sexual education. She has an ignorance of normal or healthy family relationships, an ignorance which may have led her into an engagement filled with hopeless ideals. She may know certain church pieties, but she is ignorant of the mechanics of forgiveness. Her real education is, in the end, the unveiling that occurs in her confrontation with the real world of home, school and church.

There is another subject on which Jameson and Munro converge, and that is the responsibility of women to speak up. “Before the Change” turns on the very clever daughter’s perception that she has a tendency to get up on her “high horse”. She wonders if this “high horse” attitude may have wrecked her engagement and wonders if it may further wreck any of her future relationships.

The reader has a slightly different perception of her difficulty. The reader perceives that she is not supposed to get up on her high horse, that she is supposed to put up and shut up. This put up and shut up situation is an expectation of her by both the girl’s father and her lover.

The reader sees women’s ‘put up and shut up’ situation very clearly when the girl’s father tells his patient, for whom he is performing an abortion, that she is a “good girl.” He then clarifies that praise. He tells her that she is the “good quiet girl” that the situation demands. To protect herself, the doctor, and future clients, she cannot be heard screaming during an illegal procedure.

Munro’s main character has heard society’s idea that it would be best for her if she, too, were a “good, quiet girl.” The father, in fact, has created a hypocritical upbringing for his daughter — she is very well educated, but he expects to have nothing to do with her at all and she is expected to accept that neglect like a “good quiet girl.” Note that he is cruelly casual and distant with his daughter and that he hardly speaks to his own daughter with the praise, care or or gentleness he gives his patient.

On the same note, Jameson addresses the silence that is expected of women:

When I see people haunted by the idea of self, afraid to speak lest they should not be listened to . . . I have been inclined to attribute it to immaturity of character – to a sort of childishness; or to what is worse, a want of innate integrity and simplicity.

Jameson argues here that the silent obedience society expects looks like childishness. Jameson argues passionately and eloquently that women are expected to be what Munro deems “good, quiet girls.”

If a woman presume to question such rights and privileges [of men over women], or even allude, in the most distant manner, to the horror and moral disorders to which they give rise, it is “unfeminine” — it shocks the nice delicacy of “her protector, man.”

Jameson goes on to call it heartless that society requires that regardless of what women know, they must dissemble that they know anything :

. . . the assumption that the woman consults the decorum of her sex by appearing not to know that which she does know — that which all the world knows she knows — the common and oftentimes fatal assumption, that women have “nothing to do” with certain questions, lying deep at the very root and core of society, has falsehood on the very face to it; but no one dares to look it in the face, and show its heartlessness — its hatefulness!

Jameson and Munro are clearly on the same page. Not only are women expected to be quiet, they are to pretend they do not know the things they know.

Knowing is the knife edge for both Jameson and Munro. Asserting yourself on behalf of yourself is part of the agency and authority of being an adult. Both Munro and Jameson argue that women cannot survive if they are muzzled. Jameson was not muzzled. She was a prolific author who had confidence in her own learning and who spoke up. Munro was not muzzled. At 150 stories, she is a prodigious force, and made risky enough choices in that writing for her own home high school to have banned her book Lives of Girls and Women.

I argue that Anna Jameson is an intellectual lynchpin for “Before the Change.” Jameson argues that British law treats women as it treated the Irish. And she argues that women who remain silent in the face of the contradictions of society seem “immature” and even “childish” to her. Munro presents us with a young woman who has been brought up in silence and secrets and who is expected to question none of these secrets. Even her fiance requires that she not question his hypocrisy or the hypocrisy of his colleagues or that of the department wives or that of the church itself. Her father requires that she not question him – not about her mother, not about his work, not about his money, not about anything. Her survival and her “education” depend upon confrontation of the expectation that she put up and shut up. For both Munro and Jameson, it is not “unfeminine” to be assertive. For both of these writers, being assertive on your own behalf is only human.

2.

In the same way that Jameson is an intellectual lynchpin for this story, Yeats provides Munro, in “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” with an emotional one.

The doctor’s daughter has discovered that he is providing illegal abortions about once a month. His assistant, the poisonous housekeeper, is out of commission, and the doctor asks his daughter for her assistance during an abortion. In the midst of the painful procedure, the daughter hears the patient pleading with her to “recite something.” The thing that pops into the daughter’s head is strange: a poem that her own lover used to recite.

“The Song of Wandering Aengus” tells of the mythic strongman and the day he readied his pole and caught a trout. He is busy preparing the fire when the trout turns into a girl with an apple blossom in her hair. When he sees her, she runs away. The poem echoes the men in “Before the Change.” The lover seems to think he is the sole creator of the child he has engendered and the sole creator of the future the fiances would have. The doctor neglects his daughter with the casual ferocity of a strongman, and like a strongman, he imagines that the loss of her will never matter to him.

Faced with the patient’s request, the daughter can only remember a part of the last verse:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands —

Except that she misremembers the poem and transposes you for she and your for her.

Why does the daughter recite this particular verse for the patient with these particular emendations? The recitation is like a Freudian slip where she tells the patient a difficult and painful home truth. This recitation is telling the patient she will never forget the child she is aborting. The recitation warns that the patient may endure a lifelong search of memory or the world to find out where or why the baby has gone.

But the daughter is also answering her own lover’s callous demand that she get an abortion. She warning him, regardless that he broke the engagement, regardless that he thought he was ridding himself of the child, regardless that he, it seems, has disappeared, that he will search lifelong for the child he discarded. It is reminiscent of the lifelong pain that the mother endures in “The Children Stay.”

But the Freudian slip is even neater than that. The daughter is telling her cruel and distant father that he too will sometime regret having thrown away his own daughter — that he, too, will search for her some time. It is as if she is telling her father that he has as much as aborted her.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that the daughter realizes that her father’s motive for risking everything for years may not have been solely his love of power and risk, but that he could have also been driven “by love.” People are complex. We have simultaneously opposed motives and emotions. This is true of the daughter and the father both, Munro seems to be saying.

Why do I think that the Yeats poem is the emotional lynchpin of the story? Because the poem is about the mystery of creation, the mystery of parenthood, the mystery of power, the mystery of ignorance, the mystery of yearning, and keenly, keenly, keenly, the mystery of loss.

3.

“Before the Change” is a great story. It addresses one of the great moral debates of the twentieth century, but its moral answers are multiple. It uses the detective story to great effect, but its final effect is to persuade the reader of something greater than a mere solution. This reader sees the daughter muddling through her essential education — the necessity that she must understand the secrets of the very house and society she inhabits before she can actually make use of any other education she is offered.

Once again, it is experience that must precede education. To a degree, the story is an exploration of the daughter’s slowly dawning perception about the multiple realities of her life. I really like the fact that it is cross country skiing that brings her the most clarity. After skiing, she lets the whole picture sink in — the money, the blackmail, her father’s precarious situation, and the possibility that in addition to his natural anger and rebelliousness, her father may have acted out of “love.” The reader is left to consider whether that love is in memory of his dead wife, in misguided service to the distant care and feeding of his daughter, or a way to help the “good” girls who are facing one death or another, either by back-alley abortion or by dissolution of a marriage, or by the one-more-child that will break the mother’s mental or emotional back.

I want to briefly mention a few other threads that interest me: the effects of the epistolary structure of the story, the multiple uses of debate as part of that structure, the role of theft in the story, the characterization of the housekeeper, the function of abortion as a metaphor for loss in general, and the debate about appropriate assertiveness versus the misuse of power. But I leave these discussions for another time.

I offer that the meanings of the title (“Before the Change”) are multiple: the risky period of fertility before its cessation at “the change”; the risky period before the abortion laws were changed or even the period before the voting laws were changed; the risky period before parents finally realize their responsibilities to the children they actually have; the risky period before experience causes a person to change, or the risky period before a person stops putting up and shutting up.

In particular, I want to mention that the main characters’ name, Strachan, apparently means “the valley of the horses.” If the name did have this meaning for Munro, it plays on the daughter’s perception of herself — that she sees herself as getting up on a high horse. One thing that occurs to me is that the daughter is born with this name, just as she is born with her powerfully clever and powerfully assertive nature. Is the issue not that she gets up on a high horse, but that she must learn to manage the high horse she actually is?

I also want to mention a strange comparison that occurred to me, but that I have no evidence played any part in Munro’s conception of this story. Contrast “Before the Change” (1998) with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). I would argue that in the face of terrible injustice, Lee created an idealized and sentimental southern lawyer and father. Atticus Finch is an unbelievable hero, and, in fact, we now know that the father he was based on was no actual hero. In contrast, Munro has created a repellent father who may be a monster to some and an anti-hero to others, but he is no one who could ever be sentimentally portrayed by Gregory Peck.

Munro’s main character makes a point, early on, of saying to Robin that she wants her letter to avoid “pretentious gush,” which any high school teacher who has ever taught To Kill a Mockingbird knows it is full of.

I want to close with one further comment about “pretentious gush”. The moment of clarity for Munro’s main character is when the housekeeper presents the daughter with the sight of the basin and its aborted material. This is the “gush” Munro allows herself. Contrast this with John Irving’s abortion novel Cider House Rules (1985), a story sentimental enough to have been made into a movie with A-list actors.

Munro is very clear. Write a story about abortion, and you have an obligation to deliver “a package wrapped in bloody newspaper that nobody would want to open.”

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