Johanna, the character we meet at the beginning of this tremendous story, is one of my favorite characters. She is presented to us at a train depot, purchasing a one-way ticket out of town and demanding special treatment for the shipment of furniture. She is blunt and a bit cold, refusing to accept any of the stationmaster’s humor. She seems rather unlikable, and she probably would be in real life. But then she goes to finish her day’s business at a dress shop. No, she’s not suddenly pleasant and warm, but we get a better sense of the yearning she keeps buried way below, the passion she dares not utter. Sure, she is practical and might say she doesn’t like to count her chickens before they hatch. But she is also afraid. She has steeled herself to be unloved, the better to protect herself from pain, and she’s finally doing something tremendous that might — might — lead her to a life she truly desires.
Munro takes her time revealing Johanna’s fearful yearning. When she first arrives at the dress shop we still see the woman who wouldn’t smile at the train depot, a woman who has stood up and walked out, we’re confident, whenever she disapproves of something. Here she is walking into the store where she sees a full-body mirror right at the doorway.
They did that on purpose, of course. They set the mirror there so you could get a proper notion of your deficiencies, right away, and then — they hoped — you would jump to the conclusion that you had to buy something to alter the picture. Such a transparent trick that it would have made her walk out, if she had not come in determined, knowing what she had to get.
It’s that determination to come in and get what she wants that keeps her going, and slowly the dressmaker chips away with kindness (and perhaps some understanding):
“It’s the color of your eyes. You don’t need to wear velvet. You’ve got velvet eyes.”
That was the kind of soft-soaping Johanna would have felt bound to scoff at, except that at the moment it seemed to be true. Her eyes were not large, and if asked to describe their color she would have said, “I guess they’re a kind of brown.” But now they looked to be a really deep brown, soft and shining.
I love how Munro says this is the kind of thing she would have “felt bound to scoff at,” suggesting this is code she lives by perhaps more than it is a natural reaction. No, we see her natural reaction start to peak out there at the end, when she sees the beauty in her brown eyes for, it seems, the first time.
This softness exposed, it is difficult for Johanna to contain one of her deepest secrets: she is going to be married. She actually, against all her better judgment, against all of her self-taught discipline, tells this to the dressmaker. And here Munro again reveals some of the reasons why Johanna is so quiet about her desires:
She had revealed to this woman what she was counting on, and that had perhaps been an unlucky thing to do.
She feels it is unlucky. She feels she might jinx the whole thing. She lives by the code of not expecting much. And certainly, if you expect anything, don’t let it out . . . that leads to disappointment.
But in this case, Johanna has a good reason for thinking that mentioning the wedding is unlucky. It turns out the wedding has never been brought up by her intended husband. They’ve exchanged letters over time, but never once has marriage been brought up. This is incredibly negligent, even I think, but it shows just how much desire and hope is flowing beneath Johanna’s otherwise tremendously fixed and stony facade. She allows herself to take the occurrence of a wedding for granted:
She felt a fool for mentioning a wedding, when he hadn’t mentioned it and she ought to remember that. So much else had been said — or written — such fondness and yearning expressed, that the actual marrying seemed just to have been overlooked. The way you might speak about getting up in the morning and not about having breakfast, though you certainly intended to have it.
This is just the first bit of this rich story. Munro takes us from Johanna to Mr. McCauley, Johanna’s employer of a sort. Johanna, you see, has been hired to watch over a young girl named Sabitha, Mr. McCauley’s granddaughter. Sabitha’s mom, Mr. McCauley’s daughter, has died. Sabitha’s father, Ken Boudreau, is impoverished and cannot care for Sabitha himself. He frequently asks his father-in-law for financial help. And it just so happens he is the one Johanna thinks she will marry.
This all turns into quite the messy situation, and we see that much of what we thought of Johanna and her upcoming marriage is based on misunderstandings and outright cruelty. The furniture she wants to ship to her new home belonged to Ken and his deceased wife, but Mr. McCauley, given how much he’s helped Ken over the years, feels he has no right. That’s minor, though, compared to the real problem: the letters Johanna has received and responded to were not written by Ken at all. They were written by Sabitha and her bored friend Edith.
This looks like certain disaster. How will Ken Boudreau receive her when she unexpectedly arrives.We, of course, expect Johanna to find a confused and perhaps even mocking unknowing and unwilling suitor, her brief excursion into a hope for companionship shut down quickly and for good, causing her to further entrench herself into her own brand of cruel practicality. That’s what Mr. McCauley would expect, if he cared. And as for Sabitha and Judith, perhaps they’d even hope for that unpleasant reception and the ensuing fallout.
I don’t want to spoil this for those who haven’t read it, but I will say I’m thrilled with how this all went about.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a cumbersome title. Curiously, Munro’s very next book and all of its stories are each titled by just one word. Hateship, etc is very hard to say and even harder to remember.
What is strange about this title is that it has no euphony, no rhythm, no rhyme, and, given its wandering length, no punch.
Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage refers to a guessing game akin to he loves me, he loves me not, which involves pulling the petals off a daisy, thus playing on the question of whether game, accident, or happenstance are the primary determinants in one’s life. Housekeeper Johanna ends up a mother to Omar, something that never would have happened if two fourteen year olds had not played a dirty trick on her.
The dirty trick? They composed love letters and signed them as being from a handsome airman who happened to be the scalliwag father of one of the girls.
Here’s the key thing, however. Johanna, while unsophisticated, uncharming, poor, and orphaned, is phenomenally self-sufficient and competent. Someone else could have had such a dirty trick played upon her and not survived it. Another person might have failed the various challenges that the dirty trick set into motion. Not Johanna. She manages and triumphs over what fate and accident have dealt her.
What interests me about the story?
1: It’s a fairy tale, like “My Mother’s Dream.” A woman carves out a life of unlikely success through resolve and an ability for management. She succeeds where many fail, and finds through her enterprise: “And now such a warm commotion, such busy love.”
There is a fairy god-mother in the form of Mrs. Willets. Johanna served Mrs. Willets in her old age, and for her caring, Mrs. Willets left money to Johanna: “The sum was not dazzling, but it was impressive.”
As Cinderella, Johanna was not beautiful, but she was able. Through her capacity for loyalty, a inclination for thrift, and the ability to take charge, she outshines in ways many beautiful people cannot.
2: The story explores the complications of “unearned advantage.” One of the teenagers, Edith, envies her friend Sabitha for her unearned advantage. Sabitha has a well-to-do family, breasts, nice clothes and has adventures despite doing nothing, or being unable to do much, in school. Sabitha’s father, the airman, has an unearned advantage, too, in that he is charming and good-looking. Sabitha’s grandfather MacCauley, Johanna’s employer, had not earned the money that allowed him to keep an office in town where he hardly did any work. He, his daughter Marcelle, and Sabitha appear to have been addled by their unearned advantage. Money, perhaps, has turned them into simpletons. Marcelle is way too easily attracted to drugs and men, Sabitha has been held back a grade, and the father is unwitting in the management of his son-in-law.
Edith, in contrast, is smart. But her father is just a cobbler. Edith will have to trade on her brains. The irony is that the airman who attracts a rescuer only has looks, charm, and a pilot’s reputation as his unearned advantage. He lacks follow-through and common sense. Opposed to all this unearned advantage is Johanna, whose middle-name is service and whose habit is hard work. As such, she joins such others as Millicent in “A Real Life,” Violet in “Queer Streak,” and Enid in “The Love of a Good Woman.”
3: Delirium plays a role as a turning point in this story as it does in “My Mother’s Dream.” It is as if sometimes people have to hit rock bottom, emotionally, to grasp the simple things. The airman appears to be out of his head with fever when Johanna arrives and saves him from more than just a fever.
4: Clothes are enjoyed for their ability to transform. Johanna buys a simple brown wool dress with a gold belt.
She had never in her life had this silly feeling of being enhanced by what she put on herself.
Sabitha comes back from a vacation with her cousins:
She wore a sort of play suit, with shorts cut like a skirt and buttons down the front and frills over the shoulder in a becoming blue color . . . and when she leaned over to pick up her glass of coffee, she displayed a smooth, glowing cleavage.
None of the “subtle luxury” for Sabitha. Even Sabitha’s father has boots he’s bought in England, boots which establish the only person with whom he talks openly — his cobbler — as his inferior. But the reader sees the “unearned advantage”: the cobbler listens because he cannot afford to turn his customer away.
As for Johanna, it’s her work clothes that save the day. It’s when she says “I’ve got biscuits in the oven” that she truly and completely wins her case.
Clothes are a favorite thing in which Munro occasionally indulges. I am reminded particularly of “How I Met Your Father,” “A Real Life,” and “What Is Remembered.” Probably others, too.
5. Names in Alice Munro should never go unnoticed.
“Marcelle” is the name of a flibberty-gibbet character who has the same name as a hair style popular about the time she was born.
“Sabitha” is more a corruption of a New Testament name than a name. Also, it sounds like sabotage and sad.
“Mrs. Willets” reminds me of the gorgeously gray and graceful shorebird. It’s a perfect name for a benefactor, even if in person, due to her character, she was someone needing being taken care of.
As for the baby named “Omar” I can only say that it is a mystery. Perhaps he is in opposition to Macaulay the writer/statesman/historian, or perhaps he is representative of how Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131), the mathematician, scientist, and poet swept the Victorian imagination. Three things are notable about Khayyam: first, his proof of the parallel axiom. I note it not because I understand it, but because Munro always has multiple parallels going on in her stories. I also note it because Khayyam declared that religion had failed him. And finally, he was thought by some to be a Sufi mystic. This is interesting because there was a debate about it, and debate, ambiguity, and the corruption of memory are key in Munro. But primarily, I think “Omar” suggests the exotic that overtook Johanna when Ken let her love him.
Dynia is a suffix from the Greek meaning pain. Gdynia is a port city in Poland, but it is Joanna’s trip to the underworld, to a prairie city that’s hotter than Hades, near Regina, and a city she must escape. G-dynia reminds me of gyno-dynia, a word I have made up, meaning woman’s pain. To a degree, the story suggests that a competent woman must manage the pain of being a woman as competently as she manages everything else.
6: Responsibility and Experience: Are we responsible for the bad things we do in our youth? This is a question that repeats itself in “Child’s Play.”
7: “Hateship” is a portrait of the writer as a young girl, the period when you have no idea how to use the awesome ability you know you possess. Edith is deeply talented, but she uses her talent to mock a decent woman. Ironically, Edith’s writing moves Johanna to take stock of herself and her possibilities, and to take a terrific leap. But it’s a close call. The experiment could have ended badly for everyone. The reader is put in mind of the responsibilities of the writer, or put in mind of the fact that if you do not learn how to wield your immense talent, you will get nowhere, so to speak. One wonders where Edith will get her guidance. Munro has very little respect for the university. She has apparently said that had she stayed at university it might have ruined her as a writer, intimidated her too much. All those male professors telling her what to think? Instead, we see, over and over, that reading in solitary is the habit of a writer, and that the library is the true alma mater or “nourishing mother.”
8: Airmen: Pilots play a role in several stories — “How I Met My Husband,” “White Dump,” and “My Mother’s Dream.” Pilots are like clothes; I think Munro really enjoys writing about both subjects. They get her going. She enjoys herself. Geology and history are more arcane topics that also get her going.
9: The story is an antidote to “A Wilderness Station,” in which the mail order bride could have been murdered, twice over. It feels similar to “A Real Life,” in which a very unconventional woman wins over a very desirable man, one because he is wealthy, and the other because he is attractive.
10. The technical difficulty — transformation: Munro wants to depict the transformation of a very plain woman into a believable lover. She uses joy in being a rescuer as the lever as well as self-discovery as the pay-off. The joy is in service and hard work. I think the scene where Joanna buys the dress is where the reader is invited to think “Makeover!” But the real makeover occurs when Joanna gets out to Gdynia and proclaims to the man who gave her a ride, “I am a dunce.”
11. Power. It’s acquired by experience, as when Johanna says, “I am a dunce.” Edith has talent but she misuses it. Her talent, as of yet, lacks power. When Johanna says, “I’ve got biscuits in the oven,” we know that this is the skill gained from experience, and skill aptly applied. It’s here that we know there is life, there is hope, and there is also transformation. It would be a fairy tale, except that we all know for a fact that some men are rescued by women. (And vice versa.)
12. Tu ne quaesieris, Scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi is the clipped excerpt which ends the story where Edith sits doing her Latin 4 homework. The actual Horace poems ends with the much more famous “Carpe Diem” saying that dominates the 1989 Peter Weir film, Dead Poets Society.
Horace: Odes 1.11:
Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibifinem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. ut melius, quidquid erit, pati.
seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum. Sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero
Ask not (’tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers.
Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past,
Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;
This, that makes the Tyrrhene billows spend their strength against the shore.
Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?
In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.
Seize the present; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.
This is how Munro finishes the story:
Ignoring her mother, she wrote, “You must not ask, it is forbidden for us to know –“
She paused, chewing her pencil, then finished off with a chill of satisfaction, “— what fate has in store for me. Or for you — “
Notice how much better Munro’s choice of translation is than the Wikipedia one.
13. Clitoridectomy: This is the mother who has told Edith she must not wear her rubbers indoors or she will go blind. This is corrupt “wisdom.” This is bad sex education for boys corrupted into ridiculous education for girls. But her mother had got one thing right —
Years ago, before she knew what she was doing, she had gone to sleep with the blanket between her legs and her mother had discovered her and told her about a girl she had known who did things like that all the time and eventually had to be operated on for the problem.
This is a subject about which I know very little. But a little web-surfing brought me to an article about the availability of surgical clitoridectomy in Victorian London.
In 1866 Baker Brown took this further in another publication: On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy and Hysteria in Females. Here, he suggested that his sheer success in curing previously intractable cases proved his ideas worked. His method, he insisted, was “humane and effectual”, a speedy answer to problems including hysteria, fits, catalepsy, “idiocy”, and mania. A woman who, according to her husband, would “fly at him, and rend his skin, like a tigress”, was quite well after the operation and “became in every respect a good wife.”
Obviously, I have not done a scientific review of the topic. But what Munro is suggesting is borne out by a quick search. The connection to the story? Edith and Sabitha were eager to know more about sex, and the information they were provided was either very negative, as in the case of Edith’s mother, or very experimental, as in the case of the girls Sabitha heard about who were trying out various sexual routines on each other in boarding school.
What does Edith’s ignorance or Sabitha’s hearsay have to do with the letters they wrote to Johanna? For sure, Sabitha’s handsome father was a lure for them, as was their own loneliness. Edith’s letters (written as if she were Ken Boudreau) were wonderful wish fulfilments, fantastic fairy tales. Munro shows how much they have to learn about sex, about men, and about Ken Boudreau.
What does clitoridectomy have to do with the story as a whole? Not a lot, on the one hand, and quite a bit, on the other. The subject sets up the issue of women as property and the danger embedded in being someone’s property. Johanna was an orphan; Sabitha was motherless. Johanna’s cleverness and courage is set against the way society wants to surgically remove power from women. A combination of warm heart and hard work wins Johanna a place in a world which can otherwise be cruel. All the more reason to “Seize the Day.”
And then there’s this. Ken tells us that Marcelle, Sabitha’s mother had been subject to “bad behavior.” Her father tells us it was hard to tell what was wrong with her – she was a “sickly brown color,” and she watched “cartoons she was surely too old for.” How was it Marcelle happened to die? From a mysterious surgical procedure in London?
Marcelle went away to London to have some female thing done and died in the hospital.
Then we have Edith, who feels like an orphan even though she lives with her parents, and imagines the time when she will almost surgically remove herself from their care.
14. Compare Johanna and Marcelle. The one dies a mysterious death; the other appears to travel to the underworld and carry a dying lover back to life. Both Marcelle and Johanna are Ken’s partners, but the one is a failure and the other a success. One is born into unearned advantage, and the other is born alone, with no advantages except what she can create for herself.
15. At fifty pages, the story is kind of sprawling. I note the issues of power in it that crop up again in “Floating Bridge.”