“Floating Bridge”
by Alice Munro
from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Trevor

When “Floating Bridge” begins, Jinny is flirting with the idea of leaving her husband. She’s not leaving him because she has found something better. She’s leaving him out of anger. To most Neal likely appears to be a good man. He engages in social causes and reaches out to troubled youth. He does this sometimes, though, by neglecting Jinny. This is what brought on her first attempt to escape: she has made a gingerbread cake for a meeting, but Neal and his Young Offenders have eaten the whole thing. So she leaves and gets as far as the bus stop. There she looks at the messages written by others — mostly vulgar messages — and recognizes an urge to express herself:

She felt herself connected at present with the way people felt when they had to write certain things down — she was connected by her feelings of anger, or petty outrage.

She isn’t even at the bus stop long enough for Neal to recognize what has happened. Eventually this episode — a serious episode, where she was driven to get up and walk out to the unknown . . . even if just for a time — becomes a humorous part of their past.

Some years later (I don’t know how long), Jinny finds herself in a surprising state. She’s forty-two years old and has cancer. Neal, fifty-six, is taking care of her. While she’d always imagined, particularly due to the difference in age, that she’d be taking care of him, she nevertheless finds herself in another situation that could lead to an escape into the unknown. Part of her wants this. Indeed, she feels an “unspeakable excitement” because the “galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life.”

With the theme of escape and return established, Munro proceeds to show us Jinny at her sickest and most depressed — it happens to be on a day where she has received some potentially good news: she might live.

On that day, Neal has brought on board another troubled youth. The young Helen, who is a bit crass, and understandably so given her past, will help look after Jinny. But, as he’s done in the past, Neal spends all of his energetic attention on Helen and not on Jinny, eventually taking a significant detour in the hot sun so that Jinny can get her shoes at her foster parents’ home. Jinny feels terrible, but as she waits in the car while Neal charms the family with his good will, we understand that this is not just a bad day physically. Again, she’s been told that her body is responding positively to treatment. The doctor sees room for cautious optimism. Having been resigned to death — looking forward to it, even, as an escape — Jinny can hardly bear the thought of returning again.

This takes us to the story’s rather lovely and surprising conclusion. Ricky, a young man who lives at this home, returns from work and offers to take Jinny home. He can see she’s not happy and he is aware that she’d like to leave though her husband is in the home still. So he drives her but takes a different route, one that allows him to show off a floating bridge.

The imagery at the end is striking: Jinny stands on the end, under the stars, and the water is black as can be. The bridge floats up and down underneath her. It may seem obvious, and it’s been done before, but there’s something lovely about this image that is uniquely Munro’s. I think it’s because of the scene at the bus stop. We’ve already seen Jinny on the edge of something precarious before returning to something more established, to a more stable foundation, perhaps to her detriment. And here she is, under the stars, contemplating her future while her husband is likely getting his fortune told back at the new nurse’s home.

I’m still working out just what all of this means to me, and whether it’s a story that will stick or not. In some ways, it feels quite simple, strait forward, but there is a lot going on that complicates things. Neal, for example; it would be easy to look at him as the selfish brute — Jinny certainly does at times — but she also has tenderness toward him, as shown when she imagines herself holding his dead hand. Indeed, her tenderness toward him reminds her of her own desire to feel his tenderness toward her. It makes her wonder if he would feel the same way.

The precarious, but beautiful, floating bridge gives her some comfort.


Betsy

1

“Floating Bridge” belongs to a group of Munro stories which use an unusual physical feature to govern and expand the story. Other stories such as “Dulse,” “Lichen,” “Gravel,” “Axis,” and “Deep Holes” come to mind. The setting of the final scene of “Floating Bridge” involves uncertain footing over a responsive earth, the sight of stars reflected in the ancient tea-colored bog water, and the hum of the living earth.

“Floating Bridge” also addresses the necessity for running away, which is a repeating theme in Munro. The present story juxtaposes the idea of a floating bridge against ideas of jail and captivity, as well as concepts of past, present, and future.

Primarily, the floating bridge provides a frame for the access that people have for escape from captivity, especially in the sense that “being in the moment” provides both a bridge to the universal and an escape from the futility of dreaming about the future or trying to fix the past. The story does not preclude the idea that actually running away is sometimes a physical necessity, but the story does explore the mental landscape of a woman who does not yet fully understand her situation. While she might not be in physical danger, she must come to recognize that she is in emotional peril. Before she can actually escape, she must first realize that escape is necessary.

2

Neal is a cracked version of the more nearly real saints that Munro has created: Billy Doud, the aunts, Violet, and Enid. Neal would probably be at ease describing himself as a savior of young men and women, working as he does with young offenders and waging campaigns to save rivers and lands from human spoilage. Jinny, who is either his wife or partner, sees him as the embodiment of power. The reader, however, gets the distinct feeling that Neal abuses his power. He belittles his students in private, he uses them to do his chores at his house, he appears to periodically fall in love with one or another of them, and he is distinctly abusive of his dying wife. Not only does he appear to have picked out a “nurse” for Jinny’s last days with whom he has already begun an affair, or with whom he intends to begin one, he is also capable of refusing to take his wife directly home after a grueling oncology appointment. He also, that same day, leaves her sitting in a car that is as hot as Hades so he can cool off with a beer inside an air conditioned trailer, basking in the idea that he is saving the people’s foster child by taking her on as a nurse. Images of jail and forced captivity pervade the story, and Neal, rather than being a savior, appears to be the kind of lover who enjoys and is excited by the immense power of playing the role of master. He reminds me of the mesmerizing young man in “Baptizing” (see here) who almost drowns Del in a fight when he attempts to baptize her. Neal’s power appeals to Jinny and makes her very angry at the same time. The reader wonders what brought young Jinny to a man so much older than she.

3

At 42, Jinny has had cancer for a year, has had an operation and chemo, and has received a premature death sentence. One of the problems in the story is that Jinny welcomes the prospect of death.

And yet — an excitement. The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility  your own life. Then for shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet.

On the one hand, the reader perceives that Neal is a kind of jailor-savior, and on the other, what the reader notices about Jinny herself is her absolute devotion to reserve, amiability, and silence. Note that the bus stop where she waits a while is like a jail cell, and the cornfield is also. To this reader, however, it is Ginny’s silence, however, that is the real jail.

She is so filled with a unexpressed and jailed anger that she resents the nickname someone gives her of a being a Nice Nellie. Even so, she doubts the legitimacy of her own anger. She wonders if her own outrage about her situation with Neal is justifiable or “petty.” The reader wonders if Jinny has been taught that swallowing her own anger is the prime “responsibility” she bears in life.

The reader particularly notes silent Jinny’s remark to herself:

Her feelings might become of no importance to anybody but herself, and yet they would be bulging up inside her, squeezing her heart and breath.

4

I want to explore three ways in which Munro may be alerting us to Jinny’s inability to express herself.

There is a line of scholarly inquiry (see here) into the way in which women who have been traumatized minimize their suffering and fragment the narratives they tell about their lives, probably in response to their sense that society requires them to do just that.

Jinny tells us about a time when she “left” Neal because he and some young offenders had “gobbled up” a gingerbread cake she’d made for a meeting. In the course of running away that afternoon, Jinny waited in a walled bus stop where she happened to read things that people had written. The intensity of expression in the writings almost puzzle her, that people could be so open. When she returns to Neal instead of running away, it is as if she has done so because she lacked the right bus ticket – which would be, in this case, the ability to speak her mind. Later, she minimizes the importance of her own feelings when she turns the story of running away from Neal into a joke, one that she tells often.

She also fragments her narrative when she deliberately never refers to how she noticed the writing on the wall and how the honest intensity of the writings  made her run away again, back to Neal.

A second hint from Munro about Jinny’s silence is in the roots of her truncated name. The nickname Jinny is a fragment of Virginia. The name Verginia derives from the “Lays of Ancient Rome” by Macaulay (1845). Macaulay’s Lays were very popular well into the twentieth century in British education.

Verginia was an exceptionally beautiful Roman farm girl who is killed by her father to “save” her from being enslaved by a noble. Whether Verginia could have escaped enslavement in any other way is a question her father solves by killing her. Verginia is threatened with captivity by the noble, and then suffers the ultimate extinction at her father’s hands. Education at the hands of Macaulay teaches girls silence. He teaches girls self-extinction as their privilege and their version of heroism.

Why Jinny with a J is perhaps linked to the etymology for the Arabic word for genie — the origin of which appears to be the Arabic Jinn or Jnn or Jinni, meaning hidden or concealed. That Jinn is a cognate for genius is most likely accidental, but Munro may be being ironic here as well. Jinny seems to have a genius for self-extinction.

In addition, Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves, has a speaker named Jinny. She is one of six speakers. Apparently, the novel investigates the idea of a central consciousness created among a body of speakers. Whether there is any relationship between Munro’s story and Woolf’s novel, and especially whether there would be any common relationship vis-à-vis collective consciousness might be worth further investigation. The association I make is that women have a collective voice of self-extinction.

Third: Jinny’s inability to express herself is eating her up. The gingerbread cake that is “gobbled up” is a cognate for “Jinny” and simultaneously reminds us of the folktale of the gingerbread man. The old woman who has created the little man wants to eat him up, as do any other of a number of pursuers, until the  fox does, in fact, eat him up. The gingerbread man first says, “Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!” But then he also says, “I’m a quarter gone, I’m half gone, I’m all gone!” Although Jinny has been for some time in danger of being “gobbled up” by Neal, she is now almost all gone, having given herself up to the death sentence that cancer has dealt her. But the reader senses that it is her inability to express herself that is actually eating her up, not the cancer.

The story (“Floating Bridge”) reverberates with the theme of suicide-by-silence.

5

Power and compassion vie with each other for the upper hand in this story. Compassion must be seen as an umbrella term that also encompasses forgiveness. Forgiveness is a repeating theme in Munro. (See “Forgiveness in Families,” any story having to with Munro’s mother, “Prayer Circle,” “Child’s Play,” “Nettles,” “Deep Holes,” and others.)

June and Matt treat Jinny with compassion. They mean well, but ultimately each of them exerts a kind of power over other people, June with her ability to read tea-leaves, and Matt with his ability to tell a joke that is both funny and a put down. Neal may think he is compassionate, but he seems to hav apparently veered permanently into the privileged territory of the self-appointed hero, where he assumes more than his share of power.

Ricky does not so much exert his power over Jinny as share it with her. And Jinny herself actually uses the word “compassion” to describe the feeling that being on the floating bridge with Ricky has given her. It’s the first time she actually when she says she is ready to allow Neal his future.

She appears to let her anger go. She is consumed with a “lighthearted  sort of compassion.” It is as if she has forgiven Neal, but it is also as if she is not necessarily choosing to stay with him, “for the time given.”

What saves Jinny is the comfort Ricky offers her. He touches her, for one thing. He connects with her by sharing experience. He does not require her to serve him. He does not require her to shrink, or minimize, or fragment. He lets her be whole.

6

Kubler-Ross is never far from any modern story about death. Although her stages for facing death are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, it is also a truism that these stages can occur in a different order, or that a person can get stuck in a particular stage. It feels like Jinny is on a tightwire between anger and depression when Ricky suddenly helps her off it onto an “floating bridge” of his own compassion, where among other things, she seems to accept the necessity of Neal’s embrace of Helen, who will be his future after Helen’s death.

7

The story’s ultimate power and gravity, I think, derive from its exploration of time.

The bog under the floating bridge is almost timeless, as are the stars reflected in it. Characters named Helen, June, and Matt appear in the modern world out of the ancient mists of myth along with a dog like Cerberus, heat like Hades, and a bog as black as the river Styx.

While all time is evoked, Jinny herself is under a short future — a cancer death sentence — of months, perhaps, or even weeks. Neal, who is going to lose Jinny, is apparently already looking to his future when he hires the girl who is going to “take care of us.” Jinny herself is imprisoned in the resentments of the past. Neal loses track of time when he goes into the trailer to have a beer. We learn from Ricky that Neal’s probably having his fortune told. Jinny is lost in the unfinished business of the past; Neal is lost in the dreams of his future.

What gives this story its remarkable power is the way Jinny escapes conventional time at the end of the story. Night falls, and Ricky, June’s handsome young son, full of life and god-like, appears at the trailer and offers to give the bedraggled and suffering Jinny a ride home. He takes her first, however, to experience the floating bridge in the midst of the Borneo Swamp. She is enveloped in the night. Transformation is the watchword. The boggy ground is responsive to their feet. The ancient water is the color of tea. The bridge is floating. She hears what to the reader sounds like the hum of existence itself, and she and Ricky become like the stars that wink in and out in the water beside them.

Ricky, fearless of her disease and full of kindness, kisses her.

It seemed to her that this was the first time ever that she had participated in a kiss that was an event in itself. The whole story, all by itself.

The first time. Significantly, this is an experience which for the first time Jinny refuses to minimize or fragment or truncate.

Standing in the night under the stars in the middle of the swamp and being really kissed for the first time, Jinny feels transformed.

Structurally, Munro begins and ends “Floating Bridge” with time.

First, Neal says that “Given time” he would have eventually tried to find Jinny, if she had actually run away. We hear, however, no intensity, no passion and no affection in his voice. We sense no actual desire in him to bring her back from the dead. What we sense is his dreary knowledge that she would never actually have the backbone to stand apart from him. There would be no necessity to rush. She would most likely come back on her own.

At the end, Jinny reverses his phrase and takes control of her story. She talks about the “time given” in which she intends to experience life in a new way.

What she felt was a lighthearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter. A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given.

8

That Jinny is tempted by suicide is summed up when she lies down in the cornfield. That she is entering the realm of the underworld is summed up by the Cerberus-like dog at June’s house and the black bog, dark as the river Styx. And it’s hot as Hades. Ricky is her Orpheus  (the earth sings in his presence) but there’s a twist. Ricky only takes her to the edge of the Styx, where he lets her experience a momentary delight in himself as part of their mutual delight in the universe. The momentary delight is timeless. It is the whole story. It will sustain her for a long time (think “Comfort”).

9

The story is to me magnificent. It reads like a poem. I do not mean that it reads as a lyric. I mean that Munro builds a vast web of meaning by the careful deployment of every word and every sentence and every image. You could write a book about how this story works. But what matters so deeply to me is how Munro weaves together questions about power, silence, captivity, and freedom and weights every question with serious attention. And finally, although I have hardly explored the matter, the entire story is an inquiry into what compassion actually is.

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