Alice Munro has me baffled. In a good way, I think, but baffled nonetheless. I didn’t do the math, but I think this is the longest period we’ve gone without posting on one of her stories, and that’s all due to me. Betsy sent her post below a long time ago. Now, some of my delay is due to the usual things — work, kids, etc. — but not too much. Honestly, a lot of it is because I have still not been able to wrap my mind around “Post and Beam,” which I’ve read several times, and I suppose I kind of hoped I’d accomplish that before I wrote this. I suppose I better just get into it and stop putting it off by writing any more excuses!
First, I should say that I really like this story, even though I find some of it quite frustrating. I doubt Munro would feel any need to apologize, but I find the story as a whole exceedingly opaque, despite many great moments of clarity.
My main issue, I think, comes from the brief opening section that takes up a couple of inches before an abrupt section break. I have read as much analysis as I could find on this story, but I still don’t feel I fully understand this small section and how it relates to the remainder of the story. But, because it is first and because it is set apart from the remainder of the story by that section break, I assume it is important. Let me see if I can describe it without just transcribing it.
Lionel, a man in his early twenties, is talking about how his mother died. He says that his mom asked for help putting on her makeup and, while he held the mirror, said it should only take about an hour. She finishes well before the hour passes, and Lionel says that she didn’t take as long to put on her makeup as she thought. No, she says, she wasn’t talking about putting on her makeup. She was talking about how long it would take for her to die. When he offers to call his father to come, she simply asks, “What for?” He says she was only off by five minutes.
It turns out Lionel is telling this to his friends Brendan and Lorna, husband and wife, as they sit on the terrace of Brendan and Lorna’s home. Lorna is going to be our main character, through whose eyes we see and through whose thoughts we feel. The story will focus on three relationships in particular.
First, Lorna and Brendan. Brendan is a math professor in his mid-thirties. Lorna is 24 and is raising their two children. Lorna says she loves Brendan, but she admits to herself in one of the story’s most intriguing sections that she doesn’t love him enough. Honestly, he doesn’t deserve her love. He married her six years prior because it was time for him to get married, and he wanted someone young and intelligent but not particularly educated. Her job is to support him and raise his children. At this point in her life, she accepts this. Brendan represents something unknowable:
When she learned he was a teacher of mathematics she fell in love with what was inside his head also. She was excited by whatever knowledge a man might have that was utterly strange to her. A knowledge of auto mechanics would have worked as well.
Lorna, we recognize soon, is on the outside a rather frictionless person. She does what she thinks she is supposed to. But inside her mind she has created all kinds of dramatic ideas about other people. In Brendan’s case, these ideals serve to excuse him. Brendan doesn’t come off well in this story at all. He gets exasperated with Lorna whenever her family comes up. He doesn’t seem to mind Lionel, though.
So that’s the second relationship, Lorna and Lionel. Lionel is a neighbor who was once Brendan’s student, a brilliant one we understand. But one day Lionel dropped out and was hospitalized after what appears to be a nervous breakdown that left his memory, at least, impaired. Now Lionel has given up all thoughts of mathematics and, it seems, school. It was happenstance that brought him back to his professor, Brendan. One day they ran into each other at the store, and Lionel has been visiting them since. Lionel and Lorna become particularly close. When Lionel tells Lorna he is short of memories, considering what happened in the hospital, she tells him of her life. Perhaps to reciprocate, Lionel starts giving Lorna little poems, or, rather, scraps of writing she thinks of as poems. They’re really just stray, rather uninteresting observations he has. On their surface, they certainly aren’t inviting any intimacy, but they are secret. Lionel drops them off secretly and doesn’t acknowledge their existence with Lorna. I think we can agree that Lorna isn’t strange for feeling that something more intimate was going on than someone sharing simple poems, and so Lionel becomes for Lorna, without ever knowing it, a sort of secret affair of the heart.
The third relationship is the one that really destabilizes the equilibrium established between Brendan, Lorna, and Lionel, though again most of the drama is going on strictly within Lorna’s mind. Lorna’s cousin, Polly, who is a handful of years older than Lorna, arrives to visit. This arrival, and its aftermath, make up the bulk of the story. Now in her late twenties, Polly, who Lorna thinks was always more popular and beautiful, is still living in the small town where she and Lorna grew up. Lorna doesn’t want to let Brendan (or Lionel) know that Polly is coming, so she puts off telling him almost until Polly gets there. This is, for me, the most intriguing relationship, one that causes Lorna a lot of guilt and pride. It’s the one she seems to understand the most. For one thing, Lorna is happy because she feels she escaped her home town and the troubles that sit there. She knows that she feels proud of this accomplishment. She also knows she feels guilty because Polly has not left home and has not married. There’s more than a suggestion that Polly considers herself a martyr, someone who stuck around out of obligation, and that Lorna has shirked that obligation, fled her responsibilities at home for her selfish pursuits.
“If I ever went away now I think I’d just feel too guilty,” Polly said. “I couldn’t stand it. I’d feel too guilty leaving them.”
Of course some people never feel guilty. Some people never feel at all.
We clearly see that in Polly’s case, Lorna sees the issue plainly. Almost. Lorna’s guilt, which she does feel, leads her to imagine Polly as forlorn and suicidal. Indeed, Polly’s potential suicide, which seems only to be a probability in Lorna’s mind, is a threat strong enough to shoot right to one of the story’s themes: the bargains we make to get around the demons in our mind. Lorna learns to bargain by promising something vague if only Polly won’t kill herself.
That’s a fascinating theme, and when I see it in the story I see it in all of Lorna’s relationships, even the ones she is less conscious of. She bargains to get through life. If we weren’t in her head, she’d be quite the boring character. In her head, this story is exceptional.
But that leads me back to that opening section, where Lionel’s mother, who only comes up briefly later when Lorna remembers her saying she was happy to meet her son’s belle-amie, and Lorna wonders what the means in this case: beautiful friend? mistress? Then she’s gone, and I just cannot understand how her prognostication of her own death is relevant to the rest of the story.
As I mentioned above, this introduction is its own section in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. In its original publication in the December 11, 2000 issue of The New Yorker, though, this opening does not end with a section break. Instead it seamlessly transitions to another paragraph where we see Lionel telling this to Brendan and Lorna out on the terrace. This leads Lorna to think back on when she met Lionel’s now deceased mom. While the story still begins with this section, without the break it doesn’t feel quite as significant. I can only assume, then, that the addition of the section break means I’m supposed to see that section in relief to the remainder of the story and, therefore, in relation to the rest of the story.
That section break! It’s haunted me! I’ve sat on this, hoping it would become clear. So, might I ask for some help? If you can explain how that fits with the clearer themes that develop in this story, I’d just love it.
If I remove that opening section from the story — and I’m hoping to figure this out still, so I’m not saying one should remove this section — I get quite a lot out of “Post and Beam.”
“Post and Beam” is one in a series of stories about suicide. In a kind of ominous foreshadowing, the title suggests a frame for a hanging or a beating.
An unsophisticated twenty-four-year-old country girl is married to a math professor who is twelve years older. She is apparently quite beautiful and was married at eighteen. Now she has two small children. Although her children are precious to her, she does not seem interested in them or delighted by them. Her husband is a bit of a household thug. He enjoys instructing his wife and embarrassing her in front of others, but he is afraid she loves her own family more than him. He is somewhat right. She admits to herself that she does not love Brendan “enough.”
This reader suspects that she thinks that if she loved him “enough” he would treat her right. This reader also suspects that nothing she can do will be enough to make him treat her right. She is his possession. She is an employee and a serf to him. She is arm candy, an object, a possession, a servant, a thing.
In the course of the story, one of the children wants to read the Madeline story by Ludwig Bemelmans. This is the story where the head nun in charge of all the little girls famously senses that: “Something is not right!”
In “Nettles,” two young mothers discuss Simone de Beauvoir in a “rampage of talk.” One wonders what in the world the wife in “Post and Beam” would make of their “postponed ambitions” and their stab at philosophy. Lorna has no ambitions whatsoever, which is, I think, Munro’s point. This is also de Beauvoir’s point, as well as Betty Friedan’s, and that of countless others. In a series of long, philosophical, and poorly translated writings, de Beauvoir essentially argues for freedom and responsibility among both women and men.
Lorna is neither free nor responsible. She does not appear to consider herself entitled to rights, nor does she appear to consider herself responsible for her own happiness. Instead, she appears to embrace the idea that fate will happen to her and provide her with change. Choice is not something with which she is at all comfortable.
She appears to be an adult who is still a child.
De Beauvoir’s philosophy encompasses a set of stages of moral evolution from childhood to a full adulthood. A child adopts the moral universe of the parent, but to de Beauvoir an adult who accepts the moral universe of another adult is less evolved than a child. A fully evolved adult accepts freedom as a responsibility which requires active choices and goals. Viewed through such a lens, Lorna looks to be woefully unevolved, having chosen to adopt her husband as arbiter of all things in her life.
In a key event of her childhood, her older cousin Polly stashed her under a bush to keep her safe. She dutifully stayed under the bush. The pattern continues.
A crisis occurs when Polly, the country cousin, arrives almost out of the blue at Lorna’s house. The husband makes it clear that the cousin is not welcome. His rationale is that Polly wants his money (as if a professor has any money). He takes into account not at all that this cousin is more like an older sister or mother to Lorna. He makes it clear that the wife must make the cousin unwelcome. He makes it clear himself, as well. Lorna is unable to speak in the cousin’s defense or in her own defense. She has no language for the situation she is in. She is being asked to abandon her family in a cruel way, and she herself feels abandoned. As the story progresses, it is clear that her stability is compromised and that she is depressed.
Lorna imagines that her mistreatment of Polly will cause Polly to commit suicide. This is delirium; this is fantasy; this is projection. Polly is resourceful and commonsensical. Left out by Lorna and Brendan, Polly goes out exploring, and then strikes up a connection with Lionel. The person who is devoured by the lure of suicide is Lorna.
That’s the crisis. That’s what’s not right.
Well, there’s one other thing that’s not right. Brendan had said he specifically looked for an “unspoiled” woman to marry. The reader is being invited to consider the meaning of that statement. Is it that she is a virgin or sexually inexperienced? Is it that she has no ambition? Is it that she is uneducated? Is it that she has encountered no modern ideas about the situation of women? Some pastiche of all of these motivations? We don’t know, but we know we don’t like the way Brendan treats Lorna, as if she were his property.
So, will there be any resolution? Almost at story’s end, Lorna thinks:
. . . the bargain she was bound to was to go on living as she had been doing. The bargain was already in force. To accept what had happened and to be clear about what would happen. Days and years and feelings much the same . . .
This sounds like jail, jail being a repeating image in this collection of stories.
Does the reader believe that any resolution will be possible for Lorna? Any way away from her fantasies of suicide or mental breakdown or obliteration of memory?
First of all, the reader learns at story’s end that Lorna lived many years after the crisis, and that when she was twenty four, she was “new to bargaining.” So not only does she survive, she also, apparently, changes.
What hope can we have for her? She does three key things in the course of the crisis that indicate there may be hope. First of all, when Lionel sends her inscrutable poetry, she keeps it. She thinks to herself, it may mean something. She has begun looking for meaning.
Second, she breaks into Lionel’s apartment. Lionel is a former student of her husband’s, a brilliant prodigy of great promise. But he has dropped out of the math department, spent some time in a mental hospital, had his memories erased by electric shock treatment, and taken a job in the Anglican Church publishing house. This has been a trip to the underworld and a flirtation with suicide. Lionel has dropped out and started over on a path entirely his own. Lorna is fascinated with him and his story and fantasizes that he is in love with her. He is her guide, her Orpheus. When she goes to his apartment, she calls it “an investigation.” Although she has no clear idea what she is looking for, the important thing to the reader is that she has taken action, no matter how weird the action is.
Lionel is someone who has dropped out and dropped away from Brendan without dying. It’s also important that Lorna has given the activity a definition. It is “an investigation.” She is looking for something. Proof that he loves her? An explanation for why Brendan loves him? A guidebook to escaping from Brendan? She doesn’t know. We don’t know. What matters is that she has taken a step and has given that step a name: “an investigation.”
Third, at the end of the story, she takes time to carefully observe Polly, Lionel, and Brendan from the upstairs window. She considers Polly’s resilience. She considers the change in Brendan’s manner toward Polly, his new conciliation to her. She considers the change in Lionel, the change in his clothes, the change in his demeanor. She pays attention. She considers that Polly and Lionel might marry.
Then he would change and change again, maybe fall in love with some other woman, but the wife would be too busy to notice.
There it is, the resolution. It has occurred to Lorna that people might change, and it has occurred to her that a woman “might be too busy.” Lorna is so unformed that she has no idea what other than children might make her “too busy,” but the reader knows she is on her way. She is, in Munro’s words, now able to “pay attention,” and now able to conduct investigations. Of what? Of books? Of Buddhism? We don’t know. All we know is that she will die if she doesn’t.
Note: Something is not right. Several of the stories in this collection are directly about suicide — “Comfort,” “Floating Bridge,” and “Post and Beam.” I wonder if what happened to Marcelle in the title story is that she committed suicide after her operation in London for “feminine problems.”
These stories in this collection are also indirectly about wasted time and a wasted life. The writer in “Nettles,” for instance, is wasting her new, free life on easy hookups. Jinny, in “Floating Bridge,” is wasting “the time given.” All of these stories are about the self-imposed jail of aimlessness. Lorna, in “Post and Beam,” is looking for a way to break out. Later, Fiona, in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” will also look for a way to break out of a self-imposed jail.
Second note: Simone de Beauvoir also emphasizes the way we can get lost in the past or can get paralyzed by the past and not take action in the present. De Beauvoir’s writings are dense and demanding, but they appear to be playing a part in Munro’s thinking. More “investigation” is necessary.
Third note: Munro is not in love with authority. In her book, education is actually the student’s own responsibility. Education is “investigation.” Education is paying attention to experience. Lionel has a lot to learn that Brendan, his professor, could not teach him. As does Lorna.
Fourth note: Ultimately, Munro is so fascinating because her writing is so filled with gaps and lack of interpretation. We make of it our own story.