“Dance of the Happy Shades” is the fifteenth and final story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
And we come to the end of this magnificent collection of short stories, the first of many from Alice Munro. Before moving on, I want to thank Betsy for participating. It has really been a pleasure to read these, and Betsy magnified that because, first, it’s always fun to share these kinds of experiences and, second, her pieces on the stories are illuminating and compassionate. Together, we will next be moving on to Munro’s second book, The Lives of Girls and Women, which we will be treating as a novel. Please join us.
Now, on to “Dance of the Happy Shades,” which is narrated by a middle-class adolescent girl just beginning to realize how flawed her mother is, how much each of them are shielded by social norms from something special, how empty life can be in this structure. It’s another great critique on a culture that puffs itself up and disdains anything different from itself.
When the story begins, the mother is trying to find an excuse to avoid going to one of Miss Marsalles’ “parties.” Miss Marsalles, the narrator’s piano teacher (and once the narrator’s mother’s piano teacher), is different. Miss Marsalles seems to trust everyone, and her “party” is her sentimental term for a tedious recital where the parents and children showcase hollow enthusiasm. Except for Miss Marsalles, who always looks so genuinely pleased.
It’s almost as if it’s this very pleasure sets Miss Marsalles apart and allows the parents to look down on her. She speaks “of children’s hearts as if they were something holy” and her place is decorated with sentimental objects of the past. Even the gifts she gives to each child who performs “seemed to feature that tender childish nudity which our sophisticated prudery found most ridiculous and disgusting.”
But Miss Marsalles is also set apart by class. This year she’s had to move to a smaller home, and the narrator’s mother hopes perhaps that is excuse enough not to have the “party.” But, that not being something you can say out loud to Miss Marsalles, it turns out not to be a very good excuse. Nothing else works either because, as the narrator says, “my mother is not an inventive or convincing liar, and the excuses which occur to her are obviously second-rate.”
So they go to the party, and the narrator’s mother immediately feels betrayed when her friend, another parent of a student, doesn’t show up. They were supposed to suffer through this together. Still, this doesn’t stop the mother and the other parents from looking around the room, obviously judging everything, communicating disapprovingly to one another. The narrator is embarrassed too. She doesn’t seem to love her teacher (she’s already feeling more sophisticated), but she does realize there’s something wrong with discussing Miss Marsalles and her situation in her own living room while Miss Marsalles attends to each sub-par performance with happiness.
The story shifts focus toward the end. Throughout the story, Miss Marsalles seemed to be waiting for more students to arrive, but, the parents and narrator realize, anyone smart enough not to be there at the beginning is not going to show up late. They’ve escaped. But the students only Miss Marsalles expected do show up. They are students from Greenhill School for handicapped children.
The parents quietly moan as they realize the party is not as close to being over as they’d hoped. And now they have to listen to these students. Miss Clegg tries to lighten the mood while showing just how superior these parents feel: “Sometimes that kind is quite musical.”
As it turns out, one of the girls from Greenhill School performs a beautiful rendition of “The Dance of the Happy Shades” (going by Wikipedia, this may refer to a piece from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice). Everyone is quiet. The narrator says the music “carries with it the freedom of a great unemotional happiness.” When the performance is over, Miss Marsalles “smiles at everybody in her usual way. Her smile is not triumphant, or modest.” After all, says the narrator, “people who believe in miracles do not make much fuss when the actually encounter one.”
So who are the shades? Are they the parents who, because of attitudes of superiority and condescension, are often unable to partake in the beautiful connection between people, life, and art? Or are the shades Miss Marsalles and the children from Greenhill School, dancing and happy, obscured by social mores? Either way, the narrator recognizes that she and her mother do not inhabit the same land as Miss Marsalles and these children from Greenhill School, and perhaps she is the lesser for it. But at least here she was able to receive “that one communiqué from the other country where [Miss Marsalles] lives.”
Alice Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades” is important. In this story, Munro shows a typical children’s piano recital, complete with its little sandwiches and elderly teacher, its itchy mothers and bored children. But she adds the surprise at the end of real music played so it “could be felt” by the most unlikely candidate: a teenaged girl with Down syndrome. Thus is everyone confronted with a peculiar challenge to their sense of what is right: somebody who doesn’t really belong, somebody who is a disabled stranger, somebody who at that time would have been mostly cloistered from society, somebody who would have difficulty with speech, is more perfectly communicative than anyone else in the room.
Munro speaks for me. My beautiful, engaging, bookish, athletic, funny, musical, four-year-old grandson has Down syndrome. I recently returned from a conference in Worcester where father and son guitarists Ricardo and Cesar Coloma performed, playing the music “so it could be felt,” as Munro would have said, regardless that the younger Coloma has Down syndrome. See more here.
Serious literature about people with Down syndrome is not common. When this story was published in 1961, there was only one other serious work in which Down syndrome figured – Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, published in 1929. Faulkner’s book beautifully uses Benjy Compson to express every human’s essential need for love.
Munro’s story goes beyond Faulkner’s careful, thoughtful and loving portrait of Benjy, however. In Faulkner’s novel, Benjy is mute, and he is a victim. In Munro’s story, the girl is not mute, in that she plays music, real music, with skill and sensitivity. She is, in fact, a musician, when all the students are just drudges. And despite her probable hospitalization, she is not a victim. She is an actor in her own life, an actor upon the stage of the story, an actor upon the perceptions of the other characters, and upon us, as well.
In “Dance of the Happy Shades” Munro went against the tide of 1950’s accepted beliefs. Most parents of a child with Down syndrome at that time were advised to institutionalize their baby at birth. They were told the child might never talk and couldn’t be taught. (Even Arthur Miller. In an article entitled “Arthur Miller’s Missing Act” in the September, 2007, issue of Vanity Fair, Suzanna Andrews tells the story of how Miller consigned his son Danny, who had Down syndrome, to the Connecticut State Hospital system.)
While Munro’s characters are from an institution, they show promise one could not have easily imagined at that time, and Miss Marsalles shows goodness most people of the time would have called wrong-headed.
Munro’s story is marked by the courage she summoned, for a variety of reasons, to write it.
In the seventies, various court decisions in the United States closed many of the state institutions and simultaneously ordered public schools to educate all children in their jurisdiction. By the eighties, many children with Down syndrome were being educated in public schools. This is the picture now in Boston: students with Down syndrome are often in inclusive classrooms, learn sign language, learn to read, do math, learn sports, learn music, attend community college, have jobs. The Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress has a group of young adult self-advocates who travel to schools and medical schools to deliver lectures and conduct Q & A’s about what it is like to have Down syndrome. There is still much to be done to accomplish full inclusion in ordinary adult life for individuals with Down syndrome, however. Independent living, meaningful work, and marriage are the next frontier, not just for individuals with Down syndrome, but for many with disabilities.
What makes Munro’s story especially important is the way she tells it. The whole episode is seen through the eyes of a young teen who is old enough to observe what adults like her mother are saying and doing, but still young enough to have a mind of her own about what she is observing. The story thus sidesteps sentimentality and mawkishness. Instead, it has the teenager’s straightforward voice, and when the child with Down syndrome finally performs, we are as surprised at her beautiful music as the narrator.
I like the fearlessness of the story: Munro is not afraid to claim, in Miss Marsalles, that goodness exists. She is not afraid to show that goodness is complicated, that it can feel peculiar, unfamiliar, embarrassing, or even strange. Munro sets goodness against whining, carping, backsliding, missing the point, condescension, and blindness. In this story, Munro lets music be its own self, a language, an experience, a gift, a transport, a way of thought, not just a drudgery to be done.
Most of all, Munro gives disability a human dimension: in this story disability has a right to enjoy promise. Here, disability is just a part of being human, not the totality. Here, a person with a disability has her own gifts, her own mentor, and her own right to the pursuit of artistry. Munro allows both love and disability a voice, as well as ignorance and impatience.
If I were still teaching, I would teach “Dance of the Happy Shades.” I’d pair it with “The Sound and the Fury,” the Vanity Fair article, and a little Shakespeare. I’d also show an episode of Glee and one of Life Goes On. I’d include an excerpt from the papers of seventies activist Benjamin Ricci, who fought the state of Massachusetts on behalf of the son he had placed at the Belchertown State School. We would consider the limitations of the point of view in Of Mice and Men, a widely studied but possibly misleading book. The students would pay a visit to the inclusion nursery school where my grandson is a student; they’d go on a day when the music therapist is there. They’d attend a conference at the NDSS, NDSC, or MDSC. And one of the Massachusetts self-advocates with Down syndrome would come to speak to them. We would consider the question of prejudice: is it easier to accept prejudice if a person looks different? (NDSS data shows that some persons with Down syndrome possess an IQ similar to that of some ordinary, unclassified, people.) We’d consider the way autism, Asperger’s, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities affect the inclusion of children in ordinary life. And then we’d read this story again.
A comment on the title “Dance of the Happy Shades”: The title appears to refer to a musical piece by Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique. If this is true, the title must be ironic, as the shades who dance in the Berlioz piece are participants at a witches’ Sabbath. Ironically, people with Down syndrome are often seen as happy, although Miss Marsales’ music students with Down syndrome are not particularly happy. What they are, or what one is, is gifted. One has to wonder then, whether the shades in this story are actually the mothers, who in their insularity are half-dead and happy in their ignorance, as they seem to lack a true understanding of either music or people. At the same time, though, the children with Down syndrome indulge their love of music, happily ignorant of the assumptions of ordinary people, who would most likely deny their right to play. Munro’s use of this ambiguous title for the whole book further extends the meaning: In “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” the little girl delightedly dances with a friend of her father’s, although it will be years before she understands who the friend really is. In “Trip to the Coast,” the repugnant grandmother dies “victorious,” a happy shade. Munro specializes in the half-perceptions of her characters – and their shades of truth.
My deep thanks to Alice Munro for writing “Dance of the Happy Shades.”
(One important caveat regarding the story is that it was written at a time when many hospitals to which people with Down syndrome were consigned were so overcrowded as to have become warehouses, a situation which Frederick Wiseman’s groundbreaking 1967 movie, Titicut Follies revealed. Munro’s “Greenhill School” appears to be an exception, or perhaps the story takes places in a time just prior to that sad warehousing.)
“The Peace of Utrecht” is the fourteenth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
“The Peace of Utrecht” may be Munro’s most famous early story. With good reason. It’s a watershed story for her personally. In 1959, Munro’s mother died after years of suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Munro confronts her mother’s illness in this story. While it may not have helped her personally to move away from the death of her mother (in “The Ottawa Valley,” published in her 1974 collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, the character says about her mother, ”And she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. To what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did.”), Munro says she finally felt like she began her real writing with this piece about the often futile desire to escape from one life that is forced upon you to retrieve what you feel should be your real life.
The story begins by telling us the end. Our narrator, Helen, is visiting her sister Maddy, and we learn right away that the visit is a failure. It’s a remarkable first paragraph that I want to quote in full:
I have been home now for three weeks and it has not been a success. Maddy and I, though we speak cheerfully of our enjoyment of so long and intimate a visit, will be relieved when it is over. Silences disturb us. We laugh immoderately. I am afraid — very likely we are both afraid — that when the moment comes to say goodbye, unless we are very quick to kiss, and fervently mockingly squeeze each other’s shoulders, we will have to look straight into the desert that is between us and acknowledge that we are not merely indifferent; at heart we reject each other, and as for that past we make so much of sharing we do not really share it at all, each of us keeping it jealously to herself, thinking privately that the other has turned alien, and forfeited her claim.
Helen’s visit was brought on by their mother’s death, some months before when it was colder outside. Helen did not attend the funeral; there was a blizzard, though likely she would not have attended anyway, and likely Maddy was more content with her absence. But when the warmer weather arrived, Helen packed up her two young children and travelled to Jubilee (chronologically, this is the first story to take place in Jubilee).
In the first section of this story, Helen tells us about her strained relationship with her sister. Years earlier their mother had contracted a disease (something much like Parkinson’s Disease, if it isn’t actually Parkinson’s disease), and the two sisters struggled to take care of someone they no longer felt they knew.
Maddy, being the older sister, struck a deal with Helen. Helen would give Maddy four years to go to college; then Maddy would return so Helen could go for four years to college. Good as her word, Maddy returned, and Helen went off to the “holiday world of school,” and she hated coming back to the “dim world of continuing disaster, of home.”
And Helen never came back. Instead, she got married and went away. Maddy has been caring for their mother, essentially alone, for ten years. Maddy has had no life, and Helen, naturally, feels guilty:
All I can think about that, all I have ever been able to think, to comfort me, is that she may have been able and may even have chosen to live without time and in perfect imaginary freedom as children do, the future untampered with, all choices always possible.
It’s a comforting, willfully self-deluding thought: at least Maddy has the pleasure of still having her own life before her.
Still, we definitely get the sense that Helen would not change anything. She recognizes that it was hard for her sister, and this is a hardship she would not assume, not for her sister, not for her mother. In a way, Helen has escaped, and now she cannot wait until she can escape this three-week visit with Maddy.
Maddy, for her part, has never had her own life. The one comfort she has is in the friendship with Fred Powell, a man who understands her somewhat because he himself is married to a woman who has become an invalid. Helen doesn’t know the extent to which Maddy and Fred seek comfort from one another.
The second section of the story shifts to the focus to their mother’s own desired (and attempted) escape from the life she’s been stuck with. Helen visits her Aunt Annie and Auntie Lou, kindly relatives who did a little to help but who also seemed to have managed to keep a safe distance. While there, Helen learns a bit more about her mother’s final days in a hospital, her attempted escape (which Munro recounts in the version of “Dear Life” that was published in The New Yorker: “If this were fiction, as I said, it would be too much, but it is true.”). It’s possible that Maddy left her there on purpose, knowing it would kill her sooner.
This is a rich story — the characters’ names say a lot: Helen, Hell; Maddy, Mad — and I’ve touched on almost nothing here.
In “The Peace of Utrecht,” young mother Helen returns home for a visit with her older sister Maddy the summer after their mother has died. Due to a blizzard, Helen had not attended the funeral, but actually, it is not clear she would have attended in any event. Now it is summer, and the sisters are having a month-long reunion. Helen tells us in the first sentence: “I have been at home now for three weeks and it has not been a success.” One way to look at the story is to examine just what Helen means, just what Munro means, by “success.”
In fact, despite pleasantries, Helen senses between herself and Maddy a “desert” in which they “reject each other.” In a way, the first paragraph of the story is as much of an ending as is the real ending, with the stories we hear in between the explanation of how the sisters became estranged, “estrangement” being an important word in the story.
In the actual ending, Munro finishes up the story with a symbol: Maddy is preparing dinner for herself and Helen when she drops an old pink cut glass bowl. The smashed bowl neatly works as a representation of the sisters’ shattered relationship, and also as a representation of the many shards their lives encompass.
The smashed bowl feels like a reference to Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, but James uses his symbolic bowl as a centerpiece, whereas Munro uses her pink bowl almost as an afterthought, as if to say to anyone paying attention, “symbolism works, but look closer. I’ve been doing something else.”
That something else is the way she likes to wrap one story within another, and the way that she works in layers, wrapping and layering being words Munro herself uses in interviews to describe her own work. Some of the layering in this story has to do with how each character perceives what happened in the past, but some of the layering also juxtaposes separate truths. It is this juxtaposition of different versions of the same experience that makes “The Peace of Utrecht” so rich, especially against the backdrop of a story that is, in fact, tragic.
It is the interplay between the stories that is her primary artistic technique here, not the use of symbol. The “wrapped” stories represent the complex forces of life and tragedy far more efficiently than a mere symbol.
The stories that wrap around each other create a dense, overlapping experience of life itself. The fact that Munro can manage the complexity is testimony to her care and artistry. But what makes Munro a towering figure is that she is able to show how there is more than one story, more than one point of view, to any experience. In some cases, it is the juxtaposed characters who have differing points of view, and in others it is one character for whom time and experience have brought a new point of view.
In “The Peace of Utrecht” there are at least six stories wrapped one around another.
At the center is an image: the gothic figure of the girls’ mother, a woman trapped in a twenty-year prison sentence of Parkinsonism, staying alive by a kind of “egotism” when, as she says, she has “lost everything.” Perhaps due to her original ambitions, she becomes, in the grip of the disease, a “gothic” tyrant who creates around her a chaotic world of “frustration and frenzy.”
Helen and Maddy are the teenaged daughters who must care for her when she first becomes ill.
During the first half of the mother’s illness, the girls are in high school and college. Maddy says to Helen regarding going away for college: “You give me four years, I’ll give you four years.”
Maddy returns and keeps her part of that bargain, but Helen marries right out of college, becomes a mother, and never returns. So we see the origins of why the visit cannot be, in simple terms, a success.
Helen has escaped the home which had become a “continuing disaster,” where “anarchy” was the norm, and where the girls isolated their mother so as to escape the horror of being publicly associated with her. (Later, Helen thinks they should have let the town have her, “it would have treated her better.”)
Helen’s escape into marriage and motherhood is also an escape from a prison where she daily must enact “parodies of love.” But the losses live on:
I want to ask [Maddy]: is it possible that children growing up as we did lose the ability to believe in – to be at home in – any ordinary and peaceful reality?
And then, there is also guilt, as when Helen report that the girls “took away all emotion from our dealings with [their ill mother], as you might take away meat from a prisoner to weaken him, ‘till he dies.”
Part of the peace they have lost is the confidence that ordinary love is theirs to receive or theirs to give. This is something that an immature writer might use to blame other people, and yet Munro’s vision does not work that way. Everyone seems to have their own failings in this story.
Even more, Helen’s story is about the “secret, guilty estrangement” that most likely began in college – detachment, one guesses, not only from home and everything it represented, but detachment from her bargain with her sister, made, as it might have been, in the confidence of being a teenager. It is also an estrangement from feeling normal – a feeling of being stranger to the most normal emotions of life.
And how could we have loved her, I say desperately to myself, the resources of love we had were not enough, the demand on us was too great.
There is something grammatically awkward about this last thing that Helen says. Given that Munro is so careful about language, one guesses that she means the jarring syntax and punctuation to represent Helen’s own sense of estrangement from ordinary speech, ordinary life, ordinary goodness.
Maddy’s is the story of the dutiful daughter who does not leave home, and who maintains her “ten year vigil” caring for her mother through her twenties, until she, too, cracks and commits her mother to a hospital. She had reached a point where she, too, could plead, “I wanted my life.” Of course, this echoes Helen’s run for it, but it even echoes the mother’s own desperate run for it. Realizing she has been committed, the mother escapes from the hospital in the middle of a January night in her night-clothes. Regardless of her weakness and paralysis, the decrepit mother actually runs when she sees the orderlies coming.
Wrapped, like a seed, at the center of “The Peace of Utrecht” is the image of the aged crippled mother running through the winter night, trying to retrieve her life. This image sums up all the other stories in this story. At some point, we must all, inevitably, run for our lives.
So, yes, the shattered pink bowl of ruined aspiration is a symbol, but it is a static symbol. The image of the ruined old woman running into the winter night in her flimsy night-clothes is alive with reverberation. Munroe calls it egotism that keeps the mother alive, but it is the burning force at the center of the story – the will that each character has to survive.
Another of the stories told here is Fred Powell’s, Maddy’s improbable boyfriend, the mild married man who has an invalid wife, the man who “speaks the same language” as Maddy.
Fred is a necessity in “The Peace of Utrecht” because he makes Maddy’s unbearable life possible. But he is also a necessity because he reminds us that men can actually choose to shoulder the responsibility of an invalid wife. He is the representation of the gap at the story’s center.
Munro has talked about the importance of gaps in her storytelling.
The girls’ missing father is the shimmering negative of Fred Powell. Never mentioned at all, the reader has to sense this gap, both the gap in reality and the gap in Helen’s perception of herself. Where is he? Where is the husband of the felled wife? Further, where are the other relatives? Why are the girls alone with the care of their mother? The issue of abandonment in this story is central, but while abandonment is implied, Munro never uses the word. Another gap.
At the time Munro was thinking about and writing this story, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop were experimenting with what came to be called “confessional” poetry. In their case, the “confession” was the use of their personal lives in poetry, a movement that has marked poetry for the past fifty years.
“The Peace of Utrecht” feels influenced by, or at least similar to, this movement, especially by Bishop’s use of understatement. Munro bases “The Peace of Utrecht” on her own experience with her own mother, thus making this story a kind of “confessional” fiction. What distinguishes Munro, what makes her a towering figure, is the fact that this “confessional” fiction makes every effort not to lay blame. It allows everyone their own story, and it also allows her mother her own heroism. It’s the situation more than anything that is the prison. And as for the missing adults? They’re missing. That’s it. The reader is left to guess what their story might be. The reader is left to intuit the meaning of the gap. The gap is the height of understatement.
For one thing, the gap represented by the missing fictional father illuminates the girls’ poverty, as well as their lack of guidance, help, money, and love.
Another set of stories is that of the aunts. Aunt Annie wants to treasure the mother’s dresses, probably in an attempt to remember the mother as she once was, filled with imagination and ambition. But Helen remembers how Aunt Annie used to sneak the girls an occasional five dollar bill. We hear nothing about how the aunts actually helped the girls in their time of real trouble (another gap), except that the girls enjoyed the orderly comfort of visiting the aunt’s house as an escape from the chaos of their own. What’s five dollars to a drowning child, the reader asks. The abandonment which was their fate was in itself another kind of imprisonment.
That brings us to the story that wraps up all the others: the story of the title, “The Peace of Utrecht,” itself a story wrapped in a story. The historical story is that of the treaty that settled the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, a treaty signed by fifteen parties in the city Utrecht, a treaty that changed the balance of power in Europe, a treaty that reassigned the governance of many cities from one country to another, a treaty that took decades to play out. What is also significant is that the city of Utrecht itself, although affected by the treaty, had no say in the treaty. And thus were the lives of this family affected for years, perhaps a lifetime, by circumstances about which they had no initial voice or choice.
What is wonderful is the way Munro uses this historical event: she uses it to give the crippled mother a chance to tell her story, so to speak. Maddy has told Helen that one way to keep the mother quiet, toward the end, was to let her sort things, anything. Munro uses the historical event to voice her sense of how the events in her family are tragic – impossible, fated, and ghastly.
Months after the funeral, during Helen’s visit to the house in the summer, Helen finds some of her old history notes in the wash stand she and Maddy used as a desk. Lying on the top were her notes to “The Peace of Utrecht.” Possibly sorted to lie on top, the notes may have allowed The Gothic Mother to have her say.
(Of course, perhaps it was Maddy who left the notes on the Peace of Utrecht on top; and in that case, it is Maddy talking.)
If you grow up thinking you were unable to love your mother, and that in addition you failed her in other ways, this is a situation that is going to last a long time, probably a lifetime, with its effects feeling like a long war. In a way, Munro started the story with the question that is also its ending:
Is it possible that children growing up as we did lose the ability to believe in – to be at home in — any ordinary and peaceful reality?
In their last night together, the two sisters are as close to honesty as they can get. Getting ready for supper, Maddy drops a beautiful pink glass bowl. It’s as if they’ve dropped all pretense, all artifice. Broken glass surrounds them.
“Oh Hell, oh Hel-en,” Maddy jokes. And there it is – life is hell and beauty. That’s its name. Life is two stories, one wrapped within the other: hell and beauty, the tragic and the ordinary, inescapably interleaved.
As to whether Helen’s visit has been a success? I think it has, in fact. She has allowed herself, through her writing, to take in some new facts about her mother and to see herself and her sister more clearly. Most important, she appears to have reflected upon what she now knows.
But every word in Munro counts. At one point, Helen lets herself hear Maddy say, “No exorcising,” meaning, don’t change the past. Helen realizes she can write her story, but she must use Maddy’s vision: don’t be tempted to make things pretty.
As for another important word in the story, there is “estrangement.” Helen writes, about half-way through the story:
In the ordinary world it was not possible to recreate [my mother]. The picture of her face I carried in my mind seemed too terrible, too unreal. Similarly, the complex strain of living with her, the feelings of hysteria which Maddy and I once dissipated in a great deal of brutal laughter, now began to seem partly imaginary; I felt the beginnings of a secret, guilty estrangement.
But with her return, Helen encounters other people’s stories, each one wrapped about another: the story told through the old history notes, so carefully sorted to the top of the pile; the story of Maddy’s affair with Fred, the only person who speaks her language; the extremely important story Aunt Annie tells of the paralyzed mother’s attempted escape from the hospital. And so, with new information, Helen re-writes her own story. But still, we get it. As with the Peace of Utrecht, it will be a long process.
“A Trip to the Coast” is the thirteenth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
In an interview in 1972, Alice Munro told John Metcalf that “A Trip to the Coast” was her least favorite story in Dance of the Happy Shades. It was written more or less at the same time that she wrote “The Peace of Utrecht,” which is a kind of watershed story after which she felt she finally started her real writing. While I consider “The Peace of Utrecht,” the story we will be discussing next, to be superior to “A Trip to the Coast” in almost every way, I find this story remarkable all the same, not least because the ending led me to reread the story a couple of times before putting down these thoughts. These early stories from Alice Munro often end with a mysterious word, a word that we feel is the key to understanding the remainder of the story and with it the depths of the characters Munro is offering us. Here, at the end, we wonder how eleven-year-old May’s grandmother was “victorious” as she lay dead over the store counter.
“A Trip to the Coast” begins beautifully with a description of one of those habitations along the highway one can scarcely believe exists, so small are they that there is almost no conceivable way the inhabitants can subsist.
The place called Black Horse is marked on the map but there is nothing there except a store and three houses and an old cemetery and a livery shed which belonged to a church that burned down.
I now live in the western United States, and I love long drives far from the cities and towns. I see these places often, with their one shop that can’t sell much fuel or food, and I love that such a forsaken place and its forsaken people are Munro’s subjects.
People who are passing through, on their way to the Lakes of Muskoka and the northern bush, may notice that around here the bountiful landscape thins and flattens, worn elbows of rock appear in the diminishing fields and the deep, harmonious woodlots of elm and maple give way to a denser, less hospitable scrub-forest of birch and poplar, spruce and pine — where in the heat of the afternoon the pointed trees at the end of the road turn blue, transparent, retreating into the distance like a company of ghosts.
Here in Black Horse live the young May, her grandmother, and Hazel, who may or may not be May’s mother (she is the grandmother’s daughter). The grandmother runs the store. On most mornings she has to go wake May to get her to help, but not this particular morning. Today May woke early with “a feeling through her whole body like the feeling inside her head when she was going to sneeze.” She wants something from this: “Nobody had spoken for this day yet; its purity astonished her.”
But Grandma is awake. She walks around the corner fully dressed (with clothes worn in the same way the fields are). May tries to talk to her, to ask why she’s up so early, but Grandma answers only when she wants to. Though we’ve had indications, it’s here that we see how strained May’s relationship with her grandmother is. This is a cruel grandma who lords over her daughter and granddaughter. She has claim on everything and makes them feel insignificant.
May saw her come, not really with surprise but with a queer let-down feeling that seemed to spread thinly from the present moment into all areas of her life, past and future. It seemed to her that any place she went her grandmother would be there beforehand: anything she found out her grandmother would know already, or else could prove to be of no account.
Grandma is described by the third-person narrator as having a head that was “rather big for her body and with her hair pulled tightly over her skull she had the look of an under-nourished but maliciously intelligent baby.” Grandma later says to May, “Shame to be such a baby.” And Hazel, who is now in her 30s, still acts like an adolescent, unable to move on, though Grandma cruelly reads personal ads to her. The three individuals, like Black Horse, are stunted. The grandmother refuses to move away. Worse, she seems to maliciously hold the other two back, one day telling May she could not go swimming with her friends. Why? Well, because.
She had a feeling that her grandmother did not believe in her own reasons any more, that she did not care, but would go on pulling these same reasons out of the bag, flourishing them nastily, only to see what damage they could do.
But there is a moment of vulnerability when the grandmother both tells May how old she is and tells her they should take a trip to the coast together, on their way to visit the grandmother’s son whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years. Before this can happen, though, Grandma dies, rather suddenly, seemingly in an effort to keep a hypnotist from opening up her secrets.
So how is this death victorious, at least from the perspective of May? Is it because the trip to the coast will now never happen? Is May now stuck, though she might appear to finally be free? Is it that now the grandmother has entered another realm, gone before May yet again into a world of secrets she won’t divulge? It’s mysterious. I have some thoughts that are still processing, but I’d love to hear what others think.
“A Trip to the Coast” takes place in Black Horse, a place with nothing but three houses and a cemetery, a livery shed and a store. The store survives because it’s on the way to the Lakes of Muskoka, and it has a gas station.
May is a girl of eleven who lives at the store with her miserable old grandmother, a woman of 78 who gives May “a queer let-down feeling that seemed to spread thinly from the present moment into all areas of her life, past and future.” The grandmother is, to May’s thinking, cold, sly, malicious, agitated, mean, outrageous, and remote. Once, for fun, the grandmother played dead. The trip to the coast in question is her grandmother’s sudden proposal that May and she go out to the coast to visit Lewis, the grandmother’s son. May thinks:
The very words produced a feeling of coolness and delight in her. But she did not trust them, she could not understand; when in her life had her grandmother promised her any fine thing before?
Hazel, the grandmother’s thirty-three-year-old daughter, has fine things packed away in a chest, fine things she cannot bear to share with her mother or May. As a matter of habit, Hazel wears “an oblique, resentful expression.”
More than Hazel, though, the whole story is “oblique.” No inquiry or argument is made into whether May has parents, knows their whereabouts, misses them, yearns for them, or even ever thinks about them.
She accepted the rule of her grandmother as she accepted a rain squall or a stomach ache, with a tough, basic certainty that such things would pass.
May appears to have no mother or father she knows of, yet candidates present themselves to the reader. Hazel, a thirty-three-year-old who appears stuck in adolescence, could be May’s mother, but that is a frightening thought, so unconnected to May as she seems to be.
On this day, though, May has awakened early and gone outside, and “had a premonition of freedom and danger, like a streak of dawn across that sky.”
This story is about the day her grandmother dies, the day her grandmother fights a strange, “victorious” battle, but obliquely, the death is about May’s life. For, if the grandmother dies, who will she live with? Hazel? Not that the story even mentions May’s future. But if she does live with Hazel, May has obliquely ended up with a mother who has been up til now been allowed to renounce the name of mother. One speculates about how that will go.
But the day that May is set free by her grandmother’s death, the real question is not who might take care of her in this event, but whether her grandmother will “capitulate” to being hypnotized by a stranger who’s stopped at the store. He says through hypnosis he can “[f]ind out their hidden worries and anxieties that’s causing them all the trouble.”
But the grandmother declares stubbornly, “You couldn’t do that with me.” When she feels herself going under, she dies fighting it off. May sees that she dies “victorious,” able to resist hypnosis, able to resist making any possible revelation of her secrets. She’d rather die than unlock the chest. One has the sense of her going to the grave with her secrets, and that May knows that’s what she’s doing.
The story presents us with Munro’s oblique technique: truths are concealed from a character’s consciousness. The pleasure of the story is in the reader gradually realizing the truth. In this case, we have the sense that May will realize a whole lot more as time goes by. Will she get her trip to the coast?
For now, it is enough that we see how May might have a life free of this horrible woman and to know May’s premonition — “like a streak of dawn across the sky” — that it will be a life of both “freedom and danger.”
One other thing: Munro makes every sentence, every detail, count. It makes a difference to this sad story that the trees in the distance are “like a company of ghosts” and that May’s nightgown, which used to be Hazel’s, “billowed out in a soft, ghostly way behind her.” May now has her future beckoning, but she has her ghosts, too.
What I’m trying to say is this: when you read a Munro story, she gives you a lot to think about. Connections, questions, allusions, suggestions, and possibilities all flow from the flowing words and sentences. Her stories ripple like a brain.
“Sunday Afternoon” is the twelfth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
For me “Sunday Afternoon” is one of the weaker stories in this collection, though the final scene is still powerful and surprising, making the slow and predictable build-up pay off. Perhaps Munro felt similar about the first part of the story because she did a sort of revision and a sort of sequel called “The Hired Girl,” which was published in The New Yorker in 1994 and later compiled in The View from Castle Rock.
Here we meet Alva who has come to work during the summer for the wealthy Gannetts. In the first part of the story, “Sunday Afternoon” is a fairly typical fish-out-of-water story, with Alva a stranger in the rich surroundings and trying to figure out how to navigate around the matriarch. Soon, the awkwardness and trepidation simply lead to loneliness as Ava spends more and more time doing her work alone, realizing that she is isolated and invisible most of the time.
In the middle of the story, we hear Alva’s own account in a letter to her family, which shows (perhaps too clearly) just how lonely she is:
Don’t worry about me being lonesome and downtrodden and all that maid sort of thing. I wouldn’t let anybody get away with anything like that. Besides I’m not a maid really, it’s just for the summer. I don’t feel lonesome, why should I? I just observe and am interested. Mother, of course I can’t eat with them. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not the same thing as a hired girl at all. Also I prefer to eat alone.
As the summer heats up, it only gets worse. She’s not even sure she wants to go with the family to their island in the latter part of the summer. One Sunday afternoon the family is having a kind of party outside and Alva remains inside, acutely aware that she not even present enough to make a sound:
Nothing was the matter, but she felt heavy, heavy with the heat and tired and uncaring, hearing all around her an incomprehensible faint noise — of other people’s lives, of boats and cars and dances — and seeing this street, that promised island, in a harsh and continuous dazzle of sun. She could not make a sound her, not a dint.
But though it’s been rather predictable until now, something completely unexpected happens while Alva sits in the house that Sunday. A stranger who turns out to be one of Mrs. Gannett’s cousins walks in the room:
She waited, her back to the counter, and Mrs. Gannett’s cousin took hold of her lightly, as in a familiar game, and spent some time kissing her mouth.
Before leaving to join the party, he tells Alva that he will be at the island sometime in August. That’s all that happens, and we readers are appalled at the shameless cousin who trounces in, takes advantage, and then leaves, fully expecting his advance to be some kind of benediction on the head of Alva.
Which is how Alva takes it:
This stranger’s touch had eased her; her body was simply grateful and expectant, and she felt a lightness and confidence she had not known in this house.
It’s in these unexpected yet familiar contradictions that Munro excels. Here is a young woman so isolated and lonely that she accepts the advances of a stranger who simply expects her to be waiting for him when he arrives in August. Of course, it doesn’t end there. There’s an awareness on Alva’s part, something she only kind of feels, something she doesn’t want to think about yet: “there was always something she would not explore yet — a tender spot, a new and still mysterious humiliation.”
We fear for Alva as we leave her baffled and alone in that kitchen.
In “Sunday Afternoon” Alva is the “country high-school girl” working as a maid for the summertime in a grand Canadian house, which is so spacious that it seems empty to her. Writing to her mother, she says:
Don’t worry about me being lonesome and downtrodden and all that maid sort of thing. I wouldn’t let anybody get away with anything like that.
But the fact is, she does. Her uniform is too big, making her employer, Mr. Gannett, keep asking her if she is “getting enough to eat.” Just by being in the house, the employers are getting away with things with her. Her room is too hot, for instance. When she walks in the street, she realizes she is “conspicuous” as “you never saw people walking.” Partially for that reason, she tells her mother she’d better meet her sister in town when she comes to visit. But in addition, she “never knows how Mrs. Gannett will react.”
So Alva allows herself small rebellions. She says to her mother, “Besides I’m not a maid, really, it’s just for the summer.” She uses a “tone of affected ease, a note of exaggerated carelessness and agreeability” with her employer, and she knows it has an “irritating” effect on the perfect Mrs. Gannett.
She drinks the gin out of the “bottoms of the glasses” but she notes not at all how much nor how much it might affect her. Munro observes that a “feeling of unreality, of alternate apathy and recklessness, became very strong in the house by the middle of the afternoon.” This statement at first appears to relate to the guests, but placed as it is directly following Alva’s drinking the leftover gin, the apathy and recklessness most surely applies also to Alva. She does not appear to be aware of the jeopardy she is in.
Later on that particular Sunday afternoon, one of the guests, Mrs. Gannett’s cousin, waylays Alva in kitchen and kisses her.
This stranger’s touch had eased her; her body was simply grateful and expectant, and she felt a lightness and confidence she had not known in this house.
Now she looks forward to the summer; but now also, “there was something she would not explore yet – a tender spot, a new and mysterious humiliation.”
The situation ensures this degradation; for weeks she will be without society, without friends or conversation, without equality. It’s an environment that requires more maturity than Alva has: she is in danger, despite her cool self-possession. So she makes small incursions and small thefts against this isolation. She says to her mother, “I just observe and am interested.” This, however, is a self-delusion; yes, she observes, but yes, she also puts herself in harm’s way. It’s a fine line to walk, managing the separations of class.
I admire the way Munro so deftly conveys the complexity of the situation. Munro is very sensitive to class, but she doesn’t indulge herself here. We see that Alva is in over her head, but we go along with her. At the same time, we see the white water and her absolute vulnerability.
“Red Dress — 1946” is the eleventh story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
In “Red Dress — 1946,” our thirteen-year-old narrator is uncomfortably stepping out of the “safe [. . .] boundaries of childhood.” She’s terrified. At the same time, she’s tiring under the watch of her somewhat frail and perhaps oppressive mother. To become an adult, to leave her mother, to not become her mother. There’s actually some dark humor going on here — we may recall our adolescent concerns as somwhat silly now and recognize a bit of that here — but overall I got a strong sense of dark complexity that foreshadows some of Munro’s later work.
When the story begins, our narrator’s mother is busy sewing a fairly complicated red dress. She has good ideas, we are told, but she is “not a really good sewer.” Disappointed to the point of feeling victimized, our narrator watches her mother toil away, “getting to her feet with a woeful creaking and sighing,” all the while making remarks such as “I doubt if she appreciates it.”
I had worn these clothes with docility, even pleasure, in the days when I was unaware of the world’s opinion. Now, grown wiser, I wished for dresses like those my friend Lonnie had, bought at Beale’s store.
The dress is for the upcoming Christmas Dance, which mom and best friend Lonnie are looking forward to. Our narrator is not: “I did not want to go.”
That old building with its rock-walled clammy basements and black cloakrooms and pictures of dead royalties and lost explorers, was full of the tension and excitement of sexual competition, and in this, in spite of daydreams of vast success, I had premonitions of total defeat. Something had to happen, to keep me from the dance.
It’s not clear to us or the narrator why she feels so certain she should fail. Perhaps she’ll blame her mother’s red dress, but that can’t be it; she has never been comfortable at school: “I was close to despair at all times.” She says:
There was something mysterious the matter with me, something that could not be put right like bad breath or overlooked like pimples, and everybody knew it, and I knew it; I had known it all along.
This insight comes in a moment of mortification, but she has long suspected something “mysterious” was wrong with her, even if she — if no one – could ever put her finger on it. To get out of the dance, then, to avoid the shame of defeat, at night she opens her window to the cold: “my throat and bronchial tubes were supposed to be weak; why not expose them?” As she sits there, she says to herself the words “blue with cold,” but the day of the dance comes and she is healthy. And her dress looks beautiful on her.
At the dance we see even better just how muddled the narrator’s desires are when she sees the boys and girls:
The girls stood beside them, resting their hands casually on male sleeves, their faces bored, aloof and beautiful. I longed to be like that.
She may long for a boyfriend, but we get the sense that even more she longs for this kind of security, the ability to be bored rather than terrified.
Despite what appears to be confirmation of her worst fears about herself, fears which cause her to take refuge in a bathroom stall where she is determined to wait out the dance, the narrator does get an opportunity to distance herself from all of this. Also taking refuge in the bathroom is Mary Fortune, an older girl “who had suffered the same defeat as I had — I saw that — but she was full of energy and self respect.” Mary says she finds the girls who cling to boys silly. Our narrator thinks, “Listening to her, I felt the acute phase of my unhappiness passing.” After sharing a cigarette, Mary suggests they leave. Our narrator feels empowered; she never thought she would be capable of leaving, though surely she had been tempted.
But just as they are about out the door, our narrator gets asked to dance by a boy who was not forced. While a moment before she had felt invigorated by the possibility of escape she now feels invigorated by this reason to stay. Mary leaves anyway; the boy takes our narrator home.
I find this next passage so interesting:
Then he turned back to town, never knowing he had been my rescuer, that he had brought me from Mary Fortune’s territory into the ordinary world.
Just what is the ordinary world? A world of boys, of convention, of safety? This gets even more interesting when the narrator gets home and finds her mother waiting in the kitchen:
She was just sitting and waiting for me to come home and tell her everything that had happened. And I would not do it, I never would.
Is this tension with her mother just a stray element in this story that is otherwise a story about a young girl deciding whether to abandon convention or to succumb? Is it simply a common thread through Munro’s early stories, sometimes more prevalent than others? I’m not so sure.
I’m still working out my thoughts on this, but some clues that there is more here are in the colors. The girl’s dress is red, but her mother’s dress, when she was a little girl, was blue. Furthermore, now her mother’s physical ailments, her bulging veins, are blue. Lonnie is also slightly frail, described as “light-boned, pale and thin; she had been a Blue Baby.” Lonnie’s own dress for the Christmas Dance is blue. And it was the narrator, attempting to become sick herself, who tries to will herself to become sick: “I pictured my chest and throat turning blue, the cold, greyed blue of veins under the skin.”
This frailty, this submissiveness: isn’t this what the narrator seems to want when she gets to the dance, and isn’t this what she’s grateful to have found when the boy escorts her home? She’s let pass one opportunity to leave the “ordinary” world, and yet when she gets home she again feels how oppressive her mother can be, and she will never tell her mother what happened at the dance.
Is it with regret that she didn’t go with Mary, then, that our narrator ends the story with this?
But when I saw the waiting kitchen, and my mother in her faded, fuzzy Paisley kimono, with her sleepy but doggedly expectant face, I understood what a mysterious and oppressive obligation I had, to be happy, and how I had almost failed it, and would be likely to fail it, every time, and she would not know.
In the last story, “Postcard” (thoughts here), I didn’t feel that Munro was quite able to control all of the threads she’d woven into the story and that the eventual insight was perhaps rather sentimental. While I feel that there are perhaps even more threads here in “Red Dress — 1946,” and I’m not all that close to sorting through them, I feel that she has control, that as I consider the story and its complexities I will be rewarded, perhaps only with more complexity but not with sentimentality. I’d say this is an early example of just how complex Munro’s structure and ideas are going to get.
In “Red Dress – 1946” the narrator looks back on being a thirteen-year-old high school freshman, the first two months of which represented a time when she “was never comfortable for a minute.” Urged on by her mother and her friend Lonnie, she attends the Christmas Dance, wearing a home-made red dress. But beside her “stylish” friend Lonnie, she feels “like a golliwog, stuffed into red velvet, wide-eyed, wild haired, with a suggestion of delirium.”
(*Munro’s use of the word “golliwog” is jarring. See my discussion below.)
Obviously, the girl is not, at least initially, a success. Partway through, our narrator feels so invisible that she takes cover in the girls’ washroom, where, miraculously, an older girl, Mary Fortune, is doing exactly the same thing. When Mary offers her a smoke in the back of the janitor’s closet, she takes it and enjoys it, and enjoys even more Mary’s self-confident conversation. She even accepts Mary’s invitation to “go down to Lee’s and have a hot chocolate.” Mary is an upper classman who has acne, but our narrator sees she is “always organizing things” and is “full of energy and self-respect.” The narrator remarks, “Listening to her, I felt an acute phase of my unhappiness passing.”
As the two girls make their way across the dance floor, intending to leave for Lee’s and more conversation, a boy stops our thirteen-year-old and asks her to dance. She accepts – and waves away her new friend Mary. Later she says:
I have been to a dance and a boy has walked me home and kissed me. It was all true. My life was possible.
This particular story has the light-hearted feel of Norman Rockwell, or The Saturday Evening Post. Its self-deprecating manner barely masks, however, a couple of life’s inevitable betrayals: one, when she brushes off Mary Fortune, and the second, when she reveals her natural desire to shed her mother. The red dress is a little bit of a red herring, the issue in this story not being a question of style or a question of awkwardness; it is the question of how, when push comes to shove, we are inclined to put people aside, like a less than stylish red velvet dress. This is, of course, one of Munro’s great themes.
The story’s last sentence drops the mask and reveals the darker side:
But when I saw the waiting kitchen, and my mother in her faded, fuzzy Paisley kimono, with her sleepy but doggedly expectant face, I understood what a mysterious and oppressive obligation I had, to be happy, and how I’d almost failed it, and would be likely to fail it, every time, and she would not know.
Her mother would not know because the girl has decided to keep some things to herself, a natural and necessary step. But there’s more to it. In later stories, it will become clear that the mother is in fact not only embarrassing to the girl, but rigidly “oppressive,” and casting the mother off becomes the great subject.
*Munro’s use of the word “golliwog” is jarring. According to Wikipedia, Florence Kate Upton’s many children’s books, first published in 1909, used as their central figure the golliwog, a child-like black figure with cartoonish features, considered by many to be racist. Upton was English, and the books and dolls have been in common circulation in England for most of the twentieth century. The casual employment of the word by Munro in a comic context indicates both the provincial culture being depicted in the story and the times. Fifty years later, the modern reader remains uneasy about the author’s intent, unconscious or not. (See a Manchester Guardian article on the topic here)
“Postcard” is the tenth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
I think it’s worth pointing out at the beginning that Betsy and I came away from this story with different ideas about its narrator, Helen Louise, but the story allows us to do so. My primary take away was the commentary on the double standard against women, but Betsy doesn’t let Helen off that easily, looking closely and convincingly at Helen’s own faults. Obviously we both had plenty to say. Let us know where you land.
“Postcard” begins at the “tale-end of winter.” Helen is at the post office, sick of the cold weather, and in the mail is a letter — well, only a postcard — she’s been waiting for for three weeks. It’s a strange picture and a strange note from Clare, her boyfriend of some years, who’s been in Florida on his annual trip to visit his sister, Porky (though really Isabelle), and her husband. Helen never goes with him.
I had the feeling they didn’t like me, but Clare said it was my imagination. Whenever I had talked to Porky I would make some mistake [. . .] . Though I know it serves me right for trying to talk the way I never would normally talk in Jubilee. Trying to impress her because she’s a MacQuarrie, after all my lecturing Momma that we‘re as good as them.
The MacQuarries have been the rich family in Jubilee for some time, bringing them envy and scorn. But despite her own feelings toward the MacQuarries, Momma has been charmed by Clare over the years, so much that when Helen sits at dinner with them she often feels like their child. Clare is twelve years older than she, after all, ”and I don’t ever remember him except as a grown-up man.” This isn’t the only place where Helen is presented as a child, though she’s got to be something over thirty.
Helen’s relationship with Clare is strange and sad. They’ve been together for as long as fourteen years, ever since Helen graduated from high school and was left behind by Ted Forgie, a boy with a tragic life who eventually left Helen behind and sent her a typed letter that basically said he was never coming back, though Helen managed to grasp onto some hope due to a few of the words. She says, “When he went away I just turned into a sleepwalker.” Apparently no one has been able to wake her up. This may be one of the reasons Helen is presented as a child; she’s never really been awake enough to grow up.
Clare is one of the consequences of her sleepwalking after Forgie left her (perhaps because Helen wouldn’t give him the affection he desired: “We used to go up on Sullivan’s Hill and he talked about how he had lived with death staring him in the face and he knew the value of being close to another human being, but all he had found was loneliness. He said he wanted to put his head down in my lap and weep, but all the time what he was doing was something else.”).
Clare proposed soon after they started seeing each other, but she told him she wasn’t interested in marriage and could offer only friendship. He said okay, but he would bide his time. They still saw each other all the time. This doesn’t mean she awakened. On the contrary, the following passage depicts her as very distanced, perhaps giving us an insight into what went on when Forgie put his head in her lap:
[Clare] didn’t expect anything more of me, never expected anything, but just to lie there and let him, and I got used to that. I looked back and thought am I a heartless person, just to lie there and let him grab me and love me and moan around my neck and say the things he did, and never say one loving word back to him? I never wanted to be a heartless person and I was never mean to Clare, and I did let him, didn’t I, nine times out of ten?
But maybe as the winter is ending so is this period of sleepwalking. When Helen puts Clare’s postcard into a keepsake box she pulls out Ted Forgie’s letter, wonders why she’s had it all these years, and proceeds to destroy it. She’s even talking with Momma about her eventual marriage to Clare (when his own mother dies, she says). Momma says she just can’t see Helen and Clare married.
Momma turns out to be right. Shockingly, news gets around that Clare is coming home married to some large girl from Nebraska, some friend of Porky’s (Clare is also large, but I’ve not considered what this means, other than confirming what we already know, which is that Clare and his family are wealthy and live freely).
We might think that Helen, though shocked and disoriented, would at least feel some freedom from her loveless relationship. The next day when she goes to work in the department store, she says, “I bet this will be a big day for Childrens’ Wear” (she works in the Children’s Wear department, another tie to her own childish tendencies). She’s right. Women from all over come to the store that day to purchase something like a pair of socks. Even her friend, as solicitous and genuinely sorry as she is, seems to have a jump in her step because, hey, finally something is happening.
But what exactly is happening, and why is all of the attention focused on Helen? Clare arrived back in town the night before, after all, and he even has a new wife everyone should be getting to know. No, there’s some bit of gossip and blame that is focused on Clare, the one who didn’t jump soon enough, the one who childishly kept Clare at arm’s length, foolish enough to think she was doing him a favor.
Well, it’s true. Helen was cold and distant and didn’t offer Clare much in the way of mutual affection. Of course, she told him this from the beginning. He’s the one who kept coming around, and if over the years Helen has finally accepted the inevitability of their marriage, so what? Helen didn’t love Clare, and from what we see here she never indicated that she did, not even during sex. Which brings up another reason we can blame Helen. Here’s Momma showcasing the classic double standard (Momma, who never brought any of this up before):
If a man loses respect for a girl he don’t marry her.
Now Helen is used to Clare, perhaps was waking up to some kind of love, and once again is left picking up the pieces while the man moves on, with no explanation, but “maybe didn’t have any. If there was anything he couldn’t explain, well, he would just forget about it.”
It’s a complex story, and for me it isn’t quite coming together. “Postcard” was originally intended to be a novel, and when she realized it was a short story Munro said she felt “horribly cheated.” I’m wondering if we’re missing something, then.
For example, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the final line: “what I’ll never understand is why, right now, seeing Clare MacQuarrie as an unexplaining man, I felt for the first time that I wanted to reach out my hands and touch him.” Does she feel this way because now she can finally respect or love him? This doesn’t seem right to me given the rest of the story. Is it that she now wants what she cannot have? Again, I’m not so sure. Is it part of her thawing out, that she threw out Forgie’s letter, that she’s finally waking up from fourteen years of sleepwalking? Maybe, but I’m not convinced this alone would have improved their relationship; her response is tied to Clare’s having returned without a wife.
The most logical explanation for that insight at the end is one that is rather sentimental. She realizes that he owes her no explanation because everyone is right: Clare moved on from Helen because she was cold and unresponsive. She has woken up to her failure to show love, which somehow makes her yearn to show love.
Though I do think the story unable to contain all it was meant to (Munro soon becomes much more able to control her stories), I still really enjoyed it and, as usual with Munro’s stories, found myself thinking about it an awful lot after closing the book.
“Postcard” is a tour-de-force of comic pacing. It has a dry wit, depending as it does on two things: one, the reader seeing through the narrator’s guises, and two, the reader figuring out why the post card that ought to shake the narrator up doesn’t.
Don’t read my commentary first if you like this kind of thing. The story is a tart confection that deserves to be enjoyed fresh. (Of course, any story deserves its first reading as itself and only itself.)
Helen, who is telling us the story, appears to have received the postcard in question from her lover, and yet she concerns herself not at all with the message on the back. The reader sees it for what it is: a card that is three weeks late, the picture on the front like what a man would send to a buddy and slightly offensive, and on the back, a baffling, not quite grammatical message. The whole thing appears off-base, even insulting. Helen never gives the jokey message or the odd picture any thought; she merely thinks of its arrival as her due – this man owes her a post card. Why Helen has not gone on the trip with the man is never adequately revealed by Helen, although later the reader can see she is afraid of his family, afraid of looking lower class, afraid of being vulnerable.
The story also depends (for its enjoyment) upon the fact that although Helen is the narrator, she hardly understands her own story. Gradually, we realize that Helen’s misunderstanding of the message in the card is typical of her complete misunderstanding of her situation. But in addition, what feels to me like the great appeal of the story is that we gradually realize that this self-centered narrator is not actually the main character; it is her lover who, in the end, will have had the greater epiphany, or at least, the greater escape.
The postcard in question shows a motel with a sign out front depicting a probably buxom woman saying, “Sleep at my place!” The garbled message on the reverse says, “I didn’t sleep at her place though it was too expensive. Weather could not be better. Mid-seventies. How is the winter treating you in Jubilee? Not bad I hope. Be a good girl. Clare.” Did he leave off the t and mean “thought”? Did he intend two commas to enclose “though”? Is there some reason she should be a good girl? Or become one? Or be a good sport?
Helen is the kind of beautiful woman you cannot tell a thing. (There is the feeling that the author of this postcard has given up.) She once had an affair with twenty-four-year-old Ted Forgie while she was still in high school. He made her knees “go hollow,” but after a while he left town, leaving her with the feeling she’d been “jilted” even though he’d never proposed. He did send her a letter saying how much he appreciated her “sweetness and understanding.” Helen appears to have not gotten the message, and it won’t be the last time she’s been sent an after-the-fact message.
As kind of a way to pass the time until Ted returns (fourteen years, by one accounting), and perhaps also as a kind of off-kilter revenge, she took up with a local moneyed prince: unmarried, plump, chatty, jokey Clare MacQuarrie. When he quite soon after asked her to marry him, she said, “Don’t bother me, I don’t want to think about getting married.” She also observed, “If I hadn’t been in a stupor about Ted, I might never have bothered with Clare at all.”
But as the years go by, she begins to think of marriage as the proper (eventual) payment for having put up with Clare, never seeing that he has, so to speak, moved on. There was a big grand house, after all. She does not think it at all strange for her to remark:
I used to look down at his round, balding head, and listen to all his groaning and commotion and think, what can I do now except be polite?
This is a stone-cold-woman who thinks it right to “just lie there and let him,” and a woman for whom pleasure lies elsewhere. This is also a woman to whom it has never occurred that Clare might have liked a little help with his ailing mother. Instead, Helen goes through the dining room silver while Clare is tending to the old lady. What she looks forward to in marriage is lording it over the folks at the department store where she works.
Life being what it is, Helen’s beauty turns out not to be enough to hold Clare, given her iced-over heart. Winter in Canada appears to be her natural element.
The story plays with the entitlement that some children are given, like crowns, by their mothers, and the way these children don’t grow up, both Helen and Clare being still tied to their mothers. No small thing that Helen works at King’s Dep’t Store and Clare works at the Queens Hotel. They are childishly all mixed up, looking for love in all the wrong places, and still tied to Momma.
The story also depends on the divisions of class to work: Helen “burns” with anger when she gets caught in a grammatical error in front of Clare’s sister. Helen’s mother “thought [the MacQuarrie family] were being stuck up when they just breathed.” There’s a getting even in Helen’s coldness to Clare, a kind of usurping. There’s a similar usurping in her mother’s cultivation of Clare.
What matters, though, is whether Helen will ever see what it is she has been doing. Helen is a woman you cannot tell a thing. When her best friend tried to tell her that Clare had gotten married, she had to slip Helen a mickey in order to shut her up. So when Clare tried to tell her he’d gotten married it was by postcard of a large woman (sexy) in front of a motel saying “Sleep at my place!”
Helen claims that Clare is a non-explaining man. Actually, he has explained himself. Early on, he wanted to marry her. Later, he writes (for all the world to read), “I didn’t sleep at her place though it was too expensive.” I think he’s saying he chooses not to marry Helen because she has cost him too much already. It’s nothing that he has bought her a car. It’s at great cost that he has allowed himself any satisfaction with a woman who has treated him with such disdain, “letting him” have sex with her as she does.
In fact, with this message sent as a postcard, he informs his whole home town that he finally gets it: Helen is not his lover, she’s his kept woman, and she’s expensive. She has cost him quite a bit: money, position, children, companionship, self-respect, and, most of all, satisfying, mutual physical love. Helen’s best friend reports that Clare’s new wife “has a rear end on her like a grand piano,” but maybe plump Clare has been able to make that piano sing.
Regarding the epiphanies – Clare has escaped.
Regarding Helen’s epiphany – after Clare has humiliated her with this wedding, she realizes it’s the first time she has wanted to touch him. And yet, the nature of that touch is not clear.
As for the story’s structure, does she finally understand the postcard she received? That she has been a kept woman? That she is “winter”? That it is Clare’s wedding announcement to his buddies? That he doesn’t miss her? That he wants her to let him be?
“Postcard” is surprising and entertaining. It makes a bookend to “Thanks for the Ride” in that frigid Helen and abandoned Lois both look to be perversely ruining their own lives for the sake of power and autonomy. But the story doesn’t torment the way, say, “The Time of Death” does. It doesn’t inquire into universals the way “Boys and Girls” does. It doesn’t linger, in the manner of “Images,” and it doesn’t awe, as does “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” But it is flawless, rippling entertainment with sharp bite. I couldn’t put it down.
“Boys and Girls” is the ninth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
I know Munro gets criticized for frequently taking us to a fox farm in Ontario in the 1930s or 1940s, but I’m always anxious to see what will happen to our young female narrator as she grows up with her father, mother, and little brother.
Here we find ourselves in the small town of Jubilee (we’ll find ourselves here again). The War is going on in Europe, and our narrator is an eleven-year-old girl who imagines herself rescuing people from a bombed out building. The oldest child, she has been helping her father with his pelting operation for some time, much to her mother’s dismay.
The little girl has no conceptions of gender roles. Just as she imagines saving people in the war, she imagines herself as a public hero in Jubilee:
I shot two rabid wolves who were menacing the schoolyard (the teachers cowered terrified behind my back). I rode a fine horse down the main street of Jubilee, acknowledging the townspeople’s gratitude for some yet-to-be-worked-out piece of heroism (nobody ever rode a horse there, accept King Billy in the Organization Day parade).
She’s happily dreaming of opportunities for “courage, boldness and self-sacrifice,” but around the corner is her disillusionment, or, it’s better to say, her illusionment.
It first comes when her father is talking to a feed salesman. Her father points to her and says, “Like you to meet my new hired man,” causing the girl to turn “red in the face with pleasure.” The salesman says, “Could of fooled me. I thought it was only a girl.” The feed salesman is not the only person to see our narrator — “it” — as only a girl. Her mother is frustrated to no end that her daughter is out in the fields helping when she should be inside helping. She proceeds to pester the father, telling him he needs to start relying more on Laird, the little brother. She also dismisses any help our narrator might provide: “Wait till Laird gets a little bigger, then you’ll have a real help.” Our narrator thinks, “She loved me, and she sat up at night making a dress of the difficult style I wanted, for me to wear when school started, but she was also my enemy.”
Everything is changing around her. She used to have power over Laird, even telling him once to climb to the ridge beam in the barn. At night they’d sing songs in bed, which is also when she starts to give him back any power she had over him. One night he tells her to stop singing. She ignores him the first night, but the next night she doesn’t even begin to sing.
These forces are pushing her and changing her, and she doesn’t like where it’s taking her:
The word girl had formerly seemed to me innocent and unburdened, like the word child; now it appeared that it was no such thing.
What I love about this story, though, is that while it is clearly an examination at this kind of formation of gender roles, particularly as it proceeds to shove the narrator against her will into the female mold, it doesn’t let off easily the role pushed on the men. In other words, though our narrator idealizes her father and by the end is jealous that it is her brother who will be going out to the fields, she is also awakened to the horror as she watches Laird’s own innocence brutalized, and him not even realizing it was going on. She doesn’t really want either role that has been thrust on either child, which leads to an interesting, ambiguous, and very sad ending.
At the dinner table after a terrible day when she’s shown she cannot make it as a man but Laird comes home with blood on his clothes, she begins to cry. Her father echos the feed salesman, though at least not calling her an “it”:
“She’s only a girl,” he said.
I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true.
Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls” has as its heroine an eleven-year-old girl growing up on her father’s silver fox farm.
Two riffs on storytelling – one at the start of the story and one at the end – provide a frame for all the other competing storylines. Such a structure suggests that the girl’s love of telling stories to herself is essential, if she is to survive her coming of age.
The story is full of truths at odds with one another: the mother who loves her daughter feels like “an enemy”; the father she adores actually interrupts his work to listen to that very same mother; the little brother the girl both loves and manipulates might tell on her; the company she prefers is her father’s, so the work she prefers is her father’s, although no one actually thinks fox-farming is the right future for this girl, even the author. The girl dreams of learning to shoot and ride horses, but the only horses she knows are the ones her father buys to shoot for horsemeat.
This is the push-pull world the girl must negotiate if she is not to perish. She has a lot to learn. The business of this story is how she will satisfy the central push-pull she feels, not just to be loved but to also be free.
She appears to be ten years old when the story begins, and the story’s first half spans the pelting season that occurs before Christmas through to the summer. The girl is supposed to work alongside her mother in the house, but any chance she gets she runs outside to help her father. The important job her father entrusts to her is watering the foxes, not an easy one, and helping to scythe the tall grass. She works “willingly” beside her father, and is very proud when he remarks to a visiting feed salesman, “Like to have you meet my new hired man.” With a kind of foreshadowing, the salesman replies, “Could of fooled me. I thought it was only a girl.” The reader notices, uncomfortably, the salesman’s wording: his easy dismissal, his easy denomination of her as “it.”
The winter she is eleven, her mother’s campaign to keep her in the house gathers steam. The girl “no longer felt safe.” The necessity of her to be in the house has a wider import:
A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become. It was a definition, always touched with emphasis, with reproach and disappointment.
The mother and daughter endure the girl’s return volleys of many small rebellions, the girl “thinking that by such measures I kept myself free.”
The twist in the story is that when she acts upon her longing for freedom, the person from whom she achieves an irrevocable distance is her father. The horses must be culled before they run out of hay. Mack is shot and butchered, but the girl disobeys her father and watches from a knothole in the barn. It’s as if she has eaten the apple. In the next few weeks, she has what seem like flashbacks: her father’s shot, Mack’s death, her father and the hired men checking, “in a businesslike way,” to see that Mack is dead. As she considers these details, she feels “a little ashamed, and there was a new wariness, a sense of holding off, in my attitude to my father and his work.”
Flora will be next. Flora is the horse they have been using all winter to take them to town in the cutter. She was full of “speed and high stepping, her general air [one of] of gallantry and abandon.” On the morning she is to be shot, she unexpectedly bolts. The girl’s father calls for her to shut the gate, and without thinking, at the last minute, the girl opens the gate instead.
When Flora is finally run down, shot and butchered, and when what the girl has done comes to light, the denouement occurs. She doesn’t argue, she just cries. Her brother points it out.
“Never mind,” [her] father said. He spoke with resignation, even good humor, the words which absolved and dismissed [her] for good. “She’s only a girl.”
Notice, though, that unlike the feed salesman, her father says “she,” not “it,” and she feels his kindness. Notice, too, however, the push-pull: being absolved is intertwined with being dismissed. Freedom appears to come at quite a price.
The storytelling plays into this push-pull reality. While these riffs frame the story, Munro does not give us easy satisfaction; story telling is not in any obvious way going to save her, at least not very soon.
A developmental change does occur from in the girl’s story telling. The first riff has the girl telling tales to herself of being a hero, of rescuing people from bombed buildings, of riding horses, and shooting wolves. The second riff, perhaps a year later, has other people being the hero. She is not the rescuer, but the rescued, demonstrating, perhaps, how she feels after being relegated to the house, and the difficult, or even impossible, female role she is expected to master. This mirrors, of course, the whole gist of the story: that it is difficult to assume the role of girl, when what it is you want to be is a person.
When her father says, “She’s only a girl,” the girl thinks, “I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true.” The story, therefore, hinges on the push-pull of all the competing possibilities in that word: “maybe.”
A last thought on the politics of “Boys and Girls”: Laird. It is not only the girl-heroine who is driven down the cattle chute of role assignation; the boy is also bound for the chute. Perhaps Munro sees us all as driven by a thirst for freedom, but being a woman, she takes a special interest in girls and women. Being Munro, she writes about that drive for autonomy as being naturally and inevitably complicated by all the push-pull, all the competing circumstances, accidents, mysteries, and compromises. In the end, maybe it’s awareness that constitutes the greatest freedom, as in the young girl knowing, in her heart, that “maybe” it was true she was only a girl. “Maybe” being the operative word.
“Day of the Butterfly” is the eighth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
In this story, which was first published in Chatelaine in July 1965, Munro examines the dark side of human motivation among a group of girls. When the story begins, our narrator, Helen (who is telling this later when she has reached adulthood), introduces us to Myra Sayla, a schoolmate who had probably been in her class for three years but whom she only remembered from the “last” year. That was the year Myra’s younger brother Jimmy started first grade.
Poor Jimmy is shy and uncertain and would come to Myra if he needed to use the restroom. Sometimes he did not make it to Myra in time for her to take him to the restroom, and he would wet his pants. As carefully as possible, Myra would ask her teacher if she could take Jimmy home. Regardless of her discretion, everyone knew what happened. Jimmy was an outcast, and Myra, apparently never really remarked upon, would stand with her brother at recess. Where they stood is interesting. At the school, there was a Boys’ Side and a Girls’ Side. Myra and Jimmy honored this rule and stood alone and conspicuously on the porch between both sides.
Set apart and visible to all, they felt even more like the “other.” However, Munro presents them almost as religious objects, things to be used, inanimate objects upon which we cast our own guilt and oppression.
Over their dark eyes the lids were never fully raised; they had a weary look. But it was more than that. They were like children in a medieval painting, they were like small figures carved of wood, for worship or magic, with faces smooth and aged, and meekly, cryptically uncommunicative.
Their teacher, Ms. Darling, thinking she can fix this situation easily suggests to the other girls, the girls Helen plays with, that they should be kind to Myra. This only instigated a fresh round a heightened cruelty.
We had not paid much attention to Myra before this. But now a game was developed; it started with saying, “Let’s be nice to Myra!” Then we would walk up to her in formal groups of three or four and at a signal, say together, “Hel-lo Myra, Hello My-ra!” and follow up with something like, “What do you wash your hair in, Myra, it’s so nice and shiny, My-ra.” “Oh she washes it in cod-liver oil, don’t you, Myra, she washed it in cod-liver oil, can’t you smell it?”
Helen, though she couldn’t articulate it at the time, was highly aware of the cruelty in which she played a part. It terrified her that someday she herself might become the object of ridicule — she was poor, lived out of town, and wore rubber boots in the spring which clearly showed the mud she had trudged through to get to school (“I felt a little danger, on account of this; but I could not tell exactly what it was.”) — and she knew that her best chance for survival was to make sure the current object of ridicule remained the object of ridicule.
One day, as she walked to school, Helen found herself walking not far behind Myra and Jimmy, and she saw Myra look back and almost hesitate. It terrifies Helen; she cannot be seen walking with Myra. Nevertheless, and perhaps only because it gave her a sense of superiority that might become handy, Helen decides to call out to Myra. They walk to school together that day and Helen says, “I felt a great pleasurable rush of self-conscious benevolence”; she “felt magnanimous.”
When looking online at other responses to the story, it seemed a lot of readers interpreted this as the signs of a burgeoning friendship, a rather conventional tale of becoming free, “like a butterfly,” of the superficial restrictions in which we find ourselves; in other words, a tale far to contrived and clichéd for Alice Munro.
Helen does question the boundaries a bit (“I thought, I can come early and walk with her other mornings. I can go and talk to her at recess. Why not? Why not?“). But she is very pleased that Myra does not put on the butterfly brooch Helen gives her (a prize from the Cracker Jack she shared): “If someone asked her where she got it, and she told them, what would I say?”
Helen may not know why she is frightened, but she is all too aware that she cannot aford to take Myra’s place.
Perhaps there is a bit of relief, then, when Myra doesn’t show up to school again and finds herself in the hospital with leukemia. This object of ridicule that made it possible for many of the girls, surely not just Helen, to protect themselves, becomes something else for these girls:
Perhaps it was because Gladys Healey had an aunt who was a nurse, perhaps it was the excitement of sickness and hospitals, or simply the fact that Myra was so entirely, impressively set free of all the rules and conditions of our lives. We began to talk of her as if she were something we owned, and her party became a cause; with womanly heaviness we discussed it at recess . . . .
As the story comes to a close, Munro again refers to Myra’s role as an object “to be set apart for legendary uses.” For these girls and Helen, she has been a repository of their cruelty, their guilt, their fear, their false notions of magnanimity.
And Helen could use Myra as a source of redemption. She could say that, in the end, she was Myra’s friend, despite the danger. I think many of us do this kind of thing all the time. But, though Myra seems to hope she’s found a friend in Helen, even in her youth Helen recognizes in herself the capacity for betrayal, tainting any ideas of friendship these girls might have. She recognizes that Myra will die, that her own life will go on, fickle, following the whims of the other girls, all in a legitimate effort to survive. Sadly, she realizes it would be the same whether Myra survived or not.
“Day of the Butterfly” suggests the idea of a butterfly living only a day, fitting for a story about a girl dying of leukemia (and isolation). Also, if you reverse the order it becomes butterfly day, similar to the birthday in the story, and suggestive of hol(y)day. In keeping with this elevated atmosphere, the girl-speaker telling the story says of the immigrant girl and her brother:
They were like children in a medieval painting, they were like small figures carved of wood, for worship or magic, with faces smooth and aged, and meekly, cryptically uncommunicative.
I.E., they were like saints.
Now, whether or not Myra and Jimmy Sayla were immigrants is not clear, but of course, the origins of people who suddenly appear in a community are never clear. Sayla is not a common name at all, and is, in fact, the name of a town in India; Myra is a strange name also — being a town in Turkey or a name with no biblical or legendary origin. Certainly Myra’s father was strange, sitting in his store with his shirt open to below his navel. And Myra, despite her excellence in math, has difficulty with spelling and grammar. To clinch her marginality, Myra wears strange clothing, made out of her mother’s old dressy dresses. “Even in mid-winter among the plaid skirts and serge tunics, she glimmered sadly in sky-blue taffeta . . . .”
Myra’s holiness has to do with her utter patience. She is her little brother’s protectress — he seems to be developmentally delayed, and she stays with him on a back porch, in a no-man’s land between the boys’ and girls’ side on the playground, so that the boys won’t beat him up. As a result, she doesn’t play with the other girls at all. Instead, she stands with Jimmy on that porch, as if on an altar.
Accidentally, our girl-speaker runs into Myra on the way to school one morning, and this is the true “day of the butterfly.” The two sixth-grade girls make a real connection, first, because Myra is daring enough to slow down for the speaker, and second, because the speaker is daring enough to talk with her. They are alone, after all. Myra nails this connection when she asks, “Do you read Steve Canyon in the paper?” The two girls then share more, because not only do they both read Steve Canyon, they also read Rip Kirby, Orphan Annie, and Betsy and the Boys. They share a literature. (I was touched by this. I read Steve Canyon and Rip Kirby as a girl, too.)
The girl-speaker suddenly offers Myra some Cracker Jack, and in taking some, Myra gets the trinket — a tin butterfly decorated with blue stones — and admires it, and our girl-speaker offers it to her. With that, Myra disappears from school shortly thereafter, sick in the hospital with “akemia” and getting blood transfusions.
The teacher takes a group of girls to make an early birthday for Myra (the parents all realizing the meaning — that Myra is dying). The visit is a strange success, and Myra, at the last minute, offers a present to our girl-speaker, as a keepsake until they meet again.
But our girl-speaker realizes the meeting will never occur. She feels Myra’s “future, in which she had found this place for me, turn shadowy, turn dark.” Perhaps she has a sense of Myra’s certain death. But perhaps, she also has a sense of her own certain betrayal if Myra lives — that she would never honor Myra’s invitation, never visit Myra at her house.
As she leaves, she sees Myra’s face, “immune to treachery.” The grammatical construction of the last sentence is awkward, intended, I think, to defuse the proclamatory tone of the last phrase — that Myra was “set aside for legendary uses, as she was even in the back porch at school.”
The girl-speaker’s heroism, so to speak, is her ability to acknowledge her true self — that she contains, almost side by side, the capacity to befriend and betray, almost in the same breath. That she can be Judas.
What makes the story resonate, of course, is that she never uses the word Judas, never says good Samaritan, that she never exactly acknowledges that the real shadow of death is not in the disease, but in her capacity for betrayal.
Just a note on the narration: the story is told by an adult about an incident in her childhood. There is a distance thus created and a legitimately frozen quality to the scene. There are a series of scenes remembered, and the narrator, older now, comments quite cryptically. The cryptic nature of the telling, of course, mirrors the fear the narrator has of her own behavior, mirrors her reluctance to admit her own capacity to cause harm.
Myra’s bravery is legendary in its scope. In contrast, the girl-narrator’s betrayals are ordinary.
Is the story successful? I found it dismal the first time through. I find that it has more of a “clear carrying sound” the second time through — the way the girl-narrator hears the truth about herself in the sound of someone playing outside. It calls to her, the fun, the snow. She understands her own betrayal in that call.
So is it worth it? If one can be good for only a day? Does any goodness we can be last any longer than the “day of the butterfly”? It’s interesting to note that part of the goodness springs from the girls sharing a little literature, even if it’s only “Steve Canyon.”
Munro explores survival, especially the means girls have to ensure their own survival. There is Myra’s patience, and then there is the narrator’s seeing her as godlike; there is the incident, and there is the writer’s willingness to have a go at honesty. Is this how girls survive? Myth and literature? Louisa May Alcott would say so, but she would be up front about the philosophy, whereas Munro must deal with our disdain for polemics; hence our comfort with the way she makes myth with understatement.
“The Time of Death” is the seventh story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
According to what I’ve found, “The Time of Death” is the oldest story in the collection, written in 1953 and first published in Canadian Forum in 1956. While I can see that it perhaps lacks some of the polish, acute observations, and dramatic turns of Munro’s later works, it’s a remarkable short story apparently based on a real death that took place in Wingham, Munro’s hometown, in 1939.
This story also takes place in a small town, in the poorer section. The first snows of the year are expected at any time, but they have not arrived.
When the story begins, the death has already happened: ”Afterwards . . .” Leona Parry, the mother of the deceased child, is being tended by the neighborhood women, trying to make some sense of what happened. Though the women are solicitous, early on we get the sense that they judge Leona. Here’s Leona:
I wasn’t hardly out of the house, I wasn’t out of the house twenty minutes –
(Three-quarters of an hour at the least, Allie McGee thought, but she did not say so, not at the time. . . .)
Allie McGee is Leona’s next-door neighbor. When the tragedy occurred, that’s where Leona was, sewing an outfit for her nine-year-old daughter Patricia, bragging about how Patricia had been singing since she was three and was known as ”the Little Sweetheart of Maitland Valley, the Baby Blonde, the Pint-Sized Kiddie with the Great Big Voice.” This certainly annoyed Allie McGee, though of course she probably didn’t say so at the time.
While Leona goes on, and Allie McGee keeps correcting her in her mind, the women continue to take care of the poor mother. Munro presents them darkly, almost as malign priestesses:
And the women in the kitchen would crowd around the couch, their big bodies indistinct in the half-light, their faces looming pale and heavy, hung with the ritual masks of mourning and compassion. Now lay down, they would say, in the stately tones of ritual soothing. Lay down, Leona, she ain’t here, it’s all right.
At this point in the story, we don’t know exactly what’s happened. Who’s died? Leona’s pride and joy, Patricia? Why are the women saying “she ain’t here, it’s all right”? It takes a bit of time before we know any of that, and we first go back to before the death happened.
Patricia is the oldest of the four Parry children. Then we have George and Irene, and finally Benny, the eighteen-month-old who can say only one word, the name of the scissor man who comes down the street once in a while.
Patricia stands in sharp contrast to her mother, whom we’ve seen until now as hysterical, generally disliked, and probably negligent. Patricia tries to be the responsible one: “She did things the way a grown-up does; she did not pretend things.” One of those grown-up things is to clean the house (“It never gets cleaned up like other places,” she says). Patricia puts a pot of water on the stove to boil for cleaning; Benny somehow tips the pot over and is scalded to death.
Patricia’s reaction to the death is almost to pretend it didn’t happen, to simply go on being the adult who didn’t dwell. Meanwhile, her mother stays lying down in her room, demanding that no one allow Patricia near her. Patricia tries to keep calm. When Allie McGee lets the children sleep at her house and then the next day takes them to buy some shoes for the funeral. At the shop, Patricia rushes to the bathroom first to clean her feet as best she can. When she gets out, she hears Allie McGee say to the shopkeeper, “You should have seen the bedsheets I had them on.”
Again, Patricia seems to absorb this, but we know by now that Patricia has been absorbing a lot through her entire life. The funeral comes and goes, and the neighbors consider their job complete; “now things were back to normal and they disliked Leona as much as before.”
One day, the scissor man comes down the street. Patricia breaks down in hysterics. The neighbors scoff: “That is a prize kid of Leona’s, the neighbous said to other as they went home. [. . .] They laughed gloomily and said, Yeah, that future movie-star. Out in the yard yelling, you’d think she’d gone off her head.” She’s just like Leona.
So what is this story about? Reactions to death? Parental neglect and whim (when the Maitland Valley Entertainers ask if Patricia can sing for them, Leona recovers and dotes on Patricia again, though probably this passes quickly once Patricia is hit by the death)? Misunderstanding and cruelty?
Obviously, Patricia’s own delayed reaction to Benny’s death is important; it’s emphasized in the delayed snow that, in the final image, is finally starting to fall on the homes “that have never been painted.” These homes and their inhabitants are presented as alienated from each other and removed from society. It’s a terrifying vision of rootlessness, and I see no hope things will get better for Patricia and her two younger siblings. This is a cruel place on the periphery, a kind of purgatory for the innocent who have nothing to purge.
“An Ounce of Cure” is the sixth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
If Munro was funny in “The Office,” that’s nothing compared to the humor she uses in “An Ounce of Cure.” This story had me laughing out loud in some places, and throughout I was downright giddy with her observations and with her prose. As expected, though, there’s a bite, a serious undercurrent that doesn’t subvert the comedy; rather, it all matches the adult narrator’s amused and bemused reflection on what she thinks of as her first debauch. The humor is a device we often use to cover up our genuine horror.
The first thing this older narrator says to us is that her parents didn’t drink. Sure, every once in a while her father had a beer, but he drank it outside of the house, and her mother never joined him. In their small town, most people lived the same way. Something happened to our narrator, though, at a young age, something that not only alienated her from her friendships, her work, and her community, but also from her own mother. It’s a long sentence that introduces this, but it’s worth quoting in full:
I ought not to say that it was this which got me into difficulties, because the difficulties I got into were a faithful expression of my own incommodious nature — the same nature that caused my mother to look at me, on any occasion which traditionally calls for feelings of pride and maternal accomplishment (my departure for my first formal dance, I mean, or my hellbent preparations for a descent on college) with an expression of brooding and fascinated despair, as if she could not possibly expect, did not ask, that it should go with me as it did with other girls; the dreamed-of spoils of daughters — orchids, nice boys, diamond rings — would be borne home in due course by the daughters of her friends, but not by me; all she could do was hope for a lesser rather than a greater disaster — an elopement, say, with a boy who could never earn his living, rather than an abduction into the White Slave trade.
This “incommodious nature” is showcased in one evening of babysitting for the Berrymans on an April Saturday night. Ever since the previous September she had been tortured by her feelings for Martin Collingwood, a boy who looked at her on day in early September with a surprised expression (“I never knew what surprised him; I was not looking like anybody but me”), kissed her for a few weeks, and then moved on.
She missed him, but her real torture started when she saw him playing Mr. Darcy in the Christmas production of Pride and Prejudice: “the part gave Martin an arrogance and male splendour in my eyes which made it impossible to remember that he was simply a high-school senior, passably good-looking and of medium intelligence.” For the next four months, this fifteen-year-old girl suffered. Her adult self wonders, “Why is it a temptation to refer to this sort of thing lightly, with irony, with amazement even, at finding oneself involved with such preposterous emotions in the unaccountable past?” I think it’s because that past is actually incredibly painful; ironic distance is a kind of balm. This young girls’ emotional attachment to Martin was real torture, and if at first she found some pleasure in it, soon she wanted to be free. She even took some steps toward suicide.
Soon we get to that April night when she babysits for the Berrymans who were off on an evening with friends, an evening they’d initiated with a few drinks in the kitchen, leaving the bottles of whiskey and scotch out on the counter. You can guess what happens. As a teetotaler, I’ve never been drunk, but Munro’s description is one of the most vivid I’ve ever read. This poor girl, who drank hoping for a change in mood, ends up plastered, dangerously so considering the mixture she concocted and the amount she drank.
It’s funny when her friends show up to help her out, brewing coffee, cleaning the house and the narrator up, hoping that by the time the Berrymans get home all will be well. It’s funny as the adult narrator reflects on this experience with a sense of amazement.
When I finished reading the story, I looked around the web to see what others thought. Many of the short pieces I read looked at this story as a kind of transition from innocence to experience. The narrator is growing up, does something dumb, learns her lesson, and is able to move into a brighter future, was the type of phrase I read in several of these pieces, enough to make me think this story must have come up in a classroom discussion or something. But I don’t think this is what this story is about at all.
First, right after this Saturday evening is over, it gets around town that she got drunk at the Berrymans. Not only that, but because she told her mother the whole story, it also somehow gets around that the tried to commit suicide over Martin Collingwood. Her mother, shocked at what her daughter was capable of, threatens to not let her date until she is sixteen or older, but . . .
This did not prove to be a concrete hardship at all, because it was at least that long before anybody asked me. If you think that news of the Berrymans adventure would put me in demand for whatever gambols and orgies were going on in and around that town, you could not be more mistaken.
It’s not a story about learning one’s lesson. There’s something else going on here. This girl was suffering, tried to find some relief, and was severely punished for it. The older narrator cannot help but look back with some amazement:
But the development of events on that Saturday night — that fascinated me; I felt that I had had a glimpse of the shameless, marvellous, shattering absurdity with which the plots of life, though not of fiction, are improvised.
The humor is deliberate; it’s perhaps the only way this narrator can look back on this event. She wonders why we look back on these times with irony, but it’s here.
The narrator seems to have recovered well enough from this event and from the years of ostracism. She marries, has children, and even remains in the same small town. However, for me the story ends ambiguously. Either she’s strong and confident now, or that’s just another shield to protect the scars of growing up.
After years of avoiding Martin Collingwood, who also stayed in the same town, she runs into him at a funeral. As he did on that September years earlier, he looks at her with some surprise, perhaps “by a memory either of my devotion or my little buried catastrophe.”
I gave him a gentle uncomprehending look in return. I am a grown-up woman now; let him unbury his own catastrophes.
“An Ounce of Cure” is important – it represents a road Munro might have taken, instead of the one she did. It made me laugh out loud. It was so funny I read parts of it aloud to my husband.
A fifteen-year-old girl, thrown over by her first boyfriend, finds herself babysitting on the night of the big dance. In a little revolt, she decides to try out the whisky that her employers are so casual and delighted with. Farce ensues, complete with the adult’s dry account of all the dreadful events of the evening, every last one.
This is another of Munro’s girls, tough and sensitive at the same time, trying life on. This time it’s stand-up funny. Written fifty years later, “To Reach Japan” has as its girl the young mother-writer out of her league at a literary cocktail party, and it’s not so funny. The fifties and sixties were hard-drinking times, way before the MADD mothers, and it will be interesting to see what role alcohol plays in the stories in between, especially given that writers have often been forgiven their and their characters’ heavy drinking, but for women writers and women in general, it’s a different story.
It’s obvious, however, that Munro could have had a little following writing funny stuff, and could have never bothered with what finally absorbed her. Being funny would have been a cul-de-sac, though. For one thing, what the girl did that night was so dangerous as to have been a near-death experience, and I’m not so sure Munro makes that clear, or was even aware of that at the time she wrote it – those times being so close to the “Mad Men” era.
But Faulkner can indulge his funny bone in ambiguous and dangerous territory and win the Nobel Prize, so I wonder here about there being different rules for women (something Munro herself appears to question frequently).
Flannery O’Connor is funny; but with O’Connor the humor is in the service of a moral view; the humor is just a piece of a very rich quilt, a manner of making sure evil gets its comeuppance.
That “An Ounce of Cure” does not have O’Connor’s deep purpose suggests that this story must have been one of Munro’s “exercises,” while she was still learning what kind of writer she intended to be.
Women still face terrific challenges trying to sort out a life; watching Munro experiment with what might have been a profitable dead-end is instructive. She spent time on that story, it is drop-dead funny. How easily we go down a path and get diverted. But Munro doesn’t. Just look at “The Peace of Utrecht,” “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “Boys and Girls,” or “Dance of the Happy Shades.”