“Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” is the first story in Alice Munro’s third book, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
“Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” can be demented love story, a murder mystery, or simply a family drama with gothic roots, but it is certainly a story about secrets. Et, one of the most terrifying characters we’ve met in an Alice Munro story, is a bitter, deeply envious outsider of her sister’s love life. Even at the end, even her sister is dead and gone, she can barely resist the urge to do some final damage by sharing a secret. As I alluded to above, in a perverse way, “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” is Et’s love story, only we know it’s dark because Et considers “lovers” to be “not a soft word, as people thought, but cruel and tearing.”
For at least half a century, Et harbors a great deal of resentment for her beautiful older sister, Char. When the story begins, sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, Et and Char are older, Char “like a ghost now, with her hair gone white.” Yet the third-person narration, closely following Et’s perspective says Char is still beautiful, “should couldn’t lose it,” as if beauty were an act of will that Et finds repugnant. It may well be.
After a thirty year absence Blaikie Noble has returned to town. Char and Blaikie were once “lovers,” though Et never knows just how far they went. At the end of their summer together — the summer of 1918 – Blaikie married someone else, a woman who was at least forty years old. He’s come back to town single after being widowed twice over. He doesn’t have much to show for the years he’s been gone.
The story goes back and forth quite a bit, from the present summer when Blaikie has reappeared to the 1910s when Char and Et were young. We learn, somewhat digressively, that Char and Et had a younger brother who drowned when he was just seven. We learn this as Et “remembered the first time she understood that Char was beautiful”:
She was looking at a picture taken of them, of Char and herself and their brother who was drowned. Et was ten in the picture, Char was fourteen and Sandy seven, just a couple of weeks short of all he would ever be.
Even at this early date, when Et is ten and throughout her early teens, Et resents Char, whose beauty is otherworldly, statuesque. We are not entirely certain why she resents her sister so early in life. Perhaps it stems from Sandy’s death, which is somehow attached to Et. Perhaps it’s more to do with the fact that Et is four years younger than Char, never knows what kind of relationship Char and Blaikie have, and feels left out of this side of life entirely, she herself never having a relationship with anyone.
All she knows is that one night she saw Char outside with Blaikie. She doesn’t know what state they were in, only that she had seen her sister “when she lost her powers, abdicated.” As she thinks about this moment, she thinks a seemingly random thought: “Sandy drowned, with green stuff clogging his nostrils, couldn’t look more lost than that.”
When Blaikie leaves and marries, Char swallows what she hopes will be poison but what actually just makes her sick. Somehow, they move on in life. Char marries Et’s highschool history teacher, Arthur. It seems that Et may be in love with him, or at least it’s some kind of competition to win some of his affections from her sister, especially since Char does not love Arthur. At first all three live together, but Et finally leaves to start her own life:
“Why do you have to go off and live by yourself anyway?” [Arthur] scolded her. “You ought to come back and live with us.”
“Three’s a crowd.”
“It wouldn’t be for long. Some man is going to come along some day and fall hard.”
“If he was such a fool as to do that I’d never fall for him, so we’d be back where we started.”
“I was a fool that fell for Char, and she ended up having me.”
Just the way he said her name indicated that Char was above, outside, all ordinary considerations — a marvel, a mystery. No one could hope to solve her, they were lucky just being allowed to contemplate her.
Et continues to foster a desire to usurp her sister, to challenge her sister. She knows her sister is not perfect (she saw the way she looked when she was with Blaikie).
There is a lot going on here as Alice Munro explores the idea of image and reality. Under the surface, Char is a mess. She maintains her figure by regurgitating her food — and she is still in love with Blaikie, the man she almost killed herself for decades earlier.
And though I think Et is a terrifying character, maybe Char is the more terrifying of the two. We just don’t get a clear picture of her, just as Et never can pin her down. When we first meet Arthur he’s old and ill. Blaikie has just returned to town and comes over to keep company and play games. Later that summer, Et finds a bottle of rat poison in the cupboard. She doesn’t know why it’s there. It doesn’t look like it’s been used. And yet . . . there is a strong implication that Char is poisoning Arthur, hoping to get back with Blaikie. Et obviously suspects this, though she doesn’t come out and say it:
All those battles, and wars, and terrible things, what did Arthur know about such affairs, why was he so interested? He knew nothing. He did not know why things happened, why people could not behave sensibly. He was too good. He knew about history but not about what went on, in front of his eyes, in his house, anywhere. Et differed from Arthur in knowing that something went on, even if she could not understand why; she differed from him in knowing there were those you could not trust.
But maybe nothing is happening. Et checks the bottle every time she visits and there is no indication its contents are diminishing. And yet . . .
Et cruelly sees her opportunity. When Blaikie leaves at the end of the summer, Et implies that he has hooked up with another woman. Why”
Only to throw things into confusion, for she believed then that somebody had to, before it was too late.
Char leaves the room, and soon she is dead. The rat poison is gone. Arthur “lived on and on.” Et moves back in to take care of him and herself, her “eyesight not as good as it used to be.”
What on earth has happened? We have ideas, of course. Perhaps Char committed suicide. Perhaps she simply died; the means she has used to “take care of her body” are not healthy. In any case, the story makes us think back to another death Et may have had a hand in. It’s never resolved. And why did Et think of Sandy after she saw Char kissing Blaikie all those years ago? Does Arthur have any idea of what’s gone on in these women’s hearts? Was it Arthur?
If the story is a bit too loose, I forgive it. Munro will tighten things up in later stories, and this is a dark start to the complexities of the heart that Munro will continue to explore in this collection. It also has a brilliant final paragraph:
Sometimes Et had it on the tip of her tongue to say to Arthur, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” She didn’t believe she was going to let him die without knowing. He shouldn’t be allowed. He kept a picture of Char on his bureau. It was the one taken of her in her costume for that play, where she played the statue-girl. But Et let it go, day to day. She and Arthur still played rummy and kept up a bit of garden, along with raspberry canes. If they had been married, people would have said they were very happy.
“Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” is the title story of a book Alice Munro published in 1974. The decade that preceded 1974 marked the height of the women’s movement, often referred to as “Women’s Liberation.” The contraceptive pill became available in 1960; Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed; the National Organization for Women was founded in 1966; Our Bodies, Our Selves was published in 1971; and Ms. magazine burst into print in 1973. Alice Munro’s own life mirrored the tumult: at about the time she was finishing and publishing Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You she became divorced from her husband of twenty years, moved a half a continent away to take up a new life not far from her hometown, and settled into producing stories steadily for the next 40 years.
Given the time and milieu within which this book came into being, the title story has, on the surface, nothing to do with women’s liberation. The story begins in about 1912, when the two sisters, Et and Char, are about 10 and 14, the year their little seven-year-old brother drowns. It ends almost fifty years later, when the younger sister has been retired for a while. The story is told within the moral compass of the younger sister Et, and, given that she is a spinster who has made her living as a seamstress, she is not a candidate, as are some of the other women in the book, to illuminate the tumbling rush and conflict of the 1960s.
The title alone, however, speaks to the time: “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You.” Thousands of women writers wrote all kinds of essays, manifestos, polemics, articles, books, novels, and poetry saying “something” to “someone” that had been on their minds for quite a while.
It’s Et who has something to say, and yet she has held off saying it for years, even though the man to whom she wants to say it is nearing the end of his life and would probably be grievously and undeservedly hurt by it. She still holds this wish dear – that she will tell him what he needs to know – that “he shouldn’t be allowed.” She means, he shouldn’t be allowed to be deceived, even if knowing the truth will kill him.
The trouble is, Et is “a terror.” There is the slightest possibility that she is responsible for her brother’s drowning, and there is the definite fact that she is responsible for the sexual appropriation of her sister’s husband, albeit with her sister’s tacit consent. There is the possibility that she wants to destroy Arthur’s confident faith in Char’s beauty, and there is the fact that a lie she tells appears to result in Char’s suicide.
So how does this story fit into the consciousness of the time?
Starting with the sister’s odd names, there is a pattern of brokenness and unfinished promise: Char for Charlotte, Et for Harriet, perhaps. Char for burned, Et for eating or eaten. These sisters are shadows of what they could have been, both of them sexually unsatisfied, both denied, one an idle, beautiful parasite, and the other as mean as a snake. One of them tries to poison herself, not once, but twice, and the other is casually poisonous to other people. What happened? Was it that one of them or one of their parents was responsible for their little brother’s drowning? Was it that the drowning was something from which their mother never recovered, essentially leaving them motherless? Or was it that 14-year-old Et, one night when she couldn’t sleep, saw her older sister Char out in the dark yard having sex with Blaikie under the lilac?
If, in fact, Et was somehow responsible for the little brother’s death, or thought she was responsible – having this hold over her sister, this knowledge of her liaison – evens the score.
I think that the truth that Munro is trying to get at is that liberation is a complex affair. One can be imprisoned by a sister’s jealousy, as much as by a wicked patriarch. In fact, the father hardly figures in the sorrows of these two sisters. In the course of the story, Munro alludes to ghost stories, murder, death by poison and mystery, suggesting that imprisonment can have complicated origins.
Munro closes the story by saying of the fraternal pair, the brother- and sister-in-law, Arthur and Et, that “If they had been married, people would have said they were very happy.” They are neither married nor very happy. They have half selves, but for reasons far darker than those the women’s movement intended to address. It’s not just male chauvinists, it’s not just inequality, it’s not just reproductive rights. Some people, like Et, do evil things, and it is difficult to survive when you are bound to such a person.
What is interesting, especially in relation to the explosion of writing that was occurring at the time, is that Et is someone who makes up things, says things that aren’t true. In a way, she is a writer and a story-teller, but her stories contain lies that have very bad effects. At one point she thinks, “She never knew where she got the inspiration to say what she said, where it came from. She had not planned it at all, yet it came so easily, believably.” So when Et thinks, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” the reader doesn’t trust her at all.
Placing this story where she does, as the title story and as the first story, at the height of the women’s movement, Munro highlights her concern about the writer’s responsibilities: that what is written might not always be true.
This title story, this introductory story, sets the stage of the book: you must assume that what you hear may be only a partial iteration, like the girls’ names, and in effect, a dangerous lie.
“Even as I most feverishly, desperately practise it,” Alice Munro has written, “I am a little afraid that the work with words may turn out to be a questionable trick, an evasion (and never more so than when it is most dazzling, apt and striking) an unavoidable lie.” *
It’s not that Alice Munro is not a feminist, it’s that she is first a humanist. I think the stories yet to come will demonstrate a fine interest in the way the feminist movement played out, but, always, Munro is most interested in the way people lie unavoidably, and the way one person’s point of view is inescapably blindered and broken – like the girls’ names.
* from Alice Munro’s essay, “The Colonel’s Hash Resettled,” which was published in The Narrative Voice, edited by John Metcalf and published in Toronto by McGraw-Hill Ryerson in 1972, on page 182 (here).
If you’ve been following along, you know that Betsy and I just finished reading and posting on Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Without delay, it is time we got started with Munro’s third book, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974).
We will soon be posting our thoughts on the first story, and I wanted to get this anchor post set up so that any of you who are interested in joining us can get the book and get started.
Review copy courtesy of Vintage.
Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You contains the following thirteen stories:
- Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You
- How I Met My Husband
- Walking on Water
- Forgiveness in Families
- Tell Me Yes or No
- The Found Boat
- The Spanish Lady
- Winter Wind
- The Ottawa Valley
“Epilogue: The Photographer” is the eighth and final piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
The epilogue to Lives of Girls and Women begins by talking about suicides. “This town is rife with suicides,” Del would often hear her mother say. Though when she grew up Del figured that her mother was wrong and that Jubilee couldn’t have more suicides than the statistical average, her mother could certainly go a while naming the men and women who’d killed themselves over the years (which, since Del is probably right about the statistical average, means this can all be very bleak). Del settles on two, the two by drowning, bringing us back to the terrifying climax in “Baptism.” It also takes us back to “Changes and Ceremonies,” where we already read about Miss Farris’s suicide by drowning. Now we hear a bit about seventeen-year-old Marion Sherriff’s.
Marion was a wonderful tennis player in the high school, so great, in fact, that they have a trophy named after her which they give to the best girl athlete in the school. Each year the winning girl’s name is engraved on the trophy which is then put back in a case at the school. Why did Marion commit suicide? Was she pregnant, as many suspect? And what is the fate of these other girls? That question lingers in the book entitled Lives of Girls and Women, where so many of the women are drowning, even if they are still walking around on dry ground.
That’s not where this epilogue goes explicitly. Rather, Del focuses on her first attempts at writing stories. That said, I think this is Munro’s way of suggesting just how important it is to get at those other stories, the ones that appear nondescript, the ones that might look boring at first, the ones that result from Del’s epiphany:
People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.
In Del’s first attempt at writing a novel she focuses on the Sherriff family because many in town, including her mother, always said, “Well, there is a family that has had its share of Tragedy!” Marion died by drowning, her brother died an alcoholic, and another brother is in the asylum at Tupperton — “I picked on the Sherriff family to write about; what had happened to them isolated them, splendidly, doomed them to fiction.”
In this book, Marion’s name has been changed to Caroline, which has a romantic sound. As we see the following lengthy, but important and extremely well crafted passage, the real Marion disappears quickly into this more romantic girl of fiction:
Her name was Caroline. She came ready-made into my mind, taunting and secretive, blotting out altogether that pudgy Marion, the tennis player. Was she a witch? Was she a nymphomaniac? Nothing so simple!
She was wayward and light as a leaf, and she slipped along the streets of Jubilee as if she was trying to get through a crack in an invisible wall, sideways. She had long black hair. She bestowed her gifts capriciously on men — not on good-looking young men who thought they had a right to her, not on sullen high-school heroes, athletes, with habits of conquest written on their warm-blooded faces, but on middle-aged weary husbands, defeated salesmen passing through town, even, occasionally, on the deformed and mildly deranged. But her generosity mocked them, her bittersweet flesh, the color of peeled almonds, burned men down quickly and left a taste of death. She was a sacrifice, spread for sex on moldy uncomfortable tombstones, pushed against the cruel bark of trees, her frail body squashed into the mud and hen dirt of barnyards, supporting the killing weight of men, but it was she, more than they, who survived.
In the novel, a mysterious photographer comes to the highschool:
The pictures he took turned out to be unusual, even frightening. People saw that in his pictures they had aged twenty or thirty years.
Most people fear him, yet Caroline runs after him. This is the man she falls for, the man who impregnates her. Then, one day she finds his car overturned in a ditch, empty. She walks to her death in the river. Caroline’s brother in the asylum receives the photograph taken of Caroline: her eyes were white.
This is the older Del recalling, with some degree of embarrassment, her first jabs at narrative: “I had not worked out all the implications of this myself, but felt they were varied and powerful.” Of course, Caroline’s story has absolutely nothing to do with the Sherriff’s real life; it’s derived from Del’s own experiences in the library. Yet there is some connection to reality. This still comes from Jubilee, a place Del looks down on as she turns it into her “black fable.”
Then, one day she goes on a walk to see if her exam results have arrived. They haven’t, but she passes the Sherriff’s yard and Bobby Sherriff, home from the asylum for who knows how long, invites her to come in sit down for some cake. Del looks around and sees all the ordinary items: “The ordinariness of everything brought me up short, made me remember. This was the Sherriff’s house.”
She is struck by these items. She sees the door frame that Marion walked through on her way everywhere, including to the river.
And what happened, I asked myself, to Marion? Not to Caroline. What happened to Marion? What happened to Bobby Sherriff when he had to stop baking cakes and go back to the asylum? Such questions persist, in spite of novels. It is a shock, when you have dealt so cunningly, powerfully, with reality, to come back and find it still there.
This is where I think the story comes back to the fate of all those other girls on that trophy — “such questions persist, in spite of novels.” The ordinary, the mundane, the quotidian: that’s where Del — that’s where Munro — dwells when she becomes a writer. She makes lists of the ordinary, though “no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.”
This is an exceptional ending for at least two reasons: first, it ushers Del — and, with her, Munro — into her vocation as a writer; and, second, it is the culmination of everything we’ve read before as we explored, by way of so many different avenues, the lives of girls and women.
The sublime Alice. In her memoir, Sheila Munro says:
I read once that when a certain group of well-known Canadian women writers got together to discuss literature, they referred to my mother as “The Sublime Alice.” (252)
The last piece in the book, Lives of Girls and Women, indicates why Alice Munro deserves to be called sublime.
Above all, there is her concern with humility. In “Epilogue: The Photographer,” Munro mentions how at one point in her life, Del viewed everything her mother said “with skepticism and disdain.” The reader is left to judge, given what we have read in the previous seven stories, if Del has grown beyond that stage, or at least has grown into struggling with that attitude. Del’s mother is present in every story – sometimes brave, sometimes foolish, and always, completely, deeply human. The adult Del treats her gently, all the while telling us what the critical, unforgiving, adolescent Del thought. Two things stay with me: Del’s enormous, delicate understanding of her mother’s difficult upbringing and Del’s identification with her mother’s fierce intellectual ambition. When Del tells us she had been disdainful of her mother at one point, I think we see the book is proof this is a school of thought from which she has graduated.
In her stories, Munro privileges various points of view above her own: we understand both Del and her mother; we understand Fern and Naomi; we understand Garnet and Jerry Storey; we understand Miss Farris and Mr. Boyce. We understand that each life has its push-pull struggle. Above that, Munro does not intrude.
This “epilogue” also tells the story of an encounter Del had at 18 with Bobby Sherriff, the local guy who had been in and out of the asylum. Bobby invites Del onto his porch to have some tea and cake. This encounter provokes in Del a variety of revelations about the nature of writing, but at this point, I am interested in the revelation she has about herself. When saying good-bye, Bobby wishes her good luck. Del remembers back:
People’s wishes, and their other offerings, were what I took then naturally, a little distractedly, as if they were never more than anything more than my due.
Yes, I said, instead of thank you.
The reader admires such honesty – that Del can admit what she used to be like, that she thought it was her due to be admired or wished well. Now she can indicate what she should have been like, and Munro offers this apologia for Del; as the very last words in her book, she offers a tribute to humility.
During this morning “tea” with Bobby Sherriff, Del realizes that the gothic novel she had been writing about his family was a failure. Some “damage had been done.” She means she knows the novel is a failure. She does not explain precisely what the damage was, except that we know she has fictionalized many of the details of Sherriff family story, and she knows, too, that while she used to feel the story she had written was “true,” she didn’t exactly know what that truth was. Perhaps the truth was “I did not pay much attention to the real Sherriffs.” Perhaps the real truth was, as she realized in time, “the ordinariness of everything” is what mattered rather than using reality to create a clever take or make of real people a “black fable.” Slowly, Del, the writer, is learning the uses of writing – not to be clever, and not to get revenge, but instead writing should represent “every last thing.” It is every last thing and “every layer of speech and thought” that should be “radiant” and “everlasting.” It is what is represented that is important, not the author.
Another face of the sublime in Alice Munro has to do with her use of autobiographical detail. The writing is so plain-spoken, so understated, and so properly elliptical, that Munro herself is a shadow in the background. For instance, in “Epilogue” Munro opens with Del’s mother remarking, “This town is rife with suicides.” Several suicides are recounted. Del focuses on the death of Marion Sheriff, one of whose brothers died an alcoholic and the other spent a lot of time in the local asylum. Del tells how her mother’s boarder thought that a suicide at seventeen must be because of pregnancy. The boarder asks, “Otherwise, why drown yourself at seventeen?”
That question is not answered. Instead, Del shifts immediately to talking about how “the only thing to do with my life was write a novel.” But the idea of suicide is in the air – without books, without writing, what would life be? On the one hand, there is the life of the mind, and on the other, something as blank, something as black, perhaps, as the Wawanash River. But Munro does not say that. She leaves you to think it.
That kind of shift is ordinary in Munro, and the reader is trusted to read between the shifts, to read into the juxtapositions. That is sublime.
As everyone who reads the “Epilogue” can see, Munro lays out her own Ars Poetica:
[. . .] what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting.
And that is sublime as well.
All of Lives of Girls and Women is true to that goal of every last thing “held still and held together.” Just to pick one thread from many, I want to look at how she views writing itself, since writing is the topic of the “Epilogue” and also the topic of its Ars Poetica.
Writing and reading comprise a vast terrain in Lives of Girls and Women. There are the tabloids that Uncle Benny reads and that little Del loves, too, and there are the newspapers, like the Jubilee Herald-Advance, that her mother reads. Her Uncle Craig keeps locked boxes full of precious newspaper clippings that will help him write his history. Del herself reads magazine articles, such as the one by a “famous New York psychiatrist.” There are the Bibles her grandmother wants the local poor man to read, the encyclopedias her mother wants the farm families to buy, and the nursing textbooks Naomi’s mother wants no one to read. There is the Book of Common Prayer, and there are the hymns sung at church, at home, at funerals and revivals, and there are children’s folksongs sung in the street. There is even a patriotic school song that Del teaches Uncle Benny. There is the library, where Wuthering Heights, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Kristen Lavransdatter, Look Homeward, Angel, and Tennyson and Browning are “worlds of creation.” There are Del’s father’s copies of H.G. Wells’s Outline of History and Robinson Crusoe and also his James Thurber; there is Addie’s Tennyson, the gift to her from Miss Rush. There is the King Arthur in the Grade Seven Reader, there is Browning in the University exam.
Del is not the only reader: her mother favors reading that makes her think, like the magazine article “Heirs of the Living Body” that proposed that human organs could be transplanted. One year Addie joined a Great Books discussion group, and the next year enrolled in a correspondence course on the “Great Thinkers of history.” In contrast, Del’s father preferred to read the same books over and over, like personal bibles. Uncle Benny preferred the tabloids. Fern, the boarder, has a stash of sexual how-to lore and a little collection of salacious verse like “The Lament of the Truckdriver.”
Del herself prefers the library – she tells us: “I was happy in the library.” This is where she could read an adventure about an orphaned baby (The Winning of Barbara Worth), as well as a Norwegian epic by Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset.
Writing abounds in many forms in this book. Uncle Benny wants to write a letter, but he has to ask Del to write it, because he can’t write. There is Uncle Benny’s wife, who can barely write, but manages to get a letter to him after she has run away, asking, not for forgiveness, but for her favorite yellow sweater. Del’s classmate Frank Wales cannot spell but can sing like an angel. Del’s mother writes “op-ed” pieces for the paper and advocates things like free birth control for everyone. She also writes romantic descriptions for the paper, essays she signs “Princess Ida.” Addie does the crossword puzzles, and she concocts writing games for her ladies’ tea party. As town clerk, Uncle Craig writes documents like licenses, but he also writes family trees and local history, both of which strike Del as lifeless. There are Uncle Craig’s sisters who tell stories. Uncle Bill writes, too; he writes a will in which he leaves a bequest of $300 to his sister, blood money, really, meant to erase the damage he’d done as an adolescent, when he’d abused Addie in the barn. There are two important sermons: one by the Anglican minister on Easter Sunday, the one that makes no sense to Del, and is the beginning of the end of her experiment with religion; and one the revivalist gives about the sinner crossing above the fires of hell on a rope bridge, the threads of the bridge being continually nicked by the sinner’s sins. And there is Del herself, known to be a great essay writer.
Ghastly Mr. Chamberlain writes love letters of some sort to Fern.
The high school “writes” maxims on the schoolroom walls like “Time and Energy are my Capital; if I Squander them, I shall get no Other.”
And Del writes a novel and locks it up in her uncle’s lock box, having stashed her uncle’s useless clippings and thousand pages of manuscript in the basement.
Such are the layers of thought in reading and writing in Lives of Girls and Women, held still and held all together, ordinary and radiant and – most of all – believable.
People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable – deep caves paved with linoleum.
That is the sublime Alice.
“Baptizing” is the seventh piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
Baptism represents the death of one life and a rebirth into another. In “Baptism,” Del is seventeen years old, and she recognizes she is about to launch her life on some trajectory, hopefully university. Her best friend Naomi has drifted away from Del, quitting school to work an office job in the creamery. Such a job is, she and Del think, the normal thing for girls to do when they’re preparing for marriage, even if it’s just a hypothetical, wished-for (or not) marriage. Del, meanwhile, bucking convention, is still at school, working hard to get a scholarship that will allow her to go to university.
Baptism also represents cleansing. Remember that the last story, “Lives of Girls and Women,” ended with Del saying she was going to live her life, ”go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what [I] didn’t want.” She’ll try to put that into practice in “Baptizing.”
In this story, though, baptism can also represent drowning. One goes under the water – perhaps waiting with futility for the new life to begin or perhaps simply forcing the old life to die – and does not resurface.
“Baptizing,” the longest story in this book at approximately 70 pages, can essentially be split into three parts. In the first, we see Del and Naomi are on different trajectories. They are splitting apart in every way possible, and Del is set in her conviction that she doesn’t want that kind of life:
What was a normal life? It was the life of the girls in the creamery office, it was showers, linen and pots and pans and silverware, that complicated feminine order; then, turning it over, it was the life of the Gay-la Dance Hall, driving drunk at night along the black roads, listening to men’s jokes, putting up with and warily fighting with men and getting hold of them, getting hold — one side of that life could not exist without the other, and by undertaking and getting used to them both a girl was putting herself on the road to marriage. There was no other way. And I was not going to be able to do it. No.
But Del does go to the Gay-la Dance Hall. She does go to a room with men who are telling dirty jokes, drinking, gearing up for sex. What does Del do? She drunkenly goes out the fire escape, essentially severing all ties to Naomi and that “normal” life.
In the second part, we meet Del’s intellectual rival at the school, Jerry Storey. He’s socially awkward, set apart from the rest of the school, yet he and Del “drifted together” at around the same time Del and Naomi drifted apart. Though everyone thinks Del and Jerry are the same — they are the two smartest in the school — they resent this, seeing themselves as very different from each other.
I though Jerry was a thousand times more freakish, less attractive than I was, and it was plain that he thought putting my brains and his in the same category showed no appreciation of categories; it was like saying Toscanini and the local bandmaster were both talented.
Jerry thinks Del is smart, but he thinks she is smart in useless areas he calls memory tests — literature, history, art. He is scientific, destined for MIT — and he teases Del that he hopes to win the Nobel Prize before the world is destroyed (again, congratulations to Alice Munro, for your win :-) ).
Jerry’s mother also sees Jerry and Del as very different, and she warns Del that Jerry’s trajectory and hers will not match:
“So you mustn’t get into trouble, you know,” she said matter-of-factly. “Jerry couldn’t get married. I wouldn’t allow it. I have seen these cases of young men forced to sacrifice their lives because some girl has got pregnant and I don’t think it’s right. You and I have both seen it, you know the ones I mean, in the school. Shotgun weddings. That’s the style in Jubilee. I don’t agree with it. I never did. I don’t agree that it’s the boy’s responsibility and he should have to sacrifice his career. Do you?”
Del is shocked to find herself discussing diaphragms with Jerry’s mother. She thinks, “The thought of intimacies with Jerry Storey was offensive in itself. Which did not meant that they did not, occasionally, take place.”
As in the first section, when Del suddenly finds herself drunk with a bunch of men, here she finds herself — inexplicably — naked in Jerry’s bedroom (“Each of us was the only avenue to discovery that the other had found.”). The body, the unknown thrill of sex, takes over. Again, though, before anything further happens, Jerry’s mother returns home. Trying to escape this situation unnoticed, Jerry shoves Del, still naked, into his cellar. Later that night, Jerry drops Del’s clothes down the laundry shoot, and Del finds her way home, furious. Furious, probably, that she was shut up naked in a cellar, but what she says is that she was furious “to think of myself naked on that bed. Nobody to look at me but Jerry, giggling and scared and talking dialect. That was who I had to take my offerings. I would never get a real lover.”
In the third section, Del finally does get a real lover, Garnet French. He’s a twenty-three-year-old from a neighboring — and, everyone in Jubilee agrees, wretched — town. Del meets him one Friday when she’s looking for a new experience (“scientific curiosity”); she goes to a religious revival in the Town Hall where The Pied Piper was performed in “Changes and Ceremonies.” She finds the whole thing ridiculous, but it becomes much less so when she strikes up a covert flirtation with this stranger whose name she does not learn for days.
They are nothing alike. Garnet dropped out of school, he’s spent time in prison, he works in a lumberyard, he’s a fervent Baptist, and he has no interest in anything Del is interested in. Yet they become lovers. Del finds herself doing things she’d never do otherwise, like attending the Baptist Young People’s Society every Monday night. She also finds herself unable to study. Del’s calls her out on it — “You’ve gone addled over a boy. You with your intelligence.” But Del, by this time, has no interest or confidence in her mother’s asexual way of life. Del would come home after being with Garnet and find her mother on her bed, ready to read out of the university catalogs.
“Tell you what I would take — ” She was not afraid of Garnet anymore, he was fading in the clear light of my future.
Yet Del finds herself unafraid as well: “I did not fear discovery, as I did not fear pregnancy.” She doesn’t fear these because she doesn’t think they are possible. Yet, she’d be surprised to find out, she also doesn’t fear them because she doesn’t simply doesn’t fear them. She wants to end up with Garnet. That Naomi is getting married — because she’s pregnant — is shocking, but when she and Naomi talk about it, Del finds her and Naomi have drifted together again. Del says she has also had sex. She finally is able to tell Naomi about Mr. Chamberlain, from “Lives of Girls and Women.” Naomi denies to herself that she is depressed, and Del suspects it but, I think, in a way, finds it all attractive — probably because it’s what society expects of her and, as we’ve seen so far, that’s hard to escape.
Which brings us to the final moment, the moment we often find in Munro’s stories when everything slows down and we watch a scene play out in horror. Garnet and Del finish making love and go swimming. He asks her, “Would you like a baby?” She simply answers, “Yes,” and thinks:
Where would such a lie come from? It was not a lie.
Garnet tells her she needs to be baptized first, then. She doesn’t want this, she tells him. It may look like it starts out playful, but soon she finds herself in a serious struggle with Garnet, who is trying to baptize her on the spot. She genuinely thinks he’s going to drown her. Fighting under water feels like fighting in a dream.
In reflection, the whole affair with Garnet feels like a “possibly fatal game.” It still might be fatal in one way: she passes her tests but not with marks high enough to get her scholarship.
I was free and I was not free. I was relieved and I was desolate. Suppose, then, I had never wakened up? Suppose I had let myself lie down and be baptized in the Wawanash River.
She wonders about this life, “off and on, as if it still existed — along with the leafy shade and the waterstains in his house, and the bounty of my lover’s body — for many years.” It’s not easy for her to move on (would she have drowned?), but in the end she decides it’s time to “get started on my real life.” And free from the scholarship, free from Naomi, free from Garnet French, she has no idea what that might be.
“Baptizing” tells of the delirious affair that 17-year-old Del has with 23-year-old Garnet French. This passionate affair, which lasts several months, begins when the two strangers encounter each other at a revival and make a game, like Romeo and Juliet, of intertwining their hands, bit by bit. Not long after, Del is going out with Garnet in his truck every night, a night which sometimes starts with a church social and sometimes starts with one of Garnet’s baseball games. Once they are by themselves, Del remembers:
Garnet turned to me always with the same sigh, the same veiled and serious look, and we would cross over, going into a country where there was perfect security, no move that would not bring delight; disappointment was not possible.
The memories of these trysts keep Del awake at night. She remembers the “pleasure,” the word itself seeming “explosive, the two vowels in the first syllable spurting up like fireworks, ending on the plateau of the last syllable, its dreamy purr.” These are “great gifts” that she receives from Garnet. After they actually make love, their relationship deepens even more. ”Now we made love in earnest. We made love on the truck seat with the door open, and under the bushes, and in the night grass.” She goes on to say, “We had come out on another level – more solid, less miraculous, where cause and effect must be acknowledged, and love begins to flow in a deliberate pattern.”
Del, the narrator, comments years later on the rarity of what they had:
I was surprised, when I thought about it – am surprised still – at the light, even disparaging tone that is taken, as if [physical attraction] was something that could be found easily, every day.
Del and Garnet share Eden, as the dreamy valley and the precious stone of their names denote. Munro takes her time to tell their story, interrupting each stage with the more mundane. The slow pace of the story telling matches the story itself: “we felt an obligation [. . .] to make shy formal retreats in the face of so much pleasure.”
One of the reasons Del’s delirious affair with Garnett is so unforgettable is because they are fatally mismatched. (But aren’t all of us?) Garnet has been to jail and has never been to high school, while Del is famous for her academic triumphs and on the fast track for a scholarship to the university. Except for their physical attraction, Garnet and Del are realms apart – in age and experience, in social class, in the way they like to think and talk, in education, and in religion.
Garnet is a born-again Baptist. In “Age of Faith” Del remarks that Baptists were “extreme” and “slightly comic.” Perhaps of more importance, she also says in that story: “No person of importance or social standing went to the Baptist Church.” Part of the mismatch is engineered by the fact that that Del meets Garnet at a Baptist revival, which Del has chosen to attend out of ornery curiosity. Garnet, on the other hand, during a four month stint in jail for assault, has been saved. He readily admits that because of his tendency to drink and fight, he would end up back in jail, except for the church. So he is a steady member, even to the point of reaffirming his devotion to God during the revival. This is who Garnet is.
Del, for the sake of the sex, attends meetings at the Baptist Church every Monday night, but she is “appalled” by it and “waiting only for it to end.” Curiously, Del thinks of Garnet’s religion as being a “mask he was playing with.”
Actually, however, religion is real to Garnet. Munro leaves it to the reader to realize it is Del who is wearing the mask. She never mentions to Garnet what she really thinks of religion in general, and the Baptists in particular. She never mentions to Garnet her mother’s dreadful childhood with a religious zealot for a mother, a childhood in which she was both neglected and not protected, as we learn from “Princess Ida.” Not being religious is seriously important to Del. “Age of Faith” closes with Del looking for God, but not in church. Instead, she has long envisioned God thus:
God real, and really in the world, and alien and as unacceptable as death? Could there be a God amazing, indifferent, beyond faith?
While Del rejected organized religion as a means of making space in her soul for autonomy and art, Garnet embraced religion as a means of not ending up in jail again. Del lacks respect for the complete Garnet French. Garnet is open about how important religion is to him. Del’s position is a secret. She is the one who wears a mask.
She says that they hardly talk, given that they have no idea how to bridge their differences with talk. But perhaps Garnet’s silences are his version of a mask.
The social divisions between them are an issue. Before she ever meets Garnet, we know that Del considers people from Jericho Valley to be beyond the pale. She and her friend Jerry (both smarty-pants) watch the revival buses arrive from the country, and the two friends joke about how the folks from Jericho Valley (where Garnet is from) are inbred, “moronic and potentially criminal.” Later on, Del’s mother says, “I know who the Frenches are. Out beyond Jericho Valley. That’s the poorest Godforsaken backwoods you ever hope to see.” And yet, it is Del who admits she was happy the day she visits Garnet’s family.
Later in the affair, when her buddy Jerry refers to Garnet as a Neanderthal, Del mock-corrects him in “cheerful, shameful treachery,” saying, “No he’s Cro-Magnon.”
The mask that Del wears springs partly from her nature and partly from her age. She is only 17, while Garnet is 23. We know of his other girlfriends, but we also know that Garnet is her first meaningful relationship. The difference in their ages is key. Apart from his sexual experience, Garnet is worlds apart from Del in another regard: together, Garnet and his mother support the big family, and in his mother’s words, they are “the mainstay of the family.” This, despite no high school education and despite his stint in jail; in contrast, Del is nobody’s mainstay yet. Del is barely responsible for herself, let alone anyone else. She is, simply put, too young to understand how rare their love is, too young to respect him, and too young to know how to bridge the gaps between them.
Concealment is a theme in the entire book of Lives of Girls and Women. Del conceals her religious explorations and sexual adventures from her mother, and she conceals her artistic ambitions from everyone. Sheila Munro, in her memoir of life with her mother, Lives of Mothers & Daughters, says of Alice Munro that she “has spoken often of her art for dissembling, for concealment, which, for a writer can be very advantageous, allowing her to remain free and detached, almost without a self” (111). Del certainly conceals her real self from Garnet, and the result is inevitable.
I would turn, here, to another theme that runs throughout the book, which is the casual way in which men impose their ideas on women, and the case which Munro makes for the necessity women face: that they must stand up for themselves and fight for their own autonomy. Del has already had the experience of having her mother attempt to impose her asexual world view on Del, and Del has resoundingly rejected her mother, deciding in the title story to do as men do: “take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what [I didn’t] want and come back proud.” To a degree, Del’s reserve is part of fighting back, and is a part of her learning to be independent.
In the first half of “Baptizing,” Del must fight back. When she and Naomi end up in a seedy hotel room with a 28-year-old man and his buddy, the men try to manipulate the girls with (old story) dirty jokes and liquor. Although she is quite drunk, Del fights back by climbing down a fire escape and jumping to the ground, leaving Naomi (and her friendship with Naomi) behind. On another occasion, a steady beau who is neither attractive nor compelling to her, but merely convenient, convinces her to take off all her clothes. His mother comes home early, though, and the beau locks naked Del in the basement. Later, he sends her clothes down the laundry chute, and she escapes out a basement window.
What men have to say to women is, if anything, harder to escape. Magazine writers suggest that girls and women don’t think like men (of the meaning of the universe), and if they do, maybe they are just “Trying to Be a Boy.” Teenaged Del finds these assumptions difficult to wiggle out of. The young men in the hotel room tell dirty jokes, jokes which serve two functions. They mistakenly think that the jokes (with liquor) are the setting for sex, and they know that the jokes demean the girls. The man that Del had ended up with has a dirty joke that begins with this question: “You believe in equal rights for women?”
Del fights back at this sort of thing in her every-day life: she likes operas with main characters like Carmen, who has a “self-created self.”
The convenient beau is another nerd like Del, and convinced of his own superiority, he imagines himself winning a Nobel Prize. He cavalierly tells Del that while she has “a first rate memory” and “a not unusual feminine gift for language,” she also has “fairly weak reasoning powers and almost no capacity for abstract thought.” Throughout their long friendship, Jerry and his mother both treat Del as a handmaiden to their superior status as man and mother of the man. For her part, Jerry’s role is protection and exploration, and Del puts up with him, but she says: “I had indifference, a contempt, almost, that I concealed from him.”
Even her own father and the hired man have ideas about how Del should behave: she shouldn’t get into physical tests of muscle with her brother, and she shouldn’t have a beer, even when her father, her younger brother, and the hired man are having one. Her world comes furnished with masculine assumptions about women and their role. Munro’s attitude is that women have a choice. They can be victims, or they can stand up for themselves. Del, in fact, spends most of this book standing up for herself. But when you think about it, even while you are cheering her on, you know how unusual she is.
It would be easy to read “Baptizing” as a feminist fable: most of the men in this story are foisting themselves on women, and women are in danger of not being in control of their lives. These men are more espoused to their ideas about women than they are espoused to women, and their ideas run from the childish to the imperial. But to think in such simple terms is to ignore what Munro is always about. She is always interested in the complexity of life, and how when things go wrong, all sides are usually complicit. Regardless that the men are chauvinistic, Munro makes clear that the women in this story, (Del, Naomi, and to some extent, Del’s mother Addie) all have a choice to make.
To a degree, “Baptizing” is defined by its title. At 70 pages, this is a very long and convoluted short story, but throughout, Del is fighting for her life. The story is an ongoing baptism by fire in which Del must repeatedly and almost singlehandedly preserve her self. By choosing the gerund form (“Baptizing”), Munro emphasizes that this fight for autonomy, this fight for a “self-created self” is ongoing. No sooner have you climbed down one fire escape, but then you have to climb out a basement window.
The minister at the revival speaks in term of the fires of hell, and the human predicament of having to cross above it on the thinnest of rope bridges, thus echoing not only the idea of a baptism by fire, but also the Munro idea that, man or woman, life is where you fight for your life.
On first reading, I took Del’s baptism to be by Garnet – a thrilling baptism into pleasure and love. And I do think that is one of her baptisms in this story. But the final baptism is the fight she has with Garnet in the river, the one where he becomes determined to “baptize” her to be ready to marry him. This is a violent, violent event, one in which she thinks at one point he intends to drown her. So she kicks him in the belly as hard as she can and escapes. And with that, the bubble is over. Garnet and Del are done. Although now she was free (of his restrictions, of his social class, of his control), she was also “desolate.” She thinks of him, the pleasure of him, the joy of him, the rest of her life.
One thing she cannot bring herself to say is this: although he wants to marry her (he carves stars around her name), it is also possible that he understands it cannot be. And perhaps when the truck “broke down” the night before her university tests, and gave them an opportunity to have their first real sex, perhaps there was some other intention at work. Perhaps quiet Garnet was quietly arranging things just as he wanted them, and at the same time sealing the possibility that Del would not pass the test.
But even if Munro makes it possible for us to think this, she holds Del responsible. Throughout, Del has chosen not to apply the brakes, and she has chosen not to protect herself. Ironically, she is able to protect herself from pregnancy. She just cannot protect herself from falling into “having a good time,” like Fern. That she fails to nail her exams means she will not go to university; that she fails to go to university perhaps satisfies some unspoken need of Garnet’s as well. They have, to a degree, acted in concert.
This many-leveled story is deeply, deeply true to the experience of women. The love affair remains for Del a memory and a yearning for the rest of her life. But I think Munro means us to see that the baptism by fire never ends. If you want a “self-created self,” if you want to be an artist, there is no way but to fight for it, at every pass. Life is a violent event, interspersed, if you are lucky, with some pleasure. But man or woman, you have to fight for it every step of the way. Del herself says:
We had seen in each other what we could not bear, and we had no idea that people do see that, and go on, and hate and fight and try to kill each other, various ways, then love some more.
Next time, it may be that Del will fight for the relationship as well as fight for her own autonomy. To lose a love like Garnet’s twice would be more than would make sense. But that (to mesh marriage, art, and the human capacity for dissembling) would be an ongoing process. It would be a daily baptism by fire.
“Lives of Girls and Women” is the sixth piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
“Changes and Ceremonies,” the prior piece in Lives of Girls and Women, was suggestive of sex and a boy’s capacity to destroy. In that story, Del, at twelve years old, was focusing more and more on sexuality. In contrast, there is no suggestion in this, the title story. Here Del, in her first year of high school, is “fanatically curious” about the endless ways sexuality presents itself and its endless effects. She’s fascinated by what is still a mystery, a mystery which seems present in so many facets of society. But this is not a story of a girl’s sexual awakening. There’s an awakening, to be sure, and we get one of the most shocking scenes in this book — indeed, in Munro’s entire body of work – but it leads to something that I found surprising.
Del’s ambition, her feeling that she has something artistic to offer the world, has been clear for a few stories as we’ve seen her become more and more separate from the community she is describing, but it’s here, when her mother brings up Del’s future children, that she fully admits them to us:
Her speaking of children amazed me too, for I never meant to have any. It was glory I was after, walking the streets of Jubilee like an exile or a spy, not sure from which direction fame would strike, or when, only convinced from my bones out that it had to. In this conviction my mother had shared, she had been my ally, but now I would no longer discuss it with her; she was indiscreet, and her expectations took too blatant a form.
Yet the story does not dwell here. Rather, Dell — older, as she tells this story — remembers how she and her best friend Naomi would talk about sex nearly every day, talks that “took one tone, so that there were degrees of candor we could never reach. This tone was ribald, scornful, fanatically curious.”
That passage shows a link between the language used to talk about something and one’s impression about that thing — the language and the thing influencing each other, sometimes boxing us in. Here, besides being limited by inexperience, Del and Naomi’s understanding of sex is limited by language. In a way, these are limitations they impose upon themselves, but, of course, to break away, to free oneself in language in order to approach something head-on — that’s an act of courage, but also one of deliberation, and when the story begins Del is not yet conscious enough of any of this to make that act of courage.
In the first part of the story, when Del is “fanatically curious” about sex, she and Naomi talk quite often of Fern Dogherty, Del’s mother’s friend and boarder. Fern has a friend named Art Chamberlain. They are both older, yet Naomi’s mother — a woman who freely talks about the evils of sex with her child — has said that Fern and Art are having illicit relations. In what could be considered an act of courage, Del brings this up with her mother, who is convinced Fern and Art are not having sex:
“They enjoy each other’s company,” she said. “They don’t bother about any nonsense.”
Nonsense meant romance; it meant vulgarity; it meant sex.
Again, we see how the words affect Del’s own understanding of sex.
And it’s words that first get Del fantasizing about Mr. Chamberlain. One night, he is telling everyone about his experiences in Italy during the war. There, he says, men were hooking up with girls “no older than Del here.” These words shock Del. They open up a world to her, and in that world she imagines herself with Mr. Chamberlain. What follows is a lengthy passage, but one I find mesmerizing. Here, Del describes what these fantasies are composed of. We get a sense of her sense of sex and how far she allows her own mind to go, as she fantasizes about nothing more than Mr. Chamberlain seeing her naked:
It would have to be the summer holidays, when I was home from school. Fern would not yet be home from the post office. I would come downstairs in the heat of the late afternoon, a sulphurous still day, wearing only this dressing gown. I would get a drink of water at the sink, not seeing Mr. Chamberlain sitting quietly in the room, and then — what? A strange dog, introduced into our house for this occasion only, might jump on me, pulling the dressing gown off. I might turn and somehow catch the material on the nail of a chair, and the whole thing would just slither to my feet. The thing was that it had to be an accident; no effort on my part, and certainly none on Mr. Chamberlain’s. Beyond the moment of revelation my dream did not go. In fact it often did not get that far, but lingered among the preliminary details, solidifying them. The moment of being seen naked could not be solidified, it was a stab of light. I never pictured Mr. Chamberlain’s reaction, I never very clearly pictured him. His presence was essential but blurred; in the corner of my daydream he was featureless but powerful, humming away electrically like a blue fluorescent light.
Obviously, Munro herself has a fantastic control over language.
The story takes an even more disturbing turn when Mr. Chamberlain, in the presence of Del’s mother and Fern — though out of their sight — rubs his hand over Del’s breast. This initial assault leads to several more:
He went straight for the breasts, the buttocks, the upper thighs, brutal as lightning. And this was what I expected sexual communication to be — a flash of insanity, a dreamlike, ruthless, contemptuous breakthrough in a world of decent appearances.
These are Del’s first sexual experiences, “brutal as lightning,” but rather than explore how these negatively affected Del, which most of us would feel absolutely compelled to do, Munro has Del further exploring the language around sex. She finds some books in Fern’s room:
All I read now about foam and jelly, even the use of the word “vagina,” made the whole business seem laborious and domesticated, somehow connected with ointments and bandages and hospitals, and it gave me the same feeling of disgusted, ridiculous helplessness I had when it was necessary to undress at the doctor’s.
Soon, we get to that horrifying scene. As usual when writing about Munro, I don’t hold back spoilers, so feel free to look away.
Mr. Chamberlain picks Del up from school one day and drives her to an empty field outside of the city. There, he exposes himself to her and masturbates, staining her dress. It’s a scene that makes the mouth go absolutely dry. Del, for her part, goes along with it, wondering if he’s going to rape her or what, but she goes along with it because she wants more personal knowledge, something language — however adequate — can hardly substitute. Seeing it for herself, Del essentially finds sex, at least, this pathetic display, ridiculous. Suddenly, it has been stripped of its intrigue. She says the penis she sees — and describes bluntly, in stripped down language – had nothing to do with her. She examines this act impersonally, objectively, and we are reminded that “[b]ooks always compared it to something else, never told about it by itself.” Much has lost its luster on the way back in to town. Besides going through what must be shock, though Del does not dwell there, Del sees most things are not what they are chatted up to be.
She feels the urge to tell someone what happened, not necessarily to receive help but to tell a “funny, though horrifying, story.” But she’s still not found someone she can tell even her stories to. Consequently, she “did not know what to do with it.”
When talking about attraction and loneliness in my post about “Changes and Ceremonies” I said that the destructiveness of sex was for another story. Strangely — because here Del is sexual assaulted multiple times – this is not that story. We might expect an exploration of the negative impact this assault had on Del’s life. At most we get Del’s disappointment after the encounter. And we see Del getting a sense of empowerment. We see that she no longer wants the sex — if she ever did — she wants the knowledge. She wants to experience and, contrary to what society says a woman is capable of, “go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what [I] didn’t want and come back proud.”
As with all of the stories in Lives of Girls and Women, though we are watching Del develop this story stands completely alone as an examination of an adolescent mind trying to make sense of the world around her. But it leads nicely to the next story, where Del is dating a boy and ”words were our enemies.”
The title story of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women is startling and rich. A reader could easily write a book in reaction to this disturbing story in which fourteen-year-old Del intentionally seeks out a sexual experience with a middle-aged man already gone gray. Although she has a graphic recall of the assault, Del’s recollections are told in a flattened tone, and Munro leaves it to the reader to judge the extent of the damage done.
In this story, “Lives of Girls and Women,” Del is “fanatically curious” about sex and sexuality. Munro explores this aspect of being a girl with no ribbons to fancy it up, no veils, no apologies. It appears that no useful information will be forthcoming from her mother, a woman who thinks of sex as “nonsense.” While Addie hopes that Del will have children, she views relationships with men as distractions.
Using these words from Tennyson, Addie warns Del against men:
He shall hold thee, when its passion shall have spent its novel force,
a little closer than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.
Addie has an asexual approach to life, and these peculiar lines are apt to Addie’s purpose. Del knows, as we learned in “Princess Ida” that her mother is not likely to be able to answer any questions about sexuality, given “the gloom that overcame her in the vicinity of sex.”
This silence on the topic of sex was complicated by Addie’s dreams for Del. Del had brains to spare, and her mother knew it. Addie’s own ambitions have gone largely unfulfilled, and she was determined for Del to succeed. Ironically, although she was determined to provide her with a better education than she had had, Addie was unable to provide what a mother should: sex education and a healthy sexual model.
Given this vacuum, Del and her friend Naomi have “almost daily discussions on the subject of sex.” These discussions, says Del, are “ribald, scornful, and fanatically curious.” They pour over Naomi’s mother’s nursing textbooks. They are barely beyond the days when they would draw exaggerated cartoons of male and female bodies that portray, in fact, their fears. Del herself (who doesn’t like the revealing nature of nightgowns) is very afraid of her own body. The girls feel so powerless they pull tricks like writing the names of the popular girls on the walls of the Town Hall toilets or pretending to have cerebral palsy.
What Del and Naomi needed was a good book about sex and sexuality written from a woman’s point of view. They also needed acknowledgment that it was normal, right and good for women to have sexual feelings. They also needed copious reply to any question they could think up. This would have been the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies Ourselves, except that it would be twenty years before it would be available. The Joy of Sex would have been very useful to them as well, but it, too, would only become available twenty years later. In contrast to these affirming points of view, what little education Del had had made her think of sex as “a flash of insanity, a dreamlike, ruthless, contemptuous breakthrough in a world of appearances.”
Into this overheated, rebellious atmosphere comes a single man, the gray-haired boyfriend of Addie’s boarder, a kind of aged gentleman caller. Mr. Chamberlain had been seeing Fern for some time. That he shares a name with Neville Chamberlain is probably not a good omen.
Watching Del and Naomi chew gum in a purposely suggestive manner, Mr. Chamberlain sees an opportunity. He grooms Del (right under her mother’s nose, right under his girlfriend’s nose) with weeks of suggestive overtures and inappropriate, furtive, and extensive touching. His seductive routine includes calling Del a “bad girl” and getting her to collude in a scheme to retrieve his letters out of Fern’s room. In her search, Del finds instead information about abortions, condoms, pessaries, and tampons. Although Del finds nothing she can give Mr. Chamberlain, he does get the benefit of proving to Del that she is, indeed, a bad girl, having broken into Fern’s room.
Del’s mother sees, or chooses to see, nothing, perhaps because she enjoys the cultured company that Mr. Chamberlain, who is a radio announcer, provides. In addition, although everyone in town, including Del and Naomi, knows that Addie’s boarder is having an affair with Mr. Chamberlain, Addie chooses to believe this is not so.
Del’s unsatisfied sexual curiosity is being fanned by all these flames. She fantasizes that Mr. Chamberlain will be some kind of sexual partner – but all she can imagine is him seeing her naked. When he appears one day in his car just outside her school and offers her a ride, she is ready.
What comes next is strange, difficult to read, and bluntly graphic. Mr. Chamberlain takes Del to a secluded riverbank, has her stand beside him, and he masturbates. Del watches him, close enough for him to stain her skirt, just as she was meant to do. Del also observes that he probably meant for her to be afraid, except she wasn’t. He comments, “Quite a sight, eh?” Then, he tries to shame her, makes her ride on the floor of the car, lets her out outside of town, and by the next day he has disappeared, leaving Fern an airy, offensive letter of parting.
Del says of the assault, “I didn’t know what to do with it.”
The reader hardly knows either. It’s useful, however, for the reader to remember that Munro has made Del’s dilemma clear. In order to be an artist, she must make sense of sex. But in order to make sense of sex, she needs guidance. What Addie has done is prepare Del to be a victim.
Before the trip to the river, Del “had been looking at fields, trees, landscape with a secret, strong exaltation.” But heading back to the car after the attack, she says, “the landscape was [. . .] meaningless.” For sure, Del doesn’t know what to do with what has happened. She thinks of herself as above being debased by Mr. Chamberlain, but if the way she perceives the landscape is any clue, she feels enveloped by the same gloom her mother felt “in the vicinity of sex.”
By story’s end, she has decided to do as men do: “go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what [she] didn’t want and come back proud.”
This feels dangerous. Depending on the experiences she chooses, she could end up dead. The reader thinks of men who have been caught after having held girls like Del prisoner for years. Does Munro know it’s dangerous? Yes, I think so.
Although the story takes place in about 1950, Munro is writing in the 60’s. Nabokov’s Lolita appeared in 1958. Before Nabokov’s novel closes, Lolita is dead. Next time, this could be Del.
One difference between Lolita and Del is that Del is a little older. Lolita is an unformed middle school nobody, while Del is a high school student known for her essays, a girl who writes poems, a girl who intends to write a “masterpiece.” Not only that, Del has a vision of her own ambition: “It was glory I was after, walking the streets of Jubilee like an exile or a spy, not sure from which direction fame would strike, or when, only convinced from my bones out that it had to.” Lolita actually dies after she leaves Humbert; whether Del is damaged is not clear, but she is alive, and she has also begun to write in earnest.
Another difference between Nabokov and Munro is that the pedophilia in Nabokov is told from Humbert’s entitled point of view. It is important to note that Nabokov’s intent was often misunderstood; he was not writing pornography, he was writing about sexual slavery. But nonetheless, Lolita’s is not the voice that tells the tale; it is Humbert Humbert who “hums” the tune.
Munro’s story, however, has answered Nabokov; it is written from the girl’s point of view. While Humbert thinks of himself as clever and delightful, Del thinks of Mr. Chamberlain as infantile, evil, and repulsive. She says his face looks blind and wobbling, like a mask on a stick. Del remembers the penis: “It did not seem to have anything to do with me.”
Del assesses Chamberlain: “self-satisfaction stretched over quite an abyss of irresponsibility, or worse.” She could have been describing Humbert Humbert. What Munro has done is give Lolita a voice. She has riffed on one of the most famous books of the fifties. In so doing, she has questioned the true nature of girls, and she has questioned the nature of art, which for so long had been primarily the province of men.
This unlikely story of a girl’s molestation can be read as a kind of Ars Poetica, in which literature and art would allow for a female point of view, and maybe specifically the point of view of a woman or girl who is also an artist. But we are not exactly talking about Addie’s triumphal bluestocking attitudes, where women’s rights and women’s education and philosophical barnstorming are the goals. We are talking about an art that sees the whole girl or the whole woman: determination and foolishness, triumphs and mistakes, mind and body, good and bad. It is an art that longs to represent people as they really are. As odd as the comparison is, there is something of the Mary Cassatt in Munro in this book, in her determination to make lives of girls and women vibrant, touching, important, rich, and whole. But Mary Cassatt belonged to a different former world – Addie’s world – a world where a woman usually had to choose between being an artist and having a family.
The feminism in this story is strange and alien: Del is not crushed by her experience with Mr. Chamberlain. At least she got a little of what she wanted: experience, knowledge, and separation from her steam-roller of a mother.
It is no mistake that the perp in this story is named Art. It’s a kind of a joke, but it’s not a mistake. For one thing, art is a twin subject in this story: opera, story-telling, novels, sculpture, and poetry are some of the arts that play a part. Radio announcing is Art’s “art.” Naming the molester “Art” suggests that there could be something fraudulent, something of an assault, something of the entitled male, something of the Humbert Humbert in art as it has been up til now. During Mr. Chamberlain’s “performance,” Del describes his face as looking “blind and wobbling like a mask on a stick,” thus blending abuse, blindness, performance, and art.
When Addie quotes Tennyson, she is quoting “Locksley Hall,” a famous poem in which the speaker believes in the supremacy of men. He has been driven somewhat crazy by having been rejected by his true love. This well-known poem has the hero imagining his right to kill the woman who has turned him down. It also imagines him cooking up a peculiar revenge in which he marries a “savage.” By using a couplet from the poem, Munro hints at an artistic atmosphere dominated by male concerns and male points of view. Although it could be argued that Tennyson himself did not share the speaker’s views, the world of “Locksley Hall” is the world of art Del has inherited. This is the world Del must enter if she is to become an artist.
Will Del become an artist? We have the negative example of Fern, who is everything a girl should not be if she wishes to become an artist. When asked if she “planned” to be a singer, Fern replies, “Well, I did and I didn’t. The work, the training. I just didn’t have the ambition for it [. . .] . I always preferred having a good time.”
At the same time, Addie has ambitions for Del, but she can only imagine Del choosing what she chose: to be an asexual woman. Neither Fern nor Addie offer possible guidance.
What is tragic is how Addie has completely misjudged what Del needs. Addie shares Del’s ambition. Addie believes in education. But her attitudes deny Del any right to a natural sexuality, and if Del is to be an artist, she needs to be a complete person, a whole person. What is equally tragic is how Addie, in her need for companionship and friendship, set Del up for Chamberlain’s miserable assault. When there is no man in the house, children are at risk from gentleman callers. Addie’s inability to imagine Art as a sexual being also puts Del at risk; that Addie let him in the house is worse, and that she didn’t see what was going on was worst of all.
Or did she see? There was that stain on the skirt. As the story closes, Addie is lecturing Del, but much as Del knows she needs the protection of a mother, Del is beyond Addie. Del is going to take her own advice now. We just don’t know if she’ll be so lucky as to survive the second time.
With all the best intentions, Addie has alienated Del from her natural self. As a result, Del has learned to become secretive, but she is not just secretive about her sexuality, she is also secretive about her artistic self. She thinks about writing a poem about the white peacock that she and Naomi saw. Naomi says, “It was beautiful.”
Del thinks: “To have her thinking about it too was almost like trespassing; I never let her or anyone in that part of my mind.”
Artistry and sexuality are both secrets to Del; they are both the province of men; and they are both areas where Del has no reliable guide. She insists she will seek experience, and maybe with experience Del will knit her several selves together. But it looks dangerous. Just look at Fern.
Nevertheless, Del is determined to take her own advice now, only her own advice.
One last thing: in the story’s first paragraph, we hear how a huge snow fell that was deep enough in which to carve a human sized arch. The newspaper took pictures of Fern and another woman standing under the snow arch. The snow arch is an elegant shape, and also somewhat vaginal. At the heart of the arch stands Fern, the sexual gal who has a sexual good time with shabby Mr. Chamberlain. Although it is a girl’s name, Fern is also a slang term for female genitalia. Munro has announced herself at the outset. Art must contain the sexual natures of women as well as men.
There is always a high-low-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality to Munro’s writing. This story is no exception. Munro is dead serious – witness her title. The girls and women of the story have at their center questions of sexuality, motherhood, education, experience, ambition, and art. In addition, the lives of girls and women can often be powerfully impacted by evil, weak, or irresponsible men, and if you are a woman who is an artist, you have the whole long history of art that believed that women are an afterthought.
Del’s rebellion has begun, and like Phaeton, she may drive too close to the sun. But the tragedy of the story is that Addie only wanted Del’s success; she never saw that making sex a secret could risk Del’s life. Like Addie, the society never saw, either, that making sex a secret created all the wrong results.
It is significant that Munro has made this the title story: in “Lives of Girls and Women,” Del chooses experience and separation from her mother over obedience and ignorance. It’s an artist’s credo to choose to live free. Choosing autonomy is not all that easy for men, and it may not be all that easy for Del, either. But it’s one of the necessary steps.
“Changes and Ceremonies” is the fifth piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
“Changes and Ceremonies” is about those moments of joy, moments of togetherness, those ceremonies and rituals that make a community of disparate folk, that make intimate a few people who have always known each other but have never really seen each other before. It’s about sex. It’s about how the build up — to the ceremony, folks – can be overwhelming with promise, and how, in the end, it all might be a bit disappointing. We remain disparate. We’re disillusioned and realize we’re in tenuous orbit with a lot of vacant space in between.
The older Del telling this story is looking back to when she was twelve. So far in Lives of Girls and Women the stories dealt with sexual attraction only from a distance, as Del looked on curiously at the adults’ strange and incomprehensible behavior, behavior that wakes Del up to deceit and disappointment. Here, though, Del and her best friend Naomi are the ones who enter into the world of incomprehensible longing.
It’s incomprehensible because up till and including now, boys have shown their capacity to destroy:
The things they said stripped away freedom to be what you wanted, reduced you to what it was they saw, and that, plainly, was enough to make them gag.
Del and her best friend Naomi are suitably disgusted by the boys’ vulgarity. Nevertheless, sex is definitely on their minds. They swap rumors about who has done it, and Naomi displays some of the consequences to being “reduced [. . .] to what it was [boys] saw.” Naomi’s own mother puts all blame for bad behavior on the girl (Naomi’s mother represents a host of the destructive myths that we still see used to defend sexual behavior today).
But the destructiveness of sex itself is for another story. Here, Del’s own perspective is relatively innocent. When Del and Naomi go to the library, Naomi just wants Del to find her a book with the most suggestive sex scene. Del, for her part, goes to the library to open up her world — at this point in the story she just wants a good story – and even at the end she finds herself simply (though, it’s not so simple) longing for contact.
The catalyst for change comes with the school’s annual operetta. This year, it’s Del’s class’s turn to perform, and the cycle has again landed on The Pied Piper. They’re all very excited for the show. Preparations have disrupted the usual lessons. Several unlikely figures take the spotlight, including the two teachers who are in charge of the show: Miss Farris and Mr. Boyce. Nothing suggests Miss Farris and Mr. Boyce are remotely attracted to one another, that their relationship is anything less than professional, but kids being kids — especially at that age — a kind of romance is invented for them each year.
Another unlikely figure is Frank Wales, a quiet boy who sits behind Del in class. He’s not attractive, and Del has never struck up much of a relationship with him. However, his voice is lovely, and he’s chosen as the lead. This transforms him, for Del. She finds herself thinking about him all the time. She’s thrilled that her mom knows his mom:
I wanted to ask what the house was like, were there pictures in the front room, what did his mother talk about, did she mention her children?
The night of the operetta finally arrives, and it’s a miracle it keeps afloat, but of course it does in its way. All the kids are running around, boys and girls seeing each other in their underwear, and the community is gathered together. Again, those disparate pieces brought together.
But then it’s over. This even that has been the focal point of everyone’s attention for so long is done, and, due to a seeming misunderstanding, Frank does not offer to walk Del home afterwards.
Munro perfectly captures the post-ceremony mood:
What happened, after the operetta? In one week it had sunk from sight. Seeing some part of a costume, meant to be returned, hanging in the cloak room was like seeing the Christmas tree, leaning against the back porch in January, browning, bits of tinsel stuck to it, reminder of a time whose hectic expectations, and effort, seem now to have been somewhat misplaced.
We move quite quickly away from this communal event and see where the individual orbits have taken the people brought together that one night. Though Del thinks of him fondly for a while, nothing brings them together again. In a few years, Frank drops out school. Mr. Boyce moves away to a place where he feels more comfortable. Indeed, the final words of the story are about him: “Word filtered back that he managed to get along quite well there, where there were some people like himself.”
But before we get to those final words, we cross the most turbulent part of the story: Miss Farris’s tragic fate was to drown in the Wawanash River three or four years after The Pied Piper was put on. While people talked as if it were an accident or the sinister work of some mad murderer, most still knew, without acknowledging they knew, that she committed suicide. In the following paragraph – besides displaying a brutal streak in Munro’s writing, as she describes Miss Farris’s activities the night of the operetta and one could easily take each image and apply it to Miss Farris drowned in the icy water — shows that perhaps Miss Farris herself never was brought into the fold.
Miss Farris in her velvet skating costume, her jaunty fur hat bobbing among the skaters, always marking her out, Miss Farris con brio, Miss Farris painting faces in the Council Chambers, Miss Farris floating face down, unprotesting, in the Wawanash River, six days before she was found. Though there is no plausible way of hanging those pictures together — if the last one is true then must it not alter the others? — they are going to have to stay together now.
It’s a lonely story, one that suggests to Del that community, that connection, is mostly an illusion. The child in Del is indeed led away by the Pied Piper.
In “Changes and Ceremonies,” art is the central subject — its lure, its power, and its dangers. What surprises about the story, given that its subject is art, is that the central character is a twelve-year-old girl. Surprising, too, is that the story encompasses the comic and the tragic, and is all the more successful for it.
The story begins with the battle between the sexes, seventh grade style. Del and Naomi are about thirteen, and they liked to stay in town after school, even if the boys yell dreadful things at them. “The things they said stripped away the freedom to be what you wanted,” observes the adult Del.
Sometimes the girls would yell back at the boys, telling them to wash out their mouths. Then the girls would go to the library, with its “evidence of so many created worlds.” The girls spent time poking around in books that tell about things like someone having a baby or a couple “taking shelter” in a barn. Going home in the winter dusk, they’d latch on to a passing sleigh for a lark. When they finally fell off they’d yell bad words at each other in a happy frenzy of twelve year old freedom.
And then it was March: the operetta. For Miss Elinor Farris, “The operetta was her passion.” She and Mr. Boyce, the local organist, were the ones in charge. The operetta took over the school, and “when the time came they would let it loose, it would belly out like a balloon, and we would all just have to hold on.” Almost everyone took part, but as Del remembers, some of the kids were “the never chosen.”
As predictable as that was, there was the enormous surprise of Frank Wales being given the lead — Frank, who was “so indifferent to the possession of such a voice, unaware of it, that when he stopped singing it was completely gone and you did not think of it in connection with him.”
Miss Farris kept costumes for six operettas stored in the attic, and the one this year was to be The Pied Piper. What an odd operetta! Art is here represented as something that can lure a person away from ordinary life to disappearance and death. Munro means us to feel that lure and that danger, both.
While Del and Naomi were a little bit boy crazy, Del sees that for Miss Farris, it’s the show that’s the thing, not Mr. Boyce. It’s the show that makes Miss Farris pink. Del loved this show, too, and she was moved by the tragedy of the Pied Piper. And so it was entirely natural when she fell in love with Frank Wales, who was turning out to be the perfect Pied Piper.
Under the pressure and business of preparing for the show, Del observes that “undercurrents of friendliness” were breaking out between the boys and girls, replacing all that alley-cat hazing. Naomi and Del confide about who they like, and they trade secrets about sex, about who had done it, who could do it, and who was responsible for what happened if they did do it.
As for Del, she was dreaming about the possibility that Frank Wales might walk her home on the night of the Operetta. That was one of the ceremonies of the seventh grade operetta. And then, suddenly, there it was — the night of the performance. Munro perfectly reproduces the seventh grade uproar, the rushing about, the nervousness, the girl who had taken four aspirin, and the way the event flashes by. Miss Farris “glittered” and “glided” and was “unlike herself.”
Afterwards, the children trooped out into the night and down the street to have their photograph taken in costume. Amid the hubbub, one of boys told Frank to walk Del home. Frank’s “gallant” reply stays with Del the rest of the night. He’d said that he would walk her home, except she lived too far out. Del thinks what he said was “lovely.” And then it was all over.
Things settled back to normal, and but when the time came, Frank Wales did not go on to high school with the rest of them, but went to work in the dry cleaners. Del’s fantasy about Frank, born of the operetta, faded slowly.
Later, when they were all in high school, Miss Farris was found drowned in the Wawanash River. Some people, most people, understood she had committed suicide. Others re-wrote the story and said she’d been dragged to the river by intruders, or at the very least, had just been walking by the river and fell in. Munro details the impossible combination of mental pictures they have of Miss Farris: skating in her velvet costume, doing make-up for the show, floating face down in the river.
She sent those operettas up like bubbles, shaped with quivering, exhausting effort, then almost casually set them free, to fade and fade but hold trapped forever our transformed childish selves, her undefeated, unrequited love.
The last word in this paragraph is love, as if it is art that is the source of love. The paragraph could be as true of writing stories as of making operettas.
In this story I recognize my own seventh grade, the performance, the boys, the girls, the frenzies, the preoccupations. I enjoy re-experiencing it all with Munro, I enjoy understanding how similar we all are, and part of the enjoyment is the exquisite detailing: the way, for instance, Del notices who gets left out. To use a word Del used about the library, I find the story comforting.
But it also is discomforting. It’s about the life of girls, and also about the lives of artists. The story starts out by noticing how the boys’ taunts “stripped away freedom to be what you wanted, reduced you to what it was they saw.” In this story, this could be true as much for artists as for girls.
When we end with Miss Farris’s death, we’ve already had a figurative death, that of Violet Toombs, who had to move away after she’d had sex in the shed with Dale McLaughlin. And we’ve had another figurative death in Frank Wales, whose beautiful voice is silenced by circumstance, given that it would have been high school that would have given him another chance. But when Miss Farris drowns, we go full circle back to the story’s beginning and to that question of freedom, especially for girls. Had Miss Farris had the freedom to become what she needed to become? To be fair, had Frank?
An important effect of pairing the operetta with the suicide is to show how, out in the country, the intense creative, communal world of the theater is both so important and so fragile. It’s odd and fitting that the operetta is the tragedy of the misunderstood Pied Piper. To be an artist in the provinces is something misunderstood and apart: “ridiculous” Mr. Boyce was understood to be “happier” when he moved to London, where there were other people like him. Frank Ware, with his gorgeous voice, moves himself to silence and disembodiment, and Miss Farris is unlike herself on the night of the operetta.
Munro, too, has talked about the loneliness she felt at the time she was writing this story, where it was just strange if a woman had any ambition other than to have several kids.
Munro makes the story as joyful as it is tragic. The children are little barbarians, and Miss Farris transforms them, saves them, really, and they know it. What touches me is the ambiguity in the sentence that talks about Miss Farris’s love. Whether it means her love of her “worlds of creation,” or her love for the children, or her love of the moment of transformation — or her love of the way she herself is transformed — is not clear. Perhaps it means all of these at once.
My dentist plays the violin in the annual local Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, which is always terrific. She says that being a part of this group is like church. They are all transformed. It’s sublime.
This story delights me, with its rowdy, touching seventh graders, and its determined (ridiculous) Miss Farris and her “undefeated, unrequited love.” (Munro loves that word: “undefeated.”) Following the silences, isolation and failures of “Age of Faith,” we see the transformative power of art at work in the world, but we get a sense of its requirements. We see Miss Farris having to interrupt Naomi and Del in the middle of flinging themselves about and swearing. Impossibly, we see her daring to give them the night of their lives, floating them, giving them the best of herself, giving them the best of themselves in an act of “undefeated, unrequited love.”
Munro was 20 when she married, and she had the last of her children at 36. During this time she tried to write, but it was difficult. For one thing, as Munro has said on several different occasions, other people could not comprehend why a housewife would write. But it was more serious than that. Sheila Munro, author of a memoir about her mother (Lives of Mothers & Daughters) says, “Often she would sit down at her typewriter and not be able to write more than a sentence or two; she’d spend the rest of the day in a morose state of inactivity. [. . .] After a time she stopped writing altogether.” Munro’s husband supported her work, but the combination of being a “wife, mother and hostess” combined with a sense that maybe she was mistaken — maybe she was not going to write a masterpiece. Sheila Munro explains that towards the end of this dark period, her mother realized that she would have to make “a series of impossible leaps.” (86-88)
Munro’s mother died, and in the summer of ‘61, the whole family traveled to Wingham, Ontario. Munro is now thirty. After that trip, she wrote “A Trip to the Coast,” “Dance of the Happy Shades,” and “The Peace of Utrecht.” She was on her way.
But reading “Changes and Ceremonies,” I see how close a call it was. Miss Farris drowns herself. We don’t know quite why. We do know that her death comes after Mr. Boyce leaves for the city, Mr. Boyce who had been integral to the production of the musical, perhaps essential. We see how precarious the artist’s life is, especially the female artist.
Sheila Munro writes tellingly of Virginia Woolf saying that the female writer must “kill” the Angel of the House — “the Victorian ideal of a woman who is self-sacrificing, good, and pure” — if she is going to escape writing that is “conventional [and] constricted.” Only then, could she “tell the truth.” Sheila Munro points out that Woolf thought no woman, not even herself, had achieved this freedom. (90) Obviously, Sheila is recommending her mother as that person Woolf was seeking.
Alice Munro emerged from her period of struggle to spend her thirties writing a new kind of work, but it was a close call. Alice Munro’s compassion for Miss Farris echoes the depth of that struggle.
Delicate, magnificent, and full of life, “Changes and Ceremonies” performs a ceremony itself: it is both a celebration of art’s sublime power and a knowing elegy for a fallen artist.
“Age of Faith” is the fourth piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
When we enter “Age of Faith,” Del is twelve years old, and the world around her is expanding ever faster, even though, in some ways, it still feels small and manageable — safe. Though “not ignorant of the facts of geography” she considered the faraway hills “to be the end of the world.” Her world was tight, knowable, and there was security in this thought.
Indeed, even the terrifying thought of burglars lends itself to this security. At the end of the first paragraph of this story, Del makes a statement of her mother’s faith: “She believed in burglars.” Del shares this belief for a time. Every time she and her mother leave the house, Del watches the always empty road to make sure no one is watching while her mother hides the key, a kind of superstition that allows them to leave the home without worry. No doubt about it: if they did not do this, they would have to return home. Del further felt sure that these burglars knew all the intimate details of their life, knew just where to find the hidden treasures: “Their knowledge, their covetousness, made each thing seem confirmed in its value and uniqueness.”
This is a controlled world. You do certain things, and you can be sure of a certain outcome. Even if burglars exist and watch everything they do, they have a way of dealing with that. Plus, the very existence of omniscient burglars gave Del a sense of security. This sense of security would not last, though, because “[l]ater on of course I began to doubt the existence of burglars or at least to doubt that they could operate in this manner.” Del’s realization that the world is not so controlled — that she is not nearly so special for these burglars to spend their time studying and plotting around — is, interestingly, uncomfortable:
Much more likely, I saw, that their methods were haphazard and their knowledge hazy, their covetousness unfocused, their relationship to us next thing to accidental. I could go more easily up the river to the swamp when my belief in them faded, but I missed them, I missed the thought of them, for quite a while.
With a title like “Age of Faith” and that introduction, we feel we know just where this story is going: Del’s similar dawning awareness that the world is a big place, that her personal relationship with God might just not exist. In some ways, the story does go there, but it’s much more interested in Del’s strong desire for such a controlled world — God just seems a good way to get it.
Right after she says she misses the burglars, she says she never had such feelings about God. Her own family was not religious and did not attend church often. If they did, it was clear to Del — and to everyone else — that Del’s mother did not believe a word being spoken and seemed to find the whole thing distasteful. Del’s mother will explicitly say this later on in the story.
And yet Del does attend church regularly. At first, she admits, “it was probably to bother my mother, though she made no outright objection to it, and to make myself interesting.” Her motives change, though, and she has a deep yearning for some sense of control in the world, some God who provides this comfort, comfort that, it seems, even her mother cannot fully forsake:
Not eve she was prepared to say Nothing, and see herself and every stick and stone and feather in the world floating loose on that howling hopeless dark. No.
And so the bulk of the story explores Del’s struggle to find that comfort she once received from the burglars: something that “made each thing seem confirmed in its value and uniqueness.” At one moment, she seems to find just what she’s looking for. She hates sewing, hates getting scolded by her teacher for being unable to thread the sewing machine, so she prays she will never have to do it again. Her prayer is answered almost immediately, and in a most unexpected way. Her certainty that this was God diminishes rapidly, though.
This is a fascinating story of a young girls struggle to come out whole on the other side of “the unavoidable collision coming, of religion and life.” As if often the case, Munro spends a lot of time taking us in and out of Del’s experiences generally before she focuses her sights on one poignant episode where that collision happens dramatically before our eyes.
In “Age of Faith” Del is about twelve and becomes “prey to a positive longing” for God.
The story of Del’s search for God is a sprawling collection of little narratives, details, images, and observations. One of the images is that of a renowned crazy old lady, a faithful church goer, who got out a hatchet when the delivery boy brought no butter in the groceries. But that lady also trails stories – the daughter who drowned herself in the Wawanash, the son in the asylum. She tries to peg Del: “What are you doing all the time at the Anglican Church? I thought you were United.”
Belief in the Jordan family is a complicated thing. Del and her brother were baptized in the United Church, but no one goes. Instead, Del has a very early memory of her mother’s iron-clad belief in burglars, one that Del adopted as well. Del also knows that her mother’s fierce belief in education is akin to religion. Nevertheless, about the time they move to town, Del begins to go to church with the boarder, who sings in the choir.
Some of Del’s dry, adult narrative is amusing, because Del the twelve year old is so naïve. Some of what is recounted is also deeply observant of a twelve-year-old’s yearning for the sublime. Sitting in a threadbare Anglican chapel, twelve year old Del thinks:
If God could be discovered, or recalled, everything would be safe.
Del is also an ordinary kid who has to go to school, a place where she is both safe and unsafe. At school, she is famous for her wicked memory, but school is where she is also a very public failure in sewing class, an agony for which she prays to God for release. She longs for this annunciation. It just so happens that shortly after this, the sewing teacher loses all patience with Del and orders her to sweep the room instead. The question is – was this going to happen anyway? Or did God answer the prayer? Del cannot be sure. The way Del has been running the machine with no thread in it makes us feel that the reprieve was going to happen anyway.
Del is also an ordinary older sister, and she decides to instruct her brother Owen on the subject of religion, while admonishing him that he cannot tell Mother (because Mother is a free thinker who is “cured of religion”). She tells him about being released from sewing on account of her prayer. Del is disappointed that Owen appears to be impervious to the call of religion.
On Good Friday, Del announces she is going to church, and her mother realizes that the church in question is not the United, because they don’t have Good Friday service. Del is going to the impoverished Anglican Church. Addie, Del’s mother, responds to Del’s Good Friday religiosity with a typical Addie remark: that Christian belief in a God who required Jesus to die on the cross is as barbaric as Aztec sacrifice. But to Addie’s credit, Addie lets Del go to the service.
Del remembers the service: “I realized I did not care a great deal, myself, about Christ dying for our sins. I only wanted God.” Meaning, she only wanted safety.
The service is further complicated by the fact that Del sees flaws in the minister’s sermon. Regardless of her search for the sublime, the good student senses illogic in the minister’s argument. Del’s search for God is at a stalemate.
As often happens in Munro, a long narrative that covers months or years is interrupted by or culminated in an intense event. Owen’s beloved dog Major has killed not one but two sheep and must be put down. Owen remembers Del’s release by prayer from sewing class. Owen, in agony, says, “If you prayed for Major not to get shot would he not get shot?”
At this moment, Del develops into a different sense of religion. She realizes God will not intercede; she realizes God “was not interested in such objections; they were not his.” She realizes that God is not necessarily safety.
The end of the story is a puzzling epiphany. Del is startled by the depth of Owen’s love, and she is startled by his fervent desire to pray for Major’s life. She has this thought that ends the story: “Do missionaries ever have these times, of astonishment and shame?” Del knows she has been playing at religion. Owen’s love for Major is so pure and his need to save him so great, his agony so real, that Del is astonished at the encounter.
A paragraph which Del has italicized models Del’s thoughts, although whether these could be the thoughts of a twelve year old is not clear. They feel more like Del’s adult self interpreting something which would be far more inchoate in a pre-teen.
Could there be God not contained in the churches’ net at all, not made manageable by any spells and crosses, God real, and really in the world, and alien and unacceptable as death? Could there be God amazing, indifferent, beyond faith?
This is a paradoxical and difficult pair of sentences.
But she makes it clear: the age of organized religion, for Del, is a pre-teen thing. Searching for God, if it is to be done at all, will be done in the world. And if God is found, or felt, it will feel alien. To a degree, this is where Munro is going anyway: to the place where comfortable beliefs are of no use, and where what might be bedrock must be tested for its capacity to produce amazement and alienation.
Munro uses story-telling to test life for bedrock: she tends to push a story until it reveals itself both amazing and unacceptable. Addie, for instance, is both amazing and unacceptable. Munro’s honesty also tends to push stories for “astonishment and shame.” By shame, I think she means the sudden recognition of your own part in someone else’s peril. I think she means humility.
Love is a dangerously easy word, and Munro avoids it. And yet, this story demonstrates it, as do other stories, “Princess Ida,” for one (our thoughts here). This time, it is Addie letting Del try out religion, and it is Owen, in agony over the dog and the “flash of darkness,” that his execution will be. It is also Del, feeling the flash of astonishment at Owen’s despair.
Circle back to the beginning – that Del’s first belief was in burglars. There is Del’s concern with safety and Munro’s insistence on the impossible: that we need safety, but it is never guaranteed. We watch Addie hide her key on the porch; we ourselves doubt this will keep out the burglars. Addie’s ritual in honor of safety foreshadows the ineffectuality that Del eventually feels in the rituals of church.
Of course, what is most interesting is Munro’s account of Del’s moral development. She is astonished by Owen’s despair, and she is ashamed of what her play-acting has put him through. While the story is about a twelve year old, it is a grown woman, probably of about Munro’s own age, telling the story and awestruck, still, not by religion, but by Owen’s despair and her own shame.
The search for the sublime ends with the adult Del saying what she should have said to Owen, “[W]e do not pray for things to happen or not to happen, but for the strength and grace to bear what does.” But how do you say that to a nine year old?
The paradoxes of existence permeate Munro. The illogic of organized religion almost requires that Del reject it, but at the same time, experience reveals to Del what she requires: the nature of the divine.
Owen’s terrible love for Major and the fact that it could not save Major is both the paradox of existence and the revelation she had been seeking. God is in the world and paradoxical: amazing, indifferent, beyond faith.
“Princess Ida” is the third piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
According to her Paris Review interview (here), Alice Munro began writing “Princess Ida” on a Sunday in January, and it was the start of what would become Lives of Girls and Women. It is about her mother and came first because “material about my mother is my central material in life, and it always comes the most readily to me. If I just relax, that’s what will come up. So, once I started to write that, I was off.”
It’s true that many of Munro’s stories go back to her mother or her relationship with her mother. Indeed, I believe Alice Munro became the author she is today (probably I feel that way because Munro herself has expressed something similar) when she wrote “The Peace of Utrecht,” an early story in which Munro confronts her mother’s death by Parkinson’s Disease in 1959 (see here our post about “The Peace of Utrect”).
In “Princess Ida,” Munro steps back a bit further to present a picture of a disappointed, middle-aged mother who is watching the promise of her life slip away. Del, an adolescent in this story, is writing this story from later in life, probably about the time she realizes just how sad her mother was.
Del and her mother — who is named, we find out here, Addie — have moved away from the house on Flats Road to rent a house in town. It’s not necessarily Addie’s attempt to get away from her husband, who has stayed on at the Flats Road and who, unless there’s snow, comes to town each night; rather, it’s that she had to get away from that house on the fringe, and her husband simply wasn’t enough to keep her there any longer.
It’s not Addie’s only attempt to get out and try to get ahead. She now goes out on the road selling encyclopedias — well, trying to. At first Del was fine going along with her mother. She loved that her mother could use Del’s own love for learning as a selling point. Del learns quickly, though, that showing her love for learning is strange: “I saw that to some people, maybe to most people, knowledge was just oddity; it stuck out like warts.” In fact, Del realizes something she’s always felt: her mother is a strange woman. At this early point in Del’s life, she doesn’t want to admit how much she’s like her mother.
I felt the weight of my mother’s eccentricities, of something absurd and embarrassing about her — the aunts would just show me a little at a time — land on my own coward’s shoulders. I did want to repudiate her, crawl into favor, orphaned, abandoned in wrinkled sleeves. At the same time I wanted to shield her.
On the surface, this is a story about a woman’s attempts, born of desperation, to take some control of her life that is running out of possibilities. But it’s so much more than that.
I truly feel that most writers would stop there, and I’d probably like it just fine, especially in a novel about a young girl’s coming of age. But in “Princess Ida” Munro shows her own struggle to bring to life the very life that seems to have been wasted, mostly through the writer’s imagination.
At first, we see that Del’s perception of her mother’s youth is naive. Like most of us, she is simply unable to comprehend all of the seconds her mother has spent alive and developing, suffering.
And my mother, just a little girl then named Addie Morrison, spindly I should think, with cropped hair because her mother guarded her against vanity, would walk home from school up the long anxious lane, banging against her legs the lard pail that had held her lunch. Wasn’t it always November, the ground hard, ice splintered on the puddles, dead grass floating from the wires? Yes, and the bush near and spooky, with the curious unconnected winds that lift the branches one by one. She would go into the house and find the fire out, the stove cold, the grease from the men’s dinner thickened on the plates and pans.
Del realizes that this is, in some way, false. It also leaves holes that will never be filled in, like this:
She became engaged to a young man who remained a shadow — no clear-cut villain, certainly, like her brother, or Grandma Seeley’s nephew, but not luminous and loved, either, not like Miss Rush.
“Princess Ida” is a story of intimations, of the glimpses we get into someone’s secrets, of the realization that we cannot comprehend the life of another.
Much of this comes to the forefront when we meet one of the “clear-cut villains,” Addie’s brother Billy. Successful now, Billy comes to visit, and Del’s sense of embarrassment of her mother and her desire to shield her mother couldn’t be stronger. Del does not remember ever meeting Billy, though she has heard about him for years. What she’s heard is disturbing.
It was the younger brother she hated. What did he do? Her answers were not wholly satisfactory. He was evil, bloated, cruel. A cruel fat boy. He fed firecrackers to cats. He tied up a toad and chopped it to pieces. He drowned my mother’s kitten, named Misty, in the cow trough, though he afterwards denied it. Also he caught my mother and tied her up in the barn and tormented her. Tormented her? He tortured her.
What with? But my mother would never go beyond that — that word, tortured, which she spat out like blood.
Del has her own suspicions, childish at first — “I was left to imagine her tied up in the barn, as at a stake, while her brother, a fat Indian, yelped and pranced about her” — but much darker when she grew up:
Nothing really accounted for her darkened face at this point in the story, for her way of saying tortured. I had not yet learned to recognize the gloom that overcame her in the vicinity of sex.
Munro’s story remains elusive. Any additional glimpse we get to Addie’s past is still just a glimpse. What we are stuck with is a disappointed woman, completely foreign to herself:
Had all her stories, after all, to end up with just her, the way she was now, just my mother in Jubilee?
“Princess Ida” begins with Del admitting:
I felt the weight of my mother’s eccentricities, of something absurd and embarrassing about her [. . .]. I did want to repudiate her [. . .]. At the same time I wanted to shield her.
What Del does in the end is write about her mother, the person whom other people seemed to think of as a “wild-woman.” What matters, of course, is that gradually Del realizes she is much the same. “Princess Ida” is also about how stories provide an education about the people we know, especially when we can run several different stories from several different people or several different times up against each other.
Munro describes her mother’s (Addie’s) eccentricities: the way she bucketed around Wawanash County in a thirty-seven Chevy selling encyclopedias; the way she wrote letters to the editor about women’s rights and education; the way she wrote flowery essays with “long decorative descriptions” and published them in the newspaper under the nom de plume of “Princess Ida.”
Del says: “I hated her selling encyclopedias and making speeches and wearing that hat. I hated her writing letters to the newspapers.” But in the course of time, as she learns more, Del moves from humiliation to curiosity to empathy.
Del’s aunts made fun of her mother, made fun of the mud on her boots, of the “beetles she had on her dress” the letters she wrote to the editor. The aunts and all the others in town who did not get her mother were part of Del’s repudiation. Addie insisted on joining the Great Books discussion group, and when that disappointed, she took a correspondence course on the Great Thinkers. With her husband’s support, Addie rented a place in town and took in a boarder so her children could go to school in town. There’s a satisfying congruence in the arc of Addie’s difficult life. Poverty or not, university or not, Addie is determined to learn. No matter what, Del and her brother would go to school.
In the second section of the story, Del reflects on Addie’s stories of childhood. Addie grew up in a house that was “like one where a murder had been committed.” Both Del and the reader learn it was a house where hopes, especially the hopes of girls and women, were ground to bits. Neglected by her parents, abused and maybe raped by her brother, and forbidden to go to high school, Addie dreamed of school. In an act of startling bravery, Addie ran away and worked in a boarding house to make school possible. Her zealously religious mother, being “in the last demented stages of Christianity”, had given away a bequest of $300 that could have sent Addie to college. The woman had bought Bibles instead, to distribute to the poor. Although Addie says this cured her of religion, what really matters is the way Addie’s wisecrack covers up her deep, deep disappointment.
All that Del knows about Addie’s youth comes from Addie. Del says: “In the beginning of her story was dark captivity, suffering, then daring and defiance and escape.” But Del comments on noticing the way her mother’s stories always seemed to have something missing.
The adult Del admits: “I myself was not so different from my mother, but concealed it, knowing what dangers there were.”
We have a premonition here of what is to come for Del. Del is for Munro what Rabbit is for Updike – what might have been. Munro has said that she was able to “prevail” over her circumstances. In this story, it is not clear, despite the brilliance of her writing, whether Del has the moxie or pointed ambition she is going to need to “prevail.”
In the third and final section of the story, Addie’s abusive (but quite successful) older brother makes a surprise visit from the States. No one is happy to see him. Long absent, his visit is another assault. He re-writes the past, making the neglectful mother a saint, making the farm a sylvan idyll, making the barn where he “tortured” Addie non-existent. He re-writes himself to be a benevolent man, and he makes a peculiar $300 bequest to the sister he abused in the barn, as in half-hearted atonement and sideways recognition of what the money might have originally meant to Addie. Bill insists to Addie: “you got your education”. Not really, given that she never got to go to college, and not really, given that some of her education was at his hands in the barn. In forcing Del to listen to his version of things, Bill’s storytelling is nothing but revision, nothing but a mask. He re-enacts his assaults with his assaults on the truth. His story-telling is a kind of rape of consciousness.
Del puts it all together. When her mother remarks she could use the bequest to “send away for a box of bibles” we hear what hurts the most. While Del knows that the uncle was cruel, while she knows the “gloom that overcame [Addie] in the vicinity of sex,” she also knows that the sharpest assault of Addie’s youth was losing the chance at university. Del sees her mother in that instant: “Just before Fern came in one door and Owen came in the other, there was something in the room like the downflash of a wing or knife, a sense of hurt so strong, but quick and isolated, vanishing.”
And then Addie resumes her crossword puzzle, searching her mind for the “Egyptian god with four letters”. Seth is the god of storms, disorder, and war. But Addie fights to keep chaos at bay, even if what she has to do is forget it. At Addie’s center is terrible disappointment, neglect and abuse interwoven with a rocklike unwillingness to give in and a life-long defiance of being denied.
Addie may embarrass her children, but she doesn’t destroy them, the way Amanda Wingfield does in “The Glass Menagerie”. There remains in Addie always some of the “priestess” that Del knew her to be as a child. Addie is no Amanda Wingfield, and Munro means us to notice it.
The paradoxical co-existence of opposites within one person or one relationship or one reality is key to Munro’s belief system. That Addie (or any parent) might first seem a hero, then seem ridiculous, and then finally seem familiar and empathetic is the paradox of learning about our parents. Another example of Munro’s co-existence of opposites is that education might be a university classroom, it might be the studied, untutored observation of consciousness, and in addition, education might be the experience of making sense of all the differences, inconsistencies, and incongruities in all the stories you hear.
After the abusive brother leaves, Del is with her mother and she senses something “in the room like the downflash of a wing or knife”. The feeling is of both the beneficence and threat, simultaneously. With her brother’s departure, Addie feels both the chaos he threatens, and the power she has to deny him houseroom. Addie was capable of not so much re-writing her life as editing what didn’t serve.
Del talks about being a child: “By getting to a certain spot in the mirror I could make my mother and Fern Dougherty pull out like rubber bands, all wavering and hysterical, and I could make my own face droop disastrously down one side, as if I had had a stroke.” Writing can distort things. Part of what the Munro stories charge you to do is this: do not distort; always look at what you at from every angle.
I like Addie a lot. She believes in education, and she’s willing to move to town, rent an apartment, and take on a boarder to make sure her children can go to a good school. My grandmother did that, too. In this story, Del calls Addie ridiculous, different, eccentric, reckless, powerful, guileless, absurd, stately, innocent, and unassailable. Munro also has Del call her a wild-woman, a priestess, and a princess, while also accusing her of being humiliating. In other words, Addie’s a person of paradox and complexity, just like the rest of us. The story sutures the comic into the tragic, the philosophic into the intensely personal. This is a sprawling story about heroism, women’s rights, education, and the childishness of children, as well as the nature of storytelling, all held together by Addie’s courage and Del’s daring to write about her, provincial, homely, and female though she is.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” was originally published in the December 27, 1999 issue of The New Yorker. and was republished in the October 21, 2013 issue upon the news of Munro’s Nobel Prize in Literature.
Click for a larger image.
I was hoping that this week’s story would be by Alice Munro. I figured it would be an old one, since she said she is retired (though in a phone interview this last week she said winning the Nobel might make her reconsider. If she does come out of retirement — again — The New Yorker is where the story will end up.
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is one of my favorite Munro stories. I am happy to revisit it well before Betsy and I get there in our current read through of Munro’s stories. Let us know your thoughts on the story below.
I hesitate to write too much about this story for fear that a kind of plot summary will lead to misinterpretation, which in turn leads to misunderstanding what Munro is all about. However, I’m going to get into this story, so beware of spoilers. Best to just read it first — it’s free right now, after all.
The story begins some fifty years in the past, when our central characters, Grant and Fiona, were young and just beginning their lives together in a pleasant university town. They flirt, lightly, and in the end it is Fiona who proposes marriage, in her own way:
“Do you think it would be fun — ” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”
He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.
The next section brings us up to the present. Fiona and Grant are preparing to go somewhere, and Fiona is fretting about a mark her shoes left on the floor, something she won’t have to worry about since she’s leaving the shoes behind.
It’s unfair, here, to give further plot summary because Munro develops it elusively and precisely. We come to understand what’s happening by emotions and not because Munro ever explicitly tells us, and that’s a wonderful way to escort us into the story. We see her worrying slightly and then pushing it down:
“I guess I’ll be dressed up all the time,” she said. “Or semi-dressed up. It’ll be sort of like in a hotel.”
It’s not resignation. It’s simply her way of dealing with the messes in life. She tries to kid about them, to be tough and matter-of-fact. But by this very thing — by her (and Munro’s) attention to detail – we can tell how her heart must be trembling, even if we’re not yet sure why. We do know that she’s used to resistance, to having to be tough, because “[s]he looked just like herself on this day — direct and vague as in fact she was, sweet and ironic.”
More directly in the next section we come to understand that Fiona has started to drift away into Alzheimer’s Disease. And now, after over fifty years of marriage, Grant is driving his wife to Meadowlake, a nursing home. This is Grant’s story. This man who never wanted to be “away from her,” who “had not stayed away from her for a single night,” was now forcing himself to drive her away.
On the way, she looks across a field and asks if he remembers skiing there in the moonlight. Yes, he does. She cannot remember which drawer has the knives, but she remembers that night, which is much more significant.
If she could remember that, so vividly and correctly, could there really be so much the matter with her? It was all he could do not to turn around and drive home.
Meadowlake’s policy is that during the first thirty days there are no visitations. It helps the patients settle in and gives people the time they need to accept the situation. So for thirty days, all Grant can do is call the nurse and see how Fiona is doing. He also has nightmares.
Grant is a professor at the university, and his tenure took him right through the changes of the twentieth century.
Married women had started going back to school. Not with the idea of qualifying for a better job, or for any job, but simply to give themselves something more interesting to think about than their usual housework and hobbies. To enrich their lives. And perhaps it followed naturally that the men who taught them these things became part of the enrichment, that these men seemed to these women more mysterious and desirable than the men they still cooked for and slept with.
While it’s true Grant had never spend a single night away from Fiona, he did spend many evenings away from her. He doesn’t think she’s ever known this. Certainly they’ve remained close through the years, and he does genuinely love her. He treasures her.
When the first thirty days are up, Grant excitedly goes to visit Fiona. She’s upstairs helping a man play cards, and Grants finds their meeting awkward.
He could not throw his arms around her. Something about her voice and smile, familiar as they were, something about the way she seemed to be guarding the players from him — as well as him from their displeasure — made that impossible.
He can tell she’s a bit disoriented, seeing him again, but it might be even worse. Some of the things she says make him wonder if she even knows who he is. She quickly excuses herself and goes to sit back down next to the man, who, it turns out, is named Aubrey.
Obviously, it’s hard on Grant to see his wife starting a deeper friendship with another man. Soon, when he visits, he just sits across the room watching Fiona and Aubrey. They don’t seem to know who he is — at best, he thinks, Fiona “seemed to get used to [Grant], but only as some persistent visitor who took a special interest in her. Or perhaps even as a nuisance who must be prevented, according to her old rules of courtesy, from realizing that he was one.”
One day, Grant arrives and finds Fiona inconsolable in her bed. Aubrey is there holding her hand. It turns out, Aubrey’s wife is coming to take him back home. Fiona begs Grant to help — obviously this stranger has connections in this place — but there’s nothing to be done. Aubrey leaves, and Fiona begins to shrink away.
This is where the story gets complicated, yet where I think many people start to simplify it. Grant eventually goes to meet Aubrey’s wife, Marian. He eventually asks if she’d consider taking Aubrey back to the nursing home. She won’t. She doesn’t think Aubrey misses Fiona. Plus, there’s the money.
However — I’m summarizing quickly now — she eventually gives in because, we assume, she begins a relationship with Grant. She calls him. He realizes this just might work. And the story ends with Aubrey coming back to Fiona.
But I see a lot of people read this as a kind of redemption story. Grant gives his wife the companion she needs and deserves because Grant himself is no longer it — maybe he never has been. While parts of that may be true, I think it misses the point. There is no pure redemption in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Munro would never allow it. Through her fiction we’ve seen her deal with guilt and bitterness for her own mother’s mental illness. She’s not going to let Grant off. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether Aubrey is really that great a companion for Fiona. She may not even know who Aubrey s when he comes back. At the very least, it looks like she’s confused. No, Grant’s act may have traces of penance, but they ring false to me, at least for the most part (I love how Munro has it both ways).
First, if this is Grant’s attempt to atone for his past, it’s actually selfish. Fiona doesn’t — or does she — know about his past, so how can he be forgiven. No, he’s trying to ease his own guilt as much as give her what she deserves.
Second, as Grant considers whether to call Marian back, knowing Marian is just like those women he’s taken advantage of so often before, he forgets all about selfless caring. Marian becomes a sexual object, highly attractive, suddenly, where she was once an antagonist.
The walnut-stain — he believed now that it was a tan — of her fact and neck would most likely continue into her cleavage, which would be deep, crépey-skinned, odorous and hot. He had that to think of as he dialed the number that he had already written down. That and the practical sensuality of her cat’s tongue. Her gemstone eyes.
And there’s the title itself: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a variation on the old song. And why does the bear go over the mountain? To see what he could see. And all that he can see? Is the other side of the mountain. Grant is a hulking bear, wandering around looking for something else, pretending it’s noble, adventurous, or caring. But, really, it’s all rather pointless in the end. It’s not a happy ending. Emptiness, pain, more guilt, for everyone involved, is still on the horizon.
“The Bear Came over the Mountain” was originally published by Alice Munro in The New Yorker almost fifteen years ago. It is a beautiful story that should be read fresh. Actually, you will probably enjoy reading it twice. No short essay can do it justice.
Fiona is a beautiful, stylish, captivating woman of seventy who has been married for almost fifty years. Perhaps she had picked Grant out on a “whim,” as their friends thought. She seemed to “groom and tender and favor him” the way she did her dogs. At the time, she had the power – the class, the money, the position, the style, the house. He evened the score, however: in the course of their marriage, he had “many” sexual dalliances and affairs, first with married women and then with his students. He thought of himself as “generous”; he thought he treated both his lovers and his wife well. He made sacrifice[s] for them. It was as if he considered himself a gift to all these women and his wife; so when he is accused of exploiting his students and wounding them, he feels it to be an “injustice.”
It is no accident, though, that he is a student of Icelandic sagas; he is a continent of ice, himself. When a married woman realizes she must end their affair, she begins to shake uncontrollably (as if she had gotten too cold), and he has no reaction. When a young student commits suicide over him, he thinks of her as that “silly, sad girl.”
He is a handsome man with no talent for people. He is like the bear who goes to the other side of the mountain to see what he can see, and all he sees is the other side of the mountain. He looks at woman after woman, and even at seventy he can assess an older woman’s possible good points. He is a man with almost no empathy. Although he thinks himself a nice guy, he is not. Grant has made a life of granting himself to women, like a god, bestowing himself upon them, instructing them, guiding them. It is also no accident he has been writing a piece on Fenrir the Wolf; Fenrir is a saga wolf who bites off his keeper’s hand – the way he’s bitten Fiona’s parents and Fiona herself.
But this is Alice Munro, the student of psychology. As it turns out, Grant and Fiona have chosen each other for their private reasons. Fiona’s choice may have been tweaked because she liked the power she had over him; after all, he let her make fun of him, and he let her propose to him. Grant leapt into the marriage, perhaps because she provided an escape from the suffocation he felt in his own less-well-off family.
When his student dalliances catch up with him, he has to retire, and surprisingly, although somewhat isolated, Fiona and he enjoy a few easy years. But then, it appears that Fiona has Alzheimer’s.
What is odd is that neither of them fights the diagnosis or mourns what they are losing. Neither tries to make the most of the time they have left, and neither of them tries to delay the hospitalization. Fiona does not hide what is happening to her. There is no denial.
What we see is a cool separation: there is no scene of galvanizing grief. (Perhaps you’ve been there, too.)
There is no guilt. There is no fear. There is no treasuring the one of the other. There are no big gestures nor any small gestures, either. There is no appeal for him to take her to Holland or Oregon, there’s no discussion of a gun, no investigation of the Hemlock Society. The decision for Fiona to move to a nursing home is so easy we hear nothing about it. They do not tell their friends. It is almost a secret. In fact, it is almost as if Grant is ending one of his many affairs.
With the first read-through, the reader is confused. The second time, however, the reader suspects: that maybe Fiona is escaping; that maybe she is faking; that maybe she has the disease but is giving up early. It is unthinkable that a person would pretend they have Alzheimer’s, or that a person would accept it so easily, or that a person would use it to effect an escape. But one of these is exactly what Fiona was doing. Grant, in fact, is “baffled” on occasion by her behavior; one day she is getting lost in town, and the next she is remembering an event that happened some time before.
The story is complicated by Fiona’s intense nursing home affair with Aubrey, a man who had been a boyfriend when she was very young. The question arises: did Fiona know that Aubrey was in Meadowlake? We don’t know. All we know is that they fall sweetly and desperately in love. It is this liaison, however, that brings Grant the possibility for redemption, so to speak. He slowly realizes the depth of their affection; he recognizes the difference: Fiona has never called him “Dear Heart” or “Honey.” He studies them, from a distance. He stands outside her door, knowing Aubrey may be inside; he overhears their conversations in the conservatory, while they are in their “bower.” He learns what love is.
When Aubrey’s wife arranges for Aubrey to return home, the man of ice has a lesson in emotion: Grant witnesses the lovers’ final parting. Bringing Fiona a book about Iceland (what else?), he finds Fiona sick in bed and Aubrey by her side, and they have on their faces “a stony, grief ridden apprehension.” The whole scene has the heightened emotion and desperation that was missing when Fiona left home. When Fiona loses Aubrey, she grieves. She loses weight. She is threatened with the “second floor.”
At first, Grant feels that “Fiona seemed to have taken a dislike to him, though she tried to cover it up.” This is Grant trying out empathy. But then he realizes that she is dying of a broken heart.
This brings him to a sacrifice the likes of which are beyond the capacities of the wolf he used to be. He realizes that Fiona needs Aubrey, and he proposes to Aubrey’s wife to bring him to Meadowlake to visit. In order to get Marion on board, Grant realizes she may have a price. When she makes a discreet move on Grant, he understands that despite her “slightly contrived air of menace,” and despite her “more or less innocent vulgarity,” she is his means to redeem himself. No matter that she has that whiff of lower class he’d sold his soul to leave; no matter she is not beautiful. Fiona is dying, and Grant has the means to intercede.
As the story closes, we think he has brought Aubrey to visit.
The story is moving, funny, delicate, complex, and mysterious. It is a masterpiece. Part of why it is so great is the restraint with which Munro tells the story. We see the events through Grant’s eyes, so we see his late, great evolution. Because we see through his eyes, and because he has the emotional IQ of a gnat, it is difficult to see exactly what Fiona is doing. But doing something she surely is. Part of the story’s greatness is that despite the sadness of the story, Fiona keeps her dignity and her beauty, walking to the gallows in a “golden-brown, fur collared jacket, over a white turtleneck, and tailored fawn slacks.” Later, Grant comments on how she has kept her beauty.
At the same time, though, the story is delicately funny throughout. It would be unbearable otherwise. Fiona’s mother “was Icelandic – a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics.” It’s the indignant that does it. Fiona teases a policeman; a Meadowlake aide has to discuss with Grant Fiona’s “friendship” with Aubrey; Grant has to hide in the shrubbery to learn what true love really sounds like.
The story is a mystery. In the Sarah Polley movie (Away From Her) based on this story, Julie Christie perfectly captures Fiona’s beauty, sweetness, and mystery. But almost nothing can perfectly capture the tone with which Munro tells this story. Its restraint makes it great. How does a movie say this? “She stared at Grant for a moment, as if waves of wind had come beating into her face. Into her face, into her head, pulling everything to rags. All rags and loose threads.” With a jolt, we realize how sick she really is.
Part of Munro’s restraint is Fiona’s memory of the night she and Grant went cross-country skiing in the moonlight. But what she remembers is not tender romance. What she remembers is harsh:
[. . .] they had gone out skiing under the full moon and the black-striped snow, in this place you could get into only in the depths of winter. They had heard the branches cracking in the cold.
There it was – her jailhouse marriage: cold, barred with secrets, isolated, desperate, and the branches exploding the way her own bones must have felt as their friends dropped away, as she had to maintain the fiction that they had a marriage, as she had to humor this . . . this wolf.
But by the story’s end, the two seventy year olds have prevailed over themselves: Fiona has made a towering leap into Aubrey’s arms, and Grant has made his first real sacrifice and helped her do it. And yet, Fiona and Grant have the last word: their vows.
Fiona: “You could have just driven away. Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.”
Grant: “Not a chance.”
“Heirs of the Living Body” is the second piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
I’ve been wrestling with “Heirs of the Living Body” since finishing Dance of the Happy Shades earlier this year. Originally, the plan was to treat Lives of Girls and Women as a novel; we’d write one post to cover the entire thing and then continue on with Munro’s story collections. But — confession time — at the time, I just couldn’t quite build up the energy I needed to make it through “Heirs of the Living Body.” It is relatively long, for Munro, and exceedingly dense. I stalled, and when I finally got through it we were no longer in full Munro mode, though constantly yearning to get back there. I was very excited, then, when we decided to break the novel into posts about its individual chapters, each of which is a kind of short story of its own. This allowed me to pause at the end of each chapter and dig in on the ones — like this one — that stumped me. So what I have here is further conversion to the belief that Munro is one of our greatest writers. Yes, I already believed that, but then I read a story like this that feels long and convoluted and I see what people who don’t like her mean. And then I consider the story over some time and discover again Munro’s awesome powers.
In “Heirs of the Living Body” Del has aged a bit, though she is still young and innocent, though her innocence is steadily breaking down. If in “The Flats Road” we see Del discover that we all rationalize away pain — we lie to others and ourselves, and adults more than others – then in “Heirs of the Living Body” we see her discover death. More than that, we see her feel the shame of the flesh, its fallibility, its odors and embarrassments. Most importantly of all, in this story Del comes to understand that, as much as we might pretend otherwise, life is lived in the embarrassing flesh, not in the grand achievements memorialized in histories.
As the story begins, we meet Del’s Uncle Craig, the township’s clerk. He spends a great deal of his time writing down the town’s history, consisting primarily of significant dates, like when the post office was built, when the town hall burnt down, etc. He is also compiling a kind of family history, and he spends years researching just to find the three key dates: birth, marriage (if it happens), and death. For Del, these histories signify the “whole solid, intricate structure of lives supporting us from the past.”
Nevertheless, she’s most curious about other things: “These were not what mattered; it was daily life that mattered.” It’s that daily life that is transformed by a birth, marriage, or death, events that, yes, affect us in the body, mind, and spirit, but such effects are felt mostly as we continue to live our lives. That’s the drama. Indeed, Del’s view of life and of the stories it has to offer may be best conveyed by the following passage about one of her aunts:
Perhaps because of this story it seemed to me that the gloom spreading out from Aunt Moira had a gynecological odor, like that of the fuzzy, rubberized bandages on her legs. She was a woman I would recognize now as a likely sufferer from varicose veins, hemorrhoids, a dropped womb, cysted ovaries, inflammations, discharges, lumps and stones in various places, one of those heavy, cautiously moving, wrecked survivors of the female life, with stories to tell.
And we know Alice Munro is making a kind of statement here, since this is the kind of work she’ll be turning in for the next forty years, dramatizing the daily life of, primarily, women.
“Heirs of the Living Body” does much the same thing, becoming the embodiment of the artistic philosophy it conveys. Here we get dramatic events — a funeral, the taste of blood — played out in the daily life of Del’s two aunts on her father’s side and their interactions with Del’s mother, of whom they disapprove. Far from innocuous, it’s these daily interactions that form Del. Besides a physical, female body, she is inheriting all the societal shame that comes with it. As the story ends, she’s been given the privilege of inheriting her uncle’s work and the expectation of carrying it on. She knows this is false, and we see her starting to kick against what’s proper. We see her ambition rising.
“Heirs of the Living Body” resists the reader: its title is peculiar, its narration moves in clusters of this and that, and its characters are hard to like. The story culminates in a young girl reacting to the death, funeral, and legacy of a dull and preening great-uncle who was a minor civil servant and aspiring historian. When a dim-witted relative named Mary Agnes attempts to force Del to view the uncle’s body, Del responds to the young woman with a fierce bite. In the chaos that follows, Mary Agnes’s mother yells, “Your parents ought to have you locked up!”
From this structure hangs a web of concerns, primary among them the lives of girls and women, the way they can get “locked up” or trapped, the way the culture shushes them, the way they shush themselves. Two little old aunts, for instance, retire to Jubilee to a house which was like a “tiny sealed off country.” The story is scattered with traps: a coffin for the old man’s body, a lock-box for his dead history, a store-room that feels like a tomb, a cardboard box in a flooded basement, the river mud that traps a dead cow, a birth canal in which a baby is purposely trapped by its father holding the mother’s legs together, a muddy field in which an assaulted girl is left to die.
In addition to all the suffocation, “Heirs of the Living Body” is also scattered with unfinished stories: the bits and pieces of newspaper clippings the old man had collected, things said in passing, the old man’s history, the teenager’s novel. Unfinished lives, unfinished stories, forgotten bits, incomplete explanations, and misunderstood intentions practically sink this story. The story begins, after all, with the “Jenkin’s Bend” sign that Uncle Craig puts on his house, although he is not a Jenkins, although he has no interest in the man who was Jenkins, and as if he is unwittingly signaling to the world he is “around the bend.” But this sense of swirling, this sense of traps and whirlpool is important.
The emphasis on entrapment is no accident.
Munro’s daughter Sheila remembers her mother saying: “The triumph of my life is that none of the environments I found myself in prevailed over me” (Lives of Mothers & Daughters, p. 111). She might be speaking of her father’s family, who didn’t want people to get above themselves; she might be speaking of her mother, whose freethinking was thought outrageous by everyone else; but she might also have been thinking of Vancouver, where she lived amid suburban pieties for twenty years while bringing up her daughters and trying to write (a masterpiece). She also might be thinking about the swirl of life in general, the swirl that must be made into comprehensible art. Writing about Del, Munro is writing about how hard it is to prevail.
Del herself gets caught in a trap – it is fun to spend time with the great aunts at Jenkin’s Bend, sharing their work, the farm, their stories, their pranks. At the same time, the aunts’ world view weighs upon Del: that people should not get above themselves, that Uncle Craig did not push himself into public office, that a cousin gave up a college scholarship, that Uncle Craig was a great writer, that she, Del, should finish his unfinished work, should learn to copy him.
(Misguided guides litter the story as well. The aunts, the brilliant but distracted and irresponsible mother, the kind but distracted father, the bad-writer-uncle, and the grown-up cousin who is still a child: all are misguided guides.)
Another trap is the possibility of becoming swamped in emotion. Del doesn’t want to go to the uncle’s funeral. In the heat of being there, Del ends up biting Mary Agnes. She is stored in a back room to cool off, where she was swamped in the humiliation of knowing she would now be known forever as “highly strung, erratic, or badly brought up, or a borderline case.” And then, of her own accord, she gets up, leaves her cell, and goes to the funeral.
It’s probably no coincidence that Munro uses a psychiatric term — borderline — to describe Del’s state. I think she means to describe the traps an ambitious girl might fall prey to, and one of them is simply being thought unstable.
The title of this story is itself a confusing trap.
“Heirs of the Living Body” is first and foremost the name of a magazine article Del’s mother cites to her daughter as proof she should not fear death or funerals. Written in the forties, the article foresaw that organ transplants would become routine in the future. But Del’s mother takes it further, much further: “Death as we know it now would be done away with!” Perhaps even brains might be transplanted!
“Heirs of the Living Body” garbles a British law term. To be an heir of the body is to be a legal, biological descendent of a person who has died. To be an heir of the living body suggests a paradox. To be the recipient of an organ, such as an eye — or a brain — the donor would have to no longer need it, and as such be practically dead or freshly dead. Munro is playing with the paradox of Uncle Craig and his work – it is alive to him, but it is dead to Del. In essence, writers must each create their own body of work. They cannot actually use transplanted material; they cannot be the transplanted brain of someone else.
There is another garbled note to the title: you cannot read “heirs of the living body” without thinking hairs, but the association almost ridicules the grandiose hopes of the article writer, or the grandiose spinning that Del’s mother puts the article in service of: that death will be no more. It’s no accident that when Del bites Mary Agnes, she notices that arm is “downy” – as if that is the writer’s true mission, to notice it all, and notice it true.
“Heirs of the Living Body” is also a tangled version of Hamlet’s soliloquy when he says that death would
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.
The Hamlet quote nags at you when you hear the Munro title, but it’s entirely backwards. The one is a fun house approximation of the other. It’s as if Munro is pointing out how words can be appropriated and twisted until the original vision has been destroyed, or how life can be misrepresented by a writer — in this case, the writer of a magazine article, or someone miss-remembering a magazine article. Knowledge, Munro is suggesting, needs to be first-hand, so near you could bite it.
We’re put in mind, too, of the way the aunts talk:
There was a whole new language to learn in their house. Conversations there had many levels, nothing could be stated directly, every joke might be a thrust turned inside out.
A related concern of the story is the many ways one person can own another person. Uncle Craig appears to possess his sisters (and their vast capacity for work); he is the heir to the fruits of the labor of these two women, and he is also the one who benefits from their worship of his role. At the same time that he was writing this history, his sisters Grace and Elspeth were completing “morning marathons of floor scrubbing, cucumber hoeing, potato digging, bean and tomato picking, canning, pickling, washing, starching, sprinkling, ironing, waxing, baking.”
In another way, though, Del is her mother’s possession, to be molded into a similar free-thinker. Del observes that her mother’s world is one of “serious skeptical questions, endless but somehow disregarded housework, lumps in the mashed potatoes, and unsettling ideas.” It is her mother who sets about to deal with Del’s questions of death, although at first Del’s “cold appetite for details irritated her.” This led, however, a day or two later to the free-thinker’s sermon on death being simply “changing, changing into something else, all those elements that made the person changing and going back into nature again and reappearing over and over again in birds and animals and flowers — Uncle Craig doesn’t have to be Uncle Craig! Uncle Craig is flowers!”
(Later, Del sees Uncle Craig’s dead body as just what it is, up close, and in detail, and sees, too, the effect it has on her. Her mother’s re-writing of reality is just not reliable. Death, it turns out, is a force you survive.)
But it is also her mother who insists that Del must go to the funeral, even though she is “too highly strung.” Del thinks about her mother then: “Unpredictable, unreliable, still at the oddest time someone to be grateful for . . .” But it was her mother who insisted that she go, like a possession.
Linked to this is the way the family assumes ownership of its own, the way this particular family puts a high stock in lack of worldly ambition, to the degree that Del’s cousin Ruth turns down a college scholarship.
In a particularly dreadful way, possession of Mary Agnes was effected first by her father, who held his wife’s legs together on the way to deliver Mary Agnes, who was then said, by Del’s mother, to suffer from “lack of oxygen.” Later, Mary Agnes is herded by a gang of five boys to the fairground where they take possession of her, taking off all her clothes and leaving her in the mud.
The dead cow that Mary Agnes and Del find stuck in the mud of the river sums up this “lack of oxygen” which threatens all of these women; the dead cow (specifically a cow, not a bull), which terrifies Del, seems to represent all the incoherent threat that growing up seems to entail for a girl. The family appears to have a culture that owns its members. Later, when the aunts want to give Craig’s manuscript to Del, they assume she will devote her life to it. They cannot imagine any other role for her, and they cannot envision the way in which the manuscript might suck her dry. All of this “lack of oxygen” is related to the tombs and boxes that litter the story. As we have already mentioned, Del’s aunt says her parents “ought to have you locked up.”
Munro means Del to be a girl in the mold of Huck Finn — adventurous, bold, observant, and in full possession of herself. Munro means for Del to get out from under. Huck is a boy who, in the end, lights out for the territory. In a book that is about slavery as much as it is about freedom, Huck will not be owned by the Widow Douglas, who wants to civilize him, and he will not be terrorized by his father, who only wants his money. Del is a version of Huck – a girl. She is someone who must also find her own territory.
“Heirs of the Living Body” suggests this to me: that the living body is the community in all its disparate versions, and the heirs are those who know it well, love it entirely, because it’s alive, and write about it. But the heirs are also the readers who have in their hands a piece of the living body – a book, a story, an essay.
At the center of the story is Del “seeing” the cow, tapping it with her stick, and “seeing” Uncle Craig in his coffin, close enough to touch:
he was the terrible, silent, indifferent conductor of forces that could flare up, in an instant, and burn through this room, all reality, leave us dark.
Seeing Uncle Craig’s body for herself is important. She is “glad I had done it after all and survived.” That is how close you need to be to see the truth. That is how close a writer needs to be.