by Alice Munro
from the March 5, 2012 issue of The New Yorker
I‘ve now read this story three times, and it just keeps getting better. Here’s how it begins:
All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it the seventies were not as we picture them now, or as I had known them even in Vancouver. The boys’ hair was longer than it had been, but not straggling down their backs, and there didn’t seem to be an unusual amount of liberation and defiance in the air.
We see the lack of defiance very early. Our narrator is reflecting on when, as a young girl, she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle. Her parents, Unitarians, liberal thinkers, took off to do good works in Ghana, leaving their heretofore free-thinking daughter with domineering Uncle Jasper and ultra-submissive Aunt Dawn. Munro sets the stage by presenting their first lunch conversations. Uncle Jasper is asking the narrator about her parents, poking fun at their strange beliefs:
“But they believe in doing good works and living a good life,” I added.
A mistake. Not only did an incredulous expression come over my uncle’s face — raised eyebrows, marvelling nod — but the words just out of my mouth sounded alien even to me, pompous and lacking conviction.
. . .
My uncle was satisfied, for the moment. He said that we’d have to drop the subject, as he himself needed to be back ast his practice doing his own good works by one o’clock.
Dawn is sitting silently throughout this mild confrontation. Here’s how Munro introduces her and her submissiveness:
It was probably then that my aunt picked up her fork and began to eat. She would have waited until the bristling was over. This may have been out of habit, rather tahn alarm at my forwardness. She was used to holding back until she was sure that my uncle had said all that he meant to say. Even if I spoke to her directly, she would wait, looking at him to see if he wanted to do the answering.
This home is Uncle Jasper’s. It is his haven, and it is his wife’s responsibility to keep it that way. Interestingly, he seems to be a different person when he’s not there. Outside, he is a doctor, apparently one of the finest in the community, well respected. Our narrator is shocked to find him relatively non-confrontational out there. But at home, his wife is terrified of even the slightest hint of her own impropriety that she correct innocuous statements like this one when she tells how she and Jasper met:
I was staying with a friend — I mean a friend’s family up here — and I got really sick.
It’s terrifying to see Dawn with her husband, and Munro doesn’t hold back on the cruelty. Here is Dawn refusing to commit to anything, even a simple question from the narrator:
“So what do you like?”
“I like pretty much anything.”
“You must like some things better than other things.”
She wouldn’t grant more than one of her little laughs. This was the nervous laugh, similar to but more concerned than, for example, the laugh with which she asked Uncle Jasper how he liked his supper. He nearly always gave approval, but with qualifications. All right, but a bit too spicy or a bit too bland. Perhaps a little over- or possibly undercooked. Once, he said, “I didn’t,” and refused to elaborate, and the laugh vanished into her tight lips and heroic self-control.
The story moves onward, and we meet the new neighbors at a few awkward get-togethers Jasper disapproves of. We also learn about “a thorn” in Uncle Jasper’s side: his violinist sister Mona. They have had little to no contact over the decades, but she is coming to the town to put on a concert. The story ratchets up the tension and culminates leaving a ringing in your ears.