by Alice Munro
from Dear Life

The narrator of “Pride” is a man with a hare-lip, making this one of only a few Munro stories that I know of to be narrated by a man. Of course, and this is no fault, the story is still centered on a woman.

Oneida Jantzen was born into a wealthy family, so wealthy that they weren’t in a category with anybody else in town, even the well-to-do ones.” She grew up separate from everyone else, attending a private girls’ school and spending the summers in the family’s vacation home. In the 1930s, the family had a reversal of fortune when her father, a bank manager, used bank funds to invest in an ill-fated dream to bring back the steam-driven car. The narrator notes that had it been anyone else, the manager would have been sacked, but Horace Jantzen was someone special, so he was treated differently, though perhaps not kindly. He was made bank manager in a tiny village that didn’t need a bank manager. Here is the first iteration of pride:

Surely he could have refused, but pride, as it was thought, chose otherwise. Pride chose that he be driven every morning those six miles to sit behind a partial wall of cheap varnished boards, no proper office at all. There he sat and did nothing until it came time for him to be driven home.

Oneida is his driver, and due to this and the reversal of fortunes, she’s around town a lot more. Still, she’s out of place, a misfit.

When she went into a store or even walked on the street, there seemed to be a little space cleared around her, made ready for whatever she might want or greetings she might spread. She seemed then a bit flustered but gracious, ready to laugh a little at herself or the situation. Of course she had her good bones and bright looks, all that fair dazzle of skin and hair. So it might seem strange that I could feel sorry for her, the way she was all on the surface of things, trusting.

Imagine me, sorry.

That last sentence is the beginning of our relationship with our narrator. At this time in the 1930s, he’s finished high school and has gone on to become a bookkeeper, a job that doesn’t involve a lot of talking. Despite his deformity, he is able to make a place for himself in this town. So what does he mean when he says, “Imagine me, sorry.” Is it the simple irony that someone like him should be sorry for anyone else? Is it specifically directed to Oneida? Is there bitterness in that sentence? At any rate, though his deformity — in fact, much of his whole personality — has been pushed aside to focus on Oneida.

We don’t know much about him yet, but we begin to get glimpses into how he sees himself. The story actually begins with a small introduction about town life. Some people make mistakes but still manage to settle in and become part of the community. “With other people, it’s different. They don’t get away but you wish they had.” Our narrator sees himself as the former; he has worked hard to become self-sufficient and find his place in this community.

All my school years had been spent, as I saw it, in getting used to what I was like — what my face was like — and what other people were like in regard to it. I suppose it was a triumph of a minor sort to have managed that, to know I could survive here and make my living and not continually be having to break new people in.

He sees Oneida as the latter because, despite everything, she simply cannot fit.

But it isn’t as if our narrator has settled in, not really; perhaps it’s just something he tells himself. Soon the war is on, and he’s exempted from service. They don’t live a great life, but he explicitly notes that he never felt sorry for them, but we cannot trust this fully. He and his mother go out to watch movies and experience the drama of war on film and in the news. One evening in particular, after they hear the tragic news that a civilian ferry was sunk between Canada and Newfoundland, our narrator cannot sleep and goes for a walk:

I had to think of the people gone to the bottom of the sea. Old women, nearly old women like my mother, hanging on to their knitting. Some kid bothered by a toothache. Other people who had spent their last half hour before drowning complaining of seasickness. I had a very strange feeling that was part horror and part — as near as I can describe it — a kind of chilly exhilaration. The blowing away of everything, the equality — I have to say it — the equality, all of a sudden, of people like me and worse than me and people like them.

Time keeps clipping by in this story, as happens in most of Alice Munro’s stories. Soon, Oneida’s father and the narrator’s mother are dead, and Oneida comes to him to ask for advice selling her home. She trusts him, and none of us knows why. This is the beginning of a strange relationship. Despite the narrator’s advice, Oneida sells the home for a song and is soon disappointed when the swindler tears it down to build an apartment complex. Soon she’s saying she forgives him — “‘After all, it’s people like him who make the world go round,’ she said of her shyster” — and even moves into an apartment on the top floor. But she also begins spending her evenings with the narrator. The two of them eat dinner and watch television — for years! We soon find ourselves in the late 1990s, the narrator is sick, and Oneida is taking care of him, moving into his mother’s bedroom. He simply cannot stand it, bringing on a surprising and yet fitting conclusion to this story.

I read this story three times. The first time, I was enthralled but mostly just trying to understand what was going on, where we were, etc. The second time, the themes began to cohere, and the tragedy under the surface of these lives came to the foreground, as did the narrator’s motives in telling this story at all. After the second time, I turned right back and read it again, out of genuine awe. I doesn’t matter that I’ve had similar reactions to most other Alice Munro stories; she still surprises me. How anyone can pack and texture a short story so well, especially since so much is below the seemingly mundane surface, is a mystery to me.

Not everyone shares my view of this story. Published in Harper’s in April 2011, there are already several responses to it online. Of course, it’s a given there will be many who read the story once and wonder what the big deal is. So many of the “big” events are elided, so many of the emotions barely hinted at, does anything actually happen? That’s a typical response to Alice Munro, and I hope many of these readers give her the time and attention she requires and deserves. I think they’ll find a lot there. I was flabbergasted by this response, though: “Munro gets almost everything wrong” (here). Yes, I completely disagree with that review, but I link to it here to show what must be the direct opposite of my own, in case there is any need for balance.

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