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.”
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.