I persistently imagine you dead.
That’s how “Tell Me Yes or No” begins, as a nameless female narrator addresses a nameless man she had an affair with. Is this a simple confession? Is it a threat?
I’ve read this story a half dozen times now, and, though I’m a fan, I’m not sure where this narrator’s imagination begins and ends. Presumably the person imagined dead is not actually dead, right? He is dead only in her imagination and still very much alive somewhere on this earth. And yet, in the story she tells, in the form of a letter to this potentially dead man, this lover has died. She says she found out in the newspaper. He died of a heart attack. She stops getting letters from him. She visits the man’s widow, who confirms the death. She tries to go back to the life that no one knows has been disturbed. If you’re the lover, alive and well, receiving this letter, it’s time to worry.
Disturbed. Yes, the narrator is disturbed, of that I have no doubt. In fact, as I’ve said, she may be so disturbed that the man’s death is simply a flight of the imagination, something she has imagined to threaten him or, if she doesn’t send the letter, in order to tell herself some story, to avoid being left behind in her disillusionment. Indeed, this keeps the illusion going, and, again, we readers do not know just how far this illusion extends. What we do know is this: regardless of whether the letter is an act of aggression or an act of despair (or some mixture of the two, she is in pain. And this pain goes back to before the affair ever began.
The narrator is an older woman, probably in her mid-40s, when she tells this story directly to the man who abandoned her, perhaps by his death or perhaps not. She goes back to the time when they first met near the college campus. She was a young wife at the time. “Tell Me Yes or No” opens with an exquisite description of that bubble of time. She was young, she says, though she didn’t know it then. She talks of being a “creature of daily use” when she’s “inseparable from infants, stoves, and tubs,” and then, getting up to get the diaphragm, turning to her “nightly use, with its connotations — rapidly fading — of sin and splendor.” When she arises to fetch the diaphragm, she looks out the window and sees dim lights coming from the bathrooms of other young wives, presumably up for the same purpose.
This is an early period of disillusionment. This young wife thinks she is “maturing” as the “splendor” fades, much like the splendor of Christmas would fade at the same time. And yet, “maturity” is its own illusion, a comfort to someone who is otherwise watching the joy slip from her life. Of course, that is also too simple:
You know, everybody knows, the catalogue of delusions we subscribed to in the fifties; it is too easy to mock them, to announce that maturity was indicated by possession of automatic washers and a muting of political discontent, by addiction to childbearing and station wagons. Too easy and not the whole truth, because it leaves out something that was appealing, I think, in our heaviness and docility, our love of limits.
It’s while she’s pushing the stroller one day that she runs into the man who will, some time later, become her lover. He is an older man, a graduate student who will soon drop back out of school to return to the work working world. They walk for a while together, and it goes poorly, but poorly in a way that we might not expect: it goes poorly because she recognizes she feels awkward, because she recognizes she wants something more, because she feels as if she had behaved “uninterestingly, on a date.” A few nights later, she finds herself thinking of the man: “that was the beginning, I suppose, the realization of what more there could still be.”
In the very next paragraph, perhaps placed here as the narrator grows angry at the thought of “more,” she says, “Would you like to know how I am informed of your death?” Apparently she reads his obituary in the newspaper. The letters she says she has been receiving stop.
For two years that tin box has been the central objects in my life, and now to see it go neutral again, to see it promise and withhold nothing very much, that is like feeling a pain gone. Nobody knows I have lost anything, nobody knew that part of my life, except in a general, rumored way; when you came here we did not see people. So I am able to continue, as if it never happened, you never happened.
We learn around this time in the story that the narrator has been divorced for a while. Ironically, we might find it sad that she has to deal with this new loneliness without the help of her husband. The man she sees after she stops receiving letters tells her he things she should see somebody.
Instead, she tells her dead lover, she is planning to go visit his hometown, a place she has never visited because she has never been invited, though she’s imagined it many times. As she plans this visit, she thinks back to the beginning of their affair. She didn’t really want it to begin, she says, because she was tired — tired of “experience.” But they get together:
We both trembled. We barely managed it, being overcome — both of us, both of us — with gratitude, and amazement. The flood of luck, of happiness, undeserved, unqualified, nearly unbelieved-in.
I find it interesting that the narrator is not convinced she ever really loved her lover for his own sake. Rather, “I loved you for linking me with my past, with my young self pushing the stroller along the campus paths, innocent through no fault of my own.” There is some fascinating stuff going on here, about time, about expectations, about hope and loss and the kindling of something new that is almost like hope, that is almost a recover.
And the sad thing is that I doubt it all, and so does she: illusions on illusions, expectations and hopes dashed at every turn. I go back to the young wife who begins to realize that she’s not where she wants to be, that her life might — and she later thinks it has — “fall away in separate pieces, lost.” This jaunt to a dead lover’s hometown, to his wife’s bookstore, may be real, but the lover might be alive still. Indeed, there’s a slight possibility that he might not even know her. He might be a figment of her imagination, something brought at this time of her life to connect her to her past, a moment when she glimpsed some other possibility. Here despair, after all, is brought on by more than this one potential (and I do think it did happen) affair. Here’s another way she’s tried to cope with life in general:
I find myself reading articles in women’s magazines. Case histories. When my faith is restored, and riding high, I skip over these lessons superstitiously; when it is low, and very low, and gone, I read them for comfort, because it is a comfort to discover that one’s own case holds no particular agony, only some shopworn recognizable pain.
“Tell Me Yes or No” is a bit confusing, then, but I think that’s just it. The narrator is confused. The story is her attempt to tell herself some kind of story. It’s a trick. She admits as much at the end. It’s a trick she doesn’t fully understand, but through all of the confusion, all of the imaginings, all of the veils, the pain comes through. It’s remarkable.
“Tell Me Yes or No” was published in 1974, a rocky time for marriage. Munro herself had just been divorced after twenty years of marriage.
Written in the first person, the story has the tension of being a puzzle. The divorced woman who is talking is apparently writing a letter to a married lover, someone who lives in another city, someone she sees when it is convenient for him and perhaps fits his business. This “letter” in the desperate style of the ones she writes when she hasn’t heard from him in a long while, letters that are “apprehensive and finally begging.”
If this story is itself a letter, it is so desperate as to be somewhat threatening. If the story is in fact a letter, it is perhaps one of those letters you write and never send, one of those letters where you tell the utter and unsayable truth, and in this case, the utter truth is that she wants to threaten this man.
Here’s the magic of this story to me: the first time I read it, I misunderstood it, taking it for its completely entertaining face value.
The bones of the situation are these: a divorcee with two grown daughters has been having an affair with a journalist in a distant Canadian city, and it seems as if he has died, and somewhat crazily, she decides to go visit the city she had never been invited to visit. In a kind of fugue state, she spies on his house, and spends days in the bookstore his wife owns. The wife finally accosts her, saying, “I know who you are.” The wife gives her a bag of letters, but they are from another woman, delirious and begging. The betrayal is obvious and surprising. At the same time, the reader wonders if the wife has written these letters herself, faked them, in order to punish this other woman. Thus the wife is able to mock the “other woman” with yet another “other woman” whose existence mocks the divorcee, just as the wife herself has been mocked. Wheels within wheels.
This scene in the wife’s bookstore is so real that by story’s end I believe the man is dead, I believe that the real story is the cuckolded wife’s, and I believe that there is either yet another woman, or there is not and the wife has written the letters herself. Either way, the wife gets her revenge.
Except that this is all, as the narrator says, “invented.” The story is instead a letter of ultimatum to her living lover — a kind of wild and threatening letter, in which she imagines him dead of a “heart attack” and imagines what she would do if he died. Of course, this makes the reader think that perhaps the lover has finally given up and moved on. If this is a letter, in which she “invents” this scenario, the letter is also a threat to suddenly appear, stalk his wife, and confront him about other affairs he might be having at the same time. Another threat is another man she mentions who is eager to take up with her. All this is brought on by the precarious situation that the affair creates: she hears from the journalist, but contact is intermittent. If his silence lasts too long, she admits she writes a wild letter, to which he usually replies, but to which he confesses:
I do think of you as a warm and sentient flood . . . and I have the normal human concerns with being overwhelmed, which is what floods do.
As is the most evident in “The Peace of Utrecht,” Munro’s primary literary device seems to me to be the way she nestles alternate versions of reality into one story. She may use a physical object as a centerpiece in the story, as she uses a glass bowl in “The Peace of Utrecht,” but the object is not so much a symbol as it is a pivot for these multiple stories. In this case, in “Tell Me Yes or No,” the letter is the pivot. To the journalist’s concern that he might be overwhelmed by her, the woman writes back that she is “nothing but the tamest little creek.”
The story of the letter the woman may or may not send is ultimately the story of a woman who is cracking under the humiliation of having to “beg” her lover to reveal himself, cracking under the burden of the deal she has made with herself to be “joyful” in her role.
How I tried to charm and mislead you, by that time, both in my letters and when we were together! Half my concern in love became how to disguise love, to make it harmless and merry. What humiliating charades those were.
One of the things I admire most about this story is the way in which Munro uses verb tense to alert the reader to the real situation: the journalist is still alive, he has gone under the radar more than ever, the woman is desperate, she writes a letter in which she weaves a fantasy of how she could, in fact, “overwhelm” him, turn his life upside down.
The title is in the present tense: “Tell Me Yes or No.” The first sentence says, “I persistently imagine you dead.”
The story goes on, however, to remember, in the past tense, the way the two lovers first met, how they met again years later, what their passionate reunion was like, how the woman herself was the one who managed their assignation, how the man said, “I loved you. I love you now.”
Then the story and the verbs switch back to the present, and the present is a fantasy the woman is spinning. The story’s last sentence says, “I invented your death. I have my tricks and trap doors, too.”
I think she means to tell the man how angry she is he will not tell her yes or no, if he is alive to her, if he will leave his wife, if he will say, yet one more time — “I loved you then. I love you now.”
One other thing: Munro often writes about a time that is ten years or more in the past. This woman in this story had had her children very young (as Munro had done), before the period of women’s liberation, which is the present time of the story and which is also the period when Munro is writing. The narrator remembers:
In those days, I was a young girl but didn’t know it because times were different then. At the age when young girls nowadays are growing their hair to their waists, traveling through Afghanistan, moving — it seems to me — as smoothly as eels among their varied and innocent and transitory loves, I was sleepily rinsing diapers, clad in a red corduroy dressing gown, wet across the stomach.
Not only is this a story about a lover’s threat, it is also a story about the different ways men and women love and the different ways women love. And it is a story about whether or not a woman should say “this is not so bad” about a bad situation, or whether she should actually say, “this is not so good.” Munro herself chose to divorce her husband. Her daughter says her father did not want the divorce. (And that is about as much as we know about the mechanics of their feelings.) But Munro seems to concern herself with the way women choose or do not choose how to live their own life. And that is why, I think, so many of us think of her as “the sublime Alice.” She recognizes how difficult choosing your own life can be — the burden of the life can distract you from making the right hard choice. Then the burden of the double life can crack you.
The narrator says to the man, “we got a glimpse of something, through each other, that we had not been thinking about — had put aside, in your case, or not yet discovered, in mine.”
But by the time they re-unite, it is really too late. The double lives they must lead are a burden. The woman chases, the man retreats, the woman becomes more and more unstable. That instability is what this story is all about. The “fantasy” she spins in the letter reveals her instability, reveals the way being merry and charming all the time is simply not a manageable thing. That, of course, is the truth of being a woman in the 1960’s. But, I must say, I am so entertained by the way Munro tells the truth.