Shame: this story revolves around the fears and vulnerabilities that engender shame and its consequent paralysis — and just how does one find release from this shame?
Here, Alice Munro’s narrator, Helena, is an older woman looking back on a particular season of her childhood, a season of absolute shame, when people taunted her with things like “Helena the skunk / Her father must be drunk.” Looking back, she almost marvels at what this did to her, and she asks herself: “What was that to cry about?” School children can be so cruel, and Helena sympathizes with her younger, ignorant self:
They used to bunch behind me walking down the school hill. Sweet voices they had, just on the edge of sincerity, deadly innocence. If I had known what to do, if I had known how to turn around. That can’t be taught. It’s a gift, like being able to carry a tune.
I used to look for places to hide. In buildings, in big public buildings I looked for little high windows, dark places. [. . .] I imagined myself hiding there, or in any small high-up room, safe in the middle of town, disregarded, forgotten.
Some of her agony came from her father, who was, indeed, a drunk. Though he’d once been a member of Parliament, he lost dazzlingly in 1911. Though this defeat was rather minor, for Helena it was proof that her father “had been personally, tauntingly, shamefully rejected. My mother likened the event to the Crucifixion.”
Despite all of this, we come to see that Helena’s family is actually relatively well off. They have a young hired girl, named Robina, who has only one arm, having lost the other to machinery. Robina’s two brothers Jimmy and Duval are town nuisances, always being “accused of stealing when they were only trying to see how a flashlight worked.”
And most all of them have it better than the Troy family. Stump Troy, who lost his legs in a mining accident, and his son Howard Troy, are clear social rejects. They live relatively close to Helena’s family, just up the road, close enough Helena can see their house from her window, and she has to walk past it each day on her way home from school.
One of the structural elements of “Executioners,” an element that brings about a lot of shame, is social hierarchy and posturing over someone else. For example, you’d think that just maybe Robina, who lost an arm, would feel some sympathy for Stump Troy, but Robina and Jimmy and Duval absolutely despise the Troys.
For her part, Helena, even as a child, unconsciously recognizes a connection between her and Howard Troy, the young boy who sometimes comes to school but who just sits there, taking abuse:
In those days it was expected, even necessary, that people should stay as they were and not be improved or changed. Teachers would make jokes about Howard Troy in his presence or absence, and it was never thought odd or cruel. Beyond that they let him alone.
But one day in class, Helena does a favor for Howard, something “which afterwards and even at the time I knew to be a mistake.” Howard didn’t have any supplies, but just sat staring in class, and she wonders what on earth can he be thinking. We are left to wonder as well, and perhaps he’s wishing for his own dark room to hide in and be disregarded.
I didn’t like to think of him being there, underneath, looking out, through all the things, the stupidity and ugliness, that had been put onto him and accepted by him and were so firmly believed in it would not matter if they were really there at all. I did not think that he was like me, I did not go that far, I was just afraid of him in a way it had not occurred to me to be afraid before.
This fear — this fearful recognition — causes Helena to perform her act of kindness: she hands Howard a piece of paper and a sharpened pencil. Of course, this goes against what is accepted. No one is trying to raise up Howard Troy, so why does he need any paper and pencil? But it isn’t society that punishes Helena for this act; it’s Howard Troy himself.
Seeing her sympathy as a weakness, as a potential foothold, Howard begins to pester Helena as she walks past the Troy residence.
Hidden by the snowbank, in his father’s driveway, once a week, twice a week, I never knew when, Howard Troy was waiting for me. He would step out as if to go in front of me, to block me in the narrow road.
You want to fuck
I walked past him with my head down and my breath drawn, just like somebody walking through a wall of flame. It was important not to look at him, not to hurry, and to feel the blade. I never thought that he could come after me. If he did not move at once, he would not move at all. Danger was in the aura of the word.
Though I have often referred to Walter Rintoul Martin’s Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel to read up on these stories, I simply cannot credit his reading of this encounter, which he takes to be some niceness from Howard Troy:
[T]hese coarse terms and this gauche gesture are virtually the only forms he can command in his poignant attempt to return the only kindness he has known outside his home.
I don’t agree at all. In fact, I find this interpretation repugnant, let alone completely against the text. Howard Troy is no different from Robina and her brothers: when he sees weakness he can use, even if just to feel superior for a moment, he does it. He’s not out there making friends with Helena. He’s shaming her, and Helena, even then, knew this:
It used to be a word that could be thrown against you, that could bring you to an absolute stop. Humiliation was promised, but was perhaps already there, was contained in the hearing, the being stopped, having to acknowledge. Shame could choke you. I mean that. Not at the moment when the whole point was to keep safe and get past but later, what quantities of greasy shame, what indigestible bad secrets. The vulnerability which is in itself a shame. We are shamefully made.
It’s shame that brings the narrator to think back on all of this later in life. Not shame that some boy taunted her on the road, but genuine shame that is choking her; she’s got “quantities of greasy shame” and “indigestible bad secrets.” She still wants to be forgotten; but she’s problem: she’s the one remembering.
As a young girl, she admits she would have told no one: “I would have borne any danger, risked any violence, or final indignity, rather than repeat, or admit what was said to me.” Yet here she is, about to tell us of one moment of shame that will not go away. Still, she can’t quite get it all out there in the open: we are left to infer what actually happened the night the Troy’s home caught fire, and Howard, safely outside, passed through a literal wall of fire to, perhaps, save his father, or, perhaps, to finally escape — only not forgotten.
Helena did not start the fire, but she is the first to see it:
I was the one who had first seen the fire from my upstairs window, seen something beautiful, a flush in the corner of the night landscape, separate from the glow of the town lights, a warm spreading pool. That was the house giving off such light, through its cracks and windows.
As the night goes on, she realizes it’s as if she willed it, and the deaths of father and son. Yes, the rivalry at the heart of the arson was one Helena was only tangentially involved in, and yet she recognizes she was an unwitting accomplice.
I think this is a great story, even if it’s not among Munro’s best, and one of the things I love most of all is the coda. For years afterward, Helena is reminded of this event and of the other shames of her childhood every time she sees Robina. She hates remembering. She too wants to forget and disregard that little girl:
For I had changed, things had changed for me, I believed that with luck and good management I could turn out to seem like anybody else. And this is in fact what I have done.
For her part, Robina won’t speak to her.
And then we find ourselves with the narrator, just a few years from retirement, a widow, sitting on the eighteenth floor of an apartment building — perhaps that dark space high up in the middle of the town where no one remembers her. She tries not to remember as well:
In the evenings I read, I watch television. No, that is not always true. Sometimes I sit in the dark, drinking whiskey and water, thinking uselessly and helplessly, almost comfortably, about things like this that I had forgotten, or could not bear to think about for a long time.
Where does the word “comfortably” come from? How does she think on these painful, shameful moments with any comfort. It’s not entirely clear, though I think it has something to do with the last paragraph, in which she realizes that someday this even and even she will be completely forgotten, the shame gone, the executioners have completed their task:
When everybody is dead who could have remembered it, then I suppose the fire will be finished with, it will be just as if nobody had ever run through that door.
Munro is interested, story after story, in how women choose to live their lives, how sometimes they choose life and how sometimes they choose death in life.
“Executioners” is about the deadliness of bullies and the silences they enforce.
Schoolgirl Helena is a mark. She tries to be invisible, and the kids tease her all the more. She is suffused with the shame of her powerlessness. Her father is a politician whose defeat was marked by jeering townspeople carrying “brooms on fire.” These threatening brooms foreshadow more fire later in the story, and may mark Munro’s own preoccupation with the iconic fiery events that marked the decade before she wrote this story: a seated monk on fire in Viet Nam, a little girl aflame from napalm, four little girls in a Birmingham church.
But the story moves on quickly from the night of Helen’s father’s humiliation. Her mother is hardly present in the story, except that she makes a point of withdrawing from the town. Does she withdraw because of the defeat? Because she is afraid of the townspeople? Or does she withdraw because her husband is an alcoholic to the point of invalidism? Helena has a kind of a mother in Robina, a tough twenty year old who is the mother’s general factotum. Robina is damaged — she had lost her lower arm in a washer wringer, of the kind that used to stand on country porches in the early 1900s. (Once again a girl is essentially motherless, a repeating theme in Munro.)
Motherlessness pervades this story. Not only is Helena’s mother distracted by the shame and anger her husband has caused her, Helena is poorly served by the damaged country girl her mother hires as a general factotum. In comparison to Del, the protagonist of so much of Munro’s earlier work, who has an interesting and sweet father who is engaged with the world, Helena’s father is withdrawn, shamed, and unavailable to her. Although somewhat well-to-do, Helena lives a hardscrabble life.
It so happens that a bootlegger, Stump Troy, lives on Helena’s rural road, and his son, Howard, has selected Helena as his special target. Howard went to school only now and then, and then not at all. He would sometimes appear as Helena was walking home and would sneer sexual taunts at Helena, taunts she felt were too shameful to tell anyone, as if his taunts were “a sign.” These two abandoned kids are a sad echo of Helen of Troy and Paris — Howard Troy’s taunts being merely tawdry, and the power of Helen’s beauty completely missing. Like the brooms of fire, the reference to Helen of Troy hints to what may be the story’s larger pre-occupation: war and its innocent victims. The Viet Nam War (1955 – 1975) had been going on for years. Even though this was an “American” war, Canada had its role in it as well.
Helena, essentially parentless, spends a lot of time with Robina. Helena loves going out to the country to Robina’s house. There are a passel of children, and these children don’t know that Helena is a mark. Here, Helena is under Robina’s protection. Helena especially enjoys the attentions of nearly adult Duval and Jimmy. There’s rough-housing and fun and above all, acceptance. But it so happens that Robina explains to Helena that Jimmy and Duval are sworn enemies of Stump Troy, who had, among other insults, turned the police on Jimmy and Duval. Here is the echo of the mythic war of the Iliad: Stump Troy the bootlegger and the two country boys who may be trying to move in on him. Even Helena is drawn into the general fever — she carries a paring knife for protection.
And she enjoys the enmity between Robina’s family and Howard’s, hating Howard Troy as she does.
One night there is a fire, and the whole town turns out to watch, hardly aware that there is a crippled man trapped inside the burning house, hardly aware that his son is trapped outside, unable to rescue his father. The fire is out of control. Some people think they hear someone yelling for help. Eventually the son makes a fatal run into the falling, flaming house. So the death count mounts to two.
Everyone is there, including Robina’s little brothers and sister. Robina calls for them to stay away from the house. Helena, who does not see Jimmy and Duval anywhere, calls for them as well. With that, Robina hits Helena very hard across the mouth. Although Munro doesn’t say so, Jimmy and Duval are obviously the ones who have set the fire.
Helena also never says so, but with the smack across the mouth, she knows that Jimmy and Duval had set the fire. The fire, that she knows who caused it, that Robina threatened her about it, is something else that’s shameful, something else she would never talk about.
We see her, in the last brief section, a retired widow, drinking alone and “thinking uselessly and helplessly, almost comfortably, about things like this that [she] had forgotten, or could not bear to think about for a long time.”
Somehow, this story captures an American mood. The Kennedy assassination, the Martin Luther King assassination, the Vietnam War, the My Lai massacre, the little girls in the Birmingham church, Medgar Evers, the three dead Freedom riders. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia (here), 10,000 Canadian soldiers fought in the Viet Nam war, and the article details the billions of dollars in war materiel Canada sold to the United States. Whether or not Munro had Canada’s specific involvement in Viet Nam in mind, the decade leading up to 1973, the year she settled down to work on this book of stories, had been a brutal one. There were so many people keeping silent. Nixon had used the phrase, “the silent majority,” and he meant the term to be praise, as if silence equaled morality.
Fire is an element in this story, as Stump Troy and his son die in a burning house while the village (and the executioners) look on. Thus the story echoes the decade. The four little girls in Birmingham died by fire. Two iconic photographs from the decade show people afire, one, of the monk who burned himself to death in Viet Nam, and the other, of the naked Vietnamese child who was aflame from napalm. Ironically, napalm for the American bombers was tested in Canada. The story’s title questions the reader: name the executioners. Are they merely Jimmy and Duval? Or are they all the others who were there and who kept silent? One thinks of Lieutenant Calley, who was blamed for the My Lai massacre, and those of us who merely watched it on our televisions at home.
In Helena’s words, the decade had left us with so many things we “could not bear to think about.”
Helena is silent and complicit. She, too, is one of the “Executioners.”
In her memoir of her mother, Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up with Alice Munro, Sheila Munro says in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You Alice Munro thought she was “working in a shallower vein.” Sheila elaborates:
What she meant was that some of the stories in this collection were exercises, written to see if she could pull something off, rather than the “breakthrough” stories like “The Peace of Utrecht” or, later, “Royal Beatings,” which used personal material in new ways. [. . .] Stories she didn’t think worked all that well were “The Executioners” and “Walking on Water.”
I agree. What is lacking? For me, it is that there is no force for good in this story, no matter how off-kilter. Without even the slightest force for good, Helena is just silence and weakness. Yes, she may have been neglected and misused, but the reader never sees a spark in Helena that could have reversed any of what was happening. In many of Munro’s stories, the characters can be very contradictory; they have threaded through them the potential for good and bad. Helena is not one of these. She is dark and mostly lifeless.
We had just been through a brutal decade. This story, though brutal, just glances at the brutality. It doesn’t awake us to it. It is, as Munro says, an “exercise.”