“The Spanish Lady”
by Alice Munro
from Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You


“The Spanish Lady” begins with two letters that were never meant to find their way to the addressees, Hugh and Margaret. In the first, the writer expresses an effort to understand and forgive Hugh and Margaret. She writes, “Monogamy is not a natural condition for men and women.” With feigned selflessness she continues, “And if Hugh loves Margaret I should be glad, shouldn’t I, that he has this happiness in his life?” In the second letter, we learn what we suspected after reading the first: Hugh is the writer’s husband, and Hugh and Margaret are having an affair. The second letter shows the writer is deeply hurt by the betrayal, not just by Hugh but also by Margaret who was a good friend. She is shocked and saddened at the deception and writes, “It is terrible when you find out that your idea of reality is not the real reality.” Both letters are immediately crumpled up and thrown into the waste receptacle in a train compartment; the writer, who is also our nameless narrator, is traveling by train back to Vancouver after a few weeks away visiting family in other parts of Canada. Train travel is a common motif in Munro’s fiction, and here she expresses it well: “In this cubical of metal and upholstery a human being could without real inconvenience or discomfort pass a life.”

Indeed, this sedentary forward motion is the problem for our narrator both in the train — she’s going to arrive in Vancouver and deal with Hugh and Margaret, and all she has to do is sit and think about it — and in life, where the landscape has shifted around her suddenly and time is marching forward. She’s gone to visit family, presumably to get away, but she’s found no relief:

These are people to whom I feel bound by irritable, almost inexpressible, bonds of sympathy, and whose deaths I dread nearly as much as I do my own. But I cannot tell them anything and they cannot do anything for me.

Much of the story is the narrator thinking back on past encounters with Hugh and Margaret, both before and after she discovered their affair. She’s talked to both of them about it, and now she sits and thinks about their responses. She’s also thinking about her own infidelities and deceptions, of which we learn there were multiple: “Why is it a surprise to find that people other than ourselves are able to tell lies?”

A man on the train looks at her, and she wonders if he will follow her when she leaves the car she’s in. “I used to be ready for almost any man,” she says, but at this point the thought of another affair is exhausting. But the man does follow her. Rather than initiate an affair, however, he brings us to an interesting and perplexing narrative leap: Alice Munro’s “Spanish lady” is actually our narrator. The man turns out to be a Rosicrucian who claims to have known her in a previous life when she was a Spanish lady.

Honestly, I cannot make sense of this narrative development. Presumably, since the title brings our attention to this revelation (or trick by the man), it is significant. He does lead the narrator to thinking she has no one but herself, but even she acknowledges she does not know what to do with this man other than transform him into a story for Hugh.

According to Robert Thacker’s Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography, this strange encounter is similar to something Munro herself experienced on a train journey in 1971. Perhaps this encounter is just a strange random encounter, the universe showing just how random it can be even when one is completely focused on a life-altering event. As the Rosicrucian continues on, the narrator starts to think about the happiest time she had with Hugh. She also tries but does not succeed in pinpointing the unhappiest moment. She says their fights blend into each other as they would always “punish each other [. . .] for being each other.” At this point this particularly brutal paragraph comes:

He [Hugh] is the one person I would not mind seeing suffer. I would not mind seeing him drawn out, beads of pain on his face, so I could say, Now you know, don’t you, now you see. Yes. In his extremist pain I would show him my little, satisfied, withdrawing smile. I would show it.

Perhaps the piece about the Spanish lady is meant to show the repetition of time, a kind of turning over, again and again, of the same thing. The Rosicrucian said when he learned about his past lives, he felt he had been granted a fresh start. In contrast, the narrator, in the next few pages, thinks about more recurrences. As she gets to the Vancouver train station, she thinks about when she first arrived at the same train station, twenty-one years before, to marry Hugh. This meeting was somewhat of a disappointment that perhaps, she thinks, suggested the events to come. He drops the flowers he’s brought to greet her with, and she looks at that moment, using language (Munro is brilliant) that expresses a continuum rather than a discreet event:

When I touched him, he would never loosen. I could feel the stiff cords in his neck. He would shut his eyes and proceed, by himself. He may have foreseen things; the embroidered dresses, the enthusiasms, the infidelities. And I was not often ready to be kind. Annoyed to see the flowers drop, wishing to be greeted in other than comic-book style, dismayed to face his innocence which seemed even greater than my own, I did not mind letting him see a corner of my dissatisfaction.

She says they went on anyway: “That could happen again; it could happen again and again. And would always be the same mistake.”

At the end of the train trip, in both this story and in Munro’s life, at the Vancouver train station, an old man collapses and dies. The narrator is suitably shocked, but she sees in this some way out. And if the train journey has come to an end, a train journey that stands in for the passing of a life, then we wonder just what the narrator means when she thinks this:

What we say and feel no longer rings true, it is slightly beside the point. As if we were all wound up a long time ago and were spinning out of control, whirring, making noises, but at a touch could stop, and see each other for the first time, harmless and still.

Perhaps the flash back to the Spanish lady, suggestive as it is of continuous recurrences, is meant to underscore the futility of wanting it all to stop. She thinks, “This is a message; I really believe it is; but I don’t see how I can deliver it.”

I’d genuinely like to follow her just a bit further, I’d love to go see how she carries on the rest of her life, just to know if she ever succeeds at stopping that forward momentum, truly able to stop and take stock, and deliver this message to Hugh and Margaret.


Almost at the end of “The Spanish Lady”, the woman who is telling us this story says:

There are layers on layers in this marriage, mistakes in timing, wrongs on wrongs, nobody could get to the bottom of it.

The woman has been on a train trip to see relatives, and she is apparently now returning to her husband — her husband who is having an affair with her best friend, and who says he doesn’t know whom he loves, says he doesn’t know if he would marry the friend if given the chance.

The marriage appears to be broken. Perhaps it was broken from the start. When the narrator first came out on the train to join the man so they could get married, there was immediately upon their reunion a dust-up over some flowers he was carrying.

But we went straight to each other; we grabbed hold and hung on. We crushed the retrieved unappreciated flowers, we clung like people surfacing, miraculously rescued. And not for the last time. That could happen again; it could happen again and again. And it would always be the same mistake.

What the story does, and it does it brilliantly, is reflect the many conflicting layers of the narrator’s feelings about this marriage. To the reader, faced with the woman’s story, the marriage appears irretrievable. To the woman telling the story, however, the fate of the marriage appears to be  undecided, and the story ends in that manner — perhaps the woman’s time away to think will have persuaded the woman to withdraw. Perhaps it has persuaded her to change. Perhaps, though, there will be another iteration in this marriage of “again and again [. . .] always the same mistake.”

The story succeeds by the succession of stories the woman tells herself about what has happened to this marriage, each story a part of the truth, each story a step closer to admitting all of the layers into a kind of simultaneous consciousness, as difficult as that is, given that all the layers are in conflict with each other.

For instance, the woman starts out by blaming Hugh and Margaret for deceiving her, calls what they have done a “treachery,” but we find out, as the story unwinds, that the woman has done her own share of deception.

In the beginning, we start by sympathizing with the woman’s anger. She reveals that Hugh is cold, that he has had his “acts of refusal,” especially in regard to admiring her body, or in regard to exploring her body — although which offense means more to her is not clear.

The woman has, in fact, however, had many affairs, had once been “ready for any man.” She hints these affairs were justified by Hugh’s coldness and justified, too, by the fact that the woman feels herself — with her warmth — to be somewhat superior to Hugh. While he would withdraw from people who approached him, the woman would “listen to anything.” When people would tell her things, she would “feel something like amazement.” There is in this a little crowing, a little superiority, a little top-lofty-ness. Her sensitivity is offered as something she seems to think will tip the balance in her favor, even though it is not just Hugh who has lied. She also has lied.

She remarks:

Why is it a surprise to find that people other than ourselves are able to tell lies?

Two structural elements advance the story and propel it to a higher level. The woman’s rumination and spinning is interrupted the first time when she meets a Rosicrucian on the train who tells her that he had been a Spanish conquistador in a previous life. He adds that he recognizes her as a Spanish Lady from this same previous life. Simple grandiosity? A delusion? A scam? A come on? Or all of that? Whatever, the Rosicrucian breaks into the woman’s isolation and breaks into the story.

This episode emphasizes the layers that Munro senses in all of us. For instance, the woman feels betrayed by her husband, but secretly she also knows she has betrayed him. She thinks he lied, but secretly she has also lied. She thinks he is cold, but in her own way, secretly, she is cold as well. She disapproves of the way Hugh makes fun of Margaret, but she is also in the habit of making fun of people for his sake. She says people “amaze” her when they tell their stories, but she is completely at home with the idea of using the Rosicrucian as a story to entertain Hugh.

When the Rosicrucian says that he believes “that we lead more than one life,” he is speaking for Munro as well. Structurally speaking, it is this encounter with the Rosicrucian that allows the woman to admit her several lives with Hugh. It is that awareness that marks the center of the story.

As a structural element, the Rosicrucian adds a note of wacky, innocent, nonsensical adventure which is a relief from the woman’s “protest” and her long “howl.” In addition, Rosicrucianism is an extreme example of layers of reality, given that there are almost three dozen versions of it.

The Rosicrucian provides an element of mockery. His past life as a conquistador feels silly, as perhaps the woman’s obsession with past grievances should also feel silly.

The second structural element that opens up the story, interrupts her long howl, is the death of an old man in the train station as the woman disembarks at her destination — home — where her unresolved marriage awaits. The man’s death is an abrupt answer to the woman’s “long howl.” His death suggests what we think: that this woman’s marriage is dead, or that it should be dead.

But the death allows the woman a depth of feeling that surprises us. It is as if the singularity of death (as opposed to the multiplicity of life) makes this clear:

What we say and feel no longer rings true, it is slightly beside the point. As if we were all wound up a long time ago and were spinning out of control, whirring, making noises, but at a touch could stop, and see each other for the first time, harmless and still.

It is a “touch” that has the power to interrupt all the noise of life, something that reminds this reader of the psychiatrist who suggested (long ago) to the woman that she might try kindness.

And then we reach the final layer:

This is a message; I really believe it is; but I don’t see how I can deliver it.

I think this story, with its explication of how incompatible layers rule our consciousness, is brilliant, and I think it is a model for the way that Munro works. As I mentioned in my post regarding “The Peace of Utrecht,” Munro does not work in nineteenth-century symbol; she works in twentieth-century juxtaposition. The juxtaposition of incompatible emotions drive her work; the juxtaposition of incompatible people also drive her work.

“The Spanish Lady” is also a model of Munro’s take on the twentieth century’s obsession with self-perception. In Munro, our difficulties arise from the way our various perceptions of self seem to sign a non-compete agreement with each other. We see the truth and we deny its importance. We love and hate at the same time. We want to hurt the people we most want to live with. We lie and then we are surprised when other people lie. We understand that kindness might make all the difference, but we have no idea how to be kind. We barely perceive at any one time all the layers in our own psyche, and we rarely perceive that the same structures rule other people as well.

This story also demonstrates the way Munro does not let up on women. Yes, men can be cold, yes women often have a certain openness to others, but this woman is as guilty of “treachery” as is her husband. And at the same time that she is dealing in universals, Munro is also creating very specific characters. This woman, in her habits of thought, in her locutions, in her mannerisms, and in her experience, is a specific woman, as Hugh is a specific man.

Finally, although it is not clear what will happen to this ménage à trois, we know one thing: Margaret the third wheel should get the heck out of there. As for the wife, she does not appear to have a sufficiently actualized self that could support the demands of divorce. I often have the sense that Munro is working out in her stories a kind of what-if situation. In The Lives of Girls and Women, there is the what if Munro had not gotten that university scholarship? In this one, there is the what if Munro had not been strong enough to leave her first marriage?

I don’t mean to intrude on Munro’s private life. I merely mean that she is acutely aware of the ways the rest of us live, and she is acutely aware of the lives she could have lived — what might have been. She is aware of how delicate are the differences between us, how small happenstances or small choices define us, how everyone is part of a vast whirring system in which it is very hard for us to stop the noise with the right touch.

Structurally, I also want to note how Munro’s punctuation supports her point of view. There are people who deride the semi-colon. Munro uses it to great effect. The semi-colon is one of the means she uses to express these simultaneous, conflicting realities, and in this story there are several such sentences. Speaking of the need for the right touch to interrupt the whirring of life, the narrator uses three semi-colons in the sentence that ends “the Spanish Lady”:

This is a message; I really believe it is; but I don’t see how I can deliver it.

Anyone who reads this sentence and thinks the semi-colon has no legitimate purpose in fiction is nuts. This sentence is brilliant, the semi-colons are perfect, and so is this story.

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