Alice Munro’s “Privilege” is a fascinating look at the strange way we, as social creatures, amass, use, and abuse power. “Privilege” here does not necessarily mean wealth or health — though that helps — rather, “privilege” is that elusive, often fleeting, moment when you have power over someone else, even if it means lording your own disadvantages, perhaps even one’s “shame and outrage.” Here’s how it opens:
Rose knew a lot of people who wished they had been born poor, and hadn’t been. So she would queen it over them, offering various scandals and bits of squalor from her childhood.
So here we have an older Rose, again, looking back, though the story itself is nicely narrated in the third person. This look into the past involves many memories of shame and squalor, all tinged with power, all looks at how one “learns to survive” in a brutal social system: school, where “[f]ights and sex and pilferage were the important things going on.”
Yes, the portion of the story that fits a conventional narrative is about Rose’s infatuation with a popular girl, named Cora, who manages to obtain a striking degree of power even though her grandfather was the man who emptied latrines and she was illegitimate . . . and, it may be said, not attractive. Nevertheless, she was the object of attention and enrapture. The girls have a game of funeral — and Munro says “only girls played this game” — in which one plays dead and the others come forth, singing hymns and laying flowers. The popular girls play dead first, and then the game peters out before those simply starving for attention get a chance. It’s cruel and incredibly effective. The reward? An illusion of “hardy innocence, bounteous information, and privileged lightheartedness.” Such illusions are maintained somehow only by their existence as illusions.
This is only a portion of the story, though. In her unique manner, Munro prefaces this with several pages of keenly observed social cruelty, including the humiliation or titillation a man receives when the school children watch him at the outhouse (let alone the shame this brings to Rose, who can use this shame as an advantage later in life); a brother who raped his sister in front of everyone; a teacher who has learned to be blind; and a few wonderful shots of Flo — mostly a tangential character in “Privilege” — both standing up for Rose and then humiliating her in her own way, to maintain her own privilege, as we saw in “Royal Beatings.”
This piece is short, though it’s a strong, dark work.
The reader must make a series of pivots regarding the title of the second story in The Beggar Maid.
At first glance, “Privilege” means a constellation of images to the reader: private school, sailboats, linen tablecloths, and horses. It means estates, with their walled fields and immense lawns, their chintz sofas and heavy drapes, their books and photographs, their separate rooms for television or exercise, and in Connecticut, it means the very old station wagon. It means the club downtown and the club in the country. It means the connections that can get you a very good job, a job for which you may not be the best candidate, but one for which you are qualified by virtue of the cut of your clothes, the club you joined in college, the accent you employ and the company you keep. Privilege means repeated association, wherever you go, with people just like you, people who agree with you, people who see things the way you do, and people who cultivate the pleasant solace of that community. Privilege means no shortage of pleasure, no lack of comfort, no abandonment in old age, no threat of harm. It means easy access to personal attention — good housekeepers, good doctors, good lawyers, good teachers, good servants all.
The devoted reader of Alice Munro is not wrong to make such an association. The reader knows that Munro’s first husband came from a family possessed of this kind of privilege, and Rose, of The Beggar Maid, also marries into such a family.
A second thought concerning the meaning of the title might have to do with the “privileges” you earn for good works in school or at the club.
The reader is therefore startled and perhaps angered by the content of the entire first section and its “squalor.” The location is the schoolhouse, but to be specific, the outhouse. Shortly after the piece begins, Munro describes in meticulous detail the scene outside the winter outhouse at school: the “turds, copious and lonesome, [which have been deposited in the snow] preserved as if under glass, bright as mustard or grimy as charcoal, with every shading in between.”
The reader is also startled to find this first section of “Privilege” devoted to not just squalor but also the “savagery incalculable” that Rose endured at the schoolhouse. The situation includes: the teacher who “showed no love of anything she taught, or of anybody”; the teacher who was absent at every recess and absent of control or consciousness; the schoolyard where little girls watched an old man do his business through a gap in the outhouse boards; the outhouse where Shorty McGill raped his damaged sister Franny for all to watch.
Suddenly privilege is the privilege a teacher takes to look the other way; the privilege an old man takes to knowingly perform naked for a bunch of little girls; and the privilege the boys take to form a gang that ends in public rape.
There were some illustrations of birds tacked up on the wall of the schoolroom, “bright and eloquent” pictures of what it might be like to be in a completely different school. Although some education occurred in this school, as evidenced by some people passing the exam for high school, “[f]ights and sex and pilferage were the important things going on.” The birds up on the wall were emblematic of a completely different kind of school, a place where students might feel a “privileged light-heartedness.”
Privilege now means not the pleasures of the leisured rich, but for the very poor students at Rose’s schoolhouse, it would be a privilege to be in an “ordinary classroom.” “Privilege” would be:
No stealing from lunchpails there; no slashing coats; no pulling down pants and probing with painful sticks; no fucking; no Franny.
But now, with this sentence, is the introduction of another note. In this final sentence of the first section, Munro remembers the sections’ details, details we’ve heard about: Franny, stealing, the slashed coat, the sexual performance. But it adds something: “no pulling down pants and probing with painful sticks.”
This is ghastly. This is possibly worse than Franny’s rape, given that possibly worse bodily harm could have been done, in additional to the emotional harm.
“[P]robing with painful sticks” triggered a frightening memory for me. Somewhere I had read about this — the use of sticks or broomsticks as a method of rape during wartime, or as a corollary to rape — and I was pretty sure I had read about it regarding Viet Nam. Sure enough, a little searching brought me to Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men Women and Rape, 1975. There is a section on Viet Nam in Brownmiller’s book, and also a reference to the use of sticks and other objects. On her website, Brownmiller says: “I started working on Against Our Will in 1971 and it was published by Simon and Schuster in 1975. It instantly became the ‘rape classic’ and has since been published in more than 16 foreign language editions.” I think it is possible that Munro may have read this book and purposely added the probing with painful sticks as an echo to Brownmiller. Or perhaps Munro, unaware of Brownmiller, merely corroborates what Brownmiller says.
It is important to note that the Viet Nam War ended in 1975. Brownmiller’s book was published in 1975, and The Beggar Maid appeared in 1977. Brownmiller’s stance on the prevalence of rape in war is particularly applicable to our sense of horror regarding our own complicity in the Viet Nam war.
Aspects of “Royal Beatings” and “Privilege” show Munro in the process of using her very local stories to speak (carefully) to a global audience. Munro is very reserved in her public references to feminism, very understated, very watchful. These two stories seem to be part of the wild and serious and groundbreaking conversation women were having in the 70s on feminist topics. Brownmiller remarks in 2015 on her website that rape “is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” Munro’s first two stories in The Beggar Maid (published in 1975) support this idea.
Privilege now means, if the reader is paying attention, the right that the culture bestows on men and boys to threaten women with violence and rape, and the right for women to look the other way if it feels providential or necessary to do so.
I would note here that the google definition for privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”
There is in Munro’s “Privilege” a special sense of immunity granted by the teacher to the boys to do as they pleased. What is so very difficult about this story is that Munro leaves it to the reader to make the meaning. The narrator implies that Rose says the schoolyard was a place of savagery; Munro leaves it to the reader to make all the connections.
But I propose that Munro is using the West Hanratty schoolyard as the situation of myth, that she proposes we derive mythic meaning from this place situated across the river, and that in this mythical territory, she is working out her own answers to the women’s question.
As in many Munro stories, there is a story within the story. Rose gets a crush on Cora, a big girl who is “ripe and indolent [with] self-satisfaction.” Cora takes Rose on as a pet, and Rose feels giddy with “warmth, indulgence, revelations.” Rose loves the “funeral game” they play. Rose steals some candy from the store to give to Cora, but Cora returns it to Flo! While Munro acknowledges the homo-erotic heat of the whole flirtation, what bothers Flo is “enslavement, the self-abasement, the self-deception” of love in any form. Flo never lets it go, never stops trying to “warn” Rose.
The coda of the story is how everything changed after the war. Before, all was grimy and lacking; after, there were indoor toilets for all. “It was war-time prosperity.”
How does the Cora story (the three queens story) fit into the violence and deprivation of West Hanratty during the war? Truthfully, I don’t think it fits very well. But I think the Cora story fits as another form of “education” — this time education being that such a thing as infatuation exists and it is heady and delicious. What is the privilege Rose indulges herself? The privilege of being indulged, being petted, being made much of. This will not be, Rose indicates, the last time she seeks comfort in “privilege” — painted nails, satin dresses, being picked out.
There is a link to the privileged husband Rose will give herself to. Mostly, however, the little episode of the three queens is important because Rose is so deprived; her heart is deprived at home, and her mind is deprived at school. The stealing is the key: the children stole from each other’s lunch pails; Rose steals from her step-mother. Not enough safety, not enough light, not enough warmth, not enough love.
Perhaps the story is meant to suggest that when Rose actually marries a man of privilege, there will be an element of stealing in the act — that she maybe chose him for his money, that she has no idea what love actually is, that the privilege of being loved is the one privilege she needs most and has the least ability to understand or recognize.
How does the image of rape from the first part of “Privilege” mesh with the Cora story? Cora seems as if she could have been the daughter of a prostitute, given that we know she is “illegitimate.” Although Munro says that wartime prosperity brought a whitewash of respectability to West Hanratty, we know that Cora’s “ripe[ness]” fades. Cora’s grandfather used to empty the toilets of West Hanratty. It’s as if, if you’re from West Hanratty, there’s no wiping off the shit off your shoes, try as you might.