We come up with so many ways to measure where we are (socially, economically, physically, etc.) relative to those around us, and we try to think of ways to game the system, to make ourselves into Potemkin villages. Much of Alice Munro’s fiction explores how we do this even as children, fearing and purveying cruelty at the same time. In “Half a Grapefruit” Alice Munro explores this tendency, which will continually cause pain and shame to her young protagonist, Rose, and eventually, as we learn in the remaining stories of The Beggar Maid, lead her to sacrifice quite a bit in order to align herself with those she considers her betters.
The story begins in a high school class. The teacher, perhaps not entirely innocuously, has asked each student to tell the class what they had for breakfast that morning. The classroom is already hopelessly divided, the wealthy kids from the town sitting on one side of the room while the poor country kids sit on the other. We already know, from “Royal Beatings” and “Privilege,” that Rose is ashamed of where she lives. Though she lives in West Hanratty, the poor side of the river, she “thought of her own family as straddling the river, belonging nowhere, but that was not true. West Hanratty was where the store stood and they were, on the straggling tail end of the main street.” In the high school classroom, Rose seats herself at the end of a row filled with town kids, again putting her in a position that is essentially no where. As the town kids answer that they had hearty breakfasts and the country kids answer they had practical and meager breakfasts, Rose decides that in her “no where” position she is going to say something that no one else has: she lies and says she had half a grapefruit.
Pleased with herself at the moment, of course, this is a trick that doesn’t work. The kids recognize the lie (though know how to lie — have been lying about breakfast — themselves) and its accompanying pretensions, and she is thus further ostracized when they yell “half-a-grapefruit” at her for years “from an alley or a dark window.” If she’s going to pull of this re-mapping of herself, she’s got to come up with something better.
But we are not quite there yet. “Half a Grapefruit” is an extended look at this particular time in Rose’s life. She has many opportunities to learn that “disgrace is the easiest thing to come by.” Though not just for her. While “Half a Grapefruit” is settled well down in mid-to-low-tier Munro in my mind, the more I reflect on it the more humanity I see as Rose not only experiences shame due to her own misfires but also responds to the shame of others with her own shame, felt simply because of proximity. This is not an empathetic shame but a kind of fear of being tainted. For example, the shame when an unused Kotex is found at the school, the anxiety that builds while the prevailing theory of ownership gets established and passed around, the relief when you are not the accused. Yet, still some degree of shame by association:
“If I was Muriel Mason I would want to kill myself,” Rose heard a senior girl say to another on the stairs. “I would kill myself.” She spoke not pityingly but impatiently.
Rose is able to use some stories of other’s shame to bolster her own self image. She tells Flo, who laps it all up. She does not tell Flo about the half-a-grapefruit moment. Still, Rose senses shame simply by being part of this world, by being human and having human needs and wants that are emphasized when others are suffering. Her father, the one person who seems to see the depths in her, is dying. His physical suffering and its excretions mortify Rose. She does not like to be reminded of anything that reminds her of her own human body. She lied about eating half a grapefruit, then, not only to set herself apart from her country neighbors but also to set herself apart from all of the other kids, with their eggs and bacon. A half a grapefruit is dainty, clean, fresh, and hardly suggests digestion.
While it may be a while before Rose accepts herself as she is, both her heredity and her humanity, “Half a Grapefuit” does not fail to reckon with Rose’s connections to these places and people, and how painfully meaningful those solid connections are going to be when she actually is adrift in the world of pretension. When Rose is accompanying her father at the hospital, the narrator gives some insight into Rose’s present and future:
She understood that he would never be with her more than at the present moment. The surprise to come was that he wouldn’t be with her less.
“Half a Grapefruit” is about not having enough nourishment: not enough to eat, not enough education, not enough opportunity, not enough respect, not enough love. For instance, Flo tells about how her father “gave her away” to a farming family who had promised to send her to school but didn’t. It seems that Flo mocked the farmer (using the very words his wife had used), and his wife gave her a great clout upside the head that required stitches. “Just before she was fourteen, she ran away [. . .] and got a job in a glove factory.”
“Half a Grapefruit” takes its title from an incident in which Rose pretends in health class that she eats “half a grapefruit” for breakfast. Rose was from the country but went to high school in town. Half a grapefruit was to Rose sufficiently different from what the other country kids ate so as to place her in the Town camp. She was keenly aware of the social difference between Town and West Hanratty; she would carefully place herself at “the back of a town row.” For her airs, there were kids who would taunt her with cat-calls: “half-a-grapefruit!” they would call from beneath the bridge. The narrator comments, “We sweat for our pretensions.”
Her father nails it: he warns her she mustn’t get “too smart for [her] own good.” The crux of the story is that Rose’s father is dying of cancer. Rose is thus keenly aware of his opinion of her and his opinions about women.
[A]ll her need for flaunting, her high hopes for herself, her gaudy ambitions, were not hidden from him. He knew them all, and Rose was ashamed, just to be in the same room with him. She felt that she disgraced him, had disgraced him somehow from the time she was born, and would disgrace him still more thoroughly in the future.
Disgrace is a continuing concern in the story. Muriel Mason, a big country girl, gets asked, “You on the rag today?” Slutty Ruby Carruthers gets set up to have sex with good looking Del Fairbridge, but ends up in the dirt under the veranda with Horse Nicholson. Flo comments that Ruby will “get what she deserves.”
What is deeply touching is that Rose knows how complex her father’s feelings regarding her are.
She knew he felt pride in her as well as this nearly uncontrollable irritation and apprehension; the truth was, the final truth was, that he would not have her otherwise and willed her as she was.
But what he gave her, on the surface, was a half a grapefruit. “Women’s minds are different,” he said to Rose one day. “You can’t follow their thought.” This to a girl who carries “a pile of books home every night.” So, even if she knew that he willed her to be the proud bookish girl she was, she also knew he denied her, denied her the way Peter denied Jesus in the garden.
Rose had heard what his opinion was on the proper role for a woman.
A woman ought to be energetic, practical, clever at making and saving; she ought to be shrewd, good at bargaining and bossing and seeing through people’s pretensions. At the same time she should be naïve intellectually, childlike, contemptuous of maps and long words and anything in books, full of charming, jumbled notions, superstitions, traditional beliefs.
What Rose feels from her father is that she seems to fill him “with irritation, with melancholy, almost with disgust.” Disgust is also the emotion that the principal conveyed when he had to address the school on the topic of the dirty Kotex pad that had been found in the hallway. Disgust is what the reader feels for Horse Nicholson; disgust is what the reader feels about the bishop’s sister’s jelly jars, with the “clots of fuzzy rotten fruit” in them. Disgust is what Rose feels when Flo forces her to view her sick father’s “stained underwear.”
The story makes clear that Rose grows up to be successful enough to be featured in a magazine, successful enough that local people would save the magazine that featured one of their own. Why then would this story emphasize disgust and disgrace?
To a certain extent, this reader suspects that the narrator is edging around disgust that the adult Rose may feel for herself. Has her success been success enough to warrant her flaunting her “gaudy ambition”? Has her success been success enough to warrant the cold manner of her parting from her father?
The gestalt of the story suggests how precarious it was to be a girl: education could be willfully denied, or it could be a useless kind of education. Think how the class was studying breakfast in Health, but did not study dying. The ambitious girl’s precarious situation is exaggerated by the father’s country belief that people should not get above themselves. The dreamy girl whose “whole life is in her head” is positively endangered by the father who had assiduously “submerged” and “beaten down” that very quality in himself.
While I admire many parts of this story very much, the many parts don’t actually hang together; the story doesn’t work. I am aware that Munro’s key story telling device depends upon multiple simultaneously interwoven stories that go to make up one story, with each one deriving meaning and intensity from conjunction with the others. In this case, however, I do not feel the electricity that often connects the disparate stories. I think it has to do with the fact that while there may be something disgraceful, or even disgusting, in the father’s death, his attitudes toward women and in the way that Flo and Rose treat him, all the associated girl-stories about disgust and disgrace are off in left field. It is just too hard to link Ruby Carruthers with the dying father.
Its many parts are too many parts. Munro makes clear what a girl may be thinking about when her father is dying. This is a girl so typically teen-aged that she must say out loud that he is dying of cancer. When the father finally leaves with Billy Pope for his last days at the hospital, the girl “understood that he would never be with her more than at the present moment.” The adult narrator then comments: “The surprise to come was that he wouldn’t be with her less.” For me, there is not enough of that adult narrator’s point of view. Munro is also known for her ability to juxtapose two different time periods in a character’s life. I don’t think she develops that here.
Munro is often unemotional, often detached, and usually understated, especially in situations where other writers get mired in sentimentality. But I think what happens in this story is that the detachment goes too far. Yes, Rose is disgusted with death, and yes, she is overwhelmed at this juncture that her dying father is so dismissive of everything she is, but all the attached stories about the bishop’s sister, about Muriel Mason, about Ruby Carruthers — these create a story that is too fractured. The abused girls — the dying father — these seem, even in Munro, like two separate stories.
In addition to being about death, this story is also about story-telling. Rose “chronicles” (and transforms) her high school days for Flo. Flo tells Rose about how she never got to go to high school; she also tells Rose the story of the Seer. Billy Pope tells the story that Rose’s dad will be back from the hospital by spring. People like Horse Nicholson rewrite their past; they forget all about using Ruby Carruthers in the dirt, and say in a campaign speech that what is needed is “a lot more God in the classroom.” This emphasis on storytelling as a part of everyday life is vintage Munro, and if you were thinking about the way Munro thinks about story-telling, you would want to use this story.
But as a free-standing story, it is not among her most successful. If, as Rose thinks, her father stayed present to her ever after, there is not sufficient exploration of that assertion for it to stand. It is a true assertion, regarding fathers and their death, but it is thinly proven.
I think this is the first collection written upon Munro’s return to Ontario after twenty years away. She has risked everything by leaving her husband and leaving Vancouver. She has discovered she doesn’t like teaching, and so her plan is coming apart somewhat. Her arrangement with The New Yorker is not yet completely in place. Perhaps what I sense in this story (first published in Redbook) is a certain lack of utter concentration.