When I think of what Alice Munro’s work is about I tend to think of two things:
First, I think about how Munro explores, from various angles, the lives of girls and women in the twentieth century.
Second, I think about how Munro injects her stories with detailed depictions of the quotidian. These details don’t necessarily feel like they’re included for the story itself (though the stories are important) as much they’re included to suggest that those are the details that build up a life, and lives are always in danger of being completely forgotten, however closely related to us they may be. In other words, Munro is interested in capturing the essence of people from the past, particular from her own heritage. So, when I think of Munro, I think of someone who for fifty years has engaged in a struggle to come to terms with her own past as well as document her own heritage.
In “Connection,” Munro’s narrator was exploring her mother’s side of the family, as well as her own fear of that heritage as it erupted in her awful relationship with her condescending husband. In “The Stone in the Field” she continues to explore her complicated discomfort with her family history, this time looking at the Flemings of her father’s line. The narrator feels guilty that she is uncomfortable with her father’s impoverished, shy, and peculiar sisters; she wants to distance herself from them. However, she also feels guilt and discomfort because her connection with these women is so tenuous, and they have no other connections to keep them alive. If that connection is severed, the people — the real people who lived real lives with real years, months, days, minutes, and seconds — essentially cease to exist.
Extending this further, deepening the themes of this story (which, again, is a remarkably brief 17 pages), this exploration also explores what the narrator calls “the pain of human contact.”
The narrator’s father was the only son, growing up in the deeply poor Fleming household, a kind of household that thinks the small rural community of Dalgleish, where the narrator grew up, is a metropolis where people embarrassingly exercise no self control. It’s the kind of household where work was the purpose of life; efficiency was laziness. The narrator, growing up, had little to do with these women who continued to age out on the fringe of society. And now the narrator herself has moved away from Dalgleish to Vancouver, where Dalgleish is the essence of quaint, backwards, country living. Consequently, the narrator is far far removed from these aunts. They simply could not understand the world of Vancouver. It would not make sense to them. They live in another generation, and when they die that’ll be the end of that.
The narrator thinks back on one particular visit to her aunts. I love how Munro, in just a few paragraphs, sets up the encounter and its awkwardness:
They were not expecting us. They had no telephone, so we hadn’t been able to let them know we were coming. They were just sitting there in the shad, watching the road where scarcely another car went by all afternoon.
One figure got up, and ran around the side of the house.
“That’ll be Susan,” my father said. “She can’t face company.”
“She’ll come back when she realizes it’s us,” my mother said. “She won’t know the strange car.”
“Maybe. I wouldn’t count on it.”
The others stood, and stiffly readied themselves, hands clasped in front of their aprons. When we got out of the car and were recognized, one or two of them took a few steps forward, then stopped, and waited for us to approach them.
Again, it’s the little details — Susan standing up and leaving the moment she sees the car, the other aunts waiting cautiously — that tell so much about these women and their lonely, but they themselves probably wouldn’t say unfulfilling, life.
The narrator watches them and recognizes how uncomfortable her parents are in the presence of the aunts. Her parents say familiar words but, given the context of the aunts’ experience in the world, the words have no meaning.
When she is older and living in Vancouver, the narrator cannot even remember which of the aunts has died, so she sends a general Christmas card each holiday. Again, she feels guilty that she has almost forsaken this part of her past, but she sees no other option. Their Christmas cards sent in response call up complicated feelings.
I thought of them having to go out and buy the card, go to the Post Office, buy the stamp. It was an act of faith for them to write and send those sentences to any place as unimaginable as Vancouver, to someone of their own blood leading a life so strange to them, someone who would read the card with such a feeling of bewilderment and unexplainable guilt. It did make me guilty and bewildered to think that they were still there, still attached to me. But any message from home, in those days, could let me know I was a traitor.
As is often the case, Munro has injected a few other elements into this story to flesh out the themes. It isn’t just about the Flemings and the narrator’s discomfort with them. Indeed, the story begins by telling us what the narrator’s mother did for living: she sold antiques with a man named Poppy Cullender, a man no one really liked, a castaway in the community who daily endured the pain of human contact. We learn more about him and his tragic life as the story goes on, but most people are more comfortable simply forgetting about him.
The other strange man in the story is a foreigner who apparently hit upon hard times just as he was walking over the fields the Flemings worked. They allowed him to build a small shack on a corner of the field, and he died not many years later, no one knowing his name or anything about him. The narrator never knew this man. He was a part of the aunts’ youth, and now all that remains to remind anyone of him is a stone in the field, under which he was buried. It is an evocative image and story for the narrator, but she knows she has no idea who this man was. Any story is an invention — even when it concerns her family:
Now I no longer believe that people’s secrets are defined and communicable, or their feelings full-blown and easy to recognize. I don’t believe so. Now, I can only say, my father’s sisters scrubbed the floor with lye, they stooked the oats and milked the cows by hand. They must have taken a quilt to the barn for the hermit to die on, they must have let water dribble from a tin cup into his afflicted mouth. That was their life. My mother’s cousins behaved another way; they dressed up and took pictures of each other; they sallied forth. However they behaved they are all dead. I carry something of them around in me. But the boulder is gone, Mount Hebron is cut down for gravel, and the life buried here is one you have to think twice about regretting.
It’s a story like this that helps me understand Munro a bit better (though, I know, it’s my own invention). She moved to Vancouver and, after what must have been some tremendous pull from the past, moved back to Ontario to live and write and explore. It’s a beautiful work, if a bit frightening when you realize that you are not only in danger of forgetting those behind you but you yourself are also in danger of being forgotten: all of your emotions, all of your thoughts, all of your day-to-day toil — gone with time.
The second Chaddeleys and Flemings story is “The Stone in the Field,” which is about the Fleming side of the family, the narrator’s father.
While the father, as we learned in “Connection,” was the kind of man who would make sure to neither look down on or look up to people, “a man who was scrupulously egalitarian,” he was nevertheless a man who could “imitate” the lisp and stammer of the “antique” trader that the narrator’s mother worked for. Things are not always as they seem. Poppy Cullender ended up in jail for propositioning two baseball players on a train.
Munro’s narrator remembers her mother saying, “Some people can’t survive in a place like this.”
In fact, the story makes it clear that not just Poppy Cullender found it hard to survive.
The father had six sisters who, unlike the Chaddeley girls, had never left home. And never came to visit. These aunts, in their bonnets, driving their horse and buggy, made any connection with them seem “impossible.” At their house, “there was no sign of frivolity, no indication that the people who lived here ever sought any entertainment. No radio; no newspapers or magazines; certainly no books.”
The narrator marvels in her memory of the women’s strangeness: that they hardly talked, that one of them had red hands, that all they did was work. She remarks: “What was felt in that [house] was the pain of human contact.”
The narrator also comments on their disinterest in money and self-improvement; she notes that they probably considered displays of money like buying a tractor to indicate a “lack of propriety and self-control.” The narrator uses a startling word to describe them: “encased.”
The narrator talks about the strangely sweet time when her father was dying: how they had time to talk, especially as it was eased by the drugs her father was taking. He emphasized the terrible hard life that his forebears had encountered when they settled in Canada, filled with death and accident, thus explaining the oddly circumscribed peasant life the six sisters lived. And he talked about how, in the end, he ran away.
He does, however, speculate about the hermit who lived on a field at his sister’s farm, that there had been a rumor one of the girls had been in love with him, or vice versa.
So the form of the story is a sandwich: Poppy Cullender, the gay antique dealer, and Mr. Black, the foreign hermit, surrounding the strange six sisters, all of them too alien for words.
As for connection? The father tells the daughter about how some of his forebears buried the bodies, dead of cholera, in the lace curtains they had brought from the old country. He says, “Well, that’s the kind of a detail I thought might be interesting to you.”
The daughter had become a writer.
What shines out of these two stories is that no one treated the narrator the way her husband treated her — that he was the real outlier. He was more like the people who taunted Poppy Cullender. Richard, “stern” Richard was the impoverished one, the bully, the abuser.
The father is the one who offers real connection: “I thought [it] might be interesting to you.”
It makes me weep.
The title is a puzzle. The lost stone in the field is the marker for the dead hermit; but the lost stone is the lost past as well as lost yesterday, and the lost stone is somehow suggestive of a lost heart or lost self, such as the heart that Richard had decided he need not worry about ever locating in himself.
I like the way Munro, as always, sets stories and situations apposite of one another. Poppy Cullender and Mr. Black are apposite not just both sets of sisters but also the wife-writer. Poppy, Mr. Black, and the wife-writer are the loneliest characters in this pair of stories, beaten down, and in the case of Mr. Black, muted. I like the way the wife-writer’s situation, married to a bully, is akin to theirs.
It is not too much later that Farrah Fawcett stars in The Burning Bed, the story of the woman who burned her abusive husband to death. The violence the wife-writer must use to issue her “shocking verdict” is akin to the Fawcett character. You wouldn’t think a woman would do such a thing.
But Munro’s women sometimes do make just such a break, just as Munro herself did. She admits to her daughter Sheila that she had thrown plates when she and her husband argued. Just how autobiographical this story is doesn’t matter. What matters is that Munro has constructed a story that tells the end of a marriage, and it’s a marriage the reader knows has to end, although given the bonds of wealth and children, many women opt to just put up and shut up. She makes marriage matter, she makes connection matter, she makes thoughtfulness matter, and she makes it a violent thing when no connection obtains — or no thoughtfulness, or no real marriage. Munro makes us feel the violence of Richard’s abuse, makes us feel the trap of a woman “encased” in a loveless marriage, and makes us feel the desperation of those who are, like Poppy, or Mr. Black, or the writer-wife, prohibited from love.
“Some people can’t survive in a place like this,” said the writer wife’s mother of Poppy Cullender. And some wives can’t survive in a marriage like this.