“The Progress of Love”
by Alice Munro
from The Progress of Love


While Munro has broken chronology in her stories before, with long shifts from the present to the past, and back and forth, with “The Progress of Love” her late style — longer stories, fragmented chronology, fragmented memory, seamless shifts in perspective — really starts to blossom. With this style, Munro gets even closer to her goal of getting the reader to feel “not the ‘what happens,’ but the way everything happens” (see quote here). A chronological account might get at “what happens,” but by throwing that out the window and embracing an intricate and complex structure — one that deals with three generations of women, with stories and counter-stories — Munro explores how the weight of the past and of memory, of love and of bitterness comes to rest on a person at any given moment.

As I mentioned above, this story explores three generations. Our present-day narrator is a woman named Euphemia. She is divorced and, at whatever times she is telling us this story, both of her parents have died, her mom at home on her couch one day and her father some time later in a rest home. She is telling us this story in the first person. However, we soon move to a third-person perspective, though one possibly still being narrated by Euphemia, to look at Euphemia’s mother Marietta. We also trace back once more to Marietta’s mother, in particular to a day when Marietta found her mother in the barn with a noose tied around her neck:

“Go and get your father.”

That was what her mother told her to do, and Marietta obeyed. With terror in her legs, she ran. In her nightgown, in the middle of a Saturday morning, she ran. She ran past Beryl and the other children, still stumbling down the slope. She ran along the sidewalk, which was at that time a boardwalk, then on the unpaved street, full of last night’s puddles.

Eventually, Marietta returns to the barn and sees the noose but her mother is not there. The neighbor has come and talked her down, and Marietta faints.

It’s an absolutely terrifying moment for the young girl. When she’s not much older, she is proud of her premature white hair because at least it was not the color of her father’s, the man she blames for driving her mother to such a terrifying pedestal.

So Marietta rebukes her father, leading directly to an event later in the story that causes our narrator, Euphemia, to rebuke Marietta. Here we sit, in the present, with Euphemia, an older woman, divorced, parentless, looking at these past relationships and any form, from a wide variety of forms, of love that might be sustaining, that might explain the strange world Euphemia lives in. This is where memory comes in.

Interestingly, both of the moments leading daughters to rebuke a parent have a counter-story, something both daughters are aware of. These counter-stories are how Munro explores “the progress of love.”

For instance, when Euphemia is a young girl, Marietta’s sister, Euphemia’s Aunt Beryl, comes to visit. Beryl’s account of their mother’s “suicide attempt” is completely different from Marietta’s, to the point that Beryl laughs at the joke their mother was playing on their father. For Beryl — and this passage is all the more devastating because Munro has presented us with such energy Marietta’s terrified search for her father when she thinks her mother is about to hang herself — Marietta’s running around town in her knickers is hilarious: “You could hear Marietta howling coming up the hill, a block away.” Importantly, after Marietta’s mother did die, relatively young but of sickness and not by her own hand, her father married a woman named Gladys and moved with Beryl to the United States. Marietta stayed behind.

Then, much later, Marietta committed her own act of outrage that led Euphemia to more or less repudiate all Marietta stood for. Marietta tells the story to people, and in that story she highlights her father’s staunch support of Marietta, who, it could be said, hurt him by the same act in which she hurt Euphemia. But Euphemia knows that her father didn’t know anything about this act until years later. Nevertheless . . .

How hard it is for me to believe that I made that up. It seems so much the truth it is the truth; it’s what I believe about them. I haven’t stopped believing it.

This is where Munro’s interest in memory, in refusing to cast things in chronological order — or even casting things as the real truth — allows her to explore the way things happen, and not just the what.


If you are reading Alice Munro in order, as we are, you would read these two title stories in a row: “The Moons of Jupiter” and “The Progress of Love,” one ending the one book, and one beginning the next.

Both are concerned with the death of a parent and the truth of that parent-daughter relationship. But while “Moons” is coolly stated and full of the vacillation any child feels for a parent, it is also warm with affection and respect for the vitality of the father. While it flips back and forth in time, the narrator manages to keep her focus on the problem at hand: whether or not people can change; whether or not, for instance, she will ever see her estranged daughter Nichola again. There is an explicit yearning by the mother for her lost daughter, and even though he is dying, her father responds with gestures of comfort.

In contrast, “The Progress of Love” is a jumble. It begins with a section in which Euphemia’s father calls her to say her mother has died. The story continues about her mother, slowly revealing the heavy burden Euphemia has borne for her mother. There is the religiosity, the story of the grandmother’s threat of suicide, the grandmother’s early death, the grandfather’s playing around and his abandonment of his two children.

Euphemia says, “There was a cloud, a poison, that had touched my mother’s life.” And with the news of the mother’s death, Euphemia says she herself “became part” of that cloud.

If some people grow up to become successful artists despite poverty and despite hardship, Munro is pointing out that some people’s hardship is intensely difficult, such that they crack and never make it, or make it so changed or diminished that they never get where they could have gone. In Euphemia’s case, when her mother comes into a modest inheritance, the mother burns the money out of hatred for the father who left it to her. It was money Euphemia could have used to go to school, which she had dreamed of doing, and which she could have reasonably expected, given that her mother had become a teacher. That her mother had burned the money was a secret until later, but it was an overt action when her mother planned to let Euphemia out as a hired girl.

Yes, you can run away from home, as does Euphemia at fifteen, but still, you have to carry it all with you. You yearn for release, but whether that is possible is a question. When her sons were born, Euphemia says, “I felt as if something could stop now — the stories, and griefs, the old puzzles you can’t resist or solve.”

So “The Moons of Jupiter,” despite being sad, feels hopeful, because it is about a woman with opportunities and skills and resolution. In contrast, “The Progress of Love” has a hopeless feel. Too much has been built upon secrets, lies, and the making use of children for your own ends.

As for the craft and intent of “The Progress of Love,” Munro pursues the question of the inevitable different points of view two people have on any given event, the occasional wildly competing versions of the same event that two people can have, and the terrible situation where one person knows one thing to be true, but in fact prefers a fantasy version, as if the “euphemistic” version were more true than reality.

The fantasy that Euphemia has preserved is that her father adored her mother. This was not impossible, they were a handsome couple, and Euphemia’s mother was apparently a beautiful woman. So, as the fantasy goes, Euphemia’s father was present when the inheritance was burned, and did not interfere, because of his respect and love for her mother. But in fact, not too long afterwards, an aunt comes to visit and it appears that the father not only did not consent to the money being burned, he did not know about the legacy at all. And so, Euphemia had somehow constructed a family romance that would paper over the way her mother had betrayed her.

Of what her father had not known, and of the story she adopted, Euphemia says:

How hard it is for me to believe that I made that up. It seems so much the truth that it is the truth; it’s what I believe about them. I haven’t stopped believing it. But I have stopped telling that story.

Why does Euphemia hold fast to two versions of the truth?

The original Euphemia was a martyred early Christian saint, thus suggesting that Euphemia herself has somehow been martyred on the spit of this family romance and that this story of Euphemia’s is “saintly,” or loving. But the name Euphemia (well-regarded) is also the root of “euphemism,” the nice way of saying something unpleasant. Which way will Euphemia remember the puzzle of the past? With a kind of saintly forgiveness? Or with brutal truthfulness? And which way will help her become a full adult?

To me, the terrible fact is the fact of her mother’s betrayal, a betrayal so brutal it is like an assault, or a rape. Her mother used her. Twice. First, when she burned up what might have been an education just to satisfy her need for revenge. The second assault is her decision to hire her daughter out – like chattel. Her own mother has assaulted her, and her father does nothing. One solution is to turn this ghastly truth into a pretty story, a euphemism. Her parents are not monsters, they are “a tall, good looking couple.”

The family of origin for this girl has one truth at its core — that the mother behaves monstrously toward her daughter and the father denies that anything of the sort has ever happened. The constellation bears some comparison to “Royal Beatings” in which the father allows the step mother to goad him into beating the daughter. In both cases, when the girl in the story grows up, it turns out that she is actually unable, under the weight of all this childhood assault, to grow up.

So in clinging to her fantasy, Euphemia does not have to bear the monstrous truth: that she was expendable to her mother. And perhaps, if her father had colluded with her mother, her running away makes a certain moral sense. She was not abandoning him to this woman.

It is as if Munro, presented with the fact of adult women who are broken, offers us an explanation, offers us a psychological theory: that sometimes mothers deny their daughters unfairly, but since this is unspeakable, the family must call the denial something else. They must gloss it over. They must “euphemize” it. The brutish denials are veiled within some kind of myth: heroism, or godliness or necessity. And yet, the truth of it is the broken mother has imposed her brokenness on the daughter. Euphemia echoes this in her relief that she had only sons. in her feeling that now she might be able to let go of the old puzzles that can’t be solved.

This creates the two stories that the girl must live with: the truth and the “family romance.”

Euphemia never accuses her mother, never hates her as she deserves. Instead, she explains this terrible rape as justified by the fact that her father allowed Marietta to burn the money because “it was hers.”

Euphemia could bear the truth — that she had been raped by her mother — if she could imagine it as a result of her father’s love. How crazy is that? So crazy that Euphemia has not been able to sustain a lasting bond with her father, and so crazy that she also has serial lovers and no real partner. And she is still tormented by how “love and grudges could be growing underground, so confused and stubborn.”

The initial Freudian idea was that it was the fathers who raped the daughters; then it was his idea that the girls imagined the incest.

In 1981, Ralph Blumenthal published several stories in The New York Times about a forthcoming edition of Freud letters organized by well-known psychoanalyst Dr. Jeffery Mousaieff Masson and to be published by Harvard. Masson’s new edition of letters would reveal a puzzle. Everyone knew that Freud had originally theorized that his hysteric patients had repressed memories of actual childhood sexual assault. Then, mysteriously, Freud rejected this idea in favor of the idea that these sexual assaults by the father were “fantasies.” Thus, the Freudian “Oedipal” theory was born — that children have fantasies about their parents.

Masson’s edition of Freud’s letters showed that what caused Freud’s about-face was not actually science or the revelations of a great mind, but that in fact Freud had caved to the belief of the time — that men were not capable of such perversion — and did so in order to save his career and reputation.

What interests me is that Masson’s upcoming book was in the air. Two versions of Freudian theory. Two versions of what women are really like. Two versions of what men are really like. Two versions of why Freud changed his mind. One version goes that his idea that his own father had molested one of his own children was just too difficult to manage. So, like Euphemia, he held two ideas in his head at the same time. One, that women are made ill by possible “repressed” memories of childhood sexual assault. And two, that women themselves are just ill from maintaining a fantasy that is untrue.

In “The Progress of Love,” Munro expands the possibilities of what could shape women’s psychological reality. She posits that some women are driven crazy by the uses made of them by their mothers. Some are driven crazy by being made aware of their mother’s suicidal impulses. Some are driven crazy by the slavery that some women impose upon their children — that they be denied an education, they be hired out, that they be sent on a dramatic and impossible goose chase to find the philandering father.

In such events, girls are presented with the impossible. The mother is a kind of goddess who must be admired and obeyed, while the daughter is a disposable who need not be protected. Those are the two competing stories that Munro suggests.

It is a kind of rape of the daughter by the mother and allowed by the father.

Another Harvard publication in 1981 was “Father-Daughter Incest,” by Judith Herrmann. In it, Hermann posits that incest is real, that Freud is wrong, and that mothers collude in the rape of their daughters and allow it.

Well and good, Munro might have thought, but the world is still not that simple. In “The Progress of Love,” Munro asks us to consider how a mother might rape a daughter without it being a sexual act at all, but instead, a kind of enslavement.

Euphemia, the real estate agent, even asks why the first thought men ever have about anything is sex. She and her lover are in a house she is showing (her old homestead, ironically). It has been, of late, a commune, and still has the free love paintings on the wall — the “larger than life size” naked man and woman in the living room. Euphemia’s lover remarks that this is the site of the commune’s “sexual shenanigans.” Euphemia is aroused with anger. “Just say the words ‘hippie’ or ‘commune’ and all you guys can think about is screwing! I get so sick of that — it’s all so stupid it just makes me sick!”

When in fact, what has made Euphemia sick is her crazy mother and her crazier grandmother.

Munro is saying that there is more to psychological truth than sex. There is also power and misuse of power and enslavement. Being subjected to a mock suicide could make a little girl nuts, and being hired out instead of being allowed to go to school could make a person burdened for life with “the old puzzles you can’t resist or solve.”

Who knows if Munro read Blumenthal in the Times on Masson and Freud. Who knows if Munro read Herrman on the reality of incest versus the double story of Freud’s “fantasy.” But at about the time Munro would have been writing “The Progress of Love,” this was all in the air.

Of the two stories about the death of a parent (“Moons” and “Progress”), I prefer “The Moons of Jupiter.” It is elegant and cool, dispassionate about the realities of ordinary family life, an inquiry into healthy thinking, and warm with hope and affection. “The Progress of Love” is jumbled and very hard to follow, and concerned with pathology as if it were actually the story of a woman on the psychoanalyst’s couch. The reader has to work very hard to make sense of it.

But I admire what Munro is attempting “Progress.” On the topic of what makes women crazy, she is re-writing Freud. Euphemism. Do we remember the past in a rosy glow? Do we re-write the past in order to survive? Or do we face the past and incorporate the truth of it?

While I wouldn’t want to teach this story to a group of college freshmen, I would like to teach it to a group of psychology graduate students. As literature, the layers in this story feel jammed; as a representation of female psychology, the story is perhaps a tour de force.

This story incorporates many autobiographical elements from Munro’s own life: her maternal grandmother actually did “burn” an inheritance by using it to purchase bibles for the surrounding townsfolk, leaving her mother to run away and have to scrabble to get an education. The narrative unease in this story feels to me a match for the unease Munro felt about her own mother, although perhaps, in that, the story does work. Perhaps its jumbled unease is very the tone Munro needed.

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