David and Stella are aging together, bitterly. Though they have been separated for eight years, they were married for twenty-one years before that, during which time David, despite his arrogant infidelity, became such a part of Stella’s family he still visits the old family home once a year to celebrate his father-in-law’s birthday. This is particularly tragic for Stella. David is a pathetic “bad boy,” seeking youth in ever younger prey and publicizing it for whatever sick validation that might bring. Stella, though, has forced herself to become, or at least act, dispassionate about her relationship with David, mitigating the pain she feels at his departure and now yearly presence by seeming to go along with his idiocy, as if it doesn’t matter to anyone, least of all her. Munro has ventured into some dark places, but “Lichen” is one of her more twisted tales of internal damage.
David is a rich, sickly character. On this particular visit to his old home (though, we get the sense this is just one visit out of many similar prior visits), David has brought along Catherine, a woman fifteen to twenty years his junior, and as they approach the house he freely voices to Catherine his disgust at Stella’s appearance.
As David turns the car into the lane, Stella steps out of the bushes, holding a colander full of berries. She is a short, fat, white-haired woman, wearing jeans and a dirty T-shirt. There is nothing underneath these clothes, as far as he can see, to support or restrain any part of her.
“Look what’s happened to Stella,” says David, fuming. “She’s turned into a troll.”
Catherine, who has never met Stella before, says decently, “Well. She’s older.”
David is so disgusted, and so cruel, he turns on Catherine as well:
“Older than what, Catherine? Older than the house? Older than Lake Huron? Older than the cat?”
It’s indicative of David’s own perspective on aging. He takes Stella’s changing appearance as a personal affront, even suggesting that she and other women like her do it because they hate men.
Oh, this David is awful. When he gets a chance to talk to Stella privately he tells her made-up facts about Catherine and also shows Stella a graphic photograph of his latest conquest, a twenty-year-old “bad girl,” the perfect match for his never-dying sex drive.
“Stella. I wish you’d keep this picture for me.”
“Me keep it?”
“I’m afraid I’ll show it to Catherine. I keep wanting to. I’m afraid I will.”
Why does David want to show it to Catherine? He says it’s because, at times, he wants to hurt her, gets a bit sick of her ways. Even if that’s there, it’s also because he needs external validation that his own age-defying process is functioning correctly. If he can get someone else to believe he’s capable of such conquests, then that makes it a bit more true.
For her part, Stella mostly laughs this stuff off, even telling David, jokingly, that it’s “his affair” how Catherine feels and handles any pain he dishes out. But as the story goes on, Stella recognizes more under the surface of Catherine as well as under David’s charade. This leads her to recognize a bit more what’s going on below her own skin, to see how her own aging and David’s reactions to it have directed her life. By outwardly suggesting she has transcended vanity of youth, she shows just how much it all has affected her.
Munro explores these lives and relationships in a relatively straightforward structure. We begin as David and Catherine are arriving, we listen to their conversations, public and private, watch David sneak away to call his young conquest, go to the rest home to visit Stella’s father, and eventually come to the end of the visit. Such a straightforward chronology is relatively rare in Munro’s fiction.
Nevertheless, Munro still moves from layer to layer as she digs into these characters’ darker depths, from outward appearances to inner weaknesses. Like the shipwrecks Stella has been studying as she compiles her book on the lighthouses of Lake Huron, it’s the rocks hidden in the darkness that threatens to bring them each down.
“Lichen” is a troubling story which appears at first to be merely that of a weak man and a strong woman joined accidentally in a terrible marriage. Mysteriously, they seem mutually reluctant to end it, having remained “separated” for eight years. They are probably between fifty and sixty, and Stella looks it. Her hair is white and she’s gone quite fat. David doesn’t look his age, having kept his figure and having begun to dye his hair. He has, it seems, a lifelong habit of seduction and betrayal; he has a life littered with women he has cast aside.
David’s weakness and childishness raises an excess in me: I want to say his selfishness is monumental. I want to say his selfishness is egregious, monstrous, blind, enraging, and ridiculous. Munro, of course, says none of that outright. She shows us the things he does, and allows us to overhear the things he says. Here’s one.
You know, there’s a smell women get . . . It’s when they know you don’t want them anymore. Stale.
He’s talking about the woman he is with. He’s talking about her to his estranged wife, to whom he is paying a visit on the occasion of his father-in-law’s birthday. (Is it possible they have never told Stella’s father that David has left? “Lichen” is filled with mystery, this being only the most superficial puzzle.)
Notice Stella’s reaction to David’s announcement; she flips the piece of meat she working on “with a slap,” almost slapping the woman he’s about to discard. What she doesn’t do is remonstrate or disapprove. David is confiding in Stella as if she is some kind of monstrous mother to him. What she knows is that the women who have gone stale have gotten to know too much about him, just as she did. They know his poverty and his secrets, like the fact that he is carefully, ever so artfully, dying his hair.
And yet, there they are still married. Not divorced. Just separated, after all those years.
Aging is a topic here; David wants to defy age, wants to magically hold on to all the sexual power he ever had.
Stella, in contrast, has strengths more suited to aging: a love of cooking, an interest in other people, an inherent respect for what a relationship with others ought to be. She belongs to a rag-tag group that gets together for dinner once a week. She’s in the church choir, does a play-reading group. “We’re marvelously tolerant around here,” she says, ostensibly of the gay couple in their group, but more broadly as well, of people in general. She, after all, makes sure to talk with, not avoid, a couple she runs into who are wearing “matching plaid pants.” Stella is Munro’s trick on the reader. She is immensely appealing, but it is up to the reader to see how David and she both prey on the women he takes up with.
David is a bargain Stella made with the devil a long time ago. We get the sense, from all these flirtations, that he is a handsome man, if shallow, stupid, and cruel. Of herself, Stella says that she was “a stocky little brute.” Her use of the word brute to describe herself is slightly shocking; the irony is that perhaps she really is a brute: callous, animalistic, and predatory. We already know that her husband is a predator.
He is the kind of man who can say to his wife of 28 years of his current girlfriend (who is outside), “She makes me want to hurt her.”
Stella does not reply, does not reprimand, does not interrupt. She’s a blind mother; brutish, maybe. Is it possible she punishes these women who have moved in on her husband by allowing him to mistreat them, or even, encouraging them to mistreat them? Is it possible she allows or even encourages David to mistreat them for the fact of the sexual nature she lacks but which they embody and embrace?
David is careless with everyone: the girlfriends, the wife, and, if you think about it, the daughter we barely hear about.
Stella is, on the other hand, good with people. One of David’s favorite memories of her is her striding across the lawn with a dish of wonderful food, bringing not just good food, but also “the longed-for spirit of the neighborhood party.” She had an “overwhelming sociability.” She was the kind of woman who “gathered people in.”
So what are they still doing together? This is a man who gives off “warning sign[s],” signs that Stella can read. Why would she even admit him to her presence? Ostensibly, it is because his yearly visits to her father are good for her father. Or is it that she wants to protect her father from knowing that the marriage has broken down? Or is it that she wants to protect herself from her father knowing just how childish or cruel David really is? Or is arrangement that Stella lets David remain a boy, and he lets Stella remain a girl, both of them through their marriage living out a protected arrested development. And does she, through David, get to punish other women for their sexuality?
There is a witchy quality to Stella and her setting — the blackberry bushes that have gone out of control, her hair and body out of control, the emphasis on the bottles of preserves, the flitting about in just a towel. And then there’s the story’s emphasis on lichen, an organism which has been used as dye, medicine, potion, and poison.
Lichen is a strange, mysterious organism peculiarly like the organism of marriage. Two completely separate entities, fungus and algae (or fungus and bacteria), join together and form a third, symbiotic, and mutually beneficial life form. It is important to note, for the purposes of this story, that lichen is not half-parasitic, half parasitized. Lichen, it turns out, is a marriage of fungus and bacteria that creates new properties that neither fungus nor algae (or bacteria) possess on their own. Similarly, Munro is suggesting that this ungodly marriage of Stella and David is a thing mutually beneficial to each of them.
David and Stella are as different as fungus and algae, the one hyper-sexual, the other cold and not sexual at all. (Note that Munro’s metaphors never embody an exact one-to-one correspondence. They tend to be more of a bundle of associations.) It’s easy to see what David gains from the symbiotic relationship he has with Stella. For one thing, he never has to commit to any of his affairs. He is married. Stella connects him to the real world, but she lets him be what he is. We watch her take a stance of non-interference with his cruelties, even to her.
Stella used to tell him he wasn’t interest in love. “Or sex, even. I don’t think you’re even interested in sex, David. I think all you’re interested in is being a big bad boy.”
When David insists on showing her (like a bad boy) the crotch shot of his new twenty year old, she dismisses the photograph.
“Lichen,” she says to him. There are numerous kinds of lichen, and the one I think she is referring to is the kind called fruticose lichen, one which produces a hairy, bushy, plantlike appearance. The outdoorsy Stella would have been familiar with it.
It’s fruticose lichen that the Polaroid looks like to her. That’s what it reminds her of. Later on, when the photograph is quite faded, it still reminds her of lichen.
But what an odd reaction. In a jumbly kind of way, she’s saying to David — and to herself — Do you liken her to me? Later, she says, “She knew what it was at once.” I’m like that? She must be thinking. I was like that to him? I was supposed to be like that to him? No head, no hands, ho heart?
So he knows her as well as she knows him. He may be the bad boy, but she is the cold girl.
But later, later, when she sees the photograph again, the snapshot he has insisted on leaving behind, it opens in her, despite the fact the sun has ruined it, “the old cavity.” Typical of Munro, the meaning of “the old cavity” is not clear. Unfulfilled sexuality? Inability to be sexual? A lack of sexual capacity? Despair? A sense of assault? Weakness? Something missing that always been missing? Needle-like pain, like the pain in a decayed tooth? Or some kind of combination?
Why would she allow him to continue to hurt her? This is the deepest puzzle. All I can say is what the gestalt of the story suggests to me. There’s an incestuous feel to it. David married someone who is a sexless mother to all: jam and parties and kindness and good food. She allows him, in a sexless motherly way, to stay a boy. As for Stella, she has married someone who was no competition for her father, someone whom her father would always consider a person “learning how to be a man, somebody who might never learn, might never achieve the steadfastness and control, the decent narrowness of range.” No competition. And so she is able to stay the “brute,” the cold-blooded brute, or the ice-cold, frozen girl.
At the summer cottage, the walls don’t go up to the ceiling, and every word is heard. If every word is heard, then all else is heard as well. Stella has an arrangement whereby (for the summer at least) her father either participates in her sexual experiences or prevents them. And then there is, incestuously speaking, the twenty year old girlfriend who is younger than David’s daughter.
So the picture I get is of a wonderful woman for whom sex is something apart from her. David’s horrendous presentation of his crotch-shot to her friends suggests that this might be the case. It’s cruel, cruel in the extreme, but it is also perhaps short hand for the sex in their marriage.
After all, when she has the last word, it is “the old cavity” that opens up in her. Sexuality, thus, in Stella, is an emptiness. David’s a ghastly person. And while Stella is superior and stellar in many ways, at heart she is perhaps a-sexual, perhaps very damaged and maybe even very cool to the touch from the outset as well. Else why would she have chosen him, or stayed with him, or even tolerated their present arrangement? Perhaps their present “separation” is ideal, in that it makes deeply satisfying commitments impossible for both of them. Neither one, perhaps, has ever really grown up.
If lichen is a third entity with its own properties apart from those of fungus and algae, then marriage is the third entity created by David and Stella. David, by himself is still, at fifty, a “bad boy” with a beautiful tenor voice. Stella, by herself, is a woman whose properties are to be an alto, a terrific cook, a good friend, the spirit of the neighborhood and neighborliness, a loyal daughter, and a self-reliant woman, but an a-sexual woman. The marriage they have created is a living entity which has these new properties: coldness, betrayal, secrecy, viciousness, cruelty, enabling and masochism.
Another note on their names. Stella has the coldness of an unreachable star, and she also has a whiff of Estella from Great Expectations, another brute of monumental coldness. David reminds me not of Pip but of David Copperfield, Dickens’ stand-in, the boy who marries Dora, the eternal child.
As for more coldness from the title: lichen grows on bare rock, and can be the first plant to appear after an ice age. (More emphasis on coldness.) There is a sterility to its environment and sterility to its life: spores only, no flowers, no leaves, no gorgeous fruit, no tasty seeds. And then there’s the way it changes things — the dye, the potion, the poison. David and Stella’s marriage, this image suggests, is based upon some kind of sterility, some kind of deprivation, some kind of harsh conditions, and the marriage results in some kind of poison.
But that’s my spin. Stella herself applies the word lichen to describe Dina’s pubic hair. It is as if sexuality, for Stella, is a “rodent” added on to the self. It is as if you have a person as the one entity (like the fungus), and sexuality as the symbiotic entity that attaches itself to the self (like the algae or the bacteria), and the new third entity is a headless rodent.
Weirdly, there is an autoimmune skin disease called lichen planus that can appear almost anywhere on the body, but it is particularly apt to strike the genitals of women and make sex painful. I have never heard of it before, but it is apparently a relatively common skin disorder. If Munro were using this sense of the word, it would intensify the sense of sex as a painful experience.
I love this terrifying story. Why would this story, with its great setting, its complexity and mystery, its great characters (Stella, her father, David, their daughter, and the girlfriends Catherine and Dina) not have been a good novel? I think it’s the mystery. If someone is to lay out what Stella was like as a child, or what her relationship with her father was, or why she married this monster, it has to be the reader. A novel would do too much of the work for you, and removed of mystery, “Lichen” would be merely, after all, just an entertainment. There is a wonderful “Turn of the Screw” quality to the story. Look at it this way, and it’s one thing. Look at it another way, and it’s another thing entirely.
As for David, he is clearly an antecedent to Grant, the monster in Munro’s complex masterpiece “The Bear Came over the Mountain.” In both stories, there is a class difference, but in both, it is the man, not the wife, who holds the lower position. In both, the stories open with the fascination the woman’s house has for the man, and in both, the woman’s parents figure as an attraction, although all is more thoroughly developed in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” The later story is not as critical of the wife of the philanderer and asks her to take action, action which Stella is incapable of. In “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Munro deepens the monstrous nature of the husband, making clear that he has caused, through his shallow bad boy behavior, untold suffering. The question investigated, then, in the second story, is whether the wife ever recognizes or stands up to the evil being done by her husband.
So while these short stories are great as short stories and would be diminished by being a novel, I think these two short stories put together would make a great short edition, with perhaps one or two others added (which ones, I don’t know as yet) to flesh out the progress of Munro’s exploration of the psychology of these two types.