“Jesse and Meribeth”
by Alice Munro
from The Progress of Love
The title of this story highlights two important themes of “Jesse and Meribeth.” First, “Jesse and Meribeth” represents a friendship: these are the special, almost secret, names two teenaged friends use when writing to each other. Second, the girls’ names are actually Jessie and MaryBeth, so the slight variation highlights the subtle ways one may seek to twist and play with one’s identity.
Our narrator, we learn relatively late in the story, is Jessie, a highschooler who lives with her great aunt and her adult children in town so Jessie can go to school. As is common in Munro’s stories, Jessie is telling this story with the benefit of years; however, that doesn’t mean that the adult Jessie understands exactly what’s going on. Indeed, Munro grants Jessie an epiphany at the end, but it seems to be the sudden realization that she has misunderstood herself.
Jessie begins this story with an interesting take on her friendship with MaryBeth, a take that is interested because of how uninterested Jessie seems to be in MaryBeth herself:
In high school, I had a tender, loyal, boring friendship with a girl named MaryBeth Crocker. I gave myself up to it, as I did to the warm, shallow, rather murky waters of the Maitland River in summer, when I lay on my back, and just fluttered my hands and feet, and was carried downstream.
For the first half the story, Munro lays the groundwork, giving lively details of her friendship with MaryBeth and the position of her aunt in the town (this Aunt is so wonderfully rendered in just a few short paragraphs). Her aunt gets her a job taking care of the domestic chores at the Crydermans. Evangeline Cryderman is forty and pregnant with her first child. She married her 33-year-old husband not long ago, and she is one way that Munro highlights adapting to new identities.
But now what had Evangeline Steuer done? She had become a Mrs., like anybody else. She had bought a local newspaper for her husband to run. She was expecting a baby. She had lost her function, mixed things up. It was one thing to be a smoking, drinking, profane, and glamorous bachelor girl, and quite another thing to a smoking, drinking, profane, and no longer glamorous expectant mother.
By this time, Jessie and MaryBeth are Jesse and Maribeth to each other, with Jessie going so far as to adopt a male name. This is not the only instance where Jessie tries to don a new identity. The highlight of this story is the lie she tells MaryBeth. First, she simply tells MaryBeth that a man has made advances in her direction:
I did not even have anybody’s name in my head, in the beginning. I did now, but it was outrageous. I couldn’t believe that I would ever say it.
The name? Mr. Cryderman.
I felt wonderfully lightened, not burdened, by my lie.
The best parts of the story are Jessie’s fabrications: her lively imagination — consummating the relationship in her mind but not telling MaryBeth this, and later glad because she decided to “unconsummate” the relationship later, ha! — and the way she assumes the weight of such an affair, though all in her head, is Munro having a blast. “There was no more sense of drift and boredom, when MaryBeth and I were together.” I agree!
But the story gets serious quickly. When one devotes so much energy into a fake affair, one may have the power to make it real. Or, almost. And so the friendship runs its course, and Jessie says, “[I]t didn’t occur to me how much I had been myself, all along.” To me, this is the central piece of the story, Jessie’s realization that all of her attempts to create dreams are actually the fundamental parts of her. Munro ends with a powerful image that plays nicely against the one — floating peacefully down the river — that opened the story:
I didn’t see that I was the same one, embracing, repudiating. I thought I could turn myself inside out, over and over again, and tumble through the world scot free.
Though “Jesse and Maribeth” is one of the more straightforward stories in The Progress of Love, she still packs it with layers of emotion and meaning.
“Jesse and Meribeth” is an entertainment with a bit of a bite. It is reminiscent of “An Ounce of Cure” and “How I Met My Husband,” which also give light-hearted accounts of the adventures of the hired girl.
The entertainment is a high school friendship between two girls, one of whom takes a very laissez-faire attitude toward whether a “confidence” should be true or not. Jessie convinces MaryBeth that they should change the spelling of their names to Jesse and Meribeth, a totally innocent prank that ends up annoying only Jessie’s teachers, given that one of them thinks Jesse is a boy’s name. Having instituted their fake identities, Jessie then uses her new housekeeping position as a means to keep Marybeth spellbound. Jessie has been hired to do ironing for Mrs. Cryderman, and she becomes privy to the seductiveness of Mr. Cryderman, his physical attractiveness, his war-time heroism, his reputation as a writer, and his show-offy attentions to his couch-bound very pregnant wife. Heady stuff.
So Jessie lets off steam by convincing Marybeth that Mr. Cryderman has made advances to her. Her performance is a cross between the skills being honed by a budding actress and those of an aspiring writer.
The bite comes from the fact that the real Mr. Cryderman is not above making a verbal pass at Jessie himself, probably partly for the fun of it, and partly to teach her a lesson. The real surprise is that he addresses Jessie’s hubris: that she is making eyes at him, so to speak, right under the rotund and incapacitated Mrs. C’s nose. He taunts Jessie with some questionable touching that doesn’t seem to amount to anything, and he gives her a kind of backwards lecture regarding how power should be employed.
Another bite comes from MaryBeth herself. She ironically tells Jessie the stories just don’t seem possible.
I would distrust Munro if this story were as far as she could see into the employment of hired girls, but it isn’t. “Sunday Afternoon,” from Munro’s first collection, tells of a country girl who’s in actual danger in the house where she’s been hired to work. She’s in danger of seduction, and she’s in danger of learning some terrible class lessons. “How I met My Husband” has perky teenager making advances to a 30 year old man — an itinerant barnstormer. He entertains the advances, although luckily, his girl-friend arrives on the scene just in time. But then there’s “Wild Swans” — where a teen-aged girl gets accosted by a true pervert on a train.
In the case of “Jesse and Meribeth” there is a different warning: having nothing to do with making a play for married men. This other way teen-aged girls play with fire is the way they try on and discard friends. Munro chastises Jessie, or rather has the adult Jessie chastise her younger self, somewhat helplessly, I must admit.
I saw . . . myself shedding dreams and lies and vows and errors, unaccountable. I didn’t see that I was the same one, embracing, repudiating. I thought I could turn myself inside out, over and over again, and tumble through the world scot-free.
Jessie’s “unaccountable” daring is what the story is addressing. We all know that success in this world is unlikely without unaccountable daring. But we also know that daring can be a very difficult horse to ride. How to know the difference between daring and recklessness? That’s something most people have to learn and it isn’t an easy lesson. Out on thin ice is a very unpleasant place to be, and yet that’s what the adult Jessie is talking about. But I use clichés to try to understand what Munro says in original, mystifying, provocative language.
Her one cliché (scot-free) is an inside joke, being that Munro is herself descended from lowland Scots, the ones that were the reivers and raiders, full of daring and lacking, in their work, full of the least accountability.
Which of these hired girl stories you like the best depends upon your taste. I love the glamour and speed of “How I Met My Husband,” and I treasure the dark honesty of “Sunday Afternoon.”
The thing I liked best about “Jesse and Meribeth” was Jessie’s assumption of a male persona, something that happens off and on in Munro. But “Boys and Girls” is the real thing, a full-on examination of the gender roles we all play, and “The Found Boat” is a full-on examination of reckless experiment and daring. In “Jesse and Meribeth” I think Munro is remarking that it would be nice if masquerading as a male could be as easy as dropping just one letter from your name. To make it really work, George Sand had to change tailors and completely up-end her life.
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