The first time I read “Circle of Prayer,” I really didn’t know quite what was going on. I knew the story was told all out of sequence, beginning with an act of violence; moving, with no transition, to events before and after that act of violence; and ending with the central character lost but sitting next to someone with wisdom to guide — kind of like the ending of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. I hadn’t put the work into the story yet, and I was frustrated by the deliberate lack of clarity. Frustration can be a good thing, though. In this case, it compelled me to really dig into this story. Alice Munro deserves that response to frustration, where I’m just as apt to toss off and forget about the work of someone else. Did “Circle of Prayer” deserve the arduous exercise it took for me to crack its shell? Yes. I’m still not convinced the story is great, especially in relation to Munro’s work as a whole, but I have enjoyed the process a great deal, and I found it more and more touching with each reread.
Here’s how it begins:
Trudy threw a jug across the room. It didn’t reach the opposite wall; it didn’t hurt anybody, it didn’t even break.
In this first scene, Trudy is coming home, after a long shift at work, after midnight. Her teen-aged daughter Robin has left the light on for her, as mother and daughter always do when one is out late, showing a bit of care and routine. But Trudy has one thought on her mind, and she goes immediately to fetch a jug to investigate something that obviously has been tormenting her mind, accruing all of the other daily frustrations, focusing on something she knows will be missing when she gets home:
She climbed up on a chair without even letter go of her bag, got down the jug, and fished around inside it.
It was gone. Of course. She had known it would be gone.
And so she takes this jug, enters Robin’s room, and throws it. In a brief three-sentence passage, Munro breaks free from the moment of the violence to its aftermath some time in the future, a time when this night was “that time.”
You threw a jug at me that time. You could have killed me.
Not at you. I didn’t throw it at you.
You could have killed me.
This is a brilliant device through which Munro shows that this single night (and many others like it) are not easily forgotten, if they ever are. The violence lingers. The trust is broken. We readers still don’t know just what’s happened to bring about this violent interlude, where, sure, no one was “hurt” and the jug didn’t break, but where a quiet night was shattered, the intentions tangible.
And yet, it seems that both Trudy and her daughter Robin foresaw this terrible exchange. Robin, though in bed, has not been sleeping, something Trudy sees fit to use against her:
Proof that Robin was shamming: She started up in a fright, but it wasn’t the blank fright of somebody who’d been asleep. She looked scared, but underneath that childish, scared look was another look — stubborn, calculating, disdainful.
This is a sad relationship, and the bulk of “Circle of Prayer” is about the many self-destructive means by which Trudy has wrecked it. All this plays beside moments of genuine tenderness, where we see that this mother and daughter would love to have this secure relationship, where they offer themselves, if briefly, to the other, like that light that remains on when one of them is out late.
The next part of “Circle of Prayer” takes us back to before the jug was thrown. One of Robin’s friends was killed in a car accident, and folks at Trudy’s work are talking about it. Trudy knows her daughter was not involved, but this still hits close to home, reminds her that something like this could happen, even as she tries to eliminate the possibility (in one of the story’s funny moments):
“Driving a truck,” Kelvin said.
Trudy’s heart eased. Robin doesn’t know how to drive yet.
“Fourteen years old, she didn’t know how to drive,” Kelvin said.
Nevertheless, the jug incident happens on the very day of this young girl’s funeral. Trudy is not in control. There are various reasons why Trudy may not be in control. For one, her husband Dan left her a couple of years prior as he was having an affair with a younger woman. This certainly fractured the family, and Robin there in the middle, trying to figure out her parents’ motives and degrees of guilt. But Trudy has also been known to drink a lot, and that has certainly had something to do with the fractured relationships. Robin has no doubt grown up hearing her parents’ drunken arguments. How many late nights has she shammed sleep?
And yet Robin does reach out to her mother, as shown in this touching passage where she offers to come be with her mom, concerned, wanting connection — it can be both:
The phone rings right beside her head.
“Are you still there? Robin says. “You’re not gone?”
“I’m still here.”
“Can I run over and ride back with you? I didn’t do my run earlier because it was so hot.”
While “Circle of Prayer” involves several other characters, I do look at it as being primarily about this mother and daughter, and their own bonds, as if they themselves are living their lives in a complicated, painful, yet necessary circle of prayer. They are not praying to God directly, but they’re fighting each other and still fighting for each other. They feel hopeless, yet they hope.
“Circle of Prayer” is about a woman whose husband loves her “mind and soul,” but leaves her anyway, maybe because she is, as he says, “just a wife” and nothing more, or maybe because she drinks a lot, or maybe because she is given to binges, binges that include “weeping . . . arguing . . . yelling, and screaming.”
We know that the scenes between Trudy and Dan devolve to yelling and screaming because their thirteen year old daughter says so. We know there is a lot of drinking, because at one point Trudy drinks so much that for an entire month she “never has a hangover.” That’s what she tells us. We realize she means she drank so much she was never sober, or she drank so much she was drunk the whole month. She was drunk when she met Dan. When Dan taught her to make a pie crust, he used a whiskey bottle. The month that she was screaming drunk the whole time, her daughter told her it was very scary, but Trudy brushed her off.
This is a lot of alcohol and a lot of alcoholic side effects in one short story. Trudy downplays the drinking. When her friend Janet senses Trudy’s grave situation, Janet says, “[T]here is something you could do.”
Trudy senses something “serious and unpleasant” in Janet’s tone, “something . . . that was affecting her life and everybody knew except her.” Trudy knows but doesn’t want to know. It reads like an intervention scene, where the kindly friend wants to interrupt the downward spiral, and yet the person at the center of the tornado announces that there is no tornado. (Ironically, Janet’s intervention turns out to be not a 28-day program but a circle of prayer.)
That’s the back story, and it is told in a confused series of tangled revelations, the tangle revealing just how much Trudy does not want to face the reality of her situation. The trouble with continual drinking is you get used to it. Binges happen, and that leads to “yelling and screaming,” and that leads to brushing off how much you are scaring your daughter, and finally, the lack of self-control, or lack of self-awareness, can lead to violence.
And violence is where the story takes off. Two years after Dan has left, Trudy’s fifteen-year-old daughter Robin is beginning her journey away from her mother. Robin has tried living with Dan, but she finds that scene, where Dan tells her he’s “never been happier,” leaves her feeling left out. She goes back to Trudy, and along the way becomes a champion runner, dedicated to flight.
The crisis in a person’s life, the breaking open of a life, especially in Munro, is often precipitated not by something like a visit to a psychologist but by something accidental. In this case, a girl dies in a car crash, and her classmates indulge in a peculiar but typical teen-aged-girl funeral frenzy. They devise their own mourning ritual. Comically, innocently, the girls sing a slightly suggestive song. Weirdly, they decide to drop jewelry into the casket as amulets and offering. Robin drops an heirloom into the coffin.
“Why did you do it?” Trudy wants to know. She is enraged.
The heirloom, a double-stranded necklace of jet beads, is itself a symbol of death and entrapment. I think Robin is tired of death, tired of abandonment, tired of the death of her mother’s spirit, tired of being shackled to Trudy, tired of the scenes. Munro never spells that out. She leaves it to the reader to figure out. The necklace had been left to Robin by Dan’s mother when she died, another loss.
Jet had become known as a mourning jewel when Queen Victoria marked her husband’s early death by wearing only black and jet for the rest of her life. In a way, Robin and Trudy are hooked together in a double stranded necklace of mourning. Abandonment is their death-in-life state. When Robin throws the double-stranded necklace into the coffin, I think she is protesting the unending lifelessness that the abandonment represents.
Trudy says, “I love jet beads.” For the reader (the second time around), it’s as if Trudy had said, “I love death beads.” It’s time to rip that open, and the classmate’s funeral provides the moment.
On the night after the funeral, we see how intensely Robin needs to leave the drinking and the yelling and the screaming behind. Trudy arrives home after finishing her 4 to 12 shift. It’s after midnight. Trudy has heard how the girls dropped their jewelry into the coffin. As soon as she gets back to the house, she checks the pottery jug where the jet necklace is kept and finds it not there. Storming into Robin’s room with the jug Dan had made in her hand, Trudy flips on the light to awaken the sleeping girl, begins yelling, and ends by throwing the heavy jug at Robin’s wall.
This is a violent scene. Because Robin is actually awake, it has the scent of the alcoholic household where the kids don’t sleep because they always have to be on guard. We see even more reason for Robin to want to break the spell.
Later, Trudy remembers the scene in horrified flashbacks: “You could have killed me,” says Robin.
Right here, amid all this confusion, the reader needs to sort things out. Is losing a necklace comparable to threatening your daughter with bodily harm? No. Is losing a necklace comparable with leaving your daughter with a serious psychic scar? No. One is teen-aged foolishness and the other is adult abuse of a child. Trudy needs to back up. Trudy needs to admit she’s wrong. Trudy needs to forgive Robin. Trudy needs, this reader thinks, to change her ways. But all this is left to the reader to deduce.
Robin’s teen-aged rebellion has provided the explosion that might both spring her from the trap she’s in and might also open Trudy up. Dan had said that if he left, it would “open up life” for Trudy as well as for him. What would her life look like if she were able to “open up”? What does Trudy have a talent for? What does she love to do? She hardly knows.
But the reader notices that she has a capacity for unjudging observation. Trudy herself knows that she has, on occasion, “stood outside her own body” and noticed what other people are about. To the reader, it is as if Trudy has the capacity, on occasion, to inhale other people without her own ego getting in the way. She says at the end:
. . . when she was young and high, a person or a moment would become a lily floating on the cloudy river water, perfect and familiar.
Trudy combines the state of being “high” with the ability to accept others as they are, and it puts me in mind of the great writers who drank, among them, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. We see the writer in Trudy when she describes Robin:
Robin’s hair is golden; her legs and arms are golden. Her cheeks and limbs are downy, not shiny — you wouldn’t be surprised to see a cloud of pollen delicately floating and settling behind her when she runs.
The trouble is, Trudy has no sense of her own strengths. She is not on a campaign to “woo the distant parts of herself” as is the young mother in “Miles City, Montana.” And she has no woman to wife her through life, as she might have had if she’d been a man. She is instead on a journey, it seems, of deadening herself, drinking, denying, blaming, getting high, maybe more. She not only needs to be opened up, she also needs to be nurtured, which brings us to the second strand of this story: the circle of prayer.
Janet wonders if Trudy might be helped by the circle of prayer. Trudy scoffs.
This is an act of compassion. It might be odd, it might be off the mark, but it is an act of compassion. What the reader notices, especially upon re-reading, are the acts of compassion that occur over and over in the story. Dan tries to come back to Trudy and Robin. Trudy herself realizes that Dan has to leave, and she steps outside herself, outside of her ego and her desire, and she lets him go. Janet obliges a niece by promising to make the masses of Kleenex roses the niece wants to have filling her wedding-car. Trudy offers to help Janet. Janet offers no lectures when she observes that Trudy is in trouble, but she does wonder if Trudy might like to join a circle of prayer. Janet and Trudy work as care-givers at the “Home for Mentally Handicapped Adults,” compassionate work if there ever was such. One of their small acts of compassion is to get each resident a coffee mug with their name on it. One of the residents, Kelvin, returns the gesture. He gets Trudy and Janet mugs with their names.
In the end, Robin offers Trudy compassion by offering to bike over and ride home with Trudy.
This last one, though, is worrisome. Accepting the offer is teaching Robin to be an enabler. It’s teaching Robin to assume guilt for Trudy’s violence. It’s teaching Robin that she should act out a fake compassion. Trudy should have accepted the suggestion but refused the act. It was going to be midnight after all, no time for Robin to be out riding. One thing masquerading as another is a theme in the story.
Jet, for instance, is famous for being real or fake. Janet asks if Trudy knows the value of the jet necklace. She doesn’t. It’s an important question because jet could be quite valuable or worth nothing, depending upon whether it’s the real thing or an imitation. Horn, black glass, rubber and plastic can all masquerade as jet. “Jet” made out of rubber even has a fake name: “vulcanite.” The theme of fakery is echoed in the discussion of prayer. Some people pray for parking spaces, others pray out of the dark night of the soul. One is fake, the other is real.
Enabling an alcoholic can look like compassion, but it’s fake compassion and fake, useless forgiveness. Enabling is dangerous to both Robin and Trudy and not something Trudy should be teaching Robin to do. The only part of all this that Munro actually spells out is that Trudy doesn’t know the true value of jet and doesn’t know it is often fake.
The suggestion is there, however. Trudy sometimes doesn’t know what is fake and what is not. Allowing Robin or encouraging Robin to ride over to the Home at midnight is teaching her to endanger herself to assuage her mother’s guilt. Trudy scared Robin and endangered and abused her when she threw the jug. She needs to admit that to Robin. She should not be teaching Robin to assume the guilt. It’s Trudy, not robin, who needs to change her ways.
Losing a necklace is not the same as threatening your child with bodily and psychic harm.
Kelvin is an emblem of true and innocent compassion, reminiscent of Prince Myshkin, Dostoevsky’s Idiot. Myshkin has epilepsy, as does Kelvin. Folklore has it that epileptics may have special access to God; Myshkin is a character whose sole reason for being is to be kind. Kelvin is also kind. Not only does he get the mugs for Janet and Trudy, on a hot day he also takes Marie and Josephine uptown for ice cream. Kelvin is the real thing.
William James (1842-1919), the father of American psychology and philosophy, was the author, among other things, of Varieties of Religious Experience. Munro is clearly exploring the possibilities of religious practice outside the doctrinaire. The girls make up their own funeral rite; jet beads are known for their magical and healing properties; beginner prayer can be at the level of praying for a parking space; expert prayer can be at the level of just listening. Some religious practices are fake, some are real. Compassion, when it is freely given and not coerced, is a variety of real religious practice.
Munro’s heroines sometimes are driven by clarity: they know they are artists and they drive themselves in that direction. This story asks what happens when a woman marries too young and has no concrete idea of herself. The result can be a lost soul. At one point in the story, Trudy asks herself:
What are those times that stand out, clear patches in your life — what do they have to do with it? They aren’t exactly promises. Breathing spaces. Is that all?
Thinking of the varieties of religious experience, I hear a hint of Buddhism in the “breathing spaces,” and I hear the questing soul in “Is that all?”
Trudy comes upon Kelvin looking “old and sunk into himself.” But he’s standing in a “pool of light whitening his brown hair.” Something (beatitude?) makes Trudy ask him if he prays. He replies, almost in a retort, almost as a joke, “If I knew what to pray for, [. . .] then I wouldn’t have to.”
He smiles at her, with some oblique notion of conspiracy. Offering his halfway joke. It’s not meant as comfort, particularly. Yet it radiates — what he said, the way he said it, just the fact that he’s there again, radiates, expands the way some silliness can, when you’re very tired.
Munro is speaking here: it’s not the doctrinaire that we need, it’s the seeing, the listening, the being seen, and the being heard.
Something about this reminds me of the old Homeric idea that you should offer hospitality to everyone, especially strangers, given that the gods often appear to us in disguise. That hospitality, in Munro, is the hospitality of the writer — the ability to let yourself see, as completely as possible, people as they are.
There is so much going on in this story that it is hard to keep it all in mind at once. The almost twenty sections of narrative mimic the jumbled, jumpy nature of human thought, but they also represent the difficulty that people present to each other. It is hard to understand Trudy. It is hard to feel compassion for her. She is in trouble and she is causing trouble. The jumbly presentation of her story is part of her scoffy hard shell. It is a relief, toward the end, to see her open up a little and be her true self.
In the end, one feels compassion for the flawed woman who feels compassion for Kelvin.
Speaking of the craft of this story, Kelvin’s name, as is often true in Munro, is important. The Kelvin scale is one of three scales for the measurement of heat. Scientists like to use the Kelvin scale because it starts at absolute zero. There are therefore no negative numbers in equations that are based on the Kelvin scale. So, floating around Kelvin is not only the idea of Prince Myshkin, the Russian mystic, epileptic and master of compassion, but also the idea of no negative numbers. Kelvin appears to be the kind of guy who tries to approach life and people with no negative numbers, though it is hard when people are jerks, as they sometimes are.
And there is also this idea of equivalencies: the Kelvin Scale is one of three known ways to measure heat. It’s as if Munro is emphasizing the multi-various nature of being human, echoing the double-stranded jet necklace. There are a lot of different legitimate ways to be human, and many legitimate varieties of religious experience beyond the doctrinaire. Vision and trance are among them, as well as the small acts of kindness, as well as rituals that utilize our love of magic and magical thinking, and maybe even running, and maybe particularly the dedication to craft.
Of course, Munro is never doctrinaire herself. Fakery is a possibility. Jet, for instance, is well known for its imitations — horn, glass, and rubber, to name a few. So, the varieties of religious experience could well include a few fakes and fakers in among the gems. Kelvin, unlikely though he is, appears to be the real thing, just as the girl with Down syndrome in “Dance of the Happy Shades” was the real thing.
Other names, beside Kelvin, appear to have been chosen for their associations: Robin, for flight; Janet, as a diminutive of Joan, as in Joan of Arc; Dan, for Daniel, the prophet known for his visions; and Trudy, for True-dy, but missing an e, and Trudy, for Gertrude, Spear-maiden, and Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, one of the worst mothers of all time.
Intervention and the lack of success that psychologists experience with it is a theme in Munro; this story appears to mirror the self-protective story telling with which we so often present ourselves and which makes therapy so frequently unsuccessful. Munro’s purpose appears to be to show characters learning more from being brushed up against other people or brushed up against new experiences than confronted with therapy. It seems that it’s almost good fortune in Munro to have an accident or to be accidentally shaken up, as this accidental brush with fate is what may prove not fatal, but serendipitous.
The stories of The Progress of Love are so complex in themselves it is easy to forget to see how they interact with each other. “Circle of Prayer” should definitely be read in tandem with “A Queer Streak,” given that the latter’s main character has two episodes of prayer that take her like a trance. Violet is struck as profoundly as if she were an epileptic, or as Paul was on the road to Damascus. Immediately upon the experience of her first prayer-trance, Violet renounces all her success and all her ambitions, and she returns to take care of the family who will perish without her. The name Violet is “violent” without the n; she takes no revenge on any of the people who destroy her life. There is a sense of saintliness in Violet, as there is in Janet, and as there also is in Denise, in “White Dump.” Compassion is the thread throughout these three stories.
Craft is important to Munro: in this story, Trudy understands that Dan is a fine craftsman. He built a complicated solar house, early on in the craze, and it worked. Munro can build a story that has not only plot, but also psychology, philosophy, and poetry. Dan wanted to capture the sun. Munro wants to capture the way we think.
This is a story which is elliptical in the extreme. For it to make sense, the reader must make sense of it. For me, the inquiry into fake and real religious practice, fake and real compassion, fake and real parenting was all worth the trek. But the story is a very demanding exercise in the kind of minimalist writing in which the reader is left to fill in the blanks. Because so much human communication is in ellipses, I think the story works. But the length of this discussion shows the degree to which Munro has left the conclusions to the reader.
The circle of prayer includes, I think, the compassionate writer and the compassionate reader.