Ah, the complexity of life and all of its disorder. Ah, Munro’s beautiful attempts to explore such complexity on its own terms instead of diluting it all down to some kind of epiphany or lesson, or even down to a single conflict, even if that’s what her characters yearn for.
“Differently” is a complicated story. It deals with many conflicts, most of which cannot be reconciled. For example, our central character, Georgia, left her marriage and her marriage home years ago but is visiting the old place. Why? There’s certainly a bit of torture. She feels a tug back to that time, a regret, perhaps, that she left. At the same time, hers was a situation she needed to leave. She would have also regretted staying. And neither choice would have made her life its perfect version: “People make momentous shifts, but not the changes they imagine,” Georgia realizes. And then she thinks:
Just the same, Georges knows that her remorse about the way she changed her life is dishonest. It is real and dishonest.
There’s just some of the complexity.
Interestingly, “Differently” begins with a bit of creative writing advice. Georgia is a writer in a creative writing class. Her instructor’s response:
Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Thing, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.
Well, in such a complicated world, who can say? And that’s just the “important thing” that I think Munro wants us to pay attention to in this story. “Differently” is a story about how difficult life can be for many, how the better way to go through it for them, if only they could have the foresight of the passage of time and the approach of death, can at best be merely suggested in the word “differently.”
Of course, complications find us but we are also quite adept and find them on our own. That’s at work in this story, to the point Georgia realizes: “Her life filled up with such lies.” She seeks order when she can find it, and the best place is her bookstore:
At times the store was empty, and she felt an abundant calm. It was not even the books that mattered then. She sat on the stool and watched the street — patient, expectant, by herself, in a finely balanced and suspended state.
Alas, such order is elusive.
So I’m sitting here trying to figure out a good way to summarize “Differently,” to provide a basis for my post. But there are quite a few characters, and each leads to different threads that would be interesting to follow. The beating heart that pumps the blood through the story is a conflict between Georgia, the woman we have been following from the beginning, and her old friend Maya, who is now dead. Georgia and Maya met through their spouses, Ben and Raymond. They became “friends on two levels. On the first level, they were friends as wives; on the second as themselves.”
The story begins (after its look at Georgia’s creative writing advice, and a note that she now lives with that reductive creative writing instructor — another of life’s what is going on moments for Georgia) with Georgia’s visit to Raymond, who was married to Maya up to her death. Raymond himself is now remarried. So is Ben.
There’s quite a bit going on at this point in the story. This is Georgia’s trek into her own past, the pain of which is, apparently, sufficiently distant to allow her to look back almost longingly, indeed, as I mentioned above, with the pain of regret that things didn’t turn out differently. The pain is real as she visits her old house:
She ought to have stayed away from this neighborhood. Everywhere she walked here, under the chestnut trees with their flat gold leaves, and the red-limbed arbutus, and the tall Garry oaks, which suggested fairy stories, European forests, woodcutters, witches — everywhere her footsteps reproached her, saying what-for, what-for, what-for. This reproach was just what she had expected — it was what she courted — and there was something cheap about doing such a thing. Something cheap and useless. She knew it. But what-for, what-for, what-for, wrong-and-waste, wrong-and-waste went her silly, censorious feet.
Even these feelings are complicated. Is she thinking of her time with Ben? Yes, she is. About her fairy tales with her children when they were young? Yes, of course. But she is also thinking about her friendship with Maya, which ended (justly, unjustly) due to other complications (betrayals) years before Maya’s death.
They’ve each gone their own way. Now, though, Maya’s time is over. Georgia cannot walk back in and affect Maya’s life anymore. This brings to her a realization of her own mortality, to her own thought that if people had any idea of their own death they’d live their life differently.
However, she has no clue what differently means. She’s realized that living differently really brings up a new reality that is filled with its own problems and desires to have things differently.
In “Differently,” Georgia remembers back when she was married to Ben, a naval officer, and Maya was married to Raymond, a surgeon. The men had been schoolboy friends, and Georgia became great friends with Maya, who was quite rich and, due to being rich, able to be independent and exotic. Maya had sworn off deeply serious extra-marital affairs, although she was currently keeping her hand in with Harvey. Georgia had begun working in a tiny bookstore, and she enjoyed the life outside her marriage. Georgia liked the conversations about books, and then she suddenly embarked on a wild affair with a motorcycle riding patron named Miles.
Arriving home from a tryst on the beach with wild hair and swollen lips, she says things to the grandmother who is babysitting like:
My car wouldn’t start . . . I walked all the way home. It was lovely.
The narrator’s opinion of this situation is summed up in:
Her life filled up with such lies.
Unexpectedly, Maya swipes Miles from Georgia. The reader is not sure why. Out of a desire to prove she can? Out of carelessness? Perhaps out of a desire to save Georgia? Or just for the fun of it? Or all of these impulses at the same time?
Georgia cuts Maya dead and never sees her again.
Which is strange, because Maya does in fact die. The reader intuits that female friendship and allegiance are very important to Munro, and that Maya in fact dies of the betrayals, both Georgia’s and her own. Georgia always thinks she might make up with Maya. And then Maya is dead.
The story’s frame is Georgia’s visit to Raymond after Maya’s death, and after Raymond has remarried. They reminisce about this impossible woman whom they both loved. In parting, probably remembering her desire to reconcile with Maya, Georgia says: “we never behave as if we believed we are going to die.”
Raymond asks how we should behave. Georgia replies: “Differently.”
The outermost nesting box in the story is that Georgia has taken some bad advice from a writing teacher and has apparently stopped writing. Worse, she has taken up not only living with him but is also doing some of his work in his small publishing outfit and his raspberry farm. Georgia: dead as well.
Behaving differently for Georgia would have been to not listen to the writing teacher, which is what Munro clearly did.
Munro selected “Differently” for her Selected Short Stories. I would have liked to know what her reasons were, but, not knowing, I will guess at what they were. The story makes several complicated connections to Munro’s own life, and maybe she thinks these are the most honest things she has to say about these subjects.
A variety of discussion on a list of topics:
Bookstores: Georgia writes a poignant and honest paean to the bookstore where she once worked. This is the sentence which ends the story:
She thinks about sitting in the store in the evenings. The light in the street, the complicated reflections in the windows, the accidental clarity.
This was when Georgia was a mother with kids young enough that they might still do a card game at bed time. She was married to Ben, a Navy man.
Sitting on her stool at the front of the store, showing her bare brown shoulders and sturdy brown legs, she looked like a college girl — clever but full of energy and bold opinions.
In this environment, Georgia is outside the environment of marriage, one where her husband liked to think he picked their friends. There is the glancing implication that within a marriage there is a kind of lassitude and submission that prohibits opinion and boldness.
The people who came into the store liked the look of a girl — a woman — like Georgia. They liked to talk to her. Most of them came in alone. They were not exactly lonely people, but they were lonely for somebody to talk to about books.
I am moved by that because here I sit, talking to [imaginary] people [in the ether] about books!
It was a community of book-friends.
Georgia plugged in the kettle behind the desk and made mugs of raspberry tea. Some favored customers brought in their own mugs.
Not really Starbucks, not really Barnes and Noble.
Georgia took the store seriously. She had a serious, secret liking for it that she could not explain. [. . .] At times the store was empty, and she felt an abundant calm. [. . .] the store was a straight avenue of bounty, of plausible promises. Certain books that Georgia had never read, and probably would never read, were important to her, because of the stateliness or mystery of their titles. In Praise of Folly. The Roots of Coincidence. The Flowering of New England. Ideas and Integrity.
But there it is: Munro’s wide world — folly, coincidence, ideas, integrity, the women writers of New England.
In the presence of this store, Georgia achieves an almost religious state of mind; she feels an abundant calm.
She sat on the stool and watched the street — patient, expectant, by herself, and in a finely balanced and suspended state.
Like an actor waiting for the curtain to go up. It is no surprise that Georgia meets the lover while on duty in this store, the lover on whose presence the accidental outcomes of the story actually depends.
I don’t mean that we should take this as a word for word celebration of Munro’s own experience in her husband’s bookstore, but I mean, if she were going to pick this story for Selected Stories, it would be in part because she thought she had captured the bookstore thing. Alice liked working at night at her husband’s bookstore. Sometimes she was able to use the time to write.
Friend of My Youth: Maya is a “slippery, shimmery — liar, seducer, finagler,” and Georgia falls prey to her, rejects her entirely, never sees her again. In contrast, in the next story, “Wigtime,” two women reunite and it’s as if they’d seen each other only yesterday, despite all that’s happened. The “Wigtime” women are still in complete sync. The “Differently” women had had a crack-up.
Lovers: This is problematic for the ordinary reader. The lover makes Georgia feel like “a strengthened and lightened woman, not the least in love, favored by the universe.” Munro is rarely clear about the details of sex. What we deduce is that the sex is powerful, that the sex is a life force, and that Georgia has never felt it before, and considers it essential. One must understand that the patriarchal, unequal, condescending power of men in a 50s marriage makes actual unbounded sex almost impossible. In addition, that women think they must submit and surrender to men (maybe somewhat in the way Georgia submits to the writing teacher) makes equality in life or sex impossible. She feels a calm in the bookstore that is not present in her marriage.
Georgia, feeling so liberated, tells the lover she loves him, and he replies in kind. But this wrecks the affair. He turns brutal. He is physically threatening. He betrays Georgia with her best friend. So the lover is no salvation.
But still, Georgia has glimpsed some kind of power, some kind of life, some kind of equality, and she cannot go back. In addition, she cannot tolerate the dishonesty and “sham” of her marriage, given the affair.
Friends who influence, seduce, and overwhelm: Victor’s charisma overwhelms Murray; Maya’s exoticism overwhelms Georgia.
Lovers in 1977 and Lovers in 2017: To a degree “Differently” is a time capsule. Friends like Maya and Victor still seduce people and betray them, but things are a little different now. Women have so much sexual experience before marriage that a housewife nowadays might be puzzled by this story. They have had their “lovers” and their sexual exploration before they marry. There is not as pervasive an inequality. What women are tempted by now is not a real lover but real money and real work. They are tempted by career. It is the work now that “strengthens,” seduces and betrays.
Marriage: Munro has only to allow herself a few strokes to show that, for some women, marriage is problematic. Georgia herself, at the time she is telling this story, is not married to the man she lives with. Georgia says that “because she had been so readily unfaithful, her marriage was a sham. Because she had gone so far out of it, so quickly, it was a sham. She dreaded, now, a life like Maya’s.” What she means is all the lying. But she could not go back, either.
She dreaded just as much a life like her own before this happened. She could not but destroy. Such cold energy was building in her she had to blow her own house down.
Writing: Georgia’s writing ideas are a lot like Alice Munro’s, except for this: it appears that Georgia stops writing. It’s not just friendship that dies in this story; it’s also writing. It feels like Munro is saying that the choice to be an artist is easily put aside, like friendships you think you might rekindle.
Georgia once took a creative writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also, too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.
But the sad thing is that Georgia doesn’t go on writing. Instead, she marries the writing teacher, who grows raspberries and runs a small publishing business. It doesn’t sound like Georgia writes any more. What it sounds like is submission. Later, at the end of the story, Georgia says, people don’t change.
Too many things: Georgia is the kind of person who wants a multi-dimensional story that pulls itself in differing direction but somehow hangs in a balance.
- Georgia cannot forgive Maya, but she is able to accept her children’s “forgiveness.”
- Georgia hates lying and sham, but she is drawn to Maya’s lying and sham.
- Maya’s husband indicates the way lovers were just a way of life with Maya. He tells about the gardener she plies, during her illness, with admiration and money, the gardener who flees as soon as the garden is done. But he also says, “I didn’t scoot off and leave her.”
- We are led to believe Georgia wouldn’t barter an hour of her children’s life away. And yet she leaves them, and they are pretty young.
- Georgia tells her husband about the lover, but she leaves out the part about how her best friend stole him away.
- Georgia says we would live “differently” if we believed we were going to die, but she makes it a joke.
- Those two “pale prodigies,” Maya and Miles, were “slippery, shimmery — liars, seducers, finaglers.” But Georgia does not escape from them; she escapes from her marriage. She admits that’s what they were — but she doesn’t admit the same about herself.
Forgiveness: Another element I think Munro might have liked in this story is that of forgiveness. Maya befriends Georgia, and Georgia enjoys Maya’s wildness and unconventionality. She is an escape from the ordinary society of Navy wives, I suppose. They confide in each other to a great degree: Maya is having an affair; she has had an abortion, and Georgia is privy to all that. But when Georgia begins her own affair, the one which is liberating for her, Maya acts the predator and steals the lover and acts as if it is her right and prerogative to do so. Georgia cannot forgive the betrayal.
She feels a paralysis of grief.
Georgia admits the paradox: that these are words you use for the death of a child. And Georgia would not “have bartered away an hour of her children’s lives to have heard the phone ring”; to hear Maya say, “He’s sorry; he loves you very much.” Instead, she calls Maya herself, hears about the casual fling, and “never spoke to Maya again.”
There is a great scene when Maya comes calling, asking to make up. Georgia lets her in the house and ignores her, cleaning the kitchen with stolid, silent attention. Maya phones several times, and Georgia hangs up on her. Later, in a letter, Maya begs. Even later, Maya sends, from Turkey, “a pretty piece of cloth large enough for a tablecloth. But Georgia doesn’t relent. She never forgives Maya. She doesn’t see her again.
Without Hilda [writing to Georgia about Maya’s death], Georgia would not have known. She would have still been thinking that sometime she might write to Maya, there might come a time when their friendship could be mended.
But that is actually self-entitled thinking. She has forgotten about “the vengeful pleasure” that breaking with Maya gave her. Georgia “punished” Maya and did so in a “controlled manner.” It was “thorough-going.”
The strange thing is that it is the lover she is really punishing: “she had to [. . .] root out all addiction to the gifts of those two pale prodigies.”
Georgia refuses to forgive. She remarks to Maya’s husband that if we believed we were going to die, we would behave “Differently.” But it squeaks out, not as confession, but as joke.
Note: Georgia says, with the effortlessness and unexplained entitlement of charismatic people, “My children have forgiven me.”