by Alice Munro
from Open Secrets
Here we are finishing up another of Alice Munro’s great short story collections. While we are about to move on to The Love of a Good Woman, it is not at all tempting to just “get through” what may be one of Munro’s greatest stories, “Vandals.” I had not read “Vandals” until recently as part of this project with Betsy. I was missing out. I’ve reread it a few times and I’ve been amazed and shocked while looking through its many layers.
The story begins with a seemingly straightforward letter. Bea Doud (we’ve met a few of the Douds in prior stories) has just lost Ladner. She met Ladner later in life, after a series of flings that didn’t go anywhere, and she feels she can live “inside his insanity.” He is a reclusive, ornery veteran who has set up his home almost as a natural preserve, though he is the god who goes in and manipulates everything and who stuffs the animals as if it’s more of a museum. When the story begins, Ladner has died in the hospital, and Bea is left with her thoughts. Her letter is one of appreciation to a young woman named Liza, a former neighbor. When Bea and Ladner rushed away for Ladner’s final visit to the hospital, a blizzard hit their little home out in the country, so Liza drove there to check on things. From Bea’s letter we gather that Liza discovered the home had been vandalized by teens. Liza boarded up the home, and Bea thanks her.
The letter continues on, though, touching on a strange dream Bea has where she goes to a graveyard seven years after Ladner’s death to collect his bones, unsure if this was a pagan act or a Christian one. Many others are also in the cemetery, practically celebrating, “tossing their plastic bags in the air.” As dreams do, things subtly shift around and Bea realizes she is not carrying Ladner’s bones — the bag is too light. No, she’s toting around the bones of someone much smaller. Some around her ask if she has the bones of the little girl, and she doesn’t know whom they’re talking about. She wonders if they’re talking about the little boy, Kenny.
Who is Kenny? What happened to him. She realizes it’s been seven years since “the accident” and says she knows that when the accident happened Kenny wasn’t that little anymore. What is going on? The first time I read “Vandals,” of course, I had no idea. But I was fine with this. Still, I didn’t expect the power and pain that Munro was delicately exploring.
Perhaps realizing she’s touched on something beyond gratitude, Bea never does send this letter to Liza. This is for the best, even if Bea herself never allows herself to fully acknowledge why.
“Vandals” goes around and around the central issue of open secrets, things buried, never mentioned, and the permanent damage such things exact on a long (or short) life. We learn how Bea and Ladner meet. We find out that at the time Liza and Kenny were their young neighbors, and they’d known Ladner for years. Liza and Kenny were welcome to come to Ladner’s whenever they wanted. Though on the outside Ladner didn’t appear friendly to anyone, for some reason he accepts Liza and Kenny almost as part of the household, and he teaches them day after day about the plants and animals and stars.
We don’t necessarily know that anything strange and painful has gone on until Munro goes back and shows us that it is Liza herself who vandalizes the home after the blizzard. When she gets there after the blizzard with her husband Warren (a name that continues to suggest a kind of wild, reclusive space), things are okay. Then Liza starts breaking things, and Warren, probably not understanding why but happy for a bit of chaos, joins in.
Again, on a first read you just have to kind of go with it. Most of what we’ve seen till that point suggests this comes out of the blue. But slowly and with extreme subtlety Munro lets us know that this is just one act of vandalism that is just the barest shadow of truly horrific acts of desecration and destruction that have taken place in the past and permanently altered Liza.
Ladner is not who Bea thinks he is. But it’s clear even Bea know this. Her letter of appreciation must also be one of apology, an attempt at expiation. She has made such an attempt before by paying for Liza to go to college. She knows the open secret — that Ladner sexually abused Liza for years, a maybe Kenny too; at the very least, Kenny was a witness. And the topography of Ladner’s land is a complicated web of delight and pain, education in the worst ways:
Here are the scenes of serious instruction where Ladner taught them how to tell a hickory tree from a butternut and a start from a planet, and places also where they have run and hollered and hung from branches and performed all sorts of rash stunts.
These are the explicit memories Liza recollects as she walks Ladner’s land. But here she is sensing the worst memories almost more than recalling them:
And places where Liza thinks there is a bruise on the ground, a tickling and shame in the grass.
And just look at this terrible scene of shame Liza feels though she has done nothing wrong:
When Ladner grabbed Liza and squashed himself against her, she had a sense of danger deep inside him, a mechanical sputtering, as if he would exhaust himself in on jab of light, and nothing would be left of him but black smoke and burnt smells and frazzled wires. Instead, he collapsed heavily, like the pelt of an animal flung loose from its flesh and bones. He lay so heavy and useless that Liza and even Kenny felt for a moment that it was a transgression to look at him. He had to pull his voice out of his groaning innards, to tell them they were bad.
Ladner has, it seems, been doing this for years before Bea comes along. They first met Ladner when they were seven and eight. Going to her dream, and the bag of bones that turn into both Liza and Kenny, it seems Bea knows but doesn’t accept what she knows. That she couldn’t send the letter suggests she knew even more than that. Does she also know who vandalized the home? Probably. Is she also a bit more at peace now that Ladner is dead and gone? It’s much more complicated than that. Others see her as if she has drifted off and is in a steady decline. To her, though, her last years feel “sadly pleasurable, like a convalescence.”
What a phenomenal exploration of pain and open secrets and the desire to ignore them, as well as the lifelong impact of each. Now, on to Betsy’s fantastic analysis of Bea’s decision to withdraw and ignore what’s going on right in front of her.
In her great 1981 book, Father-Daughter Incest, American psychiatrist Judith Herman discusses the way in which a certain kind of parental relationship fosters the possibility for incest. The authoritarian father imposes an imbalance of power on the family, and either out of fear or choice, the submissive mother withdraws.
Instead of prohibiting seductive or sexualized behaviors on the part of the father, mothers resist “seeing” the open secret which is hidden in plain sight. Herman delineates the multiple abuses taking place: the seduction, the physical abuse and the secrecy imposed on the child by the father; the lack of protection, solace, or action from the ineffectual mother; the lack of help from any quarter; and the active denial by various elements in society that such a thing could ever happen.
Herman posits that recovery for the daughter begins with a “safe therapeutic place.”
Some of Herman’s critics attacked the sexual politics implicit in her therapeutic theory. These critics claimed that reliance on the feminist position — that an authoritarian, paternalistic family structure is the precursor to incest — invalidated her argument. In effect, the critics denied that such a pattern existed.
Herman’s book has been in print for almost 40 years, however, and it maintains its magisterial lead in the research into father-daughter incest.
Open Secrets, the collection of stories published by Alice Munro in 1994, addresses the way women endure and survive the various kinds of paternalistic, entitled, and authoritarian mistreatment of women and girls by some men and some elements of society.
“Vandals,” the last story in Open Secrets, investigates the assault and rape of two children and the course of their lives post-trauma. This story is Munro’s assay into what incest might look and feel like, although in this case, the mother and daughter are a constructed relationship rather than a biological relationship. The advantage of this design is that the story gives us, through the real father and the adopted “father” and through the dead real mother and the barely present adopted “mother, a deeper sense of profound neglect and equally profound refusals “to see.” This is what predation requires.
“Vandals” also deepens the horror of the abuse by making the objects of rape not only the girl but also her brother. The horror of the abuse is additionally deepened by Munro’s flat methods of story-telling. Grandiosity of any kind does not suit Munro. Instead, she depends upon the ordinary strangeness of life to make her points.
Liza and Kenny are two kids who live out in the bush with their neglectful, widowed father. They seek out the strange man across the way, the man who lures children onto his property with peculiar stuffed animals that he has killed and stuffed himself. Thus he is much like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, although what Liza and Kenny are hungry for is not food but attention, and in Liza’s case, learning. Ladner taught them a lot about science. But he also taught them a lot about selfishness, seeing as he regularly abused them. There were places in the woods where Liza saw “a bruise on the ground” because of the “secret life she had with him.”
What is your way out of sexual predation? One way is for society to intervene. But we know that society will not intervene. A local school principal has gone out to Ladner’s to see if he will allow some kids to visit him. Ladner is admired by the establishment, the way Thoreau was admired or the way a priest is admired. This principal wanted to bring kids to Ladner.
Another way out of sexual predation is for an adult to intervene. But we see that Bea has chosen Ladner without any question regarding these children he has hanging around. Bea has spent so much time drinking and having affairs that children are not something she’s given any thought to. She doesn’t question in any way what these kids are doing hanging out with Ladner. What she sees is a rigid locked man whose immense “blocks of solid darkness” will provide her with the threat and structure that will keep her away from bars, keep her away from the men who tempt her.
Bea, as Liza says, “does not see what she was sent to see.”
Lacking the protections of society or individual adults, what is the way out of the abuse? One way out is suicide, and Kenny’s death by car accident feels close to suicide. Another is the wildness that Liza pursued, like Kenny, until suddenly she was surprised by a safe place – her fundamentalist church and the safety of her fundamentalist husband. “You saved me,” Liza tells her husband.
But Ladner’s predation leaves its indelible marks: terrible anger, terrible constriction, and a kind of death.
In the light of the ongoing revelations of the Catholic Church and its predation by and protection for priests, we have the story of Bea and Ladner, the one entitled, and the other, blind.
An online journal called “The Conversation” details the early history of reporting of pedophilia in the Catholic Church (see here).
During the 1980s, victims began to speak out against the church’s systemic attempts to mask the scope of the crisis. In 1984, survivors of Fr. Gilbert Gauthe refused to be silenced by hush money, instead choosing the painful path of initiating public lawsuits in Louisiana. Gauthe ultimately confessed to abusing 37 children.
As these stories became public, more and more victims began to bring lawsuits against the Church. In Chicago, the nation’s first two clergy abuse survivor organizations, Victims of Clergy Sexual Abuse Linkup (LINKUP) and the Survivors’ Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), were created in 1987.
In 1992, survivor Frank Fitzpatrick’s public allegations led to revelations that Fr. James Porter had abused more than 100 other children in Massachusetts. Widespread shock followed at the time as well as after Fitzpatrick’s appearance on ABC’s “Primetime Live,” when news anchor Diane Sawyer interviewed Fitzpatrick and 30 other Porter victims.
I include this lengthy squib for the purpose of establishing the dates: 1984, 1987, and 1992. “Vandals” first appeared in The New Yorker on October 4, 1993. The events detailed here could well be within what Munro knew of pedophilia at the time, especially given Diane Sawyer’s interview in 1992.
“Vandals,” of course, never mentions the Catholic Church, although there are numerous reasons we might associate this story with the church.
First, Ladner’s own name belies his sexuality, suggesting that he is just another boy, not a sexual man, in the same way that celibate priests claim a natural a-sexuality that is in fact mostly unnatural to most men. (In “Spaceships have Landed” Munro admits in Billy Doud that some men are in fact naturally celibate and saintly, but that it is a rare number is born out by the rare number of such men in Munro’s work.)
Second, Ladner, with the signs scattered about his property, claims, like the church, connection to an ancient history and ancient writers, although in Ladner’s case the writers are Aristotle and Rousseau. Curiously, these are writers who have connections to the evolution and byways of church thinking.
Third, Ladner’s taxidermied animals can be seen as a trope for the stuffed shirts of the church, the uniforms, the rituals and the dogmas of the church, all of which can represent both lure and safe haven for certain kinds of people.
Fourth, Ladner’s learning is a lure for children just as the schools of the church have been a lure for parents and children for centuries.
Fifth, there is the magisterial setting of Ladner’s land, which Liza describes as a different world, in places as “solemn as a church”:
[W]hen you cross the road . . . when you cross into Ladner’s territory, it’s like coming into a world of different and distinct countries. there is the marsh country, which is deep and jungly, full of botflies and jewelweed and skunk cabbage. A sense there of tropical threats and complications. Then the pine plantation, solemn as a church, with its high boughs and needled carpet, inducing whispering. And the dark rooms under the downswept branches of the cedars — entirely shaded and secret rooms with a bare earth floor. In different places the sun falls differently and in some places not at all. In some places the air is thick and private, and in other places you feel an energetic breeze. Smells are harsh or enticing. Certain walks impose decorum and certain stones are set a jump apart so that they call out for craziness. Here are the scenes of serious instruction where Ladner taught them how to tell a hickory tree from a butternut and a star from a planet, and places where they have run and hollered and hung from branches and performed all sorts of rash stunts. And places where Liza thinks there is a bruise on the ground, a tickling and shame in the grass.
Munro specifically mentions that Ladner’s land can be as “solemn as a church” and that the smells can be “enticing” or “harsh,” as can be true in an old cathedral, with the dank cellars or the batshit in the ceilings or with the covering enticements of incense. There are the jewels of the “jewelweed” and the flies that naturally infest the dead bodies that are brought to the church.
Sixth, there is the actual sexual predation, which Liza describes as a “bruise on the ground,” and which she details thus:
When Ladner grabbed Liza and squashed himself against her, she had a sense of danger deep inside him, a mechanical sputtering, as if he would exhaust himself in one jab of light, and nothing would be left of him but black smoke and burnt smells and frazzled wires. Instead, he collapsed heavily, like the pelt of an animal flung loose from its flesh and bones. He lay so heavy and useless that Liza and even Kenny felt it was a transgression to look at him.
Seventh, there is Ladner’s open mocking of Bea, something that Liza feels keenly as a devastating humiliation, and something that is mirrored in the attitude that the church has to ordinary, non-divine women, in that they are not allowed to be priests or to participate in the holy rituals of the church.
Eighth, there is the pay-off intended to obtain the victim’s silence. In “Vandals,” Bea gives Liza money to go to college. Given what sexual predation does to people and given that what Liza needed was not more learning but real love and affection, Liza did not last long at college. The church is known for paying off its victims.
Ninth, there is the tangential connection between the church and “Vandals” through the use of the name Beatrice. Dante, in the 1200s, created a platonic ideal of divine love and grace in Beatrice, who was both a real girl his own age he had met at nine and whom he saw only a couple of times before she died in her twenties. She was someone he could have never married, given the marriage customs of the time, but given his life as a writer, she evolved in his imagination into a platonic ideal of divine love and grace.
Munro’s Bea is a truncated version of idealized love. She is not surrounded with divine light. Instead, she buzzes. Although Liza loved Bea as Dante loved Beatrice, Bea is completely incapable of saving the two children. Later, Liza realizes:
Bea could have spread safety if she wanted to. Surely she could. All that is needed is for her to turn herself into a different sort of woman, a hard-and-fast, draw-the-line sort, clean-sweeping, energetic, and intolerant. None of that. None of that allowed. Be good. The woman who could rescue them — who could make them all, keep them all, good.
What Bea has been sent to do, she doesn’t see.
Tenth, Liza is compelled to make an offering to Bea, a sacrifice. Liza gives Bea a gift, an earring that had belonged to her mother, in hopes that it would erase the humiliation that Bea had just endured from Ladner, and in hopes that it might inspire in Bea the love that Liza needs. But when Ladner just remarks, “You could wear it in your nose,” Bea was silent, because she had maybe “forgiven Ladner or maybe made a bargain not to remember” her humiliation.
And finally, the worst of all: there is the effect of Ladner’s abuse and Bea’s refusal to see. The abuse lingers in the mind long after it is done:
P.D.P. [Pull down your pants]
[Ladner] had to pull his voice out of his groaning innards, to tell them they were bad.
He clucked his tongue faintly and his eyes shone out of ambush, hard and round as the animals’ glass eyes.
This is the learning that Liza and Kenny really learned. That they were bad.
How do girls and women survive childhood sexual predation? Note that Kenny does not survive.
Herman theorizes that girls and women can survive sexual predation if they are given a safe place. Munro supplies that with Liza’s marriage to Warren and her submission to the fundamentalist church. Liza says to Kenny: “You saved me.”
Munro notes, however, the legacy of violent anger that victims must control. Liza, given the opportunity by Bea to go up to Ladner’s old house in the bush, ostensibly to “check” on it, instead trashes it. In a fit, she breaks the stuffed animals and scatters the pieces, strews papers all over the floor, throws flour and pours maple syrup. The place is a mess. Kenny joins in a little, getting out a bottle of ketchup. Liza takes over, however, and she uses the ketchup to write:
The wages of sin is death.
Liza vandalizes not just Ladner’s house, however, but also the church itself. In his letter to the Romans (6:23), Paul actually says:
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul, fairly or unfairly, is the writer most associated in the church with the hatred of women. Liza is commenting on Ladner’s death and the punishment that he deserves, but she is also commenting on her own state of grace (despite the crime of vandalism), given her recent embrace of Christianity. The fact is, through Ladner’s abuse, Liza’s rightful nature has been removed, much the way Ladner had remove the innards of the once living animals.
In her anger, Liza out the idea that there might be a “gift of God” of life.
Liza’s innocence and natural purity has been removed and she has been stuffed instead with an unnatural sense of “bad-bad-bad” and the idea she must be “saved” from herself.
Munro’s art and mastery are such that the reader’s first encounter with the story is a profound sense of the alien.
Due to the art of the story, the first thing you think of is not the Catholic Church and its predatory priests and its long history, like Bea, of looking the other way. Your first reaction is to marvel at the gothic strangeness of the tale and to wonder what it was you had just brushed up against.
These tropes that create the profound strangeness — taxidermy, the divination of bones, the use of “signs,” the interest in philosophy — would all make productive long papers, as would the way Munro has structured the story: four parts, the first from Bea’s point of view, and the last three from Liza’s. The structure, which depends upon an omniscient narrator, moves slowly through profound strangenesses to the final revelations.
But I would close instead with homage to a specific realm of Munro’s mastery, that of her ability to depict the language and thoughts of girls and young women, especially her ability to describe the indescribable: seduction, threat, predation, assault, and the attempted destruction of key parts of the self.
“Vandals” is a magisterial story of great reach and almost unfathomable effect: it has an immense philosophic reach, it questions the church, it is grounded in real people, it deals with the contemporary issue of pedophilia, it explores the way trauma torques, scars, and destroys, and it gives the territory of male entitlement real reach.
“Vandals” posits that pedophilia is the theft of self, as if what we are really talking about when we discuss incest or child abuse is the seizure of self and the replacement of a sense of self with stuffing, leaving the children to become dead-men-walking, only unnatural remnants of the natural adults they should have been.
Perhaps the real majesty of this story is that it says all it has to say and still retains, at the end, almost as much mystery as it started with. We do not know why Bea is so damaged; we do not know what Kenny ever really thought; we do not know what caused Ladner to do as he did; we do not know what becomes of Liza or whether she ever is able to see that it is not she who was ever bad-bad-bad.
Short plot summary: Ladner is a retired taxidermist, and an intelligent, charismatic misanthropist. Strongly – and perhaps masochistically – drawn to him, Bea moves into the jokily named Lesser Dismal, Ladner’s spooky, private ‘nature preserve’ in the Canadian countryside. The grotesque Ladner is also a paedophile, abusing two local children – Liza and Kenny – who come into Lesser Dismal to play. Liza welcomes Bea’s arrival and is strongly drawn to her – but does Bea know what’s going on? Years later Liza has the opportunity to enjoy taking her revenge on both of them.
Really short plot summary: Liza suddenly has the opportunity to enjoy taking her revenge, not only on the man who sexually abused when she was a child, but also on the woman who should’ve known what was happening.
If ever there was a Munro story that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, this is it. (Well, from the ones I’ve read.) And of all the stories in the Open Secrets collection, it’s the one that most justifies the collection’s title.
Trevor, until I read your comments it hadn’t occurred to me that with her letter Bea might have finally realised who had vandalized Lesser Dismal. It certainly would explain why she never finished/sent it. Perhaps recounting the dream in the letter triggers her realisation of the dream’s meaning? Perhaps once the effect of the wine she’s enjoying has worn off – she finds she’s revealed the truth to herself? And from there it’s only a short step to her realising that therefore it must be Liza who vandalized the place. So there’s no point to the letter. Or rather that a completely different kind of letter, a much more difficult kind of letter, is required. Open another bottle instead.
Lesser Dismal. Isn’t that name yet another bad-tasting thing about this story? Because we, the readers, have to recognise/acknowledge Ladner’s black humour?
One of the most striking things about the story is that Munro doesn’t present the adult Liza to us as someone traumatised or someone to be pitied. Almost the opposite. Lisa quite obviously has the upper hand with the weak Warren, but in an affectionate and not a brutal way. (Their relationship works.) He tells us she has ‘moments of downright contentment and meditative laziness’. And more to the point Liza calculatedly and calmly enjoys her ‘vandalism’. I was also going to add that she was ‘perfectly in control of herself’ during it – but then remembered that Warren compares her demeanor during the vandalism with her ‘crazy, slithery spirit’, and how she ‘kicked loose’, at the Christian rock concert and dance. This is not a conventional portrait of a badly damaged person. This is how Munro makes things almost infinitely complicated. A strange taste in the bad taste.
Betsy, re the church and sexual abuse, for me there are two other strange tastes in the bad taste. Religion actually helps Liza structure a life for herself that works. And she tells us that Bea and Ladner aren’t churchgoers themselves. More twists in the almost infinitely complicated.
I’d like to point out that in the ‘Spaceships Have Landed’ there are very strong implications that Billy Doud is not “naturally celibate and saintly.”
But that he’s a gay man interested in Wayne.
I hear you, Heath. I take your very important point.
That Billy is more concerned with Wayne’s performance and not at all interested in his own girlfriend. Gayness is something that Munro does not treat often, and in one story (tho at the moment I am not remembering which one ) she does so in stereotype.
What concerns her particularly is the character’s a-sexuality toward women.
I would be interested to know if you think there are any other stories where Munro appears to be describing a man who is gay, but is apparently discussing the man from a woman’s point of view – that to her he is a-aexual, being uninterested in her. .
In “Vandals”, Ladner clearly predates Liza’s brother Kenny as well as Liza.
“Walking on Water” is another story in which a visionary (a very extreme version of Billy Doud) appears a-sexual.
Howard: your comment that “Religion actually helps Liza structure a life for herself that works” rings true.
I also like how you make clear that Liza is not necessariy incapacitated by her abuse – the remark that you isolate that Warren makes – that “He tells us she has ‘moments of downright contentment and meditative laziness’”.
But I would also point out that Liza, who was an intellectual child, has been unable to fulfill that side of herself as an adult.
As you so aptly observe of this story something that seems to me typical of Munro: “More twists in the almost infinitely complicated.”
There are some interesting points made above, but also a lot of dubious assumptions and clear over-interpretions. For example, becoming born-again has nothing to do with the Catholic Church. It’s a process that is Protestant in origin. Also, I rather doubt Bea realizes Lesser Dismal has been trashed by Liza. She doesn’t finish or send the letter because she’s getting drunk while she’s writing it. We know from a later story that she becomes an alcoholic. Bea is too busy holding reality at bay to come up with meaningful interpretations about anything outside of her own experiences.
Warren eventually joins Liza in the trashing of Ladner and Bea’s home, but if you go back and check the story, you’ll see that he is uncomfortable with Liza’s actions initially and only joins her after she’s been at it for a while.
And, for the love of God, Kenny’s death is not a suicide, nor a “near suicide.” I don’t even think his suicide is symbolic in any way, although it does leave Liza rather alone in the world.
I’ll stop with the criticism, but there are several contentious points here. It matters because these inaccuracies show up in my students’ papers. Munro’s stories require patience and restraint (emphasis on restraint). The indeterminism built into her work creates tantalizing clues and allusions, not all of which amount to anything substantive.
ET, it sounds like your students need to learn not to believe all they read. Helpfully, once acquired, I understand this skill can be used to appreciate more fully the works of A Munro herself.
Howard makes an excellent point – that students need to be guided on their use of the internet.
As a former coordinator of a high school English Department, I have given some thought as to what I would say if one of my teachers came to me regarding the problems inherent in the assault of the internet upon teaching,
For one, it is the teacher’s responsibility to do the search ahead of time to determine what’s out there and how to deal with it.
As to assigning Munro and reading her? In a class situation, either in high school or college, I think it is more important to teach students how to deeply read one story rather than how to gallop through an entire book.
To that end, Munro is so much like poetry that I believe a line by line, or paragraph by paragraph, or section by section approach is the way to go, the questions or discussion progressing alternately with the reading. Students could be assigned the in-the-moment task of taking notes on one or more aspects of the writing.
How is Munro like poetry? An argument can be made that each story is a representation of thought: the story is a web – not a flat, linear spider web but a verbal representation of the human brain – a multi—dimensional jungle gym of interconnection. Extreme ambiguity, shifting points of view, shifting points in time, ellipses and gaps between one sentence and the next, or between one section and the next, a flat tone that intensifies ambiguity, a simplified diction that nevertheless uses words in a complex manner, an emphasis on time that is associated with an emphasis on memory, the employment of images and ideas from the natural world, the use of song and story, and multiple references to history, philosophy and religion; these and more are the moving parts of a Munro story.
So I think a line by line discussion could teach far more than any other method. Homework could consist of vocabulary and readings from history, philosophy, psychology, feminism, religion, or science
Another way to read an extremely ambiguous work is to assign the whole story to be read at home but assign pages from the story to each student. Assignment? What questions do you have about these 2 pages? The questions will be asked orally by the student of his or her fellow students. Students would be “graded” on their participation. The teacher’s role is merely that of moderator and observer. I have done this with “Slaughterhouse-Five”. The student led discussion filled the entire 90 minutes.
How do you make sure they have read the entire story and not some internet version? You either do it in class or you give them a quiz on the finer points. It helps if your class is 30 or smaller.
How to deal with the problem of writing in the internet age? One way is to assign writing in the moment – peg a paragraph of writing to the reading aloud and discussion just accomplished. “Using examples from the text just read, discuss the meaning suggested by one to three of these writerly methods: image, diction, tone, ellipses, time, memory, history, philosophy, song or poetry.” Continue using the method each day until the reading is complete, changing the assignment only to ask the student to pick one or two of the same elements covered in a previous paragraph. When the reading is complete, assign a 90-minute essay to be written in class based on the use of the already written paragraphs.
How to vary the writing task? Assign each student a character to play, holding a couple of students aside to play the role of interviewer. Assign each student the task of writing 5 questions the characters must answer. Give those questions to the interviewers. Conduct the “in character” interviews. In-the-moment follow-up writing? “Writing in the voice of a particular character, and using examples from the text, answer one of the following questions . . “ (that you the teacher have selected or written).
To deal with the internet problem, assign each of the ten most pertinent internet pieces on the story so that each student has 2. Ask them to prepare a 5-minute oral report on whether or not the internet piece was useful and in what way.
Or – pick an internet piece that you, the instructor, loathe. Divide the class into groups of 4. Assign the piece along with instructions for the students to critique the piece. They gather for 10-15 minutes to share their observations. They then assign a reporter to report out their conclusions. Record the main ideas of each on the board.
After all the groups have reported, deliver your own brief expose of the internet piece, also recording your main ideas on the board. Then invite discussion of said internet piece. Brief “In-the-moment writing” topic – What is your opinion of the usefulness of this piece?
The weapon of last resort? Some schools and universities provide their teachers with search engines that can match cheaters with their sources.
As an inquiring reader, I have frequently stated here in this space that every Alice Munro story should be read cold. Every Munro story should be an encounter between the reader and the writer – no intermediaries. It should be stressed that Munro spent months on some stories, and she has remarked that it is only fair of her to expect a reader to devote an appropriate length of time. One assumes that she means that several readings might be the best approach – several readings over more than several days.
Any good collection of English teachers could come up with additional ideas on how to teach Munro despite the internet. Whether your students depend on the internet to tell them what to think or whether they think for themselves is up to you.
Note: I assume lots of people disagree with my ideas. But I give it the college try. Meaning – I try to figure out what Munro is trying to tell me and try to express my reply to her in coherent writing. That’s the challenge. Coherence of reaction and coherence of expression, done with respect. Sometimes I miss on all counts. Why would I risk having an opinion of Alice Munro?
Because she is the voice of an age, and because I find any conversation with her extremely interesting. Because I think people should pick a writer and get into serious conversation. Because really paying attention is one of the things worth doing in life.
I stick to teaching the story. I can’t take on the job of monitoring the internet, other than warning students to stay away from most articles that attempt to analyze this story. It’s irritating because this story is mis- or over-interpreted quite often.
It’s especially irritating that the historical and religious aspects of the story are ignored. Understanding who the Vandals (the tribe) were is key. They were Christians who often fought the Romans (Pagans) and won. It’s not hard to understand the story if you can figure out who the “pagans” in the story are. On top of that, no one wants to credit Liza’s adoption of Christianity with helping her survive the abuse and that’s a big mistake. Anti-religious feeling (especially anti-Christian feeling) is resulting in some very skewed interpretations.
We can’t say that Kenny’s death is “close to suicide” because there is no indication that it is. We can’t even say that Bea “knew about the abuse.” There’s no clear evidence in the story.
So it follows that we can’t know if Bea realizes who vandalized the house. If you read the other stories in Open Secrets, you’ll learn that her drinking at the beginning of Vandals is just the beginning of the end. She becomes an alcoholic and drinks away the last years of her life. And, given her limited world view–it’s all about her–it’s doubtful that she can figure out anything beyond the scope of what is in front of her on any given day. Her narcissism is central to the problem of “knowledge” in the story. That limited perspective keeps us from being certain about a lot of things.
Unfortunately, those limits don’t stop a lot of critics from speculating and speculating incorrectly.
“no one wants to credit Liza’s adoption of Christianity with helping her survive the abuse”
I must protest! My first comment (Feb 2019) says explicitly: ‘Religion actually helps Liza structure a life for herself that works.’
And in part I noted this because it struck me as an unusual feature – Munro isn’t usually terribly sympathetic to religion.
(And while I’m blowing my own trumpet, let me note that in the same comment I also acknowledge the role alcohol is probably playing in Bea’s life.)
So … Et, with respect, I’m an atheist and think you’re bringing a ‘skewed interpretation’ of your own to the party. Personally I think the title ‘Vandals’ has nothing at all to do with the Vandals of history. What in Munro’s text justifies your interpretation?
About “the ignored historical aspects” of the story.
Vandals (the tribe) certainly fought many “pagan” tribes during their long migration from Silesia to Northern Africa, where they ruled for hundred years. During their time in Spain they, at least their leaders became arians, ergo Christians, but were considered heretics by the Church of Rome´s nicaeans, because arians did not accept Jesus as a God but only as a created human with divine-like features. Their religion was non-Trinital and not in line with the Nicean Creed, which by the way is the only Creed shared by the Catholic, Orthodox and most of the Protestant Churches.
Sack of Rome in 455 made their tribe name immortal and the Roman Empire mortal, but the vandals did not conquer a pagan but a catholic Rome for a fortnightly visit.
Pope Leo I reached an agreement with the invaders to refrain from fire, slaughter and executions, but Rome was thoroughly looted.
Roman Empire was terminates in 476, the Kingdom of Vandals and Alans was conquered in 534 and incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. Pope´s have flourished ever since.
To-day´s parallel: two non-Trinitarian Christian? beliefs, Mormons and Jehova´s witnesses are considered heresy by the papal office.
As for the short story “Vandals” , I´m afraid nothing I wrote has anything to do with its interpretation but maybe something with its misinterpretation.
ET, I sometimes find what seems to me a misreading from Trevor (like his description Warren’s reaction to Liza’s rampage in this tale) or an overly certain interpretation of something ambiguous by Betsy, but those quibbles are far outweighed by the richness of their essays. I read every one after I read the stories, and I’ve been working my way through from the very first. Also, Harri is solid, everything he says backed up with often primary sources, and Howard with his everyman’s approach often shares fresh insights. But Et, your grouchy and critical tone are a downer. What do I learn from you saying, “It’s not hard to understand the story if you can figure out who the “pagans” in the story are.” other than that you think you’re smarter than the rest of us. Even after Harr’i’s synopsis of the Vandals, I can’t make out the connection. But I would be interested in your explanation, if you care to share it.
I miss these Munro discussions so much.
That Bea’s denial was complete rather than the product of sustained conscious effort, this from the first part of “Vandals”, omniscient but from her perspective:
“[Ladner] had not left England immediately [after his war injury] but had worked for years there, in a museum, until something happened – Bea never knew what – that soured him on the job and the country.”
I don’t think “never knew what” (even if literally so – that is, the specifics) would be the case if she had understood what Ladner had perpetrated.
Although … among the evidence she noted about what other “women” who had been with Ladner left behind was “[a] belt – size 26”.
This is one of my least-favorite Munro stories, but only because I find it so disturbing and painful; if anything, that response underscores her mastery.
I value everyone’s input; it helped me as I agonized over how much pain every character was in, and how much suffering exists in this world. Thank you, all.
I realize that Et is unlikely to see this, but just in case … I’m pushing back on this: “It’s especially irritating that the historical and religious aspects of the story are ignored. Understanding who the Vandals (the tribe) were is key.” Et, I see and value your erudition and insightfulness, and at the same time I would argue that one of the strengths of Munro’s work is that the reader *doesn’t* have to know every fact that she knew in order to value and be moved by her stories. I didn’t know who the Vandals were, and that didn’t diminish my appreciation of the story or of her artistry generally.
One thought in closing: Although Liza and her initially-reluctant-to-participate husband are the obvious vandals, the greater vandals are Ladner and Bea: He destroyed those children, and she refused to see what was going on and therefore enabled its continuation.
Welcome, JJ. Glad to have you here: “the greater vandals are Ladner and Bea.”