A few days before Christmas 1996 The New Yorker published a dark tale about a secrets and murder. Alice Munro’s “The Love of a Good Woman” would become the title story of her story collection that would go on to win the Giller Prize and National Book Critics Circle Prize. The story has gone on to be one of Munro’s most famous works, one written about endlessly because it is so endlessly rich.
“The Love of a Good Woman” is more of a novella than a short story, running just under 80 pages in my Vintage edition of the collection that shares the title (and has a photograph that intimates the haunting final scene of this story). It is a meandering tale about the unknown, as well as the potential damage of both keeping and divulging secrets.
That’s still too reductive a take, though. “The Love of a Good Woman” is also about our unreliable perceptions of the world, of any particular version of events. It is elliptical and consistently avoids resolution, forcing us to confront what ultimately cannot be known.
The story takes us back to Walley, showing us a strange exhibit in the local museum: a red box containing the medical instruments once owned by the optometrist D.M. Willens. Why is it in the museum? Not because anyone cares about the instruments themselves, no. It’s there because D.M. Willens is part of Walley’s tragic past, having drowned in the Peregrine River in 1951. At least, that’s the story as we know it. Under the surface, there’s a lot more.
The story then shifts to Jutland, a place along the banks of the Peregrine River where three young boys stumble upon a car submerged in the river. It appears there is a body in the car. The boys eventually go home, intending to tell their parents so that action can be taken, but their stories get lost in the jumble of home life, which has its own dark corners. Munro spends more time with these boys than most any other author would. Ultimately, they are not important to the central narrative’s sequence of events, but their failure to tell their secrets is vital to the story’s main themes. It is particularly poignant when they pass the home of Mr. Willens, now dead. His wife doesn’t know this, though, and there she is outside working in the garden:
“I see you’re gawking at my forsythia,” said Mrs. Willens. “Would you like some to take home?”
What they had been gawking at was not the forsythia but the whole scene — the house looking just as usual, the sign by the office door, the curtains letting light in. Nothing hollow or ominous, nothing that said that Mr. Willens was not inside and that his car was not in the garage behind his office but in Jutland Pond. And Mrs. Willens out working in her yard, where anybody would expect her to be — everybody in town said so — the minute the snow was melted.
This scene highlights the care put on for public display. Mrs. Willens is friendly, out in her garden. The home does not showcase the vast space inside, a space for secrets and troubles . . . and now of an absence, though at this point unknown.
The boys eventually suffer some permanent shame for their failure to share what they found right away, but eventually that is in the past.
The story shifts drastically in the next section. The boys are gone. It’s some time after the discovery of Mr. Willens’s dead body. But instead of dealing with any of this, we meet two new characters, Mrs. Quinn, who is dying of liver failure, and Enid, her saintly caretaker — well, Enid’s mom thinks she is saintly in a most unbecoming way. Enid is not married and, from the conventional perspective of her town, doesn’t have a lot to offer. But she actually has a passionate, disturbing inner life that dangerously mixes violence and sexuality. For her part, the dying Mrs. Quinn is a cranky woman who complains frequently about her husband’s absence . . . not that we get the sense she’d prefer his presence.
As Mrs. Quinn dies, she divulges little secrets to Enid, including one Enid is not sure she can believe: Mr. Quinn killed Mr. Willens when he came home to find Mr. Willens and Mrs. Quinn in a compromising situation, though one that does not appear to be as compromising as we might suspect. Then Mrs. Quinn helped dispose of the body.
But can Enid trust the potentially bitter or deluded account from this woman? Would Mr. Quinn really have murdered a man who, during an eye exam, was simply touching his wife’s leg, even if her hem was hiked up a bit? It doesn’t fully add up. Enid has been brought up to doubt her own perception and to feel shame at the thought of others’ indiscretions. And to make matters more complicated, Enid has fallen in love — or whatever we can call it — with Mr. Quinn.
“The Love of a Good Woman” continues to meander around, at once loosely structured (it takes thirty pages to get to the main characters) though delicately layered. And throughout there are minor climaxes that never quite arrive. Even the final scene ends with a peaceful moment before what we might expect to be a terrifying climax.
Munro maintains her focus on the obfuscated figures we think we can make out in the dark corners in the back rooms of a home or the unexpressed thoughts of the mind.
The title of the story collection The Love of a Good Woman is crucial to each of the stories in a way I didn’t expect or even see first time around.
One normally thinks of the love of a good woman as it refers to how the love of a good woman helps her husband succeed. In the case of the title story and in almost all the stories that follow, the problem being addressed is not how the right kind of love helps a man survive, but how the right kind of love from a mother or father is what helps girls and women survive. And the stories explore how the wrong kind of love can almost destroy the girls and women who are the children of these stories.
Munro is exploring a difficult topic for her, given the fact that when she left her husband after twenty years of marriage she also left a six year old daughter, despite her initial efforts to keep that daughter with her. Thus, the gaps, leaps, and elisions which are typical of Munro can be even more challenging in this group of stories.
Primarily, these stories explore the way in which parents bring girls up to be independent. Girls and women, in these stories, need to be independent to survive. They need to be able to have authority and agency in all areas of life — as a mother, as a wife, especially sexually, and as someone who lives a life with meaning.
“The Love of a Good Woman” epitomizes this necessity for independence in women, and it considers, from a variety of angles, how parents often fail their girls in ways they do not fail their boys.
After 70 confusion-filled pages, “The Love of a Good Woman” suddenly arrives at its crux. Thirty-seven year old Enid is standing in the living room where for weeks she had nursed a dying young mother, a woman whose body toward the end had begun to smell like “rotted fruit” and whose body had “swole up like some kind of pig.” Now, though, the room was empty. The woman had died, the service had been held, and the room had been cleared of its dead body.
Now, in the cleared room where there is a vase of delphiniums, and where the “windows still hold plenty of sunlight,” Enid faces a kind of “Jutland” — a defining moment. She must either believe what the collective voice in her head tells her about the widower and about herself, or she must clear her head of all its dead voices and trust herself to know the truth about herself, then to recognize the truth about the widower, and to recognize the truth about the truth. That is, that you never know the complete truth, and you have to trust what you yourself have seen and heard.
She is at a moment when the choice she makes to believe in herself will change not only her only life, but the decision also has the possibility of changing the lives of two little girls as well as their father. But to make the decision, she must sidestep the collective voice.
To me, the collective voice is like the body that has swelled up like a pig.
Will Enid have the strength to clear her mind of the collective voice? In her own battle of Jutland, will she realize that the collective instruction is about as dead as the body that had just been cleared out of the “living” room?
(“Jutland” is important because what Munro has made of it: it is the title of the story’s first section. Jutland, you remember, was the WWI sea battle where it looked like the British had lost because they’d lost so many ships. But Jutland was, in fact, the battle that the Germans lost, as it was the battle on which WWI finally turned. So what had looked victory was actually defeat. What looked like one thing was actually another, something that is true in this story, over and over.)
A door has been opened for Enid by the widower into what we would call the “living” room, where there are now flowers and sunlight, where so recently there had been a deathbed. To the reader, it seems as if the motion of the door has awakened a memory in Enid.
She’s a child of four or five. She had opened a door into her father’s office and behind his desk, she sees a woman sitting on her father’s lap. He was sucking on the woman’s breast. The breast looked to Enid like an ice cream cone. It’s important to the narration that Enid is very clear she had not been taught the word for breast and so had to call what she saw a “front.”
The whole thing was confusing to the child. What was happening?
She told her mother about what she’d seen, most likely because she wanted an explanation that would resolve the confusion. But instead of a resolution or an explanation, her mother insisted Enid had made it up. Enid had seen something, been puzzled, told her mother, and the answer was that Enid had imagined it.
In this event and in this scene, Munro conflates the multiple ways society instructs all women and girls. The something they “know” is not important. They must not “know” anything, and they must not consider themselves entitled to “know.” If they insist on “knowing” things, they will be told they imagined these things. The collective voice distorts reality, and it distorts any further access to reality.
In this story, the collective and misleading voice appears to originate in her mother and father, as well as a neighbor lady, some mean girls, the historical society, and the church.
Enid had been instructed by her mother: Enid’s perceptions couldn’t be trusted, and she herself couldn’t be trusted. Most important, not only could Enid not be trusted, Enid should not trust herself.
She’d been told, essentially, that she had no authority. She’d been told, essentially, there was no there there, within her. She’d been told, essentially, that she had no foundation on which to base any action she would ever take, and told, essentially, that authority was not hers to have, agency was not hers to have, nor was freedom, nor the ability to be a free agent, because nothing she knew could possibly be trusted.
She had also been told that there were secrets and language and definitions to which she had no access; there were things about men and women she had no right to know; and there were things about herself she had no right to know, either. Enid is someone who as an adult had come to think of her own very able mind as a “garbage” mind because it occasionally had lustful thoughts. On what basis could she ever trust herself to make a decision? On what basis could she ever know the truth about anything? Out of this terrible sense of self — out of her conviction that her own mind was the source of “garbage” — had grown a terrible compulsion to do good.
In the last pages of this story, Enid is confronted with a decision that will mark the rest of her life, and most likely will mark the rest of three other people’s lives as well. On the basis of necessarily incomplete knowledge, she must decide on a greater good. She must either follow a kind of blind societal instruction, or she must trust what she herself seems to know.
To the reader, this is a very difficult problem for a girl who’d been given a name which meant soul or purity but who had been taught that she was, at heart, untrustworthy.
The relationship of this title story to its title and to the whole book is important. The love of a good woman is usually meant to describe the love and help a “good woman” gives to her husband that helps him succeed. In the case of this story and in the case of this book, I think Munro means that the love of a good woman is what she gives her children to help them survive.
Enid has a terrible mother, in that she fails Enid several times in several ways. First, she insists that Enid is wrong about her father. To complicate that first error, Enid’s mother has not given Enid the language she needs to understand sex. Then, Enid’s mother supports her father’s selfish idea that nursing will “coarsen” Enid and make her unmarriageable. Enid’s parents apparently believe that if Enid knows anything about men’s and women’s bodies, she will be unsuited as a wife. Implicit in this idea is that she should also know nothing about sex except what her husband teaches her. Again, here, the parenting is implied to be deficient and destructive. The mother also supports the undiscussed fact that Enid would be barred from having a degree, a career, and independence. When Enid perversely becomes a home health aide after all, her mother further complicates Enid’s life by calling her a saint.
We have somewhat of a contrast to Enid’s mother in Jimmy Box’s mother, the one whom Jimmy thinks has no authority, but who is the one who does the right thing and calls the police when Jimmy tells her he saw a dead body.
This is a story about twice the length of the usual Munro story, and, amid the gaps it presents, it makes several difficult leaps, and it most likely leaves some readers in the dust.
The extremely elliptical nature of the narration distorts whatever was once reality and is indicative of the main character’s deep confusion of mind. Its genre — the ghost story — functions to intensify the main character’s uncertainties. Although the story claims to have goodness as its subject, goodness is a red herring. It’s knowing that is the actual subject, especially the difficulty of knowing your own mind and knowing you can trust it.
What follows are the notes I made as I read the story the third or fourth time. In them I frequently note that I hear Munro in conversation with other writers and thinkers. (Writers that Munro seem to be in conversation with include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Stephen King, as well as Dostoevsky and Sartre.) Don’t imagine I think that Munro made a list of writers she wanted to cram into the story. It’s more that her mind is only satisfied if a representation of life has “too much” in it, too many characters, too many ideas, too many comparisons, too many contrasts, too many allusions, too big a web (see “Labor Day Dinner”). I think it’s what happens as she writes. She allows the connections to happen. There’s a big over-arching idea, maybe, and then one thing leads to another until the thing is full enough of life to actually resemble life.
Introduction (or, What do we see when we see something?)
“The Love of a Good Woman” opens with a page and a half introduction dedicated to the discussion of a red box in the Walley historical society museum. On the box is the owner’s name: D.M. Willens, Optometrist. Inside the box are two ophthalmic instruments, described in detail but extremely resistant to any understanding by a casual reader. To help me out, I found an online image of a “vintage antique ophthalmoscope” for sale on eBay. The key thing in the Munro narrative is this: “The handle is heavy because the batteries are still inside.”
The narrator makes no effort to explain the purpose of the ophthalmoscope. It is not the instrument’s benefit that interests the narrator. It is the heaviness of the handle that interests the narrator, perhaps because of its potential as a weapon, much in the manner of the Maglite today. I stress that it is not the power of the instrument to see the truth of an individual eye that interests the narrator but the heaviness, or power, of the handle.
Given the events of this story, the heaviness of the ophthalmoscope’s handle is important.
As for the retinascope, the narrator’s description, although precise, defies comprehension. Only when I found an image online of an otoscope could I imagine a retinascope. The narrator then discusses something quite unimportant — the surface of the instruments — mostly black paint, but in places exposed “shiny silver metal.” But the purpose of the instruments — their usefulness and their benefit to the patient, which normally would be their essential truth — is ignored by the narrator.
Munro has thus set up a test for the reader. Is truth easily described? Or, more important, perhaps to this story, is the truth easily overlooked?
Instead of attending to the purpose or benefit of these instruments, some attention is paid to the importance of these instruments to the people of Walley. Willens, the owner of the red box, “drowned in the Peregrine River” in 1951. The red box and its instruments “escaped the catastrophe” and are, in retrospect, evidence in Willens’s death, having been “found” by an anonymous donor and given to the museum.
Again, the information provided by the museum and the information provided by the narrator is incomplete. Why is Willens important? How did Willens happen to drown? Where were the instruments found? Why had he left them behind? Who found them? Who donated them? What is their actual “local significance”? When local people saw this red box, what knowledge do they bring to the mystery?
In this confusing, odd, misleading, elliptical and slightly boring page and a half introduction, Munro has thus set up a test for the reader. Are you a serious reader? And: Is the truth that easily described? And: what is history, anyway?
Jutland (and the issue of “agency”)
The “Jutland” section of the story is almost 30 pages long. The action begins in a place on the Peregrine River called “Jutland”. (Note that a peregrination is a meandering journey, much like this story, but that a peregrine is itself a deadly falcon of great beauty and accuracy. Both definitions apply to Munro, who seems to be commenting on the reader’s impatience with where this story is going. It’s going around and around, she says, but eventually, it makes a straight dive to its mark.) The narration continues with its very precise imprecision, saying how some people thought the place was named after the battle of Jutland in WWI, and how the children believed it was named for the wrecked dam that left an “uneven palisade” of boards that jutted out of the riverbank and continued on into the water.
The reader should notice: one, that the facts of language and history are changeable, depending on who is talking; and two, that the naval battle of Jutland was the deciding battle of WWI. Further, while it looked like the British had lost, in fact, they had broken Germany’s back. So what looked like one thing was really another. Just as, although the ophthalmoscope was a doctor’s instrument, it could also be a weapon.
So we are warned: what looks like one thing can really be another.
The first few pages tell how three boys discovered Willens’ vehicle and Willens in it.
It was a whole car, down in the pond on a slant, the front wheels and the nose of it poking into the mud on the bottom, and the bump of the trunk nearly breaking the surface. . . . There was something dark and furry, something like a big animal tail, pushed up through the hole in the roof and moving idly in the water. This was shortly seen to be an arm.
The narrator makes sure we see Willens as “dark and furry,” idle and animalistic.
This section about the three boys seems a little like a riff on “The Body,” Stephen King’s great novella in which four boys pursue the trail of a boy who has disappeared. Through the quest they confront the truth: their difficult family life, their lack of opportunity, the meaning of their friendship, the importance of their bond, the importance of quest, and the fact of death. King published “The Body” in 1982; the movie, Stand by Me came out in 1986, and this Munro story was published in The New Yorker in 1996.
Munro’s short story begins with a great 30 page section in which three twelve year old boys also discover a body, that of D.M. Willens, optometrist. If it is somewhat in reply to Stephen King, it is also a great homage to Mark Twain. Cece and his drunken, “haywire” father are an echo of Huck and his drunken, paranoid Pap. Twain made it clear that Huck might not have lived to tell his tale if he had not run away from his father. We feel much the same way about Cece. Cece’s situation is worsened by the fact that his mother copes with his father by going to bed. Thus Munro sets the story up: some people are crazy, some people are cowed by crazy people, and others are brave and stand up. Or, if you are a boy like Huck or Cece, you can run away from what is demonstrably dangerous. If you are a girl, you may have to take to your bed. The reader would do well to wonder whether another crazy person will appear in the story.
Being able to escape the way Huck did is an authoritative action and the assumption of agency. It is probably no coincidence that Munro’s boys play at being what the narrator calls “free agents.”
This was the way they talked when they got clear of town. They talked as if they were free — or almost free — agents, as if they didn’t go to school or live with families or suffer any of the indignities put on them because of their age.
I do not think Munro uses “free agent” loosely or carelessly or to be cute. I believe she is in conversation with Sartre (and of necessity) with de Beauvoir. For these existentialists, the issue of being free is that you exercise agency. One repeating theme in Munro is that women, once they are no longer girls, find it difficult to do just that.
The chief existential virtue — authenticity — would require a person to lucidly examine his or her social situation and accept personal culpability for the choices made in this situation. Unlike competing versions of Marxism, Sartre’s Existentialist-Marxism was based on a striking theory of individual agency and moral responsibility.”
—from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
One of Munro’s boys has a father whose family joke is that the father “wants some service” from the mother. It is said so often that it becomes a kind of mantra for the little brother. The older brother, until she proves him wrong, had always assumed that his mother had “no experience and no authority in the world.”
This story, as it turns out, revolves around the gradual assumption of authority that the main character, Enid, is able to achieve.
Where Cece is concerned (and how he influences the rest of “The Love of a Good Woman”) is that “even in his father’s absence there was the threat and memory all the time of his haywire presence.” In other words, agency for Cece is a drowned thing because the threat Cece lives under is just too great. The reader would do well to consider whether any other “haywire” parental presence in this story will destroy a child’s life.
In fact, the agency of these children is about nil. It was Jimmy Box’s mother who actually phoned the police to alert them of the submerged car and the probable victim. The boys had told old Captain Tervitt what they saw, but most likely he was too addled to actually take in what they were saying. The boys were ineffectual. Until Jimmy Box told his mother.
The question is, then, what kind of drowning is going to occur or be escaped later in the story? What kind of haywire presence is going to be obeyed or escaped? What kind of story is going to be believable?
The nature of the authority and agency that women are able to achieve remains a continual investigation in Munro. While King’s story emphasizes the way in which boys must make a quest into their future together, Munro replies, so to speak, that for women it is different. They must dive deep into themselves for the will and means to survive, and most of the time, they do it alone.
Heart Failure (or, “What does it mean, ‘God bless’”? or, whose heart failure?)
Section II begins with Enid writing “GLOMERULONEPHRITIS” in her notebook. Right away, we know we are in the possible neighborhood of specificity and competence, neither of which has been much in evidence in the introduction or Section I. As for Munro, however, the narrator is toying with the reader, as she has picked a disease that every third person will pronounce or mispronounce differently.
Enid’s patient, Mrs. Quinn, is dying. Her sister-in-law, Olive Green wonders how Mrs. Quinn got it.
“Because you hear one thing and another,” Mrs. Green said. (She resembles the rest of us trying to say Glomerulonephritis, except that she is searching for a moral answer to Mrs. Quinn’s impending death, or moral blame, more like.)
Mrs. Green suggests that maybe Mrs. Quinn had been taking the kind of pills women take “when their period is late” and if you took too many it’d “wreck your kidneys.” Mrs. Green plays the part of the town – the gossip who attempts to declare right and wrong and act as the law in town. Mrs. Green has the gossip’s character — you toss a hand grenade into a room and surely it will hit someone or something. Mrs. Green’s off-hand allegation suggests at the least that Mrs. Quinn’s relationship to her body is off-kilter or even immoral. Had she tried to have an abortion? Mrs. Green also suggests that Mrs. Quinn was not very respectable, that she was a chambermaid who must have trapped Rupert Quinn, given that he had never had a girlfriend before. Mrs. Green suggests that Mrs. Quinn is secretive about her past. After all, she ought to have spoken French if she were brought up in a Montreal orphanage. Mrs. Green is a voice hammering at Enid, a representative of the town’s collective voice.
Truth is questioned again when we hear that although Mrs. Quinn says she is 27, Enid thinks, given her nursing experience, that she is probably older. But then again — in a bit of self doubt — it might be the disease making her look older. We learn that Mrs. Quinn’s two little girls are as “wild as barn cats,” although we don’t know if they’re this way because Mrs. Quinn was a bad mother or because of maternal neglect caused by the illness. Mrs. Quinn hates having the children visit her and is abusive to them, although Enid remarks that death can do that to a person. More second guessing on Enid’s part.
We are given a world where what is true is hard to know and often in flux, where the world has a lot of opinions, and where Enid often has to correct her gut reaction.
To add to the confusion, Rupert is someone Enid knew in high school, someone whom her clique ridiculed and humiliated just because they could. It was a kind of reverse agency, purposefully causing moral harm just because you could. Somewhat confusingly, Rupert seems not to remember, or chooses not to remember, and he seems to be purposely making things easy for Enid. Why is that?
One more mystery is that Rupert has taken himself and the girls out of the house, ostensibly to make things easier for Enid. But he also seems to avoid Mrs. Quinn. He pays such perfunctory and brief visits to his wife that Mrs. Quinn herself points out that he “doesn’t hang around here very long, does he?”
We have no idea if it is because he’s afraid of the illness, or if he doesn’t like his wife, or if he is some kind of bum.
Another mystery is this: while Enid is used to people being reluctant to display their naked bodies to her, Mrs. Quinn “was without shame, opening her legs and raising herself a bit to make the job [of cleaning her] easier.” Mrs. Quinn remarks that everyone will say “Good riddance to bad rubbish” when she’s gone. The reader notices that Mrs. Quinn is without shame, but is also shaming the nurse with her freedom.
Enid appears to exist in a world where you can know words like glomerulonephritis but think that the rest of existence is very hard to pin down. Except for one thing. Enid, the nurse, does not like her patient at all, something that puts Enid in the wrong. What will she do to make up for this?
More of the insubstantiality of knowledge to be found in in Section II
We hear how Enid’s mother and father dissuaded her from becoming a nurse. Her father thought she would be made “coarse” by nursing. Her mother told her he objected to “the familiarity [she would have] with men’s bodies.” Her mother was concerned with Enid being marriageable. Although Enid is attractive and popular, she is not particularly interested in marriage. She has “ambition.”
[Enid’s] hope was to be good, and to do good, and not necessarily in the orderly, customary, wifely way.
But, confusingly, Enid gives it all up. She drops out. She promises not to get a degree, promises not to work in the dread hospital where she will know all coarse things and her own coarseness will be known to all. But in the end, no degree or not, she becomes a nurse after all, nursing the dying. (This reminds the reader of Munro, who dropped out of college but degree or not, became a writer after all.) Enid donates most of her money to one needy person or another. Her mother refers to her as a “saint.”
We learn that later on in high school, Rupert had sat behind Enid, and she had wanted “to make amends” regarding the mean-girl taunting she had done. They spoke often about this and that. And now, in the house, they found reasons to sit together in the evening, Enid with her crossword puzzle, he with his newspaper. Enid begins to have very sexual dreams, but the partners are not Rupert but “forbidden and unthinkable partners.” We learn that she considers that she has “filth” in her mind and seems to yearn to confess it. Except that for Enid the only choice was to “pretend it wasn’t so.” To work. To do good. To be an “angel of mercy.”
She teaches the girls to say their evening prayers and one of them asks: “What does it mean – ‘God bless’?”
This is yet another unanswered child’s question. Although the reader thinks that Enid is a blessing.
Enid and Rupert continue being at ease with one another, evenings, when the day is done. But one night, she hears Mrs. Quinn (to the reader an ultimate mean-girl) mock Rupert to his face. And say something “deliberately vile.”
So why is this section called “Heart Failure”? For one, that’s what’s killing Mrs. Quinn. For another, Mrs. Quinn’s mothering seems to be marked now and in the past by a notable failure of the heart. The reader is sure of this even if Enid is not. For a third, Mr. and Mrs. Quinn seem to have a marriage the very heart of which has failed. She thinks he goes out to be with other women, and he is unwilling to be in her presence very often or very long. Mrs. Quinn seems to want to hurt her children and her husband.
But the heart failure applies to Enid as well. Superficially, Enid is struggling to be loving of Mrs. Quinn – someone who is completely unlovable in her present iteration. At a deeper level, though, Enid appeared to have lost her heart when she caved to her parents’ demand she give up her dream of a nursing degree. And then, for some reason, she cannot admit that she is attracted to Rupert. Her longing turns into a kind of “garbage of the mind” that she thinks she must fight with good works. This is a heart failure of the worst kind: to deny yourself first and foremost, and to distract yourself with doing good. One of the children asks, “What does it mean – “God Bless?” The reader is thinking that religious ideas, no matter how noble, have become a kind of garbage of the mind if Enid thinks she must do good because she is so bad.
Section II ends with Mrs. Quinn telling Rupert “something vile” and her telling Enid, “I could tell you something you wouldn’t believe.”
Mistake (or, Whose mistake is this going to be?)
In contrast to the muddy water of the past two sections, this one is a tour de force of clarity. Mrs. Quinn has already suggested that you cannot trust what a dying person says, that it’s all lies. And this could be that, the bravura concoction of a jealous wife who cannot bear the thought of the nurse taking up with her husband.
The long and the short of it is that Mrs. Quinn reveals that Willens was murdered at the Quinn house. Enid says Rupert murdered him. This reader suspects Enid murdered him. Enid does not know what to think.
The possibility that Mrs. Quinn is not telling the truth lies in the way the story gets worse and worse, as if Enid is not reacting so Mrs. Quinn has to up the ante. At first Mrs. Quinn is the assaulted victim, and then at second she is a willing participant in the game being played, a game that had been played before.
Which reminds us: that she had once asked Enid how Willens (who was Enid’s neighbor) got along with his wife. The reader deduces that Mrs. Quinn was putting up with all this with the idea of — not the pleasure of Willens himself — but the pleasure of his money and his big house and gardens.
One historical fact suggests that Rupert is not the murderer: when he was being tortured by the mean girls in high school, he seemed to have no capability of the vicious self-confidence it takes to put an end to it. Now, he deals with his wife by avoiding her. The truly mean person here is Mrs. Quinn, and the truly good person appears to be Rupert.
So what’s the “mistake” to which the title of this section alludes?
That Mrs. Quinn told one story of being assaulted and then kept going and told another story of being a knowing and willing partner to an ongoing “game”?
That Willens went too far?
That Mrs. Quinn thought Rupert was not around?
That Rupert came in by mistake?
That Rupert came in on purpose but killed Willens by mistake?
That Mrs. Quinn bloodied the Quints cloth when she tried to cover up Willens’ horrible head?
That there was still blood on her shirtfront when the little girls came in the house?
That when Rupert shoved the car in the river with dead Willens in it, the red box, his livelihood, was not with him?
That Enid listened to what Mrs. Quinn had to say?
Lies (or, Who will Enid believe?)
Now that Enid has heard all this, she was awake all night, her thoughts “jammed together.” She had to “sort” her thoughts:
What had happened — or what she had been told had happened — on one side. What to do about it on the other.
She develops the most audacious and terrible plan: she will assume that Rupert is the murderer, and she will give Rupert the opportunity to kill her for what she knows. But she will also offer him the opportunity to confess, go to jail, and accept her devotion to him. Rupert agrees to take her out in the boat, but they go in the living room first, where Willens had done the deed, where Rupert had supposedly done the deed, where Mrs. Quinn had done the deed, and where Mrs. Quinn had finally died.
Standing in that living room, Mrs. Quinn’s voice comes to Enid: “Lies. I bet it’s all lies.”
And it’s at this moment that I, the reader, remember The Turn of the Screw, the evil that appeared to be lodged in one Peter Quint, and the confusion that lodged in the governess (for thoughts on The Turn of the Screw, see here; for thoughts on The Innocents, see here). Mrs. Quinn feels wild like Quint, and the girls, who are like “wild cats,” arrive home while she still has blood on her shirt front.
Now, the governess in The Turn of the Screw is a naif whose naiveté may have contributed to the death of the child in her charge. But there are other women in James who search for how to be good: Isabel, for one, Millie Theale for another, and Maggie Verver for a third. And of course, there is Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. All searching for agency and authority and the means of living a truly good life.
Enid is actually closer to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester, while Mrs. Quinn is the closest to James’s Quint in The Turn of the Screw. Enid longs to be like Hester, so able and so good she is known far and wide for it. But Enid is also like James’s governess, a dangerous naif. Hester was able to redeem herself from a real sin. The question for Enid is that she has committed no sin, but has nevertheless embarked on a terrifying journey of good works much like Hester’s.
And suddenly, after 70 meandering, confusing, peregrinating pages, we are at the crux of Enid’s personality. We are at the Jutland of her life. Not the Jutland where she forces Rupert to confess and go to jail, but the Jutland where she confronts the central conundrum in her life: that she was told she had imagined something she had actually seen. She’d been told her perceptions couldn’t be trusted, and she seems to be obeying that dictum here: that believes Mrs. Quinn even though she has a gut feeling of loathing.
What do women know? For sure? They have been, in days past, taught a lot of hogwash and a lot has been left out of their instruction. First, they have to learn that what they’ve been told is possibly untrue or incomplete.
What is incomplete in Mrs. Quinn’s story?
Suddenly, in this Jutland of Enid’s, standing in the living room that is filled with light and finally clear of the dying and dead body, Enid remembers something very important from her childhood: that she had opened a door and seen a woman sitting on her father’s lap, and that he had been sucking on her breast — a breast that looked to Enid like an ice cream cone. Had she told the truth when she told her mother she’d seen this? Or had she made it up? Her mother insisted Enid had made it up.
Out of this terrible sense of self — out of her conviction that her own mind could be the source of “filth” and “garbage” — had grown this terrible compulsion to do good. This is in every way a distorted woman whose distorted thinking is taking her to the river’s edge, where she will either force Rupert to confess or offer Rupert the chance to kill her. (Perhaps in atonement for the cruelties she inflicted on him in high school. Or perhaps in atonement for her own desire for Rupert. Or perhaps her atonement for her “knowing” that her father had been suckling a woman not her mother. Or even her atonement for defying her father’s wish that she not see any men’s bodies, or be known for seeing them.)
Is this the solution, that Enid’s goodness will force Rupert to confess? This is reminiscent of “A Wilderness Station” where Annie McKillop knows that Simon has killed his brother, and he knows she knows. Annie saw the only solution as drawing all suspicion onto herself and living as a mad woman. Enid’s solution was to play the saint, with the emphasis on playing the saint, in the effort to save Rupert and in an even more important effort to expiate the “garbage” of her mind.
This is also reminiscent of Sonia in Crime and Punishment, the Sonia who is Raskolnikov’s saving grace and who goes to Siberia with Raskolnikov in his path to repentence.
Standing in that sun-filled living room, Enid suddenly has a vision of “a different possibility” with all the “benefits that could bloom” from her silence. “For others, and for herself.”
The reader realizes that Enid is giving herself permission to accept Rupert’s love and his probable innocence.
We also realize that Enid was probably the one who’d found the red box while “restoring order” and was, long later, the museum’s anonymous donor.
Enid and Rupert go down to the river. The opposite side was sun lit, was shining, and they are about to cross over. The name of this river — the Peregrine — could signify a long journey or it could signify the beauty of the exact and gorgeous falcon. And this river, the reader thinks, is also the Styx, and Rupert and Enid are about to cross over.
…she could feel as if everything for a long way had gone quiet.
“The Love of a Good Woman” turns on the question of the form that a woman’s “agency” or “authority” might take.
Yes, Rupert has a hatchet in his hand. Do we think he is going to use it on Enid? Take final revenge for how she’d treated him in high school? No. In the end, they’d become friends. In the end, they’d had a kind of pact. As they still did.
They both have a choice to make: will they trust each other with each other’s mysteries? Or not? Will that decision be the epitome of agency?
What one does see is that Rupert and Enid have become sympatico, and the reader wants them to have some time to explore that. There they are, on the dark side of the river Styx, and yet they can see the light on the other side. What’s really true is this: we all want them to cross over.
What will they leave behind in the muddy, muddy world of the dead? The past: parents, mean girls, betrayal, the church, what everybody knows but won’t say. What is the sunlight on the other side? Their future.
…she could feel as if everything for a long way had gone quiet.
As if the depths of Enid herself had finally gone quiet, after having been in so much pain for so long.