Flannery O’Connor is one of my all-time favorite writers. What a treat it was, then, to find Alice Munro (another all-time favorite) paying homage to one of O’Connor’s best stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (I had never made the connection between the title of O’Connor’s work and this Munro collection). In “Save the Reaper” Munro takes us down a country side road — one that may seem familiar . . . with a familiar growing menace — though here we get a different outcome and different things to ponder.
When the story begins, Eve is driving with her two grandchildren, Patrick and Daisy. They are playing a silly game that Eve used to play with her daughter Sophie, and this takes us back into Eve’s memories.
Eve and Sophie have not had a good relationship for years and years. Things have mellowed a bit, which led to this holiday in the countryside. Eve has rented a little house, and they had plans to spend a few weeks together. Those plans changed, though, and Eve didn’t expect it. With plenty of time left in the planned holiday Sophie has gone to pick up her husband from the airport, and they will be taking the kids for another holiday farther away. It may be that Sophie’s husband got off work sooner than planned, but young Patrick lets the cat out of the bag by telling Eve that on the phone Sophie had asked her husband to come save her. If Eve thought she and Sophie were having a good time, maybe even growing close again, things are not as they seem. Old wounds don’t always heal, and you cannot harvest something you different from what you planted.
Which brings us to this country road. Eve is following a truck down a lane, thinking she is going to end up at a place she remembers from her own childhood. Unlike the grandmother in O’Connor’s story, who realizes early on that she is on the wrong road — is, in fact, in the wrong state — there is evidence Eve is not wrong. However, ignoring the signs of danger until it is too late, she ends up taking her two young grandchildren into the dark bowels of a drug home, perhaps planting the seed for something truly horrific.
It’s a thrilling story, and I am excited to read more analysis from Betsy and from you all. There’s a lot going on: How do those involved remember the event and shape their memory to serve their own purposes, deciding what to tell and what to keep secret? How do you deal with dangers that are creeping up, never sleeping — you may be resting, but the consequences that follow some past event are up and coming.
“Save the Reaper” is a discussion of responsibility — of the artist, of a lover, of a parent. Throughout, there is an indictment of the ease with which we misremember things or purposefully misrepresent them, either as artists or lovers or parents. Munro’s main character has either never had, or she has lost, the needle to true north: she is either addled by a habit of impulsivity, or she is addled by the consequences of her own actions, or she is addled by dementia, or both. Either way, the story proceeds like a nightmare.
In “Save the Reaper,” the reader is at first drawn to Eve, who seems to have been unfairly estranged from her adult daughter. Returning to the story several months after a first read-thru, I find I had drawn a face at one place in the margin, one eye dripping tears and the other eye a double straight line of tears. A grandmother myself, I was acutely touched by Eve’s estrangement from her adult daughter, who hadn’t visited in five years, to whose wedding she had not been invited, and whose second child she had never seen.
But the story slowly and confusedly reveals Eve to be the source of her own isolation, and in the end the tilt of the title has become not save the reaper, but you reap what you sow.
Eve’s lifelong impetuosity and impulsivity (which at her age appears akin to early onset dementia) seriously endangers the two young grandchildren in her care. As the story progresses, she seems to have no awareness of the seriousness of the afternoon’s episode, and yet at the end she lies about the events of the afternoon. These lies of omission echo the omissions to which she subjects her daughter, her daughter being the product of a very brief liaison on a train with a foreign student. Her daughter’s father was a married medical student with a wife and children back in India. Eve had always told her daughter that she had no right to have any relationship with him, that she would be as nothing to him. The confusion surrounding what Eve told Sophia about her Indian father makes the reader wonder if Eve actually knew the lover’s name. If they’d ever met, what would the father have told Eve about her mother?
In addition to impulsivity, Eve seems to be guided by a longing to please people, and in this story she lets a seven year old boy make certain key decisions. The reader wonders at Eve’s irresponsibility and how it may have been a guiding force in her daughter’s childhood and their estrangement.
Mosaic is a trope in the story: as a child Eve had seen an outdoor folk mosaic embedded in a wall — something like Chagall, or a nightmare of Chagall — something that seemed alluring, magical, false and beautiful. The mosaic itself appears to represent temptation, much as the signs on Ladner’s property in “Vandals” were temptations.
In addition, the mosaic is a representation of memory and the way memory works. A memory is a piece or a part. Memory can float in the mind like a sign, but the way to the memory can be obstructed, the formation of it can be lost — the causes, the outlying factors, the time, the place, the players, the multiple meanings. A memory of an event is just one piece in the mosaic, just one aspect of the truth.
As a grandmother, she wonders while on a drive with the grandchildren if she is near the place she saw that mosaic, something that seems to represent lost art, or lost inspiration, or lost joy. It is as if with her grandchildren’s visit she is also recovering a lost sense of family. But mosaic is a word that could apply to Eve’s life as well. She has had a patchwork of many lovers. We learn that Eve’s career had been itself a kind of patchwork. Her life as an actress had been unsuccessful enough that she had recently had to beg money of her brother and was now estranged from him as well.
Munro uses two other tropes in combination with mosaic to intensify the sense of happenstance, irresponsibility and danger: game-playing and prostitution. Eve plays a driving game with her seven year old grandson Philip, a game which involves picking a car to “follow” and imagining the lives of the people inside it. But to the reader’s horror, Eve actually follows a rusted out truck when it turns off down a narrow dirt road. It is as if she is so lost in thought she is unmoored from responsibility. The story suggests that neither life nor art nor marriage or partnership or motherhood is a game, but that all are choices that require responsibility.
A person who is probably a prostitute makes a late and chaotic appearance in the story, but this appearance, one of falsity, becomes a controlling image that colors everything. Overall, “Save the Reaper” suggests that some people prostitute themselves to phony identities as artists, lovers, and mothers when their performance of that role is casual and haphazard. So often sympathetic to women, Munro here shines an almost cruel light on Eve.
Eve’s actions are so disorganized that the reader wonders if she has approaching dementia, something that would explain the nightmarish quality of the story. Munro investigates dementia in a number of other stories, such as “My Mother’s Dream,” “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” and “In Sight of the Lake.” At the same time, “Save the Reaper” suggests that some people lead such chaotic lives that dementia seems like the governing force from the beginning, or at least seems like a descriptor of what impulsivity actually looks like. Of course, Munro never mentions the word dementia. This is merely how Eve strikes the reader.
Eve. Is she demented? Suggestible? Easily led? Over the top sexual? Lazy? Eve-il?
Munro has consistently depicted women who can only survive if they are able to explore the world of relationships, sexual and otherwise, and who must also explore how they can have authority in the world. “Save the Reaper” appears to depict a person who has gone too far.
In a story where there are already a multitude of threads, there is also Tennyson. As a bard with immense lyric talent, he seems a natural touchstone for Munro, who self-identifies as a descendant of a minor but well-known Scottish bard. In this story, however, Eve appears to misidentify herself with “The Lady of Shalott”, and she also casually misquotes Tennyson.
“Save the Reaper,” the title, is a misremembrance of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott.” What Tennyson actually wrote was:
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly,
From the river winding clearly.
Down to tower’d Camelot . . .
Tennyson’s meaning is that only the people who are working hard “hear a song.”
Eve first says, “But the reapers . . .”
Then she says, “Only reapers . . .”
Then she says, “Save the reapers, reaping early — ”
Finally she says, “’Save’ was what sounded best. Save the reapers.”
“Save” is what sounded best to Eve, probably because she herself is in need of saving and has been for a long time, and because she erroneously perceives herself to be a brave, hardworking mother and artist, isolated by her brave choices. We have multiple hints from Munro that Eve is neither a real artist nor a very good mother.
That Eve would decide “what sounded best” is ironic, because Tennyson is exquisitely tuned, in a myriad of ways, to what sounded best. I haven’t read “The Lady of Shalott” in fifty years, and I was just now transported by Tennyson’s heavenly rhythms and rhymes. Munro is messin’ with us. She makes us grieve for Eve’s isolation, as if Eve were really like the doomed Lady of Shalott, in her sad artistic isolation. But then Eve trashes Tennyson, hinting at how Eve goes through life — trashing things.
So the title of the story actually suggests that you reap what you sow. Additionally, there is the idea that once you start reaping what you have sown (you have estranged your only daughter), you are in need of saving.
What does Eve’s name suggest? The primordial Eve, known for her weakness? Or does it suggest Eve-l? One could, as I did at first, judge Eve to be wronged by her daughter, and the reader could, as I did at first, feel full of sorrow at her losses. But second time through, I am tempted to think there is in Eve’s rowdy impulsiveness a touch of something evil.
The original Eve was beguiled by red apples and a talking snake. Our Eve is beguiled a set of decorated gateposts, a rusted out green truck, and a rutted dirt road that slithers off to the side. The gateposts remind her of a magical memory from the past, when as a child she had been taken with her mother to see a country outdoor mural. Eve’s memory of the mural was that it was “childish . . . lopsided . . . fat . . . dinky . . . drunken . . . fat [again] . . .” The mosaic is in the style of Chagall but not. Or Eve’s perception of the work is partial. Either way, it is half way art and a little like Eve’s acting: “broad.” It’s easy access. Instead of being driven by her responsibility to the children, Eve is suddenly, like the primordial Eve, being driven by desire.
In search of her grail, she follows the truck; she parks; she lets a trampy man lead them inside a derelict house, despite the fact that self-confident Philip is frightened of the man. At this point the reader is very frightened for Philip.
The story is an elliptic condensation of a 60 year life in which Eve appears driven by yielding. She yields to the temptation of a man on the train. She yields to her idea that everyone will be better off if the father of her child remains unknown. She yields, by her own description, to rowdy impulsivities and many couplings. She yields to being a kind of broken-down actress who is hired for her “broad” impersonations of mothers, and she yields to Philip’s childish demands and his imitation of manhood when he parrots his father nickname for his mother. Eve, like the primordial Eve, suffers from a yielding nature, whose choices are driven by desire. She may also be Eve in the early stages of dementia. Primarily, however, she endangers the children for “art.”
The choice of the name Eve colors the story. Temptation is everywhere for her, tempting her, til responsibility is forgotten.
And the reader suddenly realizes: Where is Daisy? Three year old Daisy? She’s back in the car, alone, in the middle of nowhere, at what is possibly a crack-house. Eve never considers Daisy. The first time through I was so scared once we went into the house that I had forgotten Daisy as well. Munro has made me experience what it is to be Eve, and worse, what it is to be one of her children.
There is a nightmarish descent to the entire story, such that in the middle, we wonder if we are dealing with someone in the early stages of dementia. Whether Eve is impulsive, or unbalanced, or slightly demented is not clear. What is clear is that she has long abdicated her responsibilities, and has here stepped over one line and then another and then another into absolute danger, but at no point does she name the line, nor does she admit of any danger.
At one point, when out of the dangerous house and back in the car and headed slowly back down the rutted dirt road, she is going so slowly that someone is able to jump into the car. It’s one of the men from the house. But no, it’s apparently not a man, it’s apparently a woman who is running away from the house, and who puts her hand on Eve’s thigh, or maybe, thinks the reader, it’s a man who seems to be a woman. Eve thinks of bringing the woman to her house. All this, with Philip and Daisy in the back seat.
Eve’s thoughts, at this point, are so disarranged that she is completely unaware of her responsibilities for the two children in her care. With the children in the backseat, she runs through the complications of the woman come to her house. There is recklessness in her thinking that is so extreme that it feels like a nightmare. Except that the situation is real.
As for the book’s title: Once again, the love of a good woman is not necessarily the love a woman gives a man, but the love and protection a woman provides her children. Or, in this case, it is a cracked version of love and protection the woman provides to children.
But how is the episode retold to Eve’s daughter and son-in-law? Eve makes it back home to tell a completely expurgated version of the tale to Eve’s daughter and son-in-law, minus the terror and the threat. What is the result? Philip gives his grandmother “a flat look, a moment of conspiratorial blankness, a buried smile . . . . He had begun the private work of storing and secreting.”
We see something of the truth of the estrangement between Eve and her daughter. We see something of the distortion of the truth that the daughter had lived with. What was the meaning of Philip’s flat, blank look? That he knew Eve could not be trusted? That Eve had given him his first taste of evil? That he understood his mother’s hatred of Eve? Or that he knew he had been invited to disrespect his own mother and father?
There is the question of the artist and the artist’s responsibility to the truth. Eve appropriates and misquotes Tennyson for her own sentimental benefit. Eve is a broken-down actor who appropriates an exaggeration of her mother to make a living. Eve is someone who remembers a fragment of the past but cannot locate it with any accuracy at all. She asserts, however, that she did. Eve is someone who retails what has just happened with key excisions, so that the story she tells is completely untrue. Eve is someone entranced by the memory of some folk art that may or may not have been a true vision of reality. Munro here admits the possibility that an artist who uses the past is at the very least laden with the responsibility to admit fully that the past is a mosaic. What you remember is in pieces, what you remember is only one piece of what happened, and what you remember may be “lopsided” or “drunken”. It’s only what you remember, not what the others remember. Munro makes an effort to always portray different angles on the past; Eve makes no such effort.
You reap what you sow.
So. In this essay I sound definitive. How can that be when Munro’s trademark is to be inaccessible?
I only mean that this is what her story means to me. What it means to you would be different. Perhaps the key to her genius is the immense web that she builds within each story, and the ambiguity that results from the interplay of the elements. In this one: mothers and daughters; impulsivity; dementia; mapping; being an artist; playing at being an artist; telling the truth; deliberately lying; mosaic; folk art; acting; impersonating; supposing; art that is drunken, fat, and childish, or not; the Lady of Shalott; prostitution; hoarding; neediness; yielding; disordered thinking; houses so chaotic they are a trap; lives so chaotic they are also a trap. How many ways can these dozen plus things inform each other?