“Runaway”
by Alice Munro
from Runaway

Trevor

What a terrifying story “Runaway” is. It’s a story that shows us the live wires all over the room from the start, and there are more than a few passages that are written as if Munro were going for a classic thriller. For all of the intensity, though, Munro does not sacrifice her nuanced, insightful, and ultimately complex and ambiguous examination of a young woman’s life.

In this case, the young woman is Carla. When the story begins, we meet her watching the country road that goes past her house. She feels a sinking dread when she sees Sylvia Jamieson, her neighbor, drive past, returning from a vacation in Greece. Carla is nervous, we know, when she thinks, “Let it not be her.” When it is, we understand that Carla’s anxiety is rooted in fear as she hopes her husband, Clark, does not notice Sylvia return home.

Maybe Clark didn’t know yet. If he was sitting at the computer he would have his back to the window and the road.

But Mrs. Jamieson might have to make another trip. Driving home from the airport, she might not have stopped for groceries — not until she’d been home and figured out what she needed. Clark might see her then. And after dark, the lights of her house would show. But this was July, and it didn’t get dark till late. She might be so tired that she wouldn’t bother with the lights, she might go to bed early.

On the other hand, she might telephone. Any time now.

This is a depiction of a mind desperately trying to avoid the reality of the situation. At this point, we don’t know what the situation is. What connection does Sylvia have to Carla and Clark? Why does Carla hope against hope that Sylvia’s return will remain hidden from Clark? Is her fear rooted in some past affair between Sylvia and Clark? Or is it rooted in a sense of physical danger?

Munro shifts from this opening scene to some background. Carla is a very young woman who, at eighteen, ran away from home in order to marry the much older Clark. Together with him, she dreams of living a life caring for animals in the country. They have established a business giving people guided horseback rides or riding lessons and caring for animals in general. They haven’t been successful. This has not tempted Carla to connect with her parents again. Part of the reason she ran away with Clark was to escape her parents’ upper middle-class lifestyle and their expectations she achieve the same; going back to them would potentially validate them and their suburban, material wealth.

We also learn that Carla is not the only runaway in the story. At the same time we learn that Carla ran away from her parents, we learn that a pet goat named Flora ran away from Carla and Clark. Clark states aloud that he assumes she has just left to go find a billy.

It surprises me that Munro would so explicitly link Carla and Flora. While she certainly links elements in her stories, she usually is not quite so blatant. But where for many writers such an explicit symbol might shrink the parameters of the story, giving readers a sense of accomplishment for recognizing that the naive goat who resembles a “guileless girl in love” is a stand-in for Carla, Munro actually manages to expand the story.

Clark, of course, thinks the goat ran away due to sexual urges. To the extent he considers his wife’s motives in running away with him, he probably thinks she was drawn away from home due to her sexual attraction to him. In Carla’s case, though, it was not so simple. But we also see that even for the goat it is not that simple. The goat’s alliance, after all, was once to Clark but before Flora ran away her alliance shifted to Carla.

After Munro has told us a bit about Carla’s past and about Flora’s running away, she has us walk with Carla over to Sylvia’s home. By this time we know why Carla was so nervous about Sylvia’s return: Clark wants to blackmail her, on the basis of a lie Carla told him.

When Carla gets to Sylvia’s, she is so distressed about that, and about Clark in general, she is in tears. Sylvia wonders what’s going on.

“It’s not the goat. What is it?”

Carla said, “I can’t stand it anymore.”

What could she not stand?

It turned out to be the husband.

He was mad at her all the time. He acted as if he hated her. There was nothing she could do right, there was nothing she could say. Living with him was driving her crazy. Sometimes she thought she already was crazy. Sometimes she thought he was.

“Has he hurt you, Carla?”

No. He hadn’t hurt her physically. But he hated her. He despised her. He could not stand it when she cried and she could not help crying because he was so mad.

She did not know what to do.

“Perhaps you do know what to do,” said Sylvia.

With Sylvia’s help, Carla runs away again, this time from Clark. This is probably the right decision, but at the same time it’s not clear that Carla is actually running from Clark. She could be running from her lie that misled Clark into thinking they had dirt they could use to blackmail Sylvia. She could be running away from her failures. It’s not clear, to us or to Carla in the end. One thing she knows, though: she will not reach out to her parents.

While we can understand that Sylvia is wanting to help Carla escape from distress, it is also true that Sylvia doesn’t know what Carla is running from. She just sees in Carla a kind of child she wants to help, and there is little thought about where Sylvia will go and how she will survive there. And what will Clark think Carla is running away from? Off to find another billy? Munro lets us know that Clark might actually find such a thing sexually gratifying as an idea, even if he’d rage if it were true.

We also see that Carla is clearly naive and compulsive enough to run away simply in order to punish someone and not to because she is actually trying to get away. Clark is just the kind of man who will take advantage of this. He will love the power; he will despise the woman.

Carla’s attempt to run away for the second time in her life is another moment in the story where Munro let’s us feel like we are reading a thriller, and it’s one of the most powerfully and skillfully written scenes in the story. As the bus drives her from her home, she sees places she and Clark went to together. She enters a state of dissociation akin to grief as she worries about what she’s left behind and cannot comprehend a future in which she is an actor in her own life. With Clark, she feels some comfort in her identity, even if it is one she herself can see is more of a pet than a human being.

The story doesn’t end there. We have another scene that could be lifted from a thriller when Clark confronts Sylvia. We have the strange, almost supernatural reappearance of Flora. We have reconciliation. But Munro ends “Runaway” with dread and intimations of murder.

I cannot wrap my mind around all of the implications! I’m looking forward to any discussion below!


Betsy

“Runaway” was probably the first Alice Munro story I ever read. I found it repellent and terrifying. As I look back on the experience, the terror was in several parts. I found the idea of Carla’s hiding as her neighbor drove by frightening. I found her lover’s behavior repellent and the girl’s silence frightening. I found her collapsed effort at running away depressing in the extreme. But, most of all, when the story ended, I was terrified for her future. There was not only no resolution, there was no resolution and she was in great danger, danger similar to the danger many women face. Was she in more danger from her lover or in more danger from herself? That is the central terrifying question.

“Runaway” dances around how an older thug with a “disordered past” has hooked up with a beautiful eighteen-year-old girl. Carla thought she could earn her freedom from her parents and their conventional expectations by running away with a handsome loser and yielding herself to him.

She saw him as the architect of the life ahead of them, herself as captive, her submission both proper and exquisite.

As the story progresses, we see her educating herself to the reality of the false solution to which she has shackled herself.

An authentic life

In short, instead of working up an actual plan that will make it possible for her to have an “authentic” life with animals, Carla has impulsively chosen to run away with a dangerous man. She wants to escape her parents’ expectations. She doesn’t want to be conventional, and she doesn’t want to go to college. She wants to have an “authentic life” working with animals. But she has chosen a disastrously easy way out.

Clark, the guy at the riding school, looks like the quick and easy solution to her dreams: sexy, attractive, and impulsive. She wants so much to live a life of working with animals that she sees neither that Clark is a temperamental womanizer nor that he is a man prone to taking dangerous short cuts. Carla and Clark begin Carla’s dream life: they set up a boarding and riding stable, where it seems to the reader that Carla is Clark’s serf, or worse, his slave. Carla makes her fatal choice: she leaps from the easy provisions of her parents to the easy provisions she hopes Clark will give her. She seems to have no idea that freedom is not so easily won — that work and time might be the only way to earn your “authentic” freedom.

Authenticity is not easily bought with “submission.” In fact, when the story opens, the stable is failing, and Clark is considering involving Carla in a con to extort money from a neighbor.

A goat named Flora

A beautiful little white goat is acquired to calm the horses. At first, Flora is the personification of Carla’s dream of taming Clark.

At first [Flora] had been Clark’s pet entirely, following him everywhere. Dancing for his attention. She was quick and graceful and provocative as a kitten, and her resemblance to a guileless girl in love made them both laugh.

When Flora got older, she “attached herself to Carla.”

When the riding stable hits hard times, the little goat disappears, although she lives on in Carla’s imagination. Carla looks for the little goat to reappear.

Clark has proven to be someone who “flares up” at people: creditors, women, children. The reader wonders if Clark has killed Flora. The goat reappears in two of Carla’s dreams, first with a red apple in her mouth and then disappearing through a break in a barbed wire fence from what seems like a battlefield. The dream-Flora is how Carla is first able to admit that her life with Clark might be dangerous, that there is knowledge Carla is resisting. As the story continues, the reader sees how the waking Carla tries to live as “the little woman” despite her waking consciousness that Clark is an inherently dangerous man.

Has Flora run away? Is she dead? These are suggested as the possible outcomes for Carla also.

In real life, Carla has an escapade where she herself, with the help of the neighbor widow, impetuously runs away without a real plan of her own and then, in a panic, runs back home.

Flora then makes another appearance. Clark has gone in the middle of the night to threaten the widow for her interference. Having been missing for some time, Flora suddenly appears to Clark and the widow out of the night fog. Back-lit by some car lights, Flora is a magical, mysterious, beautiful and compelling force. Clark and the widow, having shared a mesmerizing experience, are strangely calmed. Animosity evaporates. Clark and the widow are somehow united by their vision. The reader suspects that Clark, chameleon-like, will soon turn his sexual attentions away from Carla and to the widow and her money.

Flora reappears in a letter from the widow to Carla. Carla is devastated that although Clark and the widow have seen Flora, neither has told Carla.

Flora’s final appearance ends the story: Carla imagines that if she were to go out to the tree where the vultures roost, she would find Flora’s bones. The reader senses through this the desiccation of Carla’s soul. The thought that she could actually discover and know just how dead Flora is like “a needle” in her lungs. The reader craves for Carla to do just this: discover Flora’s bones. But the story closes on the vision. The reader is left to imagine just what experience or knowledge will finally bring Carla to her senses and impel her to finally effect her necessary runaway.

Munro doesn’t use symbol very much, somewhat as if she is afraid of the ease with which symbol “solves” a story for earlier writers like Hawthorne and James. She is much more attracted to multiple points of view represented by the juxtapositions of multiple characters and time periods, often over decades, a technique which keep the truth at a distance. But “Runaway” is a deeply affecting story. It is mysterious, insoluble, and compelling, and made so by the presence of Flora and the multiple truths which she represents.

One way that Flora and Carla are merged is that Munro attributes to both of them the appearance of a dandelion. At the story’s beginning, up on a ladder in the bright sunlight washing windows, Carla appears to be wearing a “crown of dandelion.” At the end of the story, Flora appears out of the fog to Clark and Sylvia. Back lit by a car’s headlights, she seems like a dandelion ball barreling toward them. Note that it is Sylvia, the botanist, who exquisitely merges the two within the image of the common, but beautiful, wild weed. The commonality of the dandelion merges Flora and Carla with all women. There’s the wildness of sexual union, and then there’s the wildness of independence. There’s a dangerous lot of stubborn women who want both sexual union and independence, but who may confuse sexual union and independence.

Flora appears to represent both death and new beginnings, both vulnerability and strength, as if people simultaneously are always right up against the possibility of death and the possibility of a new beginning.

When thinking about the significance of Flora to Carla, it is important to note the associated meanings of scapegoat: in the Bible a goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it (Lev. 16); and a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency. When he didn’t get his coffee as he thought he deserved, Clark dropped the hot cup on the floor very near a child. That’s a kind of scapegoating. When he got very mad at Lizzie’s owner, Clark stopped having anything to do with the skittish mare, who was attached to him. That’s also a kind of scapegoating. If Clark killed Flora, it’s because she turned her affections to Carla, and because his business was going under. Munro makes abundantly clear that Clark is in the habit of scapegoating, and the reader is deeply fearful for Carla.

Knowledge

What was the dangerous knowledge that Flora held out to Carla like a red apple? Perhaps that an authentic adulthood has nothing to do with getting what you want by promising submission. This is a great, great story.  Munro merges Flora and Carla together, and she also merges truth that is factual with truth that is intuitive. Flora might or might not be dead at Clark’s hand. But Carla is, and if she is not actually dead, she might as well be.

The red apple that the devil offers Eve in the garden of Eden is the knowledge that she can have a sexual relationship that sets her apart from God. There is also the idea that Eve’s eating the apple sets her apart from the Eden of her parents.

Munro admits that sexual fulfillment is essential to women, and when Carla first runs away (she later admits) the urge may have been primarily sexual.

But the red apple that Flora offers Carla is the knowledge that sexual submission is not enough. A truly authentic person is also a person in her own right, unbent by cultural ideas about being someone’s little woman.

Munro had lived through the sexual revolution, a revolution that promised that sexual pleasure and sexual self-knowledge was freeing in the extreme.

But here, Munro argues that authenticity is more than sexual self-knowledge and unfettered sexual experience.

Names

Names are important in Munro. Carla is the feminine of Carl, which in German derived from “free man.” Munro has chosen this name to force the issue: does sexual independence guarantee real independence?

Predation

Clark is clearly a predator, and relationships between women in Munro often protect women from predators.

“Runaway” is unusual in that there is an unusual whiff of sexual predation from an older woman to a younger. The older, childless, widowed botany professor is attracted to the energy that is Carla. That Sylvia is Carla’s employer and that Carla is her household help is part of it. That the botanist brings Carla two presents from Greece is part of it. That she tells her colleagues about Carla causes one of them to remark: “There is always a girl.”

We all come to it sometime, A crush on a girl.

That the botanist arranges for Carla to run away from her husband in a rush, with no planning, is part of it.

Novels which force the reader to take an active role in writing the story

Endings in Munro are often ambiguous. In this case, the ending is extremely ambiguous. When we turn the page on it, things could have gone every which way. Carla consciously understands how toxic her lover is to her: she believes he may have killed the beautiful little goat. She feels this knowledge like “a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs.” But at story’s end, Carla has nowhere openly admitted to herself that to save herself she must run away from this man who she had assigned the role of savior. The reader is in agony at story’s end. The reader must make up the ending: how Carla resolves that it is she who is in danger, how Carla makes plans to leave and to survive, and how long it takes for all this to happen.

It took Munro twenty years to leave her first husband.

Endings or novelistic situations which force the reader to take an active role in the writing of the story may derive from the theories of Alain Robbe-Grillet, a French writer whose ideas were a thing in the sixties. (For a New NovelPour un Nouveau Roman; 1963)

Evolving awareness

The “portrait” in Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady” is the portrait of her evolving awareness of her husband, her friends, her situation, and her choices. James is rarely mentioned when tracing Munro’s influences, but there is ample evidence to suggest James is the psychologist of women whom Munro most respects. A comparison of Isabel and Carla would be fruitful, but not here.

The bones of the story are the stages of Carla’s evolving awareness of her situation — her lover, her friend, her isolation. Carla makes the initial, fatal mistake in how she sees her life with Clark.

She saw him as the architect of the life ahead of them, herself as captive, her submission both proper and exquisite.

Munro is making the point of how difficult it is for women to understand that they are in danger, and Munro is especially sympathetic to how the culture has ironically taught young women that “submission” to a husband is the key to independence from parental control.  But being actively engaged in submission as a way of life makes conscious knowledge of danger from the man to whom you have given your submission difficult. Munro represents that slowly dawning consciousness as a kind of double-think: conscious submission to danger exists alongside the unconscious knowledge of the danger revealed through dreams and intuition.

To be fair to Carla’s lover, Carla herself has no experience with business, and no expectation that there will be tough times. She’s grown up at ease, and the poverty of the tough times are a shock to her. They live in a trailer and they have no money or energy to replace the ratty carpet.

But Clark reacts to tough times by getting into scrapes with people and taking his frustrations out in canny ways, like dropping a hot cup of coffee very near a child in a stroller. Carla cannot really confront him, however. She merely says that he “flares” up.

When times are tough, he gives Carla the silent treatment, as if she is the problem. Her reaction is to cajole him, like Scherazade, with entertaining or titillating stories. Carla has thus eked out a little temporary closeness to Clark, but she doesn’t seem to realize that getting the silent treatment, if she stays with him, will be a way of life.

When Clark is unable to pay his bills, she admits that he thinks up schemes that are “probably illegal.” She overlooks, without confrontation, the way he treats their clients. But the story revolves around a situation Carla cannot accept. Clark wants to extort money from the wealthy widow who had employed Carla to do household tasks while her husband was dying.

One of the Scherazade themes that Carla made up to get Clark’s attention was the fiction that the old man had come on to Carla in various illicit and sexual ways. Carla liked the widow. She did not want to betray her, but she could not admit to Clark she had made up all the stories about the old man.

So what we have here is a failure to communicate. Carla has no experience or skill with confronting powerful people with the truth. Instead of standing up for herself or what is right, she has made a contract with herself, from the moment she runs away with Clark, that she will be submissive.

Submission as a cracked dream of power is a repeating theme in Munro. The more you submit, the more trapped you are, regardless of whether you get a few crumbs in the meantime — a bit of carpet here or fifteen minutes of attention there.

When Carla realizes he is determined to carry out his plan to extort money from the widow and equally determined for Carla to be an accomplice, she has a sense of her real powerlessness. The only way she is able to communicate with herself is through her dreams. Flora appears to her and presents her with the idea that escape is possible and necessary.

Carla’s embrace of powerlessness, however, does her in. While her subconscious knows that her only choice is to leave, her consciousness has not allowed her to make a plan.

When the widow, sensing Carla’s desperation, actually helps Carla run away, Carla has no means of carrying out the plan. She cannot imagine herself being on her own. She runs back to Clark.

As the story closes, though, Carla imagines that Flora is dead, probably by Clark’s hand, the story intimates. Carla imagines walking out to the vultures’ roost and discovering Flora’s bones, her skull as tiny as a tea cup: “Knowledge in one hand.”

What knowledge? Munro does not explain. What knowledge?

That Clark is now planning to romance the money out of the widow? That Carla’s life is almost as dead as Flora’s? That submission is a habit of silence and that silence kills? That authenticity requires action rather than submission?

That she must make a plan?

In Medias Res

The story ends in medias res. Carla is in terrible danger. If she should have children, she will be in even worse danger, and for years. Munro leaves us right here, forcing us to write the ending.

I suspect that Munro is hoping that all the college students studying the story will do just that. Write the story of Carla’s transformation into a person of action and authenticity and her escape from her self-imposed prison of paralysis and submission.

No more the sad, self-imprisoned captive.

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