“Silence”
by Alice Munro
from Runaway

Trevor

With “Silence,” Munro ends a trilogy of stories that take us through three important episodes in the life of Juliet. First, we see her hooking up with a man married to a dying woman. This is Eric, and he will play a role in each of the stories. In the next one, we go with Juliet to visit her parents with her daughter, Penelope — she and Eric, we learn, are now a couple. In “Silence” we go with Juliet to pick up her now twenty-year-old daughter who has been away on a kind of religious retreat for six months. But Juliet soon discovers that Penelope is not there. And she will never see Penelope again.

There are many stories about the young woman who has disappeared and no one can uncover what happened. Those left behind wonder not just what happened but also look for tell-tale signs, something to make sense of the sudden disappearance. Munro’s story has this, too, but it is different because there is no sinister elements involved in Penelope’s disappearance. Juliet knows her daughter is alive and, by all accounts, well. It’s just that, other than a few cruelly impersonal cards and updates from random acquaintances, Penelope has shut off all communication with her mother.

And so Juliet goes through her own past, looking for how it all came to this. Penelope had not been a rebellious child. Juliet and her friends remark that Penelope never gave any trouble before. But what did Juliet do to deserve abandonment by her only child?

That she is to blame is implied from the start. After Penelope has been on her retreat for six months, she writes home this note: “Hope to see you Sunday afternoon. It’s time.” Reasonably interpreting this to mean Penelope is ready to come home, Juliet travels to this out of the way retreat only to be rebuffed by a kindly hostile religious woman, Juliet dubs Mother Shipton. This woman, trying to disarm Juliet with feigned flattery, tells Juliet, “[Penelope] has come to us in great hunger,” suggesting deprivation of some kind.

, who speaks the chilling words: “Penelope is not here.” I don’t believe her, and Juliet probably doesn’t either, but what can she do? She leaves, but not without a humiliating query: “What did she tell you?”

So Juliet goes home, where a month passes, and then another. Soon it’s been long enough we know Penelope’s decision to go absolutely incommunicado was not just a phase as she came out of her teens.

Juliet’s question to Mother Shipton is, I think, at the heart of this story. What did Penelope tell people who encouraged her to abandon her relationship with her mother, to go completely silent? And I wonder, is Juliet asking that question because she is bereft and just wants some explanation? Or does Juliet have something in mind — what did she tell you?

When I started to read “Silence” I kept expecting Penelope to show up. I thought the story would resolve by helping Juliet at the very least discover why her daughter left. As it stands, like Juliet, I try to piece it together from the evidence, much of it contradictory, and I suspect every character we meet is withholding something — though I never suspect Munro of playing games and withholding from me. Instead, this is a story about Juliet, who has to go years hurt by her daughter’s repudiation but who clearly is not equipped to deal with this. And so Penelope becomes a kind of void Juliet tries to ignore. She has relationships with men who, during all the time together, do not know Penelope exists.

With all of this, Munro still ends the story with a bit of a positive note. It’s masterful!


Betsy

“Silence” is the third story in a 100-page series about Juliet, the prodigiously gifted language student who is coincidentally deeply interested in Greek culture and literature.

In the first story of the series, (entitled “Chance”), Juliet gets unfairly fired from her Ph.D. program in Greek studies, meets the charismatic fisherman, Eric Porteous, and gives up her “treasure” – the one thing she is brilliant at. Instead of pursuing an academic career for which she is profoundly suited, she gives up the impossible fight and becomes the delirious Maenad to Eric’s alluring Dionysus.

In the second story of the series (”Soon”), Juliet has been with Eric for about two years, and now has a baby daughter. The entirety of “Soon” takes place during a visit to see her parents back East. Throughout Juliet’s childhood, her somewhat intellectual father and somewhat unconventional mother had focused all their attention on Juliet. But now, being a grad-school drop-out and an unwed mother, her parents seem unable to connect with her or she with them. Her mother is sick. She blindly tells Juliet that her saving faith has been that Juliet will be home “soon”. Juliet is almost nauseated by the claustrophobia of what her mother wants. Juliet has, in effect, rejected her mother, and she is, in effect, repulsed by the strange behavior of her father, who is physically drawn to the mother’s young aide. Juliet leaves, her mother dies, and in essence the death frees Juliet of any further claustrophobic visits. Note, however, that if she had lived, Juliet might have renounced the mother in fact.

In “Silence,” the third story of the series, all of Juliet’s chickens come home to roost: giving up her Greek studies, putting up with Eric and his affairs, having numerous dramatic affairs after Eric’s death, having shared and overshared her emotions with her teenaged daughter throughout this tumultuous time, and  having had to make money after Eric died.

Juliet’s daughter Penelope is now grown and has gone on a retreat. Juliet has become a well-known TV personality, and she is on her way to pick up Penelope.  But once at the retreat, Juliet discovers that Penelope is gone and has left no forwarding address. The retreat leader tells Juliet that Penelope had been lonely at home and had considered her childhood difficult.

Penelope’s disappearance is profoundly painful to both Juliet and the reader. This disappearance is the central question of the story, and indeed, of the 3-story novella. What is Munro, the keenly ambitious writer, saying about someone who gives up their “treasure”?

The reader wants Juliet to track the daughter down. But time passes.

She keeps on hoping for a word from Penelope, but not in any strenuous way. She hopes as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort.

Juliet thinks back on the way she played her maternal role:

The fact was, she laughed too much. Too many things had been jokes. Just as too many things — personal things, loves that were maybe just gratification — had been tragedies. She had been lacking in motherly inhibitions and propriety and self control.

Munro details the strange emptiness of Juliet’s post-Penelope life. Juliet gets “too old” for a career in television. She becomes a kind of barista, studying Greek on the side. She has finally begun to recover “the treasure” that was hers: the prodigious linguistic talent and the passionate interest in Greece.

We hear nothing from Penelope herself that explains the terrible breach.

Juliet thinks:

My father used to say of someone he disliked, that he had no use for that person. Couldn’t those words mean simply what they say? Penelope does not have a use for me.

The reader, who has been profoundly pained and shocked by Penelope’s renunciation of her mother, wants more information. There is no more information.

Pedro Almodovar, the great Spanish film maker, made a film of this story, but he solved the reader’s desire for more information by changing the ending.

As for me, my own “solution” to the novella is this. Juliet is not ever going to get her daughter back. If you have a passion that you are very good at and that you call your “treasure,” failing to protect and nurture it will warp your life and all of your relationships. If you are careless with your “treasure” you will suffer, and so will your spouse and your children.

In fact, the carelessness with which you treat yourself and your talents will play out as a vast and uncontrollable carelessness invading every aspect of life.

Juliet’s case is complicated because initially, society stole her treasure from her. She got fired from her graduate study. How could she possibly nurture her love of Greek on her own? It seems lonely and impossible.

What could Juliet have done? Well — she could have done what Munro did. She could have explored and developed her talent on her own. Instead, she renounced it. Making her entire life unwieldy from that moment forward.

But the story is so very complex and so very allusive, there are probably a hundred takes on what the story actually means. Which is, in fact, Munro’s brilliance.

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