“Passion”
by Alice Munro
from Runaway

In “Passion,” a poor, brilliant, twenty-year old girl with a ferocious appetite for learning, is shunted away from further education by her high school principal. His position is that Grace cannot afford college, and she should see a little of life before she assumes the role chosen for her by fate — to be her uncle’s assistant in the business of chair caning. The reader is appalled by the vision of this smart, ambitious girl surrounded by rows and rows of chairs waiting to be caned, as if she were behind bars. As if she herself were awaiting a caning.

But the reader must also consider whether the principal is providing Grace flight from her uncle, a man who is, we learn later, probably a criminal.

What follows is a very close reading of Munro’s “Passion.” You should really read Munro’s story first. Then judge whether what I say holds any water. Munro’s writing is typified by gaps and ellipses, and the reader needs to encounter the real thing first hand.

As guided by the principal, the girl, Grace, goes to a lake-side town to be a waitress. There she meets a privileged college boy named Maury, and (old story) she doesn’t so much fall in love with him as she falls in love with his house and his mother. The rest of the family? A much older half-brother who is a doctor who drinks. The doctor’s wife and children. A sister who seems to like to get to the point and get herself outta there. Guests now and then. The Able Mrs. Abel, who keeps the house. And books, a lot of books.

It’s a summer idyll. The mother, Mrs. Travers, likes Grace so much she picks Grace up at work to come out to the house. There’s class, so much class: books to read and talk about, guests, word games, a servant. Maury adores Grace and has begun planning their life together. The livin’ is easy.

Not so fast. You might think the story is going to be easy. Yes and no. It helps an awful lot to check the etymology of names with Munro. Travers is a name descended from the French word for passage, a word that subsequently denoted the toll-taker, at the bridge, for instance. You pay a price for your passage, Munro seems to suggest. What price, for instance, will Grace pay for her swift passage from the lower class of poverty into the lower realms of the elite? Given that it is not Maury she loves but the way of life?

Note that Maury has begun planning their life together. Although Munro doesn’t say so in so many words, Maury has the inner conviction of class – that she who marries money earns it. Ironically, very early in their relationship, Grace explains herself, sort of, to Maury, but he appears to not really hear her. Grace will pay a toll.

To explain: Early in their relationship, they have gone to see Father of the Bride (1950), the famous movie with Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace is enraged by it. She makes a somewhat rambling attack on why it is so maddening. It isn’t that women are chosen for their beauty so much as that women are chosen for their pea-brains. What is worse, they are expected to be “pea-brained” forever. Maury is deeply moved by her, he says. He says that she is “special.”

But he doesn’t recognize her love of learning. Has Grace explained to Maury that she excelled in the state 12th-grade examinations? That she stayed in school an extra year to take advanced math and science? That she wanted then to study four more languages on her own and take the examinations for those? That she had a determination to “learn everything she could for free”?

Even if she did, Maury’s plans for their married life had no provision for her to learn anything.

As for Maury, his need for total control was something to behold. Even though Grace was very willing to have sex with him and pressed him for it, he refused! He said he was “protecting” her. She was quite attractive, and he said he adored her. What was his hang-up? The reader thinks it was partially his need to be in total control, given that she was quite powerful in her own right. He was practicing saying no, thinks the reader.

He’s pretty silly.

But so is Grace. Her adolescent vision is that she wants to learn as much as possible “for free.” Even though she feels no passion for Maury at all, even though she doesn’t love him, it seems that her affair with him is an opportunity for her. She gets to see how the other side lives. She gets to try out the pampered life of the servant-served class. She gets to lie on the couch reading books she has plucked from the family library, and she gets to talk books with the Mother of the house.

She doesn’t notice, though, a couple of things about Mrs. Travers. Grace remarks that she likes listening to Mrs. Travers talk. Grace pays no attention to Mrs. Travers’ throwaway reply: “I like listening to myself.”

Mrs. Travers may have revealed herself in a nutshell: she’s no pea-brain, but there’s not ever been anyone to listen. Listening, apparently, is not in Mr. Travers’ wheelhouse.

Mrs. Travers at one point alludes to a famous English poem. Munro is playing with her New Yorker readers. Canadians are probably taught to revere this poem in high school, but the American has to look it up. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is drenched in gloom, written not for an individual beloved person, but for the common man. Gray sings for the brilliance or hard work of the common man that both go completely unnoticed in the world, maybe to the good, given that not having any power, the common man might be guilty of misusing it. Like Oliver Cromwell, for instance. Here, however, Munro is being wry. The common people in this story all mis-use their greatness.

Referring to her son Neil, Mrs. Travers speaks to us as if from a Delphic oracle in a scrap of the long poem: “Deep unfathomable caves of ocean bear — what am I talking about?”

Indeed. What is she talking about? Powerlessness. Being closeted, hidden, trapped, held in captivity, smothered, lightless, undiscovered, unknown, and, to use one of Munro’s favorite words, to go unrecognized. Or is she talking about how Neil’s greatness is buried in an ocean of drunkenness or worse?

What do the deep caves in the ocean hold? Jewels. Treasure.

In the previous three stories, we met Juliet, a twin of Grace. Juliet told us about the peril of losing track of what is, essentially, your treasure — your passion, your gifts. Not money. Money is not the treasure. It’s your passion that is your treasure.

Mrs. Travers is somehow explaining to herself the mystery that is her son Neil, but at the same time, she is more explaining her own self, and like an oracle, warning Grace. There are situations in life, bargains that you make (bargaining being another favorite word) that lead to the complete loss of the treasure that is yourself.

Grace notices that Mrs. Travers has “red” cheeks, but around Labor Day, it’s Maury who reveals that Mrs. Travers has gone into the hospital for a couple of weeks to get “stabilized.” That she has trouble with her nerves. That it’s all “okay”: “[The doctors] can get her straightened around easy now, with drugs. They’ve got terrific drugs. Not to worry about it.”

Although Maury says that he “doesn’t think [the doctors] know” what causes Mrs. Travers to periodically fall apart, Maury makes his own diagnosis: “women’s problems.”

What are “women’s problems” exactly? Are they really only hormonal? Or is one of the problems that it is that men like Maury define their problems?

Several red flags fly up for Grace regarding the toll she might have to pay for marriage into this moneyed family, but she recognizes none of them at the moment they appear.  Maury’s assumptions encapsulate them — his need for control, his “protection” of women, his planning for their future, his definition of his mother, his vision of women, and his complete lack of recognition for who Grace actually is. The other red flag is that Mrs. Travers’ cheeks are red. Perhaps she is a drinker.

Even though Maury says it only takes “a couple of weeks” to straighten out Mrs. Travers, this time it actually seems to take a couple of months. She goes in after Labor Day and by Thanksgiving and she was “feeling well.”

You be the judge. Munro lets us know that Mrs. Travers has forgotten to make her traditional cranberry sauce and is “wearing a look of hazy enthusiasm” despite the fact that she knows her older son Neil, the doctor, has begun drinking already, even though it’s morning and dinner is not until 5.

Mrs. Travers has gained weight and she also walks with “a stiffness in all her movements.” She has a dry crust around her mouth. It sounds like Thorazine to me, a drug that was used for psychosis and treating the D.T.’s. Is it that Mrs. Travers goes to the hospital periodically to be dried out?

What is the bargain Mrs. Travers has made? A loss of her goals or ambitions when she married Mr. Travers for the guarantee of safety for herself and her son?

Grace cuts her foot and it is arranged for Neil will take her to the hospital. Wait. Mrs. Travers sees Grace off with Neil, who has been drinking, doing the driving? And Mrs. Travers says to the bloody Grace:

This is good. . . .This is very good. Grace, you are a godsend. You’ll try to keep him from drinking today, won’t you? You’ll know how to do it.

This is appalling. What is the price Grace will pay to gain entrance into this family? First of all, bloody injuries will be ignored?  Second, she will be assigned a role, she will be the caretaker? Is she supposed to keep the men in line? “You will know how to do it.” We are alarmed. Is Mrs. Travers aware of the sexuality Grace has offered Maury, and does Mrs. Travers think it might be better used to “keep” Neil from drinking?

Mrs. Travers has already told Grace that Neil is “deep.” Maybe she thinks they will talk about books. Or maybe, given her exotic lower class, Mrs. Travers imagines Grace will charm the addiction out of him. Or hazily, maybe she thinks Grace is basically a prostitute who will seduce him, thus keeping him busy. The statement is completely Delphic and almost impenetrable. What is clear, however, is that Grace’s well-being, in contrast to Neil’s addiction, is of no importance to Mrs. Travers whatsoever.

Should Grace allow herself to slip into a marriage with Maury, the reader has slowly been let in on what a big mistake it would be. Which brings us to the matter of the title: “Passion.”

There is, of course, the issue of women’s individual passions, be it to be a scholar, an athlete, a philosopher, a scientist, an artist or you name it. We know that Grace has a passion — to learn as much for free as she possibly can. But will Mrs. Travers’s wings be broad enough to keep that light alive? Given that Maury seems oblivious to the necessity of Grace’s ambition being part of the marriage plan? Given Mrs. Travers seems to spend substantial time in the hospital or drugged?

Regarding the passions one person might feel for another, these seem to be skew gee in this story. Grace has a passion for learning but none for Maury. Maury has a passion for seeing Grace as a part of his PLAN, but has no passion for her passion and, in fact, does not actually seem to have a passion for sex with her either. It is as if what he really wants is the inequality and power imbalance that would result from him being superior to Grace, class-wise, money-wise.

Mrs. Travers looks back on the period of time when all she and Neil had was each other, thus setting up a kind of oedipal situation, as if Neil were actually imprinted on his mother and cannot escape. This idea is not developed, except that we know that Maury wants to have a summer house near his mother and father. When he refuses to have sex with Grace, the reader wonders whether there is some kind of weird mother-imprinting at work with Maury as well. The passions in this story are a little skewed, and this becomes even more pronounced when we get to know Neil better.

Which brings us to the possibility that another version of passion is also at work in this story, similar to the Passion of Christ, his suffering and ultimate martyrdom for the salvation of others. Or, in ordinary language, that people find meaning in suffering for the good of others.

Does Neil, in fact, “save” Grace when he kidnaps her to go joyriding with him? Is it that his wildness that recognizes Grace’s inner wild-girl? Is there a little premonition in the naturally curly black hair they both possess? What we know for a fact is that it is on this wild jail-break jaunt from bar to bootlegger that Grace realizes it would be “treachery to herself” to have stayed with Maury.

It is clear that Grace is a kind of soul-mate to Neil. She tells us that when they are at the bootlegger’s she realizes that he is aware of the kind of background she comes from. She says that “the partitions” between legal and illegal are “thin” when you are poor. Does she mean that perhaps her uncle is also a bootlegger and the chair caning is just a front? (Which makes sense, now that you think of it.)

Treachery to herself. What a great line to leave you with. There’s a lot of betrayal and treachery in this story. Neil betrays his mother and his wife. Mr. Travers possibly betrays Mrs. Travers when he hospitalizes her and possibly consents to drugging her. Society betrays Grace when it denies her the rest of her education. Maury betrays his own sexual nature when he refuses to have sex with Grace. Grace betrays Maury when she chooses to run off with Neil.

But the real betrayal is the one that has been staring us in the face the whole time: the possibility that Grace might betray herself in the service of a dollar or the comforts of class or what looks like an easy solution to her chair-caning problem.

In the end, of course, the running away is a mess. Neil blows himself up in a car crash into an abutment, shortly after he has, with great emotion and great need, embraced Grace and at the same time renounced his sexual opportunity.

When he does that, does he save her? Protect her? Or simply honor his bond with his mother? We just don’t know. Neil is a locked-room mystery.

As for the issue of grace — that which is spiritual healing — who is it that performs the role of grace-giving? Each of them, really, to the best they are able. Mrs. Travers shares her books with Grace and shares her admiration of her. Maury offers Grace a way out, a need I’m sure he sensed as palpably as a perfume. Neil offers Grace recognition, which may sound strange, given that Munro always associates recognition with true sexual communion. But you can actually have the passion without the act. What Neil does is prove to Grace she deserves passion.

What grace does Grace herself provide? When she arrives in the Travers library, she is the wild spirit Mrs. Travers craves, the spirit they all crave. Grace’s passion is what they all want to capture, the way the entomologist craves to pin the butterfly. She makes them, for a short while, feel alive. But they are all so dead, even Grace cannot wake them. They have been treacherous to themselves, and saving them is beyond her.

Except for this. She did go with them, accompany them, for a while, while they each pursued their own dark solutions.

And how about that pay-off? The thousand dollars Mr. Travers gave Grace? Was she the first? Had he paid off others?


Note Re Henry James

Munro never mentions Henry James when she cites her influences, the same way she avoids mentioning William Faulkner. But Isabel Archer, the heroine of James’s Portrait of a Lady shows up, so to speak, in several of Munro’s stories. There’s Isabel, in “Leaving Maverley.” And here, there’s the thousand dollar pay-off from Mr. Travers, matching, in an odd back-end-to manner, Ralph Touchett’s huge gift of money to Isabel. Ralph wanted to see what the lovely Isabel might do with it, what she might learn. In the end, Isabel made what you might call a ruin of her life, having misread two very evil people, a man and a woman.

Will Grace make of her life a ruin by way of Mr. Travers’ “gift”? We think not. She has met evil and owns it: it is she who has had the capability to commit a treachery to her self, and she who has the ability to choose, instead, a passion.


Note: Re runaways

Grace has run away from a bad commitment. Neil has run away from something overwhelming, something so obscure that it is the real mystery. His father’s suicide? The wrong wife? Not fit to be a father? Paternal postpartum depression? A third child on the way? Yet another replay of the painful father’s role? An oedipal attachment to his mother? An inability to save his mother? So he saves Grace instead?


Note: “Passion”: “Me, Too” and “She Said”

I was writing this on the day that Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twomey’s book appeared about the Harvey Weissman serial sex abuse and silencing of women, She Said. Kantor and Twomey’s work for The New York Times set off the “Me, Too” movement where women famous and not so famous came forward to talk about the way they had been had by men. The most famous, of course, was the Christine Blasey Ford accusation of Brett Kavanagh, candidate for the Supreme Court, a replay of the Anita Hill testimony against Justice Thomas in 1991.

This story was published ten years after the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings. Clinton paid Paula Jones $850,000 in 1999 to silence her.

The post-2020 feminist is probably not going to like Munro’s story: that there is a lot we will never know about any he-said-she-said encounter, and that women may have complex motives for entering into or allowing themselves to be in compromising situations. Grace accepts money from Mr. Travers, money that implies Neil sullied Grace’s reputation, money that implies he wants her to disappear. She took it. Do we judge her?

If I were teaching this story today, I am sure the greatest debate would not be over Thorazine and its ability to silence women, or the toll that “jumping-class” takes on women, or what it was that destroyed Neil – all high-fifties questions.

The debate today would be over whether Grace should have accepted that check.

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