by Alice Munro
“Powers” is complex, passionate, and important. As always, I remark that the reader should always encounter Munro head on. Read this magnificent story before you read anything I have to say about it. I don’t intend my writing to be an introduction. I intend it to be a reaction. Munro structures her stories so as to provoke a multitude of reactions. Always read her first.
At 65 pages, “Powers” is about twice the length of a conventional Munro story and uncustomarily divided into five titled sections.
Why is the story so long? I think it has to do with the importance of the numerous intersecting topics: what is it to be a writer? What are the responsibilities of a writer? Are there different kinds of writing that are nonetheless legitimate true writing? Are some writers dangerous?
How do we know that what we know is true?
How do we know, for instance, if a person is actually mentally ill? How do we diagnose it if a person is a danger to themselves or others? And how do we know, if they are mentally ill, what therapies are effective and/or ethical? And, speaking of people who are a danger to others, how do we stop them?
In “Powers” there are two couples, one kind of ordinary and the other not ordinary at all. The first couple, Wilf and Nancy, are well-to-do and established. Wilf is a doctor, and Nancy is the daughter of a mill owner. Nancy is sparkling, curious, gregarious and open. Wilf is reserved and only really open to his music. Wilf and Nancy have a marriage that is distinguished by patriarchy: Nancy lost her job at her father’s mill when she married Wilf in 1929. Wilf’s proposal to Nancy comes with the privilege of picking out his wall paper. We gather that Nancy behaves somewhat passively until years later when Wilf goes under to progressive dementia.
Tessa and Ollie, by comparison, are a very odd couple. Tessa is a country seer, very provincial, with no family and by the looks of things, quite poor. She churns her own butter and lives amid some disorganization. But people line up at her door on Sunday afternoons to hear what she sees in their situations. The question about Tessa is this. Does her uncanny ability to “read” people make her disabled? Do her trances make her disabled? Does her possible epilepsy make her mentally ill or disabled?
Ollie is, in contrast, educated.
Is there any defense for what Ollie does to her? Which is, at first, to submit her to “research,” and then, when that fails, submit her to being a traveling freak, and then, when that fails, commit her to a mental institution?
Ollie, if we were to sum him up, is an educated opportunist. He first gets interested in how Tessa might make him famous. He writes an article about her. He leads her to believe he is marrying her. He persuades her to go off with him and they disappear into the clouds of his ambition.
I want to pause to consider Ollie and Tessa’s names.
Ollie’s name is easily deconstructed to “all lies” or “a lie.” As for Tessa, there is Tess of the D’Urbervilles — a woman ruined by a man. Tessa’s name also reminds us of the nobility of a “countess” or “contessa.” But more important, Tessa could also be derived from Theresa. Saint Teresa of Avila perhaps had epilepsy. She was famous for her trances and her writing. I have in mind also Munro’s other saints, Violet (“A Queer Streak”), the various aunts (“The Ticket” and “Heirs of the Living Body”), Isabel (“Leaving Maverly”) and Eunie and Billy Doud (“Spaceships Have Landed”). I make this point about Tessa and saints and Munro because there seems to me to be a pointed connection between Tessa and Prince Myshkin, Dostoevsky’s saintly good man in The Idiot, who also had epilepsy and visions, who was also misunderstood and cruelly treated. Finally, speaking of saints, despite Nancy’s actual disinterest in saving Tessa, Tessa is credited with treating Nancy with “an extraordinary, unwarranted benevolence.”
One issue in this story is who is it that should have been locked up? Tessa or Ollie? A very solid argument could be made to show that Ollie is a psychopath: charming, cruel, charismatic, and completely lacking in conscience. It is probably he who should have been locked up, but how do you stop or lock up a psychopath? They tend to be very charming, and you are under the influence before you know it. In addition, there is the comparative difficulty of locking up a man versus the comparative ease of locking up a woman. For that, consult charlotte Perkins Gilman, and/or the nineteenth century “rest cure.”
Another issue in the story is bystanders. Nancy and Wilf are bystanders who are witnesses to the action.
Very early on, Nancy warns Tessa about Ollie:
Another thing I feel I have to tell you though I don’t know how to. It is this. Ollie certainly isn’t a bad person but he has an effect — and now I think of it, not just on women but men too — and it is not that he does not know about this but that he does not exactly take responsibility for it. To put it frankly, I cannot think of any worse fate than falling in love with him. He seems to think of teaming up with you in some way to write about you or these experiments or whatever goes on and he will be very friendly and natural but you might mistake the way he acts for something more than it is.
So. Nancy took a stand. And you could argue that Tessa had been warned and made up her own mind:
Do not worry about me . . . . By the time you get this note we will be married and may already be in the States.
A conservative answer to the question regarding whether Nancy did enough is yes. She warned Tessa. And Tessa made her own choice. But there is more to the argument, more that only Nancy knew. For one thing, Nancy admits to herself that she set everything in motion when she herself used Tessa to show off to Ollie, almost as if Tessa were a “freak,” or, her freak with second sight. For another, Nancy also had written to Ollie, saying:
Now I hear you were back and forth to Tessa’s several times on your own. You never mentioned that to me or asked you to go with you. You never indicated you were getting Material. . . . I wonder how honest you were to Tessa about your intentions or if you asked her permission to exercise — I am quoting you now — your Scientific Curiosity. Did you explain what you were doing to her?
Munro has left us a hint regarding her own distaste for Ollie in linking him to her magnificent story “Material” in which a writer absolutely and cruelly uses a woman’s difficult story for his own leap-frog to fame and fortune.
Ollie answers Nancy:
Tessa was bound to be discovered and “written up” by somebody, and why should that somebody not be me? . . . . I am sorry you think so harshly of me.
Ollie then mentions Nancy’s marriage to Wilf — but nary a word about any such union of his with Tessa. The reader suspects, and rightly so, that there will be no marriage, only the use of Tessa for Ollie’s fame and fortune.
Nancy is a bystander, and she has taken a stand. The question is — was it enough? Could she have done more? Could she have saved Tessa?
Years later, when Wilf is disabled by progressive dementia, Nancy searches for and finds Tessa in a private sanatorium in Michigan, where the owners put the patients to work, kind of in the manner of a workhouse. It’s at least 30 years later. Nancy learns that Tessa has been through not only betrayal and abandonment, but also shock treatment and probably a lobotomy — what Tessa calls “A Hole in the Head.” The director makes it possible for Nancy to spirit Tessa out of there. Nancy imagines bringing Tessa back with her to Canada. But how? She already is taking care of one disabled patient. But — is Tessa actually disabled? She cooks for the home, and she manages, with perspicacity and compassion, a little woman who bites. Tessa could have probably worked for Nancy, cooking and baking and managing Wilf.
Years after that, Nancy, widowed and in Vancouver after a cruise, runs into Ollie. Ollie spins Nancy quite a shawl of lies. The reader sees Nancy working Ollie like a detective, her purpose, I think, being to see how near she can get to the truth. (There is almost no use in confronting Ollie about any of his story, because, as Nancy can see, he’s a pathological liar, and completely amoral. One could wonder if she should “stop” him, but the reader actually knows the answer to that. Only jail could keep him from hurting people, and nothing would stop him from lying.) Nancy’s problem now, however, is not Ollie, but herself.
The issue is: has Nancy lied to herself?
Nancy, the widow, is back home and sitting in Wilf’s recliner. She observes:
Her children say they hope she has not taken to Living in the Past.
But what she believes she is doing, what she wants to do if she can get the time to do it, is not so much live in the past as to open it up and get one good look at it.
Like a writer, Nancy tries to imagine what Tessa’s life had been like. The siege of Nancy’s imagination is much like a trance, thus once more underlining the righteousness of Tessa’s own imagination and ability to see things. Or, rather, her ability to “read” people.
Nancy imagines, in trancelike succession, a series of revelations about Tessa and Ollie, contradictory and wildly sad, passing and changing shape as quickly as water running down a stream. Of Tessa, Nancy thinks of Tessa thinking:
. . . never, never — except during the time when [Tessa and Ollie] are bound together by their shared responsibility to the audience — can they look into each other’s faces, for fear that they will catch sight of something that is too frightful.
Of Ollie, Nancy imagines Ollie defending himself to “a doctor”:
She is not an ill-natured person or a person with any bad habits, but she is not a normal person, she is a unique person, and living with a unique person can be a strain, in fact more of a strain than a normal man can stand. The doctor understands this and has told him of a place that she might be taken to, for a rest.
Has Nancy, the bystander, done all she can? What if that “doctor” had been Wilf himself? Has Nancy lied to herself — that there was no way she could have saved Tessa?
One is left with a series of trancelike states oneself — memories of people committed to insane asylums, people in the family, people down the street, people read about in magazines. Like Arthur Miller, who committed his infant son, who had Down syndrome, to a life locked up in an overcrowded State Hospital in Connecticut against his wife’s inclination and will.
The bystander, confronted with a psychopath, or a slice of a psychopathic society, or even a single psychopathic act, is baffled and confused. What can one person do? Confronted with the charm and illogic of just one persuasive psychopath? Or confronted with the monolithic power of a psychopathic society?
The power to act on behalf of oneself
On the surface, Munro is referring to the “telepathic” powers that Tessa has. But she is also wondering about the power that men have over women, the power to tell them to spend their life picking out wallpaper, or tell them they must quit their job if they marry, or to tell them that for their own good they are being committed, being given shock treatment, or given a rest. The question is – who is laying waste to women’s powers? The women themselves? Men in general? Individual men? Or society? But Munro is also talking about the power people have over themselves to act or not act, and the power people have over themselves to pay attention, investigate, and seek understanding.
Speaking of her marriage to Wilf and becoming absorbed in the business of being a doctor’s wife, Nancy comments to Tessa:
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Although Nancy is a flippant young woman, something in this reminds us of Calvinists and their struggle with personal responsibility. The question the reader must ask is this: Did Nancy also lay waste her powers? Are Tessa and Nancy twins?
Speaking of power, therefore. There is the power one has over oneself.
The power to act on behalf of another
There is also what power an individual has to interrupt the evil of others. What is it then, to be not just a bystander, but actually be an active bystander?
Everybody is a Bystander at some time. A Bystander is a person who observes a conflict or unacceptable behavior. It might be something serious or minor, one-time or repeated, but the Bystander knows that the behavior is destructive or likely to make a bad situation worse. An active bystander takes steps that can make a difference. (link)
And what was Nancy and what are we?
The power of artists: Frederick Wiseman’s Titticut Follies (1967)
Forty years later, Munro is in very serious conversation with Frederick Wiseman, the man whose documentary about a Massachusetts State Hospital emptied the state hospitals across the nation. Talk about seeing: Wiseman saw into the heart of these hospitals and caused the future to happen.
Whether the nation rose to the challenge is another matter entirely and not Frederick Wiseman’s fault. The nation decided not to establish a national community mental health system even though it had been informed that it was a necessity.
The power of artists: the writer
The power a writer has, especially the writer of fiction, is to see the nature of people, to see the nature of their motives and interactions, to see the nature of the evil and the good they do, to inquire of their self-knowledge and their conscience, to see their wide variety and their commonalities.
The writer’s lot, moreover, is to lay waste to what might be a normal life, spending much time in what might be called a state of trance, in making what might seem to be a claim to ESP, in being, on the whole, a strain on other people, and at risk, especially, for doing as much harm as good.
Consider Ollie, consider Tessa, consider Nancy, consider Wilf, all writers of a sort.
Nancy writes letters. Wilf writes diagnoses. Ollie writes articles. Tessa “writes” people’s futures. Even the biter — the biter writes mice into being with pie dough. Nancy finally sits down and submits to deep imagination and what might as well be a trance, and submits to an investigation of her conscience, “investigation” being one of Munro’s favorite words in later stories.
There is so much to talk about in this story: structure, allusions, its relation to other Munro stories, the nature of knowledge and the nature of intuition, the nature of power, the importance of paying attention, and more. I’ve only made a stab. This is one of those stories that is as intricate as a poem.
Do we have the power to know what is true?
Wilf and Ollie deal in the accepted modes of acquiring truth – observation, analysis, diagnosis. Tessa and Nancy deal in trance to get to the heart of the matter, Nancy calling her work “investigation”. Nancy imagines, in trancelike succession, a series of revelations about Tessa and Ollie, contradictory and wildly sad, passing and changing shape as quickly as water running down a stream. But she believes her imagination to be as powerful as any force she can employ to get at the truth.
But what she believes she is doing, what she wants to do if she can get the time to do it, is not so much live in the past as to open it up and get one good look at it.
What is the springboard of the writer’s power?
This story feels to me like Alice Munro getting a good look at what it is a writer does, what an artist does. What anyone could do if they were to allow themselves the simultaneous and antithetical states of focus and letting go. If they were to allow themselves the time.
It is the willingness to “open up” the past and get one good look at it.
The comparison between Nancy and Tessa is clear. Tessa has second sight and can see the future. Nancy has this desire to open up the past and really see it. Is this what a writer has? Is this what Nancy is aiming at in section five?
At one point, the narrator, speaking in Nancy’s voice, comments about Tessa, “She does know something, but she is trying not to know.” Perhaps she knows, in general, that Ollie is going to leave her. Perhaps she knows, in particular, that Ollie is going to commit her to a mental hospital.
On the facing page, as Nancy comes out of her own vision (her imagined Ollie and Tessa), she feels some “instability.” It’s mysterious. At story’s end, Nancy feels no relief. She feels her vision “crumble . . . into something like soot and soft ash.”
To me, the telling thing is this: there are things you know that you try not to know. Perhaps that is a description of the writer’s suffering, the writer’s sense of instability, the writer’s dilemma.
After all, at the beginning of the story, Nancy confesses to her journal:
And now comes the part I am not so anxious to record.
It is as if the writer’s dilemma is the ordinary human dilemma. It is hard to look at the truth.
A beautiful summation, Betsy. It’s such a mysterious story. Visionary, a misty, dream journey like Peer Gynt or Dante’s Inferno itself. Nowhere else in Munro’s oeuvre have images of the past had this high level of near-hallucinatory shimmery instability.
Heath – you comment about Munro and this story – “Visionary, a misty, dream journey like Peer Gynt or Dante’s Inferno itself. Nowhere else in Munro’s oeuvre have images of the past had this high level of near-hallucinatory shimmery instability.”
I love the language you have chosen to use. I am very taken with the word – instability – as a description of how memory works in Munro.
I think of it this way – that as we gain more experience, we keep re-seeing into our past. But yes, memory is unstable. One has to let it revise itself. Again – I think she is very interested in how we must allow ourselves to achieve almost trance-like states to get close to the truth –
Nice insights. Though I think you make these people and their actions and thoughts too mysterious and special. This is not “Passion”. (Although it does have a woman’s ride with a doctor as one important element.) I think one can see these people as common and the “action” of the story as sad but not improbable occurrences. Perhaps this is one of Munro’s geniuses — to show us clearly how everyday lives go astray.
I don’t think Munro is saying that Nancy has a responsibility to Tessa that she doesn’t fulfill. She does what she can. In ordinary life, people do not influence each other in strong ways, I believe. This story might be more about the limits of what people can do for each other than about Nancy’s failings.
I think the climax of the story is when Nancy realizes that Ollie had buried, or subverted, the true story of Tessa and his memory of Tessa and his behavior toward Tessa and had concocted a totally false narrative to feed gullible listeners — including himself. As it happened, through coincidence (there is a bit too much coincidence in this story for me), Nancy knows that Ollie’s tale is fabricated. In the end Tessa’s “powers” had availed her nothing. Ollie’s power had prevailed. So Nancy is the central character and she is the one who is changed. In the last section her view of life aligns with reality.
Although I don’t fund her looking into the past through her imagination credible. “We must allow ourselves to achieve almost trance-like states to get close to the truth.” I don’t buy it. Does Nancy have “powers” too? To me this is one of Munro’s rare “nods”.
Finally, I didn’t see your acknowledgement of Munro’s reference to Wordsworth:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
We have given our hearts away — a sordid boon.”
Perhaps you were assuning that your and Munro’s readers would recognize this and the citation didn’t need to be made explicit; if so, my apologies. However, the story’s title is “Powers”, so this quotation is important and needs to be foregrounded, in my opinion. I’d say everyone in the story has laid waste thier powers. Except maybe Nancy, who, in her 70s, is still enerhgeticaly plowing through life — present and past.
Nice catch re Wordsworth, William. Thanks.
Also like: Ollie “had concocted a totally false narrative to feed gullible listeners — including himself.”