“The Wilds of Morris Township”
by Alice Munro
from The View from Castle Rock

Class Assignment for “The Wilds of Morris Township”.

This story is sixteen pages. This is one of Munro’s shortest stories, and it is perhaps her most difficult. It resists common sense or commentary. It makes the head swim. If I were forced to teach this story (and it would be against my will) I would assign each of my twenty students one question apiece to consider and come to class ready to present some kind of answer to that one question, no matter how tentative.

1.  Is Munro trying to debunk family history with this story?

2.  Does this story strike you as a shambles of gaps, misinformation, and supposition?

3.  Why does the main character of this story appear to be a house?

4.  Is the narrator a man or a woman?

5.  How reliable is Big Rob’s journal? Is there any confusion about this journal? Is it real? Does the narrator offer us any provenance for it? Tell us who had possession of it after his death? Tell us where we can see it? Why does this confusion about the journal exist?

6.  Who was killed in the woods by a falling tree? Could this have been murder? What would have been the motive? Does “killed in the woods by a falling tree” anecdote remind you of any other Munro story?

7.  How did Big Rob and his cousins come by the land they homesteaded?

8.  Who are the people that Big Rob names? What is his wife’s name? Who is the very large group of “landowners” that Big Rob never mentions or names?

9.  Who had nine children in a two-room shanty in the wilderness? What is the significance of the narrator’s “slip of the tongue” regarding the birth of these nine children?

10.  Why did one of big Rob’s children run away?

11.  What is the significance of these dates? 1851? 1853? 1857? 1907? Why is there a 50-year gap in the dates provided?  

12.  How does the narrator know so much about how Big Rob’s eight adult children lived?

13.  In what way is Forrest’s almost empty eight room house a symbol? Bearing in mind that symbol is not Munro’s favorite technique?

14.  What is the significance to be made of the straw-baby? The fire in which it is burned? The silence regarding it?

15.  A Munro story is often full of desire and sex. Where’s the sex here? Why or why not? Why is infertility a theme?

16.  Why does Munro make a point to say that the Lizzie/Forrest story is a rumor?

17.  Is this a ghost story? Explain. Who are the real ghosts?

18.  “What squashed their spirits?” i.e. the spirits of Big Rob’s eight children. Are there any other squashed spirits to be considered in this story?

19.  Names are an important shorthand in Munro. Why did Munro give Big Rob that particular name? What other robberies or thefts or sly sleights of hand occur in this story?

20.  Explain how silence is perhaps the biggest force in the story. Why is silence such a big deal?

21.  Did you think this story was dull? Or stultifying in its confusions? Or so full of gaps the mind boggles? Why do you think Munro would intentionally write a “dull” story?

22.  Did Big Rob have any other motive for writing his “pioneer history” other than saying how hard it was? Consider this question in relation to “Child’s Play.”

Once we spend sixty minutes in class mulling over each of the questions, I would ask the students to spend a half hour writing an answer to this question: What is Munro’s opinion of the “discipline” of genealogy and family history?

But I would also give them an alternate choice. They could choose, instead, to write about (as demonstrated in this story) any one of the following: Munro’s feminist stance, pioneer heroes, silence about sex, silence as a historical position, national mythmaking, silence as a means of communication, monuments as national treasures, confusion or gaps as fictional tools, the unreliable narrator, the writer’s purpose in confusing the reader, the use of historical document in this and the other “Part One” stories, the difference between the writer and the writer’s narrators, the position of indigenous peoples in this story and the corresponding lack of documentation, or, my favorite, is the narrator a man or a woman?

This is the best I could do with this thing! Munro has me flummoxed! Except for this. I would venture that the real “wilds” in Morris Township are the wilds of guilt, memory, history, and time, especially in regard to the oppression of women and indigenous peoples.

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