Alice Munro (born 10 July 1931) is first and foremost a writer of short fiction. However, the line between long and short fiction is sometimes blurred in her writings. She has published one book that is generally classified as a novel, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), but she herself prefers to view it as a group of linked stories. On the other hand, some reviewers, including author John Gardner, have suggested that the stories in her collection published in the United States as The Beggar Maid are so intricately related that that book might be viewed as a novel. Most critics, however, treat it as short fiction.
Alice Munro has been compared to Ernest Hemingway in the realism, economy, and lucidity of her style, to John Updike in her insights into the intricacies of social and sexual relationships, to Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty in her ability to create characters of eccentric individualism, and to Marcel Proust in the completeness and verisimilitude with which she evokes the past. She is an intuitive writer, who is less likely to be concerned with problems of form than with clarity and veracity. Some critics have faulted her for a tendency toward disorganization or diffusion—too many shifts in time and place within a single story, for example. On her strengths as a writer, however, critics generally agree: She has an unfailing particularity and naturalness of style, an ability to write vividly about ordinary life and its boredom without boring her readers, an ability to write about the past without being sentimental, a profound grasp of human emotion and psychology. Chief among her virtues is her great honesty: her refusal to oversimplify or falsify human beings, emotions, or experience. One of her characters states, “How to keep oneself from lying I see as the main problem everywhere.” Her awareness of this problem is everywhere evident in her writing, certainly in the distinctive voices of her narrator-protagonists, who are scrupulously concerned with truth. Finally, her themes—memory, love, transience, death—are significant. To explore such themes within the limitations of the short-story form with subtlety and depth is Munro’s achievement.
Dance of the Happy Shades
One of Alice Munro’s recurring themes is “the pain of human contact . . . the fascinating pain; the humiliating necessity.” The phrase occurs in “The Stone in the Field” and refers to the narrator’s maiden aunts, who cringe from all human contact, but the emotional pain that human contact almost inevitably brings is a subject in all of her stories. It is evident in the title story of her first collection, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” in which an elderly, impoverished piano teacher, Miss Marsalles, has a “party” (her word for recital) for a dwindling number of her students and their mothers, an entertainment she can ill afford. The elaborate but nearly inedible refreshments, the ludicrous gifts, and the tedium of the recital pieces emphasize the incongruity between Miss Marsalles’s serene pleasure in the festivities and the grim suffering of her unwilling but outwardly polite guests. Their anxieties are intensified by the mid-party arrival of Miss Marsalles’s newest pupils, a group of mentally disabled children from a nearby institution. The other pupils and their mothers struggle to maintain well-bred composure, but inwardly they are repelled, particularly when one of the mentally disabled girls gives the only accomplished performance of a sprightly piece called “The Dance of the Happy Shades.” The snobbish mothers believe that the idea of a mentally disabled girl learning to play the piano is not in good taste; it is “useless, out-of-place,” in fact very much like Miss Marsalles herself. Clearly, this dismal affair will be Miss Marsalles’s last party, yet the narrator is unable at the end to pity her, to say, “Poor Miss Marsalles.” “It is the Dance of the Happy Shades that prevents us, it is the one communiqué from the other country where she lives.” The unfortunate Miss Marsalles is happy; she has escaped the pain she would feel if she could know how others regard her, or care. She is living in another country, out of touch with reality; she has escaped into “the freedom of a great unemotional happiness.”
The Peace of Utrecht
Few of Munro’s characters are so fortunate. In “The Peace of Utrecht,” for example, the inescapable emotional pain of human contact is the central problem. Helen, the narrator, makes a trip with her two children to Jubilee, the small town where she grew up, ostensibly to visit her sister Maddy, now living alone in their childhood home. The recent death of their mother is on their minds, but they cannot speak of it. Maddy, who stayed at home to look after their “Gothic Mother,” has forbidden all such talk: “No exorcising here,” she says. Yet exorcism is what Helen desperately needs as she struggles with the torment that she feels about her sister’s “sacrifice,” her mother’s life, and her own previous self, which this return home so vividly and strangely evokes. Mother was a town “character,” a misfit or oddity, even before the onset of her debilitating and disfiguring illness (she seems to have died of Parkinson’s disease). For Helen, she was a constant source of anxiety and shame, a threat to Helen’s own precarious adolescent identity. (Readers who know Munro’s novel Lives of Girls and Women will find a strong resemblance of Helen’s mother to Del Jordan’s bizarre mother. She also appears as recognizably the same character in the stories “The Ottawa Valley,” “Connection,” “The Stone in the Field,” and perhaps “The Progress of Love.”) Recalling the love and pity denied this ill but incorrigible woman, Helen experiences raging guilt, shame, and anger that she and her sister were forced into “parodies of love.” Egocentric, petulant, this mother
demanded our love in every way she knew, without shame or sense, as a child will. And how could we have loved her, I say desperately to myself, the resources of love we had were not enough, the demand on us was too great.
Finally, Helen and her sister withdrew even the pretense of love, withdrew all emotion:
We took away from her our anger and impatience and disgust, took all emotion away from our dealings with her, as you might take away meat from a prisoner to weaken him, till he died.
Still, the stubborn old woman survived and might have lived longer except that Maddy, left alone with her mother and wanting her own life, put her in the hospital. After she tried to run away, restraint became necessary; she did not survive long after that.
Some critics believe that Munro’s strongest works are those which draw on her own small-town origins in western Ontario, stories of Jubilee, Tuppertown, Hanratty, Dalgleish. Munro has confessed in an interview that “The Peace of Utrecht” is her most autobiographical story and thus was difficult to write. Perhaps its emotional power derives in part from its closeness to her own experience, but it exhibits those qualities for which her writing has been praised: the effortless clarity of style, the psychological penetration of character, the evocation of time and place, the unfailing eye and ear which convey an impression of absolute authenticity—these are the hallmarks of Munro’s finest fiction, and they are evident even in her earliest stories. For example, in “The Peace of Utrecht,” Helen’s visit to two memorable residents of Jubilee, her mother’s sisters, Aunt Annie and Auntie Lou, demonstrates a deftness of characterization and a sureness of touch which are remarkable but typical of this writer at her best. Helen finds them
spending the afternoon making rugs out of dyed rags. They are very old now. They sit in a hot little porch that is shaded by bamboo blinds; the rags and the halffinished rugs make an encouraging, domestic sort of disorder around them. They do not go out any more, but they get up early in the morning, wash and powder themselves, and put on their shapeless print dresses trimmed with rickrack and white braid.
Later, after tea, Aunt Annie tries to press on Helen a box of her mother’s clothing (painstakingly cleaned and mended), seemingly oblivious to Helen’s alarm and pain at the sight of these all-too-tangible reminders of her mother. To Aunt Annie, things are to be used up; clothes are to be worn. Yet she is not insensitive, nor is she a fool. Revealing to Helen (who did not know) the shameful facts about her mother’s hospitalization against her will, her pitiful, frantic attempt to escape one snowy January night, the board that was subsequently nailed across the bed to immobilize her, and Maddy’s indifference to it all, Aunt Annie begins “crying distractedly as old people do, with miserable scanty tears.” Despite the tears, however, Aunt Annie is (as Helen is not), emotionally tough, “an old hand at grief and self-control.” Just how tough she is is conveyed by Aunt Annie’s final, quietly understated words: “‘We thought it was hard,’ she said finally. ‘Lou and I thought it was hard.’”
Helen and Maddy, with less emotional resilience, try to come to terms with their own complex anguish through evasion, rationalization, and finally, admonishment— “don’t be guilty”—but Munro is too honest to imply that they can be successful. In the final lines of the story, Helen urges her sister to forget the past, to take hold of her own life at last. Maddy’s affirmation, “Yes I will,” soon slips into an agonized question: “But why can’t I, Helen? Why can’t I?” In the “dim world of continuing disaster, of home,” there is no peace of Utrecht, not for Munro’s characters, perhaps not for Munro.
The preoccupation in Munro’s fiction with family, usually as a “continuing disaster,” is striking. Assorted eccentric aunts, uncles, and cousins appear and reappear; a somewhat miscreant brother appears in “Forgiveness in Families” and “Boys and Girls.” Sometimes the family portraits are warmly sympathetic, as in the case of the grandmother in “Winter Wind” or especially the gentle father who calmly prepared for his death in “The Moons of Jupiter.” Even the neurotic mother and father in “The Progress of Love” are treated sympathetically. There, the mother’s fanatical hatred of her own father leads her to burn the desperately needed money she inherits from him at his death. Clearly, for Munro, family origins matter, sometimes as the source of humor and delightful revelation but more dependably as the source of endless mystery and pain. This is particularly true of “the problem, the only problem,” as stated in “The Ottawa Valley”: mother. At the story’s conclusion, the narrator confesses that
she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did. . . . She has stuck to me as close as ever and refused to fall away, and I could go on, and on, applying what skills I have, using what tricks I know, and it would always be the same.
Some relationships, some kinds of “fascinating pain,” can be recorded or analyzed but not exorcized. Clearly, these may become the inspiration for significant literature. In Munro’s fiction, the view of the emotional entanglements called “family” is unflinchingly honest, unsentimental, but always humane, at times even humorous.
Another important dimension of Munro’s short stories is sexual relationships, particularly in the “feelings that women have about men,” as she stated in an interview. In “Bardon Bus,” the narrator, a woman writer spending time in Australia, meets an anthropologist (known as “X”) and begins a deliberately limited affair, asking only that it last out their short time in Australia. Later, when both have returned to Canada, she is miserable, tortured by memory and need: “I can’t continue to move my body along the streets unless I exist in his mind and in his eyes.” Finally, she realizes her obsession is a threat to her sanity and that she has a choice of whether to be crazy or not. She decides she does not have the stamina or the will for “prolonged craziness,” and further that
there is a limit to the amount of misery and disarray you will put up with, for love, just as there is a limit to the amount of mess you can stand around a house. You can’t know the limit beforehand, but you will know when you’ve reached it. I believe this.
She begins to let go of the relationship and finds “a queer kind of pleasure” in doing this, not a “self-wounding or malicious pleasure,” but
pleasure in taking into account, all over again, everything that is contradictory and persistent and unaccommodating about life. …I think there’s something in us wanting to be reassured about all that, right alongside—and at war with—whatever there is that wants permanent vistas and a lot of fine talk.
This seeming resolution, however, this salvation by knowing and understanding all, is subtly undercut by the conclusion of the story. The narrator’s much younger friend, Kay, happens to mention her involvement with a fascinating new “friend,” who turns out to be X. The story ends there but the pain (presumably) does not.
Tell Me Yes or No
The female protagonist of “Tell Me Yes or No” is also sifting through the emotional rubble of an adulterous affair, which has ended, perhaps because of the death of her lover, or perhaps it has merely ended. In this story, it is difficult to distinguish reality from fantasy, and that may be the point. The other lives and other loves of her lover may be real, or they may be a fantasy (as defense mechanism) of the protagonist, but the central insight is the realization of how
women build their castles on foundations hardly strong enough to support a night’s shelter; how women deceive themselves and uselessly suffer, being exploitable because of the emptiness of their lives and some deep—but indefinable, and not final!—flaw in themselves.
For this woman, none of the remedies of her contemporaries works, not deep breathing, not macramé, and certainly not the esoteric advice of another desperate case: to live “every moment by itself,” a concept she finds impossible to comprehend, let alone practice. The irony of her difficulty is evident, considering Munro’s passionate concern throughout her fiction for “Connection” (the title of one of her stories). Here, it seems that there is some connection between past choice and present desolation:
Love is not in the least unavoidable, there is a choice made. It is just that it is hard to know when the choice was made, or when, in spite of seeming frivolous, it became irreversible. There is no clear warning about that.
Labor Day Dinner
Munro’s clear-eyed, self-aware narrators are never easy on themselves. They are constantly requiring themselves to face reality, to be aware of and responsible for the consequences of their own choices. In “Labor Day Dinner,” the narrator, forty-three-year-old Roberta, has for the past year been living on a rundown farm with George, a younger man and former art teacher. His ambitious plan is to restore the farm and create a studio in which do to his sculpture. Roberta’s daughters Angela, seventeen, and Eva, twelve, are spending the summer with her. The atmosphere is emotionally charged, prickly, and tense. George does not approve of the way Roberta indulges her daughters, allowing them to practice ballet instead of doing any work. George does not approve of Roberta, who seems to be indulging herself with tears and moody idleness. On the other hand, Roberta (weeping silently behind her sunglasses) does not approve of George’s cooling ardor, his ungallant awareness of her age as evidenced by his request that she not wear a halter top to his cousin’s Labor Day dinner because she has flabby armpits. So far, this sounds like the unpromising stuff of the afternoon soaps. (In fact, some of Munro’s short stories first were published in popular magazines.) The difference is in what Munro is able to do with her material, the way in which she prevents her characters from deteriorating into stereotypes or her theme into cliché.
Roberta (who has reduced her waist only to discover that her face now looks haggard) reflects mournfully:
How can you exercise the armpits? What is to be done? Now the payment is due, and what for? For vanity…. Just for having those pleasing surfaces once, and letting them speak for you; just for allowing an arrangement of hair and shoulders and breasts to have its effect. You don’t stop in time, don’t know what to do instead; you lay yourself open to humiliation. So thinks Roberta, with self-pity—what she knows to be self-pity—rising and sloshing around in her like bitter bile. She must get away, live alone, wear sleeves.
The self-awareness, the complex mingling of humor and pathos, the comic inadequacy of the solution, to wear sleeves (rivaling Prufrock’s momentous decision to wear his trousers rolled), these lend to the character and to the story a dimension which is generally missing in popular fiction.
Roberta’s daughters are close observers of as well as participants in this somewhat lugubrious drama. Angela, watching the change in her mother from self-reliant woman to near wreck and viewing George as a despot who hopes to enslave them all, records in her journal, “If this is love I want no part of it.” On the other hand, sensitive Eva, watching her older sister develop the unpleasant traits of a typical adolescent, wants no part of that—“I don’t want it to happen to me.”
The characters all nearly get what they want, a way out of the emotional trauma in which they find themselves. On the way home from the Labor Day dinner, the pickup truck in which they are riding (the girls asleep in the back) comes within inches of being hit broadside by a car that came out of nowhere traveling between eighty and ninety miles an hour, no lights, its driver drunk. George did not touch the brake, nor did Roberta scream; they continue in stunned silence, pull into their yard and sit, unable to move.
What they feel is not terror or thanksgiving—not yet. What they feel is strangeness. They feel as strange, as flattened out and borne aloft, as unconnected with previous and future events as the ghost car was.
The story ends with Eva, waking and calling to them, “Are you guys dead?” and “Aren’t we home?”
The ending shocks everything in the story into a new perspective, making what went before seem irrelevant, especially Roberta’s and George’s halfhearted playing at love. For Munro, it seems that the thought of the nearness, the omnipresence, and the inevitability of death is the only thing which can put lives and relationships into true perspective, but this (as Munro states at the conclusion of “The Spanish Lady”) is a message which cannot be delivered, however true it may be.
The Love of a Good Woman
Munro continues at the top of her form in The Love of a Good Woman, where the pain of human contact, in its various guises, remains her central theme. In the title novella, Enid, a middle-aged, practical nurse finds herself attending the dying Mrs. Quinn. Lonely, kind Enid strives to do good, resisting her dislike of the sick woman. As an intruder in a household that cannot function without her, she is unaware of her attraction to the husband, a former classmate, until his wife implicates him in the death of a local optometrist. If the dying woman’s story is true, Enid must decide whether to confront the husband or to believe in his innocence as she begins to lose hers. This complex, loosely structured work ends ambiguously, as do most of the stories, with Enid hesitating between motion and stillness.
“Cortes Island” is the most troubling story of this group, perhaps because of its ambiguity, perhaps because human lives have gone terribly wrong. A newlywed couple rents a basement apartment from the elderly Gorries. When the young woman needs a job, Mrs. Gorrie asks her to sit with her wheelchair-bound husband. A stroke has rendered Mr. Gorrie virtually speechless, but by grunts he can make himself understood. He wants her to read scrapbook articles from Cortes Island, where long ago a house burned to the ground, a child escaped, and a man died. What happened on Cortes Island, where Mr. Gorrie operated a boat? Was the death an accident, suicide, murder?
This story is so subtly written that events are not immediately clear. Typically, Munro offers only hints, although the young woman realizes that the Gorries once had an intense relationship. With harsh noises, the disabled Mr. Gorrie demands, “Did you ever think that people’s lives could be like that and end up like this? Well, they can.” This marriage is a wreck of love, a ruin.
As always, Munro exhibits masterful use of irony. In “Jakarta,” two young wives argue over D. H. Lawrence’s assertion that a woman’s happiness lies in a man and that her consciousness must be submerged in his. Kath is a proper Canadian wife and mother, but Sonje, her pot-smoking, commune-dwelling friend, is an American. Over the years, conservative Kath breaks away from her stuffy marriage to become strong and self-reliant. Sonje, who has routinely accepted her husband’s wish to switch sexual partners, remains faithful to him even after he disappears in Jakarta.
In other stories, a daughter seeks to ease a strained relationship with her abortionist father by revealing the birth of her child, but she is talking to a dead man. A young girl realizes that she is completely, utterly alone. In the best kind of horror story, one that will chill any parent’s blood, a woman tries to entertain her grandchildren with a game that turns sinister as she glimpses the danger, as well as the pain, implicit in any human contact.
Munro has stated in an interview that her need and desire to write
has something to do with the fight against death, the feeling that we lose everything every day, and writing is a way of convincing yourself perhaps that you’re doing something about this.
Despite her characteristic concern for honesty and her determination to tell only the truth, it seems in this passage that she may be wrong about one thing: It seems clear that Alice Munro’s writing is destined to last for a very long time.
Principal short fiction
Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968; Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories, 1974; Who Do You Think You Are?, 1978 (pb. in U.S. as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, 1979); The Moons of Jupiter: Stories, 1982; The Progress of Love, 1986; Friend of My Youth: Stories, 1990; Open Secrets: Stories, 1994; Selected Stories, 1996; The Love of a Good Woman: Stories, 1998; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, 2001; No Love Lost, 2003; Runaway: Stories, 2004; Vintage Munro, 2004; The View from Castle Rock, 2006.
Canitz, A. E. Christa, and Roger Seamon. “The Rhetoric of Fictional Realism in the Stories of Alice Munro.” Canadian Literature, no. 150 (Autumn, 1996): 67-80.
Carrington, Ildikó de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989.
Clark, Miriam Marty. “Allegories of Reading in Alice Munro’s ‘Carried Away.’” Contemporary Literature 37 (Spring, 1996): 49-61.
Crouse, David. “Resisting Reduction: Closure in Richard Ford’s ‘Rock Springs’ and Alice Munro’s ‘Friend of My Youth.’” Canadian Literature, no. 146 (Autumn, 1995): 51-64.
Hiscock, Andrew. “‘Longing for a Human Climate’: Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth and the Culture of Loss.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 32 (1997): 17-34.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Mayberry, Katherine J. “‘Every Last Thing… Everlasting’: Alice Munro and the Limits of Narrative.” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Fall, 1992): 531-541.
Rasporich, Beverly. Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1990.
Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. Alice Munro: A Double Life. Toronto: ECW Press, 1992.
Smythe, Karen E. Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro, and the Poetics of Elegy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.