Posts Categorized: Alice Munro

Pride – Alice Munro

As I’ve mentioned earlier in posts regarding Alice Munro’s stories, she is a master at creating complex narratives which span time.  “Pride” published in the April 2011 issue of Harper’s continues that trend, but not as deftly as “Axis” or “Corrie.”

The story starts pre-World War II and involves two outcasts from a small town in Ontario.  The narrator is an outcast due to his harelip, a physical deformity that keeps him on the outskirts, accepted, but overlooked.  It also keeps him from serving in the military during the war, which seems strange to me, but I’m going to trust Munro checked her facts.  The other character is a rich girl, then woman, named Oneida.  Her stature in the town as the bank manager’s daughter keeps her from being close to anyone.  After her father is involved in a scandal, she’s even more reclusive.

A relationship starts between Oneida and the narrator.  It’s built around friendship, but also need, as both characters are fairly lonely people.  There are missed opportunities as the narrator is self-conscious of his harelip and believes no one would want him, let alone a beautiful, sophisticated woman like Oneida.  For her part, she is seen as unapproachable and ages without serious suitors or loves.

The story is quiet, with a subdued mood.  Time moves slowly in the town, and while changes occur, their meaning is not always clear to the reader.  A vast apartment complex is built.  It seems like this is supposed to ground the reader in a time period or signal that we have shifted a decade into the future, but the importance is lost.

Toward the end of the story, both characters have aged considerably, but it feels out of place.  I missed when that happened.  Was Munro trying to make a point?  Time passes by so quickly that we all fail to notice, or was it a mechanical error in the story?  It feels like Munro was aware that the movement of time was a problem in this story, because at the end, Oneida says, “She’s on email.  She says that’s what I should do.  I’m not keen on it somehow.  Are you?”

When I read this it was a shock.  I thought the characters were in their 40’s or 50’s, and then I realized they were around their 70’s.  How did I miss that?  There were lines like, “During those years when the new shopping mall was built on the south edge of town,” and “looking forward to a careful old age,” that should have been clues, but I skimmed past them.  So when I read the line about email it felt like a deliberate, contrived piece of dialogue to pass information to the reader.  Email equals sometime in the late 90’s or early 00’s.  Okay, wow, Oneida and the narrator are both well into old age.  For me, this didn’t work.  I enjoy how Munro navigates decades in a matter of pages, but “Pride” is not her best example of this ability.

Axis – Alice Munro – Fragments and Time

Axis” by Alice Munro is a story that breaks off into multiple narratives, which like her story “Corrie,” span across decades.  The story revolves around three characters: Grace, Avie, and Royce.  Grace and Avie are both farm girls on scholarship to university where they intend to meet their future husbands.  This story takes place around the 1950’s.  That’s my guess from the opening sentence, “Fifty years ago, Grace and Avie were waiting at the university gates, in the freezing cold.”  Essentially, “Axis” examines the time period and the romantic/sexual relationships of the characters.

Royce is a World War II veteran and isn’t as earnest as the young women.  Whereas the women both want to marry, Royce is more interested in sex.  He’s been dating Grace during the school year, and comes out to visit her family’s farm in the summer time, after she has discontinued her education.  The whole scene is setup where the reader knows what will happen.  Grace’s family mistrusts Royce, and the weekend is spent trying to orchestrate a way for the young couple to have sex.  When their plan comes to fruition it’s no surprise that they are caught.  Royce’s reaction, while not unbelievable, is definitely over the top, and makes him despicable.
The narration shifts and Avie takes over.  The story jumps to her being married, being happy, speeds forward and suddenly she randomly meets Royce on a train.  What’s the point of this meeting?  To show that Grace’s life could have been like Avie’s if she hadn’t met Royce?  To show us that in the fifty years since Royce walked away from Grace that he, Royce, has become a geographer and drifted around without getting married or having kids?
It’s interesting that the story revolves around Grace, but never gives her a voice.  We see her in a limited way from Royce and Avie’s perspectives.  We don’t know what happened to her.  Both characters go on with their lives.  Perhaps, that’s what makes this story haunting.  It speaks to how easily we move on.  We relocate, and faces disappear.  That dear friend from college becomes a postcard around the holidays, an email address, and a Facebook page until they recede into memory, and then out of it.  They vanish.

Corrie – Alice Munro – Mood

Corrie” by Alice Munro reminds me of an Alfred Hitchcock film.  There’s something sinister in the story below the surface.  It opens with Howard, an architect hired to work on a church, consulting with his client and client’s daughter, Corrie, at their home.  Corrie is unlike most young women and seems to play by her own rules.  At first, Howard is put off by her forthrightness and humor.  She seems like Audrey Horne from Twin Peaks: a mix of naiveté, mystery, and sexiness.
As the story proceeds, Howard and Corrie have an affair.  There is an off-putting feeling that develops because Corrie has a lame leg from polio, and Howard is vaguely attracted by this.  

He hadn’t been sure how he would react to the foot, in bed.  But in some way it seemed more appealing, more unique, than the rest of her.

 The affair is discovered by a maid, and the two are blackmailed.  The blackmail sets the mood for the rest of story.  The two are no longer in control.  Year after year, Corrie pays money, which Howard delivers to a P.O. Box.  Howard no longer lives in the same city, but he still makes trips to see Corrie.  The affair continues.

By the end of the story, Corrie has come to a realization.  This isn’t the worked over epiphany that deserves to get trashed, but something deeper.  The woman who has blackmailed them dies.  Corrie attends the funeral.  It’s there that things begin to fit into place.  Trying to write a letter to Howard, she waits until the morning.

There’s always one morning when you realize that the birds have all gone.

She knows something.  She has found it in her sleep. 

There is no news to give him.  No news, because there never was any. 

No news about Sadie, because Sadie doesn’t matter and she never did.  No post-office box, because the money goes straight into an account or maybe just into a wallet.  General expenses.  Or a modest next egg.  A trip to Spain.  Who cares?  People with families, summer cottages, children to educate, bills to pay—they don’t have to think about how to spend such an amount of money.  It can’t even be called a windfall.  No need to explain it.

There is a moment when Corrie is overwhelmed.  The reader is caught up in the actions of Howard, and identifies with Corrie as she’s betrayed.  What happens next casts the reader off, and shifts the story in a way that is dark and unsettling.

But then there is a surprise.  She is capable, still, of shaping up another possibility.

If he doesn’t know that Aadie is dead he will just expect things to go on as usual.  And how would he know, unless he is told?  And who would he be told by, unless by Corrie herself?

She could say something that would destroy them, but she does not have to.

What a time it has taken her, to figure this out.

And after all, if what they had—what they have—demands payment, she is the one who can afford to pay.

When she goes down to the kitchen again she goes gingerly, making everything fit into its proper place.

The reader is left stomaching Corrie’s decision.  The character seems to have no moral qualms about it, but for the reader it’s painful and disturbing.  Corrie is willing to propagate the lie to have this relationship.  And what is the relationship?  An affair with real affection, possibly love?  Or a man, pimping himself out for a better lifestyle?

Please checkout the great discussion of this story on Reading the Short Story, a blog by Charles May.