Unintelligent Design: The Collected Works of Alice Munro, Chronicling Imperfect Lives in an Imperfect World by Eileen Austen


Before I begin I must start with a confession–I grew up stateside, west of the Lake Huron country where Munro’s Canadian stories are rooted. Her descriptions of the flat rolling land, the blustery, snowy, cold winters and hot summers full of fresh water swims and wild Queen Ann’s Lace, evoke memories of my own experience. And, although I am younger than Munro, the ethos and echoes of small town life, with its sharply delineated social cleavages, clearly resonates with me. I am naturally drawn to her writing and predisposed to appreciate each and every word.

Detractor’s contend that her work is parochial, rarely stepping outside the familiar boundaries of Ontario or British Columbia; she is stuck on questioning the mores of the nineteen forties, fifties and sixties; her plot lines, especially those appearing in later works such as Runaway and Too Much Happiness, are contrived, awkward and rambling, and her focus is far too narrow, concentrating on the lives of women and girls at the expense of broader subjects. Each objection is poised to argue that her work, while abundant, fails to achieve universal appeal.

David Schneider sums these complaints up neatly in his review of Munro’s nineteen- ninety-seven edition of Selected Stories:

A female protagonist has had a hard rural childhood in impoverished Great Depression era Ontario, in the country around Lake Huron. A tragedy occurs – usually offstage, but there are loads of wacky or weird relatives – molesters, drunks, suicides, lunatics and general eccentrics. She perdures, makes it to college, marries, then has kids and often moves to western Canada. The marriage falters – usually his fault, according to the POV of the narrator. She strays, usually with a blue collar sort, and lives a life of artistic decadence and emotional weakness. She has travails with her own kids- usually daughters that are as headstrong as she, and then refuses to age gracefully. (Schneider, 1)

Even if his description were entirely accurate, which it is not, this alone is not reason to conclude her work lacks ecumenicity. Who wants to take Joyce out of Ireland? How far did Woolf stray from her own milieu or Chekhov from his native soil? It is not the tableau but the feast upon it that matters. In fact, I believe her genius and its increasing recognition, evidenced by her receipt of the 2009 Mann Booker International Prize, is found precisely in what Schneider deplores. True, she mines similar material over and again. What is unique and uncanny about her endeavors is that despite the predictable time, place and subject, each story succeeds in telling us something new and important about ourselves. In the midst of small town libraries and quaint, unrushed Sunday suppers, she manages to reveal universal truths, not often pleasant, about the vagaries of men and women as they seek to find how to live.

One other major criticism of Munro’s work is that since she first began writing, she has been an old woman trying to recreate her life, looking back with fabricated vision. Here too, I disagree. In Powers (Runaway) Nancy, the protagonist, says “she believes in what she is doing, that what she wants to do if she can get the time to do it, is not so much to live in the past as to open it up and get one good look at it.” (Munro, 287) Take one good look at it – this is what Munro does so well. She extracts a skein from the past, unwinds its many threads and unearths them countless times in order to better understand the here and now. Indeed, Munro is nothing less than the consummate observer and reporter on the human condition; this is why her work endures.

Does Munro examine the world through a chromosomal lens? Absolutely, but then so did Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence and scores of other male writers. While still a young writer, one of the first conflicts Munro confronts is the tension between wanting to expand her mind and the binding grip of love and marriage. But to believe that in today’s parlance, what she seeks is balance, is a huge mistake. Balance is not what she seeks, the mundane juggling of domesticity and the demands made of an artist. She is expressing something far deeper and more intrinsic.

Pens can be weapons and Munro plunges hers straight through to the core conflict women have faced since Lilith was written out of Genesis – to assert independence and risk rejection or submit to drowning in a flood of social, personal and intimate expectations in the hope of obtaining love. The temptation in thinking about her work is to marginalize Munro as an ardent feminist or spokesperson for female emancipation. Whether or not this is true is secondary; what matters most in her stories is that no one fares particularly well in love – man or woman.

Throughout literature, mining the mind/body dilemma is rich with reward. Rebecca Goldstein and the early works of Doris Lessing provide great examples. But Munro goes beyond their exploration finding fault not just with the treatment of women, but with the entire, enigmatic design of the male/female dialectic. There is one, inescapable truth in her stories. Men and women and children need one another – the survival of the species depends on it. This truth is followed by an unavoidable question: Why then is it so difficult for people, particularly those in love, to reconcile their differences and find peace together?

I believe her conclusion is nothing less than questioning the construct of our entire species. How else can our behavior toward one another be explained? If any punishment results from picking that apple, it is to suffer in life and love, because try as we might, we are governed by larger forces. Munro places her characters under a powerful microscope. Observe any two people, I think she is saying, and you will find all the proof necessary to form this conclusion: there is little evidence of intelligent design in the universe.

Without assigning any religious connotation, one way to view her work is to conclude that her characters emerge onto the page stripped down, primeval, stained with something comparable to original sin. We are endowed with the ability to imagine perfection but hopelessly flawed in our capacity to attain it. This is not meant to be judgmental or persuasive—no soap box here. Munro is simply being her sapient self, telling it as she sees it.

Does she tell it with greater acuity through the voice of a female narrator? Whether relayed in first or third person, her narrator of choice is undoubtedly feminine. In her view women are more conflicted in love than men, more vulnerable to psychological and physical harm brought on by both men and women, mothers, fathers and lovers included, and more subject to social constraints imposed upon them largely by the laws of men. Women are closer to her own experience and certainly as she frames them, the more interesting and obvious choice to carry the weight of her fiction.

In her early work, and to date only novel, the Lives of Girls and Women lays the groundwork for issues Munro will go on to explore over more than a half-century of work. Setting is determinant and what happens to her characters cannot be divorced from the northern earth they walk upon. Yet, fate is mercurial, plot structure uncertain, “In that world people could go down in quicksand, be vanquished by ghosts or terrible ordinary cities; luck and wickedness were gigantic and unpredictable; nothing was deserved, anything might happen; defeats were met with crazy satisfaction.” (Munro, 31) Through the eyes of Del, the coming of age narrator, she grasps at understanding gender and work. When speaking of her aunts and other farmer’s wives and rural ladies like them, she observes: “They respected men’s work beyond anything: they also laughed at it. … And they would never, never meddle with it; between men’s work and women’s work was the clearest line drawn and stepping over this line, any suggestion of stepping over it, they would meet with light, amazed, regretfully superior, laughter.” (Munro, 38) Such humiliation put one out, exiled you beyond the pale, “The worst thing I gathered, the worst thing that could happen in this life was to have people laughing at you.” (Munro, 44)

Certain character defects depicted by Del appear in later stories where they assume even greater meaning. Ambition is laid bare in subtext, revealed in a seemingly harmless question, “Have you always – been interested – in country life?” (Munro, 43) Del finds this chilling, a warning, “Didn’t he think he was somebody! He thinks he’s somebody…… Pretensions were everywhere.” (Munro, 44) Special peril applies to female aspirations. Del senses the cupidity of her aunts over various achievements of her mother, “…and I would feel how contemptuous, how superior and silent and enviable they were, those people who all their lives could stay still, with no need to do or say anything remarkable. I was not so different from my mother but concealed it, knowing what dangers there were.” (Munro, 91)

Social class emerges as another inevitable aspect of setting. Del asks, “Do we hate those girls, to whom we were unfailingly obsequiously pleasant? No. Yes. We hate their immunity, well bred lack of curiosity, whatever kept them floating, charitable and pleased, on the surface life of Jubilee, and would float them on to sororities, engagements, marriages to doctors or lawyers in more prosperous places far away. We hated them because they could never be imagined entering the Town Hall toilets.” (Munro, 173) But love is the invisible, most surreptitious force facing a girl and although optimistic, Del’s mother is the first to let her know that growing up and giving into love is the most hazardous thing that can happen to a woman: “There is a change coming, I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up till now has been their connection to men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals. He shall hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force, a little closer than his dog, a little dearer than his horse. Tennyson wrote that. It’s true.” Use your brains her mother advises, “Don’t be distracted. Once you make that mistake, of being –distracted, over a man, your life will never be your own. You will get the burden, a woman always does.” (Munro, 193)

Of course love finds Del but not where expected. She is an honor’s student, ostracized for using her brains by all but one gifted, motivated fellow. They attempt to make love but he is clumsy and ignites no spark. Instead Del finds ardor in a poor, uneducated boy from church and is baptized in the “dreamy purr” of his arms. In describing her experience of him, she says “The mouth closed frankly around the nipple seemed to make an avowal of innocence, defenselessness, not because it imitated a baby’s breast but because it was not afraid of absurdity. Sex seemed to me all surrender – not the woman’s to the man but the person’s to the body, an act of pure faith, freedom in humility.” (Munro, 239)

Del is surprised then at her boyfriend’s need to break her will after he proposes marriage. Who do you think you are becomes his accusing battle cry. She does not capitulate and thinks she can leave him undamaged. But as her mother warned, she gets sidetracked. She daydreams about warm thighs and burgeoning orgasms instead of concentrating on her scholarship exams, her greatest hope for getting out of Jubilee. She falls short, fails to make the grade, is sabotaged by love.

In her 1978 collection entitled Who Do You Think You Are?, later released as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, Munro raises the stakes. The rural setting, social backwardness, poverty and the eccentricities of love in Royal Beatings, (Selected Stories) mix into a lethal combination so powerful the destruction carries from one generation to the next. When Rose’s mother dies and her father remarries, Flo weds with the understanding that for her, it is a step up the socio-economic ladder, a fragile hold she fears she might lose. Told through a meandering, non-linear plot, the reader learns that Flo is beset with insecurities, jealousies and peasant-like suspicions and she suspects the worst. When Rose challenges her authority and standing, memories of incest, infanticide and murder skew Flo’s vision; this viral, internecine chaos must be stamped out.

Flo enrolls Rose’s father in her mission. She spews forth a list of sins for which Rose is guilty, “her rudeness, and sloppiness and conceit…She mentions her brother’s innocence, Rose’s corruption. ‘Oh don’t you think you’re somebody,’ she says, and a moment later, ‘Who do you think you are?” (Munro, 130) Rose objects and for a moment senses her father’s reluctance and embarrassment but realizes by now she “ought to know she is wrong, in thinking she can count on this. The fact that she knows about it, and he knows she knows, will not make things any better.” She watches as her father’s face fills with “hatred and pleasure.” (Munro, 132) Rose wonders as her father strikes her, “How can this go on in front of such daily witnesses, the linoleum, the calendar with the mill and creek and autumn trees, the old accommodating pots and pans?…..Pots can show malice, the patterns of linoleum can leer up at you, treachery is the other side of dailiness.” (Munro, 133)

Flo realizes she has over reacted but is not really sorry. What’s important is to save face and restore the balance of power she has inspired Rose’s father to maintain. With this story as in many others, Munro leaves out the most important detail: did her husband have sex with his daughter Rose? Are her senses trustworthy or does memory poison her sight? In the aftermath everyone pretends nothing has happened, makes jokes, finds way to make things seem normal, creates “a feeling of permission, relaxation, even a current of happiness in the room.” (Munro, 137) With a paucity of words we learn that things are never patched up, never normal. “After Rose put her in the home, {Flo} stopped talking. She removed herself, and spent most of her time sitting in a corner of her crib, looking crafty and disagreeable, not answering anybody, though she occasionally showed her feelings by biting a nurse.” (Munro, 139)

Rose has her comeuppance. In The Beggar Maid, (Selected Stories) she moves on to become the poor, accomplished, scholarship student who is romanced by an older man, heir to a mercantile fortune. At first Rose is guileless and unimpressed but the positive response by her peers and professors force her to take stock – the bonds of marriage may offer freedom and possibility as well as constraints. Despite his many deficits, sexual prowess among them, and the fear she doesn’t quite love him, she is afraid to turn down his offer, afraid to be ungrateful. After all, Rose says, “only middle class people had choices anyway, that if she’d had the price of a train ticket to Toronto, her life would have been different.” (Munro, 182)

With her change in marital status she acquires additional recognition. Girls admire her diamond ring. People who previously ignored her suddenly take interest. “Oh Rose, isn’t it wonderful! When are you coming back again? We’re going to give a tea for you, the ladies in town all want to give a tea for you.” She observes that “Paths were opening up to her, barriers softening….She dimpled and sparkled and turned her self into a fiancée with no trouble at all.” (Munro, 176)

The unhappiness that follows eventually provokes her to tell her husband that she no longer loves him, and in a moment of inside humor and wit, says “I never loved you.” (Munro, 179) Like many bad partnerships they do not take leave of one another until “nearly mortal damage had been done.” (Munro, 183) Years later, when they see each other in an airport, she is tempted to approach him, deliver the news that she is now happily married. She notes that his birthmark has faded (this blemish a trait common in many of Munro’s men) but his venom toward her for rejecting him is unrelenting. “He made a face at her. It was a truly hateful, savagely warning, face; infantile, self-indulgent, yet calculated; it was a timed explosion of disgust and loathing.” (Munro, 184) Men, Munro is saying, may also be damaged by love, swallowed whole only to be cast out like common spittle.

Face, (Too Much Happiness) one of Munro’s few stories with a first person, male narrator, probes masculine pride and vanity. Born with a large, mulberry colored birthmark on one side of his face, the narrator is rejected by his father at birth. He says to the narrator’s mother, “What a chunk of chopped liver….You don’t think you’re going to bring that into the house.” (Munro, 141) The house is a large one located in town on a substantial piece of property. The father is wealthy, a person of note; he can’t afford to have this splotch soil his primogenitor. He rejects both mother and son and within a short time ensconces his mistress and her daughter Nancy, a year younger than the narrator, into his guesthouse at the back of the estate.

Home schooled, Nancy is the narrator’s only friend until he is eight or nine years old. Nancy adores him and wants to be like him. One afternoon while playing together, Nancy, hoping to gain his approval, paints her face red. He doesn’t see his face as red; he thinks it’s a soft, fuzzy brown. Outraged, he runs to his mother in tears. “You nasty little beast,” she screams at Nancy followed by a stream of rancor. When Nancy’s mother steps out to see what’s happening, his mother turns on her. “All this poured out of my mother as if there was a torrent of rage, of pain, of absurdity in her that would never stop.” (Munro, 156)

Violence is in the subtext of most of Munro’s stories and it is omnipresent here. After the incident his mother says, “Fetch me my garden shears…..While I’m out here I might as well trim the glads. Some of them are downright wilted.” (Munro, 157) By the time she is finished they are hacked down and strewn every which way. Not one is left standing. For once, though, she prevails over her husband. The mistress is sent away but then so is Nancy, her son’s only friend. He is sent to an all boy school where he is quickly nick-named Grape-Nuts. Years later, his mother tells him that Nancy, whom he never sees again, took a razor to her face, making permanent her desire to be like him. She says of this, “Such deep feelings. Children have.” (Munro, 160)

In The Albanian Virgin (Selected Stories) Munro portrays men and women equally capable of conspiracy and skullduggery. Two story lines run parallel, one concerning Charlotte, a vacationing bookshop owner from Victoria, the other, possibly fantasy and certainly fantastic, about a young woman named Lottar; both are traveling in the Balkans. During an afternoon tour, Charlotte’s guide is stalked and killed by a rival clansman who seeks to settle the score between two families locked into generations of mutual honor killing. This event prompts Charlotte to create a story for a movie. In Charlotte’s rendering, Lottar is caught in the senseless crossfire and taken to an ethnic enclave, where as inadvertent booty, she is expected to become a member of their kula.

Men set the rules and establish the practices in this tribal setting. They sit around polishing their guns and exchanging tales of valor, while the women work. “Knitting is what they did while they trotted back and forth to the spring with their water barrels strapped to their backs, or took the path to the fields or to the beech wood, where they collected the fallen branches. They knitted stockings…..like lightening strokes. Women’s hands must never be idle.” (Munro, 569)

Collegial on the surface, behind Lottar’s back the women cannot resist the temptation of money; they dress her and drape her in jewelry in order to prepare her for sale to a Muslim buyer. She is spared this fate by the intervention of a Franciscan monk who is more concerned about her soul being delivered to heathens than for her physical well being. “Did you know you were being married?” the monk asks. “Is it something you want, to be married.” When Lottar says no, he screams “Take off that gold trash. Take those clothes off her. I am going to make her a Virgin!” (Munro, 574)

To become a Virgin, Lottar must swear to never marry and to assume a male persona. In exchange for this, she is entitled to the privileges of a man – to own a horse, a gun and to wear men’s clothing. Absent a spouse she is likely to be poor. Then again, no one will bother her and she’ll be able to eat with men. Presented with this Faustian proposition, Lottar chooses female revocation in exchange for freedom and assumes a neutered existence.

Angry with her decision, the women strip Lottar of her skirts, bracelets and face paint; she watches as her hair is chopped off and falls to the ground in irregular plaits. When she steps into her trousers the women chide her. “Tomorrow you would have been a bride,” they said. “Now you will never have a son.” (Munro, 574) Afraid the women will try once more to bargain her to the highest bidder, Lottar flees the encampment and follows the monk to the Bishop’s monastery. But, despite her assumption of a male role, the Bishop refuses to let her enter the sanctuary lest her female body defile sacred space.

Plotted with great complexity, Lottar’s journey into the elemental, dark side of male/female social organization is juxtaposed against the contemporary infidelities and eventual break-up of two couples working and studying in Victoria. With the dissolution of their marriages, Munro poses a question: which social formation is more evolved, more treacherous – the tribe or the suburban couple? Which extracts the highest price? And as always in her work, which is the most damaging? The questions leave the narrator unmoored. She says, “I had to get back to the store….but I felt as if I could as easily walk another way, just anyway at all. My connection was in danger, that was all. Sometimes our connection is frayed, it is in danger, it seems almost lost. Views and streets deny knowledge of us, the air grows thin. Wouldn’t we rather have a destiny to submit to then, something that claims us as anything, instead of such flimsy choices, arbitrary days?” (Munro, 602)

Destiny and the capriciousness of fate loom large in Munro’s stories. In Chance, (Runaway) a story aptly named, Juliet, the young female narrator is desperate to continue her education but money, or the lack of it, prevents her from realizing her dream. When she is offered a teaching position she is encouraged to take it, to set her sights lower, do something more practical, less ambitious. “Juliet was used to this sort of advice, though disappointed to hear it coming from these men who did not look or sound as if they had knocked about in the real world very eagerly themselves. In the town where she grew up her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb, and people were quick to point out the expected accompanying drawbacks – her inability to run a sewing machine or tie a neat parcel, or notice that her slip was showing. What would become of her was the question.” (Munro, 53)

On the train westward, traveling to start her new job, Juliet is thrown into a consequential encounter; she rejects the advances of one man for another who is far more appealing if predictably less appropriate. The first unhappy man commits suicide by throwing himself under the train while Juliet sits on the toilet and menstruates over the tracks. Convinced she is responsible for the man’s demise Juliet weeps and finds solace in the welcoming arms of Eric. Against custom and without caution she follows Eric to the distant and isolated Whale Bay. Here she encounters his housekeeper and paid protector, Alio. When Juliet asks Alio if she lives in the house with Eric, Alio replies, “No, I do not live here. I live down the hill with my hussband.” (Munro, 77) Her meaning is clear, “that the word hussband carries the weight of pride and reproach.” She is a mere caretaker but Juliet is single, in heated pursuit of her quarry and therefore of questionable character. She is of lesser value.

Like Del, Rose and other female narrators, Munro follows Juliet through a series of stories. Soon (Runaway) tells of Juliet’s return home to visit her ailing mother and retired father who arguably lost his teaching job because of her scandalous situation. She has fallen in love with Eric and is the mother of Penelope, their magnificent, Homeric love-child. Without the warnings of a prescient mother like Del’s, Juliet strikes out against conformity. She consciously refuses to marry.

Juliet’s mother Sara is desperate for her to wed, seeing only the benefits, none of the pitfalls. But Juliet knows too much about her parent’s marriage to be cowed into convention. Juliet’s defiance estranges her from Sara, forms a line of tension that can’t be bridged. Years later, after Sara has died, Juliet recalls their last moments together when she happens upon a letter she’d written to Eric during her time away from him. “Then she thought that some shift must have taken place….Some shift concerning where home was. Not at Whale Bay with Eric but back where it had been before, all her life before. Because it’s what happens at home that you try to protect, as best you can, for as long as you can.” (Munro, 125) Like the man on the train only far more important, Juliet is left feeling culpable, but in order to be true to herself, she refuses to acquiesce. She’s left with conflicted feelings. To save herself she failed her mother when Sara most needed her.

Mothers and daughters are predestined to clash. Nowhere is this more evident than in Silence, the last of the Juliet trilogy, endowed with one of Munro’s most unreliable narrators. The story opens innocently. Juliet has traveled some distance to visit Penelope, ostensibly at Penelope’s request, to a spiritual retreat where her daughter has been residing for a long but unspecified period of time. On the ferry to the remote island Juliet speaks of her daughter in glowing terms. “I’m spoiled….She’s twenty years old, my daughter – she’ll be twenty one this month, actually – and we haven’t been apart much.” (Munro, 127)

We are told Juliet is surprised when she arrives and finds that Penelope is part of a religious cult; more surprised when her daughter is not there to greet her. A large, domineering woman informs Juliet that her daughter does not wish to see her. She continues to bruise, adding that in her transcendent quest, Penelope blames Juliet for the absence of spiritual direction in her life. For a time Juliet pursues Penelope but is eventually forced to concede – she has lost her daughter, she is not coming back and she doesn’t understand why.

When years later Juliet has a fleeting, chance encounter with Penelope’s childhood friend, it is clear Heather does not know about their schism. She rattles on about Penelope’s five kids, the cost of school uniforms, the inconveniences of living so far north. But she is in a rush, no time to explain. Juliet is left to conclude “You know, we always have the idea that there is this reason or that reason and we keep trying to find out reasons…..But I think the reason may be something not so easily dug out. Something like purity in her nature…..My father used to say of someone he disliked, that he had no use for that person. Couldn’t those words mean simply what they say? Penelope does not have a use for me.” (Munro, 158) If Juliet does know the reason it is not revealed. Nor are her reasons for not trying to find her bevy of grand kids. This mystery remains with the reader; Munro is not going to tell.

Motherhood and love of children are never portrayed with ease. In Miles City Montana (Selected Stories) Munro describes a young mother as a detached, dislocated observer. “In my own house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide- sometimes from the children but more often from the jobs to be done and the phone ringing and the sociability of the neighborhood. I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself.” (Munro, 378)

Staying focused and not being ground down by the demands of a needy infant are painted with brutal candor in Jarkarta. (Love of a Good Woman) “When she (Kath) nurses her baby she often reads a book, sometimes smokes a cigarette, so as to not sink into the sludge of animal function. And she’s nursing so she can shrink her uterus and flatten her stomach, not just provide the baby – Noelle – with precious maternal antibodies.” (Munro, 80)

Kath and her friend Sonje find themselves one day discussing the story Fox by D.H. Lawrence where he claims that a woman can only be truly happy, truly married if she submerges her will into his. To Kath this means defeat; giving in, losing all resistance to passion, having many babies; to Sonje it conjures something ideal and beautiful. Despite Sonje’s husband’s promptings to experiment with sex outside the bounds of marriage, she remains loyal and speaks of loving him “agonizingly.” Kath requires more safety and while she would never think of being unfaithful, it is not because of the depth of her love. It is due to her need to be connected. If she threatened that bond through adultery, “all of her life would blow up in her face …. but she could not say that she loved Kent agonizingly.” (Munro, 97)

Munro twists and turns this tension between the need for consuming love and the need for self protection most adroitly and brilliantly in Passion. (Runaway) Grace, an orphan child raised by a poor but caring aunt and uncle, is expected to assume their modest, if unchallenging business of caning seats for chairs. Grace wants more and continues to attend public schools until she has exhausted what is available to her. Once again an older man offers his sage advice, “telling her this was getting her nowhere since she was not going to be able to go to college.” (Munro, 166) Because college was out of her reach, he suggested she get “a taste of life” leaving Grace to wonder why an educator “did not believe learning had to do with life.” (Munro, 167)

The High School Principal’s idea of living it up is to arrange a summer job for her waiting tables at a lakeside resort. She accepts and it is here that she attracts the attention of Maury, an earnest and reliable fellow, who takes her to see the movie, Father of the Bride. Maury is surprised when Grace does not enjoy the film and Grace is unable to articulate her rage to him. Grace looks at Elizabeth Taylor with dismay. “That was what men – people, everybody – thought they should be like. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be to be fallen in love with. Then she would become a mother and she’d be all mushily devoted to her babies. Not selfish anymore, but just as pea-brained. Forever.” (Munro, 164)

Maury’s mother, Mrs. Travers, encourages her son to bring Grace home for dinner. Grace is enchanted with his family, finds excuses to spend time with his grateful, intelligent mother. “In fact she fell in love with Mrs. Traver, rather as Maury had fallen in love with her.” (Munro, 165) After a period of time the assumption of marriage implicitly fills the air; Grace imagines a husband for herself. “He would be handsome, like Maury. Passionate, like Maury. Pleasant physical intimacies would follow.” (Munro, 173) But intimacies are not forthcoming. He felt a need to protect her and “the ease with which she offered herself threw him off balance.” (Munro, 173) One afternoon Mrs. Travers warns her against expecting too much, expecting everything from one man. They are discussing Anna Karenina and her prospective mother-in-law reveals to Grace how much she identifies with Dolly, the maid who has to figure out how to do laundry for additional family and friends when they are vacationing in the countryside. “I suppose that’s just how your sympathies change as you get older. Passion gets pushed behind the washtubs. Don’t pay attention to me, anyway. You don’t do you?” (Munro, 172)

But Grace is attentive and does listen – she does not want to accept life without exhilaration. Is it a coincidence or a test when Grace cuts her foot and requires medical care? She has a choice. She can venture off with Neil, Maury’s half-brother, a married physician with children, or play it safe, permit Maury to drive her to the hospital. Mrs. Travers suggests she go with Neil, saying “This is 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.” (Munro, 181) The mystery of this cautionary remark tips the scale for Grace. Washtubs be dammed; the allure of Neil becomes irresistible.

In contrast to Maury’s hesitation or inability to take possession of Grace’s body, Neil’s desperation is overwhelming – he needs to claim her now. Grace, wired with hunger, gladly complies. After, when questioned by Neil about Maury, Grace denies her engagement even as Neil makes it clear he cannot take Maury’s place. Later she remembers his goodnight embrace, his arms wrapped tightly around her, “as if he was telling her she was wrong to give up on him, everything was possible, but then again that she was not wrong, he meant to stamp himself on her and go.” (Munro, 195)

Grace takes a ride with Neil but does not follow him over his suicidal edge. Maury, willing to forgive, asks for a simple affirmation – just tell him that she didn’t want to go with his brother, but Grace finds it too unbearable to lie. She answers with the raw, uncensored truth. “I did want to go,” she says. “She was going to add I’m sorry but stopped herself.” (Munro, 196) It is Mr. Travers who comes to Grace to “tidy things up.” He apologizes for Neil’s terrible alcoholism and hands her an envelope with a check for one thousand dollars. “Immediately she thought of sending it back or tearing it up, and sometimes even now she thinks it would have been a grand thing to do. But in the end, of course, she was not able to do it. In those days, it was enough money to insure her a start in life.” (Munro, 196)

The undertow of violence and calamity that pulls at Grace in Passion, since after all she might have been killed along with Neil for her transgression, takes on even greater dimension in her latest and possibly final collection, Too Much Happiness. In these stories murder, physical brutality and heinous sexual exploitation take the reader into an even deeper heart of darkness.

In Dimensions, Munro is unmerciful in her depiction of a woman who has been deprived of education, hope or even the minimal expectation that she is valued and appreciated. When one night after an argument Doree does not come home for a night, her husband Lloyd kills their three children. Declared unfit to stand trial, Lloyd is placed in a psyche ward miles away from Doree’s meager job as a motel housekeeper. Nevertheless, Doree takes three buses in each direction to visit him when she can. She is not conflicted by her intellect or desire for independence – she doesn’t know better. On the contrary, she wills her way to forgive him and in thinking about her situation, concludes that “Lloyd, of all people, might be the person she should be with now. What other use could she be in the world…..?” (Munro, 30)

The divide of power between men and women is so uncomfortably explored in Wenlock Edge that it reads more like Hitchcock or King. The set up has elements reminiscent of other Munro stories: the unnamed female narrator; the seamless drop from the present time into memory; the narrator away from home fending for herself in the cruel world; and, the complicit, female cohort, Nina, who wants the narrator to share in her unseemly, compromised existence.

When Nina suggests she should have dinner with Mr. Purvis, her tormentor and provider, she knows what mischief she has put into play. Mr. Purvis’s housekeeper, his perfidious ally, is the one who arrives to deliver the unsuspecting narrator into a nicely decorated den of iniquity. Once inside, and before being introduced to Purvis, the housekeeper calmly demands the narrator to remove her clothing, every last stitch of it, as blandly as if she were announcing the time. The narrator takes this lurid requirement as a challenge and believes she is up to the occasion, “she took it more as a dare than a preliminary to further trespass, and my going along with it had more to do with the folly of pride….more to do with some shaky recklessness than with anything else.” (Munro, 79)

Ultimately her rash decision to go along with Purvis, to sit naked at dinner with her legs open while he dines in a luxurious smoking jacket, is not without consequence. “I would always be reminded of what I had agreed to do,” she later notes, realizing there is no safe place for women. (Munro, 91) The potential for violence against women is ubiquitous, even for smart ones. “I was writing a good essay. I would probably get an A. I would go on writing essays and A’s because that was what I could do. The people who awarded scholarships, who built universities and libraries, would continue to dribble out money so that I could do it. But that was not what mattered. That was not going to keep you from damage.” (Munro, 92)

This notion of female duplicity is further examined in the disturbing waters of Child’s Play. What is particularly horrific about the drowning of the Down’s Syndrome girl is that it is a shared experience. It’s possible that either young woman might have committed their crime alone but there is an unspoken bond between the faux twins, Charlene/Marlene, a shared recognition of a profound personal and cultural understanding. Feminine domesticity abides because women comply. Compliance requires allegiance and allegiance requires hierarchy. Permission is granted to annihilate the violators, “the mice and slugs” who expect they can roam outside the circle and survive.

Managing expectations is at the heart of Too Much Happiness, the title story of this book. It is one of Munro’s few works set outside Canada – in Russia and Sweden – and in another time period, late Victorian. The story draws upon actual history to chronicle the life of Sophia Kovalesy, the first woman to hold an academic post in mathematics at a major European University. In Munro’s imagined depiction of Kovalesy’s life, there is upheaval in the rebellious streets of Moscow and Paris but the lurking danger is not physical; what’s potentially lethal is for Sophia, a woman of substance and accomplishment, to become attached to love.

To make her way in the world Sophia is forced to marry. Young women who wished to study abroad were unable to leave Russia if they remained single. She marries Vladimir, a revolutionary intellectual whom she admires but does not love. “Vladimir had not been a coward but he lacked the manly certainties. That was why he could grant her some equality those others couldn’t and why he could never grant her that enveloping warmth and safety.” (Munro, 295)

Munro contrasts Sophia’s relationship with Vladimir to her feelings about Maksim, an unfaithful lover who neither respects women nor believes in their call for social change. Maksim is masculine, certain of his sexual potency; he has something valuable to offer. “That marvelous assurance he has, that her father had, you can feel it when you are a little girl snuggled up in their arms and you want it all your life.” (Munro, 295) This need is not easily shed and Sophia feels drawn to him despite his obvious failings. He is unable to accept her as both a woman and a scholar and Sophia understands that he views her as a “delightful freak” and something of a fraud; he feels hoodwinked by her charm that hides “a mind most unconventionally furnished, under her curls.” (Munro, 250)

Women too are not immune from holding her suspect. After being awarded the Bordin Prize in Paris, Sophia is showered with attention and compliments. “But they had closed their doors when it came to giving her a job. They would no more think of that than of employing a learned chimpanzee …Wives were the watchers on the barricade, the invisible implacable army…Men whose brains were blowing old notions apart were still in the thrall to women whose heads were full of nothing but the necessity of tight corsets, calling cards, and conversations that filled your throat with a kind of perfumed fog.” (Munro, 267)

On a return passage to Sweden, where Sophia goes to die, her mind fills with consternation. “How terrible it is, Sophia thinks. How terrible the lot of women. And what might a woman say if Sophia told her about the new struggles, women’s battle for votes and places at the universities? She might say, But that is as God wills. And if Sophia urged her to get rid of this God and sharpen her mind, would she not look at her – Sophia – with a certain stubborn pity, and exhaustion, and say, How then, without God, are we to get through this life?” (Munro, 294)

Before dying Sophia spoke to her sisters of her new projects, most notably a novel about her days as a youth that reified something important, that “there was a pulse in life.” She continued, saying, “Her hope was that in this piece of writing she would discover what went on. Something underlying. Invented, but not.” When her daughter comes into the room one last time Sophia’s dying words are thought to be “Too much happiness.” (Munro, 302) They might just as well have been who do you think you are!

Sophia is speaking for Munro when she urges women to get rid of this God. For look what this God has done to women especially, but to men and women both. She is asking the ever present question – why is it so difficult to put all the pieces together? What is it about love that so paralyzes women, so distorts the character of men? How can anyone examine the human condition and conclude that this is evidence of intelligent design? Given the range of tensions between men and women, it’s absurd to believe one can go through life and love unscathed, undamaged. And, who do you think you are if you are foolish enough to even entertain the notion. We make ourselves unhappy muddling through our attempts to triumph over what Carl Sagan kindly refers to as our reptilian brain. Through her keen observations of social constructs, Munro concludes we are primitive in love; it’s embedded in our DNA. To countenance any other reality – to think that it’s possible to live an integrated life of the mind and heart – well that’s just too much to hope for, too much happiness.

Works Cited
Goldstein, Rebecca. The Mind Body Problem. New York: Penguin USA, 1993.
Lessing, Doris. Children of Violence. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc, 1970.
Munro, Alice. The Lives of Girls and Women. New York: Random House, 1971.
—, Collected Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996.
—, The Love of a Good Woman. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998.
—, Runaway. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2004.
—, Too Much Happiness. New York: Random House, 2009.
Schneider, Dan. “Selected Stories by Alice Munro.” Laura Hird. December 2, 2008. Web.

 

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Eileen Austen has been nominated for several awards including the Kirkwood Prize at UCLA where she was a student in the Extension Writer’s Program. A recent Creative Writing graduate of the low residency MFA program at the University of California, Austen worked with Tod Goldberg, Mary Otis, Deanne Stillman and Mark Haskell Smith. This year Austen was selected to attend and become a member of The Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

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