Events, Readers

Delve Seminar Summary: The Short Stories of Alice Munro & Others

[by Carol Imani]

In our first class, our Guide, Anna, asked us to introduce ourselves and talk about writers that have been particularly meaningful to us. Several participants named poets whose writing has meant the most to them. Other participants had recently completed the Delve seminar about Great Expectations and talked about how much they loved the book.

Our discussions during the first seminar session focused on two of Munro’s stories: “Boys and Girls” and “The Beggar Maid.” Anna encouraged us to read closely and pointed out how interpreting what Munro is saying might hinge on as little as what one word within a sentence means. We read “Boys and Girls” first, without Anna telling us much about it, in order to experience for ourselves some of what Munro seems to be doing. In “Boys and Girls” the narrator is telling us about a chapter in her life. Like a lot of Munro’s narrators, she is unnamed. We don’t know to what degree she has transcended the pain of what she is describing. The core issue is how the world is narrowing as she reaches adolescence and how she navigates her way out of that. A lot of our discussion focuses on the climatic moment in the story when the girl lets the horse that is going to be slaughtered run free. Clearly the horse is a symbol of the girl herself and the girl is trying to honor its doomed spirit. Munro has been criticized for making this symbolism too overt and Anna pointed out that “Boys and Girls” is one of her early stories. Our next reading was “The Beggar Maid,” which is also an earlier Munro story. We focused on trying to understand Rose’s motives in agreeing to marry Patrick, his motives in believing himself in love with her, and why she winds up leaving him. We discussed their family members, their visits to their families, and their differences in social class as being intertwined in the dynamics of their relationship. We talked about Patrick objectifying Rose, just as the woman from whom she rented a room was also doing.

For our second session, Anna asked us to read two more Munro stories: “Royal Beatings” and “The Progress of Love.” We discussed the ways in which both stories are structured. They are not traditional narratives. For instance, they often move from past to present and back to the past in surprising but associated ways, and the point of view might shift unexpectedly. Memory is unreliable in these stories, and sometimes we seem to be hearing about emotional memories rather than actual occurrences. Sometimes they have a collage-like structure, a piecing of things together, in ways that are meant to illuminate Munro’s themes. Often the stories hold together in the way a mobile does.

“Royal Beatings” prompted a great deal of discussion. The story’s protagonist, Rose, is a younger version of the central character in “The Beggar Maid.” We wondered if Munro wanted her audience to read the stories together so that they reflect on one another, and our sense of what both stories are about results from reading them together. We agreed that the beating scene was electrifying and very upsetting, but also riveting. It seemed to amount to a family ritual, which was unstoppable once it began and that both of Rose’s parents as well as Rose herself were complicit in it. Part of the ritual seemed to be scapegoating: Rose is made a scapegoat by her parents, and Flo makes a scapegoat of Rose’s father, denying that she prompted him to beat Rose. The scene in Rose’s room after the beating is unforgettable, and Munro’s psychological acuity in writing about Rose’s ineffectual bid for power, as the wronged one, rings very true to what we understand about human behavior and family dynamics.

At this point, we began to make more generalizations about the stories. Knowledge and truth, and the lack thereof, are central to them in many ways. We need to be clear about the differences between the actual author and the implied author, the narrator and the “narratee” (the person to whom the story is being told), and the “focalizer,” the character whose lens we are seeing things through. These distinctions often create ambiguity about what actually happened and the “truth” of the events being recounted. Additional layers of ambiguity and a lack of clarity about the truth come into play as we hear opinions, retellings, self-dramatizations, gossip, and deception. There is a decidedly post-modern sensibility infused in the stories and often a kind of furtive presentation of what is really true. Munro’s characters are always wrestling with layered, complex, and sometimes even contradictory versions of what they have experienced.

In reading “Miles City, Montana” at first we seem to be hearing a simple story about a family road trip to see relatives, but the story is greatly complicated by a prior incident at a swimming pool in which one of the children might have died. In this story, as in “The Beggar Maid,” the parents will divorce at a later date, and their inability to talk honestly with one another on this road trip—in particular about what happened at the swimming pool—foreshadows their separation many years later. In reading “Friend of My Youth,” we considered why the narrator is thinking about the death of the mother and how that is connected to the story that her mother tells her. Also, we considered why it is important that the two were members of a religious sect.

The Munro stories assigned for our last session were “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which the film Away from Her is based on, and “Carried Away.” “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is told from the point of view of the husband of a woman with rapidly developing dementia or Alzheimer’s who is put into a home for people with similar conditions. The story is about his mourning over the loss of their relationship, the ways in which his wife detaches from him, and both of them beginning other relationships. The new relationship he starts is with the wife of his own wife’s new “boyfriend” at the home. He initiates this relationship partly out of loneliness, but also because he wants to persuade the woman to bring her husband (who has come home) to see his wife, so that his wife doesn’t deteriorate further and get placed in the upstairs wing of the home, where the patients with more mental deterioration are housed. Ironically, he is being unfaithful to his wife in order to retain his connection to her, and yet another layer of irony relates to his history of unfaithfulness to her. I felt that this was a perfect story because everything that happened in it, down to the smallest detail, rang absolutely true to the overall situation and the characters as we came to know them.

Sometimes it is unclear what Munro wants us to feel, and we have to accept that we can’t understand a story nearly as fully as we would like. “Carried Away” is an example of a story of this type. People often feel trapped in Munro stories, and we wondered if the Canadian setting of these stories had anything to do with that. Issues of social class are of central importance in Munro’s stories, in particular what might be called “the hidden injuries of class” that Munro’s working class characters experience. Munro doesn’t shy away from the “juicy” behaviors of people, and they frequently behave badly to one another. It’s often male characters that behave badly because they are not as honest or self-aware as the female characters, though the stories are usually told from the perspective of the female characters.

We were also assigned stories by other authors, such as Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” ZZ Packer’s “Brownies,” and Deborah Eisenberg’s “Days.” I particularly enjoyed “Brownies” for its wry and hilarious depiction of a group of teenage black girls at a summer camp, plotting to “teach a lesson” to the troupe of white girls who they believe called one of them a nigger. The story was fresh, funny, poignant, and real.

Overall, I found the Delve seminar to be extremely satisfying. Anna was an excellent Guide through the rich and complex world of Munro’s work. I especially appreciated her focus on the complexities of each story and willingness to take the time to explore them. I have wanted to read Alice Munro’s stories for a long time, and I was glad that I finally did. I thought that the stories were unlike anything I’ve read previously, and in their complexity and honesty, they rang true to how we experience our lives and difficult situations. Reading the short stories of Alice Munro very much expanded my sense of what is possible in fiction.

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