Master of the Contemporary Short Story – Alice Munro

“When Patrick visits Rose’s family I see my father sitting at the kitchen table at my mother’s house at the end of Lowertown Road in Wingham and seeing the plastic swan with the paper napkins in it and my mother being ashamed on more levels than she can count. When Rose visits Patrick’s family I see my grandparent’s massive dining-room table in Oakville and feel the weight of the heavy silverware, just as Rose does, and I pass judgment in them as if this is the way they really were.”

 

This quote is very interesting as it reveals how Alice Munro’s story “The Beggar Maid” is actually a reflection of her own life and marriage. To me, this really means something, as every artist’s work somewhat represents themselves. There is no separating the art from the artist. Munro’s “rags to riches” story is almost similar to that of Cinderella as well. It also reveals the divide between the poor and the rich Canadians, and the differences in the quality of their lives.

 

“He came to visit her once, in North Vancouver. He described being greeted at the door by a ‘smashingly beautiful’ woman with a baby in her arms. She invited him in and since she didn’t have any alcohol in the house, and believed that people in literary circles had to be offered a drink, she didn’t offer him anything at all. Finally, in a parched voice, he asked for a drink of water.”

 

Editor Robert Weaver comes to visit Alice Munro at her home. This quote reminds me of a particular scene in John Green’s highly acclaimed novel “The Fault in Our Stars” in which Hazel and Augustus go to visit the author Peter Van Houten and he offers them a drink despite their age. When I read this passage, I thought it was quirky and that this particular idiosyncrasy was interesting. This passage reveals how editors and authors in Canada interacted before the digital age, and the assumptions that the young Alice Munro made.

 

“Women writers at the time had to keep their writing an undercover, clandestine operation and pretend that home and family and housework were the only important things in their lives.”

 

Especially in a strong patriarchal society dominated by white men, women were expected to be meek and look after the home. This ties in to Jane Eyre’s author, Charlotte Bronte, who first published her works under the pen name Currer Bell. Her sisters also had corresponding pen names: Emily was Ellis Bell and Anne was Acton Bell. These names they picked were distinctly Christian male names, which ties into Munro’s experience of having to hide her profession from those around her. However, Canadians at the time were becoming more tolerant of women in the workplace, as Munro was actually making a lot of money from her short stories. Despite that, she still felt the need to hide the fact that she was an author from her neighbours, tucking away notebooks as if she had been doing nothing more important than writing up a shopping list.

 

“[It is] important to argue, at least with your husband, to resist going under. You had to prove you weren’t intellectually inferior, because all the popular Freudian psychology was saying that you were, that women were biologically incapable of logical or abstract thinking. I’m reminded of the episode inĀ Lives of Girls and Women were Del has read an article about how men look at the sky and think of the universe, while women look at the sky and think, ‘I have to wash my hair.'”

 

Despite the fact that Munro and her husband agreed on many practical things, the couple fought over philosophical and political matters. Feminism was prominent in the mid-twentieth century, men were still dominant. I think that this issue is especially important considering that Munro is a female author who has to assert herself in her own household. Though women had the right to vote in Canada already, they were still seen as inferior both in thought and abilities. It reveals the difference between Canadian ideas of woman then versus now. It emphasizes Trudeau’s progressive views towards those who identify as female, in comparison to the views of the past.

 

“When her in-laws came out to visit from Oakville in the summer of 1958, one of several trips they made to the coast, she put aside her writing in order to entertain them, and it got to the point where she was almost frantic with frustration, afraid she would never write again. After that summer her identity as a writer came close to a collapse. Often she would sit down at her typewriter and not be able to write more than a sentence or two; she’d spend the rest of the day in a morose state of inactivity.”

 

Alice Munro had a sense of duty as a Laidlaw to entertain guests and hide her writing from those outside her immediate family. However, in doing so, she lost her identity as an author and fell into a writer’s block. Eventually she developed a strange anxiety where she thought she wasn’t able to breathe. I think that when an artist loses their inspiration, their muse, it can be really damaging to their sense of self, and this is what happened to Munro. As Canadians, we often have a strong of filial duty and take good care of our parents, whether they be blood-related or not. I think this applies to current Canadian values as well, and filial piety is still prominent.

 

Theme: To establish one’s identity, one must assert themselves intellectually and distinguish themselves from the status quo.

 

 

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