Munro is one of very few modern writers who have built a reputation solely through the writing of stories, a form that has generally been regarded as of lesser consequence than the novel. Even though the publishers of her second book, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), called it a novel, Munro rejected a chronological approach and clustered its chapters around themes, as in a book of linked stories. When her American publisher pressured her to rewrite her fourth book, Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), as a novel to improve sales, she turned it into a story sequence, unified by the character of Rose. By the 1980’s, what author Joyce Carol Oates calls Munro’s “stories that have the density . . . of other writers’ novels” cannot accurately be referred to as “short” stories; their length suggests a greater complexity.
Munro’s subject is the intricate detail of human experience, viewed almost always from a female perspective and with special attention to the mother-daughter relationship. She traces the lives of women whom the 2004 Giller Prize jury called “locally Canadian, remarkably ordinary, and at the same time startlingly universal.” The lives she observes may be stunted or blossoming; her central character may become an actress or waitress. While the earlier work explores the coming of age of a young, lower-middle-class girl who learns hard lessons on her way to maturity, in time these initiation stories begin to address social and political issues like patriarchy or abortion rights. Munro never passes judgment on her characters; they have made their choices, too frequently the wrong ones.
Her style is realistic and without sentimentality, often evoking a strong sense of her native region and its history. (Her settings have expanded over time to include British Columbia, Scotland, Ireland, central Europe, and even Australia.) A prime example is her well-known story “Meneseteung” (1988), titled with the Native American name for the river commonly known as the Maitland (or Peregrine), which flowed near the border of her parents’ farm. This story offers a detailed, unembellished view of life on the Ontario frontier, providing an ironic contrast to the delicate verse written by a nineteenth century Canadian poetess.
Munro has remarked that all her writing is essentially autobiographical. Several of the early stories appear to be reminiscences, yet there is always artifice at work. Like Rose’s father in the powerful “Royal Beatings” (1977), Munro’s father occasionally beat her, and his death after heart surgery inspired another story, “The Moons of Jupiter” (1978); yet the details in these stories go far beyond her personal experience. Her striking ambivalence toward her mother—embarrassment, shame, and later, guilt—surfaces whenever a teenage daughter struggles with a mother who is disfigured, ill, or dying from a degenerative disease. Anne Laidlaw’s death in 1959 triggered “The Peace of Utrecht” (1960), and her uncontrollable trembling appears in “The Ottawa Valley” (1974), where Munro writes: “The problem, the only problem, is my mother. And she is the one of course that I am trying to get . . . to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her . . . for she looms too close, just as she always did.”
Munro’s early penchant for gothic novels sometimes allows her to edge toward the bizarre. In one of her most gothic stories, she manages to create a sense of vulnerability and menace from an experience she shared with Gerald Fremlin. In a rural area stood a wall she remembered, set with colored glass mosaics. There the couple, urged to enter the nearby farmhouse, encountered four drunken men, one naked, playing cards in a windowless room. She included this event, partially transformed, in “Save the Reaper” (1998).
Typically, Munro withholds information from a story, believing that the less one reveals, the better, and many of her characters follow this custom of silence or omission. She prefers that her reader fill in the gaps and often inserts a key word or phrase that will take on new significance with a second reading. Particularly noteworthy is the way she handles the fluidity of time, employing time shifts—skipping, reversing, doubling around to take a second look. She explains, “I don’t take up a story and follow it as if it were a road, taking me somewhere . . . I go into it, and move back and forth and settle here and there, and stay in it for a while.”
Ambiguity, the shifting perception of truth, is another favorite device. In most cases, there are multiple and conflicting truths, which Munro may reveal through a characteristic double vision of past and present, perhaps by means of someone returning home who sees old haunts, old loves, through different eyes. She may offer the conflicting perceptions of two characters, as she does with Rose and Flo in Who Do You Think You Are? Such treatment frequently results in an ironic discrepancy between appearance and reality.
“How I Met My Husband”
First published: 1974 (collected in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, 1974)
Type of work: Short story
A hired girl has her first encounter with romance and determines what kind of woman she will be.
A typical early story, “How I Met My Husband” introduces a young girl’s initiation into adulthood, as narrated by her mature self, and exemplifies the double vision frequently found in Munro’s work.
When Edie, a naïve farm girl and high-school dropout, is hired as a maid by the new veterinarian, Dr. Peebles, she is awed by his home’s modern conveniences: pink bathroom fixtures, an automatic washer, ice cubes. Edie is keenly aware of society’s lofty attitude toward hired help and country people, yet she unconsciously exhibits the same prejudice toward shiftless Loretta Bird, an unwelcome neighbor.
The Peebles family lives across the road from the old fairgrounds where one day a small plane lands, sparking all sorts of conjecture. That afternoon the barnstorming pilot Chris Watters, who offers plane rides for a dollar, seeks permission to use the Peebles’s pump and instead finds Edie trying on Mrs. Peebles’s long dress and jewelry while the family is gone. Edie is immediately smitten.
When Alice, the pilot’s fiancé and a former army nurse, arrives unexpectedly, Dr. Peebles follows local custom by inviting her to stay with them. Tension escalates as Alice tries to convince Chris to marry her, but he is clearly reluctant and soon disappears. Viciously turning on Edie, Alice flounces after him. As Edie waits for Chris’s promised letter at the mailbox, she meets a young mail carrier who will soon become her husband. Unlike Alice, Edie decides, “If there were women all through life waiting, and women busy and not waiting, I knew which I had to be.”
First published: 1977 (collected in Who Do...
(The entire section is 2885 words.)