Munro, Alice (Vol. 95)
Alice Munro 1931–
(Born Alice Laidlaw) Canadian short story writer and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Munro's career from 1980–1995. See also, Alice Munro Criticism and volume 19.
Munro is one of Canada's most critically acclaimed contemporary authors. Often referred to as a regional writer because her fiction frequently centers on the culture of rural Ontario, Munro credits the short story writers of the American South, particularly Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, with shaping her fictional perspective. In Munro's works the mundane is juxtaposed with the fantastic, and she often relies on paradox and irony to expose meanings that lie beneath the surface of commonplace occurrences. Munro acknowledges the autobiographical influences on many of her stories, which are most often framed as episodic recollections that chronicle the emotional development of adolescent and adult female characters. Although some critics regard her collections as loosely structured novels, Munro insists they are short stories. Munro's first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), as well as two subsequent collections, Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) and The Progress of Love (1986), won Governor General's Literary Awards. It was her second book, however, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), that established her as a prominent figure in contemporary Canadian literature.
Munro grew up on the outskirts of Wingham, Ontario, where her family struggled to maintain a decent living from her father's silver fox farm. She characterizes this locale as belonging neither to the town nor the outlying rural communities, and critics note that Munro sets many of her stories in similarly ambiguous areas. Munro was a diligent student and earned a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario in 1949. Married two years later, she moved with her husband to British Columbia where she concentrated on raising a family. Motivated by what she calls a personal selfishness and toughness, she compiled the stories that constitute Dance of the Happy Shades over a twelve-year period. In the early 1970s after her marriage had dissolved, Munro accepted a position as writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario and a few years later moved to Clinton, Ontario, a few miles from her childhood home of Wingham, with her second husband. That same year some of her stories were accepted by The New Yorker, beginning her long association with the magazine as a regular contributor. Between 1979 and 1982 Munro toured extensively in Australia, China, and Scandinavia. In 1986 she received the first Marian Engel Award, given to a woman writer for an outstanding body of work, and in 1990 she won the Canada Council Molson prize for her "outstanding lifetime contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada."
The fifteen stories in Munro's first book, Dance of the Happy Shades, explore the personal isolation that fear, ridicule, and the inability to communicate often impose. Critics note that Munro's consistent focus on social and personal divisions provides the collection with an ironic thematic unity. In several stories Munro examines the segregation of a town's misfits. She often creates characters who initially seem certain of their identities but who gradually begin to question the basic assumptions under which they live. The title story, "Dance of the Happy Shades," for instance, centers on an annual piano recital in which a group of retarded children are silently feared and ridiculed by mothers of the "normal" students. The story ends with an exceptional performance by a retarded girl that leaves the mothers stunned and uncomfortably impressed by her talent. In this piece, as in many of her short stories, Munro explores the sources of social inhibitions and exposes the insecurities of self-righteous and self-centered characters. Other stories in the collection are "coming-of-age" tales. In "Images," a young girl and her father meet an axe-wielding recluse in the woods. The girl establishes a bond with her father when she agrees not to tell anyone about the stranger's axe. In the end, however, she realizes that she too is "[like] the children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth…." The stories in Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are? are similar in their depictions of the development of their central characters, and for this reason are often referred to as "open-form" novels. In the former, Munro focuses on specific experiences that affect protagonist Del Jordan's perceptions of her changing environment. Critics have compared Lives of Girls and Women to James Joyce's künstlerroman Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), for Munro's portrayal of Del as an alienated and misunderstood artist is akin to Joyce's portrait of Stephen Dedalus. In this work's opening piece, "The Flats Road," Munro compares Del's adolescent perception of reality to that of her Uncle Benny, whose vision of life is overly influenced by the irrational ideals of his childhood. Although Del is young, she recognizes that her Uncle's behavior is abnormal, and she gradually becomes aware that his freedom and playfulness are fragile, sensing that they are continually threatened by the workings of everyday reality. By the story's end, Del attempts to write about her experiences and hometown but feels that her understanding has been limited by the entrapping and demanding nature of adult life. Like Lives of Girls and Women, Who Do You Think You Are? focuses on moments of confrontation in the protagonist's life. Although many commentators treat the work as a novel, Munro refers to it as a collection of "linked stories" that deal with the maturation of the central character, Rose. Critics note the prevailing depressive quality of the stories in Who Do You Think You Are? and comment on Munro's harsh depictions of Rose's relationships with men. While the abrupt time shifts and overlapping experiences in this work provide a multifaceted characterization of Rose, some critics have suggested that the cool objectivity of the third person narrative undermines the authenticity of the characters. Munro's other collections have also received widespread critical attention. Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), The Moons of Jupiter (1982), The Progress of Love, and Friend of My Youth (1990), focus on the lives of mature characters and deal primarily with adult themes. Again in these collections Munro uses irony to create an overriding sense of uncertainty and insecurity in her characters. While some critics claim that these collections lack the vitality of her earlier works, others praise Munro's ability to reveal the subtleties and dynamics of adult relationships.
Many critics echo the sentiments of Catherine Sheldrick who states that the stories of Alice Munro present "ordinary experiences so that they appear extraordinary, invested with a kind of magic." It is this emphasis on the seemingly mundane progression of female lives that prompted Ted Solataroff to call Munro a "great stylist of 1920's realism, a Katherine Anne Porter brought up to date." Similarly, Joyce Carol Oates finds "the evocation of emotions, ranging from bitter hatred to love, from bewilderment and resentment to awe … [in] an effortless, almost conversational tone" evidence that "we are in the presence of an art that works to conceal itself, in order to celebrate its subject." Occasionally faulted for limiting herself to a narrow thematic range, Munro is, nevertheless, widely regarded as a gifted short story writer whose strength lies in her ability to present the texture of everyday life with both compassion and unyielding precision.
Dance of the Happy Shades (short stories) 1968
Lives of Girls and Women (short stories) 1971
Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories (short stories) 1974
Who Do You Think You Are? (short stories) 1978; also published as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, 1979
The Moons of Jupiter (short stories) 1982
The Progress of Love (short stories) 1986
Friend of My Youth (short stories) 1990
Open Secrets (short stories) 1994
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SOURCE: "'Dull, Simple, Amazing and Unfathomable': Paradox and Double Vision in Alice Munro's Fiction," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 100-15.
[In the following essay, Hoy discusses the paradoxical elements of Munro's fiction.]
Royal Beating. That was Flo's promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating.
The word Royal lolled on Flo's tongue, took on trappings. Rose had a need to picture things, to pursue absurdities, that was stronger than the need to stay out of trouble, and instead of taking this threat to heart she pondered: how is a beating royal?
In this delight in language and exuberant pursuit of absurdities despite ensuing complications, Rose reveals herself, in Alice Munro's latest work Who Do You Think You Are?, to be very much a child of the author herself. Munro's own sensitivity to individual words and images, her spare lucid style, and command of detail have given her fiction a precision which is one of her most distinctive accomplishments. What an examination of the texture of her prose reveals, in particular, is the centrality of paradox and the ironic juxtaposition of apparently incompatible terms or judgements: "ironic and serious at the same time," "mottoes of godliness and honor and flaming bigotry," "special, useless knowledge," "tones of shrill and...
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SOURCE: "What Is Real?," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXII, No. 721, September, 1982, pp. 5, 36.
[In the following essay, Munro explains how she writes and how reality figures into her work.]
Whenever people get an opportunity to ask me questions about my writing, I can be sure that some of the questions asked will be these:
"Do you write about real people?"
"Did those things really happen?"
"When you write about a small town are you really writing about Wingham?" (Wingham is the small town in Ontario where I was born and grew up, and it has often been assumed, by people who should know better, that I have simply "fictionalized" this place in my work. Indeed, the local newspaper has taken me to task for making it the "butt of a soured and cruel introspection.")
The usual thing, for writers, is to regard these either as very naive questions, asked by people who really don't understand the difference between autobiography and fiction, who can't recognize the device of the first-person narrator, or else as catch-you-out questions posed by journalists who hope to stir up exactly the sort of dreary (and to outsiders, slightly comic) indignation voiced by my hometown paper. Writers answer such questions patiently or crossly according to temperament and the mood they're in. They say, no, you must understand, my characters are composites; no,...
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SOURCE: "'The Other Side of Dailiness': The Paradox of Photography in Alice Munro's Fiction," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1983, pp. 49-60.
[York is a Canadian educator and critic. In the following essay, she discusses the postmodernist elements of Munro's fiction and relates how her work incorporates several theories of photography.]
But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes
Like washing-lines and Hall's Distemper Boards …
—Philip Larkin, "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album"
In various writings and interviews, Alice Munro has often expressed interest in photography and photographic realism. In an "Open Letter" to a small Wingham, Ontario journal, Jubilee, Munro summarized her feeling about the emotional power of local detail by referring to an Edward Hopper painting. This canvas, entitled "The Barber Shop," is a fairly static, symmetrically-composed, sunlight-flooded interior scene; yet for Munro it becomes "full of a distant, murmuring, almost tender foreboding, full of mystery like the looming trees." This...
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SOURCE: "The Plots of Life: The Realism of Alice Munro," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 235-50.
[Woodcock was a Canadian educator, editor, author, and critic. In the following essay, he explores realism in Munro's writing, particularly as it relates to her younger female characters.]
But the development of events on that Saturday night; that fascinated me; I felt that I had had a glimpse of the shameless, marvellous, shattering absurdity with which the plots of life, though not of fiction, are improvized. (Alice Munro, Dance of the Happy Shades)
There is a challenging ambivalence in Alice Munro's stories and her open-ended episodic novels, a glimmering fluctuation between actuality and fictional reality, or, if one prefers it, a tension between autobiography and invention which she manipulates so superbly that both elements are used to the full and in the process enrich each other.
The paperback edition of Munro's second novel, Who Do You Think You Are?, bears on its cover the reproduction of a neo-realist painting by Ken Danby, called "The Sunbather." It has no illustrative function; none of the episodes that make up the novel concerns or even mentions sunbathing. Yet it is hard to think of a painting that could have been better chosen to convey the special tone and flavour of Munro's...
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SOURCE: "'Gulfs' and 'Connections': The Fiction of Alice Munro," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 35, Winter, 1987, pp. 135-46.
[In the following essay, York discusses the theme of connection in Munro's work, primarily in Lives of Girls and Woman and The Moons of Jupiter.]
"Connection," muses the young narrator of the story section bearing the same title in The Moons of Jupiter, "That was what it was all about." The same claim could well be made for Alice Munro's fiction. Although she is often praised for her creation of fictional places—Jubilee, Hanratty, Logan—it is also true that Munro has defined a linguistic area no less peculiar to herself. That area is, of course, partly defined by her spirited use of the oxymoron (amply discussed by Helen Hoy and Lorraine McMullen), but even individual words may be trademarks of Munro's sensibility. My own list of "Munro words" includes: "humiliation," "familiar," "shameful," "hopeful," "amazing," and especially "connection." More than any other term, "connection" sums up the fundamental vision of Alice Munro's fiction.
This emphasis on connections and connectedness—whether religious, sexual, historical, or aesthetic—has become increasingly marked in Munro's works, starting with Lives of Girls and Women. In her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, "connection" is not a key term at...
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SOURCE: "Merciful Light," in Maclean's, Vol. 103, No. 19, May 7, 1990, pp. 66-7.
[In the following essay, based on an interview with Munro following the publication of Friend of My Youth, Timson relates the importance and discipline of writing in Munro's life.]
After a writer has been ranked with Chekhov, accused of perfection and called one of the greatest short-story writers in the world, it can be an intimidating task to write again. But, for Alice Munro, apparently nothing has changed. "I write the way I always have," she says. "I sit in a corner of the chesterfield and stare at the wall, and I keep getting it, and getting it, and when I've got it enough in my mind, I start to write. And then, of course, I don't really have it at all." Munro's fans, and the growing recognition and superlatives that her work receives internationally, belie such modesty, bred in the bone of the small-town Ontario native. The publication this spring of her newest collection, Friend of My Youth, was an instant literary event not only in Canada but also in the United States, where the writer and her work have garnered rave reviews. Prominent American author Cynthia Ozick hit the high note on the new book's dust jacket, declaring, "She is our Chekhov." But Munro tempers that praise by noting, "Entertainment Today called it 'Sex lives of Canadians.'"
Munro's stories, most of...
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SOURCE: "In Praise of Accidents," in The New Republic, Vol. 202, No. 3930, May 14, 1990, pp. 50-3.
[Salter is an American poet and critic. In the following review, she praises Munro's portrayal of imperfect women in several of the stories from Friend of My Youth, but questions the author's range.]
Choosing a favorite among Alice Munro's stories is no easy task, but for me one of them would be "Accident," from The Moons of Jupiter, her collection published in 1983. Frances is a music teacher at the high school where her married lover, Ted, teaches science. They are groping stark naked in Ted's supply room when the school secretary (who, like most people in the Ontario town of Hanratty, knows about the affair but has politely, up until now, kept that knowledge from the lovers themselves) bangs on the door to tell Ted that his son, Bobby, has died in a car accident.
The lovers soon learn that Bobby has not died—though he will, some hours later—and while they wait in separate places for news, Ted realizes that he has an opportunity to make a superstitious bargain with God: save Bobby, and I'll give up Frances. But Ted, an atheist (or, you might say, a believer in Accident), rejects his own superstition even before Bobby dies, and vows to keep Frances regardless. He even refuses his son a church service, in a selfish rebellion against his wife's family. Nor does he seem...
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SOURCE: "Being Lonely—Dimensions of the Short Story," in Cross Currents, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, Winter, 1989–90, pp. 399-401, 419.
[In the following excerpt from a longer essay discussing several writers, Jansen analyzes the roles of male characters and the theme of loneliness in Munro's fiction, especially in the story "Wood."]
Loneliness in [Raymond] Carver often conveys the sense of leaping into a well, followed by a desperate attempt to break the fall. Loneliness in the work of Alice Munro occurs in a broader context and is more the consequence of a darkly deterministic worldview. The flat, featureless landscapes of her Southern Ontario towns are mirrored in the lives of her depleted but idiosyncratic characters. The spectral and alien lives of the men who inhabit this world appear to her female protagonists as riddles incapable of solution. Married or not, her men are outsiders. With varying degrees of distance, husbands haunt the outskirts of domestic arrangements as if their humanity was beyond the pale.
Munro's women appear to take the measure of their own unhappiness from the depth and distance of male isolation. In her earliest stories, Munro's pattern for men is already in place. The recluse, who dominates the consciousness of Munro's younger female characters, demarcates the extreme of social distance. Reclusive isolation attracts Munro's women as an image of freedom from...
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SOURCE: "In Ontario," in London Review of Books, February 7, 1991, pp. 22-3.
[Shields is a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, poet, and critic who has lived in and written about Canada. In the following review, she favorably reviews Friend of My Youth, calling it a book on which every page contains "particular satisfactions of prose that is supple, tart and spare."]
The Canadian writer Alice Munro once likened a good short story to a commodious house whose every room possesses an exterior door. So accommodating a house, she wrote, is capable of admitting visitors through any number of openings, just as a story can be entered by way of its separate sections or paragraphs or even its individual sentences or words. The rewards for the reader, she suggests, have to do with language rather than with the sequence of narrative, the rhythm and surprise of linguistic persuasion overriding the fortunes of those who populate the pages of novels—what these characters want and what they eventually get.
It is a pleasure, then, to open Alice Munro's new collection of short stories, Friend of My Youth, and find on every page the particular satisfactions of prose that is supple, tart and spare, yet elegant and complex. A typical Munro sentence, with its exact and loving syntax, gestures toward worldliness, toward literary sophistication and art, while at the same time guarding, by means of...
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SOURCE: "'Every Last Thing … Everlasting': Alice Munro and the Limits of Narrative," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 531-41.
[In the following essay, Mayberry explores "the relationship between truth and narrative, between knowing and telling" within Munro's stories and characters.]
Storytelling is the central activity of the characters of Alice Munro's fiction. It is of course the principal task of Munro's narrators—those characters who organize and focalize the events and reflections constituting the short stories; and it is also the frequent activity of a large group of secondary characters whose storytelling is narrated by the chief narrators and thus recessed within the main narrative. Whether seeking or evading truth, all of these characters enlist narrative as the central weapon in their dogged and usually inconclusive struggle with the disturbances born at the intersection of their pasts and their presents. All are impelled to manage their pain, ignorance, and occasional glimpses of knowledge by telling. Some are more successful than others in their struggles, but success, when it occasionally comes, seems more a matter of luck than desert, and is rarely a direct dividend of the narrative act.
Eventually, most of Munro's narrators, both primary and secondary, come to recognize, if only dimly, the imperfection and inadequacy of their medium. In...
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SOURCE: "Mysteries Near at Hand," in The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1994, pp. 1, 36-7.
[Humphreys is an American novelist whose book on the disintegration of family life, Dreams of Sleep, won PEN's Ernest Hemingway Prize in 1985. In the following review, she praises Open Secrets as a collection of stories that "dazzles with its faith in language and in life."]
On a winter night in 1919, in a hotel dining room in Carstairs, Ontario, a librarian who's had a few drinks begins to tell her darkest secrets to a salesman she barely knows. "It's a lesson, this story," the librarian says. "It's a lesson in what fools women can make of themselves."
The story, aptly entitled "Carried Away," is the first in Alice Munro's new collection, Open Secrets, her eighth work of fiction. And in fact, all the stories in Open Secrets are lessons. Ms. Munro's work has always been ambitious and risky precisely because it dares to teach, and by the hardest, best method: without giving answers.
Sometimes even the characters themselves have only a fuzzy notion of what their own stories mean. "Carried Away" isn't really about women making fools of themselves. And none of these eight stories are easy to predict. Just when meaning seems almost revealed, the story changes, veers, steps off a cliff.
The librarian, for instance, tells of the...
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SOURCE: "Writer without Borders," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 21, December 22, 1994, pp. 59-60.
[Hulbert is an American editor and critic. In the following review, she favorably analyzes the stories in Open Secrets, commenting on the provincial setting of Carstairs, Ontario, and the unremarkable, quiet lives of its inhabitants.]
Alice Munro is the latest and best proof that a provincial literary imagination can be the most expansive kind of imagination there is. Fixated on lives in out-of-the-way Canadian places and dedicated to the short story rather than to what she has called "the mainstream big novel," she finds pioneering energy in the "feeling of being on the margins": it inspires the desire and the power to remake boundaries. For Munro, marginality has nothing to do with isolation, and everything to do with "connection. That was what it was all about," she writes in The Moons of Jupiter (1983). In seven collections of stories and one novel, she has shown fate, and also fiction, to be a rather miraculous matter of unexpected linkages and leaps.
"When you live in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people," Munro once explained. "In a city you mainly hear stories about your own sort of people." And when those towns abut on farms, which are edged by woods, you have very different worlds constantly colliding, within and between...
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SOURCE: "Never Ending Story," in Meanjin, Vol. 54, No. 2, 1995, pp. 233-40.
[In the following review, London praises Open Secrets as a mature work of Munro's that contains "stories of formidable urgency and integrity."]
Alice Munro has established an international readership based solely on the short story (in Australia we would use Frank Moorhouse's term and call her two novels 'discontinuous narratives'), an achievement which at this moment, in English, is rivalled only by that of Raymond Carver.
Her publishing life spans two decades of exceptional experimentation in the short story form, from postmodern metafiction to 'dirty' realism, from such writers as Barthelme, Barth and Carver in North America, Cower, Moorhouse and Garner in Australia. In the early eighties it reached a peak of critical approval and apparent popularity, which has now receded. In its single defining feature—brevity—the short story has always served as a vehicle for 'having a go', for the 'one-off', for starting out in fiction, or taking a break from longer work. Perhaps this is what keeps the form healthy, edgy, pluralistic: some of the best short stories have come into being this way. But to persist with the short story, collection after collection, to pursue its development over a long period, amounts to a vision as expressed through the form.
From the first, Alice Munro wrote her...
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Baum, Rosalie Murphy. "Artist and Woman: Young Lives in Laurence and Munro." North Dakota Quarterly 52, No. 3 (Summer 1984): 196-211.
Compares Munro's Lives of Girls and Women to Margaret Laurence's A Bird in the House, both portrayals of a young female artist's coming of age.
Boston, Anne. "Hidden Reasons." New Statesmen and Society 3, No. 1233 (19 October 1990): 32-3.
Lauds Friend of My Youth as a "small masterpiece."
Boyce, Plenke, and Smith, Ron. "A National Treasure." Meanjin 54, No. 2 (1995): 222-32.
Interview in which Munro discusses the purpose of her fiction.
Carrington, Ildikó de Papp. "What's in a Title: Alice Munro's 'Carried Away'." Studies in Short Fiction 30, No. 4 (Fall 1993): 555-64.
Explores how the title "Carried Away" reflects the story's structure and action.
DeMott, Benjamin. "Domestic Stories." The New York Times Book Review (20 March 1983): 1, 26.
Praises The Moons of Jupiter for its sympathetic female characters, its structure, and its craft.
Fowler, Rowena. "The Art of...
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