Study Guide

Alice Munro

Alice Munro Essay - Munro, Alice (Vol. 95)

Munro, Alice (Vol. 95)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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."

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Helen Hoy (essay date Spring 1980)

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?

...

(The entire section is 5943 words.)

Alice Munro (essay date September 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 1786 words.)

Lorraine M. York (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 4142 words.)

George Woodcock (essay date Summer 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 7764 words.)

Lorraine York (essay date Winter 1987)

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....

(The entire section is 4392 words.)

Judith Timson (essay date 7 May 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)

Mary Jo Salter (review date 14 May 1990)

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 entire section is 3106 words.)

Reamy Jansen (essay date Winter 1989–90)

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...

(The entire section is 1600 words.)

Carol Shields (review date 7 February 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 2612 words.)

Katherine J. Mayberry (essay date Fall 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 4000 words.)

Josephine Humphreys (review date 11 September 1994)

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 entire section is 1265 words.)

Ann Hulbert (review date 22 December 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 2869 words.)

Joan London (review date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 2870 words.)