How does Alice Munro uses the symbol of clothing in her short stories?  What is its significance? Can you illustrate with examples from short stories in her collection, Runaway? 

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Clothing occupies significance in Munro's short stories. She uses clothing as a way to convey realities that her characters face.  For the women in Munro's Runaway, clothing can be used to convey complex realities that lie underneath. Clothing is a way to communicate what her characters experience and how they perceive their complex reality. 

In "Runaway," Carla is shown to be intricate and complex.  The reality that she lives is layered with intricacy.  The initial introduction to Carla through clothing is deceptively simple:  "Carla wore a wide-brimmed old Australian felt hat every time she went outside, and tucked her long thick braid down her shirt."  The neat and "tucked" manner of her clothing belies the challenges she feels in her marriage and in her life.  This is accentuated when she confesses to Sylvia about the troubles in her marriage and is offered a way out.  Sylvia advises Carla not to go home and rather wear the clothes in Sylvia's house.  Even though Carla protests that Sylvia is "ten times skinnier" than she, Carla wears Sylvia's clothes:

In the end, they decided on a brown linen jacket, hardly worn—Sylvia had considered it to be a mistake for herself, the style too brusque—and a pair of tailored tan pants and a cream-colored silk shirt. Carla’s sneakers would have to do, because her feet were two sizes larger then Sylvia’s.

The use of clothing in these descriptions is symbolic of the live that Carla leads.  It is one with the outward appearance of contented domesticity, reflective of a dutiful wife who does not want to create controversy for fear of disrupting her husband's business.  However, inside like the clothes, there is something else that lingers.  When Carla tries to escape, something "doesn't fit right" about. The disjointed appearance of the clothes is reflective of how Carla is not really ever able to escape, reflective of a world in which she, like the clothes, does not fit.  In Carla's case, clothing is the symbol for an emotional condition that is out of balance.

In "Tricks," Juliet's characterization continues the same idea that clothing can be symbolic of the complications and intricacies within human identity.  In describing a carnal encounter with Eric, complexities emerge when Juliet has to clothing conceals another reality:

How stupid, how disastrous. Afraid, of course, that his stroking hand would go farther down and reach the knot she had made securing the pad to the belt. If she had been the sort of girl who could rely on tampons this need never have happened. And why virgin? When she had gone to such unpleasant lengths, in Willis Park, to insure that such a condition would not be an impediment? So now he could tell someone how he listened all evening to this fool girl showing off what she knew about Greek mythology, and in the end – when he finally kissed her good night, to get rid of her – she started screaming that she was a virgin.

Clothing and apparel are significant in this description.  Juliet uses the belt to secure the pad during her menstruation.  Clothing is used to cover one of the basic realities that a woman must face, a complex navigation in the carnal throws of passion.  The "tricks" that a woman must embrace in dealing with biological reality that is not understood by others and one that is itself kept concealed is evident in clothing.  Juliet uses clothes as a way to masquerade the reality she experiences.  Clothes are described as a type of fortress that a woman uses when she undergoes menstruation. It is clothes that covers the complexities between the sensual experience between men and women with nature converging on both.

In "Passion," Grace is reflective of Carla's inability to "fit" within the contours of her life and of Juliet's need to conceal her own experiences to the world.  Grace finds herself unable to escape the "old confusions and obligations" that plague her, hanging over her like the clothes that did not fit Carla.  In the exposition of Grace's characterization, it becomes clear that she is at odds with the world around her.  She is a working class girl, a waitress, who yearns for something more.  The economic conditions in which she lives prevents her from fully recognizing and achieving it.  In this light, Grace's own subjective sense of "passion" within her identity collides with the material reality that envelops her.  For Grace, this is evoked when Munro describes how she looks on her first date with Maury:

Grace was wearing a dark-blue ballerina skirt, a white blouse, through whose eyelet frills the upper curve of her breasts was visible, and a wide rose-colored elasticized belt. There was a discrepancy, no doubt, between the way she presented herself and the way she wanted to be judged. But nothing about her was dainty or pert or polished, in the style of the time. A bit ragged around the edges, in fact. Giving herself Gypsy airs, with the very cheapest silver-painted bangles, and the long, wild-looking, curly dark hair that she had to put into a snood when she waited on tables.

In this description, the symbolic function of clothing illuminates how Grace interacts with the world around her. The "ballerina skirt" and "white blouse" is designed with "frills" that accentuate her breasts along with the accessorized belt.  Grace understands the world that Maury comes from is one of wealth and privilege, reflective of opportunities that Grace would like to experience. Clothing is used to highlight a sense of "pert" and "style."  Yet, this is the diametric opposite of her reality.  Clothing covers the grit and grime of waiting tables, of her "strong Ottawa valley accent," and a world of economic challenge. Grace might have looked like Taylor's character in "Father of the Bride," but as evidenced when the film ends, she has nothing but disdain for girls of that economic class.  Grace uses clothing to cover her reality, one that is the embodiment of the collision between desire and reality.  For Grace, the difference between what one hopes to be and what one lives is symbolically addressed through clothing.  Clothes covers and conceals a world in which cleaning tables is daily life.

In each of these settings, clothing is symbolic of the nuanced condition of Munro's characterizations.  Clothing is the means through which a protagonist's complexity is conveyed.  It is reflective of more than apparel. Munro uses clothing as a portal into the psychological nuances of her characters' sense of identity.

Read the study guide:

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question