Alice Munro portrays two sisters who struggle with the death of their mother in “The Peace of Utrecht.” The setting is Jubilee, in Canada. The point of view is first person with Helen, one of the sisters, serving as the narrator. Helen begins the story when she returns home a few months after her mother’s death. Helen was unable to attend because of a blizzard.
Maddy stays behind to take care of their mother. Helen comes home to visit her older sister which brings back many dark memories from the life they led as teenagers.
Their unnamed mother is diagnosed with a degenerative, mental illness early in the sisters’ lives. When she needs care for all of her physical needs, the girls resent their mother and her nagging needs. This impacts both of them. Helen leaves home to go to Vancouver to find her own life. She marries and has two children.
Maddy stays home to take care of their mother. She never marries.
When the mother tries to run away from the hospital, Maddy brings her back by tricking her mother into going back to take tests.
After returning to the hospital, the mother was tied her in bed so that she could not get out. An aunt tells Helen that it was awful about what happened to their mother in the hospital. One of the aunts goes to Maddy at the mother’s funeral and states:
“Maddy, may it never happen like that to you. I couldn’t help it, that’s what I said.”
The guilt and need for redemption is palpable in the story. Maddy was there and knows that her mother suffered in the last days of her life. Maddie was forced to be responsible for her mother’s care however poor it may have been.
Helen feels that she was not there for either her mother or her sister. Wanting her own adult life, Helen escapes. Maddy suffers from guilt because of the treatment that her mother was given in the last days of her life.
Maddy has a male friend who seems to be some kind of companion for her. To Helen, this is a quasi-relief because this means that Maddie has hope for a life of her own.
As the sisters prepare a meal to share with the man and Helen’s daughters, Maddy brings in a heavy, antique bowl and suddenly drops it breaking into pieces.
The breaking of the bowl becomes symbolic to the sisters. With Maddy standing in the middle of her broken glass bowl, Maddy’s life has been broken as well. Will she be able to pick up the pieces of her life?
As her sister searches for a broom to help clean up, it doubtful that Helen will have the resolve to help Maddy to find a new path. She was not much help to her with their mother.
On the other hand, Helen tells her sister to go out and live her life. Essentially, Helen is, of course, telling Maddy to let her guilt go. Everyone does the best she can in trying situations. Helen encourages Maddy to leave their home and find somewhere that does not have a million memories.
First, Maddy agrees that she will look for a way to get out from her mother’s memories.
As she cleans up the bowl, Maddy reverts back to her old way of thinking about the guilt of her mother’s passing:
I’ve got a whole shelf full of glass bowls. I’ve got enough to do me the rest of my life….But why can’t I Helen? Why can’t I?
In the end, it is evident that Maddy needs more help in the release of her responsibility for her mother’s dying and her death. It is unclear what will happen next.