In the short story “ The Peace of Utrecht” by Alice Munro, does Helen’s experience of her mother carry into her own mothering?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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“The Peace of Utrecht” by Alice Munro portrays two sisters who took different paths in facing their individual futures.  The older sister stayed at home and took care of their mentally ill mother; the younger sister chose to leave their hometown, marry and have children. 

The story begins with the younger sister Helen, who serves as the narrator, visiting her sister Maddie a few months after the death of the mother.  Helen brings her children with her for an extended stay. Discovering that Maddie has no friends or men in her life, Helen’s guilt comes to the forefront. 

During the story, Helen addresses the problems her mother brings to her and her sister as they grow up. They try to keep their mother out of their lives. Her seizures with temporary paralysis, thickened voice, and ridiculous comments cause humiliation for both girls. They imitate her and then ignore her.

Maddy was left for ten years to take care of their mother. The elderly aunts say that it is expected that one of the children stay and tend their mother’s needs.

Helen has two children: Margaret and a younger son.  Since Helen has no mental problems, she tries to establish a normal relationship with her children.  She takes them around the town to show them places that she haunted as a teenager including their old home.

My little girl said neutrally yet with some disbelief, “Mother, is that your house?” And I felt that my daughter’s voice expressed a complex disappointment –to which, characteristically, she seemed resigned, or even resigned in advance—

As they enter the old home place, Helen takes the hands of her children to guide them where they need to go. Throughout the house, Helen feels her mother’s spirit calling to her in the same old voice. The children stay in the same room that Helen shared with Maddy when they were growing up. 

It is obvious that as young girls they despised their mother’s neediness.  She constantly had to be tended; however, it seems that it was not within their reach to help their mother. They became her parents and treated her with disdain when she would demand their love and attention.  On the other hand, there were times when the mother was lucid and cogent.

As her children go to sleep, Helen stays in the room with them since the place is strange to them.  When she looks at her children, Helen feel fortunate that her children are safe and that their life is easy.  Life will be different than it was for the two sisters and their own mother.  These children will hopefully not have to dread the sound of their mother’s voice.

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