Alice Munro Short Fiction Analysis
Alice Munro has been compared to Ernest Hemingway in the realism, economy, and lucidity of her style, to John Updike in her insights into the intricacies of social and sexual relationships, to Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty in her ability to create characters of eccentric individualism, and to Marcel Proust in the completeness and verisimilitude with which she evokes the past. She is an intuitive writer, who is less likely to be concerned with problems of form than with clarity and veracity. Some critics have faulted her for a tendency toward disorganization or diffusion—too many shifts in time and place within a single story, for example. On her strengths as a writer, however, critics generally agree: She has an unfailing particularity and naturalness of style, an ability to write vividly about ordinary life and its boredom without boring her readers, an ability to write about the past without being sentimental, a profound grasp of human emotion and psychology. Chief among her virtues is her great honesty: her refusal to oversimplify or falsify human beings, emotions, or experience. One of her characters states, “How to keep oneself from lying I see as the main problem everywhere.” Her awareness of this problem is everywhere evident in her writing, certainly in the distinctive voices of her narrator-protagonists, who are scrupulously concerned with truth. Finally, her themes—memory, love, transience, death—are significant. To explore such themes within the limitations of the short-story form with subtlety and depth is Munro’s achievement.
“Dance of the Happy Shades”
One of Alice Munro’s recurring themes is “the pain of human contact the fascinating pain; the humiliating necessity.” The phrase occurs in “The Stone in the Field” and refers to the narrator’s maiden aunts, who cringe from all human contact, but the emotional pain that human contact inevitably brings is a subject in all of her stories. It is evident in the title story of her first collection, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” in which an elderly, impoverished piano teacher, Miss Marsalles, has a “party” (her word for recital) for a dwindling number of her students and their mothers, an entertainment she can ill afford. The elaborate but nearly inedible refreshments, the ludicrous gifts, and the tedium of the recital pieces emphasize the incongruity between Miss Marsalles’s serene pleasure in the festivities and the grim suffering of her unwilling but outwardly polite guests. Their anxieties are intensified by the mid-party arrival of Miss Marsalles’s newest pupils, a group of mentally disabled children from a nearby institution. The other pupils and their mothers struggle to maintain well-bred composure, but inwardly they are repelled, particularly when one of the mentally disabled girls gives the only accomplished performance of a sprightly piece called “The Dance of the Happy Shades.” The snobbish mothers believe that the idea of a mentally disabled girl learning to play the piano is not in good taste; it is “useless, out-of-place,” in fact very much like Miss Marsalles herself. Clearly, this dismal affair will be Miss Marsalles’s last party, yet the narrator is unable at the end to pity her, to say, “Poor Miss Marsalles.” “It is the Dance of the Happy Shades that prevents us, it is the one communiqué from the other country where she lives.” The unfortunate Miss Marsalles is happy; she has escaped the pain she would feel if she could know how others regard her, or care. She is living in another country, out of touch with reality; she has escaped into “the freedom of a great unemotional happiness.”
“The Peace of Utrecht”
Few of Munro’s characters are so fortunate. In “The Peace of Utrecht,” for example, the inescapable emotional pain of human contact is the central problem. Helen, the narrator, makes a trip with her two children to Jubilee, the small town where she grew up, ostensibly to visit...
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