Alice Munro Munro, Alice (Vol. 6) - Essay

Munro, Alice (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Munro, Alice 1931–

A Canadian short story writer and novelist, Ms Munro first received widespread recognition for her collection Dance of the Happy Shades. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

The short story is alive and well in Canada, where most of [the] 15 tales [in "Dance of the Happy Shades"] originate like fresh winds from the North. Alice Munro … creates a solid habitat for her fiction—southwestern Ontario, a generation or more in the past—and is in sympathetic vibration with the farmers and townspeople who live there.

Realist though she is, the author elects to arrive at revelations rather than ironies…. Miss Munro poses more questions than answers—a refreshing strategy. (p. 48)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 23, 1973.

["Dance of the Happy Shades" is a collection of fifteen] short stories, warm and detailed but fundamentally sketchy, set in country places and small towns in southwestern Ontario. The background in these stories is beyond all doubt authentic. The interiors of the houses, the views from their windows, the walks the people take on the roads and streets of the places where they live—all these, and the weather, are made so real that a reader who had never heard of Canada would understand, and perhaps even half recognize, the world Alice Munro is describing. The conversations also are extremely well rendered. It is only when she comes to deal with personality and character that this writer's hand becomes weak and her work faint, so that in the end the stories can be compared to a series of excellent, irreplaceable photographs in which every leaf, every thread, every stick of furniture is as clear and clean-cut as the day the camera clicked, while the human hands and faces have faded away into a blank place that is beyond recall. (p. 186)

The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 5, 1973.

Among their many fine qualities, [the] tales [in Dance of the Happy Shades] of small-town Ontario life, mostly set in the Forties, are beautifully controlled and precise. And always this precision appears unstrained. The proportions so exactly fit the writer's thematic aims that in almost every case it seems that really no other words could have been used, certainly no more or less. (p. 633)

Peter Prince, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 3, 1974.

Alice Munro's collection of stories [Dance of the Happy Shades] is both a progress and a regression. They show her moving forward as a beautifully exact recorder of a limited yet profound experience, and they invite the reader to turn back to the detail of her remarkable novel, Lives of Girls and Women…. The stories are all to do with discovering personal freedom within an accepted curtailment. There is no intentional nostalgia although, strangely enough, one frequently finds oneself rather wistfully caught up in some of the scenes so perfectly evoked; and there is no distortion in the characterisation. Parents, schoolfriends and neighbours never suffer the quaint inflation of people found in so much 'sticks' literature. They are shown as neither contented nor bland, and without so much as an eccentric safety valve, yet never about to explode. Fatalism? Inertia? Whatever it is, it provides the interesting strength for the situations so finely explored here. (p. 777)

Ronald Blythe, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Ronald Blythe), June 13, 1974.

Memory is important in Alice Munro's writing, since she is obsessed by time, but imagination is more important.

In her … collection of stories, Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You, there is one ["Material"] that insists on the difference between mere recall of the past and its retrieval as materials for art…. [The] narrator believes herself to have been a more noticing person than her husband. His stories when she reads them, disprove this.

She finds a character they both knew "lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvellous clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make…. A fine and lucky benevolence." It's a fair description of Alice Munro's own work in Dance of the Happy Shades (which won the 1968 Governor General's award) and Lives of Girls and Women (winner of the Canadian Booksellers Association's award in 1972).

[This later] collection is more complex. Readers who enjoyed the earlier books because they confirmed the reality of the Canadian small town experience for a certain generation, or because they seemed to reinforce some of the ideology of the women's movement, will find more of the same. But they will find something else, too. There is a hint at hermetic concerns in the first story, ironic suggestions of a quest for the grail. One of these hints echoes a passage in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing: a historic discourse on Indians becoming a search for identity, the lecturer a deep-sea diver in search of "something small and precious, hard to locate, as a ruby maybe on the ocean floor."

The famous stone that turns all to gold.

And in the midst of the more conventional stories of strong-boned Protestant women with grandmothers and aunts, stories that move quietly to their modest epiphanies or moral insights, there is a love story of poetic bravado in which the narrator imagines her lover is dead. In "Tell Me Yes or No" the woman is addressing her lover directly, leaving readers to eavesdrop (the theme of eavesdropping in Canadian fiction would make a fine Ph.D. thesis for the sort of scholar that likes that sort of thing) and she boldly invents for him another "mistress" in addition to his wife. "I invented loving you," she insists, "and I invented your death. I have my tricks and my trap doors, too." This is a long way from the bucolic innocence (for all its incidental irony) of a story like "How I Met My Husband," which, by the way, succeeded in coming across as a television play….

All the stories are told with the skill which the author has perfected over the years, narrated with meticulous precision in a voice that is unmistakeably Ontarian in its lack of emphasis, its sly humour and willingness to live with a mystery. A friend once complained to me that Alice Munro's stories were dangerously close to the style of the fiction in women's magazines, and it's true that in some of her pauses one can imagine her putting on a kettle for a pot of tea, but this is only to say that she is a very feminine writer. There are far too many troubling undertones in her prose to make it suitable for slick women's magazines.

There is a sense in this collection that Alice Munro may be ready to take a new direction, away from the far off life of farm and small town. Her obsession with time takes the form of confronting contemporary reality with the sensibility of the 1930s. Sometimes (as in "Marrakesh") the sexual freedom of the present generation is deliberately viewed through the eyes of an old-fashioned farm woman, as if in wonder at the changes time has brought. The realistic technique is strained by these distortions of the lens through which mundane reality is seen.

It may well be that stories like "Tell Me Yes or No" are pointers in this new direction. Alice Munro has it in her to become one of the best story tellers now writing.

Kildare Dobbs, "New Directions for Alice Munro," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Night), July, 1974, p. 28.

[One] is most impressed by the feeling behind [Miss Munro's] stories—the evocation of emotions, ranging from bitter hatred to love, from bewilderment and resentment to awe. In all her work—Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Lives of Girls and Women (1972), and [Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You]—there is an effortless, almost conversational tone, and we know we are in the presence of an art that works to conceal itself, in order to celebrate its subject.

Miss Munro's fiction is always naturalistic, at bottom, but her characters and their reactions to life may be quite varied. She presents a wonderful variety of people … [who] create their own suspense; we always want to know more about them, where they have come from and what fate is in store. Technique is never an end in itself, but a way of revealing character….

Miss Munro does her fictional characters the rare honor of believing in them utterly. (p. 103)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1974 by The Ontario Review), Number 1, Fall, 1974.