Alice Munro

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Munro, Alice 1931–

Munro, a Canadian short story writer and novelist, is known for her precise recording of personal experiences. Her stories chart the search for personal freedom in nostalgically rural settings. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Frederick Busch

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Alice Munro … writes stories you have to call "well-made."… They are journeymen's work. But they are no more than that, and by now … we ought to demand that a volume of stories delivers the thrilling economy, the poetry which makes the form so valuable.

Alice Munro's subject matter is ordinariness—disappointment, the passage of time—but she doesn't bring to her stories what, say, John Updike or Tillie Olsen do: extraordinary language, a mind in love with the everyday but able to exalt it so that we feel the magic in what is usual. Most of the stories [in "Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You"] concern the past, hidden from others but told to us … and the stories do seem formulaic.

The book is filled with lots of information on who did what to whom, and when, and where, but there is little emotional tension arising from the events. Everything is thought out, decided upon. Most of the dialogue, even, seems there for the sake of information, not for its own sake. And much of the writing seems to be designed to win our love rather than stun us with character or prose….

When the narrative voice of the story doesn't use winsomeness as a strategy, it takes refuge in Art: "I invented loving you and I invented your death. I have my tricks and my trap doors, too. I don't understand their workings at the present moment." Such a dependency on our sense of the artful paradox of contemporary writing—while the author permits herself to cease responsibility for her characters—is close kin to the childishness of "I wouldn't have looked in her drawers, but a closet is open to anybody. That's a lie, I would have looked in drawers, but I would have felt worse doing it and been more scared she would tell." In both cases, as in most of these stories, there is the kind of innocence of tone that can make you grin, but the way you grin at someone else's charming child: already forgetting. (p. 54)

Frederick Busch, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1974.


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[In Alice Munro's vision there] are those of "the world," of society, of the accepted norms, and those "from the other country" …, people such as Miss Marsalles [in the title story of The Dance of the Happy Shades], whose innocence has made her, at the best, a fondly tolerated anachronism and, at the worst, a social embarrassment. Miss Marsalles, with [a] terrible faux pas, has placed herself in the same category as idiots, seniles, eccentrics, criminals, and the fatally ill, all of whom are uncontrollable, unpredictable, and, therefore, painful, embarrassing, and plainly unacceptable by "the world." (pp. 366-67)

The prevalence … in Munro's work, of idiots, senile old people, suicides, the fatally ill, and that recurring image of the mother who is attacked by Parkinson's disease are guides to her controlling vision. Munro sees society and life as cruel and deforming. Those who appear to adapt or cope and survive are, in her eyes, more deformed in an internal, spiritual way, than those who are clearly retarded or maimed and unable to enter the struggle. In some stories, the obviously defective people seem better off and freer than those who have found acceptance...

(This entire section contains 507 words.)

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in a "normal" world. In most cases, they work as a symbol or externalization of the suffering and deformity of the apparently healthy and adjusted characters. They are also a deflecting release valve for the tension that builds up from the reader's sense of repressed pain in Munto's world. (pp. 368-69)

In Lives of Girls and Women, no one idiot, invalid, or suicide externalizes the suffering of any one character; rather, they all reflect each other and compositely suggest the hidden illness of the apparent survivors. (p. 370)

Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You reveals the same divided universe as do Dance of the Happy Shades and Lives of Girls and Women. And it asks Munro's characteristic questions. "Walking on Water" and "Forgiveness in Families" both play with the old question, "Who or what is mad?" In "Memorial," the central character, who has been confronted anew with the rigidly defined world of her sister, thinks "the only thing we can hope for is that we lapse now and then into reality."… (p. 373)

Alice Munro's work bears the marks of a distinctive, vital, and unifying vision. Though this vision shows itself more complex and subtle with each of her books, the basic terms remain unchanged. Man finds himself divided into two camps, and the price of this division for both sides is loneliness and pain. The external deformities and violences of "the other country," the place of outcasts, are simply transferences of the unseen, hidden disfiguration of "the world," place of "survivors." Which group suffers most is a question without significance in a universe where men, the pathetic victims of chance, offer each other not kindness or encouragement, but suspicion and hate. (pp. 373-74)

Rae McCarthy Macdonald, "A Madman Loose in the World: The Vision of Alice Munro," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1976, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Autumn, 1976, pp. 365-74.

Patricia Beer

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[Lives of Girls and Women] is not, the author says, autobiographical except in form. In fact, in form it more closely resembles a series of short stories, and it is no surprise to see that the author won a Canadian award in this genre. Each chapter of Lives of Girls and Women is virtually self-contained; characters who appear in more than one are nearly always reintroduced, however well we might reasonably be supposed to remember them. Yet each protagonist is closely connected with the central family; Del Jordan, the daughter, is the narrator throughout and though she is not the heroine of every episode it is very much her story. The first chapter, it is true, is set at a decided angle to the main narrative line; its hero, Uncle Benny, appears only peripherally in the later chapters—and his vicious mail-order bride never—but the effect is intriguing rather than confusing.

The title is accurate, for the book presents not only the growing up of a girl, her relationships with her family and her approaches and eventual introduction to sexual experience, but also the histories of her female contemporaries and older relatives, especially her mother. In other words, we are in Kinflicks country, but whereas Kinflicks tries, too hard for its artistic good, to be a, or even the, Great American Novel, Lives of Girls and Women obeys its own natural range and scope and is consequently much more successful. Neither does it fall flat into the long, lush grass of so many British autobiographies and novels about country adolescence. It is an honest book….

The beginnings and endings of some of the chapters weirdly recall, if not the exact voice of Penguin New Writing, a good parody of it: "We spent days along the Wawanash River, helping Uncle Benny fish."… The best of the sexual scenes are completely explicit; their straightforwardness is necessary and the reverse of bawdy…. Alice Munro knows when not to be explicit; the often puzzled loves of the young are more reticently portrayed.

The book draws a clear distinction between youthful and adult emotional attitudes even when exactly the same things are happening….

One of the few criticisms that can be made of the book is that it often explains too much. The writing is in fact good enough to rely much more on implication than it allows itself to do.

Patricia Beer, "Beside the Wawanash," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 17, 1978, p. 302.

Hallvard Dahlie

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[Alice Munro is] a writer who has quietly and firmly established herself over the past decade. In a very real sense, she occupies [two] fictional worlds: her fiction is rooted tangibly in the social realism of the rural and small town world of her own experience, but it insistently explores what lies beyond the bounds of empirical reality. Though she has said that she is "very, very excited by what you might call the surface of life," the substance of her fiction to date suggests that this excitement must also derive in part from her intuitive feeling that there is something else of significance just below that literal surface. This may be one reason why to date she has been more attracted to the short story than to the novel…. [That] more concentrated fictional form probably allows her to explore in a more imaginative and intense way the intangible aspects of her world: those shadowy and shifting areas between the rational and the irrational, between the familiar, comfortable world and sudden dimensions of terror, and between various facets of uncertainty and illusion.

These metaphysical concerns find their aesthetic and formal complements in the structures of her fiction, where a similar illusory balance operates between the conventional fictional elements of plot and character on the one hand, and on the other, a kind of psychological or even psychic verification or resolution of a particular dilemma. Though emanating from a recognizable sociological reality, the situations that are characteristically depicted in her fiction frequently transcend the literal bounds of our conscious realizations, and leave us with a residual uncertainty, puzzlement, or even despair. (pp. 56-7)

Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You … essentially picks up on the same themes and concerns as [Munro's] two earlier works, Dance of the Happy Shades and Lives of Girls and Women. In most of this fiction, Munro is the chronicler of a particular region, that of south-western Ontario…. (pp. 57-8)

Alice Munro's fiction could profitably be examined in terms of the themes of isolation and rejection, which unfold in situations where human relationships are rarely cemented or consummated…. [For example, in the short story "The Peace of Utrecht," home], the past, family ties—forces which are conventionally interpreted as positive forces—are … dramatized as disturbing elements, and the narrator even defines "home" as a "dim world of continuing disaster."… (p. 58)

It is [the] intangible or irrational impulses between the protagonist and some other element—other characters, the past or childhood, a code of morality or behaviour—which give Munro's fiction its haunting and disturbing quality…. In Munro's first two books, the emphasis was on the youthful protagonist trying to come to terms with the adult world, but in her latest collection it is frequently the other way around: grandmothers trying to understand granddaughters ("Marrakesh"), elderly sisters trying to make sense out of their common past ("Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You"), a sensitive old man just failing to come to terms with the younger generation around him ("Walking on Water"). (pp. 61-2)

[There is] an underlying element in Munro's fiction in general, and [it] is an irony which both enlarges the possibilities of experience and helps define her characters' specific attributes that operate within a given situation. In some cases, the irony is delightful and benign, as in "How I Met My Husband," which is not without its touches of an O. Henry or Somerset Maugham ending: inevitably combined with moral relief. (p. 65)

A more complex and essentially unresolved effect of irony and ambiguity is reflected in such stories as "Tell Me Yes or No" from her latest collection, or "The Office" from Dance of the Happy Shades. In this latter story, all the circumstantial evidence convicts the landlord right off: Mr. Malley is unpleasant, deceitful, dishonest, and perhaps even lecherous, in his dealings with the narrator, a writer who simply wished to use the office as a creative refuge away from her domestic demands. But there are many other layers of meaning here, and we are drawn into the basic dilemma about the nature of reality. The narrator, as a writer, rearranges words to create her version of reality that takes its authority through the workings of imagination; the landlord, as a hostile commentator on the whole idea of a woman writing outside the home, re-arranges or manipulates facts to create another version of reality, one that to the outsider is as credible as any work of fiction. What we have in this story is the simultaneous creation of two imaginative worlds, and in this process, Mr. Malley manages to transform his outrageous distortions into some semblance of truth. "I arrange words, and think it is my right to be rid of him,"… muses the narrator, but it is clear from the unresolved conclusion of this story that Mr. Malley's violations of her version of reality cannot be easily dismissed. (pp. 65-6)

[There is] a recurring pattern in Alice Munro's fiction: the dramatization of the conjunction of existential terror or desperation and existential possibility within a total vision that is much closer to faith than it is to despair. Worlds are always qualitatively changed at the conclusions of Munro's stories, and though the causal changes have contributed to the unsettling of her protagonists, they characteristically point to an enlargement of possibilities rather than a restriction, or they imply a resolution already attained…. There is a strong sense of amazement at the human condition in Munro, a quality that seems to be born of a recognition that ordinary people have an intangible talent or gift: not necessarily for goodness or truth or beauty, though that happens, too, but more frequently for lucking it out, for intuiting a move or an action which will get them out of a present predicament. At times, her characters appear to drift into salvation rather than consciously elect it, and their emergence into new possibilities is frequently accompanied by [a] kind of amazement…. This kind of realization constitutes what can be defined as an existentialist resolution, a phenomenon particularly relevant to the twentieth-century comic protagonist, to which category Munro's characters can essentially be said to belong. (pp. 67-8)

The total evidence in Alice Munro's fiction ultimately dictates that she cannot easily be categorized, and to say that she writes essentially in the comic mode, or that she is moving consistently beyond realism, reveals only part of the complexity of her art and vision. Her accomplishments offer gratifying evidence that fiction of significant substance, of careful craftsmanship, and of sympathetic treatment of the complexities of human relationships, is very much alive in Canada. All this is of course very much in the tradition of the realism of George Eliot or D. H. Lawrence or Robertson Davies, and as I indicated at the outset, Munro's fiction is strongly rooted in the realism of region and time. But in the Epilogue to Lives, [the protagonist] Del, by now an aspiring novelist and recorder of Jubilee's stories, recognizes the problems that she faces, as she visits Bobby Sherriff, out temporarily from the Asylum, and the last person she sees in Jubilee. "No list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting."… But Bobby from the Asylum reminds her—and us—that there is another world that is not so decipherable, as he suddenly rises in a graceful-grotesque manner and looks at Del in such a way that she construes his action "to be a letter, or a whole word, in an alphabet I did not know."… In a very real way, this unknown or irrational world has been as much a concern of Alice Munro as have any of the things she can list, and her very substantial contribution to our fiction lies in the successful way she has addressed herself to this dilemma, with the authority of the artist and the astonishment of the seer. (pp. 70-1)

Hallvard Dahlie, "The Fiction of Alice Munro," in Ploughshares (© 1978 by Ploughshares, Inc.), Vol. 4, No. 3, 1978, pp. 56-71.


Alice Munro World Literature Analysis


Munro, Alice (Vol. 19)