Alice Munro Munro, Alice (Vol. 10)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 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...

(The entire section is 2,692 words.)