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Munro, Alice 1931–
Munro, a Canadian short story writer and novelist, is known for fiction that recalls with precision the texture and detail of ordinary life. Munro herself says that she is "very, very excited by what you might call the surface of life." Munro is preoccupied with the effects of the past, place, and local cultural values on individual life. She won the Governor General's Literary Award in 1969 for Dance of the Happy Shades and in 1978 for Who Do You Think You Are? (See also CLC, Vols. 6, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
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[Alice Munro's writing] captures the flavour and mood of rural Ontario…. During an interview in 1971, after acknowledging Eudora Welty as probably her favourite author, Munro remarked, "If I'm a regional writer, the region I'm writing about has many things in common with the American South…." (pp. 109-10)
Although there are obviously vast differences between Munro's own country and the American South, some attitudes are common to both societies: an almost religious belief in the land and the old rural cultural values; a sense of the past and respect for family history, however unremarkable or bizarre it may seem to outsiders: a profound awareness of the Bible which is reflected in the very language and images of speech; and a Calvinistic sense of sin.
Also influential in Munro's artistic development was journalist James Agee's experiment of integrating photography and text…. (p. 110)
[Her] intense feeling for the exact texture of surfaces and the tone of responses makes far greater demands than any cinemagraphic technique can adequately meet. It requires a style more akin to what in contemporary painting is often called "magic realism." Among those loosely categorized in this group, Alice Munro has noted a particular appreciation for the American Edward Hopper's paintings of ordinary places—a barber shop, seaside cottages, a small town street, roadside snack bar or gasoline station. Canadian painters like Alex Colville, Tom Forrestal and Jack Chambers have also influenced her. While all of these artists express themselves in individually different styles, the overall impression which they convey is one of acute perception of their environment. They exercise the selectivity of the expert photographer; yet by some personal, humanizing stroke each object or nuance in their painting somehow appears to have a special significance in its relationship to the rest of the picture. There is a kind of illusionary three dimensional aspect, a super realism or magical and mysterious suggestion of a soul beyond the objects depicted, which leaves the viewer participant with greater insights and an increased sensitivity towards the world around.
Such an impression Alice Munro can create in her extended images, which often evoke in the reader an intuitive awareness of a story's entire impact. In Dance of the Happy Shades this technique can be observed in a number of descriptive passages. Frequently the author arrests or suspends motion before returning to action, as in the still painting description from "Thanks for the Ride" of a typical small town near Lake Huron, after the summer vacationers have gone home…. (pp. 110-11)
[While such Southern writers as Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Reynolds Price, and Eudora Welty] undoubtedly influenced Munro's descriptive style, it was their expression of the profound dignity of even the most trivial events of every day life to which she especially responded. Later, when she first discovered Patrick White through his Tree of Man …, this feeling for the inherent beauty of every earthly thing was reinforced: for her, too, a lowly ant or a gob of spittle could be worthy of appreciative contemplation. There is a remarkable similarity between the imagery of White and Munro—probably because of their similar apprehension of the "holiness" of all aspects of life, in which "beautiful or ugly had ceased to matter because there was in everything something to be discovered."…
[The stories of Dance of the Happy Shades] treat the maturing process of the young as recalled later, and depend partly for their effect on a bifocal point of view that sees a situation from both an adolescent and an adult perspective. (p. 111)
A central story in this collection … is "Images," a young woman's recollections of an outing with her father. An intricate series of contrasts is presented: outdoor activity and the pervasive aura of an unexplained malady; apparent jollity and genuine misery; death and life; images and actuality…. This is a strange story, replete with concrete imagery and suggestive overtones, that demonstrates the author's acute perception of smells and tastes as well as of sights and sounds and their associations. (pp. 114-15)
This first volume reveals that Alice Munro can treat a wide range of themes with a technical framework that is, in her own words, "very traditional, very conventional." In all but three of these fifteen stories the point of view is that of a child or adolescent, modified or controlled to some extent by the lapse of time, new insights and perspectives between an incident and its recording. In only one is the narrator or reader's sensorium a male. In each, the characters are seen in a strongly presented physical setting, in which the surfaces of life, its texture, sounds and smells are described with exactness of observation and delicacy of language. The focus is fairly narrow and highly personal, in the sense that "the emotional reality," though not the events, is "solidly autobiographical."
Although the stories have no formal sequence, they effectively trace the development of a sensitive young girl into womanhood. They capture in dialogue, characterization and description the practicality and hardships, seasonal rhythms and vitality of rural and small town life, the barriers between the young and the old, the poor and the affluent, the sick and the well. Secrets and a lack of genuine communication between family members or friends often lead to guilty estrangements; unawareness of a situation, perhaps because of a selfish distaste for unpleasant things or a fear of ridicule, is common; the pressure to conform is relentless, and failure of will to make one's own life is too frequent. The treatment of these various themes is everywhere touched with humour, compassionate irony, and a comprehension of the absurd and grotesque. Common experiences become unique, yet universal, expressions of what it means to be alive during this period.
In … Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), Alice Munro moves into a larger, more cosmopolitan world. Only six of the thirteen stories are rooted in what was formerly considered Munro country. The other seven have contemporary urban settings…. There is a wider variety of characters also, fewer girls and young women and more middle-aged or elderly people. Most of the stories are longer. There is a mature awareness of the complexity and fragility of human relationships, the confusing standards of modern city life, and the conflict of generations. Satire is more common. These new aspects are ordered with the same characteristic perception, subtle interplay of emotions, droll sense of humour, and ironic compassion.
Although arbitrarily chosen thematic headings cannot adequately reflect the overlapping and variety of minor motifs in individual tales, four kinds of stories seem to emerge: first, those in which are blended a number of related themes—the essential individualism of each person, the impossibility of complete comprehension of one's own self let alone another's, the self-deception, buried resentments, and often unwitting vindictiveness of human personality; second, stories reminiscent of Dance in their focus on relatively simple emotional situations; third, stories which offer especially revealing insights into the author's technique; and finally, narratives in which a sense of personal guilt is pervasive.
The title piece, "Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You," a good example of the first group, is a finely orchestrated dramatization of the underlying tensions and ironies of close relationships…. Through the recurring images and allusions time flows easily backwards and forwards as on the little stage of Mock Hill a range of human emotions is portrayed with a gently comic undertone that is conveyed overtly in the names of the setting and characters.
Et's fantasy, plausible and ambiguous enough for a reader to speculate about its validity, is presented with splendid irony. She also sees a mythical parallel when Arthur in a foursome game of "Who am I?" chooses to be Sir Galahad…. (pp. 115-16)
Among the stories [appearing in Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You which are] most arresting for their critical insights into the author's technique are "Material" … [and] "Tell Me Yes or No."… "Material" tells how a writer, Hugo, transforms a personal incident into fiction. His former wife muses about his publication with devastating satire…. Mocking the book jacket blurb, tearing apart its half lies of Hugo's experiences as "lumberjack, beer-slinger, counterman," she ridicules his image as "not only fake but out of date."… This is a very complex, ironic and comical story that touches on such themes and tensions as the amorality of artists, creating from "scraps and oddments, useless baggage," a "hard and shining, rare intimidating quality"; the tenuous tie that holds men and women together in love, "as flimsy as a Roumanian accent or the calm curve of an eyelid, some half-fraudulent mystery"; the way that men, whatever their temperaments, know "how to ignore or use things…. They are not at the mercy." Dialogue, description, and reflection all unite in a realistic and ironic interplay of character and events to evoke in the reader a rich and varied response. (pp. 119-20)
In "Tell Me Yes or No" a narrator has an imaginary conversation with a dead lover as she recalls their affair and tells of a later trip to his home city….
Moving with the temporal fluidity of internal monologue, the story is rich in imagery, descriptive detail, and inner revelation as the narrator attempts to understand the deceased as well as their relationship for the previous two years. (p. 120)
In many of the stories already commented upon there can be noted an expression of a sense of guilt for uncharitable thoughts, acts of deceit or omission. In the last group to be discussed, regret and remorse are pervasive motifs. "Walking on Water," set in Victoria and suggested by a publicity stunt there of television comic Paul Paulsen, describes the tragic failure of a young Zen adherent's experiment in psychic control over matter, as seen through the perspective of a retired druggist. The difficulty of bridging the generation gap is vividly portrayed in realistic dialogue and sharp imagery, as he attempts to understand the sense of values of the flower people. His touching concern for their welfare and poignant foreboding reach a climactic note with his eventual feeling of disorientation in their brutally existential dismissal of the victim's fate…. (pp. 121-22)
"The Ottawa Valley," final story of this volume, is another reminiscence of a childhood experience by a mature woman…. In recalling [childhood incidents], the cousins' versions often vary and their different responses are comically revealing of their different temperaments and sensibilities. (p. 122)
The spectre of a gifted, eccentric and ailing mother haunts much of Munro's fiction, and appears either briefly or as a dominating figure in several of the collected stories. She is a central character in Lives of Girls and Women. Frequently associated with her is a daughter whose growing maturity brings a sense of guilt for her own lack of understanding or compassion. Another less individualized but equally recurring figure in various aspects is the man, whether single or married, who uses or ignores women and events at his own whim. There is also a whole range of other characters that have been imaginatively created out of vividly recalled memories. For the most part they are unsophisticated people who only vaguely comprehend the meaning of their own lives. The reader is taken with them through a series of rather subtle, low-keyed circumstances in which the continuum is often disrupted and then reestablished in a way that alters both the reader's as well as the characters' emotional awareness, and leads them both to a significant or fresh conception of the world. Most of the tales are presented from the first person point of view. Even in those few which happen to be written in the third person the narrative voice is that of the central figure. This technique allows an intimate rapport between reader and narrator. The blending of past and present often generates the energy of the story as the perspective continually shifts. In some tales the first paragraph is a microcosm of the whole; in others the ending contains the vital clues required to reveal the full deployment of fictional forces. Some move forward more by dialogue than description. In virtually all, the rhythm is achieved by a balance of the parts which defies rational analysis. (pp. 122-23)
Alice Munro's special distillation of personality is revealed in the quiet humour, gentle irony, and compassionate understanding with which she treats her themes. Her uniqueness lies not only in the special angle of vision from which her characters are seen, but also in the lastinq impact which they have on the reader. They are memorable for themselves as well as for their symbolic significance. Many are representative of particular life patterns, revealed often in a single picture, in the fashion of Sherwood Anderson, of "lives flowing past each other." But they still remain individuals who become permanent personal possessions of the reader. Her writing is original, not for its technical innovation or interpretations of the atomic age, but rather for its fragile insights into the complexity of personal relationships. Her narratives spring from an imaginative, intelligent and unpretentious individuality to which fiction is a natural recourse. They are independent, absorbing, and realistic expressions of the profound disturbances and magic of ultimate human reckonings. (p. 123)
Brandon Conron, "Munro's Wonderland," in Canadian Literature, No. 78, Autumn, 1978, pp. 109-23.
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The ten stories in … Who Do You Think You Are? share the same central character, a woman named Rose. We drop in on her life from early adolescence through middle age. Rose grows up in impoverished circumstances in a small Ontario town; she goes to university and marries a wealthy, appealing, and yet wholly unsuitable young man; she divorces him and, in middle life, achieves a manner of bruised success in her career as an actress and television personality.
It must be acknowledged immediately that the stages of this life are not altogether remarkable or startling. But the plainness of Rose's progress gives no real hint of the exceptional cumulative force of feeling that Munro is able to achieve in these linked stories.
As always with Alice Munro's writing, one wonders whether the precision and immediacy of the detail mean that the stories are autobiographical, more mirror-puzzles like her Lives of Girls and Women (1971) with its warning: "This novel is autobiographical in form but not in fact." Undoubtedly our yearning to attach autobiographical origins to Munro's stories is a tribute to the uncanny authenticity of their texture. She must have lived this or something very much like it, we feel, and by some miracle retained it whole. She has the ability to isolate the one detail that will evoke the rest of the landscape. In this remarkable, immensely pleasurable collection, we are never at a loss for location, be it physical or emotional. Munro's skill in perceiving the exact colouring of a moment never becomes the kind of rarefied, feathery delicacy that can make short stories arch or anaemic. Instead, she achieves a fertile, vigorous robustness: we respond to the fearlessness with which she alternates pain and comedy. Alice Munro has Chekhov's eye—and there is no higher praise—for the way in which we ourselves provide the blade which slits the thin, protective partition between what we think we would like to be and what in fact we are capable of being.
That war within us is explored throughout the collection….
Throughout these stories focused on Rose, Alice Munro also offers brief glimpses of lives lived against the odds. This may indeed be characteristic of writing that centres upon small towns, where the varieties of sensibility and opportunity are more swiftly grasped. In less deft and compassionate hands, this might have seemed merely a gallery of grotesques, but Munro gives these misshapen lives, this world of secondary characters possessing imperfect bodies or minds, a feisty vigour. (p. 62)
Alice Munro's instinct about the way in which we translate ourselves, the routes of fear or vanity or self-deception by which we allow ourselves to be deflected from the road we long ago mapped out, is what gives her writing its urgency and heartbeat. Her stories are the subtlest summonings to reconsider our lives. Their effect reminded me of Gorky's description of Chekhov's presence: "Everyone unwittingly felt an inner longing to be simpler, more truthful, to be more himself." (p. 63)
Urjo Kareda, "The War within Alice Munro's Heroine" (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 94, No. 1, January-February, 1979, pp. 62-3.
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Deft with social detail, [Alice Munro] anchors her people firmly to class and place and commands the classic realist's strengths: moral seriousness, compassion, a sense of the particular. The disruptive elements are her characters' delusions, their yearnings and yarning, their snobbery and shames….
[The stories in "The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose", the American edition of "Who Do You Think You Are?"] are arranged chronologically; each is self-contained, but they all throw light on one another…. On one level their subject is the boundary between the marvelous and the ordinary. On another, it is the life story of a woman in whose grasp reality tends to slither like wet soap. Rose has a restless imagination because she moves from one social class to another and because, in the end, she puts her disability to use and goes into the theater….
There are flashes forward and back; moments of prescience and hindsight….
Alice Munro captures a kaleidoscope of lights and depths. Through the lens of Rose's eye, she manages to reproduce the vibrant prance of life while scrutinizing the workings of her own narrative art. This is an exhilarating collection.
Julia O'Faolain, "Small-Town Snobbery in Canada," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 16, 1979, p. 12.
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In The Beggar Maid the impressive Canadian writer Alice Munro has combined the form of the short story with the narrative interest of the novel to provide an unusual kind of literary pleasure. Each of these 10 stories is a contemplative and aesthetic whole; each contains a world of complication and suggestion, with its own particular emphasis and texture. Yet moving through each world and in our affections rising clear of all of them is a single novelistic destiny, Rose; we are not told her last name….
The stories are convincingly imagined and interestingly told, with sudden shifts in time that would stop the narrative flow of a novel but which this less linear hybrid happily accommodates. The later stories are good but deal with familiar material—marriage, divorce, the life of an independent woman; they owe their best moments to their dips into the past, their returns to [Rose's hometown, Hanratty, Ontario, the setting] of the early stories. Ms. Munro knows what it is like to breathe the disappointed air of provincial poverty, and through crude naturalistic detail—the look of turds frozen in piles of snow in the crumbling lavatory of Rose's school is an image I won't forget—as well as through delicate delineations of character, she recreates the Depression world of Hanratty on the eve of the wartime prosperity that would change it for better and worse. Everything in these stories is a mix of better and worse, of gain and loss, of misery and happiness. Moving, hard, lucid, they throw a "cloudy interesting, problematic light on the world."
Jack Beatty, "'The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 15, October 13, 1979, p. 40.
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In the work of Alice Munro, whose volume of related short stories [The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose is] of a high standard, the material seems [close] to the author's experience….
Munro is as good as John Updike in chronicling the hesitations and sidesteps of adultery, its secret rules and regulations, its Geneva conventions, and the dozens of practical details that must be dealt with to make the grand passion possible….
Munro is also very good on the mother-daughter relationship. Rose takes custody of her daughter Anna, but cannot manage the domesticity, so she gives her up, realizing that "poor, picturesque, gypsying childhoods are not much favored by children, though they will claim to value them, for all sorts of reasons, later on." Rose goes on to become an actress and television interviewer. I hope she will be heard from again, for she is immensely likable, and there is gallantry in her willingness to take risks, open herself to the chance of love, and measure herself against what she was and fled from. (p. 78)
Ted Morgan, "Writers Who Happen to Be Women," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 20, October 13, 1979, pp. 76-8.∗
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Alice Munro's heroine Rose, though said to be a successful and even "famous" Canadian television actress, returns again and again in her imagination to the claustrophobic world of her childhood and girlhood, in "Hanratty, Ontario," as if seeking a meaning—even a deathly meaning—in that otherwise ungiving environment. Though her nature is tough as a "prickly pineapple" Rose is completely vulnerable to the signals, increasingly random and weak, sent out by Hanratty; she seems in a sense never to have left, and indeed Munro is careful to end The Beggar Maid with Rose back in Hanratty, in the Canadian Legion Hall where only the past—parochial, unredeemed by an intellectual grasp of its significance—exists, and the present is quite irrelevant. (pp. 87-8)
Lives of Girls and Women, the title of Alice Munro's first volume of fiction, might well serve as a title for all her work. Again, in The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose …, Munro examines with her usual lyric precision the experience of a young girl growing up in Ontario, in a period that encompasses the Second World War and shades into the tumultous present. The stories are all succinct and expertly crafted, frequently summarized as if they were, in a sense, nothing more than flickering images in Rose's restless mind. The 'story' of The Beggar Maid is over—Rose is now telling it to herself, in fragments, as if trying to piece together the disparate shards of her own life. For though Rose has suffered innumerable humiliations in West Hanratty, particularly at the hands of her step-mother Flo (who both is, and then again is not, "crazy"), she has survived nevertheless, and has even made a career for herself in a highly competitive field. (Though the details leading up to this career are unfortunately blurred.) (pp. 88-9)
The sub-title—Stories of Flo and Rose—is misleading, for the stories are all about Rose, are in fact recounted by Rose, and Flo is seen only from the outside; and the book is really a novel, not a collection of stories, since each of the "chapters" fits in gracefully with the others, and advances the plot (which is oblique and minimal, exactly as one might recall the "plot" of one's life). The most powerful passages are those which evoke, in a single strong image, or in a few fastidiously-chosen lines, Rose's troubled relationship with her step-mother. Growing up, moving beyond Hanratty and Flo, Rose enters a dismayingly vulgar, even banal world, though it is a world of greater affluence, and one in which she achieves her "success." Munro analyzes rather mercilessly Rose's relationships with men, the naiveté of her hopes and the inevitability of her disappointments, and one comes to feel that Munro shares … the conviction that this is a time in which "men are angry with women; men are afraid of women." No one in Rose's experience (except a lover named Simon, doomed to die of cancer) impresses her with the strength of personality her step-mother had. And Flo, of course, is a "character"—intolerant, belligerent, somewhat mad. (p. 89)
Joyce Carol Oates, "The Canadian Inheritance: Engel, Munro, Moore," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1979 by The Ontario Review, Inc.), No. 11, Fall-Winter, 1979–80, pp. 87-90.∗
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Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid is a history not of endless love but of many loves that ended too soon. Here ten connected stories follow the early and middle life of a woman named Rose, born around 1930 in West Hanratty, Ontario, a shabby, depressed small town of the sort that talented and sensitive kids like Rose will do almost anything to get out of, only to spend the rest of their lives remembering what it was like.
Munro records the development of Rose's emotions without making them seem to "stand for" anything outside of Rose's own sense of her life. (p. 43)
[Each] story considers some remembered instance of love or desire that has been thwarted or transformed by the passage of time, but no definite conclusion emerges to make all the parts cohere. These things happened to Rose, they made a difference, she remembers them, if not fondly then at least respectfully. (pp. 43-4)
Alice Munro shares with some other Canadian writers of her generation—I'm thinking particularly of Margaret Atwood, Marian Engel, and Timothy Findley—a strong sense of how place and local circumstance can shape and interpret lives. Such an awareness could be called provincial, but it seems to me a strength for a novelist, a way of protecting fictional particularity from the temptation to homogenize things in order to pursue issues or themes. Though Rose's story bears directly, for example, upon the issues of contemporary feminism, in The Beggar Maid they are her own experiences and no one else's. For this, as well as for its quiet eloquence and its refusal ever to say more than is needed, Munro's book seems to me very fine. (p. 44)
Thomas R. Edwards, "It's Love," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. 27, No. 3, March 6, 1980, pp. 43-5.∗
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Not the least of the achievements of this remarkably satisfying collection [The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose] may be the original use of a form which, by analogy with the roman fleuve, might be termed the conte fleuve. The ten tales … constitute, if one may use another foreign term, a Bildungsroman….
Munro makes the most of her form; its flexibility allows surprises and twists in the narrative; new insights emerge at unexpected junctures; yet there is a progressive development of Rose's character and the reader's understanding of it. Nevertheless, however much the stories gain by being read together, each is capable of standing alone. Read in order, they become installments of a serial narrative; read in isolation, each begins, essentially, in media res and quickly establishes its own universe.
Munro's descriptive power makes possible this establishment. Through an objective cataloging of selected physical objects and attributes, highlighted by Rose's subjective reactions and an effective occasional simile, we are shown, as though looking at a Walker Evans photograph, the essence of a particular world. A grocery store, a classroom, a rented apartment, a mansion, a Legion Hall—while such settings help define the limits against which the characters struggle, they are not the cruel traps of naturalist fiction; the description is frequently humorous. Indeed, humor plays throughout the book, producing one of its major joys. The frustrating logistical problems of sexual liason are made particularly funny…. (p. 353)
William B. Stone, "Reviews: 'The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1980 by Newberry College), Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 353-54.