Alice Munro Munro, Alice (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Brandon Conron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Urjo Kareda

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julia O'Faolain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Jack Beatty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Ted Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Thomas R. Edwards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

William B. Stone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.