Alice Munro 1931–
(Born Alice Laidlaw) Canadian short story writer and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Munro's career from 1980–1995. See also, Alice Munro Criticism and volume 19.
Munro is one of Canada's most critically acclaimed contemporary authors. Often referred to as a regional writer because her fiction frequently centers on the culture of rural Ontario, Munro credits the short story writers of the American South, particularly Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, with shaping her fictional perspective. In Munro's works the mundane is juxtaposed with the fantastic, and she often relies on paradox and irony to expose meanings that lie beneath the surface of commonplace occurrences. Munro acknowledges the autobiographical influences on many of her stories, which are most often framed as episodic recollections that chronicle the emotional development of adolescent and adult female characters. Although some critics regard her collections as loosely structured novels, Munro insists they are short stories. Munro's first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), as well as two subsequent collections, Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) and The Progress of Love (1986), won Governor General's Literary Awards. It was her second book, however, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), that established her as a prominent figure in contemporary Canadian literature.
Munro grew up on the outskirts of Wingham, Ontario, where her family struggled to maintain a decent living from her father's silver fox farm. She characterizes this locale as belonging neither to the town nor the outlying rural communities, and critics note that Munro sets many of her stories in similarly ambiguous areas. Munro was a diligent student and earned a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario in 1949. Married two years later, she moved with her husband to British Columbia where she concentrated on raising a family. Motivated by what she calls a personal selfishness and toughness, she compiled the stories that constitute Dance of the Happy Shades over a twelve-year period. In the early 1970s after her marriage had dissolved, Munro accepted a position as writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario and a few years later moved to Clinton, Ontario, a few miles from her childhood home of Wingham, with her second husband. That same year some of her stories were accepted by The New Yorker, beginning her long association with the magazine as a regular contributor. Between 1979 and 1982 Munro toured extensively in Australia, China, and Scandinavia. In 1986 she received the first Marian Engel Award, given to a woman writer for an outstanding body of work, and in 1990 she won the Canada Council Molson prize for her "outstanding lifetime contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada."
The fifteen stories in Munro's first book, Dance of the Happy Shades, explore the personal isolation that fear, ridicule, and the inability to communicate often impose. Critics note that Munro's consistent focus on social and personal divisions provides the collection with an ironic thematic unity. In several stories Munro examines the segregation of a town's misfits. She often creates characters who initially seem certain of their identities but who gradually begin to question the basic assumptions under which they live. The title story, "Dance of the Happy Shades," for instance, centers on an annual piano recital in which a group of retarded children are silently feared and ridiculed by mothers of the "normal" students. The story ends with an exceptional performance by a retarded girl that leaves the mothers stunned and uncomfortably impressed by her talent. In this piece, as in many of her short stories, Munro explores the sources of social inhibitions and exposes the insecurities of self-righteous and self-centered characters. Other stories in the collection are "coming-of-age" tales. In "Images," a young girl and her father meet an axe-wielding recluse in the woods. The girl establishes a bond with her father when she agrees not to tell anyone about the stranger's axe. In the end, however, she realizes that she too is "[like] the children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth…." The stories in Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are? are similar in their depictions of the development of their central characters, and for this reason are often referred to as "open-form" novels. In the former, Munro focuses on specific experiences that affect protagonist Del Jordan's perceptions of her changing environment. Critics have compared Lives of Girls and Women to James Joyce's künstlerroman Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), for Munro's portrayal of Del as an alienated and misunderstood artist is akin to Joyce's portrait of Stephen Dedalus. In this work's opening piece, "The Flats Road," Munro compares Del's adolescent perception of reality to that of her Uncle Benny, whose vision of life is overly influenced by the irrational ideals of his childhood. Although Del is young, she recognizes that her Uncle's behavior is abnormal, and she gradually becomes aware that his freedom and playfulness are fragile, sensing that they are continually threatened by the workings of everyday reality. By the story's end, Del attempts to write about her experiences and hometown but feels that her understanding has been limited by the entrapping and demanding nature of adult life. Like Lives of Girls and Women, Who Do You Think You Are? focuses on moments of confrontation in the protagonist's life. Although many commentators treat the work as a novel, Munro refers to it as a collection of "linked stories" that deal with the maturation of the central character, Rose. Critics note the prevailing depressive quality of the stories in Who Do You Think You Are? and comment on Munro's harsh depictions of Rose's relationships with men. While the abrupt time shifts and overlapping experiences in this work provide a multifaceted characterization of Rose, some critics have suggested that the cool objectivity of the third person narrative undermines the authenticity of the characters. Munro's other collections have also received widespread critical attention. Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), The Moons of Jupiter (1982), The Progress of Love, and Friend of My Youth (1990), focus on the lives of mature characters and deal primarily with adult themes. Again in these collections Munro uses irony to create an overriding sense of uncertainty and insecurity in her characters. While some critics claim that these collections lack the vitality of her earlier works, others praise Munro's ability to reveal the subtleties and dynamics of adult relationships.
Many critics echo the sentiments of Catherine Sheldrick who states that the stories of Alice Munro present "ordinary experiences so that they appear extraordinary, invested with a kind of magic." It is this emphasis on the seemingly mundane progression of female lives that prompted Ted Solataroff to call Munro a "great stylist of 1920's realism, a Katherine Anne Porter brought up to date." Similarly, Joyce Carol Oates finds "the evocation of emotions, ranging from bitter hatred to love, from bewilderment and resentment to awe … [in] an effortless, almost conversational tone" evidence that "we are in the presence of an art that works to conceal itself, in order to celebrate its subject." Occasionally faulted for limiting herself to a narrow thematic range, Munro is, nevertheless, widely regarded as a gifted short story writer whose strength lies in her ability to present the texture of everyday life with both compassion and unyielding precision.