Alice Munro Munro, Alice (Vol. 95)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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.

Biographical Information

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."

Major Works

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...

(The entire section is 46,066 words.)