Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose [Who Do You Think You are?] Themes

Alice Munro


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Extending the pattern she had developed in Lives of Girls and Women, Munro uses the ten linked stories of The Beggar Maid to explore Rose's personal maturation. But whereas the structure of Lives of Girls and Women pivots on Del Jordan's first-person reflections on her efforts to establish emotional and spiritual links with the people around her, The Beggar Maid relies on an omniscient third-person narrator to provide insights into the relationships and fissures, connections and reconnections that accumulate and interweave to shape Rose's understanding of herself and her world.

Focusing on Rose's childhood and adolescence, the three stories that open the book explore the connections established early in Rose's life. In the opening story, "Royal Beatings," these links are familial. Commencing at a point in Rose's childhood when a "long truce" between Rose and her stepmother Flo has deteriorated badly, "Royal Beatings" traces the lines of tension within this family structure. Replacing the tenuous armistice is an intense "wrangle" which seems to have been "going on forever, like a dream that goes back and back into other dreams," and which culminates when Flo elicits the participation of Del's father in a ritualized act of domestic violence: "Royal Beating. That was Flo's promise." Yet it is Rose's connection with Flo, the only mother figure she has any memory of, which also proves to be the most enduring and the most complicated of these primary relationships.

The two subsequent stories in this opening triad trace Rose's experiences within the established hierarchy of elementary school ("Privilege") and during the period of her transition into adolescence, an especially tumultuous time marked by the death of her father, her experiences in high school, and her increasingly acute sensitivity to the stultifying social structure of Hanratty ("Half a Grapefruit"). In each of these two stories, Rose's relationship with Flo is never far from the foreground; indeed, it becomes an increasingly complex connection, with Flo being cast and recast in a number of key roles in Rose's life, variously an audience for the stories Rose brings home from school, an injudicious commentator on the events and people of Hanratty, an omnipresent threat to disrupt Rose's tentative place within the school hierarchy, and a foil to her ambitious stepdaughter.

With each successive story in the book, Rose moves beyond Hanratty and the direct influence of Flo into the increasingly ambiguous world of adult relationships. In "Wild Swans," she ventures to Toronto on the train for the first time by herself, a trip which leads to her first sexual experience. "The Beggar Maid" opens with Rose in university and reflecting on her courtship with Patrick Blatchford, a young man from a wealthy West Coast family. The story reveals both the intensity and the ultimate failure of Rose's connection with Patrick, detailing their awkward courtship, marriage, and the battles leading to a bitter divorce. Opening three years into the marriage of Patrick and Rose, "Mischief" retraces and adds previously omitted details to Rose's recollections of her union, including the story of her ill-fated and unconsummated affair with the...

(The entire section is 1323 words.)