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

by Alice Munro

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1323

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 husband of a close friend. The web of connections shaping Rose's life continues to expand in the next two stories, as Rose works to redefine herself in terms of new relationships: with a married lover living in a distant city, a "connection" which "held her new life in place"; with her daughter Anna, a precocious child with whom Rose gradually acknowledges having little in common ("Providence"); and with a man she falls deeply in love with, not knowing that he is dying of cancer ("Simon's Luck").

The final two stories of the book — "Spelling" and "Who Do You Think You Are?" — bring this theme of connection and reconnection full circle. Returning to West Hanratty to care for an aging Flo, Rose is again forced to redefine herself, this time in terms of relationships she mistakenly believes she has moved beyond: "false connections, with a lost period of her life." A number of these links with her past are of an especially intimate nature, such as her relationship with Flo, whom Rose eventually places in the Wawanash County Home for the Aged, and with her younger half-brother Brian, whose intense memories of childhood competition threaten to rupture the calm surface of maturity. Other past connections are more casual, but, as Rose comes to understand, have been no less important in her life. Foremost among these are her brief encounters with Milton Homer, a local eccentric now living in the County Home, and Ralph Gillespie, a retired Naval Petty Officer who decades earlier had sat either ahead or behind Rose in every high school class. As the closing line of the final story suggests, although Rose knows Ralph Gillespie only casually, she is connected to him in the way that only people who share a sense of culture and place can be: "What could she say about herself and Ralph Gillespie, except that she felt his life, close, closer than the lives of men she'd loved, one slot over from her own?"

Threatening to disrupt and in some cases destroy the relationships informing Rose's life, however, is a deep-rooted fear of "exposure." Life in West Hanratty teaches Rose early in her life about the potential humiliation and pain that come when a person "exposes" herself to the affections, judgment, or scrutiny of others. She is told stories of or participates in numerous events during which watching or spying, for instance, is a strategy by which one gains power and control over those being watched. Invariably, such occasions are encoded with a kind of theatricality. At times, such moments of drama reflect an almost benign innocence, as when Rose overhears her father talking to himself as he works, speaking words which "hang clear and nonsensical on the air." More often, such occasions reveal the darker side of the human condition, as when a local girl, Becky Tyde, watches as her father is beaten brutally by three townsmen or when Rose joins a gathering in the schoolyard to watch a young boy sexually abuse his sister.

Balanced against this fear of exposure and humiliation is the paradoxical need of many characters to "perform," another resonant word in these stories. Like Milton Homer, whose "everyday looks" take on a "theatrical extremity," Rose harbors a powerful impulse to make herself into a public person who participates fully and openly in the world rather than functioning in the isolation and privacy of the shadows. While in university, for instance, she recognizes that she wants "to perform in public" despite the fact she considers herself "too much of a coward ever to walk on stage." It is a decision that not only confirms the opinions of those who think she is "always so theatrical," but also signals Rose's first formal recognition of a desire to act which remains dormant until after her divorce.

Complicating this tension between exposure and performance is the fact that, at times, the physical and psychological distance separating observer and observed collapses. Rose often catches herself during moments when she is at once actor and audience, as when she stares at her own reflection in mirrors or windows, or when she examines in snapshots the details of her own image. At other times, this disconcerting fusion of perspectives occurs in Rose's mind's eye, as when she thinks back on the "royal beatings" administered by her father and wonders whether the domestic brutality had "to be carried out, in the end, partly for the effect, to prove to the audience of one . . . that such a thing can happen." Similarly, she frequently "looks back" and "sees" herself "sitting beside Patrick, in her low-cut black blouse and black velvet skirt which she hoped would turn out to be the right thing to wear." On these occasions Rose also recalls "wishing they were just going to the movies," thereby guaranteeing herself a single and comfortable perspective as watcher of someone else's performance.

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