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

by Alice Munro
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Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684

The history of the prepublication revision that shaped The Beggar Maid supports the many critics who suggest readers approach the book as a story cycle, that is, as ten independent interdependent stories which invite the reader to construct and reconstruct interconnected patterns of recurring characters, images, motifs, and themes. (Further...

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The history of the prepublication revision that shaped The Beggar Maid supports the many critics who suggest readers approach the book as a story cycle, that is, as ten independent interdependent stories which invite the reader to construct and reconstruct interconnected patterns of recurring characters, images, motifs, and themes. (Further support for this claim comes from the fact that eight of the stories were published separately in a variety of magazines prior to being collected and arranged in the cycle.) In brief, the first version of the book contained a group of third-person stories about Rose and a group of stories narrated in the first person by a character named Janet. Three of the original "Janet stories" ("Connection," "The Stone in the Field," and "The Moons of Jupiter") were dropped from the second version and later included in the collection The Moons of Jupiter (1982); the remaining first-person "Janet stories" were rewritten as third-person narratives about Rose. Then, with the book already in the early stages of printing, Munro saw the potential for two new Rose stories, "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "Simon's Luck." These two stories were added, at Munro's personal expense, to the collection for the first time.

The late addition of two stories focusing on Rose's return to West Hanratty reflects Munro's attention to the interconnectedness of the events and experiences of Rose's life. Showing Rose's attempts to claim an exaggerated past as the foundation on which to build social acceptance to be ineffective and transparently melodramatic, and her attempts to dismiss the potency of her ties with West Hanratty as misguided, Munro uses the cycle form to direct our attention to another, albeit much more difficult strategy available to Rose. What Rose comes to acknowledge, and what The Beggar Maid stresses both formally and thematically, is that she must recognize the connections and relationships that, individually and in the aggregate, are integral parts of what she has become.

There is a similar connection between theme and Munro's subtle manipulation of narrative time, a technique which gives many of her stories — including those in The Beggar Maid — a breadth of perspective usually considered the purview of longer literary forms. With all ten stories narrated by a third-person narrator (a perspective Munro began to explore regularly in the collection Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, 1974) and arranged to give a sense of the chronological development in both Rose's age and character, there is an appearance of linearity to the book as a whole. But each story within this implied chronology moves freely in time. Episodes that at first appear to occur in the historical present blend seamlessly with remembrances of episodes that occurred years earlier. Munro begins "The Beggar Maid," for instance, with a remembered emotion: "Patrick Blatchford was in love with Rose." The past tense "was" provides the opening frame, as it were, for the extended story of Rose and Patrick's courtship at university, their marriage, their subsequent move to Vancouver, and, finally, their divorce. The narrative of these events, however, is an intricate interweaving of episodes in which present tense verbs are privileged and episodes in which past tense verbs and the act of remembering figure prominently. The closing paragraphs of "The Beggar Maid" extend the narrative chronology to include Rose's memory of a moment nine years after the divorce when she sees Patrick in an airport in the middle of the night. Complicating this already elusive temporality is the reader's recognition that the next story in the cycle, "Mischief," begins three years into the marriage of Patrick and Rose, that is, more than a decade before the ending of the preceding story.

The experience of reading The Beggar Maid reflects one of the book's central themes, for just as Rose must strike a balance in her life, learning to attend to her needs in the present while remaining attentive to the influences of her past and the potential of her future, readers of a story cycle must concentrate on the story being read while remaining aware of the stories that came earlier and those yet to come.

Social Concerns

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 590

The title of this book was changed from Who Do You Think You Are? to The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose prior to its release in the United States, in part, because Munro's American publisher believed that the colloquial criticism "who do you think you are?" (an expression which also appears in Lives of Girls and Women) would not be familiar to American readers. Despite this change, the attitudes and cultural biases that give rise to the colloquialism remain a central concern of these ten linked stories, which trace the maturing of Rose from childhood through middle age.

Rose grows up with an ingrained sense of a society divided according to the trappings of class, a cultural assertion expressed in the organization of the town of Hanratty itself. In Hanratty proper, "the social structure ran from doctors and dentists and lawyers down to foundry workers and factory workers and draymen," whereas in West Hanratty, an area separated from the relative affluence of the main town by a river, the structure "ran from factory workers and foundry workers down to large improvident families of casual bootleggers and prostitutes and unsuccessful thieves."

What Rose comes to realize through her own ambitions and successes is that a childhood spent among the improvident in no way predestines her to a similar future; being born in West Hanratty does not mean that one can never move beyond the economic and social barriers that have traditionally defined it. Rose soon discovers, however, that her ambition brings attendant challenges, both from outside and from within the community in which she is born. Her contact with numerous "elite" groups during her life, notably her husband's wealthy family and various academic and arts communities, reiterate the same unseen barriers that stratify the town in which she was raised. Constantly aware of the intricate pattern of social codes and culturally sanctioned markers that determine where she will "fit" within the social hierarchies, Rose deliberates about her choice of such cultural "accessories" as clothing, food, reading material, and wine. Struggling to make her selections appear as casual and natural reflections of a cultivated taste, she worries that her choices will be interpreted as stigmatizing evidence of pretentiousness. In an attempt "to align herself with towners" during a high-school lesson on nutrition, for instance, she claims, in a voice she believes to be "bold, yet natural," to have eaten half a grapefruit for breakfast one morning, a luxury virtually unknown in Hanratty. When she is later taunted by classmates, who repeat her claim in mocking tones, the lesson is clear: "We sweat for our pretensions."

While attempting to master the grammar of social codes that determine status beyond the well-defined boundaries of West Hanratty, Rose must also contend with the opinions of her own community, where, ironically, ambition is readily misunderstood as pretentiousness. When her ability and interest in schoolwork challenge the local idea "of what a woman ought to be," namely "naive intellectually, childlike, contemptuous of maps and long words and anything in books," her own family sees her as arrogant and as aspiring to an ostentatious move beyond her proper "place" in the social order. Rose's stepmother Flo is an especially ironic proponent of this inverted social Darwinism. Ambitious in her own right, she is quick to deride others for what she considers to be inappropriate social climbing; she is also the first person to challenge Rose with the colloquialism that is repeated in the title of the final story and the title of the book's Canadian edition.

Literary Precedents

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Most critics consider The Beggar Maid to be an important addition to the catalogue of exceptional story cycles produced by Canadian writers since 1896, when Duncan Campbell Scott's In the Village of Viger established the cycle form in Canada; indeed, one critic has suggested that since Scott's book the cycle has become "something of a subgenre" within Canadian literature. With its formal and thematic emphasis on the interdependence of its constituent stories, Munro's book shows a formal and general thematic relationship with such notable Canadian works as Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914), George Elliot's The Kissing Man (1962), which shares a sense of place and historical time with Munro's book, and Margaret Laurence's A Bird in the House (1970).

In an international context, The Beggar Maid reflects to varying degrees the creative ingenuity of early and contemporary contributors to the cycle form, including such diverse and notable authors as Ivan Turgenev (A Sportsman's Sketches, 1852), James Joyce (Dubliners, 1914), Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio, 1919), William Faulkner (The Unvanquished, 1938 and Go Down, Moses, 1942), as well as two writers whose names often figure prominently in discussions of Munro's style and technique: Eudora Welty (The Golden Apples, 1949) and Flannery O'Connor (Everything That Rises Must Converge, 1965).

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