Friend of My Youth

by Alice Munro

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766

Even more than Munro’s earlier collections, Friend of My Youth stresses the author’s view that the world is not governed by faith or reason, either human or divine. Instead, life is governed by chance or fate.

It is not that Munro’s characters avoid seeking some direction for their lives. Indeed, their passionate interest in personal history is based on the belief that by looking at choices made in the past, they can learn to make wiser decisions in the future. This hope is expressed in the title of one of the stories in Friend of My Youth, “Differently.” In order to reexamine some of her actions, a middle-aged woman called Georgia goes back to her old neighborhood and visits a man named Raymond, who, along with his wife and her husband, had been a member of a close-knit group fifteen years earlier. The story is laden with speculations: What if Georgia had been faithful to her husband? What if she had remained in that house, in that town? What if she had forgiven Raymond’s dead wife, once her best friend, for appropriating her lover? A typical Munro protagonist, Georgia arrives at two contradictory answers to her questions. On one hand, given her own nature, she thinks, she could never have acted in any other way; on the other hand, she says to Raymond that if people were convinced that someday they would die, they would act “differently.” Then the narrator, probably speaking for Munro, rejects her own speculation about free will, calling the second answer “lame” and intended “only as a joke.”

Another way in which the choices of human beings are limited is the subject of “Oh, What Avails,” the story of a brother and a sister who have taken very different directions in life. The brother has remained in the small town where they grew up, living a chaste and frugal life; the sister moved to Ottawa, married, and now, for no clear reason, is taking the first steps toward abandoning her marriage. When she returns home after her mother’s death, the sister is surprised by the realization that she and her brother are alike. Molded by their mother’s insistence that they were special, they have spent their lives taking whatever they desired. Immediately after expressing this insight, however, Munro’s narrator backs down. Finally, all that she and her brother can be sure of are some phrases from a song their mother used to sing.

Since Munro’s characters are never certain about why they made their choices, or indeed whether they had the power to choose, one can understand why W. J. Keith argues that there is no moral dimension in Munro’s fiction. Even when, like Georgia, her characters seek some verbal reproof for their past deeds, they end up feeling not repentant but merely silly.

The characters in Friend of My Youth also find it difficult to identify happiness. In “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass,” Hazel remembers how surprised she had been by her husband’s saying that he wanted to make her happy. Although she understood at the time that his words were simply a time-honored formula for seduction, she remembers being amazed by the idea that anyone could bring happiness to another person. Hazel then muses that perhaps men can make women happy by giving their lives a focus. In actuality, what seems to make Munro’s characters happiest is having their curiosity satisfied. Thus in “Wigtime,” when Margot and Anita have not yet finished telling each other stories, Munro says that they are, at least for the moment, “fairly happy.”

The fact that...

(This entire section contains 766 words.)

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the stories inFriend of My Youth end so tentatively is evidence of Munro’s commitment to realism. Like her observers, she is determined to tell the truth, and if that means questioning or even rejecting the theories that have just been advanced and the stories that have just been told, at least the author and her narrators are being honest. In any case, even though it is unlikely that Munro’s characters will ever be sure of anything, Margot, Anita, and the others do have the stories they tell and are told to sustain them. Admittedly, when Munro’s observers revisit the past, they will not see it clearly; their imagination, even their language, will make it into something new. What they can derive from the experience, however, is what Munro brings to her readers: a consciousness of their own existence and perhaps, in Georgia’s words, some reflections of reality, an “accidental clarity.”