Themes and Meanings
In this uncomplicated, traditionally plotted story, Alice Munro uses the same motif that informs most of her stories—the quest for fulfillment by girls and women. The focus is on the younger Edie, an untutored country girl who, in her first job away from home, discovers the human inclination to pursue wished-for truths that often turn out to be forms of self-deception.
Loretta Bird is one character who exhibits this proclivity. Loretta, who has trained her eyes and ears to miss nothing of inconsequence and whose tongue never utters anything of consequence, preens with a sense of self-inflated importance. To Loretta, life is drama, full of intrigue and corruption, and she is an essential player whose information and commentary are vital to the outcome. What Edie observes, but Loretta is ignorantly or willfully blind to, is that others regard her more as a pesky blackbird that screeches, squawks, and squats regardless of anyone’s welcome—a general nuisance whom others tolerate out of a reluctant sense of propriety.
Alice Keller suffers from an even more serious case of self-deception. Alice is in pursuit of a life with Chris Watters, but Chris proves to be an elusive prey. Ever since Alice nursed him back to health in a military hospital, he has been on the move. After they became engaged, he left for overseas duty. Perhaps Chris did have noble intentions someday to honor his commitment, but when he returned, Alice observed that he had become terribly restless. Several years later now, Chris is still on the run, flitting from place to place offering airplane rides and trying to stay ahead of his pursuing fiancée. Alice ignores the clues of his rejection. Although he never leaves a forwarding address, she tracks him down relentlessly with the blind faith that she will yet prevail: Chris will park his plane permanently, marry her, and become her loving husband. All the characters in the story sense the futility of that dream, except Alice. Munro shows that people tend to believe what they wish to believe, regardless of the facts.
Observing such frailty in others, however, does not guarantee anyone’s exemption from succumbing to the same weakness. That is Edie’s most significant discovery in the story and occasions its title. From the moment Edie lays eyes on Alice, she feels the surge of her own superior physical charms, which certainly must be sufficient to attract Chris away from the well-worn Alice. When Chris, after their steamy tumble in the tent, promises that he will write, she knows she has won him. All of this leads her to an unshakable faith that his letter will come. It does not, of course. Like Alice, she, too, has fallen to self-deception. In the moment of that realization, she stops meeting the mail.
Although she does not realize it, Edie has already met her husband. Munro’s surprise ending leaves the reader with a smile. The smile deepens when the husband, too, is exposed as one who lives by self-deception, although of an innocent kind. For Edie, the married woman who long ago realized what she had been saved from, has just confided something that she has never told her husband: the real reason for her daily appearance at the mailbox. Her husband believes it was for him, and because that makes him happy, she allows him to believe that vital falsehood.