Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529
Lives of Girls and Women, Alice Munro’s only novel, is more a collection of connected short stories narrated by its protagonist, Del Jordan, than a fully conceived and unified narrative. Each of the novel’s eight chapters is a basically self-contained tale that reveals one more significant set of facts about Del’s evolving identity specifically her coming of age in the small Ontario town of Jubilee.
The novel begins with “The Flats Road,” an important retrospective of an episode in Del’s childhood. In this chapter, she is first awakened to the romance of everydayness, when the world outside her parents’ peaceable home clashes with the kingdom of the chaotic and eccentric exemplified by misfits such as Uncle Benny, whose world was “a troubling distorted reflection, the same but never at all the same.” These early experiences train Del to focus on the details of life and not merely the broad shadows that individual lives sometimes cast.
Thus, what one critic calls “the symbolic geography of the book” is set, and Del emerges as a “chameleon” adventurer, surveying the land before her while she sharpens her senses for a future career as a writer. The subsequent episodes in Lives of Girls and Women survey the various models of womanhood that Del meets in Jubilee. There is, at one extreme, Naomi, Del’s closest friend, who fulfills the “expected” role of ingenue, wife, and then mother, who “settles down,” resigning herself to the familiar roles common to other Jubilee women. At the other extreme is Marion Sherriff, a wholly disenfranchised young woman, an unfortunate daughter in an unfortunate family, who takes her own life rather than live with the shame of motherhood out of wedlock
Del, however, seeks a life of the mind, wanting men to love her, but not at the expense of her unique calling and gifts as a woman. Ada, Del’s mother, thus surfaces as the most dominant and significant woman in her life. Though considered by Del’s aunts and local townspeople as a “wildwoman” because of her erratic, sometimes unseemly behavior, she offers Del often profound advice and serves as the most credible example of womanhood to Del in the novel. “There is a change coming,” she prophesies and warns Del, “in the lives of girls and women.... All women have had up till now has been their connection with men.... But I hope you will use your brains.”
At the end of “Baptizing,” the next to last episode in the novel, the reader discovers that Del has listened well and is prepared for the journey toward maturity; in a tone of sober abandonment, she declares that “now at last without fantasies or self-deception, cut off from the mistakes and confusion of the past . . . like girls in movies leaving home, convents, lovers, I supposed I would get started on my real life.”
In the final chapter, labeled “Epilogue,” Del’s “real life” becomes a story-within-a-story, the novel turning in on itself as Del steps out of her own narrative to describe how she went about crafting a novel about life in the small southwestern Ontario town in which she came to womanhood.
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