Form and Content
Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women is a vivid and thorough depiction of a girl’s coming-of-age in a remote Canadian town. Written first as a series of seven short stories and later revised around an autobiographical structure, this realistic and uncompromising novel reveals the complex choices faced by a young teenager. Through the eyes of the ever-observant Del, the novel focuses on the frailties of relationships, the mixed messages offered to girls, and the ravages of decay and death. Del refuses to blink as she observes those “who all their lives could stay still, with no need to do or say anything remarkable.”
Each story illustrates Del’s progression from child to woman. The early stories focus on the fringe characters living on a remote country road known for its poverty, harshness, and lack of class. Subsequent stories show Del’s world expanding as she and her mother move to town. Watching the women and girls around her, Del notes the narrow gender roles that they have come to accept. In this intimate small town, where everyone knows everyone’s business, she is privy to the dark side. As she freely admits, she is no “stranger to killing.” She sees it on the fox farm and later in the suicides of townspeople. Fortunately, Del’s mother is a powerful example, a woman driven by her passion for knowledge and her struggle to make ends meet. Like her mother, Del is a seeker of knowledge. Ignoring her mother’s rejection of religion, she journeys through local churches, cataloging behaviors and beliefs. Although she comes to understand the demands of Christian faith, she is never quite sure that she wants to be saved. When her dog is shot, she wonders about a cosmos where God could remain indifferent. Her seeds of doubt serve as a prelude to the onset of puberty. In school, she and Naomi find themselves in not-so-subtle wars, where what boys “said stripped away freedom to be what you wanted, reduced you to what it was they saw.”
As Del matures, she finds herself increasingly isolated as Naomi and other girlfriends make clothes, makeup, and plans for marriage their priorities. Although Del does not share these goals, she is persistent in her search for knowledge about the mysteries of sexuality. Soon, she gains firsthand experience. When Fern’s boyfriend exposes himself to her, she sees the perversity of male sexuality. Later, with Jerry Storey, the school intellectual, she notes the absurdity of passionless experimentation. In the uneasy last days of high school, she discovers Garnet French, fresh out of jail and newly converted to religion. With Garnet, Del learns of the passion and power in lovemaking. In an earthy climax, she ends this relationship when he tries to force her to accept his faith and become his wife.
Del’s rejection of Garnet marks the end of adolescence and the beginning of womanhood. Having rejected the “normal” paths chosen by Naomi and other young women, Del’s goal will be to write the stories of her community. Although Del’s proposed novel ends with the suicide of her young female protagonist, her own future is far from depressing. Somewhere, she knows, beneath the harshness and decay, is the stuff a meaningful life is made of.
Form and Content
Lives of Girls and Women is a connected group of stories following Del from the age of about eleven to just after high school graduation. Each chapter is a self-contained story that provides an insight into Del’s life: family, religion, sexuality, friendship, the imagination, and romance. The novel traces Del’s experiences, shows her ambitions, and highlights her coming of age in a time when roles for girls and women are in a state of transition.
Del is highly imaginative and likes to question traditional knowledge, as is indicated by her exploration of different faiths and her love of reading. Like other women in the novel (her mother, Naomi, Miss Farris), Del tries on different roles in her quest for fulfillment. She lives much of her life in her...
(The entire section is 3,429 words.)