Themes and Meanings
Under scrutiny by Alice Munro, the ordinary becomes extraordinary; the bits and pieces of lives an errant look, a remembered epithet, a lingering impression come together to form the composite meaning of an individual’s life. Del’s own conclusion, voiced in the epilogue to her narrative, equally befits the style and substance of her creator: Like Del, Munro strives to record “every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together radiant, everlasting.”
Lives of Girls and Women momentarily moves its cast of characters beyond their ordinary trials into the realm of the heroic and tragic, the prose counterpart of an Edward Hopper painting. Though set in a southwest Ontario town, Jubilee is Everytown, while Del both is and is not Everywoman.
Alice Munro has few peers in her ability to explore and amplify the significance of the seemingly minor incidents of everyday life. There is a decidedly understated, supremely ironic grasp of the mundane that permeates all of Munro’s stories and that climaxes in this novel. Consequently, Lives of Girls and Women, ostensibly a “novel,” is best read as a series of discrete narratives woven together not by a plot, but by the overall thematic structure of a young woman moving into adulthood and sexual maturity by paying attention to the details of the landscape before her.
The story of Del Jordan's growth from a schoolgirl in the opening "The Flats Road" to a young woman about to leave the small town of Jubilee for university in "Epilogue: The Photographer," is also the story of a young woman's struggle to establish "connections," a word Munro uses in the broadest sense throughout her fiction. In large part, this search consists of Del's movement toward a sense of pluralism, an understanding of the complex patterns of existence linking her and the subjective experiences that she "knows" to be "true" and "real" with the mysteries and other possible realities structuring the lives of the individuals around her. It is an endless journey, but what Del comes to appreciate and even celebrate is the omnipresence of the ambiguous and mysterious in what she has long considered to be the knowable, the ordinary, and the everyday.
Del begins her life on a farm on the edge of town, where she lives with her parents and younger brother Owen, in an area cut off from the town proper by the curve of a river and a primordial swamp. It is an area that is also home to an odd assortment of subsistence farmers and mirror-image characters: two bootleggers with antithetical approaches to their business, two "idiots" posing different degrees of threat to passersby, and two bachelors whose unique attempts to find spouses are by turns comic and pathetic. Through her childhood contact with a family friend known as Uncle Benny, Del begins to sense that there are worlds and realities lying alongside the one she knows, "like a troubling distorted reflection, the same but never at all the same." Some of these worlds offer exotic alternatives to the reality of Del's life in Jubilee: the urban center to which Uncle Benny journeys in search of a wife, the "sealed-off country" that is the house of Del's Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace, and the worlds created in the books Del reads voraciously. Still other of these worlds appear to Del (and the reader) like objects viewed in a funhouse mirror, generally recognizable but marked by a mildly disturbing, almost surreal difference: the playhouse like home of Del's teacher, Miss Farris; the world of Pork Childs, driver of the town garbage truck who keeps a pure white peacock in the barn behind his unpainted house; and the world of Bobby Sherriff, a young man whose "madness" is part of town lore.
Eventually moving with her mother into a house nearer town, Del soon finds herself living in what appears at first to be a bifurcated world. At one extreme lies the world of the masculine,...
(The entire section is 1,646 words.)