Style and Technique
Munro’s use of everyday details for symbolic purposes is amply illustrated in “Meneseteung.” For example, the fact that the Roth house faces onto a street of undeniable respectability but backs up to a street that terminates in a slum not only makes it possible for someone as genteel as Almeda to come into contact with a drunken, dissolute woman, thus furthering the plot, but also it symbolizes the choice Almeda herself must make, between conformity and freedom, between mindless propriety and alienation from respectable society.
Munro strengthens her symbolic effects by filtering details about her characters either through their own minds or through the minds of others. Thus it is Almeda who notices that Poulter’s clothes are like those her father wore and that, also like her father, he smells of wool and tobacco and shaving soap, all of which Almeda equates with both masculinity and authority. Almeda’s appearance at Poulter’s door in her nightclothes leads Poulter to think of her as a wife because ordinarily no one but a husband would see her so informally dressed, and under the circumstances, there can be no question about her respectability. Later, when Almeda is on the way to bed, she notes that she has remained in her nightgown all day, that she has not washed herself, and that she is tracking grape juice through the house. Almeda herself sees these details as symbols of the dramatic change that has taken place in her mind and spirit. As she says, they show that she now has a different definition of reality.
Munro’s superb craftsmanship is also demonstrated by her handling of voice. The story begins and ends with an unnamed narrator, presenting whatever objective details can be found about a woman who lived more than a century before. Soon, however, the author begins to report Almeda’s thoughts, occasionally making a brief foray into Poulter’s mind. In the final section of “Meneseteung,” the narrator-researcher returns with the two obituaries, a report of the search for Almeda’s tombstone, and finally, an admission that much of what has been presented has been mere guesswork, not fact but fiction. What Munro means the reader to realize, however, is that given Almeda’s definition of reality, the fictional version of what made a woman into a poet may in fact be the truth.
In ‘‘Meneseteung,’’ Almeda Roth’s family moves to ‘‘the wilds of Canada West (as it then was)’’ in 1854, as Roth notes in the preface to her poetry book. This simple statement is anything but simple when looked at in a historical context. In fact, the Roth family move is representative of a greater population shift that was taking place in Canada. As in the United States, this immigration was due in part to the establishment of railways and roads, which provided mass transportation into desolate areas. Yet, while Americans’ version of moving west generally meant California and other states in the far West, moving westward for Canadians often meant moving to Canada West. The designation of this area, which is today known as Ontario, as ‘‘west’’ may appear to the modern reader to be somewhat of a misnomer, since it is located north of the American Midwest, not even half of the distance across the vast country of modern-day Canada. But in this time period, much of western Canada was still undeveloped, and one did not have to travel too far to reach the frontier.
In the 1850s, the whole of modern-day Canada was still referred to as British North America—a collection of colonial provinces that was under British sovereignty. This governing arrangement changed in the 1860s, thanks to a large political movement that culminated in an event known as the Confederation. The push for confederation, which essentially united the disparate colonies into one political region, began for many reasons. Many leaders sought union as a way to overcome political differences and make it easier to pass legislation and accomplish...
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