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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like much of Alice Munro’s other fiction, “Meneseteung” focuses on isolation and alienation. In the small, highly conventional Ontario towns that the author so often uses as her setting, to be a nonconformist is to be a social outcast. In her obituary, Almeda is measured against her society’s ideal of what a woman should be. In her early years, when she attended church regularly, took part in church activities, took care of her parents, dressed neatly, and did nothing to surprise the other townspeople, they approved of her. The fact that this society based its judgments purely on appearances is reflected in the early Almeda’s being labeled a profoundly religious person, while the later Almeda, whose inner life was far richer, is assumed to have been mentally ill simply because she was unkempt and unpredictable. Although the writer does not approve of the way Almeda was mocked in those later years and deplores the cruel prank that probably resulted in her death, there is in the obituary a subtle suggestion that women who ignore society’s expectations do so at their own risk.

What the Vidette cannot know is that Almeda did not just drift into eccentricity but chose to be different from others in her community. Almeda seems to have no doubt that she could slip into a wife’s role as easily as she had that of the dutiful daughter and even that of the pious community leader. However, although she believes that married life with Jarvis Poulter would not be unpleasant, it would require Almeda always to play a part. What she realizes on that fateful morning is that in a patriarchal society, no woman who is attached to a man can ever be free. Even though as the wife of Jarvis Poulter she would never be abused and beaten, as the drunken woman had been, if she married him or anyone else in that small town, Almeda would have to sacrifice her own identity. The price of protection would be a life of pretense.

Although the Vidette does commend Almeda for writing poetry, the obituary writer clearly does not understand that though in the very conventional preface to her book Almeda called her poetry merely a pastime, the truth was that poetry was her whole life. By writing poetry, by utilizing her imagination to see beneath the surface of life and then capturing her discoveries in words, Almeda can enter a world that the townspeople do not even know exists. Ironically, although in later life Almeda is isolated from the rest of the community, it is not she, but the community, that is out of touch with reality.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

Roles of Women
Through the use of a sleuthing narrator who tries to re-create certain aspects of the life of a historical figure, Munro’s story examines the expected place of women in Roth’s society. While the Vidette claims Roth’s poet status as a town asset, the narrator notes that ‘‘There seems to be a mixture of respect and contempt, both for her calling and her sex.’’ In the nineteenth century, when Roth’s story takes place, the expectation is that a woman will marry, have a family, and live to support her husband, none of which Roth has done. When the Vidette speculates about the prospect of Roth and Jarvis Poulter getting married, the newspaper says, ‘‘She is not too old to have a couple of children’’ and ‘‘She is a good enough housekeeper.’’ In the minds of the townspeople, this is enough incentive for a man to marry her. The narrator further speculates about why Roth may have been passed over, using the Vidette article as a starting point: ‘‘She was a rather gloomy girl—that may have been the trouble.’’ Beyond this depression, which Roth fell into after the death of her entire family, the narrator also surmises that it might be her vocation that has kept her an old maid: ‘‘And all that reading and poetry—it seemed more of a drawback, a barrier, an obsession.’’

Marriage is also viewed as the cure-all to many of women’s problems, even when this logic does not make sense. For...

(The entire section is 1,342 words.)