The Progress of Love

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Alice Munro’s collection of short fiction takes its title from the volume’s first story. Indeed, “The Progress of Love” serves well to describe the ten other pieces when viewing “progress” in the light of its subtler meaning, “unfolding,” for all the stories concern themselves with the unfolding of love in lives altogether ordinary. The characters search for this love, find it sometimes, lose it on other occasions, even try to avoid the responsibilities it carries, yet always discover the joy it brings, even if short-lived. When Stella in “Lichen” tells her former husband that “he wasn’t interested in love,” she has struck the discordant note that resounds throughout: To ignore love is to discard one’s humanity. Or as the wife in “Lichen” adds, “I think all you’re interested in is being a big bad boy.”

The title story introduces the themes upon which the subsequent narratives elaborate. In it the first-person narrator constructs a framework of human relationships—those between parents and children, between husband and wife, lovers, brothers and sisters, friends. Time shifts, flowing from past to present to far distant past, as the narrator—now a real-estate agent, divorced—covers the progress of love in three generations of her family. From these recollections she draws no astounding conclusions, only that “moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having, even if the parting has to come sooner or later.”

“Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux” takes up the complexities thrust upon a family, one of whose sons is retarded. As the two boys grow into maturity, the subtle pattern formed during childhood continues, the retarded son unaware of the precariousness of the relationship but simply accepting the protection love affords, the other son acknowledging that the obligation of watching out for his brother “was going to be his job in life from then on.” Another story, “Miles City, Montana,” addresses a similar theme, the trust that small children place in their parents. After a near drowning of one of their children, the parents drive on “with the two in the back seat trusting us, because of no choice.” The mother, who has narrated the story, wonders whether in time the children will be able to forgive their mother and father for the “natural, and particular, mistakes” that they might make in the future.

“Fits” and “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink” both examine the elusiveness of love. “An emotional spendthrift,” one of the characters calls himself in “Fits,” which tells of a seemingly happy couple who die in a double suicide and which reveals how the discovery of their bodies by a neighbor woman affects her own relationship with her husband. In fact, the story is ultimately more concerned with the way others react to the event than with those who have killed themselves, for through their violent action the elusive nature of love resounds. The second narrative, one of the best in the volume, again depends on memory in its telling, as Sam reconstructs events of fifty years ago on his return to a small prairie town where he attempts to rekindle the special love that had once united him with Callie and Edgar. The happiness they had shared, when recalled, leads Sam to question: “Do such moments really mean, as they seem to, that we have a life of happiness with which we only occasionally, knowingly, intersect?” Or, he might have asked: “Is happiness as elusive as ’the moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink?’”

The quest for love dominates “Jesse and Meribeth” and “Eskimo.” The first story recounts a...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Progress of Love collects eleven of Alice Munro’s short stories. As the title suggests, the stories tend to focus on the progress—or lack of progress—in family and love relationships. Many of the major characters are women in their forties and fifties who are looking back at life events, momentous or trivial, that changed or illuminated a moment in time: A girl believes that her mother is about to commit suicide, a man visits his former wife with the girlfriend he no longer desires, a schoolgirl imagines an affair with an older man.

Although the stories are, on the surface, unrelated, a common thread binds the collection: A character experiences some sort of self-illumination. Munro’s characters, young or old, male or female, show a baffled puzzlement at the complexity of love and a courageous (if sometimes doomed) willingness to keep seeking happi-ness, equality, and free communication. Different kinds of love and bonds, from romantic to familial, are explored: men in mid-life crisis seek reassurance with younger lovers, a woman in a trance of devotion tolerates an ugly and possibly abusive relationship, a husband allows his wife to do an outwardly foolish thing that will give her peace.

In several stories, a young, newly awakened girl is paired with an older woman—an aunt, a mother, or even an older self. Munro shows the similarities in the younger, sexually aware female preoccupied with her “new” body and concerns...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Progress of Love was critically acclaimed for its portraits of family life and its strong characterization. Winner of the Governor-General’s Award for fiction, the collection was chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the top ten fiction books of 1986. These accolades add to the stature Munro has achieved as a short-story writer; she writes regularly for The New Yorker and has found great popularity in the United States as well as Canada.

Munro has been deservedly praised for her accurate portraits of the hopes and fears of women of various ages: From Del Jordan’s coming-of-age in Lives of Girls and Women (1971) to the women in The Progress of Love, her characters struggle toward self-realization, toward equilibrium in their relationships with others, and toward an understanding of their pasts. Here her female characters, who range from young and impressionable girls to divorced and single older women, show the alternatives that are open to women and the various ways in which women strive toward independence. A crucial feminist theme here is the relationship between women, whether mothers and daughters, schoolgirl “best friends,” or a mother-and daughter-in-law; Munro carefully documents the tension and rivalry and, sometimes, lightning-like flashes of sympathy or understanding that are possible between women. She also creates sympathetic, fully realized male characters. Some of them are childishly fighting against the realization of their age and responsibilities, but others hopefully, clumsily, and precariously climb toward knowledge. Munro makes these experiences seem not exclusively male or female, but universal.

The Progress of Love reflects a maturation and extension of some of Munro’s prevalent themes. Her characters and themes here are far more complex than they are in previous works, her use of symbolism and metaphor relaxed and unrestrained. As she mentioned in an interview, her stories’ endings seem to flow as natural results or culminations of characters’ actions, and not as contrivances. Although she denies being an intellectual writer or one who is conscious of writing with a message, Munro’s stories give powerful new insight into everyday life and an appreciation of the textures beneath the most commonplace experiences.


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Carrington, Ildiko de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989. Examines Munro’s major themes, metaphors, and uses of points of view. Interprets The Progress of Love’s major theme as characters attempting to control humiliating situations and examines alter egos in several stories. Includes excellent primary and secondary bibliographies.

MacKendrick, Louis K., ed. Probably Fictions: Alice Munro’s Narrative Acts. Downsview, Ontario: ECW Press, 1983. Includes a lengthy and informative interview with Munro about her inspirations, work habits, and background as well as critical analyses of her narrative techniques, her presentation of the ordinary as extraordinary, and her sense of the absurd.

Martin, W. R. Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1987. A close and careful critical study of Munro’s body of work, including uncollected stories. Argues that, like Coleridge, Munro makes the strange familiar and that, like Wordsworth, she makes the familiar wonderful. The stories in The Progress of Love, Martin claims, end in wisdom and moral insight. Includes a useful index and a bibliography.

Miller, Judith, ed. The Art of Alice Munro: Saying the Unsayable. Waterloo, Ontario: University of Waterloo Press, 1984. Collects papers from a conference on Munro among which are articles on Munro’s female aesthetic, the quest in her work, and “writing as self-defense.” Includes a helpful interview with Munro.

Rasporich, Beverly J. Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Ficiton of Alice Munro. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1990. Incorporates extensive interviews with Munro which illuminate texts later discussed in analyses of her works as feminist, ironic, regionalist, and female. A section on The Progress of Love closely studies Munro’s technical inventiveness.