(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Royal Beatings,” one of Munro’s best-known stories, reveals the bonds of love and hate, brutalities great and small, within a family. Nothing is simple in this story, which features a surprisingly intricate plot as well as convoluted time and tense shifts. It begins late in the Depression years in the poorest section of Hanratty, where Rose lives with her father and stepmother, Flo, behind their grocery and furniture repair store. One day Flo relates an account of a previous thrashing, when three young men attacked the father of the grotesque dwarf Becky Tyde, who sometimes visits the store. The child Rose cannot fit Flo’s story together with her present life, for they seem unrelated.

Flo’s tale foreshadows a second beating, this time suffered by the preteen Rose—a brutal ritual which builds, erupts, and then collapses. When Rose talks back to her stepmother once too often, Flo goads Rose’s father into punishing her. The narrative shifts into present tense to render a horrific account of the first “royal beating” that cheeky Rose endures, then switches to future tense to describe the ritual that will follow: a repentant Flo coming to her room to bring a salve for her back, a tray of food, chocolate milk. Years later, the adult Rose sees a television interview with an elderly man from Hanratty, someone from Flo’s story, and is finally able to connect the strands of the past to the present.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Rose, a girl nearing adolescence, lives with her father, her stepmother, and her younger half brother, Brian, in a small town in the Ottawa Valley of central Canada. Her father is a scrupulous furniture restorer who works in a shed behind the family’s home and storefront. His earnings barely suffice to provide the most minimal of family needs. Their house in West Hanratty, a section of the town where the social structure “ran from factory workers and foundry workers down to large improvident families of casual bootleggers and prostitutes and unsuccessful thieves,” is too cramped to provide any private space. The central action of the story takes place during the Depression, a period recalled as one of legendary poverty, when the clash between the aspirations of the members of Rose’s family and the limits of their lives has created a condition of psychic tension that can be relieved only by an explosion of emotion that permits the family to temporarily overcome the frustrations inherent in their situation.

Rose’s relationship with her stepmother has changed from a long initial truce to a continuously simmering conflict. Her father remains vaguely distant most of the time, an inward man whose poetic range of mind is not disclosed to Rose until after his death. Rose sees the inhabitants of Hanratty and West Hanratty as figures of foolishness, pretense, and casual violence; their antics are a means for Flo to support her own shaky sense of self-esteem through scornful dismissal. The absence of any satisfactory social relationships, the minimal resources available for even modest purchases, and the family’s restricted living space compress Rose’s family into a tightly wound, tension-ridden cluster of pulsating neuroses. Their anxieties and desires have been concentrated into a...

(The entire section is 735 words.)