Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"Royal Beatings" by Alice Munro tells the story of the difficult and at times brutal upbringing of its main character, Rose, whose father and stepmother like to administer what they call "royal beatings."
Her father was king of the royal beatings. Those Flo gave never amounted to much; they were quick cuffs and slaps dashed off while her attention remained elsewhere.
Their violence fits in with the poverty and sickness of Hanratty, their small Canadian city hit hard by the Depression. For example, one character named Becky not only suffers from stunted growth (due to contracting polio as a child) but also from the brutality of her own father.
The father beat them, had beaten all his children and beaten his wife as well, beat Becky more now because of her deformity, which some people believed he had caused.
Brutality it seems has become a daily part of life. When it's not happening, people are gossiping or making up stories about it.
The stories persisted and got added to. The reason that Becky was kept out of sight was now supposed to be her pregnancy, and the father of the child was supposed to be her own father.
One of the main tellers of these violent tales is Rose's stepmother, Flo. Sometimes it seems that violence is the foremost thing in her mind. Every Saturday she goes off into town where she enjoys some of the sights and delicacies on offer, but she only ever seems to come back with negative stories.
On the way home, she saw at the town end of the bridge a boy in a blue jacket, apparently looking at the water. Eighteen, nineteen years old. Nobody she knew. Skinny, weakly looking, something the matter with him, she saw at once. Was he thinking of jumping? Just as he came up even with him, what does he do but turn and display himself, holding his jacket open, also his pants.
When Rose's father beats her, she describes how excited it makes him look.
He is beginning to warm up. He gives her a look. This look is at first cold and suffering. It informs her of his judgement, of the hopelessness of her position. Then it clears, it begins to fill up with something else, the way spring fills up when you clear the leaves away. It fills with hatred and pleasure. Rose sees that and knows it. Is that just a description of anger, should she see his eyes filling up with anger? No. Hatred is right. Pleasure is right. His face loosens and changes and grows younger, and he holds up his hand this time to silence Flo.
The beatings are often followed by shows of guilt, and while Rose is recovering, Flo likes to send her favorite food room up to her room.
Later a tray will appear... A large glass of chocolate on it, made with Vita-Malt from the store... Little sandwiches, neat and appetizing. Canned salmon of the finest quality and reddest color... A couple of butter tarts from a bakery package, chocolate biscuits with a peppermint filling.
The story ends years into the future with Rose listening to a radio presenter interviewing and celebrating the life of a 102 year old man. Rose's mind casts back to her stepmother, who is living in the same residence.
After Rose put her in the Home, a couple of years earlier, she had stopped talking. She had removed herself, and spent most of her time sitting in a corner of her crib, looking crafty and disagreeable, not answering anybody, though she occasionally showed her feelings by biting a nurse.