Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737
Before leaving for the first time by herself on a trip to Toronto, paid for from the prize money she won in her school essay competition, young Rose, the protagonist, is warned by Flo against various sexual dangers that could befall a young woman traveling alone. Flo, a motherly, talkative woman—Rose’s stepmother in Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), Alice Munro’s collection of linked short stories from which “Wild Swans” is taken—warns Rose particularly against white slavers who commonly disguise themselves as ministers of the Church. Rose is skeptical, refusing to believe anything the garrulous Flo says on the subject of sex. She recalls an incredible story Flo told her about a retired undertaker who traveled around the countryside seducing women with chocolates and flattery and making love to them in his hearse.
Though Rose is skeptical, Flo’s cautionary anecdotes about sexual seduction are very much on her mind. As the train leaves Hanratty, the small town where she lives, she is sitting by herself, absently staring at the passing countryside and thinking of what she will buy in Toronto. The train gradually fills up, and at one of its station stops, a man in his fifties takes the seat beside her. Chatting idly about the spring weather, he casually mentions that he is a United Church minister. He is not wearing a collar, explaining its absence by observing that he is not always in “uniform.” He tells her about seeing a magnificent flock of wild swans during a recent drive through the country.
Rose responds to him courteously but briefly, discouraging conversation. Because the morning is cold, she covers herself with her coat. The minister turns to his newspaper and soon falls asleep or appears to fall asleep. His newspaper lies on his lap, adjoining Rose’s coat. Rose becomes aware of the tip of the newspaper touching her leg just at the edge of her coat. She wonders if it is in fact the man’s hand that is touching her and muses that she often looks at men’s hands, wondering what they are capable of. Hands become, in her musing, a metonym for the sensual male, and she recalls fantasizing about being used as a sexual object by a virile French teacher.
In this frame of mind, she becomes aware that it is indeed a hand, not the tip of the newspaper, that is touching her leg. The hand is gradually moving to her thigh. She wants to protest, but initially curiosity and then sexual excitement weaken, then suppress, any protestation. The hand titillates her and brings her to a climax, which is described in terms of a flock of wild swans explosively taking to the sky. Munro’s account of this seduction is replete with ambiguity. The reader is never certain whether the hand is imagined or actually there. Is it possible that Rose is fantasizing? She does say at one point that her “imagination seemed to have created this reality,” an observation that, however, with its use of “seemed,” encourages rather than eliminates ambiguity.
As the train pulls into Toronto, the passengers begin to stir and the minister awakens or appears to awaken. He offers to help her with her coat, and when she declines, he hurries out of the train ahead of her. Rose is never to see him again in her life, the narrator states, but she is often to recall him and his “simplicity, his arrogance, his perversely appealing lack of handsomeness.” She speculates as she leaves the train on whether he is actually a minister, and for the first time since meeting him, she consciously recalls Flo’s warning about white slavers disguised as ministers.
Munro provides a postscript to this incident. As Rose steps off the train, she remembers Flo mentioning a woman named Mavis who works at the Toronto station. Flo told her that Mavis once went for a weekend to a Georgian Bay resort, pretending to be the actress Frances Farmer. Flo, observing that she could have been arrested for impersonation, admired her “nerve.” Rose, too, in the final sentence of the story, expresses admiration for Mavis’s daring act: “To dare it; to get away with it, to enter on preposterous adventures in your own, but newly named, skin.” Munro evidently intends this as Rose’s conscious or unconscious comment on her own preposterous adventures on the train.
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