Wild Swans Summary
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...
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