photo by Jens Schott Knudsen
in the stories of Alice Munro
by Ellie Walsh
‘Wenlock Edge’ is a story that feels as though one needs to learn how to read it. An initial glance may seem to reveal almost nothing at all, leaving the reader with a sense that they have merely stumbled across the notes of an entirely ordinary life. However it is here, in her dedication to the apparently ‘ordinary’, that Munro’s astonishing skill in observation really lies. She finds truth within the mundane and the spectacularly normal, yet her work still achieves the feeling that it is tightly written and tense.
‘Wenlock Edge’ follows the story of a young woman studying English and Philosophy at university in London, Ontario. From the initially innocent tone, a sense of foreboding quickly develops when she is joined by a roommate, Nina. Supported and under the close observation of a sugar-daddy, Nina drags the narrator further and further into an obscure world of which she has no understanding.
In ‘Wenlock Edge’, the narrator and Nina’s seemingly trivial problems – of university life, room and board, the opinions of others – slowly become the reader’s own problems. Perhaps they were from the start, and that is why the reader cares enough to read on. In revealing lives very like our own, Munro nevertheless manages to avoid the overly familiar, ‘cookie-cutter’ endings that often conclude short stories which take the ‘everyday’ as their subjects. As a result, ‘Wenlock Edge’ comes to life with remarkable poignancy and resonance.
Something that is immediately noticeable about the story is its refusal to follow the usual narrative arc. There is no clear peak of tension, no release of resolution at the end. This departure from any standard story form or shape allows Munro to reveal the banality of the life of our young woman narrator, and all the more powerfully as the wayward history and life of Nina unfolds before our eyes: Nina is quirky and elusive in a way that the narrator cannot grasp; she takes pleasure in writing in separate colours for her different subjects at university but is unconcerned by her lack of understanding of the content. She repeatedly dresses in the same kimono, and her mood swings from placidity to vehemence in ugly crashes of gears. For our narrator, however, there is no obvious or dramatic road. She experiences nothing like the dramas of the great literature she is studying – only failures of judgement, mistakes and lost opportunities. For her, events are altogether ordinary and understated, until she accepts a dinner invitation at the home of Nina’s elderly lover, Mr Purvis.
On her arrival, she is asked to remove her clothing, a shocking request made even more disturbing by the casual manner in which it is made. The narrator agrees, however, determined to prove herself more than ‘just a bookworm’. When, after they have eaten, Mr Purvis makes a further request, that she read to him from a volume of Housman’s poetry, she sees it as a challenge – a chance for her to participate in a drama worthy of literature. Even his instruction that she not cross her legs is unquestioned, and her decision to comply seems almost reasonable, for Mr Purvis appears to her not as overtly sinister, but merely as a rather lonely intellectual.
Munro’s characters, their decisions and actions, are drawn – almost without us noticing – with an entirely human, true-to-life complexity. At the story’s end, our ‘good girl’ narrator reveals to us that she has betrayed Nina’s trust by disclosing, in a stealthy way, Nina’s whereabouts to her ‘pursuant’ Mr Purvis. She is playing with people’s lives in a way that is not unlike Mr Purvis’s manipulations of those around him. In ‘Wenlock Edge’, nobody is morally unblemished, yet none of the characters are villains. The story provides a good example of how neither heroes nor villains add depth or poignancy to a narrative. Human beings are complex and contradictory, and a great author’s characterisations will remind us of this fundamental truth. The characters, here, are even vaguely pathetic, yet as readers we find ourselves caring about them enough to find out what happens.
The way Munro builds tension is also daringly subtle. The narrator doesn’t seem to truly understand the situation she is in once the unpredictable Nina moves in, and despite her academic intelligence, she is out of her depth. As readers we see that she is easily influenced. Interestingly, she lacks the will-power and passion often seen in traditional narrators. She admits herself that she gets many things wrong, and indeed, this seems the only explanation as to why she would so willingly remove her clothes for an elderly voyeur – a mistaken need to not appear as conventional as she in fact is.
The incongruity within the narrator’s character provides the internal conflict that is so crucial to any successful fictional protagonist; she is clearly intelligent, yet she struggles to make the most basic life choices. And though she never asserts herself, it is she who steers the story. It is this combination of clashing features that makes her so compelling.
In the story ‘Passion’, Munro creates another protagonist of depth and contradiction. The story begins with Grace, a woman in her sixties who is looking for a summerhouse in the Ottawa Valley. The narrative then flashes back to Grace as a young woman, and follows her destruction of the family she loves.
As with the narrator of ‘Wenlock Edge’, the way Grace wishes to be seen and the way, in reality, she actually looks are two different things. She wants to be taken seriously, yet there is ‘a discrepancy…between the way she presented herself and the way she wanted to be judged.’ We are told that she is ‘a bit ragged around the edges’ and gives herself ‘Gypsy airs’ with her cheap jewellery and ‘long, wild-looking, curly dark hair’. On her first date with Maury Travers, she sets herself against what she perceives necessary for women to be desired, that they should be ‘beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl had to be, to be fallen in love with.’ Despite her determination not to be this type of a girl, Maury falls instantly in love.
As she begins spending more time with Maury’s family, however, changes begin to unfold within Grace. With them, she is exposed to a kind of social existentialism. But as love, marriage and family finally come within her grasp, she seems to make the choice of discarding it all. With Neil, Maury’s half-brother, she falls under the spell of sexual attraction. Something new and yet essential is – dangerously and thrillingly – catalysed within her.
There is a clearer arc of tension in this story than in ‘Wenlock Edge’. Once Grace leaves the hospital with Neil, after he has come to the aid of her and her bleeding foot, there is a distinct sense of both foreboding and possibility as they get into his car. Her life – and her sense of self – changes forever even before their spontaneous drive in the country: ‘Describing this passage, this change in her life, later on, Grace might say—she did say—that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her. But at the time there was no clang—acquiescence simply rippled through her, and the rights of those left behind were smoothly cancelled out.’
Significantly, Munro does not allow her reader the pleasure or release of catharsis in ‘Passion’. This story in particular contains a truth, but it is an uncomfortable kind of truth. We are afforded profound observations, but no solutions are offered for Grace’s once more rootless life or the tragedy Neil’s family must face. There is a destructiveness within Grace’s sweetness, perhaps because underneath her actions, she is tempted by the prospect of escaping the expected turns of her life.
Grace doesn’t find in Neil what she had hoped for. His frankness and realism leave her cold, and her own fanciful nature evaporates under his lack of comfort and his struggles to cope. The encounter liberates something within her, though, just as it also brings about a kind of demise, and it is this that leaves us with the pleasure of mulling the story over and over, long after it has been read.
The ending is far from neat. The fact that the whole story is told as a flashback, a regression to the discomfort of sins and mistakes of many years before, suggests a long term change in her character that is entirely unsettling. Again, it is the sense of profound change in Grace that is, for me, the most inspiring element of this story.
READ ‘Wenlock Edge‘