'The language of Alice Munro's stories is ordinary but the effect that it creates is extraordinary.' Choose 3 stories from the collection and comment on the language Munro uses, showing how far you agree with this view of her writing.
“The language of Alice Munros stories is ordinary but the effect that it creates is extraordinary.”
Choose 3 stories from the collection and comment on the language Munro uses, showing how far you agree with this view of her writing.
Within Munro’s stories, the subjects, characters and language surrounding them seems ordinary, but the writing and effects that are drawn from the events are extraordinary. This essay will concentrate on three stories from the collection ‘Selected Stories’. The three stories are ‘Postcard’, ‘Miles City Montana’ and ‘Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You’. Within the collection ‘Selected Stories’ Alice Munro explores many themes. Examples of those central themes (common to all of the stories) include, the effects of small town life on the characters within the stories, life and mortality, social status and restrictions, gender differences and memories/family history.
‘Postcard’ displays Munro’s intention to observe the extraordinary that exists below the ordinary. She does this in the story by exploring gender roles through the consideration of social restrictions placed upon women and the subsequent lack of power many of the women within Munro’s stories feel. In ‘Postcard’ the central character Helen experiences this. Munro seeks to investigate and to make a social comment on small town life through the portrayal of gossip.
“Lookit the lights on up and down this street. There’s Grace Beecher watching us and I can see the Holmes got their Windows up. “You don’t want to give them anything more to talk about do you?”
The small town values of Canada are universal of all small towns.
Another of the intentions in the story is to identify social class and the status inherent within the functioning of individuals and the society, which is based upon the values of small town life. ‘Postcard’ achieves this primarily by exploring relationships between males and females. (for example the relationship between the central character Helen and Clare.) The story also explores the relationships between parents and their children (e.g. between Helen and her mother) and perhaps more importantly between Clare and his mother. Throughout the story another of the central intentions is to show growth, change and development within the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of the central character Helen towards those immediately around her, to the broader town and to some extent the world within which she lives.
Helen is the focalizer within ‘Postcard’
“Yesterday afternoon, yesterday, I was going along the street to the Post Office.”
The symbolic postcard that Helen receives from Clare is central to the entire story. Not only does it provide the reader with a base time/point for the story (yesterday/when the postcard was received) but it also helps to characterise the relationship that Helen and Clare had and the feelings that Clare in particular had for Helen. By sending Helen a postcard Clare was affirming the fact that their relationship was only worth a casual response and not worthy of longer explanation i.e. in a letter.
“The date was ten days back. Well, sometimes postcards are slow, but I bet what happened was he carried this around in his pocket a few days before he remembered to mail it.”
The content of the postcard only becomes symbolic when placed in the context of the rest of the story. As the story proceeds, it becomes evident that vital information was left out of the communication on the postcard (that information being the end of their relationship and his forthcoming marriage announced in the local newspaper.)
“A quiet ceremony in Coral Gables, Florida, uniting in marriage Clare Alexander MacQuarrie …………… The couple were at present travelling by automobile to their future home in Jubilee.”
“Weather could not be better. Mid-seventies. How is the winter treating you in Jubilee? Not bad I hope. Be a good girl. Clare.”
The information conveyed on the postcard could have been directed towards anyone. This fits with Munro’s style of showing the relationships between males and females and portraying the idea that women do not have as many rights as men. The ordinary language of the postcard creates an extraordinary effect on the reader. The extraordinary effect is that the reader realises that Clare does not really care for Helen. By naming the story after the seeming insignificant token gesture of a postcard, Munro draws attention to all of the seemingly insignificant points in the story. It demands that you concentrate on every detail of the story.
Within ‘Postcard’ Munro demonstrates her unconventional grasp of the short story genre. Her style within ‘Postcard’ is unconventional because the four components that are needed within the conventional short story format are, exposition, complication, climax and resolution. These components within ‘Postcard’, are not explicitly evident e.g. the exposition is very gradual and the other elements (complication, climax and resolution) are present in the story but not really at targetable/clear points. Therefore Munro uses the ordinary language of exposition gradually and for that reason the effect that she creates is extraordinary.
Another characteristic of Munro’s style shown in ‘Postcard’ is the setting of the story. ‘Postcard’ is set in a small town and therefore she can use this style to explore one of the central intentions of the story, that being to show the social restrictions of small town life.
“Helen, you want to wake everybody up in this whole town?” Said Buddy Shields, sticking his head in at the window.”
The narrative within the story ‘Postcard’ shifts from retrospective (detailing events that took place in the past) to first person (current events). These shifts in narrative style are punctuated by paragraph breaks within the text. An example of this is how the story starts with a retrospective account. Throughout the story the point that is often referred to is the afternoon that Helen received the Postcard, that time is known as the base point.
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“Yesterday afternoon, yesterday, I was going along the street to the post office.”
By using disorientating shifts in time, Munro through ordinary language creates extraordinary effects in the mind of the reader, who will contemplate the true meaning behind the story for a considerable time after they have finished reading it.
The ending of ‘Postcard’ adds an extra perspective to the story. Munro chooses to make her voice heard at the end of the story. By choosing to do this she adds additional detail, which through her unique portrayal of the characters unsettles the carefully constructed narrative. Although the words in the story are credited to the character Buddy it is blatantly obvious to the reader that they are being told the true thoughts and feelings of the author in this case Alice Munro.
“So just be a good girl, Helen and go along like the rest of us and pretty soon we’ll see spring.’
‘Postcard’ explores sexual differences, with respect to power and status. These differences are made obvious by the subject matter that Alice Munro considers. Munro explores the idea of women considered as being lesser beings than men. She uses the example of women having to behave differently within relationships than men.
“Once a man loses his respect for a girl, he is apt to get tired of her.” Within the story women are subservient to men. One way this idea is is shown through the words and actions of the character Buddy Shields. Buddy Shields treats Helen as a little girl and his tone towards her is condescending. “Well you got to be a good girl and stop honking that horn.”
Through his treatment of Helen, Clare has also shown the tendencies of men to think of women as lesser beings. Clare gets married and does not tell Helen, leaving her to find out through a family friend Alma.
“Clare MacQuarrie has gotten married”
“They’re on their way to Jubilee right now and they’re going to live here.”
Helen’s humiliation is public.
‘Postcard’ explores traditional feminine subjects, such as romance through the introduction of the minor character, Ted Forgie,
“Wouldn’t I have been surprised if I had seen all of what was going to happen? I hadn’t even met Ted Forgie then.”
Munro explores the idea of memories in the form of a letter that had been sent to Helen by Ted Forgie.
“I knew his letter just from looking at the outside, and I never read it anymore, but just out of curiosity I opened it up and started it off.”
The ordinary language in the letters adds to the extraordinary effects of the introduction of another character which disrupts the carefully constructed narrative. It seems at first that ‘Postcard’ is a simple story of romance and reflection. This idea, is promoted by the ordinary language that Munro uses. However it is really a contemplation of power, status and the realisation of choice.
Munro explores the power of gossip and small town values through the introduction of Helen’s job in the department store,
“Inside the store they were waiting, oh, how nice good morning , Helen good morning , Helen – such quiet kind hopeful voices waiting to see if I’m going to fall flat on the floor and start having hysterics.”
Clare escapes being gossiped about because he is male.
Munro also considers relationships, but Munro’s language and writing style reflects the contradictions that are inherent within them. Helen was never certain that Clare would marry her. The most that can be said is that she hoped rather than knew it to be true that he would one day marry her.
“Clare and I used to slip in the side door on Saturday nights and make coffee and something to eat in the high, old fashioned kitchen, beings as quiet and sneaky as two kids after school. Then we’d tiptoe up the backstairs to Clare’s room and turn on the television so she’d think that he was by himself, watching that.”
This extract shows that Helen knew that Clare was ashamed of her and if he would not introduce her to his mother Helen knew he would never marry her. The reason that Clare could never marry Helen is because she was of a lower status and for that reason Clare’s mother would never have seen her as a suitable addition to the family.
The idea of balancing two worlds (the public and the private) worlds at the same time is stylistically evident within the work of Alice Munro and within the story ‘Postcard’. The fact that at the end of the story Clare will still be a pillar of the community but Helen will forever be talked about and will basically be the laughing stock of the whole town for years to come; the ‘white picket fence’ syndrome with everyone thinking things look alright so they must be. This helps to highlight the narrow mindedness of the inhabitants of Jubilee. This also links to gender relationships and social inequality which are well documented within ‘Postcard’. The ordinary language of the public world, creates extraordinary effects on the reader when they realise that there is another world that exists, the private world.
Munro also adds to the idea of realism within ‘Postcard’ by mentioning authentic dialogue and place names (geographical details). The names that she mentions are Jubilee, the principle town where most of the action within the story takes place and Florida where Clare is on holiday and is also the place where the postcard originated from.
“It was my only card since he left for Florida three weeks ago.”
However the human issues she deals with are universal. We can all identify with Helen’s embarrassment and release. At the end, Helen has found her voice (symbolised by the honking of the horn).
Munro’s intentions in ‘Miles City Montana’ also include exploring gender roles and power. (Also the restrictions that result from those gender roles and in particular male egotism.) ‘Miles City Montana’ also explores social expectations, motherhood/parenthood, the idea of love and hate within families, memories and family history. In this story Munro uses symbolically important ‘props’ such as maps to facilitate the furthering/conclusion of the narrative.
‘Miles city Montana’ is not set specifically within a small town. Most of the story takes place when the characters are on a journey across the country. The idea of travelling beyond ones bounderies, links with another of Munro’s stories from the collection namely ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’. However, the idea of a stifling small town environment is mentioned and the theme is still evident within the story.
“As for me, I was happy because of the shedding, I loved taking off. In my own house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide, sometimes from the children but more often from the jobs to be done and the phone ringing and the sociability of the neighbourhood.”
Therefore the style of small town setting seen so frequently in the work of Alice Munro is evident (albeit it only at the start if the story) within ‘Miles City Montana’. The central metaphor of the maps within the story is important because it introduces into the mind of the reader the importance of making choices in life and the implications of choosing the paths that you take.
‘Miles City Montana’ like ‘Postcard’ has the central character in this case the mother as the focalizer and therefore, the story is told from her perspective (the first person narrative). The ordinary seemingly casual language of the focalizer within the story creates the extraordinary effect on the reader of being able to see the events in the story through the eyes of one character (in this case the mother).
The story ‘Miles City Montana’ starts off with a retrospective of events that had happened years earlier, which has resonance later in the story.
“My father came across the field carrying the body of a boy who had been drowned.”
The rest of the events within the story follow a more conventional pattern. However, the events are still littered with time shifts punctuated by breaks in paragraphs.
“I haven’t seen Andrew for years, don’t know if he is still thin, has completely gone gray, insists on lettuce, tells the truth, or is hearty and disappointed”
“We stayed that night in Wenatchee, Washington, where it hadn’t rained for weeks.”
The reader is left pondering the significance of each momentary break in time, leaving them to ponder the true intention behind these diversions.
In ‘Miles City Montana’ Munro explores the idea of gender differences within marriage.
“Andrew congratulated the car several times. He said he felt so much better driving it than our old car, a 1951 Austin that slowed down dismally on the hills and had a fussy – old – lady image.”
This quote shows the way that men see women as objects and liken them to cars. The particular way that female subjectivity is addressed in ‘Miles City Montana’ is through the male, in this case Andrew dominates his wife.
“Sometimes the very sound of his foot steps seemed to me tyrannical, the set of his mouth smug and mean, his hard, straight body a barrier interposed – quite consciously, even dutifully, and with a nasty pleasure in its masculine authority – between me and whatever joy or lightness I could get in life.”
There is also affection between them.
“Then with not much warning, he became my good friend and most essential companion. I felt the sweetness of his light bones and serious ideas, the vunerability of his love, which I imagined to be much purer and more straightforward than my own.”
The story also explores the idea of personal identity within a domestic setting.
“As for me, I was happy because of the shedding, I loved taking off. In my own house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide, sometimes from the children but more often from the jobs to be done and the phone ringing and the sociability of the neighbourhood. I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself. I lived in a state of siege, always losing just what I wanted to hold on to.”
The focalizer in the story is a mother.
“It seems to me know that we invented characters for our children. We had them firmly set to play their parts. Cynthia was bright and diligent, sensitive, courteous, watchful. ………. They cackled clear above the milky fog.”
Children can be seen as a gift for the future. The ordinary language of home life and children leads to extraordinary effects on the reader when Alice Munro mentions them in her stories. For example in ‘Miles City Montana’ the children are playing a seemingly ordinary game of ‘Who am I?’ but the effect on the reader created by the language is extraordinary.
“In the car we played Who Am I.”
The seemingly trivial child’s game, leads to the focalizer within the story (the mother) questioning her own life, she questions her relationship with her husband and she questions herself as a mother. The questioning by the focalizer, leaves the reader questioning the idea/themes of life and death within themselves.
The game of ‘Who Am I?’ leads the focalizer to recount details of her life before she got married and through her regression into her past, she reveals universal truths about the human condition.
“There was a freakishly heavy rain all night. In the early light, we saw that the turkey field was flooded. ………. But they had managed to crowd to higher ground and avoid drowning. Now they might push each other off, suffocate each other, get cold and die.”
Munro’s style of balancing private and public worlds simultaneously is shown in ‘Miles City Montana’. The public world on display is mainly recorded through pictures and the private world is shown through the thoughts of the narrator.
“Andrew took lots of pictures of me and of the children, our house…… He liked to have his record go forth.” But this view of a dutiful wife and a picture perfect family is later contradicted.
This view shows how much of a contradiction appears within their lives; between what the man would believe to be true and what the woman actually feels.
Maps are referred to and those references make it clear to the reader the symbolic significance of them. They are on a journey but as the story progresses it becomes evident that the maps serve a higher purpose, that purpose being to be symbolic of the journeys that one embarks upon during life.
“I took the atlas and pointed out the road through the mountains, and she took it back and showed it to Meg ……. She pointed to it! Meg understands maps!”
The use of the children when highlighting the symbolism of the maps is not accidental, Munro is showing the reader the innocence and naivety of children thinking that they understand and can predict the journey that becomes life. The language used when exploring the map concept is ordinary but when the reader realises that the maps are highly symbolic of life then the effect that the language has on the reader is extraordinary. The reader realises that they like the characters have choices to make and that life has twists and turns just as a road does.
Within ‘Miles City Montana’ geographical details are used to promote the idea of realism. The mention of towns/areas that they are driving through, links with the idea of a symbolic map.
“We turned east at Everett, and climbed into the Cascades. I showed Cynthia our route on the map. First I showed her the map of the whole United States…….. Then we would drive across Michigan to the bridge that linked the United States and Canada at Sarnia, Ontario. Home.”
Alice Munro explores the ideas of creating false memories. This is shown in the following quote when the central character is talking about the drowning of Steve Gauly.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think I really saw all of this. Perhaps I saw my father carrying him…….. It would have been bloated and changed and perhaps muddied all over after so many hours in the water.”
This idea of creating a false memory can be said to be part of the unconventional way that Alice Munro uses the short story genre. The reader is intrigued and needs to piece together all the information given in the story and to come to their own conclusions about the validity of the facts.
The reader within the story is placed in an active rather than passive role. The reader is active because they have to act as a detective and piece together the story for themselves because the continuation of the narrative depends upon this. For example:
“I haven’t seen Andrew for years, don’t know if he is still thin, has completely gone gray, insists on lettuce, tells the truth, or is hearty and disappointed”
The ending of ‘Miles City Montana’ adds to the narrative, it adds a further comment not only on the thoughts and ideas professed within the story but on the idea of society and the future.
“So we went on, with the two in the back seat trusting us, because of no choice, and we ourselves trusting to be forgiven, in time, for everything that had first to be seen and condemned by those children: whatever was flippant, arbitrary, careless, callous – all our natural, and particular, mistakes.”
The above quote highlights a point where Munro could be seen as speaking through the character in her book communicating directly with the reader. This directly links with ‘Postcard’ where Munro chooses to speak through her characters.
‘Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You’ also demands that the reader be the detective, dropping hints, but in the end the reader has to piece together all the clues and come to their own conclusions. Another intention is to show different power relationships (mainly the power that results from beauty).
“Char fought hard all these years to keep her figure……. “What is the difference, What does it matter?” he would say to Et. “She would still be beautiful.”
The power struggle is also connected to knowledge, the idea that knowledge is power.
“That way, Et was left knowing more; she was left knowing what Char looked like when she lost her powers.”
“She had them at a disadvantage …….. torn by children and operations.”
The above quote shows how Et has power over the women of the town because she has the knowledge of what they truly look like (when their corsets have been taken off) as she works as a dressmaker.
Within the story there are many gothic images and references that imply a sense of evil below the surface.
“He told them the house was haunted. The first Et had ever heard of it, living ten miles away all her life. A woman had killed her husband, the son of the millionaire, at least it was believed she killed him.
The title of the story also adds to the gothic/sinister effects of the story. The idea of a sinister secret being kept by Et from Arthur is portrayed in the story and the reader is left guessing even at the conclusion of the story.
“Sometimes Et had it on the tip of her tongue to say to Arthur. ……. If they had been married, people would have said they were very happy.”
The idea of memory and family history are shown in the story.
“Et remembered the first time she understood Char was beautiful. ……Et took a long look at this picture and then went and looked at Char, who was in the Kitchen.”
The quote shows the importance of pictures, memory and family history,
Munro shows that the power of beauty transcends the mortal realm as shown by the character Arthur still revering the beauty of his dead wife Char and by Et not being able to replace Char in Arthur’s affections.
“He kept a picture of Char on his bureau. It was the one taken of her in her costume or that play, where she played the statue girl. But Et let it go, day to day. She and Arthur still played rummy and kept up a bit of garden, along with raspberry canes. If they had been married, people would have said they were very happy.”
Munro portrays love and hate and death and mortality. The idea of love and hate is explored through the sisters Et and Char. Et hates the fact that Char is beautiful and that she is not. (that beauty, as mentioned earlier gives Char power) This jealousy promotes hatred for a figure that she should love.
“All the same it would have suited her better to have found one of those ladies beautiful, not Char. It would have been more appropriate.”
The idea of mortality is evident through the use of the extended metaphor of the poison that Char swallows and through the drowning of the younger brother.
“Char swallowed poison or what she thought was poison. It was laundry bluing.”
“She was looking at a picture of them, of Char and herself and their brother who had drowned.”
The drowning of the brother is the end of a life, but the attempted suicide by Char through the swallowing of poison is an occurance that Munro uses to point of how fragile life is. There are hints that Et may be responsible for her brothers death.
“She didn’t like the bleak notoriety of having Sandy’s drowning attached to her, didn’t like the memory people kept of her father carrying the body up from the beach. She could be seen at twilight, in her gym bloomers, turning cartwheels on the lawn of the stricken house. She made a wry mouth, which nobody saw, one day in the park when Char said “That was my little brother who was drowned.”
‘Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You’ strictly adheres to the style of Alice Munro by setting the story in a small town. The small town setting highlights the fact that everyone talks about everyone else, and individual private lives are played out publicly.
“She didn’t like the bleak notoriety of having Sandy’s drowning attatched to her, didn’t like the memory people kept of her father carrying up the body from the beach…… when Char said “That was my little brother who was drowned.”
The story ‘Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You’ is told through an omniscient narrator with the central character Et as the focalizer.
“Et remembered the first time she understood that Char was beautiful.”
The way the story is told enables the reader to get an inside perspective of the story. The reader can never be certain about Et’s version of the truth.
When Char swallows the poison, she does not want the doctor to be called because she wants to keep up the appearance of her being a happy, well - adjusted teenage girl.
“Read what it says about poison.” Et went instead to phone the doctor. Char came staggering out of the bathroom holding the bottle of bleach they kept behind the tub. “If you don’t put up the phone I’ll drink the whole bottle “ she said in a harsh whisper.”
The way that the public and private worlds are shows how the private world of some of the seemingly ordinary individuals within her story are extraordinary. They all have their own story to tell.
The use of music within the story is highly symbolic
“Char went into the living room and played the piano in the dark.”
The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la
Have nothing to do with the case…………...
“Char got up and went into the house. After a while they heard the sound of the piano.”
The idea of using musical devices within the story links to other stories within the collection for example ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’ and ‘Dance Of The Happy Shades’.
“It had felt like somebody absentmindedly trying out the keys of a piano.”
Et is like a musical instrument needing to be played.
The use of legend also adds to the sense of deeper meaning, through Munro’s use of classic images, the effect that she creates is extraordinary.
“Et got who Arthur was on the thirteenth question. Sir Galahad.”
The use of ordinary classical/historical details and language appears trivial but, the comment occurred in a game of ‘Who Am I?’, which links to identity and Et’s constant search to be noticed for being herself.
“She didn’t like the bleak notoriety of having…………”That was my little brother who was drowned.”
The entire story is never laid open to the reader. The truth behind the story is never revealed, there are hints of adultery and murder. The reader has to act as detective, just like the character Et does in the story.
Within her stories the subjects/characters are ordinary but the writing and effects that are drawn from the events (the characters encounter) are extraordinary. For that reason the reader, when they have completed one of Munro’s stories feels that they have gained a true insight into the characters. This true insight is gained by Munro’s use of ordinary language and her clever use of literary devices, for example, the maps in ‘Miles City Montana’ being a metaphor for life and in ‘Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You’ the hint of deception and murder.
Throughout her stories Munro gives the reader the illusion that the stories are simple and straightforward, but they are not, they are embedded with a subtext of philosophical and feminist ideas.
In conclusion this essay has shown, that to a large extent Munro does use ordinary language but the effect that it has on the reader is extraordinary. However not all of the language that Munro uses within her stories is meant to evoke extraordinary effects on/in the mind of the reader and it is up to the reader to make the distinction.