As has always been the case in the writing of Alice Munro, the 2013 Nobel laureate for literature, one need examine only a small fragment of a single story to see the full implications of her work as a whole. Take the details of “The Eye”—suggestive of “The I” and “The Id” (Munro loves wordplay)—the first in a set of four memoirish “not quite stories,” as Munro puts it, that appear under the ironically titled “Finale” at the end of her most recent collection, Dear Life.
Set during the Depression, “The Eye” takes place in a locale now known as “Munro country”—hardscrabble, small-town, southwestern Ontario, where traditional Protestant values of utility and “fitting in” rule, and “ordinary outsiders” who call attention to themselves through frivolity and individualism—by pursuing, for example, the arts, or challenging expectations for men and women—are scorned and sometimes brutally punished. That Munro introduces these stories as semi-autobiographical suggests that both the unnamed adult narrator and child protagonist are versions of herself. The story unfolds primarily when “Alice,” née Laidlaw, is five years old, and the overlay of her adult voice on her childhood narrative reveals ironic aspects of the protagonist’s developing sensibility.
Following the births of Alice’s younger siblings, her mother, who has “shrunk to whatever territory she had with the babies,” needs help at home. She hires vibrant and creative Sadie, who is viewed as a “celebrity” because she sings original, simple compositions and ballads of a bygone era on the local radio station, for an audience of farmers who yearn for a romanticized depiction of their long-since modernized lives. In contrast to her upbeat manner, Sadie’s singing “voice was strong and sad and she sang about loneliness and grief.” Perhaps her name foreshadows her sorrowful fate as well as suggesting her artistic themes and tone. Her songs, like her radio station—“said to be the smallest one in Canada”—are a “joke” to “sophisticated” townspeople, who look toward Toronto for war news and popular songs, such as “three little fishes and a momma fishy too.” Yet Alice’s mother senses that her daughter “worships” Sadie, who seems a doppelgänger for the nascent writer.
Munro weaves autobiographical details into her stories, repeating them in fictional variations—or story templates—throughout her canon, suggesting her theme that we continually rewrite the stories of our lives in our memories, and in our retellings of events, blurring the line between reality and fiction. While a student, Munro worked as a domestic helper; and indeed this is a recurring motif in her oeuvre, and she has said she felt she lived a double life as a girl, and later as a 1950s wife and mother, while developing her writing craft in near secrecy. When ready to publish her early story collections, she faced a fledgling Canadian literary marketplace and an international publishing community that esteemed novels about male protagonists.
“The Eye” mostly unfolds in Munro’s childhood home, a recurring setting in her canon, which seems both a metaphor for her developing psyche and the vault in which the elder author houses her past lives. Sadie, who “announced more than once that she was not in any hurry to get married,” tells spellbound Alice that she enjoys dancing, and on weekend nights goes alone—“by herself and for herself”—to dance halls, where she “likes to pay her own dime, not to be beholden.”
Munro is widely recognized to have been among the first authors, especially in her breakthrough Lives of Girls and Women (1971), to portray the desire of young women for sexual autonomy. In her fiction set during her youth, girls long for romantic love and sexual fulfillment, yet discover, as they come of age, that they are expected to use sexual wiles to be “chosen” by husbands who will provide practical security. In Depression-era small towns such as Munro’s, where families remained in place for generations, respectability was crucial to survival—especially among the poor. A girl’s unwed pregnancy would bring disgrace upon her relatives and descendants as well as herself, and the birth-control pill was not to become available until the early 1960s. In our many interviews, Munro has told me that in her generation, people got married in order to have sex.
In “The Eye,” Sadie frequents one dance hall in town, where the typical man “shuffles around on two feet with his sweaty big meats of hands grabbing at her.” Another more dangerous dance hall—the Royal-T—is situated “just out of town on the highway”:
Better on their feet—the town ones—but it was not always the feet you had to look out for. It was where they wanted to get hold of you. Sometimes she had to read them the riot act and tell them what she would do to them if they didn’t quit it. She let them know she’d come there to dance and paid her own way to do it. Furthermore she knew where to jab them. That would straighten them out. Sometimes they were good dancers and she got to enjoy herself. Then when they played the last dance she bolted for home.
She wasn’t like some, she said. She didn’t mean to get caught.
Alice’s mother seems concerned that Alice and Sadie “talk together a lot.”
In “Finale”and throughout Munro’s oeuvre, characters suggestive of Munro’s mother are eccentrically prudish and “proper,” yet educationally ambitious for Alice in a community where high-school girls frequently “got married and had babies, in that order or the other.”
One night following a dance, Sadie is killed. The narrator relays an account of the incident, without revealing the source. A newspaper? A story repeated and revised by gossiping neighbors? The details seem so minutely wrought as to be suspect—as she so often does in her fiction, Munro supplies constructions of events from varying reporters and allows the reader to speculate about where the truth—or various truths—may lie:
A car had hit her just on that little bit of gravel road between the parking space belonging to the dance hall and the beginning of the proper town sidewalk…. She was hit from behind. The car that hit her was getting out of the way of the car that was behind it, and that second car was looking to make the first turn onto a town street. There had been some drinking at the dance hall, though you could not buy liquor there. And there was always some honking and yelling and whipping around too fast when the dancing was over. Sadie scurrying along without even a flashlight would behave as if it was everybody’s business to get out of her way.
Alice and her mother attend the viewing of Sadie’s body, where a woman remarks, “A girl without a boyfriend going to dances on foot…. It was asking for trouble….” Alice’s mother takes her daughter to Sadie’s coffin, where all three characters, seen together, may suggest various dimensions of one woman—seen separately, and in combination. Munro has told me that strings tie together the various characters in her stories, and motifs connect the stories throughout her canon.
Looking fearfully into the casket, Alice perceives that the dead Sadie sends her a personal signal—Sadie’s eyelid seems to move; perhaps enough so that “if you were her, if you were inside her,” “you” could “distinguish maybe what was light outside and what was dark.”
Why did Sadie, an only child, frequent dance halls? There is a suggestion that her family faced financial hardship. Were her parents relying on her for income? Of the four stories in “Finale,” the closing section of Dear Life, two of them feature young, female prostitutes in settings where people are struggling with poverty and illness. Near the end of “The Eye,” we learn that not long before Sadie died, she quit her job at the Laidlaws’ home:
…she said she had to stay home now to look after her father and mother, so she wouldn’t be working for us anymore.
And then my mother had found out she was working in the creamery.
Is “the creamery” a euphemism, a sexually suggestive yet somehow more appropriate explanation offered to Alice because of her young age? Was Sadie taxi-dancing at the dance halls, where she would have earned much more during the Depression than she could have doing housework? Maybe she was having sex with the men she met there, for money or adventure or—as is usually the case in Munro’s psychological fiction—for an irreducibly complex mix of reasons that she herself—perhaps she especially—can’t fully understand.
“The Eye” ends with the now-adult Alice telling us that by the time she was in her teens, she “knew with a dim sort of hole in [her] insides” that she didn’t believe anymore what she had thought, as a child, had been “shown” to her at the viewing. What led to Alice’s reevaluation of Sadie’s fate? Personal experience, perhaps: Later in the “Finale”quartet, in “Voices,” we learn that Alice “cried when chased and beaten with shingles on the way home from [her] first school.” Like Sadie, it seems, Alice “learned somehow to manage with an odd mixture of being dead scared and showing off.” Further on in Alice’s development, during her middle-school years, she was again abused. In several of the “Finale” stories, like a repeating refrain in a nursery rhyme, or a recurring nightmare, we are told that Alice was beaten by her father, himself a frustrated writer in “real life”—with the “razor strap or his belt” to “punish” her for having “thought [she was] too smart” or when she would “talk back” to her mother (“Night”); leading Alice to “want to die for the misery and shame of it all” (“Dear Life”).
What sorts of knowledge are people with “a dim sort of hole in [their] insides” made privy to? What warnings do they pass to one another through glances and restrictive rules? We are never told what happened to Sadie on the night she was killed. “The Eye,” like so many of Munro’s stories, does not wrap up neatly, but rather inspires questions, leading us to reread it—to reconsider and revise our constructions of events and reality. It seems to suggest that in life and in fiction, all finales lead us back—and forward—to new beginnings.