I consider Alice Munro to be one of our most important writers of psychological fiction. She has the courage to emphatically revive the psychology of the Romanticist Movement, to stick up for Freud when that’s still justifiable, and to blend the two approaches with her own insights and technical genius, to come to her own bold conclusions.
The day that I realized that she’s describing the terrors and the horrors of the patriarchal world was the day that I began to understand Munro. She doesn’t underline her social message. She doesn’t underline any message. Neither Chekhov nor Munro would be so vulgar as to state the message the way you’d put it in a slogan, or on a flag. That’s not art. Art gives us a situation in which we feel the message, if we’re sensitive to it. One of the great things about Munro is that she forces us to participate in her stories. We have to see connections; she’s not going to point them out for us.
A typical situation in a Munro story is that a woman’s predicament, in some family or social situation—something that seems trivial, or everyday-ish—will explode into a major problem. For example, in “Runaway,” Carla lies to her husband, Clark, telling him how her employer’s husband lured her to his bed. This sexually excites them both, initially, but then leads to something more threatening. Carla tries to solve the issue by running away, and the choices she makes lead her and Clark to discovery.
It becomes clear that Munro is a good psychologist when you see how often her characters have to act out a solution before they can think it out. That’s the human condition—we feel our way through a situation. We rely on interaction and imagination before we find the rational path. In other words, intermediate irrationality must often precede rational behavior. This is an unpopular idea in a world of computer logic, but we need writers with Munro’s scope and talent, especially in our time. We go to literature, and to art generally, for explanation—we’re hungry for it. Munro has the courage to show that modern life is almost senseless and inexplicable, and she proves that it’s more complex than we can bear to know.
She is a master of representing how the mind works, how we come to truths through strange pathways; how all of our mental experience—lying, concealing, denying, free-associating, and rationalizing—leads to discovery, to revelation, if we cooperate with our powers of imagination, intuition, and impulse—those “glories” that are described by the Romantic poets. Acting out our petty behaviors is part of struggling toward insight and revelation, if only we can cooperate with our powers; if we are not bludgeoned into ignoring them. We all lie and conceal things, and there will always be thoughts we don’t say aloud; but reflecting upon these issues, even silently by ourselves, leads to discovery and an appreciation of how full of contradictions life is.
Munro reminds her readers that we must not let the walls of the prison-house grow around us, not let custom weigh on us, not see getting and spending as living. From Munro, we infer that we must make friends with our own intuition, our own imagination, our own naïveté.