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An Appreciation of Alice Munro

ISSUE:  Summer 2006

The fifties were a very male period of writing in the United States. America didn’t have a tradition of women writers. Who, among women, were admired? Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter. Among poets? Emily Dickinson. How many others? In Canada, you didn’t get points off for being a woman. The challenge wasn’t so much being female as it was being Canadian. Embroidery, oil painting, writing, it was all considered a hobby. Writing wasn’t important. There was hardly a market for new novels. The writing community up here was so small at that time. Because of readings and little magazines, poets knew one another’s work, but it was different for prose writers in Canada.

When we were growing up the idea of being a writer was so alien. Just to think you could do it was an act of major hubris. Talent was discouraged. Yet as a child, Alice had read L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon, about a young girl growing up on Prince Edward Island who wants to be a writer. Alice has written an afterword for the latter book.

Two other early influences on her were Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. In Wuthering Heights you never hear the story directly from the most powerful people in it. You hear it from the observers: a gentleman named Lockwood, who rents Thrushcross Grange, and Nelly, the housekeeper. This is a very interesting way of putting a book together. Also, there are the two houses. There are the Lintons, who are genteel—not forceful and not sexy. And then there’s Heathcliff. Pride and Prejudice is another very well put together book that draws on the emotions we love so much, and there’s Mr. Darcy, another rude man with lots of money underneath. And economics is such a big factor in Alice’s work. Who’s got money, who hasn’t, who needs money, who’s making it, and who’s paying for things.

Her other influences were writers of stories set in small towns. Alice read Sherwood Anderson—who made her feel that maybe she could do this kind of thing—as well as Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Having grown up in a small town herself, Alice knows them well—specifically, small towns in southwestern Ontario. Why are there so many crazy, demented people in a small town? It’s just that everyone knows everyone and one another’s background. Like a big, dysfunctional family. It’s that way in cities, too, but you don’t necessarily know about all of it, because you may not know the people across the street, or even next door. In small towns people are conscious of gossip, rumor, the keeping up of pretenses, and the varying gradations of social level. It can be confining.

That’s why Alice’s stories are so place- and time-specific. What people eat, what they wear, what appliances they are using, are all important to her. She is interested in questions of authenticity; she looks at her characters’ fronts and pretensions, at what effect they are trying to achieve, and then she examines what lies underneath. Maybe the characters see through each other, and so they have social lies, such as, “You look terrific.” Sometimes they mean it benignly; sometimes they don’t.

She writes about the difficulties faced by people who are bigger or smaller than they are expected to be. When her protagonists look back, from later points of view, the older people they have become possess within them all of the people that they have been. She’s very good on what people expect, and then on the letdown.

One of the many things Alice does so well is to contrast how people thought something would be, compared to how it turned out. We depend on a certain amount of fulfilled expectation. The sun will rise in the morning. Mr. Brown will be at the corner store at 8 a.m. and sell milk. In Alice Munro stories, people go into a house and find out that someone has been murdered. Every expectation is met; and then, there is an event, a surprise—and that’s the story.


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