Lives of Girls and Women

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Lives of Girls and Women

ALICE MUNRO
1971

INTRODUCTION
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
PLOT SUMMARY
CHARACTERS
THEMES
STYLE
HISTORICAL CONTEXT
CRITICAL OVERVIEW
CRITICISM
SOURCES
FURTHER READING

INTRODUCTION

Alice Munro's only novel, Lives of Girls and Women, which was published in 1971, is a fictionalized coming-of-age work that is sometimes described as autobiographical. Munro is best known as a short story writer, whose work focuses on women's lives. Lives of Girls and Women consists of an episodic series of loosely linked short stories, all connected around the life of a young girl. Del Jordan, who is a child in the book's opening chapters, narrates a series of episodes from her life growing up in Jubilee, a small rural town in western Ontario. It is a reasonable possibility that Jubilee was modeled after Munro's own home town of Wingham, Ontario. Del's stories focus on her efforts to find her place in the small town in which she lives. She is not content with the kind of life that other young girls live and has no desire to be conventional. Instead, Del wants to find her own voice. Her efforts result in an interesting opposition between memory, truth, and imagination. As a narrator, Del relates events from different perspectives of time, recounting events from both the child narrator's perspective and from the viewpoint of the grown woman looking back on her life. This style of narration provides dimension and complexity to Munro's book. Munro's only novel also offers readers what seems to be an authentic glimpse into small town life. Her descriptions of locations and people create an image for the reader that seems very authentic. Lives of Girls and Women was

awarded the Canadian Booksellers' Association Award. A recent edition of the novel was released by Vintage Books in 2001.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Alice Munro was born Alice Laidlaw on July 10, 1931 just outside Wingham, a small town in western Ontario, Canada. Her father, Robert, was an unsuccessful breeder of silver foxes, whose business failed completely during the depression. Her mother, Ann, had been a school teacher at one time and later helped her husband sell the pelts from their foxes. The Laidlaw family was poor, especially after her father's fox farm failed, and they lived in a poorer area just outside town. Alice began writing short stories when she was twelve and continued to write after she left Wingham to attend university. She won a scholarship to attend the University of Western Ontario in 1949, but she was forced to leave after two years when the scholarship ended.

Rather than return to her home in 1951, she decided to marry a fellow student, James Munro. During the more than twenty years of their marriage, they had four daughters, one of whom died in infancy. The Munro family lived in Vancouver, British Columbia for many years, but eventually they moved to Victoria, where they opened a bookstore. During the time in Vancouver, Munro wrote infrequently, but after the move to Victoria, she once again began writing short stories. Her first collection of short stories was published as Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968. This first book, which included stories written in the 1950s and 1960s, won the Governor General's Literary Award, Canada's highest literary award. In 1971, Munro's only novel, Lives of Girls and Women was published and was awarded the Canadian Booksellers' Association Award. The following year, Munro left her husband and moved back to Ontario, where she began teaching creative writing classes at the University of Western Ontario.

Another collection of short stories, Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, was published in 1973. Munro and her husband were divorced in 1976, and she married Gerald Fremlin that same year. The publication of her third collection of short stories, Who Do You Think You Are?, earned Munro a second Governor General's Literary Award. She won this award for a third time in 1986 for The Progress of Love. Munro was awarded the inaugural Marian Engel Award in 1986 for her entire body of work.

In the years that followed, Munro continued to write short stories, some of which were published in the New Yorker and in Atlantic Monthly. Collections of her stories have also been published as Moons of Jupiter (1982), Friend of My Youth (1990), and Open Secrets, which won the W. H. Smith Award for the best book published in the United Kingdom in 1995. Selected Stories came out in 1996 and The Love of a Good Woman was published in 1998, with the second book winning the Giller Prize. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), which also won the Giller Prize, and The View From Castle Rock (2006) continue Munro's love of the short story as a way to explore women's lives and her own family's past life.

PLOT SUMMARY

The Flats Road

The narrator, Del, uses this first chapter of Lives of Girls and Women to briefly introduce her family and setting. Del lives at the end of Flats Road, which is just outside town but not quite in the country. Del lives with her mother, Addie, who hates living in the country and envisions herself more attuned to city living, and her father, who is comfortable with their semi-country existence. The narrator also shares her home with her younger brother, Owen, and a dog, Major. The area in which they live is described as "neglected, poor, and eccentric." Del is not explicit about her age, but she is probably about ten or eleven years old in this chapter. This opening chapter quickly establishes the narrator's position within the family and paints the world in which she lives. It is 1942 in rural Canada. The people are unsophisticated, poor, wary of strangers, and some are drunk much of the time. Readers are introduced to several strange and peculiar inhabitants of the countryside, including bootleggers Mitch Plim, and the Potter boys. The narrator labels Frankie Hall and Irene Pollox as the two idiots, who live on Flats Road, and readers learn about Sandy Stevenson, who marries a widow and is haunted by her unhappy deceased husband. All of these characters populate Flats Road and help to create an image of quirkiness in the first chapter of Munro's novel.

MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • Lives of Girls and Women was filmed for television in 1994 by Paragon Entertainment.
  • "Baptizing," a chapter from Lives of Girls and Women, was adapted and filmed for CBC's Performance series in 1975. The film stars Munro's daughter Jenny.

This opening chapter also recounts the story of Uncle Benny, who is not the narrator's uncle or anyone's uncle, as readers quickly learn. Benny Poole lives in his parent's home, which is filled with a variety of objects that the narrator describes as "a wealth of wreckage, a whole rich, dark, rotting mess of carpets, linoleum, parts of furniture, insides of machinery, nails, wire, tools, utensils." These are mostly the throwaways that Benny collects from the discards of other people's lives and what he can scavenge from the dump. Although the author provides some information about Uncle Benny's life, for instance that he subscribes to a tabloid newspaper filled with strange and unusual happenings, the larger focus of this chapter is on Benny's mail order bride and what happens to him after he brings her back to Flats Road. When Benny goes to meet this woman for the first time, he finds her family prepared for an immediate wedding, to which Benny agrees, without much thought. He brings his new bride back to Flats Road, Jubilee. Madeleine is not the bargain Benny hoped to find. She is only a girl, although she already has a small child. She is also dirty and ill kept and given to violence and the occasional outburst directed to anyone who displeases her. Readers also learn that she beats her daughter, Diane. When Madeleine disappears with some of his broken-down furniture, Benny goes to Toronto to search for her and to rescue Diane, but he is soon lost and discouraged and returns home without the child he had hoped to save. Years later, when he is reminded of Madeleine, Benny prefers to remember his brief foray into marriage "with a little contempt for being something, or somebody, so long discarded." The evidence that she beat her small daughter was easily forgotten as an inconvenient memory that was best ignored.

Heirs of the Living Body

In this chapter, Munro tells the story of Del's Uncle Craig, who is researching the family genealogy and accumulating a detailed history of the area. Although when the chapter opens, Uncle Craig is old and partially blind, Munro includes the description of Uncle Craig as he appeared in a youthful photograph, and so readers can see him as more than just the old man that Del sees. Uncle Craig's life work has been a ponderous written history of the area. He writes down the most exacting details, but his history is dry and uninteresting to Del. The two maiden aunts, Elspeth and Grace, are also purveyors of history. They relate the oral history of the people and land, infusing their stories with the kinds of details and personal antidotes that Del finds entertaining. The two sisters also find the telling of the stories entertaining, and Del notes that even without an audience, "they would have told them anyway, for their own pleasure." The sisters compliment one another, completing one another's sentences and filling in necessary details for each sister's stories. However, the sisters judge their own stories and work to be less important than the work of their brother, Craig. When he is busy recording his history, all noise, talking, or even slight movement must cease, so that he cannot be disturbed. In the sisters' world, men occupy a more important sphere than women. The sisters change when they visit Del's home and come into contact with her mother. They become "sulky, sly, elderly, eager to take offense." The aunts take offense easily and their conversation is often laced with mockery, cold remarks, and pretension. The aunts also reveal an important family tradition. For example, Uncle Craig never ran for office, just as they never married. Del understands that they feared rejection so much that they never took a chance on doing anything that might result in being rejected, whether public office, marriage, or any other opportunity.

This chapter also tells the story of Del's cousin, Mary Agnes, who is described as "almost like other people." Del explains that Mary Agnes was deprived of oxygen at birth. Del knows that Mary Agnes must be shown the respect of an adult, since her age suggests that she is one, but her behavior is that of a child. She has been assaulted in the past, although Del does not know if Mary Agnes was sexually assaulted, but now she wears extra layers of clothing and is more closely watched. Her mother, Aunt Moira, is a victim of many physical maladies, which Del credits to Aunt Moria's having been married, since her two spinster sisters, Aunt Elspeth and Aunties Grace, are both in perfect health. Thus Del thinks that marriage is not as healthy for women as being single.

The climax of this chapter focuses on the death of Uncle Craig, whose passing leads to a discussion about dying and nature. The title for this chapter is taken from an article that tells about organ transplant, which Del's mother uses to try and dispel some of the mystery surrounding death. The prospect of seeing her uncle's body frightens Del and no amount of reassurance relieves her anxiety. When Mary Agnes tries to force Del to view the body, Del bites her. This chapter ends with Del outgrowing her two aunts and their stories. The two aunts seem to lose their vitality after Uncle Craig's death, which Del credits to "what became of them when they no longer had a man with them, to nourish and admire." The chapter concludes with the handing down of Uncle Craig's thousand page history to Del, who the aunts see as the one person most able to finish the work. Del stores Uncle Craig's life work in the cellar, where a spring flood eventually destroys it.

Princess Ida

In this chapter, readers learn about Del's mother. The title of the chapter refers to her mother's nom de plume, which she uses for a column that she writes, which is published in the local newspaper. Addie Jordan has become an encyclopedia salesman as the chapter begins. Del likes reading the encyclopedia, and initially she is pleased to recite what she knows, as part of her mother's sales pitch. Eventually, though, Del begins to understand that reciting a catalogue of facts is not especially attractive, and after a series of deliberate errors and embarrassing moments, the recitations end. Readers also learn that Del's mother, who has always hated country living, has rented a house in town. The family still goes back out to the house on Flats Road for the summer, but they no longer all live together as a family. Like her mother, Del enjoys the formality and order of living in town. Life is busier and far more interesting, as well. Del also describes a party that her mother threw for the other town ladies, whom she wished to impress. Del enjoys the party and admires her mother, until Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace's criticism make her see the party and her mother differently. She sees her mother's efforts to impress as embarrassing, and in some ways even pitiful, in her failed attempt to introduce new social customs to their small town.

Del tells her mother's personal story, as the chapter continues. Addie Morrison grew up very poor, with a father and two brothers, one whom she tolerated and another whom she hated. Del's maternal grandmother was a religious fanatic, who spent her time either weeping or praying. When she inherited money, it was spent on expensive bibles to give to nonbelievers, even though the family was in desperate need of money. Del is sometimes acutely embarrassed by her mother—by her stories, by her clothing, and by her mannerisms. When Del's Uncle Bill arrives for a visit with his new and much younger wife, Nile, readers learn more about Del's mother. Uncle Bill is the younger of the two brothers, who tormented her as a child. Both Addie and Bill remember their childhood differently. For Del's mother, their farm was bleak, sterile, incapable of growing any crops, an inhospitable place, from which she gratefully escaped. Her memories of their childhood farm color her choices as an adult and are the reason why she wants to live in town. For her brother Bill, the farm is a romantic memory of a simpler life that was closer to nature. After Uncle Bill and his wife leave, Addie tells Del that her Uncle Bill is dying. The chapter ends with the realization that the hatred and animosity and the terrible memories of that long-ago childhood are no longer as painful for her mother.

Age of Faith

In this chapter, Del relates her search for something tangible about God that she can believe. This is her search for the faith that she thinks is missing. Initially, Del explains that her belief in the burglars that her mother fears is more real than any belief in God. Del can picture the possible burglars quite clearly, but she soon comes to realize that while burglars do exist, they are not quite as clearly defined as she had imagined. Her belief in God is not clearly defined either, and so part of this chapter is devoted to her experiences with religion, especially the four churches that are present in the town of Jubilee. Her family belongs to the United Church, which is the largest and most successful of the Jubilee churches. Del is the only member of the family to attend church on a regular basis. Her mother is skeptical of organized religion and so Del cannot seek answers to her questions at home. She carefully assesses the different churches to determine their suitability and decides that the Catholic Church is mysterious, an "exotic dangerous faith." The Baptists are an austere group, but "their hymns were loud, rollicking, and optimistic." The Presbyterians are the "leftovers" who did not attend United and the elderly. The fourth choice is the Anglican Church, which had become unfashionable and was thus quite poor.

Del wants to know if God is real, and she looks for the answer at church. When she fails to find an answer at the United Church, she attends the Anglican Church. She likes the theatricality of the Anglican Church but still cannot determine if God is real. As a test, Del prays to God to help her in her Household Science class, where she is incapable of threading a needle and pleasing her teacher. Her prayers seem to be answered, but then Del begins to wonder if it was coincidence and not prayer that saved her from her teacher's anger. The real test comes when the family dog begins killing the neighbor's sheep. When Del's father decides that the dog, Major, must be killed, her younger brother Owen, begs her to pray that Major will not be killed. Del refuses; she understands on some level that God will not intervene in the death of a dog. Although Del thinks that she has her answer about whether God is real, she believes that God would not be interested in their objections to Major's execution, since their objections "were not His." As was the case in previous chapters, Del is very interested in death. Her interest in religion stems, in part, from a concern about what happens after death.

Changes and Ceremonies

Much of this chapter focuses on the relationships between boys and girls, which change over time. Del begins her narration by recalling a scene in which a group of boys are harassing Del and her friend, Naomi. The name calling is common, and Del understands that with their slanders, the boys "stripped away freedom to be what you wanted, reduced you to what it was they saw." In this chapter, Del also reveals her first crush on a boy from her school, Frank Wales, who has the lead in the operetta, The Pied Piper, which is being staged in the Town Hall. Del is selected to be a dancer in the production. The rehearsals and costume design for the operetta consume the participants, but much of Del's energy goes into daydreaming about Frank, who is unaware of her passion for him. The teacher overseeing the operetta is Miss Farris, who, although she was born in Jubilee, always seems an outsider. She is often the subject of gossip, which focuses on her clothing and the possibility of a romance or scandal.

In the choosing of people to participate in the operetta, Del explains the hierarchy of classroom life. Some students are secure in the knowledge that they will be chosen. These are the boys and girls who radiate self-confidence. Their position is, in part, awarded to them by their classmates, who admire these students. There are also students who will never be chosen. These are the students who do not fit in somehow, either because of some physical identity that sets him or her apart or because of illness. Del and Naomi fit into a group of students who are sometimes chosen. Del's observations about her classmates and teachers are intermingled with the events surrounding the operetta, which culminates in a successful performance. The chapter ends, however, with a look ahead a few years and a report that Miss Farris drowned in the Wawanash River, a likely suicide, although no one knows for certain. As the chapter title suggests, Del does change as she evolves against the backdrop of so many different ceremonies.

Lives of Girls and Women

In this chapter, Del is in her first year of high school. She and Naomi are consumed with a growing awareness of their own sexuality and that of everyone with whom they have contact. Del and Naomi observe the differences in male and female peacocks and note that the males are far more beautiful and noticeable than the females. Even the sounds they hear in nature are linked to their growing sexual awareness. Virtually everything around them is connected in some way to this new interest in sex. They speculate about Addie's boarder, Fern, whose friend, Mr. Chamberlain, might even be her suitor. Mr. Chamberlain is a frequent guest in their home, and so it is easy for Del to appropriate Mr. Chamberlain as part of her sexual fantasies, as she tries to understand the changes that are occurring in her body. One evening, at a moment when they are unobserved, Mr. Chamberlain takes the opportunity to feel Del's breasts. After that stolen moment, Del continues to make it easy for Mr. Chamberlain to feel her breasts, which he does quite often. He also feels her buttocks and upper thighs. Although his touch is quite brutal, Del does not object, since she believes that sexual activity is violent. Del recounts two episodes with Mr. Chamberlain. In the first, he asks her to search Fern's room for some letters that he wrote, and in the second, he takes Del out into the woods and masturbates in front of her. After that episode, he leaves town but not before writing Fern a letter ending their relationship. In her new awareness of the world and of men and women, Del reads books by Somerset Maugham and Nancy Mitford. She learns about the social interactions of men and women in other places and fantasizes about a different life. The chapter ends with Del's mother prophesying that the world will change for women, who will no longer need to define themselves only by their relationships with men. Because Del automatically rejects anything that her mother tells her, Del believes that women should not be told to be careful; instead, women should be told to be more like men: "go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what they didn't want and come back proud."

Baptizing

When the chapter opens, Del is in her third year of high school. Her friend Naomi has quit school and gotten a secretarial job. Del struggles with her place in the world, since she does not see herself like the other girls she knows, nor is she like her mother. When she reads what a famous psychiatrist says about the differences between girls and boys, it seems that she is not like girls anywhere. After an episode in which she and Naomi meet two men that they know at a dance and have too much to drink, Del's friendship with Naomi is less important to her. Del is not interested in men, dancing, or drink and feels that she is different from other girls and young women, who are busy looking for potential husbands, planning for weddings, and preparing to be mothers. Del forms a relationship with Jerry Storey, her intellectual equal, given that the two of them are considered the smartest students in their high school. Their relationship seems to happen almost by accident and is not especially romantic or passionate. They are mostly friends, who play the role of girlfriend and boyfriend because it is convenient to do so.

At a revivalist meeting, Del meets Garnet French and suddenly she becomes someone different when she is with him. He is uneducated and does not admire education. He has been in jail and vows that religion has saved him. Del knows that she and Garnet share a physical attraction that is not intellectual at all. She understands that he reworks her, transforms her into someone she is not, but she also knows that she does the same for him. After Del and Garnet become sexually intimate, Del becomes obsessed with her discoveries about sexuality and intimacy and cannot focus on college plans. Naomi becomes pregnant and marries, but she also warns Del about taking precautions so that she does not get pregnant. Eventually, Garnet begins to speak of marriage and having a baby and he insists the Del must be baptized as a Baptist. It is only after she refuses that Garnet understands that Del is not the person he believed her to be. When Garnet tries to force her into being baptized by him, nearly drowning her in the process, their relationship changes; the violence of her rejection and their fight makes clear to both of them that the relationship is over. Del ends this chapter with the comment that now she can get on with her "real life."

Epilogue: The Photographer

In this final chapter, Del tells of her need to write a novel, since eventually, "all the books in the library in the Town Hall were not enough for me." She decides to base her book on the lives of a Jubilee family, who have suffered several tragic events. Del's imagination creates a tragic heroine and her pursuit of and affair with a strange photographer. The chapter and the book end with Del's impromptu visit with the son of this tragic family. It is then that she realizes that although she might leave Jubilee, she will always be a part of that town. The novel more correctly ends with the previous chapter, and if an epilogue is suppose to take place years later and offer some resolution for the reader, this chapter fails as an epilogue. However, it does succeed as a vehicle for Del to wrap up her ideas about being a writer and about the difference between fiction and reality. Del's attempts to write a novel capture her own attempts to rewrite her own past in the narration that she has told. Reality intrudes and can never be obscured completely.

CHARACTERS

Art Chamberlain

Mr. Chamberlain is the newscaster on Jubilee's radio broadcasts and a World War II veteran. He is also Fern's suitor and a frequent visitor at Del's house. He is aware of Del's growing sexual awareness and curiosity, and after taking several opportunities to feel her breasts and buttocks, he takes her out into the woods and masturbates in front of her. Mr. Chamberlain does not attempt to seduce Del and so he would not see himself as a sexual predator, but she is 14 years old and does not fully appreciate the risk that he poses. Del had earlier fantasized about Mr. Chamberlain, but she lacked the experience necessary to develop her fantasies fully. When Mr. Chamberlain masturbates in front of her, Del understands that he is performing for her and that he was also objectifying her as a sexual object. She never really grasps the danger she is in when she willingly obeys his request to follow him into the woods.

Uncle Craig

Uncle Craig is a life-long bachelor, whose life work is compiling a vastly detailed history of their town and the genealogy of the family. He is the brother of Del's paternal grandfather. Uncle Craig's death and funeral occupies a significant portion of Del's early narration, since grappling with death in any form is a curiosity that must be understood. Del inherits Uncle Craig's thousand page manuscript, and because she does not value that kind of writing, she allows its destruction.

Del

Del is the narrator. At points throughout the narration, she provides the reader with brief information about her age only through references about the grade she is attending in school at that moment. The stories that she tells are largely about her coming of age, as she learns about her mother, friendships, and men through a series of relationships and experiences. Del does not always tell her story in a chronological narration but through brief glimpses of time that shifts back and forth with ease. She is curious and intelligent but also intolerant of her mother's foibles once she becomes old enough to be embarrassed by her mother's actions. Throughout the novel, Del is transformed from a reader of stories to a writer of stories. In fact, she is writing her own story, in which she is a performer. Throughout the narration, Del sees herself as an observer, a performer who acts in her own composition and who is never fully involved as a participant in the story she is writing or in many cases, rewriting. After her sexual relationship with Garnet ends, the fantasies that she had nurtured about boys for so long are finally put to rest, and she plans, then, to get started on her "real life."

Fern Dogherty

Fern is Addie's boarder. She sings in the United Church choir and is also Addie's only friend. Fern works at the post office but at one time seemed to have a promising career future as a singer. She is rumored to have had an illegitimate child that ended her voice training. She is described in Rubenesque terms, more shapely, voluptuous, and more sensual than Del's mother. She has a sexual relationship with Art Chamberlain, and she reports that he had mentioned marriage in letters, but in the end, he leaves Jubilee and soon after, she also leaves town.

Aunt Elspeth

One of Del's aunts, Aunt Elspeth is virtually inseparable from her sister Auntie Grace. The two spinsters tell entertaining stories that are so well known and rehearsed that they can finish one another's sentences. Like her sister, Elspeth does not approve of Del's mother and tries subtly to undermine Addie whenever possible. Although on the surface she appears quite gentile, in reality she is judgmental and sometimes vicious in her pronouncements. She values her brother Craig and all that he does more than she values herself, and yet her oral histories are far richer in real information than Craig's heavily researched text.

Elinor Farris

See Miss Farris

Miss Farris

Miss Farris is a third year teacher who serves as an example of unrequited love and dreams. Her artificial cheerfulness disguises an empty and unhappy existence. She comes alive during the rehearsals for the yearly operetta, when she is center stage in the planning of the performance. What Miss Farris wants is largely unknown. She dresses younger than her supposed age, which some observers suggest is an attempt to attract a man. Del, though, suggests that whatever it is that Miss Farris wants, "it could hardly even be men." Miss Farris drowns herself in what is generally understood by the townspeople to be a suicide.

Garnet French

Garnet becomes Del's first serious boyfriend and her first sexual experience. There is no intellectual connection, and in fact, they do not meet over words; they rarely speak of anything. Garnet is a physical attraction; he represents the passion that was missing in Del's crush on Frank and her relationship with Jerry. Garnet wants to marry Del and have babies with her, but first she must be baptized and become a Baptist. When she refuses, Garnet holds her head under the water of the Wawanash River, where only a few moments earlier they had been playing. With each of her refusals, Garnet becomes increasing violent in his attempts to force baptism on Del.

Auntie Grace

One of Del's two aunts, she is virtually inseparable from her sister Aunt Elspeth. The two spinsters tell entertaining stories that are so well known and rehearsed that they can finish one another's sentences. Like her sister, Grace does not approve of Del's mother and tries subtly to undermine Addie whenever possible. Although on the surface she appears quite gentle, in reality she is judgmental and sometimes vicious in her pronouncements. She values her brother Craig and all that he does more than herself, and yet her oral histories are far richer in real information than Craig's heavily researched text.

Princess Ida

See Addie Morrison Jordan

Addie Morrison Jordan

Del's mother is also known as Princess Ida, her pen name for the opinion pieces that she writes for the Jubilee newspaper. Addie's story is told in the chapter, "Princess Ida." She grew up very poor with a mother who was a religious zealot and a father and brothers who bonded together, excluding the daughter. Her memories are of a cruel childhood that denied her all that she wanted. Only after she runs away from home is Addie free of her home, although she is never free of the past. Addie yearns for knowledge and she covets respectability. She wants to be part of the Jubilee town scene and not a country wife. Addie is never really satisfied with her life as it exists and part of her personality is the constant striving to be something else and to achieve more.

Della Jordan

See Del

Father Jordan

Del's father, while present in the novel, has neither a name nor a personality. He shows up only occasionally and most often at meals. Because he utters only the occasional sentence, and Del never narrates his story, his role in the novel is minimal. Del's father represents the country life. He continues to live in the country, tending to his fox business, even though his wife and children live in town most of the year

Owen Jordan

Del's younger brother, Owen, plays a very peripheral role in the book. His biggest role is as a sounding board for Del in the chapter, "Age of Faith," in which he asks Del to show him how to pray for his dog, Major. Men's lives are not examined by Del except as they relate to her own growth, and so Owen is given little personality. As a young adult, he becomes like his father and Uncle Benny, just another man living at the house at the end of Flats Road.

Uncle Bill Morrison

Addie's younger brother brings his new wife and comes to Jubilee to visit his sister. He is dying and this visit is a last visit before he dies. His recollections of their childhood differ from Addie's. In his memory, their mother is not a cruel religious fanatic but a gentle loving mother. His role in the novel is really to help Del understand that memories are fluid and that her mother creates her own reality from the memories of her youth. Since Del wants to be a writer, it is important for her to understand that even reality is sometimes tinged with fiction.

Naomi

Naomi is Del's childhood friend and her best friend for many years. As children they share secret and experiences. As they grow older, Naomi is a source of information, much of it incorrect, that her mother supplies about other women and about sexual experience. Naomi changes, though, and emerges as a young woman, more focused on boys and marriage than Del. Naomi's maturation is more rapid than Del's. In addition, Naomi is also more of a young lady than Del, who still cannot keep her hair, clothing, or even perspiration under control. Naomi's change seems in many ways to be a betrayal to Del, who is still mired in adolescence when the change occurs.

Uncle Benny Poole

Benny is not really Del's uncle. He works for her father and he eats with the family. He possesses a subscription to a tabloid newspaper that fascinates Del, and he marries a woman he does not know but whom he met through the want-ads.

Madeleine Poole

Madeleine is the young mail-order bride who is forced by her family to marry Uncle Benny. She has an illegitimate child, and while she is violent and without any social skills, her story is important, since she teaches Del that not all women fit easily into the community definition of wife and mother.

Jerry Storey

Jerry is in large part a boyfriend of convenience. He and Del are linked together by their common intelligence, but Jerry has no tolerance for literature or history, which are passions of Del's existence. Jerry has no understanding of the non-literal world. He deals only in facts and not in figurative ideas. Jerry even tries to understand sexuality in a very literal way and as an experiment to gain knowledge. His request to view Del's body without clothing is not about sexual lust but about wanting to see and thus know about a woman's body. He lacks the passion that Del wants. Jerry is who he appears to be, but Del wants him to be more of a mystery to be probed.

Frank Wales

Frank is Del's first childhood crush. Del's crush is a product of the operetta in which both have parts. Except that he is a terrible speller, she has no connection to him as a fellow student, but once they begin rehearsing for the performance Del begins to see Frank in a different way. Her love for him is because her imagination and the operetta are able to transform him into a different persona. Del's crush on Frank is in many ways a performance, a rehearsal for more complex fantasies about men.

TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Research rural life in both Ontario, Canada, and the United States during World War II. Focus particularly on how people lived and worked during this period of time. Prepare a poster listing the similarities and the differences that you find.
  • Munro uses events and people from her past to create characters and plots in her stories. Choose one of your own memories and use it as the basis for a short story. Like Munro, you should change the factual details to suit your plot and theme. Present your story to the class and note the details you've used that are based in fact.
  • Del's mother, Addie, predicts that in the future, women will have more freedoms and choices than during her lifetime. Research women's lives in the 1940s and at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Write an essay in which you evaluate the changes that have occurred in women's lives and what changes you think are yet to come. Consider if these changes have improved women's lives, or if you think these changes have had mixed results.
  • Much of Del's life centers around her time at school. Students in Del's high school could choose between studying academic subjects or vocational subjects, depending on whether or not they intended to attend college. Research the differences in elementary and secondary education in the 1940s and at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Prepare a speech in which you explain the different educational systems. Which do you like best and why?
  • Del's father raises silver foxes and sells the pelts. In the past, furs were sold by trappers, who hunted and trapped wild animals, then processed the pelts. Although the slaughter of animals to make fur clothing is now controversial, the practice was once widely accepted. Research the history of the fur trade in Canada, including the differences between hunting and raising animals to provide consumers with fur. You might consider aspects of the fur trade such as the ethical treatment of animals, or the economics of raising animals versus trapping wild animals for their fur. Prepare an essay that discusses your findings.

THEMES

Fantasy

Del uses fantasy as a way to understand the relationship between girls and boys and later, men and women. In her first crush on a boy from her eighth-grade class, Del daydreams about Frank Wales and imagines him walking her home. In these daydreams, Frank wears his costume from the operetta and sings to Del. Later, when Del is a freshman in high school, she begins fantasizing about Art Chamberlain, trying to fill in the gaps of her knowledge about sexual experience between what she has read in books about the relationship between men and women and what she has experienced. Del imagines that Mr. Chamberlain sees her without her clothes, but her imagination can go no further because she has no experience or explicit knowledge about what comes next. Her dreams of seduction are halted because of her inexperience, but their purpose is to help her make that transition from innocence to experience. After Mr. Chamberlain masturbates in front of her, Del no longer needs fantasy to fill in the missing pieces of her sexual education.

Memory

Del understands early in life that memories are fluid entities. In the chapter "Princess Ida," Del tells the story of her mother's childhood, as her mother has told it to her. Addie's childhood is one of privation and isolation. Addie's mother is described as a religious zealot, so focused on her beliefs that her daughter lacks the basic necessities of food and love. But then Addie's brother, Bill, visits, and Del hears an entirely different story of parental love, gentleness and nurturing. Bill's memories of childhood offer an important lesson to Del, who understands that Bill's warm memories of home are of the same farm house that Addie wanted to escape, even if it meant suicide. Memory is an act of choosing what is to be remembered, and the choices reflect upon the individual. Uncle Bill chooses to remember a happy nurturing time when he felt safe because he is soon going to die from cancer. Addie's memories of deprivation serve as a way to motivate her to escape her childhood. Together, Bill's and Addie's memories suggest that memories of the past serve a purpose in protecting an individual in the future.

Religion

In the chapter, "Age of Faith," Del searches for answers about whether God is real. She describes each of the four town churches and then visits the Anglican Church, although it is not her family's church. Del is drawn to the theatricality of the Anglican service, which she attends at first without her mother's knowledge and later, with her mother's disapproval. Del's desire to discover God is linked to her experiences with death. In a previous chapter, she has described the death of Uncle Craig and her desire to touch a dead cow she had discovered. She is also aware of the pending death of her Uncle Bill. Del's test of God's existence is simple—can He save her from having to thread a needle in her Household Science class? When her prayers seem to have been answered, Del begins to worry that she was saved through coincidence rather than divine intervention. Eventually, Del recognizes that God does not always respond to prayers, since the interests of men are not the interests of God.

Religion is also important in Del's relationship with Garnet. He has been saved from a life of crime by the intervention of a Baptist minister, who then baptizes Garnet. Religion is again the focus when Del and Garnet meet, since they meet at a revival meeting. Garnet wants to marry Del and have children, but he insists that she must be baptized first. When she refuses, he tries to forcibly baptize her, nearly drowning her in the process. For Del, Garnet's religious fervor illustrates what she has known all along—that she and Garnet have no intellectual connection. Their relationship is based solely on physical attraction.

Sex and Sexuality

In general, men are not well defined in Lives of Girls and Women. But as sexual beings, boys and men have a larger role in the novel. Del is very interested in the sexual connection between men and women. As adolescents, Naomi's mother provides clinical information about sexuality through books and prurient gossip about sexual behavior. But Naomi's mother cannot provide the kind of detail that most interests the two girls. Because they lack experience, their knowledge is limited. Consequently, both girls spend a great deal of time fantasizing about boys and imagining sexual experience. Del's relationship with boys undergoes a natural progression from the childhood crush over Frank Wales, to the experimental and largely clinical relationship with Jerry Story, to an intimate sexual relationship with Garnet French. There is also a voyeuristic relationship with Art Chamberlain. In each case, Del learned something more about how men and women relate sexually to one another. Sexuality and sexual experience provide a pattern of knowledge that helps to define Del's growth from adolescent to adult.

STYLE

Depth of Characterization

Characterization is the process by which the author creates a life-like person from his or her imagination. To accomplish this, the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who she will be and how she will behave in a given situation. Madeleine Poole is a complex character, whose role in the novel takes only a few paragraphs, but her influence is important in how Del sees the relationship between men and women. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multifaceted ones and they may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. Munro portrays her characters with a great deal of depth, and this may be because they are loosely based on people that she has known in the past, as has been suggested about many of her stories. Munro writes about an area and types of people with whom she is most familiar, although her characters are based more on composites (combinations) of different people than on specific people whom she has met. By doing this, she makes her characters more interesting and complex.

Autobiographical Fiction

Fiction refers to any story that is created out of the author's imagination, rather than factual events. Sometimes the characters in a fictional piece are based on real people, but their ultimate form and the way they respond to events is solely the creation of the author. In Lives of Girls and Women the characters are fictional, but they are based on people or character types from Munro's life. Because Munro initially titled the novel "Real Lives," there has been speculation that her book is more autobiographical than fictional. In addition, since many of the details and locations in Lives of Girls and Women mirror Munro's own life, many critics analyze her novel by looking for autobiographical elements. However, Munro has stated in many interviews that Lives of Girls and Women is a fictional work, and for all intents and purposes, she is correct. The book is indeed a work of autobiographical fiction because it is a fictional story that contains elements of autobiographical fact.

Künstlerroman Novel

A Künstlerroman novel relates the story of a protagonist who labors from childhood to maturity in an effort to come to terms with his or her artistic talent. In Munro's novel, Del tries to understand and express her talent as a writer. This term is also used to refer to James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This kind of novel is also sometimes called an "Apprenticeship Novel," which relates the story of a young person who is trying to find his or her place in the world. Furthermore, the apprenticeship novel is sometimes also called a coming-of-age novel or Bildungsroman. In this kind of novel, a young person, often an adolescent, matures into an adult. Indeed, Del matures from a child to an adult in Lives of Girls and Women as she undergoes a series of adventures and conflicts that ultimately help her grow into a mature adult.

Interlinked Stories

In this novel, there is no clearly defined beginning, middle, and end; this is why some critics refer to the book as a series of short stories, rather than a novel. A novel is an extended fictional narrative. The length allows for more complex character development than would be found in a short story and a more substantially developed plot, with a clear movement from beginning to end. In a conventional novel, each chapter is linked to the preceding chapter by the movement of the plot. In Lives of Girls and Women the plot consists of several loosely linked episodes (vignettes) in the protagonist's life. These vignettes are episodic and self-contained rather than continuing an overarching plot. Indeed, each chapter in Munro's book could stand alone as a short story, since it is not dependant on information that is contained elsewhere in the book. Yet, other elements aside from the plot hold these stories together, such as their overarching theme and the recurring characters. Books with these characteristics, like Lives of Girls and Women, are often referred to as interlinked stories. A well-known example is Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

1940s Village Schools

In Lives of Girls and Women, many of the events that Del describes are part of her experience in school. School life in rural Ontario in the 1940s was very different than it is for students attending school in the twenty-first century. The latter part of the 1930s had been a time of school reform in Ontario, and Del would have experienced the new trend of progressivism in her elementary and secondary classes. Rather than prepare students for an academic education, the emphasis in schools focused on preparing students for working. Many students did not continue on to secondary schools after completing their elementary education and even fewer attended university, and thus, the change in education was to provide practical knowledge, rather than academic knowledge. In Lives of Girls and Women, Del's friends Frank and Naomi drop out of school and find jobs. This was actually the more common scenario in rural villages, where in most cases children had only limited access to secondary schools. Del's village of Jubilee actually did have a secondary school, which Naomi attended for most of three years, but Frank dropped out before high school in order to work at the Jubilee Dry Cleaners. Because Jubilee has a secondary school, Del explains that almost everyone in her elementary class continued on to high school, although not all stayed long enough to graduate. In addition to providing the kind of vocational training that Naomi chose, which was typing and other secretarial skills, there was an increased emphasis on socialization skills, learning about good hygiene, and teaching self-confidence. In 1948, the year that Del became a senior in high school, 71 percent of all of Ontario's schools were still one room schools with only a single teacher. Nearly a third of all high schools only had five rooms and one teacher per room. By 1950, it was estimated that 54 percent of all students had dropped out of school by age sixteen. During Del's years in school, education was still very limited in rural areas, and thus her experience in completing high school was still unusual.

COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1940s: The Ontario Teachers' Federation approves the principle of equal pay for male and female teachers.

    1970s: In Canada, female university graduates earn 4,000 to 7,000 dollars less than men with equivalent jobs and skills.

    Today: In Canada, 74 percent of female university graduates are employed, while only 69 percent of male university graduates have jobs.

  • 1940s: Dating for high-school age boys and girls involves strict curfews that are designed to help protect young women from pregnancy. The rate of unmarried pregnancies is very low, less than 1 percent, but that is primarily because most couples get married as soon as a pregnancy occurs.

    1970s: The ready availability of the birth control pill does not decrease pregnancy rates among teenagers, as had been hoped. About 10 percent of all births in Canada are to unwed mothers.

    Today: The stigma that had been attached to unwed pregnancy has almost completely disappeared, and over one third of all births in Canada are to unwed mothers.

  • 1940s: The parents of the baby boomers get married for the first time at the average age of 28.5 (for men) and 25.9 (for women).

    1970s: The baby boomers marry at slightly younger ages than their parents. The age at first marriage drops to 25.2 years for men and 22.8 for women.

    Today: The age at first marriage has risen above that reported in the late 1940s. For men, the average age at marriage is 29.5 years and for women it is 27.4 years.

Women's Lives in the 1940s

Del's mother, Addie, often tells her daughter that women lives are changing and that in the future women will have more choices and greater freedoms. During World War II, Del was still just an adolescent, but her mother already knew that Canadian women were doing the work of men to help with the war effort. About 600,000 women held full-time jobs in 1939, the year that the war began. During the war years, though, that number doubled to 1.2 million women working, many of them doing men's jobs. Women worked in the aircraft industry making planes for the war, and many other women worked in drafting, electronics, and welding, traditionally men's work. Women also ran farms and helped to keep the economy flowing while men were in Europe fighting the war. However, in spite of their hard work, women were generally paid less than 60 percent of men's wages for the same jobs, and after the war ended, women were expected to quit their jobs, so that there would be sufficient employment for returning soldiers. When the men returned from the war, many women returned to their homes and their soldier husbands and became housewives once again. These women were not alone. When the war ended, there was an influx of war brides immigrating to Canada. At that time, Canada was still largely rural. Two-thirds of Canada's economy was farm based; 80 percent of farms still did not have electricity in 1945 and only 8 percent had indoor plumbing. Although Addie was optimistic that women's lives would be better in the future, life in rural Canada was still very difficult in 1945 for women. It was even more difficult for the estimated 48,000 war brides who left family and homes in Europe to follow their husbands to rural Canada.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Canadian women writers were still relatively rare when Munro began writing, and as Christopher Wordsworth observes in his Guardian Weekly review of Lives of Girls and Women, Canada is "not a great seed-bed of the arts," which makes Munro's achievement all the more notable. Wordsworth describes Munro's work as having "the core and growth of a good novel," and he acknowledges the influence of the short story genre on Munro's novel, which is "episodic in a way that shows its author's apprenticeship to the short story form." The book's protagonist, Del, is the "clever and receptive" connection that holds these series of stories together, but it is Munro's "sensitive and tensile writing [that] lends strength as well as charm" to the novel.

Indeed, reviews of Lives of Girls and Women echo one another in their appreciation of the writer's ability to take ordinary people and events and make them memorable. Because many writers use the ordinariness of small-town life as a subject in their novels, Time magazine critic Geoffrey Wolff writes that while "the threads of this yarn are common enough stuff," it is what "Alice Munro makes of it that is rare." She can take small-town life and everyday events and turn them into a "snapshot album of imperfect strangers" who readers want to know. According to Wolff, Munro's "achievement is small, but fine." She carefully chooses past events for her subject matter, and she brings the town to life with her words. "Call it fiction: praise it."

Similar admiration is also noted in Jane Rule's review in Books in Canada. Rule labels Munro "a writer of rare and clear gifts, who requires as much of herself as she does of her readers." After asserting that the publication of Lives of Girls and Women "should be announced on the front page of every paper in Canada," Rule suggests that this " is a book that will find its way into the libraries of everyone who cares about craft in writing and good reading." In her review of Munro's novel for the Journal of Canadian Fiction, Clara Thomas says of Munro that her "talent is both large and delicate." This is a writer, according to Thomas, who "succeeds in handling a vast number of details of places and persons and in weaving them into a strong and seamless fabric." For Thomas, Munro's characters "remain hauntingly real after the book is finished." Certainly, this accounts for the book's continued popularity.

CRITICISM

Sheri Metzger Karmiol

Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. She teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the University Honors Program. She is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on poetry and drama. In the following essay, Karmiol discusses how Del is transformed by her interactions with other women, who provide her with different role models.

The female characters in Lives of Girls and Women are women in transition, women on the cusp of change, although it will be 30 plus years before real change happens. In 1940s rural Ontario, Canada, women are defined by their connections to men. They are sisters, wives, mothers, and daughters but not women in control of their own world. Del's aunts represent one end of the continuum, lives living in the past and with no possibility of change. They exist to give meaning to their brother's work and not to create meaning in their own lives. Addie Jordan and Madeleine Poole represent the other end of the continuum. They are women who will forge their own way—one through intellectual pursuits and the other through violence. While many of the women in Munro's novel begin their adult lives defined by their connections to the men around them, several have begun to think that there are other ways to exist in a male dominated world.

WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Dance of the Happy Shades, published in 1968, is Munro's first collection of short stories. This award-winning collection explores life in western Ontario with the same attention to detail that makes her work so captivating to readers.
  • Margaret Atwood's Moral Disorder: and Other Stories, published in 2006, is a collection of linked stories that explores 60 years of a Canadian family's history.
  • Women and Fiction: Stories By and About Women, published in 2002 and edited by Susan Cahill, is a collection of short stories exploring women's lives. The stories cover a vast period of time and locations, and include works by some of the best short-story writers of the twentieth century.
  • Gender Conflicts: New Essays in Women's History, published in 1992 and edited by Franca Lacovetta and Mariana Valverde, provides a close look at women's lives in Canada. Like Munro's novel, this nonfiction work explores such topics as marriage, sexuality, family, and religion.
  • James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was first published in 1916. Del's journey inMunro's novel is often compared to the journey taken by Joyce's semi-autobiographical protagonist.

One of the strongest women in Lives of Girls and Women is the child-bride of Uncle Benny. Madeleine is violent and hard, completely unwilling to play the role of dutiful wife. She throws tantrums, yells, and beats her child. While beating her child is not behavior to be emulated, as a model for strong feminine behavior, she teaches Del that women do not have to be docile and willing accomplices in their own subordination. In her book, Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro, Beverly J. Rasporich points to Madeleine as "a fascinating character of uncontrollable fury who, raging against her unchosen status of wife of Uncle Benny and mother of the illegitimate child Diane, refuses to conform to even the minimal social expectations of the Flats Road." As a mail-order bride, who has been forced into a shotgun wedding, Madeleine is brought back to live with Uncle Benny in a house filled with a "dark, rotting mess of carpets, linoleum, parts of furniture, insides of machinery, nails, wire, tools, utensils." This is a house crammed with what Benny could scavenge from the dump and his neighbor's discards. There is no reason to suppose that any woman would find living in Benny's house enjoyable, but Madeleine's options are limited. Her illegitimate child makes her family eager to marry her off to the first likely prospect to appear. When Benny arrives to meet Madeleine, he finds her family has a preacher waiting, a ring in hand, and a wedding celebration planned. Madeleine will not succumb to domestic life and within months, she has fled Flats Road and Benny's life forever.

Not all of the women in Lives of Girls and Women commit such radical acts to assert their strength. Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace live their lives in the shadow of their brother. They never marry and instead devote themselves to keeping their brother comfortable. Their meals and activities center around Craig's needs, and they govern their own lives to keep from disturbing his work. The aunts demonstrate that there is safety and comfort in daily routine. They embody a long family tradition in Del's father's family. Promotions are not sought, scholarships are declined, and spinsterhood is chosen because there is a perceived safety in not taking chances. For the aunts, "choosing not to do things showed, in the end, more wisdom and self-respect than choosing to do them." They teach Del an important lesson about taking chances. Being safe and not courting change, never allowing themselves the opportunity to either succeed or grow, is easier than the alternative (although not necessarily more rewarding). Del tells readers that her aunts "respected men's work beyond anything." The aunts "would never, never meddle with it; between men's work and women's work was the clearest line drawn." Although they may have respect for men's work, "they also laughed at it." The aunts' rebellion is slight and limited to laughter, but it is there nonetheless.

Sadly, Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace's limited lives become even more reduced after their brother's death. The two aunts seem less real, more artificial, their very lives "like something learned long ago, perfectly remembered." The aunts had no real life of their own while their brother was alive, and once he is dead, they even lack the ability to transform themselves as women who exist for more than their connection to a man. Del points out that the aunts have been so mired in their brother's life that they never had a real life of their own. The stories that they tell are rich in detail and history. Their oral history is as valuable and more interesting to Del than Uncle Craig's ponderously detailed and very dry history, but the aunts have denied the value of their own lives for so long that they can no longer see their own value as independent beings.

Where Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace cannot imagine change and Madeleine is only too eager for transformation, Del Jordan's character falls somewhere between these two extremes. Life is not as clear for Del as it is for her role models. She wants knowledge and sees herself not as a wife but as a writer. She reads everything she can find and imagines what she cannot know. Yet Del has also been brought up to put men first, as her relationship with Jerry Story suggests. Although Del says that he is honest with her, she is not as honest. Del is willing to protect Jerry's feelings, but she is not willing to sublimate herself, as her relationship with Garnet French later proves. Rasporich argues that a very young Del is influenced not by her aunts' endless sacrifices for Uncle Craig but by the rarely seen and yet very visible Madeleine, whose exploits become mythic on Flats Road. Rasporich claims that Del's "concept of womanhood is influenced by one of Munro's most striking models of female savagery, Madeleine." Rather than provide a model of traditional subordinate womanhood, such as that presented by her aunts, Madeleine is, according to Rasporich, "victorious for Del Jordan, at least in comparison to the Calvinist women, her aunts, who practice proper domestic rituals, accept the division between women's work and important male enterprise, who center their lives about a man and deny the jurisdiction of the flesh." Madeleine's example suggests that women can have power over men. Indeed, Madeleine's power is more than the violence of her physical attacks, whether throwing a box of Kotex (a feminine hygiene product) at Charlie Buckle in the town grocery or throwing a kettle through a window or cutting up Benny's wedding suit. Her rebellion teaches Del that women can leave men, which Del does when she denies Garnet ownership over her body. Madeleine's lesson is that women can only be mastered when they agree to be mastered, regardless of social conventions that dictate otherwise.

The lives of most of the other women who inhabit Munro's novel reside in more conventionally defined roles, although not all of these women are happy. Del's friend, Naomi, is more conventional in her approach to life. She quits school for a clerical job at the creamery, a choice that other young women in Jubilee have also made. She conforms to the expectations of her cohorts, filling her hope chest on the layaway plan, focusing on her clothing and hair, and planning her life around meeting a prospective husband. She is betrayed by her own body when she becomes pregnant. Her mother, who for years has claimed knowledge about sexuality and women's bodies, cannot help her in any way except to push her towards marriage. Indeed, Naomi settles for marriage, home, and family in a way that Del could not. Years earlier she had told Del that girls are responsible if boys take advantage of them. Naomi was sure that "It's the girl who is responsible because our sex organs are on the inside and theirs are on the outside and we can control our urges better than they can." Naomi buys into the stereotypes that keep women in their place, but when she is pregnant and forced to wed, she warns Del to be careful and use protection, since "nothing works" to end the pregnancy. While she cannot, herself, rebel, Naomi can still urge Del not to be caught in the trap that binds other women.

Miss Farris, the tragic teacher, is also a conventional figure. In an examination of the lives of unmarried female teachers during the 1940s and 1950s, Sheila L. Cavanagh concludes in the History of Education Quarterly that female teachers were forced to meet a restrictive lifestyle that celebrated an "overriding commitment to education." Teachers were regulated by codes that governed their clothing, social interactions, friendships, and even where they lived. Teaching administrations during this time required that female teachers "adhere to social and professional directives to remain unmarried." Teachers in Ontario were obligated to be single, since a married teacher "was thought to be an occupational transient, underqualified, uninterested in professional development, and torn between divided loyalties to her family and the school." Women could not be both wife and teacher. Thus, Miss Farris is part of a profession that requires that she remain single if she wants to continue teaching, and yet her single status invites gossip and seemingly endless speculation. She dresses as if she is younger than her supposed age, which some observers suggest is an attempt to attract a man. Del, though, suggests that whatever it is that Miss Farris wants, "it could hardly even be men." Instead of a lover, all of Miss Farris's passion is directed toward staging the yearly school production of an operetta.

Miss Farris was born in Jubilee, educated there, and continued as an adult to live there. She is relegated to a traditional role not only through her sex but through her profession. If other women have the meager opportunity to change, Miss Farris's opportunity is even slimmer. She can only permanently transform her world by committing suicide. Del suggests that Miss Farris exists in the past, "away back in time," and when she commits suicide, Del remembers Miss Farris as "imprisoned in that time," and Del is "amazed that she had broken out to commit this act." Miss Farris lacked the courage to recreate herself. Her choice as a single school teacher was spinsterhood, and a life that she ultimately found was not worth living.

Some of the girls and women in Jubilee are trapped in lives filled with dissatisfaction, lost dreams, and unrequited loves. The change that Addie predicts will not happen quickly enough to save them. But these are the women whose lives make Lives of Girls and Women so memorable. In Thomas E. Tausky's article, "Alice Munro: Biocritical Essay," the critic argues that Del is an exceptional female character, who acts "firmly, confidently, and constructively in order to shape her own future." Tausky suggests that "male figures are given roles of some prominence, but only as supporting actors in the drama of Del's life." The characters who linger in the memory as powerfully imagined creations are all women; Del herself, her mother, her mother's boarder Fern, her aunts." Throughout the novel, Del is on the cusp of change, and by the time she must choose to either break free of Garnet or be consumed by him, she is no longer as tender about men's feelings as she was when she dated Jerry. She has transformed herself. Addie warns her daughter that "all women have had up till now has been their connection with men." But by the end of the book, Del understands the possibilities of a real life, one that is removed from her many fantasies about men, and she is ready to get started with the next chapter in her life.

Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on Lives of Girls and Women, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.

Rowena Fowler

In the following excerpt, Fowler explores the conflict between stories and reality in Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women. The stories told by men and women are different, but according to Fowler, as the novel progresses, Del learns that women's stories do not have to conform to romantic feminism or to the pragmatic realism of men's stories.

As Del Jordan sets off from Jubilee, Ontario, in search of her "real life," she abandons the "black fable" she has concocted out of her small-town childhood and takes with her only the intuition of "Epilogue: The Photographer" that familiar things are both more ordinary and more amazing than she has given them credit for. They stubbornly resist being turned into fiction: "It is a shock, when you have dealt so cunningly, powerfully, with reality, to come back and find it still there." Like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, Del sees the world in terms of her favorite novels, is disabused of her fanciful notions, and finally, we realize, undergoes experiences as exciting or disturbing in their way as anything she might read about.

What is false in her "black fable" is not plot but style. Extraordinary things do happen in Jubilee, but Del has distorted them, trapping people and events in topiary gardens, Regency romance poses, and mannered prose: the "bitter-sweet flesh" of her fictional heroine, Caroline, overlays her Jubilee prototype, "pudgy Marion, the tennis player." Del's stylized figures are set in a physical and psychological landscape that is recognizably Southern Gothic; given Alice Munro's acknowledged debt to Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, it seems that she has her own "black fables" to exorcize: "Their speech was subtle and evasive and bizarrely stupid; their platitudes crackled with madness. The season was always the height of summer—white, brutal heat, dogs lying as if dead on the sidewalks, waves of air shuddering, jellylike, over the empty highway."

Del keeps her fragmentary novel folded inside a copy of Wuthering Heights and escapes from Jubilee into The Life of Charlotte Brontë: "The only world I was in touch with was the one I had made, with the aid of some books, to be peculiar and nourishing to myself." Emerging from the public library into the Ontario winter after reading [Sigrid] Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, she sees a farmer on his sleigh as "a helmeted Norseman." From time to time, however, practical details, "niggling considerations of fact," impinge on her made-up world: if "Caroline" is to drown herself at the height of summer, how will there be enough water in the river?

Del's perplexity in the face of such narrative challenges underlines Munro's own achievement: her ability to accommodate both the ordinary and the bizarre in her fiction, to enhance observation and experience without wrenching them out of true. As a child, Del lurches from the world she reads about to the one she lives in and finds that one tends to obliterate the other. The stories in Uncle Benny's tabloid newspaper seem irresistible:

I was bloated and giddy with revelations of evil, of its versatility and grand invention and horrific playfulness. But the nearer I got to our house the more this vision faded. Why was it that the plain back wall of home, the pale chipped brick, the cement platform outside the kitchen door, washtubs hanging on nails, the pump, the lilac bush with brown-spotted leaves, should make it seem doubtful that a woman would really send her husband's torso, wrapped in Christmas paper, by mail to his girl friend in South Carolina?

In the same way, Uncle Bill, when he turns up in the flesh, obliterates the monster of Del's mother's stories: "This was the thing, the indigestible fact. This Uncle Bill was my mother's brother, the terrible fat boy, so gifted in cruelty, so cunning, quick, fiendish, so much to be feared. I kept looking at him, trying to pull that boy out of the yellowish man. But I could not find him there. He was gone, smothered." Which is true?—her mother's picture of their childhood (miserable, narrow, blighted by religious fanaticism), or Uncle Bill's reminiscences of the simple country life and its "good spiritual example"? Not yet able to appreciate the different ways in which people recount their lives and shape the past to make sense of the present, Del is suddenly sarcastic about one of her mother's favorite stories. For a moment, in challenging her mother's version of the past she has cast doubt on everything she lives by: "there was something in the room like the downflash of a wing or knife, a sense of hurt so strong, but quick and isolated, vanishing."

The handing down of stories from mother to daughter, the re-interpretation of, even resistance to, these stories, the testing of them against experience, is an important structural principle of Lives of Girls and Women. Implicit in the narrative is the irony that Del, an aspiring writer, never realizes that the stories she is so used to hearing could provide the starting point of a book; she notices only the discontinuities and contradictions between what goes on around her and what she finds written down. Her attitude is natural in Jubilee, where "reading books was something like chewing gum, a habit to be abandoned when the seriousness and satisfactions of adult life took over." At school, "art" is the seductive artifice of the annual operetta, with its cardboard villages and peasant dances. At home, Del's father reads the same three books "over and over again, putting himself to sleep. He never talked about what he read." Her mother, the "Princess Ida" of a city newspaper column for "lady correspondents," coats in sentimental cliché the very countryside she has done her best to escape from: "This morning a marvelous silver frost enraptures the eye on every twig and telephone wire and makes the world a veritable fairyland." Writing under her own name to the Jubilee Herald-Advance, she expresses dispassionate reformist opinions that are at odds with Del's sense of glory and danger in the lives of girls and women.

As well as these unhelpful models, Del has two special handicaps to contend with in understanding the relationship between literature and life: being Canadian and being a woman. "Reality" is a special problem for a writer in rural Ontario, who cannot mention the nearest city without having to explain that her London is not the "real" London. It is also a problem for a girl who reads in a woman's magazine the opinion of "a famous New York psychiatrist, a disciple of Freud" that if a boy and a girl look at a full moon: "The boy thinks of the universe, its immensity and mystery; the girl thinks ‘I must wash my hair.’" Del knows that that is not how she thinks, but instead of doubting the article she doubts herself—"surely a New York psychiatrist must know"—and feels trapped in a dilemma: "I wanted men to love me, and I wanted to think of the universe when I looked at the moon." It is left to Munro, at the end of the story, to redress the balance by showing what men think about at important moments: "Sometimes when he had barely got his breath back [after love-making] I would ask him what he was thinking and he would say, ‘I was just figuring out how I could fix that muffler—.’"

Del is surrounded by chroniclers and story-tellers, by myths and memories and the "baroque concoctions of rumor." Dr. Comber's stories are paranoid, Uncle Benny's unlikely, Uncle Bill's formless and sentimental, but none of them seems as far from her conception of Jubilee as Uncle Craig's "public" version of events: a painstaking documentation of local history, "a great accumulation of the most ordinary facts which it was his business to get in order." Listening to the men of Jubilee talking about the war, Del notices a crucial difference of perspective and tone: it is only those not involved in the fighting who can see a pattern or wider significance in it. For Uncle Craig the war is "a huge eruption in ordinary political life"; he is "more interested in how it affected elections, in what the conscription issue would do to the Liberal Party, than in how it progressed by itself." Del's father, also a noncombatant, "saw it as an overall design, marked off in campaigns, which had a purpose, which failed or succeeded" whereas Mr. Chamberlain, who had fought in Italy, "saw it as a conglomeration of stories, leading nowhere in particular. He made his stories to be laughed at."

The art of Munro's fiction is to discover an "overall design" for a "conglomeration of stories." The resulting form is flexible without being artless. It is not a Bildungsroman, for women's lives are not comfortably accommodated in a genre which presupposes that characters are free to act, develop and make choices, to learn from, not succumb to, experience. Women's stories have their own tenor and direction. Del's aunts, Elspeth and Grace, keep up an endless, sharp dialogue of story-telling which runs along with the pace and mood of their work; stoning cherries, shelling peas, coring apples, "Their hands, their old, dark, wooden-handled paring knives, moved with marvelous, almost vindictive speed." These aunts are spinsters and their stories feel to Del "dried out, brittle." Aunt Moira, on the other hand, who is married, seems "one of those heavy, cautiously moving, wrecked survivors of the female life, with stories to tell."

The female version of the novel of education is about the conflicting claims of individual freedom and biological destiny; imagery of water, as women novelists know so well, is its natural expression. Will the heroine be swept away and drowned or left high and dry? Must her energies be damned up or diverted into narrow channels? Del Jordan's story begins on a river bank: "We spent days along the Wawanash River helping Uncle Benny fish." She hears from her mother and from their lodger, Fern, "stories about people in the town, about themselves; their talk was a river that never dried up. It was the drama, the ferment of life just beyond my reach." The movement of their narrative often takes the form of eddies and whirlpools: "Stories of the past could go like this, round and round and down to death; I expected it." As she grows up, Del protests against this inevitability—"Had all her stories, after all, to end up with just her, the way she was now, just my mother in Jubilee?"—just as she resists her first lover's attempt to "baptize" her, holding her against her will under the water. In the end it is the river itself, gathering force, flooding, receding within each story, which gives the novel its shape and form. In the end Del learns to keep her head above water; it is not she who is destroyed in the spring flood but her unwanted inheritance, Uncle Craig's dry archive of local history and genealogy …

Once the spell of her Gothic extravaganza is broken, Del is not tempted to opt instead for the utilitarian realism of documentary or journalistic reporting; even before she has finished her revelatory conversation with Bobby Sherriff, she sees the editor of the local newspaper "come out the back door of the Herald-Advance building, empty a wastebasket into an incinerator, and plod back in." "Voracious and misguided" as Uncle Craig writing his local history, she will begin her attempt to recapture Jubilee by compiling lists: "A list of all the stores and businesses going up and down the main street and who owned them, a list of family names, names on the tombstones in the cemetery and any inscriptions underneath." (The stratagem is reminiscent of much nineteenth-century American writing, where nothing can be taken for granted and everything must be painstakingly enumerated before it can be made over into art.) No list, though, can ever be accurate enough or exhaustive enough to contain the details of just one life, and only a story, not a list, can connect and make sense of the details so that they are "held together" as well as "held still": "no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting." The paradoxical lesson of Lives of Girls and Women is that fiction can only transcend locality when it is firmly grounded in it …

Source: Rowena Fowler, "The Art of Alice Munro: The Beggar Maid and Lives of Girls and Women," in Critique, Vol. 25, No. 4, Summer 1984, pp. 189-98.

W. R. Martin

In the following excerpt, Martin suggests that Munro uses literary oppositions to create unfamiliar meanings from ordinary events.

Alice Munro has such a penetrating and sympathetic intelligence and is such an accomplished writer that there are more ways of seeing the paradoxes and ironies in the substance and style of her work than will occur to any one reader. The doubleness, or reciprocation, that I'd like to draw attention to in this essay might be expressed in this way: with vivid images and dramatic scenes that, as Sidney puts it in his Apologie, "strike, pierce, [and] possesses the sight of the soule," she presents, and makes real and convincing, concepts that we usually think of in cloudy, abstract terms and—Sidney again—"woordish description." Contrarily, she charges common and familiar incidents with surprising meanings and insights. In other words, like Coleridge, she makes the strange familiar, and, like Wordsworth, she makes the familiar wonderful; thus she illuminates and enriches both the strange and the familiar. Adapting the terms she herself used in the Weekend Magazine of 11 May 1974, one might say that Alice Munro makes the Mysterious Touchable, and the Touchable Mysterious …

A bold and conceptually brilliant exhibition … on a grand scale, is presented in "The Flats Road," which opens Lives of Girls and Women. Uncle Benny occupies the stage at the very beginning of the first chapter, and this is an indication of his importance in the novel, which is about Del, and especially about the growth of her mind and imagination up to the point when she begins to practise as a conscious literary artist; so we must understand his significance for Del. He thinks and talks as if "the river and the bush and the whole of Grenoch Swamp more or less belonged to him, because he knew them, better than anyone else did. He claimed he was the only person who had been right through the swamp, not just made little trips in around the edges." Though the swamp belongs to him and he to the swamp, he nevertheless "ate at our table every day at noon, except Sunday"; "So lying alongside our world was Uncle Benny's world like a troubling distorted reflection." Others may merely accept him as an oddity, but for Del he is a knotty phenomenon that she must make sense of and place in some kind of relation to herself. Thus when she writes out his address for him—he can't write but seems to be able to read a little—she does it in full, thus: "Mr. Benjamin Poole, The Flats Road, Jubilee, Wawanash County, Ontario, Canada, North America, The Western Hemisphere, The World, The Solar System, The Universe." She is trying to place him in a perspective in which she too appears, in order to make the strange familiar.

One can feel in the intentness with which Del observes him just how fascinating she finds Uncle Benny: "He stuck his gum on the end of his fork [as Henry Bailey does in ‘Boys and Girls’ (Dance, p. 127)], and at the end of the meal took it off and showed us the pattern, so nicely engraved on the pewter-coloured gum it was a pity to chew it. He poured tea into his saucer and blew on it. With a piece of bread speared on a fork he wiped his plate as clean as a cat's. He brought into the kitchen a smell, which I did not dislike, of fish, furred animals, swamp."When we put all this together with the fact that he cultivates no crops or vegetables—in fact one of the reasons why he wants a wife is perhaps so that he can make the transition to agriculture: in the letter he dictates to his prospective wife he holds out the hope that she "could have a good vegetable garden if you could keep off the rabbits"—it is not I think too fanciful to suppose that to Del he represents something like the hunting or neolithic stage ofman's development. There is in him a hint of an even earlier phase of prehistory, and perhaps even of evolution itself—of the emergence of life from the swamps. His milieu is the swamp, and his surname is Poole!

It is a matter not only of Uncle Benny's habits but also of the quality of his mind and the patterns of his thoughts. He is naïve, believing in a literal "Heaven", he tells stories that in their simplicity and extravagant melodrama have the quality of myth, legend and folk-tale, stories "that my mother would insist could not have happened, as in the story of Sandy Stevenson's marriage." For all its extravagance, Uncle Benny's story about Sandy Stevenson is based on at least some literal truth—"I seen the bruises, I seen them myself"—and is also, ironically, true as prophecy, because it foreshadows Uncle Benny's own unfortunate matrimonial venture. His stories deserve to be pondered; they cannot be lightly dismissed as mythical, meaning untrue, as Del's rational mother supposes. In presenting the nature and quality of Uncle Benny's mind so completely, without making him a target for facile ridicule or diminishing him with undignified farce, but, on the contrary, by paying as it were oblique tribute to the validity of his experience, Alice Munro demonstrates how generous and yet illuminating she is in her art.

How alien Uncle Benny is in the modern world becomes very clear when, looking for his errant wife in Toronto, he "got lost among factories, dead-end roads, warehouses, junkyards, railway tracks." No wonder! His element is the primeval swamp, which to modern citified man is as strange as Toronto is to him. Despite his strangeness, Del's family makes him an honorary uncle and has him at its table. But Del goes further than mere social tolerance: she seems to accept him as a sort of spiritual forebear. Her imagination has been able to embrace his strangeness and make it truly familiar—an etymological pun is intended here!—because she has recognized in him herself, her part in mankind's history and pre-history. In this Bildungsroman Del passes through phases analogous to those of the foetus, which is said to reflect in the womb the stages of evolution; she also passes through the stages of pre-history that children are said to rehearse as they grow up. It is her intelligent imagination that allows her to do this so completely; it makes what is strange familiar by bringing her to the knowledge that she is a part of mankind and that nothing human is alien to her.

The second chapter of Lives of Girls and Women is "Heirs of the Living Body"; it deals with issues that are similar, more immediate, though in a sense more limited, in a much more specific form. Del's relation with her family is a matter that she can address herself to more consciously and deliberately. If the honorary uncle, Benny, represents pre-history, the real aunts and uncles of this chapter embody history, and with a very present and sometimes pressing force. They and Del are the heirs of the same living bodies, but we see the counter-weighted irony that Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace—their very names are long out of fashion—embody patterns and standards which, though they prevailed only a generation or two before, are strange, almost antediluvian—in some ways stranger even than Uncle Benny. But Del is nevertheless fascinated by her aunts' avocations, attitudes and codes; though they remain for her somewhat alien, she is able to admire and feel affection for them. Indeed she evokes their ethos lovingly and in detail.

But perhaps the deepest and most ironical truths of the chapter are reached through the portrayal of Uncle Craig, who is so very diligently and literally the transmitter of tradition that his life is now devoted to compiling a laborious and pedestrian history of Wawanash County: "During the spring, summer, and early fall of that year a large amount of building went forward in Fairmile, Morris, and Grantly townships …" When he dies the aunts piously and formally hand the unfinished opus over to Del to complete; because she has, as they put it, "the knack for writing compositions," they think she "could learn to copy his way"! Del is scornful of this pettifogging history and dedicated to Art with an ardour and confidence that seems to derive from Aristotle and Joyce's Stephen Dedalus; she believes that "the only duty of a writer is to produce a masterpiece," and allows the manuscript that has been accumulated with such care to lie in the cellar, where it becomes "just a big wad of soaking paper."

But Alice Munro, through her surrogate, Del, doesn't allow us easy laughs at Uncle Craig's expense any more than she does at Uncle Benny's. One of the most striking merits of AliceMunro's work is that in its final effect it is just, rising above all the snobberies of fashion, class and the intellect. Uncle Craig's aim, which is to record "the whole solid intricate structure of lives supporting us from the past," is admirable and enlightened, and, by a telling irony, it later becomes Del's aim too; even Del's method is similar to his:

It did not occur to me [at the time of the events described towards the end of Lives] that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee. Voracious and misguided as Uncle Craig out at Jenkin's bend, writing his History, I would want to write things down.

I would try to make lists. A list of all the stores and businesses going up and down the main street and who owned them, a list of family names, names on the tombstones in the Cemetery and any inscriptions underneath. A list of the titles of movies that played at the Lyceum Theatre from 1938 to 1950, roughly speaking. Names on the Cenotaph (more for the first World War than for the second). Names of the streets and the pattern they lay in.

The hope of accuracy we bring to such tasks is crazy, heartbreaking.

And no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting.

The mature artist that Del is yet to become knows that these methods will not achieve what she wants; only art can hold it all "still" and "together—radiant, everlasting," in the way that Hugo's story, in "Material," will lift Dotty "out of life" and hold her "in light, suspended in the marvelous clear jelly" that Hugo, the writer, "has spent all his life learning how to make."

But when she reaches that stage in her art, Del will not be as easily scornful of Uncle Craig's work as she was in her girlhood because, in the words of T. S. Eliot's The Dry Salvages, she will realize that Uncle Craig has nourished "the life of significant soil." She will know that in many senses, both literal and figurative, she is the heir of a living body that comprises many aunts and uncles, real and honorary, and that Uncle Craig deserves a high place among them …

But what about Miss Madeleine Howey, the almost unspeakable Mrs. Benjamin Poole, Uncle Benny's bride? Is she an indigestible bolus, beyond the reach of Del's, and our, sympathetic imagination, an unresolved complexity, too strange ever to become in any sense familiar or to be felt as kin? Del records her family's response at the end of "The Flats Road": "After a while we would all just laugh, remembering Madeleine going down the road in her red jacket, with her legs like scissors, flinging abuse over her shoulder at Uncle Benny trailing after, with her child … We remembered her like a story, and having nothing else to give we gave her our strange, belated, heartless applause. ‘Madeleine! That madwoman!’"

It would be typical of Alice Munro's truthfulness, which often uses irony as its instrument, to present us in Madeleine with an exception, a member of the human race who is not part of the greater identity, the Living Body. But on the other hand, perhaps there is a suggestion of uneasiness and guilt in the family's laughter, and the very fact that Madeleine is having stories told about her, suggests that the folk imagination, and Del's too, is incorporating even her into the tradition. She provides the stiffest challenge of all, but she too in the end must be seen as a member of the human family.

There is more to be said about our theme in that second chapter of Lives: "Heirs of the Living Body." A fairly simple meaning declares itself in the scene at Uncle Craig's funeral in which Del bites Mary Agnes and is said to have blood on her mouth: she experiences a moment of great intensity, "the very opposite of the mystic's incommunicable vision of order and light." Del finds Mary Agnes inimical, even though she is her cousin—another case of Munrovian irony in family relationships—and is perhaps trying to force a sort of Blutschwesterschaft to correspond with what she knows she ought to feel for Mary Agnes. In spite of the intensity of her feelings of shame at her misbehaviour, Del knows that the family "would not put me outside," would not expel her from the Living Body. It's not surprising that Del "felt held close, stifled, as if it was not air that I had to move and talk through in this world but something thick as cotton wool." The community sense is by no means always an unmixed blessing; family feeling can amount to virtual suffocation.

But this scene is linked with another in the same chapter, where the meanings, though they are fully realized, are by no means simple, and in fact provide a sort of culmination of the movement towards an awareness of community that I have been largely concerned with thus far in this essay. It is the scene with the dead cow. Mary Agnes is unfeeling and even callous as "she laid her hand—she laid the palm of her hand—over it, over the eye" of the dead cow; Del is horrified at Mary Agnes's casualness. In contrast to Mary Agnes, Del feels an intense fascination with the cow, and this is conveyed in her description of it:

The eye was wide open, dark, a smooth sightless bulge, with a sheen like silk and a reddish gleam in it, a reflection of light. An orange stuffed in a black silk stocking. Flies nestled in one corner, bunched together beautifully in an iridescent brooch. I had a great desire to poke the eye with my stick, to see if it would collapse, if it would quiver and break like a jelly, showing itself to be the same composition all the way through, or if the skin over the surface would break and let loose all sorts of putrid mess, to flow down the face. I traced the stick all the way round the eye. I drew it back—but I was not able, I could not poke it in.

Mary Agnes did not come close. "Leave it alone," she warned. "That old dead cow. It's dirty. You get yourself dirty."

"Day-ud cow," I said, expanding the word lusciously. "Day-ud cow, day-ud cow."

"You come on," Mary Agnes bossed me, but was afraid, I thought, to come nearer.

Being dead, it invited desecration, I wanted to poke it, trample it, pee on it, anything to punish it, to show what contempt I had for its being dead. Beat it up, break it up, spit on it, tear it, throw it away! But still it had power, lying with a gleaming strange map on its back, its straining neck, the smooth eye. I had never once looked at a cow alive and thought what I thought now: why should there be a cow? Why should the white spots be shaped just the way they were, and never again, not on any cow or creature, shaped in exactly the same way? Tracing the outline of a continent again, digging the stick in, trying to make a definite line, I paid attention to its shape as I would sometimes pay attention to the shape of real continents or island on real maps, as if the shape itself were a revelation beyond words, and I would be able to make sense of it, if I tried hard enough, and had time.

There are many meanings here. Faced with this death, Del feels herself close to the mysteries of life and death and longs to part the veil, but her spirit quails in awe. To her the dead cow is of the utmost importance. Even her impulse to desecrate it stems from her notion that it is in some sense sacred. The "day-ud cow" is for her the corpse of a fellow creature. Here she is on the edge of an awareness of being the heir not only of the Living Human Body, of human history and tradition, but of all life; she has gone even further, and with a fuller conscious awareness, than she went in her relation with Uncle Benny in the previous chapter. In contrast to Del, Mary Agnes, despite the meanings suggested by her names, or because—as well as being backward—she is as conventional as they are, has no such sense of respect or reverence. She is not mainly afraid, as Del thinks, but mainly indifferent, as she shows when, as we have seen, she puts the palm of her hand over the cow's eye.

All the scenes I have discussed thus far, involving a father with his daughter, and Del with Uncle Benny, her real aunts, Uncle Craig, Madeleine Howey, and a dead cow, show us a young girl—of exceptional intelligence and imagination, it is true—entering into a full human consciousness of her life in time and space. The word "tradition" is too feeble and abstract to suggest more than a thin shadow of the meanings entailed here. Have these meanings ever been rendered better, with fuller insight into the comic, ironic and pathetic complexities, with deeper sympathy, or a surer moral grasp of all the issues? …

What I have tried to illustrate is a single aspect of Alice Munro's art: like Blake's and James Joyce's, it deals with oppositions, contraries, tensions, inconsistencies, and then resolutions, implied or achieved; in literary terms the oppositions produce ironies and paradoxes, but also moments of vision in which the oppositions are reconciled, at least in the imagination. It is because Alice Munro's fiction is constantly addressing itself to and approaching these oppositions, and trembling on the edge of this sort of consummation, when the familiar and the strange, the touchable and the mysterious, the similar and the different, become one, when in Yeats's words "all the planets drop into the sun" ("There"), that her work is so readable, exciting and satisfying.

Source: W. R. Martin, "The Strange and the Familiar in Alice Munro," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1982, pp. 214-26.

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FURTHER READING

"Appreciations of Alice Munro," in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 82, Issue 3, Summer 2006, pp. 91-107.

This article contains a series of brief examinations of Munro's work provided by several writers and many of Munro's friends.

Carter, Kathryn, ed., The Small Details of Life: Twenty Diaries by Women in Canada, 1830-1996, University of Toronto Press, 2002.

This book contains a series of excerpts from women's diaries. The texts include details about married life, including an account of domestic abuse, the experiences of new settlers and farming wives, and the experiences of single women teachers.

Munro, Sheila, Lives of Mothers & Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro, Douglas Gibson Books, 2001.

This biography of Munro is also a memoir written by her oldest daughter. The book is filled with photos and personal information about Alice Munro's family and her work.

Thacker, Robert W., ed., The Rest of the Story: Essays on Alice Munro, ECW Press, 1999.

This book is a collection of eleven critical essays that focus on several of Munro's short stories.

Wine, Jeri Dawn, and Janice L. Ristock, eds., Women and Social Change: Feminist Activism in Canada, J. Lorimer, 1991.

This book is a collection of essays that explore women's lives. Topics include feminism in the academic field, in rural life, in agriculture, and in minority populations.

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