When asked in an interview in 1982 whether she has tried to teach anything in her stories, Alice Munro replied, “Ahhh! No lessons. No lessons ever!” In Runaway, Munro explores the circumstances and consequences of running away, but does so without judgment, and without resolution. While three of the stories are connected by the same protagonist, the rest of the stories seem at first disconnected, united only in their common location of Western Canada. In each of the stories, however, there are either characters who are running from something or someone, or characters who miss one who has left. Rather than pursuing her topic relentlessly, though, Munro represents it indirectly, while at the same time exploring the nuances of complex relationships, the way in which a moment can change peoples' lives forever, and the paradoxical sense of looking back on one's life with both regret and contentment. Each of her stories spans several generations, and she has a remarkable talent for jumping across several decades without losing the narrative thread. Many of the endings are delightfully or unsettlingly ambiguous, depending on what readers are seeking.
Alice Munro was born July 10, 1931, to Ann Clarke and Robert Eric Laidlaw, a farming couple from Wingham, Ontario, Canada. She grew
up in an area that was neither entirely rural nor entirely urban, a location that resembles many of the ambiguous settings of her stories. When she was twelve, her mother developed Parkinson's disease, which debilitated her until her death in 1959; witnessing her mother's decline would be an experience that Munro would later draw from in much of her fiction. Though the family was not wealthy, Alice excelled academically, earning a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario. When she published her first short story in 1950, “The Dimensions of a Shadow,” those who knew her wondered at the discrepancy between the person they knew and the darker vision of her narrative. She would later write that she began to understand the double life she was leading, as though she were living “two completely different lives—the real and absolutely solitary life and the life of appearances.”
She married James Munro in 1951, and they moved to Vancouver, where she would begin to write from personal experience about intimate family relationships and the struggles of women and girls. After several years there, the Munros moved again to Victoria, British Columbia, and opened up a book shop in 1963. By this time, the Munros had three girls: Sheila, Jenny, and Andrea.
Munro published her first short story collection in 1968, entitled Dance of the Happy Shades, and won the Governor General's Award for fiction in 1969. She found inspiration in the work of American Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty, seeking parallels between her experience in rural Ontario and the insular life in the Deep South described in their fiction. This influence can be seen in Lives of Girls and Women, a collection of connected stories she had been pondering for ten years. The book won the 1971–72 Canadian Booksellers Award and was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
As her writing career took off, her first marriage ended. She remarried in 1976, and followed up Lives of Girls and Women with such widely acclaimed collections as Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You (1974) and Who Do You Think I Am? (1978). She achieved bestseller status with her breakout hit Moons of Jupiter in 1982.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Munro cemented her reputation as one of the leading short stories writers in English with several more prize-winning collections. Her Giller Prize—winning Runaway (2004) garnered rapturous reviews from critics, and her 2006 collection of autobiographical stories The View from Castle Rock was equally highly praised. Munro lives with her husband in Clinton, Ontario.
Stable owners Carla and Clark discuss the return of their neighbor, Mrs. Sylvia Jamieson, whose husband died months earlier, and who has just come home from a long trip to Greece.
Clark urges Carla to go help Sylvia, planning to con money out of the widow. Carla goes reluctantly and reveals during her conversation with Sylvia that she would like to leave Clark. She had run away from home to marry him at the age of eighteen, in spite of, or perhaps because of, her parents' disapproval. Sylvia encourages her to run away again, immediately phoning the bus station for departure times to Toronto and calling her friend to arrange temporary lodging for Carla. On the bus, Carla reflects on her decision to leave and then regrets leaving, unable to process the thought that she will never again see Clark and fearing that she will lose herself completely if she is no longer with him. Hours after Sylvia drives Carla to the bus depot, Clark appears on her doorstep, with the clothes Carla borrowed from her in a bag in his hand. Carla has returned to live with Clark. While Clark warns Sylvia to stop interfering in their lives, Flora, Carla's beloved pet goat, appears suddenly, shocking them both. When Clark returns home, he tells Carla of the talk he had with Sylvia but does not tell her about Flora. The following week, Carla receives a letter from Sylvia, who tells her of Flora's reappearance, and Carla destroys the letter. She is haunted by the thought of what Clark might have done to Flora but never sees the small white goat again and never learns the truth.
On a train ride from Toronto, Juliet Henderson meets a stranger who attempts to strike up a conversation with her. Trying to be polite, she engages him but then finds his neediness unbearable. She excuses herself and goes to the observation car. The train stops; someone has jumped out, committing suicide. Not seeing the man upon return, she deduces it is the man she rejected. She meets another stranger, who confirms her suspicion, and then she collapses in tears. The man, who introduces himself as Eric Porteous, comforts her. He tells her about his wife Ann, who was paralyzed eight years earlier when a drunk driver ran her over as she walked home one evening. He surprises her by telling her he does not view Ann's accident as a tragedy, but only as “a new kind of life.” They part ways until six months later when Juliet tries to find him in Whale Bay on her way to visit a friend. She finds him easily; the taxi driver knows where he lives and takes her there. On the way, the driver explains that Ann has died and the wake has just taken place. He assumes Juliet is there to pay her respects and takes her to Eric's house, where she meets Eric's helper, Ailo. Juliet is disappointed to hear Ailo's suggestion that Eric has a mistress, Christa, and decides to stay to find out who Eric truly is. The story ends with hints at the life to come—a life with Eric and Christa.
Juliet is now four years older, visiting her dying mother in Toronto with her and Eric's thirteen-month-old daughter Penelope. Sam, Juliet's father, and Sara, her mother, meet Penelope for the first time and introduce her to their housemate and helper, Irene Avery. Sam informs a surprised Juliet that after thirty years of teaching he has decided to retire and go into the vegetable-selling business. Irene helps around the house with the things Sara no longer has the energy to do, as well as with Sam's gardens. Juliet finds space in the attic for Penelope to play and discovers a painting she just sent her parents as a gift stored there. Sara explains that Sam wanted to take it down, because the images in it might upset Irene. Juliet is disturbed by her father's concern for the opinions of someone who is virtually a stranger to her. On a trip to the drugstore, Juliet runs into a childhood friend, who suggests that her father did not retire, but instead left under bitter circumstances. When her father will not explain further, Juliet deduces that he left because colleagues insulted his daughter, who was living with a man but not married, and who mothered an illegitimate child. Juliet becomes more disturbed by her father's admiration and deep feelings for Irene. A local minister, Don, visits Sara, who now believes in God, and he converses with Juliet about whether or not she believes in God. When she says she does not, he becomes alarmed for Penelope's future. Both Don and Juliet are disturbed by the conversation, and Juliet excuses herself to get Penelope, who has woken from her nap. Running into Don in the hallway, Juliet recognizes that he is experiencing hypoglycemia (a condition of low blood sugar common to diabetics) and needs sugar immediately. After he drinks the soda she offers, he leaves without a word. When Juliet asks Sara about her faith, Sara replies “soon I'll see.” Juliet returns for Sara's funeral a few months later, still haunted by the conversations with her mother and the minister.
Now in her forties, Juliet is something of a celebrity: she hosts a talk show on the Provincial Television channel. Her daughter, who is now twenty, has written a letter to her requesting a visit at the Spiritual Balance Centre, where she is on retreat. When Juliet arrives, she learns that Penelope has gone and is angered because the director will not offer any information that might help her locate her daughter. Juliet gets the sense that the Centre is more like a cult and that Penelope has been brainwashed. She receives an unsigned birthday card on Penelope's birthday and interprets this as a sign from her daughter that she is fine. She resolves to stay where she is, hoping Penelope will come home. She regrets not helping Penelope discover her spirituality, thinking if only she had done so, Penelope would not have sought the Centre and ended up so lost. She regrets telling Penelope too much when her father died and thinks she failed to preserve her innocence as well. She longs to be reunited with Penelope but receives only another blank birthday card every year for five years. Juliet finally accepts the thought that she may never see her daughter again and moves on with her life. Then one day, she runs into one of Penelope's childhood friends, who innocently tells her that she has just seen Penelope in Edmonton and that Penelope has five children. The story concludes with Juliet's dimming hope that she might be reunited with Penelope.
Grace returns to the old summer lake house at which she spent many evenings with the Travers family. After the opening scene, the narrative flashes back to when Grace was a twenty-year-old waitress, the hopeful fiancee of Maury Travers. She met him while working at the hotel at Bailey's Falls. On their first date, he falls in love with her when she criticizes the female protagonist of Father of the Bride, the movie they had seen on their date, for being so conventionally idiotic. Grace is an intellectual who wants to study well beyond what is required for the love of the subjects, from physics to algebra. The only one who understands this desire is Mrs. Travers, who years earlier was forced to go to business school because it was practical. Mrs. Travers has one child, Neil Borrow, from a previous marriage, and two children, Gretchen and Maury, with Mr. Travers. When Grace and Maury begin dating, Mrs. Travers begins to invite her to the family dinners at their lake house regularly. Grace's guardians, her aunt and uncle, do not mind. Mrs. Travers likes Grace so much that she offers to pick her up during her breaks at work and let her make herself at home at the Travers's house. Maury begins to talk of marriage to Grace, and she decides to continue working at the hotel that fall. Mrs. Travers has a nervous breakdown and has to be admitted into the hospital. Grace learns that Neil's father had killed himself, a traumatic event that has psychologically destabilized Mrs. Travers. By Thanksgiving, a manic Mrs. Travers returns to host the holiday dinner on a narcotic high. The entire family, including Neil, his wife Mavis, and their children, attend. Grace is injured when the strap on her sandal breaks and she steps on a shell. Neil, who is a doctor, arrives just then, and insists on taking her to the hospital. He has apparently been drinking. After being treated, Grace willingly accompanies Neil to buy alcohol. She ends up driving the car home as Neil is too drunk. Maury tries to give Grace the opportunity to excuse her running off with Neil, but she makes it clear that she is no longer interested in marrying him. She learns soon therafter that Neil has been in a fatal car accident.
As with many of the other stories in Runaway, this story begins near the end, with Harry, his wife Eileen, his daughter Lauren, and a woman named Delphine, driving in a car. The narrative shifts backwards, to the time when the family first moves to town, and Harry buys a local newspaper. One evening, as Lauren and Harry are organizing the basement, she discovers a small box and asks him about it. He tells her that inside are the ashes of a baby girl that died before she was born. At school, Lauren, the new kid, feels isolated, reflecting on how different her life is from others' lives because of her parents' radical lifestyle. After school one day, Lauren is cajoled into going into a hotel where the schoolgirls gather regularly. She meets Delphine, an older employee at the hotel with whom she strikes up a friendly relationship. Delphine suggests that Lauren is adopted and seems to know her parents well, an intimacy that confuses Lauren. When Lauren confronts her parents on the issue, they assert that she is their biological daughter. Delphine continues to make Lauren feel more and more uncomfortable, until finally Lauren decides to avoid her and stays home sick, afraid Delphine will stalk her. When Eileen comes home from work to check on Lauren, knowing something is terribly wrong, Lauren decides to tell her about her secret meetings with Delphine. Eileen loses herself in anger, and she and Harry decide to settle everything with Delphine. They tell her that her baby, Lauren, was the one who died, and that they named their biological daughter Lauren also. The story returns to the opening scene as Harry, Delphine, Lauren, and Eileen hold a private funeral, where they say part of “The Lord's Prayer” while burying the ashes of the baby.
Robin cares for her sickly sister, Joanne. She escapes the difficulty of her weighty responsibility by traveling to Stratford by train to see a Shakespeare play each summer. On one of these trips, Robin loses her purse and is stranded without money or a return ticket. She meets a stranger in the street, who happens to be walking his dog, and who offers to help by buying her a ticket. He leads her to his apartment, where he insists on cooking her dinner. Though her intuition warns her against trusting strangers, she decides to stay and enjoys pleasant conversation with him. He escorts her back to the train station, where he buys her return ticket as promised. As he says good-bye to her, he tells her to repay him not by sending money, but by meeting him again the following summer, wearing the same dress, and with the same hairstyle. He embraces her and after they share a passionate moment, he tells her not to write as “letters are not a good idea,” but to simply promise to return. He writes his name, Danilo, and the name of his village on a piece of paper and gives it to her. Robin spends the following year researching his village and culture, looking forward to the night she returns to meet him again. When she returns, she leaves during the play to go to his apartment. She arrives and sees him at work in the shop, but when he sees her, he looks repulsed and shuts the door in her face. She collapses, destroyed by what appears to be his betrayal and continues her life without him. Forty years later, working as a volunteer in a psychiatric ward, she comes across an old patient who looks like Danilo, though his name is Alexander. She learns that Alexander is Danilo's developmentally challenged twin, for whom Danilo has had to care all his life. It was Alexander, not Danilo, whom she had seen in the shop, and she was mistaken in thinking she had been rejected.
This final story opens in 1927, with the perspective of Nancy, who writes her uncensored thoughts in her diary. On April Fool's Day, she plays tricks on her father and on her friend Wilf, a doctor who seems outraged and disappointed that she would trick him by pretending to be choking. She is surprised when he appears a few weeks later to take her out on a date, and she is shocked to receive a proposal from him that night. She agrees to marry Wilf, and the wedding date is set for a few months later. During the wedding preparation, Wilf's cousin Ollie arrives to serve as his best man. Ollie, who is Nancy's age, bonds with Nancy in a way that Wilf does not. One day, Nancy brings Ollie to visit Tessa Netterby, who has a special talent for finding lost things. She shows off her friend by having Tessa guess the contents of Ollie's pockets, which she is able to do with astonishing detail. Ollie becomes fascinated with Tessa and begins to court her. The following year, Nancy is expecting her first child and writes in anger to Ollie, who has all but disappeared. She congratulates Ollie for publishing a story on Tessa, but chastises him for profiting from their friendship and for not acknowledging Nancy's role in introducing him to her. Ollie responds that he plans to bring Tessa to a scientific research lab for investigation. Nancy writes Tessa a concerned letter expressing a desire to visit with her but receives a short reply that Tessa plans to marry Ollie and move to the United States. Over forty years later, Nancy is called to visit Tessa in Michigan, where she is an inmate at a sanatorium that is being closed down. During their visit, Nancy learns that Tessa has received shock therapy and has endured other experiments that have left her brain seriously incapacitated, and that Tessa believes Ollie has been murdered. She tells the matron at the institution that she cannot take Tessa in because she has to care for her husband Wilf, who is in poor health. As she leaves, she promises to write Tessa but does not ever do so. A few years later, Nancy runs into Ollie on the street in Vancouver, one of the many stops on her cruise to Alaska. Ollie informs Nancy that he lives on Texada Island and has been working as a fisherman for years. She learns that he and Tessa were never legally married and that during the Great Depression the funding for the research on Tessa was lost. To gain some kind of income, he and Tessa began performing in traveling shows, trying to capitalize on Tessa's abilities. When Tessa developed leukemia and the money from the traveling shows stopped paying, Ollie began working for a radio station in a mountain town near California. Tessa's health became worse, and Ollie finally had to take her to the hospital where, he tells Nancy, she died a few weeks after that. He had her cremated, he said. Knowing that this is not true, Nancy wonders at Ollie's dishonesty. In the end, left to put the details together herself, Nancy imagines what their life together must have been like.
Lizzie is the horse owned by Joy Tucker and kept in Carla's stable. Her name recalls the famous suspect in the 1892 murder trial, who allegedly killed her father and stepmother with a hatchet. Lizzie was acquitted, but the case was never solved.
Carla gives horseback riding lessons from her stable and helps her neighbor, Sylvia Jamieson, around the house. She meets Clark when she is only eighteen, and she alternates between romantic and cynical thoughts of him. Though she yearns for intimacy with Clark, she also fantasizes about running away from him.
Clark is a riding instructor and Carla's husband. He had always dreamed of owning his own stables, but his dream is disappointed by the economic hardship of his life. He has a volatile temperament, and his mood swings disturb Carla, who fears he is always angry at her. He is interested in conning people out of their money and is constantly working on schemes to do so.
Flora is the small white goat who shares the stable with Carla's horses. When she disappears, Carla is disturbed and searches for her. She reappears at the end of the story, but then disappears again.
Mr. Leon Jamieson
Mr. Jamieson is a poet who passes away before most of the story takes place. He has worked tirelessly on improving the house he shares with Sylvia. There are rumors that he and Sylvia grow marijuana and keep their illegal profits hidden in the ground around their house. He receives a large monetary reward for a poetry prize before he dies. Carla falsely tells Clark that Mr. Jamieson has molested her.
Mrs. Sylvia Jamieson
Sylvia is a professor of botany who has been taking care of her ailing husband. She has just returned from Greece, and in the loneliness of new widowhood she is anxious to see Carla again.
Maggie is a friend of Sylvia's who traveled with her to Greece.
Soraya is a friend of Sylvia's who traveled with her to Greece. She interprets Sylvia's bond with Carla as a crush, which annoys Sylvia.
Ruth is Sylvia's friend who lives alone in Toronto and is willing to take Carla in while she finds a place of her own.
Joy is the librarian in town who keeps her horse in Carla's stable. She complains that Clark is not taking adequate care of her horse.
Eric's helper and neighbor, Ailo is protective of him and suspicious of Juliet. She has cared for Ann while she was incapacitated.
The main character in “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” Juliet is a single teacher at the age of twenty-one when she first appears, then is twenty-nine when she resurfaces in the next story as a young mother, and is a forty-four-year-old television celebrity at the opening of the final story. In “Chance,” Juliet is a young accomplished teacher at Torrence House in Vancouver, who is pursuing a doctorate in classics. She is aware that her academic mentors worry that she might get married and waste the energy they have spent on her.
Juanita is Juliet's friend and fellow teacher, who confides that she has been in love with a married man.
Juliet encounters this middle-aged man on the train. He tries to befriend her, but she rejects him. He disappears during the train ride, and Juliet concludes that he has committed suicide.
Eric is another passenger Juliet meets on the train. He is married to Ann, who was paralyzed in a car accident when drunken teenagers plowed into her as she walked home alone from a party she did not want to attend. Eric cares for her until she dies but engages in at least one affair during this time. He welcomes Juliet when she comes to visit him six months later. We learn in the next story that he is a prawn fisherman, and he and Juliet have a child together.
An artist who works with driftwood, Christa had been Eric's mistress while Ann was alive. In the end, the narrator asserts, she will become a great friend and friendly rival to Juliet. In “Silence,” she develops multiple sclerosis.
Sam and Sara's housekeeper Irene is hired to help when Sara becomes unwell. Irene, who is Juliet's age, is neither friendly nor talkative. Juliet learns later that Irene is afraid of her. Irene's father abandoned the family when she was very young. Irene has a two-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son, and lost her husband, who was killed running from the police.
Don is a minister at a church called Trinity, which Juliet thinks is either an Anglican or United Church. He becomes disturbed by Juliet's assertion that she is an atheist and implores her to introduce God to her daughter.
Penelope is Juliet and Eric's thirteen-month-old daughter. In the next story, Penelope is twenty, and has joined a spiritual cult and disappeared. Her absence tortures Juliet, who waits to hear from her.
Juliet's father, Sam, was a popular middle school teacher. After teaching for thirty years, he abruptly retires and begins operating a vegetable market from his home. He had been an admired teacher but was prone to challenging authority.
Sara, Juliet's mother, is extremely weak. She begins projects but cannot finish them because of her lack of energy.
An old schoolmate of Juliet's, Charlie runs into her at the drugstore. He expresses sympathy for what has happened to Juliet's father.
Heather is Penelope's childhood friend. Juliet runs into her at the end of the story, and Heather reveals that while visiting her brother Josh, she ran into Penelope, who is married and has five children. Heather has three children of her own.
Christa's brother Gary becomes one of Juliet's numerous boyfriends. He is cold and rational, and she does not love him.
Larry is Juliet's boyfriend late in life, after Eric's death and after Penelope disappears. He teaches Greek, a topic through which he and Juliet bond.
Mother Joan Shipton
Joan is the leader of the Spiritual Balance Centre, where Penelope has become a member. When Juliet comes to meet with her daughter, Joan tells her apologetically that Penelope has left and seems to take pleasure in challenging her on her lack of faith.
Dana is Neil and Mavis's youngest daughter.
Janey is Neil and Mavis's oldest daughter.
Neil's wife Mavis does not fit in with the Travers family as well as Grace does. She becomes upset by a word game the family plays when she comes to a family gathering alone without Neil and her children.
Neil is Mrs. Travers's oldest son from a previous marriage. He is a doctor and an alcoholic.
Grace is a twenty-year-old waitress in Bailey's Falls. Her aunt and uncle stepped in as parents after her mother died when she was three, and her father left for Saskatchewan, where he has another family. She is academically ambitious, to the dismay of her principal and her aunt and uncle, who feel her proper role is to earn a living caning chairs with her uncle.
Gretchen is Mr. and Mrs. Travers's oldest daughter. In her late twenties, she is married and has children.
Maury is the twenty-one-year-old college senior who falls in love with Grace. He is initially impressed by her protests to conventional femininity.
Mr. Travers, father of Gretchen and Maury, is Mrs. Travers's second husband. His surprise wedding gift to her is their first house. He is a quiet host at the frequent dinner parties the Travers's hold.
Mrs. Travers, the spirited, independent wife of Mr. Travers, feels a special bond with Grace.
Delphine takes a job at the hotel just after Harry and his family move there. She is unusually interested in Lauren and eventually her attention becomes so intense that Lauren avoids her.
Eileen is Harry's wife and Lauren's caring mother. She has a rather unconventional relationship with her husband, and they fight violently at times, but she is dedicated to her daughter's well-being.
Harry has just quit his magazine job and has bought a local newspaper in the town where he and his family spend many of their summers. He is extremely insightful and teaches his daughter to “see the humanity” in everyone.
Daughter of Harry and Eileen, Lauren feels lonely at school and feels a sense of detachment from her mother and father. Her parents raised her liberally, as more of a friend than a subordinate.
Mr. Palagian owns the hotel in town. He allows customers to smoke, but does not allow anyone under age to buy cigarettes.
Danilo's twin brother, Alexander has been a deaf-mute since birth and is completely dependent on Danilo for care.
Robin meets Danilo during one of her trips to Stratford. He owns a clock shop and has a dog. He tells Robin he is from Montenegro and speaks Serbian.
Robin and Joanne's neighbor, Willard is aware of the difficulty of Robin's life.
Joanne has suffered from severe asthma since childhood. She suffers from stunted growth and cannot go out during cold weather or be left alone at night.
Robin is the protagonist of the story. She takes care of her older sister Joanne, who at the age of thirty is four years older than she.
Alan is Nancy and Wilf's son and is a doctor.
Mrs. Box is Nancy's father's housekeeper.
Tessa's helper in the bakery at the sanatorium, Elinor sits quietly as Nancy visits with Tessa.
Nancy's father, who plays a small role as a figure in her diary.
The Matron summons Nancy to the sanatorium where Tessa is kept. She is in charge of deciding what to do with the patients when the sanatorium is closed down.
Euan McKay is a minister and one of Ginny's many suitors.
Nancy is the main character in this story, which begins with her perspective. It is unclear how old she is. Though she seems immature, she is old enough to get married, as she accepts a marriage proposal shortly after the story opens.
Tessa has been friends with Nancy since grade school. She has a sixth sense and can see things others cannot. She is sought out by townspeople to find valuable things that have been lost. Her powers began during the second year of high school when she began to have seizures.
Patricia is Nancy and Wilf's daughter, who is a nurse.
Sid is one of Wilf's friends. Sid teases him about getting his house ready for a wife.
One of Nancy's friends, Ginny is very popular, and has received multiple marriage proposals. She attends church, though has liberal thoughts that give Nancy the impression that she is partly atheist.
Ollie is Wilf's cousin, who is seven months older than Nancy. Though he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and was institutionalized for three years, he has now recovered. Nancy views Ollie as Wilf's opposite. At the opening of the story, he is a journalist who becomes fascinated with Tessa's power to find lost things.
Wilf is a doctor who, after proposing to Ginny, proposes to Nancy. He seems very serious, aloof, and ordinary. He does not relate to Nancy as well as his cousin Ollie does.
Tommy Shuttles is an optometrist who is one of Ginny's suitors.
Susan is Nancy and Wilf's daughter and is a nurse.
One of the driving factors in the characters' desire to run away from home in these stories is the oppression of family. In the opening story, Clark has completely “lost touch with his family” and thinks “families were like a poison in your blood.” Carla is drawn to him because she “despised her parents, their house, their backyard,” writing in her good-bye note that she is in search of “a more authentic kind of life.” Her parents' disapproval of Clark, moreover, “practically guarantee[d]” that she would run away with him. When she runs away from Clark the second time, she does so because she was mistaken in thinking that her life would turn out more “authentic.” In search of a more ideal family, she has found an even more oppressive existence as Clark's wife. Ultimately Carla decides to return to him because she cannot imagine what she would “put in his place”: “What else—who else—could ever be so vivid a challenge?” she thinks. Juliet leaves her family because of their insistence that she “fit in” properly as a girl. She challenges her father's conventionalism: “You don't realize. You don't realize just how stupid this is and what a disgusting place this is to live in.” Juliet feels estranged from her father just the way her daughter Penelope will feel estranged from hers. “I hardly knew him, really,” Penelope says. Juliet thinks, “She was speaking about her father. How strange…she dismissed him.” Juliet recapitulates her own childhood with more extreme fragmentation. When Penelope disappears, Juliet thinks “She had detached herself from Juliet and very likely from the memory of Juliet, and Juliet could not do better than to detach herself in turn.” In “Passion,” a sarcastic Mavis announces at a family gathering, “I'm fine. I don't have any appetite anyway, what with the heat and joys of motherhood,” and then immediately lights a cigarette. This sense of disconnection is mirrored in the conversation Harry has with the family in the hotel at the opening of “Trespasses.” When he learns that a couple has been married for sixty-five years, he asks about the recipe for a happy marriage and the husband replies: “All-eeze keep a foot on er neck.” Harry translates “I'll just put in the paper that you always made sure to get your wife's agreement.” Family obligations keep Robin and Danilo from pursuing a happy life together. And finally, the only reference to Nancy's family appears as an afterthought when Tessa asks her about them late in life:“They're all grown up now,” Nancy sums up, and Tessa concludes “You chose nice names.”
When the characters in Runaway leave their families in search of brighter futures, they seek a new place they can call home, a word that resonates throughout the collection. After Juliet has a heated discussion with her father, in which she defends the choices she has made for her life, she writes to Eric: “I don't know what I'm doing here, I should never have come here, I can't wait to go home.” She then lingers on the word “home,” which appears by itself on the page in its own paragraph. Munro emphasizes the idea of home in contrast to the idea of running away, but does not propose home as an ideal place. In fact, her stories question whether one can return home at all. To Grace, Maury's “easy use of that word—home—seemed slightly off kilter to her, though surely it was one she herself had used.” Grace makes a distinction: “It seemed more fitting to say my aunt and uncle's house.” The difference between a home, a place where identities are solid and comfort abounds, and a house, a physical dwelling place, is emphasized in Carla's remembrance of her childhood, a description replete with physical things: “She despised her parents, their house, their backyard, their photo albums, their vacations, their Cuisinart, their powder room, their walk-in closets, their underground lawn-sprinkling system.” Her search for authenticity is her search for a true home. A similar distinction between a house as a physical dwelling and a home as a psychological retreat and reiteration of identity is made in “Powers.” Nancy is preoccupied with remodeling and rearranging houses at the opening of the story. When she returns from Wilf's newly remodeled house, she writes “I got on to Father at breakfast about how we could build a sunroom off the dining room to at least have one room bright and modern.” In her letter of concern to Tessa, written when she believes Ollie is not acting honorably toward her, she invites her to see “the inside of my new—I mean newly decorated and new to me—house.” She is unable to reach Tessa with her letter, whose reply is just four sentences long, ending “I am sorry not to get to see the inside of your new house. Yours truly, Tessa.” Focusing on the wrong details, the superficial details that do not really matter, represented by her house, Nancy loses Tessa and has no idea that she could have saved her from a horrible fate. It is only late in her life—too late for Tessa—that Nancy realizes what is significant. Munro represents this as Nancy's final desire to take Tessa home. After hearing a series of lies from Ollie about his past with Tessa, Nancy resolves that “The first thing she was going to do when she got home was to…find out what had happened to Tessa, and bring her back to where she belonged.” Though she never accomplishes this, the final scene of the collection has her alone in her own home, able to reconnect with the past with a “sense of being reprieved.”
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- So many of the characters in Munro's stories are running away from something, someone, or memories. Does Munro suggest that running away engenders strength or is a sign of weakness?
- Many of these stories end without resolution. What do you think happens in the ending of the most unresolved of the stories:“Runaway,” “Passion,” “Trespasses,” and “Powers”? Rewrite a concluding set of paragraphs to give resolution to each of the stories.
- Most of the stories in Runaway are told from an omniscient point of view. Why do you think Munro begins her final story with a first-person narrative? Does the ending return to Nancy's perspective? Does Nancy have a special ability to read into the past, or to find the past, just as Tessa finds lost things?
- What do you think of the male characters in these stories? Does Munro suggest depth to each of them that is out of the range of the story? Choose one male character (Clark, Eric, Sam, Harry, Wilf, or Ollie), and develop a detailed description of his version of the same story.
- Many relationships between parents and children are depicted tragically in Runaway. In fact, there does not seem to be a healthy and enduring relationship between parents and their children at all. What does Munro suggest about the mistakes parents make in bringing up their children? Do any of her stories indirectly communicate parental advice?
- Several of the stories reflect on characters' childhoods or youth. Is childhood represented as a disaster one wants to repress as much as possible, or a time in life one regrets losing and looks back on nostalgically?
None of the characters in Munro's fiction are simple or predictable. Many critics have recognized Munro's ability to create empathetic characters and yet avoid sentimentality. But she also works to complicate them. The most fully developed character in the collection is Juliet, who stars in three of the stories. Her decision to abandon the stranger on the train comes as a surprise given the way she is mentally tormented by the thought that she must remain polite. Though she commits this surprising act, she would still “be somewhat miserable,” feeling the effects of her bold decision to reject what she has been taught socially. She surprises herself—and the reader—once again when she stays to wait for Eric rather than retreating when she does not find him home: “The immediate future seems set in place so firmly that she gets up without a thought, looks around for her bag. Then she sits down again, but in another chair. This new view of the kitchen seems to give her resolve. ‘I think I'll stay here,’ she says.” Juliet's unconventional choice to stay waiting for a stranger about whom she knows nothing mirrors Grace's shocking decision to abandon her fiance for his brother, an alcoholic whom she has never met. When Maury comes to pick her up, Neil asks, “You didn't want to go home yet, did you?” and she replies “‘No’…as if she'd seen the word written in front of her, on the wall. As if she was having her eyes tested.” Without revealing characters' thoughts, Munro consistently surprises readers with actions that go against what one might predict.
Narrative Structure: Beginnings as Endings
Munro views her stories architecturally, with rooms that represent the past, present, and future into which her narrator enters and from which she exits freely and repeatedly. Many of these stories begin with the ending, or with an episode near the ending, and it is only upon the second reading that the full significance of the opening is found. For example, “Passion” begins with Grace's search for the Travers's summer home several years after the episodes described in the story take place. “Trespasses,” begins with a scene that takes place at the end of the story—Lauren's burial, and “Tricks” begins in the middle, with Robin panicking about her dress being ready. Munro's disruption of time suggests these stories are more concerned with how events are recalled than with a faithful representation of the plot.
Though these stories range from the early to late twentieth century, and possibly into the twenty-first century where no time is specified, one element that seems constant is the restrictions placed on women. Of course, in “Powers,” which opens in 1927, women have no options but to marry well and raise a family. The alternatives to this scenario are living a single but peaceful life (Ginny) or, if you are an exceptional person with unusual talent, ending up in an institution (Tessa). Robin seems destined to choose between a life serving her sister and a life obsessed with a stranger she has promised to meet in a year:“It was probably a good thing that [Danilo] had decided there should be no letters. Her life would have been drained entirely into composing them and waiting for them.” Instead, the year of her life before reuniting with him is drained entirely by her incessant search to know him through studying his culture at the library. When she thinks Danilo has rejected her, she remains alone, realizing later that her life with him “was all spoiled in one day, in a couple of minutes, not by fits and starts, hopes and losses, in the long-drawn-out way that such things are more often spoiled.” Even until the end, it does not occur to her that she could have gone back to question him. The narrow restrictions these women live by cripple characters even in the more contemporary stories. Carla flees her restrictive parents only to live a more oppressive life, and Juliet rejects a stranger only to run into the arms of another man who will betray her. She finds professional success only to suffer the complete loss of her daughter. There seems to be no escape from the dilemmas these women face, and in the end, most of them end up completely alone.
Rural Canada serves as a significant setting for many of the stories in this collection. While looking out of her train window, Juliet refers to “taiga,” an obscure but accurate reference to the name of the biome in the Canadian region, as well as in Russia. Literally the Russian word for “forest,” taiga connotes the habitat in North America and Eurasia, with an extremely cold winter and warm summer. The extremes in this habitat relate to the extremes with which Julia behaves with the two different men on the train. She is drawn to “the very indifference” of the landscape, “the repetition, the carelessness and contempt for harmony, to be found on the scrambled surface of the Precambrian shield,” another specific reference to her location. The Precambrian shield is an enormous U-shaped region that contains rocks that are several billion years old. Munro represents the area faithfully and accurately, describing the landscape as it would appear: “The rocks were large, sometimes jutting out, sometimes smoothed like boulders, dark gray or quite black. The trees were mostly evergreens…water was free of ice only in an occasional fast-flowing, dark and narrow stream.” Perhaps Munro uses the reference to the oldest exposed rock on earth, along with references to ancient Greek culture, to suggest a sort of timelessness to the experiences she narrates.
Although Munro's work is recognized for its brilliance among some critics, she does not enjoy widespread fame as a popular writer outside of her home country. In his review of Runaway, Jonathan Franzen wonders why: “Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America, but outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 bestsellers, she has never had a large readership.” His review proposes several humorous reasons for this phenomenon. Her work is about “storytelling pleasure,” and because she creates characters that draw readers in so entirely that “there exists a risk that you're merely being entertained,” rather than “feeling productive.” Her “authorial ego,” moreover, disappears, as the dialogue and empathy for characters is so great, and her photograph suggests the face of a friend rather than a writer “wearing the kind of woeful scowl that signifies really serious literary intent.” Nevertheless, Franzen hails Munro as a “pure short-story writer.” Though her stories seem to have the same characters and pattern of development, Franzen writes, they are masterpieces because of the way she reworks her themes: “Look what she can do with nothing but her own small story; the more she returns to it, the more she finds…. This is not a golfer on a practice tee. This is a gymnast in a plain black lyotard, alone on a bare floor, outperforming all the novelists with their flashy costumes and whips and elephants and tigers.” In her review of the collection, Rachel Cusk also admires Munro's “understanding of the long process of moral failure, her rendering of it as part of the decay of human relations.” Cusk concludes her glowing review with a description of what Munro's fiction yields consistently: “No less here than in the past, and in this she is more or less unrivalled, she offers readers a deep, rich, sustained experience of recognition: a bittersweet draught of life.” Finally, Lorrie Moore appreciates Munro's deft ability to construct stories which defy expectations: “There are no happy endings here, but neither are these tales tragedies. They are constructions of calm perplexity, cooly observed human mysteries” with the “thrilling unexpectedness of real life…as it is recalled more than as it is lived.” Recalling that Munro has described her stories as houses with rooms that one can freely enter and exit, Moore notes that in this collection as in others, “memory and passion re-order a life and cause events to feel meaningfully out of sequence in the mind.” Moore also comments on the meaning of Munro's title for this collection, asserting that “All the women here are attempted runaways of some sort, and they seem to feel that the situation they run toward harbors more truth and hope than the difficult daily world they run from, though the story itself will not judge.” Her narratives, Moore concludes, “advocate for mystery” but at the same time “back off from faith or argument of any kind. Munro's world, with its small violent corners, is a revelation of a specific element of human experience: the impossibility of life without tedium, surprise, or paradox.”
Kathleen Helal teaches English literature and composition.
She received her doctorate in twentieth century British and American literature, and has published critical articles in literary journals such as Women's Studies and South Central Review. In this essay, Helal explores the themes of escape and loss in Munro's collection of stories.
Alice Munro's Runaway focuses on characters who leave homes that are too restrictive, or run from facing the shameful consequences of their actions. In the opening story, the main character runs away from home to marry a man for whom her parents express only disapproval. In the next three intertwining stories, the main character's daughter disappears from her mother's life in search of her spirituality. In “Passion,” the protagonist escapes a loveless engagement by allowing herself to be swept away by her fiance's brother. A mother regrets abandoning her baby and returns in search of her in “Trespasses.” And finally, in “Tricks,” the protagonist flees the man who seems to reject her, while in “Powers,” a man runs from his responsibility for a woman who needs special care. These stories also each contain a character who disappears altogether without explanation, characters who are not necessarily central to the stories, but who illuminate the stories' less obvious themes. With these narrative runaways, Munro explores the lives of her characters while experimenting with the absences that control them, black holes in the narratives that shape the meaning the story communicates.
In the first story, Carla is literally the runaway, but it is Flora the white goat who disappears without explanation. Carla is distraught at the goat's disappearance: “the worst thing as far as Carla was concerned was the absence of Flora…[she] was afraid that wild dogs or coyotes had got her, or even a bear.” In the two days Flora has been missing, she appears in Carla's dreams, running away through a barricade. Carla reflects that caring for Flora gives her something to think about other than her troubled relationship with Clark or her worry about Sylvia. Carla's need for Flora mirrors Clark's need for her. After Carla returns from her own attempt to run away from Clark, he confesses to her “When I read your note, it was just like I went hollow inside. It's true. If you ever went away, I'd feel like I didn't have anything left in me.” Carla learns that Flora has returned only through a letter in which Sylvia describes “this white something—descending on us out of the night…terrifying.” Sylvia interprets Flora's return as symbolic of a “good angel in my life and perhaps also in your husband's life and yours.” But Carla's reaction reveals how wrong Sylvia is. Clark clearly chooses not to tell Carla about Flora out of spite. She goes on in life with a bitter tolerance of her husband. The knowledge of Clark's betrayal pierces her, though she tries desperately to suppress her feelings:
It was as if she had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully, she could avoid feeling it. But every once in a while she had to take a deep breath, and it was still there.
She is tempted, in the end, to explore the edge of the forest in search of Flora, and imagines what might have happened to her:
He could have chased Flora away. Or tied her in the back of the truck and driven some distance and set her loose. Taken her back to the place they'd got her from. Not to have her around, reminding them. She might be free.
Needing Flora's absence to keep her from facing her own relationship and life, Carla resists the temptation to get answers. In imagining possible fates for the goat, she imagines alternate, unrealized fates for herself.
The figure who disappears without explanation in “Chance” is the suicidal man on the train. Just before Juliet meets him, she looks out onto the landscape from her window and is “enchanted” by “the very indifference, the repetition, the carelessness and contempt for harmony, to be found on the scrambled surface of the Precambrian shield.” The “shadow” of the stranger who will later commit suicide and then disappear altogether from the narrative appears just as she is in the midst of this thought. In a sense, Munro's use of these disappearing figures mirrors precisely this sense of chaos in a natural world. On a smaller scale, the stranger reminds Juliet of her restrictions as a young woman: “Be available, be friendly (especially if you are not popular)…be accommodating to anybody who wants to suck you dry, even if they know nothing about who you are.” Deciding to reject this restrictive voice, Juliet abandons the man and congratulates herself for securing “The first victory of this sort that she had ever managed.” When she discovers the stranger has thrown himself from the train, she has trouble describing the suicide in a letter to her parents, managing only to call it an “Awful Thump.” As with Flora, the suicide represents the trauma that cannot be expressed in language. Furthermore, Munro links the suicide's fate to a wider perspective. As Juliet searches desperately to avoid the reality of what she has just experienced, perhaps even caused, she finds a passage in a text, which Munro quotes directly: “what to the partial vision of the living appears as the act of a fiend, is perceived by the wider insight of the dead to be an aspect of cosmic justice.” Just as Carla acknowledges she needs Flora's disappearance in order to go on with her life, Juliet needs the scene of the suicide and the reality of the outcome of death to disappear in order to go on with hers. When she meets Eric, she breaks down emotionally over the event, but then during the course of their discussion gets over her guilt and gets on with her life.
In “Soon,” the minister exits without explanation and without returning, an absence that foreshadows Penelope's exit from the narrative in “Silence.” When Don shows up at the door, Juliet sees a figure “a few years older than she was, tall but rather frail-looking, slightly hollow-chested, but vigorous in his greeting, relentless in his smiling.” When Sara sends Juliet to the kitchen to prepare tea, she thinks of her mother and Don exchanging “a few words of prayer,” a thought which “sickened her.” When Don discovers Juliet and her partner are atheists and that they do not plan to develop their daughter's spirituality, he comments “you've decided to reject God's grace. Well. You are adults. But to reject it for your child—it's like denying her nourishment.” After the argument becomes heated, the minister begins to have a diabetic seizure in the hallway in front of Juliet, who helps restore him. As he recovers slowly after drinking soda, he flees from the house without another word. Munro does not create the minister heroically, as if to lay moral judgment on atheism, but does use this conversation to foreshadow the search for faith Penelope will make later in life—a search that will drive her disappearance. Sara tries to describe her newly found faith but can only represent it as a yearning for the future: “My faith isn't so simple…. But it's—all I can say—it's something. It's a—wonderful—something. When it gets really bad for me…I think—Soon.” This “something” lacking in Penelope's life is what causes Juliet to lose her later.
Juliet's silence on the topic of faith at the end of “Soon” also foreshadows her daughter Penelope's silence in the following story. Penelope has been a source of joy for Juliet, as she
has scarcely ever given [Juliet] cause for complaint, and if she wanted to be totally honest, at this point she would say that one day without some contact with her daughter is hard to bear, let alone six months.
When Juliet arrives at the Spiritual Balance Centre to see her daughter, she discovers that Penelope is gone, and can get no additional information from the director, Mother Joan Shipton, who tells her “wherever she has gone, whatever she has decided it will be the right thing for…her spirituality and her growth.” Juliet rejects this idea of spirituality outright, but later she laments “If I'd sent her to Sunday school and taught her to say her prayers this probably wouldn't have happened.” When she hears from one of Penelope's childhood friends that Penelope is alive and has five children, she reflects that “The Penelope Juliet sought was gone. The woman Heather had spotted in Edmonton…who had changed in face and body so that Heather did not recognize her, was nobody Juliet knew.” Penelope's disappearance and silence force Juliet to fabricate a new philosophy on life. She must resign herself to her daughter's absence, but she is desperate to avoid acknowledging responsibility for the disappearance. Perhaps just as Carla takes comfort in not being responsible for Flora's absence, Juliet disavows playing a role in the suicide's death, and then denies credibility to the minister's pleas for her to introduce her daughter to faith. And yet, perhaps Juliet's denial of responsibility for her daughter's running away represents the act we all must commit when facing unbearable circumstances that are completely out of our control. Penelope's absence highlights the inability to control another human being.
Just as Penelope takes her future into her own hands, Grace rebels against attempts to control her. Though Grace literally runs from a controlled future that seemed to be clearly defined for her in “Passion,” it is Neil who disappears unexpectedly and suddenly from the narrative. The story opens with Grace returning after many years to the Travers's home. The narrator wonders, “What was Grace really looking for when she had undertaken this expedition? Maybe the worst thing would have been to get just what she might have thought she was after.” Through this voice, Munro comments subtly on the unexpected disappearances of figures throughout her narrative, the runaways that reveal the complexity and chaos of life as it is. The disappearance of each of these characters brings other characters' lives into focus, the narrator implies. Neil's death—whether intentional or not—is the event that allows Grace to escape what could have been a stifling life. When Neil's father offers her a check to “tidy things up…she thought of sending it back or tearing it up, and sometimes even now she thinks that would have been a grand thing to do.” But she does take the money: Neil's disappearance functions as Grace's to her future and her freedom.
Baby Lauren is the absent ghost of “Trespasses” who, like Neil, is also lost in a car accident. When Harry tells Lauren about the loss of their first baby, he emphasizes how much he and Eileen love her: “the reason we didn't tell you this…is that it might not make you feel very welcome.” Lauren concludes, with Harry's help, that the baby is the source of the fights her parents have. She remembers her mother telling her that “People have to [fight], it's bad to repress your feelings.” Eileen finally tells Lauren the truth—that it was not Lauren who was adopted, but rather the baby they had before her, and that Delphine was that baby's mother. In the end, they seek resolution by burying the baby. When Delphine departs with the new knowledge that Lauren is not her daughter, her interest disappears, and Harry and Eileen reiterate their love for their daughter. In a sense, the baby's existence and disappearance potentially functions to bring the family closer together. Munro ends the story, however, not with this resolution, but with Lauren “furiously pulling the burrs off her pajamas. And as soon as she got those loose she found that they were hanging on to her fingers….” The clinging burrs represent the impossibility of repressing knowledge. Now that she knows more about the past than she should have, she cannot rid herself of the awareness that has just rewritten her childhood.
In “Tricks,” Danilo is the character who disappears unexpectedly. When Robin returns to his shop as she had promised the year before, he looks at her through the door, “he shivered, and involuntarily—but perhaps not—he bared his front teeth. As if the sight of her gave him a positive fright, an apprehension of danger.” When he literally closes the door on her, she reacts “with horror”: “He was putting on this act because it was an easier way to get rid of her than making an explanation, dealing with her astonishment and female carrying-on, her wounded feelings and possible collapse and tears.” She considers the possibilities for what she interprets as his revulsion toward her, and quickly retreats from him. When she learns the truth—that it was Danilo's twin brother she saw that day—she “wants to set [it] in front of someone, some authority.” The narrator comments:
Shakespeare should have prepared her. Twins are often the reason for mix-ups and disasters in Shakespeare. A means to an end, those tricks are supposed to be. And in the end the mysteries are solved, the pranks are forgiven, true love or something like it is rekindled, and those who were fooled have the good grace not to complain.
Here, Munro may well be commenting on her own narrative strategy to disrupt all of these expectations for her readers by dramatizing chaos as a part of life, where mysteries are often not solved, pranks not forgiven, love disappears, and those who were fooled live their lives with bitterness.
In “Powers,” it is Tessa—the psychic who has a special talent for finding lost things and people—who disappears from the narrative without a trace. In a collection where the stories all contain figures that are simply lost without explanation or resolution, it is fitting, though ironic, that Munro's final story contains a character who has the power to find “things that are lost,” a fact that resonates with so many of the other stories in this collection. When Ollie asks for clarification on her power to retrieve the dead, she tells him of two instances that resonate with the lost animal of the first story, Flora, and the dead stranger of the second:
There was a man who they thought walked out the railway track and was caught in a snowstorm and froze to death and they couldn't find him, and she told them, look down by the lake at the bottom of the cliff. And sure enough. Not the railway track at all. And once a cow that had gone missing, she told them it was drowned.
Tessa's ability to locate people would have brought resolution to both Carla and Juliet, had she been a character in their stories. Later, when Nancy visits the institution where Tessa lives, she becomes uneasy, sensing “something…out of kilter.” Nancy experiences a sixth sense of being unsettled here, a feeling that echoes the unsettled nature of the circumstances of Tessa's life.
Nancy learns that Tessa's power to find lost things has been diminished by the violent therapy she has received as her psychic abilities were investigated, a phenomenon she calls “a hole in my head.” Tessa tells her that Ollie was murdered, but all she can offer is a series of disconnected images, as her memory is so fragmented. Unable to get a clear version of what has happened to Tessa, who has endured brain damage, but unable to take her in, Nancy leaves without resolution. When she runs into Ollie by chance on a street in Vancouver a few years later, he tells her Tessa died in the hospital years ago, rather than telling her the truth. In the end, she acknowledges his deception: “All this time she had been waiting for him to say one true word. All this afternoon or maybe a good part of her life.” Ollie, too, is a runaway in this respect—he has abandoned Tessa and their life together.
All of the things and people that disappear from the narrative return with a vengeance, so that nothing can be repressed, and the stories remain unresolved. Munro's masterful collection is thus a complicated commentary on the power and utility of running away. Some characters succeed in disappearing, usually by dying, and they are like ciphers in the text, mysterious codes to be puzzled over, exerting a strange power of the stories in which they appear. Other characters try as they might to run away, only to discover that they can never run quite far enough to sever all connection with the past.
Source: Kathleen Helal, Critical Essay on Runaway, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning,
In the following essay, Cusk marvels at Munro's ability to represent the subtleties and complexities of the private lives women lead in the modern world.
There are a few writers with whom a whole tranche of literate, liberal-minded women can be said to have grown up; writers who have barely seemed to develop but instead have worked from the start at a high level of artistic self-realisation, made possible by their clear and primary interest in the female experience of being. Alice Munro is one and her fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood is another. Fiction seems to issue from such writers in a constant stream that is only rarely worked up into a bigger literary enterprise. This is truer of no one than Munro, whose lack of pretension is equal only to the elemental steadiness of her art.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Love of a Good Woman (1998) is a collection of stories set in Ontario with similar characteristics to the stories in Runaway. In these stories, Munro concentrates on the pivotal moments in her characters' lives that shape their futures.
- Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) earned Munro comparisons to Anton Chekhov and focuses on the delicate intricacies and complexities of relationships.
- As reviewers have hailed Munro as “Canada's Chekhov,” Anton Chekhov's Short Stories would yield insight into that comparison. This collection brings together some of Chekhov's greatest stories, along with a selection of his letters and a set of critical essays on his work.
- Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works (1988) is a great complement to Munro's stories. Like Munro, O'Connor excelled at representing the complexities of life in her region with both compassion and cool detachment, often with shocking twists of the plot and an uneasy resolution to her stories.
The chief characteristics of Munro's art, like that of all great short-story writers, are simplicity and realism, though she is perhaps too partial to human beings to satisfy the most stringent tastes. Nor does she succeed entirely in overcoming the faintly anomalous character of her Canadian settings, though in this regard the solution may be worse than the problem. What really distinguish her writing are her detailed portraits of female constraint: she is unmatched as an artist of the highly nuanced private lives of modern women.
As though to secure for herself this ground—of feminism and its aftermath—more than half the stories in Runaway are set or have their genesis in the 1960s. The collection centres around three narratives concerning a woman called Juliet, whom we meet first as a young graduate in 1965, then as a new mother, and last as a woman in her forties and fifties. Her story is given to us with a necessary degree of hindsight, for over the years her position in history changes and changes again: she is by turns the beneficiary of social change and the victim of its discontinuity, at one moment a pioneer and at the next an experiment.
The title of the first of these stories is “Chance”; it concerns a chance meeting that alters the course of Juliet's life, but the word also refers to the vanquished concept of predictability and the new immanence of danger and chaos in the world of an independent, educated 20-year-old. On a train journey to the girls' school where she has been offered a job teaching classics, she is drawn into a fleeting, dramatic intimacy with a man which, out of a determination caused partly by fear and partly by shame, she forces into permanence.
We next meet her as the ebullient mother of a baby girl, whom she takes to Toronto to visit her parents. Juliet and Eric, the man on the train, live together but are not married. Juliet believes that her parents are liberal and open-minded, but they appear palpably disturbed at her unwed state. What seemed to be a type of conformity—the instinctive clinging to a relationship with a man, amid Juliet's insecurity about her future as an academic—is in fact a revolutionary act that has cast her out.
That which is loved and familiar (home, the past) being tainted, Juliet's next phase of life is fiercely professional. She finds success as a TV presenter and her relationship with Eric ends. Penelope, her daughter, is now the age Juliet was when she made that fateful journey. Juliet derives nearly all her succour from Penelope, for which she pays heavily when Penelope joins a cult and severs all contact with her mother. Years later, living alone, her working life over, Juliet meets someone who tells her that Penelope has had five children.
What is striking about these stories, as in other works by Munro, is her understanding of the long process of moral failure, her rendering of it as part of the decay of human relations. For Munro's women, the need to live for oneself is often the catalyst for this decay, for isolation, catastrophe and pain; yet the need itself arises out of a thirst for self-knowledge and a sense that life has become enveloped in dishonesty. In “Trespasses”, this moral fog is apprehended from a distance by a ten-year-old girl who becomes convinced that she is not really the child of her unhappy, argumentative parents, but was adopted. “This notion was unsettling, but it had a distant charm.”
The family has moved to a new town, where the insinuating woman who works at the local hotel forces Lauren, the girl, into a strange intimacy. She believes that Lauren is her daughter, and not without reason: it transpires that Lauren's parents adopted the woman's baby before Lauren was born and that, unknown to the woman, the baby subsequently died. In “Tricks”, a young woman is so victimised by her unpleasant invalid sister that she cannot believe in the possibility of love, only fate and superstition. Late in life she discovers that she has been mistaken:
but she'll come round to being grateful for the discovery of it. That, at least—the discovery which leaves everything whole, right up to the moment of frivolous intervention. Leaves you outraged, but warmed from a distance, clear of shame.
Runaway is full of the kind of writing for which Munro is rightly admired—the scene in which the church minister with his “unfazed smile” visits Juliet's ailing mother; the grotesquely comic scattering of a dead baby's ashes; the awful exchange between two sisters when one of them returns from an illicit evening out.
“I'm sorry I missed the early train,” Robin said.
“I've had my supper. I had stroganoff.”
“So that's what I'm smelling.”
“And I had a glass of wine.”
“I can smell that too.”
“I think I'll go right up to bed.”
“I think you'd better.”
No less here than in the past, and in this she is more or less unrivalled, she offers readers a deep, rich, sustained experience of recognition: a great, bitter-sweet draught of life.
Source: Rachel Cusk, “Private Lives,” in New Statesman, Vol. 134, No. 4723, January 24, 2005, p. 50.
In this essay, Franzen celebrates Munro's talent in Runaway and wonders why she is not more popular.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Source: Jonathan Franzen, “Runaway: Alice's Wonderland,” in The New York Times Book Review, November 14, 2004, p. 0:(L).
Cusk, Rachel. “Private Lives.” New Statesman. Jan. 24, 2005. p. 50.
Franzen, Jonathan. “'Runaway': Alice's Wonderland.” The New York Times Book Review. Nov. 14, 2004.
Moore, Lorrie. “Leave Them and Love Them.” Atlantic Monthly 134.4723 (2004): pp. 125–128.
Munro, Alice. “Alice Munro.” Canadian Writers at Work: Interviews with Geoff Hancock. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1987. pp. 187–224.
Buxton, Richard. The Complete World of Greek Mythology, Thames and Hudson, 2004.
This comprehensive source explains the myths of Greek culture from which Munro draws in the connected stories surrounding Juliet Henderson's life. The volume also contains illustrations and helpful genealogical tables.
Munro, Sheila. Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro, Union Square Press, 2008.
This is a critically admired memoir concentrating on Munro from the perspective of her oldest daughter, Sheila, who now has two children of her own and has earned a spot on the literary landscape herself through this book. Readers interested in the relation between Munro's stories and the events of her life would find this memoir particularly interesting.
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It, Washington Square Press, 2004.
This classic comedy, to which Munro refers in “Tricks,” is not only enjoyable but also yields insight into the conventions Munro works to disrupt. Betrayal and mistaken identities are major themes in the play, which ends in the characters' happy reconciliation.
Thacker, Robert. Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography, Douglas Gibson Books, 2005.
This biography, published in 2005, is the most recent and thorough account of Munro's life. Thacker, who is considered the ultimate authority on Munro and her work, wrote this biography steadily, with Munro's cooperation, for almost three decades.