How I Met My Husband by Alice Munro, 1974
HOW I MET MY HUSBAND
by Alice Munro, 1974
"How I Met My Husband," collected in Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, is one of Alice Munro's most humorous stories, with a surprise ending that is neither gimmicky nor really surprising. It embodies many of Munro's favorite themes and portrays small-town life with the irony and sensitivity for which she is known.
The story portrays the infatuation of a 15-year-old girl for an itinerant pilot who arrives offering rides in the nearby fairgrounds. Edie is working for Dr. and Mrs. Peebles, a snobbish but cheap couple with little understanding of or interest in the town's social rules. Edie is shocked, for example, when they invite Loretta Bird for dessert, "not knowing any better," for the Birds are country people who do not farm and are, in Edie's opinion, lower in class than farmers like herself. Mrs. Peebles refers dismissively to farmers without realizing that Edie is included in the term. When Dr. Peebles learns why the pilot has come, he says, "I'd like to see this neighborhood from the air." His curiosity and social pretensions mesh nicely. On the other hand, neither Edie nor the Peebles realize how unusual it is for a "hired girl" to eat with her employers. Although both Edie and her employers have strong senses of social superiority, they are not always certain precisely what the rules are.
Much of the story's charm derives from the voice of Edie, who is the narrator. She is a simple girl from a poor background, but she possesses a strength of spirit and independence that leads her to express strong opinions. For example, she ridicules the Peebles's belief that they are working her hard, for they have appliances like a washer and dryer that her own family could only dream of. She is shy but not particularly self-conscious, and like Del Jordan of Munro's Lives of Girls and Women she admires her own body. For all her disdain, born of reverse snobbery, Edie aspires to be like Mrs. Peebles, as evidenced by her donning of her employer's finery while the family is away. The pilot, Chris Watters, comes by looking for water while she is dressed and made up in Mrs. Peebles's things, and his compliments on her appearance enchant her. Yet because she is young, she does not see all of the implications of his flirtation, nor does she fully understand her own responses. All she can think of is the fear that he will tell Mrs. Peebles about her unauthorized "borrowing" of the clothes, and she visits him late one night to ask him to keep her secret.
When Alice Kelling, Chris's fiancée, arrives in town, Chris greets her appearance with little enthusiasm. We learn that his barnstorming is a way of keeping his distance from her. Alice is put up at the Peebles, much to Edie's jealous chagrin, which is made evident through subtle hints like her inability to sleep while Chris and Alice are out on a date. She yearns to take Alice's place: "I go back in bed and imagined about me coming home with him…." The next day Edie is asked to deliver a message to Chris, and she visits him armed with a freshly baked cake. They begin kissing, but Chris wisely stops things from going too far when he remembers her age. He promises to write her a letter. When Edie returns home, a brief misunderstanding about their "intimacies" ensues, one that reveals both Edie's naïveté and the true state of Alice's and Chris's engagement.
For many weeks Chris's letter is a source of hope for Edie, but she finally realizes that it will not come. She ends up marrying the postman who sees her at the mailbox every day, and there is no hint in the story that her second choice is a disappointing one or something she regrets. Edie has romanticized her relationship with Chris, but not to the point of being crushed by reality. She recognizes that people often live with illusions, but she is too wise to cling to them for long, "He always tells the children the story of how I went after him by sitting by the mailbox every day, and naturally I laugh and let him, because I like for people to think what pleases them and makes them happy." To the end Edie remains independent, keeping her cherished secrets to herself.
The story reflects an aspect of Munro's work that is seldom noticed—her strong consciousness of class. The town in which Edie lives and works is highly stratified and operates on definite social rules. The Birds are at the bottom of the social totem pole; Edie is scandalized by Loretta's use of "youse." Edie does not see herself as lower than the Peebles, however, for her own pride is too strong. Yet she does notice the marked difference in lifestyles between her family and the Peebles, especially in their laborsaving devices, and she feels somewhat uncomfortable making use of facilities such as their bath, something that, to her, is very elegant. We must remember, however, that what we see of the town comes through Edie's eyes and that she has social pretensions of her own that lead her to treat Loretta Bird with hilarious contempt. Still, the stratification portrayed is a valid portrait of small-town society.
"How I Met My Husband" is one of Munro's funniest stories. Throughout the story we are led to expect that Chris is one of the title characters, but if we are attentive to the story and not ourselves subject to romantic delusions, the ending should not come as much of a surprise. Edie's wait for the letter gives her temporary respite from the mundane world of the Peebles, but she is too smart and independent to see that respite as anything but temporary: "If there were women all through life waiting, and women busy and not waiting, I knew which I had to be. Even though there might be things the second kind of woman have to pass up and never know about, it still is better." Edie triumphs by growing up and finding happiness where it really exists, not where it exists only as a fantasy or a vain hope.