Royal Beatings by Alice Munro, 1978

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by Alice Munro, 1978

"Royal Beatings" is the first section of Alice Munro's volume of interconnected stories, Who Do You Think You Are? (published in the United States as The Beggar Maid). Like many of Munro's stories, it originally appeared in The New Yorker (March 1977).

"Royal Beatings" introduces us to Rose, the character who will provide the connecting thread for the stories of the volume. She is an imaginative girl from small-town Ontario who moves from an early life of poverty to middle-class existence on the Canadian West Coast, though the transition is never an easy or complete one. In fact this opening story shows Rose's past invading her present; she can never escape the various "beatings" she has experienced physically (at the hands of her father) or fictionally (at the hands of that inveterate storyteller, her stepmother Flo).

Years later, living in Toronto, supposedly sanitized of all contact with Hanratty violence, Rose hears a radio interview with one of the men who severely beat Becky Tyde's abusive father. But the media of radio and time have sanitized him, too: "Horsewhipper into centenarian. Photographed on his birthday, fussed over by nurses, kissed no doubt by a girl reporter…. Living link with our past." In the stories that follow in Who Do You Think You Are?, it is Rose's part to desanitize the past, to acknowledge under the affable centenarianlike surfaces of her present life the horsewhipping nightmares of her past. Indeed, such a project is Munro's in all of her short fiction.

Another Munrovian feature that looms large in this story is the figure of the verbally imaginative young girl living in surroundings of poverty, ignorance, and violence and yet deriving creative energy from those unlikely sources. The story opens, in fact, with the young Rose's puzzling out of Flo's phrase "Royal Beating." "How is a beating royal?" Rose wonders, and she proceeds to construct an elaborate scene, full of ceremonial savagery. This opening passage, too, is emblematic of much of Munro's fiction, for the pairing of ceremony ("royal") with grimy detail ("beatings") is one that many so-called magic realist writers would recognize. Time after time in "Royal Beatings" Rose tries to bring ceremony and detail together; looking at some prettily patterned (but worn) egg cups that once belonged to her own mother, Rose weaves a myth of a "far gentler and more ceremonious time." Rose's father also participates in this pastime, though he endeavors to hide and disown that part of himself; from his workshed drift snatches of words—words that also meld detail and ceremony or art: "Macaroni, pepperoni, Botticelli, beans—"; "The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces" (a line from The Tempest).

But for Rose this habit of mind—that of the artist—produces more tempests than palaces. Oddly enough her father is the one who attempts to beat this propensity out of her. One of the royal beatings of the story is the horrifying one that Rose's father gives her, and it is brought on by an imaginative, verbal crime: "Two Vancouvers fried in snot! Two pickled arseholes tied in a knot!," sings Rose to her younger half-brother Brian, thus incurring the wrath of Flo and the intervention of Rose's father. When he beats her, Rose recognizes that he looks at her not merely with anger but with hatred—hatred, presumably, for that part of himself that produces those cloud-capped words. This generational dynamic is a common one in the stories of Alice Munro; parents and children often express hatred for or shame at each other, not for being so different from what they are but for representing a part of themselves that they are not yet ready to acknowledge—usually, the imaginative, creative, questioning part.

This story also introduces a familiar Munrovian figure, that of the grotesque. Becky Tyde, deformed by polio as a child, physically abused by her father (some Hanrattyans even say impregnated by him), is described as "a big-headed loud-voiced dwarf, with a mascot's sexless swagger." And yet, like other Munro "grotesques" such as Bobby Sherriff from Lives of Girls and Women, she reminds the artist-character that the bizarre often appears in the sheep's clothing of the everyday; sitting in Flo's store, munching cookies, she seems a calm survivor of an extravagantly violent past. As such she plays an important role in the volume of stories as a whole, for she prefigures that wonderful eccentric of the final, title story, Milton Homer, an artist figure by virtue of his twin names, if nothing else.

In "Royal Beatings," however, another early proof that art may be lurking under the cover of domesticity appears in the character of Flo, Rose's grumbling, choleric stepmother. After Rose's royal beatings Flo becomes a ceremonial bearer of sorts, carrying a tray full of fancy sandwiches and cookies and chocolate milk to the bruised Rose. And, on a similar occasion once family harmony has been established, Flo does an amazing trick: placing her head and feet on chairs, she rotates her body. "There was a feeling of permission, relaxation, even a current of happiness, in the room," an older Rose remembers. Occasionally in the domestic world of Hanratty art and ceremony are "permitted"; as she matures Rose will struggle to find the exact conditions for their coexistence.

—Lorraine M. York