Walker Brothers Cowboy

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Walker Brothers Cowboy

Alice Munro 1968

Author Biography

Plot Summary




Historical Context

Critical Overview



Further Reading

Alice Munro is one of Canada’s most renowned contemporary writers. Since the publication of her first volume, Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968, she has produced several important short story collections. Munro has been called a regional writer because many of her stories are set in rural Ontario during the Depression era, where Munro grew up, and evoke a bygone time of hardship and deprivation. Within this world, however, Munro’s central characters often hold on to their sense of wonder and mystery about the world around them, as does the narrator of “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” The family of the narrator—a young girl—has lost their fox farm, and her father has been forced to take a job peddling patent medicines, food flavorings, and poisons to the farmers who live in Ontario’s backcountry, but the girl still looks deeply at the ordinary world and finds enchantment in it. Like many of Munro’s works, “Walker Brothers Cowboy” also explores such universal themes as isolation, identity, and maturation.

Munro further delves into these issues in her collection Lives of Girls and Women, again from the point of view of the narrator of “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” This return to the narrator—Del Jordan— allows interested readers to more closely examine and follow one girl’s path to maturity, and observe how her unique way of looking at the world influences the choices that she makes. “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” however, also stands alone as a fine example of Munro’s skill as a writer and her concerns as a woman.

Author Biography

Alice Munro was born in Ontario in 1931. She grew up on the outskirts of the town of Wingham, in a setting much like Tuppertown, as described by the narrator in “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” As a teenager, Munro began secretly writing stories during her lunch hour because writing was considered a strange activity for a girl. Munro felt a sense of alienation when she began to write, and was self-conscious about her early stories—which she later described as intensely romantic.

In 1949, Munro left home to attend the University of Western Ontario on scholarship. In 1950, her first published story, “The Dimensions of Shadow,” appeared in the university’s student publication. Upon her marriage in 1952, Munro ended her formal education. She and her husband moved to Vancouver and, two years later, to Victoria to open a bookstore. It was around this time that Munro began to write from her own experience, exploring characters and situations found in her native region of southern Ontario.

While raising her children, Munro continued to write and sold a few of her stories to be aired by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. Over the next twelve years, she wrote the stories that appeared in her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. This volume, published in 1968, won the Governor General’s Award—Canada’s highest literary award— the following year. The stories in this collection are autobiographical in origin. Like Ben Jordan, Munro’s father—to whom the collection was dedicated— had a fox farm in the 1930s, and Munro grew up very poor.

In the early 1970s, Munro and her husband separated, and she moved to London, Ontario, with her daughters. By then a respected author, she was given a position as writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario. Over the next few years, she published several more short story collections.

In 1976, Munro remarried and moved to Clinton, Ontario, just a few miles from the town where she grew up. She continued to publish award-winning fiction that drew critical praise, both in Canada and abroad, and traveled extensively to lecture on fiction and the writing process.

Plot Summary

The story begins with the narrator describing a walk she takes with her father down to the banks of Lake Huron. They walk through town, passing the neighbor children, whom she does not know. They pass a deserted factory, a lumberyard, and junkyards. They enter a vacant lot that serves as a park where they sit and look at the water. Farther down, the narrator sees the part of the lake they used to visit before the family moved to Tuppertown from Dungannon. By the docks, instead of the farmers and their wives dressed in their Sunday best, they meet tramps, for whom her father rolls a cigarette. Her father tells her how the Great Lakes were formed, after the ice from the Ice Age retreated. The girl finds it impossible to imagine when this time existed—when dinosaurs roamed the earth. She can’t even imagine when Indians lived around the lake. She reflects on how short a period of time an individual inhabits the earth.

The story changes scene, and the narrator talks about her father’s job as a salesman for Walker Brothers. He goes from door to door in the back country, selling shampoos, medicines, teas, and poison. In Dungannon, the family had a fox farm, but they went bankrupt and were forced to move to Tuppertown, where her father found this job. The girl’s mother is clearly unhappy with their new poverty, and more so, with their fall from the dignity of owning a business to their status as the family of a “pedlar.”

Usually on these summer afternoons, the girl’s mother dresses her daughter and herself up for a trip to the grocery. Today, however, her father invites her mother to drive in the country with him; she has a headache, and he thinks the fresh air might do her good. The mother explains that going with him on his sales calls is not what she had in mind, but the father ends up taking the girl and her younger brother. He tries to convince the mother to come, but she won’t.

Driving to the backcountry, the family sings songs that the father makes up. The father stops at the farmhouses along his route while the children stay in the car. He drives farther and farther away until they are no longer in his territory. Eventually, he pulls into a lane where a woman is picking up the wash from the grass. He gets out of the car and announces himself as the Walker Brothers man. When the woman looks up, it is clear she recognizes him. He introduces her to the children as Nora Cronin. She brings them into the house where they meet her old, blind mother, with whom she lives. The old woman recognizes the father by his voice and says it has been a long time since they saw him.

Nora goes upstairs to change clothes, and when she returns, she is dressed up and is more sociable. She makes orange drinks for the children. The former friends catch each other up to date on their lives. The father says he has only been working for Walker Brothers for a few months, and she tells him about her two sisters, whom he remembers from when he was younger and used to come visit Nora. Eventually, Nora’s mother falls asleep, and they move to the front room even though the father suggests that the children go and play outside.

In the front room, the girl realizes that Nora is Catholic, and she has never been in a Catholic person’s house. She remembers that her grandmother and aunt always say of the Catholics,“They dig with the wrong foot.”

Nora pours herself and the father a whisky, which the girl is surprised to see him drink. The father tells stories about his sales travels, at which Nora laughs heartily. Then he sings his made-up songs. Nora puts on a record, and she and the girl dance, but when the father refuses to dance with her, Nora takes the record off.

Nora invites them for supper, but he says they can’t stay, the children’s mother will worry. Nora invites him to visit again and to bring his wife. Then the father tells Nora where they live, but Nora doesn’t repeat the directions.

On the way home, the girl knows, without being told, not to mention the whisky or the dancing to her mother. Her brother wants the father to sing, but he won’t. They drive back to Tuppertown in the darkening afternoon, in silence.


Nora Cronin

Nora is an old girlfriend of the narrator’s father. She lives with her old, blind mother in a farmhouse. She has never married, a fact that causes her some bitterness. However, she still demonstrates a zest for life, chatting happily and dancing with her visitors. Nora is unlike many people the narrator has met; for one thing, she is Catholic. But the narrator is drawn to her, despite a certain coarseness of appearance (as typified by her profuse sweating, fleshy bosom, and the dark hairs above her lip).

The Father

See Ben Jordan

Ben Jordan

The narrator’s father is a man who does his best to keep up the spirits of his family, despite their recent financial hardships. His tenaciousness is indicated by his holding onto the family fox farm until it was impossible to keep it any longer. Now, he uses that same quality to try and make the best of his new job as a “pedlar.” He makes up songs to amuse himself and exaggerates what happens on his job— even the more unpleasant incidents—to make his family laugh. His visit to Nora demonstrates that he, like his wife, feels drawn to the past.

Mrs. Jordan

The mother continually expresses her discontentment with the present status of her family. She denigrates her husband’s job, refuses to allow her children to play with the neighbors’ children, and overall finds nothing redemptive in their present life. She lives in the past, fondly recalling prior days of tranquility and greater wealth, and she tries to draw her daughter into these fantasies. The mother also resists any attempts at enjoying her life, such as when her husband tells funny stories about his sales calls, but occasionally even she can’t help but laugh.

The Mother

See Mrs. Jordan

The Narrator

The narrator is a preadolescent girl who lives with her father, mother, and younger brother. She demonstrates a level of maturity beyond her years. She is responsible and insightful. She also is finely attuned to what goes on around her. She notices the subtlety in words and expressions and uses this information to better understand the people around her.

The narrator has a close, companionable, and trusting relationship with her father. She is able to learn important lessons from her father even while she understands that he has failed the family in significant ways, particularly economically. By contrast, the narrator has a much more difficult relationship with her mother. She sees through her mother’s pretensions and is embarrassed by them. Partially because of this comprehension, the narrator is unable to respect her mother. She continually resists her mother’s efforts to form an alliance, instead tacitly empathizing with her father and his values.

The narrator’s relationship to people outside of her family is not made clear in the story. However, it seems that she is fairly isolated from her peer group both because of her mother’s snobbism and because of her own maturity.



“Walker Brothers Cowboy” takes place in Canada in the 1930s, a decade when that country— like so many others around the world—was feeling the drastic effects of the Great Depression. It is clear that the narrator’s family’s monetary circumstances have been adversely affected by the world events. The narrator makes reference to a time when her father owned his own business, a silver fox farm. Though they were poor then, “that was a different sort of poverty.” Now the girl’s father is a “pedlar,” indicating that the family has come down in the world.

The mother’s actions in the story most clearly show the poverty of the family, but details do as well: the mother has to alter her old clothes to fit her daughter; the family now lives in a poor neighborhood; and, when visiting Lake Huron, they are now on the side where the tramps can be found, instead of at the Pavillion, where the farmers can be found dressed in their Sunday best. Though the narrator makes it clear that living in the town has certain comforts that they did not have on the farm— indoor plumbing, sidewalks, milk delivery, and Woolworths—the mother sees no virtue in their new life.

When the children and their father drive through the back country, the girl witnesses a more desolate kind of poverty than that of her own family. The roads aren’t paved, the farmhouses are unpainted, the cars are old, and the families use chamber pots. Nora’s kitchen is “threadbare” and the front door is broken.

Despite the physical poverty of this “flat, scorched, empty” land, the visit to Nora’s farm reveals that there exists spiritual richness despite material poverty. Nora may be dressed in a dirty smock—unlike the narrator’s mother, who dresses in her best—but she knows how to make something of what life offers her, even if it is only a brief visit from a former boyfriend. Nora’s embrace of music and dance—symbols of good times—is in marked contrast to Mrs. Jordan’s dour demeanor.


Mrs. Jordan’s pride, as well as her anger, at the family’s new station in life is evident. She deeply resents having “come down in the world.” She dislikes their neighborhood, which is filled with other poor people. The only neighbor she will speak to is another woman who has also come down in the world—“a schoolteacher who married the janitor.” She will not even let her daughter play with the children in the neighborhood. The neighbor women dress differently from Mrs. Jordan; they wear aprons at home and housedresses for the store, but these dresses are “torn under the arms.” Mrs. Jordan, by contrast, wears a good dress, a slip, and freshly whitened shoes. She also enlists her daughter, whose

Topics for Further Study

  • This story was written in the 1960s, but takes place in the 1930s. How do you think Munro’s perception of her childhood years may have affected the writing of the story? Do you find this story to present a sentimentalized version of an impoverished childhood? Or does the story strike you as realistic?
  • Find out more about how the Great Depression affected Canadians. In light of your research, to what extent do you think what happens to the narrator’s family—and the family dynamics—is an accurate portrayal?
  • The 1960s, when this story was written, is generally regarded as a period epitomized by the challenging of societal norms. In that sense, the 1960s were very different from the 1950s. How do you think typical readers of the 1950s and 1960s might have reacted differently to this story?
  • The narrator notices that Nora is a Catholic, and the father makes up a song about Baptists. How important do you think religion is in the society in which the narrator lives? Explain your answer.
  • The narrator’s father seems to get along better with Nora than he does with his wife. What do you think might have broken up their relationship? Do you think he would have ultimately been happier with a wife like Nora? Why or why not?
  • Although the narrator includes many details, with the exception of the mother, she never states how the characters are feeling. How do you think the father views his life and his familial relationships? How do you think the narrator views her family and the changes they have recently gone through?

hair she fixes in curls, in putting on this show of gentility for the neighbors. She is determined to be a “lady shopping,” and for this effort, she puts on a voice “high, proud, and ringing, deliberately different from the voice of any mother on the street.”

The mother’s damaged pride further manifests itself in her inability to be consoled by any comforts that can be drawn from living in a town, such as the convenience of nearby stores and flush-toilets. Her pride also keeps her from seeing beyond her own circumstances even though millions of other Canadians shared such poverty throughout the 1930s. As the narrator relates,“my mother has no time for the national calamity, only ours.”

Mrs. Jordan’s resentment of their new life keeps her from finding any joy in it. Her husband, whom she points out is a “pedlar,” continually tries to brighten her spirits with stories of his travels, but only unwillingly does she laugh. On the day that the story takes place, he has tried to convince her to come for a drive, as the fresh air is bound to help her headache, but such an outing is not the mother’s “idea of a drive in the country.”

Memory and the Past

Memory and the past are central themes in this story. The narrator introduces these themes in the opening section, which does not take place on the same day as the rest of the story. In this section, the narrator contemplates the timelessness of Lake Huron, which is near their home. She has a hard time imagining bygone times in the area and realizes what a short space in history each individual occupies.

Memory and the past also figure throughout the main story. The mother’s inability to reconcile herself to the present is due to her idealization of the past. She tries to recreate their life in Dungannon, going back many years to the “leisurely days before my brother was born.” She is not able to keep from mentioning those days. The narrator pretends to remember far less than she actually does, “wary of being trapped into sympathy or any unwanted emotion”—clearly, unlike her mother, she is doing her best to adapt to their new situation.

The scene at Nora’s farmhouse also relies on the power of memory. Nora instantly recognizes the father, as does Nora’s mother, who recognizes him solely by his voice. Further, Nora’s reception of Ben Jordan is influenced by her recollection of the romance they once shared. From time to time, her voice betrays her bitterness and anger, though whether this stems from not marrying Ben Jordan or not marrying at all is unclear.


Point of View

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” is told in the first person narrative voice, meaning that the events of the story are narrated from the point of view of a single character—in this case, an unnamed, preadolescent girl. Athough all the ideas, impressions, and observations are filtered through her, her remarkable perception provides a full and rich picture of the community in which she lives, the people who populate it—particularly her parents—and the economic woes that face the nation. The narrator allows her prior experiences, as well as what she sees in other people, to influence her telling of events. Thus, she accurately portrays her mother as a woman whose pride undermines the unity of the family, and her father as a man who tries his best to maintain the family’s optimism despite their reduced circumstances.


The story takes place in a small town in Ontario during the 1930s. At that time, Canada was suffering the effects of the Great Depression. The poverty of the time is reflected both in the narrator’s neighborhood and in the recent bankruptcy of her father’s fox farm. The cumulative effects of this economic downturn are alluded to in the narrator’s recitation of the family’s financial troubles:

Up until last winter we had our own business, a fox farm. . . . Prices fell, my father hung on hoping they would get better next year, and they fell again, and he hung on one more year and one more and finally it was not possible to hang on any more, we owed everything to the feed company.

Much of the story, however, is set in the backcountry surrounding the town of Tuppertown. This region also suffers from impoverishment. The land, which the narrator describes as “scorched,” seems to offer little sustenance to the people who work it. As the narrator notes,“The men, if they are working in the fields, are not in any fields that we can see.” The backcountry houses are unpainted and have no indoor plumbing. The setting lacks color: the buildings are gray, the yards are brown, and the dogs are black or brown. The only color the narrator notes is the “rainbow patches” on the rusty old cars. In some ways, this bleak landscape reflects the narrator’s homelife, which may have material comforts but lacks emotional vitality.


The story is divided into two sections: the first section is short, and the second makes up the bulk of the story. The first is general and reflects certain abstract ideas while the second is concrete and details one specific event.

In the first section, the narrator establishes the theme of the fleetingness of time and existence, as well as hinting at the transformation that her family has undergone. The first paragraphs of this section show how the narrator and her family are set apart from their neighbors and no longer occupy the social position they once did. Their social comedown is indicated by their viewpoint of the lake— sitting in a vacant lot on a bench that is missing a slat—as well as the tramps who approach them. The last paragraph of this section brings up more abstract ideas—that, as a human, each individual only occupies this earth for a minute period of time, yet each individual seems to think it is a long time. As the narrator writes, “|e]ven my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in.” The narrator also finds it impossible to imagine when dinosaurs walked this region, before even the Ice Age that formed the Great Lakes, or when Indians lived along the banks of the lake. Her meditation on time sets the stage for her mother’s longing for the past—explored in greater depth in the second section—as well as her father’s nostalgic visit to Nora, the girlfriend of his youth.

The second section of the story is more concrete, and the author has the opportunity to flesh out the abstract, general ideas that she has raised and play them out against flesh-and-blood characters and real situations. This section further clarifies the family’s economic situation and the interpersonal relationships that have resulted from the loss of their farm, as well as exploring her father’s own view of the past.

Historical Context

Canada During the Depression

When the New York stock market crashed in October 1929, Canada almost immediately felt the effects of what would become a worldwide depression. The United States soon reduced Canadian exports to one third of the pre-depression amount. This act had a drastic effect on the Canadian economy, as Canada sold 40 percent of its exports to its southern neighbor. For instance, the number of cars manufactured from 1929 to 1932 went down from 263,000 to 61,000. Canadian wheat farmers were also undersold on the world market by competitors in Argentina, Australia, and Russia. Coupled with reduced wheat purchases by European countries, this caused the price of wheat to plummet from $1.60 a bushel in 1929 to 38 cents only two years later. Other sectors of the Canadian economy were affected by the slump in wheat, such as the railroad and farm machinery industries. In other parts of Canada, the fishing and pulp industries suffered severely.

In 1930, Canadians voted in a Conservative government. Conservative party leader Richard Bedford Bennett, a wealthy lawyer, promised to bring Canada back into the world marketplace by raising tariffs and putting the unemployed back to work. The new government, however, was unable to keep such campaign pledges, and Bennett led the country in its bleakest days. Between 1929 and 1933, for instance, Canada’s foreign trade dropped 67 percent. By the winter of 1932-1933, the national income had fallen almost 50 percent in just over three years.

During the depression, unemployment rates rose drastically; 400,000 Canadians, out of a population of 10 million, had no work, and a million of those employed had only part-time jobs. Parliament passed increased grants for unemployment relief and for the creation of a public works program. By 1935, 10 percent of the population was on some form of welfare.

The prairie provinces, where the economy depended on the wheat harvest, were the hardest hit overall. Between 1933 and 1937, a drought in Saskatchewan and Alberta destroyed the wheat crop. In the early 1930s, 66,000 people left their homes in Saskatchewan, or one in every four farm families. Eventually, the province went bankrupt and asked the federal government for help to pay relief. By the end of the decade, about 250,000 people had relocated from the prairie.

Other provinces also experienced great difficulties, particularly those that relied on crops or forestry. Newfoundland, which at the time was self-governing, had to surrender its government to Britain in return for financial assistance. The industrialized regions of Ontario and Quebec were affected least by the Depression.

Domestic Policies

Bennett’s government also enacted laws and policies that were not centered solely on bringing the country out of the depression. In 1932, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission was created as a publicly owned radio network. It was later reorganized as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which had the increased power to regulate all private broadcasting in Canada.

In 1934, the government created the Bank of Canada. The new national bank was given the power to regulate the nation’s monetary system. It regulated currency and credit, served as a private bankers’ bank (a bank that lends money to other banks), advised the government on financial matters, and printed money.

Canada and the British Commonwealth

In 1931, the Statute of Westminster recognized the existence of the British Commonwealth of Nations in place of the British Empire. On December 11 of that year, Canada became a sovereign state. Despite this new status, Canada had no power to enact changes to the constitution. Although Canada was essentially independent, full legal autonomy was not established until 1949.

In 1932, Canada and eight other countries participated in the Commonwealth Conference in Ottawa to discuss relaxing trade barriers. Britain agreed to raise tariffs against products from countries outside of the British Commonwealth while giving Canada preference for the importation of a number of primary products. Unfortunately, these agreements and new tariffs could not offset Canada’s almost complete lack of trade with the rest of Europe and with the United States.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1920s: In the decade before the depression, Canadian society is almost equally split between urban and rural. About 4.4 million people live in rural surroundings while about 4.3 million people live in urban communities. Agricultural production equals about $1.4 billion (Canadian) per year, and industrial production accounts for about $2.7 billion (Canadian) per year.

    1990s: The Canadian population is essentially urban. 76.6 percent of the population lives in urban communities while the remaining 23.4 percent live in rural surroundings. Agriculture accounts for only 2 percent of the gross national product, and manufacturing accounts for 17 percent.

  • 1930s: In 1929, until the crash of the New York stock market, Canada sold 40 percent of its exports to the United States. By 1931, the United States has reduced imports from Canada to one third of the pre-Depression total.

    1990s: By the late 1990s, Canada is exporting $195 billion (Canadian) of goods a year. Canada’s major trading partners are the United States, Mexico, South Korea, and China. In 1995, the United States, Canada, and Mexico sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to facilitate trade between the three nations.

  • 1935: By the middle of the decade, 10 percent of Canadians receive some sort of public relief.

    1990s: In 1995, just over 3 million Canadians receive some form of welfare.

  • 1930s: By the end of 1932, some 600,000 Canadians out of a population of around 10 million are unemployed. One million people can only secure part-time jobs. By the end of the following year, 23 percent of the labor force is unemployed.

    1990s: In 1992, 9.2 percent of Canadians aged 16 and over are unemployed. In 1999, of the 14.5 million workers aged 15 and over, about 2.7 million are only employed part-time.

Canada and the League of Nations

Although Canada was a member of the League of Nations (established after World War I), the country’s leaders still preferred a policy of relative isolationism. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, provoking a world crisis. Canada followed Britain’s lead—and that of other League of Nations members—and refused to initiate military action to halt the aggression. Canada believed that Japan would stop the invasion on its own accord to avoid alienating western powers, and Canada’s leaders did not want to take sides for fear of losing trade with Japan.

Then, in 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia. The League of Nations decided to boycott trade with Italy. Canada’s representative, W. A. Riddell, suggested adding oil, coal, iron, and steel to the list of sanctioned goods, realizing that these items were critical to a successful and prolonged Italian invasion. However, Riddell had not consulted with the new Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King, before making this proposal. King, fearful of controversy in his country and noting that other powerful countries seemed disinclined to take any true preventative measures against Italy, dismissed this suggestion. Ultimately, so did the League of Nations as a whole, and the invasion of Ethiopia went unchecked.

Canada Enters World War II

The King government seemed intent on keeping Canada out of foreign affairs. King praised Great Britain’s appeasement policy with respect to Nazi aggression in Europe. Indeed, King met German leader Adolf Hitler in 1937 and came away convinced that he was not to be feared as an aggressor. King stolidly held to his notion that peace could be preserved. However, such delusions were destroyed when Hitler’s army invaded Poland in September 1939. Britain and France quickly declared war on Nazi Germany, and one week later the Canadian Parliament also proclaimed the country in a state of war. Immediately, Canada began building up its military strength. Volunteers signed up for the armed forces and by the end of September the army had risen to 55,000 men. The first Canadian soldiers set sail for Europe on December 10, 1939.

Critical Overview

Alice Munro is one of Canada’s most critically acclaimed contemporary writers. She is considered a regional writer because her fictions often focus on characters who live in rural Ontario, exploring their lives and culture. Munro has expressed admiration for regional American writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty, and has stated, “If I’m a regional writer, the region I’m writing about has many things in common with the American South. . . . [It is] Rural Ontario. A closed rural society with a pretty homogenous Scotch-Irish racial strain going slowly to decay.” This society forms the core of many of Munro’s finest story collections, including Dance of the Happy Shades, Lives of Girls and Women, and Who Do You Think You Are?

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” was published in Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968. Many readers found the story collection conveyed an accurate portrayal of a quasi-rural Canadian society held in the grip of the Great Depression. The fifteen stories delve into themes of personal isolation as well as social divisions. In more than one story, Munro shows the segregation of the rural people and the town people. She also explores the identities of her characters as they embark on the process of discovering or rethinking who they are. “The collection’s fifteen stories dramatize the contradictions between life and death,” wrote H. Dahlie in his review of the volume in World Literature Written in English

. . . ..between happiness and despair, between freedom and captivity. . . .. The author’s use of a first-person narrator in eleven of these fifteen stories emphasizes her concern with the subjective dimensions of reality, and the fact that the narrator or reflector of the action is in most cases a young and sensitive girl anticipates the shifting nature of this reality.

Critics have continued to return to this collection in the years since its publication. Some examine it in terms of the art of storywriting while others focus on its evocation of Canadian society in a specific historical era. George Woodcock, a Canadian critic, wrote in Queen’s Quarterly that “Munro offers the portrait of a distinctively Canadian society and does it in a distinctively Canadian way. Her sense of the interplay of setting and tradition is impeccable.” Woodcock further declared that the

three stories of childhood, “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “Images,” and “Boys and Girls,” are perhaps the most important. .. both for their vivid evocation of the decaying rural life . . . and for their delineation of the relationships between parents and children in hard times.

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” is the collection’s opening story. Writes Catherine Sheldrick Ross in the Dictionary of Literary Biography:

It introduces characters who, in various guises and under various names, are central figures in Munro’s fiction: the female narrator, whose extraordinary powers of observation, analysis, and perception make her feel different from other people and rather isolated; her younger brother, who does not notice things and seems to belong comfortably in the world; their father, who is a silver-fox farmer defeated by poverty during the Depression but still preserving an imaginative vision; and their mother, who yearns for gentility and in this story is a figure of exhausted energy.

Ross further finds that the story holds the “heart of Munro’s vision”: the tensions caused by the overlap of the world of mystery onto the everyday world.

The numerous ways in which critics have examined Dance of the Happy Shades clearly demonstrate the richness of the text. Stories such as “Walker Brothers Cowboy” can be appreciated on many levels. A reader can enjoy it in concert with Munro’s other stories about the Jordans, or in isolation. A reader can analyze it for what it says about identity. Or, it can be enjoyed simply for the sheer art of storytelling.


Rena Korb

Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following

What Do I Read Next?

  • Eudora Welty’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist’s Daughter (1972) explores the bonds between a mother and daughter as reflected upon by the daughter after the mother’s death.
  • Flannery O’Connor’s collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) presents vivid characters who occupy the mid-1950s American South. Several of these stories are considered masterpieces of the short story form.
  • Alice Munro’s story “Boys and Girls” in the collection Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) also features the Jordan family. It takes place on the fox farm and centers around the narrator’s (Del Jordan’s) realization of gender differences and the boundaries they impose.
  • John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is set in the United States during the Great Depression. It traces the migration of the Joad family as they move from their farm in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California. A Pulitzer Prize winner, this novel did much to publicize the injustices of migrant labor in the West.
  • Anna Quindlen’s novel Object Lessons (1992) is a coming-of-age story told from the point of view of a teenage girl living in a northeastern suburb of New York City.
  • Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) explores the inner lives of five lonely people living in a Georgia mill town in the 1930s. The main characters are all outcast by their society because of race, politics, disability, or sensibility. It is considered the author’s finest work.
  • Margaret Atwood’s historical novel Alias Grace (1996) centers on the murder of a farm family in nineteenth-century Canada. The novel is set in the same Scotch-Irish setting in which Munro grew up and in which so many of her stories take place.

essay, she compares the three adult characters in Munro’s story and examines their relationship to the past.

In the decades since her first collection of stories was published, Alice Munro has established herself as one of the preeminent contemporary writers of the short story form. Her work has been compared to that of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor— primarily for her skilled storytelling and her evocation of a specific region—and even the short fiction of the great Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. When Dance of the Happy Shades was published in 1968, it immediately garnered critical praise for its author, and she won Canada’s highest literary award, the Governor General’s Award. Since this auspicious beginning, Munro has produced a solid body of work that focuses on numerous themes, but she often returns to those that she raised with her earliest stories, particularly problems of identity and isolation.

“Walker Brothers Cowboy,” the opening story of Dance of the Happy Shades, is, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates writing for the New York Times Book Review, “a beautiful early story.” It features a young narrator, Del Jordan (though she remains unnamed in the story itself), who shows remarkable insight and sensitivity in viewing the world around her and the people who populate it. Del appears in a number of other stories by Munro, both in this and other collections, and these stories allow Munro to explore some of her most important concerns through the dynamics of the Jordan family.

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” takes place shortly after the Jordan family has lost their fox farm. They have relocated to the outskirts of Tuppertown— they are not of the town itself nor of the countryside anymore—and are attempting to forge a new life. While Ben Jordan has found a job—which is difficult in the depression years—selling patent medicines,

“Ben Jordan shows a marked contrast to his wife. He has rebounded from the loss of his fox farm to the best of his ability and found a job at a time when hundreds of thousands of people were out of work. As he tells Nora, ‘It keeps the wolf from the door, keeps him as far away as the back fence.’”

spices, and food flavorings to the farmers who inhabit the backcountry, his wife refuses to accept their new station in life. She endures in a state of active resentment, which manifests itself quite clearly to her daughter. The story focuses primarily on one afternoon when Ben Jordan takes his daughter and son with him on his salesman’s route. They visit a former sweetheart of Ben’s, Nora Cronin, who now lives with her blind mother. The visit between Ben and Nora is tinged with feelings of pleasure, bitterness, and melancholy. By the time they begin the drive back home, the narrator has undergone a formative experience, one that will inevitably contribute to her maturation into womanhood.

The narrator demonstrates remarkable sensitivity for her age. The details she includes present a clear picture of the life she and her family share, as well as her parents’ different ways of dealing with their economic decline. From the beginning of the story, the narrator shows Mrs. Jordan’s assumed superiority over their poor neighbors. She only deigns to speak to one neighbor, another woman who has come down in the world, “being a schoolteacher who married the janitor.” Mrs. Jordan even makes excuses to keep her children from playing with the neighbors’ children. The only direct comment the narrator makes about how she is affected by her mother’s actions is when she admits that she is embarrassed to be seen with her mother in the town: “I loathe even my name when she says it in public, in a voice so high, proud, and ringing, deliberately different from the voice of any other mother on the street.”

The narrator further subtly castigates her mother when she brings up Mrs. Jordan’s “health problems.” “My mother has headaches,” writes the narrator. “She often has to lie down.” Yet the narrator understands, and relates to the reader, that Mrs. Jordan is not actually trying to get better. Instead, Mrs. Jordan looks at the tree outside the porch so she can imagine she is “at home.” Her longing for the farm, however, resides solely in her desire to return to a more genteel lifestyle. She turns down her husband’s suggestion that she get fresh air by accompanying him on his route because “[fjhat is not [her] .. . idea of a drive in the country.” On the day the story takes place, Mr. Jordan takes the children with him to give his wife a rest. The narrator acutely but tactfully observes, “What is there about us that people need to be given a rest from? Never mind.” Her dismissal of her own question shows an astute understanding that her mother’s malaise stems from her insistence on lamenting the past.

Ben Jordan shows a marked contrast to his wife. He has rebounded from the loss of his fox farm to the best of his ability and found a job at a time when hundreds of thousands of people were out of work. As he tells Nora,’“It keeps the wolf from the door, keeps him as far away as the back fence.’” Unlike Mrs. Jordan, Nora appreciates the importance of even a less-than-desirable job: ‘“Well, I guess you count yourself lucky to have the work.”’ Ben also puts forth deliberate effort to make his job an amusing caper, to bolster both his own spirits and those of his family. For instance, he makes up songs about his travels, which he shares with his family; but Mrs. Jordan responds with, “[n]ot a very funny song.” (Though, when her husband exaggerates stories about his day’s visits, she “would laugh finally, unwillingly.”) The song Ben makes up about himself, which he calls “The Walker Brothers Cowboy,” demonstrates the new image he must now create of himself: like a cowboy, Ben is a wanderer in the sparsely inhabited backcountry, a balladeer off on an adventure.

On the afternoon of the story, Ben does take his children on an adventure when he brings them to Nora’s farmhouse. The narrator compares Nora to the women she knows, particularly her mother. When the narrator first sees Nora, she is dressed in a dirty smock and running shoes, resembling nothing less than the townswomen Mrs. Jordan looks down upon. When Nora comes downstairs after changing her clothes, the narrator thinks that Nora’s dress “is flowered more lavishly than anything my mother owns.” The other physical descriptions the narrator applies to Nora are far from attractive. She notes her heavy arms, skin that is “covered with little dark freckles like measles,” and coarse, black hair.

Certainly, as the narrator indicates, both Nora and Mrs. Jordan feel bitterness about the turn their lives have taken—Mrs. Jordan because she has joined the ranks of the town poor, and Nora because she is unmarried and lives a life of relative isolation. But the key difference between the two women is what they choose to make of the moments in life that can offer them pleasure. When Ben tells his stories and sings his songs, Nora laughs as hard as the children do. She even laughs so much that Ben “has to stop and wait for her to get over laughing so he can go on, because she makes him laugh too.” Unlike Mrs. Jordan, who is so caught up in her own needs that she does not see those of her family, Nora offers others the chance to experience joy. She plays a gramophone record for the narrator’s brother. She teaches the narrator to dance, whirling her around until the girl feels “proud.” At this point, Nora’s unrefined physical characteristics no longer bother the narrator. She is close enough to notice the “black hairs at the corners of [Nora’s] mouth,” but she describes them as soft, not coarse. She sees that Nora is sweating under her arms and above her upper lip, but she is not disgusted by this. Instead, dancing with Nora, the narrator feels enveloped in the woman’s “strange gaiety”—unlike her mother, Nora can make the girl feel protected and alive.

Despite the disparity between the three adult characters, they do all have a certain regard for the past. In Mrs. Jordan’s case, the past is all-consuming and her longing for it prevents her from deriving any pleasure in the present. It also threatens the harmony of her family. Ben, too, is drawn to the past, as evidenced by his visit to Nora’s home. He also enjoys the freedom that comes with being in her company, the whisky drinking, the unsuppressed enjoyment in his sales stories. However, he recognizes that he cannot mix his past with his present; thus, he refuses Nora’s suggestion to dance and says they must return home. He still hopes to maintain an enduring connection to Nora, inviting her to drop in on the Jordan household. Nora, however, will not take him up on this invitation. As the narrator reports, although Ben tells Nora how to find the house, “Nora does not repeat these directions.”

Throughout the afternoon, Nora has shown both anger and enjoyment in seeing Ben again, but ultimately has no choice but to recognize that it is just an afternoon’s diversion, however sincere, and that Ben will take his children and she will be alone again. As she tells Ben, “T can drink alone but I can’t dance alone.’”

The narrator takes in these different perceptions of the past, and absorbs them into her own sense of the world around her. On the ride home, she realizes without her father saying anything, “that there are things not to be mentioned” to her mother. The course of the afternoon has added to a young girl’s developing maturity. At once, she shares an understanding with her father but also recognizes that he—and the other adults—are essentially unknowable. “I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon,” are the words the narrator closes with,

darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary, and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.

As E. D. Blodgett writes in Alice Munro, the narrator “becomes gradually aware that the past is a psychological domain that makes of those who appear so intimately ours something other and mysterious.” By the end of the story, the narrator stands on the threshold of the adult world.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Ildiko de Papp Carrington

In the following essay excerpt, Carrington discusses the child narrator in “Walker Brothers Cowboy ” and other Munro stories.

Just as the emotional core of the group of stories discussed in chapter 2 is defined by the common element of uncontrollability shared by the key metaphors in these stories—the surfacing subterranean stream, the bursting boil, the earth-splitting quake, the erupting volcano, and the sudden irruptive violence of often fatal accidents—a second set of somewhat similar metaphors defines the emotional core of earlier stories. These metaphors associate sexuality and death with each other as a terrifying power loose in the world. This association occurs through the metaphorical definition of this power as fire or electricity. . .

“Naturally the child concentrates on her sudden sense of strangeness in a very familiar figure, her own kind father, but the reader is made to see more.”

In “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “Images,” “Boys and Girls,” and the novel, Del, first as a little girl and then as an adolescent, is always the first-person narrator. The little girl in the first two of these stories, although she remains nameless, is identified as Ben Jordan’s daughter, so the reader sees her as younger versions of the same Del Jordan who reappears as a fourth-grader at the beginning of the novel and graduates from high school at its end. . .

The developing narrator in these stories and in the novel is concerned with coming to know the world, especially the same dark world of sexuality and death that the first-person narrator confronts in “At the Other Place.” In “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” the little girl is getting ready to go to school; in “Images” she is so young that she can still remember trying to fall asleep in a crib. In both of these stories, she is a first-person narrator who functions both as the protagonist in the center of what she sees as her story and as the older narrator remembering her younger self.

But in these two stories, even more than in “At the Other Place,” the remembered child’s innocence and ignorance push her to the periphery of the story’s main action, which is what the adults are doing. This effect is less marked in “Walker Brothers Cowboy” than in “Images.” The child in the first story is proud of being older and therefore more observant than her little brother, who “does not notice enough.” But in “Images” she herself does not grasp the central fact of the story, that her mysteriously altered mother is about to give birth. In spite of this difference, however, the two stories have a basic similarity in their manipulation of point of view: they use not only a dual point of view but what is sometimes actually a triple one to emphasize the child’s peripheral position, her innocent eye’s incomprehension of the most powerful facts of life. In both stories these are the sexual facts; in the second story, the “images” also include images of death, as in “At the Other Place,” and these images become metaphors of terrifying electric power.

In “Walker Brothers Cowboy” the main episode is Ben Jordan’s visit to the Cronin farm, but in the introductory section his explanation of how the Great Lakes were formed leaves his little daughter appalled by “[t]he tiny share we have of time.” Although muted and indirect, this initial allusion to death is the somber background against which she then describes the emotional reactions of Nora Cronin to the totally unexpected visit of her former suitor, Ben Jordan, a Walker Brothers salesman. The narrator reports the outward details of how Nora speaks and acts but shows no real comprehension of the complicated reasons for Nora’s behavior. Although the child intuitively senses that the visit to the farm should be kept secret from her stay-at-home mother, at the end she identifies as “things not to be mentioned” only that her father, supposedly a teetotaler, drank whiskey and that Nora tried to teach her to dance. In spite of the explicit thematic summary at the end of the story, the child’s sense of darkness and mystery in her father’s life does not include any emotional comprehension of Nora’s life. Naturally the child concentrates on her sudden sense of strangeness in a very familiar figure, her own kind father, but the reader is made to see more.

Through this additional, implied dimension to the situation, Munro emphasizes the peripheral position of the child reporting the action. The child narrator reports that Nora speaks “harshly” and as if her stomach “hurt” when Jordan and his two children arrive at the Cronin farm. But the narrator does not attempt to explain why Nora, after this obviously painful initial reaction, is suddenly galvanized into action. She changes into a sheer, flowered dress, applies cologne, drinks whiskey, puts a record on the gramophone, and begins to laugh and dance with “strange gaiety.” However, when the father refuses Nora’s breathlessly hopeful invitation to dance with her—a temptation to which he must not yield, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the implied sexual tension between him and his sickly, over-refined wife—Nora, still sweaty with exertion and excitement, takes the record off. By the time her visitors leave, her almost hysterical excitement has turned into bitterness. The reader sees the complicated reasons for Nora’s painfully confused arousal, but the young narrator in the time frame of the story does not state them. She senses that Nora’s Catholicism, indicated by a picture of the Virgin in the Cronin house, was the obstacle preventing her father’s marriage to Nora. But she is too young to grasp Nora’s feelings of betrayal, physical loneliness, and loss, as she struggles to support herself and her blind mother on a farm during the Depression. As in “At the Other Place,” the adults’ sexual emotions are left unstated, but what the child at the edge of the action cannot grasp Munro lets her readers recognize and define for themselves.

Source: Ildiko de Papp Carrington, “The Uncontrollable: A Power Loose in the World,” in Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro, Northern Illinois University Press, 2001, pp. 71-73.

George Woodcock

In the following essay excerpt, Woodcock discusses Munro’s‘documentary methods.

There is a challenging ambivalence in Alice Munro’s stories and her open-ended episodic novels, a glimmering fluctuation between actuality and fictional reality, or, if one prefers it, a tension between autobiography and invention which she manipulates so superbly that both elements are used to the full and in the process enrich each other . . .

Just as magic realist painters create a kind of super-reality by the impeccable presentation of details in a preternaturally clear light, and in this way isolate their images from actuality, so Munro has combined documentary methods with a style as clear as the tempera medium in painting. In this essay I propose to discuss the methods in the hope of illuminating the ends.

Alice Munro has been rightly reluctant to offer theoretical explanations of her methods, for she is quite obviously an anti-dogmatic, the kind of writer who works with feeling ahead of theory. But even on the theoretical level she is shrewd in defining the perimeters of her approach, perhaps negatively rather than positively. She once, for example, in an essay written for John Metcalf s The Narrative Voice, entitled “The Colonel’s Hash Resettled,” cautioned against attempts to read symbolism excessively into her stories. And she was right, for essentially her stories are what they say, offering their meaning with often stark directness, and gaining their effect from their intense visuality, so that they are always vivid in the mind’s eye, which is another way of saying that she has learnt the power of the image and how to turn it to the purposes of prose.

“The sense of something theatrical and unreal and different from ordinary life is given by the fact that Ben Jordan and his old sweetheart Nora Cronin name each other, but nobody else in the story is named.”

Her visuality is not merely a matter of rendering the surface, the realm of mere perception, for she has understood that one of the great advantages of any effective imagist technique is that the image not merely presents itself. It reverberates with the power of its associations, and even with the intensity of its own isolated and illuminated presence. Munro herself conveyed something of this when John Metcalf, remarking on the fact that she seemed to “glory in the surfaces and textures,” asked whether she did not in fact feel “surfaces’ not to be surfaces,” and she answered that there was “a kind of magic . . . about everything,” “a feeling about the intensity of what is there.

When Alice Munro first began to write, her work tended to be undervalued, except by a few exceptionally percipient readers like Robert Weaver, because her tales of Ontario small-town life were taken to be those of a rather conventional realist with a certain flair for local colour. And realism at that time, following its decline in the visual arts, was going into a somewhat lesser eclipse in literature. Canada was becoming aware of modernism, and this meant that for a time at least writers were concerned with thematic and symbolic fiction rather than with anything that savoured of the mimetic.

Alice Munro has always been one of those fortunate and self-sufficient writers who never really become involved in movements or in literary fashions. From her start she had her own view of life, largely as she had lived it herself, and her aim was to express it in a fiction distinguished by craftsmanship and clear vision rather than by self-conscious artifice. It was a curiously paradoxical method of self-cultivation and self-effacement that she followed, for she has always written best when her stories or the episodes in her novels were close to her own experience in a world she knew, yet at the same time she cultivated a prose from which authorly mannerisms were so absent that it seemed as though the stories had their own voices. In the process Alice Munro became, next to Marian Engel, perhaps Canada’s best prose stylist.

But linked to the pellucid clarity of that voice, or voices, there was always the intense vision—and in this context I mean vision as a power of visualizing. The comparison with magic realist painters that I made early in this essay is not merely an analogical one, for Munro is always deeply concerned with describing, with establishing scenes and people clearly in the mind’s eye, and as in real life, so in her stories, we establish our conception of the character of people first by recognizing what they look like and how they speak, and then, such familiarity established, proceeding inward to minds and feelings. The photographic element in her presentation of scenes and characters as visualizable images is an essential factor in her writing . . .

More important, perhaps, is the general resemblance between the kind of realism that Alice Munro developed during the 1950s and that of the early days of modernism, the kind of realism one finds not only in the early Joyce and—more lyrically expressed—in the early Lawrence, but also in their continental European contemporaries like Thomas Mann and Italo Svevo. There is the same tendency towards the Bildungsroman, whether manifest in a novel or disguised in a cluster of related stories; the sense of a society observed with oppressive closeness from within by someone who wants to escape; the concern for the appalling insecurities created by what was then called social climbing, and now is called upward mobility; the agonized awareness of the perils of moving through the transitions of life, from childhood to adolescence, from adulthood to age.

While Alice Munro’s approach has a great deal in common with this European realism of the early part of the century that trembled on the edge of modernism, without herself going forward—as some of the modernists like Joyce and Wyndham Lewis did—from realism to the extremes of formalism, it has little in common with the kind of prairie writing that represented realism for Canadians during the decades between the great wars. Writers such as Robert Stead, Martha Ostenso and Frederick Philip Grove were concerned with the pioneer farmers and their struggle with the frontier lands of the great plains. Alice Munro was dealing with a society that had long passed out of the pioneer stage, and represented a decaying established culture rather than a frontier one. The problem of those who inhabited it was not, as it had been with Grove’s characters, to conquer the wilderness without being destroyed in the process, but to escape before one had been dragged down into the mental stagnation and physical decay of the marginal farmlands of Ontario.

Alice Munro herself grew up in this background, and much of the content of her stories and novels, if it is not strictly autobiographical, does echo the experiences of her youth. Like Del Jordan in Lives of Girls and Women, she was brought up on a farm where her father bred silver foxes without ever prospering greatly; her mother, like Del’s, was a bright, frustrated woman, whose iconoclastic cast of mind contradicted her social ambition, and who died of Parkinson’s disease. Again like more than one of her heroines, Munro married and moved west to British Columbia, which gave her another terrain for her stories; also like them, she stepped out of a distintegrating marriage and returned to Ontario. In other words, she wrote of what she knew best, and while each of her stories lives within its own complete world and is not a mere mirroring of the writer’s life, it is inevitable that the fictions she drew out of the intensely remembered country of her childhood should be more convincing than those she conceived in British Columbia, where she was never completely at home . . .

The three stories of childhood,“Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “Image” and “Boys and Girls,” are perhaps the most important of this group, both for their vivid evocation of the decaying rural life a century after the pioneers of Upper Canada, and for their delineation of the relationships between parents and children in hard times.

“Walker Brothers Cowboy,” the opening story of the book, takes us to a time when the silver fox farm has failed and Ben Jordan has taken up peddling the patent medicines, spices and food flavourings distributed by Walker Brothers. The story, told by his daughter who does not name herself, begins by relating this time of stress and need to the slightly better past on the farm. The girl’s mother, also unnamed, tries desperately to maintain self-respect in a situation she sees as a demeaning loss of social standing, even though she lives physically better in the town than on the farm.

Fate has flung us onto a street of poor people (it does not matter that we were poor before, that was a different kind of poverty), and the only way to take this, as she sees it, is with dignity, with bitterness, with no reconciliation. No bathroom with claw-footed tub and a flush toilet is going to comfort her, nor water on tap and sidewalks past the house and milk in bottles, nor even the two movie theatres and the Venus Restaurant and Woolworths so marvellous it has live birds singing in its fan-cooled corners and fish as tiny as finger-nails, as bright as moons, swimming in its green tanks. My mother does not care.

The father, more self-contained, more ironic, finds ways to live with Depression conditions and salvage his pride. As the story opens we see him walking with his daughter beside Lake Huron and telling her how the Great Lakes were gouged out of the earth by the ice coming down in great probing fingers from the north. Clearly the girl prefers her father’s company to her mother’s:

She walks serenely like a lady shopping, like a lady shopping, past the housewives in loose beltless dresses torn under the arms. With me her creation, wretched curls and flaunting hair bow, scrubbed knees and white socks—all I do not want to be. I loathe even my name when she says it in public, in a voice so high, proud and ringing, deliberately different from the voice of any other mother on the street.

Travelling his route of the desperate dusty farmlands, Ben Jordan makes fun of his situation by improvising as he rides a kind of endless ballad of his adventures on the road, and this becomes a kind of leitmotiv one day when he sets out with the girl and her brother and, leaving his Walker Brothers territory, takes them to a farmhouse where a woman who was once his sweetheart is living. The clean bare farmhouse with Catholic emblems on the walls and an old woman dozing in a corner becomes a kind of stage on which is revealed to the girl that people we know may have dimensions to their lives of which to this point we have been unaware. The sense of something theatrical and unreal and different from ordinary life is given by the fact that Ben Jordan and his old sweetheart Nora Cronin name each other, but nobody else in the story is named. The strangeness of the hitherto unknown past is framed within the nameless ordinariness of the present.

Source: George Woodcock,“The Plots of Life: The Realism of Alice Munro,” in Queen’s Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 2, Summer 1986, pp. 235-43.

H. Dahlie

In the following essay excerpt, Dahlie focuses on “the recurring isolation and rejection pattern” in Munro’s stories, identifying the “fear of disintegration of self’ present in Ben’s daughter.

Up to a point, it is meaningful to divide Alice Munro’s characters into two categories—the secure and the insecure, or the adjusted and the maladjusted, or the accepted and the rejected—but a more than superficial examination reveals that these oppositions are quite inadequate to explain their real natures. Mrs. Munro’s world is neither consistent nor readily comprehensible; and as the reader struggles with its many paradoxes, contradictions, and ambiguities, he finds himself compelled to reassess characters and their motives, and ultimately to realize that “normal” characters in the conventional sense rarely exist in this world. On the surface, much seems straightforward—family relationships, ordinary friendships, love affairs—but there is always something gnawing at the edges of our certainties, and we recognize that the basic pattern in Alice Munro is isolation rather than community, rejection rather than acceptance. And though these kinds of relationships may in part be due to rural and small-town settings, the emphasis in most of her stories is psychological rather than sociological; the ultimate despair or resignation that the reader experiences is in part the product of the sense of inevitability and immutability that characterizes the various human relationships.

It is this vision of the world and of reality that strikes one in reading Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades, the title of which takes on an increasingly ironic note. The collection’s fifteen stories dramatize the contradictions between life and death, between happiness and despair, between freedom and captivity; and the “dance” itself, as it were, frequently reflects an element of the grotesque. The author’s use of a first-person narrator in eleven of these fifteen stories emphasizes her concern with the subjective dimensions of reality, and the fact that the narrator or reflector of the action is in most cases a young and sensitive girl anticipates the shifting nature of this reality. In a very real sense, the narrator stands uneasily between two positions: on the one hand, she is an active participant in, or even instigator of, the action, and on the other hand she stands apart from it as a kind of intuitive moral critic. In this ambivalent position she is not unlike R. D. Laing’s “divided self”: a convincing representation of the idea that a more or less permanent state of tension is both inevitable and quite acceptable.

“This fear of the disintegration of self recurs frequently in Alice Munro, and illustrates her essentially existential view of reality.”

A basic pattern in most of these stories reveals the sensitive narrator-figure emerging through her experiences to a point where she senses, even though she cannot normally articulate the fact, that a kind of moral chaos rules everything, and that one can find nothing tangible or lasting to give security or meaning to life.“Things are getting out of hand, anything may happen,” the narrator reflects in the title story, and this theme of uncertainty and undefined fear is emphasized throughout the stories. In human terms, the various tensions are dramatized in situations described as.. . . “unconsummated relationships” which, in the words of one of the narrators, “depress outsiders perhaps more than anybody else.” We would perhaps agree with this narrator—and in a very real sense the reader is the ultimate outsider in any fictional experience—but it seems to me that this remark points to one of the many ambiguities in Alice Munro: is the unconsummated relationship as depressing as an outsider believes, or is it in fact, as far as the participants are concerned, a means of hanging on to whatever they have? R. D. Laing argues convincingly on this point when he states that “the ontologically insecure person is preoccupied with preserving rather than gratifying himself: the ordinary circumstances of living threaten his low threshold of security.” In this light, many of Alice Munro’s characters, such as Maddy in “The Peace of Utrecht,” Miss Marsalles in “Dance of the Happy Shades,” or Ben Jordan in “Walker Brothers Cowboy” assume a different dimension altogether, and their refusal or inability to fulfill themselves in a manner meaningful to the outsider might not be such a defeat after all.

Nevertheless, the recurring isolation and rejection pattern in these and other stories underscores the general sense of alienation which informs Mrs. Munro’s fiction. In “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” for example, this pattern is established at the outset through a momentary glimpse of the children who “separate into islands of two or one . . . occupying themselves in . . . solitary ways.” This situation is paralleled in the division within the Jordan family, particularly in the opposition between the mother and the rest of the family. An inward-turning and unimaginative person, Mrs. Jordan restricts herself to a very narrow range of experiences, deliberately closes her eyes on the realities of her world, and chooses to remain in the seclusion of her home, “always darkened by the wall of the house next door.” Ben Jordan, on the other hand, knows “the quick way out of town,” and travels constantly, outside his own territory. In this tendency, he finds sympathetic collaborators in his two children, particularly the daughter, who is the narrator of this story. Caught up in the tension between her father and mother, she is unable to sort out the impulses or motives of either; she is in league with her father, as it were, mainly because of the excitement provided by his travels, both within and outside his territory.

But Ben, too, is a participant in an “unconsummated relationship,” not only with his wife, but also in the tentative affair he is carrying on with Nora Cronin. He can pursue this relationship only so far, in part because of restrictive social and marital conventions, but also because he knows that it cannot really work out, and because he senses that a consummated affair would in fact destroy it. Nora clearly is the real loser in this kind of relationship. “I can drink alone,”’ she tells Ben when he refuses to dance with her, ‘“but I can’t dance alone”’; and this is the real meaning of isolation and rejection brought down to an agonizingly tangible level. The meaning of this whole experience for Ben’s daughter is not clear, though she understands enough to realize that she is to say nothing to her mother about it. Its full significance is, however, both ambiguous and frightening:

I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.

In this incipient formulation of ideas, Ben’s daughter touches upon the ecstasies, the terrors, and the contradictions of existence; but the overriding idea is that of unpredictability and uncertainty. She feels isolated in time, and in this respect she stands apart from her father: “The tiny share we have of time appalls me,” she muses at one point, “though my father seems to regard it with tranquillity. . . He was not alive when this century started. I will be barely alive—old, old—when it ends. I do not like to think of it.” This fear of the disintegration of self recurs frequently in Alice Munro, and illustrates her essentially existential view of reality. In this vision, she is at times close to that of Samuel Beckett, and many of her situations evoke an echo of one of his basic questions, “How can one be sure in such darkness?”

Source: H. Dahlie, “Unconsummated Relationships: Isolation and Rejection in Alice Munro’s Stories,” in World Literature in English, Vol. 11, No. 1, April 1972, pp. 43–5.


Blodgett, E. D., Alice Munro, G. K. Hall and Company, 1988.

Dahlie, H., Review of Dance of the Happy Shades, in World Literature Written in English, April 1972, pp. 42–48.

Oates, Joyce Carol, Review of The Progress of Love, in New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1986, pp. 7, 9.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, “Alice Munro,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 53, Gale Research, 1986.

Woodcock, George, “The Plots of Life: The Realism of Alice Munro,” in Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 1986, pp. 235–50.

Further Reading

Beran, Carol L.,“The Luxury of Excellence: Alice Munro in the ‘New Yorker,’” in Essays on Canadian Writing, Winter 1998, p. 204.

This interview with Munro focuses on the intention of her fiction to relate experiences of human behavior.

Braithwaite, Max, The Hungry Thirties, 1930–1940, Canada’s Illustrated Heritage, 1978.

Braithwaite provides an illustrated overview of Canada during the depression.

Broadfoot, Barry, Ten Lost Years, 1929–1939, Doubleday Canada, 1973.

Ten Lost Years is a collection of persona] reminiscences from people who lived in Canada during the depression.

Carrington, Ildiko de Papp, Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro, Northern Illinois University Press, 1989.

In this article, Canadian critic de Papp Carrington discusses Munro’s fiction.

Conron, Brandon, “Munro’s Wonderland,” in Canadian Literature, Autumn 1978, pp. 109–23.

In this article, Conron discusses Munro’s style and technique in her early short story collections.

Munro, Alice, “Dance of the Happy Shades: And Other Stories,” Vintage, 1998.

A Collection of Munro’s short stories.

Munro, Alice, Pleuke Boyce, and Ron Smith, “A National Treasure,” in Meanjin, Vol. 54, No. 2, 1995, pp. 222–32.

This essay discusses Munro’s short fiction that has appeared in the New Yorker, which the author contends has an intimate but universal appeal to readers.