Munro, Alice (Anne)
MUNRO, Alice (Anne)
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Alice Anne Laidlaw, Wingham, Ontario, 10 July 1931. Education: Wingham public schools; University of Western Ontario, London, 1949-51. Family: Married 1) James Armstrong Munro in 1951 (separated 1972; divorced 1976), four daughters (one deceased); 2) Gerald Fremlin in 1976. Lived in Vancouver, 1951-63, Victoria, British Columbia, 1963-71, London, Ontario, 1972-75, and Clinton, Ontario, from 1976. Career: Writerin-residence, University of Western Ontario, 1974-75, and University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1980. Awards: Governor-General's award, 1969, 1978, 1987; B.C. Library Association Outstanding Fiction Writer's award, 1972; Great Lakes Colleges Association award, 1974; Province of Ontario Council for the Arts award, 1974; Canada-Australia literary prize, 1977; National Magazine Awards Foundation Gold Medal award, 1977, 1982; Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters and Periodical Distributors of Canada Author's award, 1980; Marian Engel award, 1986; Canada Council Molson prize, 1991; Commonwealth Writers prize (Canada and Caribbean Region), 1991; Trillium Book award, 1991; Order of Ontario medal, 1994; Canada-Australia Literary Prize, 1994; Canadian Booksellers Association Author of the Year award, 1995; Giller Prize, 1998. D. Litt.: University of Western Ontario, 1976. Address: c/o Writers Union of Canada, 24 Ryerson Street, Toronto, Ontario M5T 2P4, Canada.
Lives of Girls and Women. Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1971;New York, McGraw Hill, 1972; London, Allen Lane, 1973.
Queenie. London, Profile Books, 1999.
Dance of the Happy Shades. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1968; NewYork, McGraw Hill, 1973; London, Allen Lane, 1974.
Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories. Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, and New York, McGraw Hill, 1974.
Who Do You Think You Are? Toronto, Macmillan, 1978; as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, New York, Knopf, 1979; London, Allen Lane, 1980.
The Moons of Jupiter. Toronto, Macmillan, 1982; New York, Knopf, and London, Allen Lane, 1983.
The Progress of Love. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and NewYork, Knopf, 1986; London, Chatto and Windus, 1987.
Friend of My Youth. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1990.
A Wilderness Station. New York, Knopf, 1994.
Open Secrets. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1994.
Selected Stories. New York, Knopf, 1996.
The Love of a Good Woman: Stories. New York, Knopf, 1998.
How I Met My Husband (televised 1974). Published in The Play's the Thing, edited by Tony Gifford, Toronto, Macmillan, 1976.
A Trip to the Coast, 1973; Thanks for the Ride, CBC, 1973; How I Met My Husband, 1974; 1847: The Irish (The Newcomers series), 1978.*
"Alice Munro: A Checklist (To December 31, 1974)" by D.E. Cook, in Journal of Canadian Fiction 16, 1976; "Some Highly Subversive Activities: A Brief Polemic and a Checklist of Works on Alice Munro" by J.R. (Tim) Struthers, in Studies in Canadian Literature 6, 1981; "Munro, Alice (1931-)" by Helen Hoy, in her Modern English-Canadian Prose: A Guide to Information Sources, Detroit, Gale Research, 1983; "Alice Munro: An Annotated Bibliography" by Robert Thacker, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors: Volume Five, edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1984; The Alice Munro Papers First Accession: An Inventory of the Archive at The University of Calgary Libraries compiled by Jean M. Moore and Jean F. Tener and edited by Apollonia Steele and Jean F. Tener, Calgary, University of Calgary Press, 1986; The Alice Munro Papers Second Accession: An Inventory of the Archive at The University of Calgary Libraries compiled by Jean M. Moore and edited by Apollonia Steele and Jean F. Tener, Calgary, University of Calgary Press, 1987; "Munro, Alice (1931-)" by Allan Weiss, in his A Comprehensive Bibliography of English-Canadian Short Stories, 1950-1983, Toronto, ECW Press, 1988.
The University of Calgary Libraries, Alberta.
"A Conversation with Alice Munro" in Journal of Canadian Fiction 1(4), 1972, and "Casting Sad Spells: Alice Munro's 'Walker Brothers Cowboy"' in Writers in Aspic, Montreal, Vehicule Press, 1988, both by John Metcalf; "Unconsummated Relationships: Isolation and Rejection in Alice Munro's Stories," in World Literature Written in English, 11(1), 1972, "The Fiction of Alice Munro," in Ploughshares 4(3), 1978, and Alice Munro and Her Works, Toronto, ECW Press, 1985, all by Hallvard Dahlie; "Alice Munro" by Graeme Gibson, in his Eleven Canadian Novelists: Interviewed by Graeme Gibson, Toronto, House of Anansi Press, 1973; "Alice Munro and the American South," in Here and Now, The Canadian Novel, edited by John Moss, vol. 1, Toronto, NC Press, 1978, and "Reality and Ordering: The Growth of a Young Artist in Lives of Girls and Women, " in Modern Canadian Fiction, Richmond, British Columbia, Open Learning Institute, 1980, both by J.R. (Tim) Struthers; "Pronouns and Propositions: Alice Munro's Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You, " by W.H. New, in his Dreams of Speech and Violence: The Art of the Short Story in Canada and New Zealand, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1987; "Women's Lives: Alice Munro" by Bronwen Wallace, in The Human Elements: Critical Essays, edited by David Helwig, Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1978; "Alice Munro and James Joyce," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, 24, 1979, and Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel, Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 1987, both by W.R. Martin; "'Dull, Simple, Amazing and Unfathomable': Paradox and Double Vision in Alice Munro's Fiction," in Studies in Canadian Literature 5, 1980, and "Alice Munro: 'Unforgettable, Indigestible Messages'," in Journal of Canadian Studies, 26(1), 1991, and "'Rose and Janet': Alice Munro's Metafiction," in Canadian Literature, 121, 1989, all by Helen Hoy; "Alice Munro" by Geoff Hancock, in his Canadian Writers at Work: Interviews with Geoff Hancock, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1987; Probable Fictions: Alice Munro's Narrative Acts edited by Louis K. MacKendrick, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1983, and Some Other Reality: Alice Munro's "Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You" by MacKendrick, Toronto, ECW Press, 1993; "Three Jokers: The Shape of Alice Munro's Stories," in Centre and Labyrinth: Essays in Honour of Northrop Frye, edited by Eleanor Cook et al, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1983, and The Other Country: Patterns in the Writing of Alice Munro, Toronto, ECW Press, 1993, both by James Carscallen; Alice Munro by B. Pfaus, Ottawa, Golden Dog Press, 1984; The Art of Alice Munro: Saying the Unsayable edited by Judith Miller, Waterloo, Ontario, University of Waterloo Press, 1984; "Connection: Alice Munro and Ontario," in The American Review of Canadian Studies 14, 1984, and "Conferring Munro" in Essays on Canadian Writing 34, 1987, "Go Ask Alice: The Progress of Munro Criticism," in Journal of Canadian Studies, 26(2), 1991, all by Robert Thacker; "'What Happened to Marion?': Art and Reality in Lives of Girls and Women " by Thomas E. Tausky, in Studies in Canadian Literature, 11(1), 1986; Alice Munro by E.D. Blodgett, Boston, Twayne/Hall, 1988; "Alice Munro" by Michelle Gadpaille, in her The Canadian Short Story, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1988; "The Other Side of Dailiness": Photography in the Works of Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Laurence by Lorraine M. York, Toronto, ECW Press, 1988; "Alice Munro" by W.J. Keith, in his A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada, Toronto, ECW Press, 1989; Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro by Ildiko de Papp Carrington, DeKalb, Northern Illinois University Press, 1989; Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro by Beverly J. Rasporich, Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 1990; Introducing Alice Munro's "Lives of Girls and Women": A Reader's Guide by Neil K. Besner, Toronto, ECW Press, 1990; Alice Munro: A Double Life by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Toronto, ECW Press, 1992; Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro, and the Poetics of Elegy by Karen Smythe, Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992; "A Hopeful Sign: The Making of Metonymic Meaning in Munro's 'Meneseteung"' by Pam Houston, in The Kenyon Review 14.4, 1992; Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro by Magdalene Redekop, London, Routledge, 1992; How Stories Mean edited by John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers, Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1993; "Alice Munro: The Art of Fiction CXXXVII" by Jean McCulloch and Mona Simpson, in The Paris Review 131, 1994; The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro's Discourse of Absence by Ajay Heble, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1994; "The Woman Out Back: Alice Munro's 'Meneseteung"' by Dermot McCarthy, in Studies in Canadian Literature, 19(1), 1994; "A National Treasure: An Interview with Alice Munro" by Pleuke Boyce and Ron Smith, in O Canada 2, edited by Cassandra Pybus, Meanjin, 54, 1995; The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers: Alice Munro, Hugh Hood, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje by John Cooke, Lewiston, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1996; Alice Munro by Coral Ann Howells, Manchester, England, and New York, Manchester University Press, 1998; The Rest of the Story: Critical Essays on Alice Munro, edited by Robert Thacker, Toronto, ECW Press, 1999.
Alice Munro comments:
(1982) I did promise to talk about using reality. "Why, if Jubilee isn't Wingham, has it got a Shuter Street in it?" people want to know. Why have I described somebody's real ceramic elephant sitting on the mantelpiece? I could say I get momentum from doing things like this. The fictional room, town, world, needs a bit of starter dough from the real world. It's a device to help the writer—at least it helps me—but it arouses a certain baulked fury in the people who really do live on Shuter Street and the lady who owns the ceramic elephant. "Why do you put in something true and then go and tell lies?" they say, and anybody who has been on the receiving end of this kind of thing knows how they feel.
"I do it for the sake of my art and to make this structure which encloses the soul of my story, that I've been telling you about," says the writer. "That is more important than anything." Not to everybody it isn't.
So I can see there might be a case, once you've written the story and got the momentum, for going back and changing the elephant to a camel (though there's always a chance the lady might complain that you made a nasty camel out of a beautiful elephant), and changing Shuter Street to Blank Street. But what about the big chunks of reality, without which your story can't exist? In the story "Royal Beatings," I use a big chunk of reality: the story of the butcher, and of the young men who may have been egged on to "get" him. This is a story out of an old newspaper; it really did happen in a town I know. There is no legal difficulty about using it because it has been printed in a newspaper, and besides, the people who figure in it are all long dead. But there is a difficulty about offending people in that town who would feel that use of this story is a deliberate exposure, taunt and insult. Other people who have no connection with the real happening would say "Why write about anything so hideous?" And lest you think that such an objection could only be raised by simple folk who read nothing but Harlequin Romances, let me tell you that one of the questions most frequently asked at universities is, "Why do you write about things that are so depressing?" People can accept almost any amount of ugliness if it is contained in a familiar formula, as it is on television, but when they come closer to their own place, their own lives, they are much offended by lack of editing.
There are ways I can defend myself against such objections. I can say, "I do it in the interests of historical reality. That is what the old days were really like." Or, "I do it to show the dark side of human nature, the beast let loose, the evil we can run up against in communities and families." In certain countries I could say, "I do it to show how bad things were under the old system when there were prosperous butchers and young fellows hanging around livery stables and nobody thought about building a new society." But the fact is, the minute I say to show I am telling a lie. I don't do it to show anything. I put this story at the heart of my story because I need it there and it belongs there. It is the black room at the centre of the house with all other rooms leading to and away from it. That is all. A strange defence. Who told me to write this story? Who feels any need of it before it is written? I do. I do, so that I might grab off this piece of horrid reality and install it where I see fit, even if Hat Nettleton and his friends were still around to make me sorry.* * *
Alice Munro is not an explicitly political or feminist writer, nor does she write autobiography. However, her stories are largely concerned with the struggle between rebellion and respectability; they dramatize the "underbelly of relationships"; and in each collection we regularly see the same small-town, rural, Canadian setting where she grew up and continues to live "because I live life here at a level of irritation which I would not achieve in a place that I knew less well."
The stories are studies in perspective. They take family structures, neighborhoods, individuals, and groups of people, and show how they shift in the memory as they appear suddenly from an unexpected angle. Her characters move through layers of time and reality, and it is the gaps between those layers that reveal the power of Munro's fiction. "There are no such things as big and little subjects," she has said. "The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other."
Her first book of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, charts the adolescent discovery of love and fear. "Boys and Girls" deals with two recurring themes in Munro's stories: domestic power plays and the impossibility of the functional mother/daughter relationship. When a girl, whose mother was "plotting to get me to stay in the house more, although she knew I hated it (because she knew I hated it) and keep me from working for my father" cries, it is because "she's only a girl." "I didn't protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true." Early sexual experiences in "Postcard" and "Thanks for the Ride" provide the vehicle for exploring adult sexual deceit. Many of the stories in this collection present a recognizable physical world rendered impenetrable by the emotionally disaffected people attempting to exist in it.
Munro's first novel, Lives of Girls and Women, follows the life of Del Jordan, a woman struggling to avoid the obscurity made seemingly inevitable by growing up in a small town, Jubilee. As Del Jordan remembers the milestones of her emotional growth, we see her pursuing different ways of being "endangered and desired." The novel is in a sense less satisfying than Munro's short stories; the form affords Del Jordan the opportunity to "go out and take on all kinds of experiences … and come back proud." But it does not make her any more complex a character than those who live in the short stories.
In the next collection of stories—Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You —the emphasis is on remembering, rather than projecting; on making sense of the past. Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You is one of Munro's bleaker collections, with disarray increasing through examination, rather than being resolved. In "Winter Wind" a character believes "that we have some connections that cannot be investigated."
Where many short story writers fall into the trap of making the form shrink to fit, Munro's stories bulge with details and density and are extended by the tensions and contradictions they generate. Who Do You Think You Are? is as much a novel as Lives of Girls and Women; it has the same episodic structure and offers ten "moments" from the life of Rose, who manages to leave the confines of her small town on a university scholarship. Neither Rose nor Del Jordan is able to "shuck off" fully the things they don't want, although Del affects some kind of certainty about what she does want. Rose, however, is often trapped by what the narrator in "Simon's Luck" calls "those shifts of emphasis that throw the story line open to question, the disarrangements which demand new judgments and solutions, and throw the windows open on inappropriate unforgettable scenery."
The Moons of Jupiter focuses on the nature of relationships between characters, rather than on the nature of the isolation these connections often seem to create in Munro's stories. Again, the contradictions between different levels of reality give these stories an atmosphere of threat: beneath the seemingly benign surface of experience real danger lurks. In "The Moons of Jupiter" the narrator describes "various knowns and unknowns and horrific immensities." The connections dramatized in this collection—between cousins ("Chaddeleys and Flemings"), lovers ("Hard-Luck Stories," "Accident"), or rest home companions ("Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd")—are undermined by personal deceits, or by "the gap between what she wanted and what she could get," or by the overlap of need and want. "Connection. That was what it was all about. A connection with the real, and prodigal, and dangerous world." In "The Turkey Season," about relationships between women in a turkey factory, the protagonist explains how "I got to the stage of backing off from the things I couldn't really know."
Three subsequent collections of stories—The Progress of Love, Friend of My Youth, and Open Secrets —provide, perhaps, the best introduction to Munro's work. In The Progress of Love all the elements of her previous work combine in an orgy of dishonesty and dissatisfaction. Jesse, the teenage girl conducting an imaginary affair with an older man in "Jesse and Meribeth," concedes "I didn't at all mind the lying. Once I had taken the plunge into falsehood … falsehood felt wonderfully comfortable." In "Eskimo" Mary Jo is having an affair with her married boss, Dr. Streeter, a man of "incurable, calm, and decent sadness…. This sadness seems to come from obedience." In the title story the narrator realizes that "Moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having, even if the parting has to come sooner or later. I wonder if those moments aren't more valued, and deliberately gone after, in the setups some people like myself have now, than they were in those old marriages, where love and grudges could be growing underground, so confused and stubborn, it must have seemed they had forever." In "Fits" the apparent murder-suicide of a local couple provides such a moment for Peg and Robert: "They needed something new to talk about. Now he felt more like going home." In these stories Munro draws the tensions between everyday dissatisfaction and its chaotic possibilities brilliantly. The characters' realizations of these consequences—and their bearing on their own existence—are always insidious, revealed in flashes of light.
In Friend of My Youth the stories are more personal in feeling, the writing more controlled, and the characters' lives more full of falsity. In "Wigtime" Margot is reduced to stalking her adulterous husband in a wig and leaving anonymous notes under his windscreen. Hazel in "Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass" is a widow in her 50s, taking a leave of absence, who scribbles in notebooks: "It prevents the rise of panic…. This sort of panic had nothing to do with money or ticket arrangements, it had to do with a falling off of purpose, and the question why am I here?" There is a note of elegy in these stories, but the changes of mood and the shifts in perspective betray the deceptive gentleness of Munro's writing. The daughter in "Oh, What Avails" reflects that her mother had formed in the children "a delicate, special regard for themselves, which made them want to go out and grasp what they wanted, whether love or money."
The eight darkly luminous stories in Open Secrets explore with increasing precision and wonder, with increasing graveness and love, the tensions and contradictions of the human condition. "A Wilderness Station" presents—through a group of letters and recollections by, and to, a variety of persons—the fictional biography of Annie Herron, a woman of somewhat uncertain beginning, middle, and end who reaches early adulthood and marries in the mid-nineteenth century and lives on into the twentieth. Following the seemingly accidental death of her husband while he is out working in the bush with his younger brother, Annie temporarily seeks refuge (of sorts) in a local Southwestern Ontario gaol for criminals and the insane and only gains retribution (of sorts) more than half a century later. The deeper historical note sounded in "A Wilderness Station" is reminiscent of "Meneseteung," an overwhelmingly original fictional biography, from Friend of My Youth, about an invented nineteenth-century southwestern Ontario poetess named Almeda Joynt Roth. Like so many of Munro's later stories, but somehow more compellingly, "Meneseteung" fills and empties the reader in ways we associate with classical tragedy. This is not to say that her later stories are without comedy, for comedy represents an extremely important, and equally ritualistic, component of her work.
In "Spaceships Have Landed"—a story describing the friendship, then and now, of two country girls—imaginative play and verbal play are crucial to Munro's achievement: "And the worst thing was when Eunie launched into accounts that Rhea found both boring and infuriating, of murders and disasters and freakish events that she had heard about on the radio. Rhea was infuriated because she could not get Eunie to tell her whether these things had really happened, or even to make that distinction—as far as Rhea could tell—to herself. "Was that on the news, Eunie? Was it a story? Were there people acting it in front of a microphone or was it reporting? Eunie! Was it real or was it a play?" It was Rhea, never Eunie, who would get frazzled by these questions. Eunie would just get on her bicycle and ride away. 'Toodeley oodeley oo! See you in the zoo!"' What nonsense, we think—or is it? Might Eunie be seen to possess an understanding of the indivisibility of truth and imagination, seriousness and play, the natural and the supernatural, that surpasses Rhea's meagrely realistic, literal-minded understanding? Might Eunie be seen to represent some kind of metaphor, or an alter ego, for the artist?
In story after story, Munro reveals the exhilarating character of life itself, with all of life's surprising but inevitable interventions in the form of a death, unexpected visitors, an unusual letter, whatever. Such occurrences pervade Munro's later stories, fracturing each character's—and each reader's—expectations, rendering easy accommodations with life or art impossible. Moreover, from these interventions other actions unfailingly unfold. Increasingly in Munro's later stories, we see something of the quality that Eudora Welty (an acknowledged influence on Munro) admired in William Faulker: "veracity and accuracy about the world" that reveals both the comedy of being human and what Welty terms "that comedy's adjoining terror."
Perhaps Munro's stories should be read as a new kind of novel; not one after the other, but each allowed time to resonate in the reader's head. As Munro says: "I want the stories to keep diminishing but not to be suddenly over with, so one is left with the central mystery of the story."
updated byJ.R.(Tim) Struthers
BORN: 1931, Wingham, Ontario, Canada
GENRE: Short stories, novels
Lives of Girls and Women (1971)
Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories (1974)
Who Do You Think You Are? (1978)
The Moons of Jupiter (1982)
The Canadian master of the short story, Alice Munro specializes in making the ordinary scenes of life extraordinary through straightforward storytelling that focuses on relationships, unpredictable characters, and mysterious endings. Many of her stories are set in southwestern Ontario, Canada.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Years in Ontario Born Alice Ann Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario, Canada, on July 10, 1931, Munro is
the daughter of a schoolteacher and a farmer. Perhaps she inherited her literary ambitions from her father, Robert Laidlaw, who would write a novel about pioneers in his later years. However, her family, especially mother Ann Chamney, discouraged her ambitions to become a writer and tried to focus instead on raising a future farmer's wife. As a result, young Munro hid her efforts at short stories.
At age sixteen, she sold her first story to CBC Radio in Canada. She won a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, which she entered in 1949. In 1951, she left the university to marry James Munro, with whom she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. Nostalgic for her home, she began to focus her stories on the Wingham area of Ontario. Indeed, rural Ontario would feature prominently in her work through her career. However, her career took a back seat for a while when she gave birth to three daughters in four years. Her second child died soon after birth. Munro would have another daughter in 1966, completing the family. The experience of marriage and motherhood provided inspiration for many of Munro's stories, which deal poignantly with intimate family relationships.
Another frequent backdrop for Munro's stories is the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and Canada, particularly the women's rights movement. Many of her female characters undergo transformations that echo social transformations of this time. They question established female roles and try—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to live lives that they find truly satisfying.
Inspired by Southern Fiction, Launches Successful Writing Career The Munro family moved to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1963 and opened a bookstore called Munro's. Inspired by the books that surrounded her, Munro rededicated herself to fiction and began to publish stories in Canadian magazines and sell them for broadcast on the CBC.
Munro found inspiration in the stories of American Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. She saw parallels between her life in rural Ontario and the life they described in the closed society of the South. Though she wrote about what was familiar to her, she has remarked that during this time she felt as if she were leading a double life—a solitary life as a writer, and an external life as wife and mother.
After a series of rejections, Munro's first book of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968. It emerged to great critical success, winning the Governor General's Award for fiction in 1969 and gathering a wide audience for Munro. The stories laid a groundwork for her future writing, which would deal with unique moments in real life, adding a bit of magic to the everyday.
Determined to gain further success as a writer, Munro began work on Lives of Girls and Women, a collection of connected stories she intended to be a novel. Munro had been thinking about this book for nearly a decade, and she worked on it at least three hours a day in the years after her first book's appearance. The book won the 1971–1972 Canadian Booksellers Award, was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and went through a number of printings in Canada and abroad.
By this time, Munro's marriage had gone sour, and she moved to London, Ontario, in 1972 with her younger daughters. Her alma mater, the University of Western Ontario, invited her to take a writer-in-residence position in 1974 and 1975, which she accepted. She married Gerald Fremlin in 1976, and they moved to Clinton, Ontario, where she has lived ever since.
Mature Work About Complicated Issues Facing Women Some critics had wondered if Munro would ever deal with anything beyond the teenage experience in a small town. Munro's 1974 collection, Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, answered this concern with a series of stories dealing not only with country life, but also with urban living, adult relationships, and conflict between generations and the sexes. The stories in the collection often rely on contrasts between old and young, city and country, past and present, to develop their characters and tell their stories.
In 1978, Munro published another collection, Who Do You Think I Am? This book dealt with a young woman's return to her hometown after reinventing herself in years past—a theme clearly tied to Munro's own life experience. Its issues of identity and guilt met with positive critical response. The book won the Governor General's Award in 1979 and was a runner-up for the Booker Prize in England. In addition to her blooming career in short stories, Munro also found success in scriptwriting around this time, with her CBC film on the Irish airing in 1978.
Although it was widely believed that short stories could never make any money, the publication of The Moons of Jupiter in 1982 proved critics wrong. The book's paperback rights sold for a record amount, and the book debuted to great reviews. Dealing with women at various stages in life, The Moons of Jupiter showed women coping with the random hand dealt to them by fate.
Munro continued to publish books about every four years throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The Progress of Love brought Munro yet another Governor General's Prize, and both The Love of a Good Woman and Runaway (2004) won the Giller Prize for fiction. Munro continues to publish short stories in magazines like The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic Monthly, has toured the United States, Asia, and Europe promoting her books, and shows no sign of slowing her now-legendary literary career.
Works in Literary Context
Although she claims to have been strongly influenced by writers of the American South such as Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and Carson McCullers, Alice Munro is most widely compared to the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who was known for his short stories and attention to detail.
Small-Town Life Most of Munro's stories are set in small towns and use small-town life as a way of shining light on such human experiences as love, loss, and generational conflict. The focused setting of a small town allows Munro to explore the deeper meanings of seemingly normal experiences like preparing a turkey for a meal or meeting an old friend.
Random Encounters Munro often deals with themes of random experience and seemingly haphazard fate. The incidents that initiate conflict in her stories are often random or accidental: for example, in “Accident” a child's death in a random car accident sparks the beginning of one marriage and the end of another. Other stories feature random encounters such as old acquaintances running into one another. Though the initiating event is often random, the series of events that follow always points to a bigger picture.
Generation Gap Munro's mother suffered from Parkinson's disease, and her stories often involve children taking care of their parents. In addition, her stories frequently deal with conflict or lack of connection between generations. Outrageous parents clash with timid children, a daughter comes to realize that she has given up life's opportunities to avoid being like her mother, and children must navigate a new world without their parents.
Magic Realism Although Munro's work does not fall within the literary movement of Magical Realism, her use of exact details to create a better-than-the-real-thing world is reminiscent of such visual artists as Edward Hopper and Jack Chambers, who adopted a magical realist style in their paintings. Munro likes to take everyday situations and twist them just enough to make them seem magical and exciting. Her recognition of mysterious and enchanted moments in life makes all of life seem less ordinary.
Works in Critical Context
Alice Munro's short stories and books have been hailed by modern critics, gathering an impressive list of awards and becoming best sellers worldwide. While her initial work met with rejection and difficulty finding a publisher, her perseverance paid off and her later work met with almost unanimous praise.
Though critics liked Munro's early books, they disliked her tendency to write about adolescents in small towns. Munro answered their challenge in her later work, which deals with child and adult experiences and even added urban settings to the mix. Critics are especially appreciative of Munro's attention to detail and her willingness to leave the reader hanging with her ambiguous endings and uncertain stories.
Some critics are unwilling to admit that the short story still has a place in English-language literature, but many critics hail Munro's work as a new renaissance for the form. Joyce Carol Oates, herself a master writer, has stated that “Munro writes stories that have the density—moral, emotional, sometimes historical—of other writers.” Another reviewer stated that “from rather unpromising-sounding subject matter, [Munro] fashions short stories of extraordinary delicacy and resonance.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Munro's famous contemporaries include:
Maya Angelou (1928–): American poet and Civil Rights figure famous for her autobiographies and activism.
Fay Weldon (1931–): British novelist and scriptwriter whose often comic work focuses on the trouble of women in contemporary society and the oppressiveness of marriage.
Philip Glass (1937–): American composer known for his minimalist musical style.
Andy Warhol (1928–1987): American artist and Pop Art icon.
While relatively few books have been written about Munro to date, a number of periodicals and Web publications have devoted pages to her life and works. Robert Thacker gives a good Overview of critical response to Munro's work in his essay “Go Ask Alice: The Progress of Munro Criticism,” which appeared in the Journal of Canadian Studies in 1991. Munro's continuing career will doubtless bring “the mother figure of Canadian fiction” to an even wider and more receptive audience.
The Moons of Jupiter With this book, Munro put the lie to the notion that readers do not buy or read collections of short stories. The Canadian paperback rights were sold to Penguin of Canada for $45,000, a record amount for a Canadian short-story volume. The reviews were almost uniformly laudatory, with William French of the Toronto Globe and Mail asserting that Munro's “ability to convey nuances and imply the ambiguities inherent in human relationships has never been greater” and Benjamin De Mot in the New York Times Book Review, calling the book “witty, subtle, passionate … exceptionally knowledgeable about the content and movement—the entanglements and entailments—of individual human feeling.”
Runaway Munro's Runaway also impressed critics, who praised it in the highest terms. Kirkus Review declared: “In a word: magnificent.” The Boston Globe's David Thoreen wrote: “Munro's stories are often praised for their scope and depth, and rightly so. Each of the stories in Runaway contains enough lived life to fill a typical novel, and reading them is to become immersed in the concerns and worlds of their various characters.” In fact, some reviewers found the book so perfect they were at a loss for words of praise sufficient for it. Jonathan Franzen of the New York Times Book Review wrote: “Basically, Runaway is so good that I don't want to talk about it here. Quotation can't do the book justice, and neither can synopsis. The way to do it justice is to read it.”
Responses to Literature
- Alice Munro was discouraged in her ambitions to become a writer, and her family tried to steer her toward a more traditional role as a farmer's wife. How do you think this upbringing influenced the subject matter and themes of her stories?
- Alice Munro has compared her own work to the short stories of such Southern writers as Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. Read a short story by one of these authors and compare and contrast it to one of Munro's stories. How do their portrayals of small-town life differ? How are they similar?
- Munro's attention to detail is legendary. To find out more about how Munro's use of detail informs her writing, take a two-paragraph section of the Munro story of your choice and remove all description and detail. How does it differ from the original passage? Does removing detail improve or take away from the story? What does this exercise teach you about Munro's use of detail?
- Munro is often compared to Anton Chekhov, an influential Russian writer of the nineteenth century. Using the Internet and the library, write a paper on the life and work of Chekhov. How might Chekhov compare to Munro? How does his work differ from Munro's?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Alice Munro's short stories often deal with conflicts between people of different generations. Here are a few other works that focus on contrasts between different age groups:
Fathers and Sons (1862), by Ivan Turgenev. One of the first Russian novels to find widespread popularity,
Fathers and Sons highlights what Turgenev saw as the growing generational divide in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century.
Cheaper by the Dozen (1946), by Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, tells the story of a family of twelve children whose wild ways clash with their parents' interests in efficiency.
The Catcher in the Rye (1951), by J.D. Salinger. In this novel, teenager Holden Caulfield feels alienated against the adult world around him during a visit to New York City.
The Joy Luck Club (1993), by Amy Tan. Tan's best-selling novel is a series of vignettes told by Chinese mothers, all immigrants to America, and their Chinese-American daughters.
Besner, Neil K. Introducing Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women: A Reader's Guide. Toronto: ECW Press, 1990.
Carrington, Ildikao de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989.
Dahlie, Hallvard. Alice Munro and Her Works. Toronto: ECW Press, 1984.
Heble, Ajay. The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro's Discourse of Absence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Miller, Judith, ed. The Art of Alice Munro: Saying the Unsayable. Waterloo, Ontario: University of Waterloo Press, 1984.
Rasporich, Beverly Jean. Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro. Edmunton, Can.: University of Alberta Press, 1990.
Ross, Catherine Sheldick. Alice Munro: A Double Life. Toronto: ECW Press, 1997.
Boyce, Pleuke, and Ron Smith. “A National Treasure: An Interview with Alice Munro.” O Canada (1995): vol. 2.
Dahlie, Hallvard. “The Fiction of Alice Munro.” Ploughshares (1978): vol. 4.
Franzen, Jonathan. “Alice's Wonderland.”New York Times Book Review. November 14, 2004.
Hoy, Helen. “‘Dull, Simple, Amazing and Unfathomable’;: Paradox and Double Vision in Alice Munro's Fiction.” Studies in Canadian Literature (1980): no. 5: 100–15.
McCulloch, Jean, and Mona Simpson. “Alice Munro: The Art of Fiction CXXXVII.” The Paris Review (1994): 131.
Metcalf, John. “A Conversation with Alice Munro.” Journal of Canadian Fiction (1972) vol. 1(4).
Tausky, Thomas E. “‘What Happened to Marion?’;: Art and Reality in Lives of Girls and Women.” Studies in Canadian Literature (1986): vol. 11(1).
Thacker, Robert. “Go Ask Alice: The Progress of Munro Criticism.” Journal of Canadian Studies (1991): vol. 26(2).
Thoreen, David. “From Munro, lives of Canadian desperation.” Boston Globe. November 14, 2004.
Wachtel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Alice Munro.” Brick (1991): no. 40: 48–53.
Vintage Books. A Conversation with Alice Munro. Accessed on February 4, 2008, from http://www.randomhouse.com
Munro, Alice (Anne)
MUNRO, Alice (Anne)
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Alice Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario, 10 July 1931. Education: Wingham public schools; University of Western Ontario, London, 1949-51. Family: Married 1) James Armstrong Munro in 1951 (separated 1972; divorced 1976), three daughters; 2) Gerald Fremlin in 1976. Career: Lived in Vancouver, 1951-63, Victoria, British Columbia, 1963-71, London, Ontario, 1972-75, and Clinton, Ontario, from 1976; artist-in-residence, University of Western Ontario, 1974-75, and University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1980. Lives in Comox, British Columbia. Awards: Governor-General's award, 1969, 1978, 1987; Great Lakes Colleges Association award, 1974; Province of Ontario award, 1974; Canada-Australia literary prize, 1978; W. M. Smith prize, 1996; Pen Malamud award, 1997. D.Litt.: University of Western Ontario, 1976.
Dance of the Happy Shades. 1968.
Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories. 1974.
Who Do You Think You Are? 1978; as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, 1979.
The Moons of Jupiter. 1982.
The Progress of Love. 1986.
Friend of My Youth 1990.
Open Secrets. 1994.
Selected Stories. 1996.
Lives of Girls and Women. 1971.
How I Met My Husband (televised 1974). In The Play's the Thing, edited by Tony Gifford, 1976.
A Trip to the Coast, 1973; How I Met My Husband, 1974; 1847: The Irish (The Newcomers series), 1978.*
by Robert Thacker, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors 5 edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, 1984.
The Art of Munro: Saying the Unsayable edited by Judith Miller, 1984; Probable Fictions: Munro's Narrative Acts edited by Louis K. MacKendrick, 1984; Munro and Her Works by Hallvard Dahlie, 1985; Munro: Paradox and Parallel by W. R. Martin, 1987; Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Munro by Ildiko de Papp, 1989; "The Art of Alice Munro: Memory, Identity and the Aesthetics of Connection" by Georgeann Murphy, in Canadian Women Writing Fiction edited by Mickey Pearlman, 1993.* * *
The author of seven collections of stories, Alice Munro is one of Canada's most prolific as well as one of its finest writers of short fiction. She is a specialist in the art of the short story. Although she also has one novel to her credit, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), it is really a collection of loosely linked episodes in the life of one main character. Like Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, the novel is more like what the Australian writer Frank Moorhouse calls a "discontinuous narrative."
Munro is far from being an experimental or innovative writer. She writes mostly in a realist mode, relying heavily on searching analyses of her characters, a superb command of dialogue, and an ability to evoke a large number of settings in sensuous detail. The nearest she ever comes to postmodernism is in her occasional self-conscious playing with the relationship between life and art and in the source of that playfulness—her serious doubt that the remembering on which her later stories so much depend can be an authentic process. As she puts it in "Winter Wind," "And how is anybody to know, I think as I put this down, how am I to know what I claim to know? I have used these people, not all of them, but some of them, before. I have tricked them out and altered them and shaped them any way at all, to suit my purposes."
Munro's early stories focus on children and adolescents, on their relationships with their parents, and on the first torments of sexual desire. Parental relationships are a frequent theme. While the young protagonists' fathers are usually emblems of comfort, even if they are failures in worldly terms and their behavior is sometimes less than exemplary, the mothers are more problematic, demanding, challenging figures. "Dance of the Happy Shades" and "Postcard" both deal with mother-daughter conflict. The girl in "Boys and Girls" resents her mother plotting to keep her indoors when she would rather be helping her father. The narrator sums up the dilemma at the end of "The Ottawa Valley" when she writes of her mother, who has contracted Parkinson's disease: "The problem, the only problem, is my mother. And she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid of her."
Sexual assaults—from her coevals or from adults—in which an adolescent girl unexpectedly acquiesces are another feature of many of Munro's stories. Curiosity is always a stronger characteristic in her adolescents than fear. But the narrator in "The Moons of Jupiter" probably represents all of Munro's adolescents when she speaks as an adult of remembering each separate year of her growing up "with pain and clarity." In "Wild Swans" Rose endures with a mixture of feelings, but without making any protest, the fondling on a train journey by a man who says he is a minister of religion. She accurately sums up her ambivalent feelings by characterizing herself mentally as "victim and accomplice."
Munro's stories also use the vision of an adolescent to focus on the customary deceits of adulthood, the cruelties of schoolchildren, and the little disturbances of adult men and women. In "Walker Brothers Cowboy" the young narrator watches impassively as her traveling salesman father visits a woman with whom he has clearly had a relationship. Like all of Munro's work, the tone is tolerant and unjudging, and we can never be sure how much the girl understands of what she sees. Already, however, she is learning to cope with the adult world: "My father does not say anything to me about not mentioning things at home, but I know … that there are things not to be mentioned." Here as always Munro's prose is understated, though far from lacking in texture. Connections and meanings have to be put together by the reader.
To a greater or a lesser degree, humiliation is a central fact in Munro's early stories, as is betrayal, but the protagonist frequently rises above them. A young girl worries that she is the oldest performer at a concert ("Dance of the Happy Shades") and another that none of the boys asks her to dance ("Red Dress—1946"), but in each case the girl overcomes her sense of shame. Boys torment girls in class and out of it. Jilted by her rich lover of many years, Helen in the story "Postcard" drives to his house in the middle of the night to shout her protest. When he emerges, however, she thinks to herself, "… what I'll never understand is why, right now, seeing Clare MacQuarrie as an unexplaining man, I felt for the first time that I wanted to reach out my hands and touch him."
The sense of resignation is strong in Munro's stories. It is not, however, a form of defeatism or passivity but rather an ironic, sometimes stoic recognition and therefore an acceptance of the necessary limits of human beings. It is a quality that, not surprisingly, grows more common as her characters tend to become older. The sense of waste, of lost opportunity, and the looking backward toward a past that has irrevocably shaped one become more frequent, but they are counterbalanced by a kind of hardheaded resilience that can even take the form of epiphanic celebration.
As early as the title story in the collection Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, the past is examined in search of meaning. It is the summer of 1918, and Char Desmond and Blaikie Noble are having an affair. But Blaikie then marries someone else, and Char attempts to kill herself in bleakly comic circumstances: "Char swallowed poison. Or what she thought was poison. It was laundry blueing." Many years later Blaikie returns to Mock Hill. As she often does, Munro cuts between past and present to tell the story, not only of the relationship between Blaikie and Char but also between Char and her jealous sister Et. It is Et's careless lie about Blaikie's renewed philandering that leads again to Char's attempt at suicide, this time successfully, though only Et realizes it. Despite her outward composure, Char had still loved Blaikie after all these years. The work is a grim, subtle, powerful story that ends on an ironic note of harmony, with Et living peacefully with Char's husband: "If they had been married, people would have said they were very happy."
But even the act of remembering is fraught with hazards. "The Progress of Love" deals with a familiar situation—the narrator Euphemia remembers a grandmother who attempted suicide after "Her heart was broken." Or did she? In the course of the story Euphemia receives a different version of the truth, just as later she hears a version of her grandmother having burned a fortune in $3, 000 in bills that contradicts what she believed she saw with her own eyes. The story is partly about the difficulty of establishing truth, what to believe from the many accounts of an event one hears. Did the grandmother really attempt suicide, or was she merely trying to provoke her husband?
A distanced, retrospective perspective becomes more common in Munro's later stories. In "The Beggar Maid" we suddenly jump forward 19 years to the protagonist's rueful overview of her younger self, "when Rose afterwards reviewed and talked about this moment in her life." These later stories are slightly more self-conscious. Successful middle-class figures, often from the world of art and literature—writers, television presenters, editors, translators, and so on—begin to creep into them, usually accompanied by the baggage of a divorce or two and a couple of children.
In the story "Material" the question of the relationship between art and life comes up. A woman married for the second time finds that her former husband has written about events that took place during their marriage and feels the odd contradiction of physical absence and a shared memory. It is the opposite situation in "Lichen." In this brilliant story the philandering David cannot stay with Stella because she knows too much about him. They know each other too well: "… all his ordinary and extraordinary life—even some things it was unlikely she knew about—seemed stored up in her. He could never feel any lightness, any secret and victorious expansion, with a woman who knew so much. She was bloated with all she knew."
He leaves a nude photograph of his current young girlfriend with her, as if to torment her, but by force of will and imagination she forces herself to transform the photo into something different before going on with her life: "… a pause, a lost heartbeat, a harsh little break in the flow of the days and nights as she keeps them going." The capturing of such minor triumphs is the essence of Munro's art.
MUNRO, Alice. Canadian, b. 1931. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories. Publications: NOVELS: Lives of Girls and Women, 1971; Queenie: A Story, 1999. SHORT STORIES: Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968; Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, 1974; Who Do You Think You Are? (in U.S. as The Beggar Maid), 1979; The Moons of Jupiter, 1982; Progress of Love, 1986; Friend of My Youth, 1990; Open Secrets, 1994; A Wilderness Station, 1994; Selected Stories, 1996; The Love of a Good Woman, 1998; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, 2001. Has also written television scripts. Address: c/o Writers Union of Canada, 40 Wellington St E 3rd Fl, Toronto, ON, Canada M5E 1C7.