Bentley: Probing deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum

By D.M.R. Bentley
October 16, 2013

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MunroIllustration by Frank Neufeld

“People’s lives … (are) dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.” — Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women

Over the last four decades and more, Alice Munro has emerged as one of the world’s consummate writers. Consistently refusing the option of writing novels, she has used the short story as a vehicle for narratives of remarkable psychological depth and insight that also capture and convey the texture of life in rural and small-town southwestern Ontario.

So brilliantly achieved are Munro’s short stories she has been likened to Anton Chekhov, who famously compared the short-story genre to “lace,” a metaphor that nicely points to one of the keys to Munro’s success: exquisitely crafted pieces that consist of fabric and what lies between, what we see and what we can see through, the universal surrounded by the particular.

Such is the concise economy of Munro’s short stories that one reviewer found it “difficult to remember why the novel was ever invented.”

Munro’s meteoric rise to national and international acclaim began in the 1960s with the publication of short stories in various Canadian magazines, and then the publication in 1968 of Dance of the Happy Shades, which won that year’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Thirteen collections of short stories followed, as did two more Governor-General’s Awards, two Giller Prizes, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Man Booker International Prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature, the ne plus ultra of literary recognition.

Through all this Munro has remained so modest and unassuming that, as someone who heard her interviewed on the CBC last week observed, “it was as if she had been complimented on her flower bed.”

In 1974-75, Munro was writer-in-residence at Western and in 1976 the university awarded her an honorary degree. But her connection to Western began decades earlier in 1949, when she came here with the intention of majoring in Journalism.

In 1950-51 she changed her major to English and found in the English Department’s undergraduate magazine, Folio, a hospitable home for her first three published stories: The Dimensions of a Shadow, Story for Sunday and The Widower. All three contain stylistic and thematic intimations of Munro’s mature work, but they are also remarkable for the glimpses that they afford of her rapidly absorbing, surmounting, and transmuting influences and ideas. Prominent among these were the psychological theories of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and the stylistic devices and thematic concerns of the short stories of James Joyce’s Dubliners and D.H. Lawrence’s The Horse Dealer’s Daughter.

“I worked in the library,” Munro recalled years later, “and I stumbled on books … The most important work I did … was reading in the library.”

The shadow of The Dimensions of a Shadow is, in Jung’s terms, a manifestation of the “repressed personal fantasies” of its protagonist, a 33-year-old schoolteacher who is infatuated with a handsome boy in her class. In contrast, Story for Sunday is a Freudian tale of a girl of 15 who is kissed by her Sunday school teacher and, after seeing him kissing another girl, sublimates her pubescent desire in religion.

Both short stories are suffused with Lawrencian sexuality: in the former, three girls – southwestern Ontario’s first Three Graces – have “long light limbs, and their soft mouths and the tender fullness of their cheeks … (are) only for pleasure,” and in the latter the young girl (whose name, Evelyn, suggests her susceptibility to temptation) is “empty of everything but the sweetness of sensation” after the teacher has “bent to kiss her and stroke her cheek with his long soft-tipped fingers.”

All three short stories end in a Joycean epiphany and all three contain closely observed and precisely rendered details of their settings: for example, in The Widower, the “green blinds” of its protagonist’s grocery store hide a window adorned with “bright stickers advertising Salada Tea, and Coca-Cola.” Above the store, his deceased wife Ella’s room contains “her geraniums and African violets, her lace doilies on the chesterfield, [and] her painted silk screen trying to hide a little black stove in the corner.” The room is “faintly, mustily scented with her” partly because, although he sees his marriage as a life of quiet desperation from which he has at last gained freedom, he remains haunted by her presence. “Ella might as well not be dead,” he thinks at the end of the short story; “it would be better, more comfortable.” Exploration of the “deep caves” beneath the “linoleum” has begun.

For financial reasons, Alice Munro did not complete a degree in English, but it was at Western that she began to publish evidence of the extraordinary talent that would lead more than 60 years later to the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Western professor D.M.R. Bentley is a Distinguished University Professor and Carl F. Klinck Professor in Canadian Literature


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