Traumatic Tales

Although the sweet dream was cherished for a long time, the master storyteller, popularly known as “the Canadian Chekov,” was never fully convinced that one day she would become the first from her country to bag the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature.

Traumatic Tales


Although the sweet dream was cherished for a long time, the master storyteller, popularly known as “the Canadian Chekov,” was never fully convinced that one day she would become the first from her country to bag the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature. But all doubts were removed when the Swedish Academy awarded the coveted honour to Alice Munro in 2013 for her brilliant short stories that portrayed human beings in precarious social, moral and psychological conditions.

With her death recently, Canada has lost her first Nobel laureate for Literature and the world a master craftsman of short fiction who could accommodate the epic complexity of the novel in just a few pages. Munro has been singularly adept in encapsulating life’s varied experience, often traumatic, within the bristling geometry of the short story narrative. For her, awards have never been a distant dream, and she had, before the Nobel, won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, Governor General’s Literary Award (1969) for Dance of the Happy Shades, Canadian Book seller’s Award in 1972 for Lives of Girls and Women, Canada-Australia Literary Prize (1977) and so on. Usually concerned with characters living in the small towns of southwestern Ontario, the stories of Munro present ordinary experiences in such a way that they appear extraordinary.

Considered one of Canada’s major writers, Munro’s work is characterized by a refusal to imbue events with moral overtones. Her stories offer no resolution, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions regarding the actions of her unpredictable protagonists. “Few people writing today”, claimed the literary critic Beverley Slopen in Publishers Weekly, “can bring a character, a mood or a scene to life with economy. And Munro has an exhilarating ability to make the readers see the familiar with fresh insight and compassion”.


Munro, who has been credited with lending mythic proportions to lives of ordinary people from small rural towns like those in the Ontario countryside, has been compared to Ernest Hemingway in the realism, economy and lucidity of her style; to John Updike in her insights into the intricacies of social and sexual relationships; to Flannery O’ Connor and Eudora Welty in her ability to create characters of eccentric individual, and to Marcel Proust in the completeness and verisimilitude with which she evokes the past. She is an intuitive writer, who is less likely to be concerned with problems of form than with clarity and veracity. Chief among her virtues is her great honesty: her refusal to oversimplify or falsify human beings, emotions, or experience.

One of her characters states: “How to keep oneself from lying I see as the main problem everywhere”. Her awareness of this problem is everywhere evident in her writing, certainly in the distinctive voices of her narrator-protagonists, who are scrupulously concerned with truth. Finally, her themes ~ memory, love, transience, death ~ are significant. To explore such themes within the limitations of the short-story form with subtlety and depth is Munro’s achievement. One of Munro’s recurring themes is “the pain of human contact … the fascinating pain; the humiliating necessity”.

The phrase occurs in The Stone in the Field, and refers to the narrator’s maiden aunts, who cringe from all human contact, but the emotional pain that human contact inevitably brings is a subject in all her stories. It is evident in the title story of her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), in which an elderly, impoverished piano teacher, Miss Marsalles, has a “party” (her word for recital) for a dwindling number of her students and their mothers, an entertainment she can ill-afford.

The elaborate but nearly inedible refreshments, the ludicrous gifts, and the tedium of the recital pieces emphasize the incongruity between Marsalles’s serene pleasure in the festivities and the grim suffering of her unwilling but outwardly polite guests. The suffering intensifies with the arrival of her new pupils, a group of mentally disabled children, and when one disabled girl gives an accomplished performance of a sprightly piece called “The Dance of the Happy Shades”, the snobbish mothers are greatly miffed as they believe that the idea of a mentally disabled girl learning to play the piano is “useless, out-of-place”.

The narrator however states: “It is the Dance of the Happy Shades that prevents us; it is the one communiqué from the other country where she lives. She is living in another country, out of touch with reality; she has escaped into “the freedom of a great unemotional happiness”. But this happiness eluded many of Munro’s characters suffering from the inescapable pain of human contact. In The Peace of Utrecht, the central character, Helen, makes a trip to see her sister in the small town, Jubilee.

The recent death of their mother is on their minds, but they cannot speak of it. Maddy, the sister who stayed at home to look after their “Gothic Mother”, has forbidden all such talk: “No exorcising here”, she says. Yet exorcism is what Helen desperately needs as she struggles with the torment she feels about her sister’s sacrifice, her mother’s life, and her own previous self which this return home so vividly and strangely evokes. Recalling the love and pity denied this egocentric, petulant and incorrigible mother, Helen experiences raging guilt, shame and anger that she and her sister were forced into “parodies of love”. Finally, Helen and her sister withdrew even the pretence of love, withdrew all emotion: “We took away from her our anger and impatience and disgust, took all emotion away from our dealings with her, as you might take away meat from a prisoner to weaken him, till he died”.

In an interview Munro has confessed that The Peace of Utrecht is her most autobiographical story and was difficult to write. Perhaps its emotional power derives from its closeness to her own experience, but it exhibits those qualities for which her writing has been praised: the effortless clarity of style, the psychological penetration of character, the evocation of time and place, the unfailing eye and ear which convey an impression of absolute authenticity ~ these are the hallmarks of Munro’s finest fiction, and they are evident even in her earliest stories. In some of her short stories, Munro has also plunged into sexual relationships, particularly in the feelings that women have about men.

In Bardon Bus, the narrator, a women writer spending time in Australia, meets an anthropologist (known as “X”), and begins a deliberately limited affair, asking only that it last out their short time in Australia. Later, when both have returned to Canada, she is miserable, tortured by memory and need. “I can’t continue to move my body along the streets unless I exist in his mind and in his eyes”. Finally, she realizes her obsession is a threat to her sanity, and she decides to let go of the relationship and in doing so, she gets “a queer kind of pleasure”. But this seeming resolution is subtly undercut by the conclusion of the story. The narrator’s much younger friend, Kay, happens to mention her involvement with a fascinating new “friend” who turns out to be “X”. The story ends there, but the pain (presumably) does not. The female protagonist of Tell Me Yes or No is also sifting through the emotional trouble of an adulterous affair.

The central insight in the story is the realization of how “women build their castles on foundations hardly strong enough to support a night’s shelter … how women deceive themselves, and uselessly suffer being exploitable because of some deep, but indefinable, and not final ~ flaw in themselves”. In The Love of a Good Woman, Munro explores again the pain of human contact in its various guises. In the title novella, Enid, a middle-aged, practical nurse finds herself attending the dying Mrs. Quinn. Lonely, kind Enid strives to do good, resisting her dislike of the sick woman.

As an intruder in a household that cannot function without her, she is unaware of her attraction to the husband, a former classmate, until his wife implicates him in the death of a local optometrist. In the story Jakarta, Munro displays brilliant irony in the presentation of two young wives who argue over D.H. Lawrence’s assertion that a woman’s happiness lies in a man. Kath is a proper Canadian wife and mother, but Sonje, her pot-smoking, commune-dwelling friend, is an American. Over the years, conservative Kath breaks away from her stuffy marriage to become strong and self-reliant. Sonje, who has routinely accepted her husband’s wish to switch sexual partners, remains faithful to him even after he disappears in Jakarta.

Josephine Humphreys, writing in the New York Times Book Review, claims that “Munro’s fiction is out to seize the mystery of existence within time ….. the unique quality of a person’s fate”. A compulsive writer for much of her adult life, Munro viewed within her work the essence of her ability to transcend aging, and her desire to write has, as she stated in an interview, “something to do with the fight against death, the feeling that we lose everything everyday, and writing is a way of convincing yourself that you are doing something about it”.

Despite her characteristic concern for honesty and her determination to tell the truth, it seems in this passage that she may be wrong about one thing: it seems clear that Munro’s writing is destined to last for a very long time

(The writer, a Ph D in English from Calcutta University and a freelance writer, teaches English at the Governmentsponsored Sailendra Sircar Vidyalaya, Shyambazar, Kolkata)