Alice Munro

(2280 words)

The Canadian writer Alice Munro's short stories have garnered numerous international honours, including a 1978 Booker Prize nomination. Among the outstanding attributes of her writing are its concern with women's lives, its exploration of geography and identity, and its evocation of the mysterious, indeterminate character of everyday life.

Born Alice Ann Laidlaw in 1931, she grew up near the small town of Wingham in Huron County, Ontario in a red-brick farmhouse with her parents, a brother and a sister. Both her mother Anne and her father Robert had also been raised on farms – her father in nearby Blyth, and her mother in the Ottawa valley – and were of a socioeconomic class that Munro has called “the privileged poor”. Of Scottish and Irish descent, the family's ancestry has been traced to the eighteenth-century writer James Hogg.

Munro was brought up in the United Church of Canada and was a member of the Canadian Girls in Training. Her father was a fox-farmer, a security guard at a foundry, and then a turkey farmer who began to write at the end of his life. His novel, The MacGregors, was published posthumously in 1979. Anne Laidlaw, a former schoolteacher, raised the children. As Munro describes it, the Laidlaws' farm was in a “kind of little ghetto where all the bootleggers and prostitutes and hangers-on lived [...] It was a community of outcasts”. This area would become the setting for much of her fiction. She attended the Lower Town School and then the Wingham and District High School, where she was a top student. As a child Munro dreamed of becoming an actress, and at one time planned a Gothic novel to be called Charlotte Muir. In her teenage years she worked in the summer as a maid for a family in the affluent Toronto neighbourhood of Rosedale.

In 1949 Munro received a scholarship to attend the University of Western Ontario in nearby London, where she studied journalism before changing to English. To aid in funding her studies she worked part-time at the London Public Library and the university's Lawson Library while waiting tables in the summer. Munro's first published short story, “The Dimensions of a Shadow”, appeared in the university's student literary magazine Folio in 1950.

She married Jim Munro, a fellow student from Oakville, Ontario, in 1951. They moved to Vancouver before Alice could complete her university degree, and Jim was employed by the Eaton's department store there for the next twelve years, while Alice worked at the Vancouver Public Library and raised their three daughters, leaving her little time to write. In 1953 the first daughter was born, and Munro also had her first magazine sale, publishing the story “A Basket of Strawberries” in Mayfair. In the 1950s and 1960s she would continue to publish stories in Canadian magazines. During the late 1950s Munro worked on a novel, alternatively titled “Death of a White Fox” and “The Norwegian”, which was never finished. Meanwhile, her mother's death from Parkinson's Disease in 1959 was the impetus for a story, “The Peace of Utrecht”. The piece won acclaim after being published in Robert Weaver's Tamarack Review in 1960, and signalled a shift towards a more personal focus in her fiction. Weaver had also “discovered” Mordecai Richler, and his Anthology program on CBC Radio played a key role in giving Munro's work a wider audience.

The Munros moved to Victoria, BC in 1963 and established a bookstore, Munro's Books. Five years later Alice's first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published. It contained pieces from over two decades of writing, and Munro has noted the difference in maturity and tone between early stories like the Gothic “A Trip to the Coast” and later ones like “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, which opens the collection. Most of the stories are set in a fictionalized version of Huron County, and their occasional tendency towards the grotesque reveals the influence of writers of the American South such as Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. Munro has said of reading their work: “there was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal [...] I came to feel that was our territory, whereas the mainstream big novel about real life was men's territory.” Munro's first book, accordingly, meditates on themes of strangeness and secrecy in the everyday which would continue to dominate her writing. A characteristic passage from “Walker Brothers Cowboy” reads:

So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits, and 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.

Dance of the Happy Shades won Canada's highest literary prize for fiction, the Governor General's Award, but still did not manage to sell out its initial print run of 2500 copies.

Her next book, Lives of Girls and Women, was published in 1971 and drew more considerable popular success. It has been marketed as a novel but might also be seen as a set of linked stories. The book recounts the life of the narrator, Del Jordan, whose rural upbringing is indicative of the book's autobiographical inflections. Early episodes of Lives of Girls and Women are notable for their evocations of geography and local colour, but as the title suggests, there is also sustained attention to the challenges facing Del as a woman in a patriarchal world, and the book has been seen as a feminist rewriting of the bildungsroman. The final chapters are strongly meta-fictional, as the adult Del considers the difficulties of writing a novel about her home town. The book's pre-publication title, Real Life, suggests Munro's preoccupation with what constitutes the “real”, and how it might be represented in fiction. Lives won the Canadian Booksellers' Award.

In 1973 Alice and Jim Munro's marriage ended and Alice moved to Notre Dame university in Nelson, BC to teach creative writing for the summer. She then taught at York University in Ontario before becoming writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario. There she met Gerald Fremlin, a geographer and acquaintance from her undergraduate days whose fiction had also been published in Folio. The two moved to Clinton, Ontario and were married. In 1974 Munro published her collection Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You which, as the title suggests, follows Lives of Girls and Women in its preoccupation with the limitations of story-telling. The title also reflects a common Munro technique of underscoring cliché to suggest a cultural or metaphysical connotation greater than its usual meaning implies.

Who Do You Think You Are? was published in 1978. Like Lives of Girls and Women, it presents a series of linked stories chronicling the life of a young woman growing up in rural southwestern Ontario. The protagonist Rose eventually leaves for university and then for married life in British Columbia before returning to Ontario. As the title indicates, the theme of identity is central to the book. Rose's chosen career as an actor is telling, since Rose gains an increasing awareness of the ways in which people perform their identities, whether they be regional or gendered ones. The book was nearly published as Rose and Janet and contained the stories of two different narrators, but at Munro's own expense she made last-minute changes which merged the narratives into a single protagonist's life. Who Do You Think You Are? appeared outside of Canada as The Beggar Maid and was nominated for the Booker Prize, as well as earning Munro a second Governor General's award. Its opening story, “Royal Beatings”, had been published by The New Yorker in March 1977 and was the first of many Munro stories to appear first in that magazine.

In the period of 1977-81 Munro travelled often, including a 1979 visit to Australia as winner of the Canada-Australia Literary Prize, and a trip to China with a group of seven Canadian writers. In 1978 she became involved in controversy when a Huron County group tried to keep several books such as Lives of Girls and Women and Margaret Laurence's The Diviners out of local high schools. Munro was one of three members of the Writers' Union of Canada who spoke out against censorship in a local forum.

The first and last entries in the 1982 collection The Moons of Jupiter are stories from Who Do You Think You Are? that Munro removed from the earlier book at the last moment. Moons features more complex narratives and wider time-frames than Munro's previous work, as well as more characters. There are also fewer first-person narrators and, as the title indicates, there is a greater geographical expansiveness than before: the collection includes stories set in Australia and New Brunswick. The title story deals fictionally with the death of Munro's father, who died in 1976 after a heart operation. In 1982 the first academic conference on Munro was held at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.

Munro's 1986 book The Progress of Love continues to feature stories set predominantly in rural southwestern Ontario or Vancouver, and further evinces a preoccupation with region, the untold or untellable, and the lives of women. It added to a body of work which was rewarded in the same year with the Marian Engel Award, given in recognition of an outstanding œuvre by a female Canadian writer.

Munro's 1990 collection Friend of My Youth is marked by a growing interest in examining history, whether it be the title story, in which the narrator considers her mother's past, or Munro's account of a fictional nineteenth-century “poetess” in “Meneseteung”. The book's interest in adultery and relationships prompted Entertainment Today teasingly to re-title the book “Sex Lives of Canadians”. It won the Ontario Trillium Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Canada and Caribbean Region).

In 1991 Munro was given the Molson Prize for her contribution to Canadian letters, and three years later, her new collection Open Secrets won the W.H. Smith Literary Award. Its stories are set predominantly in the fictional town of Carstairs, Ontario, and feature recurring characters and situations. The pieces are notably longer than Munro's earlier stories, a trend that continues in 1998's The Love of a Good Woman, where the title story runs over seventy pages. Recently Munro has recorded her discomfort with the term “short story,” and has claimed simply to be writing “stories”. Indeed, her ability to convey whole lives and communities in a few pages has led some critics to identify a novelistic quality in her short fiction, although she claims to have failed several times in attempting a novel-length work. As with earlier collections, the stories in The Love of a Good Woman are marked by an ostensible digressiveness that makes them purposefully untidy – resisting conventional patterns of beginning, middle, end – in keeping with Munro's belief in the chaos of life. Munro has argued for stories not as linear narratives but as created worlds: “I don't take up a story and follow it as if it were a road, taking me somewhere, with views and neat diversions along the way. I go into it, and move back and forth and settle here and there, and stay in it for a while. It's more like a house.” The Love of a Good Woman was the winner of the Giller Prize.

Munro has also written television scripts, including 1847: The Irish, broadcast on CBC in 1977, and the television play “How I Met My Husband”. In 1984 a cinematic adaptation of Munro's early story “Boys and Girls” won an Academy Award in the live-action-short category. Munro and her husband presently live in Comox, BC and Clinton, Ontario, not far from Wingham. Her most recent collection is Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, published in 2001, while her Selected Stories appeared in 1996.

Munro's protagonists tend to be women of her own generation, who found themselves caught between traditional gender roles and new possibilities in the wake of the “sexual revolution”. They battle against their own desire to accept the apparent security of conventional relationships with men. But Munro's stories undermine the apparent stability of traditional sexual relationships and chart their fragmentation. Her early writing, especially, is preoccupied with the politics of self-location, as her narrators struggle to make sense of their own lives in the context of their restrictive rural environment. They also seek to understand the relationship between the public sphere and a secret world of desire that threatens to become known and disrupt social order. The sense of a mysterious metaphysical world lurking just underneath the surface of everyday existence pervades her fiction, and characters like Del Jordan in Lives of Girls and Women realize that people's lives are “deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum”.

It seems appropriate to Munro's focus on local scandal and “open secrets” that her own writing has caused controversy in Huron County, even though Munro resists interpretations of her work which see it as geographical roman à clef. Munro's writing is marked by a stark refusal of sentimentalism about rural communities; for her, home is a “country we did not know we loved.” Her stories insist on exploring economic and cultural specificity of this milieu, and she has sought to capture the rhythm and idiom of the region. At the same time, Munro's stories evince a deep scepticism about the right of the artist to fictionalize. She has written: “I am a little afraid that the work with words may turn out to be a questionable trick, an evasion [...] an unavoidable lie.” Despite such reservations, she continues to publish stories regularly in The New Yorker and is recognized as one of the world's best living short story writers.


Citation:
McGill, Robert. "Alice Munro". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 24 June 2002
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5050, accessed 30 January 2015.]

Articles on Munro's works

  1. Lives of Girls and Women
  2. Who Do You Think You Are?