Monday, February 16, 2009

Alice Munro, "Wenlock Edge" and Metafiction

In a “comment” on the post “Do You Have to Learn to Read a Short Story,” Sandy posts a query about Alice Munro’s story “Wenlock Edge,” which appeared in The New Yorker, Dec. 5, 2005. You can find it at:

As far as I can tell, the story has not appeared in any of Munro’s books yet and will probably be in the new collection scheduled to come out later this year. I remember “Wenlock Edge,” for it is one of those stories we have talked about before that seem to haunt us—especially that strangely unsettling scene when the narrator calmly sits in the nude and has dinner with an elderly man.

Sandy asks if anyone can comment on the narrator’s emotion when she says she is on a course discovering her own wickedness. I think Sandy is right that an important element of the story is the narrator’s concern with what is real in life. For me, the issue has to do with a common theme in the short story as a genre—the blurring of the edge between reality and unreality—and a common short story technique of exploring this question in terms of the reality of unreality.

The narrator is a student of literature. In fact, I suspect that only an English major would have willingly taken her clothes off for dinner with a strange old man primarily as a challenge to the charge, “So you’re just a bookworm. That’s all you are.”

And indeed, she is a bookworm, that is, she primarily lives in books and makes adverse judgments on those, such as the two English majors who live downstairs, whose conversations and preoccupations seem hardly different from those who work in banks or offices. The narrator believes that one who studies literature should see reality differently than others.

However, the narrator admits at one point that, except in examinations, she gets many things wrong. And the main thing she thinks she may have gotten wrong is, as Sandy points out, her notion that what she is doing—reading literature—is what is real, or at least teaches us how to see the real. The other characters in the story, she comes to realize, see reading literature as only a game.

The narrator gets many of her ideas and expectations from reading. Her own experience with reality other than what she reads is sparse. For example, Nina’s story of her children, the death of one child, her life with Mr. Purvis, makes her feel like a simpleton. Still, the narrator thinks that Nina has no pegs on which to hang anything because she has not read about Victorian, Romantic, Pre-Columbian, that she could not find on the map the many countries she has visited, and that she wouldn't know whether or not the French Revolution came before the First World War. When Mrs. Winner comes to pick her up for dinner with Mr. Purvis, the woman’s platinum hair certifies to the narrator a hard heart, immoral dealings, and a long bumpy ride through the sordid back alleys of life. When Mr. Purvis takes her to his library, she has a notion of the sort of story, that few people ever get a chance to read, about a room called a library turning out to be a bedroom with soft lights, puffy cushions, and downy pillows. Obviously, the narrator’s knowledge includes not only high literature, but also pulpy, soft-core porn. When she is asked to read Housman’s “Wenlock Edge,” she feels comfortable, at peace with the familiar rhythms of the poem. She lives in fiction more easily than in phenomenal reality.

So why does she willing take her clothes off? Because, as she says, it is a challenge, a sort of Bohemian dare, a gesture to show that she is not just a bookworm, but as daring as the women in the books with which she is familiar. She tries to assume the liberal, well-read, view that we are all naked under our clothes. For the moment, she sees herself as a liberated fictional figure, and does not worry that anything will happen to her.

The fact that Plato is her favorite philosopher and that she likes his allegory of the cave is significant, for “Wenlock Edge” is filled with issues about what is real and what are misunderstandings, mere shadows, of reality.

The fact that the narrator sends Mr. Purvis Ernie’s address, knowing that he will go round and fetch her away from Ernie, is less a wicked act than it is a tampering with the lives of others as if they were not real, but rather characters in a story that she feels free to manipulate around, as if they were puppets, shadows cast on the wall of Plato’s cave.

The narrator, that is, the creator of the story we are reading, is wicked in the way that all writers of fiction are wicked—creating fictional characters, pretending they are real and then manipulating them mercilessly as merely fictional characters.

At the end of the story, the narrator says she keeps learning things, such as the Uricon, the Roman camp, is now Wroxeter, a town on the Severn River. But such knowledge, although historically accurate, and what some new historicist critics nowadays would called “context,” is not as important as the more subtle, inchoate knowledge that the short story in general and Alice Munro in particular make their own.

I have always been concerned with the basic issue of the relationship between fantasy and reality in fiction and have written about it several times. Although I think that the short story, because of its self-conscious, carefully constructed form, is more often apt to focus on its own processes than the novel is, I believe that all writers, always conscious of their craft, at times writes stories or novels that quite intentionally make the fantasy/reality mix the central subject of their work. I once wrote a paper on howTwain did this in Huckleberry Finn. I wanted to argue against those social critics who felt that the novel’s ending, in which we return to the fantasy world of Tom Sawyer, was a weakness in the work. I quote some of that piece below to provide some context for my reading of Alice Munro’s “Wenlock Edge.”

“In considering the reality-fantasy question in Huckleberry Finn, perhaps we should take a relative, that is to say, a phenomenological view and instead of asking, "What is real?" ask, as William James does in Principles of Psychology, "Under what circumstances do we think things real?" Phenomenologist Alfred Schutz has taken this approach to the
question of reality in Don Quixote, and since it is Tom Sawyer's Don Quixote world that is often objected to in Huckleberry Finn, perhaps the approach will be valuable here also.

Huckleberry Finn, like Don Quixote, directly deals with the problem of multiple realities discussed by James. Don Quixote sustains his world by appealing to the "authorities" of books of chivalry; Tom sustains his world by appealing to the "authority" of Don Quixote. Tom's hypothesis of the enchanters which make Huck see Sunday-school children instead of A-rabs is similar to Don Quixote's hypothesis of them to explain why Sancho Panza sees windmills instead of giants. However, as Alfred Schutz points out, to Don Quixote the existence of the enchanters is not a mere hypothesis, but an historical fact verified by all the source books reporting on matters of chivalry. Furthermore, Schutz reminds us, "If we examine why, within the reality of our natural attitude, we believe in historical events we can only refer to arguments similar to those of Don Quixote: to documents, monuments, authenticated accounts of witnesses, and
uninterrupted tradition." The "authorities" of Don Quixote, The Arabian Nights, and other books of fantasy that Tom appeals to at the beginning and ending of Huckleberry Finn, are, within his sub-universe of fable, no less "real" than these are in the sub-universe of everyday reality. The problem critics have with Huckleberry Finn arises when they try to judge it from the perspective of the sub-universe of everyday reality, somehow forgetting that as a novel the entire book exists within Twain's sub-universe of deliberate fable.

Perhaps all literary fictions are also meta-literary, in that every artist is caught in the
conflict between seeing the activity he is engaged in as idle play and productive work at the same time. Art is a form of play that by being pushed to hallucinatory extremes masters the conflict inherent in the activity between its play nature and its work nature. Thus, although Huckleberry Finn is a serious work of art, the Tom Sawyer fantasy frame reminds us that it is also a form of play that masters its own sub-universe of fable. Mark Twain's creation of the fantasy Huckleberry Finn is similar to Tom Sawyer's fantasies, and as a fantasy the novel quite legitimately is resolved in the conclusion by a final reminder that fictional conflict can only be resolved fictionally. If the function of literature is, as Norman Holland suggests, to transform our "primitive wishes and fears into significance and coherence," its metaliterary function is to aesthetically resolve the conflict between play and work, pleasure principle and reality principle, that arises in any artistic activity. The art work manifests a compromise between the pleasure principle and the reality principle by creating out of the play of fantasy a work of literature. The compromise is laid bare in Huckleberry Finn in the relationship between Tom's fantasy play and Huck's realistic work.

The usual critical view of Tom Sawyer as a prototype of civilized hypocritical man as romantic dreamer may be simply the result of our cultural bias against fantasy, our assumption that the everyday world is the only mature reality. If we shift our focus and remember that Huckleberry Finn is an art work, a deliberate fable, instead of a social document, isn't it more likely that from this perspective Huck Finn is in some ways the prototype of modern economic man as unimaginative realist? Mark Twain may admire Huck for his realism, but as an artist twain is in the position of Tom Sawyer. Moreover, as readers, we are also in the position of Tom, fantasying that we are Huck, but desiring to maintain our freedom to play. The Tom Sawyer frame of the book provides us with a reminder of this freedom. Huck Finn may escape civilization, but Tom Sawyer, like Mark Twain, like every artist, subverts it with his play.”

Forgive me once again for referring to stuff I have done before, but I thought this little excerpt from a longer article I wrote years ago would make clearer my reading of Alice Munro’s story.

I thank Sandy for reminding me of this story. I hope she will respond with her own reading. Iwould love to hear what others think.

Please watch for Munro’s new collection scheduled to come out later this year. I will remind you of it when I get word of its publication date.

1 comment:

sandy said...

I think the thing that has drawn me into the story is the discovery the narrator makes that her conviction that she is right, that she knows what she is doing, is wrong. I think Purvis is contemptible--he sets things up so that he can dominate--he shows a satisfied expression as if he has made a "winning move" when the narrator flushes at her bare condition. Why does he get some satisfaction from dining with the narrator when she is bare and he is fully clothed? The narrator gets it right when she feels something akin to outrage at herself for reading poetry to Purvis in this shameful,, embarrassing condition. He even instructs her not to cross her legs. What a puppet master. She associates forever in her mind those poems she read with the wrongness of letting Purvis control her. In that association she has besmirched her life of the mind. The scene is not a scene of lovers--it is Purvis asserting power...the same kind of power he exerts over Nina. He controls things, and he is satisfied when the narrator acknowledges her weakness/defeat by flushing. The reality the narrator discovers is that even though she studies literature and philosophy, she is clay. She can't bear the thought that Ernie and Nina will always know about her shameful surrender to Purvis because she thought wrongly that she was doing something else--rising to a challenge--not giving in to a manipulator. When the narrator reveals Nina's hiding place to Purvis, she gives up the high ground. She is putting Nina back into the kind of subjugation that she herself accepted freely out of her mistake about what she was doing, but she is responsible for Nina's loss of freedom. I can not quite get my mind around the difference between what a character does at a moment of decision--it defines the character that we take as real--and what an author does by manipulating characters in a fiction that reveals our own deepest fears and griefs. If the author gets it right, and we do see ourselves and our inner condition played out in the fictional artifact, then the characters are real and their manipulation of other characters and events within the story are damning while the author's manipulation of the aspects of fiction to create the artifact is a work of art.