Thursday, May 5, 2011

“Pride” Alice Munro, Harper’s, April 2011.

Munro's "Pride": A Life Well-lived

Alice Munro will be eighty in July 2011. Since the 2009 publication of Too Much Happiness (her twelfth collection of short stories), she has published (at least as far as I can determine) three new stories: two in The New Yorker (“Corrie,” Oct. 11, 2010; and “Axis,” Jan. 31, 2011), and one in Harper’s, “Pride,” April 2011. I have been told that Harper’s is holding one more story that will be released in the next few months. Given the timeline that Munro has maintained throughout her career of releasing a new collection of stories every three or four years, we should expect, God willing, a thirteenth collection from her in 2012 or 2013.

I have posted blogs on the two New Yorker stories. I have now read the Harper’s story “Pride” several times and, after postponing for a few weeks, think I am now ready to essay a brief discussion of that story.

“Pride” is something of a departure for Munro, for it is told by a first-person male protagonist and narrator. I can recall one other story, “Thanks for the Ride,” in her first collection Dance of the Happy Shades, that uses a male narrator. But in spite of the male teller, in that early story, as well as in this last one, a woman is introduced immediately and usually assumes the focus of the story. In “Thanks for the Ride,” it is a teenager, Lois, who initiates the male narrator into sexuality. In “Pride,” it is Oneida, the daughter of a well-to-do family who lives in the same town as the male narrator. The story begins in the thirties and continues up to recent years. The action, such as there is, centers on the life of the narrator, who has a harelip, becoming a bookkeeper for a company in the town, and Oneida, a young woman he knows.

As in any first-person story, the first question I ask is: Why is the narrator telling the story and what stake does he have in it? Although the narrator (never named) is not a highly educated man, he is a thoughtful man. He ruminates on things and ponders them, as we can determine from the first paragraphs of the story, in which he divides people into two types: those who, regardless of their mistakes, prove themselves hearty and jovial, claiming they would not want to live any place but where they live, and others, who don’t get away from where they live, but you wish, for their own sake, that they had. “Whatever hole they started digging for themselves when they were young…they kept right on at it, digging away.” This bit of rumination establishes the general motivation for the narrator’s telling of the story. The reader is led to expect that the two main characters of the story might be representative of these two types.

Although he is driven back and forth by Oneida, the narrator notes that she did not look unhappy at the arrangement, nor did he, that he had “dignity” and plenty of it. What Oneida had was something different, he says, a kind of flustered graciousness, ready to laugh a little at her situation. The narrator says he felt sorry for her, “the way she was all on the surface of things, trusting.” Then he adds, in reference to his harelip impediment, “Imagine me, sorry.”

The next section of the story moves to the 1940’s—the war years. Because the narrator was exempted from service, he feels cut off from men his own age, although he says that is nothing new. He wonders why his harelip, which has been “decently if not quite cleverly, tidied up,” has kept him home. However, he says he doesn’t miss a father (who died before he even saw him) or a girlfriend, or “the brief swagger of walking off to war.” He spends time listening to the BBC radio and going to movies with his mother. When a ferry sinks off the Canada coast, he thinks of the people who went down and ponders that death makes everyone equal.

In the next section of the story, the narrator’s mother dies, as does Oneida’s father. When she comes to ask his advice about selling her house, he cautions her against it, but she sells it anyway and is later sorry for her action, even though she moves into an apartment later built on the site of the house. The narrator begins to spend time with Oneida in the fifties, inviting her to his own house to watch his new television. They do not go out because meeting new people is an ordeal for him. When he slips and calls her “Ida,” which is what her father called her, he apologizes, but she notes that he always preferred to call people by their old school nicknames. He feels “huffy” about this because, “The implication was that I somehow preferred to hang on to my childhood, that I wanted to stay there and make everybody else stay with me.” This implication refers to the narrator’s opening rumination about those people who stay and make the best of it and those who should have left. He says that all his school years were spent getting used to what he was like, and he considers it a triumph of sorts to have managed that feat and to know that he could stay here and make a living without having to continually break new people in to the way he looks. “But as for wanting to put us all back in grade four, no thank you.”

During the Sixties and Seventies, he thinks about Oneida, “There was still that strange hesitation and lightness about her, as if she were waiting for life to begin.” One evening he becomes ill and she settles into his mother’s bedroom to care for him. He comes to depend on her and has “spells of feeling like a small child again.” However, he realizes she is not his mother and is embarrassed that she has cared for his intimate hygiene needs, feeling that she was able to do so because of the way he looked, because he was a “neuter to her, or an unfortunate child.” He wants her to leave, and she does so, but sometime later, when she comes to watch television, she says she would like to move in with him, for she does not like living in an apartment, and if he became sick again, she could care for him. “We had a certain feeling for each other, she said. We had a feeling which was not just the usual thing. We could live together like brother and sister and look after each other like brother and sister, and it would be the most natural thing in the world. Everybody would accept it as so. How could they not?”

The narrator feels “angry, scared, appalled” at all this, “as if I had been thrown down a cellar and a flat door slammed on my head.” He does not want to let Oneida know how he feels, but to get out of this dilemma, he says he has already sold the house. Then, of course, he has to sell the house, and, because there is nowhere else, finding an apartment on the ground floor of the building where Oneida lives. When he goes to sign the lease, he meets a man who he has known for years but does not immediately recognize. When the man asks the narrator if he plays the card euchre, intimating a future companionship, the narrator ruminates about the following:

“Just living long enough wipes out the problems. Puts you in a select club. No matter what your disabilities may have been, just living till now wipes them out, to a good measure. Everybody’s face will have suffered, never just yours.”

This makes him think about how Oneida has aged. He thinks if he had ever had the right to choose, he would not have chosen her, but a college girl he once knew who worked for the company that employed him. Once the girl told him that he could now get a better plastic surgery job on his face. He thinks:

“She was right. But how could I explain that it was just beyond me to walk into some doctor’s office and admit that I was wishing for something I hadn’t got.”

The story ends when Oneida shows up at his house while he is packing. Suddenly she laughs and points out the window to a birdbath that seems full of black and white birds, dashing in the water. But they are not birds, but a group of young skunks. He thinks how beautiful they are, splashing in the water, so many you could not tell how many there were. Here is how the story ends:

“While we watched, they lifted themselves up one by one and left the water and proceeded to walk across the yard, swiftly but in a straight diagonal line. As if they were proud of themselves but discreet. Five of them.
“My Lord,” said Oneida. “In town.”
Her face looked dazzled.
“Have you ever seen such a sight?”
I said no. Never.
I thought she might say another thing and spoil it, but no, neither of us did.
We were as glad as we could be.”
Other things that lead us to expect that the story means something are its title and its author. That it is titled “Pride” leads us to expect that its meaning is somehow related to that human quality; that it is by Alice Munro (if we have read her stories before) leads us to expect some thematic significance, not merely a realistic account of an historical event.

The opening two paragraphs of the story, which begins, “Some people get everything wrong,” and then reflects on two different types of people in live in towns like the one in which this story takes place, also suggests to us that the teller of the story has something in mind he wishes to explore and perhaps illustrate. The opening rumination ends this way:
“Life is harder for some, we’re told. Not their fault, even if the blows are purely imaginary. Felt just as keenly by the recipient, or the non-recipient, as the case may be.
But good use can be made of everything, if you are willing.”

Just as such a ruminative opening suggests some thematic significance, so also does the ending scene in which small skunks are playing in a birdbath. The incongruity of the skunks in the birdbath, combined with the fact that the sight dazzles Oneida and pleases the narrator, making them both as glad as they could be, suggests that the scene has symbolic or metaphoric significance that should make us reflect back on the whole story. The fact that the skunks, which are usually thought to be repulsive smelly creatures, here look beautiful and seem “proud of themselves” makes us reflect back on the meditative passages at the beginning, as well as the references to “pride” throughout the story. It is hard to be a skunk, one might think, hard to have any pride in yourself if you smell bad and people run from you.

I recall back in the late forties and early fifties a Warner Bros Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon character named Pepe Le pew, a male French skunk who was always amorously stalking a young female cat (who accidently got a white stripe painted on her back) who ran from his attentions because of his vile smell. But no matter how repulsive others thought Pepe to be, he was blissfully indifferent and took great pride in what he thought to be his amorous appeal.

If one were an observer of life in this small Canadian town, one might wonder why these two people never got together. Granted, the narrator’s face is marred by a cleft lip, while Oneida’s face is beautiful; she comes from wealth and privilege, while he comes from a lower middle-class background. But then this kind of difference is the very stuff of romance—Heathcliff and Cathy in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, for example.

Although we can understand why the narrator and Oneida do not get together when they are young, we might wonder why they do not get married, or at least live together, when they are older. Part of the mystery involved here is why people ever get together. As the narrator says, “good use can be made of everything, if you are willing.” The narrator does not feel slighted or snubbed; he is so used to being exempted by his looks and the way he talks that he takes it for granted and he therefore does not miss what he might have had if he had looked differently. He spent his school years getting used to what he looked like and how other people responded to his looks, and considers it a “minor triumph” to have managed to do this, to survive, make a living, live a satisfying life.

We might be temped to say that his life could not have been satisfying, for he only had his mother and then this woman who mothers him when he is ill. But if nothing in the story suggests that he is lonely or self-pitying or deprived—either sexually or emotionally, who are we to say he must have been unhappy? Does one have to love someone to live a good life? Does one have to have sex to live a good life? Does one have to have children to be fulfilled? Obviously, the answer to all these questions is “no.”

Why does the narrator react so extremely when Oneida suggests moving in with him? She does so because she thinks they need each other; he could depend on her; she could depend on him. However, this very notion terrifies and appalls him, for he has always lived his life with enough hard-earned self-pride that he does not need anyone else. To be made to feel at this point in his life that he does need someone, that he cannot live alone, would somehow suggest that all his life’s work overcoming adversity, earning self-pride, would have been wasted. Remember, when a woman suggested that he go see a doctor to get a better repair job done on his cleft lip, he says it was just beyond him to go in some doctor’s office and admit he was wishing for something he didn’t have. To be able to say, “I don’t need” to change my appearance to be accepted. To be able to say, “I don’t need someone else to depend on and reflect a positive image of me.” Both require hard-earned self-pride.

When he meets the man he did not recognize because the man has aged and thinks of Oneida growing older, he comes to realize that if you live long enough, earlier problems are eradicated. No matter what shortcomings you may have had earlier, just living long enough wipes them. When you get older, everybody’s face suffers, not just yours.

Alice Munro has lived a long, productive creative life, developing a wisdom about human nature that she will, God willing, continue to share with us for many years to come. It is well that she would write a story that reflects a life well lived. As the English metaphysical poet George Herbert once famously said, “Living well is the best revenge.”


Anonymous said...

"Face," in "Too Much Happiness" also has a male narrator.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Steve. I will take another look at that story. I forgot that, and I just read that book and reviewed it last year. The marred facial features of both characters connects them, doesn't it? Thanks for reminding me of that story.

Jay said...

Thanks, this was a great analysis of the story. I read "Pride" when it was first published in Harper's, and I was a little taken aback by it. It felt a little flat and discursive to me. It also took me a really long time to figure out that the narrator was a man, which I considered a fault of the author. Then, I read a blog post slamming the story*, and resigned myself to accepting it was lower-tier Munro.

But later I remembered something that Munro said in her last public appearance promoting "Too Much Happiness": that she was working on a story about a man who has no interest in sex, and I realized this must be that story! I still haven't fully worked out how the narrator's "asexuality" is tied into the story's notion of "pride" and disfigurement, but I agree that the central theme seems to be one of acceptance (that final sentence); and how emotional ambivalence doesn't necessarily lead to unhappiness. Neither Ida nor the narrator come to conventionally happy ends, but both have stayed true to their natures and don't seem to have a whole lot of angst over their eccentricities. Among other things, Munro is an exceptionally sensitive writer of marginal figures -- and exceptionally sensitive to the ways a person like Ida, a beautiful, wealthy woman, can be a marginal figure.

*Here's a link to that blog post. One of the main complaints seems to be the use of cliches in the story, but when a piece is written in the first person, I sort of overlook things like that. In this case, the narrator is decidedly not meant to have a "writerly" voice, and would likely speak in cliches:“pride-goeth-before-destruction”-on-alice-munro’s-“pride”/

Also very excited at the mention of a new Munro story coming down the pike. At almost 80, I consider every new story of hers a real gift. I also hope to read many more.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the comment, Jay. Yeah, I read that earlier blog post complaining about so-called cliches in the story. But the writer did not, it seems to me, spend enough time with the story to understand what Munro suggests about living a life that may appear to be marginal and unfulfilled to some, but that may be quite fulfilling to the one living it. I think the so-called asexuality of the narrator is important in the story, for it suggests that one does not necessarily "need" another to fulfill oneself. I think Munro knows exactly what she is doing in this story.

Jane said...

l'm reading Alice Munro's "Pride" in Asia and as i'm not English speaker, i feel I need someone who can explain certain sentences which i don't get.
For instance, in the second paragraph,what the "hole" and "digging up the hole" means? what does that mean? Can you just give me a help with this?
Thanks in advance.

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Jane. The reference to "digging a hole" in the second paragraph of "Pride":

This is an American/Canadian expression to suggest that sometimes people settle themselves in one place and stay there until they die. It is as though very early you start digging a trap that becomes your grave.