Thursday, June 30, 2011

Alice Munro's "Gravel": New Yorker, June 27, 2011

I have completed my fifth reading of Alice Munro’s new short story, “Gravel,” in the June 27, 2011 edition of The New Yorker. I liked it on the first reading, although I was a little unsure about the central event of the sister’s drowning. I liked it even better on the second reading, when I could separate the “actual” from the “imaginary” in the experience of the narrator. I liked it still more on the third reading, when I understood more about the nature of the narrator’s involvement in the central event. But now that I have read it a fourth time—with highlighter in hand, followed up with a fifth reading making penciled annotations—I like it inordinately for its seemingly simple, but actually complex, literary pattern and thematic significance.

Although you can read the story at the following site,
I will provide a brief summary:

The first part of the story recounts the narrator’s memory of her mother’s starting to dress like an actress and then telling her husband that the child with which she is pregnant belongs to Neal, an actor she has met. The mother’s motivation for leaving her insurance-salesman husband seems related to her desire to have a “freer,” more Bohemian, life than she has had in her conventional home.

The central incident occurs after heavy rains have filled up the gravel pit and Caro tells the narrator to run back to the trailer to tell Neal and her mother that Blitzee has fallen in the water and she has jumped in to save the dog. The narrator runs to the trailer, but sits down outside before going in. When she does go in and the mother tries to get Neal to go to the gravel pit, he fails to do so. In the third part of the story, Neal does not attend Caro’s funeral. The mother gives birth to a child named she names Brent.

In the final section of the story, the narrator learns that Neal is living near where she teaches, and her partner, Ruthann, convinces her she should go see him to help “rout her demons.” She discovers that Neal lives in a semi-respectable dump and buys his clothes from the Salvation Army—all of which he says suits his principles. He tells her how it happened—that he was stoned at the time and is not a swimmer and thus would have drowned also if he had tried to save Caro. She asks him what he thinks Caro had in mind on that day, as she has asked two others before. Her counselor has told her that perhaps Caro wanted attention to how bad she was feeling; Ruthann has said it was to make her mother go back to the father; Neal says it doesn’t matter, that maybe she thought she could paddle better or that she did not know how heavy winter clothes could be, or that there was no one close by to help her.

The story ends with Neal advising the narrator not to waste her time, not to try to get in on the guilt for not hurrying up and telling that day. He then says:

“The thing is to be happy. No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and the tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.” He then says goodbye.

In the last paragraph, the narrator says:
“I see what he meant. It really is the right thing to do. But in my mind, Caro keeps running at the water and throwing herself in, as if in triumph and I’m still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash.”
In the following discussion, I have isolated what I think are the most important motifs of the story, which, taken together, suggest its universal, underlying themes:

One of the first things I look for when reading a story is the motivation for its telling, especially if the story is told first person by a character in the story. Why does the teller feel the need to tell the story? At the very beginning, the narrator tells us, “I barely remember that life. That is, I remember some parts of it clearly, but without the links you need to form a proper picture.” The problem is that we usually remember the past in isolated moments—events that happen, but we have difficulty remembering what causally connects them, what relationship one event has to another. As Neal tells the narrator at the end, “I think you might want to know how it happened.” We may remember what happened, but not how it happened, what caused it. One tells a story in order to try to understand the links, the motivation, the causes.

This need to know, to be sure of the connection of events in the misty, disconnected past, is related to the theme repeated throughout the story of solidity and security versus instability and uncertainty.

During the central drowning event, when the narrator goes to the trailer and just sits down rather than knocking on the door, she says, ”I know this because it’s a fact. I don’t know, however, what my plan was or what I was thinking. I was waiting, maybe, for the next act in Caro’s drama. Or in the dog’s.” And indeed her helplessness, her failure to act quickly has to do with not knowing what her “role” is in a drama that is not of her making. Indeed, the central event—from the time the narrator is told to go to the trailer and tell Neal and her mother something, the narrator has no secure sense that the events are happening, about to happen, might have happened, or imagined happening. Munro creates this ambiguous insecurity about the nature of reality so deftly I need to quote the entire passage:

I don’t know how much time we spent just wandering around the water’s edge, knowing that we couldn’t be seen from the trailer. After a while, I realized that I was being given instructions.

I was to go back to the trailer and tell Neal and our mother something.
That the dog had fallen into the water.

The dog had fallen into the water and Caro was afraid she’d be drowned.
Blitzee. Drownded.


But Blitzee wasn’t in the water.

She could be. And Caro could jump in to save her.

I believe I still put up some argument, along the lines of she hasn’t, you haven’t, it could happen but it hasn’t. I also remembered that Neal had said dogs didn’t drown.

Caro instructed me to do as I was told.


I may have said that, or I may have just stood there not obeying and trying to work up another argument.

In my mind I can see her picking up Blitzee and tossing her, though Blitzee was trying to hang on to her coat. Then backing up, Caro backing up to take a run at the water. Running, jumping, all of a sudden hurling herself at the water. But I can’t recall the sound of the splashes as they, one after the other, hit the water. Not a little splash or a big one. Perhaps I had turned toward the trailer by then—I must have done so.

When I dream of this, I am always running. And in my dreams I am running not toward the trailer but back toward the gravel pit. I can see Blitzee floundering around and Caro swimming toward her, swimming strongly, on the way to rescue her. I see her light-brown checked coat and her plaid scarf and her proud successful face and reddish hair darkened at the end of its curls by the water. All I have to do is watch and be happy—nothing required of me, after all.

What I really did was make my way up the little incline toward the trailer. And when I got there I sat down. Just as if there had been a porch or a bench, though in fact the trailer had neither of these things. I sat down and waited for the next thing to happen.

Next thing, I am inside. My mother is yelling at Neal and trying to make him understand something. He is getting to his feet and standing there speaking to her, touching her, with such mildness and gentleness and consolation. But that is not what my mother wants at all and she tears herself away from him and runs out the door. He shakes his head and looks down at his bare feet. His big helpless-looking toes."

When the narrator is an adult, she goes to see a therapist to help her determine the links or causal connections between the events. All possible explanations from the three people she asks: therapist, companion, Neal—are hypotheses only, phrased as “must have,” “might have,” “maybe.”

Neal gives the narrator advice from his perspective: “Don’t waste your time. You’re not thinking what if you had hurried up and told, are you? Not trying to get in on the guilt?”

“The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”
The story ends with her understanding Neal’s advice, but not her ability to follow it:

“I see what he meant. It really is the right thing to do. But, in my mind, Caro keeps running at the water and throwing herself, as if in triumph, and I’m still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash.”

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