Although you can probably read the story at the following site, http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2011/06/27/110627fi_fiction_munro?currentPage=all
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.
The gravel pit embodies this split between what is solid and what is uncertain: “The pit was shallow enough to lead you to think that there might have been some other intention for it—foundations for a house, maybe, that never made it any further.”
After the mother leaves her husband, she was “so happy to have shed everything connected with the house, the street—the husband—with the life she’d had before” exchanging the solidly established house for the transient trailer. The father is an insurance salesman, who sells people security against the future; Neal, on the other hand, with his concern about the atomic bomb, thinks there may be no future. “His philosophy, as he put it later, was to welcome whatever happened. Everything is a gift. We give and we take.” Neal accepts uncertainty, while Caro desires stability. When Neal asks Caro, what if we all disappear and Blitzee has to fend for herself, Caro says, “I’m not going to,” Caro said. “I’m not going to disappear, and I’m always going to look after her.” The narrator and the mother build a snowman and call it Neal; snowmen do not last long and soon disappear.
The narrator feel caught between stability and instability, between things that exist solidly in the world and things that are so instable they just disappear. “Sometimes I wondered about our other house. I didn’t exactly miss it or want to live there again—I just wondered where it had gone.” Indeed, after Caro drowns, Neal does in fact disappear.
When the narrator and her mother make the snowman, Neal gets out of the car mad and yells that he could have run over her. Using a significant verb, the narrator thinks: “That was one of the few times that I saw him act like a father.” After Caro’s death, Neal writes a letter saying, “that since he did not intend to act as a father it would be better for him to bow out at the start.”
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.” 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.
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.”
When the narrator goes to meet Neal, he is still the voice of one who accepts life as it comes and refuses to feel responsibility about the past. His view about why Caro did what she did is that it does not matter: “Maybe she thought she could paddle better than she could. Maybe she didn’t know how heavy winter clothes can get. Or that there wasn’t anybody in a position to help her.”
Then 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.”