The novel form usually gains the reader's assent to its reality by the creation of enough realistic detail to make readers feel they know the experience in the same way they know external reality. However, in the short story, realistic details are often transformed into metaphoric meaning by the thematic demands of the story, which organize the details by repetition and parallelism into meaningful patterns.
For example, the hard details of the external world in Robinson Crusoe exist as an external resistance to be overcome. However, in Hemingway's "Big, Two-Hearted River," the extensive details exist primarily to provide an objectification of Nick's psychic distress. As opposed to Crusoe, Nick is not concerned with surviving an external conflict but rather an internal one. In "Big, Two-Hearted River," the story's obsessive focusing on the external world does not derive from the compulsion to combine details linearly, but the metaphoric need to select, repeat, and thus understand the essence of the experience that the details create. Thus, at the end of Hemingway's story, Nick's refusal to go into the swamp is a purely metaphoric refusal, having nothing to do with the real qualities of the swamp, only its aesthetic qualities.
Alice Munro’s new story, “Amundsen,” which appears in the August 27, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, may be misunderstood, and thus unappreciated, by some readers, if they read it as if it were a simple realistic story about a particular woman who has a brief affair with a particular man, who decides at the last minute not to marry her. Perhaps it might be well if we remember what Munro herself has said about how she reads a story and how she tries to write one.
Munro has said that when she reads a story she does not take it up at the beginning and follow it like a road “with views and neat diversions along the way.” Rather, for her, reading a story is like moving through a house, making connections between one enclosed space and another. Consequently, Munro declares, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.” She admits that the word “feeling” is not very precise, but that if she tries to be more intellectually respectable she will be dishonest.
Munro uses the term “feeling” again when interviewer Geoff Hancock asked her if the meaning of a story is more important to her than the event. “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well. There has to be a feeling in the story.” Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood.”
Daniel Menaker, editor-in-chief at Random House, once said about Munro: “You get the feeling she’s trying to help you get at some true emotional psychological insight, but that often takes the form of a kind of philosophical surrender to the unknowability of people’s motives and characters, a dark existential uncertainty about what makes people tick. And this, it seems to me, is very important and very abstract—but doesn’t do justice to the liveliness and richness of her characters.”
I have read “Amundsen” three times—first in a purely temporal fashion, responding to the characters as if they were particular and real and the plot as if it were made up actual events occurring one after another; second highlighting all those points in the story that seem to mark a specific authorial choice of language, detail (e.g., when she describes something metaphorically or cites something in a way that might very well have been described in a different way; and third, commenting in the margin on the repetition of those details. Then, following Munro’s suggestion, I have tried to see what “feeling” or “climate” the story creates, from combination of the details—resulting in what Daniel Menaker calls the story’s “true emotional psychological insight.”
One of the most predominant details repeated throughout the story is emphasized when the first person narrator, Vivien Hyde, because a coffee shop does not have a “ladies room,” must go past the entrance to a beer parlor to use the facilities in a hotel. The loggers there pay little attention to her, for they were “deep in a world of men, bawling out their own stories, not here to look at women.” This “world of men” theme is introduced early in the story when Hyde, a teacher on her way to a new post, waits on the train while a group of men burst out of a building, jamming on their caps and banging their lunch buckets against their thighs, and dash to the train.
The theme of a “world of men” culminates at the end when Vivien and her lover, Dr. Alister Fox, sit in the car, and he tells her he cannot go through with the wedding. They are briefly interrupted by a man, trying to park a delivery truck in front of them, who asks them to move to make room. Vivien says that although what Fox has been saying to her is terrible, his attitude after he had spoken to the truck driver changes. “He rolls up the window and gives all his attention to the car, to backing it out of its tight spot and moving it so as not to come in contact with the van, as if there were no more to be said or managed.” He has a new tone in his voice, almost jaunty, a tone of relief. He takes her to the train station and leaves her in a special “ladies’ waiting room.”
A number of details in the story accentuate a dichotomy between male and female worlds, as when Vivien sees the girl Mary in a snowball fight involving “girls against boys.” On their way out of town to get married, Vivien is “aroused” by Fox’s “male awareness,” which she knows can quickly change to its opposite. She fantasizes that she would lie down with him “in any bog or mucky hole” or feel her spine “crushed against any roadside rock, should he require an upright encounter.”
This is a new world for Vivien, who, until her sexual encounter with Fox, was a virgin, although her passion surprises both of them. It is a world she is introduced to on the train when she smells raw meat a woman carries in oilpaper parcels. Since the school where she is to teach is in a TB sanitarium, she is also introduced to the world of death, as Mary tells her quite nonchalantly that her best friend Anabel is dead, for that is “something that happens a lot around here.” If it is a world of flesh, therefore death, it is also something of an aestheticized world. Vivien tells Fox that the landscape makes her think she is living in a Russian novel.
Susan Sontag talks about the metaphoric significance of tuberculosis in her 1977 book, Illness as Metaphor, reminding us that in the fiction of the nineteenth century, TB was associated with a “spiritualization of consciousness,” elevating one above earthly physical existence. Because TB was associated with the lungs, the penuma or spirit, it was supposed to make one more sensitive and passionate, its pallor suggesting melancholy. Death, which occurred easily, was “aestheticised.”
However, the aestheticised world in which Vivien lives, a world of the fiction of Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann (In Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp makes a transition from a mundane world of the flatlands to a spiritualized introspective world of a mountain TB sanitarium.), is not the world of Alister Fox, whose books suggest his desire to “possess great scattered lumps of knowledge, and who thinks characters in The Magic Mountain are windbags.
Although Fox is a surgeon and lives a life of “minimal but precise comfort that a lone man—a regulated lone man—might contrive,” he is capable of what, to Vivien, is a male coarseness. Mary tells of his shooting a dog and his ability to “tear a strip off you if he felt like it” (a Canadian expression for giving someone a harsh scolding). He lives the life of a simple bachelor, serving Vivien a modest dinner of pork chops, instant mashed potatoes, canned peas, and an apple pie from the bakery.
The questions that may puzzle many readers—why Vivien agrees to marry Fox and why Fox decides at the last minute not to marry her—cannot be answered by appealing to any simple psychology of the two characters as if they were particular people in the world, but rather by referring to what Henry James once said about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s concern with a “deeper psychology”--what Daniel Menaker has said about Munro’s trying to help the reader “get at some true emotional psychological insight, but that often takes the form of a kind of philosophical surrender to the unknowability of people’s motives and characters, a dark existential uncertainty about what makes people tick.”
Vivien’s attraction to Fox is derived from her romantic, fiction-based, fascination with his mysteriousness maleness. His decision not to marry her derives from his desire to maintain his own concept of maleness apart from any female involvement. Ten years later, when she passes him crossing a crowded street, “going in opposite directions,” they share a brief, perfunctory greeting and the story ends as follows:
“No breathless cry, no hand on my shoulder when I reached the sidewalk. Just the flash that I had caught when one of his eyes opened wider than the other. It was the left eye—always the left, as I remembered. And it always looked so strange, alert and wondering, as if some crazy impossibility had occurred to him that almost made him laugh.
“That was all. I went on home.
“Feeling the same as when I’d left Amundsen. The train dragging me, disbelieving. Nothing changes, apparently, about love.”
What is the story about? Perhaps it’s about the mysterious nature of the dichotomy of the physical and the spiritual, the male and the female, the romantic and the realistic. The attraction between male and female, what brings people together and keeps them apart, is always a mystery. Love stories never change; they always end in separation and thus perennially exist in the world of the imagination.
Alice Munro’s New Book, Dear Life
Alice Munro usually includes between eight and ten stories in her collections, for example:
Open Secrets, 1994, eight stories
The Love of a Good Woman, 1998, eight stories
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, 2001, nine stories.
Runaway, 2004, eight stories
The View From Castle Rock, 2006, eleven stories/memoirs
Too Much Happiness, 2009, ten stories
To the best of my knowledge, the following twelve stories are those published in periodicals by Alice Munro since her last collection, Too Much Happiness, which came out in 2009.
“Corrie,” The New Yorker, Oct. 11, 2010.
“Axis,” The New Yorker, Jan. 31, 2011.
“Pride,” Harper’s, April 2011.
“Gravel,” The New Yorker, June 27, 2011.
“Dear Life,” The New Yorker, Sep. 19, 2011.
“Leaving Maverley,” The New Yorker, Nov. 28, 2011.
“Haven,” The New Yorker, March 5, 2012
“In Sight of the Lake,” Granta, Winter 2012.
“To Reach Japan,” Narrative, Winter 2012.
“Train,” Harper’s, April, 2012.
“Dolly,” Tin House, Volume 13, Issue No. 52, 2012
“Amundsen,” The New Yorker, August 27, 2012.
Her new book, Dear Life, which is due out on November 13, 2012, will probably include eleven of the stories listed above. I am not sure about the most recent, “Amundsen,” which may have been written too late to be included in the new book. She will surely include the piece “New Life” (although it was identified as a memoir rather than a story when it appeared in The New Yorker), since it provides the title for her new book.