Monday, August 27, 2012

Alice Munro's "Amundsen" and The Stories in Her New Book, Dear Life

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

I have posted blogs on many of these stories in the past two years and will discuss the rest of them when Dear Life comes out in November.


Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the insight. Wonderful read.

Steve said...

Interesting points. I was also struck by the focus on exploration (the title, Vivien's early descriptions of the north, Fox's reading ["Explorations of the Amazon and Arctic. Shackleton caught in the ice. John Franklin's doomed expedition . . ."], the various journeys in the narrative. Mary's a fascinating aspect too: she turns up in a variety of outfits and attitudes, always at key moments in Vivien's experience.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Steve. I agree there is much more in this story than my few remarks had time and space to explore--especially the character of Mary. And yes, I do think this is a story of exploration. I appreciate your comments

Jon said...

I'm a bit troubled by the atomized approach you take to reading the story. Is the only way to get a sense of the mood of the story to do a special reading? I.e, shouldn't mood and feeling be an organic part of a readers overall reaction to a story's characters, plot, imagery, language, etc.?

The mention of Sontag feels a bit gratuitous as I don't see any evidence of her themes in this story. Vivien aestheticizes the landscape, not TB.

And you conclude that:

"Vivien's attraction to Fox is derived from her romantic, fiction-based, fascination with his mysteriousness maleness"

Surely this is part of it, but it could also be that she's a young, sexually healthy virgin looking for an outlet for her natural drives.

You point out that a reader could miss out on a lot by taking the story too concretely, but I think there's also a risk in adopting an overly cerebral / academic approach of reading things into the story that aren't there, or simply missing out on the richness of the world and characters that the author's created.

Charles E. May said...

I thank Jon for taking the time to respond to my discussion of Munro's "Amundsen." I certainly think a reader can get a sense of the mood of Munro's story without any explicatory help from me. Just as in listening to a piece of music, a reader can "feel" and respond without any explanation.

However, it seems to me that the task of the teacher/critic is to try to account for "how" the writer created the mood that sustains the story, and in so doing, hopefully, help the reader understand the strategy the writer used and thus be sensitive to such strategies in future stories he or she may read.

I only mention Sontag's book because she discusses the metaphoric significance of TB as a spiritualization of reality--a theme often found in Munro and certainly part of the thematic background of this story.

Certainly Vivien's attraction to Fox could be due to any of number of reasons specific to her situation and personality, that is, if she were a real person. However,since she is a fictional character, her motivation, it seems to me, is tied up with her role in the story's thematic significance.

You are certainly right that critical analysis of a story sometimes poses the danger of, as you say, "missing out on the richness of the world and characters that the author's created." There is always the possibility that "we murder to dissect."

Thanks again for commenting, Jon. It is precisely such reactions as yours that are most helpful to me in trying to create a useful book about reading short stories.

Jon said...

Professor May:

Thanks very much for your thoughtful response--you've made me rethink my attitudes/positions.

The one point I still feel energetically oppositional about [ :) ] is your saying of Vivien:

"her motivation, it seems to me, is tied up with her role in the story's thematic significance."

I just finished James Woods' "How Fiction Works" and I had the say visceral objection to his dismissal of plot. Yes, Vivien is a fictional character, but it seems a mistake to me to reject our very fundamental / primal pleasure in following a narrative and identifying with characters as if they were real people.

I did have the same reading as you seem to have had--that Vivien represents the city, culture, life of the mind, and someone previously untouched by visceral life and death realities that her current "expedition" is exposing her to.

I'd just like to argue for maintaining that basic sense of the author having created characters we respond to in a flesh and blood sort of way. Otherwise, it seems like we become one of those types who read fiction, not as an inherent pleasure, but as a necessary chore just to offer an object for dry analysis.

Steve said...

But what is "a flesh and blood sort of way"? Are there really readers for whom reading fiction is "a necessary chore"?
Charles brought up Wordsworth's famous quote about dissection, but I think it should be tempered with this one, pretty relevant to this discussion:
"If some mystical art lovers who think of every criticism as a dissection and every dissection as a destruction of pleasure were to think logically, then 'wow' would be the best criticism of the greatest work of art. To be sure, there are critiques which say nothing more, but only take much longer to say it." — Friedrich Schlegel (Critical Fragments, #57; 1797)

Jon said...


That's a great quote--thanks. I have met people who say they don't really like to read, but only do it because they enjoy analysis (they're usually coming from the perspective of one of the "isms.")

By "flesh and blood," I guess I mean acknowledging the emotional connections we naturally form with certain characters. So, when the story describes different scenes involving groups of men, I think it's important to remember that these are being described through the eyes of the narrator (Vivien)--they're not abstract signifiers, but reflect her mood, character, drives, etc.

Jay said...

I thought "Amundsen" was rich and compelling, a story that reveals more layers the more you think about it. I liked that it returned Munro to the long short form that she excels at. Her later stories seem to have gotten shorter, more concise, but I find she works best on a larger canvas. DEAR LIFE will apparently include fourteen pieces. She hasn't had that many stories in a book since her early collections, back when she started out writing shorter pieces.

One random observation from "Amundsen" is the allusion to THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. Munro briefly mentions reading the Thomas Mann novel in "Dear Life" as well, and I believe she's alluded to Mann in other stories. One doesn't immediately think of Mann being an influence on Munro, but his work seems to have been seminal for her.

I've read almost all the stories listed here that will presumably be collected in the upcoming book. In my opinion, some of these stand as among her finest work, like "Corrie" and "Dear Life". We're all very fortunate that Munro didn't make good on her promise to retire from writing.

Anonymous said...

A helpful blog post and good discussion.

Like Jon, I think the use of first person narrator makes the story different than what it would be if told in the 3rd person. The little coda at the end reinforces that this is a story being told long, long after by a now older (possibly wiser?) Vivien who is looking back at her much younger self.

Anonymous said...

Hello again, Professor – I feel like you've been my own personal Alice Munro tutor lately; I've learned so much about reading with the help of your comments on this story and "Corrie."

I'm working on my own post for this story (referring frequently to your comments) and I notice you didn't mention something I find very interesting in the final scene when she meets Fox ten years hence:
He called out, “How are you?,” and I answered, “Fine.” Then added, for good measure, “Happy.”
At the time, this was only generally true. I was having some kind of dragged-out row with my husband, about our paying a debt run up by one of his children. I had gone that afternoon to a show at the Art Gallery, to get myself into a more comfortable frame of mind.
Much here is interesting – the overassurance of happiness, going to the Art gallery to get herself into a better "frame" of mind – but one word strikes me: "his" children. This seems to signify a great deal to me. It would've been the mid-50s, right? She woud've been in her mid-30s; her husband seems to have children from another marriage, one of whom is of sufficient age to have incurred significant debt. A father figure? A Fox replacement? The best she could do? It just seems such a sly way to slip in an important detail, I'm thinking it must be important. Or am I overreacting?

(By the way, my name is Karen Carlson; for some reason Blogger comments don't quite get that)

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Karen. I did notice that comment at the end of the story. I thought it was Munro's way of emphasizing one of the story's central themes--the difference between what might have been--which is always by its very nature romantic--and what is--which by its very nature is always realistic.

I like the fact that she has gone to a show at the Art Gallery to get herself into a more comfortable frame of mind, for faced with reality, Art is not a refuge, but a reminder of what might be.

The reference to "his" children suggested to me that she has had no children of her own--I am not sure why.

Jay said...

I just came across an article which mentioned that DEAR LIFE will include two previously unpublished stories called "Voices" and "The Eye". Happy to have a couple new pieces to look forward to.

Also, the latest issue of Granta has an unsettling non-fiction piece by Munro called "Night". I'm assuming this will not be in the new collection, though it is curious that she obviously decided to include "Dear Life".

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for this, Jay. This just gets curioser and curioser. With the two unpublished stories (I wonder why they were unpublished), Munro has more than her usual quota of stories for a book. I am eager to see the table of contents. And I will try to get a look at the new non-fiction piece in Granta. I appreciate the information.

Margaret said...

Thank you so much for starting this conversation, Charles. I apologize for joining it late; I really enjoyed this story and would like to weigh in. I agree with your insights into the story about the dichotomy of the sexes, how Munro’s Amundsen is a world divided into men and women, and how the mystique of men is a source of energy for the story. You also touched on the dichotomy of the romantic and the realistic, which pervades the piece: the beauty of the landscape that seems out of a Russian novel is never again the same for Vivi after that first day, much like the birch trees that look white from a distance are quite different up close, just as what we imagine romance to be is often quite different from its reality. But if Munro seeks to create a mood rather than a plot, I think she succeeds most at depicting that feeling of first love and its often brutal repercussions. In the opening lines I was less struck by the men on the train than by the severe landscape, the rawness of it, like the raw meat the woman carries, and how these images relate to Vivi’s love and the subsequent rejection of that love—how it will lay bare her rawest place, stripping her of any protection, as the elements of cold and wind and ice strip the landscape. Indeed, Vivi’s last name is Hyde, and early on Mary jokes about the name—“Tan your hide.” Later Alister is said to be quite good at “tearing a strip off” a person, in an emotional way, and professionally he’s a surgeon. There is no mention of a “broken heart”—Alister tosses that cliché out the car window for the birds to eat. Instead Munro takes the physical metaphor further, to this stripping of a body. Alister doesn’t operate on Vivi as he does other patients, but his attention on her (one can hardly call it wooing), their subsequent bedding, his statement of intent to marry, and his severance of that leave her as eviscerated as if he’d opened her up and removed or shuffled vital organs. After he’s “unpromised” the marriage, Vivi says, “Every turn is like a shearing off of what’s left of [her] life.” Alister refers to himself by that grisly nickname, “old sawbones,” an image devoid of skin and flesh, and that’s how he envisions a union: “a bare-bones wedding.” I agree that the specificity of the relationship doesn’t matter much—whether Alister jilts Vivi at the altar or rejects her in some other way isn’t that important (though Munro is always so good at these narrative turns). One final note: the disease that all these characters are at risk of contracting, tuberculosis, was known as the “romantic disease” during the 19th century. Munro plays with that notion exceedingly well here.

I also noticed the many mentions and conditions of waiting in the story; we first see Vivi waiting, and though we’re told she’s waiting for the train to start, we’re not told where she’s going. In a sense, like us all, she is waiting for love to jumpstart her life. The train is waiting to be filled with people. The children with TB are waiting for something to happen too—to be cured or to die, and all the people of the story are waiting for the war to be over. Vivi is waiting in this very job—teaching—before she can get on with her real pursuit of higher education. And at the end, Alister leaves her again waiting—for that next opportunity of love?—in that “special ladies’ waiting room.”

Margaret said...

And to continue my ridiculously long post...

I wonder what we can make of some of Alister’s relationships that occur off the page, including with Mary and her mother. There’s no mention of a father, which opens up a possibility of romance between Alister and her mother, perhaps unrequited. Alister is able to talk Mary’s mother into allowing Mary to spend time with a girl dying of TB, which is no small feat. And then there’s that hefty line, “That’s if you’re going to live your life for Mary,” as if this is something Alister has considered before. Of course, Munro doesn’t intend for us to know the extent of these relationships, only what’s on the page, but she has interestingly created plausibility. Clearly Mary suffers some kind of rejection from Alister—they no longer have the relationship that they once did. She’s also romanticized him to the point of giving him a name out of a book. Mary’s mother, who runs the kitchen and knows when Vivi doesn’t show up for meals, might have been the one to start the gossip about Vivi and Alister. Later, the difficulty of eating meals is Alister’s excuse for not seeing each other before the wedding. Perhaps he is trying to spare someone else pain. Then there’s the dead girl, Anabel (think of Poe’s Annabel Lee). The secondhand scenes of him with Mary and Anabel—teaching the girl to swim, their sledding as a group--are in such stark contrast to any other real-time view that Vivi has of him; I can hardly imagine such tenderness on Alister’s part. I wonder if Anabel’s death functioned as way to shear off the rest of his life. Nothing can be corroborated of course. I might be chided for running with this thread, but I couldn’t help myself.

I have to heap on the praise for the way Munro treats the breakup scene. She is at her finest in that passage, foregoing the deadened words used to end a relationship to focus on the objective correlative of skate sharpening and the feeling of devastation that will stay with Vivi forever: when she hears Alister’s jaunty voice reenter the mundane, manly world, abandoning their more serious, sentient world of lost virginity and lifelong promises. The scene is brilliant.

Again, thank you. I'm learning so much from your and everyone's analysis. I look forward to reading your thoughts on Munro's upcoming collection, and to reviewing past posts on stories I’m waiting to read when the book is published.

Charles E. May said...

My most grateful thanks to Margaret for her sensitive and perceptive analysis of several important points in "Amundsen" that I neglected.

It is just this kind of engaged reading and exchange with others that makes me glad I started this blog.

I am gratified, but not surprised, that a story by Alice Munro has stimulated more discussion than any other story I have talked about in the past year.

Thanks again, Margaret. I look forward to more conversation with you and other readers about Munro's new collection due out this Fall.

Although I have already discussed several of the stories, I know there are at least half a dozen more that I have not had a chance to read yet.

Theorbys said...

Eric writing, part 1

I think "Amundsen" was written along the lines suggested by Poe: Munro had her ending firmly in mind and then went back and built the story up to it. The ending sentence (which many might find untrue) is so like a maxim, or moral, as to make the story a virtual fable. With the ending in mind, the basics of the plot become obvious choices: woman meets a man, falls in love, very nearly marries him, but is rejected by him, and then, seeing the man years later, states the moral. There could have been other plot possibilities but these work quite well. With that in place, Munro goes to work building a remarkable multilayered networks of suggestions, associations, foreshadowings, and implicit meanings, exploiting one of the most powerful possibilities of the short story form: to pack as much complexity as possible into the smallest possible space. Charles begins his discussion of "Amundsen" by comparing one of the compressive techniques of short stories (transforming details into metaphors) to the more expansive technique of novels, and that is a good metaphor for this short story: compressing a novel into the form of a short story. She lays down succession of perfect little scenes (the equivalent of chapters) held together, harmonized, and articulated by an intense and intentional intertextuality, an intertextuality Munro clearly represented by all the books which fill Fox's front room.

Before discussing the intertextuality, it is necessary to understand Dr. Fox's life. TB, up to the exact time of the events of "Amundsen", was a highly contagious, incurable, and deadly disease. Fox is a surgeon in an extremely dreary, grim institution that seems almost a cruel paradox: the San is a tuberculosis sanitarium for children in the frozen Canadian woods ! The only active treatment option for the continually dying children is surgery, performed by Dr. Fox, often fatal, and not even a cure when successful. Isolated, and alone, Fox has only his books, as relief from his grim reality (exaceberated by war time privations and lack of sexual opportunities). When Vivi shows up he is attracted to the life force of young, sensitive, and virginal Vivi (vie vie), and he decides to have her relieve his bleak life. But then a miracle occurs, streptomycin. Discovered in late 1943, it wipedout TB, and closed the world's sanitaria in just a few years. By the time his brief relationship has reached the marriage stage, Dr. Fox understands this is going to happen. Fox never asks Vivi to marry him, he just tells her he intends to marry her. And he also says "I always mean what I say." This latter statement (and his self image) are perhaps the reason he goes so far as to drive her to Huntsville. But his motivation, which was certainly not love, for making such a committment has collapsed. He no longer needs a companion or wants anything else from her. He has never done more than just fit her in to his schedule (even sex with her was just a trial run).

Theorbys said...

part 2

I don't think Vivi has any comparable motivation, she just reacts to his powerful male presence. But she does have intertextual, precedents. Dr. Fox(master of the San), in his talk and treatment of Vivi, reminds me of Rochester (one of the most brooding male figures in prose), and Vivi has something of a modernized, but powerully sexualized Jane Eyre perhaps via D. H. Lawrence (e.g. her innate reaction to his mere maleness and her willingness, even fantasy, to have sex with him in a bog, muck hole, or "feel her spine crushed against any roadside rock", if he wants it).

The theme of exploration, also comes to us as intertextuality. Dr Fox's library includes books on explorations, esp. polar, which refers back to Amundsen. I do not see what is being explored really, but given the title of the piece, and the books on Shackleton and Franklin, it probably means something.

Several commentors have mentioned the Russian novel, and the Magic Mountain which Munro, via Dr. Fox, slyly dismisses as novelistic windbaggery. Moreover the spirit of the Magic Mountain (I have not read it) contradicts that of the San: there is nothing ethereal, or spirtual about the San. And if this is a romance, it is only half of one. Yet there is something spiritual and romantic lurking about in a disembodied way. Margaret has mentioned Poe's Annabel Lee, relating her to Anabel whose spirit, and whose chilling and killing, inhabit and haunt both "Amundsen" and, I believe, the heart of Dr. Fox. Perhaps Fox's brutal aversion to Mary, who he callously used as a friend and companion to Anabel (without many qualms for Mary's health or welfare), is that she reminds him of Anabel, and in any event he has no further use for her, now she is just a pest he will not tolerate. Part of his bleakness may well be due to this recent loss.

A strongly drawn character, Mary, seems to exist to tell the story of Anabel. But perhaps there is a future for her. Her big scene is when she shows up in costume, on Valentine's Day, to sing songs from "HMS Pinafore or the Lass that Loved a Sailor". She first sings that she is Sweet Little Buttercup, the robust ("red and round and rosy") Buttercup who was in love with the man who was too far above her to ever marry her, Capt. Corcoran, and who, by Mary's subsequent singing is clearly identified with Dr. Fox. Fox rightfully (she is only 16), but with mindboggling brutality, rejects her. But Corcoran, like Dr. Fox, undergoes a tremendous change in his life situation, and Buttercup marries him (thus a distinct intertextual possibility for the remarkable and resilient Mary in a few years). Vivi vividly aware of the brutality does not display an iota of loyalty to her friend and is completely submissive to Fox's will.

The most revealing intertextual element of all (again refering to Fox's books i.e. the children's classics), is "The Adventures of Reddy Fox", a children's classic written by T. W. Burgess, author of innumerable animal fables. Reddy Fox was a cruel young trickster, and an enthusiastic predator, but is admired, and even abetted, by his potential victims, such as Peter Cottontail. In terms of fable, Alistar is a fox and Vivi is simply the chicken he has stolen from the farmer. Was anything more cruelly indifferent than his almost final words to her: "You’ve done a good job. You wouldn’t have finished out the term anyway—I hadn’t told you yet but the children are going to be moved to another sanatorium. All kinds of big changes going on.” Well, that's Reddy Fox. To be fair to Reddy, I doubt that Munro thinks very highly of Vivi's chicken-like love story, and is making fun of D. H. Lawrence's view of women. But this is my first Munro story so I do not know how she feels about such things. As fable, "Amundsen" is staggeringly unromantic, and a not a very flattering picture of human emotional life, but it's great art.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to Eric for this thoughtful and most helpful discussion of "Amundsen." Eric says it is his first Munro story; I am so glad he sees it as such a complex story.

Having read all of Munro's stories, I can suggest that he is certainly right to point out Munro's use of intertextual references to stories and fables.

If you want to get at one of the most central Munro methods, it is clearly how so many of her stories derive from fictionality rather than fact.

It is highly gratifying to me that Munro's "Amundsen" has elicited so much commentary. There is no doubt in my mind that she is one of our greatest short story writer--a writer who knows the magic and mystery of the form better than just about anyone else.

Theorbys said...

Well Charles, I guarantee you it won't be my last Munro story.

PS, re Fox's shooting the dog-the devil is in the details: Reddy Fox did not shoot Bowser, he shot a bear.

Best Reviews for Bellevue Janitorial Services said...

Alice Munro never disappoints. Her stories are rich with the kinds of details that create an immediately familiar world, and her voice is the voice of a natural storyteller. I find her characters entirely believable but always able to surprise.

Nige said...

I'm a late comer here, having just read this fascinating story for the first time.
Here's a funny thing - the wording of the end of 'Amundsen' as it appears in my English edition (Chatto & Windus, 2012) is quite different from the version you quote. Most importantly the last sentence reads 'Nothing changes really about love.'
I wonder if this was a rewrite?

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to Nige, for this comment. The version of "Amundsen" I discussed was published in The New Yorker. And, as is often the case, Munro made some changes for the book publication of "Amundsen" in her collection Dear Life. There is no significant change in the last couple of sentences in the story, but rather some syntax revision about nothing changing about love.

Unknown said...

I want to know why Mary says that Dr fox has some problem in his eye and in the end why vivi also describe the movement of his left eye.I recently read Amundsen and had to read it a few times to understand the themes and ideas shared by all of you are really helpful , although a late entrant I want to know what that expression of fox's eyes by both female characters mean

Toni said...

Hello, this is Toni and certainly a very late entrant into this conversation but I only read "Amundsen" today. Whilst not a newcomer to Alice Munro, I have read many of her earlier stories that appear in other anthologies, this compilation titled Dear Life published by Vintage Books, is completely new. I only recently purchased it. Amundsen is the second story in this compilation and it is immensely powerful. I am often awed when I read Munro because of her incredibly deep understanding of humanity. She is able to get inside her characters' minds and walk around in them. The effect for the reader is that we get close enough to care deeply about what happens to them. This is usually a feeling we have for characters in novels. After all we have spent a long time with them! This says a lot about Alice Munro's craft. She is brilliant. I marvel at how she doesn't often appear in English Lierature syllabi here in Australia. I only stumbled on her writing by chance because a Kiwi friend of mine lent me a copy of "Carried Away" which contains many of Munro's quintessential, wonderful stories. Amundsen only confirms what a clever writer she really is. Thank you to all who contributed their insights to this discussion and particularly to Prof Charles May for initiating it. I will contribute some ideas too. I can see and appreciate many of the ideas that have been discussed thus far. I also think that a key theme in this story is about control: what we can control and what we can't. The doctor as an employer is in control of people who work at the sanitorium, the children and the management of their chronic disease, even his own life. Yet we know at this time, he can't control TB. Death is inevitable in many cases. He can't control mortality.I suspect one of the reasons he abandons his commitment to marry Vivien is that he fears a loss of control. Vivien distracts him, takes him away from his lone life, from his revered status amongst the patients (the children). Vivien for her part, appears independent in the beginning arriving in this unknown town in the thick of a Canadian cold winter, and when Dr Fox questions whether she has a boyfriend, she is self-protectve enough to lie. Yet she loses her sense of control to, allowing herself to be steered on a course of Dr Fox's reckoning. One wonders is this acquiescence merely because she is a woman living in the 1940s and this is fitting for a woman of that time or like the doctor who let's his guard down, she craves human connection and welcomes it when Dr Fox gives her his attentions? This has become rather long, but Munro writes with such depth, clarity and perspective, there is a lot to unpack.