Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage"

I tried to teach students how to read fiction, especially short stories, at California State University, Long Beach for forty years. Every time I went into the classroom, I had read the assignment for the day at least four times—once straight through to orient myself to the characters, plot, and style; the second time highlighting those passages that seemed to me to be more than verisimilitude, e.g. motifs that were repeated, passages that seemed to emphasize theme, allusions to other works, passages that puzzled me, etc.; the third time making annotations in the margins about connections and emerging patterns.  Finally, I would go back through the story a fourth time, typing up my notes, e.g. quotations, annotations, connections, developments.

The following comments on "Hateship, Friendship" are an example of those notes—notes that would sometimes later lead to the development of my "reading" of the story into an essay. I have developed these notes in preparation for my essay on five stories in the Hateship volume.

Since, this "reading" represents a fourth  time through the story, what understanding I have of the early events are conditioned by my knowledge of the later events. I already have in mind the events as they occur in time; my task now is to determine what kind of meaningful pattern they make. The most basic patterning device in a story is, of course, repetition of motifs that create a "figure in the carpet." 

The story opens with a variation of the "once upon a time there was a woman" fable device : "Years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines, a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture."  There is a bit of the stylized grotesque about the woman's physical appearance. I am prepared for a fable.

The story establishes its central theme of "great expectations" (repeated throughout) at the beginning with the introduction of this unnamed woman planning for the future because she expects certain important things are going to happen, although the reader does not know what those expectations are. She seems so certain about the future, when the ticket agent asks if someone is coming to meet her, she does not hesitate, but says "Yes," although she has no knowledge that this is true. I know this is going to be an important theme in the story, for I know that the story ends with the young woman Edith translating the following Latin passage from Horace's ode "Carpe Diem": "You must not ask, it is forbidden for us to know what fate has in store for me, or for you."

In the second scene, when the woman, who is now given the name Johanna, goes to a dress shop to buy her wedding dress, she thinks that when she was younger, she could not have  contemplated such "expectations," could not have had the "preposterous hope of transformation, and bliss." Thus, the story begins with what was once traditionally the most important expectation a fair young maiden could have—marriage.  However, this woman is neither young (just under forty) nor fair--"No beauty queen, ever."  She reminds the agent of a "plain-clothes nun" he had once seen on television.  But there is nothing mild nor gentle nor pious about this woman  The first description we have of her is that her "teeth are crowded together in the front of her mouth, as if they were ready for an argument." (another grotesque image—kind of like Maria in Joyce's "Clay")

Johanna has come to the shop prepared, even having "rehearsed" her request for the green dress in the window; she has worn clean underwear and put fresh talcum powder under her arms. However, she has no illusions about herself, calling herself a "sow's ear" regardless of the "silk purse" dress she tries on.
The sales woman identifies with Johanna, creates a "bond" with her, and has her try on a different dress that does not make her look as she has been "stuck into the garment for a joke." Since we know that the crucial events of the story are created by a "joke" that two young woman play on Johanna, we have here the first intimation of the theme of a joke that has motivated Johanna's expectations; we learn that it is indeed a "great expectation" when she tells the woman, "It'll likely be what I get married in."

Although Johanna seems absolutely "sure" when she says she will only get married once, she recalls that marriage had not been mentioned, even in the "last letter." She regrets that she has revealed to this woman "what she was counting on."  (This is another intimation of the game that gives the story its title, a children's counting game about the inevitable movement toward marriage.  Another allusion to expectation.)
Another fable/fairy tale allusion occurs when the sales clerk refers to the Western Fair and "she could have been saying 'the Castle Ball.'"  Even the minor detail of the woman giving the package ribbon a "wicked snip" suggests a fairy tale motif.

The sales woman's lament, "Ah, well. Maybe the man in the moon will walk in here and fall in love with me and then I'll be all set!" could be a simple bit of verisimilitude, characterizing a minor character, but since this is a short story the repetition of this motif makes us expect that this is indeed a story about expectation, hopes for what might happen. It's the classic fairy tale love story motif of "someday my prince will come."
We now get the background of Mr. McCauley, for whom Johanna works as a housekeeper, an elderly man, who walks about with his hands behind his back like a "kind landlord inspecting his property or a preacher happy to observe his flock." (another fable/fairytale motif). We are also introduced to Sabitha, his granddaughter, for whom Johanna was the closest thing to a mother since her mother, Marcelle, died (the stepmother motif—not wicked, but certainly not likeable) We also meet Edith, the daughter of the shoe repair man, Sabetha's great friend.

Now we are introduced to the important motif of letters, as we read Johanna's letter saying she is sending a (yet unnamed) man his furniture, adding that she is also coming with it to "be of help" to him. This is the first letter she has sent directly to him, having sent earlier ones via Sabitha's letter to her father (now given the name Ken Boudreau). Gradually, we learn that Boudreau is Mr. McCauley's son-in-law and that McCauley has loaned Boudreau money in the past.  All this gradual revelation of information creates an illusion of plot mystery.  Alice Munro has noted that this story depends more on plot than many of her stories.  However, since this is a short story, in spite of its novella length, it is not what will happen that interests us, but rather what the pattern of those events actually mean about human experience.

We now get the background, via Mr. McCauley's recollection of the past, of Sabitha's dead mother, Marcelle, who was always sneaking out of the house to run around with carloads of boys. "The house was full of a feeling of callus desertion, of deceit."

The next section of the story focuses on Mr. McCauley, who goes about the town telling anyone who will listen about his being wronged by his son-in-law conniving with his housekeeper who has stolen furniture and gone west with it.  This introduces the "Ancient Mariner" motif of the man who stops the wedding guest and compels him to listen to his misfortune.

It also introduces Herman Schultz, the father of Edith, who creates the plot to "catch" Johanna. Herman's shoe shop is like a cave and McCauley who has not reflected on it before now sees Schultz's whole life in the cave. "He wished to express sympathy or admiration or something more that he didn't understand." (Any time I run across something that a character tries to understand but fails, it strikes me as something important, for short stories are often about mysteries.)

This also introduces Edith, a "childishly thin "girl who slides in and out of the house when she came to visit Sabitha. "You never got a good look at her face." (Edith is thus introduced as a mysterious figure who slides in with no definite identity) The introduction of Edith is important.  Now that Sabitha has gone, Edith has "reverted to being the person she had been before Sabitha came here. Old for her age, diligent, and critical." She is getting past what is called "silliness" with Sabitha (We do not know what this is yet).  But when she thinks about Johanna going out west, which she has heard from old Mr. McCauley, "she felt a chill from her past, an invasive alarm. She tried to bang a lid down on that, but it wouldn't stay."
It seems appropriate that she would be reading a Dickens' novel, David Copperfield, for Great Expectations would have been too obvious).  She identifies with David and dramatizes her own situation, feeling she might has well have been an orphan like him "because she would probably have to run away, go into hiding, fend for herself, when the truth became known and her past shut off her future."  (This is the expectation motif again—fear that the past will condition the future). She is now worrying that her past trick on Johanna will affect her future.)
The whole joke began when Sabitha tells her on the way to school that she has to send a letter to her father. The two girls create a sort of secret bond, talking in nonsense language or walking with their eyes closed—mostly ideas of Edith.  Sabitha's only idea is the child hood game of predicting the future by playing the Hateship, friendship game, in which you write down your name and a boy's name and then strike out all the letters that appear in both names.  Then you tick off the remaining letters on our fingers, saying "hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage until you get the verdict of what would happen to you and that boy, sort of like the "He loves me, he loves me not" game with daisy petals. (I did the game using my name and my wife's name.  The result was "marriage.")
The game or joke on Johanna begins when she writes to Boudreau to thank him for taking her to the Fair with the girls and giving him the background of her uneventful life.  The girls open it and read it and laugh about it, with Edith mocking it, as if it were from a sentimental Victorian novel. When Boudreau writes back to Sabitha and makes no mention of Johanna, Edith decides she and Sabitha will write for hi. While Sabitha is silly in her suggestions, Edith says she is going to be serious. Her letter to Johanna is indeed typical of melodrama and fairy tale, Boudreau supposedly lamenting that he has no friend, but that now Johanna is his friend. Thus begins a correspondence of letters between Johanna and Boudreau, both of which are written by Edith
The next section of the story is about Sabitha's return from visiting her cousins and the changes that have taken place in her.  She is plumper and now has breasts, which Edith notices and thinks they seem to indicate a "completely unearned and unfair advantage." Sabitha tells Edith about her visit with her cousins, about how they played games in which they pull down a girls' pajama bottoms to show if she had hair.  They told stories about girls at boarding school who did things with hairbrush handles, and how once a couple of cousins put on a show in which one girl gets on top of the other and pretends to be the boy, and they groan and carry on.
Sabitha tells how her Uncle Clark's sister and her husband game to visit on their honeymoon and he was seen to put his hand inside her swimsuit. Sabitha says they were at it day and night, saying "People can't help it when they're in love like that." She says one of her cousins had already done it with a boy and then she puts a pillow between her legs and says, "Feels so nice."
 Edith knows about these "Pleasurable agonies" but once when she went to sleep with a blanket between her legs, her mother tells her about a girl who did such things and had to be operated on for the problem. (Clitorectomies were sometimes performed in the nineteenth century because it was felt that girls should not have pleasurable sexual feelings—certainly none self-induced).
Later when they write another letter, Sabitha suggests her father should say he imagines Johanna reading his letters in bed with her nightgown on and that he would crush her in his arms and "suck on your titties." Edith does not write this, but does end the letter with Boudreau saying he imagines her reading his letter in bed with her nightgown on and crushing her in his arms. As a result of this letter, Johanna decides to send the furniture and go West with it.  All this girlhood initiation into the mysteries of sex seems to play a role in Edith's attitude, for her thoughts about her future are becoming increasingly important in the story.  However, the key effect of the sexual references is that Johanna makes a crucial decision to go to Boudreau after reading Edith's letter (supposedly from him) about wants to crush her in his arms.  Female romantic/sexual notions are an important part of the story.
The story now shifts to Johanna arriving at Boudreau's hotel, and appropriately it is painted blue, a reference to Stephen Crane's "The Blue Hotel" in which fantasy leads to a reality, albeit in a tragic way, when the Swede in that story imagines he is going to get killed and then acts in such a way as to make that happen.  It is a story of a game becoming a reality, when fantasy becomes fate.
It is an interesting shift that Johanna, who has come to Boudreau's home because of a romantic fantasy, as soon as she sees he is ill and that his life is in disarray and that he needs her, she shifts from romance to reality immediately--checking the color of his phlegm, wiping her hands on her new brown dress, changing into old clothes from her suitcase, seeing him as being like a "delicate, stricken boy." Checking her bankbook, Boudreau is impressed enough to let her take care of him. We now get his background financial problems and his realization that Johanna is a solution to his problems. She takes control, makes decisions, and begins using the plural first person pronoun, seeing them as a couple.  All this is based not on romantic illusions, but on pure practicality.
Because she decides never to mention the letters in which she thinks he had "laid himself open to her," neither one of them ever know how this has come about. She thinks there is nothing in him that she cannot handle and is taken up with all the commotion of this relationship, all this "busy love."
The story might well have ended with this phrase, but since the story has to do with expectation and making things happen, the future must be projected in some way that relates to Edith's concern for the future. This takes place when ;Mr. McCauley dies two years later and the death notice in the paper says that he is survived by his granddaughter Sabitha, his son-in-law Ken Boudreau, and Mr. Boudreau's wife, Johanna and their infant son Omar..
The story ends with Edith, who is no longer afraid of being found out, although she does not know why she has not been found out. Then there is this judgment by the narrator/storyteller:
  "And in a way, it seemed only proper that the antics of her former self should not be connected with her present self—let alone with the real self that she expected would take over once she got out of this town and away from all the people who thought they knew her.  It was the whole twist of consequence that dismayed her—it seemed fantastical, but dull. As if it was an inept joke or clumsy sort of warning, trying to get its hooks into her.  For where, on the list of things she planned to achieve in her lie, was there any mention of her being responsible for the existence on earth of a person named Omar?"
The last line of the story is Edith's translation of the first line of Horace's famous ode "Carpe Diem: "You must not ask, it is forbidden for us to know what fate has in store for me, or for you."

I am not going to try to pull these ideas together and write an analysis of this story until I have given the other four stories the same kind of fairly thorough reading.  Next week, I will "read" "Floating Bridge."

1 comment:

S.M. Peace said...

Thanks for the analysis. Did you read the NPR article about the negative, or white, space following the dash in the last line of the story? Very clever.