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 probably 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.

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.

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.”

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.”


Lee said...

It's a story I like very much indeed for the way Munro approaches unknowability through the pattern of the story.

Lairce said...

I like it, but what concrete evidence do we have that this narrator is female? (Other than the fact that s/he says s/he has a partner?)

Also: that gravel pit. You quote, but don't analyze. Why do you think this quotation demonstrates a conflict between uncertainty and certainty?

Charles E. May said...

No concrete evidence that the central character is female--only the convention that a man would have referred to his partner as "my wife," not "my partner." And it is the loose, shifting, nature of the gravel and the emptiness of the pit that could suggest the certainty/uncertainty theme that dominates the story throughout.

Lairce said...

I agree with your reading, but to add: Neal's character -- his lack of identity, his lack of solidity is directly related to his lack of morality, his failed responsibility (he is a coward too with the wolf, although, ironically, he claims sympathy for the mother-protecting-her-young, ironic because he is not protecting himself). It is within this context that we must frame his advice, which is the advice of someone who, in choosing not to feel guilt, chooses to feel nothing, to be nothing, to mean nothing (he writes plagiarized essays). He is inauthentic.
I think the story is the narrator's revenge in a way against the mother and Neal just as her choice not to act may be seen as a revenge against her mother (who Charo resembles). What I mean is that house that finally rests on the gravel pit, if you take it for the symbol of instability. The house, the home, the place the mother left is what ends up lasting, not the gravel pit. Certainty, solidity, wins.

My problem is: I don't like this narrator. She seems bitter without being honest about it.
How do you feel about her?

Charles E. May said...

Lairce, I guess it is true that solidity "wins" in the long run, if life were only "solidity." But what about risk, staking a chance, trying to find out who you really are by role-playing? I truly dislike Neal for his selfishness, his refusal to take responsibility. And I can't really dislike the mother for leaving solidity for the shaky, if solidity is in no way fulfilling. And I cannot dislike the narrator. I agree that she seems to feel a sense of betrayal and loss, but also a sense of guilt for failing to act more quickly and positively when her sister was in danger. I understand her childhood hesitation, and I empathize with her adult anguish about that hesitation. As usual in Munro's stories, there is no quick fix for what she feels.

Lairce said...

Thanks for your responses. I agree with you, and when I say I don't like the narrator, what I mean is not that I dislike her. It's just that, as with so many of Munro's characters, I only like her as much as I can ever really like a whole real person. I'm not always comfortable in these stories.

The mother's need for stability-- her falling back into her motherly ways once she is really pregnant-- contributes to my "stability" (or our need/desire for it) wins hypothesis. I do understand her character, and don't think she made a "mistake" necessarily (she is a far cry from Neal) in leaving her other life behind. But her cavelier attitude is a problem for me, as it is for the narrator. As a mother, it seems like a cautionary reminder of just how much my dreaming and scheming can affect my child... who has no real choice in the matter.

Do you think there is some comment on how marriage, traditionally, infantalized women? The mother seems like a teenager in a way, one who matures perhaps after the tragedy, but a teenager at first with her idealism and naivity about living the bohemian life.

I write all this, but (because?)I'm still unsure. I understand your five readings. Anyway, if these comments are getting tedious, please feel free to let this end here. Pinning Munro is so hard. She irks me, and yet, I always read her... voraciously and reluctantly if that makes sense.

Monica W said...

I know this is an old post, but I think it's interesting that you assumed the narrator to be female. Just based on the way the other characters speak to the narrator, I assumed male. But it seems Munro deliberately leaves it unclear since, in other stories, she usually does provide information about the narrator's appearance.

There's also the less "feminine" spelling of Caro's name coupled with the mention of the mother's chosen name for the baby: "Its name was going to be Brandy--already was Brandy--whether it was a boy or a girl."

Many of Munro's stories are set in the "women's lib" era, when it was fashionable to refer to one's partner as one's partner regardless of gender, as many academics (which the narrator is) still do now.

SK said...

So monica did you come up with any conclusion after reading this? Or what comes first in your mind when you started reading this??

Ivan said...

I think that both Caro and the mother are willing to take a leap into the unknown. The mother with her new life and Caro with her defiance. The other characters seem afraid and want to know but don’t have the courage to do so. Even at the end of the story, the narrator wishes to be told by Caro what happened. The narrator is waiting for news of the unknown. For this, the character of the mother and Caro are equivalent. The other characters can be lumped together in a group of those that are less courageous and maybe are all men. It is worth noting here that the two interpretations of the events are given by the partner of the narrator and the psychoanalyst, which are both women. In this story, it’s as if only woman venture out into the unknown. Neal, who provides the only explanation and is also a man, really ends up saying that he doesn’t know and that it doesn’t matter. The narrator’s father—despite how kind and accepting he is—isn’t any better than Neal or more effective. I would venture to say that the narrator is a man, since both the father of the children, Neal and the narrator seem indecisive and even weak when compared to the women of the story. In one scene we read that the father cries. In another scene Neal is left looking at his big toes. And the narrator seeks a psychoanalyst, which I believe is a woman to tell him (or her) what happened. For this reason, I think that if this pattern holds throughout the story, the narrator is a boy and later a man. It also seems important to point out that in this story men remain without knowing because of their lack to commit. We read it in Neal’s words. He’d rather bow out. On the other hand, and the only exception in the story, the father seems to be happy because he committed to being with Josie.

Charles E. May said...

Thank you for your insightful response, Ivan. A reading of many other Munro's stories supports your analysis of this one.