Friday, August 22, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "Floating Bridge"

When I was teaching the short story, I prepared for each class thoroughly, taking more notes than necessary to help me remember the most important themes and tropes in the story.  However, I did not simply go over each section of my notes to establish my interpretation. Rather, I used my notes as the basis for asking my students questions. I seldom made a judgment about the meaning of a passage until I had given my students an opportunity to suggest their own interpretation or understanding of the passage. 

Sometimes they came up with better suggestions than the ones I had in mind, and sometimes they provided answers for questions that had me puzzled. And sometimes their suggestions would prompt me to come up with ideas I did not have in mind beforehand. In short, most of my class meetings were learning sessions for me. I can only hope they were learning sessions for my students  as well. All this give-and-take was what made teaching a real pleasure for me. My students and I did not always agree, but I only challenged their interpretation when it oversimplified, sentimentalized, or trivialized the story, or when their interpretation could not be supported by argument based on the rest of the story.

If I were teaching Alice Munro's "Floating Bridge," I would try to encourage my students to see the complexity, even universality, of Jinny's situation as a woman who has faced death, felt liberated by that knowledge, and then been brought back to life, with not a little resentment, to face the demands that life makes on her. I would urge them to identify with both Jinny and Neal, (especially to resist the temptation of dismiss Neal as a silly man) and  to see the importance of the young man Ricky at the end.  I would try to get them to appreciate the significance of the central metaphor that ends the story and gives it its name--a bridge that floats.

The story opens with Jinny sitting in a bus stop shelter where she has gone after her husband and a couple of the Young Offenders (from a correctional institute where he is a teacher) have "gobbled" up a gingerbread cake she had made for a meeting that evening. This is a childish irresponsibility typical of her husband.  The fact that it opens the story suggests that Jinny's relationship with her husband is an important part of the story's complexity.

Jinny is reading all the graffiti on the walls of the shelter, a "barrage of human messages," and indeed they do seem like a "barrage"—sexual attacks, verbal assaults. She wonders if people were alone when they wrote these, and she imagines sitting here waiting for a bus alone, wondering if she would be compelled to write things down. "She felt herself connected at present with the way people felt when they had to write certain things down—she was connected by her feelings of anger, or petty outrage…." She is considering leaving her husband Neal, but she changes her mind and goes home, and the experience becomes a joke she later told company. This juxtaposition of jokes and seriousness appears later in the story. The theme of feeling a need to write things down is common in Munro's stories. It is not just a need expressed by writers, but by many who feel that the way to deal with a problem is to express it in language. One is compelled to tell a story to control the experience, or at least to redeem it from meaninglessness, to give it significance.

We get some bits and pieces about Jinny's visit to an oncologist, but we don't know what the visit means yet, although obviously we suspect Jinny has cancer. When she goes out into the parking lot, the cars and pavement seem to "bombard" her (another reference to an attack like "barrage.") Ironically, as we soon find out, the oncologist has told her there are good signs that the cancer has shrunk.

The narrator, reflecting Jinny's mind, says she does not take change of scenery well these days and wants everything familiar and stable; she doesn't like changes of information either, although it seems she has received such a change. Neal's van has hippy type stickers on it. He wears costumes, as in a "masquerade," e.g. bandanna headband, rough grey ponytail, small gold earring and shaggy outlaw clothes. She does not tell him the news, for he has brought a young woman who they may hire to help care for Jinny, and when he is around another person than Jinny, his behavior becomes animated, enthusiastic, ingratiating.

Jinny (age 42) and Neal (age 58) have been together 21 years; she has become more reserved, slightly ironic, while he has become more animated, enthusiastic, ingratiating. This contrast in their approach to life is emphasized throughout the story.

Neal has been making preparations for Jinny's confinement, renting a hospital bed, for example. But the one item that the narrator singles out for Jinny's opinion are the heavy curtains Neal has hung up that have a pattern of tankards and horse brasses, which Jinny thinks is very ugly. (Horse brasses are bridle decorations). "But she knew now that there comes a time when ugly and beautiful serve pretty much the same purpose, when anything you look at is just a peg to hang the unruly sensations of your body on, and the bits and pieces of your mind." I'm not sure what the relevance to the story's theme this observation has, but it seems too well expressed to be mere "stuff." It may have something to do with how this story intersperses ugly things with beautiful things.  There is something beautiful and romantic about the final scene of the floating bridge under a starry sky, just as there is something ugly about the opening scene of the graffiti in the bus stop. Both have sexual connotations.

Jinny thinks about death, not her own, but Neal's, recalling holding his hand in bed just before sleep and thinking she would hold this hand at least once when he was dead. "And she would not be able to believe in that fact. The fact of his being dead and powerless. No matter how long this state had been foreseen, she would not be able to credit it. She would not be able to believe that, deep down, he had not some knowledge of this moment. Of  her. To think of him not having that brought on a kind of emotional vertigo, the sense of a horrid drop."  This is a curious kind of statement.  When Jinny refers to "this moment," what moment is she thinking about—the moment she is holding his hand or the moment of his death? What is the "horrid drop"? and the "emotional vertigo"?

We now learn for sure that she has cancer, but the disease gives her a feeling of an "unspeakable excitement, "for this "galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life.  Then for shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet." If you learn you are going to die soon and this gives you a release from all responsibility for your life, why would this make you feel shame? Because facing death should not suggests freedom?

This seems to be the central theme of the story—dealing with death—knowing it is inevitable, the sense of freedom that knowledge gives one, the difficulty of accepting its reality. (Munro had a cancer scare and had to receive treatment in 1991; this story appeared in 2000.  She has published another, more personal story, "What Do You Want to Know For?" in View from Castle Rock about a woman with breast cancer). I am not sure whether this story reflects Munro's own feelings of possibly facing death, nor am I sure if this is important to a "reading" of the story, for a writer may begin with a personal experience, but when exploring that experience, the story, if it is any good, exceeds the merely personal to embody the meaningfully universal.

Helen, the young woman Neal has hired to help care for Jinny has, thinks Jinny, a "fresh-out-of-the-egg look," "as if there was one layer of skin still missing and one final growth of coarser grown-up hair."  Jinny thinks she has "an innocent and…a disagreeable power" because it seems that everything "must be right at the surface with her." A curious image—this fresh out of the egg look of a new born, which is picked up later by the image of the corn looking like a baby in a shroud.  Is there some submerged story going on here about Jinny's not having a child? Not sure. And is it Jinny's confronting death that makes her resent Helen's innocence, with everything on the surface—no hidden complexity.

The story now features a sort of comic episode in which Helen climbs up a fire escape to go into a hospital to get a pair of shoes her sister was supposed to bring her, and Helen goes through a lot of difficulty trying to find her sister, and the sister forgot the shoes, and it all makes Neal laugh and say, "What a tragedy." This ironic judgment—calling a comedy a tragedy—seems a common kind of juxtaposition in this story—like the pretty/ugly, joke/serious juxtaposition.

Neal is aggravating in his insistence on taking Helen to get her shoes at the trailer where her sister lives. Even though Helen protests, he just keeps laughing and insisting: "On his face there was an expression of conscious, but helpless, silliness. Signs of an invasion of bliss.  Neal's whole being was invaded, he was brimming with silly bliss." (Here is still another reference to a military battle—"invasion—like "bombard" and "barrage."  Not sure about these references.  It is all a bit of silliness, and he knows it but cannot seem to control it. "He was trying hard to get his voice under control, to get some ordinary sobriety into it.  And to banish the smile, which kept slipping back in place no matter how often he swallowed it." This also reminds me of the Katherine Ann Mansfield story "Bliss."

In the next section of the story, they get to the trailer of Matt and June Bergson near a gravel pit. (Munro uses this gravel pit in a later story entitled "Gravel." I have posted a blog entry on the story). The gravel pit suggests a dark hole or void into which there is always the danger of falling.

The man who comes out of the trailer  is fat enough to have breasts "and you could see his navel pushing out like a pregnant woman's. It rode on his belly like a giant pincushion." June, who is also fat, tries to get them to come in, "laughing at the idea of their not coming in was a scandalous joke." Jinny does not want to go in, but Neal says they will hurt their feelings if they do not. "It looks like you think you're too good for them." I like this gender bending image of a man who has breasts and looks pregnant. Not sure what it means or why it works yet. It is the kind of question I would ask my students and hope they come up with something or make me think of something. I don't mind questions for which I do not have an answer, when it is possible to come up with or invent an answer.

Jinny thinks she has seen Neal like this a few times before. "It would be over some boy at the school.  A mention of the name in an offhand, even belittling way.  A mushy look, an apologetic yet somehow defiant bit of giggling. But that was never anybody she had to have around the house, and it could never come to anything. The boy's time would be up, he'd go away. So would this time be up. It shouldn't matter.  She had to wonder if it would have mattered less yesterday than it did today." (This passage seems important, but not sure why. Jinny wants things not to matter. It is not clear what effect the young girl has on Neal). My students might have suggested that Neal has some sexual desire for Helen, but that would be the obvious, too easy, answer.  I think it is more complex, but I am not sure why yet.

Jinny thinks about death again, about all the detritus around the trailer and all the letters, photos, minutes of meetings, newspaper clippings she had been in charge of and that might end up being thrown out.  "As all this might, if Matt died." It is not unusual to think of all the "stuff" that sticks to you if you think you are going to die and leave it up to someone else to have to clean up. All stuff is "trash," when facing death, I guess.
While Neal is in the trailer eating chili and drinking beer to show that he is not "too good" for them, Jinny goes into the cornfield, thinking she will lie down in the shade of the large coarse leaves. A striking image here of each stalk having its cob "like a baby in a shroud." I can see this image, as the tip of the corn sticks out of the shucks slightly with the corn silk like fine baby hair, but I wonder why Jinny would see it this way—like the notion of a still birth.

If I were to bring this up to my students , they might think that perhaps Jinny has had a stillborn child, but nothing in the story suggests such a literal interpretation.  It is more apt to suggest something about Jinny's own unexpressed desires. Jinny  thinks she will not come out of the cornfield until Neal called her, perhaps not even then. "But the rows were too close together to permit that, and she was too busy thinking about something to take the trouble.  She was too angry."  This lost in the cornfield image is a spooky one, for cornfields suggest scarecrows and the rustling sound of something coming through the rows. Halloween stuff, echoing the reference to Neal's being dressed as in a masquerade earlier in the story.

Jinny remembers a party where they were playing one of those psychological games that is supposed to make you more honest and resilient, in which you say what comes into your mind when you look at someone. A woman friend of Neal's says to Jinny, "whenever I look at you all I can think of is—Nice Nellie."  Jinny resents people thinking they know her, for they were all wrong. "She was not timid or acquiescent or natural or pure." Again we have the ever-present death theme: Jinny thinks, "When you died, these wrong opinions were all there was left."  (This is common in Munro, for on the outside the woman appears bookish and timid, but in her imagination she is riotous and wild.  So which one is she?  The woman she appears to be or the one she feels to be?)

When Jinny gets out of the cornfield, the fat man with the female breasts and a bulging navel like that of a pregnant women tells her a dirty joke about a woman's genitals. As he tells the joke, she recalls the doctor telling her that there has been a favorable sign.  The joke has to do with a man going out and getting a horse with horseradish and a duck with duct tape.  When he goes out with pussy willows, his dad says, "hold on, I'm coming with you." The doctor's information about a significant shrinkage is interspersed in the telling of the dirty joke.

It is not clear why this man would tell such a dirty joke about trying to get pussy to Jinny, except that he is coarse and vulgar, and Munro wants to contrast this with Jinny's news from the oncologist. Jinny says, "It's too much," meaning that the news makes her have to go back and start the whole year over again. "It removed a certain low-grade freedom.  A dull, protecting membrane that she had not even known was there had been pulled away and left her raw."  What does she feel she needs protecting from?  Is it Neal? Or the mistaken image people have of he?  This is really all we know about her.

When Jinny has to urinate, she gets out and lifts her wide skirt and spreads her legs, which is easy for she has been wearing big skirts and no panties because she cannot control her bladder after the cancer treatments. "A dark stream trickled away from her through the gravel." This seems to be a gratuitous image, except that it suggests her vulnerability and simultaneous freedom because of the lack of underclothes.  And the dark stream of urine disappearing in the gravel suggests the dark tea-colored water at the end of the story.

When the eighteen-year old boy, June's son, arrives, Jinny does not know how long she has been waiting for Neal, for she does not wear a watch; nor does the young man. He recognizes Jinny is in kind of a muddle.  This establishes the timelessness of the encounter about to take place. He tells Jinny that his mother June is probably reading her husband's hands, for she can tell fortunes. (This reminds me of the problem of trying to determine the future, which is a central theme in the title story of this collection, and, of course, plays an important role in this story as well, for Jinny's future has been manipulated beyond her control.)

When the boy drives Jinny home, there is no one on the road, so the out-of-time feeling is sustained. The boy, whose name is Ricky, stops and she realizes she is on a narrow bridge without railings with still water underneath. Ricky tells her they are in Borneo Swamp. When she says there is an island called Borneo, halfway round the world, this suggests the "In Another Country" motif, a common theme in the short story, creating a dream reality or the reality of the unconscious. Freud once said that the unconscious was in "another country." When the young man says he is going to show her something like she has never seen before, she thinks if this were happening in her old normal life, she would be frightened. "If she was back in her old, normal life she would not be here at all." But, it is precisely the point of the story that Jinny is not in her normal life—that death and life and disarray have put her outside normality.

Ricky wants to show her the floating bridge, surrounded by swamp, looking like black tea. "Tannin, he said, sounding the word proudly as if he'd hauled it up out of the dark." She walks on the planks of the bridge which are like the deck of a boat, which rises and falls—not from waves, but from their footsteps.  I like the image of hauling a word up out of the dark; it suggests reaching down into the unconscious, down into the primeval swamp.  The central metaphor is her feeling that the trees and reed beds around her are on saucers of earth and the road is a floating ribbon, underneath which was all was water. This notion of being afloat—being on something that seems solid, but that the solidity is an illusion—that all is shifting and insecure.

She suddenly realizes she does not have her hat and her bald head is bare. And it is in this moment of vulnerability that Ricky slips his arm around her and kisses her on the mouth.  "It seemed to her that this was the first time ever that she had participated in a kiss that was an event in itself.  The whole story, all by itself. A tender prologue, an efficient pressure, a wholehearted probing and receiving, a lingering thanks, and a drawing away satisfied." A great description of a kiss, it seems to me—a kiss that does not have to lead to anywhere, that does not have to have a motivation, a cause, a purpose—a kiss that is a kiss solely.

When Ricky says it is the first time he has kissed a married woman and she says he will probably kiss more, he sighs, "Amazed and sobered by the thought of what lay ahead of time.  Yeah, I probably will." This brings up the theme of the future again.  She thinks of Neal back on dry land giddy and doubtful  having his fortune told, "Rocking on the edge of his future." She feels a "lighthearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter.  A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given." For, of course, she now has the possibility of a future.

This ending is a classic short story encounter, for it is for itself only, unmotivated and unexpected, promising that which will not occur, making one aware of the ultimate possibilities that exist only in the imagination. She has experienced the freedom of facing death and miraculously been given back her life, and this joy of not being anchored but pleasantly adrift, between one place and another, gently swaying on instability is a great example of how the short story often resolves the unresolvable by metaphor.

Next: Reading Alice Munro's story "Nettles"


Unknown said...

Hello -- great post about this remarkable story! I read it last night in preparation to share with my advanced writing workshop at the college where I teach in LA and it's been haunting me. I wanted to find some good discussion of it and am so happy I landed on your blog. Thanks so much!


Charles E. May said...

Glad you found my discussion helpful, Amy. Thank you for reading. Please come back again some time.


Anonymous said...

Great review!

Seems I've missed some of the important metaphors within the story.
Now I go back to reread again.

I have not read many of Alice's works, this Floating Bridge I liked a lot.
One question, which one of her story you think it's the best? I'd like to read it.

Keep it up!


Charles E. May said...

I would have a hard time picking what I think is her "best," for there are so many great ones. But certainly right near the top would be "Love of a Good Woman" from the collection of the same name. Also in her second "selected stories," Family Furnishings.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!!

Will read them!

Anonymous said...

Your analysis of the story is just brilliant. It gives to us readers so many fresh perspectives and meanings that goes by unnoticed in the initial reading of the story. Thanks.

Charles E. May said...

Thank you, anonymous. You make my work worthwhile.