“Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.” So said Virginia Woolf.
And although Kath and Sonje are not writing books – and not reading Woolf either – they are composing the narratives of their lives.
They sit on the beach, in a “place of their own”, apart and “behind some large logs”.
Is it much different from the caves paved with linoleum in “Lives of Girls and Women”? This sphere inhabited by women?
There, they are separate from men, yes.
But also, in this case, Kath and Sonje are separated from other women as well.
And they have acted to separate themselves, to have a barricade between them and these other women.
Other women who are, what? More feminine? Less independent? More loved? Less valued?
“These women aren’t so much older than Kath and Sonje. But they’ve reached a stage in life that Kath and Sonje dread. They turn the whole beach into a platform. Their burdens, their strung-out progeny and maternal poundage, their authority, can annihilate the bright water, the perfect small cove with the red-limbed arbutus trees, the cedars, growing crookedly out of the high rocks.”
There, on a platform, these women – archetypal mothers in a later stage of life – perform.
Pehaps this seems an old-fashuioned notion, and its true that Munro was born in 1931, but this is not an outdated idea. It frequently surfaces in contemporary fiction as well.
Take, for example, this excerpt from Stacey May Fowles’ Infidelity (one of the novels that I inhaled in a single-sitting last year, which should have perched on my favourites list, given how often I think back to the characters therein):
“Aaron and Ronnie travelled in a circle of friends who lived their lives like they were collecting Monopoly cards. The baby card would simply complete the set. A natural progression that at first would come eventually and then would come immediately. No questions asked. Ronnie was not entirely sure who had made this decision, it was simply one that had happened, that had been expected, and didn’t seem entirely negative, so she has been swept along with it without question.”
Neither Kath nor Sonje travel with such a circle of friends, but of the two women in Munro’s story, Kath is wandering closer to their territory.
“Kath wondered if one change might be a baby. It seemed to her that life went on, after you finished school, as a series of further examinations to be passed. The first one was getting married. If you hadn’t done that by the time you were twenty-five, that examination had to all intents and purposes been failed. (She always signed her name “Mrs. Kent Mayberry” with a sense of relief and mild elation.) Then you thought about having the first baby.”
Like the characters in Stacey May Fowles’ novel, Kath and Kent are collecting their set of Monopoly cards, but Kath sets up her spot on the beach with baby Noelle to one side, with Sonje.
Kath seems to aspire to something else, to some other idea of womanhood. Perhaps because of this, she is drawn to Sonje, whose marriage to Cottar is quite unlike Kath’s and Kent’s.
But there, on the beach, Kath and Sonje argue about something. It seems to be an argument about a D.H. Lawrence story, “The Fox”. But it’s actually an argument about the ways in which the two readers interpret the decision the female character makes.
“She must stop this—she must stop thinking and stop wanting and let her consciousness go under, until it is submerged in his. Like the reeds that wave below the surface of the water. Look down, look down—see how the reeds wave in the water, they are alive but they never break the surface. And that is how her female nature must live within his male nature. Then she will be happy and he will be strong and content. Then they will have achieved a true marriage.”
Both women are tremendously invested in the outcome of Lawrence’s story.
Both women are tremendously invested in the outcome of their own narratives.
Ultimately there are many threads left untied in these narratives.
What are readers to make of the older man at Mrs. Dalloway’s — oops, I mean Sonje’s — party, with both his wife and his mistress in attendance?
What are we to think of Amy’s make-over: is she readying Kath for her role on the platform, on the stage?
And are we to believe that Cottar has perished overseas in Jakarta, or to imagine him reclining on the beach in Jakarta (certainly Alice Munro readers know that characters fleeing relationships can travel great distances to do so), in a place of his own.
What do you think?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second story in the collection of the same name. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week: “Cortes Island”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.