Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

“Cortes Island” Alice Munro

One wonders if the “little bride” would have sat with the Monicas on the beach in “Jakarta”. Would she, in the eyes of Kath and Sonje, inhabit the model of femininity that the Monicas represent? Or would they encourage her to join them behind the logs?

Love Good Woman Munro

McClelland & Stewart, 1998

I think they would make room for her, that Kath would add her books to the stack with her Mansfield and Lawrence.

“I read the heavy books whose titles were already familiar and incantatory to me—I even tried to read The Betrothed—and in between these courses I read the novels of Aldous Huxley and Henry Green, and To the Lighthouse and The Last of Chéri and The Death of the Heart. I bolted them down one after the other without establishing any preferences, surrendering to each in turn just as I’d done to the books I read in my childhood. I was still in that stage of leaping appetite, of voracity close to anguish.”

I imagine that Sonje would choose from her selections as readily as from Kath’s and bond with her over similarities in their working lives.

For our narrator in “Cortes Island” is living in a basement apartment, starting out as the “little bride” with her husband; she inhabits a situation with some similarities to both Kath’s and Sonje’s, an in-between-ness of sorts.

She, too, eyes the future from the unfamiliar present, warily, considers the act of making choices. And, as with so many of Alice Munro’s narrators, she is reevaluating from years hence, reconsidering the things “that had happened a long time before and the forest had grown up all around”.

As a young married woman, the space she inhabits is of great importance, literally and symbolically. “Cortes Island” contains a good amount of domestic detail: talk of lace cloths and china cups, housekeeping routines, bedspreads and china cabinets, and a crazy quilt of linoleum.

The distinctions between her world and the world-above-ground, the world of the long-married-couple, the Gorries, are immediately apparent, and although the Gorries’ world is outwardly respectable and Mrs. Gorrie seemingly a “good woman”, our narrator views her as a threatening figure.

In her eyes, Mrs. Gorrie is ludicrous and unstable, paranoid and untrustworthy. And, yet, we view Mrs. Gorrie through her eyes, and it’s possible that there are other elements of Mrs. Gorrie’s life which are glossed over, in the same way that the Monicas do not have individual existences in “Jakarta”.

“We [the "little bride" and "fond and cherishing" Chess] had made this bargain, but it never occurred to us that older people—our parents, our aunts and uncles—could have made the same bargain, for lust. It seemed as if their main itch had been for houses, property, power mowers, and home freezers and retaining walls. And, of course, as far as women were concerned, for babies. All those things were what we thought we might choose, or might not choose, in the future. We never thought any of that would come on us inexorably, like age or weather.”

For our narrator, this subterranean stepping stone will lead to something else, a “real apartment”, with a more respectable if less romantic life. We learn this at the end of the story, but the story is not preoccupied with that portion of the narrator’s life. “Cortes Island” is concerned with what came before that.

And, similarly, the story is titled for what came before, for what came before in the Gorries’ experience. This is not something that our narrator learns from Mrs. Gorrie. She doesn’t even learn about it directly from Mr. Gorrie, but he directs her towards another source which hints at what came before.

Our narrator is preoccupied with this earlier time, and perhaps because she writes, she constructs a narrative in her own mind of what came before, and she inserts herself into that narrative in a way that she finds unexpectedly satisfying.

“I did this over and over again until I had only the notebook cover left. Then I bought another notebook and started the whole process once more. The same cycle—excitement and despair, excitement and despair. It was like having a secret pregnancy and miscarriage every week.”

Just as her stories end up crumbled in the wastebasket, however, this is a narrative which she maintains privately, but it is a story which offers a profound contrast to the reality of her everyday existence.

In her grown-up life, she may be a Monica, but in her mind, she is an extravagent and explosive heroine, familiar with the ways of the forest. No little brides allowed.

What stands out for you in this story?

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 third 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: “Save the Reaper”.

10 comments to “Cortes Island” Alice Munro

  • Angela Hall

    What stands out, for me, in this story is the narrator’s self-perception. She’s aware of herself and Chess “playing house” in a sense and they are delighted with themselves. She does see herself as a “little bride” and as a wife and as “the girl [who works] in the library;” she is aware that she’s playing various roles. In her dreams she’s playing another, perhaps involuntary, role–that of the wife of the burned man of Cortes Island.

    As readers we can only guess what happened in 1923 but the narrator’s imagination has worked out a scenario that shows itself in dreams only. It seems that the dreams fascinate and repulse her–exploring as they do a kind of repressed lust that has taken the place of her “bargain” with Chess as they move from “having a bed of [their] own where [they] could carry on as [they] liked” toward an “emergence into adult life.”

    I cannot remember specific stories to refer to but it seems to me that this exploration of repressed lust, and how it is eventually expressed, is a particular feature of Ms. Munro’s style.

    • It’s interesting, too, that this preoccupation only emerges at the end of the story, as though perhaps this was the ultimate impetus for all the rest of the story to be arranged and, yet, that vitally important bit of information isn’t shared until the last paragraphs.

      What do you guess happened in 1923? Are we supposed to think that Ray is the boy who was given his lunch and told to escape? The inarticulate boy, er– man, who drops by to make repairs, restoring a house in small ways (bringing to mind all the ways in which that other house, on the island, could not be repaired)? What are we to make of the idea of arson? Of Mrs. Gorrie’s absence from the island? Of the importance that Mr. Gorrie places on sharing the scrapbooks with our narrator?

  • Sandra

    What stands out for me in this story? Well, after looking over it a third time, I found myself chuckling and thinking that AM must have been chuckling a little while writing it. It seems as if she might have been thinking she was going to write a story about which the reader could write her own story. We are given a number of observations by the narrator of her own life and its place along a continuum and we are also given a number of observations about Mr. and Mrs. Gorrie and their son Ray. Outstanding in the latter is Mr. Gorrie’s crippled state and Irene’s similar state and those are connected by the narrator’s feeling that “people crippled by strokes or disease were bad omens” for her and that Mrs. Gorrie had said there ought to be a law about people marrying people like Irene. To top that off we are presented with Mr. Gorrie’s scapbook for 1923 and the story of a fire on Cortes Island which Mrs. Gorrie has referred to as “in the wilds” where there were bears and cougars. When I put that all together I found myself wanting to know what really happened on that island.
    I like your comparison between Jakarta and Cortes Island. And I agree with Angela’s suggestion that the narrator is examining her roles and the direction in which her life may be going. This reminds me very much of Kath and,of course, there is the connection with Cottar who went to Jakarta (or not). I found the use of the word “inexorable” to be key in understanding where the narrator was at the point in time of the story.
    And, oh yes, what’s with Ray and Mrs. Cornish and Irene anyway? As always, many many layers and so much pleasure trying to unravel them.

    • There must be a whole other story to tell about Ray and Mrs. Cornish and Irene. We have to wonder, to begin with, why Mrs. Gorrie is ever speaking with Mrs. Cornish on the telephone, why she would come to know about these outings for ice cream or evening jaunts. It sounds as though Ray is a handy-man for that family and, yet, we hear of Mr. and Mrs. Gorrie with a formal addresss attached to their names as well, and, yet, he is Mrs. Gorrie’s son, we know (not Mr. Gorrie’s, apparently, at least that’s not how he is introduced). So, is Mrs. Cornish Ray’s partner? Perhaps even wife?

      It’s also interesting to take Mrs. Gorrie’s ideas about the burden of Irene’s condition on her mother, which makes us wonder if Mrs. Gorrie doesn’t feel that same sense of responsibility for Mr. Gorrie after his stroke. “Who was going to look after that cripple girl when she was gone?” And she wonders if Mrs. Cornish “could have something in mind”, perhaps in terms of Ray taking on that responsibility. Given that much of the story’s action centres on Mrs. Gorrie’s retaining of our narrator to accept (albeit limited) responsibility for Mr. Gorrie, it seems like the way in which Mrs. Gorrie perceives this (her?) motivation is important, but it’s not spelled out for us either.

  • Sounds good! I love stories that contain that kind of domestic detail.

  • It’s cool that you’re going through Alice Munro’s stories like this. I’ve meant to read more of her work forever.

  • Angela Hall

    I never thought of Ray as Mrs. Cornish’s partner! I thought Mrs. Gorrie was worried that Ray, her son, would be somehow paired off with Irene! And I also never thought that Ray was the little boy on Cortes Island, found in the forest with a snack. I’m going to have to read it again. Layers and Layers….

    • That’s certainly possible, especially given that Mrs. Gorrie talks of Ray and Irene eating ice-cream and compares it to Mrs. and Mr. Gorrie eating ice-cream, but I hadn’t thought about that. And Mrs. Gorrie might well feel entitled to call and make inquiries if Mrs. Cornish is much younger than Mrs. Gorrie, just as Mrs. Gorrie seems to feel justified in questioning our narrator to such an extent. I think I need to read it again too!

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