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?
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”.