As with the earlier stories in this collection, readers are cast back in time: by thirty years in “The Children Stay”.
Readers find themselves on the east coast of the Island, Vancouver Island, but the exact location of the cottage is reminiscent of the way in which the Maitland River flows into the Goderich harbour, that road with its sharp and dangerous turn alongside.
This is familar territory, geographically and thematically.
But in this story, the road runs behind the row of cottages for a mile or so.
The story is preoccupied with what takes place behind the beach, beyond the open space. (Away from the beach, which is occupied by the Monicas and the non-Monicas, when readers recall from “Jakarta”.)
“The Children Stay” unfolds in the “deep morning shadow, the floor of a tunnel under fin and cedar trees”. Not on the main streets, but the side-streets with “the occasional hole-in-the-wall coffee shop or fly-specked convenience store.
“The Children Stay” is about what happens behind the additional layer of cellophane. “On some windows sheets of golden plastic as frail and crinkled as old cellophane were stretched inside the glass to protect the merchandise from the sun.”
Readers are inherently distanced from the story naturally, in the role of reader, by the years which intervene between Pauline’s experience and her recollections, by the cellophane and the harbour streets, and by the play-within-a-play motif.
Pauline has already read Jean Anouilh’s play Eurydice, when she meets Jeffrey at a neighbourhood barbeque and he announces his plans to launch a community theatre production of the work.
Readers understand that Anouilh’s contemporary retelling of the Orpheus myth ends unhappily. They can intuit that the complicated relationships between bit players in the drama mirror the complexities in this island communities.
It’s clear that Pauline lands the part because of what she is not. Not because she is a reader and a wife, a vacationer and a mother. But because of what lurks on the road behind.
Pauline tells Jeffrey that she thinks Anouilh’s work is beautiful (not tragic, but beautiful) and he casts her as Eurydice, because she is not beautiful and she is not ethereal (but still, perhaps, tragic: that remains to be seen).
Pauline brings her role to life, more accurately, to her life. Readers only see her reciting her lines while she pushes a stroller on a walk, only see her putting the principles of the work into play; the stage is the story, but readers do not see her perform, only rehearse her part in the wings.
“In the middle of Monopoly games, Scrabble games, card games. She went right on talking, listening, working, keeping track of the children, while some memory of her secret life disturbed her like a radiant explosion.”
Readers cannot determine whether her audience recognizes her acting skill: does her father-in-law challenge her unreasonably because he is a brute or are the holes he pokes in Pauline’s explanations rooted in Pauline’s deceptions?
Brian’s opinions of his father and mother provide clues but no definitive answers. “He said that his father was the King of the Philistines, a pure and natural barbarian. And that his mother was a dishrag, good-natured and worn out.”
Readers might look to other Munro stories to try to determine the public nature of the affair. Perhaps to “Simon’s Luck”, in which Rose teaches drama and acts part time, or to “Accident” where the events untold between the music teacher and the science teacher.
To what extent is Jeffrey like Simon, like Ted? Readers meet him through Pauline’s disenchanted, thirty-years-later eyes.
Back then, “[s]he found herself seeing it his way. If you were going to be around him much, you almost had to see it his way—arguing was dangerous and exhausting”. But now?
Perhaps that is less important, however. To what extent is Pauline like Rose, like Frances?
Or like another adulterous heroine? “What she was doing would be what she had heard about and read about. It was what Anna Karenina had done and what Madame Bovary had wanted to do.”
There is something odd about the casting, Brian observes. Pauline recognizes that the discrepancies are rooted in Jeffrey’s vision of the play.
With her thirty-years-later eyes, she examines his understanding of the hero straight on: “Orphée has a problem with love or reality. Orphée will not put up with anything less than perfection. He wants a love that is outside of ordinary life.”
But readers must wonder whether this actually reflects Pauline’s understanding as much as (or more than) Jeffrey’s.
Like the side-street businesses that Pauline recalls, the events in “The Children Stay” are “fixed in time as much as cave paintings or relics under sand”.
In the Orpheus story and the retelling, the question of the eyes is crucial; looking into the eyes of one’s beloved can have devastating consequences, looking directly at betrayal can put the viewer on a road with such a sharp turn that they cannot avoid a crash.
The events might be fixed in time, but what is ever shifting is Pauline’s perspective.
Maybe the children who stay do remember less, maybe nothing, but from where the readers sit, what Pauline remembers is just as uncertain.
What does this story say about the love of a good woman? Is it worth the price of admission?
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 fifth 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: “Rich as Stink”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.