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

“The Children Stay” Alice Munro

As with the earlier stories in this collection, readers are cast back in time: by thirty years in “The Children Stay”.

Love Good Woman MunroReaders 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.

4 comments to “The Children Stay” Alice Munro

  • Angela H.

    ” A fluid choice, the choice of fantasy, is poured out on the ground and instantly hardens; it has taken its undeniable shape.”

    Why do we do what we do?

    This story harkens to a film made by Sarah Polley: Take this Waltz. We know Polley is a reader of Alice Munro because of her movie Away From Her–taken from The Bear Came Over the Mountain. Perhaps this (or other stories by Munro) inspired her writing of Take this Waltz.

    In the movie, Michelle Williams plays a woman in a seemingly happy (if unremarkable) marriage who gives way to a passion that is concealed from the viewer “behind the additional layer of cellophane” as this blogger puts it. Like Pauline, the Michelle Williams character ends up with nothing to show for her sacrifice. There is no (spoiler alert!) happy ending. [But there would have been no concept of spoilers in a Greek Tragedy. The audience would well know what they were in for.] If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend the film in concert with a rereading of this week’s story. Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUQTNY5yaVk

    What Polley so successfully demonstrates in her character is courage. The ability to accept the consequences–the “undeniable shape” of the future she has created for herself. What’s different is that in The Children Stay is: the children that stay. This puts the tragedy on more of an Anna Karenina scale, as Pauline herself admits. It’s only from a distance of 30 years that Pauline can reason that “Perhaps they wouldn’t have forgiven her anyway, but it would have been for something different.”

    I especially love the play-within-a-play misunderstanding at the very end. The younger daughter, Mara, declaring “I always though it was Orphée. It was somebody else then.” Alice Munro does it again. This is why we love her.

    • Well I don’t know what was preoccupying me at the time, but I missed all the chatter and controversy about this film, and now am very curious indeed. I’ll have to find a copy and will, in the meantime, try to avoid spoilers. Thanks for the recommendation.

      I do think it’s a fair assumption that her reading of Munro could have influenced her ideas about the story she told on film. I think it was in the afterword of a book of poetry by Stephanie Bolster in which I noted that she thanked the author of every book she herself had ever read because she figured it would “out” somewhere in her own work.

      The ending of the story is quite powerful, I think, because although the details seemed to be of excruciating importance to Pauline at the time, Jeffrey is only a bit character in her past by the time she tells this story and revisits the events in her memory which comprise it. It seems to place the events simultaneously on a mythic scale (up with Emma and Anna) and to suggest they are almost irrelevant and meaningless. And perhaps to the daughters that is true.

  • Sandra

    I am intrigued by the questions at the end of your review: “What does the story say about the love of a good woman?” and “Is it worth the price of admission?” I don’t have any answers yet but some little things keep coming back to me from the story: the interest of the two men in the tides and the mountains; the way they laughed at Brian’s mother and said her mind was “boggled”;the way Brian speaks to his mother (“Oh, dry up, Mother”);the fact that Brian carried the playpen to the beach every day so that Pauline could mind the baby there instead of having her self-time at the cottage while the baby napped; Pauline volunteering to get the soft drinks; the mysterious undercurrent between Brian’s father and Pauline;the observation by Pauline’s friend of Brian’s way of being: “How can you stand the nonstop show?” (ironical in that Pauline escapes to be in another “show”) and several others. And two other questions raise their heads: How much does the love of a good woman depend upon the receptivity and awareness of her partner? By whom and to whom is the price of admission paid?
    I am also intrigued by the Sarah Polley film that Angela has recommended. I have found Polley’s work to be very powerful and am not familiar with Take this Waltz so will definitely follow up on this: thanks Angela.

    • I thought that observation of Brian’s behaviour was significant too. It makes us wonder if he is already aware that the marriage is an act and so he has taken to making a show of the everyday details that should simply come naturally, or whether he has always behaved this way.

      Similarly, we wonder if he seems to be eroding Pauline’s self-time because it’s simply what he believes is necessary for a wife/mother to do (like his mother, the “dishrag”, and sad enough that she is delegated to dishrag-ness but as your quote reveals, apparently she’s to be a dried-up dishrag too) or whether he has already recognized that Pauline has emerged herself in this affair, in this other reality apart from her marriage and mothering, and this is Brian’s way of trying to force her to be present in a way that she no longer volunteers to be.

      The comment that Pauline makes early on, about how she didn’t have time to learn the lines for her play because she constantly had to care for the children, initially niggled me, but later I had to wonder if Brian hadn’t already discovered that she was taking more time than necessary away from her family to “rehearse” on weekend afternons, and that would explain his seeming resistance to the entire production (literally and metaphorically) and his reluctance to assist that whole process.

      These are chicken-and-egg musings, and of course these events in the story unfold in memory, so even Pauline doesn’t likely know for sure. It seems as though we can view it either way.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>