The story begins with conflict, the televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon. But “Before the Change” considers other conflicts, closer to home, closer to the heart.
“What is that expression? It’s as if he’s got a list of offenses both remembered and anticipated and he’s letting it be known how his patience can be tried by what you know you do wrong but also by what you don’t even suspect.”
Ironic, that. Because quite likely her father does find his patience tried by things that she doesn’t realize she does wrong. Perhaps something as simple as how she arrives home for a visit, how she emerges from the car, how she greets him and Mrs. Barrie.
But she certainly knows that she has done specific things about which her father knows nothing. And he, too, certainly has done many things about which she knew nothing.
These matters, however, are not the immediate and direct source of conflict in the story. They are perhaps not even the impetus for the story, which is structured as a set of letters that she writes to the man who is no longer her fiancé.
On one level, the story is about the conflict between the ex-lovers (she and R, or Robin). But, on another level, the conflict is rooted more deeply, in the sense of having fundamentally disappointed — failed, even — by not having been what a young woman is expected to be.
Indeed, the first poem quoted in the story is from Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children (1907); the narrator has not consumed bits of string, but has suffered agonies, as the poem concludes by saying (although that part lurks, unquoted).
The other poems referenced (“Sir Patrick Spens”, “The Twa Corbies” ……) all consider mortality or include a death or condemn specific behaviours. (And other women have failed, too, perhaps even her mother, who died in childbirth, but who rests as a presence at the margins of the story.)
Tension abounds: a reference to a hero in the stuggle for the Greek war of independence, talk of a disagreement between seventh-century monks, people brush past each other in silence, steer conversations into safer territory, and there are even anticipated conflicts that do not materialize.
Her father and her ex, for instance, had gotten along rather well, but she had anticipated strain:
“But in fact you got along pretty well together. You had a discussion about some great conflict between different orders of monks in the seventh century, wasn’t that it? The row those monks had was about how they should shave their heads.”
But beneath the surface, a conflict which is only imagined fractures the lovers’ relationship. A conflict rooted in misbehaviour, disapproval and censure.
“They could bring you up before a committee that might judge you were morally unfit. Morally unfit for the job of teaching young ministers. You could be judged to have a bad character. And even supposing this did not happen, that you did not lose your job but were only reprimanded, or were not even reprimanded, you would never be promoted; there would be a stain on your record.”
These expectations and denials, these directions and prohibitions, these customs and laws: what has been in the past challenges what might yet be, but often tradition holds sway nonetheless.
“Change the law, change the person. Yet we don’t want everything—not the whole story—to be dictated from outside. We don’t want what we are, all we are, to be concocted that way.
Who is this “we” I’m talking about?”
Ultimately her father is a stolid representative of rigidity but, in fact, he is — free of the context of his relationship with his daughter — undeniably progressive in some ways.
“Money, hopes, love letters—all such things can be tossed off into the air and come down changed, come down all light and free of context.”
A presidential debate airs and viewers simply turn off the television. A rejected lover sends a letter. Onlookers and participants come down changed.
What do you think about this story? What details impressed you? What other stories did it recall?
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 seventh 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: “My Mother’s Dream”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.