Perhaps, like many of us, Alice Munro has read and fully inhabited a story filled with wonders only to be cheated with the last-line revelation that the guts of that story were nothing but a dream.
But the narrative is not recounted by the dreamer. It is a dream once removed.
Are you thinking that surely the only thing more tiresome than hearing about someone else’s dream is hearing someone else talk about someone else’s dream?
Then consider that the story begins not only with a retelling of a retelling of a dream, but this is a dream rooted in events which actually occurred a lifetime ago.
(It is difficult to imagine a story from which the reader is more determinedly distanced. Many of Munro’s stories feel as though they are spun in a whirlpool, some pulled in a zigzag, but this feels like a set of concentric circles, those diagrams from high-school science class, with a nucleus in the middle.)
The narrator was an infant when the real-life events unfolded in 1945; she is retelling the events of her mother’s dream.
She appears to be the heroine of the tale and the tale-spinner; at times, she appears to be omniscient, even “remembering” her feelings in her mother’s womb.
And, yet, she indicates a disastisfaction with the story’s ending. Her “lofty and tender notion of romance” left her wanting a different outcome.
What a dilemma for the reader, who must reach for the authority greater than the dream-speaker, the voice which could have directed the events therein differently.
The reader, then, is left disoriented and uncertain.
But the narrator has it worse, for she was nearly dead.
“I don’t believe that I was dead, or that I came back from the dead, but I do think that I was at a distance, from which I might or might not have come back. I think that the outcome was not certain and that will was involved. It was up to me, I mean, to go one way or the other.”
This question of agency, of control: it’s difficult to grasp the layers. How can our narrator have chosen life over death but she is unable to write a more romantic ending for her character?
Nonetheless, she informs the reader, ages and ages hence, that the narrator made a choice. And, perhaps even more significantly, she overtly attaches a meaning to that choice.
“I believe that it was only at the moment when I decided to come back, when I gave up the fight against my mother (which must have been a fight for something like her total surrender) and when in fact I chose survival over victory (death would have been victory), that I took on my female nature.”
Here, in the final story in this collection, the reader must consider the quintessential “female nature”, debate the value of the love of a good woman. Whether in a dream, or in life.
Is death the only victory ever possible? Must survival always require another’s surrender? Is love a matter of prostration, as posited in “Jakarta”? Or a matter of grudges as in “A Progress of Love”?
“My Mother’s Dream” prompts so many questions, including the reason for locating the retelling at this particular juncture of time. Why does the narrator retell these events now? Does the narrator so fully inhabit her mother’s perspective that she truly understands an observation like this one:
“What is it about an infant’s crying that makes it so powerful, able to break down the order you depend on, inside and outside of yourself? It is like a storm—insistent, theatrical, yet in a way pure and uncontrived. It is reproachful rather than supplicating—it comes out of a rage that can’t be dealt with, a birthright rage free of love and pity, ready to crush your brains inside your skull.”
Or is the narrator motivated for reasons just beyond the reader’s scope? Does she have a fresh understanding of that breakdown in order, that theatrical storm?
Many questions, yes. But not such a dilemma for the reader after all, for Alice Munro is the dream-speaker, pulling up the blanket of snow around the reader’s shoulders.
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 final story in the collection of the same name. Other stories in this collection: The Love of a Good Woman; Jakarta; Cortes Island; Save the Reaper; The Children Stay; Rich as Stink; and Before the Change. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.