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

“Powers” Alice Munro

Runaway readers cannot run away from the book after turning the final page. Instead, they have to burrow in.

Much like “Vandals” in 1994’s Open Secrets and the title story in 2012’s Dear Life, “Powers” is one of those closing stories that sends readers rushing back to the beginning.

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

So long that it can be divided into five parts – “Give Dante a Rest”, “Girl in a Middy”, “A Hole in the Head”, “A Square, A Circle, A Star”, and “Flies on A Windowsill” – this story is a challenge indeed.

Part of me expected there would be nine parts, one for each circle of hell (which have been recreated in Lego: clearly nobody told him to “give Dante a rest“). But instead, Alice Munro has chosen five segments.

The schoolgirl in me wonders if she is playing with Freytag’s theory, which classically applies to plays but can be applied to other literary forms, and would have been a fixture in the curriculum in Alice Munro’s day. (Versions of it are still taught today, though I’m not sure how often his name comes up.)

If Munro had this structure in mind, his traditional arc (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement) impacts the readers’ understanding of the story’s focal point.

One might have thought the climax of the story occurred with the revelation that a couple had run away together at the end of “Girl in a Middy”. It is certainly a surprise, though one ushered in with little pomp, right at the end of the segment.

But if one identifies the climax of the story as falling in the third “act”, one must choose a moment other than this one, something in “A Hole in the Head”. (Well, that seems like an obvious moment, doesn’t it,but in fact that hole already existed, or never existed, or still exists. In typical Munro-fashion, each of these scenarios seems possible.)

Perhaps the moment in which one woman realizes that the other is operating under the assumption that her lover is dead, the moment at which she chooses not to correct the misunderstanding, the moment at which she turns her back on her and leaves her there, isolated and confined.

Let’s say that this is the climax of the story, perfectly situated in the third segment, infusing it with all of those realizations and determinations and possibilities.

In some ways, this interpretation shifts the focus from one character to another. Readers assume, privy to a woman’s diaries in “Give Dante a Rest” that the writer is the main character of the story. And from that first March 13, 1927 diary entry, that appears to be the case.

I used to have a feeling something really unusual would occur in my life, and it would be important to have recorded everything. Was that just a feeling?”

Perhaps it was just a feeling after all, and she has nothing unusual to tell.

But what of this other woman, on the fringes of the story, literally and figuratively.

We do not see her diaries, and her presence is not as immediately apparent at the beginning and end of this story, but perhaps she is the heart of the tale after all.

Perhaps readers should take a hint from Freytag’s arc, relocate the climax of the story, and rediscover a heroine in the process.

For you it is all the glory of getting into print. Forgive me if that strikes you as sarcastic. It is fine to be ambitious but what about other people?”

The question of ambition is fascinating indeed, for as is often the case, the person who accuses another of ambition is simultaneously lamenting their own lack of glory, their own thwarted ambitions.

In this case, our diary-keeper’s aspirations, for a true romance, have been dashed. Early on she suspected this disappointment was rooted in a lack of marriage proposals. Later, she realized an excess of proposals (one, in fact) could also destroy one’s hopes for happiness.

So it does seem likely, after all, that the woman in the background of the story, the woman whose betrayal is perfectly situated in the third act, is our heroine after all.

This story fits beautifully within the collection: “No place for anybody to hide if they ever had a notion of running away.” It’s easy to see the support group of runaways that could form from the pages of this fiction. (Because the end of this story brings readers around to the present, I am reminded particularly of “Passion”, which also covers a broad arc of time, although readers do not glimpse as much of the middle as is presented to us in “Powers”, along with the beginning and ending of those goings-on.)

Of course there is always a place to hide if one has such a notion, even if only in the pages of fiction.

Our heroine made a bid for anonymity, and we nearly missed her escape.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Runaway as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the last story in this collection. The others appeared here: Runaway, Change, Soon, Silence, Passion, Trespasses, Tricks, Powers

Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next up: The View from Castle Rock.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

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4 comments to “Powers” Alice Munro

  • Sandra

    Freytag’s name never came up for me: did you know how many visual images alone there are online about Freytag’s pyramid? Thank you for this. It is very interesting to contemplate the question of who is the heroine in this story. The opening diary entry has Nancy mentioning her meeting with Tessa Netterby but everything after that points to it being Nancy’s story perhaps until Nancy takes Ollie to meet Tessa. I love that there are flies piled in a pyramid (is that Freytag’s pyramid?) which delight Tessa. Thank you for guiding me to see this story in a whole new light…you have tempted me to reread it almost immediately inspite of its length.

    • Neat link with the pyramid: I did think her discovery of the flies was pretty interesting. I think it’s a mark of Alice Munro’s capacity for enriching detail that makes her stories so re-readable. Really, there aren’t that many short stories in which one can play with the idea of “whose story is it”. It’s a pleasure to play with her words. I was convinced through most of it that it was Nancy’s story, but when I flipped back to the beginning and realized that Tessa had made a more immediate appearance than I realized, I was reminded of other angles to the story.

  • Angela H.

    Almost all of these stories are already re-reads for me. (In fact, I’m very excited to read The View from Castle Rock next because I haven’t read those stories!) But as soon as I put a story down, I know I’m going to need to read it again.

    “Powers” was a difficult read for me, mostly because I read it over the course of a week and not all in one sitting. I had to go back many many times and I never felt an “arc” of story. I didn’t remember anything about it from 2006 when I would have read it for the first time. I usually get a “deja vu” at some point or some sense of familiarity from having read it before. But for this one: nothing. It might be a case of Ms. Munro being too clever for me to follow. : )

    I do like a challenge; I like to have to work my brain a bit. But the timing for me was wrong. I don’t blame the author for writing over my head–I blame this “summer of stress” instead.

    Your discussion of Dante’s circles of hell and Freytag’s theory piqued my interest. Also the theme of running away as it relates to the whole collection. Who did we ultimately decide was the heroine of the story? I thought all along it was Nancy–mostly because of the self-revelatory nature of her telling of the story. But the title of the story is Powers and that’s no accident, surely.

    So the “powers” attributed to Tessa are many: the power that attracts so many visitors in the first place (which is the first, obvious, layer,) the power to make people feel sorry for her, the power to appear to be above the patronage, the power to have all the attention of so many people but remain inscrutable, the power to attract “followers” like Ollie, like our narrator, and like the dough-mouse making assistant, the power to act, to lie, to fool herself, the power to change the courses of whole lives. This story is indeed a tangled ball of yarn. I’ll have to return to it when I have some brain power available to give it it’s due attention!

    • This is such a challenging story and one which really deserves a detailed discussion, which would definitely require more rereadings on my part, too.

      I think it’s interesting that you’ve drawn a connection between Ollie and the mouse-maker (I loved that scene). I wonder if it is just as possible to read their attraction to her (in different ways, of course) as evidence not of her set-apart-ness, her “special powers” but also — or rather — of her ordinary-not-special-ness. Well, of course it’s possible; it’s a Munro short story, so you can have opposite readings of almost every aspect of a story.

      Good luck with the rest of your “summer of stress” and I hope you continue to enjoy whatever short stories you can squeeze into the chaos.

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