The bulk of “The Progress of Love” takes place during the summer when the narrator is twelve.
She, herself, is divorced now, and her boys are in school. Her parents were married for much longer, from the time that her mother was twenty-five and her father was thirty-eight.
Her mother and father had one of those “old marriages”, with love and grudges “growing underground”.
The narrator reassembles some of the love and grudges, as she works to consider whether there has been progress in that love, in those grudges.
In predictable Alice Munro fashion, there is no easy answer.
(Also familiar is the theme of siblings long parted who reconnect for a visit, as was the case in “Visitors”, and the question of class and town/country identity, which characterizes Who Do You Think You Are? as well.)
In some ways there has been some progress, but the grudges, too, remain and progress in their own ways.
The narrator never experienced the dramatic horror that her own mother, Marietta, had experienced, when her mother needed to make a point to her husband about how broken-hearted she was.
Marietta does not perpetrate such a horror on her daughter, but she is still a woman of extremes. She makes a dramatic decision which impacts her husband and the narrator directly, although they do not learn of this for many years.
Marietta is righteous and indignant; she has held a grudge for a long time, for most of her life. She announces what she has done to “right” that “wrong” to her sister Beryl in that summer, and everybody is as shocked to hear about it as Beryl was.
But the narrator has invented a narrative of her own, one in which her father was present and fully informed of her mother’s decision, in which he “stood and watched and he never protested. If anybody had tried to stop her, he would have protected her. I consider that love.”
And perhaps she does. But the narrator holds a grudge of her own. She has made decisions in her own life which stand in counterpoint to her mother’s decisions.
“How could I even say that I approved of it myself? If had been the sort of person who approved of that, who could do it, I wouldn’t have done all I have done” (and she itemized those things she has done, all those things that her mother did not do).
The bulk of the story is about the grudges, rather than the love. Or, perhaps you could say that the story is about the intersection between love and grudges.
“There was a cloud, a poison, that had touched my mother’s life. And when I grieved my mother, I became part of it.”
For the narrator, that poison is shame. For she felt that her mother found something “that was worse, far worse, than ordinary lies and tricks and meanness; it was a really sickening shame.”
Perhaps there is some of that, too, in Marietta’s own cloud. Because Beryl tells a story about her that reveals that Marietta was too young to understand that horrifying situation that her own mother had put her in, that those who were old enough to understand it at the time laughed at Marietta’s fear and confusion.
Marietta, grown, hearing this recounted in the presence of her own family, out for a meal at the hotel with Beryl and her gentleman friend, bends her head and folds her hands as though preparing to say grace. Her husband protests, declares that her reaction was understandable.
Herein, it seems, settles the narrator’s belief that he protected and loved her mother. He stood and watched and protested when it mattered. And, in the invented story, he stood and watched and did not protest, when that was what was required of him.
But is there really love? Has it really progressed? Are these even the questions which need answering, or has the reader grossly misunderstood the situation on the page?
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. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the first in The Progress of Love, with next Thursday reserved for “Lichen”.