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 Progress of Love” Alice Munro

The bulk of “The Progress of Love” takes place during the summer when the narrator is twelve.

She’s looking back on that summer, on the memories that she has of her mother during that time, because her father has called to say that her mother has died.

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”.

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7 comments to “The Progress of Love” Alice Munro

  • Sandra

    One of the things that I took from this story was that it didn’t really matter very much whether the narrator remembered accurately the events surrounding the money her mother received. What mattered was that her father, when he did learn about the money, stated very clearly that the money belonged to his wife and that was an end to the matter. Mr. Florence’s reply to Beryl who said her sister had carried out a “criminal” act was also a very interesting one: “Criminal is for when you call the police” he said. For the narrator this statement “created a little island of surprise and a peculiar gratitude.”
    Because of the responses of her father and Mr. Florence, the narrator is able to progress in her understanding of love. She comes to understand that her mother was doing “what seems natural and necessary, and the other (her father) believes “that the important thing is for that person to be free, to go ahead. They understand that other people might not think so. They do not care.”
    Th narrator progresses even further when she has an exchange with Bob Marks while visiting the home she grew up in and where this event regarding the money would have taken place. She speaks harshly to Bob and then decides to repair the damage of that harshness. “Moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having, even if the parting has to come sooner or later.” The last sentence of the story which follows immediately, seems to indicate, for me at least, that the narrator’s knowledge of love has definitely progressed in that she believes that she has learned a more effective way to exist within a relationship than the old way she has witnessed when holding grudges was a common way to deal with problems for some couples and in some families. Her father and Mr. Florence had also helped her to see that acceptance of her mother’s choice regarding the money was something that those who loved her mother were able to accept also: this was progress over Beryl’s anger towards Marietta’s choice.
    Am I on the right track?

    • She creates such a conflict, doesn’t she, because it’s true, that her father does seem to support her mother’s decisions, but is he only speaking that support to defy Beryl’s challenge of it, and privately he does not approve of his wife’s decision, any more than the narrator did? Because surely the fact that the narrator mentions this is significant, although we don’t know really (or do we?) how she feels about that, whether she feels that she should have approved or shown approval, whether she forgives by creating this alternate version of events, or whether she has decided that some other aspect of it isn’t more important than someone being free and just never articulates that either?

      And is it love that motivates the father’s protest (or the lack of protest, in the other, imagined, scene where he watches her feeding the fire)? Or something else, but if something else, than what? Is it really love when the narrator opts for the moment of kindness with Bob, when she has already articulated that she knows she and Bob will part sooner or later? Or is she actually privately admitting that she will always hold a grudge against him (for openly admitting his disapproval of what her mother did, even though she disapproves too, and just never said so) and that, if there was love, it’s not lasting (as her parents’ love).

      I like your interpretation that the narrator feels a kind of progress in the way that she loves, in conjunction with the idea that it doesn’t matter so much what actually happened as how she chooses to perceive what happened. I’m not sure there is any solid answer given here, and I wonder if there are as many variations in its interpretation as there are readers for this story.

  • Whispering Gums

    So long since I’ve read this, but I do love Munro … You’ve written a great review. Wish I remembered enough to comment more.

    • Maybe you’d like to join in to discuss one of the later collections: there is so much to think about in just one of her stories. Those in her newest (Dear Life) are much shorter than these earlier stories, so I’m curious to see whether they have the same scope for discussion (I hope so!).

  • For some reason I wasn’t expecting the level of complexity in this story–(though I find it impressive) I had to go back and skim to keep it all straight in my mind since there is so much switching of memories and moving about in time even if it was all part of her own memories. Like Sandra I noted that last (or close to the end) sentence about the moments of reconciliation and forgiveness and thought that was what was meant by the ‘progress of love’. I wasn’t sure what the last scene at her house with Bob was meant to signify–all the talk of the wallpaper and the flowers underneath and then she sort of blew up over the hippie remark and Phemie became annoyed at his reference to sex. There was so much in this story that seemed freighted with meaning I feel like I need to go back and read it yet again. Do you think Phemie held a grudge against her mother about her lack of a proper education? The money was obviously there, though she didn’t know about it at the time, and only because Marietta was mad at her father–she burned it in the stove and Phemie’s life ends up much like her mothers. Anyway–very interesting story. I decided I needed to just own the book so have ordered it and will return the copy I borrowed back to the libary!

    [Edited by BIP to add the link to Danielle’s post on this story.]

    • Hmm, you’ve raised some other points that I hadn’t considered. What would she have learned about romance/sex in connection with “the progress of love” from observing her parents’ marriage, and how might that have impacted her anger with Bob? And if the wallpaper is layered, would yet another re-read yield even more layers to our understanding of the story? It’s funny isn’t it…I’m inclined to think that she does hold a grudge against her for having had to move out early to save money for school and to pay her own way out, to fund her own escape, and yet it’s something that she clearly values in herself too. Can she still hold a grudge for something which is, simultaneously, a source of pride for her? Okay, evidently another re-read is in order…

  • Jim

    Some of Phemie’s anger, I think is that her mother’s burning of the money foreclosed a possibility of her going on in school. Yes, what the mother did in burning the money was an expression of her anger at her father for having put his wife through such grief whether the suicide attempt was serious or not. But the burning of the money, the grudge of Phemie against the father, had repercussions in the lives of at least Phemie if no one else. And I think that the reaction to Bob in the house has to do with her disgust at the father’s promiscuousness, his sexual dalliances that drove the mother to such extremes. “Progress” may be ironic. The love of Phemie for her mother seems to have had a negative, not a positive, “progressive” influence on her capacity to love.

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