It’s not something you hear much about anymore: once, people more commonly pitched fits, threw fits, had fits, staged fits.
Blustery and ephemeral. Unpredictable and dramatic.
Fits, whether in human nature or in outdoorsy-nature, are at the heat of Alice Munro’s short story.
But how “fits” are understood does change, even within the confines of the story, let alone across the years.
The story begins, however, with the ordinary and routine, with the everyday details of “a few pounds of extra weight” and and a “broad nose” and “silvery blond” hair, with a married couple over to have a drink on Boxing Day: the anti-fit.
Nonetheless, two people have died, this married couple, and news of this constitutes the story’s opening sentence.
The couple is not named, though: the story is about Robert and Peg, what this death — violent and mysterious — means to them.
When the reader finally learns of Walter’s and Nora’s names, the names are insignificant: it’s all about what has happened to them.
No, scratch that: it’s all about why it happened.
“What happened was that he [Robert] believed each of them for about five minutes, no longer. If he could have believed one of them, hung on to it, it would have been as if something had taken its claws out of his chest and permitted him to breathe.”
As much as Walter and Nora are the catalyst, as much as the ‘what’ and ‘why’ are up for debate amongst other people, this story is all about what has happened to Robert and Peg, what might happen and why.
What happened to Walter and Nora is well publicized; what is happening with Robert and Peg is largely hidden, unobserved by onlookers, concealed within the confines of marriage.
Consider this sentence: “People live within the winter in a way outsiders do not understand. They are watchful, provident, fatigued, exhilarated.”
Originally I jotted down this sentence for its beauty, musing on its quintessential Canadian-ness, aware of the juxtaposition between outward restraint and inward passion.
“Fits” is definitely a winter story. Robert walks out across the snow, the days are rhythmically defined by the passage of the snow plow, cars are left running in little clouds of steam: it’s cold.
But how one experiences winter, how one feels the plunging temperatures: it’s not a universal experience.
Maybe it “wasn’t like the casing around twigs and delicate branches that an ice storm leaves”, maybe it was “as if the wood itself had altered and begun to sparkle” .Maybe it’s “the very weather in which noses and fingers are frozen” or maybe “nothing felt cold”.
Having finished the story, I wondered if that beautiful sentence, the first I’d noted from this story, actually was not about winter at all. When I substitute the word ‘marriage’, the metaphorical possibilities swell. (Try another noun: see what you come up with.)
Robert thinks back to his relationship with Lee (which precedes his relationship with Peg) and thinks about the fits of temper therein.
“All of a sudden, the argument split open – Robert couldn’t remember how, but it split open, and they found themselves saying the cruellest things to each other that they could imagine. Their voices changed from the raised pitch and speed of argument, and they spoke quietly with a subtle loathing.”
This recalls the arguments remembered, too, in “Miles City, Montana” and one wonders if they are what has not been told of David and Stella’s history in “Lichen”.
“It can make you mean. Love can make you mean.” That was Catherine, in “Lichen”. And this is from “Miles City, Montana”: “And finally – finally – racked and purged, we clasped hands and laughed, laughed at those two benighted people, ourselves.”
These snippets echo Robert’s memories of his arguments with Lee in “Fits”:
“They laughed in recognition of their extremity…They trembled with murderous pleasure, with the excitement of saying what could never be retracted; they exulted in wounds inflicted but also in wounds received….”
Fits of pleasure, murderous pleasure. Fits of violence, wounds inflicted and received.
“A man doesn’t just drive farther and farther away in his trucks until he disappears from his wife’s [Peg’s] view. Not even if he has always dreamed of the Arctic. Things happen before he goes.”
And those “things”? Are they the fits? Are they what is not known unless one is a part of them directly?
“Marriage knots aren’t going to slip apart painlessly, with the pull of distance. There’s got to be some wrenching and slashing. But she didn’t say, and he didn’t ask, or even think much about that, till now.”
Robert is thinking about all of this, what has been said and asked, what has not been said and not answered and answered untruthfully, because of Walter and Nora’s deaths. He is considering the painful parts of marriage knots slipping. Wondering about the wrenching and the slashing.
Peg has made some blatantly untruthful statements of late, and Robert has to wonder about that casing around her, about what exists at her core that he cannot reach. He must wonder if this is the calm before the fit.
What does this story leave YOU wondering?
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 fifth in The Progress of Love, with next Thursday reserved for “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink”.