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

“Fits” Alice Munro

It’s not something you hear much about anymore: once, people more commonly pitched fits, threw fits, had fits, staged fits.

Hissy fits. Crying fits. (Now rants and tantrums.) A fit of rage. A fit of pique. A fit of temper.

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”.

4 comments to “Fits” Alice Munro

  • Fits and tantrums have seemed to go by the wayside, I think. I think that people act more outwardly violent now than they ever did before. The story leaves me wondering just when it was that fits went totally out of style, and violence was brought in. Very interesting post today. As usual, it rocked :)

    • Thanks, Zibilee: I think it’s interesting, too, to chart the prominence of violence in Munro’s stories. I thought, when I went back to re-read the earlier collections, that I wouldn’t find any, but it’s definitely there, all the way along, though it does feel to me that it’s more front-and-centre in the more recent collections. I’ve yet to read Dear Life but soon…

  • Sandra

    I played with the sentence you chose a little: “People live within the winter in a way that outsiders do not understand. They are watchful, provident, fatigued, exhilarated.” Marriage is perhaps one of the better substitutions but one might also consider “family”, “community” or “neighborhood”,”church”, when family may or may not include “extended family” and community may or may not have a cultural dimension as might neighborhood and church might be a very narrow or very broad segment of society. Much food for thought here. Just for fun one might substitute “book club”.

    With this story as with Miles City, Montana, I felt that the key was offered in the last paragraph again. It was not about what Peg said she saw at the top of the stairs but rather about what anybody “would have to step over, step through, in order to go into the bedroom and look at the rest of what was there.” Explaining what happened as a “fit” was just a convenient way of explaining the unknown but what mattered was the individual reflection upon one’s own life and trying to identify the weak/rough spots which might have to be navigated or the weak/rough spots in the past which one may have been less than successful navigating. I wasn’t convinced that Peg’s identifying a leg rather than a head was a lie but rather thought it was a result of shock and her preoccupation with the idea that Walter had used his toe to fire the rifle…Robert’s own visual experience walking back to the diner seemed to remind him that one’s memory and vision can play tricks on one under much less traumatic circumstances.

    I found the comparison of a “fit” with an earthquake or a volcano fairly apt in the sense that the event referred to, namely the death of Walter and Nora, caused a disruption in the community not unlike that of a natural disaster. Although, as you said, it is seldom used now it might be useful to bring it back into use. (I am joking but not entirely.)

    • This whole “experiment” really made me wonder again at the complexity in these stories. I doubt that Munro actually plays with the sentences so self-consciously, at least nothing I’ve read that she’s said about her writing process makes me think that she does, but it’s interesting that it’s even possible to have so many options, given how universal the themes are. (Heheh: what fun…bookclub! Fatigued…hee.)

      That’s a good point. From Robert’s perspective, it must be obvious that a body part is either a head or a leg, but in the chaos of the moment, personal experience would hold sway, and memory is inherently unreliable, particularly in such a heightened emotional state. Also, when people truly have an old-fashioned fit, they don’t tend to remember anything of that time, only the catalyst for it (if even that). What’s important is that something happened that made them feel something intensely; so perhaps the details can honestly be recreated imaginatively in any way necessary to explain/evoke that sensation again, in the wake of it.

      For my part, I’ve managed to use the word ‘fit’ a few times since I read this story! *chuckle*

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