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

“Eskimo” Alice Munro

Just as “Jesse and Meribeth” seems to be a story about MaryBeth but really reveals so much more about Jessie herself, “Eskimo” appears to be about all the people on the plane with Mary Jo, but it’s really all about Mary Jo.

Nonetheless, it begins with talk of the passengers on their way to Vancouver, where Mary Jo will board a connecting flight to Tahiti.

“Mary Jo can hear what Dr. Streeter would have to say.”

At first it seems a natural thing to do, to hear another’s voice commenting on the situation.

The reader does not attach any particular importance to this commentary in the beginning.

“‘Regular little United Nations back here.’”

And, then, Mary Jo imagines her response, and the imaginary conversation continues.

That exchange continues for long enough that the reader forgets that it actually has only happened in Mary Jo’s mind, and the reader begins constructing opinions about Dr. Streeter in this manner.

That process is assisted, too, by Dr. Streeter’s daughter’s reflections upon her father. Oops, not exactly. Rather, by the reflections that Rhea makes about her father in Mary Jo’s mind. That’s all about Mary Jo too.

And why is Mary Jo in such a tussle? She couldn’t tell you. She’s not even aware of an inner conflict about her relationship with this man, who is not only the cardiologist who employs her but also her lover, the man who has paid for this trip she is taking to Tahiti.

Much of her relationship to him has the sense of reaction rather than responsiveness. She has a habit of dealing with him in a particular way, “knowing how to handle him”. (And even when she is not dealing with him directly, in the office or in the apartment upstairs, she is dealing with his voice in her mind.)

This habit dictates, too, how Mary Jo responds to Rhea and her criticisms of her father’s conventional, conservative, voice-of-the-patriarchy presence in her life.

“Mary Jo did not defend Dr. Streeter just because he was a man, and a father, not at all; it was not for those reasons she thought his wife should have instilled some respect for him in his children. It was because….”

There are reasons, but more significantly Mary Jo has troubled to articulate the need for defense. “Eskimo” reveals that the loudest voice in Mary Jo’s mind is Dr. Streeter’s, but it’s Rhea’s criticism has introduced a new voice in Mary Jo’s consciousness.

It is something else, something unrecognizable yet for Mary Jo, but something disturbing and disorienting.

As is the young woman for whom the story is named.

Even before they have spoken, Mary Jo is unsettled by this woman’s interactions with the man she is travelling with on the plane.

And once they speak Mary Jo is only more upset.

“I am Eskimo.” And Mary Jo nods, “but the word ‘Eskimo’ bothers her more than the fact. That isn’t the word to use anymore, is it? ‘Inuit.’ that’s the word they use now.”

Mary Jo isn’t particularly concerned with issues of nomenclature, although if Rhea’s voice was louder in her head there might be some murmurings about the kind of power that is inherent in naming, in defining, in allocating a place in language and the world.

Mary Jo is concerned because she thought there was something overtly different about this young woman, that she might be from Afghanistan or Tibet, somewhere far away where she was one of this man’s several wives.

“The woman, or girl, seems to be trying to get up. The man pushes her down. He grumbles at her. She replies in a voice that wanders from complaint to reassurance and back to complaint.”

She wants to see this woman as being set apart, something Other, but it turns out that she is a fellow Canadian, and Mary Jo is forced to admit that they have more in common than she thought.

She had been writing a letter in her head to Dr. Streeter, in which she imagined declining a place in the man’s harem, but the young woman explains that he is Métis, and Mary Jo begins anew in her mind, revising as the story progresses.

The tension between the woman and the man across the aisle intensifies, but in Mary Jo’s mind it catapults into something horrific. She wants to pull herself apart from what she sees (and what she imagines) there, but she cannot step back.

“‘You can’t boss me,’ she says, and there are tears now in her voice and eyes. ‘You’re not my father.’ Instead of going down the aisle to the washroom — if that was what she had in mind — she remains standing within his reach, looking mournfully down at him.”

Finally, in her mind, Mary Jo alters what she hears. “This is Dr. Streeter’s familiar, reasonable voice, asking that some facts, some conditions, should be recognized. But she has put something new into it — a sly and natural satisfaction.”

Rhea’s voice has receded. It’s all about Mary Jo.

“Once she has thought this, and put some sort of name to what she is feeling, she is a little steadier.”

It does matter then: this naming business. But Mary Jo has had a drink on the plane, she is tired, she tells herself that she needs to calm down, take some deep breaths and relax.

And in the calm of sleep, the reader finally understands how precarious Mary Jo’s world actually is.

“‘What is your world, Mary Jo?’ [Rhea asks.]
‘I haven’t got time to tell you.’
‘You’re so busy helping my dad.’

There, on the plane, Mary Jo’s world simultaneously grew smaller and bigger, and the reader wishes to glimpse her on vacation, to see what voices are heard when she is someplace Other.

What do you think?

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 eighth in The Progress of Love, with next Thursday reserved for “A Queer Streak”.

3 comments to “Eskimo” Alice Munro

  • Sandra

    My first reading of this story left me feeling rather so-so but on reading your review my eyes have opened somewhat wider. I did pick up early on when Mary Jo said to Rhea “Men have to have their opinions.” Rhea’s reply was something Mary Jo remembered: “Why, Mary Jo? Why do men have to have their opinions? So women can sit around clicking their tongues while men wreck the world?” The scene following in which Rhea removes her motorcycle helmet and shakes out her long, dark hair and Mary Jo says “No man is wrecking my world,” is fair warning of where Munro is going to take us. It leads straight into Rhea’s question regarding what her world is and also into the advice/questions she gives the Eskimo woman: “What is it you want? What are you afraid of? Don’t be afraid. He can’t come in here. We’ve got time.” And yes, now Mary Jo might turn out to be someone fun to be on vacation with I think. Sort of a coming-of-age story for women who have been hanging out with dinosaurs you might say.

  • I’ve been thinking about this one, but I’m not entirely sure where Munro was going with it. I thought it was interesting hearing about Mary Jo’s relationship with the doctor, though it was slow in coming out (the relationship revealed), through her own thoughts (a story within a story within a story almost). Then to throw this other couple into the mix–I feel like Munro was juxtaposing the two relationships in some way, though I’m not sure really what the comparison is meant to be. Definitely it’s all about Mary Jo–I like how Munro gives a situation that seems to be the focus but really it’s what Mary Jo thinks about it that’s really the story. So, what you said pretty much! :)

  • I think what makes this story so challenging is that it is even more interior than most, and subtly interior at that, as the reader can so easily forget that it is all about perception, that we never see beyond the internalized voices in Mary Jo’s head. That’s even more distanced than MaryBeth and Jessie, I think, for at least in that story we are well aware, from the start, that there are two main characters and that Jessie is the speaker/observer. Here, it’s much foggier, deliberately, I think, for it’s pretty foggy in Mary Jo’s head, isn’t it. Mary Jo might, however, turn out to be more like the narrator of “Dulse” once she really gets away from it all (if she manages to do so). I just realized, Sandra, the irony of her telling the young woman on the plane that “He can’t come in here”, given how prominent Dr. Streeter is in Mary Jo’s life right then and he is not even on the plane! And, ditto, Danielle, I love that too: it’s like narrative sleight-of-hand, a pleasure to watch.

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