Whether the tale is one of mere survival or something greater, a life in Alice Munro’s hands can unfurl in a book-length collection (as does Del’s life in Lives of Girls and Women and as does Rose’s life in Who Do You Think You Are?) or in a handful of pages.
This observation is appropriately made at this time, for the theme of identity and pride is at the heart of those two collections and of this single story in Dear Life as well.
Becoming acquainted with the narrator of “Pride” recalls many moments in earlier stories and the difficulties surrounding that acquaintance simultaneously reminds readers that what is not said in a Munro story is as significant as the details overtly sketched therein.
In “Heirs of the Living Body” for instance, Del observes that the “worst thing that could happen in this life was to have people laughing at you”. (This story appears in Lives of Girls and Women.)
The narrator of “Pride” does not discuss what he once got wrong, what was against him, what kindness and understanding he lacked, what he felt keenly. He mostly skips past all that.
Instead, he observes that nothing happened at school to set Oneida apart, although her name and her family, the Jantzens (and their money) did set her apart from the rest of the town in a way. And he observes a series of details and the subsequent scandal which impact(ed) her.
“Of course she had her good bones and bright looks, all that fair dazzle of skin and hair. So it might seem strange that I could feel sorry for her, the way she was all on the surface of things, trusting. Imagine me, sorry.”
And all that is not said about our narrator provides an essential understanding of his situation. Even though readers must imagine his troubled past, even though it is not drawn in any detail, it is simmering beneath the surface of this story.
And there he is, all the same, perhaps not trusting and not dazzling, but still proclaiming to feel sorry for Oneida, scraping up a helping of pride. And, certainly, he has some advantages that Oneida does not.
During the war, the women in the town were able to take positions and play roles that had previously been restricted but, nonetheless, there remains an advantage to being a man, even a man who was not able to serve the war effort. “For truly reliable service it was still believed you needed a man.”
Biology remains, ultimately, in our narrator’s favour, although roles for women and men were complex and conflicting and shifting. This is described in “Half a Grapefruit” in Who Do You Think You Are?, a story which reveals class lines drawn across breakfast tables and classrooms.
“A woman ought to be energetic, practical, clever at making and saving; she ought to be shrewd, good at bargaining and bossing and seeing through people’s pretensions. At the same time she should be naïve intellectually, childlike, contemptuous of maps and long words and anything in books, full of charming jumbled notions, superstitions, traditional beliefs.”
But, even so, our narrator experiences life differently than most men. The advice considered in Lives of Girls and Women reveals his position in the world of men to be tenuous:
“the other advice handed out to women, to girls, advice that assumed being female made you damageable, that a certain amount of carefulness and solemn fuss and self-protection were called for, whereas men were supposed to be able to go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what they didn’t want and come back proud.”
Our narrator cannot go out and take on all kinds of experiences; he cannot leave and return proud.
“All my school years had been spent, as I saw it, in getting used to what I was like – what my face was like – and what other people were like in regard to it.”
In some ways, his life is as restricted as that of a girl in traditional post-war terms,and the life that he grows to inhabit might be viewed,as more feminine than masculine, but Oneida and he develop a relationship which seems to satisfy each of them, though there are times when they are closer than others.
Readers wonder whether she might have viewed herself as more attached to our narrator than he was aware, if only out of societal expectations, as did a character in “Providence”: “Without this connection to a man, she might have seen herself as an uncertain and pathetic person; that connection held her new life in place.”
But Oneida’s perspective, too, is omitted from “Pride”. And our narrator’s perspective on what has set him apart his whole life is shifting. He believes he is in a select club.
“And I thought then, Just living long enough wipes out the problems. Puts you in a select club. No matter what your disabilities may have been, just living till now wipes them out, to a good measure. Everybody’s face will have suffered, never just yours.”
That might well be true, but our narrator has overlooked the unpredictable disaster that can throw open the story line in unexpected ways.
“People watching trusted that they would be protected from predictable disasters, also from those shifts of emphasis that throw the story line open to question, the disarrangements which demand new judgments and solutions, and throw the windows open on inappropriate unforgettable scenery.” (“Simon’s Luck” in Who Do You Think You Are?)
Our narrator takes ill and, once again, he is suffering apart; he requires Oneida’s help and she, alone, is equipped to assist.
There is a curious intimacy that has developed between our narrator and Oneida already, and it only intensifies when they share a view of the inappropriate and unforgettable scenery in the disarray provoked by serious illness.
There are enough references to how an outside might have viewed the situation to lead readers to speculate on the story that would have been written if told from Oneida’s perspective instead.
It might not have been that different from the feeling that Rose describes looking back on life of a fellow from Hanratty, someone who knew her when she was young and considered it home.
“What could she say about herself and Ralph Gillespie, except that she felt his life, close, closer than the lives of men she’d loved , one slot over from her own?”
Rose’s sense of connection to Ralph Gillespie might bear a great deal of similarity to Oneida’s feelings about the narrator of “Pride”, but readers will have to fill in those gaps, just as townfolks once hypothesized on the gaps surrounding the scandal in Mr. Jantzen’s bank.
A fall: that’s all it takes for Alice Munro to make a story.
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 and, until now, this has been a chronological reading project, but I was unable to resist inserting her most recent collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the sixth in Dear Life, with next Wednesday reserved for “Corrie” and the following Sunday for “Train”. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013.