Last week, I said that “Carried Away” feels like a quintessential Munro story to me.
Its southwestern Ontario setting.
The matters of class.
An up-close examination of a blatant tragedy.
Some far-away ruminating on trauma of a quieter sort.
A woman looking back on a life more-than-half passed.
“A Real Life” contains most of these elements as well.
Although the closest thing to a blatant tragedy would be Delilah’s death (or the trapping and skinning of various small four-footed creatures at Dorrie’s hand), but there is no blood in the telling of it.
Delilah, however, illuminates another facet of Alice Munro’s storytelling, which is evident in both of these stories in Open Secrets.
“Delilah was the dog responsible. She was black, part Labrador. She chased cars, and eventually this was how she was going to get herself killed.”
That last phrase is the sort that makes the hearts of English grammar teachers beat faster: Delilah “was going to get herself killed”.
The verb tense is complicated; the past, in Alice Munro’s stories is multilayered.
One character is looking back at another character who loves her dog (more than it might seem to a casual onlooker) while it is living and breathing, and that same character will, at another point in time, have to cope with that dog’s death, a loss still firmly in the past in relationship to the events referred to in the story’s opening sentence.
“A man came along and fell in love with Dorrie Beck.” He came along. He fell. And, yes, we learn that he wanted to marry her. All that happened before “A Real Life” is told.
The community is drawn in such detail, that a dozen pages into the story, readers might have forgotten just who was marrying whom, or even that there was a wedding on the horizon.
The telling is mostly Millicent’s, in close third-person, but Dorrie is not the only subject. Her description, however, is the first that readers receive. (Hang on for the last sentence: it’s superb.)
“She was a big, firm woman with heavy legs, chestnut-brown hair, a broad bashful face, and dark freckles like dots of velvet. A man in the area had named a horse after her.”
Perhaps the physical details are sufficient; with Millicent’s legs and hair, her face and freckles, described, she takes shape for readers. But the final sentence, taken apart from the details, manages to convey manner and physicality.
In the following description, the subject is vividly sketched, yes, but just as vivid is Muriel’s manner and behaviour. Readers can easily imagine her, perched and preening (well, conversationally speaking, at least).
“The visitor who rose to be introduced was tall and thin and sallow, with a face that seemed to hang in pleats, precise and melancholy. Muriel did not give way to disappointments. She sat down beside him and tried in a spirited way to get him into conversation.”
That man who came along? The man from the first sentence? There he is: the visitor who rose to be introduced, the stranger who came to town and had supper on the verandah.
And, just as his arrival precipitates change, so does his leaving. Millicent has no knowledge of the gap between his arrival and the announcement of his impending marriage to Dorrie. She wonders where Dorrie has seen him in the interim?
“Nowhere. He had gone off to Australia, where he had property. Letters had gone back and forth between them.”
And, then, the announcement of the nuptials. Followed by cold feet.
“Dorrie, listen. All of this is for your own good. It may seem like I am pushing you out, Dorrie, but all it is is making you do what you are not quite up to doing on your own.”
What exactly does Millicent imagine she is encouraging Dorrie to undertake?
Millicent has an idea of what “real life” should be like, and she is seriously invested in Dorrie having that experience.
But the relationship between Millicent’s understanding of “real life” and the way in which Wilkie came along and fell in love with Dorrie?
It’s possible there are as many misunderstandings and disappointments therein, as there are in Louisa’s experiences in “Carried Away”.
As is often the case, the guts of this story reside in the in-between, in that space where expectations and “real life” collide.
Have you read this story? Do you have a favourite Munro collection or 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 this is the second story in Open Secrets. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.