While Nina was playing tennis, Lewis was killing himself. Readers learn this at the outset. Nina played; Lewis died.
Back and forth across the net, Nina volleyed and returned serves; Lewis plunged downward into first unconsciousness, then…
As a science teacher, who insisted that evolution be taught in classrooms despite creationists’ objections, Lewis would have spoken about the cycle of life, not about religious concepts of an afterlife. (The controversy and comments made about it remind me of Alice Munro’s response to the attempts to have Lives of Girls and Women removed from school curricula.)
Nina honours his wishes.
“She got the box open and put her hand into the cooling ashes and tossed or dropped them—with other tiny recalcitrant bits of the body—among those roadside plants.”
Creation and devastation. Growth and decay. Mythic ideas have long infused the tenets of short fiction.
But what makes their appearance remarkable in Alice Munro’s stories is her impeccable attention to detail and her willingness to bend the structure to mirror the theme’s complexities. (This particular mythic reference brings “Save the Reaper” to my mind.)
“But while she was out, Lewis had been dying. In fact, he had been killing himself.”
Things do happen all-at-once. Not conveniently streamed, as a piece of music has a beginning and an ending.
Events in this story are not presented chronologically, and the passage of time in “Comfort” is anything but comfortable for readers.
And, how suitable. For Lewis and Nina have endured great discomfort in recent months since his diagnosis.
That aspect of the story feels despearately linear at times – his steady decline towards death – but readers are reminded, though Nina’s memories of Lewis, that the scientific view of the situation is broader; it’s cyclical, not linear, so the story’s structure makes perfect sense.
But so much about this situation seems senseless, too. And Nina struggles to make, if not sense, some kind of order out of the scene. She looks for a note; she looks for meaning. She asks Lewis to clarify what happens in the funeral home, the scientific processes involved, and, yet, she also asks him if he believes in souls.
The details do matter. Imagine what a different story this would be were Nina running a marathon rather than playing tennis. Or if she had been playing at noon. Or if she had buried Lewis at dawn.
Alice Munro volleys this one to the readers: “And it was the small miracles—surely it was the small miracles that helped prepare us for the great ones?”
If this is true, then do small tragedies help to prepare us for the larger ones?
And if Lewis’ death is a larger one, what smaller ones should have prepared Nina for the loss?
“What had been between them, all these years, had been kept in balance because of their two marriages. Their marriages were the real content of their lives—her marriage to Lewis, the sometimes harsh and bewildering, indispensable content of her life. This other thing depended on those marriages, for its sweetness, its consoling promise. It was not likely to be something that could hold up on its own, even if they were both free. Yet it was not nothing. The danger was in trying it, and seeing it fall apart and then thinking that it had been nothing.”
Particularly in the context of what is shared about Nina’s relationship with Ed Shore before Lewis’ death — including Nina’s impressions of Ed’s wife’s over-exuberant religiosity, which stands in stark contrast to Lewis’ approach to finding meaning in the world — readers are left to wonder about the significance she places on opportunities missed. Perhaps the tragedy is not the death in this story, but the slow extinguishing of life while one settles for comfort in a marriage when she could have had a passionate love affair instead.
It’s literally late-afternoon when Nina is playing tennis, it’s after dark soon enough.
The burial unfolds beneath the moonlight. But although this story end with winter’s chill, it is the image of a still-cold lake in June which remains with readers, the resurfacing of a diver.
Ultimately there is a hint of summer in “Comfort”, endurance in the presence of devotion.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fourth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Tomorrow: “Nettles”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.