In Alice Munro’s first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, readers meet Alva in “Sunday Afternoon”.
Alva is the hired girl for the Gannetts, who expect that she will dutifully perform in their home and, then, travel with them later in the summer to their parents’ island in Georgian Bay.
“Sunday Afternoon” contains many of the elements which appear in “Hired Girl” in The View from Castle Rock. To begin with, there are many similarities between Mrs. Gannett and Mrs. Montjoy.
“Mrs Gannett had a look of being made of entirely synthetic and superior substances.” It would appear that the Gannetts are not quite as well off as the Montjoys, so it’s not surprising that Mrs. Montjoy projects the same belief in her own superiority.
Mrs. Gannett believes that a maid is a maid is a maid. The conversation which the young Alice Munro overhears between Mrs. Montjoy and the other women, about their hired girls, suggests that Mrs. Montjoy shares Mrs. Gannett’s opinion.
“Contempt was what I imagined to be always waiting, swinging along on live wires, just under the skin and just behind the perceptions of people like the Montjoys.”
The hired girl’s social rank is static, in the eyes of her employers. This is most prominent in the girls’ relationships with the women in the family who supervise the girls directly.
Whether or not the maid likes to read is not something the women of the household care to know. Whatever the women expect the maids to do in their off-hours, reading does not appear to be a sanctioned activity. When the young Alice is spotted reading some old magazines on her break, Mrs. Montjoy makes a comment which politely suggests disapproval.
Both girls recognize an opportunity to inhabit another position, however briefly or clandestinely. The young Alice in “The Hired Girl” remarks: “I would not admit that I ever felt humbled or lonely, or that I was a real servant.” Alva, too, possesses a similar sort of pride and determination.
With the men in these stories, the hired girls test boundaries which appear to mark different swathes of territory. The men in these families are removed from the details of household management themselves, and so they relate differently to the hired girls.
In the context of these relationships, the hired girls can press the limits of the behaviours expected of and accepted from them. Alva asks Mr. Gannett if she could borrow “King Lear” and, also, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. She actually does not intend to read the Shakespeare play, only the novel, but the request carries a significance. Mr. Gannett agrees to share his books with Alva just as Mr. Montjoy gifts the young Alice with his copy of Seven Gothic Tales at the end of the summer.
But this glimmer of acceptance and approval? (Is that what this is? Perhaps the men do not attach the significance to these exchanges that the hired girls imagine.) The girls have already drawn their lines and made their determinations before the men respond.
(And, in turn, the girls’ assumptions about their employers are just as limited and limiting. “A man would be more impressed by King Lear than a woman,” observes Alva. She makes the same kind of generalizations as her employers make: only the details change.)
The young Alice insists upon her own worth when she is out of the reach of the Montjoys’ judgement. “Its title was Seven Gothic Tales. The title made me want to open it, and even as I overheard the Montjoys’ conversation I was reading, holding the book open in one hand and guiding the vacuum cleaner with the other. They couldn’t see me from the deck.”
She is not the maid when she is not viewed through their eyes. And, indeed, it is this matter of perspective which is at the heart of these stories.
“She saw things differently now; it was even possible that she wanted to go there [to the cottage]. But things always came together; there was something she would not explore yet — a tender spot, a new and still mysterious humiliation.”
Each of these girls has an experience with a man which also changes her perspective of herself and the possibilities ahead of her as a woman.
“Nothing was the matter, but she felt heavy, heavy with the heat and tired and uncaring, hearing all around her an incomprehensible faint noise — of other people’s lives, of boats and cars and dances — and seeing this street, that promised island, in a harsh and continuous dazzle of sun. She could not make a sound here, not a dint.”
Both Alva and the young Alice carry a new weight after their experience of being the hired girl; the place they inhabit is often burdensome and there is not always an opportunity to express the feelings which result from their confinement.
A good hired girl watches her mouth.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the eighth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “The Ticket”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.