Like “The Beggar Maid”, this is one of the longer stories in Who Do You Think You Are? by Alice Munro.
Rose continues to struggle with the shame and complications that she perceives as arising from class differences, those were are outwardly recognizable (take the scene in which she met Patrick’s parents in “The Beggar Maid”) and those which are not.
Consider the shame that Rose feels when Jocelyn attempts to explain, years later, what she considered to be a major contributor to their friendship.
“…one of the reasons she [Jocelyn] found it so interesting to talk to Rose, from the start, was that Rose had ideas but was uneducated.”
Readers, too, know that Rose attended one of the colleges in the University of Western Ontario, because it’s the backdrop for “The Beggar Maid”.
They wait, with Rose, to understand what Jocelyn means by this statement.
“Rose was surprised at this, and mentioned the college she had attended in Western Ontario. Then she saw by an embarrassed withdrawal or regret, a sudden lack of frankness in Jocelyn’s face – very unusual with her – that that was exactly what Jocelyn had meant.”
Rose does not openly name her shame in this passage. She names embarrassment, withdrawal and regret. But the shame is there.
And it’s interesting that the description of Jocelyn’s face focusses on what is lacking (frankness) rather than what is present (which might have been named deceit or pretense or falseness).
The reader takes note that what is lacking is sometimes of the greatest significance. This could be true not only in terms of Rose having left out a mention of ‘shame’ in this passage, but also in terms of the way she considers other relationships in this story.
What is remarkable is the contrast between the “lack of frankness” in Jocelyn’s face, twinned with Rose’s certainly that Jocelyn has expressed something frankly, just exactly as she meant to.
Even early in this story, it’s evident that there is some tension between Rose and Jocelyn that has not been openly addressed.
This exchange, many years later, does not make it clear whether the tension always existed, or whether it is something which the women view with hindsight, only after their friendship has become much more complicated.
Clearly, Jocelyn wants to suggest that she originally perceived an inferiority in Rose, even in the early days when their friendship was formed.
But perhaps Jocelyn is mis-remembering, in the wake of feeling disappointed in their friendship in later years, or perhaps part of her wanted to hurt Rose with this judgement.
Rose, however, has a habit of perceiving others as inferior as well. Or, at least, of being critical, of wanting them to be more or other than they are.
This is most obvious when she is speaking of Patrick: “She did want to admire him, and respect him; it seemed that was a leap she was always on the edge of taking.”
(Isn’t that a keen observation: go ahead, take another look, it’s easy to overlook the sentence’s second half, which is so incisive.)
In a story like “Mischief”, which is closely examining marriage and relationships and friendships, the reader might think maybe it’s reading too much into the tale, imagining some sort of commentary on social class, when it’s really all about Rose debating whether to be faithful to Patrick.
But it’s there: “What Jocelyn called bitterness seemed to Rose something more complex and more ordinary; just the weariness, suppleness, deviousness, meanness, common to a class.”
(Again, it’s easy to overlook the unique dimension that each of these nouns brings to the passage: the reader has to slow the eye to consider each one, the polyglot of energies.)
Jocelyn was making this observation about Clifford, the musician to whom she is married. This important observation about Clifford’s childhood unites him with Rose in Rose’s mind. She perceives a bond with Clifford and, in turn, a bond between Patrick and Jocelyn, who are “another sort”
But which bonds between us are the meaningful ones? Upon which connections can we rely? Which relationships are lasting? Which commitments are solid?
“She could not hear any of this music for a long time without a specific attack of shame, that was like a whole wall crumbling in on her, rubble choking her.”
It’s not simple mischief, like a child who has secretly nabbed a cookie between meals, or a teenager who has flirted fleetingly.
Someone else could call it ‘mischief’, but Alice Munro reveals the true pain of the situation.
Have you read this story? Are you planning to read some Alice Munro?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s story collection Who Do You Think You Are?, which will continue on subsequent Thursdays. Please feel free to join in, for the series, or for a single story. My Alice Munro reading project began with Dance of the Happy Shades, followed by Lives of Girls and Women, and Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, and I aim to read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors.
Next week’s story is “Providence”. Care to join in?