“My Mother’s Dream” Alice Munro

Perhaps, like many of us, Alice Munro has read and fully inhabited a story filled with wonders only to be cheated with the last-line revelation that the guts of that story were nothing but a dream.

Love Good Woman MunroIn contrast, “My Mother’s Dream” subverts that expectation and begins with the dream, before shifting into reality.

But the narrative is not recounted by the dreamer. It is a dream once removed.

Are you thinking that surely the only thing more tiresome than hearing about someone else’s dream is hearing someone else talk about someone else’s dream?

Then consider that the story begins not only with a retelling of a retelling of a dream, but this is a dream rooted in events which actually occurred a lifetime ago.

(It is difficult to imagine a story from which the reader is more determinedly distanced. Many of Munro’s stories feel as though they are spun in a whirlpool, some pulled in a zigzag, but this feels like a set of concentric circles, those diagrams from high-school science class, with a nucleus in the middle.)

The narrator was an infant when the real-life events unfolded in 1945; she is retelling the events of her mother’s dream.

She appears to be the heroine of the tale and the tale-spinner; at times, she appears to be omniscient, even “remembering” her feelings in her mother’s womb.

And, yet, she indicates a disastisfaction with the story’s ending. Her “lofty and tender notion of romance” left her wanting a different outcome.

What a dilemma for the reader, who must reach for the authority greater than the dream-speaker, the voice which could have directed the events therein differently.

The reader, then, is left disoriented and uncertain.

But the narrator has it worse, for she was nearly dead.

“I don’t believe that I was dead, or that I came back from the dead, but I do think that I was at a distance, from which I might or might not have come back. I think that the outcome was not certain and that will was involved. It was up to me, I mean, to go one way or the other.”

This question of agency, of control: it’s difficult to grasp the layers. How can our narrator have chosen life over death but she is unable to write a more romantic ending for her character?

Nonetheless, she informs the reader, ages and ages hence, that the narrator made a choice. And, perhaps even more significantly, she overtly attaches a meaning to that choice.

“I believe that it was only at the moment when I decided to come back, when I gave up the fight against my mother (which must have been a fight for something like her total surrender) and when in fact I chose survival over victory (death would have been victory), that I took on my female nature.”

Here, in the final story in this collection, the reader must consider the quintessential “female nature”, debate the value of the love of a good woman. Whether in a dream, or in life.

Is death the only victory ever possible? Must survival always require another’s surrender? Is love a matter of prostration, as posited in “Jakarta”? Or a matter of grudges as in “A Progress of Love”?

“My Mother’s Dream” prompts so many questions, including the reason for locating the retelling at this particular juncture of time. Why does the narrator retell these events now? Does the narrator so fully inhabit her mother’s perspective that she truly understands an observation like this one:

“What is it about an infant’s crying that makes it so powerful, able to break down the order you depend on, inside and outside of yourself? It is like a storm—insistent, theatrical, yet in a way pure and uncontrived. It is reproachful rather than supplicating—it comes out of a rage that can’t be dealt with, a birthright rage free of love and pity, ready to crush your brains inside your skull.”

Or is the narrator motivated for reasons just beyond the reader’s scope? Does she have a fresh understanding of that breakdown in order, that theatrical storm?

Many questions, yes. But not such a dilemma for the reader after all, for Alice Munro is the dream-speaker, pulling up the blanket of snow around the reader’s shoulders.

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 final story in the collection of the same name. Other stories in this collection: The Love of a Good WomanJakartaCortes IslandSave the ReaperThe Children StayRich as Stink; and Before the Change. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.



  1. Angela H. March 6, 2014 at 10:46 pm - Reply

    I can’t help feeling that this particular story is unusually theatrical for Munro. Picture it on a stage–all the running, yelping, “crushing” a child to one’s chest, the stuffing of things under furniture. It’s very LOUD. So many of her stories contain conversations and musings, or muted activity–the visiting of an elderly relative or a cocktail party scenario. But this story seems so full of action that I had a hard time picturing it. And I think that contributes to the “dreamlike” quality of the narration.

    • Buried In Print March 11, 2014 at 8:25 am - Reply

      I suppose in telling our own stories we tend towards the dramatic, but it’s definitely interesting to imagine how differently the tale would have been told in another’s voice. As Sandra mentions, it’s not necessarily about the narrator or Iona or Ailsa in this story, but it could have been all about them, were a different voice to present the events therein. Which would have offered the muted tale you were imagining, I wonder.

  2. Sandra March 4, 2014 at 10:36 am - Reply

    I am inclined towards the direction that you have suggested above i.e. that the narrator is “motivated for reasons just beyond the reader’s scope”. I say this because I think the narrator is on a search for meaning and understanding. She knew of the dream but she had perhaps never taken it inside her own experience and made it her own so to speak. She speaks of things such as “sorrow came to mother” and mother “could hardly breathe for her sorrow” and “the joy to find herself forgiven”: these imply an understanding gained through personal life experience. This understanding is the opposite of the reflections she thinks her mother had when she was giving birth: “She thinks that once I’m out I won’t give her so much trouble.” I think this is true as well about the reflections upon her mother’s marriage and her father’s personality and her mother’s childhood in an orphanage etc. The story is laden with pain and tears and crying “like a storm”. I like to think that when the narrator says her mother “took on loving her” that this may apply equally in the reverse i.e. that the narrator took on loving her mother because she came to understand that it was not about her (the narrator)or about Iona or Ailsa but rather about the love of a good woman. Probably a somewhat romanticized reading but ……

    • Buried In Print March 11, 2014 at 8:22 am - Reply

      It does feel as though what is hovering beyond the scope of the story is significant. Maybe something like “The Peace of Utrecht” has happened and she is on the other side of a major event, reconstructing her own girlhood and her mother’s mothering. I couldn’t help but giggle at the naivete expressed in that quote you’ve shared, about the baby giving less trouble OUT of the womb than in, though I expect it’s not an uncommon thought. The question of looking back and reflecting and reevaluating seems to be ever-more-present in this instance, and we are forced to grapple with questions as large as “what is real?” and “what is a dream?” before we even consider how much it mattered what kind of blanket was draped across the baby’s face.

  3. Karen March 2, 2014 at 4:28 am - Reply

    Sounds a very complex form of narration, not one an author with less experience would manage to bring off.

    • Buried In Print March 11, 2014 at 8:16 am - Reply

      It does seem like one of her more challenging stories, but there is lots to muse upon that’s for certain.

Say something bookish, or just say 'hey'