This the first of four stories published at the end of this collection under Finale, described as “not quite stories.”
“They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life”.
“The Eye” concerns a five-year-old’s view of her mother and the girl’s gradual awareness that she exists separately from her mother’s expectations of her.
This first of the Finale stories echoes the first of Alice Munro’s collected published stories, “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, in which the young narrator comes to understand that her father (also a fur farmer, as was Alice Munro’s) has an existence as a man, separate from fathering her.
This complicated relationship between fiction and autobiography, the strange intersection of feeling and fact: it haunts the works in Finale, yes, but the works of this writer more generally as well.
As does the question of a young woman’s relationship with her mother, which is at the heart of many of the stories of the female characters in Munro’s work and in the author’s experience as well, which she spoke of in regards to writing “Princess Ida” in Lives of Girls and Women.
She states that the “material about my mother is my central material in life, and it always comes the most readily to me. If I just relax, that’s what will come up.”*
That appears in JoAnn McCaig’s Reading In: Alice Munro’s Archives, but the same idea emerges clearly in her fiction as well.
The narrator of “The Ottawa Valley” (Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You) states that her mother is “the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, or her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did.”
Alice Munro’s memories of her mother, “The Ottawa Valley” narrator’s mother, the not-quite-story mother in “The Eye”: each offers another fold in the pleated garment of fact and fiction.
In “The Eye”, it was “with my brother’s coming, though, and the endless carryings-on about how he was some sort of present for me, that I began to accept how largely my mother’s notions about me might differ from my own”.
The fragmented memories of these differences echo similar realizations by heroines of stories in other collections, not only as the distance ebbs and flows between outwardly fictional mothers and daughter, but as an air of disappointment and disapproval develops in relationship to that distance between expectation and reality.
“With her not around so much, I could think about what was true and what wasn’t. I knew enough not to speak about this to anybody.”
In “Red Dress, 1946”, the narrator “saw the waiting kitchen, and my mother in her faded, fuzzy Paisley kimono, with her sleepy but doggedly expectant face, I understood what a mysterious and oppressive obligation I had, to be happy, and how I had almost failed it, and would be likely to fail it, every time, and she would not know”.
In “The Lives of Girls and Women”, my “mother inhabited a different layer of reality from the one I had got into now”.
Just as here, in “The Eye”, there was “something in me turning traitorous, though she didn’t know why, and I didn’t know why either”.
These expectations, between the not-quite-story mother and the not-quite-story daughter surrounding Sadie’s death, also echo the recurring theme of different expectations of girls and boys and women and men in society which peppers Alice Munro’s short fiction.
Being a girl was excessively complicated, an idea which surfaces in the author’s first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. In “Boys and Girls”, she states that the “word ‘girl’ had formerly seemed to me innocent and unburdened, like the word child; now it appeared that it was no such thing. A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become. It was a definition, always touched with emphasis, with reproach and disappointment”.
One element of distinction relevant to “The Eye” is the pronoucement in “Miles City, Montana” about a woman’s peculiar capacity for grief: “It seemed a worse shame (to hear people talk) that there was no mother, no woman at all – no grandmother or aunt, or even a sister – to receive Steve Gauley and give him his due of grief.”
This may be true, too, of the not-quite-story mother in “The Eye”, but the not-quite-story daughter, this earlier version of Alice Munro, does not want to view Sadie close-up: “I knew Sadie was somewhere and I did not want to see her [in her coffin]. My mother had not actually said that I would have to see her but she had not said that I wouldn’t have to, either.”
And, yet, she felt she could not escape doing so, just as she felt no escape in conversations with her mother, which should have been comprised of question-and-answer but were more question-and-rote-recitation. “She wasn’t going to stop till I said truly, so I said it.”
These expectations exist between fictional daughters and mothers, in and out of stories throughout Alice Munro’s collections, and are distinct from those between daughters and sons and fathers.
In “Heirs of the Living Body” (Lives of Girls and Women) Del observes that her uncle “was not hurt or diminished in any way by my unsatisfactoriness, though he would point it out. This was the great difference between disappointing him and disappointing somebody like my mother”.
In “The Eye”, her father “was waiting for my brother to get older and be his. A boy would not be so complicated. And sure enough my brother wasn’t. He would grow up to be just fine.”
In so many cases, a narrator’s mother is the core of an Alice Munro story, often looking back on the past, which is also true of “The Eye”. Even earlier in Dear Life, the narrator of “Gravel” observes: “Of course, I had not understood or even particularly noticed these changes at the time. My mother was my mother.” As the years pass, feelings of unsatisfactoriness and disappointment shift as well.
Reading these few pages, echoes of stories read in the past resound. Even simple phrases feel familiar. “Now then. It’s over.” So says the not-quite-story mother in “The Eye”, which brings to mind the narrator of the story “White Dump” in The Moons of Jupiter: “Not much to her credit to go through her life thinking, Well, good, now that’s over, that’s over. What was she looking forward to, what bonus was she hoping to get, when this, and this, and this, was over?”
Whether in or out of stories, what the mothers in Alice Munro’s works were looking forward to, what bonus they were hoping to get when it was all over, is left for readers to unravel.
“The Eye” is a relatively short work, but it feels as though it echoes broadly throughout the author’s work.
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, until now, this has been a chronological reading project, but I was unable to resist inserting her most recent collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This work is the eleventh in Dear Life, with next Sunday reserved for “Night” and the following Wednesday for “Voices”. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013