Albert, Grace and Vera are the visitors; Albert is Wilfred’s brother, and Wilfred and Mildred are the married hosts.
If circumstances had been different, the story might have been titled “Brothers”, but it’s titled “Visitors”, emphasizing the unfamiliar, the transitory, the surreal sense of being lifted out of the everyday.
It might have been titled “Strangers”, except for the blood shared; that connection changes the way the events are interpreted, by readers and by characters in the story.
Wilfred and Mildred are not accustomed to visitors.
Mildred isn’t accustomed to thinking of Wilfred as having a brother either. She is restless and anxious, an awkward hostess.
“Well surely if he felt sick he’d say so.” Mildred is unsure of the situation, struggles to unravel the meaning.
Albert spent most of the first day of the visit lying down; it’s a long way from Saskatchewan to Ontario, and it’s possible he’s just tired.
“That’s just what he wouldn’t.” Wilfred says. He wouldn’t say so, Wilfred believes, firmly.
So, Mildred takes the ladies out for a drive. She drives them around, shows them the sights of Logan, Ontario, and the tour of the town exhausts her as much as a trip to Toronto.
Grace and Vera are sisters; they seem very much alike — like twins — to Mildred and Wilfred.
But, then, as Mildred admits: “Brothers and sisters were a mystery to her.”
When they stop on the highway for ice-cream, the two women get small scoops of vanilla and Mildred gets a double, rum-and-raisin and pralines.
The ice-cream flavours are just details, but they illustrate what Mildred sees as a lifeless and impenetrable sameness in the two sisters.
And just as puzzling as their sameness? The brothers’ differences.
The sisters’ relationship stands in stark contrast to Mildred’s understanding of Wilfred’s relationship with his brother, Albert.
“There were Grace and Vera, speaking like two mouths out of the same head, and Wilfred and Albert without a thread of connection between them.”
Mildred cannot spot any similarities in the brothers, not superficially, not even in more philosophical ways either.
Mildred believes that she knows Wilfred very well, and , normally, he has a way of making things make sense.
When he tells a story, there is a shape to it, Mildred can recognize the shared elements between his stories.
“In Wilfred’s stories you could always be sure that the gloomy parts would give way to something better, and if somebody behaved in a peculiar way there was an explanation for it.”
When Albert tells a story, it seems shapeless to Mildred.
“If Wilfred figured in his own stories, as he usually did, there was always a stroke of luck for him somewhere, a good meal or a bottle of whiskey or some money.”
But in the story that Albert tells over lunch in a cafe, neither luck nor money plays a role, and she searches for the meaning in it.
In Albert’s story, a man disappears into a swamp and there is no resolution. The story, and all its potential explanations and outcomes are discussed in a series of short sentences that comprises the longest stretch of dialogue in “Visitors”. (And, indeed, in an uncharacteristically long segment of dialogue for Alice Munro.)
Mildred knows that the story means something to Albert; she knows that he has chosen to tell it for a reason. But that is the limit of her understanding.
She sees no connection between this lost man in the story Albert tells and the lost man at the cafe table.
Alfred seems to feel the meaning of the story, but he cannot express it directly. His failed efforts, however, bring the reader closer to an understanding than Mildred’s pointed expressions of befuddlement.
The loss in “Visitors” might take a different shape than the loss in the story that Albert tells, but the meaning is clear to readers, if not to all the characters.
Brothers and visitors, sisters and wives: meaning is more often discovered in what is left unsaid.
Have you been reading any Alice Munro lately?
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. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. The next in The Moons of Jupiter is the title story: next Thursday!