“One day we were driving around in the country not too far from where we live, and we found a road we hadn’t known about.”

Random House, 2012

Random House, 2012

He is eighty-three and she is seventy-one: there has been some discussion of death.

(There has been some discussion of death between two aging characters in another Alice Munro short story, one which also ended on a road that had been chosen with a specific purpose in mind, but I have not been able to remember which story. Do you know it?)

“No way did we want to be there for a day or two, or possibly a week, with no discovery. Nor did we want to leave the car empty, with the police having to tramp through the trees in search of remains that the coyotes might already have got into.”

Talk of remains, talk of love.

“I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen in our lives. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed anymore.”

Talk of leaving a note, talk of fidelity.

“He said that we had just had an argument, what more did I want?”

Talk of mortality, talk of poetry.

“It was too polite, I said.”

Readers of Alice Munro will expect this — the juxtaposition of — and, simultaneously, the alignment between — the age-old themes of love and death in the everyday lives of ordinary women and men, in company with dissatisfaction and restlessness.

In “Dolly” the narration is close and the narrator conflicted, admiring the comfort and security of her life but wanting something else as well. Readers must constantly take a step back (as with the previous story, “In Sight of the Lake”), to determine the gap between the narrator’s perspective and readers’ understanding of the events herein. It’s hard to determine what our narrator — who is not Dolly — wants, to suss out something solid in her restlessness.

But perhaps she wants Franklin to be more “raw”, like the poem that got him some attention (as much attention as one can get for writing poetry), that poem about how lavish another woman’s love for Franklin had been (that’s Dolly).

The decision that she and Franklin have made together, about the way in which they imagine their lives will end, is perhaps one about which they disagree more fundamentally than was realized previously. I mean, before something happened, something more than an argument that was too polite. (But I shan’t say what: that would spoil it. Although you have likely guessed, from the title, that it’s something to do with Dolly.)

As she considers what has happened (and as readers try to determine what actually has happened, compared to what the narrator believes has happened), she realizes that it’s nothing extraordinary.

“Not in books or in life,” she observes. And, yet, it casts her eye upon her life from a different angle. Her own life and the lives of others around her.

“Also there were people going round in such clumsy ways, stopping and starting, and hordes of schoolchildren like the ones I used to keep in order. Why so many of them and so idiotic with their yelps and yells and the redundancy, the sheer un-necessity of their existence. Everywhere an insult in your face.”

The narrator is insulted from incalculable directions, as much by the actions and inaction of strangers as by Franklin. Which takes her back to that early argument with Franklin about their proposed exit, about the fact that she wants to leave a note, which Franklin declares an insult.

“Not to others but to ourselves. To ourselves. We belonged to ourselves and to each other and any explanation at all struck him as snivelling.”

So, perhaps because it is the only way in which she can imagine countering his argument, she questions their belonging. What does it mean to belong to their own selves? Do they belong to one another? And, if they do not, how does that change the kinds of explanations which might be necessary.

Two of the characters inhabit two names a piece, but our narrator’s name remains a mystery. Life is too short for arguments, but arguments are proof of life. There are core questions in “Dolly”, an excess of them, and few answers.

“Who can ever say the perfect thing to the poet about his poetry? And not too much or not too little, just enough.” Somehow, Alice Munro always manages to say just enough, and “Dolly” is no exception.

What do you think?

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 story is the tenth in Dear Life, with next Sunday reserved for “The Eye” and the following Wednesday for “Night”. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013