This title recalls Barbara’s “Oranges and Apples” game, the idea of having to choose between two things.
It also echoes Anne having asked Matthew, en route to Green Gables: “Which would you rather be if you had the choice–divinely beautiful or dazzlingly clever or angelically good?”
And, yet, the overt allusion is to the hymn: “Goodness and Mercy all my life / Shall surely follow me; / And in God’s House forevermore / My dwelling place shall be.”
Nonetheless, there is a character in “Goodness and Mercy” who might feel that these two qualities are in conflict, that they do not necessarily co-exist as the hymn suggests, that one must choose either to be good OR to be merciful.
The character might feel that way, but it is unclear. At least, in some versions of this story, she feels this way.
But the central character of this story, Averill, tells herself stories all the time, so the reader has more than one version to consider.
“Averill often told herself stories – the activity seemed to her as unavoidable as dreaming.”
Readers have had to grapple with multiple stories in other Alice Munro’s works as well (say, “Eskimo” or “The Office”). One character tells herself stories after dark in “Boys and Girls”; people carry their stories around with them in “Winter Wind”; Wilfrid is a story-teller in “Visitors”, as is Violet in “A Queer Streak”. Even the first two stories in this collection are about the stories characters tell themselves, and “Meneseteung” is about the stories we might tell about others.
And it’s not uncommon in other works of Canadian literature either, say, Timothy Findley’s The Wars (which pieces a novel together from the fragments preserved in history), or John Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright, or Margaret Atwood’s novel-in-three-voices, The Robber Bride.
In discussing the ending of her novel The Robber Bride with Victor-Lévy Beaulieu (Two Solicitudes, Trans. Phyllis Aronoff, 1996), Margaret Atwood says: “There are six possibilities. You pick!” She also responds to the question of the woman in the novel with whom she most identifies, by saying: “Well, obviously, it’s Zenia because she’s the one who does the storytelling. Tony controls the narrative, but Zenia is the liar, the professional liar.”
In “Goodness and Mercy”, Averill is the storyteller, and the reader can choose to draw parallels between the versions of the stories therein.
In the story proper, unlike in The Robber Bride, Averill is not a professional liar, but she does make a solid sheet of fabric from scraps of mixed origin.
The articles of clothing are generally worn by her mother, but in the final major scene of “Goodness and Mercy” Averill is cloaked in stitches of her own making.
In the opening scene, Averill and her mother, Bugs (June Rodgers, sorta-famous-but-now-retired singer) are sitting in front of a ship’s cabin, Labrador behind them and open waters ahead.
Bugs is speaking of going over the side to feed the fishes, and as with “Pictures of the Ice”, death is introduced forcefully into the story (though not, as in that story, in the opening words, but in the second paragraph).
In this scene, Bugs does most of the talking. (Which suits the idea of Averill being the chronicler, the one who observes and records, the one who shapes and re-shapes.)
But other characters on board play significant roles, as well, and some of them are fond of storytelling too. Some of them are even seeking out alternate endings.
Jeanine, in particular, is travelling apart from her husband, which is something they do to keep their marriage fresh, spend time separately on holiday.
“Jeanine said that she did not rule out a shipboard romance. That is, before she had a look at the available men she had not ruled it out.”
But Jeanine, here, is actually telling stories as well (which the reader learns when Jeanine confides the truth of her situation in that final scene).
She is not, however, a professional liar. But whether Averill is? That’s for the reader to decide.
“Averill believed she knew the rest of it. How could she help knowing? It was her story.”
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 I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the seventh story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.