Is it too much? Or, just enough. What am I to make of this final story in my Alice Munro reading project. (I read her last collection, Dear Life, in 2012.)
Straight away, in the first, Maggie asks Dorre “Is everything all right with you? I mean in your marriage? You’re happy?” and Doree doesn’t hestitate in saying ‘yes’.
But of course her studious determination not to hesitate reveals the charade. Which begs the question: does answering ‘yes’ also require a charade.
Women in these stories are happy when there is “nice weather or flowers in bloom or the smell of a bakery”, when they shed their day’s work at home and make the “last dash to the door, through the dark and the wind and the cold rain”. A young mother is “happy with her year-old son”. A man is happy that another woman’s child remembered him from a previous visit.
A child “is so happy she has cramps in her stomach”, then becomes “less stricken with adoration, though entirely happy”. A man who has killed two children believes that he is in communication with them, and reports that they are fine, “[r]eally happy and smart”.
A son refuses his father’s advice, claming that he was “very happy with the job he had now, and was making good money, or soon would be, as he got promoted”. Later, he lets “go of that stupid self stuff ” and says that since “I realized this I’ve been happy”.
A woman scorned imagined her ex hearing about “how pretty she looked, how sexy and happy, how she was simply bowling over all the men”; perhaps he would lament his choice “once he saw her happy and glamorous and in command rather than moping and suicidal”.
The woman scorning is “embarrassed to think how readily she had played the younger woman, the happy home wrecker, the lissome, laughing, tripping ingenue”.
A dying woman learns that an old friend has published a book: “How excited and happy I was to see your name in Maclean’s magazine.” Her nurse has a “soft happy voice”.
A dying man “sat propped up on his pillows and looked for all the world as if he was happy. Happy just to close his eyes and let her talk, then open his eyes and find her there, like a chocolate bunny on Easter morning. And then with his eyes open follow every twitch of her candy lips and sway of her sumptuous bottom.” Musings upon whether his wife and his mother were motivated by his happiness, and the ways in which they did/did not look happy in its pursuit, are also considered.
A man who is not in love with a woman urges her to return to where she has been living (apart from him), because “she should be happy where her friends were waiting for her”. A young man imagines being an omnibus boy but is warned that perhaps he “would not always be happy calling out the stations”. And he replies: “Why not? It’s very useful. It’s always necessary.”
Happiness can be arranged. “My heart will never heal. But I have something good to tell you, something happy. I am to be married in the spring.”
“Too Much Happiness” is about a woman who is a mathematician and a novelist. Readers much assume that because she resides in the title story, that there are clues to be found in her life about happiness.
“She had never heard of sines or cosines, but by substituting the chord of an arc for the sine, and by the lucky chance that in small angles these almost coincide, she was able to break into this new and delightful language.
She was not very surprised then, though intensely happy.
Such discoveries would happen. Mathematics was a natural gift, like the northern lights. It was not mixed up with anything else in the world, not with papers, prizes, colleagues, and diplomas.”
But in looking to this story for thoughts on happiness, readers are troubled.
And, so, I reread it yet again.
In the meantime, I found all sorts of talk of happiness in my other reading. In Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce, Annie is wondering at the fact that she has found happiness in the big city, the last place she would have expected to find it. (I am unsure whether the author is teasing her/us; her story is as-yet unfinished.)
In L.M. Montgomery’s journals, she writes: “Perfect happiness I have never had – never will have. Yet there have been, after all many wonderful and exquisite hours in my life.” [March 13, 1921]
I was revisiting her journals alongside a reading of her last Anne novel, Rilla of Ingleside. There is not a lot of happiness in that story of the home-front during Great War. “I could hear Jem’s whistle and Walter’s yodel, and the twin’s laughter, and for just a few blessed minutes I forgot about the guns on the western front, and had a little false, sweet happiness.”
This got me thinking about sadness, and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. “Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there was an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.”
Which made me think that perhaps my questioning should take a more direct approach, so I picked up Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home, whose subtitle appears instructional: “kiss more, jump more, abandon a project, read Samuel Johnson, and my other experiements in the practice of everyday life”.
“Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”
John Stuart Mill
“Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities.”
“Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
“The idea of happiness is surely the sun at the centre of our conceptual planetary system—and has proved just as hard to look at directly.”
“The important question is not, what will yield to man a few scattered pleasures, but what will render his life happy on the whole amount.”
Most of the men in Alice Munro’s stories seem to be as preoccupied by happiness as the women, whether it is in scattered moments or all-encompassing. But when her characters consciously pursue happiness, it only seems to work out if readers don’t peer too closely. And those who look directly at the sun are often, yes, burned for their daring.
All of these things are true and not-true. And, yet, there is a certain kind of happiness to be found in reading a good story.
Did you find this final story in the collection to be satisfying? If you could have rearranged the tales, would you have saved this one for the end?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the final story in this collection, also the final story in my reading project. The other stories in this collection were discussed as follows: Dimensions, Fiction, Wenlock Edge, Deep-Holes, Free Radicals, Face, Some Women, Child’s Play, and Wood. (Links to the stories in the other collections appear here.)
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.