Runaway readers cannot run away from the book after turning the final page. Instead, they have to burrow in.
Much like “Vandals” in 1994’s Open Secrets and the title story in 2012’s Dear Life, “Powers” is one of those closing stories that sends readers rushing back to the beginning.
So long that it can be divided into five parts – “Give Dante a Rest”, “Girl in a Middy”, “A Hole in the Head”, “A Square, A Circle, A Star”, and “Flies on A Windowsill” – this story is a challenge indeed.
Part of me expected there would be nine parts, one for each circle of hell (which have been recreated in Lego: clearly nobody told him to “give Dante a rest“). But instead, Alice Munro has chosen five segments.
The schoolgirl in me wonders if she is playing with Freytag’s theory, which classically applies to plays but can be applied to other literary forms, and would have been a fixture in the curriculum in Alice Munro’s day. (Versions of it are still taught today, though I’m not sure how often his name comes up.)
If Munro had this structure in mind, his traditional arc (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement) impacts the readers’ understanding of the story’s focal point.
One might have thought the climax of the story occurred with the revelation that a couple had run away together at the end of “Girl in a Middy”. It is certainly a surprise, though one ushered in with little pomp, right at the end of the segment.
But if one identifies the climax of the story as falling in the third “act”, one must choose a moment other than this one, something in “A Hole in the Head”. (Well, that seems like an obvious moment, doesn’t it,but in fact that hole already existed, or never existed, or still exists. In typical Munro-fashion, each of these scenarios seems possible.)
Perhaps the moment in which one woman realizes that the other is operating under the assumption that her lover is dead, the moment at which she chooses not to correct the misunderstanding, the moment at which she turns her back on her and leaves her there, isolated and confined.
Let’s say that this is the climax of the story, perfectly situated in the third segment, infusing it with all of those realizations and determinations and possibilities.
In some ways, this interpretation shifts the focus from one character to another. Readers assume, privy to a woman’s diaries in “Give Dante a Rest” that the writer is the main character of the story. And from that first March 13, 1927 diary entry, that appears to be the case.
“I used to have a feeling something really unusual would occur in my life, and it would be important to have recorded everything. Was that just a feeling?”
Perhaps it was just a feeling after all, and she has nothing unusual to tell.
But what of this other woman, on the fringes of the story, literally and figuratively.
We do not see her diaries, and her presence is not as immediately apparent at the beginning and end of this story, but perhaps she is the heart of the tale after all.
Perhaps readers should take a hint from Freytag’s arc, relocate the climax of the story, and rediscover a heroine in the process.
“For you it is all the glory of getting into print. Forgive me if that strikes you as sarcastic. It is fine to be ambitious but what about other people?”
The question of ambition is fascinating indeed, for as is often the case, the person who accuses another of ambition is simultaneously lamenting their own lack of glory, their own thwarted ambitions.
In this case, our diary-keeper’s aspirations, for a true romance, have been dashed. Early on she suspected this disappointment was rooted in a lack of marriage proposals. Later, she realized an excess of proposals (one, in fact) could also destroy one’s hopes for happiness.
So it does seem likely, after all, that the woman in the background of the story, the woman whose betrayal is perfectly situated in the third act, is our heroine after all.
This story fits beautifully within the collection: “No place for anybody to hide if they ever had a notion of running away.” It’s easy to see the support group of runaways that could form from the pages of this fiction. (Because the end of this story brings readers around to the present, I am reminded particularly of “Passion”, which also covers a broad arc of time, although readers do not glimpse as much of the middle as is presented to us in “Powers”, along with the beginning and ending of those goings-on.)
Of course there is always a place to hide if one has such a notion, even if only in the pages of fiction.
Our heroine made a bid for anonymity, and we nearly missed her escape.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Runaway as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the last story in this collection. The others appeared here: Runaway, Change, Soon, Silence, Passion, Trespasses, Tricks, Powers
Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next up: The View from Castle Rock.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.