This story was originally published in Ms in September 1978, under the title “The Honeyman’s Daughter”.
Rose greatly admires Cora (and Rose is at the heart of this collection of interconnected stories, with her mother, Flo).
“Cora had plenty of clothes. She came to school in fawn-colored satin, rippling over the hips; in royal-blue velvet with a rose of the same material flopping from one shoulder; in dull rose crepe loaded with fringe.”
Everything about her impresses Rose. Her grown-up hairstyle, her richly painted lips, her cakily powdered cheeks, her “tall, solid, womanly” form. The way that Cora responds to the boys who torment her. The chummy relationship she has with her two girlfriends.
Rose wants to be Cora. Flo is not impressed. “She is a far cry from good-looking. She is going to turn out a monster of fat. I can see the signs. She is going to have a mustache, too. She has one already. Where does she get her clothes from? I guess she thinks they suit her.”
And, it’s true, that Rose does not continue to idolize Cora for long. She begins to think her rather ordinary. “So long after, and so uselessly, Rose saw Flo trying to warn and alter her.”
It’s clear from the beginning of the story that going to the toilet is, in some ways, a great equalizer. Everybody does it. And lots of children actually watch old Mr. Burns do it. Peering in through the bottom boards of the outhouse.
But it’s also clear from that early scene that there are those who watch and those who are ashamed to have been watched using the toilet. (And, soon enough, we learn that there are those who empty the toilets.)
Rose does everything she can to avoid the shame that surrounds using the school toilets, but in her struggle, she actually wets herself two or three times because she doesn’t make it home in time to go.
“Justice and cleanliness she saw now as innocent notions out of a primitive period of her life. She was building up the first store of things she could never tell.”
What is it that she could never tell? What was unjust? What was unclean? Was it simply too much to consider the reality of these incidents?
The only thing that is “captivating, lovely” about school for Rose is that year were the pictures of the birds in her classroom: the woodpecker, the oriole, the blue jay, the Canada Goose.
(From Ethel Wilson to Martha Ostenso, the appearance of feathered friends having symbolic importance to young heroines in Canlit is familiar.)
These images seem to represent “some other world of hardy innocence, bounteous information, privileged light-heartedness. No stealing from lunchpails there; no slashing coats; no pulling down pants and probing with painful sticks; no fucking; no Franny.”
Ah, now readers realize what it was that Rose couldn’t tell. In fact, she has not told it. But there is plenty to consider in “Privilege” all the same.
What makes the renaming of this story to “The Honeyman’s Daughter” so interesting is that readers might have expected it to have been named The Honeyman’s Granddaughter.
But it is re-named not for Cora but for Cora’s mother. Cora’s mother does not appear in this story. Not even a glimpse.
“Her mother worked somewhere, or was married.” Cora was illegitimate. Cora’s mother was elsewhere.
So readers are forced to wonder, if Rose is leaving out all the heavy-heartedness, what has been left out of Cora’s mother’s experiences.
Whether Alice Munro’s characters live in or out of town, in town on one side of town or the other side of town, in town on the right-side of town but on a street of lesser status: these details matter.
The “various scandals and bits of squalor” that Rose offers to readers are revealing and as revealing when they are not offered but neglected.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s story collection Who Do You Think You Are?, which will continue on subsequent Thursdays. Please feel free to join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week: “Half a Grapefruit”. My Alice Munro reading project began with Dance of the Happy Shades, followed by Lives of Girls and Women, and Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, and I aim to read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors.
Next week’s story is “Half a Grapefruit”, one which I remember being particularly good. Care to join in?