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SOURCE: "'Gulfs' and 'Connections': The Fiction of Alice Munro," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 35, Winter, 1987, pp. 135-46.
In the following essay, York discusses the theme of connection in Munro's work, primarily in Lives of Girls and Woman and The Moons of Jupiter.
"Connection," muses the young narrator of the story section bearing the same title in The Moons of Jupiter, "That was what it was all about." The same claim could well be made for Alice Munro's fiction. Although she is often praised for her creation of fictional places—Jubilee, Hanratty, Logan—it is also true that Munro has defined a linguistic area no less peculiar to herself. That area is, of course, partly defined by her spirited use of the oxymoron (amply discussed by Helen Hoy and Lorraine McMullen), but even individual words may be trademarks of Munro's sensibility. My own list of "Munro words" includes: "humiliation," "familiar," "shameful," "hopeful," "amazing," and especially "connection." More than any other term, "connection" sums up the fundamental vision of Alice Munro's fiction.
This emphasis on connections and connectedness—whether religious, sexual, historical, or aesthetic—has become increasingly marked in Munro's works, starting with Lives of Girls and Women. In her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, "connection" is not a key term at all; it rarely, if ever, appears in any of the fifteen stories. Fourteen years later, however, in The Moons of Jupiter, "connection" has become a frequent verbal touchstone, the title of the first section of the very first story ("Chaddeleys and Flemings"), and a fundamental organizing motif, drawing together the entire collection of stories.
Appropriately, connections first become of interest to Munro in her first book of interconnected stories: Lives of Girls and Women. Connections fascinate Munro profoundly in this work because they are precisely the substance and aim of Del Jordan's search: connections between herself and the external world, and between religious, sexual, and artistic experiences. Indeed, the whole collection chronicles a young female artist's drive to perceive connections between her inner and outer worlds.
Del's search—and ours as readers—begins with an investigation of the connections sought by two characters—Uncles Benny and Craig. (Interestingly, the men also represent two kinds of connection to Del—one is her "false" uncle and one is her uncle by blood.) Uncle Benny, though not a blood connection, has ultimately more to teach Del about connections than does her legal relative. Although Benny is mystified by the workings of the outer world—the connections between Jubilee and the metropolises of Kitchener and Toronto, for instance—he represents a subtler, more mysterious connection for the young Del. "So alongside our world was Uncle Benny's world like a troubling distorted reflection, the same but never at all the same." When Del attempts to express Benny's connections with the universe by writing out in Joycean fashion his cosmic address ("Mr. Benjamin Thomas Poole, The Flats Road, Jubilee, Wawanash County, Ontario, Canada, North America, The Western Hemisphere, The World, The Solar System, The Universe"), Benny does indeed become a troubling, distorting "Poole": "Where is that in relation to Heaven?" he persists. Through Benny, Del glimpses a whole array of connections which defy or "lie alongside" rational thought—superstitious, intuitive, or religious connections which she will investigate further in Lives of Girls and Women.
Benny's pulp newspapers have, of course, provided Del with a connection to the world of depravity and violence, but Benny's life, his "troubling distorted reflection," has also brought before her eyes the inescapable interconnectedness of human lives. She muses on her parents near the end of "The Flats Road" section: "they did not look at each other. But they were connected, and this connection was as plain as a fence, it was between us and Uncle Benny, us and the Flats Road, it would stay between us and anything." Lives of Girls and Women is, to a great extent, a dramatization of this idea of connections.
Uncle Craig, on the other hand, is a character who has his connections with the outside world, his place in the cosmos, neatly sorted out: "He saw a simple connection between himself, handling the affairs of the township, troublesome as they often were, and the prime minister in Ottawa handling the affairs of the country." Craig has devoted himself to chronicling the social connections of the pioneers of Wawanash County, and the microcosmic domestic connections of the Jordan family: "And to Uncle Craig it seemed necessary that the names of all these people, their connections with each other, the three large dates of birth and marriage and death … be discovered … and written down here, in order, in his own large careful hand-writing." Although Craig is a fanatical devotee of connections, he lacks both the connection with the abstract or mysterious and the sense of human connectedness which Del has associated with Uncle Benny; his connections are mere data, and his work cuts him off from other human beings, as he sits doggedly typing in his office, significantly locking out the laughter of Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace.
Del, then, has had an opportunity to study two modes of connection—one which involves superstition and chaos and one which involves their opposites, calculation and order; her task in Lives of Girls and Women will be to find a way of uniting the two. At this early stage, though, Del suffers more often than not from acute feelings of unconnectedness. When she is tickled and tormented by her cousin Mary Agnes she reflects, "I was amazed as people must be who are seized and kidnapped, and who realize that in the strange world of their captors they have a value absolutely unconnected with anything they know about themselves." Understandably, Del reacts to this sense of unconnectedness by trying to gain the upper hand, by trying to sever her connection with the "strange world" of other human beings: she bites Mary Agnes. "When I bit Mary Agnes," she confesses, "I thought I was biting myself off from everything. I thought I was putting myself outside, where no punishment would ever be enough."
Following Uncle Benny's lead, Del initially looks to "Heaven" for a sense of connectedness. Indeed, she seeks a higher connection, an assurance that "all those atoms, galaxies of atoms, were safe all the time, whirling away in God's mind." Soon, though, Del discovers that these connections are, for her, imposed and unsatisfactory; they do not bear any relation to her own experience. "The idea of God," she confesses, "did not connect for me with any idea of being good, which is perhaps odd." Later, during the Good Friday service at the Anglican church, she perceives that Christ himself, because he was partly mortal, may have experienced the same split between divine plan and individual experience when he was on the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Briefly, the minister said, oh very briefly, Jesus had lost touch with God … He had lost the connection…. But this too was part of the plan." Del, however, entertains the thought that this was "the last true cry of Christ"—his final testimony to the unconnected nature of the universe.
Closely related to this concept of religious connection in Lives of Girls and Women is the concept of sexual connection. When Del is riding with Mr. Chamberlain through the countryside prior to their sexual "encounter," she recalls that "In some moods, some days, I could feel for a clump of grass, a rail fence, a stone pile, such pure unbounded emotion as I used to hope for, and have inklings of, in connection with God." Now, though, she can only reflect in both excitement and dismay that the landscape has become "debased, maddeningly erotic." Sex, we soon see, can no more give Del the sense of connectedness than could religion; it cannot even rival her former religious feeling. Ironically, her first sexually charged meeting with Garnet French takes place during a revival meeting—a strong indication that this sexual connection, too, will prove as fleeting and unsatisfactory to her as her earlier flirtation with religious belief.
As a child, then as an adolescent, Del tends to see sexuality as a purely physical rather than spiritual connection. When her Uncle Bill and Aunt Nile visit the Jordans, Del never imagines that her aunt and uncle might indulge in sexual relations: "decent adults," she thinks, "made their unlikely connection only for the purpose of creating a child." Later, this mechanistic view of sex is fostered in Del and her friend Naomi by their covert readings of Naomi's mother's sex manuals: "Care should be taken during the initial connection…."
In spite of her adolescent fascination with the physical aspects of sexual connection, Del ultimately desires a spiritual connection as well. "It was the stage of transition, bridge between what was possible, known and moral behavior, and the magical, bestial act, that I could not imagine," she confesses. "Nothing about that was in Naomi's mother's book," she adds. Because Del does yearn for a spiritual or "magical" connection in her sexual life, she is particularly upset when she reads a New York psychiatrist's theory that women's mental connections are purely physical; that when a boy and a girl look at the moon, "The boy thinks of the universe, its immensity and mystery; the girl thinks, 'I must wash my hair.'" Ironically, in Del's relationship with Garnet, these stereotypes are completely reversed; Del desires physical and intellectual enlightenment in sex and Garnet mistrusts everything beyond the literal: "Any attempt at this kind of general conversation, any attempt to make him think in this way, to theorize, make systems, brought a blank, very slightly offended, and superior look into his face. He hated people using big words, talking about things outside of their own lives. He hated people trying to tie things together." In Garnet, Del, the seeker of connections, finds her natural enemy: a man who is entirely anti-connection.
When Del turns from sex to art as a means of making connections, she is unwittingly illustrating her mother Addie's words, "There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up till now has been their connection with men." Even though Del disparages her mother's advice, she breaks the old male-female power connection in "Baptizing" and decides finally that it is up to her to make her own connections with the external world. "Unconnected to the life of love, uncolored by love," she dazedly realizes, "the world resumes its own, its natural and callous importance." In her art, Del discovers that it is the physical world, in all its rich and diverse detail, to which she must seek connection. When she meets Bobby Sherriff in "Epilogue: The Photographer," she realizes how she has let this crucial connection lapse in the novel she has been writing: "I hardly connected him with my mad Halloway brother" she confesses. Just as a younger Del discovered that she could not make a connection with spiritual forces by wandering about with her eyes shut, because she was afraid "of bumping into something," the Del of the epilogue discovers that the physical world provides the artist with the only connection to the transcendent that she needs.
In Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, Munro focuses on a particular element of this connection between the artist and the world: the vital connection between self and others. "Material," for instance, is a story concerned with the way artists use and transform human relationships in their work. The narrator sees that Hugo has used the "harlot-in-residence," Dotty, for the purposes of his fiction, and she also sees that "This is not enough" because she alone maintained a personal connection with Dotty while they were living in the same building with her. (Hugo's turning off the water pump which services Dotty's basement apartment is a striking example of his tendency to sever human connections.) On the other hand, the narrator's present husband, Gabriel, though he shares with Hugo the knowledge of "what to do" with material (Gabriel is an engineer), at least has what Hugo lacks—a sense of human connection. It is Gabriel who persuades the narrator to buy the book containing Hugo's story for her daughter Clea: "He is interested in Hugo's career as he would be interested in the career of a magician or popular singer or politician with whom he had, through me, a plausible connection, a proof of reality."
Often, in Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, characters lament the absence of these human connections in their lives. In "Walking on Water," Mr. Lougheed's glimpse of the animalistic sexual connection of the flower children, Rex and Calla, increases his own sense of alienation from this younger generation. Although the couple's "essential connection" is abruptly broken when they see Lougheed, "their voices joined … in laughter that seemed" to the Mr. Sammler-like Lougheed "not only unashamed but full of derision." Interestingly, this episode is later echoed in "Marrakesh," when Dorothy unwittingly stumbles upon the lovemaking of her granddaughter, Jeannette, and Blair King. She, too, has experienced the lack of connection that Lougheed and many other Munro characters share: "She believed then … that Jeannette was in some important way a continuation of herself. This was not apparent any longer; the connection had either broken or gone invisible." Instead, the body of her grand-daughter basking in the sun becomes a "hieroglyph" to Dorothy, a visual sign of the human connection that can never fully be recovered.
In "Winter Wind," Munro argues explicitly and eloquently that the artist, in particular, must not lose faith in these human connections, frail and elusive though they may be. The mature narrator interrupts her story about her grand-mother's life to ask herself how much of this story is based on her knowledge of fact and how much her intuition and imagination. Finally, she decides that the latter qualities may yield a truth far superior to that deduced from Uncle Craig-like fact: "Without any proof I believe it, and so I must believe that we get messages another way, that we have connections that cannot be investigated, but have to be relied on."
Munro does investigate these human connections, but her investigations are neither purely rational nor scientific; they are fictional and intuitive. In Who Do You Think You Are?, for instance, she examines a character whose sense of unconnectedness is far more acute than that of Del Jordan. Rose suffers from a chronic sense of disjunction: her father is both a secretive reciter of poetry and a hate-filled child beater; West Hanratty, her home, is divided by a river (and by economic conditions and opportunities) from Hanratty proper. Even when Rose is older and more prosperous, this sense of unconnectedness continues to plague her; she senses that "the barriers between people were still strong and reliable; between arty people and business people; between men and women." Rose has a glimpse of other barriers between humans when she tries to read one of her stepmother Flo's letters to an assembled company and suddenly feels a "fresh and overwhelming realization" of "the gulf that lay behind her." This unconnectedness to one's past—to one's Hanratty, Jubilee, or Logan—becomes a major concern in Munro's work, especially in her next collection, The Moons of Jupiter.
In Who Do You Think You Are?, Rose tries in various ways to attain a sense of connectedness, some more successful than others. Her attempts to forge sexual connections are disastrous, mostly because she expects to derive her essential identity from them. She marries Patrick because he will worship her, make her his "White Goddess," his "Beggar Maid," and she later grasps at Simon because he is "the man for my life." "Without this connection to a man," the narrator observes, "she might have seen herself as an uncertain and pathetic person; that connection held her new life in place." Only dimly, by the end of the collection, does Rose suspect that the only person for her life is herself, and that the important connections to discover are those between herself and her past.
The latter realization, in particular, comes slowly to Rose, for her past seems, from the vantage point of the present, bizarre; it seems to be material for shocking, dramatic stories to be told at cocktail parties. Even as a young girl she reflects that "Present time and past, the shady melodramatic past of Flo's stories, were quite separate." "Town oddity" Becky Tyde, like Bobby Sherriff, seems cut off from her legendary role; "only a formal connection could be made," muses Rose. Eventually, Rose reaches beyond this merely formal connection with her past when she returns to Flo and Hanratty in "Spelling." Like Helen in "The Peace of Utrecht," Rose discovers scraps of her old writing—in this case, old letters she sent to Flo from Vancouver—"False messengers; false connections, with a lost period of her life." Although these scraps of writing do not awaken the texture and feeling of the past, as do Helen's notes about the Peace of Utrecht, they do, at least, force Rose to acknowledge that her connections with the past have been false, and that she must forge honest ones in the future.
Ironically, at the end of Who Do You Think You Are?, Rose attempts to forge honest connections with a man she has not seen for forty years—Ralph Gillespie. For Rose, trying to understand Ralph is akin to trying to understand herself; both are mimics, imitators whose imitations of life have become stale, even dangerous. Here, at last, Rose finds the most honest connection of her life: "What could she say about herself and Ralph Gillespie, except that she felt his life, close, closer than the lives of men she'd loved, one slot over from her own?"
The subtitle of Alice Munro's The Moons of Jupiter could very well be "Connections," for here she studies the problem in greater depth than in any previous work. Here, too, she gives voice most strongly to the idea that art may be the most reliable means of forging an honest connection with the past.
Family connections, and the guilt or pride they may instil in us, are a central concern of both sections of the first story—sections which are closely interconnected. In the first, "Connection," the narrator claims that her maternal cousins provided "A connection with the real, and prodigal, and dangerous, world." Years later, when one of those cousins, Iris, visits the narrator and her husband in their pretentious Vancouver-area home, it becomes apparent that this connection has vanished; Iris is now out of place, uneasy in an unfamiliar suburban world. Nevertheless, the narrator's act of throwing a lemon meringue pie at her husband when he openly deplores her vulgar connection reveals more emphatically than any words could the persistence of an essential connection with the cousins. It reveals, more specifically, a connection with the cousins' world of jokes and hilarity (throwing a pie is, of course, a stock comic routine). For all of the cousins' pride in their supposedly aristocratic connections in the Old World, this brash exuberance is their true legacy and birthright. (A comic but macabre version of this family pride appears in "Accident," where Frances' sister-in-law Adelaide flaunts her "connection" with an "undertaker … in another town" [he is her uncle] by using the latest mortuary terminology.)
Guilt aroused by family connections is the corresponding motif of the second section, "The Stone in the Field." The sight of even an eccentric non-relative, Poppy Cullender, in the family parlour humiliates the narrator: "I disliked his connection with us so much…." Later, she likens one of her paternal aunts to Poppy, and claims that she "couldn't really think of her as my aunt; the connection seemed impossible." Whereas the maternal cousins thrive on connection (they sing interconnected rounds, and they never return to Dalgleish after one cousin's death because, as Iris sadly writes, "the circle was broken"), the paternal aunts are completely unconnected to the outside world. Not only do they have no telephone connections, they spurn physical connection: "No embraces, no touch of hands or laying together of cheeks" in that household, the narrator recalls. And yet, mysteriously, their circle remains unbroken; the sisters remain secluded with each other for the rest of their lives, occasionally sending Christmas cards to the narrator which arouse in her not nostalgia but "bewilderment and unexplainable guilt."
Largely as a result of this unexplainable guilt, the narrator, like Rose, makes a concerted effort to return to her childhood town, to forge those forgotten or disparaged connections with her past. Ironically, though, the object of the narrator's search is not a living connection at all; it is a huge stone which marked the grave of a mysterious hermit who was rumoured to be an admirer of one of the paternal aunts. The narrator's failure to find this unmarked gravestone, and her discovery of an up-to-date, businesslike farm in its place give ample testimony to the elusive nature of connections. These are the connections which cannot be "investigated," tracked down, and pinpointed, but which must remain as mysterious and as unlocatable as the stone in the field.
In The Moons of Jupiter, Munro elaborates upon the idea that art can be the stone in the field, the marker of our connections with the past. Characters often come across scraps of history while working on a writing project; the narrator of "The Stone in the Field" finds the newspaper notice about the hermit's death while reading microfilm "in connection with a documentary script I was working on, for television." The narrator of "Bardon Bus" is working in Australia "in connection with" a "book of family history which some rich people are paying me to write." (Ironically, this writer who is investigating family connections which are entirely unconnected to her forms a false ménage with a man referred to as "X.") Work and life are continually connected, interwoven.
More specifically, fiction and story-telling are prime means of creating connections out of an experience which is often choppy and chaotic. In "Visitors," Mildred compares the storytelling techniques of the two brothers Albert and Wilfred. Whereas Albert baldly presents the facts as separate and unrelated particles, Wilfred is a weaver of connections: "In Wilfred's stories you could always be sure that the gloomy parts would give way to something better, and if somebody behaved in a peculiar way there was an explanation for it." Connections, then, are more pleasing to ponder aesthetically and emotionally. Nevertheless, Munro also reveals the dangers inherent in insisting that connections always be made. At the end of "The Stone in the Field," the narrator admits that "If I had been younger, I would have figured out a story" about the hermit and her aunts, a story which would have featured "a horrible, plausible connection" between the hermit's silence and his death. Connections, when drawn so neatly in life or in fiction, Munro suggests, can hinder imagination and understanding instead of promoting both, as they are supposed to do. Maturity, for the narrator and for the writer, involves a refusal to "believe that people's secrets are defined and communicable, or their feelings full-blown and easy to recognize."
In The Moons of Jupiter, Munro follows her own advice; she presents not the final, immutable connections in people's lives but, more frequently, their desperate attempts to find connections. Many characters suffer an acute lack of connection between their inner experience and the world around them: Lydia, in "Dulse," who in the wake of her lover's rejection "could not make the connection between herself and things outside herself"; the narrator in "The Turkey Season" whose feelings about the mystery of the universe cannot "be connected with anything in real life"; and the woman in the story Kay tells in "Bardon Bus," who sees her old lover and "can't connect the real man any more with the person she loves, in her head." Maturity for these characters, too, often means accepting that connections may not always be possible or even necessary; as Mildred realizes in "Visitors," the reason Wilfred once gave for his weeping at night is probably "only distantly connected with the real reason. But maybe it was as close as he could get."
In The Moons of Jupiter, therefore, the process of working towards connections is more valuable than the product—the connections themselves. The best illustration of this maxim appears in the title story. The narrator's father, awaiting a heart operation in a Toronto hospital, is a man who takes pride in his ability to perceive connections, even if he cannot always understand how he has arrived at them: "I ask my mind a question. The answer's there, but I can't see all the connections my mind's making to get it. Like a computer." Nevertheless, he believes that there can be an answer (the names of the moons of Jupiter, for instance) and he believes that he can attain it through connections. His daughter, on the other hand, finds her faith in such processes seriously diminished. She discovers that sometimes answers are relative; for instance, when she attends the planetarium show she learns that all of the information about the planets which she had learned as a child has been updated, curiously transformed. Similarly, she finds that she cannot make the separate elements of her life connect; it is as though they were moons orbiting a planet. In particular, she sees that her children will follow paths of their own. In the last scene, this new acceptance is signalled by her refusal to go back to the museum to see "the relief carvings, the stone pictures." Like the past, the stone reliefs will always be there; she needn't see them and master the idea of them, in order to affirm their existence, just as the narrator of "The Stone in the Field" needn't find the stone in order to assert her connection with the past. Connections in Munro are of central importance, they are "what it was all about," as the narrator of "Connection" says, and yet they needn't be pursued, for they are all around us and deep inside us.
This section contains 4,349 words
(approx. 15 pages at 300 words per page)