Alice Munro is one of the most famous short story writers in contemporary literature circles, and her work provides a fascinating insight into the many ways in which society expresses itself through short fiction. This sample essay explores her work that covers many topics, including gender relations, individual identity, and age relations.
Alice Munro’s “Dear Life”
Alice Munro has been heralded as one of the most influential short-story writers to ever come from Canada. Her works are often recognized as being both well written and captivating, and it is not uncommon for her works to receive national attention and recognition. Her unique writing style is further shown in the collection of short stories that are held within the larger work entitled Dear Life.
These short stories have shown the tension that is constantly at play between one’s inner and outer lives, and it is through these works that the reader gains an idea of ideology that Munro pushes for, such as society’s expectations for the different genders or the difference between the maturity levels between adults and children and how they affect their perspectives on life.
Regardless of how an individual feels about Munro, or her writings, the fact of the matter remains: her works have been of great influence and importance to many readers around the world. Alice Munro, through her works such as Dear Life, has been able to live the reader an in depth, through look into the world that Munro has experienced in the 81 years that she has been on this planet for.
Everyday happenings in Dear Life
Dear Life takes a look at the relatively everyday happenings of the common people as depicted by Munro. The many different stories range from many different activities and are written in such a way as to show that each life depicted is unique and experiences its own set of trials and tribulations. For example, within the short story “Amundsen,” Munro tells the story of a teacher who acquires a job in a hospital that works with sick children (Munro).
The character’s life is quite believable and relatable, however through the course of the short story, the reader discovers much more than they originally may have guessed; in this case, the teacher learns the cost that first love can have on an individual (Munro). This sort of story is not only common within Dear Life, but is a common trait that is found within many of Munro’s different works.
Through many of her works, it is clear that Munro has feminist undertones about many of her characters. A reader can plainly see,
“Munro is a passionate woman writing passionately about women,” (Rasporich).
What a reader can observe through even limited exposure to the lengthy body of work that Munro has released is that there are some very distinct and important goals that her work is striving for, in a feminist point of view. Most importantly, one can plainly see that her work is an attempt to find both the freedom of imagination and that of expression for women everywhere (Rasporich).
Her work often looks at women that must submit to an authority of some sort, be it an oppressive, controlling patriarch or societal expectations, and deals with the finding her own voice and opinions on matters that are expected to be followed rather than lead upon. What one sees about through much of her work is
“the developing feminist consciousness… expanding perception of the woman as artist,” (Rasporich).
An intense look at human spirit
It is not uncommon for Alice Munro’s writing to have a much deeper meaning than it would first appear that gives the reader s much more intense look upon the very nature of the human spirit as Munro sees it. A perfect example of this is seen in Munro’s short story from Dear Life entitled “Train.”
In this story, the reader originally may guess the young man returning from war, is simply jumping off of the train that he has been riding because it no longer is the best way for him to travel; when, in reality, the story is speaking much more broadly. Chiefly about life itself and its uncertain, unknown nature (Munro). One of the other common themes that Munro has addressed in her works, both those that appear in Dear Life and those that are in other works, is the role of gender and the expectations that society places upon them.
As a woman that has lived for the better part of a century, Alice Munro has seen a great deal of change when it comes to what society has deemed as allowable and expected of women in particular. In an interview about the collection of stories in Dear Life, Munro revealed some of her general feelings of the limitations and expectations that women have had to deal with that our society has generated. She admits that she was raised to
“believe that the worst thing you could do was ‘call attention to yourself,’ or ‘think you were smart’,” (Treisman).
It makes sense, based upon this sort of upbringing, that Munro would therefore write about individuals that have felt trapped in their current living situations. Living a life where she had to be both “acceptable” and “private,” Munro’s writings have the tendency to show a women in a less than ideal living situation and her attempts to deal with the recourse of altering, or at least attempting to, her life.
Sources of inspiration for Alice Munro
It is through Munro’s writing of her short stories that one would initially ask “are they autobiographical?” When asked this question, Munro has been quoted as saying,
“in incident, no … in emotion, completely,” (Howells).
Munron’s stories, in her own words, come from several different sources that include memories, observations, invention, factual details, anecdotes, and bits of speech (Howells).
What she does in her writing process is to combine all of these different faucets of creativity together into a cohesive, captivating story that she can get the reader to both enjoy and relate to. She admits that over time, she has used much of her own life as the basis of inspiration for much of her work, however she has attempted to move away from simply recounting events of her own life into her stories as she feels that she has written about them enough to the point that they are used up. She has been quoted as saying,
“I have written about it and used it up,” (Thacker).
This is not to say that many of her stories do not start with events or recounts of true events, however. Munro openly admits that many of her stories begin from the real world as they make the reader identify with their own lives much easier and give a basis of reality to her works. On this topic, Munro bluntly states,
“there is always a starting point in reality,” (Thacker).
Views of society in Alice Munro’s Dear Life
What is more interesting still is the fact that Munro feels that her stories should not be overly analyzed from an academic standpoint. She feels that this sort of critique of her work is both strange and unwarranted. She has been quoted as saying,
“my opinions of my stories… are very personal and peculiar and not to be taken all that seriously,” (Martin).
Instead of having her works be over analyzed for a message within them that is hidden in layers, Munro comes off as appearing to want her readers to simply enjoy the insights into life that she provides them. Regardless of how Munro may want a reader to feel about her works, however, a more analytical view of her work does show some deeper meaning and messages through her writing.
Difference in age perspective
One of the other most interesting aspects of the writings of Munro is the apparent difference between the viewpoints of children to that of adults. One such example of this difference in age is illustrated in the short-story “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” In the story, a young girl listens to her father recount a historical tale about the past, and through the telling of the story, comes to terms with the idea of just how long history and the human condition have persisted on the world.
In fact, through the telling of his story, the young girl realizes,
“even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have bee at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in,” (Martin).
What Munro shows, through events such as this, the disconnect between the perspectives of adults and children and the apparent missing level of maturity between the two. The girl initially feels as though her father is a figure that has been through so much more than she has that he must have been around since the beginning of time itself. Her father has been associated, in her mind, as a man that is almost all knowing and has seen everything.
Where the truth lies is far from this sentiment, and it becomes more evident to her as her father recaps the historical tale to her. Being an affectionate man, however, he tells her his story without scaring her too much, or creating a sense that the drama of human life is completely unknown and impossible to predict. What he does is simply open her eyes to the possibility that the world offers much more than his daughter had initially thought and that someone that she has associated with seeing everything, himself, is only a very small part when compared to the antiquity of time itself.
Dear Life is a culmination of these factors woven together by Munro to give the reader a view of the common day life as she sees it. It takes the many different aspects of different characters lives and weaves them together in the common elements of feminist ideas. The developing perspectives and maturities of different characters and gives the individual reader a very good look into the life of someone that is totally unique and distinct from the reader such as life through the eyes of a young poet, a veteran returning from war, a teacher or even a child.
The stories show Munro’s “powerful propensity to reveal the profound in the everyday,” (Cheuse). The different stories, from different points of view, give a reader a very profound look into many different characters lives and how they deal with and react to the circumstances that many of us face on a daily basis. What the stories further go on to show, as with many of Munro’s works, is still the same disconnect between the perspectives of all of these characters based upon the unique situations that each one is presented with.
Patterns within characters in Alice Munro’s novel
The stories of Dear Life reveal more than just the insights of the particular characters that are accounted for within each short story. What a reader is exposed to from the stories go beyond the insight of the character and their perspective. The stories reveal patterns within the characters lives that trace back generation-to-generation. What one sees through these short stories include,
“how emotions are handed down; how relationships between men and women and parents and children mutate over time; how disappointments, hopes, and losses reverberate through the echo chamber of family,” (Kakutani).
What is shown is not simply a life of a single character in the story, but a look at an entire world through the eyes of a particular individual that has been shaped by all of the factors that have lead them to that particular point in their life. This is further backed by the way in which the character’s life can alter so drastically within each of the short stories through accidents, bad luck, or even calculated risks. What is shown through the works in Dear Life is,
“a kaleidoscopic view of such events, conveying both the precariousness of daily life and the subjectivity of memory,” (Kakutani).
The works of Alice Munro are described as some of the most insightful, wonderful short stories that have been written in recent times. The character development that Munro puts into each of her stories within a collected work gives the reader a chance to see the world through the eyes of someone that is usually completely different than them.
The underlying themes of Munro’s writing has changed over the course of her career, but there appear to be common elements that are still present in the works of Dear Life. What a reader can see is the elements of feminism that remain in Munro’s works and the unique outlooks that separate the differences of perspective and maturity of the viewpoints of characters that are separated by age. Alice Munro has utilized the combination of her own life and its memories, anecdotes, historical events, and pure creativity to create the majority of her stories, and has a distinct perspective about her writings.
Though she does not deny that there exist messages within the works she has produced, she holds firm to the notion that over analyzing her stories is strange and perplexing to her. She would prefer that what she has written be taken at face value and simply enjoyed by the general reader and seen as an insight to her own life and perspective on the matters that the stories adhere to.
Cheuse, Alan. “Munro Weighs the Twists and Turns of this ‘Dear Life’.” NPR . 15 Nov 2012: n. page. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. .
Howells, Coral Ann. Alice Munro. New York, NY: Manchester University Press, 1998. Print.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Recalling Lives Altered, in Ways Vivid and Untidy: ‘Dear Life: Stories,’ by Alice Munro.” New York Times. 10 Dec 2012: n. page. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. .
Martin, Walter Rintou. Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: The University of Alberta Press, 1987. Print.
Munro, Alice. Dear Life. Toronto: Random House, Inc., 2012. Print.
Rasporich, Beverly J. Dance of the Sexes: Art and Sexuality in the Fiction of Alice Munro. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: The University of Alberta Press, 1990. Print.
Thacker, Robert. Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography. McClelland & Stewart Ltd.: Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2005. Print.
Treisman, Deborah. “On “Dear Life”: An Interview with Alice Munro.” New Yorker. 20 Nov 2012: n. page. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. .