Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage


I sometimes get into conversations with people who have a hard time connecting with the short-story format; they say that they hardly have time to muster an emotional involvement in the characters and events, before the story is over. To those readers I might recommend Alice Munro. True, I have only experienced one of her collections, but the stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage are nothing if not emotionally affecting—or "crushingly tragic," I suppose, if you want to get specific about the thing. Indeed, the understated yet unrelenting tragedy of small unkindnesses built up over decades and lifetimes; of the inevitable disappointments and compromises that result when people do their best and their best is not very good; of the human tendency to feel pride in one's flaws and shame in one's strengths: all this is the lifeblood of Munro's collection, and there's no denying that it's more bitter than sweet. At times, the bitterness becomes overpowering. At other times, Munro strikes a compelling balance between the deep sadness in all her characters (particularly her female characters) and the moments of true connection they manage to glean from the world around them, often at unexpected moments.

Munro, it should be stressed, is a magnificent craftsman. One of the reasons these stories, at 20 or 30 pages, feel like whole super-condensed novels, is their author's extreme economy of language, her ability to establish whole histories with one or two well-chosen words, which often occur in a paragraph seemingly devoted to another task entirely. In the story "Post and Beam," for example, the graduate student Lionel contemplates the married life of his professor and the professor's wife, a couple he has come to socialize with on occasion:

He came to see them in the evenings, when the children were in bed. The slight intrusions of domestic life—the cry of the baby reaching them through an open window, the scolding Brendan sometimes had to give Lorna about toys left lying on the grass, instead of being put back in the sandbox, the call from the kitchen asking if she had remembered to buy limes for the gin and tonic—all seemed to cause a shiver, a tightening of Lionel's tall, narrow body and intent, distrustful face.

Not only do we get a portrait of a summer evening here, the ambient twilight stimuli as the adults have a drink together, but we also get Lionel's aversion to the everyday accouterments of married life (he comes after the children are in bed, shivers at Lorna and Brendan's everyday interactions). We also get a solid idea of the dynamic between Lorna and Brendan: their marriage follows traditional gender roles in that she is the one expected to take responsibility for cleaning up the children's toys and doing the shopping; if she slips up, Brendan not just allowed but obliged ("had to") to give her a scolding about it. That "had to" might indicate, since we are in his head at the moment, Lionel's point of view, his acceptance of the standard husband/wife hierarchy—although the rest of the story gives the impression that none of these characters would object to the phrase, even as the lack of equality and human understanding in her marriage is making Lorna actively unhappy. Even the addition of "remembered" ("the call from the kitchen asking if she had remembered to buy limes for the gin and tonic") adds to multiple aspects of the marital portrait. On the one hand, it speaks to the familiarity of husband and wife: probably everyone who has shared a household has yelled this type of question at one time or another. On the other hand, combined with Brendan's disconnection from his children and scolding of his wife, his phrasing adds to the picture of his domineering nature. This is not a man who goes to the store to buy limes himself, but tasks his wife with buying them, and then calls from the kitchen to ask if she remembered his request, rather than walking into the other room to ask her or (heaven forbid) looking for the limes himself. One can understand why Lionel might not be jumping on board with the whole marriage proposition, if Lorna and Brendan are his role models.

And in fact, Brendan is largely representative of the male characters in Munro's book. If I have a complaint about the collection, it's this uniformity of male callousness: although we occasionally see a long-married couple who are genuinely caring toward one another (if mutually deeply flawed), or a pair of total strangers who manage to achieve a moment of unfettered connection, for the most part Munro's men are controlling, unfaithful jerks, taking the women around them for granted and generally acting like petulant toddlers. And I don't mean to suggest that Munro does not evoke this character type with great skill and sensitivity, because she absolutely does—and in fact, many of these male characters, in her hands, end up eliciting some degree of sympathy in the reader's mind: quite a feat considering their collective behavior. Munro's analysis of the gender roles in these stories acknowledges that the mainstream culture of the 1950s and 60s set up young men to be the assholes they sometimes turned out, just as those same decades socialized women to be submissive and self-denigrating, simultaneously responsible for raising children and reduced to a child-like state themselves. In the excellent story "What is Remembered," one of the highlights of the collection for me, the narrator writes:

Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies. What a lot they had to learn. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives.

So the men don't have a roadmap for how to live, any more than the women do. They, too, are working to conform to certain societal expectations. Yes.

Even so, I've known a good number of men from this generation (or slightly older: my grandparents' generation), and most of them were not domineering, not unkind to their wives or dismissive of their wives' opinions. True, I didn't know them when they were young men. Munro's older characters are significantly gentler with each other than her younger ones, albeit sometimes oddly so. To some degree even the younger characters are not being unkind given their social context: they assume it's the simple truth that a husband's role is to dictate and a wife's is to obey. This is a systemic problem more than a fault of individuals. Still. Munro's bone of contention got a bit monotonous at times, as much as I agree with her insights. The sameness of male/female relationships in the collection dulled the impact of stories which, individually or in more varied company, would have all packed the same kind of punch as the first few did.

In addition to said bones, though, this collection offers lots of meat. It will be rewarding to return to individual stories in the future, which I think will be a more palatable way of appreciating Munro than reading a collection of hers cover to cover. And there is plenty here to appreciate: the role of memory throughout these stories, for example, and how we mold our recollections to fill the functions we need them to, forgetting or imagining where it is convenient. Or how Munro so cleanly and expertly handles shifts in time, quietly moving the reader forward and backward in a given history with no unnecessary apparatus and hardly a hiccup in the narrative flow. It's not a Woolfian vision of simultaneity; while the characters often recollect their pasts, the past is not present to them as it is to Clarissa Dalloway or Peter Walsh—but the narrative engine is so weightless and nimble that it can position the reader neatly at any desired perspective point vis-à-vis the action, and whisk them to a different one with no fuss at all, with absolute clarity. (The opening paragraphs of "Family Furnishings" are excellent at this, and the titular story shows a similar character-based flexibility in its use of a roving limited third-person narrator.)

Munro is not comfort reading, in other words, but in small doses I will definitely be returning to her hard, occasionally tender, lying world.


  • You've hit on exactly why I like short stories, their ability to contain the world in 20 or so pages. I've only read a few by Munro at this point. I agree that she is wonderful, but like most short story authors, best read in doses smaller than an entire anthology.

    Most writers return to the same set of themes over and over again. I wonder if this is simply the case with Munro's men. As originally published in periodicals over several years, their similarity might not be repetitious or monotonous, but a revisiting of the same themes.

    In any case, she is worth reading.

    • Hey, thanks for stopping by, CB!

      You make a good point about collections of stories previously published elsewhere, and how authors often return to a given theme to work through it repeatedly in different ways. On their own (if I had read them in a magazine, for example) each of these stories would have struck me as an absolute gem—indeed, many still did. So perhaps my expectation that the collection should work as an organic whole just needs to be jettisoned in favor of a slower, more piecemeal approach. :-) In any case, I agree that Munro is definitely worth reading!

  • This sounds pretty much like the Munro I know, although the one collection I have read, Something I Have Been Meaning to Tell You (1974) has, as I remember it, more variety of male behavior.

    Actually, I'll argue for a difference. I do not remember those stories as compressed novels, but rather as the one extraordinary episode from an otherwise ordinary novel. The 300 page novel is implied by the solidness of the piece we see. But who needs it, since this one chapter is so good on its own?

    If only more writers were willing to just give us the best parts!

    • AR: YES, excellent call on the chapter vs. whole novel analogies. I felt a twinge of dissatisfaction when I wrote that bit about condensed novels—yours is better. Amazing how Munro can combine that solidness you mention with the utter lightness and flexibility of her narration. It's so well done.

  • I've heard lots of people say how great Munro is and I keep thinking I should read her sometime but I never really felt that interested and compelled until now. These stories sound really interesting and the writing itself sounds marvelous. I'm putting this book on my TBR list and just might get to it one of these days.

    • I'd love to hear your thoughts, Stefanie. She might be good for one of your short-format reading opportunities - like, I seem to remember that you have a book specifically designated for reading on your lunch break? That would divide her up into shorter segments, which might cut down on the repetitions that bothered me.

  • I'd agree with AR. All her stories seem to come out of a whole, solid, breathing, meticulously formed background. (Atwood, now, those could be condensed novels, lots of them.) I hadn't noticed the monotony of male behavior you mention, perhaps because I was focusing more on the women; my fault. But the stories are so tender-crisp and salty, I love them.

    • Yes! I agree with him, too. And love your formulation of "a whole solid, breathing, meticulously formed background." You've intrigued me about Atwood's short stories—I keep meaning to look up her collection Surfacing as part of this project on disgust I'm contemplating...

  • "the human tendency to feel pride in one's flaws and shame in one's strengths"

    I love that not only because it so fitting a description of a facet of Munro's short story work but resonates personally for me. Well said. And I also think that the men are cut from the same mold here, almost as a foil though in some cases. Women's character/personality emerge against similar models of male oppression. That sounds over the top as I write it because her presentation is subtle but I think that is it.

    Always prefer to dip into short story collections, and often think that I should write of them one by one rather than as a collection when I finish.

    • Thanks, Frances! Speaking of personal resonance, there was a lot that hit uncomfortably close to home for me in this collection, which added to the "little goes a long way" feeling. I'm split on how to read short story collections in general; sometimes reading one back-to-back can result in a larger-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience, but other times, as you say, the individual pieces are stronger on their own. I also like your formulation of the men providing a uniform background for the women's development—agree that without Munro's trademark subtlety, this would never come off as well!

  • I loved this collection! While I agree somehow with A.R. re: her stories being one extraordinary episode, I felt more connected to your statement of Munro's "ability to establish whole histories with one or two well-chosen words" as it was how I felt about this collection too. I actually liked to read them one after another as opposed to other short story collections where I would've rather read in small doses. To me this was where she differed with other short story writers. I feel like her stories are mini-versions of Anita Brookner novels, for example. I didn't notice about the male uniformity but then I plan to reread it someday and will keep that in mind. I so want to read more of her, and how weird that they didn't really feel that sad to me. In fact, they were in a sense comforting.

    P.S. I've missed you and the rest of the Woolfies. Have so little time to blog. But I'm glad I was able to visit you today! xo

    • Claire! So nice to see you around the internet! That's amazing that you didn't find these stories sad—I found them rather crushing. Still, the craftsmanship was inspiring enough to keep me encouraged as I read. And now you have me intrigued about Brookner, whose work I haven't read. Another one for the perpetual TBR list! :-)

  • I've only read one Munroe book - The View From Castle Rock - and loved it unconditionally. I really liked her voice, so direct and yet profound. I don't remember anything striking me about gender representation. I'll bear it in mind the next time I read her.

    • Yes, I know what you mean about her voice. She is doing SO MUCH with every sentence and yet they seem so fluid, so easy, so direct. I'll keep The View from Castle Rock in mind when I'm ready to read more of her—she is so prolific that it's a bit challenging to know where to go next.

  • I've read one collection of Munro's stories. While recognising that she is a gifted writer, I instinctively knew she wouldn't be a writer I loved. As you say, small doses are enough.

    • Small doses do indeed go a long way when a writer's prose is this condensed and resonant. I don't think Munro will be a favorite for me either, but I do very much admire her chops. :-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography