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“Tantalizing Silences”: Articulating Pain in The Progress of Love

by Emily Mernin

The Progress of Love (1986), a collection of eleven short stories by Alice Munro, grapples with the attempt to understand life through articulation. All the stories are different in structure and content. Unlike in some of Munro’s other collections, there are no shared characters among them. The subtle but strong and culminating threads running through the stories make them thematically coherent. The different perspectives and scales of pain they offer allow the stories to become branches of an answer to Munro’s inquiry: how much of an event can be recalled, understood, and made better through articulation? Then, how does pain motivate or suspend this? Some of the stories are narrated by a first-person narrator from a distant future, while others are subject to the ambiguous, unyielding third-person narrators of whose omnipotence Munro expertly balances and shades. All of them contain a retold or reshaped event, skewed from either limited perspective or purposeful revision. In this collection, Munro confronts the subjectivity of narration by holding characters accountable in their story-telling and remembering; the reader is forced to see the revision taking place within the narrative. Yet each story displays this differently, glittering with singularity; each story forms an archipelago in a sea of reimagination, prolepsis, and pain. In The Progress of Love, the stories are distorted negatives of true events – characters alter memories and approach life whilst hovering around omissions. There is an inextricable, simultaneous characterization of narrative and protagonist in these stories that mirrors the way pain structures our articulation and understanding of life.

Munro’s subject is the family. She focuses on generational gaps and bridges and what can’t be understood between them. In the titular story “The Progress of Love,” there are stretches of silence and layers of grudges encompassing a family. The title signals the reader to look for what travels from generation to generation. In the “Circle of Prayer,” Munro expands on this familial progression, with its cyclicality and tendency toward painful, and then hopeful returns. In “The Progress of Love” the fluctuating structure makes continuous the life and pain between mother and daughter. Munro emphasizes throughout the book: love does not travel alone, nor is it painless. In his short chapter “Munro’s Progress” (1987) from his book, Reading Alice Munro: 1973-2013, Robert Thacker writes, “The Progress of Love offers both greater complexity and, oddly enough, greater uncertainty […] of meaning and of being: these stories offer a complex strangeness at the wonder of it all” (76). The stories “The Progress of Love,” “Miles City, Montana,” and “Fits” speak clearly. Their perspectives inform the reader of how pain – physical or emotional – influences narration. In the wake of storytelling, we see an enigmatic character understood. All three stories begin with death, yet move distinctively to embody the strangeness which Thacker refers to.

Euphemia, also known as Phemie or Fame, the narrator of the titular story, “The Progress of Love,” is a middle-aged woman and recent divorcée. She receives a call from her father, telling her that her mother, Marietta, has died. The majority of the story is a reflection on her childhood, centered around a summer when she was twelve, juxtaposed with events in the life of her mother, Marietta. In both narrative layers, Fame’s and her mother’s, the reader experiences divergent memories of one event.  Fame discloses a story her mother told her of witnessing her own mother’s, Fame’s grandmother’s, suicide attempt. According to Marietta, she encountered her mother in their barn, in a noose, ready to jump. Fame repeats her mother’s abbreviated claim about why her mother did this: “‘her heart was broken’” (13). When Fame says, “I always had a feeling, with my mother’s talk and stories, of something swelling out behind. […] There was a cloud, a poison, that had touched my mother’s life. And when I grieved my mother, I became a part of it” (Munro 13), Munro emphasizes the nebulous shape of narrativized memories. She provides an image of how storytelling slices, with language, an expansive, unknowable thing. In this story, pain is located in the hieroglyph of the past; it lies between narratives and memories.

Later, Fame remembers Marietta’s sister, her aunt Beryl,  undermining the story of the near-suicide. Beryl laughs and says the noose was not tied properly around the beam –  that it was all done just to “get a rise” (Munro 22) out of their father, and then, “that was their whole life together” (22). The two conflicting memories – Marietta’s and Beryl’s – complicate our understanding of the narrative while becoming the most effective characterizations of the two women. Fame thinks, “why shouldn’t Beryl’s version of the same event be different from my mother’s? Beryl was strange in every way – everything about her was slanted, seen from a new angle […] [My mother’s version] absorbed Beryl’s story, closed over it” (23). Untruths are equated with lucidity of character throughout the book.  In “Fits,” what Peg does not say reveals more about her character than what the narrator can. In “Jesse and Meribeth,” Jesse’s lie and Meribeth’s small fibs fluctuate and act similarly as true descriptors: genuine moments. There is a self-reflexive moment at the end of “Jesse and Meribeth” that affirms this: “it didn’t occur to me how much I had been myself all along […] I didn’t see that I was the same one, embracing, repudiating” (188). In this reflection, Jesse understands the development of her character from the same perspective of the reader; the narrative reveals her.

In his essay “‘It’s What I Believe’: Patterns of Complicity in The Progress of Love,” Ajay Heble emphasizes the role of subjectivity in The Progress of Love in the context of Munro’s larger body of work. He argues, “in explicitly declaring that we cannot take everything we read for granted these stories […] clearly contribute to Munro’s evolving poetics of surprise” (Heble 79). When discussing prolepsis in “The Progress of Love,” Heble alludes to the way pain structures the narrative. He writes, “Phemie [has] an unsated but implicit desire to challenge the importance of foundations and origins. What seems to be at issue here is the problem of truth, and Phemie’s narration, rather than separating truth from falsehood, serves to conflate the two” (58). Heble acknowledges the way “putting off discussing what seems to be at the core of the narrative” (58) – her grandmother’s suicide attempt – challenges the stability of truth, but doesn’t explain why she might be compelled to do so. This urge to conflate and suspend narratives must be rooted in her painful understanding that her mother’s tragic, watershed moments have colored the entire course of her life.  Munro emphasizes this inherited pain as specifically feminine when Fame thinks, “my brothers weren’t bothered by any of this. I don’t think so. […] When I just had the two boys myself, no daughters, I felt as if something could stop now – the stories, and griefs, the old puzzles you can’t resist or solve” (14). Heble’s notice of the proleptic structure is important when considering these “old puzzles” (14). Yet, it might be less about genuine deferral than it is about catharsis. The story is not structured to convenience, inform, or mislead the reader; it is structured for Fame’s understanding of the life she led and was placed in, so it is ordered on the page as it might be in her mind.

Fame remembers Marietta saying, when discussing her hatred for her own father: “one drop of hatred in your soul will spread and discolor everything like a drop of black ink in white milk” (Munro 6). This hate for her father leads Marietta to burn her inheritance money in the oven. As an adult, Fame tells her coworker about the event: “she put it in just a few bills at a time, so it wouldn’t make too big a blaze. My father just stood and watched her” (26). Although their family is poverty-stricken and Fame is resultantly unable to continue school, Marietta’s grudge holds too strong to take the money. We see grudge overpowering love; we see too, their dialectical relationship and place in the family structure. Fame sees, in this possibly hateful act, love: “my father letting her do it is the point. To me it is. My father stood and watched and he never protested. If anybody had tried to stop her, he would have protected her. I consider that love” (26). This image can also be read as a symbol for what the narration of memory is always guilty of: like with a drop of ink, memories are colored by the pain or happiness we feel hovering around or seeping from them. For Munro, the past is innocent, milky, and unknowing. It is remembering, the act of consecrating the past, that is incriminating – or at least treacherous and subjective. At the end, Fame discovers that her father never knew about her mother burning the money. She says, “how hard it is for me to believe that I made that up. It seems so much the truth it is the truth; it’s what I believed about them. I haven’t stopped believing. But I have stopped telling the story” (30). Fame connects her own subjective ‘wrong’ memory to her mother’s and in turn, to Beryl’s. Like Fame understands Beryl’s version and why it is different, the reader must understand Fame’s own distorted truth and the pain it relieves.

The ultimate lines of the story begin, “moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having, even if the parting has to come sooner or later” (31). This again suggests that memory, which is structured by differing, subjective accounts of one unknowable event, functions as an attempt of catharsis for Fame. The narrative is a response of reaction to the death of Fame’s mother. Heble mentions that Munro “shows us that events cannot be narrated independently of a speaker” (61), but The Progress of Love provides a more dialectical approach. Noting the aforementioned relationship between characterization and narration, it might be more accommodating to suggest that characters, or people, become who they are not in the watershed moments, but from the way they reshape, imagine, invent, or even omit these moments in memory and further, in their telling or their inability to tell.  Munro also emphasizes the provocation of memory by tragedy. Characters and their stories are formed together and inextricable.

“Fits” separates pain into the physical and the emotional. It begins with the gory murder-suicide of the Weebles, carried out by Mr. Weebles. Narrated in third-person, the story is about the strained marriage of Robert and Peg, the Weebles’ neighbors. Peg discovered their bodies when she went to deliver eggs one morning. Even in a story with a third person, seemingly omniscient narrator, the central narrative – in this case, the murder, and what Peg saw – is offered through explicitly subjective layers: Robert’s telling of what Peg recalled to him, what Karen told Robert that Peg told her, and what Robert overheard in the local diner. The narrator, like Peg, omits the gore of the event: “her footprints showed on the carpet and on the linoleum tiles, and outside on the snow” (114), is the first indication that there may have been some blood involved. Although the narrator, like Robert, reconstructs the account of what happened, the narration aligns with Peg’s subjectivity. Like Peg saying, “I knew you’d find out pretty soon” (116) to Karen, the narrator informs the reader with great restraint. The withheld structure of the story and distant narrator locates the reader beside Peg. The absence of violent details understates the pain of the event, making it more poignant and affecting. The pervasiveness of the absence looms over the narrative. Through negation, the scale of the murder and the effect it had on Peg is conveyed.

The physical, public violence of the murder is paralleled with the fighting and tension between Robert and Peg. Heble suggests that by the end of the narrative, Robert and Peg are implicated in violence that approaches the gravity of Walter Weebles’s murder-suicide (Heble 67). Implication and blame are at the heart of the story. The vignette of the fight between Robert and his old lover, Lee, interposed in the middle of Robert’s walk to the diner accentuates this:

It was not the laughter of a breakthrough into reconciliation; they did not fall upon each other in relief […] They laughed in a recognition of their extremity […] They trembled with murderous pleasure, with the excitement of saying what could never be retracted; they exulted in wounds inflicted but also in wounds received […] Afterward they were enormously and finally sick of each other but no longer disposed to blame (Munro 128).

Here, unlike in “The Progress of Love,” there is no hope or possibility of reconciliation – only the unsettling recognition of implication. Peg’s laconic reaction to the murder can be read as a deep, internalized understanding of the emotion behind it. Peg and Robert’s own potential to reach that extreme, mirrored in the gossip of the town, is alluded to. The final image of Robert approaching a snow-covered pile of old, overturned cars is the symbolic recognition of their marriage in the murder: “how close he had to get before he saw that what amazed him and bewildered him so was nothing but old wrecks, and how then he felt disappointed, but also like laughing” (131). The murder-suicide of the Weebles is required to explain the tension of their marriage: it takes form in comparison. Heble writes of Peg’s lie to Robert, “In distorting this one detail, Peg seeks to appropriate the violent origins of the incident with her own metalanguage” (66). This appropriation is characteristic of protagonists in The Progress of Love. It exaggerates the notion that through memory, through making clear images of blurred moments, people become themselves. In equations and parallel images, Munro makes the strongest claims about characters and the intricacies of human relationships.

Mark Levene’s article “‘It was about vanishing’: A Glimpse of Alice Munro’s Stories” (1999), swiftly moves through analyses of her collections, their salient themes and motifs, and poignant structures and vivid minutiae, in an arching discussion of her style as it becomes aware and sensitive to spaces. He refers to The Progress of Love as her “masterwork to date” (Levene 846). He attributes this to her honing in on “epistemological gaps and the complexities of telling” (849) more successfully than in any other collection. He writes, “although absence and loss are never far from the surface of these intricately narrated stories, the supple, expansive language, the moments of luminousness and mystery unfold a triumph” (849). This triumph – full luminous stories around an absence – is what makes “Miles City, Montana” such a suggestive and extreme story. It is structured around a multitude of absences yet holds on its own as a complete story.  The emotional problem of the story, the death of children, is so severe that it warrants attentive and haunted reading. In this story, recurring themes that Munro grapples with in The Progress of Love, and her larger body of work, collude – mother-daughter relationships, transient spaces, marital distances, growth into womanhood, narrative and physical implication, and what keeps us from falling apart and what cannot be articulated.

Levene suggests that “in ‘Miles City, Montana’ the parents invent characters for their children” (849). There is evidence in the story that the reason for this invention is from a tragedy that happens outside of the narrative which makes the story a delineation of what pain is too painful to recall, and how far someone – specifically the narrator – can go in memory. It is a story about blame, complicity, and accidents. There are three drowning-related characters: a child named Steve Gaulley, farm turkeys in a rainstorm, and the narrator’s youngest child, Meg. The story is narrated in the first-person from a somewhat distant future. In the first part, the narrator recalls a childhood memory. It opens, “my father came across the field carrying the body of the boy who had been drowned,” and moves into detail, “his face was turned in to my father’s chest, but I could see a nostril, an ear, plugged up with greenish mud,” (84) before dramatically breaking any impression of objectivity. She corrects herself, “I don’t think so. I don’t think I really saw all this” (84), an enigmatic line which recalls “The Progress of Love” in its misremembering and narrative intervention. It gives language, maybe, to what Peg from “Fits” found ineffable. She goes on to describe the boy’s funeral; she remembers how upset she felt watching the ceremony and how arbitrary it seemed – her in itchy wool tights, adults singing hymns, the flowers and the piano. She “felt a furious and sickening disgust” unexplainable to her at the time, which died down into “a thin, familiar misgiving” (86). This scene introduces tragedy into the text – one that was not entirely her own. Because of that, she can imagine and retell it, incorporate it into her grasping for the ability articulate and understand her own tragedy.

The story cuts to twenty years later when she and her family – her husband, Andrew, and her children Meg and Cynthia – get into their “brand-new car” (Munro 87) to drive from Vancouver to Toronto through the United States. The emphasis on the newness and safeness of their car is striking. She remembers, “Andrew congratulated the car several times. He said he felt so much better driving it than our old car” (88). They discuss its image and its sensibility. Repeated and salient images must be read suspiciously, or at least of significant import, when the narrator has already admitted to remembering things subjectively. The title of the story, when mentioned in the narrative as their next destination, makes the anticipation all the greater. It declares what seems like a minor stop to the passengers to be the site of a major event.  The previous part has already introduced the theme of death while Cynthia’s identification with the dead deer when playing Who Am I? —which only Meg can guess—and then her eerie nursery rhyme affirms its continuation in the second section:

Five little ducks went out one day,
Over the hills and far away.
One little duck went
Four little ducks came swimming back (91)

Again, as a muted horror story unfolds before them, the reader can question: how much actually happened this way? One way to interpret these signs of death is again, if the story acts as a cathartic attempt to understand events, these signs could be a form of self-punishment on the part of the narrator. They indulge in the notion that whatever did occur could have been prevented, or that it was obviously underway throughout. The narrator’s namelessness affirms and emphasizes the story as a memory reconstructed for his or her own use. Because of this, the reader and the narrator become more intimate and the narrative more personal.

The narrator discloses: “I haven’t seen Andrew for years, don’t know if he is still thin, has completely gone gray, insists on lettuce, tells the truth, or is hearty and disappointed” (Munro 92). Their lives and the disintegration of their marriage after this trip are alluded to. Unlike Andrew and the narrator, Meg and Cynthia exist only within the memory. Their existence is extreme and singular. It isn’t nuanced or expanded. We have no hint that their lives propelled forward. That the past tense is used to describe their physical features is unsettling as well. The narrator writes of them: “It seems to me now that we invented characters for our children. We had them firmly set to play their parts. […] [Cynthia] was fair-haired, fair skinned, easily showing the effects of the sun […] [Meg’s] hair was brown, and we cut it in straight bangs. Her eyes were a light hazel, clear and dazzling” (90). On their trip, they stop in Miles City, Montana to let the kids swim in a public pool. It’s lunchtime and the distracted lifeguard says she will watch the girls. Meg, their three-year-old, nearly drowns in the deep end. The narrator experiences motherly intuition that something is wrong, and runs to the pool at the instant Meg needs to be saved. Conditioned for the death of a child, the reader expects it, but it doesn’t come. The narrator and her husband call it “a chain of lucky links” (102) as they examine everything that happened. She remembers: “that was all we spoke about – luck. But I was compelled to picture the opposite” (102). Here, the two parts unite. In the first part, we see her remembering and hating her parents’ complicity, and in the second part, we see her coming to understand their complicity and the constant possibility of tragedy. Unlike in “The Progress of Love,” there is no explanation for the intensity of this  recollection, no beginning phone call. The story suggests that a tragedy equivalent to the death of her children occurs outside of the text, one which is too expansive for the narrator to mention and too painful to be understood on its own, objectively. In this way, the title could be read as a wish, and the story an attempt at making it true: what if the pain of parenthood could have ended there, in Miles City, Montana, and what if that incident had remained the most painful, the worst of it?

Robert Thacker calls The Progress of Love, unlike many other analyses, “Miles City, Montana” “perhaps the most complex story in the collection” (77). And it is. In the ultimate scene, Andrew and the narrator have to make a choice “either to continue on the interstate or head northeast […] we agreed that the interstate would be faster […] nevertheless we decided to cut back to Highway 2” (104). This choice, remembered in great detail with an emphasis on possibility, is evidential of something bad still to come. Like “Fits,” the story turns on possibilities. The narrator remembers Andrew’s awe of her motherly intuition at the pool. She interjects, “partly I wanted to believe that, to bask in my extra sense. Partly I wanted to warn him — to warn everybody­ — never to count on it” (105). The lack of relief expressed in these final scenes after her daughter is saved produces anticipation. The feeling of death endures. The story ends with a line that recalls the ultimate, enigmatic line of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald 181) – “So we went on, with the two in the backseat trusting us, because of no choice, and we ourselves trusting to be forgiven, in time, for everything” (105). It ends on greater uncertainty, greater fear, revolving around a pain that eludes form in language.

In The Progress of Love, Munro insists on the importance of the unarticulated, absent narrative. She forces the reader to search for what is concealed and unsaid. Defining narrative as an always restricting, subjective attempt to reach what may never be reached, Munro creates a dialectical relationship between memory and the past. The structures are hinged on central characters’ perspectives; characterization relies on how much the structure of the story reveals. Through a multitude of perspectives, an embrace of subjectivity and complicity is offered as an approach to understanding life and its truths. Munro illustrates truth’s multivalence: she finds it in uncontrollable lies, opposing memories, and stark reservation. Although the scales of each story fluctuate and unsettle the reader – some characters embody what cannot be said while other, articulate characters hover more subtly around an absence; middle-aged marital tension is juxtaposed to the tension between young girls; consistent sexual abuse leads to mystifying marriage – their coherence is moving. They unite in their contingency on the simultaneity of pain and love.



Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Heble, Ajay. “‘It’s What I Believe’: Patterns of Complicity in The Progress of Love.” Alice
Munro. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print. 57- 80.

Levene, Mark. ‘It Was About Vanishing’: A Glimpse of Alice Munro’s Stories.” University of
Toronto Quarterly, vol. 68 no. 4, 1999, pp. 841-860. Web. Project MUSE.

Munro, Alice. The Progress of Love: Stories. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart Limited,
1986. Print.

Thacker, Robert. “Munro’s Progress (1987).” Reading Alice Munro. Calgary, AB: University
of Calgary Press, 2016. Ebook. 73-77.

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