By Alice Wu
Alice Munro’s sixth book, The Progress of Love, marks a striking change in her writing style. Two of her earlier works, The Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are?, feature heavy autobiographical influences, diving deeply into the lives of Del Jordan and Rose, respectively. Both are characters from small Ontario towns who burn with artistic ambition, much like Munro herself. Yet in The Progress of Love, Munro represents a much wider range of lifestyles. She deftly plumbs the subjective experiences of each point-of-view character, while revealing her skepticism about how well humans can really understand each other. In stories like “The Progress of Love,” “Fits,” and “A Queer Streak,” Munro depicts a world where other people’s minds and histories are frustratingly inaccessible. Anyone may in fact realize that there are latent monstrous qualities within their loved ones. One way to cope with this prospect is to avoid facing reality or to mentally supplant it with a private fiction—a more palatable, falsified version of events. Munro illustrates that these narratives can engender false expectations or prevent an individual from loving another person’s authentic self. Yet these outcomes may be necessary if the alternative—the truth—is too painful to accept.
In the collection’s titular story, the protagonist Phemie tries to empathize deeply with her mother Marietta and understand the latter’s past suffering, yet Phemie ultimately thwarts her own efforts. In a key passage, she recounts what, according to Marietta, was her own mother Euphemia’s suicide attempt. As Phemie reconstructs the incident, there is a shift in the text from first-person narration to third-person omniscient (PL 9). There is suddenly no “I” speaking, and the references to “Marietta’s father”—not “my grandfather”—seem to erase Phemie’s influence as the overarching narrator of the story (PL 11). Linguist Emile Benveniste would call this an instance of historical utterance, in opposition to discourse. The latter “assum[es] a speaker and a hearer, and in the speaker the intention of influencing the other in some way” (Benveniste 209). Historical narration, by contrast, appears objective and unmotivated because “the events seem to narrate themselves” (Benveniste 208). Ajay Heble argues that this section “constitute[s] an attempt by Phemie to relive the original event, to experience what her mother, Marietta, went through” (145). Phemie can never succeed, but not for a lack of dedication.
“Mama?” calls Marietta under the trees, under the clotheslines. … It was late spring, the day was cloudy and mild. In the sprouting vegetable gardens, the earth was damp, and the leaves on the trees seemed suddenly full-sized, letting down drops of water left over from the rain of the night before.
“Mama?” called Marietta.(PL 10)
Here, the narrative voice switches abruptly to the present tense, highlighted by the parallel structure between the first lines of each paragraph. This tense change suggests Phemie is trying to imagine her mother’s experience as vividly unfolding in the present, not as part of some distant past. Yet these very attempts cause Phemie to fill in gaps with her imagination—distancing herself from her mother’s truth. The critic Mark Levene argues that Phemie embellishes her mother’s stories with “details … her mother would almost certainly never have said” (146). Indeed, Marietta’s younger self would probably not have paid attention to “full-sized” leaves, not when she was worried for her mother’s life. At the same time, if Phemie relied strictly on Marietta’s words, she could only experience a shadow of this traumatic event.
Phemie’s efforts to reconstruct the past are also doomed by the fact that Marietta herself can no longer access it: she must rely on her limited knowledge and fallible memory. Beryl contests Marietta’s account of their mother’s suicide attempt, claiming that Euphemia had a rope around her neck, but that the rope was merely hanging over—not tied to—a ceiling beam (PL 22). In other words, Beryl remembers this “suicide attempt” as being for show, meant to punish their father after his recent affair (PL 22). Munro never definitively reveals Euphemia’s intentions. Beryl and Marietta are Phemie’s only sources of information, yet their contradicting claims mean at least one sister initially misinterpreted Euphemia’s actions or has since misremembered them. As such, Phemie must grapple with the unknowability of the truth. Munro explores this idea more obliquely through a wallpaper metaphor. When Phemie visits her old family home, she tries to strip away the newest layer of paper with a modernistic bubble design and reveal the layer below, which shows cornflowers on a white background. This search for the original paper parallels her search for pure, unbiased information about the past. Yet when she succeeds in ripping away a swatch of the bubble paper, the cornflower paper comes off too (PL 27). The top and bottom layers, respectively, are stuck together; likewise, Phemie must derive any understanding of the past from a source who exists in the present. And that source will inevitably colour the facts with their own subjectivity. Munro gestures to this idea through the chronology of “The Progress of Love,” shifting from the present to the past and then back again. She suggests that a story is not a neat string of causally linked events that anyone could recreate. It is more like a collage, where individual tellers choose memories from their limited stock and decide how much weight to give each detail. The absolute truth of what Marietta has experienced—or, as Heble puts it, a “privileged founding moment of knowledge”—will forever be closed off to Phemie (145). Thus, Munro shines light on a fundamental chasm of understanding between individuals.
Throughout this collection, Munro implies that an individual can never truly know someone else, no matter how long or close their relationship with that person is. Peg and Robert’s relationship in “Fits,” for example, should be very intimate. They have been married for five years when the story starts, and Robert’s tenderness for his wife is evident (PL 107). When she works hard on papers for high school courses, he is “moved by her earnest statements … and angry that she never [gets] more than a B-plus ” (PL 109). Robert is emotionally invested in his wife’s interests. He cares about her. Another reason why Robert might expect to know Peg well is that her personality seems very transparent. She gives “quick transactional smile[s]” while working in the Gilmore Arcade, never feigning a personal touch just to please others (PL 108). Meanwhile, other townspeople converse politely, but performatively: they enact a “sort of dance of good intentions” where “assurances are supposed to be repeated” (PL 108). Despite the length and closeness of Peg and Robert’s relationship, there are dark parts of Peg that her husband never knew. Robert makes this realization while reflecting on the death of their neighbours, the Weebles, by murder-suicide. Though Peg walks in on the murder scene and later claims that Walter Weeble’s leg was sticking out into the hall, the constable, a more reliable source, says it was Walter’s head (PL 125, 131). Robert fails to understand why his wife might deliberately lie to him. Why would she downplay the more graphic horrors of a shot head and replace it with a “whole and decent” leg (PL 131)? The story’s structure only further complicates the situation. According to Heble, because Munro does not provide Robert’s memory of the constable’s report until the very end of the story, she is implying that Robert himself does not realize Peg’s lie until his after-dinner walk (PL 153). People may not immediately realize inconsistencies in what they are told, and there could be even more that Robert does not know about his wife.
In “A Queer Streak,” too, Munro demonstrates that even one’s closest relations are ultimately unknowable. Given the sheer amount of time she has spent with them, Violet would expect to know her sisters well: she used to nurture and play with Dawn Rose and Bonnie Hope, curling their hair and fashioning costumes for them out of old curtains (PL 212). Yet Violet later discovers that the mysterious person writing death threats to her father is, of all people, Dawn Rose. Violet then sees “the smile of chubby little Dawn Rose, her sister, and the grin of a cold, sly, full-grown, slatternly, bad-hearted stranger,” a sight full of contradictions (PL 226). Dawn Rose is Violet’s biological sister, someone with whom she shares core life experiences and family traits, yet she appears to be a “stranger,” someone Violet does not know at all. The name “Dawn Rose,” despite sounding so innocent, flowery, and hopeful, belongs to someone who appears “full-grown, slatternly, bad-hearted.” Munro makes the ironic suggestion that the more a relationship between two people progresses—the more they know about each other—the more they may realize how little they knew in the first place. This subversion of linear progress also takes place on the level of narrative structure. Carol Ann Howells points out that the endings of Munro’s stories tend to be indeterminate, never reaching a satisfying conclusion, and her stories jump back and forth temporally (88). “A Queer Streak” ends with one such backwards movement in time, with Violet’s nephew Dane learning about her failed suicide attempt and how she met Wyck, her late husband (PL 253). Dane realizes that his aunt has many untold stories, and that she is more of a stranger than he expected.
Hidden monstrosity is a theme that Munro not only explores through Dawn Rose in “A Queer Streak,” but also through several characters in “Fits.” Munro frequently alludes to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a story illustrating how Victor Frankenstein is not so different from the monster he creates, even though he appears to be a respectable scientist from the outside. Like Frankenstein and Robert Walton, Peg’s ex-husband Dave leaves polite society and journeys to the Arctic (PL 107). Robert arguably embarks on an “Arctic” journey too, given that he takes a walk in a snowy landscape at the end of the story (PL 129-130). Munro, like Shelley, also explores the theme of knowledge, though she focuses less on the scientific kind and more on knowledge of other people. Through her connections to Frankenstein, Munro hints that in her story too, seemingly normal characters like Peg can hide grotesque qualities. At first glance, Peg seems to offer a reprieve from Robert’s past explosive relationships. She prizes order and cleanliness, once asking for a bar of pink soap for Christmas as a child (PL 113). By contrast, Robert and his former lover, Lee, used to argue viciously. She compared him to a dog with a “‘big disgusting [tongue] hanging out’”; he taunted her for her “‘horrendously boring self-centered conversation’” (PL 127 ,128). The most tragic element of these arguments becomes clearer upon reflecting on Robert and Lee’s names. They evoke the famous Confederate general Robert E. Lee and, more broadly, the American Civil War. This was a conflict where one nation became, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, a “house divided.” And in Robert and Lee’s case, the home, a place of supposed love and tenderness, became no better than a battleground. Robert’s realization of Peg’s lie holds the potential to destabilize his current household. It suggests that at her core, Robert’s quiet wife is not so different from his past lovers. She still experiences terrifying, yet universal, emotions. Her stoic reaction to a grisly scene where a husband—Walter Weeble—has murdered his wife, indicates that she may harbour a deep understanding of the fury behind the incident (PL 116). Indeed, her son Clayton testifies to Peg’s secret, explosive temper: when she used to fight with Dave, Clayton thought “‘one of [the two adults] was going to come and kill [him] with a knife’” (PL 126). Despite Robert’s deliberate efforts to accept a peaceful life and leave the strife of his old relationships behind, he may be doomed to repeat the past (PL 129).
Given the potential for monstrous discoveries, Munro intimates that when characters avoid facing uncomfortable truths about their loved ones head-on, they may be able to reduce their suffering. This once again connects The Progress of Love to Frankenstein, where a central theme is that knowledge brings about danger, or that individuals should seek “‘happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition’” (Shelley 157). Robert embodies this idea when he decides not to ask Peg about the discrepancy in her and the constable’s accounts of the murder scene. Munro makes a critical structural choice here, placing Robert’s decision after the revelation of his tempestuous dynamic with Lee, and after he imagines the “wrenching and slashing”—or violent interactions—that must have ended Peg and Dave’s marriage (PL 130). The story structure suggests that Robert’s awareness of his and Peg’s monstrosity is his motivation for avoiding a risky conversation topic. He knows he and his wife possess explosive tempers, the kind that escalated into violence in the Weeble household. Denying this fact will at least preserve short-term domestic peace. Munro again hints at the virtues of surface-level social interactions with the metaphor of Robert walking on a snow crust. While he stays on the crust, or the surface, there is no wet snow seeping into his boots (PL 130). Were he to step deeper into the snow and his relationships, his discoveries might be chilling, weighing him down.
In “A Queer Streak,” Violet adopts a similar stance, choosing not to ask Dawn Rose why she wrote death threats to King Billy. Violet reasons that it would be “bad enough” if Dawn Rose answers that it were all for a joke (PL 226). What frightens her more, though, is if her sister says nothing at all (PL 226). The implication would be that there was no reason behind Dawn Rose’s actions. She would have nothing to gain from them, not even a laugh. They would constitute the senseless terrorizing of her own family, for which Dawn Rose does not even show “fright or remorse” (PL 226). These actions would be purely wicked, a horrifying possibility to have confirmed. Robert and Violet are unlike Phemie, whose mother passes away at the start of her story and can no longer provide answers about the past. Instead, these two characters are faced with questions they could ask but choose to keep to themselves. By avoiding potentially vile truths, they avoid unnecessary pain.
Munro uses Phemie to illustrate a different strategy for coping with the truth: cultivating private fictions about the world. Phemie’s horrifying discovery is that Marietta loathed her father, a supposed adulterer, so much that she burnt the entire inheritance he left her. This decision drastically limits Phemie’s future possibilities, and she needs a way to prevent her fury from consuming her. Early in the story, Phemie shares how excited she used to be about attending high school. Entrance exams brought her a thrill, with their “rustling sheets of foolscap, the important silence, the big stone high-school building” (PL 8). This asyndeton conveys how breathlessly and eagerly Phemie must have taken in her surroundings, at a juncture that she thought would change her life for the better. Yet, in Beryl’s words, Marietta “‘burned [her children’s] chances,’” or “‘everything the money could have got for them’” (PL 29). The word “everything” rings with ominous potential because it is without qualification. And since, as previously mentioned, Phemie cannot fully understand Marietta’s past, Phemie will never know how much Euphemia’s supposed suicide attempt hardened Marietta against her father. She will never know whether this trauma justifies her mother’s actions. Levene claims that “[Phemie’s] burden is to breathe rather than suffocate within the inherited story by modifying and altering its deterministic nature” (146). Thus, even after she realizes that the “memory” of her father standing by and watching her mother “carefully [drop] the bills into the fire” is false, she actively continues to believe it (PL 30). This is part of her search for both a sense of control and a silver lining, and she insists to her friend Bob Marks that “‘My father letting her do it is the point … I consider that love'” (PL 26). Her reference to “the point,” or a singular takeaway, suggests an avoidance of other less cheerful interpretations. It is by focusing on love that she avoids becoming resentful like Marietta; she rejects the very inheritance of hate that has trapped her in this situation.
Violet too uses a private fiction to cope in “A Queer Streak,” and it helps her maintain feelings of control after a devastating shock. After Violet finds out that Dawn Rose is the one terrorizing the family, she tells Trevor. Seeing that they are engaged, Violet should be able to be vulnerable to him, and she implores him to prove he loves her and to “come and get [her] and take [her] away” (PL 227). Yet instead, Trevor abandons Violet in her moment of weakness. He ends their relationship with a letter, explaining that as a future minister, his wife must have nothing scandalous in her past and “no hereditary taint or weakness” (PL 229 and 230). In other words, Trevor rejects Violet for her family, a factor outside her control. Her background would pose social difficulties, and he further insinuates that Violet herself is tainted and lesser because of her genetics. His reaction is prejudiced and cruel, and it suggests that Trevor does not love Violet after all. Yet she stands even more to lose. Trevor represents a “responsible and important sort of life”—a life of meaning (PL 216). So, when he leaves her, she feels as if “her future, her love, her luck, and her hopes” are all being “pulled off like skin”—an inextricable part of oneself (PL 231). Ripped off skin becomes a metaphor for Violet’s shattered identity, and she begins to contemplate suicide, picturing a “quick sunny flight” and the resulting “smack of the gravelly bank” upon falling to her death (PL 231). It is at Violet’s lowest point that Munro points to the role of fiction as a psychological buoy. While praying, Violet hears a disembodied—and perhaps divine—voice telling her that her life’s purpose is to “look after all [her family], and Dawn Rose in particular” (PL 232). The voice assigns Violet a new story to believe about her life. It redirects her focus to something she can control. Clearly, this has an uplifting effect, as she never follows through with her initial suicidal ideas (PL 233). This incident shows that a narrative does not have to be proven real to deliver emotional benefits. The voice may have been the product of Violet’s hallucinations, and she may only be deceiving herself. Yet as Munro suggests, self-deception is perhaps another form of self-kindness, or a means of survival.
That said, Munro also recognizes the problematic potential of false narratives. They can create unrealistic expectations and set people up for more heartache, or they can prevent an individual from seeing others as they really are. There is one day when Violet drives to Dawn Rose’s house, only to find that her sister is too busy to welcome her (PL 234). Violet’s belief that she is meant to care for her family carries her through a difficult period, but what happens to her when she begins to feel rejected? It seems that yet another vision for her life has shattered, causing an inner voice to tell her that her life is “tragic,” or doomed (PL 234). This is too much for Violet. She subsequently drives her car into a ditch, either as a suicide attempt or because her tears are blinding her (PL 234). Evidently, narratives that teach one individual to rely on others’ validation can be dangerous. Narratives where an individual sees others as she wants them to be—not as they are—also have sobering effects. This becomes clear in “The Progress of Love,” where Phemie’s view of love is one party “doing what seems natural and necessary, and the other believ[ing] that the important thing is for that person to be free, to go ahead” (PL 30). In other words, she conceives of love as accepting people as they are. Yet Phemie herself leans on a private fiction to avoid certain painful truths about Marietta: Phemie focuses on a false memory of her father supporting her mother, instead of how her mother hurt her. This contradiction raises the question of whether it is truly possible to love difficult people, and Munro offers no simple answers. The title of this collection may very well be ironic, for dynamics of love may only become more complicated with time.
Munro suggests that there is never a point where an individual can know everything about someone else. As a relationship progresses, or as someone learns more about the one they love, they may uncover horrible things. Characters like Marietta, Peg, and Dawn Rose appear ordinary, yet they have the capacity for profound selfishness, hatred, violence, wickedness. The people who care about them suffer for it and must find ways to cope. Joyce Carol Oates once described The Progress of Love as a “dissection of the ways we deceive ourselves in the name of love,” which may be true. Deception carries negative connotations, but Munro complicates this belief, showing that denial or private fictions do offer a real psychological uplift, while engendering other problems. The methods for navigating love are as imperfect as relationships themselves, and without better methods, there can be no true progress—only circling around the same points of pain.
Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics. Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. University of Miami Press, 1971.
Heble, Ajay. “’It’s What I Believe’: Patterns of Complicity in The Progress of Love.” The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro’s Discourse of Absence. University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp. 143–168, https://www.deslibris.ca/ID/417574.
Howells, Coral Ann. “The art of indeterminacy: The Progress of Love.” Alice Munro. Manchester University Press, 1998, pp. 85-100. Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/alicemunro1998howe/mode/2up. Accessed 6 Dec. 2021.
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