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Hors-thème - Relire Dance of the Happy Shades d'Alice Munro / Reading Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro

"The light catches but doesn’t define them": Language in Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades

Nicola Chadwick
p. 171-183


Alice Munro envisage son œuvre comme le résultat permanent d’un échec de la mise en mot et elle écrit des nouvelles qui sont constamment soumises à des processus de changements, qui se caractérisent par l’ellipse narrative et le palimpseste élusif. Cet essai examine l’utilisation que fait Munro du langage dans son premier recueil, Dance of the Happy Shades, à partir d’une méthodologie poststructuraliste. Le travail théorique de Julia Kristeva sert de base de référence à l’étude des textes, en particulier ses écrits sur la dimension sémiotique du langage.

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Author's notes

Taken from an unpublished manuscript of Who Do You Think You Are, cited in Catherine Sheldrick Ross, "‘At Least Part Legend’: The Fiction of Alice Munro,"Probable Fictions: Alice Munros Narrative Acts, Louis MacKendrick ed., ECW Press, 1983, 112.

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  • 2 Alice Munro, "Author’s Commentary," in Sixteen by Twelve, ed. John Metcalf, Toronto Ryerson, 1970, (...)

A straining of something immense and varied, a whole dense vision of the world, into whatever confines the writer has learned to make for it.2
("Author’s Commentary," Alice Munro).

  • 3 Julia Kristeva, "A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident," in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi, (...)

But through the efforts of thought in language, or precisely through the excesses of the languages whose very multitude is the only sign of life, one can attempt to bring about the multiple sublations of the unnameable, the unrepresentable, the void.3
("A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident," Julia Kristeva).

1Alice Munro has been careful to emphasize, throughout her career, that she does not align herself with any particular movement, or school of thought—"I am not a writer who is concerned with ideas, I’m not an intellectual writer" (Gibson 241). She does not consciously engage with the zeitgeist in literary technique, does not expound on her fictional aesthetic or readily theorise on the craft of writing, labelling such activities "a lot of flim flam" (Hancok 76). Rather, as the introductory quotation to this discussion suggests, her focus remains on telling her stories, through the process of finding and making space for her "dense vision of the world" within the confines of the framework that she must, by necessity, use—language.

  • 4 Munro has talked, in several interviews about the expectancy that she is "working up" to a novel an (...)

2That said, although Munro may not be consciously writing from such a position, her work forms part of the larger Poststructuralist movement in literature, which seeks to loosen the binary "confines" of language to allow room for the marginalised voices, which have been silenced by suppressive generalisation in language, to find authentic articulation in an open, polyvocal signification system. Munro’s position is a complex one; her short stories are at once writings from the margins of the Empire, as a post-colonial Canadian writer, writings from the margins of the small-town Scotch-Irish Protestant milieu of rural South-Western Ontario, writings, as a female writer, from the margins of the male-dominated world of literature, and writings from the margins of the literary generic tradition, in which the novel is lauded as the pinnacle.4

3An exploration of any of these characteristics of Munro’s writing would prove illuminating and fruitful, but this discussion will focus specifically on Munro as a woman writer and the ways in which she employs language in the stories of Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) to give voice to female experience within the phallocentric system of signification that has functioned to "pen" women in the margins.

4In order to examine Munro’s relationship to, and use of, language in a postructuralist context, I will employ the theoretical work of Julia Kristeva as a frame of reference, specifically the approach to language that she traces in her writing on the semiotic. For Kristeva, signification in language, or "how language comes to mean" (Kristeva Reader, 90) as Toril Moi puts it in The Kristeva Reader, is the product of the continual interaction between the symbolic and the semiotic realms. The semiotic, or that which is "irreducible to the language object" (Kristeva Reader, 91), exists as rhythmic currents of energy and movement forming the pre-verbal chora. The chora is closely aligned with the mother and is pre-linguistic, thus, it resists expression in the symbolic order of language. As the subject moves through the Œdipal phase and becomes aware of himself as such, the semiotic rhythms of the chora are constrained by the symbolic order. However, the semiotic is not replaced with the symbolic, for it "provides and remains the foundation of all language," as Pam Morris indicates in her discussion of Kristeva (Morris 144). Rather, it is through contact between the semiotic and the symbolic, in the thetic process, that language is constituted, as Kristeva hypothesises:

These two modalities are inseparable within the signifying process that constitutes language, and the dialectic between them determines the type of discourse (narrative, metalanguage, theory, poetry, etc.) involved. (Kristeva Reader, 92)

5Thus, just as there can be no articulation of the purely semiotic, there can be no purely symbolic language either and, as Kristeva’s use of the term "signifying process" (italics are my own) indicates, she considers language to encompass both order and disorder and to be a continual interaction of the two, rather than a fixed system. Although portrayed as anterior to language, in fact, the semiotic persists as transgressions of the symbolic order, and it is particularly present in music and poetic language, as well as through intonation of voice, gesture and colour. The "explosion of the semiotic in the symbolic" (Kristeva Reader, 119) serves to disrupt language and to unfix the accepted order, creating new meaning.

6Yet, while the thetic processes of the semiotic and the symbolic can be infinite and signification in language, in Kristeva’s system, could continue to shift and transform ad infinitum, she qualifies her theory by saying that certain socio-political constraints can serve to "knot and lock [the signifying process] into a given surface or structure" (Kristeva Reader, 122), fixing meaning, which in turn restricts the identity of the subject. In About Chinese Women (1974) and A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident (1977) she highlights the gendered knotting and locking of language in a patriarchal society, identifying this as a current linguistic malaise and stating that, as a woman, she is "speaking the language of exile" (Kristeva Reader, 298). Here, Kristeva identifies the "generalisation" (Kristeva Reader, 296) of a male dominated discourse, which serves to exile women from language. Woman is relegated to the silent realm of the unconscious, which "retains everything repressed by the word" (Kristeva Reader, 153)—the semiotic—marginalized in language. Thus, in the totality of the signifying process, it is the buried, or "subterranean" (Kristeva Reader, 153) female voice, which contains the "truth" that will serve to subvert a limiting, patriarchal language.

It is understandable, then, that what the father doesn’t say about the unconscious, what sign and time repress…appears as their truth (if there is no "absolute," what is truth, if not the unspoken of the spoken?) and that this truth can be imagined only as woman. (Kristeva Reader, 153)

7Yet this is not to suggest that a return to the "unspoken" semiotic realm is preferable to the symbolic order, or even possible. Rather, the dissident must resist the two extremes of semiotic silence and a phallocentric symbolic order in which woman is exiled. The linguistic revolutionary, which in this case is a woman, must engage in a process of "listening" (Kristeva Reader, 156) in order to recognize the "unspoken of the spoken" in male dominated language, which may take the form of "whatever remains unsatisfied, repressed, new, eccentric, incomprehensible" (Kristeva Reader, 156). Kristeva recognizes the inherent difficulty in identifying that which is not expressed in language, but suggests that perhaps woman is specifically capable of sustaining this position in an effort to bring to the surface what the second of the introductory quotations to this discussion identifies, "the excesses of language whose very multitude is the only sign of life" (Kristeva Reader, 300).

8Munro similarly considers her aesthetic to be explicitly linked to her marginal vantage point, as a woman:

A subject race has a kind of clarity of vision and I feel that women have always had a clarity of vision which men were denied. And, in that way, this is a gift, it goes along with the lack of power. (Murch 72)

9This "clarity of vision" does not translate, as is perhaps expected, into straightforward, unified narratives within which conflicting points of view are resolved. Instead, this "clarity" is the ability, as Lorna Irvine suggests in her exploration of the mutability of Munro’s fiction, to "see with eyes more sensitive to the complexities and necessary contradictions of human existence," (Irvine 108) and to bring all of this to language to produce densely complex, layered texts-in-flux, in which multiple levels of vision and experience intermingle to produce an almost kaleidoscopic effect. This layering is explored in the first of the Dance of the Happy Shades stories, "Walker Brothers Cowboy," which depicts the process by which alternative levels of experience begin to come into focus, destabilizing the solid, familiar bedrock of the Lake Huron landscape, on which the young narrator’s reality has rested, thus far. This story maps, as Mark Levene states, "the physical and inner territory," (Levene 85) but blurs the line between the two.

10This begins during a walk with her father to "see if the lake’s still there" (Dance, 1). Behind this droll colloquialism lies the daunting realisation that beneath the clearly mapped out streets of Tuppertown, lie layered, shifting and deeply unknowable landscapes, in which the lake was literally not there. The narrator cannot conceive of "the tiny share…of time" (Dance, 3) that she occupies and cannot visualise the lake other than as she knows it, "with the safe swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown" (Dance, 3). Yet, the past continues to surface and disrupt the stability of her narrative like the maple trees on the street "whose roots have cracked and heaved the sidewalk and spread out like crocodiles" (Dance, 1).

11On the road again with her father, who is a travelling salesman, the narrator catches a glimpse into the shadowy "back country" (Dance, 3) of his past, "upheaving" the territory that he occupies in her reality, which had been so precisely delineated in her mind. Occupying this unmarked territory is Nora, an impoverished Roman Catholic woman, living with her blind mother and scraping by on a dusty, Depression-Era farm. The young narrator cannot yet give meaning to the unsettling tension that she feels between Nora and her father, beyond the discovery that with her he does indeed drink whiskey and knows a whole host of characters of whom she has never heard; but set against the earlier image of the unknown strata of the ground beneath her feet, the narrator becomes conscious that this is but the tip of the iceberg that shapes the unknown depths of the buried landscapes of her father’s past.

I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine. (Dance, 18)

12The seismic shift in her conception of her father, once as constant a point in her reality as the lake, unsettles her faith in the ability of language to encapsulate the world around her. As the car returns the narrator to familiar territory, she notes that "the sky becomes gently overcast, as always, nearly always, on summer evenings by the Lake" (Dance, 18). With her emergent consciousness of, as Beverly Rasporich describes, "the larger shapes that lie behind routine life," the familiar cannot be relied upon to remain as such, thus she is careful to undercut the absolute term "always."

13There is a deeper layer present in the narrator’s telling of this strange house call, in the figure of Nora herself, for hers is the silence at the centre of this tale—Who is she? What relationship does she have to the narrator’s father? Does the narrator’s mother know of her existence? Once again, the presence of the unknown in the story exerts a pressure on the surface reality of life. While Nora’s counter-narrative pulls at the central thread of the story, it cannot be contained within this first-person narration. As Levene confirms, this is "a zone of memory that will always be separate from the narrator as both daughter and as teller" (Levene 85). Rather, Nora is figured in the text as a vibrant flash of colour, energy and movement, her only mark on the narrative a metadiegetic line in the dust on the car. "She stands close to the car in her soft, brilliant dress. She touches the fender, making an unintelligible mark in the dust there" (Dance, 18). Yet, in inscribing her "unintelligible" mark and outpouring of energy and colour into the story, Munro brings the "unspoken of the spoken" into her text and it is in the tension between the known and the unknown and in making space for what is "not to be mentioned" (Dance, 18), that the story is "generated, " as Ailsa Cox posits in her exploration of Munro’s work (Cox 13).

  • 5 This story was written in 1959, the same year that Munro's own mother died after a long battle with (...)

14In "The Peace of Utrecht," which Munro herself has defined as her most autobiographical work,5 there is a shift from the subjective mapping of the physical landscape, to the labyrinthine mental realms of the childhood home in which the past pours into the present, the boundaries of the personal identity that you have constructed melt away and whatever is buried in the "black room at the centre of the house"(Metcalf 226) will come back to haunt you. The title of the story, replete with images of war and male heroism, prepares the reader for a narrative concerned with History, but we are instead presented with the subjective narrative of Helen, a woman returning to her hometown to visit her sister, who has cared for their mother until her recent death after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years. This technique is a familiar one in women’s writing and is usually concerned with rectifying "the erasure of the maternal" (Redekop 54) in historical narratives, as Magdalene Redekop reports. Yet, within Munro’s highly complex representation of matrilineal succession the mother in this story evades representation and her image refuses to be fixed into place in the symbolic order.

15Here again, there are multiple textual levels at play. Overlying these is the "official" story of the sisters’ childhood, "safely preserved in anecdote, as in a kind of mental cellophane" (Dance, 193). As this imagery suggests, these stories are removed from the realities of the "continuing disaster" (Dance, 193) of their childhood, yet their dialogue does not go beyond the "formulaic politeness and hedging indirectness" (Duncan 24) that Isla Duncan has identified as the main characteristic of their conversations—Maddy having declared that there is to be "no exorcising" (Dance, 191).

16However, this "mental cellophane" slowly dissipates as the boundary between past and present collapses, as is depicted when Helen re-enters the house for the first time, catching a glimpse of herself as she passes a mirror:

Then I paused…and turned to greet, matter-of-factly, the reflection of a thin, tanned, habitually watchful woman, recognizably a Young Mother…this in the hall mirror that had shown me, last time I looked, a commonplace pretty girl, with a face as smooth and insensitive as an apple, no matter what panic and disorder lay behind it. (Dance, 198)

17This striking (and interesting, if we consider it in relation to the Lacanian "mirror stage" of subjectivity) image depicts the temporal instability in the story, through which past and present intermingle, constantly undercutting any sense of linearity, which Robert Thacker identifies as a "catalytic factor" (Thacker 108) in Munro’s writing. This blurring of the borders of time is reflected also in the structure of the story, which Duncan has examined in depth in her study of Munro’s work. Instead of the closed, linear progression that a reader could expect of a historical text, this story is intensely elliptical, both in the sense that it is cyclical, as indicated by the very similar opening sentences of the two segments, and in the sense that there are literally holes in the text (Duncan 20). The salient silences that the series of ellipses creates are just as central as the words of the text, as we have seen in Kristeva’s theory of the duality of the signifying process; Cox confirms that "silence is as deeply embedded in the dialogic process as the spoken word" (Cox 49) in this story. Time in this narrative is not a reliable progression from one point to another, rather the coexistence of past and present in the text serve to undercut any sense of continuity or absolute truth, rather the narrative rests on the constant collision of memory and the current moment, in which each is being continually re-imagined.

18This mirror image also belies a further nuance in the text. Although silence is a significant presence, in the form of the mother and in the "desert" (Dance, 190) of silence that lies beneath the anecdotal, surface chatter of the sisters, this text also contains the "dual voice" (Duncan 19) of retrospection. This mingling of the past and the present within the text necessitates a split in the narrator herself, combining "first-person narration with omniscient description," as Robert Thacker suggests. Helen functions in the text as both a young girl and the woman who has returned home and is now observing the young girl, through the "backwards glance" of memory. In Helen’s first-person, retrospective narration, the binary opposites of subject/object are unsettled, and the two poles are transformed instead into a subjective flux.

19Unlike the events of the Peace of Utrecht, which "brought an end to the War of the Spanish Succession" (Dance, 201), reinstated clear borders between the warring factions and was neatly written and fixed into place in the grand narrative of History, as linear time marched onwards, Munro’s text is a history in the feminine-fragmented, multi-layered, polyvocal, elliptical and unresolved. Munro writes against the "generalisation" that Kristeva identifies as that which exiles women from representation in Western patriarchal discourse, as previously discussed, producing a text that brims with mutability and excess, in an attempt to undercut the idea of unified and absolute truth, and rigid meaning, by encompassing "whatever remains unsatisfied, repressed, new, eccentric, incomprehensible" in this intensely personal version of history. Helen and Maddy’s attempts to relegate their "Gothic mother" (Dance, 200) to the past, sealed off and "safely preserved in anecdote" is a failed project, as Coral Ann Howells notes, "in death, as in life, she refuses to be silenced as her voice, her face, and even her empty clothes" rise up out of the silences in the story, as the past continues to haunt the present.

20I have, thus far, spoken about some of the techniques that Munro employs to shape her narrative vision into one that, as Katherine Mayberry eloquently states in her examination of liberation through narration in Munro’s work, "combines voices, drops the device of a single, unifying perspective, moves almost imperceptibly among points of view" (Mayberry 64). There are further nuances in these stories that could be explored, but this discussion will now shift its focus on to just how Munro goes about constructing these minutely complex texts.

21In her essay, "What Is Real?", Munro likens her writing process to that of the many dressmakers that occupy her stories:

I start accumulating the material and putting it together…I see how this material might go together to make the shape I need, and I try it. I keep trying and seeing where I went wrong and trying again. (Metcalf 224)

22As with most things in the Munro landscape, there is more than one way to interpret the motif of clothing and dressmaking that is woven in to her narrative. Beverly Rasporich, for example, suggests that this forms a social commentary on women as occupying the position of object. The narrator of "Red Dress—1946" is reluctantly initiated into the role of "sexually alluring object" (Rasporich 39) at her first high school dance; Lois, of "Thanks for the Ride," dresses herself up in material "stiff and shiny like Christmas present wrappings" (Dance, 51), offering herself up to the male narrator for unwrapping. Alternatively, the activity of dressmaking could be considered a metaphor for the female writer coming to language.

23Running alongside the imagery of clothing is the process of recycling, as Helen observes when visiting her maiden aunts, everything in this female realm "must be used up, saved and mended and made into something else and used again." This idea of having to reuse old material to make something new is necessarily what female writers must do. The alternative to this—semiotic silence—can be seen in "Thanks for the Ride," in which the only way that the character of Lois, almost entirely non-verbal, can "show" (Dance, 55) herself in the text is as an object in the male narrators account of their liaison. In seeking to write her way out of the margins and into the position of speaking subject, the woman writer must learn to use the very language that has hemmed her into the position of object, ripping old patterns apart and trying to make something new, a better fit for her narrative form. This is most evocatively dramatized in "Walker Brothers Cowboy:"

We leave my mother sewing under the dining-room light, making clothes for me…She has ripped up for this purpose an old suit and an old plaid wool dress of hers, and she has to cut and match very cleverly. (Dance, 1)

24Each of these characters feels a certain level of discomfort in these recycled garbs, the narrator of "Walker Brothers Cowboy" is left "sweaty, itching" (Dance, 1) and in "Red Dress, 1946" she feels confined by the "very tight" (Dance, 152) dress. While Rasporich puts this discomfort down to feeling oppressed by having been "rescued" and returned home "socially adjusted" (Rasporich 39), it could equally be understood as a response to the weight of pre-determined failure in language that Munro herself refers to as an on-going process, for the material is "hard to work with, it pulls" (Dance, 147).

25However, in this reconstruction of linguistic material, Munro’s fiction does not take the form of radically deconstructed texts. Rather, as she admits in an interview with Graeme Gibson, she sees her technique as being "very traditional, very conventional" (Gibson 241). She effectively depicts the way in which she constructs her material with the image of a house: "I’ve got to build up a house, a story to fit around the indescribable feeling that is like the soul of the story"(Metcalf 224).

26Munro’s aesthetic is deeply rooted in the domestic, this is where she writes from, having variously located her desk in her kitchen, hallway or laundry room. It follows, then, that her narratives should be imbued with the comfortingly familiar sights, sounds and smells of the house and that they should be filled with the pleasingly recognisable objects of everyday life—cushions embroidered with images of Niagara Falls, a tin and coloured glass butterfly brooch, a pink cut-glass bowl, lace curtains. This surface realism is a central feature in Munro’s aesthetic, a way to "get at the exact tone or texture of how things are" (Gibson 241), as she defines her intent; but also an integral part of her vision of female experience, for the woman "is the house, there is no separation possible" (Dance, 60), as the writer-narrator of "The Office" declares. Her exacting description is also a way of inscribing the domestic into language, for these small decorative objects function as an expression of identity for many women, due to the fact that, as Rasporich illustrates, "women know personality through object because they are the masculine ordained consumers of society" (Rasporich 94). By encapsulating this non-verbal expression in her fiction Munro attempts to shift the fixed positions of subject/object and to elevate these domestic trinkets to the status of art. In fact, Munro is so successful in capturing the textures of her environment, that the "trick" in her realism is often barely discernable, namely, paradox.

27The use of paradoxical and oxymoronic phrases—in which two seemingly incongruous words are paired—, runs like a well-concealed seam through Munro’s texts. The "glitter of verbal paradox," as Gerald Noonan describes this element of her writing, adds to the sense of doubleness in the narratives. Just as her vision encapsulates the intermingling of fantasy and reality, the past and the present, and the spoken and the unspoken, so it also accommodates the incongruity of seemingly opposing terms at the heart of her linguistic schematic. Accordingly, neither term can be absolute—one can be "sheltered and unencumbered," "warmed and bound," "wild and gentlev or "bizarre yet domestic;" a girl’s voice can be both "abusive and forlorn." Rather, Munro’s particular use of paradox functions to activate difference in the tension that exists between the two opposing terms.

28Munro has characterised her work as "too wordy," (Gibson 252) but rather than imprecision, her use of paradox illustrates an employing of language that can be likened to the clever cutting and matching involved in the dressmaking of the mother in "Walker Brothers Cowboy," or the rug that the Aunts in "The Peace of Utrecht" make by piecing together "dyed rags" (Dance, 203). A single word to capture the complex subtleties of "unemotional happiness" (Dance, 222), for example, cannot be located in the current representational register of language, so Munro must "stitch" together these two terms, creating a seam along which semiotic energy courses, unsettling the fixed inference of these words and generating something new within the linear confines of language.

29To conclude this discussion, I would like to shift the focus from the stories of Dance of the Happy Shades, to Munro’s body of work as a whole. In several interviews Munro has quipped about her inability to leave her stories be, even after they have been published, leaving them in a constant state of draft. They may be subject to change between appearing singularly, in the New Yorker for example, being published as part of a collection, and being brought out at a reading with their closing paragraphs lopped off. Munro has even talked about the private reworking of certain stories. The reason for this lies in the fact that she has never, in her own words, succeeded in writing a story that "goes all the way" (Hancock 77) in capturing the that elusive feeling that the story springs from—"the communiqué from the other country," (Dance, 224) as it is defined in "Dance of the Happy Shades." Each story then, represents a failure, which can be traced to the inadequacy of language to translate her authorial vision to the words on the page.

30Yet paradoxically, although this failure is frustrating, it is also the source of the vibrancy in her work and, in fact, it is this constant feeling of being unfinished that Munro finds fascinating in her stories. In a conversation with Geoff Hancock she talks about her lack of interest in the story "Wood," because it is "a bit too well made" (Hancock 84). It is precisely because this kind of story is too polished that it ceases to interest her, preferring instead the stories that remain "rough and unfinished" (Hancock 83) retaining their vitality and dynamism—those which the "light catches but doesn’t define," as the title of this study suggests.

31Mutability and flux form Munro’s overriding aesthetic and it is perhaps in such a body of work, which is constantly transforming with a movement akin to that of oral storytelling, that the binary constraints of signification in language can gradually be loosened, to make way for a signification process in which can be found, to return to the introductory quotation of this discussion, "whatever remains unsatisfied, repressed, new, eccentric, incomprehensible."

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2 Alice Munro, "Author’s Commentary," in Sixteen by Twelve, ed. John Metcalf, Toronto Ryerson, 1970, 126.

3 Julia Kristeva, "A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident," in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi, Basil Blackwell, 1986, 300. All further references to this text will be given parenthetically as Kristeva Reader.

4 Munro has talked, in several interviews about the expectancy that she is "working up" to a novel and W.H. New, in his discussion of the Canadian short story in Dreams of Speech and Violence, views the short story as being marginal, insofar as it is commonly characterised only in relation to the novel and, as such, lacks individual distinction.

5 This story was written in 1959, the same year that Munro's own mother died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. In her interview with Tim Struthers, Munro states that this story deals with "personal material" and that it was the first story that she "absolutely had to write."

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Bibliographical reference

Nicola Chadwick, "The light catches but doesn’t define them": Language in Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy ShadesCaliban, 53 | 2015, 171-183.

Electronic reference

Nicola Chadwick, "The light catches but doesn’t define them": Language in Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy ShadesCaliban [Online], 53 | 2015, Online since 24 August 2015, connection on 01 April 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nicola Chadwick

Université Toulouse 2-Jean-Jaurès, Doctoral student.

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