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

Extra-ordinary Bodies in Alice Munro's Dance of the Happy Shades

Lucile Rouet-Bentley
p. 185-194


Au fil de sa carrière, Alice Munro s'est particulièrement intéressée au corps et aux expériences corporelles. Comme l'ont montré les anthropologues, le corps fait partie intégrante de notre identité. Mais lorsque ce corps devient incontrôlable, ou que le corps des autres ne nous renvoie pas notre propre image, alors notre identité est mise à mal et l'angoisse surgit. Dans Dance of the Happy Shades, le caractère extra-ordinaire des corps est à l’origine d'une exclusion violente caractérisée par le silence et la censure (Bigot). Dans cet article je montrerai comment l'écriture munrovienne tente d'inclure les corps extra-ordinaires tout en questionnant les normes qui les excluent. A travers la mise en scène de corps extra-ordinaires qui se substituent aux corps normaux et ordinaires, Munro accomplit ce que Guillaume Le Blanc a défini comme un "renouvellement des normes." Le corps extra-ordinaire sera également étudié afin de montrer qu'il est un élément propice à la création artistique. En effet Munro s'intéresse aux corps qui se transforment en signes, marques et stigmates.

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1Deformity, illness, disability, old age: these are some of the symptoms that characterize extra-ordinary bodies and one cannot but notice the extent to which Munro's fiction is peopled with characters whose bodies emerge as extra-ordinary. These bodies never seem to conform to a norm, and if the narrator happens to be a young girl or an adolescent with an acute awareness of social rules, their eccentricity is even more prevalent. These bodies are outside ordinary, daily lives; they are outside social, aesthetic, linguistic norms or do not seem quite human. Bodies become extra-ordinary when they do not conform to usual standards, and one starts to grasp how important they are in Munro's fiction because they question the norms. Their very presence makes us ponder what it is that makes one body ordinary, or even normal. Guillaume Leblanc, who pursues the reflection initiated by Canguilhem on the study of norms and pathologies, points out that there is no such thing as a normal man. Being ordinary then, is to be always slightly outside the norms imposed on us or that we ourselves have integrated: "l'homme n'est jamais véritablement à sa place, qu'il se déplace sans cesse, animal errant tombant souvent dans l'erreur mais créant du même coup des formes de vie inattendues, créant de la surprise, du renouvellement, la possibilité même d'un devenir" (2003). This is exactly what Munro reveals in her writing about bodies: she sheds light on the norms that exist, questions them through the introduction of eccentric characters and finally suggests the possibility of revising our usual standards.

2Extra-ordinary bodies are given uncommon visibility as early as Munro's first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades published in 1968, and the questioning of norms through their presence is a characteristic of her writing that already emerges. For instance, the motif of the diseased mother with the shaking palsy appears for the first time in this collection, in "The Peace of Utrecht" before it is taken up again in later stories. Similarly, the humiliation caused by an unruly body is already very much present in the first stories that focus on a teenage girl. This theme will be central in the following collection, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), a coming of age narrative, in which the young Del explores the limits of ordinary lives and bodies.

3Munro's interest in extra-ordinary bodies can be first understood as an interest in what stands out and arouses curiosity as opposed to the world of normality and its lack of individuality. The young girls who are popular and attract the right boys' interest in "Red Dress—1946" are characterized as "[t]he girls" (153), "girls" (154-5) and defined by the pronoun "they" (153). The similarity of their bodies, that is to say of their behaviour and their faces —"their faces bored, aloof and beautiful" (153)—, offers an image of what is considered to be an acceptable standard. This world is clearly defined as the "ordinary world" (160) which offers a comforting image to the young narrator but it does not hold any surprises.

4On the contrary, bodies which do not function as expected, or do not look ordinary, are fascinating. The young protagonist in "Boys and Girls" remembers how wonderful Henry Bailey's body seemed to her brother and herself. His "bronchial troubles" were the source of a show in which his body was no longer a human, organic entity but transformed into a potent mechanism. The narrator insists that "[they] admired him for this performance" (112). The extra-ordinary body always has in itself the capacity of becoming extraordinary, that is to say beyond the limitations of the merely human. This is also true of Nora Cronin's mother in "Walker Brothers Cowboy" who is strikingly described as undergoing a metamorphosis: "Blind! This is the first blind person I have ever seen close up. Her eyes are closed, the eyelids sunk away down, showing no shape of the eyeball, just hollows. From one hollow comes a drop of silver liquid, a medicine, or a miraculous tear" (12). The extra-ordinariness of her body is emphasised by the apposition of the adjective "blind" and the exclamation mark at the very beginning of the paragraph. What marks her out as special is stylistically placed before the main sentence and is suggestive of the admiration that it causes. The reference to a medicine and a miracle echoes the occupation of the narrator's father, who sells cures of all sorts. However, the narrator does not seem to hold the father's medicines as fantastic or particularly potent: foodstuff, pills, poison and other goods are simply listed as items to be sold (4) and their magical potential is lost. The old woman's tear, on the contrary, becomes extra-ordinary and magical, because it evidences a body which is in the process of transforming itself. From the hollow of the eye, there gushes a tear as if the woman had turned into a miraculous spring. The narrator then, makes an implicit ironical comment on where the magical and the miraculous reside: not in the products sold by the father which are said to be miraculous, but within the body of the old woman who is truly extra-ordinary.

5Old age is one of the characteristics that makes bodies extra-ordinary. The dangers of portraying old people would be to fall into one of the two stereotypes that old age seems to imply when it is seen by younger eyes. These two stereotypes consist in representing an old person as wise or crazy (de Beauvoir 9-10). The first type of portrayal triggers a reaction of respect towards the old person who has accumulated wisdom and knowledge over the years; this old person is usually shown as peacefully accepting impending death. The second stereotype gives way to comedy or pity since the old person is no longer in touch with the common world, lives in the past and refuses change. In Dance, Munro's portrayals of old women avoid both stereotypes and do not seem to fall into either a positive or a negative perception. As a critical response to Peggy Martin's views, Sara Jamieson has shown that Munro's representation of ageing is not always made in positive terms (108). Most of the time, the old people in her stories are described in contradictory or ambivalent terms, like the grandmother in "A Trip to the Coast," the aunts in "The Peace" and the Marsalles sisters in "Dance of the Happy Shades." Their old age is often paradoxically associated with infancy or youthfulness : the grandmother in "A Trip" has "the look of an under-nourished but maliciously intelligent baby" (175), one aunt in "The Peace" has a cap "designed for young wives" (203), and the Miss Marsalles are compared to "childish people" (214). Héliane Ventura has studied the descriptions of the Marsalles sisters and pointed out the use of a conjunctive "or" and of polysyndetons to show that, as a representative of Munro's poetics of the oxymoron, Miss Marsalles differs from the judgemental mothers because of her generosity and capacity to integrate (124-7). Yet Miss Marsalles is also ridiculed and appears as a grotesque character, a "character in a masquerade" (217). It seems therefore impossible to consider these portraits as positive or negative since they seem to encompass both values at the same time. Their surprising ambivalence reinforces their extraordinary dimension.

6The diseased body triggers off paradoxical representations. The young narrator in "Red Dress" considers illness as a solution to stay away from the school dance. The older narrator remembers the stratagems she used to try and catch a cold and the reader cannot miss the ironical tone. Comedy arises from the fact that the girl goes to extremes without success. She goes as far as parodying a prayer and indulging in magical thinking: every night she kneels down and repeats the incantatory words "blue with cold" (151) in front of the open window so as to cause her disease to occur. The last sentence of the description encapsulates the most pungent irony : "Every morning, including the day of the dance, I rose defeated, and in perfect health" (151). The irony lies in the turning upside down of expectations: one is generally defeated by a disease but Munro's narrator is defeated by good health.

7Yet the diseased body does not always give rise to humour. The portrayal of the mother in "The Peace" verges on the monstrous. One reason is the particularity of Parkinson’s disease from which the mother suffers. Helen, the narrator, acknowledges the specificity of the illness, "[s]o bizarre was the disease" transforming their mother into a "caricature," a monster in a "tasteless sideshow" (195). Here the extra-ordinary body becomes monstrous and what marks her out is embodied in the image of a mask, "the cold appalling mask of the Shaking Palsy" (200), but this time, it is not a mask reminiscent of comedy and festivity like the carnivalesque costume of Miss Marsalles, but one that evokes horror. Having a body that is outside the norm, that does not act as expected, is presented as being possibly terrifying. As a consequence, the body induces fear which triggers a violent exclusion.

8Not only does Munro base exclusion on physical appearance, but she also shows how bodily differences also emerge through smells. As Georgiana Colvile has shown, there is truly a "discourse of the olfactory" in Munro's fiction that is associated with memory, identity and desire (164). More importantly, there is an opposition to be found between the odourless bourgeois WASP (the norm) and the others. In Dance, the other is the one who is smelly: old women (in "Thanks for the Ride" and "A Trip") and Myra, the excluded schoolgirl, smell of rotten fruit (51, 103, 183); Nora, the woman who couldn't marry Ben Jordan because she was a Catholic had a "faint sour smell" (11). As Colvile suggests, these smells are in fact not to be taken as a derogatory signal of difference but as part of an identity that is much more desirable than that of the norm.

9The exclusion of extra-ordinary bodies is reflected through their absence from the diegesis and the narration. Clare's mother in "Postcard" and Miss Marsalles' sister in "Dance" are confined to their room because of their disability and they remain peripheral characters. The latter is even defined as a "shadow" (214). The disabled children in the same story are also made invisible through the intertext of Gluck's opera and of the myth of Orpheus that associate them with shadows. A linguistic and visual censorship is imposed on the diseased body (Bigot 115) and on some extra-ordinary bodies. The pregnancy of the mother in "Images" is never truly worded, only implied through a metaphor. The mother's body is hidden in the house in "The Peace" and later in the bed of the hospital. Benny's burnt body will never be described in "The Time of Death."

10However these bodies are also paradoxically very much visible as opposed to ordinary bodies who, according to the implicit social codes, are supposed to be invisible, as David Le Breton points out:

L’effacement ritualisé du corps est socialement de mise. Celui qui, de manière délibérée ou à son corps défendant, déroge aux rites qui ponctuent l’interaction suscite la gêne ou l’angoisse. Les aspérités du corps ou de la parole grippent alors l’avancée de l’échange. Le corps est pour l’homme une souche identitaire, son altération rend justement l’identité étrangère à soi, du moins pour l’autre à qui il ne fait plus miroir. (201-2)

11The problematic visibility of the extra-ordinary bodies provokes a certain anxiety and awkwardness from the others. This is what the narrator experiences in "Dance" when the children from Green Hill School arrive. The narrator feels it necessary to develop a strategy of skirting around the extra-ordinary bodies. Her glance and her description avoid the children's bodies—"Out of the corner of my eye" and later "I cannot really look" (220)—and when finally she confronts them, her description is similarly askance:

But my attention has been caught by his profile as he looks up at her—the heavy, unfinished features, the abnormally small and slanting eyes. I look at the children seated on the floor and I see the same profile repeated two or three times; I see another boy with a very large head and fair shaved hair, fine as a baby's; there are other children whose features are regular and unexceptional, marked only by an infantile openness and calm. (221)

12The issue of looking at the extra-ordinary body is highlighted by the use of "I look" and the repetition of "I see." Eventually it is only the profile that is seen, as if the narrator could not face them. The children can only be identified by what they are not, as the use of the prefixes "un" and "ab" illustrates. The identification of the children seems to be almost reached with the passage from the adverb "like" to "as" which testifies to a closer type of identification, yet the narrator does not quite manage to identify the children precisely. They resist description because of their extra-ordinariness: the traditional tools for a portrait cannot fully operate.

13It is interesting to notice that the verb "mark" is used to describe the children. In the same story, this verb is indeed also used to refer to the Marsalles' ugliness: "It must finally have come to seem like a piece of luck to them to be so ugly, a protection against life to be marked in so many ways, impossible, for they were gay as invulnerable and childish people are." (214) The verb "mark" is a reminder that bodies are signs and that literature has been interested in transforming these signs into writing (Brooks 1). It is true that events, time or disease can be imprinted on bodies, making them extra-ordinary. The narrator of "An Ounce of Cure" notices that Martin Collingwood’s kisses left an "imprint" (76) on her that she wanted to keep. The description of Mrs. Fullerton in "The Shining Houses" focuses on her mouth and depicts it as "a spidery and ferocious line of red" (20); in this short sentence, Munro manages to convey how marks on the body and storytelling are part and parcel of the same act of creation. The line that is formed by the lips evokes the line written on the page, and the reference to the spider is reminiscent of Arachne, the famous weaver in Greek mythology whose talent surpassed the gods.' Weaving is traditionally associated with storytelling, as the myth of Philomela illustrates; it is therefore no coincidence that Munro should combine references to weaving, traces on the body and storytelling. And indeed Mrs. Fullerton is fascinating for Mary because of the stories she tells her (19).

14However these signs also trigger off a pattern of exclusion, they are thus more akin to stigmas. Old people are commonly seen as "outside humanity" or "other," as Simone de Beauvoir has shown (10-11). Helen in "The Peace" comes to the same conclusion: her old aunts may "feel so far away from us that there is no possibility of communication with us at all" (204). As Héliane Ventura has demonstrated, it is the physical difference of Myra and Jimmy Sayla (testifying to a cultural and racial difference) in "Day of the Butterfly" that excludes them and makes them into the school’s scapegoats (100). Rejection and exclusion then, due to a bodily difference, can become highly violent. It is the case with the Saylas but also with peripheral characters like the schoolteacher in "Red Dress" who was "slightly crossed-eyed" (150). The violence of rejection is emphasised by references to cannibalism: "our hungry laughter—oh, mine too—pursued her. There was a carnival atmosphere of brutality in the room at such times, scaring the weak and suspect people like me" (150). The image of the carnival suggests that such a rejection is necessary to maintain social order. Similarly by becoming scapegoats, Myra, once she is at the hospital and ready for "legendary uses" (110) also allows a return to order (Ventura 103). A parallel can be drawn with Mrs. Fullerton in "The Shining Houses" since she is the cause of discontent in the community, but also of a new union and solidarity for those who wish to evict her from the neighbourhood. The young, newly arrived families, representatives of the norm, plot a metaphorical sacrifice of Mrs. Fullerton who embodies the extra-ordinary.

15These violent types of exclusion are usually also performed by the narrator: the narrator confesses her participation in the persecution of the school teacher in "Red Dress" and the narrator of "Day of the Butterfly" talks about her "treachery" (110). There are many examples which illustrate the fact that the narrator admits to an inadequate reaction towards the extra-ordinary bodies. The double voiced narration that is often present in the stories accounts to a certain extent for this ambiguous position. On the one hand the narration seems to come from a young child who participates in the exclusion of the extra-ordinary bodies, on the other hand the narration is made in the past tense, from the point of view of an older narrator who condemns her childish attitude: hence a double stance towards the extra-ordinary bodies, which can be compared to the oscillation between compassion and irony towards Miss Marsalles (Redekop 58).

16An oscillation between rejection (from the young narrator) and inclusion (from the older narrator) can be discernible throughout the first collection of stories. It seems that the narrator's guilt provokes a movement towards belated acceptance and inclusion of the extra-ordinary body and that storytelling is one method to ensure that the narrator redeems herself. Indeed story-telling allows her to integrate the extra-ordinary bodies and to pay tribute to them. "The Peace" embodies this urge to come to terms with oneself. Helen feels guilty about having abandoned her mother and her sister, Maddy, feels guilty about placing their mother in the hospital (although they both repeat that they shouldn't feel guilty about it). For both characters, storytelling is a "remedy" (Heble 41). Because of the temporal distance, they can select memories, give them a more acceptable shape and create a narrative about their lives that is easier to deal with. This is this stratagem that is pointed out when they tell childhood stories to Fred Powell (193). Yet the narrator is also aware of the artificiality of such constructed memories. As Karen Smythe remarks, "[t]he differences between consoling fictive truth, which is attainable in fiction-elegy, and distortions of the past are explored in this allegory of elegy" (497). Conjuring voices however are a means for Helen to exorcise the past (498) something that is not possible for Maddy.

17Therefore guilt about having inadequately responded to extra-ordinary bodies becomes the source of storytelling. The adult narrator casts an ironic glance on her former self thus questioning the very validity of norms people live by. This is the case in "Red Dress in which the narrator is very much aware of norms and is eager to belong to what she considers to be aesthetic standards. Her body appears outside normality when she exposes it to her mother who is making a dress for her to wear at the dance: "I felt like a great raw lump, clumsy and goose-pimpled. I wished I was like Lonnie, light-boned, pale and thin; she had been a Blue Baby" (148). The girl feels excluded from what society considers to be the representation of ideal femininity, of which being slim and narrow-waisted are the epitome. The exclusion is highlighted by the symmetry of the two sentences, both of which contain three elements that describe the body. Yet her appraisal of an ideal feminine body is nonetheless ironic since we are to understand that Lonnie is petite because she suffered from a heart condition in infancy: the term "Blue Baby" is actually the reference to such condition. The very terminology of the disease, the use of capital letters and the tone of envy betray the fact that the narrator may not know that it actually refers to a heart disease, or at least that she glamourizes such condition. Susan Sontag has shown how in the 18th century and particularly with TB, there emerged a romantic conception of illness. The sick person could be represented as an interesting, beautiful person, elected by the disease and made special because of his or her closeness to death (46-8). Romanticizing the disease is also what is at stake when the narrator declares that she wants to become "blue with cold" (151). The colour blue echoes the reference to "Blue Baby" which allows the reader to perceive the irony that lies behind such metaphors. The older narrator is therefore very critical of her former self who longed to transform her body so that it could fit the standards of the times.

18In the same story, norms are also shown to be contradictory. This is what the narrator notices when she compares the prescriptive ideals published in magazines, which urge the girls to look happy and lively, whereas the popular girls who dance in front of her seem to adopt an altogether different attitude (154-5). Yet even after this acknowledgment the narrator still wishes to be integrated in the norm, as her refusal to follow Mary Fortune illustrates. She is a true representative of the norm and of ordinary bodies even if she doesn't consider herself to belong to the norm. What is normal and what is not, what is extra-ordinary and what is ordinary are thus presented as interchangeable. Realizing that ordinary life is, to use Guillaume Le Blanc's expression, a "playful use of the norms in common existences" (2007, 36, my translation) or, as he quotes Canguilhem, that renewing norms is what is normal in ordinary lives (39) is what will also allow the reader to understand that what is extra-ordinary is in fact ordinary.

19This is why, as Helen Hoy said, Munro's fiction can be seen as a "fiction of admission, both in the sense of acknowledgment, confession, and in the sense of allowing in what is usually excluded, set aside, from the official version of events" (Hoy 1991, 8). There is admission of guilt, here the inadequate behaviour towards extra-ordinary bodies—a submission to norms—,which transforms the narrators into writers in order for them to find relief in their re-telling of events. This relief is found in the admission, through writing, of the extra-ordinary bodies into the ordinary. The last story of the collection illustrates quite precisely this point since it can be considered as an a posteriori tribute to Miss Marsalles and the disabled children who are constantly associated with innocence (Ventura 123). A similar reversal occurs on the linguistic level as the narrator explores the polysemy of the word "kind." If it is used by Mrs. Clegg to exclude the disabled children from humanity by calling them "that kind" (221), it is also used by the narrator to describe Miss Marsalles' face—"kindly" (214)—therefore triggering a reversal of values that will allow the inclusion and acceptance of the extra-ordinary bodies.

20To conclude, extra-ordinary bodies in Dance of the Happy Shades appear as a motif of predilection for an author so interested in "surfaces" and "texture" (Gibson 241, quoted in Hoy 1980). Traces of old age, illness or ugliness can become stigmas and trigger a pattern of violent exclusion. But these signs also become the source of recurrent stories for a guilt-ridden narrator who seeks to accept extra-ordinary bodies. To reach this final acceptance, irony is a useful tool that transforms the extra-ordinary into ordinary. It is also through irony that the extra-ordinary bodies can be rehabilitated, because for the young narrator irony makes it possible to denounce the doxa and the dogma of conformity to usual standards.

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Bibliographical reference

Lucile Rouet-Bentley, « Extra-ordinary Bodies in Alice Munro's Dance of the Happy Shades », Caliban, 53 | 2015, 185-194.

Electronic reference

Lucile Rouet-Bentley, « Extra-ordinary Bodies in Alice Munro's Dance of the Happy Shades », Caliban [Online], 53 | 2015, Online since 24 August 2015, connection on 28 January 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Lucile Rouet-Bentley

Université de Toulouse 2-Jean Jaurès, Doctoral student, CAS.

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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