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1 - Of Fowl, Fur, and Fish

Plymouth Rocks and Christmas Turkeys: from Ecology to Metafiction in Two Short Stories by Alice Munro

Oriana Palusci
p. 11-20

Abstract

Cet article utilise une grille de lecture fondée sur l’écocritique pour analyser la nouvelle intitulée “The Shining Houses,” d’abord diffusée sur CBC Wednesday Night le 6 juin 1962 puis publiée dans le volume Dance of the Happy Shades en 1968 ainsi que “The Turkey Season” publiée pour la première fois le 29 Décembre 1980 dans The New Yorker, avant d’apparaître finalement en 1982 dans le volume intitulé The Moons of Jupiter.
La première nouvelle témoigne des préoccupations environnementales des années 60 et met en lumière les aspects essentiels du dilemme canadien : l’alternative entre le passé et le présent, la nature et le progrès, l’individu et la communauté. La deuxième nouvelle apparaît dix-huit ans plus tard que la précédente, cependant elle met en scène une période antérieure, celle des années 40 à travers la focalisation d’une jeune narratrice qui découvre les transgressions de la vie adulte à l’aide d’un langage crypté où l’animal joue un rôle crucial.

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1“With this edition of Dear Life, our intention is to demonstrate the potential for straw as an alternative to wood in the making of books and other types of paper products,” said Munro. “Let’s hope that this pioneering effort helps turn the page for our endangered forests and that many more books are printed this way.” The quotation is from the Canopy website, Canopy is an environmental not-for profit organization. Munro’s involvement with Canopy started in 2001 during the publication of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, when she found out that her book was being printed on virgin fibre from ancient and endangered forests. Munro highly disagreed, thus she arranged with her publisher that a 100 percent recycled paper was to be used for the printing of her collection, becoming the first green-friendly title by a prominent literary figure—a historical landmark for North American literature. Going back to the initial quotation, in 2013, a signed special edition of Dear Life was printed on straw-based paper, proving that ancient forests do not need to be the victims of award-winning books. Only 70 copies were printed and signed while all profits of the book went to support Canopy’s campaigns to protect the world’s forests and green Canadian economy.

2After stressing Munro’s personal ecological commitment, her awareness of the dangers of ’killing’ the forests, with its consequences on the ecosystems, I would like to devote this paper, on the one hand, to Ecocriticism as a methodological lens, and on the other hand, to the Canadian literary tradition and the representation of animals.

3According to Cheryll Glotfelty in the introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (1996), a volume which includes fundamental essays on literary ecology and explores the relationship between literature and the physical environment, and defines ecological literary discourse:

Ecocriticism takes as its subject the interconnections between nature and culture, specifically the cultural artifacts of language and literature. As a critical stance, it has one foot in literature and the other on land; as a theoretical discourse, it negotiates between the human and the nonhuman (Glotfelty xix).

4On the other hand, I would like to mention the animal stories that are the breeding seeds of Canadian literature. As Margaret Watson stresses, “the realistic animal story was the first original genre developed by Canadian writers. It was primarily the work of Charles G. D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton who wrote out of boyhood experiences with the wilderness in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Seton in Ontario and Roberts in New Brunswick” (Watson: 1977, 8). These stories were based on the one hand on the portrayal of the physical aspects of animals inside their natural habitat in a specific and meticulous Canadian location, on the other hand on the “animal psychology” of individual creatures, without anthropomorphising them.

5Domestic and farm animals crowd Munro’s stories. They function in a myriad of ways, basically as ’realistic’ beings that tend to create a subtle web of threads between the non-human and the human sphere, developing a rich texture of representations of the animal/human system. Avoiding anthropomorphism, Munro engages animals to investigate the boundaries between human and non-human, as well as the impact of the animal world on human life.

6Although the Canadian landscape has always been crucial in our understanding of Alice Munro’s fiction, her short stories have seldom been read with a focus on natural features and/or from an ecocritical perspective. Scholars have investigated Munro’s literary output through a number of filters and critical tools, but generally her scrupulous probing of nature functions as a simple background in the complex interplay of individual characters and human events. There is no doubt that ecocriticism develops a critical approach, in which political and ideological preoccupations are relevant; instead Alice Munro’s stories are never overtly an indictment of social or moral evils. But it is also true that some of her stories are concerned with the manipulation and exploitation of an environment, which is peculiarly Canadian, and in which animals play a crucial role.

7My contention is that “The Shining Houses,” first broadcast on CBC Wednesday Night (June 6, 1962) and later included in her first collection Dance of the Happy Shades as the second story, displays some of the environmental concerns of the 1960s and outlines the main issues of the Canadian dilemma, split between past and present, nature and progress, self and community. Indeed, although “The Shining Houses” does not exhibit the intricacies of Munro’s mature narrative language, this early short story functions as an important tessera in Munro’s perception of a layered Canadian landscape, where the native wilderness is defeated by different forms of ’modern’ civilization, in order to give meaning to an ever-shifting identity, ironically fighting against its very origins.

8“The Shining Houses,” one of her earliest stories, was written, according to Munro’s daughter Sheila, while her family lived in North Vancouver, and is based on “a fictional retelling of an incident that very much upset her” (Sheila Munro 34). Anyhow, there is no direct mention of Vancouver in Munro’s story. We all agree that it is not set in Western Ontario because mountains loom in the horizon. A first level of reading highlights a sociological dimension, linked with a well-known stage of urban upgrading and speculation, typical of the 1950s and 1960s, leading to the following process of integration of suburban areas in the urban net, and this certainly applied to a growing city such as Vancouver, where the newlywed Alice lived from 1952 to 1963. Her ’double’, Mary, a young mother, tries to voice the preoccupations of a new community, placed in a well-planned area, the cradle of a new and deserved social development, marked by “the shining houses,” speaking of equal opportunities, balanced and happy young families, expectations of further growth (a supermarket, an improved system of communication, etc.). Against this utopian context, a new Canada coming to life near the barely mentioned West coast, Munro builds up the narrative of Mrs. Fullerton’s life, where an old, disagreeable lady masters by herself (her first husband is dead, the second left her mysteriously) a sprawling territory made of shacks, farming activities, pristine country life, perceived as an awkward embarrassment and an economical loss by the new community of young families. A petition is signed to demolish Mrs. Fullerton’s house and belongings.

  • 1 It is worth noticing that Mrs. Fullerton, who has been abandoned by her husband, has no first name (...)

9The new civilized world abhors violence, although violence seems to surface from the same natural scene, and also in the urban plans that, for example, anticipate the destruction of a vegetation of firs in order to build a new supermarket. Mary has to find a compromise between the ancient world of Mrs. Fullerton, with her memories spanning half a century, the existence of two husbands (the latter much younger than herself), absent children, several animals she feeds, among them chickens whose eggs she wants to sell, although the price she asks for them seems expensive to Mary’s friends, a cherry tree, which was indirectly involved in her second husband’s disappearance, and the needs of her own community, distrustful and offended by Mrs. Fullerton’s aloofness. Mary would like to be the mediator between two different perspectives, two distant and distinct worlds: one connected to an organic way of living (Mrs. Fullerton’s) and the other to the full domestication of nature that must bow to the needs of the community. Munro almost never uses simple and straightforward oppositions and never tells only one side of the story. The two perspectives are not static, they change, not so much in the hostile behaviour of the new community, rather in Mary’s way of thinking as she understands that Mrs. Fullerton is not a witchlike freak, but an ancient creature, whose memories are crucial to the life and understanding of the new generations.1 Mrs. Fullerton, as Mary realizes, has the sense of the past, the resilience of the natural world, the magical touch of a fabled being speaking with beasts and plants.

  • 2 Alice Munro, "The Shining Houses," 21; hereafter quoted as SH with page references in the body of t (...)

10Everything happens in one day, the day of Danny’s (Mary’s son) friend’s birthday party; nevertheless, time expands in “The Shining Houses” as do the shacks around Mrs. Fullerton’s house, enlarging and at the same time enclosing one perspective after another. Year after year, for half a century, her house in the bush–“we was all in the bush then”2—has undergone a metamorphosis, it has grown, stretched out, covering more land, yet in the meantime becoming more isolated from its natural surrounding (the woods) because of the new development plans for the area. Houses like Mrs. Fullerton’s are wild mushrooms in a flower garden. Increasingly her dwelling and her way of life–she is self-sufficient—are de-formed (and re-shaped) by the community of young families into the story of a witch living in a mysterious, stingy, unruly, ugly place (as many of the men and the women gathered underline at the party). Mrs. Fullerton is the ’other’, the scary and dangerous witch belonging to fairytales:

Mrs. Fullerton was old […] older than you might think, seeing her hair still fuzzy and black, her clothes slatternly-gay, dime-store brooches pinned to her ravelling sweater. Her eyes showed it, black as plums, with a soft intimate sheen; things sank into them and they never changed. The life in her face was all in the nose and mouth, which were always twitching, fluttering, drawing tight grimace-lines down her cheeks (SH, 20).

11According to the community of middle-class families, Mrs. Fullerton’s house must be demolished for hygienic and economic reasons (their property is de-valued): “shack, eyesore, filthy, property, value”(SH, 27). What is really at stake is fear of the uncontrollable disruptive woman, the witch-like neighbour who spoils the “picture window” of the shining houses. Yet, the old woman has no cats or other devilish beings under her rule, but chickens, domestic creatures, offering their offspring–eggs—to feed her neighbours. It is a gift nobody cares about, craving for a new lifestyle full of the more neutral and mass-produced products sold by a supermarket. All the same, Mrs. Fullerton’s magical world does influence Mary, figuratively a chicken herself, aware of the old woman’s power, nevertheless unable to fight actively for her survival and the implied values she wants to uphold.

12The reader must make do with Mary’s limitations and contradictory feelings: however, according to Mary (and to Munro the writer), the community cannot prosper without absorbing the stories of the past. After all, Mrs. Fullerton is a sort of great mother of the land, not a witch. Only by accepting the disagreeable ancestor, the community can move forward, create new gaols, new values. Metaphorically, the new town, adding new areas towards the interior, must learn to observe the mountains, to understand their wilderness, as a part not only of the untamed landscape, but of the human experience defining Canadian identity. The native soil has been scarred and raped to build the shining houses, and the previous environment has been dramatically wiped out (with the exception of Mrs. Fullerton’s house). The transformation of nature has domesticated the wilderness. Names have been updated to the artificially structured vision of nature—Wicks Road has turned to Heather Drive—“The name of the subdivision was Garden Place, and its streets were named after flowers (Mimosa, Marigold)” (SH, 22). The “ingenuously similar houses” are built by obliterating the habitat. The past surfaces only as a different urban pattern, ingrained in the natural landscape:

[…] under the structure of this new subdivision, there was still something else to be seen; that was the old city, the old wilderness city that had lain on the side of the mountain. […] Houses like Mrs. Fullerton’s had been separated from each other by uncut forest and a jungle of wild blackberry and salmonberry bushes (SH, 24).

13When night falls, Mary leaves her neighbour’s house, the heart of the community, unready to close ranks against the alien figure. She puts her hands in her pockets [repeated twice], a gesture which makes her look like a chicken, probably not a bold Plymouth Rock. Flushed up and trembling, she does not sign the petition, and leaves the party abruptly: “But she put her hands in the pockets of her coat and turned to say thank you to Edith, thank you for the birthday party” (SH, 29).

14At the beginning of “The Shining Houses,” Mary is sitting on the back steps of Mrs. Fullerton’s house. While she is listening to the old lady’s narrative, “a bold Plymouth Rock walked across the bottom step” (SH, 20), crossing, trespassing for a second the ’human’ path.

  • 3 See Dutoit (2015, 153-154) for other suggestive references to Plymouth Rock.

15The Plymouth Rock is a popular breed known for its qualities as an outstanding farm chicken: hardiness, docility, broodiness, and excellent production of both eggs and meat,3 has a grand-sounding name in this short story. It stands for, or better it joins the two women and the two worlds, suggesting that the past and the present can join forces. Ironically, the future of the community is grounded on a small Plymouth rock.

16The other short story I am going to analyse deals with fowls as well, i.e. “The Turkey Season,” first published in the December 29, 1980 issue of The New Yorker, later included in Munro’s 1982 collection, The Moons of Jupiter. Eighteen years after “The Shining Houses,” the succinct theme of the fowl is once again undertaken by Munro with a more conscious literary richness and narrative subtlety: turkeys are used by the writer in two distinct and very different linguistic representations, yet intrinsically connected one to the other:

  1. the realistic representation of the dismembering of turkeys as meat for humans;

  2. the sub-textual elements which are translated into meta-narrative.

17The representation of a violated natural sphere is deployed through the realistic depiction of the violent and gruesome disembowelling or eviscerating of turkeys. The unnamed first-person female narrator tells the story of a working experience in a turkey barn when she was 14, setting the action in the late 1940s. The narrative voice follows the immature girl’s point of view, even if an older voice intrudes now and then in the storytelling. As it happens elsewhere in Munro’s short stories, at the very end of “The Turkey Season,” the texture of everyday provincial life is rent by the fairly irrational behaviour of a character, as the owner of the turkey barn expels a young man, guilty maybe of harassing the owner’s sister, maybe of a more heinous, shameful ’crime’, involving the most trustworthy worker in the farm. The still innocent narrator slowly realizes that trespassing perceived norms implies a transgressive social choice similar to the disembowelling of a harmless festive animal, the turkey, whose entrails reveal a dark, complicated mass of tissues and organs.

  • 4 For an intriguing reading of "The Turkey Season" see Ventura 2007.

18If Mary in “The Shining Houses” is a chicken, a stupid female creature, unable to fight for the old times, in “The Turkey Season” sex, sexuality and gender relations are narrated through the eyes of a naive teenager exploring with her hands the bleeding offal of a turkey.4

19The setting is a barn during the Christmas season, and the action is centred upon the activities of a handful of people working there. The young narrator receives a step by step instruction to the dissection of the animal, testicles included, a sort of ritual performance of the cutting into pieces of a turkey:

  • 5 Alice Munro, "The Turkey Season," 61; hereafter quoted as TS with page references in the body of th (...)

You put the turkey down on the table and cut its head off with a cleaver. Then you took the loose skin around the neck and stripped it back to reveal the crop, nestled in the cleft between the gullet and the windpipe.5

20The painstaking eviscerating process is narrated through a highly-specialised language, naming each action while performing it, touching and pulling the slimy insides of the beast. The young girl continuously gets her hands dirty with the fowl’s blood and fills her hands with “cold pulp.” Besides, the ’teacher’ is Herb Abbott, the skilled foreman, who expertly guides the clumsy young girl through the disgusting and gross operation performed on a rustic anatomical table. Anyhow, the gutting procedure could be simply taken from a manual, as it abounds with precise action verbs, specialised lexicon referred to the tools required to dissect a turkey—cleaver, shears, heavy knife—and the turkeys’ body parts. Munro places side by side the unskilled girl and the secretive, highly professional older foreman, who performs, as if on a stage, a highly technical gruesome job. But this is just one aspect of the narration because the performance takes place through a lively and jocular dialogue, in which the dismembered animal is paradoxically anthropomorphised:

“Ups-a-daisy.” Herb turned the bird over and flexed each leg. “Knees up, Mother Brown. Now.” He took a heavy knife and placed it directly on the knee knuckle joints and cut off the shank.
“Have a look at the worms.”
Pearly-white strings, pulled out of the shank, were creeping about on their own (TS, 61).

21This performance is not a theatrical make-believe, it is indeed full of blood and likewise full of emotion; touch, smell, hearing and sight are viciously interconnected in a surge of bodily sensations implying a sensual involvement:

“Pull,” he said, and I brought out a glistening, liverish mass.
“Got it. There’s the lights. You know what they are? Lungs. There’s the heart. There’s the gizzard. There’s the gall. Now, you don’t ever want to break that gall inside or it will taste the entire turkey.” Tactfully, he scraped out what I had missed, including the testicles, which were a pair of white grapes (TS, 62).

22At the same time, gender relations and sex are filtered through the eyes of the 14-year-old girl who tries to figure out an unfamiliar world, that of the grown-ups around her during her first working experience, while still attending school. She is not part of that milieu, and thus functions as a sort of observer, who is unable to reconcile the contradictions raised by two very different experiences: on the one hand her work time, with the endless repetition of the same actions and the division of specialised roles reminding the reader of a factory, on the other hand the growing awareness of the emptiness and stupidity of the human lives surrounding her. This is the case of her companions: the two middle-aged sisters, Lily and Marjorie, expert gutters, who are proud of never letting their husbands “come near” them, as they accept the sterility of an unfulfilled married condition; and above all Herb Abbott and the young newcomer Brian.

23The young girl, as well as the other workers, have a tough time in figuring out Herb Abbott, especially after Brian arrives. Herb is described as a very efficient person who “keeps everything under control,” however he walks in an odd way, as Marjorie notices, “like he had a boat moving underneath him” (TS, 62):

They must have felt a voluptuous curiosity about him, as I did. He aroused this feeling by being circumspect and not making the jokes some men did, and at the same time by not being squeamish or gentlemanly. Some men, showing me the testicles from the turkey, would have acted as if the very existence of testicles where somehow a bad joke on me, something a girl could be taunted about (TS, 64).

24On the last school day before Christmas, the narrator witnesses a scene of violent altercation between the owner Morgan Elliott and Brian, the foul speaking provocative young man, who is fired and ordered to leave not only the place, but the town in haste. Both the young girl and the older narrator speculate on Herb’s desolate, yet unmoved look, his “face with that peculiar, stricken look” after the unpleasant episode.

25The name Herb Abbott is revealing, anticipating that there is something odd in the man. Herb is usually the short form of the male name Herbert, here truncated, and transformed into a common noun, hinting at the wordplay her-b. At the same time, the father-like figure, who performs the animal killing ritual, is a pious, priest-like man, as his surname Abbott suggests. Yet Abbott here is spelled with a double final tt, an addition which again toys with his identity. But he is also a turk(ey), i.e., according to the slang dictionary, an active pederast, preying on young men. Only years later will the narrative voice be able to mention his homosexuality, even if, as the adult voice stresses, that is not the point, as Ajay Heble duly underlines, “What is important is the fact that definitions will not help her understand Herb’s hidden life” (1994, 134).

26Indeed, the hand of the young girl that digs deeper and deeper into the carcass of the Christmas turkey is the same hand the writer employs to explore the dark caves of the human soul. The meticulous realistic representation of the disembowelling act celebrates not only a manual skill, but the power of words extracted from the ambiguous, dense body of human existence. The female narrator’s technical prowess is transformed into a story through which language is made flesh as it articulates different degrees of sexuality both from an individual and a social point of view: denial, attraction, perversion, retribution.

27At the very end of the story, once the Christmas festivities have been completed (each turkey ready to be sold, cooked, devoured during the Christmas dinner), Herb Abbott leaves alone, with his hands in his pockets, while the three women make a “coarse parody” of “We Three Kings” changed into “We Three Gutters.” All of them have received their “bonus turkey,” and “each of these turkeys has a leg or a wing missing, or a malfunction of some kind,” making them unsalable, even though, in the stingy barn owner’s words, “you often get the best meat off the gimpy ones” (TS, 73).

28Turkeys as human beings, then, have to be dissected in order to discover their dark secrets. Women and men do not meet the traditional idea of womanhood and manhood. The animal body is killed, eviscerated, devoured, digested–as in an ancient ritual becoming part of human identity, of its unmentionable insides.

29Deeper and deeper into the turkey’s bowels: after all, this is the role of the artist.

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Bibliography

Dutoit, Thomas, “In Lovely Blue”: Seeing Outside ’The Shining Houses’“, in C. BIGOT and C. LANONE eds, ”With a roar from underground“: Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades, Nanterre: Presses Universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2015, 145-164.

Glotfelty, Cheryll, Introduction“, in C. Glotfelty and H. Fromm eds, The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Heble, Ajay, The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro’s Discourse of Absence, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Munro, Alice, ”The Shining Houses“, in Dance of the Happy Shades, London: Penguin Books, 1983, 19-29.

Munro Alice, ”The Turkey Season“, in The Moon of Jupiter, London: Penguin Books, 1983, 70-76.

Munro, Sheila, Lives of Mothers & Daughters. Growing Up with Alice Munro, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001.

Ventura, Héliane, ”Re-writing the Nativity in Alice Munro’s ’The Turkey Season’“, Open Letter 2 (Spring 2007), 52-61.

Watson, Margaret, ”The Realistic Animal Story in Canadian Children’s Literature”, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 2-3 (Autumn 1977), 8-9, 10.

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Notes

1 It is worth noticing that Mrs. Fullerton, who has been abandoned by her husband, has no first name in the story, while Mary and her friends are identified only by their first name, stressing, in some way a certain deference to old age and to the past.

2 Alice Munro, "The Shining Houses," 21; hereafter quoted as SH with page references in the body of the text.

3 See Dutoit (2015, 153-154) for other suggestive references to Plymouth Rock.

4 For an intriguing reading of "The Turkey Season" see Ventura 2007.

5 Alice Munro, "The Turkey Season," 61; hereafter quoted as TS with page references in the body of the text.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Oriana Palusci, « Plymouth Rocks and Christmas Turkeys: from Ecology to Metafiction in Two Short Stories by Alice Munro », Caliban, 57 | 2017, 11-20.

Electronic reference

Oriana Palusci, « Plymouth Rocks and Christmas Turkeys: from Ecology to Metafiction in Two Short Stories by Alice Munro », Caliban [Online], 57 | 2017, Online since 07 June 2019, connection on 04 December 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/2628 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.2628

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About the author

Oriana Palusci

University of Naples L'Orientale

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Copyright

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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