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Fur and Slime: Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Child in “Face” and “Child’s Play” by Alice Munro

Corinne Bigot
p. 21-35

Abstract

Cet article se propose d’analyser les comparaisons animalières dans deux nouvelles du recueil Too Much Happiness (2009), “Face” et “Child’s Play” où le narrateur ou la narratrice revient sur une rencontre ayant marqué son enfance. Ces comparaisons, explicites ou implicites, permettent d’instaurer une progression du devenir-enfant au devenir-animal qui ne se contente pas de passer par la ressemblance. Ce devenir est une alliance qui permet aux narrateurs et protagonistes non pas de suggérer la souffrance ou l’impuissance d’un enfant mais de montrer l’importance des affects tout en retraçant l’enfance de l’événement qui a ouvert une plaie dans la sensibilité.

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Index terms

Keywords :

affect, becoming-animal
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  • 1 In the quotations from Alice Munro’s two stories from the same collection, “Face” will be hereafter (...)

1In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatari argue that becoming-animal is only one becoming among others since “a kind of order or apparent progression can be established for the segments of becoming in which we find ourselves; becoming-woman, becoming-child; becoming-animal, -vegetable, or –mineral” (Deleuze and Guattari 272). Quite a few stories by Alice Munro recall events that occurred in the narrator’s or main protagonist’s childhood. Such stories may use the trope of a garden where children run wild, for instance “Face” (2009) “Nettles” (2001) or “Vandals” (1994) all feature wild gardens in which two children who are compared to animals run, shout, and hang from trees. “Child’s Play,“ which like “Face” was collected in Too Much Happiness, features no such garden, but the narrator recalls how her solitary games, in her town, garden were disturbed by a little girl who was said to be “special.” As Munro herself pointed out in an interview with Lisa Awano, both stories are about children and children’s feelings: “we’ve got hate among children [“Child’s Play”] and love among children [“Face”].” (Awano np) Animal similes do unite these two stories, as, in “Face”, the narrator explains that he believed the birthmark that disfigures his face to be ”a soft brown colour, like the fur of a mouse” (F, 153) while in “Child’s Play”, the narrator indirectly compares the little girl she hated to small animals, including mice: “I hated her as some people hate snakes or caterpillars or mice or slugs” (CP, 200)1. In “Child’s Play” the comparison foregrounds feelings, suggesting that children, who are mocked or resented because of what makes them different, are compared to small insignificant animals. In “Face”, the narrator metonymically compares himself to a mouse when he describes his pain and anger after his friend Nancy painted her face red, which he thought was meant to mock his own disfigured face. The indirect comparison, however, forces us to imagine the fur rather than the mouse, visually creating a “zone of undiscernibility” (Deleuze 20) between man and animal, or rather child and animal.

2In both stories, Munro aligns children with animals. In this essay, I will argue that animal similes are part of an intricate web of references, are evidence of Munro’s interest in affects, including hatred. They are also instrumental in creating shifts in meaning in “Face” and “Child’s Play.” In their introduction to The Affect Theory Reader, Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth argue that “affect is in many ways synonymous with force or forces of encounter” (Gregg and Seigworth 2). In The Postmodern Explained to Children, Jean-François Lyotard argues that “what makes an encounter into an event is [that] it cut open a wound in the sensibility,” which “has reopened since and will reopen again” (Lyotard 106). Thus, he argues that Walter Benjamin’s childhood pieces do not describe events from childhood but rather “capture the childhood of the event and inscribe what is uncapturable about it” (Lyotard 106). This holds true of Munro’s “childhood stories.” I will show that by focusing on details such as the fur of a mouse or the slime of a slug, the narrators of “Face” and “Child’s Play” do not simply recall and relate a traumatic event that happened in their childhood. Rather they gradually own to their having been touched by another child, and affected by an encounter.

I know what he said. Or what she told me he said.
“What a chunk of chopped liver.” (F, 138)

3From the very first page, “Face” suggests that the narrator’s birthmark does not only disfigure him, it also defines him. His father’s alleged first words, as reported by the narrator’s mother, deprived the infant of his humanity, turning him into viscera, thus drawing the first connection between child and animal meat, between child and a butchered animal. The narrator implies that his father’s words simultaneously defined and defiled him, turning him into offals—maybe the offal of the earth as he also refers to the “clean” side of his face (F, 141), suggesting that his “other” side, as he puts it, is unclean. His father’s next words turned him into “that,” a thing, not a child, and an outcast: “You don’t need to think you’re going to bring that into the house” (F, 139). However, the narrator subsequently points out that his sheltered childhood was happy. As he recalls it, from the time he was five to the time he was eight and a half, he and Nancy (the little girl who lived with her mother on the narrator’s parents’ property) spent all their time together, mostly in the garden. The description of their games turns the garden into an enchanted Wonderland or Neverland, where the two children run and run wild. Two favorite places are mentioned, the trashy area beyond the cottage, and the cellar, which is full of discards—in other words, places beyond the pale, that outcasts can inhabit: “we were constantly in and out of the berry patches and under the apple trees and in the absolutely wild trashy area beyond the cottage” (F, 150, italics mine). The trashy area is presented as the children’s natural habitat: the adverb “absolutely” suggests that they express their true essence as wild creatures. The passage reveals their becoming-animal as the story blurs boundaries between the human and animal worlds: the children climb up trees and hang from tree branches as Nancy is said to “hang like a monkey from [tree] branches” (F, 152).

4Quite strikingly, the garden as the narrator recreates it seems to be peopled by animals, or rather by people at the time when they start developing a privileged alliance with the animal world. Nancy and her mother live in a cottage in the garden, which, the narrator points out, used to be a “shed or a barn” (F, 146). The woman who looks after the children is called Mrs. Codd while Nancy’s mother, Sharon, is associated with birds. The narrator draws attention to her legs when he describes her favorite garment: “a kimono, on which I believe there were some pale birds—storks?—whose legs reminded me of hers” (F, 150). The point is driven home when he evokes Sharon’s habit of sending her “feathery” slipper “flying” in the air” (F, 150). As we have seen, Nancy is compared to a monkey (F, 152). As the name Nancy derives from Ann, a name meaning gracious, full of grace and mercy, the comparison may suggest that he is mocking and defiling the little girl out of spite since Nancy, who was more fearless than him when they learnt how to swim, can also “hang like a monkey from branches that could not support [him]” (F, 152). However, the simile turns Nancy into the rightful inhabitant of the “absolutely wild trashy area,” which suggests that in the wilderness differences between boys and girls are blurred, as are the boundaries between the human and animal worlds. The narrator’s mother eventually calls Nancy both “a nasty little beast” and “a cruel, spiteful child” (F, 154), unknowingly emphasizing the connection between child and animal.

5Gardens where children run wild and are compared to animals are nothing unusual in Munro’s stories and “Face” evokes other Munro gardens. For instance, the nature preserve in “Vandals,” the site where two children “have run and hollered and hung from branches” (Munro: 1995, 291). The garden in “Face” is also reminiscent of the family farm in “Nettles” (2001). There, the narrator and a little boy she was in love with, played all summer long, climbing trees and jumping into gravel pits, “with the shouts of animals leaping onto their prey” (Munro: 2001, 159, my emphasis). The garden is first the happy place where the little girl feels love and, after Mikes leaves, the place she hates because it reminds her of her loss. In “Vandals” the garden is both the place where the children play and run wild, the place where sexual abuse is committed, and a diorama where their abuser, who is a taxidermist, displays fake animals constructed from skinned animals. As Carrie Dawson points out, when Bea, the abuser’s lover, asks the children “what kind of animals they’d like to be if they could turn into animals” (Munro: 1995, 284), she “reminds the reader of the extent to which Liza and Kenny are ready to become animal victims like those whose “skinned bodies” are manipulated by Ladner” (Dawson 78). The children, who are repeatedly called “the kids,” are obviously aligned with the animals the taxidermist has skinned to construct his diorama. The summaries suggest that Munro draws an alliance between “kids” who suffer and animals. However, as Munro’s representations of childhood are also disturbingly complex, it would be wrong to decide that such comparisons simply turn children into victims. In “Vandals, ” Bea describes herself as “slit top to bottom with jokes” (Munro: 1995, 269), which means that she is also aligned with animals whose pelt has been slit. Furthermore, Ladner the abuser is the one who is explicitly compared to the pelt of an animal, not his victims. When the memory of the rape assaults Liza who goes back to Ladner’s property some fifteen years later, the scene is depicted from the point of view of the children who loved Ladner and were made to feel guilty: “he collapsed heavily, like the pelt of an animal flung loose from his flesh and bones” (Munro: 1995, 292). So in “Vandals,” the abuser, the woman who is complicit through her silence and the abused children are all aligned with animals, which “prevents easy correlations,” as noted by Dawson (78).

6“Face” also relies on an intricate web of animal references, blurring divisions between children and animal, challenging the very notions of innocence by emphasizing potential violence and cruelty, as in the other childhood stories. As the children play in the garden, violence also occurs in the midst of their games since the narrator recalls that Nancy once bit him and drew blood (F, 150). He also confesses to having pulled her under an incoming wave and sat on her head (F, 150). Although Nancy kicked herself free, the scene bears a striking resemblance to the murder scene in “Child’s Play” in which a child is drowned when two little girls place their hands on her head when she goes underwater after an incoming wave (CP, 221-22).

7The narrator’s happy childhood in the trashy garden comes to an end when Nancy paints her face red in an attempt to look like him, which the boy sees as an “insult” and “leering joke” (F, 153). It seems that Nancy, who used to be on his side (the description of their games insists on their alliance against the adults, seen as enemies), now sides with those who mock him. This triggers a violent reaction in the narrator who feels the urge to bite her: “I could sink my teeth into pure hatred of her” (F, 153). The emphasis on the boy’s teeth is all the more striking as it follows a passage in which the narrator compares his birthmark to the fur of a mouse. They thus effectively turn the boy into a rodent.

8The narrator explains his reaction by his own ignorance. For the disfigured child who has never looked at his face, Nancy’s “garish face” (F 154) acts as a glaring mirror, forcing him to see what he has never really seen, thanks to his mother’s love. Refusing this garish vision and version of himself, the boy withdraws into the shadows, away from the glaring light:

I believed my birthmark to be a soft brown colour, like the fur of a mouse […] The only [mirror] in which I saw my reflection readily hung in the front hall, which was dim in the daytime and weakly lit at night. This must have been where I got the idea that half my face was this dull mild sort of colour, almost mousey, a furry shadow. (F, 153)

  • 2 The simile was added when Munro revised the story for the collected volume. The first version, publ (...)
  • 3 The similes also recall one of Munro’s most striking similes, to be found in the earlier story “Lic (...)

9The simile,2 “a soft brown colour, like the fur of a mouse,”bears a striking resemblance to the simile that describes the colour of a cancer patient’s hair in “Floating Bridge,” from Munro’s 2001 collection: “brownish-gray, like mouse fur” (Munro: 2001, 56). The similes force us to see the fur itself, rather than the mouse and to see the animal as having been pelted or skinned.3 Interestingly, in “Face” the narrator mentions that his father’s father owned a tannery (F, 139). At first sight, the similes convey violence and suggest intense suffering as the protagonist or narrator feels exposed.

  • 4 While both dictionaries agree on the origin of the word, the Oxford Dictionary gives a slightly dif (...)

10The origin of the word “fur” suggests that the simile in “Face” and the alliance with the mouse is a means for the narrator to deal with his own vulnerability. As both the Oxford Dictionary and the Merriam Webster indicate, “fur” comes from the Middle English word furren, itself from the Anglo-French verb furrer,4 meaning “to stuff, fill, line,” and fuerre, “sheath,” of Germanic origin. According to the Merriam Webster, this word is akin to the Old High German fuotar meaning “sheath” and akin to the Greek word pōma, meaning lid and cover, and the Sanskrit pāti, he protects. The fur of the mouse is also its cover, its sheath. In other words, when the word “fur” first came into English, it was a verb, taken from a French verb that was itself formed from earlier words meaning a sheath. So, this means that the word fur for the hairy coat that covers an animal traces back to a word for a sheath that encases a knife or sword. Thus, while the fur of the mouse is what shields the narrator, the origin of the word also alludes to the possibility of violence.

11The simile which makes it possible for the narrator to draw his own alliance with the mouse does not only metonymically compare the boy to a small rodent; it actually enables the narrator to highlight the presence of affects, in other words the forces that drove both children to act. As the narrator’s mother tells him that Nancy cut her face after they were separated, she draws attention to the depth of Nancy’s feelings—in the literal sense of the word—when she sighs, “such deep feelings children have” (F, 158). The mother seems to have come to a better understanding of Nancy’s feelings but as the plural indicates, the mother’s cliché sheds light on both children’s feelings, or rather affects. The narrator will have to own to and reclaim these affects. In the introduction to The Affect Theory Reader, Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth point out that affect is the name we give to “visceral forces insisting beyond emotion that can serve to drive us toward movement” (Gregg and Seigworth 2). They argue that affect arises in the midst of inbetween-ness, in the capacity to act and be acted upon (2), and is found in intensities that pass bodies to bodies (2). Sara Ahmed describes affects as “contagious” (Ahmed 36), as bodies can catch feelings. The short passage when Nancy paints her face in an attempt to look like the boy and to express her love, and the boy’s violent reaction, coalescing shame, rage and fear, illustrates Ahmed’s point that “affect leaps from one body to another, evoking tenderness, inciting shame, igniting rage, exciting fear” (Ahmed 36). So, it is no surprise that the narrator wishes that he could “sink his teeth into pure hatred of her” (F, 153, my emphasis) after she painted her face. Body language replaces words when violent affect surfaces.

12“Child’s Play” also foregrounds incontrollable affects, as the narrator recalls how as a child she felt persecuted by Verna who was said to be “special” and who followed her around. Her feelings towards Verna—hatred and revulsion—are conveyed by animal similes: “I supposed I hated her as some people hate snakes or caterpillars or mice or slugs” (CP, 200). Recalling how Verna used to push peppermint candies into her mouth, she metonymically compares Verna to a slug or a snail as she remarks, “the name Verna [...] sounds like a trail of obstinate peppermint, green slime” (CP, 196). She will also eventually compare Verna to a jellyfish (CP, 221). Such similes turn Verna into a small insignificant animal that can be eliminated, and may therefore suggest that by dehumanizing Verna, the narrator paves the way for justifying the murder. Yet the narrator’s nickname, “the marlin,” suggests that, as in “Face,” the narrator purposely conjures up a world where every child is aligned with an animal. As the marlin is one of the biggest fish in the world, it can be called an “anomalous” animal (Deleuze and Guattari 243-244). The anomalous animal is the exceptional individual in the pack (ibid. 244), which therefore suggests a connection to and a resemblance with the girl who is said to be special. It is “always with the Anomalous,” Deleuze and Guattari claim, “that one enters into alliance to become-animal” (ibid. 244). The narrator’s nickname, evoking a predator (marlins feed on other smaller fish) and a monstrous animal, deflects the simplified version of events she has recreated, casting doubt as to who the monster is, suggesting a resemblance, while reinforcing the undercurrent of violence.

13Both “Child’s Play” and “Face” are about being touched, in both meanings of the word. In “Child’s Play,” physical touch is foregrounded, when the narrator compares Verna’s fingers to snouts, a word that usually refers to the long nose of some animals such as pigs: “her fingers like so many cold snouts” (CP, 197). In Touching Feeling Eve Sedgwick points out that “the same double meaning, tactile plus emotional is already there in the single word ’touching’“ and is equally internal to the word feeling (Sedgwick 17), since ”to touch is always already to reach out, to fondle […] and always to understand other people“ (Sedgwick 14). The narrator defines Verna’s attitude towards us as signalling ”an understanding between us that […] was not to be disposed of“ (CP, 200). In Verna’s case, it was love, on her side, ”it felt absolutely like hatred“ (CP, 200). ”Face“ and ”Child’s Play“ might be two versions of the same encounter, or fears. Both children are confronted by another child who either attempts to look like them—Nancy tells the narrator she smeared red paint on her face in order to ”look like“ him (CP, 152)—or is likened to them—a school friend tells the narrator of ”Child’s Play“ that she thought Verna was her sister (CP, 199). In both stories, the other child tries to show that they like them, which the loved child cannot bear, nor understand.

14Both ”Child’s Play“ and “Face” are centrally concerned with “the force of an encounter,” which is how Seigworth and Gregg define affect: “affect is in many ways synonymous with force or forces of encounter” (Gregg and Seigworth 2). Forces of encounter, they go on to explain, can refer to imperceptible intensities and ordinary events: “it is quite likely that affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the minuscule or molecular events of the unnoticed. The ordinary and its extra-” (ibid. 2). Forces of encounters, comprising events of both the extra-ordinary and the ordinary, is precisely what Munro has been exploring throughout her œuvre. What happened in the garden in “Face” is what Jean-François Lyotard calls an event, which an encounter provokes:

What makes an encounter with a word, odor, place, book, or face into an event is not its newness, when compared to other “events.” It is its very value as initiation. You only learn this later. It cut open a wound in the sensibility. You know this because it has since reopened and will reopen again, marking out the rhythm of a secret and perhaps unnoticed sensibility. (Lyotard: 1992, 106)

15Yet it will take the narrator a long time to own to his feelings and acknowledge the event and the nature of the wound. After Nancy painted her face, she disappeared from the narrator’s life, and the boy was sent to boarding school in the hope that he should forget her. His going to a boarding school also marks the end of a childhood where wild children entered into alliance with animals. There is much emphasis on the fact that the school is a boys’ school (F, 156), in other words a school where boundaries between boys and girls are safely preserved: “the memory of having had a female playmate [grew] dim and seem[ed] unworthy, even ridiculous” (F, 156).

16When his mother mentions Nancy again, several decades later, the narrator claims he could not remember who she was. Furthermore, he lays emphasis on his cold, unemotional behavior. Thus, he draws attention to his refusal to engage with his mother, in order to remain “unmoved,“ as he himself puts it:

I must keep myself lighthearted, jokey, unmoved [...] All she wanted, possibly, was some sign of sympathy, or maybe of physical tenderness. I would not grant that. […] I backed off from her as if there was some danger of insistent dreariness, a contagious mold. I particularly backed off from any reference to my affliction. (F, 157)

  • 5 I borrow the phrase from one of Munro’s early stories, “The Shining Houses.” The final paragraph re (...)

17“Contagious” echoes the questions the narrator of “Child’s Play” asks herself when she wonders why she was afraid of Verna: “contamination? Infection?” (200) As Munro notes that “Child’s Play” is avoiding “contagion” (Awano: 2010 np), we can argue that the same holds true of ”Face“ as suggested by the word “contagious.” If Sara Ahmed’s definition of affects as “contagious” (Ahmed 36) is to be believed, Munro is therefore clearly writing about affects in both stories. From the moment he misunderstood Nancy’s gesture, a misunderstanding that resulted in their being separated, the narrator has tried to remain untouched, in both the emotional and physical senses of the word, and to keep his physical distance and a disaffected heart.5 Therefore the “Great Drama of his life” the narrator alludes to a few pages into his narrative (F, 142) is not Nancy’s gesture. Rather it is his having misunderstood it—which the older narrator has to acknowledge. He does so when he uses the adverb “generously” to describe Nancy’s painted face: “when she turned her face it was generously smeared all over with paint” (F, 152). This suggests that the adult narrator now sees it for what it was—a generous gesture, a gesture of love.

18By contrast, Nancy’s capacity to be touched and to remain true to her feelings is foregrounded. As the narrator learns on the day of his father’s funeral—some forty years after the event—Nancy used a razor blade to “slice into her cheek” (F, 159) a few days after they were separated. This time she gets it right as she slices the same cheek as his. Finding paint insufficient Nancy has resorted to scarring, a form of skin-writing. Nancy’s scarred face displays the trace of her own wound, yet this is not so much suffering incarnate, as affects incarnate. As Lyotard sees it, an encounter is akin to a wound, it “cut open a wound in the sensibility [that] has since reopened and will reopen again, marking out the rhythm of a secret and perhaps unnoticed temporality” (Lyotard 106, my italics). Nancy’s scarring her face is not only a means to convey her feelings, it is also a means to open herself to her friend. In his notes on his translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux, Brian Massumi reminds us that affect is an ability to affect and be affected, “a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act” (Deleuze and Guattari xvi). When you affect someone, you are at the same time opening yourself up to being affected. Nancy has, literally, opened herself up to being affected. The scarring, evoking an ancient form of body language and skin writing, turns Nancy’s face into testimony incarnate, making words redundant if not useless.

19However, my contention is that the central animal simile—the comparison of the birthmark to the fur of a mouse—plays a crucial role in the narrator’s owning to having been touched by Nancy. Touch is also intimated in the very description of the birthmark as the narrator first refers to ”a soft brown colour“ and then to a ”dull mild sort of colour, a furry shadow“ (F, 152). The description reminds us that Munro’s “language of the senses” is used expressively, not descriptively (Francesconi 101), and reminds us that in Munro’s stories colours are never abstract or descriptive, but are “grounded in materiality” (Francesconi 101). First “mild” unites dullness and gentleness, in nature or behaviour, and it is a key word that allows the narrator to change the vision others have of himself. But more importantly, the word “soft” introduces synesthesia—sight and touch. By imagining his birthmark to be “soft,” like the fur of a mouse, and calling it a “furry” shadow, the narrator introduces a change from the sense of sight to the sense of touch, which prepares us to affects. Eventually, by calling attention to the soft fur, the narrator intimates that the birthmark can also be touched, which means that the simile paves the way for the dream that features in the last part. When in his old age the narrator dreams of Nancy’s cheek touching his face, the possibility of a soft touch he suggested when describing his birthmark as soft and furry, materializes.

20“Face,” as the title of the story, seems to refer to the narrator’s disfigured face, yet it may also be interpreted as a verb, alluding to the narrator’s personal journey that brings him to face his own feelings, his having been affected, just as much as Nancy was. In order to recover his memory and face his feelings, the narrator has first to admit to having fallen “off his perch” (F, 142)—a cliché that may signal a return to animal alliances—and has to be hurt by an animal he disturbs. Working in the garden he is stung by a wasp, and is driven to hospital where he gets his eyes bandaged. There, he will dream of Nancy who appears as both a woman and a child: the woman reads at “a childlike speed” (F, 160), the narrator feels her “little quick hand” (F, 160) and hears her “small, persistent voice” (F, 159). Finally, when he gets back home he refers to her as a “determined child-phantom” (F, 161), acknowledging her persistence and determination. The narrator does acknowledge a becoming-child that bears witness to being true to her feelings.

21“Face” is about childhood love, and about loss, or rather, love and loss as Munro offers her characters the possibility to embrace both. In his dream, he feels Nancy’s touch, so Nancy is, once more, the one who initiates the gesture of touch: “her quick little hand was laid on my mouth. And then her face or the side of her face, laid on mine.” (F, 162) Using “or” enables the narrator to eventually isolate Nancy’s cheek, which a subsequent passage shows: “I wanted to go back and have her lay her face on mine. Her cheek, on mine” (F, 163). This means that the narrator also draws attention to his own cheek. The choice of words makes it impossible to know which side of her face touches which side of his face. If we imagine that Nancy lays her undamaged side on his damaged side, or her damaged side on his “clean” side, a duplicate of his face is created, with one “good” and one bad sides. We may envision another possibility as the title of the story denies the previous division the narrator made between his good and his bad sides. “Face” unites the two sides of a face—suggesting wholeness, the division between the bad and good sides mended. It also blurs distinctions between his own face and Nancy’s face.

22Using words such as “her cheek, on mine” makes it possible to imagine that she lays her scarred cheek on his disfigured cheek. While we may suppose that she does so to hide their disfigurement, this is also an attempt to have the scar and the birthmark touch. Hence the crucial role of the simile, enabling us to see it as a caress between a scarred cheek and a furry cheek, the fur penetrating the gouged cheek; animal and human skins touching, blurring boundaries between the animal and human species. The fur becomes the point of contact between bodies—the animal simile turns the narrator’s despised birthmark and the girl’s damaged face into bodies defined, not by an outer skin-envelope or other surface boundary, but by their potential to reciprocate or co-participate in the passages of affect.

23Another crucial element is Nancy’s scarred cheek. In Munro’s stories, bodies often bear witness to affects. It is uncertain whether Nancy’s cheek would be mended or still scarred, as the narrator points out (F, 163), but this does not matter. In Munro’s stories scars or body marks that bear witness to affect that “cut open a wound” are either imaginary or very faint. In “Nettles,” after Mike, the boy whom the narrator loved as a child, disappears from her life, the girl projects her silenced feelings onto the “limb” of the maple tree in her garden which her father cuts off, and onto the “scar that was left” (Munro: 2001, 166), suggesting that the border between the human and vegetable worlds are blurred. Secondly, the ending foregrounds marks left by nettles that turn into “welts.” The narrator draws attention to the real marks nettles left on Mike’s legs and hers (they had to crouch under a tree during a storm) and evokes the imaginary marks the nettles would have left if they had made love: “—welts on the buttocks, red splashes on the thighs and belly)—” (Munro: 2001, 186). The end of the story makes it clear that these imaginary welts are more meaningful to her than real ones. They remain as evidence of her love and silenced desire. In “Vandals” the letters-turned scar carved on the tree trunk bear witness to sexual abuse. In this earlier story, a complex web of images links the vegetable, human and animal worlds: “And that one with the bark like gray skin? […] See, it had letters carved on it […]” (Munro: 1996, 294, my italics). Paradoxically, these scars, be they faint traces on a tree trunk, an actual scar on a tree branch, or imaginary welts on bodies do not imply cicatrisation, rather, they evoke Lyotard’s idea that we must “fight against the cicatrisation of the event” (Lyotard 106).

  • 6 This ending is strongly reminiscent of the ending of Nettles” (Munro: 2001, 187).

24In “Face,” this is how Munro offers her character the possibility to recover from loss. At the end of his narrative the narrator indirectly confesses to having betrayed Nancy and admits to his having loved her. In his dream, Nancy quotes a poem, citing one line that clearly hints at his having forgotten her: “None will mourn for you/ Pray for you/ Miss You” (F, 161). When the narrator comes home and finds the complete poem, the missing first lines read: “No Loss, betrayal/ Beyond repair” (F, 163) which indicates the possibility to repair loss. It also forces us to reconsider what happened back then and to re-interpret the Great Drama of his life as betrayal. The truth of the matter is that the narrator is the guilty one, the one who betrayed Nancy and their child-selves, while she has remained true to her feelings. It is only at the very end of the story that the narrator admits to his feelings for Nancy. Wondering whether a meeting with the real Nancy6 would not have resulted in meaningless conversation, he boldly asserts,

You think that would have changed things?
The answer is of course, and for a while, and never. (F, 163)

25He therefore chooses to assert the force of affects.

26In “Child’s Play” the narrator claims that the murder did not change her life. However, the force of the encounter is branded on her palm through the memory of the victim’s swimming cap, pushing its pattern into her palm—turning a rubber pattern that as such can leave no permanent trace into an embodied memory, and the indelible stigma of a crime—and guilt. Secondly the story features a dead girl whose name persists and pervades the narrator’s memory, as a trail of slime: “the name Verna […] sounds like a trail of obstinate peppermint, green slime” (CP, 196). Munro’s choice of foregrounding a snail’s or slug’s slime also means foregrounding a bodily substance, a form of leakage from the animal’s body. “Slime,” which refers to a viscous substance, can refer to the mucous secretion of animals such as slugs, and can also refer to soft moist earth, clay or viscous mud, suggesting that Verna resurfaces as a determined persistent child phantom in her becoming-animal and becoming-vegetable. As Ahmed points out, affect is “sticky,” it is “what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects” (Ahmed 29), and, one may add, the connection between people. As the narrator of “Child’s Play” tries to explain why she does not like the name Verna she uses the words “trail,” which can mean that the trail of slime has been following her, and the adjective “obstinate,” suggesting that there is no getting rid of the girl, nor of affects. In the same way, in “Face,” there is no getting rid of the “persistent” voice of the child self. What I would like to suggest here is the possibility to read these two stories together. Munro mentions them together in an interview with Lisa Awano. She explains that “Child’s Play” is about cruelty and “genuine ruthlessness in children” (Awano: 2010, np), while “Face” is about rejection, survival and love:

I wanted to write a story about [the father’s rejection], but also to write about how somebody survives; and he does survive. Of course it’s the love of that little girl Nancy, that nobody expects or understands, and we don’t really know what has happened to her. But I think she’s all right. It’s about love, and love among children. So we’ve got hate among children and love among children. (Awano np)

27Munro suggests that the two stories are the two sides of the same coin. The remark also sheds light onto her way of thinking and writing, exploring two currents stemming from the same root, an encounter with another child resulting in fears, and a reaction to being touched or affected. One is ultimately resolved through loss and acceptance of love, while the other is resolved through radical violence. This shows that Munro uses the short story form to explore variations, along rhizomatic roots. “Face” reads as a variation on “Nettles,” adopting the point of view of the boy that was absent in “Nettles. ” “Nettles” and “Vandals” are united by the image of the scar on a tree, the maple tree scar bears testimony to the narrator’s love and loss of Mike, while the letters carved on the beech tree bear witness to a complex relationship between children and adults, including love and sexual abuse since while the narrator of “Nettles” claims she depicts innocent childhood love, ”Vandals“ forces sexual abuse of children upon its readers.

28A child is drowned in “Child’s Play” while she is saved in “Face” and if one believes Munro, one story is about hatred while the other one is about love. Yet “Face” and “Child’s Play” may not be that different. Somewhat similar narrative devices also unite the two stories. In “Face,” the narrator simultaneously leads readers astray by suggesting that Nancy’s “leering joke” was the Great Drama of his life, and points out that this phrase might be cheaply satirical or self-dramatizing (CP, 142). He also insists on his faulty memory and offers many detours before giving an account of what happened in the cellar and garden. In “Child’s Play,” the narrator repeatedly draws attention to her hatred of Verna (CP, 194; 200) but also suggests the possibility of misunderstanding. She describes the “understanding” between them as “something that clings, in the way of love, though on my side, it felt absolutely like hate” (CP, 200, my emphasis). The words “felt” and “like” introduce a rift in the logic of hatred she narrates. Both “Face” and “Child’s Play” give the lie to the opening statement made by the narrator of “Child’s Play” that while the past “sprouts fresh” and wants one to do something about it, it is “plain that there is not on this earth a thing to be done” about it (CP, 189). As the story is narrated, it is revised, and affects are accounted for.

29Giving an account of oneself and of one’s gestures is also what these stories are about. Adult narrators who try to give an account of themselves eventually embrace loss and love, and love as loss when they return to their child-selves. In these stories, animal similes and the alliance of children with animals keep pushing affects to the fore. The narrators eventually acknowledge the stickiness of affects and own to the persistent presence of the other one in its becoming-child and becoming animal.

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Bibliography

Ahmed, Sara, “Happy Objects”, in Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth eds., The Affect Theory Reader, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, 29-51.

Awano, Liza Dickler, An Interview with Alice Munro, VQR, 22 October 2010. http://www.vqronline.org/authors/interview-alice-munro last accessed 28 March 2017.

DAWSON, Carrie, “Skinned: Taxidermy and Pedophilia in Alice Munro’s ‘Vandals’”, Canadian Literature 184 (Spring 2005), 69-82.

Deleuze, Gilles, Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, trans. by Daniel W. Smith, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix GUATTARI, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. by Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Francesconi, Sabrina, “Dance of the Senses in ‘Red Dress-1946’” in Corinne Bigot and Catherine Lanone eds., With a Roar from Underground: Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades, Nanterre: Presses Universitaires de Paris Ouest, 97-107.

Gregg, Melissa and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds., The Affect Theory Reader, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.

Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Explained to Children, translations edited by Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas, London: Turnaround, 1992.

Munro, Alice, The Progress of Love [1986], London: Vintage, 1996.

Munro, Alice, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, London: Vintage, 2001.

Munro, Alice, “Face”, The New Yorker, September 8, 2008. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/09/08/face

Munro, Alice, Too Much Happiness, London: Chatto and Windus, 2009.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Touching Feeling, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Ventura, Héliane, “Le tracé de l’écart”, in Liliane Louvel and Henri Scepi eds, Texte/Image: nouveaux problèmes, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005, 269-81.

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Notes

1 In the quotations from Alice Munro’s two stories from the same collection, “Face” will be hereafter referred to as F and “Child’s Play” as CP.

2 The simile was added when Munro revised the story for the collected volume. The first version, published in The New Yorker simply reads, “I believed my birthmark to be a soft brown color.”

3 The similes also recall one of Munro’s most striking similes, to be found in the earlier story “Lichen,” in which a woman’s pubic hair that is displayed on a snapshot is likened to lichen and then to “the dark pelt of an animal, with the head and tail and feet chopped off. Dark silky pelt of some unlucky rodent” (Munro: 1996, 42). See Héliane Ventura’s analysis of the simile in “Le Tracé de l’écart” (Ventura: 2005).

4 While both dictionaries agree on the origin of the word, the Oxford Dictionary gives a slightly different spelling for these words: “fur comes from Middle English (as a verb) from Old French forrer ’to line, sheathe’, from forre ’sheath’, of Germanic origin.” In French, fourrure is said to come from the verb fourrer, which came from fourreau.

5 I borrow the phrase from one of Munro’s early stories, “The Shining Houses.” The final paragraph reads: “there is nothing you can do at present but put your hands in your pockets and keep a disaffected heart” (Munro: 2010, 29).

6 This ending is strongly reminiscent of the ending of Nettles” (Munro: 2001, 187).

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References

Bibliographical reference

Corinne Bigot, « Fur and Slime: Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Child in “Face” and “Child’s Play” by Alice Munro », Caliban, 57 | 2017, 21-35.

Electronic reference

Corinne Bigot, « Fur and Slime: Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Child in “Face” and “Child’s Play” by Alice Munro », Caliban [Online], 57 | 2017, Online since 11 June 2019, connection on 04 December 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/2644 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.2644

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About the author

Corinne Bigot

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, CAS

By this author

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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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