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Portrait of Man as Dog: Species Trouble in Alice Munro's “Bardon Bus”

Héliane Ventura
p. 57-68


Cet article propose une lecture de la nouvelle “Bardon Bus,” The Moons of Jupiter (1982), orientée autour du déchiffrement des métaphores animales. A partir de l'image finale dans laquelle le personnage masculin est comparé à un Saint-Bernard, l'hypothèse est posée selon laquelle Munro se livrerait à une parodie de l'amour courtois et à une satire ironique de la figure christique du rédempteur en mettant en scène un Don Juan universitaire aux allures de bâtard magnifique et sans scrupule.

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1In an essay on “Bardon Bus,” from Alice Munro's fifth collection The Moons of Jupiter (1982), Elisabeth Shih argues that the story is evidence of the dominant mother-daughter theme in Munro, an assertion which, at first sight, might look unfounded, if only because a mother is never mentioned. The story hinges on the suffering of the narrator after the termination of a short-lived but “perfect” love affair. Through the deployment of a psychoanalytical grid, Shih shows that “the source of the suffering is not her faithless lover,” but “lies instead in her melancholic incorporation of the absent mother in and as her own ego” (Shih 74). Her hypothesis of the homesickness for the mother as a phallic figure is extremely perceptive and convincing, the more so as she manages to enlist almost every aspect of the story in her argument. Nevertheless, her analysis entirely neglects an important element: the animal imagery which links humans with animals.

2For example, the last lines of the story provide a remarkable animal simile:

  • 1 In the quotations from Alice Munro’s “Bardon Bus,” the story will be hereafter referred to as BB.

“[…] Do you know what he did? After dark when we were sitting around the fire he came over to me and just sighed, and laid his head on my lap. I thought it was such a nice simple thing to do. Like a St Bernard. I've never had anybody do that before.” (BB, 128)1

3This portrait of a man as a mountain dog known for its outstanding rescuing capacities could usefully be considered in the context of Donna Haraway's intuition about the coming of a new age:

I sense the emergence of companion species after the departure of possessive individuals and hermetically sealed objects, who will have finally succumbed to their own alien invasion of the world. (Haraway 303)

  • 2 « L’enchaînement de la nouvelle, c’est : Qu’est-ce qui s’est passé ? (modalité ou expression), Secr (...)

4It can also be used as an interpretative key to investigate the satirical empathy with which Munro looks at human conduct because, as suggested by Deleuze, the content of a short story can productively be grasped through the posture of the body.2 Drawing on this final posture of the male character, my analysis of this story centres on three arguments: that Munro renews the medieval tradition of courtly love and rewrites the chivalric romance in a burlesque way, that she provides a satire of the figure of the saviour and of the religious trope of redemption, and, finally, that her ambivalent depiction of a magnificent bastard who is not a bastard but a St Bernard can be interrogated through Donna Haraway's concept of the inappropriate or “inappropriated” other.

Renewing the medieval tradition of courtly love and rewriting the chivalric romance in a burlesque way

  • 3 The title of the story “Bardon Bus” refers to a route that leads from the inner suburb of Brisbane (...)
  • 4 A number of critics have proposed various interpretations for the use of this letter: see Heble (13 (...)

5“Bardon Bus” depicts a short-lived romantic involvement: the main Canadian protagonists meet and fall in love with each other while staying in Australia (probably in Brisbane, although the city is not explicitly mentioned3) for a short period and for professional purposes. The man is a married anthropologist who investigates language groups in Queensland, the woman is a recently divorced free-lance writer doing commissioned research for a book of family history. The woman's name remains unknown throughout the story, the man is called X as if to emphasize the anonymity of their clandestine relationship,4 but his real name, Alex Walther, is finally revealed at the very end in a final, surprising twist. The narrator's best friend, Kay, half confesses that she has fallen in love with a man who happens to be an anthropologist, the very same serial lover the narrator has been pining for.

6The story is retrospective, written after the main characters have parted from each other and returned home on their own. It is mainly composed of nostalgic vignettes written in the first person and exclusively focalized by the female protagonist who endures the agony of longing for the departed lover.

7I want to argue that the story is a subversion of the traditional romance plot, which simultaneously picks up and debunks the time-honoured topos of the pain of love or love sickness, a theme directly descended from Antiquity and developed by troubadours in the Middle Ages:

La maladie d'amour est l'un des motifs fondateurs et essentiels de la littérature courtoise. Ses origines sont anciennes et se rattachent aux théories médicales de l'Antiquité, qui avaient déjà inspiré à Ovide ses Remedia Amoris.
Au Moyen Âge, les troubadours, suivis par les trouvères, ont en effet récupéré et développé la conception médicale gréco-latine de l'amour en tant que maladie. (Noacco 147)

8Like the troubadours and Ovid, Munro concentrates on the torments unleashed by the absence of the loved one and provides psycho-physiological descriptions of the symptoms generated by the disease, not only in the narrator but in a series of old maids in her family associated with her. Her descriptions of the symptoms remain allusive and elusive as for example in this nominal sentence: “A piece of Chinese silk folded in a drawer worn by the touch of fingers in the dark” (BB, 110). This is a reticent allusion to a sexual disorder called fetishism of the silk scarf that is not presented as affecting directly the main female protagonist. It remains indirectly and possibly obliquely or vicariously articulated, prodding the reader to synchronize the protagonist's suffering with the sufferings of the other characters mentioned, as for example when Kay mentions Victor Hugo's daughter Adèle who suffered from erotomania. Through the allusions she makes to various fictional or historical figures, Munro creates a constellation of linked female characters across centuries and across space. These female protagonists, whether fictional “old maids in another generation” (BB, 110), or historical figures (Adèle Hugo), all live lives of self-denial, or harmless craziness and sexual fantasies which sometimes erupt through the surface of daily toil through the hymns they choose to sing. They experience in a more or less acute fashion the pain of longing, a longing for the man who has deserted them or has died in Flanders field or is married or has dedicated his life to religion, a longing explicitly shared by the female narrator herself:

I was swimming in memories at first [… ] They had become a plague; all they did was stir up desire, and longing and hopelessness; a trio of miserable caged wildcats that had been installed in me without my permission, or at least without my understanding of how long they would live and how vicious they would be. (BB, 123)

9Munro resorts to an animal metaphor, that of a trio of wildcats rampaging through the protagonist's psyche, to pinpoint the exact nature of the pain she endures. With this image of the triplication of the tormentor in the guise of a wild animal, she subverts the traditional image of the triple goddess or primary deity, but draws on canonical representations of harassment, since in Greek mythology pain was often inflicted on human beings by triple female monsters, part human and part animal or bird: for example, the three Gorgons (Euryale, Medusa, and Stheno), the Furies (Megaera, Alecto, Tisiphone), and the Harpies (Aello, Ocypete and Celaeno). But Munro's trio of wildcats is not so much concerned with inspiring or wielding revenge as infecting the heart or mind of the protagonist. What is described here through the triplicated animal metaphor is a form of love sickness evocative of the “mal d'amour” found in courtly poetry.

10The courtly lover is supposed to endure a real disease, explicitly revealed by these lines from Dante, who describes the symptoms of love sickness and considers the suffering it unleashes as worse than an infernal punishment (Fiore, XXXIV, v. 1-4):

Pianto, sospiri, pensieri e afflizione
Ebbi vernando in quel salvaggio loco,
Ché pena di ninferno è riso e gioco
Vêr quella ch'i' soffersi a la stagione
Ch' Amor mi mise a tal distruzione... […].

  • 5 I am indebted to Cristina Noacco for the pointing out of this passage.

Cries, sighs, thoughts and despair
I had as I sojourned in that savage place,
For infernal pain is laughter and play
Compared to what I endured at the time
When Love put me in such a state of destruction […].5

11Like Dante, Munro compares love sickness with an entry into the wilderness, a savage place inhabited by wild cats, where the lover endures martyrdom, a martyrdom he eventually welcomes because, in the words of Kristeva, “the value of his love is measured through the intensity of his frustration” (Kristeva quoted by Noacco 192).

12In Munro's story, the roles are reversed in a remarkably subversive fashion because the one who endures martyrdom is not the male character who is denied the reward of sexual gratification but the female protagonist after the termination of the love affair she has enjoyed with a married man. She endures the visitation of wildcats and exquisite pangs while the anthropologist remains, if not aloof and indifferent, at least incommunicado, which represents a series of major reversals of the tradition of courtly love.

13The comparison of the woman's suffering with the martyrdom endured in courtly love is subtly encrypted in various oblique ways through the incongruous superimposition of the Medieval tradition upon Australian contemporary lifestyle. For instance, the anthropologist is said to be endowed with “determined courtesy” and he is depicted as a modern knight. He is first presented in the act of begging on bended knees the female protagonist to move in with him; this is what he says to her on the first date:

“Please come and see my house; I've got a borrowed house. You'll like it. Please I can't wait to ask you, please come and live with me in my house.”
“Should I?”
“I'll get down on my knees,” he said, and did. (BB, 112)

  • 6 The narrator’s friend’s name, Kay, is worth taking into account. We may well wonder if her being K (...)

14By transforming the anthropologist into a knight Munro operates an ironic aggrandizement of his status which is all the more deflated when he is subsequently compared to a St Bernard. Once his love affair with the narrator in Australia is terminated, he returns to Canada without informing her of his whereabouts and through pure coincidence he finds himself invited by the narrator's best friend, Kay. It is on Kay's lap that he lays his faithless head with a sigh in the last line of the story which elicits Kay's comparison of the man to a St Bernard, a comparison she offers the narrator without the least suspicion that she is talking about the narrator's lover.6 With this bold act performed in the presence of Kay's former lover, the anthropologist proffers an inarticulate, speechless declaration of love. It is not a discursive performance based on song and poetry; he does not celebrate the beauty and intelligence of the lady he is in love with, as a troubadour would; he resorts to a pre-verbal performance, which is a far cry from the elaborate linguistic achievement of courtly poetry.

15This type of burlesque deflation has been analyzed by Deleuze in the context of Charlie Chaplin's movies: he defines the burlesque as a minimal resemblance and a maximal difference with another situation: “L'important, le processus burlesque, consiste en ceci: l'action est filmée sous l'angle de sa plus petite différence avec une autre action […] mais dévoile ainsi l'immensité de la distance entre deux situations” (Deleuze: 1983, 232). The anthropologist is a deferential knight who kneels in front of his lady and a protective St Bernard who rescues distressed mountain explorers but he is also a fickle bastard who has a cohort of lovers as numerous as the army of the Emperor of China at Sian, “row on row and always a new one appearing at the end of the line” (BB, 119). This ambivalent portrait of the serial lover is one of the most satirical in Munro's gallery of rakes.

A satire of the figure of the saviour and of the religious trope of redemption

16Munro is very subversive in transforming the figure of Don Juan into that of the rescuer, since this condones or seems to condone betrayal. It is meant to conflate the inconstant love of a libertine and the permanence of divine love. It sacralises fleeting attachments and promiscuous behaviour through a mystical element clearly apparent in the account of the narrator's dream:

I have had a pleasant dream that seems far away from my waking state. X and I and some other people I didn't know or can't remember were wearing innocent athletic underwear outfits, which changed at some point into gauzy bright white clothes, and these turned out to be not just clothes but our substances, our flesh and bones and in a sense our souls. Embraces took place which started out with the usual urgency but were transformed, by the lightness and sweetness of our substance, into a rare state of content. I can't describe it very well, it sounds like a movie-dream of heaven, all banality and innocence. So I suppose it was. I can't apologize for the banality of my dreams. (BB, 127)

17For all its triteness, this dream articulates a spiritual quest which chimes with Teilhard de Chardin's definition of love as the most universal, the most formidable and the most mysterious of cosmic energies:

L'amour est la plus universelle, la plus formidable et la plus mystérieuse des énergies cosmiques. A la suite de tâtonnements séculaires, les institutions sociales l'ont extérieurement endigué et canalisé. Utilisant cette situation les moralistes ont cherché à le réglementer sans dépasser du reste dans leurs constructions le niveau d'un empirisme élémentaire, ou trainer les influences de conceptions périmées sur la matière, et la trace d'ancien tabous [… ]. Cette énergie est partout immense, ubiquiste et toujours insoumise. Il semble qu'on ait fini par désespérer de comprendre et de capter cette force sauvage. (Teilhard de Chardin 51)

18Munro does capture this force, this wild energy, in story after story, and invites a reconsideration of the boundlessness of corporeal experience because she is capable of embracing the tension of opposites which characterises indomitable affects. Munro exceeds all limits, the divide between spirit and matter, the divide between being and non-being, the divide between life and death and more ironically the divide between the one and the many. The conception of love that is embodied by the male protagonist, the anthropologist called X, is based on successive attachments which are ironically absolute and literally infinite.

19The anthropologist's itinerary testifies to the multiplicity of his female conquests at the same time as it articulates a simultaneously mystical and ironic quest of conjunction with the other. Through the depiction of his unremitting quest, Munro ironically makes him exceed the limits of human love, enabling him to attain the perfection of unbounded love through rows on rows of new lovers appearing at the end of the line. She posits a mystic relationality which exceeds the barrier between amor concupiscientiae and caritas, that is to say, between carnal love and spiritual love. The anthropologist becomes a figure of universal and unbounded love, so that his multiple betrayals are conflated with a unifying and all encompassing loyalty to the principle of union.

20This erasure of barriers between opposite categories is not limited to the collapsing of the difference between love and lust. Munro also attempts to exceed the barrier between pain and comfort and she applies this erasure to the female narrator's plight. In the final pages of the story, the love-sick narrator says:

When you start letting go this is what it's like. A lick of pain, furtive, darting up, where you don't expect it; then a lightness. (BB, 127)

21The animal metaphor surfaces in a profoundly disruptive fashion; the lick of a dog is a comforting, healing gesture showing companionship and empathy; through the expression “a lick of pain,” Munro aggregates suffering and empathy not as if one resulted from the other but as if both simultaneously sprang from the same source. This animal metaphor enables us to understand the type of itinerary that Munro has set herself to depict; with the character of the anthropologist, she has given us to witness the conversion of a wolf into a St Bernard; a man who is a bit of a wolf is a man who desires intercourse with all the women he meets and a St Bernard is a rescuer who provides warmth and the water of life to all the stray travellers he encounters.

  • 7 We may wonder if Munro is not also ironically thinking of the fact that the St Bernard dog, which t (...)

22By converting the wolf into a St Bernard, the bastard into a saviour, Munro performs a reconfiguration of experience which has far reaching and ironic consequences; it rises above narrow moralism and performs the redemption of the libertine by transforming him into a redeemer.7

The concept of inappropriate other

23In order to understand this transformation, we may employ Vietnamese-American film maker and feminist Trinh Minh Ha's concept of inappropriate/d others, borrowed by Donna Haraway and defined by her as “designating the networks of multicultural ethnic racial national and sexual actors emerging since WWII” (Haraway 69) and as a deconstructive relationality which makes potent connection that exceeds domination. Of this concept, she says that it “referred to the historical positioning of those who cannot adopt the mask of either self or other offered by previously dominant modern western narratives of identity and politics” (Haraway 69). The one who is not proper does set up a model, he does not occupy a fixed position, he is not reflecting the sacred image of the same; there is “something inappropriate, unfitting and so maybe inappropriated” (Haraway 70) in what he does. He cannot be appropriated, he cannot be made to conform; as a free radical or a free electron, he opens a new path which is at variance with the dominant social code because it casually crosses the divide between loyalty and disloyalty; the man who lays his faithless head on a woman's lap in the very presence of her former partner disrupts moral and social conventions; there is something histrionic in his gesture which unleashes laughter, but, more fundamentally, the posture challenges a certain number of social rituals, interrogates our ingrained traditional concepts of ethical behaviour, of respectability and responsibility, unsettles comfortable moral assumptions about the dichotomy of innocence and guilt. Because it is simultaneously innocent and not innocent, the posture embodies the doubleness of irony in the sense that it opens up an interrogative space based on the generation of a “reflective community” (Hutcheon 93).

24It is Munro's art to open up another space and make the reader participate in this reflective community: she disturbs the nature/culture ontologies, and more disturbingly the appropriate/inappropriate dualism as well as the ethical/non-ethical divide because she collapses the frontiers between the human world and the animal world. Her transformation of a wolf into a St Bernard, of a rake into a redeemer, occurs against a background in which men and animal closely interrelate. The love story between the narrator and the anthropologist strikingly and tellingly begins while visiting an animal preserve and looking at “wombats curled up like blood puddings, and disgruntled, shoddy emus,” when they have “their picture taken with Koala bears” (BB, 112). It develops in an environment where the barriers between humanity and animality seem to be erased: “Guineas fowls lived down there, and flocks of rackety kookaburras took to the sky at dusk. We had to scramble down a steep dirt bank under the house to get to the wash-hut, and peg the clothes on a revolving clothesline. There we encountered spider-webs draped like tent-tops, matched like lids and basins with one above and one below. We had to watch out for the one little spider that weaves a conical web and has a poison for which there is no antidote” (BB, 119). The images that are used are simultaneously homely (lids and basins) and uncanny (blood puddings, lethal insects); human beings scramble while birds take to the sky; spiders, like human beings, seem to reside in provisional habitats which are remarkably similar (house built on posts and conical tents). They similarly weave tangled webs and are similarly fascinating and potentially lethal yet the lovers enjoy in this environment “a feeling of perfect security” (BB, 113). Munro is not returning the reader to an immaculate, sexless, prelapsarian garden of Eden, she is rather returning the viewer to an ambivalent garden of delights closely linked to Hieronymus Bosch's, a place which has been described as “filled with the intoxicating air of perfect liberty” (Beagle quoted by Belting 7), a place which is simultaneously innocent and knowing, and where the conventional divides no longer prevail.

25One supplementary example of the erasure of frontiers between the natural and human worlds can be found in the depiction of the salesgirls in downtown Toronto, where the narrator is busy looking for special earrings: “One salesgirl is fat and gypsyish with a face warmly colored as an apricot. The other is spiky and has a crest of white hair surrounded by black hair, like a skunk. They are shrieking with pleasure as they bring hats and beads for the customer to try” (BB, 125). The likening of the former to an apricot and of the latter to a skunk gives evidence to the species trouble that Munro is toying with, a crossing of boundaries which is not limited to the divide between animal and human worlds since the salesgirls assist a young boy to transform into “the prettiest and most ladylike person” the narrator has seen all day (BB, 126). There is a strikingly visual quality to the depiction of the salesgirls and the pretty boy with gender anxiety. Munro is creating Arcimboldo-like vignettes which foreground the freedom of the reversibility between the natural realms of the earth.

26In her celebratory and satirical stories, Munro tells us there is no dichotomy, that the human and the non-human are conjoined, and that the bliss and the pain of being human and non-human cannot be separated. She goes as far as suggesting that the ruthlessness of the libertine and the loving care of the St Bernard reverse into each other or are the two sides of the same coin. In the flux of her mystical vision, and non-judgemental descriptions of conducts, she makes us ponder the human, the non-human, and the inhuman. While opening the abyss of the suffering engendered by love attachments and giving us a glimpse of their raw savagery, she simultaneously reasserts the true nature of irony and the uniting and revivifying power of laughter.

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ALLEGRETTI, Paola (éd.), Dante Alighieri, Fiore. Detto d'Amore, Florence: Casa Editrice Le Lettere, coll. “Le opere di Dante Alighieri. Edizione nazionale a cura della Società Dantesca Italiana”, 2011.

BELTING, Hans, Garden of Earthly Delights, Munich: Prestel, 2005.

DELEUZE, Gilles et Félix GUATTARI, Capitalisme et Skizophrénie Mille Plateaux, Paris: Minuit, 1980.

DELEUZE, Gilles, Cinéma I. L'Image-Mouvement, Paris: Minuit, 1983.

HEBLE, Ajay, The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro's Discourse of Absence, Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994.

HUTCHEON, Linda, Irony's Edge The Theory and Politics of Irony, London: Routledge, 1995.

KRISTEVA, Julia, Histoires d'amour, Paris: Éditions Denoël, coll. “Folio / Essais”, 1983.

HARAWAY, Donna, The Haraway Reader, New York: Routledge, 2004.

MUNRO, Alice, The Moons of Jupiter, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982.

NOACCO, Cristina, “Le mal d'amour au Moyen Age: souffrance, mort et salut du poète”, Pallas 88 (2012), 147-167.

RASPORICH, Beverly J., Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro, Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 1990.

REDEKOP, Magdalene, Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro, London: Routledge, 1992.

SHIH, Elizabeth A., “Phallicism and Ambivalence in Alice Munro's “Bardon Bus”, Contemporary Literature Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring, 2003), 73-105

TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, Pierre, Sur le bonheur, Sur l'amour, Paris: Seuil, “Points Sagesses”, 2015.

VORAGINE, Jacobus de, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.8

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1 In the quotations from Alice Munro’s “Bardon Bus,” the story will be hereafter referred to as BB.

2 « L’enchaînement de la nouvelle, c’est : Qu’est-ce qui s’est passé ? (modalité ou expression), Secret (forme), Posture du corps (contenu) » (Deleuze et Guattari 237).

3 The title of the story “Bardon Bus” refers to a route that leads from the inner suburb of Brisbane (Bardon) to the city centre and the narrator says that for the purpose of tracing the ancestry of her employers she went to the Toowong Cemetery, a heritage listed cemetery located in Brisbane (BB, 113). She also describes the house she inhabits with the anthropologist as a "typical old Queensland house" (BB, 119).

4 A number of critics have proposed various interpretations for the use of this letter: see Heble (139), Rasporich (191) and Redekop (157).

5 I am indebted to Cristina Noacco for the pointing out of this passage.

6 The narrator’s friend’s name, Kay, is worth taking into account. We may well wonder if her being K and the anthropologist being X is meant to support the anthropologist’s friend’s nasty remarks about men being able to go on longer and almost through the whole alphabet.

7 We may wonder if Munro is not also ironically thinking of the fact that the St Bernard dog, which traditionally has a barrel of brandy round its neck for the traveller lost in the snow, is actually (apparently!) not being helpful at all, because brandy is not a good thing to drink in that situation. She may also be thinking of the saint’s reputation for chastity, e.g. the story that his hostess once got into bed with him three times in a night, but each time he called out ‘Thieves!’ and frightened her off. When his friends teased him about dreaming of thieves so often, he said, ‘I really faced a thief’s designs on me last night, because my hostess tried to rob me of my chastity, a treasure that, once lost, can never be recovered!’ (De Voragine 485).

8 I am indebted to a great number of friends who have provided me with invaluable help while I was writing this essay. To Mary Condé in particular and as always, I want to express my life-long gratitude.

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Bibliographical reference

Héliane Ventura, “Portrait of Man as Dog: Species Trouble in Alice Munro's “Bardon Bus””Caliban, 57 | 2017, 57-68.

Electronic reference

Héliane Ventura, “Portrait of Man as Dog: Species Trouble in Alice Munro's “Bardon Bus””Caliban [Online], 57 | 2017, Online since 11 June 2019, connection on 23 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Héliane Ventura

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, CAS

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