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4 - Of Bears, Horses, Goats, and Other Animals

Alice Munro Opens Wide the Gate for her Three Floras

Walter Hesford
p. 101-122


Trois nouvelles d'Alice Munro présentent un personnage qui se prénomme Flora : “Boys and Girls,” “Friend of My Youth,” et “Runaway”. Écrites sur une période de près de quarante ans, elles révèlent les interactions entre les animaux et les humains, le pouvoir des mythes sexuels, la violence des hiérarchies patriarcales et les stratégies métafictionnelles de Munro qui ouvre toute grande la porte de l'interprétation.

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1The narrator of Alice Munro's early story “Boys and Girls” (1964) tells us that as a girl of eleven, when ordered by her father to close a gate, she instead opened it “as wide as she could” for a horse named Flora, allowing her temporarily to escape her fate as food for foxes on her family's fox farm. This is the first of three stories, spanning five decades, with a character named Flora. In “Friend of My Youth” (1990), Flora is the friend mentioned in the title; in “Runaway” (2003), she is a goat. Surely this repetition of a name is not happenstance. Munro is too crafty a writer, and has too much fun with textual cross-referencing, for this recurrence to be fortuitous. The three Flora stories offer an intriguing example of what Robert McGill terms Munro's “recursive poetics” (McGill 48) which entice readers to ponder interconnections among Munro's 200 plus stories. Munro's poetics are also engagingly metafictional, inviting us, challenging us, to participate in the unfolding of her narratives. She opens wide interpretive gates for her readers which we pass through with pleasure even if we do not know where we are going.

2My treatment of Munro's work is particularly indebted to the provocative criticism of Ajay Heble and Héliane Ventura. Heble, in The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro's Discourse of Absence, argues that Munro's stories have “paradigmatic dimensions” which make present mysterious realms of meaning seemingly absent from the surface (Heble 15-18, 32-35), undermining or supplementing the project of realism. Heble relates these fraught paradigms to the archetypal myths which Northrop Frye saw as creating literature's infrastructure, but notes that in Munro's stories there is often an unresolved and thus destabilizing tension between “inward” and “outward” directions of meaning (Frye 9-10); Heble further notes that outward “reality” is itself infused with latent paradigms; thus here too, meaning is always deferred and open to possibility (Heble 10-12). Ventura, like Heble, critiques those who treat Munro as a simple realist to be applauded for her faithful representations of life in southwest Ontario; rather, argues Ventura, Munro “reinscribes her twentieth-century characters into the great codes and rewrites cosmogonic myths against a primeval landscape” (Ventura: 2010, 255). In her discussion of “Boys and Girls,” Ventura points out that Flora was a minor goddess of agriculture who, like Demeter, represented nature's seasonal fertility (Ventura: 1992, 90). In her discussion of “Runaway,” Ventura does not comment on the significance of Flora's name, but does analyze the goat's import within Irish, Greek and Hebrew mythology (Ventura: 2010, 248-55). And in “The Female Bard: Retrieving Greek Myths, Celtic Bards, Norse Sagas, and Popular Songs,” Ventura shows how Munro draws on her extensive reading and her Scottish heritage to cross the frontier between animals and humans and to take us back to the primordial origins of language and storytelling (Ventura: 2016, 161); this helps us understand the intertwining of the destiny of humans and other animals in the Flora trinity. In the following essay, I will first further discuss the mythic Floras who may be present paradigmatically in Munro's three Flora stories, then study these stories sequentially to see how they build on each other to puzzle and forward our understanding of how Munro rewrites her own and our primeval and literary landscape, displacing ancient myths into her low-mimetic and ironic metafictions (Frye 34; 136-38).

3As Ventura notes, Flora is an ancient agricultural goddess. Within the old Roman agrarian lunar calendar she was worshipped as the goddess of all that flourishes in the May Festival of the Floriana; one of the twelve flamen (priests) was devoted to her (Perowne 43). According to one source she was popular among courtesans; thus Flora became a common name for a courtesan (Perowne 45). According to another source, Flora was the name of a wealthy Roman courtesan who financially endowed a temple and thus was elevated to deity status (Long 77-78). While the latter supposition seems questionable, it does tease us with an entanglement of myth and reality, as do many Munro stories. Introduced into Britain during the first century b.c.e. Roman conquest, Flora became integral to Britain's agrarian calendar as well. In The Folklore Calendar, George Long argues that the May 8th Furry Dances that still occurred in Cornwall in the early 20th century were originally in her honor, the dances being a relatively staid remnant of what once was a saturnalia (Long 78). Sexual expression and its repression are certainly themes of Munro's Flora stories.

4In The Religions of the Roman Empire, John Ferguson sees Flora as an Earth-Mother, her fertility being an aspect of the Mother's power (Ferguson 25-26) honored throughout old Europe. In The White Goddess Robert Graves portrays this devotion as the foundation of the historical grammar of poetic myth in matrilinear cultures, a foundation obscured first by Greek patrilinear culture and then Christianity, but still evident in old bardic poetry and old countryside customs (Graves v-vi). According to Graves, the custom of riding out on a May morning and plucking a flowering hawthorn bough may be traced to the cult of Flora (Graves 181) and thus to Mother worship. Magdalene Redekop, in Mothers and Other Clowns, notes that Munro's Rose, in The Beggar Maid (published in Canada as Who Do You Think You Are?), mocks Graves' “White Goddess” and his deification of the mother; Redekop asserts that Munro herself “demolishes Graves' aesthetic by including both Madonna and harlot in her parade of mothering clowns” (Redekop 12). It's possible that her three Flora stories demythologize the mythic Flora served up by Graves et al., yet like him Munro seems vested in exploring the old myths to deepen the poetics of her beloved reality and open the gates for interpretive possibility.

  • 1 The references to "Boys and Girls" will be henceforth given parenthetically as BG.

5The narrator's opening the gate for Flora may be interpreted as the climax of “Boys and Girls.” It is the narrator's brief and futile rebellion against her fox-farming father that closes the gate on her being other than the girl prescribed by her culture. The futile escape and subsequent slaughter of Flora occurs in spring, the season of the mythic Flora's flourishing. Ventura reads what happens to Munro's Flora as an ironic subversion of the myth of Persephone whose seasonal emergence represents spring's fertility, the opening gate to new birth (Ventura 1990, 85-86). What happens also depicts the substitution of a sexual saturnalia with a bloody slaughter. Leslie Fiedler famously contends that in American literature death provides a more natural climax than sex (Fiedler xviii-xxi); perhaps this is true for Canadian literature as well. Munro metonymically signifies the death-dealing colonization of the continent in the opening paragraph of “Boys and Girls” through the Hudson Bay or Montreal Fur Trader's calendar depicting “magnificent savages” bending their “backs” to forward the exploitation of the New World's natural resources (BG, 111).1

6As an adult, the narrator is an ironic observer of the ideology of colonization and exploitation, but suppresses the bloody slaughter of Flora and other horses until almost half way through her story. We do hear of the skinning of the foxes at the outset, but the shenanigans of the hired man Harry make this activity almost comical. The narrator's young self is portrayed as enjoying helping maintain the world her father has created for the foxes, proud that she can do the work that her young brother Laird is not yet able to do. Her work also helps her escape the kitchen work and world of her mother. One fall evening, her mother comes out to complain to her husband of her daughter's unwillingness to help her as a girl should. He “had just come from the meathouse; he had his stiff bloody apron on, and a pail of cut-up meat in his hand” (BG, 116). After presenting their conversation and the daughter's reflection, and after an extra line space to indicate a narrative shift, we are informed “I have forgotten to say what the foxes were fed. My father's bloody apron reminded me. They were fed horsemeat” (BG, 118). It is as if the bloody apron appears before the narrator's eyes like Macbeth's bloody dagger, jolting her into a consciousness of what she has repressed. In a classic Munrovian narrative maneuver, she makes us feel as if we are in on the presentation of the story: we too are presented with the remembered bloody apron, wondering if we should put it on, and go through the interpretive gate it opens.

7Aprons are especially rich signifiers, fraught with gendered, sexual, ritualistic, and violent resonances. Historically in apron wearing cultures, they serve as protectors of genitalia and clean clothes while men and women do their dangerous and/or dirty work as butchers, cobblers, canners, dish washers, etc; they may also signify sacred authority, especially when worn by male priests; in our contemporary culture, they seem more associated with the domestic authority of women, and thus signify the woman's sphere and identity: at a recent contra-dance my wife and I attended, when there were not enough women to partner with the men, men were turned into women by donning an apron. In Genesis aprons have a privileged position as the first item of clothing for both man and woman. After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and their eyes are opened, “they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (3.7 KJV; in the NRSV, “aprons” become “loincloths”). Sexual organs are thenceforth shameful, to be repressed; the first product of these organs, Cain, perpetrates a bloody murder, which also must be hidden. But knowledge of sex and violence will out, and gothic literature such as that of Munro specializes in the return of the repressed. (For a discussion of Munro's stories as “Ontario Gothic,” see Howell [12-30]).

8In “Boys and Girls,” the young girl who has resisted being tied to her mother's apron strings so that she can remain in the realm of the father is shocked into remembered knowledge that her father is a bloody butcher of a creature with whom she identifies, Flora the horse, just as she is on the brink of knowledge of her own sexuality and gender status. One can imagine her own menstrual blood mixed in with that of the horse, or the horse as substitute sacrifice, slaughtered instead of her to sustain the patriarchal hierarchy. At the end of the story, young Laird signifies through blood that he has become a proud part of this hierarchy: “Laird lifted his arm to show off a streak of blood. 'We shot old Flora,” he said, “and cut her up in fifty pieces” (BG, 127).

9Flora as horse and cut-up horsemeat opens more interpretive gates; the other two Floras, while not horses, are associated with horse culture and are also of course female. Thus the cultural connection between women and horses demands attention. While there are mythic and romantic renditions of a symbiotic and liberating relationship between women and horses, the version of this relationship that seems most pertinent to Munro's stories is that offered by Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978) in which she compares and critiques the patriarchal subjugation of nature and women. Her chapter on the show horse juxtaposes comments on the taming and training of horses and girls and women into domestic animals who serve the purposes of men. For example, Griffin quotes from Jean Jacques Rousseau's Emile on the “necessary” restraining of girls: “They must be subject, all their lives, to the most constant and severe restraint, which is that of decorum; it is, therefore, necessary to accustom them early to such confinement, that it may not afterwards cost them too dear; and to the suppression of their caprices, that they may the more readily submit to the will of others” (Rousseau 79); after an analogous piece of advice from Emily Post's Etiquette, Griffin gives these words from Alois Podhajsky's The Riding Teacher: “The teacher should insist that the horse stand still and on all four legs during the process of mounting and until asked to move on by the rider. Fidgeting on the spot or moving on without command must not be tolerated” (Griffin 79).

10Flora is certainly not a show horse, nor is the daughter of the fox farmer being trained for high society. Nonetheless they both exhibit “wild” traits that must be disciplined for them to become meat or proper girls. The girl's grandmother criticizes as ungirlish the way she slams doors and doesn't hold her knees together when she sits (BG, 119). Flora is “given to fits of violent alarm” and loved by the girl and her brother “for her speed and high stepping, her general air of gallantry and abandon” (BG, 119). A “sorrel mare, a driver” (BG, 119), Flora is given some agency; unlike an old workhorse named Mack with whom she shares the stable for a winter, she does not go willingly to the slaughter come spring. A volatile red-head with drive (like Emily Dickinson and Lucille Ball), she acts with a flair that bespeaks her character.

11As Heble points out, the narrator depicts her younger self as not wholly resisting the gender role her culture prescribes (Heble 35); she loves from the outset to tell stories, an activity associated with the women's sphere, and by the time she attempts to free Flora she is imagining stories in which she does not rescue others but is rescued by a boy in her class or a male teacher (BG, 126). Yet her opening the gate for Flora also expresses her imaginative longing for freedom. On the day of their mutual doom, learning that Flora has broken free, she and brother climb a fence to look: “It was exciting to see her running, whinnying, going up on her hind legs, prancing and threatening like a horse in a Western movie, an unbroken ranch horse, though she was just an old driver, an old sorrel mare” (BG, 124). The old mare has an unbroken fighting spirit. In “The Peace of Utrecht”, another story in Dance of the Happy Shades collection in which “Boys and Girls” also appears, the old mother of the narrator temporally breaks free of the hospital in which she has been confined to die (Munro 207-08). Coral Ann Howells calls the “attempt at flight” of the old mare and the old mother “desperate” and “doomed,” their stories ones of “female failure” (Howells 22). This may be so, but isn't there something valiant in the fight against death, even as there is in the fight against patriarchy?

12Both “Boys and Girls” and “The Peace of Utrecht” are semi-autobiographical; Munro's father was a fox farmer during her young years (Thacker 39-41); her mother did try to escape a hospital (Thacker 150). Writing of her mother's life, illness, and death in general was a painful experience for her, but it was a story she felt she had to write (Thacker 150). At the close of another semi-autobiographical story, “The Ottawa Valley,” the narrator states “The problem, the only problem, is my mother. And she is the one of course I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey [to the Ottawa Valley, where her mother grew up] has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did” (“The Ottawa Valley,” 246). Munro may also be trapped by the story of the Flora; her fate is also a problem, intertwined as it is with that of Munro herself. It seems significant that the abrasive step-mother of the The Beggar Maid is named Flo, a fittingly down-to-earth version of the flowery “Florence,” an etymological cousin of “Flora.” Even suffering from dementia and placed in a nursing home Flo remains unsettlingly feisty: she asks why there are “damn sides” on her bed (“Spelling,” 192) and occasionally shows “her feelings by biting a nurse” (“Royal Beatings,” 24).

13More dispassionate than Flo or Flora, the narrator of “Boys and Girls” claims that when she opened the gate for Flora as wide as she could, “I did not make any decision to do this, it was just what I did” (BG, 125). As Heble notes, the narrator prepared the way for her decision by entering into the “paradigmatic realm” of rescue and escape through the stories she tells herself (Heble 35). Fictions shape our reality; Munro gives her readers the pleasure of deciding how this happens along with her. The young girl's action is rooted in deep need which, she realizes, goes against the needs of the father to feed the foxes to feed his family, including her, and separates her from her father's side: “I was on Flora's side, and that made me of no use to anybody, not even to her. Just the same I did not regret it; when she came running at me and I held the gate open, that was the only thing I could do” (BG, 125). In “ Dance of the Happy Shades,” the final and title story of Munro's first story collection, an old piano teacher invites to the recital of her respectable students some “little idiots” who are “not all there” (DHS, 221-22): the ability of one of them to play music “that carries with it the freedom of great unemotional happiness” (DHS, 222) is thought to be “useless” and “not altogether in good taste” by the respectable mothers (DHS, 223). The art Munro admires and performs is similarly useless, as is being on Flora's side. It does not immediately put meat on the table, but it does seem necessary if we are to affirm life and freedom.

  • 2 Henceforth referred to as FMY .

14Munro's second Flora appears 26 years after the Flora of “Boys and Girls” in the generously unwieldy and deviously metafictional “Friend of My Youth.”2This Flora, a woman who lives most of her life on an Ottawa Valley farm, may seem a parody, a degradingly low-mimetic or ironic displacement, of the mythic Flora, one who lacks even the curtailed freedom of Flora the horse. Whereas the mythic Flora is a goddess of fertility associated with courtesans and a sexual saturnalia, this Flora is a twice-jilted single woman who is portrayed as devoid of and hostile to sexual experience, whether in the Maiden Lady sentimental version of her imagined by the narrator's mother (FMY, 19) or the “Presbyterian witch” version of her proposed by the narrator herself (FMY, 20-21). Instead of being honored in an annual spring festival of rebirth as is the mythic Flora, the Ottawa Valley Flora devotes herself to an energetic spring cleaning (FMY, 7). And whereas Flora the horse is a “driver,” one who is trusted with setting the pace for other horses and the buggies or wagons they pull, Flora the woman, though she “could drive a horse perfectly well,” on trips to town is relegated to “standing behind holding the sacks” while a man drove (FMY, 8) because of the rigidly patriarchal Christian sect to which she belongs. That this Flora has a family name, Grieves, also seemingly moves her from the mythic to the grief-laden historical, domestic realm. I will argue, however, that Munro opens the gate wide for this Flora too, enabling her to escape easy and belittling characterizations.

15From the outset of “Friend of My Youth,” the difficulties of characterizing the narrator's mother and Flora, the “friend of [her] youth,” are intertwined; thus once again, “the problem, the only problem” is the mother, and, by extension, Flora. At the outset of the story, the narrator recalls that she used to dream of an unproblematic relationship with her mother who, not yet a prisoner of the paralyzing disease which crippled the last decade of her life, makes light of her daughter's not coming to see her in a long time, relieving the daughter of her guilt (FMY, 3-4); near the close of the story, when the narrator dreams of meeting Flora she realizes that she is really once again imagining her mother (FMY, 25-26). The circularity of the “Friend of My Youth” as well as the “different tacks” it takes makes it a particularly good example of what Gayle Elliott calls “feminist meta-narrative” which promotes a woman's way of knowing and challenges patriarchal, linear hierarchies and binaries (Elliott 76).

16The bulk of the story presents the mother's imagining of and bonding with Flora Grieves, in whose half of a house she boarded when a young Ottawa Valley teacher until marriage takes her away. Over two years she gradually learns through gossip, letters, and observation that Flora was betrothed to a live-in handyman named Robert until he got her younger sister Ellie pregnant; now married, they live in the other half of the house; subsequent miscarriages and stillbirths have left Ellie sickly, and then she develops a growth, a cancer; Flora cares for Ellie until her worsening condition necessitates the presence of a live-in nurse. In the eyes of the mother, who herself grew up in the valley, Flora shares some of the mysterious qualities of the valley itself, embodies the virtues of a bygone era and a passing rural way of life. And while some aspects of Flora Grieves's life and character demythologize her, others re-mythologize her.

17We learn that Flora and her family eschew modern conveniences such as electricity, telephones and cars not because of strictures of their Cameronian (Reformed Presbyterian) religion, but out of choice (FMY, 5). Remaining in a horse-centered culture enables Flora to display herself with grace and dignity, even if only riding in the back of a horse-drawn cart: “She rode to town and back standing up, keeping an easy balance, wearing her black hat, almost ridiculous, but not quite. A gypsy queen, my mother thought she looked like, with her black hair and her skin that always looked slightly tanned, and her lithe and bold serenity” (FMY, 8). The “almost ridiculous, but not quite” seems to slip into the perspective of the narrator, but with the almost erotic presentation of Flora as a “gypsy queen” we see the romantic admiration of the mother. “Of course,” we are then cautioned, “she lacked the gold bangles and the bright clothes. My mother envied her slenderness and her cheekbones” (FMY, 8)—as if Flora's appeal lay only in her attractive physiognomy. But the flashy imagery works to conjure in our mind a prominent figure of British romantic fiction and, as Long details, of old country fairs (Long 181-94): a gypsy queen on her horse-drawn vardo. Flora thus becomes an exotic and dangerous woman, with a freedom that belies her domestic Ottawa Valley existence.

18Even when conducting her domestic spring cleaning, Flora achieves mythic stature. “During the first spring my mother was there,” we are told, “a great housecleaning was embarked upon, during which Flora climbed the ladders herself and carried down the storm windows, washed and stacked them away, carried all the furniture out of one room after another so that she could scrub the woodwork and varnish the floors” (FMY, 7). By using “embarked,” Munro casts Flora's work as an heroic adventure, undertaken with admirable energy and strength. Further description associates Flora's “great housecleaning” with purification rituals of religious spring festivals such as Passover and Chinese New Year: “She washed every dish and glass that was sitting in the cupboards supposedly clean already. She scalded every pot and spoon” (FMY, 7). From the perspective of the narrator Flora works as one possessed: “Such need and energy possessed her that she could hardly sleep—my mother would wake up to the sound of stovepipes being taken down, or the broom, draped in a dish towel, whacking at smoky cobwebs” (FMY, 7). The spring cleaning becomes radical, disturbing, destructive, apocalyptic, like the annual busks of the Mucclasse Indians admired by Thoreau (Thoreau 68): “Through the washed uncurtained windows came a torrent of unmerciful light. The cleanliness was devastating” (FMY, 7). The newly starched sheets give the mother a rash; Flora's sickly sister complains of “the smell of varnish and cleansing powder” (FMY, 7).

19The interpretive gates are open wide here. One could see Flora as puritanically repressed and angry, an anal character whose sexual and creative energy is wasted on housework and who takes revenge via her mops and rags against the sister who has stolen the man who was rightfully hers and the boarder who is preparing to be married to another man. On the other hand, she could be seen as a god-like agent of radical reformation—a Shiva whose destruction reveals the nature of the cosmos and opens up the possibility of new creation. Further interpretive possibilities emerge. For her “climbing jobs” she wears the “baggy overalls” of the man who jilted her, giving her “the air of a comedian—sportive, unpredictable” (FMY, 7). Clearly this clownish Flora has her own way of flourishing and flaunting her stuff, upsetting normative domestic arrangements and gender roles. She also crosses, in the mother's imagination, religious boundaries: “My mother called her a whirling dervish” (FMY, 7).

20This short sentence gets its own paragraph as if to draw attention to its unusual import. In the paragraph this is fleshed out: “ 'You're a regular whirling dervish, Flora,' she said, and Flora halted. She wanted to know what that meant” (FMY, 7). The mother is afraid once Flora knows the meaning she will be offended because she is a strict Christian, but instead “She liked the idea of being a dervish, and went to tell her sister” (FMY, 7). To be a “whirling dervish” can be an exotic liberating persona to assume, like being a “gypsy” (indeed, some Romani are Sunni Muslims, as are the dervishes). Flora may not swirl herself into religious ecstasy, but her devotion to spring housecleaning sets her apart and gives this friend of her youth mythic stature in the mind of the mother.

21After the mother marries and moves three hundred miles away, she learns that Ellie has died, but that instead of doing what the community (and the mother) expected Robert to do, righting a past wrong by marrying Flora, he marries instead the live-in-nurse. This turns Flora in the mother's eyes into a victim. When the mother writes to Flora expressing her sympathy and her outrage against the nurse, Flora, however, refuses to be seen as a victim, claiming in a “well-written” return letter that she is “happy and satisfied with her life”; she hopes that her former friend will “soon be too busy with her own responsibilities to worry about the lives of people that she used to know” (FMY, 19). One could conclude that Flora is merely putting up a good front, that not being chosen by a man leaves her barren and wounded, but there is no evidence for this. And the subsequent short paragraph opens up the possibility of another conclusion: “This well-written letter cut my mother, as she said, to the quick. She and Flora stopped corresponding. My mother did become busy with her own life and finally a prisoner in it” (FMY, 19). The narrator could be referring to the time when her mother becomes paralyzed by Parkinson's disease, but in context it seems that it is the circumstance of marriage and motherhood as a whole that have imprisoned her, circumstances that cut her off from Flora and from which Flora is free.

22Munro, of course, freed herself from some such circumstances in order to become the writer of complex lengthy stories such as “Friend of My Youth” (Thacker 228-90). In a metafictional turn worthy of Cervantes, this story's mother in “later years” imagines that had she been similarly free she too would have been a writer, and would have written “the story of Flora's life, ”calling it, as mentioned before, The Maiden Lady (FMY, 19), in which Flora would be a saintly martyr, as she herself was during long, dying years. The writing daughter feels the danger of being imprisoned by such a sentimental version of Flora and the mother: “I felt a great fog of platitudes and pieties lurking, an incontestable crippled-mother power, which could capture and choke me” (FMY, 20). In reaction, she develops her “Presbyterian witch” Flora who is finally punished by falling under the malicious care of the nurse/wife who conducts a spring cleaning in which all the Presbyterian books Flora used to read to her sister are taken out and burned before her eyes! (FMY, 21); Flora had been made evil, in the daughter narrator's opinion, by “her turning away from sex” (FMY, 22). Heble argues that the narrator thinks the mother's story of Flora “may really be a story not about Flora at all; rather it seems to be a story about the narrator's own relationship with her mother, especially as that relationship is played out in terms of attitudes towards sex and sexuality” (Heble 177). One could also argue that these attitudes play against those cultivated by the mythic Flora, that ancient goddess of sex and sexuality, so it is always already her story too.

23The narrator goes on to acknowledge that her attitudes and story, like those of her mother, are shaped by her times (FMY, 22-23); like all myths they are social constructs that reflect and promote what people believe to be true and can imprison us in fictions. Munro has a letter from “the real Flora” liberate mother and daughter from the fictions they have constructed about her (FMY, 23). She stresses her friendship with the aging Robert and his nurse wife, writes of the modernization of the farm, and notes that she herself is well and living in town, where she clerks in a store; Flora, having heard that her old friend is not so well, hopes doctors will be able to help. The letter is judged “unsettling” (it's not clear by whom) because it leaves “so many things out. Nothing in it about God's will or His role in our affliction. No mention of whether Flora still went to that church” (FMY, 24). Mother and daughter both seem still bent on defining Flora through her narrow religion, whereas she herself has wider interests.

24The mother, the narrating daughter supposes, did not reply to Flora, perhaps because of the mother's deteriorating handwriting; she did, however, begin letters, one addressed to “Friend of my Youth” (FMY, 24). Still bothered by her mother's sentimental “flowery language,” the narrator says she at this time lost interest in Flora and had other, new stories on her mind (FMY, 24). Later, however, she can't help wondering about Flora, and imagines all kinds of liberating futures for her, including one in which she meets a man who knows nothing about her strange restricting Cameronian religion or life “on some godforsaken farm” and so sees her as “nice” and “Nice-looking, too” (FMY, 25). The narrator is trying to supply Flora's story with a traditional happy ending that Flora herself has resisted. The narrator then dreams of visiting a beautified Flora in her store (though she would be long dead) and telling her she knows her story. Flora again resists: “she shakes her head. She smiles at me, and in her smile there is a degree of mockery, a faint, self-assured malice. Weariness as well. She is not surprised that I am telling her this, but she is weary of it, of me and my idea of her, my information, my notion of that I can know anything about her” (FMY, 26).

25This is surely one of the most liberating metafictional turns in all of Munro; she opens wide the gate and allows the character she has created out of it! She then has the narrator awaken from her dream of Flora and realize that it is, as always, the mother of whom she has been dreaming: it is the mother whose story can never be limited; the narrator then remembers that she “felt slightly cheated” by the old dream she had of her mother's forgiveness, of her breaking out of the old prison of her crippling illness,“ showing oppositions and powers” the narrator “never dreamed” the mother had (FMY, 26). Howells notes that the mother and Flora typify “women who manage to elude the conventional plots of their own lives” (Howells 102) who populate other stories in the Friend of my Youth collection, a collection Munro dedicates to the memory of her mother. Munro may have privileged “Friend of my Youth” by placing it first and taking its title for the whole volume to provide a lens through which we see its elusive women, who, as Deborah Heller notes, “get loose from the roles expected of them by both other characters and by readers” (Heller 60). The narrator herself is not so pleased at having been eluded once again by her mother: “She changes the bitter lump of love I have carried all this time into a phantom—something useless and uncalled for, like a phantom pregnancy” (FMY, 26). She may wish that her love had a more fruitful outcome like that of the mythic Flora, though we readers of course are pleased as always to enjoy the fruit of this story.

26The narrator and Munro are not yet done with it. In what reads like a scholarly footnote, we are given information about the Cameronians, “an uncompromising remnant of the Covenanters—those Scots who in the seventeenth century bound themselves, with God, to resist prayer books, any taint of popery or interference by the king” (FMY, 26). Richard Cameron, an “outlawed” preacher, is soon cut down, but followers succeed in hacking down a “haughty” bishop and “riding” their horses over his body. “One of their ministers” the footnote and story conclude, “in the mood of firm rejoicing at his own hanging, excommunicated all the other preachers of the world” (FMY, 26). Howells astutely suggests that this anecdote from Scottish religious history pertains to both the mother and her friend Flora in “Friend of my Youth,” which portrays “a steadfast rejection of coercion by these two women ”[…] who “[like the preacher] preserve their integrity through stratagems of secrecy and silence” (Howells 105). I agree with this interpretation but believe that an opposite one is also feasible: the anecdote could be a critique of the myth of integrity, of their being one way of preaching, one story that can capture a mother or a Flora. Once again Munro opens wide the gate.

27Flora's third and final appearance occurs fourteen year later in “Runaway,” the title story of Munro's 2004 collection. There are many runaways in this collection, beginning with Flora, a little goat belonging to Carla and Clark, a young couple who have a horse stable and riding school in rural Ontario. The countryside in “Runaway” is more modernized and gentrified than in the earlier Flora stories; one cannot imagine its having a fox farm or the Flora of “Friend” riding a horse-drawn wagon through it. Flora the goat has been brought in as a comforting, stabilizing companion to the horses. Judging by the number of websites explaining how to do this (as well as testimony from horse-owning friends), goats are generally seen as valued companions for skittish equines; there are, however, frequent warnings that goats are escape artists, difficult to keep fenced in. This proves to be the case in “Runaway.” Its Flora seems to enjoy her fenced-in horse-companion role, but her instinct prompts her to seek a wilder destiny.

28While “Runaway” is blest with Munro's usual amazing knowledge of rural Canadian life, it is also dazzling in its mythic resonances. (Other stories in the Runaway collection also are richly mythic; it is significant that Juliet, the central character in the three stories that follow “Runaway,” is a Classics scholar.) Munro's deftness as a writer is manifest in her ability to keep Flora the goat real, so wide open is she to mythic interpretations, Greek and Roman, Judaic and Christian, medieval and modern. She may be “horny as a goat” should be, and so is linked with lust as she is in the Roman Floriana festival and in medieval representations of that deadly sin. She is associated with Greek tragedy and the world of goat-like Pan, satyrs, fauns, and chimeras in Greco-Roman mythology. She is the scapegoat of Judaic law and, like Jesus in Christian tradition, a sacrificial goat as well, but in this tradition she also can represent those who are wicked, in cahoots with the demonic. And this is not the end of the mythic roles she plays. We will see how these roles are enacted and turn sinister as “Runaway” unfolds.

  • 3 "Runaway" will be henceforth referred to as R.

29Flora is gone at the outset of the story which opens with Carla not only missing her but worried about the return from Greece of Sylvia, an older neighbor whose house she had helped clean. Sylvia's pastoral name (meaning “woods”) and enthusiasm for aspects of Greek culture opens up other mythic avenues. Not being told why Carla is worried about Sylvia's return, the reader might suspect that she has been having an affair with Clark, especially since Carla hopes he hasn't noticed when Sylvia's car passes their mobile home (R, 3-4).3 In a move typical of late Munro, she holds back the real reason for Carla's worry and instead presents an overview of the troubles faced by Carla and Clark over the course of a very rainy summer as their horse-riding customers stay away and stable conditions deteriorate. Clark easily loses his temper, flares up at everyone, including Carla—“That's what men do,” he says when Carla complains (R, 6). The reader begins to believe that she is trapped in a marriage with an angry man. Carla longs for companionship; thus the “worst thing” for her this summer is “the absence of Flora, the little white goat who kept the horses company in the barn and in the fields” (R, 7) and whose company she enjoys, though initially, “like a guileless girl in love,” Flora had been Clark's pet. When Flora switched her attachment to Carla, the goat is “suddenly much wiser, less skittish—she seemed capable, instead, of a subdued and ironic sort of humor” (R, 9). Whatever else the names of Flora, Carla, and Clark signify, the spelling of them indicates their interdependent relationship, with “Carla” and “Clark” sharing all but one letter, and “Flora” and “Carla” rhyming. Such interdependence may be fun or foreboding.

30In her absence Flora enters Carla's dreams two nights in a row just before the return of Sylvia. The first dream seems comforting: ”Flora had walked right up to the bed with a red apple in her mouth“ (R, 7). Not initially, perhaps, but by the end of the story, as we shall see, the reader is tempted to link this apple with the “forbidden” one through which the snake traditionally entices Eve and Eve, Adam, though actually in the Genesis story there is no apple, just an unspecified “fruit” (Genesis 2.3-6 KJV). The apple is transferred into the biblical myth of paradise from the Song of Songs, in which the love-sick young woman in her own enclosed garden says to her beloved, “comfort me with apples” (2.5 KJV). Thus Munro endows Carla's first dream of Flora with erotic connotations. In the second dream “she had run away” when she saw Carla coming, though her “leg seemed to be hurt” (R, 7). The details of this dream are foreboding: “She led Carla to a barbed-wire barricade of some kind that might belong on some battlefield, and then she – Flora --slipped through it, hurt leg and all, just slithered through like a white eel and disappeared” (R, 7). By needing to clarify to whom the “she” refers, Munro intertwines the circumstances of Flora and Carla—they have both been wounded in battles and will both need to shift shapes if they are to escape.

31When Munro gives us the back story that explains why Carla is upset by the return of Sylvia, we learn that Carla's wound is to a degree self-inflicted. In order to sexually arouse her husband, Carla invents a “dirty, dirty” bedtime story: when she was helping Sylvia clean house in the spring, Sylvia's bed-ridden and dying husband, a “randy old man,” indicated his desire for Carla, pointing to his erection (R, 15). Carla's story of one horny old goat works to arouse another less old who then forces his “wronged” wife to help him blackmail the now-widowed Sylvia, who, he assumes, will want to save her dead husband's reputation. Carla, a hostage to a fiction of her own making (like, to a degree, the narrator of “Boys and Girls”) is compelled by Clark to go to Sylvia's home to forward his blackmailing plot. On her way there, she whistles and calls for Flora—“Over and over again, whistle and name, whistle and name” (R, 16), to no avail. The “single pain of missing Flora”, however, is preferable to the “mess” she is in because of her false story and her “seesaw misery with Clark. At least Flora's leaving was not on account of anything she—Carla—had done wrong” (R, 16). Once again through the need to clarify a pronominal reference, Munro intertwines the lives of Carla and Flora and perhaps foreshadows that one or both will be sacrificed.

32There is yet more erotic entanglement awaiting Carla at Sylvia's. Sylvia had fallen a little in love with Carla when she was helping her clean, especially during a spring cleaning after her husband's death, much like the Flora of “Friend” effected (R, 17). When Carla gives Sylvia a quick kiss on her head to cheer her up, “Sylvia saw it as a bright blossom, its petals spreading inside her with tumultuous heat, like a menopausal flash” (R, 18). For Sylvia, Carla is a “[n]aturally happy” life-force (R, 18-19), sort of like Flora. The friends with whom Sylvia travels to Greece kid her when she tells them of her “crush” on a girl back home; though she calls it “displaced maternal love” (R, 21), the Greek setting conjures up the love of Sappho. Sylvia brings back for Carla the replica of a bronze horse “found under the sea”, being ridden by a boy who is “urging the horse on to the limit of its strength” (R, 19). Maybe Sylvia sees Carla as the boy, and herself as the horse, or vice versa. Sylvia tells Carla that where she stayed in Greece there were lots of little goats leaping around, “like the spirits of the place” (R, 21), and asks about Flora. Carla says she's “gone” and then breaks down in wild tears. Gradually Sylvia learns that her friend's grief is caused not by the absence of her beloved Flora but by the menacing presence of her husband (she never reveals her own complicity in her present woeful situation). When Carla says she'd get away if she had the money, Sylvia enables her escape, providing some money, the address of a friend to stay with in Toronto, and some of her clothes. Changing into them, Carla shifts her shape so she can become a runaway like Flora (R, 26-27).

33Munro then switches back and forth in her narrative focus, creating a tense drama. First we are with Carla as she boards a bus and reflects on her life: she had run away before, escaping the middle-class life of her mother and father with Clark, a handsome, sexy school drop-out and riding school instructor with whom she can live in the country and work with animals as she always wanted to (R, 27-29). Then we are back with Sylvia who goes to bed believing she has saved Carla from an imprisoning marriage. She awakes when she hears someone knocking on her front door—“Carla?” (R, 30). Munro leaves us in suspense as we get more of Carla's back story and her hopes that she would have an “authentic” life with Clark. As the bus ride continues, her doubts grow that she can live without Clark; she begs to be let off, and calls Clark, begging him to come get her. Though for a while she has supplanted Flora as the story's central runaway, she does not have the risk-taking instinct of the goat.

34It turns out that it is Clark knocking in the middle of the night at Sylvia's door, returning the clothes his wife had worn on her attempted escape; angry and menacing, he tells Sylvia, “I came here to tell you I don't appreciate you interfering in my life with my wife.” Sylvia's response, “She's a human being […] besides being your wife” does not please him (R, 38). When she gives a demanded apology, he shifts, she shrieks, and he puts his hand on the doorframe so she doesn't close the door (R, 39). We are uncertain what Clark plans to do, but we expect it will be violent. At this crucial point, they are startled by “something spiky and radiant ”emerging out of the night fog: “First, a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then, condensing itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, hell-bent, something rushing like a giant unicorn, rushing at them” (R, 39). “'Jesus Christ,' Clark said softly and reverently” (R, 39). We get mixed signals about this creature. It is hell-bent, but unicorns have traditionally been associated with purity and even the incarnation of Jesus in the Virgin Mary, as Clark doubtlessly inadvertently testifies. Its appearance seems to induce in him an emotional if not religious conversion; when he grabs Sylvia's shoulder, “she accepted it with the knowledge that he did it either to protect her or to reassure himself.” The creature who effects this conversion and bonding proves to be not a supernatural being, but, of course, Flora: “Out of the fog, and out of the magnifying light—now seen to be that of a car travelling along this back road, probably in search of a place to park—out of this appeared a white goat. A little dancing white goat, hardly bigger than a sheepdog” (R 39). The details of Flora's return are rather de-mythologizing. The light that illuminated her probably comes from a car with a couple looking for a place to have sex. “Where the Christ have you been? Where the hell have you been?” asks Clark, supposing that Flora herself has been looking for a “boyfriend” and has returned pregnant (R, 39-40). Still, the return of the “lost” goat is mysterious; Flora is called a “ghost,” “ a creature from out of space,” “an apparition” (R, 40).

35In her theory-rich discussion of “The Relevance of the Chimera,” Ventura shows how as apparitional (dande) lion, then goat, Flora embodies both the mythic Chimera, a female monster with the head of a lion and the body of a goat, and the secondary meaning of “chimera” as a fantasy, an illusion, a made-up story. Ventura argues that Flora's re-emergence here is the “resurgence” of a subterranean signifier (Ventura: 2010, 240) that relates to the story Carla makes up about Sylvia's husband as a billy goat (Ventura: 2010, 243), to the erotically charged replica of a sea-drawn horse Sylvia gives Flora, and to Carla herself, a “stricken horse” as she realizes her sunken condition on the bus to Toronto, a condition from which she must run to return to Clark, a few hours earlier than Flora reveals herself to Clark and Sylvia. (Ventura: 2010, 248). Munro's third Flora carries the burden of Munro's story.

36Her immediate burden is to be a Christ-like reconciler: the hitherto hostile Sylvia and Clark are unified in awe of and affection for Flora, though when Sylvia tries to pet her, she gets ready to butt (R, 40). When Clark says, “Okay, Flora. Time for us to go home” (R, 41), readers may hope that Flora will continue to play her reconciling role, bringing together Clark and Carla. When, however, he does not tell Carla that Flora has returned, we may begin to worry, as well we should, though the marriage of Carla and Clark and their horse business flourish anew. The rain stops and customers return, as has the couple's intimacy (R, 41-43). They joke about what they call “Runaway Day”: “ 'If you try to run away on me again I'll tan your hide', he said to her, and she said, 'Would you?' 'What'? 'Tan my hide?' 'Damn right'” (R, 43). Could this banter be a real threat, a sinister foreboding? Then there are the “big turkey buzzards that sat in the branch of a dead oak about a half a mile away, at the edge of the woods” (R, 43). Munro, the master of the Ontario gothic, is at her masterful best here.

37Carla does not know how to interpret the buzzard signs until she opens a good-bye letter from Sylvia, who describes the goat's reappearance as “a miracle”, describing how through the goat's intercession she and Clark had become “United in their humanity” (R, 45). “So Flora has her place as a good angel in my life and perhaps also in your husband's life and yours” Sylvia concludes (R, 46), conjuring up the image of the angel who appears to Abraham, telling him not to sacrifice his son Isaac, so a ram (who in Christian tradition becomes a type of Christ) is sacrificed instead (Genesis 22). Now readers know and Carla suspects that it is Flora which has become a substitute sacrifice. In ancient Israel goats were commonly sacrificed as sin offerings (see for example Leviticus 9). On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one goat was slaughtered, and another, the scapegoat, carried away the sins of the people into the wilderness (Leviticus 16.10,22 KJV). Initially this scapegoat remained free, but according to later rabbinical tradition it was captured and killed lest it return with the sins (New Oxford Annotated Bible note to Leviticus 16.21). Flora could be seen as a sacrificed goat, killed instead of not only Sylvia but Carla, or as scapegoat, both in its original meaning and its popular one—Carla's “sin” of running away is transferred to Flora, whom Clark kills on her return from her wilderness experience lest she bring back some of the transgressive female wildness that Sylvia had encouraged in Carla.

38One need only glance at the index to James Frazier's monumental The Golden Bough to see that goats were sacrificed in many Mediterranean as well as African cultures, probably because of their association with fertility (XII 286-87); the gods might increase the fertility of the land and its people if they slaughtered a “horny” goat. Of most relevance to “Runaway” is the Greek sacrifice of a goat in honor of Dionysus, “the power of nature in the raw” (Ferguson 1972, 6) during the spring festival of Dionysus, a festival akin to the Roman Floriana. Out of the Dionysian festival in Athens arose dramatic tragedy; the winner of the drama competition was awarded a goat (Ferguson: 1972, 3). “Tragedy” is generally thought to mean “goat” (trag) “song” (ode) (Ferguson: 1972, 4). Thus “Runaway” could be called “The Song of Flora.” Often killings are kept off stage in Greek tragedy; so too is Flora's slaughter. And her slaughter is seemingly efficacious: rural Ontario recovers from the heavy summer rain: “even the poor beaten crops lifted up their heads” (R, 42-3). And “At night when Clark put his arms around” Carla, “she did not find it hard to be cooperative” (R, 46).

39She is not, however, entirely successful in suppressing her suspicion that something awful has happened to her beloved goat: “It was as if she had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully, she could avoid feeling it. But every once in a while she had to take a deep breath, and it was still there” (R, 46). The reader may surmise that Carla does not confront Clark about what has happened to Flora out of fear that she might be killed by him as well. His threat that he would “tan her hide” if she ran away again does not seem like such a joke. According to Robert Graves, Zeus “was suckled by the she-goat Amalthea, whose hide he afterwards wore as a coat” (Graves 78). Clark does not need to wear this sign of patriarchal power to keep Carla under his rule and in her place; he just needs to have her feel she is in danger. Of course it is possible that Clark killed Flora mainly to get rid of a rival, but it seems likely that he also wants to keep her within his realm by slaughtering Flora at the edge of it

40As “the dry golden days of fall” comes on, Carla finds that she is “used to the sharp thought that had lodged in her” (R, 46). Nonetheless she is “inhabited now by an almost seductive constant low-lying temptation” to take an evening walk “to the edge of the woods, and the bare tree where the buzzard had held their party” (R, 47). Obviously there's a snake lurking in this temptation scene, luring her out to the bare tree—or is it Flora of her earlier dream, holding an apple in her mouth? Carla imagines what she would find of Flora beneath the tree: “And then the little dirty bones in the grass. The skull with perhaps some shreds of bloodied skin clinging to it. A skull that she could hold like a teacup in one hand. Knowledge in one hand” (R, 47). Munro riffs on the traditional memento mori or et in Arcadia ego scene; instead of a human skull we are given that of a goat, then the small skull amazingly becomes an easy-to-sip-from teacup, offering knowledge. The reader and Carla know that the tea party would not be pretty: like the bloody apron in “Boys and Girls,” the bloodied skin clinging to the skull alerts us to a suppressed traumatic site and sight. In Genesis God warns “the man” that if he eats “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” he will “surely die” (2.17 KJV); the snake tells “the woman” that she will not die, but rather become as gods, “knowing good and evil” (3.4-5 KJV). Should she give into the temptation to go to the tree, Carla knows that she would have to decide whether to spend the rest of her life with an “evil” Clark or whether to die at his hands like Flora.

41Carla, not wanting to make that moral decision or to die, tries to convince herself that maybe there's nothing under that dead oak tree, that Clark, so as not to have Flora around, “reminding them” of Carla's disobedience, her failed runaway, may have returned the goat to its original owner or set her loose. “She might be free”, Carla thinks, and doesn't go near the place. “She held out against the temptation”, the story concludes (R, 47). Clearly Carla is committing here what Toni Morrison would call a “crime of innocence” (Morrison 242). Who can blame her for her desire to survive? But her refusal to fall into knowledge keeps her trapped in an oppressive marriage. Drawing on Lacan, Ventura argues that Carla becomes complicit in sacrificing Flora “la chi-mère,” the mother, the one who must always be sacrificed to insure “the triumph of the phallus” (Ventura: 2010, 256-58). In this last of the Flora stories, the gate is surely finally shut on her and the freedom she has represented.

42The first Flora, the mare, another mother figure, is sacrificed by the father to feed the foxes so that he could put meat on the table; the last Flora is sacrificed to sustain through violence a patriarchal marriage, the foundation of the current state. Both non-human Floras are subjected to the needs of an anthropocentric culture; we are certainly here not in a post-human world. The one Flora who remains loose is human. Grieves, her presumably paternal family name, situates her in human history and society, but as female she is in constant danger too of subjugation, as are the two females most attached to the non-human Floras: the girl narrator of “Boys and Girls” and Carla of “Runaway.” Thus Flora seems to represent dangerous female energy that must be suppressed for the sake of traditional values and plots.

43The ultimate fates of the Floras in the early and late Munro stories are sealed by their roles in the stories' plots. In “Boys and Girls,” the narrator must be robbed of her attachment to Flora the horse so that she can come-of-age and achieve heteronormality. The Flora of “Runaway” is doomed by the mythic burden she bears as sacrificial and scape goat, as an archetypal failed runaway. It may also be significant that all the stories of Runaway have single word titles, some of which, such as “Chance”, “Passion”, “Trespasses”, “Tricks”, and “Powers” indicate what governs, usually through an ironic twist, what happens. It's as if as she enters her 70s Munro is distilling her narrative powers. (The more open styles of her last three story collections suggest both a memoir-esque turn and further boundary breaking experimentation.) The survival of the middle Flora depends on the loose metanarrative style of “Friend of My Youth”; she successfully rebels against the efforts of the narrator and her friend to pin her down through their stories. As female energy, Flora can disappear through the gates of plots if imagined to have human agency.

44The ancient Flora paradigm honored and promoted participation in the life-affirming natural cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Munro's version of the cycle twists toward death and disappearance; return is in the hands of Munro and her readers. In her interplay with the Flora myth over the span of fifty years, Munro enables her readers to ponder significant matters. We see how dependent we still are on our animal relatives for our fertility, our food and clothes, and how we exploit them literally and symbolically to fertilize our lives and imagination. We see the persistent control of patriarchal, heteronormative social constructs, and how difficult it is to escape from their control. And we experience the role that narrative has in sustaining and challenging their control while having the pleasure and privilege of reading Munro's three Flora stories.

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Coleman, Philip, “Friend of My Youth: Alice Munro and the Power of Narrativity”, Critical Insights: Alice Munro, Charles E. May, ed., Ipswich, MA: Salem Press, 2013, 160-74.

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Ventura, Héliane, “Alice Munro's 'Boys and Girls': Mapping out Boundaries”, Commonwealth 15.1 (1992), 80-87.

Ventura, Héliane, “The Female Bard: Retrieving Greek Myths, Celtic Ballads, Norse Sagas, and Popular Songs”, The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 154-77.

Ventura, Héliane, “The Relevance of the Chimera: Phantasy, Ekphrasis, and Anamorphosis in Alice Munro's 'Runaway' ”, The Relevance of Theory/ La Résonance de la Théorie 16 (2010): 239-60.

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1 The references to "Boys and Girls" will be henceforth given parenthetically as BG.

2 Henceforth referred to as FMY .

3 "Runaway" will be henceforth referred to as R.

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Bibliographical reference

Walter Hesford, “Alice Munro Opens Wide the Gate for her Three Floras”Caliban, 57 | 2017, 101-122.

Electronic reference

Walter Hesford, “Alice Munro Opens Wide the Gate for her Three Floras”Caliban [Online], 57 | 2017, Online since 12 June 2019, connection on 25 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Walter Hesford

University of Idaho

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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