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

Goats, Heifers, Wolves and Other Animals in Alice Munro’s Runaway

Gianfranca Balestra
p. 123-138


Cet essai se concentre sur l’histoire éponyme “Runaway” et fait brièvement référence à deux autres nouvelles qui figurent également dans le volume : “Chance” et “Soon,” pour mettre en lumière la présence animale en tant que motif récurrent qui établit des liens significatifs entre les différentes histoires. La nouvelle “Runaway” est construite autour d’une chèvre et de sa relation avec un jeune couple et est caractérisée par un nombre important d’analogies entre les animaux et les humains qui font intervenir des procédés stylistiques divers dont les implications éthiques sont tout aussi variées. L’analyse prend en charge les concepts du devenir humain théorisés par Deleuze et Guattari ainsi que les lectures féministes et mythiques de cette nouvelle mais développe l’idée cruciale du bouc émissaire en fondant son argumentation sur les théories du mécanisme victimaire et du désir mimétique telles que proposées par René Girard. L’auteur démontre que l’histoire est une nouvelle mise en scène du mécanisme victimaire par lequel l’ordre est rétabli à la suite de l’exclusion de la victime sacrificielle. Cette lecture propose une explication convaincante de la fin de l’histoire qui est particulièrement dérangeante en raison de la réconciliation improbable du couple et de la renaissance apparente de la nature tout en attirant l’attention sur la structure thématique complexe, la triangulation des relations et les multiples références mythiques et bibliques.

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1All sorts of animals populate Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway: goats, horses, eels, wolves, cows, heifers, whales, dogs, squirrels, deer, bears, cougars, cats, skunks, moose, snakes, rats, weasels, foxes, swans, bats, chickens, seals, sea lions, flies, unicorns, insects, birds (blackbirds, robins, doves, crows, gulls, buzzards, ducks). Some of them are just mentioned in passing as part of domestic life, rural landscape, or the wilderness; others become characters with important functions in the text and acquire symbolic or mythical status. Animals also appear as art objects or in figures of speech, mainly similes and metaphors. As Héliane Ventura points out in an essay on “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Munro “erases the boundaries between human beings and animals, birds, and fish. The similes which equate the characters with creatures are inescapable and all characters seem concerned with this potential transformation” (Ventura “Skald,” 4). This observation can be applied to most of Munro’s work, and is particularly valid in the case of “Runaway,” the title story which is structured around a goat, and where the animal world is central. I will analyze this text, addressing the animal question and trying to disentangle its multiple layers of meaning, which invite further interpretation in spite of the many excellent essays devoted to it. I will also refer briefly to other stories in the same collection, “Chance” and “Soon,” highlighting the animal presence as one of the recurring motifs that establish significant intertextual links between different stories, opening further perspectives.

  • 1 Alice Munro, "Runaway," Runaway [2004] (London: Vintage, 2006) 9. Subsequently referred to as R.
  • 2 See in particular Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, "Becoming Animal," and their previous work on (...)

2In “Runaway” Carla and Clark are a young couple living in a trailer on a farm where they keep horses for riding lessons, and board others to help ends meet. It is a rural environment, which appeals to town people who visit it for sport and entertainment or have chosen to live in the country like Sylvia, a botany teacher, and her husband Leon, a celebrated poet. At the beginning of the story he is already dead, but evoked through the temporal dislocations that characterize Munro’s sophisticated narrative structure. The complex relationships that develop among these characters is paralleled by their relationship with animals, in particular the little goat Flora. Carla’s attachment to animals is special. She wanted to be a veterinarian, but she gave that up to run away with Clark: “all she really wanted, and had wanted all her life, was to work with animals and live in the country.”1 Her first escape, then, is away from an urban middle-class life in search of authenticity, which she thought could be provided by Clark and animals. She develops a particular kinship with the little goat Flora: “Carla’s behavior with the horses was tender and strict and rather maternal, but the comradeship with Flora was quite different, Flora allowing her no sense of superiority” (R, 9). While the horses “would not look at her when she was unhappy,” the goat, “who was never tied up, would come and rub against her, and look up with an expression that was not quite sympathy–it was more like comradely mockery–in her shimmering yellow-green eyes” (R, 9). The closeness of woman and goat is such that it rejects any hierarchical structure, establishing a correspondence that is supported in the text, as we shall see, by a proliferation of analogies between them as well as between animals and humans generally, with different stylistic devices and ethical implications. It becomes part of that process of “becoming human, becoming animal,” as posited by Deleuze and Guattari in their exploration of animality and the relationships between humans and animals.2

3Clark was the one who had acquired the little goat because he had heard that a goat could bring ease and comfort into a horse stable and he wanted to try it. While this shows his pragmatic attitude towards animals, it anticipates the goat’s role as pacifier not only in the stable, but also in the house. We are told:

At first she had been Clark’s pet entirely, following him everywhere, dancing for his attention. She was quick and graceful and provocative as a kitten, and her resemblance to a guileless girl in love made them both laugh. But as she grew older she seemed to attach herself to Carla, and in this attachment she was suddenly much wiser, less skittish—she seemed capable, instead, of a subdued and ironic sort of humor. (R, 9)

  • 3 We could call the goat an Œdipal animal also in the sense purported by Deleuze and Guattari of an i (...)

4The psychodynamics are particularly intriguing: there is a triangle formed by Clark, Carla and Flora, with shifting affections. The little goat is almost like a child for a couple which is childless after some years together, and it manages to re-establish a connection between man and woman, who laugh together at the animal’s behavior. Flora acts like a girl in love, an attitude which might be interpreted as an oedipal stage of attachment to the man, and then identifies with the person of the same sex, transferring her affection to Carla.3

5This apparently bucolic environment, where humans and animals seem to live in peace and harmony, is tainted by morbid lies, ominous signs, and impending violence. To rouse her husband, Carla tells a false story of sexual harassment on the part of Leon, the old dying poet. Clark is moody and irascible, he tends to get into fights over small things, “his friendliness, compelling at first, could suddenly turn sour” (R, 6). This behavior occurs with animals as well as people: from the very beginning it looks as if he transfers onto animals his resentment against humans. When he has a row with the owner of a little mare named Lizzie, he neglects the animal completely: “Clark, who had formerly made the little mare his pet, had refused to have anything to do with her. Lizzie’s feelings were hurt, in consequence–she was balky when exercised and kicked up a fuss when her hoofs had to be picked out, as they did every day, lest they develop a fungus. Carla had to watch out for nips” (R, 7). An element of violence and murder is introduced by the name of the mare, who sometimes was jokingly called Lizzie Borden, after the woman who killed her parents and entered American folklore. The narrator uses the language of humans to define the horse’s reaction—her “feelings were hurt”—but I would argue, in agreement with Brad Hooper (Hooper 144), that Munro doesn’t embarrassingly anthropomorphize, rather, she shows psychological understanding of the animal world, although, in this case, in a rather sentimentalizing way.

6In any case, Clark’s attitude anticipates his later one towards the goat Flora, as well as his abusive attitude towards Carla. She had fallen in love with him in part because of “the tender way he could have with a horse, and with her” (R, 32), and she painfully had found out he could be very oppressive and cruel with both. The text thus establishes another correlation between animal and woman, which is accepted by the woman herself, and which is a recurring motif in the narrative. The erasing of differences between woman and animal can in fact bear contrasting ethical meaning, it can be perceived as a positive turn or as a demeaning one, depending on the perspective of the characters themselves, the narrator, and the reader.

7At the beginning of the story Flora is missing and Carla is afraid that she might have been attacked by wild dogs, coyotes or a bear, while Clark suggests that she might just have gone off to find herself a billy goat. Running away may be an adventure or a danger, as Carla herself later finds out in her aborted attempt to run away from her husband. She has to go back, get off the bus, in a condition aptly described by metaphoric language that once again associates her with a horse: “She was sinking to the ground like a stricken horse who will never get up again” (R, 35). The goat’s absence affects Carla deeply. She even dreams of her twice. In the first dream Flora walks up to her bed with a red apple in her mouth. In the second dream, she runs away when she sees Carla coming, and leads her to a barbed-wire barricade, slipping through it “like a white eel and disappeared” (R, 7). These dreams could be interpreted as a manifestation of the woman’s unconscious desires, first of all her desire to run away, to escape from what has become her miserable marital situation. The goat holding a red apple in her mouth may be interpreted as tempting her to escape. This is even more explicit in the second dream, where the goat, in spite of her injured leg, manages to escape through the barbed wire, in a movement similar to a snake’s, here a white eel. As LeDuc notes, both the apple and the serpent-like eel carry echoes of the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (LeDuc 78). Clark’s propensity to re-name people and events, which has been pointed out by Condé as “the power of naming” (Condé 178), fits perfectly well in this sort of pastoral world—a “Canadian postmodern mock pastoral” (Ventura “Chimera,” 256)—where some elements of the Biblical story such as Adam and Eve, apple and snake, appear in a contaminated and inverted plot.

  • 4 For example, when the young woman gives her a friendly kiss on her bent head, she receives it as a (...)
  • 5 The statue is a reproduction of a life-size one on display (since 1972) at the National Archeologic (...)

8Their neighbour Sylvia assumes the role of tempter, helping Carla to run away from Clark, becoming a guide towards a forbidden potential freedom. The relation between Sylvia and Carla is complex and ambiguous, on both sides. Carla is reluctant to visit Sylvia, who has come back from a trip to Greece, while Sylvia is excited at the perspective of seeing Carla. The reader gradually finds out the cause of these mixed feelings: Carla had made up a story of sexual molestation on the part of Leon (Sylvia’s husband) in order to excite Clark sexually, and now he wants to extort money from Sylvia; Sylvia is sexually attracted to Carla, as hinted at by significant details,4 but she struggles against her desire and rationalizes her feelings as maternal instincts. Sylvia, whose name suggests “that she is a kind of goddess of the woods, in charge of the flowers, or flora (Condé 181), is connected to nature and the little goat Flora. She has come back from Greece with a gift for Carla: a little statue of a horse with a boy riding it, a bronze replica of a statue from the second century B.C. which had been found under the sea.5 The woman explains that it is supposed to represent a racehorse, “making that final spurt, the last effort in a race. The rider, too, the boy, you can see he’s urging the horse on to the limit of its strength” (R, 19). She does not mention that the boy had made her think of Carla. This famous statue represents a moment of intense contact between animal and human, with the boy riding the horse without a saddle. The rider’s whip and reins, and the horse’s bridle are missing, and this makes the contact between animal and human seem more intimate and without any means of control on the part of the boy. Sylvia expects Carla to like this gift since it represents a race horse, but Carla is too worried and involved in her thoughts and fears. The beauty of the bronze horse, with its elusive implications of repressed desire and physical contact, is lost on Carla, who is less interested in art than life, while Sylvia experiences nature (animals) more through art than through life. To get Carla’s attention, Sylvia talks about the goats in Greece: “They were quite small even when they were full-grown. Some spotty and some white, and they were leaping around up on the rocks just like the spirit of the place. […] I wouldn’t be surprised if they had wreaths on their horns” (R, 21). This initially realistic description turns into a symbolic one, an intellectual and mythical interpretation of nature, which shows Sylvia’s attitude towards animals to be partly a cultural construction, while at the same time she wishes to overcome the binary opposition between nature and culture. This brings into the scene the thought of little Flora, who has disappeared, and anticipates her almost supernatural reappearance in the night.

9This event represents the climax of the story, and it happens after Carla’s aborted flight, when Clark belligerently goes to Sylvia’s house to tell her that his wife is sleeping in bed where she belongs, and to keep out of their affairs. It is a threatening confrontation, with patriarchal power reasserting itself. The sudden apparition of Flora explodes out of the fog interrupting the battle between Clark and Sylvia, who for a moment share the same awe in front of this almost supernatural creature, “a goat from outer space,” as he calls her. It is worthwhile to quote this passage:

The fog had thickened, taken on separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then condensing itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, hell-bent, something like a giant unicorn, rushing at them. […] Then the vision exploded. 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 sheep dog. (R, 39)

  • 6 In a way, this vision of the goat turns her into the second type of animal identified by Deleuze an (...)
  • 7 In European folklore it is often depicted as a white horse-like or goat-like animal with a long hor (...)
  • 8 Héliane Ventura, "The Relevance of the Chimera," 246. Ventura situates her analysis of the story in (...)

10This apparition in the fog momentarily transforms the little goat into an unearthly, mythological, sacred animal6 that evokes famous literary antecedents such as the albatross in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Melville’s Moby Dick. The “whiteness of the whale” seems an appropriate reference with its multiple underlying meanings, its innocence (“pure white”) and terror (“hell-bent”), condensed in one animal that turns out to be the little white goat. The reference to the unicorn,7 with all its possible symbolic and figurative connotations, expands the intricate significance of the numinous apparition. The “dandelion ball” establishes once again the connection with Carla, who was earlier described with a “face crowned with a frizz of dandelion hair” (R, 17). Moreover “dandelion” (literally “lion’s tooth”) activates a possible association with the name Leon, the dead old poet. Or, as Ventura suggests, it can obliquely point in the direction of the mythological Chimera, a female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail, who was killed by Bellerophon on his winged horse Pegasus, all animals that are part of the story scenario. Ventura also offers a brilliant explanation of this vision, likening it to a Fata Morgana, an optical phenomenon which results from a temperature inversion, “with an ontological difference”: “it is not a mirage: it is a fanciful delusion which redresses itself in the end to make way for the reappearance of the living pet goat as a character in the diegesis. The deformation of the object marks it off as a literary anamorphosis in which the process of escape and return has been literalized.”8

  • 9 It is interesting to note that Leon used to call Sylvia his Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of the r (...)

11After this encounter Sylvia cannot go back to sleep, “thinking of the little goat, whose appearance out of the fog seemed to her more and more magical. She even wondered if, possibly, Leon could have had something to do with it,” somehow supporting the similarity posited by the dandelion image. “If she was a poet she would write a poem about something like this, but in her experience the subjects that she thought a poet could write about did not appeal to Leon” (R, 41).9 Instead, she writes a letter to Carla, which gives a rational account of this portentous encounter.

There has to be something special about this. I know of course that she (Flora) is an ordinary little animal and that she probably spent her time away in getting herself pregnant. In a sense her return has no connection at all with our human lives. Yet her appearance at that moment did have a profound effect on your husband and me. When two human beings divided by hostility are both, at the same time mystified–no, frightened—by the same apparition, there is a bond that springs up between them, and they find themselves united in the most unexpected way. United in their humanity—this is the only way I can describe it. We parted almost as friends. So Flora has a place as a good angel in my life and perhaps also in your husband’s life and yours. (R, 47)

12Sylvia recognizes a difference between animals and humans, and defines the little goat in realistic terms, but she also perceives its angelic aura, its role as pacifier between her and Clark, attributing to him the same feelings as her own. Even in the words of Clark, for a moment, the two of them become “us.” Unfortunately, this does not last. Flora’s and Carla’s return is not enough for him, and sparse textual clues indicate that he probably kills the little goat who, according to LeDuc may represent “the embodiment of the potential for female freedom and independence” (Leduc, 76). After Flora’s presumed death, the narrative takes a disturbing turn, patriarchal order is restored. The man’s threats of violence are spoken in a joking way, significantly using metaphoric language related to animals: “If you ever try to run away on me again I’ll tan your hide” (R, 43). Once again femininity is equated to animality, but I would argue that in this case it is not presented as a positive elimination of any distinction between species, but rather as a reduction of the female to subjected animality, because Clark wants to subjugate both animals and wife. As some ecofeminist perspectives contend, violence and moral failures of humans over non-humans are symptomatic of similar failures between men and women, as well as races and classes. Clark is high-spirited, Carla cooperative, a reconciliation is brought about between the two. However, when Carla suspects he has killed the goat “It was as if she had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully, she could avoid feeling it” (R, 46). The thought of Flora’s possible murder causes her excruciating pain. She is tempted to take a walk to the woods where she might find 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). This gruesome image, as in an Elizabethan tragedy reduced to the domesticity of a teacup, also evokes the biblical tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden and the apple that Flora offers her in the dream. But Carla refuses the knowledge of evil (she resists the temptation), she does not want to find proof of the murder, which remains undisclosed. She prefers to remain subjugated to her husband, in a way colluding with him by denying his violence against the goat. She is reduced to silence, perhaps even complicity.

13Following LeDuc’s interpretation we could argue that in killing Flora, Clark “the master signifier for patriarchal control […] silenced the potential for women to be free, […] effectively slaying the notion of female independence” (LeDuc 80). LeDuc’s explanation of this barbaric act supports her feminist cultural reading of the story. In fact, the parallels between Flora and Carla and their attempted flights enhance the analogies between animals and women. Open cruelty toward animals reveals hidden cruelty toward women. One can profitably quote from feminist theoretical explorations of animals and humans, in particular from an essay by Marian Scholtmeijer, who writes that “The injustices suffered by women—the suppression, silencing, and violence—are arguably an extension of the more easily identified abuse of animals. The otherness of women from an androcentric perspective finds a correlate in the more radical otherness of the animal from an anthropocentric perspective” (Scholtmeijer 232). Scholtmeijer mentions, among other texts, Munro’s “Boys and Girls” (from Dance of the Happy Shades) as an exploration of the correspondence between women and animals in a world defined by men. It is interesting that Munro, after almost forty years, uses the same name Flora, the mare who was momentarily freed by the girl and was finally killed, for a goat who ran away and was also finally killed.

14Feminist and ecofeminist perspectives are a valuable aid in reading this and other stories by Munro, but her textual complexities are irreducible to one theoretical view. Other approaches add to the interpretation of “Runaway,” such as the one proposed by Fiona Tolan, who analyzes it within the context of the traditional quest narrative in its female version of frustrated departures and failure. Still, many threads remain tangled and need to be extricated. Too many mythical and biblical references appear inexplicable, as well as other details, like the disturbing change of weather after the killing of the goat, when everything turns bright and sunny, after a long period of dreary constant rain. The killing of the goat apparently brings a rebirth of nature, together with a reconciliation between Carla and Clark. This suggests the idea of the goat as a scapegoat. As we know, in archaic societies ritual sacrifice of a designated victim-human or animal in different cultures and in pre-historical and historical periods-was enacted in order to reduce violence and renew peace. In the Bible a goat was selected to be cast into the desert to atone for the sins of the community.

15The interpretation of the goat as scapegoat in “Runaway” is mentioned by critics. For example, Mary Condé refers to “Flora as the literal scapegoat who will save both Sylvia and Carla from punishment” (Condé 181). Ian Rae sees “Runaway” as “updating the biblical myth of the scapegoat in the titular story about a runaway goat that symbolically bears the sins of a failed marriage” (Rae 3). Ventura recognizes the biblical scapegoat as one important hypotext and quotes directly from Leviticus 16, to explain the conclusion of the story of Flora and Carla: “one is sacrificed by a vengeful husband while the other is allowed to atone in a trailer in the middle of nowhere” (Ventura “Chimera,” 255).

16I would like to go further in interpreting the whole story as a possible re-enacting of the scapegoat mechanism. Probably the best and most famous interpretation of the scapegoat can be found in René Girard’s studies Violence and the Sacred (1977) and The Scapegoat (1986), which provide a powerful, if controversial, explanatory framework for understanding the roots of violence. His theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism can be fruitful in understanding Munro’s “Runaway.” Girard developed this concept as an interpretation of human culture, reading myth through the lens of structural anthropology. According to his theory, human beings imitate one another, especially one another’s desires, and this eventually gives rise to rivalries and violent conflicts, even when scarcity is not at issue. Such conflicts are partially solved by a scapegoat mechanism, that is, by placing the blame for all the hatred and distress on one individual, so that the community’s violence becomes polarized toward that one individual. By expelling or killing the scapegoat, order is restored and the community becomes peaceful again. The killing of a sacrificial victim becomes a sacred ritual with an animal sacrificed instead of a human.

  • 10 The figure of the triangle also appears in different forms, underlining its structural relevance an (...)

17I would argue that mimetic desire and scapegoating form a crucial subtext in Munro’s “Runaway.” Girard’s idea that our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person—the model—or this same object, means that the relationship between subject and object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model and object. Examining the role of characters in this short story, one can detect the proliferation of triangles within apparently dual relations, doubles and mirrors.10

  1. A first triangle, outlined earlier, is constituted by Carla, Clark and Flora, the surrogate child desiring the father and then transferring her affection to the mother. Husband and wife are momentarily united by sharing this manifestation of love.

  2. A second triangle is formed by Carla, Clark and Leon, where the woman constructs a tale of sexual advances on the part of Leon in order to provoke a mimetic desire in Clark, and her lie succeeds in sexually arousing him.

  3. A third triangle is represented by Carla, Sylvia and Clark, where Sylvia’s attention for Carla provokes Clark’s jealousy. Sylvia and Clark become rivals for the possession of Carla, causing conflict and potential violence in the man.

  4. A fourth triangle is represented by Sylvia, Clark and Flora at the moment of the goat’s apparition. Flora comes back after a mysterious absence, transfigured in a sort of sacred entity, infused with the supernatural, and apparently bearer of the prodigious power of bringing peace between the two rivals. However, this does not satisfy Clark’s need for power, the ritual sacrifice is not complete, and he needs to eliminate Flora in order to re-establish order and regeneration.

18In the end, all triangles are eliminated: Flora disappears, Sylvia moves to town, Leon dies, and only the dual relationship between husband and wife survives, however tinted by violence and pain, with the dead goat functioning as mediator and regenerator. I would argue that the scapegoating mechanism allows for a convincing explanation of the disturbing ending of Munro’s story—including the apparent rebirth of nature—its complex thematic structure and recurring triangular pattern of character relationship, as well as for its multiple mythical and biblical references.

19The suspicion that, without the intervention of the scapegoat mechanism, Sylvia and/or Carla might become the victims of Clark’s assault is embedded in the texture of the narrative with its atmosphere of impending violence that in some ways brings to mind the murders in Poe’s “The Black Cat,” where first the cat and then the wife are killed in a perverse exchange of roles. Another possible comparison that might be fruitfully explored would be with D.H. Lawrence’s “The Fox,” a novella where another animal gets killed along with a woman who is perceived as a rival in a triangle. The fox is connected to male sexuality and to a male protagonist who intervenes in the affectionate–possibly amorous–relationship between two women. Alice Munro, in the Paris Review, explains how she was terribly disturbed by her first reading of D.H. Lawrence and in general by writers’ views of female sexuality. Even more to the point is a reference in “Jakarta” where the two female protagonists discuss D.H. Lawrence’s short story “The Fox.” As summarized in the story, a woman struggles to hold herself separate from her lover, a soldier who thinks that “they will not be truly happy until the woman gives her life over to him, in a way that she has not done so far” (Munro: 2000, 84), since she refuses to let “her consciousness go under, until it is submerged in his” (Munro: 2000, 80).

20As usual in Munro, the narrative structure is important in the aesthetic organization of the story, especially in a story like “Runaway,” charged with mystery, unspoken fears, guilty feelings that gradually come to the surface, undisclosed murder. In order to examine the semantic structure and the functional role of characters, in search for a deeper level of meaning in this complex story, I have resorted to René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire and his fundamental study of the scapegoat. The scapegoat myth is a fertilizing ritual similar to others present in world mythologies, also included among those identified by Frazer in The Golden Bough, and constitutes a revealing subtext of “Runaway.”

  • 11 For an analysis of the mythological patterns in this story, see Gianfranca Balestra, "Rituals of Li (...)
  • 12 Subsequently referred to as C.
  • 13 As I argued in "Rituals of Life and Death," Helène Cixous's discourse on myth and women is particul (...)

21As Ventura argues, Munro “re-inscribes her twentieth century characters into the great codes and rewrites cosmogonic myths against a primeval landscape” (Ventura “Chimera,” 255). This is true not only in the short story examined, but in others from the same collection. In particular, “Chance” partakes of the mythical mode, enhanced by the fact that the protagonist is a Classics scholar, imbued in Greek culture and mythology.11 In “Chance,”12 the totemic animal is the wolf, which appears in front of her while she is looking out from the observation car of a train onto “the scrambled surface of the Precambrian shield” (C, 57), the wilderness that represents a distinctive aspect of the Canadian imaginary. The wolf stands here for the subconscious, the instinctual id that the protagonist tries in vain to control and repress with her rational and intellectual over-structure.13

  • 14 Subsequently referred to as S.

22In the same collection, the short story “Soon”14 opens with a description of Chagall’s painting “I and the Village,” which seems to me one of the best representations of the “becoming human, becoming animal” process to be found in painting, and in writing. The ekphrasis is rich in the details that make up Chagall’s world and confirm the strict connection between animals and humans.

Two profiles face each other. One the profile of a pure white heifer, with a particularly mild and tender expression, the other that of a green-faced man who is neither young nor old. He seems to be a minor official, maybe a postman—he wears that sort of cap. His lips are pale, the whites of his eyes shining. A hand that is probably his offers up, from the lower margin of the painting, a little tree or an exuberant branch, fruited with jewels. […] There are other things as well. For instance, a girl milking a cow, within the heifer’s cheek. (S, 87-88).

23This is a very famous painting, exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art. The description is accurate and focuses at the beginning on the two profiles facing each other, one animal one human. The narrator attributes to the animal qualities that are usually human (its particularly mild and tender expression), and catches exactly the expression of the heifer. The two figures occupy the foreground, they are on the same line, eye to eye. The detail of the girl milking a cow within the heifer’s cheek is deferred to the end of the description and is open to interpretation. Art critics have frequently considered how Chagall used cows, milkmaids, roosters, violinists and provincial Russian architecture because they were part of his environment while growing up. A woman milking a cow is certainly part of the artist’s early experience in Vitbesk, but surrealistically putting it inside the foregrounded face of the heifer establishes a stronger connection between animal and woman, stressing the nurturing function of both. In fact, as Francesconi points out, “Chagall was a member of the Hasidic community and thought that all natural beings allowed humanity’s link to the universe” (Francesconi 76). I would argue that this is what keeps together in such a creative way animal and human in this painting. And possibly one of the reasons why Munro liked it so much and used it in her short story to corroborate her own vision of the animal question.

  • 15 See Umberto Saba, "The Goat" in the translation of George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan.
    I talked to

24At first glance, the animal in Chagall’s painting may look like a goat, so that, for example, in her analysis Francesconi curiously oscillates between a cow and a goat, observing at one point that Chagall painted “a goat being milked on the goat’s cheek, locating an image within an image” (Francesconi 76). To an Italian reader, the sad elongated face of a goat may also evoke a famous poem entitled “La capra” by Umberto Saba,15 in a prismatic multiplication of effects. In her description of the painting, Munro rightly speaks of a heifer, and of a girl milking a cow within the heifer’s cheek. Chagall, at least in the text I found in English translation, mentions a large cow’s head and a small cow and woman milking in the muzzle. After all we don’t expect Chagall’s art to be realistic, his cow may look like a goat, his surrealistic, dream-like quality allows for different interpretations of reality, animals included. The dominating image of the goat in “Runaway” may to an extent reverberate on the other stories of the collection, but even without its recurrence, the significant presence of animals and the intricate pattern of Munro’s art are indisputable: themes, images, and tropes, together with mythological, biblical and literary allusions, work to create fiction that is not simple representation of reality.

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BALESTRA, Gianfranca, “Rituals of Life and Death in Alice Munro’s “Chance”, Reading Alice Munro in Italy, Balestra Gianfranca, Laura Ferri and Caterina Ricciardi eds., Toronto: The Frank Iacobucci Centre for Italian Canadian Studies, 2008, 59-70.

CIXOUS, Helène, “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays, Cambridge, Ma: Harvard UP, 1991.

CONDÉ, Mary, “Coded Language in Alice Munro’s “Runaway”, Open Letter 11:9/12:1 (Fall 2003-Winter 2004), 177-183.

DELEUZE, Gilles and Félix Guattari, ”Becoming Animal“, Kalof, Linda and Amy Fitzgerald eds., The Animal Reader: The Essential Classical and Contemporary Writings, Oxford: Berg, 2007, 37-50.

FRANCESCONI, Sabrina, “I and the Village”: Locating Home and Self in Alice Munro’sSoon”, Reading Alice Munro in Italy, Balestra Gianfranca, Laura Ferri and Caterina Ricciardi eds., Toronto: The Frank Iacobucci Centre for Italian Canadian Studies, 2008, 71-81.

HOOPER, Brad, The Fiction of Alice Munro. An Appreciation, Westport, CT.: Greenwood, 2008.

LEDUC, Emily, “Fleeting Femininities: Allegories of Female Independence in Alice Munro’s Runaway”, From Darwin to the Beatles: Narratives of Evolution and Revolution, Riddell, Jessica, Kristy Benz, R. Zoe Costanzo, eds., Sherbrooke, Quebec: Bishop’s UP, 2012, 76-82.

MUNRO, Alice, The Love of a Good Woman [1998], London: Vintage, 2000.

MUNRO, Alice, Runaway [2004], London: Vintage, 2006.

McCULLOCH, Jeanne, and Mona Simpson, “Alice Munro. The Art of Fiction”, The Paris Review 137 (1994), 227-64.

RAE, Ian, “Runaway Classicists: Anne Carson and Alice Munro’s ‘Juliet’ Stories”, Journal of the Short Story in English 55 (Autumn 2010), <>

SABA, Umberto, Songbook: The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba, George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan, trans. and eds., New Haven: Yale UP, 2008.

SCHOLTMEIJER, Marian, “The Power of Otherness: Animals in Women’s Fiction”, Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, Adams, Carol J., Josephine Donovan, eds., Durham-London: Duke UP,1995, 231-262.

TOLAN, Fiona, “To Leave and to Return: Frustrated Departures and Female Quest in Alice Munro’s Runaway”, Contemporary Women’s Writing 4:3 (January 2010), 161-178.

VENTURA, Héliane, “The Skald and the Goddess: Reading “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro”, Journal of the Short Story in English 55 (Autumn 2010). <>

VENTURA, Héliane, “The Relevance of the Chimera: Phantasy, Ekphrasis, Anamorphosis in Alice Munro’s ‘Runaway’ ”, Tropismes 16 (2010), 239-259.

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1 Alice Munro, "Runaway," Runaway [2004] (London: Vintage, 2006) 9. Subsequently referred to as R.

2 See in particular Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, "Becoming Animal," and their previous work on the subject. For them, the notion of "becoming" rejects hierarchical and linear structure as well as imitation or synthesis of two identities, but rather implies the deconstruction of identity itself.

3 We could call the goat an Œdipal animal also in the sense purported by Deleuze and Guattari of an individualized and sentimentalized animal, bound in its emotional alliance with a human. They define this type of animal "Œdipal" with reference to the Freudian psychoanalysis' use of animals as symbols of intimate family relationships.

4 For example, when the young woman gives her a friendly kiss on her bent head, she receives it as a "bright blossom, its petals spreading inside her with tumultuous heat" (R, 18).

5 The statue is a reproduction of a life-size one on display (since 1972) at the National Archeological Museum in Athens. It is known as the Jockey of Artemision, from the place it was found in the sea off Cape Artemision.

6 In a way, this vision of the goat turns her into the second type of animal identified by Deleuze and Guattari as the Jungian, or archetype animal, which has a symbolic presence in myths, rituals, and spiritual beliefs in many cultures ("Becoming Animal").

7 In European folklore it is often depicted as a white horse-like or goat-like animal with a long horn and cloven hoofs.

8 Héliane Ventura, "The Relevance of the Chimera," 246. Ventura situates her analysis of the story in a solid theoretical framework and further investigates the relevance of this and the other examples of anamorphosis and ekphrasis, which account for the symmetries and duplications in the text.

9 It is interesting to note that Leon used to call Sylvia his Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of the romantic poet who relied on her accounts of nature scenes and borrowed freely from her journals. The reference to Dorothy Wordsworth, whose work is now considered to be of literary value, can be read as a comment on women's writing.

10 The figure of the triangle also appears in different forms, underlining its structural relevance and Munro's skillful use of semantic and narrative isotopies. For example, the house where Leon and Sylvia lived "was an odd-looking triangular affair that he had built years ago" (R, 12), while the trillium, a flower with three petals, was the only name of wildflower Leon remembered among those Sylvia taught him (R, 29).

11 For an analysis of the mythological patterns in this story, see Gianfranca Balestra, "Rituals of Life and Death in Alice Munro's Chance."

12 Subsequently referred to as C.

13 As I argued in "Rituals of Life and Death," Helène Cixous's discourse on myth and women is particularly pertinent, when she posits the wolf as a sort of antagonist of the sphinx, body vs logos. (Cixous 16). We could also adopt Deleuze and Guattari’s typology of the "demonic animal."

14 Subsequently referred to as S.

15 See Umberto Saba, "The Goat" in the translation of George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan.
I talked to a goat. / She was alone in a pasture, / and tethered. / Stuffed with grass, soaked / by the rain, she bleated. // That monotonous bleating was brother / to my sorrow. And I answered, first / in jest, then because sorrow is eternal, / has one voice and never changes. / I heard this voice in the wails / of a solitary goat. //
In a goat with a Semitic face, / I heard all other pain lamenting, / all other lives.

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Bibliographical reference

Gianfranca Balestra, “Goats, Heifers, Wolves and Other Animals in Alice Munro’s RunawayCaliban, 57 | 2017, 123-138.

Electronic reference

Gianfranca Balestra, “Goats, Heifers, Wolves and Other Animals in Alice Munro’s RunawayCaliban [Online], 57 | 2017, Online since 12 June 2019, connection on 14 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Gianfranca Balestra

Università di Siena

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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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