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5 - Of Transnational and Emblematic Skunks

From Shame to “Pride”

Héliane Ventura
p. 139-150


Cet article s’attache à mettre en lumière le principe de contre-récit sur lequel se fonde la nouvelle intitulée “Pride” qui figure dans le dernier volume d’Alice Munro Dear Life (2012). En mettant en scène la rencontre de l’homme et de l’animal sous la forme d’une épiphanie glorieuse, Munro s’engage une fois de plus dans un dialogue subversif avec le canon. En effet, elle s’appuie sur la vision tragique de Robert Lowell dans le poème “Skunk Hour” et sur la vision comique de Seamus Heaney dans “The Skunk” pour en renverser les deux tonalités. En opposition à ses prédécesseurs, son ode à la mouffette n’est ni douloureuse, ni érotique mais paradoxalement prosaïque et transcendante.

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1The story entitled “Pride” from Alice Munro’s last collection Dear Life (2012) is told from the point of view of a male protagonist, a narratorial trick that she has only resorted to five times throughout the fourteen collections which constitute her œuvre. In her first collection Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), the narrator of the story entitled “Thanks for the Ride” is a young man ironically called Dick who narrates his first sexual experience with a girl whose social status is far inferior to his own and reflects on the ethical and metaphysical meaning of the encounter with the other. In her third collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to tell you (1974), Mr Lougheed is an old age pensioner, baffled by the young generation, who contemplates uncomprehendingly his young neighbour proclaiming his desire for “Walking on Water” while failing to carry out such an unlikely performance. In her last but one collection, Too Much Happiness (2009), the male narrator is an elderly man born with a birth mark marring half of his face who reflects on the love relationship he might have had with a girl who was in love with him to the point that she mutilated herself in order to resemble him. This collection also includes another story, “Wood,” focalized through a male character who is subject to harmful delusions. The four stories emanating from male characters strikingly pave the way for the latest one, “Pride,” to the extent that it recapitulates the topic of the encounter with the other, highlighting exclusion brought about by class or age difference, and physical handicap. Together, the five stories foreground masculine hurt pride as narrated from the male point of view and can be regarded as constituting a formal, if implicit, sequence of related or linked stories across the arc carved by her entire works.

2“Pride” specifically investigates the meaning of a most unusual life-long relationship between a harelipped middle-class man and a privileged upper middle-class woman. The relationship is characterized by simultaneous proximity and distance, autonomy and co-dependency: it suggests and circumvents love by refraining from envisaging its possibility. I will propose the hypothesis that the story, despite being called “Pride,” investigates two opposite states, pride and shame, which I will contemplate as antonyms. For shame, I will propose the definition that John Rawls offers in A Theory of Justice. He writes that “we may characterize shame as the feeling that someone has when he experiences an injury to his self-respect or suffers a blow to his self-esteem” and that “shame is the emotion evoked by shocks to our self-respect” (Rawls 388). For pride, as variously represented in the story, I will oppose “authentic pride” and “hubristic pride”, and adopt the model proposed by Jessica L. Tracy, Joey T. Cheng, Richard W. Robins and Kali H. Trzesniewski, “one that distinguishes between genuine high self-esteem and narcissistic self-aggrandizement, and that emphasizes the emotional processes underlying these two forms of ‘‘self-favorability’” (Tracy and alia 196). From the beginning of Munro’s narrative, the characters are both represented as enduring shocks to their self-respect until the story comes to the climax of its closure, which constitutes a proud epiphany based upon the encounter between man and animal. The male and female protagonists come across five skunks flashing and dancing in the backyard of the narrator’s house, and this vision of the glorious bodies of the skunks triggers off a shared enchantment which empowers the human beings and reconciles them with their own dignity. Thus, the story provides an itinerary which starts from shame and moves towards psychic reparation and fulfillment. It is a profoundly positive story which derives its vital force, and reparative dimension from the encounter between man and animal.

3As a story which suggests a climactic identification with skunks, it can be regarded as engaging in a covert dialogue with at least two major hypotexts in contemporary literature which lurk under the surface: “Skunk Hour” by Robert Lowell (1976) and “The Skunk” by Seamus Heaney (1979). Munro’s story stands in diametrical opposition to Lowell’s poem because it is based on a trajectory of self-empowerment subsequent to the encounter with the skunks whereas the American poet’s treatment of the same theme is deeply pessimistic and pathological. Lowell uses the final image of a skunk jabbing her head into a cup of sour cream in a garbage pail as a metonym for his own self-debasement. Conversely, Seamus Heaney’s comparison of his wife with a graceful “skunk” in the poem of the same name is a comic celebration of love, grounded upon a sense of natural affiliation, tenderness and pride which chimes in with Munro’s ambivalent ethos of simultaneous transcendence and self-derision.

  • 1 Alice Munro, “Pride”, Dear Life (New York: Knopf, 2012). Subsequently referred to as P.

4Munro’s story revolves around two characters who are both put to shame by events or accidents which are not of their own making. The unnamed male narrator was born with a hare-lip and even if his upper lip was stitched up, it caused him to suffer from a speech impediment, which did not prevent him from being understood, but “ruled out any employment that involved a lot of talking” (P, 136).1 The female protagonist, Oneida Jantzen, is of the same generation as the hare-lipped narrator but was, on the contrary, born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She was cut off from the rest of the community on account of her family’s wealth but also because of her father’s eventual mismanagement of his affairs. The father was a gullible bank manager who got involved in an improbable deal (the resurrection of the steam-driven car in the period in-between the two World Wars) which simply floundered and made the bank and the bank manager himself lose a lot of money. Although he was not actually punished for cheating, he was nevertheless demoted and shame reverberated on his daughter, whom he raised single-handedly because his wife had died when Oneida was in her teens.

5Neither character confesses to the fact that they feel ashamed of themselves. The male narrator is burdened by implicit low self-esteem but keeps throughout the narrative a tone of proud accommodation to his impediment which leads him to feel sorry for the others rather than for himself, while at the same time being fully aware of the irony of such a posture. For instance, he reveals that he is sorry for the way Oneida is made to chauffeur her father from the city they inhabit to the small secondary branch where he has been posted after his mismanagement of the bank’s funds and his own: “So it might seem strange that I could feel sorry for her, the way she was all on the surface of things, trusting. Imagine me, sorry” (P, 137). What the narrator asserts is his incredulity at seeing that Oneida is not abashed or does not seem to feel diminished by the scandal which has caused her father to be demoted. He is amazed at her sense of pride and continued trust in the world and in people, as if her pride made her blind to the blotch on her escutcheon. The narrator’s empathy towards her is the only give-away sign of his particular interest in her, and of his incipient affection.

6His sensitivity to shame pervades all areas of the narrative. Although he does not complain about the bullying and harassment he must have necessarily endured when a child at school, he mentions the fact that he forbids his mother to rejoice in public about the fact that his harelip exempts him from enrolment in the army at the time of the Second World War: “My mother said it was lucky for me that I was how I was, and I believed she was right but told her not to say that outside the house” (P, 138-139). The exemption is so painfully shameful to him that he has even repressed the memory of going to the doctor in order to avail himself of his handicap.

7Even more tellingly, the narrator makes no bones about revealing that he experiences a mixed feeling which is part horror and part “a kind of chilly exhilaration” (P, 139) when he hears the news that a civilian boat, a ferry has been sunk between Canada and Newfoundland. The reason for his feeling of exhilaration comes from the fact that it impresses upon him “the equality, all of a sudden, of people like [him] and worse than [him] and people like them” (P, 139). He obliquely reveals in this instance the feeling of utter annihilation that his handicap inflicts upon him and the savagery of his desire for social revenge. He goes as far as disclosing that even the genocides that he heard were taking place in concentration camps did not fully dissipate his sense of exhilaration, but only encouraged him to repress it in public. The narrator finally reveals that the only moment in his life when his feeling of shame has abated is when he realizes that he has grown so old that he finds himself in a category when a physical handicap no longer matters because everybody his age has suffered some kind of degradation: “and I thought then, just living long enough just wipes out the problem. Puts you in a select club. No matter what your disabilities may have been, just living till now wipes them out, to a good measure. Everybody’s face will have suffered, never just yours” (P, 151).

8The narrator’s shame has been branded into him since childhood in a quasi-permanent manner to the extent that he has never endeavoured to take up the necessary steps in order to better his situation. As suggested by a female colleague of his, he could have sought the help of surgery to have a better job performed on his face but this is a solution which he could not “face”: “But how could I explain that it was just beyond me to walk into some doctor’s office and admit that I was wishing for something I hadn’t got?” (P, 151). The feeling of shame and self-abasement is presented as permanently counterbalanced by a sense of his own worth and importance which leads him to be huffy with people who take a sincere interest in his plight. For instance, Oneida looks after him for a whole week at the time when he comes down with a high fever and she eventually goes as far as suggesting she could move in with him in order to take care of him more permanently. Although this bold suggestion is generous and broad-minded, the narrator immediately invents a reason to render Oneida’s move unavailable. He is too proud to accept her help and too ashamed of the way he looks to show benevolence or gratitude. He tells her he cannot accept her proposal because he has sold the house. His sexual pride is hurt and it makes him frightened and angry. The burden of his implicit low self-esteem makes him behave in a defensive way and adopt what can be regarded as Machiavellian and hubristic pride. As noted by Tracy and alia, shame is “the keystone affect of the narcissistic personality” (Tracy 198) and “narcissistic self-esteem regulation (i.e. self-enhancement)” can be seen as “a defence against excessive shame” (Tracy 199).

9Although the reader is denied direct access to Oneida’s feelings, the narrator’s interpretation of the way she looks at the time when she indicates her desire to move in with him suggests that she might be equally shame-ridden and a victim of hubristic pride: “That made me think of Oneida, and how she looked while she was talking to me about moving in. […] When she set out to make her proposal to me, she looked strained and her expression was peculiar” (P, 151). As an elderly woman born in the first half of the 20th century, Oneida takes liberties with social conventions and gender performances which are most unexpected. They can only be explained by the mixture of pride and shame which characterizes her simultaneous self-confidence and self-abasement. The complexity of her intrapsychic disposition is obliquely rendered through the physical description given of her by the narrator: “A blond woman’s easily flushing kind of looks, with that strange mixture of apology and high-class confidence about it was what she’d had, and lost” (P, 151). The narrator uses mixed emotions to represent his own dispositions as well as Oneida’s: part horror and part exhilaration for himself, part diffidence and part confidence for Oneida as if the two facets of narcissistic self-aggrandisement and low self-esteem could not exist one without the other.

10The only description of affect which seems at first sight not to exemplify any type of ambivalence is the final one with the narrator flatly asserting in the closing line of the story: “We were as glad as we could be” (P, 153). The sense of unadulterated elation that both the narrator and Oneida feel is caused by a transcendent experience, that of encountering wild life in the very heart of the city. This encounter comes across as an epiphany that is to say an experience of the sacred to be found in ordinary life, an experience of encountering divinity. The wild animals which disport themselves in the backyard with such grace and harmony awaken in the soul of those who contemplate them a sense of their own divine affiliation. It creates a commotion which works towards a joint contemplation of and union with nature. Nevertheless, this conjunctive moment is marked by disjunction. Oneida is said to be “laughing almost soundlessly, a laugh that might even indicate that she was in pain” (P, 152). The conjunction of opposite states in this case is a coincidentia oppositorum, the coincidence of opposite states which reinforces the sense that the experience the protagonists have enjoyed is akin to something divine, because only in the divine sphere do opposites meet and impart a supreme truth.

11All the elements in the description provided work towards a reinforcement of the sacred. For instance, the reader is told that the wild animals are “[f]lashing and dancing and never getting in each other’s way, so you could not tell how many there were, where each body started or stopped” (P,153). The little animals give the impression of being separate and together at the same time and this reconciliation of opposites points in the direction of a simultaneous conjunction and disjunction which situates itself beyond contradiction in the realm of an ineffable mystic union which can only be appreciated in unspoilt silence. Both Oneida and the narrator experience a silent communion, a moment of stasis which makes them reach infinity, poised in-between nature and grace. It could be argued that through this momentous encounter with the wild animals both Oneida and the narrator cast aside the hubristic pride they were burdened with and discover another experiential level, that of authentic, genuine pride. The skunks are no threats to their ego because, like them, they are victims of some sort of failing and an object of repulsion for most people who consider them unworthy. When the much-despised skunks acquire an otherworldly grace and dignity, they become a source of compensation and consolation for the physically or morally-handicapped human beings who contemplate them in their glorious epiphany. They become a source of self-favorability because they evidence a transformation of the disagreeable into the desirable.

12With this story climaxing on a “skunk hour” fraught with amazing grace, Munro takes a stance completely opposed to a canonical work in American literature. Her epiphanic moment of discovery of “Deus in natura” is the exact antithesis of one described by Robert Lowell in the poem entitled “Skunk Hour” (1976). There, Lowell presents a narrator who suffers from mental illness and undergoes a harrowing existential crisis. The seventh stanza and the beginning of the eighth pinpoint the exquisite pain endured by the narrator:

A car radio bleats,
’Love, O careless love...’ I hear
My ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
As if my hand were at its throat…
I myself am hell;
Nobody’s here—

Except skunks, that search
In the moonlight for a bite to eat. (Lowell, “Skunk Hour”)

13The rhythmical patterns of the poem underpin the evocation of suffering: the beginning of the second line presents an initial repeated trochaic inversion: “Love, O careless love” which is made all the more violent as it is followed in the third line by the spondaic rhythm of “blood cell” which rhymes with hell in the fifth line, a line which also uses an initial trochee. A line which begins with a stressed syllable departs from the natural rhythm of the stress system in the English language and brings tension and heaviness, enhancing the semantic value of dysphoric words. The metaphors used are also fraught with angst: “as if my hand were at its throat” conjures up a doppelgänger incorporated in the narrator’s body and victimized by the very narrator who has brought him into existence. The process of turning against oneself as if to choke oneself is thus suggested by sibilant sounds and it is graphically inscribed in the poem by the conjuring up of a hellish spirit. A sense of utter dereliction permeates the stanza, unrelieved by the presence of skunks, represented as predatory scavengers against the background of a bleating radio. The metaphor of the bleating applied to the tone of the love songs broadcast at night reinforces the predatory atmosphere of the passage because it suggests a defenseless, weak and pitiful young animal at cross purposes with the focused and determined skunks.

14The last line of the poem is almost equally harrowing in its depiction of a single female skunk eating up sour cream:

I stand on top
Of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
A mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
Of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
And will not scare. (Lowell, “Skunk Hour”)

15There seems to be little doubt that Munro is writing back and proposing her own inverted image of Robert Lowell’s description of a mother skunk with her column of kitten. Consider Munro’s depiction of the skunks in the narrator’s backyard:

While we watched, they lifted themselves up one by one and left the water and proceeded to walk across the yard, swiftly but in a straight diagonal line. As if they were proud of themselves but discreet. Five of them. (P, 153)

  • 2 Lowell’s summer home in 1957 was in Castine, masked as Nautilus in the poem.
  • 3 Recalling Lowell’s words, Axelrod notes that he “has written of his stanzas ’This is the dark night (...)

16Lowell’s narrator is alone on the back steps of his house on an island along the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine2 and the last stanza begins with a conspicuous “I” playing voyeur to the female skunk’s eating spree. Munro’s narrator is packing and discarding everything he can in his old house under the scrutiny of Oneida who announces to him that she is leaving for a holiday on Savary Island, off the coast of British Columbia, in the Pacific Ocean. The mother skunk of Lowell’s poem drops her ostrich tail. Munro’s baby skunks lift themselves up. The former scavenges into a cup of fetid sour cream, the latter raise themselves from the freshly renewed water of a bird bath. The scavenger is undaunted and audacious, the baby skunks are proud but discreet. Lowell speaks of the dark night of the soul while he conjures up a nocturnal scavenger feasting on fetid cream.3 His skunks roam a modern wasteland with predatory intent. The straight diagonal line of Munro’s proud and discreet skunks evokes a balletic intermezzo which does not occupy center stage but is meant as a discreet interlude. The lone narrator of Lowell’s poem is heart broken, the couple of Munro’s story are as glad as they could be. The experience is of self-abasement for the former, it is self-empowering for the latter. With this almost word for word reversal Munro has performed a transmutation of the dysphoric material of poetry into the euphoric fabric of prose.

17As opposed to Robert Lowell’s transcription of an existential crisis, this is probably one of the most roborative stories in Munro’s oeuvre. It is an unadulterated expression of bliss and contentment which acquires a reparative dimension obliquely and vicariously enforced through the human beings’ identification with the animals. Skunks are offensive animals if only because of their capacity to spray a nauseating liquid with a persistent stench and the utterly graceful vision that Munro gives of them operates a rehabilitation of the vile into the vivacious. The harelipped man and the heiress are both branded with a letter of infamy in the small community where they have grown up. They have been drawn together through their common abjection and they experience a common regeneration through the vicarious glorification of the skunks.

  • 4 See for example the article by Helen Hoy “ ‘Dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable’: Paradox and Do (...)

18Lowell’s poem and Munro’s stories are antithetical but function in a similarly reparative manner. Lowell’s poem bespeaks exclusion and is profoundly tragic but it operates a catharsis, an effect of Aristotelian purgation or purification, an emotional cleansing which is also a relief from melancholia. Munro’s story bespeaks communion, a type of sacred communion which is paradoxically couched in the-most-matter of fact and ordinary language. The epiphany is not marked by the use of an elevated language, it is paradoxically transcendent and matter-of-fact; in Munro’s skunk hour, the odd man out and the high-class woman experience a silent and uplifting moment of intimacy with the natural world which is represented in simple terms. As opposed to Lowell’s experience of extremity and descent into the abyss of the sick soul, Munro’s glorious moment of being is strangely low-keyed and anti-heroic. Munro’s epiphany is both proud and discreet, miraculous and commonplace. The possibility to spell out the mystery of the commonplace is one of Munro’s greatest achievement which has been analysed from the very first by her early critics.4

19It is a feat which she shares with another farmer’s son and Nobel Prize winner, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney who published in 1979, shortly after Lowell’s publication of his own skunk elegy, another poem in which the same animal occupies pride of place. In Heaney’s poem, the skunk is not debased but acquires a sacramental dimension. Right from the first line the female skunk is compared with a priest wearing a chasuble at a funeral Mass and her mysterious ordinariness leaves the poet under an otherworldly spell. In the last stanza, Heaney eventually proposes a comparison between the female skunk and his own wife which is arguably the most unflattering, hilarious and magnificent simile that can be offered to a woman. As Christopher Ricks remarks, the poem “is an exquisitely comic love-poem, and you have to love your wife most trustingly, and trust in the reciprocity, before you would trust yourself to a comparison of her to a skunk” (Ricks quoted by Henry Hart 131). Seamus Heaney’s poem has been regarded as a comic version of Lowell’s tragic apprehension of the image of the skunk. Michael Cavanagh goes as far as remarking that “’The Skunk’ does not simply borrow from or allude to ”Skunk Hour“; it is an answer to that poem, a rival vision of things, a place where Heaney doesn’t suggest or declare but enacts his independence. We notice immediately how different the skunks are: Lowell’s indeed are feral, uncompromising, basic, survivalist, whereas Heaney’s skunk is tentative and intermediary—’Kindlier’ than Lowell’s, according to Heaney, and ”slinkier’“ […]. The dissimilarity alone would suggest that Lowell’s poem is tragic, Heaney’s comic” (Cavanagh 137-138).

20It is legitimate to consider that Munro’s story is an answer to both Lowell’s and Heaney’s poems. Instead of the night setting of both her predecessors, Munro has chosen daytime for the apparition of her five skunks and instead of the solitary anguished or mellow tone of the poets, she has opted for a companionable enchantment which is strikingly matter-of-fact and unromantic. The language used by Munro’s protagonists has none of the austerity or extremity of St John of the Cross although Oneida’s surprise is marked by “a laugh that might even indicate she was in pain” (P, 152). It has none of the erotic charge of a black plunge-line nightdress. It evidences a Presbyterian restraint which is in sharp contrast with the American and Irish version of “skunk hour.” To the intimate pain endured by Lowell (obliquely reflected through Oneida’s mixed feelings) and to the intricate fusion of Eros and Thanatos in Heaney’s allusion to a chasuble and a night dress, Munro juxtaposes the dignified silence of her chastised and self-restrained Canadian protagonists.

21Munro creates a most unusual pair with the couple formed by the harelipped narrator and the lapsed heiress who both identify with the proud and discreet skunks. Of her story, we could say what Heaney wrote about Ted Hughes’s Nature poems: in his review he declared that they ’attempt and effect a release from the quotidian operations of intelligence into some ancient silent current’ (Haffenden quoting Heaney 107). Like Ted Hughes, Munro uses animals repeatedly throughout her works. She deploys them as farm animals or inhabitants of the wild, they constitute her “symbolic language” and she uses them in the same way he does “as totems and shamanistic masks to identify herself and others” (Hughes quoted by Hart 77). With the shamanistic mask of the skunk Munro implies a system of reality beyond the visible and she operates a rehabilitation of those who have been humiliated. She makes room for a poetics of replenishment and redemption which stands in sharp contrast with Lowells’ politics of exhaustion and resonates with Heaney’s nexus of energies, while remaining true to her own clipped restraint and implicit self-derision. It might be very callous to suggest that with her portrait of her proud harelipped narrator Munro ironizes the British idiomatic phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip” but it might also be regarded as an equally impertinent answer to Heaney’s comparison of his wife with a skunk in the process of hunting in a bottom drawer with her head down and her tail up.

  • 5 I am indebted for the writing of this essay to a number of colleagues whose insights have been very (...)

22It might even be argued, by way of conclusion, that the fact that Munro has chosen a malodorous animal for her glorious epiphany in her last collection of stories is not innocent; she might be slyly indicating her abiding connection with Heaney’s poetics and the way the Irish poet tended to view himself as a wounded Philoctotes. In a celebrated essay “Philoctotes: The Wound and the Bow,” Edmund Wilson contended that the modern artist was a type of Philoctotes: “The victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also the master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs” (Wilson quoted by Hart 85). Like her ancestor James Hogg, the mountain bard, whose unfortunate patronym caused him much ridicule, like the earthy poet and farmer’s son, Seamus Heaney, Alice Munro makes of animals the affective core of her inspiration and she uses the black and white mask of a skunk to give evidence of her poetic art as a plea for authenticity and pride.5

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Axelrod, Steven Gould, Robert Lowell: Life and Art, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1978.

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1 Alice Munro, “Pride”, Dear Life (New York: Knopf, 2012). Subsequently referred to as P.

2 Lowell’s summer home in 1957 was in Castine, masked as Nautilus in the poem.

3 Recalling Lowell’s words, Axelrod notes that he “has written of his stanzas ’This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, Puritan and agnostical. An Existential night’” (Axelrod 127).

4 See for example the article by Helen Hoy “ ‘Dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable’: Paradox and Double Vision in Alice Munro’s Fiction ” or Louis MacKendrick identifying one of the predominant themes in Munro’s work: “The provocative elaboration and mystery beyond the seemingly real” (1983, 2) or W.R. Martin in Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel (1987, 1): “In other words, like Coleridge she makes the strange familiar, and like Wordsworth, she makes the familiar wonderful.”

5 I am indebted for the writing of this essay to a number of colleagues whose insights have been very precious: Jean-Jacques Lecercle from the University of Nanterre, Helen Goethals from the University of Toulouse, and Frank Miroux from the University of Pau.

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Bibliographical reference

Héliane Ventura, “From Shame to “Pride””Caliban, 57 | 2017, 139-150.

Electronic reference

Héliane Ventura, “From Shame to “Pride””Caliban [Online], 57 | 2017, Online since 12 June 2019, connection on 14 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Héliane Ventura

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, CAS

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