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5 - Of Transnational and Emblematic Skunks

Pride and Discretion

Jean-Jacques Lecercle
p. 151-164


Cet essai fait une lecture de la nouvelle intitulée “Pride” d’Alice Munro comme emblème textuel à cinq composantes. (i) une composante sémantique (deux sens pour orgueil et deux pour discrétion) ; une composante narrative (la réécriture ironique d’Orgueil et Préjugé) ; (iii) l’ekphrasis d’un emblème (cinq jeunes mouffettes en train de jouer autour d’une vasque pour oiseaux) ; (iv) des animaux emblématiques (cinq mouffettes et un lièvre) ; (v) un programme lexical (phrases types : “running with the hare and hunting with the hounds”; “keeping oneself to oneself”). Enfin, cet essai dépasse la lecture emblématique pour mettre en lumière la distance ironique de l’auteur.

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1. Programme

1If, as the title of your story, you choose a single word, and an abstract one at that, like “pride” (P, 133-53), you are setting up a semantic and narrative programme, which the text of your story will illustrate. In other words, you are writing a story that is the modern equivalent of a 16th century emblem.

2An emblem is usually composed of an image and a text that comments on it. And pride, the name of a passion, is a fit subject for an emblem. Indeed we find emblems of pride in the classic collections of Alciati and Ripa. In Alciati (Alciat 89-91), we find three emblems of pride: pride simple, pride as shameful impudence and pride as self-love. They are pictured respectively as Niobe turned into hard stone because of her pride, Scylla the sea-monster, half beautiful woman and half baying dogs, and Narcissus in love with his image. In all three cases, the symbolic picture is completed by a motto, or inscription, in verse and a prose exposition, or subscription (Tambling 65). The first two (and most notably pride simple, as incarnated by Niobe), are strongly misogynistic, witness this exposition: “La Royne Niobé de Thebes fut muée en pierre dure pour son orgueil. Qui signifie que les comuns vices des femmes sont Orgueil, Tyrannie, impitoyable durté, & faulte de sens, comme une pierre” (Alciat 89).

3In Ripa’s Iconology, there is only one emblem of pride, “Pride insufferable.” The picture represents a young woman, with torn dress, holding a peacock in her arms and standing on a globe (Ripa, Seconde partie, 166). The text spells out the insufferable character of her pride: in spite of her poverty and low social status (represented by her torn dress), she despises everybody, hence the peacock, “a hieroglyph” (this is Ripa’s word) of her pride, and the globe, that is the whole world, which is the object of her contempt. Again, pride is a female passion, or rather vice.

4Moving from 16th century emblems to Alice Munro’s contemporary short story involves two problems. The first, which is traditional, is the move from iconic emblem to textual allegory, where the image, absent as such, must be textualised. A famous example of this is George Herbert’s Hope:

I gave to Hope a watch of mine: but he
An anchor gave to me.
Then an old prayer-book I did present
And he an optick sent.
With this I gave a vial full of tears:
But he a few green eares.
Ah Loyterer! I’le no more, no more I’le bring:
I did expect a ring. (Herbert 112; Tambling 62-4)

5The list of allegorical objects works as a kind of ekphrasis, so that the absent image is strongly evoked in the reader’s mind. In a work of narrative prose like a short story, the problem is of course more complex: simple accumulation will not do.

6The second problem is that the traditional distribution of passions between virtues and vices, in our contemporary mental outlook, is somewhat blurred, not least in our everyday language. Pride is no longer only, or even mainly, one of the seven deadly sins (nor is it, of course, specifically ascribable to women): its inscription among the vices is no longer unproblematic. Any Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of the English language will distinguish at least three different acceptations of the word “pride,” respectively glossed as “arrogance” (“his pride was insufferable” – let us call this Pride 1), “satisfaction” (“I take pride in my work” – let us call this Pride 2) and “self-respect” (“Pride would not allow her to accept the money”—let us call this Pride 3). In the terms of Spinoza, the passion of pride is torn between a sad passion, one which decreases the power of the body that experiences it, and a glad or joyful passion, which increases the power of the body—a contrast embedded in the French language, which opposes orgueil and fierté. 16th century emblems focus on Pride 1, insufferable arrogance, and a deplorable version of Pride 3, incarnated in the figure of Narcissus, self-respect turned into self-love: in contemporary parlance, the positive virtue of Pride 2 and the positive version of Pride 3 will insist.

7The question therefore becomes: what kind of pride is inscribed in the title of Alice Munro’s story, and allegorized in the text? The title being constitutively ambiguous, a word in expectation of its definition through use, the first answer to our question must be looked for in the occurrences of the word to be found in the text of the story. There are three occurrences of the word, two as a noun and one as an adjective. The first two occur towards the beginning of the story, on the same page and almost in the same sentence. The narrator evokes the father of the heroine, the manager of the main bank in town, who has been involved in some sort of embezzlement and as a consequence demoted to a small branch in an outlying village: “Surely he could have refused, but pride, as it was thought, chose otherwise. Pride chose that he be driven every morning those six miles to sit behind a partial wall of cheap varnished boards, no proper office at all. There he sat and did nothing until it came time for him to be driven home” (Munro 136). The last occurrence of the word comes on the last page, only a few lines from the end of the story. The narrator and the heroine are in his house, watching a group of young skunks disport themselves around the bird bath in the back garden before leaving in single file:

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)

8We note of course the allegorisation of pride in both cases: in the first occurrences, pride is personified, it decides what the disgraced bank manager should do; in the last occurrence, it is the vector of an anthropomorphic assessment of the skunks’ behaviour, in the mode of the “as if.” And the first two occurrences are obviously instances of Pride 1, as the bank manager clings to what remains of his social status, whereas the last occurrence is an instance of a positive form of Pride 3 (a self-respecting skunk is naturally proud of itself), mixed with Pride 2 (those skunks seem to be proud of what they are doing, namely gracefully playing around the bird-bath, as young animals are wont to do: “But how beautiful. Flashing and dancing and never getting in each other’s way…” (P, 153). The text, in the occurrences of the word “pride,” clearly hesitates between the two main acceptations: the question arises of their articulation in the text of the story. Is pride a virtue or a vice, a glad or a sad passion?

2. What about prejudice?

9If our emblem is a textual emblem, restricted to an extended prose exposition (the motto is reduced to the title of the story, the symbolic picture is absent as such), its semantic programme is also a narrative programme, as the exposition takes the form of a story. In the traditional emblems of vices and virtues, the antonym, or opponent of pride was humility: they were usually represented facing each other. But in our narrative tradition, the antonym of pride is not humility but prejudice. And indeed it is not difficult to find similarities between the script of Jane Austen’s novel and Alice Munro’s story: both tell us the story of a young man and a young woman, and of the complications of their relationship. As usual, the differences will be more interesting than the similarities, and in any case we must not make too much of such similarity, as the script is the oldest in the world of narrative, the archetypal “erotic” plot of boy-meets-girl (in its bourgeois version of success through marriage) – a script that is common to both texts and to a host of Mills and Boon romances. In Jane Austen’s novel (if we agree to miss the real point of the novel entirely), the archetypal structure may be represented as the following correlation: male/ social consequence/ pride vs female/ little consequence/ prejudice. “Consequence,” an important word in Jane Austen’s lexicon, is calculated in terms of social status bolstered up by money: Darcy has ten thousand pounds a year, Elizabeth Bennet can only hope one thousand pounds in the four per cent, in other words forty pounds a year. And the contrast inscribed in the correlation, which structures the narrative, is of course overcome in passion and marriage.

10How does the narrative structure of Pride compare with this? The main object of the narrative is indeed the relationship between the narrator, a young man, and the heroine, Oneida or Ida. They know each other as members of the same community (as usual in Munro a small Canadian town), but Oneida belongs to a higher stratum of society: her father, now disgraced, was the town’s banker. Hence the first inversion of the Pride and Prejudice structure: consequence belongs to the female rather than to the male pole of the contrast. Indeed the narrator obviously wants to convey the impression that socially speaking he is nobody.

11And there is potentially a second inversion, as the pride mentioned at the beginning of the story, an example of Pride 1, or arrogance, belongs to the heroine’s father, and therefore, by contamination, to herself (she it is who drives her father every morning to the village of his exile). The text does say “Pride chose that he be driven every morning…” (P, 136), which makes the heroine, who drives the car, an allegory of pride. So the correlation now reads, or should read: female/ consequence/ pride vs male/ no consequence/ prejudice. This announces a simple rewriting of Pride and Prejudice in a different historical and social conjuncture. But this interpretation soon founders on a simple fact: there is no prejudice, either male or female, involved here. The narrator’s assessment of the heroine’s character does not significantly vary, unlike Elizabeth Bennet’s view of the character of Mr Darcy. He is surprised when she asks his advice about selling her house, sound advice which she immediately proceeds to disregard, but he undergoes no prise de conscience through emotional reversal, which is Elizabeth Bennet’s equivalent of tragic anagnorisis. And of course, since there is no contrast and contest between pride and prejudice, there is no relief through passion and marriage. When the heroine suggests (which no self-respecting female in Elizabeth Bennet’s time would have dreamed to do) that she might come and live with him, he, as we shall see, takes flight.

12Perhaps the inversion is not where we looked for it. Perhaps consequence and pride, those male attributes, are ascribed to a female who therefore takes up the masculine role (as we just saw, the proposal comes from her), whereas the traditional female attributes of coyness and timidity are ascribed to a male character who takes up the feminine role. Indeed, the narrator’s reaction to the heroine’s proposal is not a simple and expectable rejection of her unseemly behaviour, but the panic that makes him immediately sell his house. In this he is most unlike Elizabeth Bennet, who never hesitates to say no, first to the insufferable Mr Collins, then to Darcy himself.

13So we have pride, but no prejudice. But the implicit comparison between the narrator and Elizabeth Bennet, which my interpretation entails, suggests that prejudice may be an exaggerated form of Pride 3, the pride of self-respect. On their first meeting, at the Meriton ball, Elizabeth is slighted by Darcy (and by what she rightly interprets as Pride 1), so, understandably, her sense of Pride 3 being undermined, she reacts, or overreacts, by indulging in prejudice. But the narrator is not unlike Elizabeth Bennet in his Pride 3, even if he does not go to the length of prejudice: he is a retiring character, does not mix easily with other people, whose company he tends to avoid, out of an awareness of his own difference. So that in Munro’s story, the male/ female and consequence/ no consequence contrasts could correspond to a contrast between two types of pride and a movement from one to the other, from Pride 1 to Pride 3, with inversion of outcome, separation having replaced union through passion and marriage. Except that so far I have commented upon the first two occurrences of the word “pride” in the text, and ignored the third one, on the last page.

3. A pride of skunks

14An emblem must have an image as well as a text. If the emblem is a textual emblem, like Herbert’s poem, the image must be textualised, as it is in Herbert’s poem through a turbulence of metaphors. In “Pride,” the image comes after the textual exposition, at the end of the story.

15The narrator and the heroine are together in his house. They are on the point of separating once more, as she is going away to stay with an old friend on an island called Savary. Suddenly, she exclaims: “Careful, careful. Look, look!” (P, 152). What they see is a group of five young skunks playing around the bird bath, “flashing and dancing and never getting in each other’s way” (P, 153) before leaving the scene, “swiftly but in a straight diagonal line. As if they were proud of themselves but discreet. Five of them.” (P, 153).

16The scene is described as an epiphany: the deity, that which is utterly alien, reveals itself in a moment of absolute beauty and joy, the immediate result of which is the communion of the faithful. An event in the sense of Badiou (Badiou) has occurred: a truth has erupted, engaging a process of militant fidelity and subjectivation—a meeting on the road to Damascus. The heroine laughs when she sees the skunks, “a laugh that might even indicate that she was in pain” (P, 152): the happiness of direct contact with divinity is so intense that it is indistinguishable from the most acute pain, an ambivalence captured in the English language by the adjective “exquisite.” “But how beautiful” thinks the narrator (P, 153), while the heroine naturally invokes God: “ ’My Lord,’ said Oneida. ’In town’ ” (P, 153). And since the event punctures the situation and cannot be expressed in its conventional language, the characters are reduced to speechlessness, which is another name for silent communion: “I thought she might say another thing, and spoil it, but no, neither of us did” (P, 153). The ancient language has been destroyed, the old meanings are inadequate, all there is left is the silence of communion, in the very last line of the story: “We were as glad as could be” (P, 153). The “I” and “you” of separateness have at last coalesced into a “we.”

17In this epiphany, God reveals itself not as blinding light (as in the case of Saul), but as a group of wild animals: not the anthropomorphic God of common imagery, rather Deus in natura. We are in the world of D.H. Lawrence’s poem, Snake (Lawrence 290-5). In this poem, the poet goes to the water-trough to fill his pitcher, and finds the place already occupied by a snake: “Someone was before me at my water-trough / And I, like a second comer, waiting” (Lawrence 290). The encounter is epiphanic: “Was it humility, to feel so honoured? I felt so honoured” (Lawrence 292). But the epiphanic ecstasy is spoilt by the voice of traditional common sense, another name for the Devil, which whispers that snakes are dangerous (“If you were not afraid, you would kill him!,” Lawrence 292). Thus tempted (the subject of this event is not the faithful subject that accepts the truth, but the weak subject who is prepared to betray it by listening to the voice of the old situation), the poet throws a stone into the trough: the snake vanishes and the poet is left alone, the god having absconded. He immediately regrets his act, and the poem ends on the famous lines: “I missed my chance with one of the lords/ Of life/ And I have something to expiate/ A pettiness” (Lawrence 294). The animal, as bearer of the epiphanic message, is indeed “a lord of life.”

18The characters in “Pride” undergo a similar experience, and it is an experience that most of us have undergone in actual life: the sudden encounter with the beauty and separateness of a wild animal, at close quarters—God in nature, utterly alien and indifferent to us humans, but a source of excruciating joy and beauty. Any animal may be the bearer of such epiphany, provided it is wild—a heron majestically gliding over the waters of a pond in a Paris suburb, a roe dear motionless for only a few seconds, a few feet away on a Scottish hillside, a fox peeping out of a bush in a London back-garden, five young skunks disporting themselves around a bird-bath, and we, the human gazers, are in the position of Lawrence’s second comer at the water-trough.

19A question remains: why is the epiphany conveyed by skunks, and by a group of skunks rather than by a single one? Here, a detour through the vagaries of the English language is in order, as it may appear that the semantic and narrative programmes announced at the outset, in the very title of the story, also involve a lexical programme.

20There is a long tradition in the English language of metaphorical or alliterative naming of groups of animals (and, by extension, persons). Some of them are firmly established and now have a purely denotative function: in “a swarm of bees,” “a litter of pups” or “a colony of ants,” the metaphor, or more often metonymy, has been dead for so long that it is no longer perceived as such. Others have become obsolete, thus making the inventiveness of their metaphorical origins more obvious: “an unkindness of ravens,” “a murmuration of starlings,” “a parliament of owls,” “an exaltation of larks,” “a sloth of bears” – the name of the group refers, usually through metonymy, to a real or symbolic characteristic of the animal concerned (the lark ascends, the bear hibernates, etc.). When we move from animals to persons, metonymy and alliteration (as in “a gaggle of geese” or “a kindle of kittens”) become verve and invective, often of a misogynistic nature, as in “a superfluity of nuns,” “a rage of maidens”—where “rage” means “wantonness,” not to forget, the verve turning into playful wit, “a jam of tarts,” “a flourish of strumpets,” “a rash of dermatologists.” At this point the operation becomes productive, and we are free to invent a conjugation of grammarians and a paradigm of linguists (all examples are taken from Burridge 23-5).

21Most of those metonymic collective names have only had a fleeting existence in the language, but one at least has magnificently survived: a group or family of lions is a pride of lions. And in our story, at the centre of the epiphanic encounter, of the revelation of the deity to the two prospective faithful, we have a pride of skunks. We understand why there are more than one of them: by being a group, they become the emblematic picture of the passion named by the title—not the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, but the five skunks of animal revelation. And we also understand why they are said to be “proud of themselves,” as they embody the positive form of pride I called Pride 3. At the meaningful centre of this story, we find a pride of skunks.

22There is, however, a problem. That the Monarch of the Savannah should walk in pride is easily understandable. But a skunk, that small animal, at best always-already Disneyfied and at worst, in politically correct parlance, olfactively challenged (and challenging)? You would not call your favourite enemy a lion, but you might call him a skunk. The phrase “a pride of skunks” seems to be a contradiction in terms. This is where we must have a closer look at the text: those skunks, which are “proud of themselves,” are also “discreet.” What we have is not “a pride of skunks,” but “a pride and discretion of skunks.”

23The skunk is a discreet animal because it is discrete—it is capable of keeping itself separate from potential predators: such is the function of its defining characteristic that gave its French name of putois. It would appear that the semantic programme of “pride,” with its ambivalence between Pride 1 and Pride 3, orgueil and fierté, finds a natural development in the semantic programme of “discretion,” since the two variants, “discreet” and “discrete,” are etymologically the same word: they both come from Latin discretus via French discret, the root being the Latin verb cerno, to separate and thus to choose (“discernment” and “discretion” have the same origin)—she is discreet who knows how to choose among discrete elements.

24If the semantic programme of “pride” is indeed developed through the semantic programme of “discretion,” we may draw two conclusions. First, Pride 3 is the subject of this emblem, against the tradition, where Pride 1 is the natural choice. Or rather, this emblem sketches the development of Pride 1, which is referred to in the first occurrences of the word in the story, into Pride 3, which is referred to on the last page, where it is linked to discretion. Were this essay written in French, its title would have to be: de l’orgueil à la fierté. Secondly, the passage to Pride 3 is engineered through epiphanic contact with the utterly discrete, a pride and discretion of wild animals, whose apparition is all the more surprising as it occurs in the middle of a town (“ ‘My Lord,’ said Oneida. ‘In town.’”—, P, 153). This turns the last scene into a chute, which engages a re-reading of the story.

4. Exit, pursued by a hare

25This new reading directs our attention to another animal, for those skunks are not alone. There is another animal present at the scene, hidden behind another set phrase: a hare. As we re-read the story, we realize that the narrator’s behaviour is the symbolic behaviour ascribed by tradition to a hare.

26What do we know about the narrator? His most often mentioned characteristic is his hare-lip, which prevented him from taking part in the war. We know that he used to live with his mother (whose son’s handicap made her unwilling to have other children, which ruined potential relationships with men, P, 139). We know that he is some sort of accountant (a job that does not involve contact with the general public: “My impediment, even with the lip stitched up, rules out anything that involved a lot of talking, so I settled for bookkeeping,” P, 136). And what we do not know is his name, either his surname or his Christian name (whereas we know the name of the heroine—indeed, we have two names for her, Oneida or Ida, an Indian name and the name of a Greek nymph or a Tennysonian princess). The narrator, therefore, is defined by his hare-lip, which, we gather, was badly operated on, but to which he seems to be attached, as he disregards the suggestion of a young lady of his acquaintance that he could have another and better operation on the newly established Canadian NHS. In other words, the narrator is not only the subject of a human story but an emblematic animal.

27And indeed the hare is a symbolic animal, well deserving to be used in the image of an emblem. Traditionally, the symbolic hare has two defining characteristics: lust (witness its madness in March—it is sometimes represented at the foot of the Virgin, to point out her purity by contrast, and there is a sketch by Pisanello, entitled Luxury, which represents a naked young woman reclining next to an extremely realistic hare) and cowardice (the knight that is represented fleeing from a hare is the epitome of cowardice). For traditional common sense, as inscribed in clichés and set phrases, the defining characteristic of the hare is its flight: the hare runs because it is hunted by the hounds. Like the celebrated Deleuzean tick, which is defined by its three affects (crawling to the top a branch, waiting, and dropping on to a warm-blooded animal that passes by—Deleuze & Parnet 74-5), the hare is defined by one single affect, taking flight and running.

28This enables us to understand the most surprising moment in the story. The narrator and the heroine often meet to watch TV together, en tout bien tout honneur, after which he drives her home. One night, the narrator falls seriously ill, so the heroine stays and nurses him back to health. When he is better, she announces her intention to live with him in his house, in a kind of brother and sister partnership. On hearing this, the hare panics. Instead of simply saying no, as common sense would suggest, he answers that it is not possible as he has already put up the house for sale, an untruth which he is compelled to make true by actually selling his house, at any price, and renting an apartment instead. In other words, the hare’s reaction to the threat is the usual one: he takes flight, first into lying, then into active separation.

29The hare flies because it is a shy and timid animal, for whom contact with other animals is a source of danger. This, of course, has its equivalent in human behaviour, once again inscribed in a set phrase: the narrator’s life is defined by the fact that “he keeps himself to himself.” For this is the dominant affect in the narrator. Thus, he asks his mother not to mention the fact that he has avoided conscription because of his hare-lip (“My mother said it was lucky for me I was how I was and I believed she was right but told her not to say that outside the house,” P, 137-8). When the firm for which he works folds up, he is not unduly concerned, as he “had enough to do without them” (P, 145), which suggests either welcome unemployment or working on his own from home. And his relationship with the heroine, which the reader (who has been brought up on Pride and Prejudice) expects to develop into a relationship, is dominated by his need to keep himself separate. This emblematic hare, therefore, is not the incarnation of cowardice, rather of a form of Pride 3, precisely that form denoted by the French word fierté. Someone who is fière is not so much proud of herself as desirous to remain separate, to keep herself to herself. Our hare is not the emblem of pride, but of pride-and-discretion.

30This compels us to revisit our traditional, boy-meets-girl, narrative programme. The narrator keeps himself to himself, and yet he cannot keep entirely separate from the heroine, he cannot part with her. Not only does the story end of the “we” of epiphanic communion, but when he sells his house, in the circumstances referred to above, he rents an apartment in the very building where she lives: he on the ground floor, she on the top floor. This is the best image of their relationship: they are separate but close, close but separate. This turns the conjunction, ending in congress, of the “erotic” boy-meets–girl story into a family story: she needs someone to care for as she did her father; he does not want a surrogate mother, and yet he cannot part with her. So they form not a couple, but a group, a pride-and-discretion of characters.

5. Emblem

31This path through the story enables me to formulate the defining characteristics of a textual emblem. Such an emblem has five components:

  1. a semantic programme: it develops the meanings of two lexical items “pride ” and “discretion” (Pride 1 and Pride 3, orgueil and fierté, “discrete” and “discreet”);

  2. a narrative programme: the traditional, boy-meets-girl script of Pride and Prejudice, and the family script of a group of siblings, close but separate, that replaces it;

  3. an image, conveyed through a kind of ekphrasis: the epiphanic meeting with the god incarnated in an animal, in a scene, in other words a visual experience. This scene in turn is based on another lexical programme, the programme of metaphorical group names in English, which yields a new member, “a pride-and-discretion of skunks;”

  4. an emblematic symbol, in the guise of another animal, the hare;

  5. and the set phrases (another lexical programme) that such an animal involves: running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, keeping oneself to oneself.

6. Subscription

32Yet there is a major difference between an emblem proper and a textual emblem that must be taken into account. The emblem is short and aims straight at the universal: “pride” with zero article referring to the notion of pride at its highest level of generality. The textual emblem, because it develops into a story will aim at such generality through the exposition of a singularity: not pride but certain people afflicted with or affected by pride. Not the archetypal hare, but a singular hare-lip. This involves two formal differences: the possibility of distance and irony, through the multiplication of points of view (the narrator is not the same voice as the author), and the possibility of development (I have already suggested that the story is the story of a passage from Pride 1 to Pride 3, from orgueil to fierté).

33There is one aspect of the emblem I have neglected so far. A traditional emblem is composed not only of a symbolic picture (a hare, a group of skunks) and of a verse motto (here represented by the single word of the title), but also of a prose exposition, or subscriptio, which comments on the picture and the motto. And we do find such an exposition in our story, in the first page. That first page is rather strange. The story does not begin as a narrative, answering the traditional questions, quis, quid, ubi, quando, cur, quomodo, but in a series of generalities about “people,” that seem to be inspired by the thickest commonsense, what the French language, in a pejorative phrase, calls la sagesse des nations—wisdom so trite as to be highly dubious. There are, the text says, two kinds of people: some have suffered an early trauma and shown their resilience, as a result of which they may walk in pride in the community where they live. Others, not so seriously traumatized, keep harping on their difference, and even exaggerate it, as a result of which they get everything wrong. The first page begins with this trite generality, “some people get everything wrong” (P, 133) and ends on a maxim, again of the tritest possible kind, “good use can be made of everything, if you are willing” (P, 134). It is only at this point that the narrative begins: “Oneida did not go to school with the rest of us…” (P, 134)—we can already sense the pride and/or separateness that the story will develop.

34But ours is a textual emblem, with the possibility of ironic distance, and we soon realize that this first page, like the famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, is not the voice of morality or common sense, but the biased voice of a singular character, the hare narrator. The opposition between two types of people is in reality a pro domo plea, separating the narrator from the heroine and setting him on a superior plane—an expression of pride mixed with prejudice. So that the second possibility opened by the narrative structure of the textual emblem will soon be realized, as the story will tell the evolution of a singular character, the narrator, from pride with prejudice to epiphanic communion, by way of the transformation of pride into pride-and-discretion. Like the 16th century emblem, the textual emblem aims at the universal. Unlike it, it reaches the universal through the description of a singularity, as a result of which the universal in question is a situated universal, one that is firmly anchored in human experience and in a social and historical conjuncture (and there are many references to history, from the war and its aftermath—we even learn that the narrator and his mother go to the cinema to watch the film version of Mrs Minniver—to the changes in the urban landscape).

35There lies the infinite superiority of the narrative textual emblem over the traditional variety. Such superiority becomes manifest if we re-consider the last sentence of the story, “We were as glad as we could be” (P, 153). The logic of the emblem has incited me to interpret this sentence as the expression of epiphanic communion. Yet it must be confessed that as the reaction to an encounter with the deity, those words, in their triviality, are singularly inadequate—they are hardly worthy of the experience of a strong affect, being better adapted to the shared enjoyment of a toothsome dish or a favourite television programme. But because the emblem is a textual, nay a narrative emblem, we again realize that the words are uttered not by a newly converted Paul but by the narrator, a hare of a man, whose language can only be the banal language of the situation before the event. The event of revelation is not conveyed to us in its blinding splendour, but through the consciousness of a character who is unable, if not to undergo, at least to express the heightened experience such an encounter entails—the light of divine truth shines through the befogged consciousness of the merely human. In other words, the textual and narrative nature of the emblem allows Munro to deploy her consummate stylistic and narrative skill, on a par with the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. The universal of the emblem pointed at by the title of the story is indeed a situated universal, being situated in the limited consciousness of a character who is morally as negligible as he is socially. But perhaps there lies the true moral lesson of the tale: you don’t have to be a prospective saint to encounter the deity in the guise of a pride and discretion of skunks.

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Bibliographical reference

Jean-Jacques Lecercle, “Pride and Discretion”Caliban, 57 | 2017, 151-164.

Electronic reference

Jean-Jacques Lecercle, “Pride and Discretion”Caliban [Online], 57 | 2017, Online since 12 June 2019, connection on 24 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Jean-Jacques Lecercle

Université de Nanterre

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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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