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The Persistence of Character

The female character as reader in Alice Munro’s stories: “at the end of it all what has been accomplished?”

Christine LORRE


Cet article étudie le personnage féminin en tant que lectrice dans une sélection de nouvelles d’Alice Munro, en se concentrant sur la façon dont ces personnages sont réexaminés, au fil du temps, de sorte que le lecteur les perçoit différemment, tout comme eux-mêmes perçoivent un changement dans leur évolution. Il s’agit d’examiner comment la lecture joue un rôle constant dans différentes formes de développement d’un personnage, s’exprimant à travers des formes d’identification, de rejet, ou de doute, que ce soit au sein d’une communauté, une tranche d’âge, une classe sociale ou dans un couple.

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This article is dedicated to the memory of Lydia Wevers, a dear colleague, mentor, friend, and a voracious reader, who passed away on 4 September 2021, not long before the “Character, Again” conference took place at the University of Malta (11-12 November 2021).

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“[W]e need, as readers, to […] see reading as something that not only changes the world we inhabit for a few hours but also changes the mind receiving it.” Lydia Wevers (On Reading 48)

1The figure of the reader is a familiar trope in fiction. It is found in a number of Bildungsromane (though not all), in the character of the future writer as young reader, whose imagination and creativity are inspired by other writers. More generally, the fictional character the reader sees reading and forming themselves is a mirror reflection of the real-life reader expanding their worldview and changing who they are through reading, as described in the epigraph by Lydia Wevers. What matters here, both in fiction and in real life, is this change in the reader, before and after reading. Alberto Manguel, in his acclaimed History of Reading (1996), observes: “Reading […] is not an automatic process of capturing a text in the way photosensitive paper captures light, but a bewildering, labyrinthine, common and yet personal process of reconstruction” (39). This is particularly the case with the short stories of Alice Munro, which I will examine here, focusing on how characters persistently read and re-read, look again, re-consider, re-construct, and see things differently, while actual readers integrate this process of change. The notion of the “persistence of characters” is taken here as this return to how a character is defined through reading, and re-defined, over time, inside the story. Persistence doesn’t imply consistency, but on the contrary, more often than not, reveals misreadings.

2Munro’s fictional girls and women embody an important link between reader characters and actual readers: as female reader characters in fiction question representations of femininity, actual readers undergo a comparable process of wondering and subsequent transformation. In Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives, Helen Taylor has investigated the impact of reading on British women, which leads her to emphasize the role of reading for girls in the construction of their character:

That huge female readerly mentorship, from grandmothers, mothers, and sisters to female booksellers, librarians, and English teachers, have shared reading passions with younger women because they know how precious fiction by women is to female identity and self-confidence. […] Of course, for some men reading undoubtedly has that power, but it’s rare to find them expressing as strongly as women the ways fiction reading has impacted on their emotional, spiritual, and sexual lives. (Taylor 43)

3More specifically, Taylor considers that “Sometimes reading had powerful consequences for imaginative girl readers,” because it may act “as a way girls can escape from the constrictions of patriarchal expectations” (Taylor 61, 76). Her study thus reinforces the point about the importance of reading in the character formation of girls. Even though it can be difficult to demonstrate that point tangibly, there is ample evidence of the potentially powerful links between reading and character formation. This is related to “how fiction connects to ordinary life” and to the impact its has on “the figure of the ordinary or nonacademic reader” (Anderson, Felski and Moi 1, 11).

4The transformation that reading has the power to generate is linked to the dialectic between nature and culture, or rather experience, in character formation. In her definition of the term character, in Character: A National Obsession, Marjorie Garber brings together the two strands of character, as defined by this interaction between nature and experience:

[C]haracter, though we often regard it as intrinsic and essential to the individual, is in fact often produced by interactions between people, by perception and performance, whether in an ethical dilemma or in an act of perceived bravery or heroism. Character, though we claim it can be built, developed, assessed (and increasingly, in schools, graded on report cards), is an elusive entity. […] The question of “character” arises in virtually every aspect of human life today. And in just about every one, there is the same fundamental tension, between something regarded as innate, inborn, or intrinsic to the individual, and something that can be taught, imitated, or copied. (Garber 20-22)

5Garber insists on the elusiveness of character, given that it is not a stable entity but one that depends on the interaction between the individual (and what constitutes them at birth) and others, which is the source of a constant tension.

  • 1 Intertextuality and the influence of other writers or texts on Munro’s works have been documented a (...)

6I propose to examine in a selection of stories by Munro the fundamental tension between what is innate and what is (or can be) taught and learnt through the experience of reading. The focus is on the various types of interaction between books, in their contents and their materiality, and characters, in their activity of reading—rather than on intertextuality or the literary influence of other writers on Munro per se.1 While conducting this analysis, I will bear in mind Robert McGill’s comment on Munro’s emphasis on the notion of return, as observable in her recursive poetics: “In her stories, the implicit imperative to herself, to her characters, and to her audience is not simply ‘Look!’ but, rather, ‘Look again!’” (McGill 142). And so I read Munro, again, focusing on her female reader characters, to identify the various forms of character development that reading entails, and how characters over time respond to their social environment, be it their community, age group, social class, or couple.

1. Reading culture and community values

7Reading plays a major role in the world depicted by Munro, both as part of the culture (in an anthropological sense) and as part of the process of socialisation and development of character. This social role of reading is ironically underlined in the first section of “Powers” (in the short story collection Runaway, 2004), which is entitled “Give Dante a rest.” The passage consists in a few pages from the journal of Nancy, the central character, at the time when Wilf, a local doctor, proposes to her and she starts preparing for the wedding. The tone of the journal is playful and joyous, and Nancy comes through as someone “prodigal […] with what might have been called—in some girls’ book she might have read and taken to heart, it probably was called—the sunshine of her personality” (Munro, Runaway 287). Books have had a clear influence on Nancy’s determination to shape her own character. The story is set in the 1920s and the marriage proposal takes place as Nancy wants to put into action her will to become more educated by addressing serious topics, the way people used to do before the War. She and a few friends want to recreate the spirit of “the Debating Club that used to be in town” and the “serious subjects they used to talk about. ‘Is Science or Literature more important in forming Human Character?’ Can anybody imagine getting people out nowadays to listen to that? We’d feel silly even sitting around in an unorganized way and talking about it.” Nancy ends up creating with a friend “a Reading Club and that got us on to the important books we always meant to read but never got down to it” (Munro, Runaway 272-273). She gets started on Dante, and when Wilf meets her with the intention to propose to her, he tells her to “Give Dante a rest for a while” (Runaway 277). Contrary to what Nancy thought, reading Dante or other serious writers is not what gets Wilf interested in her. He is a deep and earnest type and probably sees more in Nancy than the young woman who tries to act according to preconceived ideas and social expectations. Nancy thus gives proof of her lack of insight, not only in her relationship with Wilf, who while discreetly courting her nonetheless points out her immaturity to her, but also, later in her life, with Ollie, who cuts short to the intimacy she is willing to initiate with him after she has become a widow. By the end of the story, although Nancy has had what most would consider a good life, her development, guided by Wilf, remains that of a conventional character—the doctor’s wife—away from the complications of her deeper, darker desires. The character of Nancy is paradigmatic of Munro’s women reader characters, who use reading to guide their lives, but who retain a lingering doubt about the course of their fate.

8Books participate in individual formation, and simultaneously are a major factor in the formation of the culture of a community, whether it is situated at the national level, within the nation, or across nations. The community Munro writes from is shaped by the Southern Ontario Calvinist ethics and heritage that are part of the author’s background. It is a community of anglophone settlers and their descendants issued from a colonial history that has a common book culture, starting with the Bible. As Alberto Manguel points out, the Bible played a crucial role in creating a cultural community in the anglophone world, that includes its colonial outreaches:

The King James Bible, published after four years of hard labour in 1611, became the “authorized” version, the “Everyman’s Bible” in the English language, the same one that we, travelling in an English-speaking country today, find by our bedsides in our hotel rooms, in an ancient effort to create a commonwealth of readers through a unified text. (Manguel 275)

9In “Chaddeleys and Flemings: 2. The Stone in the Field” (The Moons of Jupiter, 1982), the relatives of the narrator’s father live stern lives, in agreement with their faith as Cameronians. The adult narrator recalls how during a family visit when she was a girl, she was struck by the bareness of her father’s siblings’ lifestyle: they had “no radio; no newspapers or magazines; certainly no books. There must have been a Bible in the house, and there must have been a calendar, but these were not to be seen” (“Chaddeleys and Flemings” 26). These deeply religious people live with the bare necessities, but the Bible that would have been a familiar bearing for the girl is not visible. In “Friend of My Youth” (1990), the narrator recalls her mother’s youth and her stay with a religious family whose books also reflect the omnipresence of religion, with the addition of folk tales: they had “stories about Scottish life—not classics. Stories about urchins and comic grandmothers […], an old book written by some preacher of their faith,” and a Bible (“Friend of My Youth” 12). The book of the Bible, in Munro’s stories of colonial Canada, signals the prevalence of religion until the mid-20th century—something that the mother of the authorial protagonist in Lives of Girls and Women (1971) seeks to replace with a broader range of narratives.

  • 2 Robert Laidlaw was also a writer himself, and Alice Munro saw to it that the novel he wrote, The Mc (...)

10Munro has repeatedly commented in interviews on the fact that traditionally, where she comes from, women would work indoors while men would work outdoors, and women were the readers and storytellers (Rex Murphy Interviews with Alice Munro). Father characters who are readers are rare but nonetheless present in her fiction. About the Victorian society depicted in “Meneseteung” (Friend of My Youth, 1990), the narrator recalls: “My father was a harness-maker by trade, but a cultivated man who could quote by heart from the Bible, Shakespeare, and the writings of Edmund Burke” (“Meneseteung” 51). In colonial society throughout the British empire, Shakespeare is often found side by side with the Bible, and sometimes another book or two—in this case, with Burke, by a classical political thinker. In “Working for a Living” (The View from Castle Rock, 2006), which is set in the first half of the twentieth century and is to some extent autobiographical, the father character is based on Munro’s father, Robert Laidlaw, who was a keen reader:2 “My father had read a lot of books by this time, […] books by Fennimore Cooper and he had absorbed the myths or half-myths about wilderness that most of the country boys around him knew nothing about, since few of them were readers” (“Working for a Living” 131). The Munro persona further describes her father as “a farm boy with that extra, inspired or romantic perception (he would not have cared for those words)” (“Working for a Living” 132). Her grandfather was also a reader: “He never talked about what he read, but the whole community knew about it” (Castle Rock 135). Unlike the women who read novels, a genre that was looked down upon, her grandfather’s serious reading commanded respect. By retracing this genealogy of readers, the author inscribes herself as part of it, but on the feminine side.

11Mothers play a key role in shaping their daughters’ appetite for books. The mother character in Lives of Girls and Women (1971) is a book lover, so the daughter grows up in an environment in which books are valued and is herself a keen reader who develops a sensual relation to books, as with the encyclopedias her mother sells: “I loved the volumes of the encyclopedia, their weight (of mystery, of beautiful information) as they fell open in my lap” (Lives of Girls and Women 55). Looking back, looking again, from an intellectual rather than sensual viewpoint, the adult narrator is more clear-eyed about her mother’s relation to books: “Her admiration persisted through Antigone, dampened a bit in Hamlet, grew dimmer and dimmer through The Republic and Das Kapital” (The View from Castle Rock 198). The mother’s taste for reading, especially Tennyson’s poetry and the encyclopedia, gradually reaches its limits with books that involve more abstract ideas, in her daughter’s implicit opinion.

12In the world in which Munro grew up, reading was often considered a pointless activity, and in her fiction there is a recurrent opposition between two types of characters, who may be described as the imaginative type and the practical type, the imaginative type being the writer figure, and the practical type its opposite. Importantly, Munro does not oppose the two worlds, real and imagined, but places her central characters at the junction between the two, in a dialectic relation, and constantly returns to that point of juncture. Her reader characters are often confronted with the opposition between the world of the imagination that books open up and the real world, in a way that forces those who are also writers to search for an adequate form that acknowledges this opposition. In the short story “Home” (The View from Castle Rock, 2006), the narrator, a writer, visits her father and her hearty step-mother – his second wife – about whom she observes: “Irlma doesn’t care for the sight of people reading because it is not sociable and at the end of it all what has been accomplished?” (“Home” 291). This view, expressed in the form of a question from Irlma reported in free indirect speech, implicitly casts the narrator in a variation on the character of “The Book Fool,” a persistent character type throughout the ages that reflects a “prejudiced view […] of the reader as an absent-minded egghead, an absconder from the world, a daydreamer with glasses mousing through a book in a secluded corner” (Manguel 301). Irlma’s rhetorical question makes the narrator feel even more ill-at-ease and under-confident – something she needs to struggle against. More generally, in Munro’s stories, avid readers must stand their ground as such, in a community in which books are not to be exhibited. This feeling is a strong one during girlhood, when character formation is taking place.

2. Girl readers and character formation

13For many of Munro’s girl characters, reading as a child is fundamental to their formation, in the same way as it was for Munro herself. She identifies five key books in her childhood: “Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” Charles Dickens’s A Child’s History of England, L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, the poems of Tennyson, and, of course, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights” (Ross 43). Her childhood readings nurtured her taste for literature and writing, her imagination, her vision of herself as a writer, and the kind of life she wanted to have as a woman.

14Munro was born in 1931, and Michelle Smith, Kristine Moruzi and Claire Bradford observe about the period between 1840 and 1940 that

girls’ books and magazines published in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand […] certainly contain many similar attitudes towards family, the natural world, education, employment, modernity, and race […]. [They] present an ‘imagined community’ of girls (B. Anderson 46) […], who are brought together through a shared understanding of the imperial connection and their determination to situate themselves as both part of young nations and part of the burgeoning empire. (Smith et al. 6)

15In this imagined community, the books by the Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery are specifically identified as books that were read throughout settler colonies: “Anne of Green Gables was widely promoted and read in Australia and in New Zealand, where a local edition was published in Dunedin’s J. Brathwaite by early 1909” (Smith et al. 38).

16Although Munro’s girl characters do not show a distinct understanding of the imperial connection as such, they do have a sense of modernity as a guideline for their lives as girls and as the women they want to become. Similarly, young Alice had a strong sense of who she wanted and didn’t want to be, which expressed itself in her reading tastes. Catherine Ross reports in her biography of Munro that she “repudiated a gift from her mother—a book called Beautiful Girlhood [1922, by Mabel Hale]: ‘I still remember the verse in front of the book by Charles Kingsley: ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.’ […] I immediately knew this was a book I was not going to be pleased with” (Ross 35-36). Conversely, L.M. Montgomery’s books, especially the Emily series, had an impact on the development of her character. In her afterword to Emily of New Moon, Munro observes that “what’s central to the story […] is the development of a child – and a girl child, at that—into a writer […]. [W]e have been shown not only how she learned to write, but how she discovered writing as a way of surviving as herself in the world” (Munro, “Afterword” 359-360). More generally, as Smith, Moruzi and Bradford remark,

Emily’s attitudes towards her writing and romance signal the ways in which she can be seen as a modern figure. Emily’s passion for writing is one of the strongest signals of her modernity throughout the series. […] For Emily, not only is writing a vocation that will enable her to support herself but it also serves as an outlet for her imagination. (Smith et al. 215)

17L.M. Montgomery is referred to in the story “Lying Under the Apple Tree” (The View from Castle Rock, 2006), a story of sexual awakening told by the adult narrator looking back at her younger self. At the beginning of the story, the narrator recalls:

I liked to do this [riding my bike] because I was secretly devoted to Nature. The feeling came from books, at first. It came from the girls’ stories by the writer L.M. Montgomery, who often inserted some sentences describing a snowy field in moonlight or a pine forest or a still pond mirroring the evening sky. Then it had merged with another private passion I had, which was for lines of poetry. I went rampaging through my school texts to uncover them before they could be read and despised in class. (“Lying Under the Apple Tree” 198)

18The girl is aware that her relishing of “Nature,” which she links to her passion for poetry, echoes that of L.M. Montgomery’s characters, in narratives that pay tribute to the landscape of Prince Edward Island. Looking again at Montgomery’s stories, it is revealing that the landscape she depicts is also an erotic one in which “orchards become feminized erotic spaces; trees become responsive lovers; girls are allowed to have passionate affairs” (Gammel 116, quoted in Beran 153). Similarly, and in a playful manner, “Lying Under the Apple Tree” is entirely built on the double meaning of the girl narrator’s desire to go and lie under an apple tree in the spring as expressing simultaneously an innocent desire to admire nature and an unconscious sexual one. The adult narrator, looking back at her girlhood, reasserts her innocent feelings at the time, in terms that nonetheless suggest unconscious budding sexual desire:

The cherry blossoms got me thinking about the trees in Miriam McAlpin’s field. I wanted to look at them when they flowered. And not just to look at them—as you could do from the street—but to get underneath those branches, to lie down on my back with my head against the trunk of the tree and to see how it rose, as if out of my own skull, rose up and lost itself in an upside-down sea of blossom. (“Lying Under the Apple Tree” 199)

19The girl doesn’t simply take in visually the fecundity of the spring landscape but also experiences its eroticism bodily. When Miriam McAlpin, the owner of the field where the tree is, contemptuously tells her “You’re starting early, aren’t you?” (Castle Rock 201), the girl has a revelation: “I understood. She thought—they all thought—that I had been under the tree, yesterday evening or some other evening, with a man or a boy” (“Lying Under the Apple Tree” 202). Incidentally, soon after this scene, the girl has her first kiss with a boy, yet another sign that the budding sexuality she wasn’t aware of is now a reality. What the girl didn’t see at the time, the adult narrator suggests early on in the narrative by signposting it with discreet but clear marks of the girl’s nascent sexuality (like the description of her wanting to be under the apple tree quoted above). The story is set in 1944 and the reader may also detect an allusion in the title to “Don’t sit under the apple tree,” a 1942 song made popular by Glenn Miller and the Andrews sisters about lovers who pledge to remain faithful to one another while one is on the war front, about gossip and possible misinterpretation. Munro’s story title replaces “sitting” with “lying,” in another double meaning as the word may refer to the position of lying down or to the fact of not telling the truth, whether deliberately or not.

20After the narrator has been dramatically jilted by her boyfriend, who turns out to be duplicitous, books take a key part for her in a process of consolation as best companions: “I […] went downstairs and into the living room, where I sat on the low stool in front of the bookcase and took out a book. […] I don’t know which book it was that I had picked up. […] Because it was in books that I would find, for the next few years, my lovers” (“Lying Under the Apple Tree” 225-226). Books, which may have contributed to the girl’s unspoken sense of eroticism, through L.M. Montgomery’s sensual landscapes, now play the role of guardians, keeping her safely away from bold sexual adventures and humiliation. The girl identifies with the female characters involved in love stories, presumably with some ironic distance; this is a type of identification which Rita Felski describes as one in which “a sense of estrangement and disassociation is the connecting tissues binding character and reader” (Felski in Anderson, Felski and Moi 113). In this binding, nonetheless, comfort is found.

3. Establishing and developing social relations

21Books may serve as guardians, keeping young readers tucked away, reading themselves into imaginary worlds of their own, but as often as not, they act as material objects that play a part in establishing social relations and thus participate in the construction of the social character. Alberto Manguel comments on the role of books as objects:

A cousin of mine from Buenos Aires was deeply aware that books could function as a badge, a sign of alliance, and always chose a book to take on her travels with the same care with which she chose her handbag. […] The association of books with their readers is unlike any other between objects and their users. Tools, furniture, clothes—all have a symbolic function, but books inflict upon their readers a symbolism far more complex than that of a simple utensil. (Manguel 214)

22In Munro’s stories books and reading are often a means to improve oneself; they aren’t just about the reader character’s personal development through reading, but are a way to relate to others that contribute to shape the character of an individual in their relations to others.

23The story “Mischief” (Who Do You Think You Are? 1978) focuses on the counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s, which concerns many aspects of culture beyond books and reading, but it is through books that Rose, the protagonist, first approaches Jocelyn in the maternity ward of the North Vancouver General Hospital, where they gave birth at the same time. Rose admires Jocelyn and what she reads, the Journals of André Gide:

Gide was on the list of writers she meant to work through. At that time she read only great writers. […] The next day Rose had her own book out to read. It was The Last Puritan, by George Santayana, but unfortunately it was a library copy; the title on the cover was rubbed and dim, so it was impossible that Jocelyn should admire Rose’s reading material as Rose had admired hers. Rose didn’t know how she could get to talk to her. (Munro, “Mischief” 124)

24Jocelyn is American, anti-conformist, and intellectually independent, which causes Rose’s immediate and long-lasting admiration. Rose fails to draw Jocelyn’s attention by displaying readings that she hopes are proof of her intellectual worth, but the two of them establish a complicity in their instinctive reaction to the other young mothers in their ward who talk about their kitchen shelves and various housecleaning matters. Rose and Jocelyn click when they start parodying their conversations and “became hysterical as schoolgirls, from the things they read aloud to each other […] the copies of True Love and Personal Romance which they had found in the waiting room” (“Mischief” 125). Books, but not the expected ones, serve as a base to their friendship, which partly consists in mocking other women, being silly and slightly contemptuous.

25In other cases, books act as fast objects of social and emotional connection or rejection. In “Chance” (Runaway, 2004), Juliet is a twenty-one-year-old teacher whose “treasure” in life is her passion for Classics, the Greek and Latin myths that make the world readable to her. On the train to Vancouver where a new teaching position is awaiting her, she “had a book open on her lap, but she was not reading. She did not take her eyes from what was going by” (“Chance” 52), reviewing the possibilities lying ahead of her. But when a middle-aged man sits across from her and starts talking to her, she goes back to “looking at her book again […] trying hard to prolong the pause” (“Chance” 55). Unable to cut short to the conversation, she ends up walking away from the man and going to the observation car. Another man arrives, also carrying a book; an elderly couple follow, who start exchanging wearisome platitudes. “Juliet and the man across the aisle raised their eyes from their books at the same moment, and their glances met, with a calm withholding of any expression.” (“Chance” 58). In this succession of encounters, books are objects that either enable the characters to facilitate or limit connections, according to a dramatic social code that can ultimately lead to tragedy (with the suicide of the middle-aged man) or romance (with the encounter of Juliet and Eric, and their connection at first glance). The content of Juliet’s book, which “was about the ancient Greece and the considerable attachment that the Greeks had to the irrational” (“Chance” 56), is also full of symbolic insight into the meaning of that moment in the story, but nonetheless leads to subsequent misreadings.

4. Books and intimacy

26Reading books often contributes to bringing together a couple and creating intimacy, and conversely, as objects, books act as the visible sign of such a relationship. In “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, 2001), books matter to Grant and Fiona, and are at the core of their married life:

They had usually prepared supper together. One of them made the drinks and the other the fire, and they talked about his work (he was writing a study of legendary Norse wolves and particularly of the great Fenris wolf who swallows up Odin at the end of the world) and about whatever Fiona was reading and what they had been thinking during their close but separate day. This was their liveliest intimacy, though there was also, of course, the five or ten minutes of physical sweetness just after they got into bed—something that did not often end up in sex but reassured them that sex was not over yet. (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” 284)

27When Fiona starts showing signs of Alzheimer’s and must go to a home, Grant tries to find ways to stimulate her memory and her interest by buying a book about Iceland, where Fiona’s mother is from:

It was about Iceland. A book of nineteenth-century watercolors made by a lady traveller to Iceland.
Fiona had never learned her mother’s language and she had never shown much respect for the stories that it preserved—the stories that Grant had taught and written about, and still did write about, in his working life. But in the last few years she had developed an interest in the country itself and looked at travel guides. She read about William Morris’s trip, and Auden’s. She didn’t really plan to travel there. She said the weather was too dreadful. Also—she said—there ought to be one place you thought about and knew about and maybe longed for—but never did get to see. (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” 300-301)

28Grant’s choice of a present reflects his intimate knowledge of his wife’s sophisticated choices about how to relate to her mother’s language and culture. But this contrasts with her response to Grant’s gift when he visits her in the home: “‘Why, thank you,’ said Fiona. She didn’t look at the book. He put her hand on it. ‘Iceland,’ he said. She said, ‘Ice-land.’ The first syllable managed to hold a tinkle of interest, but the second fell flat” (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” 304–305). The fact is that she’s grieving the departure of Aubrey, another resident in the home whom she has fallen in love with. The gifted book, instead of opening up Fiona’s mind and imagination, or acting as a trigger, as Grant was probably hoping it would by putting her hand on it and creating a physical contact with a familiar material object, only shows how lost in her own world she now is. The scene also takes part of its meaning from the sequencing of the narrative. Between the passage quoted above, in which Grant carefully chooses the book for Fiona, and the moment when he gives it to her, the reader finds out about Grant’s relation to books and to knowledge, and how his position as a university professor enabled him to start affairs with mature women students; books were instrumental not only to his social evolution and academic career, but also to his sexual life. One of the questions the story implicitly raises—and brings no answer to—is whether Fiona’s illness is an unconscious, delayed response to Grant’s many past infidelities.

29Ironically, Grant ends up reading to Fiona from books found in the reading room, which she lets him do:

He suspected that she did that because it made his company easier for her—she was able to shut her eyes and sink back into her own grief. […] So he sat and read to her out of one of these old novels about chaste love, and lost-and-regained fortunes, that could have been the discard of some long-ago village or Sunday school library. […] The covers of the books were soft, almost velvety, with designs of leaves and flowers pressed into them, so that they resembled jewelry boxes or chocolate boxes. That women—he supposed it would be women—could carry home like treasure. (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” 308, 309).

30The type of book that is available in the reading room is of a traditional, formulaic, moralistic type, which contrasts with the work of the adventurous, modern lady traveller who authored the book Grant bought. Furthermore, these books as objects have a sentimental outlook, and are comparable, in Grant’s eyes, to presents that are made to women with the aim of seducing them and obtaining their favours—flowers, jewelry, chocolates. That women should treasure such gifts suggests their gullibility, or vulnerability, in the seduction game. These books from the past seem meant to bait women into submission to men and are part of an overarching system of seduction. It is an old-fashioned one, a lot less attractive, in Grant’s view, than that of the 1960s and 70s that he benefitted from, in which holders of knowledge could bask in their sexual attractiveness.

31Grant is sharply aware of the seductive power of books, be it to sexual or social ends. He prides himself on having made it into the academic world, largely helped along by the cultural capital of Fiona’s family. Conversely, he appreciates the fact that he escaped his own social milieu, which he sees reflected, with more than a touch of contempt, in the person of Marian, Aubrey’s wife, when he goes to her place. She is a social type that he is only too familiar with: “He might have married her. Think of it. He might have married some girl like that. If he’d stayed back where he belonged” (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” 318). She is not the intellectual type who reads books (and she readily expresses self-derision about that), but a materialist who hangs on to her house and looks after it, even in financial adversity when her husband has become dependent. When encountering that type of character, again, Grant is reminded of his past and is implicitly grateful for his current situation.

32Fiona has the book on Iceland open in her lap when she unexpectedly recognizes Grant at the end of the story, but she doesn’t associate the book either with Grant who gave it to her, or with her mother’s native country. Instead, she is concerned about the expensive book being left around and possibly getting stolen by residents. Fiona has turned into someone who is materialistic like Marian, the antithesis of her old self and the woman Grant once married–and whom, to all appearances, he still loves. In “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Munro ironically teases a patriarchal academic system in which men used books as a tool of power over women, the ending of the story reasserting the ambiguity in Grant’s character.

33“What Do You Want to Know For?” (The View from Castle Rock, 2006) focuses on a couple in which the woman is a persona close to Munro, and the man close to her second husband, a geographer. The narrative merges two related, parallel stories: one about ageing, illness and the perspective of death, and the other about the couple’s passion for exploring the Ontario landscape, which they read like a book of geology, as “The landscape here is a record of ancient events” (“What Do You Want to Know For?” 318). Reading that natural book changes the narrator’s relation to time, as the geological landscape is inscribed in deep time. The couple also have printed material, “maps sold to accompany a book called The Physiography of Southern Ontario, by Lyman Chapman and Donald Putnam—whom we refer to, familiarly but somewhat reverentially, as Put and Chap” (“What Do You Want to Know For?” 319). The maps reveal the geology of the area, offering a record of the past that can be deciphered and visualised in situ. These maps open the narrator’s imagination, who retraces the geological events and movements of the region. Part of the pleasure of reading that book is that it is a new language, and new knowledge to her, something that brings a freshness to her life, as she is in her sixties. The question of the title, “what do you want to know for?”, is the one reference librarians often ask when the narrator asks for church and cemetery histories. The librarian’s question is not unlike Irlma’s question in “Home,” or Marian’s considerations in “The Bear” in their practical intent. But other characters in the story spontaneously engage with the questions the couple ask and the discussion leads into local history and family history, bringing “a sense of wonder and refreshment” to the narrator (“What Do You Want to Know For?” 331). This sense of wonder is shared by their interlocutors, who “do not seem to find it strange that anybody should wish to know about things that are of no particular benefit or practical importance” (“What Do You Want to Know For?” 337). In old age and sickness, books keep opening up new vistas and reveal fresh ways of looking at the world.

34It is time to go back to Irlma’s question about reading in relation to the shaping of character: “at the end of it all what has been accomplished?” In Munro’s stories, reading contributes to the formation of girls in ways that enable them to become modern, emancipated women who learn to free themselves of the expectations of a patriarchal society. Furthermore, books are “entanglements of reading and living” (Wevers, Reading on the Farm 284): as a window onto an imaginary world, they can be a lifelong source of comfort or excitement; as a material trace linked to past experiences, their physicality may contribute to maintain alive personal emotions. Most importantly, either as stories or as objects, books can be turned to again at any time of life, to confront the effects of time passing and changing perspectives on the kind of character an individual may be. Or, to put it differently, reading books is what keeps characters alive.

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Beran, Carol L. “Thomas Hardy, Alice Munro, and the Question of Influence.” American Review of Canadian Studies vol. 29, no. 2, 1999, p. 241-262.

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1 Intertextuality and the influence of other writers or texts on Munro’s works have been documented and analysed; see for instance Beran (“Thomas Hardy, Alice Munro, and the Question of Influence”) on Thomas Hardy, Garson on Charlotte Brontë, Wachtel 2004 on D.H. Lawrence (“The Fox”) and Leon Tolstoi (Anna Karenina).

2 Robert Laidlaw was also a writer himself, and Alice Munro saw to it that the novel he wrote, The McGregors, be published posthumously (Robert Laidlaw, The McGregors: A Novel of an Ontario Pioneer Family, Macmillan, 1979).

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Christine LORRE, « The female character as reader in Alice Munro’s stories: “at the end of it all what has been accomplished?” »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 27 juin 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Christine LORRE

Christine Lorre is a Senior Lecturer in English at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her research focuses on postcolonial literature, particularly Canadian and New Zealand, the genre of the short story, gender, and environmental humanities. She is the co-author, with Ailsa Cox, of The Mind’s Eye: Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (Fahrenheit, 2015), and co-edited Space and Place in Alice Munro’s Fiction: A Book with Maps in It (Camden House, 2018). She is the current President of the SEPC (French Society for Postcolonial Studies) and of EACLALS (European Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies).
Christine Lorre est maître de conférences en anglais à la Sorbonne Nouvelle. Ses recherches portent sur la littérature postcoloniale, particulièrement canadienne et néo-zélandaise, le genre de la nouvelle, le genre, et les humanités environnementales. Elle est co-auteur, avec Ailsa Cox, de The Mind’s Eye: Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (Fahrenheit, 2015), et a co-édité Space and Place in Alice Munro’s Fiction: A Book with Maps in It (Camden House, 2018). Elle est l’actuelle présidente de la SEPC (Société d’études postcoloniales) et d’EACLALS (European Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies).

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