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III/ Migrating within: Alice Munro

The Uses and the Limits of the Short Story: The Function of Character Migration in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women



Cet article explore le phénomène de la migration des personnages dans l'une des premières œuvres d'Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women publié en 1971. De manière significative, Munro conserve la structure typique de la nouvelle anglo-américaine: tendance à la condensation et crescendo vers le dénouement, ainsi que le principe de l'épiphanie propre à cette forme elle-même. Mais Munro permet également à ses personnages de continuer à exister au-delà de chaque histoire individuelle, en montrant la manière dont ils survivent aux épiphanies finales et en incorporant celles-ci dans la perspective plus large de toute une vie. Ce faisant, Munro questionne les différences habituelles entre roman et nouvelle, mettant en lumière ce qui, dans chaque genre, permet spécifiquement d'effectuer la présentation des personnages, tout en suggérant les limites propres à chacun.

Alice Munro, personnage, épiphanie, nouvelle, James Joyce

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1. Introduction

1At one point early in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, the protagonist’s mother wonders, quite simply: “What is a person” (54)? And to be a person, she goes on to reflect, is to be not just one stable or identifiable thing, but rather a combination of heterogeneous elements, working together in unseen and mysterious ways. With a sense of wonder, but also relief in the face of life’s inevitable end, she calls upon a recently read article called, like the story in which the event is narrated, “Heirs of the Living Body” to conclude: “We call [a person] Uncle Craig, or your father or me. But it’s just these combinations, these parts put together and running in a certain particular way, for the time being” (Lives 54, Munro’s emphasis). When one part ceases to function, then that does not mean that all the other points will not continue to find a use, unpredictably, in the bodies of others, such that we could “all be heirs of one another’s bodies” (55). What she gives voice to is her hope that someday life may triumph somehow over death, in that a person’s elements can migrate beyond the limitations of their momentary and corporeal combination into a new form of life. But her sense of the mysterious combinations of things, and of the immensely unknowable phenomenon that life is, also provides a remarkable figure for Alice Munro’s own quietly revolutionary narrative art. What Munro’s work consistently suggests is that life is not singular, but multiple and contradictory. Our lives, her stories perceive, are the products of unexpected events and sometimes even unknown or distant influences. There is a pattern lying behind life, such that no one element of a person or moment in a character’s story may be taken as manifesting a life in its wholeness. We need the singular elements and moments, just as the story’s character Uncle Craig needs his heart and his kidneys, because they provide privileged opportunities of insight and clarity, but no one single moment is ever enough. And so we migrate beyond them, meeting with surprise and wonder their unpredictable effects and unforeseeable combinations.

  • 1 See Christine Lorre, “Juliet’s Migrations in Alice Munro’s Runaway (2004): Making Connections” in t (...)

2It is with this sense of life as combination rather than unity that Munro builds her short story-novel hybrid from 1971, Lives of Girls and Women. In this seemingly straightforward coming-of-age narrative, Munro traces a series of formative experiences in the life of its young protagonist Del as she grows up amidst a group of eccentric friends and family members in rural Ontario, and ultimately comes to develop a nascent artistic sensibility much like Munro’s own. These experiences, however, are notably presented as a series of discrete stories, rather than as a continuously building narrative, as Munro maintains the structural elements and thematic devices most typically reserved for the short story form, while also allowing her characters to evolve from one story to the next, so that they achieve an almost novelistic breadth of life. In so doing, I argue, Munro’s work erodes any easy generic distinction between novel and story forms, as her characters’ migration exists within, and depends upon, a new kind of form that cannot simply be called a “novel” or a “short story cycle.” Munro would use this hybrid technique once again in The Beggar Maid (1978), and in 2004’s Runaway, a collection which contains a kind of miniature novella charting the course of its heroine Juliet,1 but my focus is on the earliest work from 1971, as it most self-consciously acknowledges and employs its inheritance of the short story form’s conventions, while also suggesting the very limits of those conventions through the migration of its characters.

3The three conventions which have perhaps most categorically defined the twentieth-short story in the Anglo-American tradition are its powers of condensation, the way in which it builds to a sudden and transformative ending, and the revelation or insight promised by the widely embraced trope of the epiphany. These three conventions are essentially interdependent, as the story’s condensation, versus a novel’s expansion, lends itself particularly well to the illuminating power of the epiphanic moment, which nearly always will occur in a frozen moment at a story’s conclusion. Lives of Girls and Women suggests that these conventions are uniquely equipped to depict character in ways the novel cannot, as the form can illuminate a life by capturing it at one of its single defining moments. At the same time, however, Munro’s characters are always pushing against the limits set by those structural elements able to depict them in such stark relief.

4And in continuing to live beyond their epiphanies’ typically teleological structure, Munro’s migrating characters invite us to rethink traditional distinctions between novel and short story.

2. Modern Short Story as an Epiphanic Mode

  • 2 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is derived from the Greek for “a manifestation (...)

5Since at least James Joyce’s Dubliners, the epiphanic mode has dominated the modern short story in English. As opposed to the novelistic breadth of time, the modern story has followed the structural principle of showing fleeting insights and momentary flashes, offering a slice-of-life portrait that more often than not builds toward a climactic epiphany. As Charles Baxter puts it in his polemical essay “Against Epiphanies,” “the logic of unveiling has become a dominant mode in Anglo-American writing, certainly in fiction, particularly in short stories. We watch as a hidden presence, some secret logic, rises to visibility and serves as the climactic revelation […]. The world of appearances falls away, and essences show themselves” (Baxter 45-46). This mode, so commonplace in modern fiction, can be called a particularly Joycean legacy, as it was James Joyce who most rigorously theorized the epiphany concept for the modernist era, implicitly in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and explicitly by name in that novel’s earlier version, Stephen Hero. In the words of his hero Stephen Dedalus: “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself” (Stephen Hero 211). It is, as its etymology indicates, an experience of revelation, when an entire life is revealed in a single and instantaneous event or gesture, or when a character’s transformative self-understanding is caught and frozen by the author in a brief and radiating flash.2 “The moment which I call epiphany,” Stephen goes on to elaborate, is when a person’s or a thing’s “soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance” (Stephen Hero 213). And this sense of epiphany as a “spiritual manifestation”‑of a life, or an age, of an entire city’s population‑is famously put to use in the fifteen stories comprising Dubliners (1914), each of which builds up to a crystalline moment, frozen in time, in which a character sees his life and his self differently, or in which her character’s truth or “whatness” is made manifest for her readers.

  • 3 While these two stories are certainly the most famous and widely anthologized of those in Dubliners(...)

6We may here think of the unnamed young boy suddenly being hit with the vanity of human wishes in the closing lines of “Araby:” “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity: and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (Dubliners 27). Or, perhaps most famously, there is Gabriel Conroy’s transformative reflection at the window with which “The Dead” concludes, as “his soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling” (Dubliners 204).3 Following from these highly influential works, and from the general modernist embracement of the epiphanic concepts of the fleeting and the evanescent, we might broadly say that while the novel’s narrative task has been understood and codified as elaboration and expansion, the short story was solidified as a form structured according to condensation or limitation. Or, in the words of a major critic of the short story form, “the moment of truth stands as a model for the short story the way the life stands as a model for the novel” (Pratt 183). This leads to a kind of hierarchical relationship between the two forms, such that the novel is often privileged as more full and developed, with the story placed in a position of subservience. The received wisdom, among many common readers if not many aspiring writers, would then be that the short story is a kind of stepping-stone, or an apprenticeship on the road to the richer scope of the novel. Since “the short story is not a ‘full-length’ narrative it cannot narrate a full-length life: it can narrate a fragment or excerpt of a life. And if from that fragment one can deduce things about the whole life, then the more novel-like, the more complete, the story is” (Pratt 183).

7Munro, of course, is a rarity in that she has devoted her entire career to the art of the short story. In an interview with The Atlantic from 2001, she describes how she began writing under the widely held assumption that stories were just a form of practice for the supposedly more serious art of novel-writing. She describes how she had no intention of becoming strictly a writer of stories. As she tells it:

I was going to write a novel. And still! I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up. I look at what I really want to do with the material, and it never turns out to be a novel. But when I was younger, it was simply a matter of expediency. I had small children, I didn't have any help [...]. So I wrote in bits and pieces with a limited time expectation. Perhaps I got used to thinking of my material in terms of things that worked that way. And then when I got a little more time, I started writing these odder stories, which branch out a lot. But I still didn't write a novel, in spite of good intentions (“Bringing Life to Life” n. pag., emphasis mine).

8And even more recently, Munro has playfully engaged this hierarchical relationship between the two forms in a story entitled “Fiction,” from her 2009 collection, Too Much Happiness. In this story, we see its heroine, notably or not named Joyce, receive a veritable lesson in how to read a later short story by Alice Munro‑one of these odder stories she describes in the interview, the ones which “branch out a lot.” Settling down to read a recently published book by a young woman whom she feels as if she has vaguely known before, Joyce is at first dismayed to find that the work is a collection of stories rather than a novel:

How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside (Too Much Happiness 52).

9Munro’s trick, of course, is that Joyce’s reading will provide her with a far more complex lesson in the mysteries of living than her assumptions about stories had led her to believe, as even just one story in the collection leads Joyce along a winding and circuitous path through her own past and her unintended effects on the lives of others.

10This way in which the later stories by Munro can become so much more than the mere flash of insight inherited from Joyce’s template, as they illuminate not simply a moment in time but the buried build-up to that moment as well as its often unintended and unforeseen consequences, is what has led many of her critics and reviewers to rest on the commonplace of accounting for their complexity by referring to them as “novelistic.” Her stories typically will radiate out from the Joycean kernel of a central event or flash of insight in order to show that no action is singular but that everything is tangled and multiplied the more closely one follows its trails.

11Munro herself describes just such an approach to the story form in a short essay first published as the introduction to her selected works in 1996, just as her stories were beginning to leave behind the Joycean legacy of condensation and gain in structural complexity. In that essay, Munro writes that for her, both as a reader and as a writer:

A story is not like a road to follow, I said, it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time (Selected Stories xvi-xvii, emphasis mine).

12And it is this going back to which Munro refers, again and again, each time seeing more than the house gave you before that still marks her stories generically as stories. They may have offered far more of life than any other story is typically able to do, with more movement through time, more characters and events than the form is equipped to hold. But their orientation is still toward their ending, some disruptive instant of shock or unexpected moment of transformation that makes all the complex stuff of life preceding it look differently. In the words of one reviewer, even the longest Munro story still ends with the kind of jolt you feel when you look in a car’s rearview mirror and “realize the landscape you’ve just driven through is not at all what you thought it was.” (qtd. in May 173). Her stories may not be linear and direct roads, leading straightforwardly to some destination, but the very fact that she figures them as houses which almost demand to be revisited is indicative of the fact that the ending is still crucial in Munro’s world, even if it is only a sudden shift in perception which serves to send her readers back to the beginning.

13This teleological sense of an ending, the way in which, much like in detective fiction, the journeys of short stories only matter insofar as they build to their climax, has been identified by many critics of short fiction as one the most characteristic traits of the form. While we are invited to become lost in the accumulating details of a novelistic world, short stories are typically structured such that their details only matter insofar as they build up to a culminating and condensed conclusion. As one of the form’s major critics, John C. Gerlach, has put it, “the short story is that genre in which anticipation of the ending is always present” (Toward the End 160). And at least since Joyce, this ending will more often than not be a moment of epiphanic illumination.

3. Munro’s Challenge to the Epiphany’s Promise

14From her earliest collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) to her most recent work, Munro’s stories most often will maintain the traditional epiphanic mode and teleological structure of the modern short story, but her emphasis on hindsight and on learning how to see differently has the uncanny result of draining the arrived-at epiphany of its expected content and illuminating force. Her epiphanic endings, that is, do not provide the solace of insight, sudden clarity, or psychological transformation that their inherited structure would seem to promise. What her stories consistently suggest‑and what marks their radical disruption of the Joycean legacy‑is that epiphanies, while they have a unique force for illuminating and capturing character, do not always lead to the penetrating or concrete truths that their teleological emphasis on closure would suggest. Instead, sadly, mysteriously, and sometimes even comically, they end up showing her characters just how little they know, about themselves and about the lives of others, after all. Life, her work intuits, does not work according to the laws of fiction.

15Thus Munro’s stories demonstrate their structural affinity with the tradition of the form, climaxing toward their structurally necessary endings, though they prove to be endings that almost ruthlessly prevent any kind of closure. They only end up sending their characters back into the now alien seeming rooms of their story’s house, as if the furniture has been rearranged when their backs were turned, or the one stable element they had always relied on to consider the house their home is now nowhere to be found. Munro’s stories reach for closure because of its inherent promise to explain and to clarify the fragment of life presented, while at the same time they consistently resist that closure’s ability to truly end or explain, as if to suggest that the life displayed remains a mystery despite all of our best efforts‑an impenetrable mystery to the writer, to her readers, and ultimately to the characters themselves. This double-bind of Munro’s art has been eloquently noted by one of her recent critics:

This long-standing feature of Munro’s work of resisting closure seems to be related to her own deepest feelings about the enterprise of writing itself: on the one hand it is endlessly valuable to try to get it all down, to make connections, to attend to messages; on the other hand, the patterns may be wrong, the connections mistaken, and the attempt itself a sort of betrayal (Ross 811)

  • 4 In addition to the quoted essay by Ross, see also John C. Gerlach’s remarkable essay from 2007. Bot (...)

16While this resistance to closure is seen by many critics and reviewers as the hallmark of Munro’s more recent fiction,4 I want to argue that she is already disrupting the conventions of the modern short story from the very start, even in her works which seem most conventional according to the template created by James Joyce. And indeed, Munro’s early stories almost unanimously follow Joyce’s model. In the rather dismissive words of one critic, the stories from her first collection of 1968 until at least the mid-1980s betray her as just another “epiphany monger,” as one story after another “builds to sentences where the awful sadness of everything suddenly becomes clear” (Lorentzen, n. pag.). These are, put simply, stories in which a fragment of life is depicted, however briefly, each one building to an epiphanic crescendo in which its life’s contours and limits are illuminated by a brilliant and crystalline moment. They are works of moral and psychological revelation, rather than novelistic evolution.

17However, in Lives of Girls and Women, her vital volume from 1971, Munro uses that template and dismantles it at the same time, precisely by allowing her characters to migrate from one story to the next. This work, which Munro herself has called in an interview “a kind of novel,” but “in sections, like stories” (“Bringing Life to Life” n. pag.), offers an essential example of her disruptive narrative strategy, as we follow the character of Del Jordan from her early childhood during the Depression in a small town in rural Ontario, through the stirrings of adolescence, until gradually and dimly awakening to her vocation as a writer. Much like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a seemingly obvious influence about which however Munro has remained reticent, the work may be read as a kind of Bildungsroman, or even more specifically as that distinctively modernist form of the Künstlerroman. The key difference, though, is that Del’s progression toward artistic self-understanding is presented not as a seamless path from blindness to insight, but as a unique set of isolated incidents.

4. Between Story and Novel: Why Munro’s Characters Migrate

18Detached scenes from a life rather than organically linked stages of a journey, the stories have an almost disorienting effect on their reader as they accumulate. Structured as a story, each piece consequently ends with a moment of insight. As we have seen, it is the gesture toward closure‑a closure which more often than not serves as some kind of moment of epiphany‑which largely defines just what it is that short stories are and do. However, in Munro’s hands, we are given the unexpected ability to see how the character survives her own sudden flash of epiphanic illumination. We see Del’s life continue beyond each of its revelatory illuminations. We think we have been given an entire life compressed into a bursting flash of insight, only to have our generic expectations undone as we find that there proves to be more to that life than any one insight could have contained. The shock and the disturbance of this method is its implication that maybe a single story is never enough‑an implication which may be borne out by Munro’s later turn toward increased narrative complexity. The pleasure, however, is that we are allowed the unique benefit of seeing, in Del’s migration, just what she does with these mysterious and transformative epiphanies which have defined her life for us as a character created according to the logic of the story rather than that of a novel. We see how these awakenings are incorporated into the evolution of Del’s life, and how the character we thought we knew, seemingly revealed to us in her entirety by the illuminating powers of the short story form she inhabits, goes on to adapt her life to the epiphanies reached. What was closure explicitly becomes rearticulated as beginning.

19Perhaps none of Del’s epiphanies are stronger than her first one, concluding the volume’s opening story “The Flats Road,” named for the destitute edge of town in which the young girl’s family lives their economically precarious existence. The story is dominated by their even more down-on-his-luck neighbor, affectionately referred to as Uncle Benny, as Del relates the hardships which have come to define his life, culminating in his failed attempt to track down his ill-matched and deceitful young wife in Toronto. As Benny completes his quietly tragic story, Del gradually comes to realize:

So lying aside our world was Uncle Benny’s world like a troubling distorted reflection, the same but never at all the same. In that world people could go down in quicksand, be vanquished by ghosts or terrible ordinary cities; luck and wickedness were gigantic and unpredictable; nothing was deserved, anything might happen; defeats were met with crazy satisfaction. It was his triumph, that he couldn’t know about, to make us see (Lives 30-31).

20This passage alone, with its poetically elegant ascension to some previously unknown and hardly describable truth about the impenetrable mysteries of human lives, marks the story as belonging firmly to the epiphanic tradition inaugurated by Joyce. Much like Gabriel Conroy at the ending of “The Dead,” Del seems to be learning for the first time just what it is to see the world through the eyes of another. If Del’s narrative life ended with this conclusion, then perhaps the criticism against Munro’s early work as mere “epiphany-mongering” would be validated. The insight gained by Del, through the illumination of her Uncle Benny’s tragic plight, is powerful indeed, as she gains a glimpse of how unlucky life can be and how easily it can sink into quiet tragedy. But such an epiphany, despite its power, is one that can be found in dozens of canonical twentieth-century short stories, from John Cheever to John O’Hara to Raymond Carver.

21The disruptive newness of Munro’s work, though, is that Del is shown to survive this insight and outlive the generically established shape of her story. In the volume’s next piece, “Heirs of the Living Body,” we once again meet Del at some unspecified later time in her childhood. This story largely narrates the life and death of a distant relative, Uncle Craig. He is an amateur historian of the family’s small pocket of rural Ontario, for whom “it was daily life that mattered,” and whose notes contained “a great accumulation of the most ordinary facts, which it was his business to get in order” (Lives 37). Thus, if the preceding lesson provided by Uncle Benny had been Del’s awakening to the precariousness of the lives of others‑the mysteries and tragedies contained even within the seemingly most ordinary of people‑then Uncle Craig’s fidelity to the small and everyday ought to serve as a perfect opportunity for Del to see that epiphany in action, and to put it to use. The sudden flash of what Uncle Benny made her see‑about the lives of others, about the small turns of fate‑ought to have made her particularly sensitive to her Uncle Craig’s task.

22By story’s end, though, Uncle Craig has died and his sisters have passed on to Del his massive and tangled history of ordinary life. When Del brings the ungainly manuscript home, her initial impulse is to hide it under her bed, without telling her parents that she has received it. She soon decides against this hiding place, as it is also the spot reserved for her own youthful attempts at composing fictions: “I didn’t want Uncle Craig’s manuscript put back with the things I had written. It seemed so dead to me, so heavy and dull and useless, that I thought it might deaden my things too and bring me bad luck. I took it down to the cellar and left it in a cardboard box” (Lives 70). The story then jumps many years later, during the final year Del lives in her small town of Jubilee, and the cellar ends up flooded, her uncle’s manuscript destroyed, “just a big wad of soaking paper” (Lives 71). And the story’s final lines narrate Del’s reflections on her aunts, Craig’s sisters, who held the historical work of their county in such high esteem and who had made such a ceremony of placing the legacy in Del’s hands: “I thought of them watching the manuscript leave their house in its padlocked box and I felt remorse, that kind of tender remorse which has on its other side a brutal, unblemished satisfaction” (Lives 71).

23This again is a perfectly revelatory epiphany on its own, illuminating a young girl’s brash dismissal of a banal and uninteresting past as it was lived in favor of her own newly discovered artistic powers. The story satisfies all of the criteria outlined above for defining the shape and the structure of the modern short story‑the slice-of-life portrait of an individual’s experience within a limited period of time, building up toward the concluding gesture of the epiphany which encapsulates and crystallizes everything about the story’s subject we ought to know. However, the disruption of generic conventions lies in the fact that we have seen Del in precisely the same structural situation, her life and her sensibilities frozen and captured for us in the preceding story’s epiphanic conclusion. What would otherwise be just another short story of insight, if an ironic instance of the form‑a method used by Joyce himself in many of the crueler portraits in Dubliners, as a life remains misunderstood by its own subject, while clearly illuminated for its readers‑becomes something so much richer and stranger. We could almost laugh at the youthful brashness with which Del feels her brutal satisfaction in letting go of all this tangled history of other people’s lives, but at the same time we remember the sensitivity with which she had seemed to incorporate Uncle Benny’s lesson, understanding that daily life can so easily be a thing that traps and destroys. The ease with which she refers to her uncle’s history as a dead thing is created by the present epiphany, but its true import escapes us unless we consider this in light of the epiphany which has come before. An ironic portrait of youthful pride becomes so much more than that, becomes a willful turning away from a previously learned lesson about the precarious lives of others‑a lesson, perhaps, too uncomfortable to bear.

5. “What I wanted was every last thing”: No Epiphany Is Ever Enough

24This structural relationship between epiphanies within the logic of Munro’s migrating characters continues throughout the work‑as one seemingly self-contained flash of insight is undone or complicated by the similarly unitary-seeming one which follows. What emerges is a sense of the productivity and power of these epiphanies, in their ability to capture a character in a moment of time and to reveal some essential truth about her life. At the same time, however, no one epiphany is ever enough, and no single one can capture the entire truth about that character. This idea of epiphany’s promise and its limits is perhaps most forcefully articulated in the volume’s fourth story, “Age of Faith,” in which the young Del flirts with the hope offered by traditional religion. Raised in a relatively faithless household, she begins to crave the truths granted by diving revelation, hoping that somehow this would make life’s dark and ambiguous messiness coalesce into something meaningful and sensible. She suspects that

[i]f God could be discovered, or recalled, everything would be safe. Then you would see things that I saw—just the dull grain of wood in the floor, the windows of plain glass filled with thin branches and snowy sky—and the strange, anxious pain that just seeing things could create would be gone. It seemed plain to me that this was the only way the world could be borne, the only way it could be borne—if all those atoms, galaxies of atoms, were safe all the time, whirling away in God’s mind. How could people rest, how could they even go on breathing and existing, until they were sure of this? They did go on, so they must be sure (Lives 111, Munro’s emphasis).

25The poverty of this world, the tangled mess of all this living, must be transformed into something that makes sense, and Del hopes that one glimpse into the divine is enough to make this happen. This, of course, is also the hope of the modern epiphanic short story, transposed from the theological concepts of manifestation and revelation as it is‑that life can be arrested in a single glance and turned into something everlasting, meaningful, and true.

26This hope becomes challenged and ultimately undone at story’s end, when Del’s father is forced to kill their family dog, and her younger brother Owen asks her how to pray so that he can prevent this terrible deed from taking place. Facing her real world’s brute and ugly truth, and the possibility of the single divine flash to alter it, let alone make it sensible and bearable, Del is forced to recognize just how untenable this situation is, seeing “with dismay the unavoidable collision coming, of religion and life” (Lives 127). She knows that praying will not keep their dog alive and she knows that this is a slice of life that is just not going to make sense, but despite her admonition her brother gets down on his knees to wish for it all to stop. Ironically, while watching her brother’s attempt at prayer, Del has an epiphany of her own, a revelatory understanding of the very limits of epiphany:

With the making of his prayer his face went through several desperate, private grimaces, each of which seemed to me a reproach and an exposure, hard to look at as skinned flesh. Seeing somebody have faith, close up, is no easier than seeing someone chop a finger off. Do missionaries ever have these times, of astonishment and shame (Lives 128)

27No one moment, Del realizes, is ever going to contain within it enough revelation to make life sensible, while at the same time we cannot forget that this very realization is happening within the confines of just such an instantaneous flash.

6. Conclusion

28We need each of these epiphanic flashes, Munro is suggesting‑and this, ultimately is why she remains faithful to the short story form. Without them, life would just be that massive and impenetrable manuscript of Uncle Craig’s local history, a tangled mess of daily anecdotes and ordinary facts, none of which would have any precedence over another. Without the epiphanic mode bestowed to literary history by James Joyce, life would simply be duration and extension without the clarification and understanding that can come only when a moment is stopped in time and a character’s being is presented in a sudden flash. It is worth remembering here Joyce’s definition of the epiphany concept, as explained by Stephen Dedalus:

By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments (Stephen Hero 211).

29And the short story is the form uniquely equipped to present these epiphanies transformations of the everyday within the realm of literary language‑with the form’s compression of a life into an instant, with its narrative tendency toward revelation rather than evolution, and with its implicit stress on closure.

30However, with the astonishment and shame with which Del watches her younger brother praying, Munro makes us realize that one epiphany is never going to be enough. And this is the paradoxical conclusion Del reaches by the end of Lives and Girls and Women, as she has migrated from one epiphany to the next, abandoning and rejecting her insights just as soon as they are given. Having mostly spent her narrative ignoring and resisting that first illumination of life’s plight gleaned from Uncle Benny, Del in her late adolescence finally understands that none of these lives are to be pitied, ridiculed, or discarded. Even her artistic ambition, inventing and distorting and transforming the lives around her, is suddenly realized to be in error, as she quietly understands that all this world has to give is simply enough on its own terms. “People’s lives,” she suddenly sees, “were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable—deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum” (Lives 276). And so her world is not to be shunned, and certainly not to be played with by her literary strategies, but it is simply to be seen and thus maybe perhaps to be known, even if only a little: “What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting” (Lives 276).

31What Del ultimately articulates here is the power of Munro’s own art. It is an art which can collect all these details of the lives of girls and women, of uncles and brothers, and which can make them shine with the powers of the short story form. And it is also an art which can express the unsolvable mystery of these details only by letting its characters migrate beyond the confines of that form’s limits, as Munro invites us to understand that no epiphany can be everything, but that it is only one moment among many, one strand of the tangled complex that is the art of living. Stories may provide us with the blazing insight, but then we need another, and yet another. The short story is perhaps the greatest tool we have for revealing character, and yet at the same time it cannot contain character. Perhaps we need a new genre to begin to explain the immensity of our characters, to hold them still and hold them together, something very much like Munro’s radical art.

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Baxter, Charles. “Against Epiphanies.” Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1997. 41-62. Print.

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1 See Christine Lorre, “Juliet’s Migrations in Alice Munro’s Runaway (2004): Making Connections” in the present collection.

2 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is derived from the Greek for “a manifestation or appearance of some divine or superhuman being” (OED). Within the Christian Church, the word refers to the manifestation of Christ’s divinity on the twelfth day of the Christmas feast, and thus, as Morris Beja points out, “the word would therefore necessarily have been known to the young Joyce” (Beja 71), raised in the Catholic Church as he was. On the history of the epiphany concept as a transposition from the theological traditions of manifestation and revelation, as well as conversion, see Morris Beja, Epiphany in the Modern Novel, particularly Chapters Two (“The Tradition”) and Three (“James Joyce: The Bread of Everyday Life”).

3 While these two stories are certainly the most famous and widely anthologized of those in Dubliners, they also most clearly raise the question of just what the status of Joyce’s epiphany is. Clarity may be said to dawn on each of these two protagonists, while most of the others in the collection are denied any such self-understanding, instead remaining trapped in what Joyce referred to in a letter of July 1904 as “the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city” (Letters 55). Joyce’s most typical epiphanies, then, might be said to belong most properly to his stories’ readers rather than to their characters, becoming, as Zack Bowen has written, “shorthand notes to characterization” (Bowen 104) rather than revelations of truth understandable or even intelligible by their bearers. In her essay “Joyce’s Dubliners as Epiphanies,” Francesca Valente has closely explored this way in which Joyce’s “characters simply provide the material of the epiphany without ever understanding their own paralysis” (Valente n. pag.). For the purposes of the present essay, the structural legacy of the epiphanic mode remains the same, as “the central meaning of Joyce’s works is provided not so much by plot but by the revelation they suggest” (Valente n. pag.).

4 In addition to the quoted essay by Ross, see also John C. Gerlach’s remarkable essay from 2007. Both essays explore the title story from Munro’s 1998 volume, The Love of a Good Woman.

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Jacob HOVIND, « The Uses and the Limits of the Short Story: The Function of Character Migration in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women »E-rea [En ligne], 13.1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 13 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Towson University, Baltimore, Maryland
Jacob Hovind is Assistant Professor of English at Towson University, Baltimore, Maryland. His articles and reviews, covering figures as diverse as Erich Auerbach, Samuel Beckett, and Jacques Derrida, have appeared in Comparative Literature, Twentieth-Century Literature, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, and The French Review. He is currently completing his first book, Being Literary, which explores the rhetoric and ontology of literary character within the language of modernism.

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