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III/ Migrating within: Alice Munro

Juliet’s Migrations in Alice Munro’s Runaway: Making and Losing Connections



Cette lecture de la « trilogie de Juliette », écrite par Alice Munro et tirée du recueil Runaway (2004), propose une analyse dans laquelle cette séquence de trois nouvelles est perçue comme un texte qui simultanément établit et rejette des connections. Les migrations de Juliette, d’une période de sa vie à une autre, d’une région du Canada à une autre, d’une nouvelle à la suivante, génèrent en même temps une accumulation d’expérience qui appelle une interprétation, et un questionnement du sens à attribuer à cette expérience. Différentes stratégies conduisent à cet effet : l’interprétation (et la contre-interprétation) mythologique de la vie de Juliette ; le choix de la forme de la trilogie, par contraste en particulier avec la paire ; le fonctionnement de la trilogie comme tryptique pictural permettant la circulation et donc l’instabilité et la vivacité des sensations ; et le sens changeant des mots, qui véhiculent des émotions et des manières de ressentir. De ces différentes manières, Munro une fois encore évoque des émotions intenses, tout en laissant la narration ouverte à l’interprétation.

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  • 1 Robert Thacker refers to the Juliet stories as a tryptich in “Alice Munro: Critical Reception” (May (...)

1Alice Munro has used the strategy of following a character from one story to another in several of her books of collected short stories, in particular in Lives of Girls and Women (which is usually presented as a novel; 1971), Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) and, more recently, The View From Castle Rock (2006). Runaway (2004) also presents such a sequence, with a tighter group of three stories (out of a collection of eight) that follow the character of Juliet: “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence.” Structurally, this unique trilogy particularly suits the development of the three generations of girls and women that Munro follows–the first story focuses on Juliet, the protagonist; Sara, her mother, looms large in the second story; and Penelope, Juliet’s daughter, who was born in the second story, is the focus of the third story, although she never appears in it. This genealogy of women is set against the background of the 1960s sexual revolution, a period of profound change and rupture, as women’s liberation had an impact on religious practice, sexuality, marriage, family structure and relations, work and professional ambitions. The structure of the sequence enables Munro to underline generational differences within a matriarchal lineage. At the same time it establishes the possibility of a deeper pattern of repetitions and echoes over these generations, which the combined three stories set in perspective and give a certain resonance to. But these patterns of repetition and rupture are largely left for the reader to identify, rather than being expressed by the narrative voice: it is up to the reader to make several connections, through his/her interpretation of the text. The fact that these connections are suggested by the structure of the sequence rather than expressed by the narrator lays the emphasis on the hypothetical character of interpretation and its being subject to change–much like the lives of the characters followed by Munro are subject to change, not only depending on their age, but also the times they live in, and chance factors that are beyond their control. The dynamics of these connections will be first examined through the overarching structure of omens, parallels and resonances in the trilogy as a whole. The structure of the trilogy will then be compared and contrasted with a dyad from The Moons of Jupiter, “Chaddeleys and Flemings,” itself also a narrative sequence (of two units rather than three) conceptually based on the paradigm of connection (as the title of its first part indicates). The narrative form of the trilogy will further be compared with the pictorial form of the triptych,1 which offers analogous ways of establishing connections through circulation from one image to another. Last, the changing meaning of words conveying emotions will be examined in “Silence,” the third story of the trilogy, as an indicator of the characters’ migrating emotions.

1. The uncertainty of mythical hermeneutics: the overarching structure of omens, parallels and resonances in the trilogy

2In his characterisation of the short story sequence, Robert Luscher emphasises the role of patterns, and the crucial role of the reader in the identification of patterns. He defines the short story sequence as:

a volume of stories, collected and organized by their author, in which the reader successively realizes underlying patterns of coherence by continual modifications of his perceptions of pattern and scheme. […] The volume as a whole thus becomes an open book, inviting the reader to construct a network of associations that binds the stories together and lends them cumulative thematic impact. (Luscher 148-149)

  • 2 Ian Rae has argued that the Juliet stories reflect Munro’s interest in Anne Carson, a poet and a cl (...)
  • 3 All references to Runaway are followed by the corresponding page number, given in parentheses, in t (...)

3In the case of the Juliet stories, the protagonist of the trilogy also plays a role as interpreter, or reader of story – her own. A classics teacher by training, she is prone to interpreting important turns in her life through classical myths.2 In “Chance” for instance, the scene of Eric and Juliet reading the stars in the sky reveals their different viewpoints and methods of interpretation: he sees the stars as a man at sea does, reading the map of the sky for directions, while she associates the constellations to a collection of mythological characters; to Juliet, her new romance with Eric is comparable to Perseus delivering Andromeda chained to her rock. Further on in the story, when she is speculating on the future of her own and Christa’s relationship with Eric, she establishes other correspondences with mythological characters to guide her in her moral stance: “So if Christa turns out to be a rougher, more northerly version of Briseis/Chryseis [those playmates of Achilles and Agamemnon], will Juliet be able to start despising Eric as well?” (81)3 Juliet carries on establishing these parallels between her love life and the mythological characters and patterns she is so familiar with, giving her affair mythological dimensions, as if she were simultaneously writing the Homeric story anew, and performing yet another re-enactment of it.

4“Silence,” the third story of the trilogy, starts in 1989, and focuses on Penelope, Juliet’s daughter, now twenty years old, whom Juliet is on her way to visiting at the Spiritual Balance Centre, on an island off the west coast. Juliet is shocked when the head of the centre announces to her that Penelope does not want to see her, not yet. Five years later Juliet still has not heard from Penelope, although a former school friend of hers saw her in Edmonton and found out she lived up north and had five children. Juliet is ageing and lives increasingly humbly, resuming her classics studies, and hoping “for a word from Penelope” (158), a word that would break her unbearable silence. Juliet is dumbfounded at what could possibly have happened, and how her relationship with Penelope could possibly be so completely altered. She says to Christa: “I feel stupid. […] Like the character who blurts out something in a play and everybody turns away because they all know something she doesn’t know—” (134). She thus feels caught in a tragic situation of dramatic irony, in an echo to the understatement made by Eric when they first met: “Things will happen in your life” (68). Her sense of observation and her power of interpretation seem to have abandoned her and she is at a loss.

5However, when she goes back to studying the classics and becomes friends with Gary, a Greek teacher, Juliet finds solace in imagining with him a musical, a fantasy based on Aethiopica, “a romance written by Heliodorus,” a Greek writer (151), and which tells the story of the queen of Ethiopia and Charicleia, the daughter she had to give away and then badly wants to find again, which she does, but then the girl is sacrificed by her own father. Juliet imagines another ending to the story, which involves “reconciliation, at last, with the erring, repentant, essentially great-hearted queen of Ethiopia” (152). This story-within-the-story, again based on classics, is the myth Juliet chooses to interpret her story with her daughter; it leaves the door open to the possibility of reconciliation, as the ending of that story has not been written yet. The role of myth in this final story is to give meaning to and make sense of a fate that, as a mother, is hard to accept. Through myth Juliet can attribute some significance to events in a way that transcends her instinctive feelings. It is also a manner for her to reassert some power of interpretation, even though she has no power of influence over the course of her life and her relationship with Penelope. Interpretation can thus be empowering, for as Gilles Deleuze has pointed out in Critique et clinique, it is based on the principle of analogy, or equivocation, that establishes links between a given and something not given, and that tends to expand understanding and will: a dog, as a given, is a barking animal; by analogy, it becomes a constellation in the sky (Deleuze Critique 174).

6However, the myths chosen by Juliet to interpret her own story gradually lose their power of analogy for the reader, and eventually appear as possible smokescreens, if not signs of Juliet’s delusion, or diminishing insight. The myth that seems most relevant to the interpretation of her story, particularly as it unfolds in “Silence,” is that of Demeter and Persephone; though unspoken, it imposes itself as a key interpretative paradigm. For five years, Juliet refuses to shift because she expects her daughter to come back in June, the month of her birthday, as if some sort of rebirth were to happen. The tension between renewal and repetition which underlies the plot turns out to be a major characteristic, not only in the seasonal hope that Juliet has of her daughter coming back, but also between generations, as a repetition of Juliet’s relationship with her own mother, since Juliet fell out with her parents.

7When Juliet visits her parents in “Soon,” her mother is sick and finds comfort partly in religion through a minister friend called Don. One of Don’s visits leads to a confrontation with Juliet about the fact that her daughter is not baptised or brought up in any religion, while Juliet herself is not married to Eric. Juliet has several other irritating occasions to be confronted with the small-place mentality of her parents’ village. The story ends with Juliet, years later, looking back at this last visit to her mother before her death, and reflecting on her refusal to indulge her mother a little and to give her the comfort of a promise to see her again soon, remembering how, instead, she had “turned away” (125), like Persephone having to walk away from Demeter. The ending introduces a temporal shift with the letter that Juliet wrote at the time of her last visit to her mother, and that she finds again years later. The lightness of that letter contrasts with the pain of Juliet’s later memories of that period, and acts as a bridge, a transition to the last story, in which it is Juliet’s turn to be cast in the role of the mother in need of love. The near homophony between Penelope and Persephone suggests an error, on Juliet’s part, in the casting of character she wished for her daughter: instead of a woman representing fidelity, Penelope turns out to be the daughter carried off to some underworld and whose mother is separated from her. The short story sequence produces a number of effects and serves to establish a complex network of links among the three characters of the matrilineal genealogy–Juliet, Sara, and Penelope–based on a mythical system of interpretation which the reader can either validate, or replace or complement with others. A comparable openness of interpretation is found in the ternary structure of the narrative.

2. The open short story sequence: a comparison of trilogy and dyad

8The trilogy structure is particularly suitable to Munro’s topic, the female matrilineal filiation over three generations, yet the form simultaneously enables her to emphasise the independence of the destiny of each character. This point will be made through a comparison between the trilogy with Munro’s dyad, “Chaddeleys and Flemings,” in The Moons of Jupiter (1981), which itself serves to simultaneously bring together and contrast the two sides of the narrator’s family, her double heritage, her relation to it, ending up on the synthesis she embodies as a person.

9In “Chaddeleys and Flemings” the narrator recalls occasions when she became acquainted with relatives on her mother’s side, and on her father’s side. In “1. Connection,” she remembers her mother’s cousins visit for a holiday once when she was a child: Iris, Isabel, Flora, and Winifred – all “maiden ladies” (1). The adult narrator later reflects on both the oddity of the cousins, but also on kinship: “Connection. That was what it was all about. The cousins were a show in themselves, but they also provided a connection” (Munro Moons 6). The grandfather, Joseph Ellington Chaddeley, had come from England. Although he is remembered as a snob who might have been related to William the Conqueror, he also acts as a source of shared family lore, as an agent of connection to “certain families in England, […] to England and history” (6, 7), a feature that distinguishes the family from the numerous descendants of Scotch-Irish in Huron County. Family stories abound, and the cousins relish them: “They spoke ironically, but the possession of such a grandfather continued to delight them” (9). Years later, after the narrator has married and moved to Vancouver, she is slightly embarrassed by her cousin Iris’s visit, especially in relation to her husband, who hopes his wife will be “amputated from that past” linked to her background (13). Altogether, the story evokes the magic the mother’s cousins brought into the child narrator’s life, the possibility for transformation that their personalities suggested, the Edenic character of the England of their shared ancestry–“all fresh and rural, ceremonious, civilized, eternally desirable” (10), and the complex process of claiming and disowning family connections at various times of one’s life, as one grows up and ages.

10“2. The Stone in the Field” explores the father’s side of the family, and a different facet of the mother also, as an enterprising dealer in antique furniture. The narrator remembers a family drive to visit her father’s six surviving sisters who lived out in the country: Susan, Clara, Lizzie, Maggie, Annie, Dorothy. The sisters live an austere Presbyterian life in which hard work is synonymous with virtue. Religion seems to weigh over the landscape where the aunts live, which is dominated by Mount Hebron, a biblical location transposed to rural Ontario: on the way to their place, the narrator thinks “These high, thick bushes, dense and thorny, with leaves of a shiny green that seemed almost black, reminded me of the waves of the sea that were pushed back by Moses” (23). The aunts are extremely shy, uncomfortable with “the pain of human contact” (27). None of them has married or ever left the farm. They deeply resent change and cannot “imagin[e] themselves otherwise” than how they are (29). They are so otherworldly and “belong […] in another generation” (22) that the narrator cannot imagine being related to them. Yet, there were a couple of occasions when she connected with two of her aunts (or maybe it was the same one) as a child, in a brief moment of complicity against adults and a shared game of imagination. And as an adult, she knows she takes after them physically. Between the two stories, some connections are established and then undone, reflecting the fluctuations that happen in the way one relates to others, especially to relatives, over time.

11When the narrator’s father is in hospital, towards the end of his life, he tells her about a man named Mr. Black who might have been enamoured with Susan, one of the sisters, and who was buried on the family land, under the stone in the field of the story title. After her father’s death, the narrator finds out more about the stone, as she is doing some research “in connection with a documentary script I was working on” (32, italics added). She tries to find the stone, in vain, and ends up reflecting on the story of her aunt Susan and Mr. Black, on their possible story and its potential:

If I had been younger, I would have figured out a story. […] I would have made a horrible, plausible connection between that silence of his, and the manner of his death. Now I no longer believe that people’s secrets are defined and communicable, or their feelings full-blown and easy to recognize. (Moons 35)

12Another side of the adult narrator is shown here, as television scriptwriter and probably (short) story writer, who does research in local history and uses her imagination to recreate the past. This is quite a different facet of her from the one introduced at the end of the first part of “Chaddeleys and Flemings” as young wife and housewife embarrassed in front of her husband by the visit of an awkward, aging relative. Here she still thinks in terms of connections, but literary, imagined ones, not literal family connections which can be embarrassing. And above all, she comes to the conclusion that making connections may not be possible, as people’s lives cannot be explained away. She also rejects what could be nostalgia or fetishism (by way of the stone in the field) about the past, observing that things have changed, and the past is no paradise to grieve for – “the life buried here is one you have to think twice about regretting” (35). She thus performs a clear break with a sentimental approach to the past, opting instead for a factual, descriptive approach. “Chaddeleys and Flemings” thus presents the two sides of the narrator’s family, and also points at what may be her inheritance as a writer and story teller: from her mother’s side comes a taste for exuberance and tall-tales, and from her father’s, a certain clear-sightedness about people’s lives.

13In the Juliet stories, the focus is on three generations of women, as opposed to the encounter of two genealogical lines, but similarly to “Chaddeleys and Flemings,” the juxtaposition of narratives in the sequence “invit[es] the reader to construct a network of associations that binds the stories together and lends them cumulative thematic impact,” to quote Luscher again. In this process of interpretation and construction, religion emerges as a central theme: Juliet turns her back on her mother during her last visit partly because of Sara’s minister, and things are tense with her father largely due to the small-town, moralistic mentality that he plays along with. Religion and moral judgment are never very far. Conversely, Penelope refuses to see her mother after her stay at the spiritual centre, which sets Juliet on a train of thoughts to do with the way she brought up her daughter, and the absence of religious faith or ritual in their life, particularly when Eric, Penelope’s father, died. Presumably, Penelope is rebelling against her mother’s outlook on religion. Although constantly pushed aside by the narrator, religion is thus central to the generational discords that take place. In “Chaddeleys and Flemings,” it is also central to the narrator’s sense of alienation from her aunts. And in Munro’s fiction as a whole, it is a recurrent theme that feeds her investigations into generation gaps, community life, and individuals claiming their freedom by breaking off with religion. Because of both the underlying religious motif and the trilogy structure of the narrative, it is fruitful to bring together Munro’s sequence and the pictorial form of the triptych.

3. Circulating sensations: a comparison of narrative trilogy and pictorial triptych

  • 4 For an in-depth analysis of the role of Chagall’s painting in “Soon,” see Ventura.

14Comparing the trilogy sequence with the pictorial forms of the triptych is a way to explore further the use of form by Munro, in its relation to iconography. Visual art occupies centre stage in “Soon” with Chagall’s painting, I and the Village, which acts as an iconic work for Juliet, the young mother of thirteen-month-old Penelope, in her relationship with her parents, and as a key symbol of her position for the reader. Juliet finds that the print of I and the Village which she had given to her parents for Christmas, a colourful, lively, imaginative depiction of the painter’s ties to his village, has been removed from the wall so as not to disturb Irene, the house help, who might have found it too modern. Chagall’s painting is a synthesis of modernism and tradition in the way it depicts the artist’s links to his Jewish heritage in avant-garde forms, as a dreamlike scene.4 Irene is a traditional woman whose experience of reality contrasts with Chagall’s picture; she works hard and, as Sam, Juliet’s father tells her, has encountered a series of hardships in life. Praising Irene and her reliability, Sam declares: “She restored my faith in women” (113). Juliet is exasperated by her father’s traditional view of women, by his suggesting that the capacity to endure is a sign of virtue, by the way he wishes to please those who are socially inferior to him – in other words, by his lack of independence of judgment. All this is epitomised in the disappearance of the painting from the wall, which Juliet takes badly.

15“Soon” thus reads as the enactment of a quarrel between social and moral conformity and individual freedom. By contrast with “Chance,” which is set on the West coast, in “Soon,” Juliet is back in a milieu that does not have much tolerance for a young woman’s romantic dream of free love. Discussions all end up in the restricting register of religious doctrine and moral conformism. At first there seems to be acceptance of Juliet’s style: she wears a black mini-dress and her father sees her as “an absolute hippy” (90). But she realises that her being an unmarried mother is a source of disapproval in the village; her father has left his position as a teacher and now sells vegetables, and she finds out that his departure was linked to an argument he had after “there were things said” about Juliet’s situation (104).

  • 5 Diptychs, like triptychs, which are usually more imposing in size, appeared in 15th century norther (...)

16Beyond the thematic reference to Chagall’s painting, the trilogy presents another link to pictorial art, to the extent that it can be read as a triple painting, or triptych, that is to say, in a broad sense, “a set of three thematically connected paintings etc. hung together” (Oxford Shorter English Dictionary). The three portraits of Juliet, Sara and Penelope can easily be assimilated with three such pictures. Conversely, the triptych has a similar function to that of an open book, as described by Luscher earlier on, and even more so the diptych, which is made of two panels the same size that can literally be opened and closed like a book.5 Without forcing comparisons between texts and pictures and running the risk of subjectivity or arbitrariness of interpretation (Louvel 15-32), it is worth pushing the connection further and considering more specifically the original function of the triptych in the context of this analysis, that is to say “a picture, relief carving, or set of such on three panels, usu. hinged vertically so as to allow the sides to fold over the central panel and freq. used as an altarpiece” (Oxford Shorter English Dictionary). Indeed, the religious origins of the triptych resonate with the questions at the core of the Juliet trilogy: what kind of relationship does she have to “the village,” to her family, that is to say essentially her parents, her partner, and her daughter, as daughter, lover and mother? And what part does religion (or the absence thereof) play in these relations?

  • 6 For instance, Hans Hemling’s Diptych of Jan du Cellier depicts the Virgin on the left panel, and th (...)
  • 7 The left and right panels of the work depict scenes from the Garden of Eden, when Eve is presented (...)
  • 8 “Le triptyque […] est bien une manière de dépasser la peinture de ‘chevalet’ ; les trois tableaux r (...)

17On the interior panels of 15th century diptychs and triptychs, the subject matter is often a combination of religious and secular portraits, with a portrait of the donor, merchants and bankers, as well as nobles and clerics, facing a religious scene of his choice, often the Virgin and Child (Prayers and Portraits).6 These works present a unifying vision of the spiritual and worldly life. But triptychs in that period could be more ambiguous, as seen in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (painted between 1450 and 1516), which provides an enigmatic view of religion and human life.7 In modern art, the triptych form has evolved into a reflexive structure that triggers impressions and sensations. Claude Monet’s water lily paintings in the last decades of his life testify to the contemplative possibilities found in a lay use of the form, with the sequence aiming here at capturing light, colour and beauty, emphasising the slow passing of time, and conveying a sense of eternity. Francis Bacon’s triptychs have been analysed by Gilles Deleuze as paintings that function according to a logic of sensation: there is a link among the separate parts of the triptych, but this link is neither merely logical nor narrative. The triptych does not imply a progression, it does not tell a story. Traditionally, with its three opening panels, it is a mobile painting, akin to furniture (Deleuze Logique 68), and the same mobility is found in the way the viewer relates to the paintings. The triptych, with its roots in religious art, has thus evolved and adapted itself to modern times to lend itself to new forms of ontological meditation. Deleuze concludes that the triptych is a way to go beyond easel painting, as the three paintings remain separated, but are no longer isolated, and the frame or the edges of a painting defines not the limiting unity of each, but the distributive unity of the three (Logique 81).8

18Munro’s use of the trilogy, when seen in analogy with a triptych, can be read as a modern use of the form, which serves to expose the antagonistic views of religion of characters who nonetheless remain connected through family ties. There is apparently not much in common between Juliet’s atheist position as a 1960s youth in “Chance,” Sara’s parochial but comforting religious practice in “Soon,” and Penelope’s spiritual experience in “Silence.” Yet despite their diverging worldviews, the related characters are bound to interact, especially Juliet, the central link in the filiation. Her experience as a middle-aged mother forces her to wonder about the impact of her views on religion, to question the choices she made as a young mother and her own attitude towards her mother when Sara was dying. The paradoxical effect of the trilogy in its triptych form is that it simultaneously opens up the perspective of a single narrative voice, with its triple viewpoint, and retains an intimate dimension, being encased within the limits of the story sequence. Further, to paraphrase Deleuze and extend the analogy between trilogy and triptych, we can say that the three stories remain separate, but are not isolated, as their narrative independence does not turn them into units, but distributes a form of unity to all three. Family ties are thus maintained, while the singularity of each individual is reasserted.

19The dyad in “Chaddeleys and Flemings” also presents parallels with the form of the diptych in the way it juxtaposes religion (the aunts) and a lay scene (the cousins), in the same way a diptych links up religious scenes and social life. But the contrast between the mother’s and the father’s relatives, the merry cousins and the dour aunts, the clownish, dramatising approach to existence and the traditional Presbyterian lifestyle inherited from another era, is further offset by two facets of the mother that are captured in the two stories: first that of the dedicated housewife who frosts the rims of glasses with egg white and sugar for her guests, then that of the entrepreneurial antique dealer whose vision of life is “all in terms of change and possibility” (29). Lorna Irvine has pointed out

the importance of change in [Munro’s] fiction, whether it be represented by specific physical or social transformations, by the fluidity of the narrative boundaries, or by the aesthetic movement between secrecy and revelation. Indeed, perhaps changing is the only word that can be used to describe adequately women’s […] position in contemporary cultures. (Irvine 110)

  • 9 “Nous pouvons donc résumer ces lois du triptyque, qui fondent sa nécessité comme coexistence de tro (...)
  • 10 Héliane Ventura uses the related Deleuzian concept of “chaosmos” coined by Joyce and taken up by De (...)

20The trilogy form, the triptych made up of three portraits, enables Munro to emphasise change, conceived of as a form of migration in one’s own life, in time and space. The notion of time as rhythm is important here: Deleuze identifies a triptych as a series of three different rhythmical Figures, one of the rhythms acting as a witness that circulates between the three panels (Logique 79-80).9 In Munro’s trilogy, Juliet acts as such a witness: although she is the main link from one story to the next, the trajectory of her life does not act as a smooth arc that links the stories, because of the rupture with her daughter, which she has trouble explaining, or accepting. So she is a circulating witness, an observer of her life and of the lives of others, over times of change. Similarly, her rhythm evolves from an active to a passive one, as she increasingly withdraws from commitment and interaction with others.10 The changes that thus occur in Juliet’s life are reflected in the change of words used to refer to the people one interacts with, that is to say objects of affect, particularly in “Silence.”

4. The circulating meaning of words in “Silence”

21When confronted with Penelope’s refusal to see her, Juliet tries to be rational and come up with reasons why her daughter left. This questioning of motives and emotions leads Juliet to a more general questioning of herself, of her values, of what she may have done right or wrong. It also leads to a reflection on the meaning of words, especially words to do with relationships that seem to have changed in profound ways over time, as if relations had to be redefined. Juliet thus seems to be part of Juliet’s emotions as expressed through words, hers or other people’s, will be analysed through specific examples.

  • 11 On silence in the short story “Silence” more specifically, see also Bigot’s article, also entitled (...)

22Juliet has an ambivalent relation to Christa: “Christa had been for a long time her close friend, but she had been, before that, Eric’s girlfriend, his mistress (though nobody said that anymore)” (138). The preferred term “girlfriend,” which is used instinctively by Juliet, does not convey the moral judgment on a sexual relationship outside marriage that the word “mistress” suggests. “Mistress” is in italics here to indicate the presence of a different voice from that of the narrator (Bigot Silences 62-63), the voice of a community that morally condemns such a situation.11 The interpolated comment between parentheses, however – “(though nobody said that anymore)” – indicates that times have changed and such relations, within or outside marriage, have become more common, so they have stopped being scandalous and the word has fallen out of use. By contrast, when Eric describes his subsequent relation with Christa, while Juliet was away visiting her parents with Penelope as a baby, as “a few rolls in the hay with an old girlfriend (Eric’s disastrous description, his ill-judged attempt to minimize things)” (139), his bucolic vision of an insignificant, ephemeral affair clashes with Juliet’s view of it as the unfaithfulness of her partner and father of her child, and this is rendered in the sharp parenthetical comment in the narratorial voice.

23After Penelope’s disappearance, Juliet stays in her home for five years, hoping her daughter will come back. When she leaves for a basement apartment and brings various changes to her life, she also “had a boyfriend—that was what you called them now—who had never heard anything about her daughter” (150). No italics here, as this is Juliet’s voice using the term boyfriend, but the interpolated comment between dashes indicates collective consensus on the appellation, signalling a levelling between what Juliet and other people now expect from such a relationship. The “boyfriend” is never named and is only briefly mentioned, as if he is not expected to mean much in Juliet’s life and was there as a default figure for a more serious partner, as if he was meant to be only a transient companion from the start.

24In the same period Juliet is also friends with a man called Gary: “He was what used to be called an old-fashioned bachelor, asexual as far as she could tell (but probably she could not tell far enough)” (153). By the mid-1990s, when this scene takes place, it would probably be considered demeaning to call anyone a bachelor, or an old-fashioned bachelor, so the phrase has gone out of vogue, but Juliet uses it, with oratory precautions, as it still best describes the kind of man Larry is. There is also a suggestion, between parentheses, that Juliet may not be tuned in enough to her male contemporaries’ sexual lives, be they hetero- or homosexual.

25By chance one day, Juliet meets Heather, Penelope’s old school friend who saw Penelope once in Edmonton and informs Juliet that her daughter has five children. When Heather and Juliet say goodbye, “[Heather] hugged and kissed Juliet, the way everybody did now, and ran to join her companions” (155). Body language has also changed, and is more informal, more outwardly expressive than it used to be, which does not necessarily mean that people speak their hearts; although Juliet hugs and kisses Heather in return, she doesn’t bring herself to tell her anything about her relation with Penelope.

26Juliet’s scepticism about the New Age spirituality which probably led Penelope away from her is expressed when Joan, the woman who greets her at the spiritual centre where she was supposed to meet her daughter, tells her that going away “will be the right thing for [Penelope’s] spirituality and her growth. […] Juliet decides to let this pass. She gags on the word spirituality, which seems to take in—as she often says—everything from prayer wheels to High Mass” (130-131). The italics here again indicate somebody else’s choice of word, a word which to Juliet is both pretentious and empty. She did not feel the need for any religion herself, and brought up her daughter without one. She inwardly mocks the new forms religion has taken, which probably appear to her as laughable contemporary substitutes for traditional Christian faith. However, as Penelope remains silent, Juliet loses her irony and is forced to wonder about the consequences of the absence of spiritual faith and standard rituals in Penelope’s upbringing.

27At the end of the story, it is through reflecting on words that Juliet can try to make sense of the world around her. She remembers: “My father used to say of someone he disliked, that he had no use for that person. Couldn’t those words mean simply what they say? Penelope does not have a use for me. Maybe she can’t stand me. It’s possible” (158). But words don’t “mean simply what they say,” and Juliet is left with questions. By transforming “I have no use for that person,” meaning “I don’t like that person,” to “Penelope does not have a use for me,” meaning “I am of no use [literally] to Penelope,” Juliet subdues the meaning of the phrase, displacing her doubts from the domain of feelings to the more neutral ground of usefulness.

28Words referring to relationships, to spiritual life, or modes of greeting change over the course of the trilogy, and Juliet keeps up with these changes, which she comments on, yet without totally engaging with the new ways and behaviours, as if to keep her emotions at a distance. She sticks to her atheism, revives her old passion for Greek myths, retains the same inner core, and becomes again, or picks up the role of, the “rather superior, invulnerable observer” she used to be (65). Yet she does seem vulnerable as she finds no firm answers to her questions, and the fact that so many words seem to have become obsolete reinforce the feeling of Juliet not having a good grasp of the reality around her. Her certainties are challenged and she is forced to reshape her life to be able to carry on. Unlike when she was young and argued with her parents, she is unable to articulate her own consciousness by using the new discourses that structure society. She is doubly stranded: abandoned by her daughter, abandoned by words. Only her interpretation of Greek myths remains unshakable.

29In his conclusion to Unreal Country: Modernity in the Canadian Novel in English, Glenn Wilmott stresses the “insistence upon structuralist rather than teleological concerns” in the new kind of modern Canadian novel which emerged out of the 1960s and its complacent idealism. He refers to narratives that “can be broken down into the relatively autonomous units of short story sequences – as in works by Alice Munro” and others (Wilmott 197). By contrast with narratives that were recipes for the future, for the possible, according to a utopian logic, these new narratives “are recipes for the present, for what is” (197), and provide a “more self-reflexive archaeology, which plots […] towards what it is possible to have done” (198). The Juliet trilogy is an elaboration on this type of narrative, which contrasts the two periods evoked by Wilmott: it aims at emphasising Juliet’s impulsive urge as a young woman to be in charge of her life (the utopian phase), and subsequently her sadness and feeling of loss, as an ageing mother, at being estranged by her daughter (and her puzzlement at what happened). This is achieved through a play on patterns and echoes, correspondences and parallels, and through the breaking down of certain types of connections and the emergence of new ones, invisible and unspoken, which the triple structure of the text invites the reader to establish. In the Juliet trilogy, perhaps Munro, as an ageing woman herself, is taking stock of the forms of freedom that women have claimed and earned, including their liberation from religious constraints, as well as reflecting on the damages that generation gaps sometimes entail, and what women may unexpectedly lose in the process of their liberation. But the “open book” form of the trilogy enables her to simply suggest connections, without having to draw definite conclusions.

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Bigot, Corinne. “Alice Munro’s ‘Silence’: From the Politics of Silence to the Rhetoric of Silence.” Journal of the Short Story in English / Les cahiers de la nouvelle 55 (Autumn 2010): 123-138. Print.

Bigot, Corinne. Alice Munro : Les silences de la nouvelle. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014. Print.

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1 Robert Thacker refers to the Juliet stories as a tryptich in “Alice Munro: Critical Reception” (May 42).

2 Ian Rae has argued that the Juliet stories reflect Munro’s interest in Anne Carson, a poet and a classicist.

3 All references to Runaway are followed by the corresponding page number, given in parentheses, in the 2004 Knopf edition.

4 For an in-depth analysis of the role of Chagall’s painting in “Soon,” see Ventura.

5 Diptychs, like triptychs, which are usually more imposing in size, appeared in 15th century northern Renaissance art, in the Burgundian Netherlands. The format of the diptych has a long history, for example with ancient writing tablets, but takes a specific form in 15th century Europe (Prayers and Portraits).

6 For instance, Hans Hemling’s Diptych of Jan du Cellier depicts the Virgin on the left panel, and the praying donor, a citizen of Bruges identifiable with his coat of arms, on the right panel (Lessing and Pomarède 230). Gerard David’s Sedano Triptych represents the Castilian merchant Jan de Sedano on the left wing panel, his wife on the right panel, both praying to the Virgin Mary, who is depicted in the central panel (Lessing and Pomarède 232).

7 The left and right panels of the work depict scenes from the Garden of Eden, when Eve is presented to Adam, and from the Last judgment and Hell, as often was the custom in triptychs, but they do so in a surreal manner, for example with the tree-man in the third panel. Similarly, the central panel features an unconventional scene with humans cavorting among fantastic animals and a mix of realistic, fantastic and hybrid creatures. This makes for an ambiguous representation of the Garden of Earthly Delights, and scholars have given contradictory interpretations of this complex work, alternately arguing that Bosch wanted to depict innocence and playfulness or lust, a utopia (of pleasure before the Last Judgment) or a warning against a life of sinful pleasure (Bosing).

8 “Le triptyque […] est bien une manière de dépasser la peinture de ‘chevalet’ ; les trois tableaux restent séparés, mais ils ne sont plus isolés ; le cadre ou les bords d’un tableau renvoient, non plus à l’unité limitative de chacun, mais à l’unité distributive des trois.”

9 “Nous pouvons donc résumer ces lois du triptyque, qui fondent sa nécessité comme coexistence de trois panneaux : 1°/ la distinction de trois rythmes ou de trois Figures rythmiques ; 2°/ l’existence d’un rythme-témoin, avec la circulation du témoin dans le tableau (témoin apparent et témoin rythmique) ; 3°/ la détermination du rythme actif et du rythme passif, avec toutes les variations suivant le caractère choisi pour représenter le rythme actif.”

10 Héliane Ventura uses the related Deleuzian concept of “chaosmos” coined by Joyce and taken up by Deleuze and Guatarri in Mille plateaux (and which they also call “rythme-chaos”) to analyse the passage or migration from one milieu to another, one “village” (after Chagall) to another, in the Juliet trilogy (Ventura 320).

11 On silence in the short story “Silence” more specifically, see also Bigot’s article, also entitled “Silence.”

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Christine LORRE-JOHNSTON, « Juliet’s Migrations in Alice Munro’s Runaway: Making and Losing Connections »e-Rea [En ligne], 13.1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Paris Sorbonne Nouvelle, THALIM
Christine Lorre-Johnston is a Senior Lecturer in English at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. She is the co-author (with Ailsa Cox) of The Mind’s Eye: Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (Fahrenheit, 2015), and is currently co-editing (with Eleonora Rao) Mapping Here, There, and Elsewhere: Space and Place in Alice Munro’s Short Stories.

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