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“After all . . . useless”: Utilitarianism and Aestheticism in Alice Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades”

Matthew M. Davis
p. 277-295


Cet article consacré à “Dance of the Happy Shades”, nouvelle d’Alice Munro, commence par examiner la fin de la nouvelle et l’épiphanie dont elle rend compte. Celle-ci, cependant, est inhabituelle et demeure très vaguement définie. Après avoir étudié la fin de l’histoire, l’auteur du présent article développe sa théorie selon laquelle la nouvelle de Munro traite de l’utilitarisme et de ses limites : la narratrice et sa mère sont confrontées à une expérience esthétique exceptionnellement puissante qui amène la narratrice à remettre en question et finalement à abandonner le « paradigme » utilitaire dans lequel elle avait précédemment opéré. La narratrice se souvient de l’expérience qu’elle décrit dans l’histoire comme d’un moment clé où elle a compris l’importance de l’esthétique et de l’art pour l’art.

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1Alice Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades” is a story with a puzzling ending. As the narrator and her mother make their way home from the party hosted by Miss Marsalles, they find that they have been changed in some way. They can no longer view Miss Marsalles and her piano lessons in the same way:

But then driving home . . . leaving Miss Marsalles and her no longer possible parties behind, quite certainly forever, why is it that we are unable to say—as we must have expected to sayPoor Miss Marsalles? It is the Dance of the Happy Shades that prevents us, it is that one communiqué from the other country where she lives. (30)

2It is tempting to say that the story ends with an epiphany—a moment of discovery or illumination. However, it is a rather unusual epiphany. The best way to explain what is unusual about it may be to compare it with two epiphanies that are more typical.

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (Joyce 25).
“ . . . my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” (Updike 226).

3The first quoted passage is the narrator’s epiphany at the end of James Joyce’s “Araby,” which is, perhaps, the quintessential example of an epiphany in short fiction. The second is the check-out boy Sammy’s epiphany at the end of John Updike’s “A&P.” These two epiphanies have two significant features in common. Both are statements, and both are based on the experiences of a single character. The epiphany in “Dance of the Happy Shades” is unusual because it is introduced as a question: “why is it that we are unable to say—as we must have expected to say—Poor Miss Marsalles?” It is also unusual because it involves the experiences of two characters: the narrator explains that both she and her mother have been unsettled by the day’s events. One could say that these two characters are “sharing” an epiphany, but does it even make sense to say that? Can an epiphany be shared? Of course, in a loose sense, life experiences can be shared. Two people can attend a party together and then speak of it as a “shared experience,” but that does not mean that their mental experiences were identical. Even if two people laugh at the same joke or recoil in revulsion at the same sight, that does not mean that they are having identical mental experiences. The experiences may be similar but not identical. They may differ—some would say they must differ—on the level of “qualia” (see Reeves 118).

  • 1 A good deal has been written on Munro’s conclusions and her use and modification of the “epiphanic (...)
  • 2 The sense of uncertainty about mental states is conveyed, in part, by the narrator’s use of a modal (...)

4There are two unusual features in Munro’s epiphany: it is presented as a shared experience rather than as an individual experience, and it is presented as a question rather than as a statement. These two unusual features combine to make the epiphany in this story considerably more ambiguous than most epiphanies.1 At the end of “Araby,” Joyce’s narrator feels a pang of shame and embarrassment. We can say this with some confidence because the narrator specifies the emotions he felt. It is considerably more difficult, though, to determine what the two characters in Munro’s story might be thinking and feeling. One gets the sense that both of them have been startled, and yet it is not immediately clear if either of them really understands what has happened. They are like people who have received an unexpected electric shock but do not know where it came from or what caused it. After the party, they find that they are somehow no longer at ease in their old value system. The stock response that had always served them well in the past—saying “Poor Miss Marsalles!”—no longer seems entirely suitable or satisfying.2 But why not? What has happened? Why has the recital left them feeling so out of kilter? And who has realized what exactly?

5Munro does not answer these questions explicitly, and some readers have concluded that there is no way for readers to answer them. Jacob Hovind, for example, has argued that the epiphany at the end of the story is ultimately opaque, and deliberately so: “We are given only insight without understanding, revelation without content” (126); the lesson, Hovind argues, is that “some secrets . . . are not ours to know” (127). This interpretation is epistemologically modest, but I wonder if it might be a bit too modest. I myself believe (with several other readers) that “Dance of the Happy Shades” is a story about art. Margaret Atwood is surely correct to argue that the “other country” where Miss Marsalles is said to “live” is, in fact, the world of art (97). As for the story’s conclusion, I would like to argue that what happens there is that the narrator and her mother are shocked by a powerful and unusually pure aesthetic experience—an experience of art for art’s sake that leaves them discombobulated and ill at ease because they had previously taken a utilitarian view of human activity. In order to develop my interpretation of the story, I need to take a few steps back and look at the last several paragraphs of the story in a bit more detail.

6“Dance of the Happy Shades” is organized around a set of juxtapositions. In telling the story, the narrator juxtaposes two piano performances, two reactions to Dolores Boyle’s performance, and, ultimately, two rival systems of values. The two piano performances are the narrator’s own performance and Dolores Boyle’s performance. By calling both of these “performances,” however, I am departing from the narrator’s own preferred terminology. The narrator makes a distinction between mere “performances” and what Dolores Boyle manages to achieve:

We are accustomed to notice performances at Miss Marsalles’ parties, but it cannot be said that anyone has ever expected music. Yet this time the music establishes itself so effortlessly, with so little demand for attention, that we are hardly even surprised. What she plays is not familiar. It is something fragile, courtly and gay, that carries with it the freedom of a great unemotional happiness. And all that this girl does—but this is something you would not think could ever be done—is to play it so that this can be felt, all this can be felt, even in Miss Marsalles’ living room on Bala Street on a preposterous afternoon. The children are all quiet, the ones from Greenhill School and the rest. The mothers sit, caught with a look of protest on their faces, a more profound anxiety than before, as if reminded of something that they had forgotten they had forgotten; the white-haired girl sits ungracefully at the piano with her head hanging down, and the music is carried through the open door and the windows to the cindery summer street. (29)

7The narrator juxtaposes “performances” of the sort she and her mother hear every year at these recitals with “music.” Performances are expected and commonplace, but music is not. The narrator knows that what she herself presented earlier in the recital was definitely a performance. It was, in her own words, a “dogged and lumpy interpretation of Handel” (27), and, like the other performances, it was followed by the sound of mothers clapping “two or three times each, with relief” (26). Clearly this is the applause of maternal duty, sparse and perfunctory. If the clapping hands could speak, they would say “Phew! She got through it,” rather than “Dear God, that was beautiful!”

8A little later in the story, the narrator juxtaposes Miss Marsalles’s reaction to Dolores Boyle’s piano-playing with the reactions of the mothers at the party. Miss Marsalles seems not to be at all surprised by the girl’s artistry:

Miss Marsalles sits beside the piano and smiles at everybody in her usual way. Her smile is not triumphant, or modest. She does not look like a magician who is watching people’s faces to see the effect of a rather original revelation—nothing like that. You would think, now that at the very end of her life she has found someone whom she can teach—whom she must teach—to play the piano, she would light up with the importance of this discovery. But it seems that the girl’s playing like this is something she always expected, and she finds it natural and satisfying; people who believe in miracles do not make much fuss when they actually encounter one. Nor does it seem that she regards this girl with any more wonder than the other children from Greenhill School, who love her, or the rest of us, who do not. To her no gift is unexpected, no celebration will come as a surprise. (29)

9The mothers in the audience are considerably more surprised by the experience—and also more troubled. Their facial expressions reveal both “anxiety” and “protest”:

The girl is finished. The music is in the room and then it is gone and naturally enough no one knows what to say. For the moment she is finished it is plain that she is just the same as before, a girl from Greenhill School. Yet the music was not imaginary. The facts are not to be reconciled. And so after a few minutes the performance begins to seem, in spite of its innocence, like a trick—a very successful and diverting one, of course, but perhaps—how can it be said?—perhaps not altogether in good taste. For the girl’s ability, which is undeniable but after all useless, out of place, is not really something that anybody wants to talk about. To Miss Marsalles such a thing is acceptable, but to other people, people who live in the world, it is not. Never mind, they must say something and so they speak gratefully of the music itself, saying how lovely, what a beautiful piece, what is it called?
     “The Dance of the Happy Shades,” says Miss Marsalles. Danse des ombres heureuses, she says, which leaves nobody any the wiser. (29-30)

10In these paragraphs, the narrator introduces several more juxtapositions. Dolores Boyle and the other “special” students from the Green Hill School love Miss Marsalles, but the narrator and the other middle-class students do not. Boyle’s delightful performance seems natural to Miss Marsalles, but it seems bizarre and unnatural to the mothers. They cannot reconcile the performance with the performer. The mothers are predisposed to view the whole episode as some sort of “trick”—and yet Miss Marsalles smiles in her normal way and does not seem at all like a magician who has just performed a successful trick. To Miss Marsalles, Boyle’s performance is “satisfying.” To the mothers, however, it is upsetting: they are upset that this special needs child has this talent “which is undeniable . . . but after all useless” (29-30). “To Miss Marsalles,” the narrator writes, “such a thing is acceptable, but to other people, people who live in the world, it is not” (30). The implication here is that Miss Marsalles lives in some other world, some alternative reality. The same point is made in the last paragraph of the story, where the narrator speaks of “the other country” where Miss Marsalles lives (30).

11There is a lot going on in the above paragraphs, but I would like to suggest that the most significant word in them, and possibly the most significant word in the story as a whole, may be the word “useless,” which is applied to the piano-playing of Dolores Boyle (30). One important way of making decisions in life is to ask what would be the most useful thing to do? People who make decisions based on the usefulness of human activities are applying the standard of utility. Those who routinely do so, or do so without consulting other standards, are sometimes called utilitarians, and the value system that guides them is sometimes called utilitarianism. Utilitarians realize that time is a limited resource, and that life constantly forces us to choose among possible activities. They evaluate such activities and develop a hierarchy of value based on their sense of which options are likely to be most useful. If something is judged to be useful, it is assumed to be valuable; if something is judged to be less useful, it is judged to be less valuable—and perhaps not worthwhile. This is utilitarian thinking, and there are very few among us who have not engaged in such thinking on occasion. At one moment or another, most of us have considered a possible course of action and asked, “what’s the point?”

12Munro does not tell us why the mothers in the story have sent their children to take piano lessons with Miss Marsalles, but we can infer that they have various utilitarian motives. Piano lessons have traditionally been thought an “important” thing for young people of a certain social class, especially daughters in families with notions of gentility. The piano student learns to play her instrument, of course, but she is also thought to acquire culture and sophistication. She develops music appreciation. From her lessons, she learns perseverance and discipline, and from her performances, confidence and grace and poise. She improves her ability to present in public and develops a skill that may be useful later in life, for example when attracting potential husbands or entertaining dinner guests. She gains a polish that can be useful in upper-middle-class social situations—a polish that will distinguish her from the very poor, who generally cannot afford piano lessons. She may even win awards and prizes that will look good on college applications and resumes. On this understanding, playing the piano is useful as a means of developing life skills, acquiring polish and/or credentials, and ultimately getting ahead in life.

  • 3 This passage might be compared to the first sentence of Austen’s Pride and Prejuduce: “It is a trut (...)
  • 4 It is worth noting that there is not a single adult male in the story. The party takes place in a p (...)

13It is true that some of the mothers in the story have begun to doubt whether studying piano is really the best—that is, the most useful—activity for their children. Several girls have stopped taking piano lessons with Miss Marsalles, and the mothers of the girls who are still taking lessons “are plagued sometimes by a feeling that they have fallen behind” in the great parenting derby (20). The narrator’s mother is anxious because she has a sense that the parenting vibe is modulating, or perhaps has already modulated: “Piano lessons are not so important now as they once were; everybody knows that. Dancing is believed to be more favorable to the development of the whole child” (20). In this passage, Munro employs the language of utilitarianism: certain activities are more “important” than others because of societal expectations; these activities are to be preferred because they (allegedly) are “more favorable to the development of the whole child.” Munro also uses free indirect discourse to delightful, Austenian effect, casting sharp light on the competitiveness of modern mothers.3 Although the narrator’s voice continues to be heard, that voice merges, for a few seconds, with the voice of a middle-class mother who is convinced that dancing is a better activity for girls than piano lessons. The mother who makes these claims can safely be inferred to be absent from the piano recital. She is presumably at the dance studio instead. Still, she is present in the thoughts of the narrator’s mother, and the message that she insinuates is bound to be discomforting to a dedicated mother. It is the phrase “everybody knows that” that really turns the knife in the wound. After all, if “everybody knows” that dance is a better (that is, more useful) activity than piano, what does that tell us about the narrator’s mother who is still sending her daughter to study piano with Miss Marsalles? Apparently, she does not know what everyone else knows. The narrator’s mother cannot help imagining the dance mom sniping at her for being “out of it” or rolling her eyes disdainfully, and these thoughts must torment her.4 She wants the best for her daughter and has been dutifully shelling out for piano lessons. She wants to develop “the whole child”—whatever that might mean—and she obviously winces in discomfort at the thought that she might be providing her daughter with a sub-optimal slate of extracurricular activities. Perhaps she should give up on Miss Marsalles and piano lessons and make the switch to dance. And yet she does not want to be rude to Miss Marsalles or leave the poor woman with no way to earn a living. This is the dilemma the narrator’s mother is facing.

  • 5 When I speak of “utilitarianism” here, I am referring not to utilitarian ethical philosophers like (...)

14In utilitarian thinking, pleasure and beauty are generally not viewed as important goals.5 If something is felt to be useless, it does not really matter if it is beautiful or pleasurable. If one is a utilitarian, one does not play the piano to give or receive pleasure. One plays the piano because one is convinced that doing so will be useful in some way further on down the road of life. Or perhaps one chooses not to play the piano because one judges that doing so will be less useful than some other activity, like taking dance lessons. For utilitarians, there are always practical considerations to bear in mind—and, for determined utilitarians, the practical considerations are the only ones that really matter. Utilitarians are nothing if not practical. To borrow a phrase from the story, they are “people who live in the world.” They tend not to understand (and not to appreciate) people who are concerned with beauty and pleasure. For utilitarians, the intrinsic value of an activity is not really important; it is the extrinsic or instrumental value that matters. The utilitarian is always asking, what will this do for me? What end will I achieve by engaging in this activity?

15If pleasure were the main criterion, most of the mothers in the story would probably not be sending their children to take piano lessons with Miss Marsalles. Almost none of them appears to enjoy the recital described in the story. The performances are stilted and forced. The party is dull. The weather is unpleasantly hot. There are flies on the sandwiches. The mothers have come not because they expect the party to be delightful but because they feel it is de rigueur to attend such events. That is why the narrator’s mother is so upset that her friend Marg French has not shown up. Marg had apparently promised to come and suffer through the performances alongside the narrator’s mother, but, instead of suffering in solidarity, she has abandoned the narrator’s mother. The narrator’s mother is angry about this: it feels to her like a violation of the social contract that governs motherhood. Marg has opted out of something every mother is supposed to do, even though none of them seems to want to do it. The event is seen as a duty, both by the children who must “perform” and by the parents who must attend and applaud. Even the applause is itself a kind of performance. The idea that there might be pleasure involved does not occur to any of the parents or children until Dolores Boyle begins to play—and that is part of the reason why her playing is so surprising.

16For earnest middle-class parents like the narrator’s mother, Dolores Boyle is troubling in an odd sort of way. Her ability to play the piano is remarkable, but, from a strictly utilitarian point of view, it is “after all useless.” What can playing the piano do for her? Will it help her get into the University of Toronto or McGill? Will it allow her to marry well or rise in society? Will it help her win friends and influence people? Will it cancel out the fact that she has a disability? The answer to all of these questions is almost certainly not. In the end, even if she can play the piano like an angel, Dolores Boyle is a special needs child at a special needs school. She is on a different “track,” as they used to say in the days when special needs students were largely separated from other students in schools. The force of this brute fact is so strong in the minds of the mothers that it cannot be canceled even by the excellence of her playing. What then is the utility of playing the piano for Dolores Boyle? To ask the utilitarian’s favorite question, what is the point? What is the point of God, or nature giving such a talent to such a person? And what is the point of Miss Marsalles cultivating such a talent? These are some of the questions that presumably occur to the utilitarian mothers in the story.

17There is another way of looking at things, which is sometimes called “aestheticism.” Aesthetics is the study of what is beautiful, and thinkers who adopt an aesthetic point of view have tried over the years to make a case for things that are beautiful, or delightful, even if they do not seem to be especially useful. These thinkers argue that a beautiful object (or creation or performance) has value whether or not it is useful; indeed, some of them have argued that the most beautiful things of all are actually the things that have no instrumental purpose whatsoever. Art, many writers on aesthetics say, is autotelic; that is, it has its own telos, or raison d’être, and ought not to be evaluated for how well it achieves some other goal. Art has its own intrinsic value; it is not valuable because it performs some didactic, political, or utilitarian function; it is valuable because it is beautiful, or because it gives pleasure, and it requires no additional justification. Aesthetic critics champion l’art pour l’art, or art for art’s sake.

18Aesthetic theorists differ on some points, but all insist on the intrinsic value of beautiful objects and the pleasure we take in those objects. The Victorian critic John Ruskin was an early spokesman for the intrinsic value of beautiful objects. In The Stones of Venice, he encouraged his readers to view beautiful objects with the eye of a child, taking simple pleasure in “a fair color or dancing light.” “Above all,” Ruskin urged his readers,

do not try to make . . . these pleasures reasonable, nor to connect the delight which you take in ornament with that which you take in construction or usefulness. They have no connection; and every effort that you make to reason from one to another will blunt your sense of beauty, or confuse it with sensations altogether inferior to it. You were made for enjoyment, and the world [is] filled with things which you will enjoy, unless you are too proud to be pleased by them, or too grasping to care for what you cannot turn to other account than mere delight. Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless. (1: 46)

19This idea that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless was also championed by Oscar Wilde. In 1881, a man wrote to Wilde, asking if he could explain what he meant when he said that “all art is useless.” Wilde replied as follows:

My dear Sir
Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.
     A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.
Truly yours,
Oscar Wilde (qtd. in Usher 334)

20Since Munro is a writer, I will add to this florilegium one more statement on the value of the aesthetic, in this case as it relates to literature. This last quotation comes from the literary scholar and critic Rosemund Tuve:

Insofar as we are a business civilization, our values are opposed to the values inherent in aesthetic experience. Literature aesthetically considered has no cash equivalent, no advertising status; it does not Get One Anywhere. (584)

21Now the terms introduced above—utilitarianism and aestheticism—strike me as very useful for understanding “Dance of the Happy Shades,” because what the story dramatizes is a moment when two people who have been approaching life with a strictly utilitarian mindset are confronted by a powerful and unusually pure aesthetic experience, which presents itself as a challenge to their way of thinking. In discussing what happens at the end of the story, I find it useful to borrow some concepts and terms from the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn argues that scientists normally work within paradigms, which are frameworks of interrelated ideas that seem adequate for understanding the natural world, at least until the scientists are confronted with anomalies, bits of data which seem not to fit with the paradigm. If these anomalies are serious enough, or numerous enough, the scientists in a particular field may eventually discard the old paradigm and adopt a new one. These moments of change when scientists abandon an old paradigm and adopt a new one are the “revolutions” Kuhn mentions in his title. Thus, for example, astronomers worked for many centuries within a Ptolemaic, geocentric paradigm until anomalous data led some investigators like Copernicus to propose a rival, sun-at-the-center paradigm. At first only a few astronomers accepted the new paradigm, but, eventually, virtually all scientists accepted it.

22In Munro’s story, the narrator and her mother have been operating in a utilitarian paradigm. This paradigm has served them well in the past, and it continues to serve them well until they are presented with an anomaly. The anomaly in this case is Dolores Boyle and her strangely beautiful playing. The Dolores Boyle Phenomenon is hard to understand on utilitarian principles because the girl’s playing is beautiful and yet “useless.” There seems to be no point to it—that is, there is no extrinsic end it can help anyone achieve. To borrow Tuve’s phrase, it will not Get One Anywhere. There is no place in utilitarian thinking for activities of this sort—and yet the girl’s playing is so remarkable that it forces itself into the mind and cries out for explanation. The inability of the utilitarian paradigm to account for this experience or grant the value of the merely beautiful then begins to seem like a problem. The main characters in the story, the mother and the daughter, are shown reacting to the anomaly, and they clearly feel discomfited. They suddenly feel uncomfortable with their old way of thinking, and yet, as they drive home from the party, neither of them seems to have anything like a full understanding of what has occurred or what it means. They cannot yet fully understand what I think Munro wants her readers to understand—that a strictly utilitarian paradigm that cannot account for Dolores Boyle and her beautiful playing is a paradigm in need of revision—or at least supplementation.

  • 6 The fact that the story is told in present tense has led some readers to assume that the narrator i (...)

23I have said that neither the narrator nor her mother fully understands the meaning of what they have just experienced as they are driving home from the party; however, I think the narrator must have come to understand the meaning of her experiences at some later point. My reason for thinking this is simple: she would not be able to tell this story unless she had arrived at a place of more understanding. She would not be able to single out this moment as a moment deserving her attention as a storyteller unless she had grown older and arrived at a point where this moment looked to her like a turning point. There are no concrete indications in the story that reveal how much time has elapsed between the day of the party and the moment when the narrator tells the story.6 The narrator never says, “something funny happened to me yesterday” or “fifteen years ago, my mother and I went to a piano recital.” However, the second of these possibilities would probably be more consistent with the story as a whole. It is much more plausible to suppose that a number of years have passed since the party than to suppose that the story is being told immediately after the party. In order to account for the story, we have to posit a narrator who understands that day and Dolores Boyle’s playing and the importance of the aesthetic significantly better than either she or her mother did on the day of the party.

24The discourse theorist James Moffett makes a distinction between “subjective narrations” and “detached autobiographies” (179-80, 237-38). Both are examples of first-person narration, but in a subjective narration, the narrator is still chronologically and psychologically close to events. He or she may be telling the story just a few days, or even a few hours, after it took place, and we as readers are likely to feel that the person telling the story does not differ significantly from the person who lived through the events. The narrative itself is likely to feel very subjective precisely because the narrator is still close to the events and has not had time to develop distance or perspective.

25In a “detached autobiography,” by contrast, the narrator is both chronologically and psychologically more distant from the events s/he is describing. With the passing of time, a gap has opened up between the character who does things in the story and the narrator who is telling the story at some later date. The narrator may be describing something that happened several years earlier, and s/he may be able to view his/her younger self with more detachment and objectivity. When reading a detached autobiography, we sense that the “I-now” character who is telling the story is, in some important way, different from the “I-then” character who experienced the events.

26The two stories mentioned earlier are good examples of these two modes of narration. Updike’s “A&P” is an example of what Moffett calls “subjective narration.” Sammy seems to be telling the story of how he quit at the A&P only a few days or weeks after he actually quit; he is still, in essence, the same young and impulsive person who quit his job at the grocery store. Joyce’s “Araby” is a good example of “detached autobiography.” We sense that an older narrator is telling us about something he did as a child, something which seems silly and juvenile with the benefit of hindsight.

  • 7 Of course, the story can also be categorized as a memoir, if we think that it is more about Miss Ma (...)

27On the surface it is not made clear whether “Dance of the Happy Shades” is a subjective narration or a detached autobiography.7 However, a close reading suggests that it is in fact a detached autobiography. The narrator no longer sounds like the teenage girl she was on the day of the recital-party. She writes with the understanding of an adult—and not just any adult; she writes with the understanding of someone who has been touched in some serious way by the arts. She might have read what Ruskin or Wilde have to say about the uselessness of art, or she might have been influenced by some theorist of the aesthetic, like Théophile Gautier, a famous advocate of “art for art’s sake.” She might have read Keats’s “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” or she might have developed her aesthetic sense by working in some artistic field, as a painter or a writer or a sculptor, or what you will. In any case, it seems clear that she has arrived at a point where she sees the inadequacies of a strictly utilitarian outlook well enough to tell a story that exposes those inadequacies.

Time Period 1
(moment of party)

Time Period 2
(intervening time)

Time Period 3
(moment of narration)





  • 8 Surely one reason why the narrator and her mother are not able to say “poor Miss Marsalles” on the (...)
  • 9 The narrator’s trajectory seems interestingly similar to the trajectory of John Stuart Mill. In his (...)

28The table above captures several aspects of the interpretation developed here. It shows three time periods. Time Period 1 is the period when the recital party took place. It includes both the party and the drive home. Time Period 2 is a period of time that is not explicitly mentioned in the text of the story but which I have hypothesized must exist in order for the narrator to be in a position to tell the story she tells; it is a period of indeterminate length, but I would speculate that it covers at least five years and possibly a good deal more—enough time to allow for intellectual development and some transformative experience of the arts. Time Period 3 is the period when the narrator tells the story. From her position in Time Period 3, the narrator-as-she-is-now can look back on her experiences in Time Period 1. She can recall a time when she was every bit as baffled by the Dolores Boyle Phenomenon as her mother: “why is it that we are unable to say—as we must have expected to sayPoor Miss Marsalles?” (30)8 At that moment, the narrator and her mother were “in the weeds” together, as the use of the first-person plural pronoun indicates. And yet, the narrator-as-she-is-now is no longer the same person she was at that time. She has lived through Time Period 2 and had certain experiences. What they were we cannot say with any confidence, but, as a result of them, she can now see her experiences at the party as the first anomalous data that led, eventually, to a paradigm shift and an understanding that there is more to life than just utility, and that there are things in life that are intrinsically beautiful and worthwhile even if they are not extrinsically useful. During Time Period 1, the narrator was just as confused as her mother; she did not “get it.” However, this is no longer the case. The narrator-as-she-is-now can see her experiences at Miss Marsalles’s party as a moment when she and her mother were gobsmacked by the beautiful but after all useless music of Dolores Boyle and responded as baffled utilitarians—but she can also see it as a moment when she began to gradually unfold a new worldview. The narrator has awakened to the aesthetic. Her value system is no longer the same as it was when the events occurred. The question, “why is it that we are unable to say—as we must have expected to sayPoor Miss Marsalles?” was a real question for her during the drive home from the party—and she did not have an answer at that point. Yet the same question is a rhetorical question for the narrator-now. She clearly does have an answer to the question.9

  • 10 The mothers in the story can be described, using Wilde’s terminology, as people who see flowers as (...)

29With the mother, there is no way of knowing whether she has changed over time; we see her only in Time Period 1, where she stands forth as a representative of maternal utilitarianism and baffled philistinism.10 With the daughter, it is another story. This character does change, even if the changes take place “off camera.” We can be confident about this because a baffled teenager who could not go beyond her mother’s utilitarian worldview would not be able to tell the story she tells.

  • 11 Walter Rintoul Martin also sees an “inconsistency,” but he argues that “inconsistency in narrative (...)

30Critics who have written about “Dance of the Happy Shades” have reached different conclusions about the age of the narrator at the moment of narration. Margaret Gail Osachoff and Brad Hooper have noted the use of the present tense—“Miss Marsalles is having another party”—and have inferred from this that the narrator must be telling the story in the immediate aftermath of the party, while she is still a girl. However, both critics have also pointed out that the voice in the story does not sound like the voice of a young girl. Osachoff claims that the narrator makes observations that “would not come from the mind of a young girl, however precocious” (65). Hooper agrees, noting that the narrator sounds “too mature in understanding” and “too articulate in language usage” to be a teenager (13). In other words, both critics perceive what Hooper calls “a certain incongruity [in] the narrative voice.”11 The incongruity that bothers these critics vanishes, however, if we posit, as I have in this essay, that the narrator is in fact an older woman who is looking back on a youthful incident, with the benefit of many years of experience, and using the present tense as a storyteller’s strategy.

31Munro’s use of the present tense appears to have confused a number of readers who seem to feel that it is inconsistent with writing a detached autobiography: if the narrator is older and wiser—if she is “detached” from her younger self—then why does she not use the past tense to describe how she was then, as opposed to how she is now? I am not sure why Munro chose to use the present tense for this story, but I can say that she uses the same combination of present tense narration and detached autobiography in another story from this period, “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” Like “Dance of the Happy Shades,” this story is told in present tense: “After supper my father says. . . .” (3). The narrator describes a day she and her brother spent with their father, making sales visits and then visiting an old girlfriend of his. The story is told in the present tense, as if it had just happened, but the voice is not that of a child. Instead, it is the voice of an older female, more mature in understanding and more articulate in language usage. The present tense is a tool for this older narrator to narrate herself back in time, back to a moment when she was much younger. The I-now character clearly understands why the father’s old girlfriend put on a dress and perfume, and why she was hoping to dance with her father. The younger version of the narrator understands some portion of what is going on—more at any rate than her younger brother—but not as much as the adult narrator. In this story Munro uses the present tense retrospectively, just as she does in “Dance of the Happy Shades.”

32In reviewing criticism of the story, I find that my understanding of the narrator as an older woman has been anticipated by Eric Reeves. Commenting on the final paragraph of the story, he writes that “the story concludes with an intimation that suggests recollection by a much more mature woman, looking back over many years to a moment of uncanny significance” (117). “Intimation” is, I think, le mot juste here—and “uncanny” is well chosen as well. These words capture the fact that the narrator perceives something important at the recital party, but what is revealed there is, initially, barely understood. I agree that the narrator is significantly more mature at the moment she tells the story than she was when she attended the party, but I think she is not only older but also wiser, and not only wiser in general but wiser in particular for having developed a deep appreciation of the arts.

  • 12 I am grateful to Rachel Rumana, Mason Riffee, Earl Ryan, and two anonymous readers at JSSE for assi (...)

33If art is another country, we can say that the narrator has been enriched by her travels in this other country and has come to understand some of the limitations of the home counties as a result of her travels. As a result of her lived experiences, she has come to understand something about the limits of utilitarianism, the importance of aesthetic experience, and the value of the arts in the lives of human beings—and the story she tells offers others an opportunity to come to the same understanding.12

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Atwood, Margaret. “Lives of Girls and Women.” The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro. Ed. David Staines. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. 96-115. Print.

Duplay, Mathieu. “‘The Other Country Where She Lives’: Opera and its Doubles in Alice Munro’s ‘Dance of the Happy Shades.’” The Inside of a Shell: Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades. Ed. Vanessa Guignery. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. 200-16. Print.

Hooper, Brad. The Fiction of Alice Munro: An Appreciation. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. Print.

Hovind, Jacob. “The Epiphany Concept and its Undoing in Alice Munro’s Early Stories.” The Inside of a Shell: Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades. Ed. Vanessa Guignery. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. 114-29. Print.

Guignery, Vanessa, ed. The Inside of a Shell: Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. Print.

Joyce, James. “Araby.” Dubliners. 1914. Ed. Margot Norris. New York and London: Norton, 2006. 20-25. Print.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970. Print.

MacKendrick, Louis K., ed. Probable Fictions: Alice Munro’s Narrative Acts. Toronto: ECW Press, 1983. Print.

Martin, Walter Rintoul. Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 1987. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography. Ed. Mark Philp. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2018. Print.

Moffett, James, ed. Points of View: Anthology of Short Stories. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

Munro, Alice. “Dance of the Happy Shades.” A Wilderness Station: Selected Stories, 1968-1994. New York: Vintage, 1997. 19-30. Print.

---. “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” A Wilderness Station: Selected Stories, 1968-1994. New York: Vintage, 1997. 3-18. Print.

Osachoff, Margaret Gail. “‘Treacheries of the Heart’: Memoir, Confession, and Meditation in the Stories of Alice Munro.” Probable Fictions: Alice Munro’s Narrative Acts. Ed. Louis K. MacKendrick. Toronto: ECW Press, 1983. 61-82. Print.

Reeves, Eric. “The Lives of Women and Men: Narrative Inflection in Alice Munro’s Runaway.” Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Ed. Robert Thacker. London: Bloomsbury, 2016. 114-36. Print.

Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice. 3 vols. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1887. Print.

Skagert, Ulrica. “The Rupture of the Ordinary as an ‘Awkward Little Space’: Eventual Moments in Alice Munro’s ‘Dance of the Happy Shades.’” The Inside of a Shell: Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades. Ed. Vanessa Guignery. 271-82. Print.

Staines, David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. Print.

Thacker, Robert, ed. Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. London: Bloomsbury, 2016. Print.

Tuve, Rosemond. “More Battle Than Books.” Sewanee Review 55.4 (1947): 571-85. Print.

Updike, John. “A&P.” Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories. Eds. James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. New York: Mentor, 1995. 220-26. Print.

Usher, Shaun, ed. Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014. Print.

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1 A good deal has been written on Munro’s conclusions and her use and modification of the “epiphanic ending.” Jacob Hovind thinks that Munro gradually worked her way out of the tradition of epiphanic writing established by Joyce and into an anti-epiphanic mode (126-27). Ulrica Skagert notes that Munro’s stories sometimes exhibit a “resistance of closure” (280) and her endings often convey a sense of what John C. Gerlach calls “charged incompleteness” (qtd. in Skagert 280). She cites “Dance of the Happy Shades” as a story in which the concluding sentences are so vague that they essentially point readers back to the story to try to sort out what the conclusion might mean.

2 The sense of uncertainty about mental states is conveyed, in part, by the narrator’s use of a modal verb in “we must have expected” instead of the declarative “we expected.” Presumably the decision to use the modal form is linked to the narrator’s use of first person plural pronouns. It is safe enough to say “I expected to win that game,” but it is riskier to say “we expected to win that game.” Of shared mental states, one can rarely, if ever, speak with much confidence.

3 This passage might be compared to the first sentence of Austen’s Pride and Prejuduce: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Both writers use free indirect discourse to comment on maternal tendencies. In Austen, the narrator’s voice briefly merges with the voice of Mrs. Bennett and other women like her who are focused, in a utilitarian, narrow-minded way, on marrying their daughters off. In Munro, the narrator’s voice briefly merges with the voice of an unnamed modern mother, or perhaps a set of mothers, obsessed with assembling a set of activities that will “develop the whole child” (see Duplay).

4 It is worth noting that there is not a single adult male in the story. The party takes place in a particularly febrile feminine zone of the sort depicted on TV reality shows like “Dance Moms.”

5 When I speak of “utilitarianism” here, I am referring not to utilitarian ethical philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (for whom pleasure was very important), but of a certain kind of person, quite common in the business world, who views certain things as useful (real world experience, accounting skills, etc.) and other things as useless (knowledge of literature, art, anthropology, etc.).

6 The fact that the story is told in present tense has led some readers to assume that the narrator is telling the story soon after events occurred. However, the story as a whole suggests that the narrator is looking back on events that happened considerably earlier.

7 Of course, the story can also be categorized as a memoir, if we think that it is more about Miss Marsalles than it is about the narrator. Yet, even if it is so categorized, I would argue it is a memoir in which the narrator is at some distance from the events, as in detached autobiography.

8 Surely one reason why the narrator and her mother are not able to say “poor Miss Marsalles” on the way home is because this is a remark that expresses pity and condescension. Up until the moment when Dolore Boyle plays, the narrator and her mother are comfortable in their sense of their superiority to Miss Marsalles; afterwards, they are no longer at ease in the old condescension.

9 The narrator’s trajectory seems interestingly similar to the trajectory of John Stuart Mill. In his earlier years, Mill was a dedicated utilitarian who read almost exclusively to acquire knowledge. However, he eventually came to feel that there was something missing in a purely utilitarian approach to life and reading. He lapsed into a serious depression, from which he was eventually saved by the discovery of poetry (Mill 77-90).

10 The mothers in the story can be described, using Wilde’s terminology, as people who see flowers as saleable items. The flower is beautiful in its own right, Wilde tells us, and we are not to think that it only has value if it can be sold. Yet that is exactly what the utilitarian mothers in the story think: they can accept piano playing if it is useful—if it builds “life skills” or educates “the whole child”—but playing that is simply beautiful without the prospect of advancement leaves them baffled.

11 Walter Rintoul Martin also sees an “inconsistency,” but he argues that “inconsistency in narrative is not a fault if it can impose itself on the ingenuous reader” (48-49).

12 I am grateful to Rachel Rumana, Mason Riffee, Earl Ryan, and two anonymous readers at JSSE for assistance with this essay.

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Matthew M. Davis, « “After all . . . useless”: Utilitarianism and Aestheticism in Alice Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades” »Journal of the Short Story in English, 77 | 2021, 277-295.

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Matthew M. Davis, « “After all . . . useless”: Utilitarianism and Aestheticism in Alice Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades” »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 77 | Autumn 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL :

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Matthew M. Davis

Matthew Davis is an Assistant Professor (General Faculty) in the English Department at the University of Virginia, where he teaches Shakespeare, poetry, and short fiction. He has published articles on Shakespeare, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Frost. Culturally, he falls into the (small) set of people who think Shakespeare is amazing but also think Lynyrd Skynyrd is amazing.

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