What's in a Title? Alice Munro's "Carried Away."

Article excerpt

Discussing her fiction, Alice Munro has described herself as compelled to "go back over and over again and mine the same material and look at it in different ways..." ("Real Material" 12). "Carried Away," one of her recent New Yorker stories, dramatically illustrates this compulsion (21 Oct. 1991). In 1957 the Tamarack Review published Munro's "Thanks for the Ride," a short story that was imbued with a sharp sense of social and economic class divisions and that reappeared in Dance of the Happy Shades, her first collection, in 1968.(1) The story's narrator, Dick, has a brief conversation with the mother of a teenage factory employee, a girl whom he has picked up on the street but who has insisted on being taken home to dress for their so-called date. The mother casually mentions that her husband was decapitated in an industrial accident. His head "rolled on the floor!... I guess it was the worst accident ever took place in this town" (Dance 51). That is all that Dick is told, but in "Carried Away" Munro returns to this sawmill accident and expands it in horrifyingly graphic detail in another story about economic class divisions. First briefly described in a newspaper account and then narrated in much fuller detail from the point of view of the appalled factory owner, who picks up the victim's severed head and carries it back to his shapeless body, this bloody accident becomes the turning point of Munro's long, complex story.

In typical Munro fashion, the story's discontinuously narrated events cover a long period, from 1917 to 1954, with flashbacks to even earlier episodes; are described from three characters' overlapping points of view; and culminate in an epilogue. Although defined by Louisa, the protagonist, as "a devouring muddle," her experience in this epilogue does not muddle the story ("Carried" 60). On the contrary, through its many-layered intertextuality, the epilogue illuminates the full significance of the accident scene and its long delayed psychological aftermath, and connects the story's ending to its beginning and, most importantly, to its title. The multiple meanings resonant in the punning title, "Carried Away," thus unify the structure of Munro's fated plot.

At the beginning of her story, Munro suggests the nature of her plot by a self-reflexive allusion to Thomas Hardy. In 1917 Louisa, the 25-year-old librarian in a small Canadian factory town in which life is regulated by the factory whistle, receives a letter from a slightly wounded local man in a military hospital overseas. Because Louisa does not know him, Jack Agnew identifies himself as a former factory employee but an eager library patron, anxious to compensate for his lack of a high school diploma, and therefore thankful for Louisa's superiority to the former librarian, who did not classify the books and begrudged the patrons any assistance. When this incompetent woman had died, Louisa, a commercial traveler who had worked in Eaton's Book Department, just happened to be in town and was hired by the present factory owner's father to fill the newly vacant position. Replying to Jack's grateful letter, Louisa tells him that Willa Cather and Thomas Hardy are her "favorite authors" and adds that he is "accused of being gloomy but I think is very true to life..." (34).

A major source of the gloominess of Hardy's fiction is the primary role played by chance or accident in his characters' lives. In his novels Hardy describes "a developing capitalist society, in which it is possible for ... individuals either to sink or to rise from their original status, and in which accidents play a large part" (Williams 115). Chance and accidents often shape the plots of Munro's fiction also. One of her stories is significantly entitled "Accident," and in many other stories - "The Time of Death," "Memorial," "Wood," "Circle of Prayer," "Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux," "Miles City, Montana," "Oh, What Avails," and "Five Points" - accidents increasingly introduce the same "unforeseen intervention" that Louisa defines as the source of "the uniqueness of her fate" when she gets the deceased librarian's position purely by chance ("Carried" 61). …