Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Who Was It If It Wasn't Me?" the Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro's "Trespasses": A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Who Was It If It Wasn't Me?" the Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro's "Trespasses": A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

Article excerpt

Contemporary evolutionary social science covers a lot of territory, and in its efforts to explain how humans have successfully held their ground, one of the few claims that enjoys consensus is this: narrative thinking is fundamental to survival. In the thinking-acting flow of human life, a blend of sequence, causality, and agency is indispensable. Narrativity thus evinces one sustained link between science and literature, for we think, move, and tell stories in lines. Yet once evolutionary and cognitive literary scholars recover from the heady feeling that their hard work connecting the divisions of knowledge has been validated, they may ask themselves, "What next?" How does the essential nature of narrative thinking contribute specifically to literary knowledge? Since much literary modernism is, after all, the history of attempts to write our way out of narrative's apparent intransigence, further evidence of our psychic dependence on its structure may not be self-evidently welcome or necessarily useful.

But the intransigence of narrativity does not imply its ease, and the purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that some of our best literature dramatizes the difficult process of establishing even the apparently ubiquitous trajectory of narrative order. In her story "Trespasses," Alice Munro troubles narrative thinking at the most fundamental point of orientation, the referential origin. In the following essay, I will explain how a dynamic model of ecological cognition extends previous work in evolutionary literary criticism by enabling us to analyze cognitive challenges to narrativizing in process. My essay has three steps: first, I situate my ecological approach in the context of current evolutionary literary criticism; second, Iargue that this dynamic approach explains cognition extending from real-world negotiation into literary processing; and third, I provide an analysis of Alice Munro's challenge to the reader's attempt to orient (and from there, proceed with narrative construal) in the beginning of "Trespasses."

One theme of "Trespasses," as of much of Munro's longer fiction, is the difficulty of establishing authoritative narrative accounts. In "Meneseteung" and "The Wilderness Station," for example, the problem of reconstructing a factually accurate narrative account is bound up with the incomplete history of women on the frontier. Whereas newspaper stories of local incidents and letters by those (typically men) seeking to shepherd single women into respectable social life give one version of events, those versions by women themselves, Munro suggests, have died with them, left to the author of fiction to imagine. However, the difficulty of authentic and complete reconstructions of events in Munro's fiction is not, on the whole, a problem of history, and much less of an exuberant postmodern sensibility, but of a general conviction that life is comprised of "disconnected realities" (qtd. in Nunes 14). Even so, Munro's fiction most often suggests that a determinate set of events lies behind the text, but that the conflicting self-justifications of her characters undermine narrative certainty. Familiar motives and shortcomings--the everyday dishonesty fostered by self-interest; the inclination to suppress what is ugly and disturbing; and the failure to exhibit a systematic sense of responsibility in our dealings with others--animate the accounts of Munro's characters.

Indeed, as Munro brings conflicting interests and accounts to the fore, the desideratum of factual accuracy loses authority as the reader focuses on ethical concerns and shapes a value- rather than event-based narrative account from the discrepancies. Not surprisingly, then, Munro's preoccupation with accurate accounts is not merely thematic, but informs the structure of many of her stories, whose meandering beginnings challenge the reader's basic efforts at orientation. In "Trespasses," Munro's circuitous delineation of the ambiguity surrounding events and the evasions that sustain those ambiguities are a product of her delayed introduction of the main character (and thus the orienting consciousness), a delay that confounds the reader's ability to prioritize and evaluate incidents and information, and so to determine narrative relevance. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.