Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Disparity and Deception in Alice Munro's 'Lichen'

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Disparity and Deception in Alice Munro's 'Lichen'

Article excerpt

Using the tools of narratology and literary linguistics, I trace the various means, such as shifts in focalisation, free indirect discourse and the acceleration/deceleration of narrative speed by which Munro foregrounds discrepancies between the thoughts and actions of her two principal characters. I argue that while Munro, in this story, explores the consequences of ageing for both men and women, she exposes more starkly its transformative effects on her female protagonist, Stella.

In his book, The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro's Discourse of Absence (1994), Ajay Heble argues that the stories in The Progress of Love (1986), where 'Lichen' appears, 'render unstable what we think we know about Munro's fictional worlds' (Heble: 168). Stability is undermined by, for example, the fallibility of a narrator's memory, by his/her deliberate evasions or elaborate inventions.

For example, in 'Jesse and Meribeth', the young narrator, seeking to impress and entertain her friend, weaves an outrageous sexual fantasy involving herself and the husband of the woman for whom she does light housework. In the title story, the narrator Phemie, confronted with a version of events in her mother's past that for certain disproves an earlier account, chooses to believe the fallacious one, because she considers it more attractive. As Heble observes, the protagonists and narrators in such pieces 'display a penchant for invention, for reshaping or fabricating events to accord with their own aspirations' (Heble: 147). In some of the stories, the 'fictional worlds' are made unstable because there is no one unifying consciousness: 'White Dump', although narrated from a third person perspective, is constituted by stories from the viewpoints of three women, each one of whom has a particular relationship - one filial, one maternal, one spousal - with the principal male character, Laurence. Munro accentuates the distinctiveness of each woman's experience by structuring her story in numbered sections.

Heble believes that The Progress of Love marks a significant development in Munro's fiction, with pieces that not only display 'new levels of complexity' (Heble: 158), but also reveal 'a more fully developed recognition of the impossibility of an unmediated access to reality' (Heble: 168). In her important study, Alice Munro (1998), Coral Ann Howells begins her chapter on The Progress of Love with the assertion that the stories are characterised by 'instability and irresolution' (Howells: 86), where 'incalculable differences [between words and events] are introduced . . . which render the truth indistinct and meaning indeterminate' (Howells: 87). She goes on to trace and analyse the various means, such as the insertion of narrative gaps and the effecting of temporal shifts, by which Munro makes an 'art of indeterminacy' (Howells: 85).

One can infer from the above summaries that these scholars are in agreement about the complexity and indeterminacy of stories in Munro's fifth collection. Both, in the main, examine the same pieces, 'White Dump', 'Fits' and the title story, in order to advance and substantiate their theses. I believe that 'Lichen', too, amply illustrates the qualities esteemed so highly by Ajay Heble and Coral Ann Howells. It is a text that rewards readings grounded in literary linguistics and narratology, disciplines well suited for the study of Munro's richly figurative, tautly structured fiction, which is teeming with puzzling ambiguities. In its reliance on an alternating narrative perspective, 'Lichen' offers the reader the opportunity to read events through the eyes of both the male and the female protagonist; the passages of omniscient narration, however, interspersed throughout, serve to anchor and comment upon what Heble calls the 'problematic . . . motivated perspective[s]' (Heble: 157), thus mitigating their subjectivities. Furthermore, in its depiction of the ageing Stella, long-suffering confidante and self-styled clairvoyant, 'Lichen' breaks new ground for Munro, ushering in a succession of later stories ('Friend of my Youth', 'The Love of a Good Woman', 'Silence') in which the motivations of rather disingenuous middle-aged female characters are explored. …

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