Searching Bluebeard's Chambers: Grimm, Gothic, and Bible Mysteries in Alice Munro's the Love of Good Woman
McCombs, Judith, American Review of Canadian Studies
Like her 1992 story, "a Wilderness Station," Alice Munro's 1996 "The Love of a Good Woman" is a concealed murder mystery whose luminous, disturbing power emanates in great part from her transformations of Grimm's Bluebeard tales, compounded with other Grimm tales, Gothic romance, and Bible myths. Both stories are masterpieces of Munro's realism, simultaneously archetypal and documentary, revealing people's lives in exact and mythic detail. People's "lives," as she wrote in Lives of Girls and Women, are "dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable--deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum" (210). Both "Wilderness" and "Love" are set in Walley, a small Ontario town whose name suggests a walleye with a skewed or wider vision; in both a brutal Bluebeard murder is revealed in secret by a woman who may be crazed or lying. In both stories elusive clues, illuminations, allusions, and archetypes lure the reader to search the Bluebeard's chambers of storytelling, sex, and death.(1)
"The Love of a Good Woman" opens with an objective yet image-laden and resonant description of things preserved for "the last couple of decades" in the local historical museum of Walley, Ontario; these include a red box of optometrist's implements that once, the label tells us, "belonged to Mr. D. M. Willens, who drowned in the Peregrine River, 1951. It escaped the catastrophe and was found, presumably by the anonymous donor, who dispatched it to be a feature of our collection" (3). There follows a description of Willens's ophthalmoscope, with its large and small top disks that "could make you think of a snowman," its lenses and "hole to look through," handle and electric batteries; then of his retinoscope, with its column from which "a tiny light is supposed to shine," and its flat glass face that "is a dark sort of mirror. Everything is black, but that is only paint.... [W]here the optometrist's hand must have rubbed most often, ... you can see a patch of shiny silver metal" (3-4).
This present-time prologue is both overture and, we will later be able to see, conclusion to Munro's Bluebeard and Bible mysteries. Here is the clue that will solve the murder mystery: the red box that "escaped the catastrophe" and was anonymously "dispatched" some twenty years later. Here are the intimations of a gender- and otherwise-transformed Bluebeard tale to come: the victim, the red chamber-box, the hole he looked through. Here are the archetypal images from myth and Bible myth that structure Munro's setting and theme. The "snowman" suggested by the ophthalmoscope's disks is a winter man who will give way to the story's flowerings of spring and summer, childhood and adulthood; and, simultaneously, the "snowman" warns us of snow jobs--in the socially accepted story of Willens's drowning, and in the Bluebeard stories to come.
The "dark sort of mirror" is, as Dennis Duffy has pointed out, St. Paul's glass through which we now see darkly (183-84; 1 Corinthians 13:12). The tiny light that "is supposed to shine" evokes Christ's Sermon on the Mount ("Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works," Matthew 5:16), and the hymn Protestant children are taught to sing ("This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine"). On the level of the murder mystery, the blackness that "is only paint," except where Mr. Willens's hand rubbed, so that "a patch of shiny silver" can be seen, hints at the sexual rubbings that will lead to murder and dark, cover-up paint. On the mythic and Bible mystery level, the same image intimates that out of our blackness and rubbing, shining patches of illumination will come, when we learn to see not darkly but clearly.
Munro's Bluebeard archetypes come primarily from two Grimm's tales, "Fitcher's Bird" and "The Robber Bridegroom." The essential Grimm's characters are three: the Bluebeard serial killer, who compels or lures maidens to his isolated dwelling; the dismembered victim maidens; and the surviving clever bride who by daring, trickery, lies and storytelling saves herself and ruins Bluebeard. …