"Don't Tell (on) Daddy": Narrative Complexity in Alice Munro's "The Love of a Good Woman"
Carrington, Ildiko de Papp, Studies in Short Fiction
In "Everything Here is Touchable and Mysterious," Alice Munro recalls an annual event in her early life, the flooding of the Maitland River, which "came upon [the people of Wingham, Ontario] with a Biblical inevitability" every spring (33). It is not surprising, therefore, that drownings are frequent in her fiction.(1) In Lives of Girls and Women, Del, the narrator, describes the suicides of two characters who drown themselves in the flooded Wawanash River, and, after her lover nearly drowns her, she plans a novel in which the heroine also drowns herself. In addition, four later Munro stories--"Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You," "Miles City, Montana," "Walking on Water," and "Pictures of the Ice"--include characters who drown. In the first two stories, the drownings are accidental; in the latter two, however, it is not completely clear whether the drownings are accidents or suicides. In "Walking on Water," Frank McArter is a disturbed young man who may have committed suicide after murdering his parents. In "Pictures of the Ice," Austin Cobbett has most likely arranged his suicidal drowning to look accidental. In "The Love of a Good Woman," the title story of her latest collection, Munro complicates these frequent and sometimes mysterious drownings in a double way.(2) The drowning of Mr. Willens, the town optometrist, in the flooded Peregrine River may be suicide, an accident, or a murder disguised to look like an accident. After Enid, the protagonist, has been told that it was a murder, she plans to confront the alleged murderer, with whom she is in love, and imagines his drowning her in a scenario somewhat similar to the drowning-murder scene in Dreiser's An American Tragedy. But the mystery of Mr. Willens's drowning is never solved, and no second drowning ever occurs because Enid, after an agonizing internal debate, decides not to tell what she has been told.
"Tell" is the operative verb structuring this metafictional, many-voiced narrative about narration, a story that not only tells how and why stories are told or not told--or retold and reinterpreted--but also compels its readers to participate in the narrative, interpretive, and reinterpretive process. The story is introduced by a narrator whose description of a collection in a contemporary local museum interjects doubts about the provenance of the key object in the mystery: a red plush-lined box of optometrical instruments. A "note" identifies the box as having "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" (Love 3). The cautious "presumably," the donor's anonymity, and the triple question of how the personified box "escaped," how the mysterious donor or somebody else "found" it, and why the donor "dispatched" it to the museum all combine to undermine the reliability of the central piece of evidence in the mystery. The narrator's description makes one of the instruments in the box--a retinoscope, part of which is "a dark sort of mirror"--symbolic of the elusiveness of this evidence. The entire instrument "is black, but that is only paint. In some places where the optometrist's hand must have rubbed most often, the paint has disappeared and you can see a patch of shiny silver metal" (4).
This introduction in the present is followed by a complicated four-part flashback to the spring and summer of 1951. In this flashback there are two major situations to tell about: the discovery of Mr. Willens's corpse in the river, and the solution to the mystery of why and how it got there. In the first part of the flashback, presented by an omniscient narrator, three boys playing by the flooded river on an early spring Saturday discover a submerged Austin containing Mr. Willens's body. They go home for their noon dinner but do not report their discovery to their parents. After their meal the boys go to the Willens house, where they see Mrs. …