The Comic Spirit in Alice Munro's Open Secrets: "A Real Life" and "The Jack Randa Hotel"
Martin, W. R., Ober, Warren U., Studies in Short Fiction
In Open Secrets Alice Munro spans the whole spectrum of human behavior. The stories, as always, are pervaded by gradations of light and dark, sometimes starkly contrasted, sometimes delicately shaded: at one extreme, in "Open Secrets," "A Wilderness Station," and "Vandals," neotragedy involving spousal abuse, pedophilia, or murder; at the other, in "A Real Life" (52-80) and "The Jack Randa Hotel" (161-89), comedy springing from the "timeless ritual" (Munro's phrase; "Spaceships" 276) of courtship and mating, or from small-town affectations and pretensions confounded by the natural dignity of a seemingly artless naif. It is these two latter stories, in which Munro demonstrates her brilliance as a comic writer, that we wish to consider here.
Munro's comedy in these stories is amenable to the analysis outlined by George Meredith, the Victorian novelist and poet, in his classic study, "An Essay on Comedy" (or "The Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit"); we believe that Meredith's theory of comedy, his discussion of the varieties of the comic experience, and his terminology give us the concepts that can serve as instruments to analyze the different strains of comedy in Munro's work in these two stories. Meredith identifies four possible responses to the perception of the ridiculous in human conduct and actions: satire, irony, humor, and pure comedy, the highest manifestation of "the perceptive, ... the governing [comic] spirit." High comedy differs from satire in "not sharply driving into the quivering sensibilities" of the subject, from irony in not stinging the subject "under a semi-caress," and from humor in "not comforting" the subject and "tucking [him] up" (Meredith 42-43).
In "A Real Life" we see the comic spirit in its satiric, ironic, and humorous guises. But, although Munro lays bare the artificiality and hollowness of the social climbers Millicent and especially Muriel, the chief thrust in the story is the respectful portrayal of Dorrie Beck, a true Canadian primitive. Dorrie is remarkable for her integrity and innocence, the genuineness of her interests, and the dignity and worth of her unpretentious and often socially despised avocations--even if she doesn't know the difference between the Panama and the Erie Canals (56).
Lots of people knew Dorrie, ... the lady who left skinned rabbits on doorsteps, who went through the fields and the woods with her dog and gun and waded along the flooded creeks in her high rubber boots.... Dorrie was not quite a joke--something protected her from that, either [her brother's] popularity or her own gruffness and dignity.... (69)
This is the life that Dorrie's friend Millicent urges her to leave, a life lived with her brother and then, after his death, alone, but always based on real affection, authentic interests, and a close connection with the world about her. The story hinges on Millicent's inability to grasp that this life is real for Dorrie because it gives her existence a sense of belonging to the natural world and thus an organic completeness. Dorrie embarrasses Millicent and Millicent's other friend, Muriel--whose desperate mission in life is to find a husband--when, to meet the Anglican minister and his friend from Australia, she comes to supper "wearing her good summer dress, a navy-blue organdie with white dots and white collar, suitable for a little girl or an old lady" (63).
A good deal of the story involves application of what Meredith terms the "satiric rod," but it is wielded lightly: the satire is not caustic but exuberant, high spirited, and at times almost farcical, most of it directed at Muriel and thus indirectly and in muted form at Millicent, a comic figure distinctly different in kind from Muriel and treated by Munro in the ironic mode, under an affectionate "semi-caress" (Meredith 42). Millicent comes close to recognizing Dorrie's true merit, but, because she is enclosed by bourgeois shibboleths and conventional attitudes, she fails to understand it: "`She is a hundred times more a lady than Muriel Snow,' said Millicent, naming the person who might be called her best friend. …