Heartbeats, Full of Love and Sorrow - Love Intertwines with Hope, Loss, Regret, and Grief in Alice Munro's Latest Stories

By Simon, Linda | The World and I, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Heartbeats, Full of Love and Sorrow - Love Intertwines with Hope, Loss, Regret, and Grief in Alice Munro's Latest Stories


Simon, Linda, The World and I


Linda Simon is professor of English at Skidmore College and a frequent contributor to The World & I. The author of Genuine Reality: A Life of William James (Harcourt Brace, 1998), Of Virtue Rare (1982), Thornton Wilder, His World (1979), and The Biography of Alice B. Toklas (1977), she edited William James Remembered (1996) and Gertrude Stein Remembered (1994).

The title of Alice Munro's new collection of stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, would have fit any of her ten previous books. Love in all its forms and stages: troubled and troubling, resisted and embraced, thwarted and nurtured, love as the fiercest motivation for one's existence or as the most unyielding obstacle to happiness--these have been her themes throughout her career. Now seventy-one, Munro shares in these latest stories her perspective on love and aging, illness, and even death. What is the use of love, she asks, at the end of one's life? How does love survive, or change, or even thrive in the face of loss?

Early in her writing career, Munro's characters tended to be young women on the brink of their future, eager for the unexpected gifts that life might bestow; now, many of her characters are facing death, or confronting the past, or pausing at a crossroads where each path seems inevitably to lead to the same destination. Some look back to youth, startled at their own innocence. Some are simply startled at their luck. In these stories, as she always has, Munro brings a wry wisdom, a generous tolerance of her characters' flaws and limitations. If they seem naive, she implies, don't worry; they'll learn what they have to, sooner or later.

What they learn, of course, is that we humans cannot control our lives, however much we try. We cannot plan, really, because twists of fate unravel those plans more easily than we make them; we cannot bargain with fate, or with God. In "Post and Beam," for example, Lorna recalls a time in her life when she knew "that she was counting on something happening, something that would change her life." Married with young children, she sees her future as more of the same: "the children would grow up, and there might be one or two more of them and they too would grow up," and she and her husband "would grow older and then old." But a sudden fear of disaster--a fear, fortunately, that is not realized-- makes her aware that "something that would change her life" could be dreadful, could mean loss and regret. What she possessed, "so ordinary and amazing," was chillingly fragile. If only she could strike a bargain with God, she thought then, perhaps she could ensure against losing what she so deeply loves; yet she cannot imagine her part in the bargain. What can she sacrifice, she asks herself? What can she give up? Finally, she solemnly realizes that what she must do is "to go on living as she had been doing. The bargain was already in force." Her part of the bargain is grateful acceptance. But Munro does not allow us to leave satisfied with Lorna's gentle epiphany; even accepting one's fate, counting one's blessings, giving up longings for liberating surprises will not protect her from whatever fate can do. Surely Lorna will discover this unsettling truth; after all, Munro reminds us, "It was a long time ago that this happened. ... When she was twenty-four years old, and new to bargaining."

Games of chance

Perhaps the strongest evocation of this theme appears in the title story: hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage is a list of alternatives for what might happen between a girl and the boy whose attentions she covets. The list is part of a game, where girls write down their name and the name of the boy, cross out letters that are duplicated, and count the remainder, ticking off the choices until they reach "the verdict on what could happen between you and that boy." Fate, Munro implies, has hardly more logic. …

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