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“How does art come out of common clay?”: The Ordinary and the Extraordinary in Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades

Par Cécile Fouache : Maître de conférences - Université de Rouen
Publié par Marion Coste le 03/12/2016
Cet article a été rédigé dans le cadre d'une journée d'étude consacrée aux thématiques de l'agrégation (session 2017), qui a eu lieu à l'Université de Caen-Normandie.


If we are to believe Peter Englund in the address he gave at the 2013 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, 2013, the way Alice Munro deals with the “real” material of small town Ontario at given times in the history of Canada, the way she fictionalizes the everyday, is precisely one of the things that contributed to her winning the Nobel prize:

In her writing, Alice Munro portrays with almost anthropological precision a recognizable, tranquil everyday world with predictable external accouterments; her equivalent of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is located in southwestern Ontario. This flat agricultural landscape, with its broad rivers and seemingly bland small towns, is where most of her short stories unfold. But the serenity and simplicity are deceptive in every way.
The tranquility of the outer world is always apparent to Alice Munro’s works, which then open the portals to an inner world where the opposite is true. Munro writes about what are usually called ordinary people, but her intelligence, compassion and astonishing power of perception enable her to give their lives a remarkable dignity – indeed redemption – since she shows how much of the extraordinary can fit into that jam-packed emptiness called The Ordinary. The trivial and trite are intertwined with the amazing and unfathomable – but never at the cost of contradiction.

In a similar vein, in her biography of Alice Munro published in 1992, Catherine Sheldrick Ross already wrote:

What is [Alice Munro] famous for? For stories written with such emotional honesty, compassion, and intimacy that in them readers recognize their deepest selves. For stories so rich they seem like compressed novels, juxtaposing past against present, one point of view against another. […] For presenting ordinary life so that it appears luminous, invested with a kind of magic. (Ross 1992, 15)

It is this idea of magic that I would like to explore. I’ll try to show how Munro manages to “transfigure the commonplace” [1] in order to find and unveil the extraordinary within the ordinary, how she pictures, deciphers and explores, transforms and illuminates the ordinary everyday of the characters so that they eventually experience some kind of epiphany through which they end up getting an insight into what the character of “Sunday Afternoon”, Alva, calls her “tender spot” (171), a truer meaning of their lives than the comfortable, reassuring image they had of themselves, of their family and of their whole world.

1. Picturing reality: ordinary people and their lives in an ordinary setting

The reality that Munro pictures is one of ordinary people and their ordinary lives in an ordinary setting exemplified by the linoleum metaphor [2], ordinary small town families striving to find their place in the society of their time, and she does this following the tradition of literary realism.

1.1 The material of Munro's reality

Basically Munro writes about what she knows, ordinary family life as at the beginning of “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, simple family settings, such as the farm in “Boys and Girls” (111), most of which is based on autobiographical data. Her subject matter, as Corinne Bigot and Catherine Lanone put it, is “the drama of pettiness, the theatre of little banal acts of cruelty, especially among children” (2014, 67), particularly in stories such as “Boys and Girls”, “Day of the Butterfly”, “Red Dress-1946” or “Walker Brothers Cowboy” when she explores sisterhood or brother-sister relationships.

The reality of Munro’s stories is derived from her interest in the ordinary: “Even totally commonplace things like a shopping centre and a supermarket and things like that are just sort of endlessly interesting in their physical reality. I know I can get very excited by ordinary things.” (Gibson, 241) This is what provides her with her material: “I’m not a writer who is very concerned with ideas. I’m very excited by what you might call the surface of life. […] for me it’s just things about people, the way they look, the way they sound, the way things smell, the way everything is that you go through everyday.” (Gibson, 241) Hence the presence of numerous descriptive passages involving the five senses, especially smell, as in “Thanks for the Ride” (50), “Images” (40) or “Walker Brothers Cowboy” (11).

Contemporary Canadian writer Carol Shields, also famous for her fictionalization of the everyday, explained what kind of material she expected to put in her novels: “I wanted wallpaper in my novels, cereal bowls, cupboards, cousins, buses, local elections, head colds, cramps, newspapers...” (Shields 1998). Alice Munro would probably have included linoleum, light bulbs, aprons, comics, songs, even periods, to be evoked in “Red Dress—1946”. In the last chapter of Lives of Girls and Women she puts it in the following way through the voice of her main character: “What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.” (Munro 2001, 276)

Alice Munro sums up what her characters’ lives are like in a well-known quotation taken from her second work, Lives of Girls and Women: “People’s lives in Jubilee or elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.” (249) The oxymoron, a recurrent figure of speech of Munro’s, reflects her oxymoronic use of the everyday through the figure of the linoleum, which is mentioned at least ten times in this collection only [3] so that we may consider with Sabrina Francesconi that Munro’s is indeed a “poetics of the linoleum”. In “Walker Brothers Cowboy” for instance, the kitchen linoleum is “waxed worn” (11), which emphasizes the ambiguity of everyday life, both ordinary and extraordinary, for it is outside the scope of the narrator’s personal experience. Thus the motif of the linoleum exemplifies the way Munro pictures the ordinary to suggest the extraordinary that it contains, becoming a metaphor of everydayness.

1.2 L’effet de réel

Munro’s realism is to be found in her descriptions and in the sense of detail in those descriptions. For instance, in “Dance of the Happy Shades”, the shabby setting with the flies gathering on the stale food prepared too early is terribly realistic: “The plates of sandwiches are set out, as they must have been for several hours now; you can see how the ones on top are beginning to curl very slightly at the edges. Flies buzz over the table, settle on the sandwiches and crawl comfortably across the plates of little iced cakes brought from the bakery” (218). The two adverbs emphasize this reality effect. 

Munro’s descriptions insist on “the physical reality of things”. For instance, in “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, the rambling description of the city of Tuppertown, its population and its neglected landscape suggests the simple lives she pays attention to, as opposed to grand heroic narratives and traditional plots: “the town falls away in a defeated jumble of sheds and small junkyards, the sidewalks give up and we are walking on a sandy path its burdocks, plantains, humble nameless weeds all around” (2). There is a similar description of the town in “Thanks for the Ride”: 

It was a town of unpaved, wide, sandy streets and bare yards. Only the hardy things like red and yellow nasturtiums, or a lilac bush with brown curled leaves, grew out of that cracked earth. The houses were set wide apart, with their own pumps and sheds and privies out behind; most of them were built of wood and painted green or grey or yellow. The trees that grew there were big willows or poplars, their fine leaves greyed with the dust. There were no trees along the main street, but spaces of tall grass and dandelions and blowing thistles — open country between the store buildings (46-7). 

We can note the extensive use of descriptive adjectives. We get a glimpse of “a small Ontario town with brand names, store names, street names” (Arnason), all evoking one of the classical themes of Canadian literature, wilderness, itself closely linked to the notion of “garrison mentality” [4] well exemplified by Munro’s portrayal of small-town communities. All this is a good example of what Roland Barthes called “l’effet de réel”, “the reality effect”, conveyed by the precision of potentially useless details, which creates the illusion of reality thanks to a very skillful construct.

Munro’s realism then corresponds to Frank Norris’ definition, who said that realism concerns “the smaller details of everyday life that are likely to happen between lunch and dinner.” In Munro’s case, as in “Walker Brothers Cowboy” or “Images”, it would rather be after dinner!

However, the reality pictured in Munro’s stories is deceptively, misleadingly ordinary and simple. Not only does Munro picture it but she also deciphers and explores it to unveil its underlying extraordinary nature thanks to her predominantly first-person, female narrators.

2. Deciphering and exploring reality

2.1 Narrative strategies: retrospective narration or the double narrator

One characteristic of Munro’s narrative strategies is indeed her extensive use of first-person female narrators, usually young girls commenting on a series of characters and actions, with the exception of the unique male narrator of “Thanks for the Ride”. More often than not, she resorts to retrospective narration, in which the adult narrator looks back and writes about her childhood or teenage years in order to decipher and explore the meaning of a significant event that occurred back then, often starting as an ordinary event gradually turning out to be extraordinary, drawing attention to the fact that this is a reconstruction, as in “Boys and Girls” when at some point in the story, the narrator pauses in the development to say “I have forgotten to say what the foxes were fed. […] They were fed horsemeat.” (118). Thus the narrator highlights the gap between her memory and the actual events in the past and the extraordinary nature of the event appears in this gap. It is precisely this gap in memory which triggers the recollection of the event that shapes the narrator’s fate and identity, namely this is how the narrator introduces horses in the picture, the female horse Flora being the trigger of the unnamed narrator’s epiphany. As the story unravels, we shift between two levels of time: the past as the child experienced it and conveyed by the child-focalizer and the present with the adult narrator shaping her memories and experiences as they surface up in her mind, unveiling the extraordinary in them. This process can also be found in stories such as “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, “Images”, “An Ounce of Cure”, perhaps “Day of the Butterfly”.

2.2. “getting the design just right”

The aim of this strategy for the narrator is to unveil a profound, extraordinary meaning to her life, a meaning that so far has been concealed to her consciousness. As Munro explains in her interview with Graeme Gibson: “Mostly in my stories I look at what people don’t understand what we think is happening and what we understand later on.”

In the first paragraph of “The Shining Houses”, the narrator metatextually explains Munro’s method for “getting the design just right”: “Mary found herself exploring her neighbour’s life as she had once explored the lies of grandmothers and aunts – by pretending to know less than she did, asking for some story she had heard before; this way, remembered episodes emerged each time with slight differences of content, meaning, colour, yet with a pure reality that usually attaches to things which at least part legend.” (19)

3. Transforming and illuminating reality: how art comes out of common clay or how reality produces legend

The final process in the treatment of reality by Munro consists in transforming and illuminating it, not necessarily by using a magic wand, but by demonstrating how art comes “out of common clay”, or how reality magically produces legend when her characters are led to see it differently as a consequence of a significant event. The phrase “common clay”, representing the ordinary producing art or the extraordinary, was used notably by Carol Shields in her biography of Jane Austen: “How does art emerge? How does art come out of common clay, in this case a vicar’s self-educated daughter, all but buried in rural Hampshire?” (5) The question is equally relevant to Munro and southwestern Ontario. Summarizing the structure of Munro’s stories, David Arnason provides the beginning of an answer: “A scene is set with a remarkable amount of period detail. Several characters are introduced, not because they are going to be part in a scenic action, but because they are intrinsically interesting, and they will allow the narrator to come to some epiphany, some moment of psychological or spiritual insight that might not have been expected but which always seems right.” (Arnason 107)

3.1. A new way of seeing, a renewed vision of the self

As Catherine Sheldrick Ross explains in her essay entitled “At least part legend; the fiction of Alice Munro”, “Munro’s characters indeed often find themselves in circumstances where it seems that “anything might happen”. […] The effect is achieved […] through some tilt in their perception which lets them […] see the ordinary as extraordinary.” (1983, 115) Understanding and renewed awareness thus require a new way of seeing, a slightly different angle of perception induced by significant events that disrupt the routine and enable the characters to see “the magic of the ordinary” (Metcalf, 1972, 58).

This is what happens in “The Peace of Utrecht” when the narrator eventually discovers “the source of legends” in her familiar reality. When the narrator’s daughter asks her “Mother, is this your house?”, the disappointment she hears in her voice triggers a revelation: “it contained the whole flatness and strangeness of the moment in which is revealed the source of legends, the unsatisfactory, apologetic and persistent reality.” (197)

Another good example is “Walker Brothers Cowboy” in which the narrator’s vision of “the Lake” changes as her father shifts the perspective from an ordinary view of the lake (“want to go down and see if the Lake’s still there?” (1)) to a grand vision that inscribes it in geological time. The landscape bears on the narrator’s understanding of her father after the scene at Nora’s: “I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” (18) A similar process is at work at the end of “Images”: “Like the children in fairy stories who have […] discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvellous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared to live happily ever after – like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word.” (43)

The choice of titles also participates in the process by providing a different angle of vision, to direct the reader towards the same kind of understanding as the narrator is aiming at. “The Peace of Utrecht” is a good example in that it combines two levels of meaning and two dimensions of experience: the anecdotal and the historical [5]. The title comes from an anecdote in the story when after many years the narrator incidentally comes across a school essay of hers in her bedroom, dealing precisely with this major event in Canadian history (201). The treaty in question ended the war of Spanish succession while what we witness in the story is a war raging between the two sisters, the aunts and the overwhelming memory of the mother in the aftermath, the “succession” of the mother’s death (the lexical field of the war is there to confirm it). The sisters actually embark on a pacifying process, in vain, so that the title functions as an ironic counterpoint to the story. The title of the story “Images” metafictionally hints at Munro’s writing method, namely an image, an episode, a specific memory, are often how a story starts. Munro explains her choice of titles saying “I think a title should be hinged onto the story in some way that is just right.” (Hancock, 202) I argue that this “hinge” is where the magic operates by unveiling the extraordinary in the ordinary, by transcending reality and suggesting the epiphanic process at work in the stories.

3.2 Epiphany

David Arnason defines epiphany in Munro’s stories as “a moment of insight that changes forever the way the narrator can see the world.” Marjorie Garson speaks of “flashes of clear-sightedness that enable the heroine to wake up and move on”, hence the recurrence of images of light and shadow in the stories, as highlighted by Bigot and Lanone (129). In “Boys and Girls”, the epiphany comes rather in a flash of action as the girl lets the horse go (125). But the renewed vision on the pattern of the narrators’ lives induced by this epiphany often leads to frustration or to an unwelcome revelation as, in “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, the realization of “something you will never know”, silence in “Images”, or an insight into the character’s “tender spot” as in “Sunday Afternoon”: “there was something she would not explore yet – a tender spot, a new and still mysterious humiliation” (171). Instead of providing a higher level of moral or psychological progress, the epiphany sometimes turns out to be almost exactly the opposite of epiphany in the Joycean sense of the term, as in “An Ounce of Cure” in which the narrator gets “a glimpse of the shameless, marvellous, shattering absurdity with which the plots of life, though not of fiction, are improvised.” Once again the oxymoron occurs at a key moment in the narrative. The magic lies in this balancing, this sometimes paradoxical blending of the ordinary and the extraordinary.


 [1] The expression is recurrently used about what the character of the teacher, Miss Jean Brodie, endeavours to do with her pupils in Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

 [2] See Sabrina Francesconi’s article on « Alice Munro and the Poetics of the Linoleum ».
 [3] « Walker Brothers Cowboy » p.11 ; « Thanks for the Ride » p. 49 ; « Time of Death » p. 94, « Boys and Girls » pp. 112, 113, 117 ; « Trip to the Coast » p. 174 ; « Peace of Utrecht » p. 198, 209.
 [4] The term was coined by Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye and explored, among others, by Margaret Atwood.
 [5] See Thomas Dutoit’s article « The Piece of You Trekked » for further interpretations of the title of the story.

Références bibliographiques

ARNASON, David. 2003-2004. “Losing and Lost Women: The Early Stories of Alice Munro.” Open Letter 11:9/12:1. 103-112.

BIGOT, Corinne et Catherine LANONE. 2014. Sunlight and Shadows, Past and Present. Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades. Paris: PUF.

ENGLUND, Peter. 2013. “Award Ceremony Speech”. Nobelprize.org. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2013/presentation-speech.html (février 2016)

HANCOCK, Geoff. 1987. “Alice Munro.” Canadian Writers at Work. Interviews with Geoff Hancock. Toronto: Oxford University Press. 187-224.

METCALF, John. 1972. “A Conversation with Alice Munro.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 1.4. 54-62.

MUNRO, Alice. 1998 (1968). Dance of the Happy Shades. New York: Vintage.

GIBSON, Graeme. 1973. “Alice Munro.” Eleven Canadian Novelists. Toronto: House of Anansi Press. 241-264.

MUNRO, Alice. 2001 (1971). Lives of Girls and Women. New York: Vintage.

NORRIS, Frank. 1896. “Zola as a romantic writer.” Wave XV. 3.

ROSS, Catherine Sheldrick. 1992. Alice Munro, A Double Life. Downsview, ON: ECW Press.

ROSS, Catherine Sheldrick. 1983. “At least part legend; the fiction of Alice Munro” dansProbable Fictions: Alice Munro’s Narrative Acts. Louis MacKendrick, ed. Downsview, ON, ECW Press. 112-126.

SHIELDS, Carol. 1998. “Framing the Structure of a Novel.” The Writer vol. III, n°7. 3.

SHIELDS, Carol. 2001. Jane Austen: A Life. Viking Penguin.

SPARK, Muriel. 1961. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. London: Macmillan.

Pour aller plus loin

ATWOOD, Margaret. 1972. Survival. A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

BEGOUT, Bruce. 2005. La découverte du quotiden. Paris: Allia.

DUTOIT, Thomas. 2014. “Boring Gravel: Literary Earth, Alice Munro’s Ontario Geolithic: The Piece of You Trekked or, on the non-Alignment of Enclosures and exposures in Alice Munro.” Études canadiennes/Canadian Studies 77. 77-110.

FOUACHE, Cécile. 2007. L’art du quotidien dans les romans de Carol Shields (1935-2003). Lille: Atelier National de Reproduction des Thèses. 

FRANCESCONI, Sabrina. 2015. “Alice Munro and the Poetics of the Linoleum”, dansThe Inside of a Shell: Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades, Vanessa Guinery, ed, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 86-97.

FRYE, Northrop. 1995 (1971). The Brush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Cécile Fouache, "“How does art come out of common clay?”: The Ordinary and the Extraordinary in Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), décembre 2016. Consulté le 20/02/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/litterature-contemporaine/how-does-art-come-out-of-common-clay-the-ordinary-and-the-extraordinary-in-alice-munro-s-dance-of-the-happy-shades