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Nature after Wordsworth in Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro

Par Christine Lorre-Johnston : Maitresse de conférences - Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3
Publié par Marion Coste le 03/01/2016
Alice Munro has acknowledged the influence of Wordsworth’s works and ideas on her own outlook, particularly where the idea of nature is concerned. Yet this cultural link has seldom been explored. Starting from this observation, this article proposes a few research directions by examining the concept of nature in Munro’s first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), successively as an experience of “the call of the wild,” then in the form of geology, and last, as overall framework for contemporary ecological changes.

Introduction

In a 2006 interview with Lisa Dickler Awano, Alice Munro was asked about her interest in William Wordsworth. The progression of the exchange with the interviewer is revealing of Munro’s ambivalent relationship with the poet as literary figure, with his works, and ideas:

LDA: In Lives of Mothers and Daughters, Sheila [Munro, Alice Munro’s eldest daughter] mentions that Margaret Hogg’s son, James Hogg [a Scottish ancestor of Munro’s], knew Wordsworth [Sheila Munro, 2001, 177], and it seems that Wordsworth is important to you.
AM: Yes, he is. Wordsworth, as you know, enjoyed a great reputation as a poet. And Hogg wrote parodies of him at one time. He wrote parodies of Byron, too, and all sorts of poets, in an effort to make some money. I don’t think they were very pleased with this, if they knew about it, but later on there’s a story about him going to visit Wordsworth. In that time you could go and visit writers without invitation. You just showed up to pay your respects. And so that’s what Hogg did, and I think he was with someone else, who knew Wordsworth a little. When they were in Wordsworth’s house, Hogg said, “Imagine, two great writers in the same room!” And this is what I love about Hogg—that he’s so different from the family ideal. He’s just totally boastful and his self-esteem is huge, and Wordsworth didn’t like this very much either, I don’t think.
LDA: Walter James Miller, in his Walter Talks Books CD lecture on Runaway, discussed how interested you are in Wordsworth’s philosophy about—
AM: Nature? Oh, yes, tremendously. I was going to say, “I was when I was younger,” but that’s one of the stupid things that people say. . . as if they got smarter when they’re older. I just absorbed it, I think, but I had a great feeling about nature in my late teens—the countryside I grew up in—a sort of mystical feeling. It entirely replaced religion, but it was, in a way, of the same quality as religion.
LDA: Has Wordsworth’s philosophy come to have a contemporary meaning for you?
AM: It has. Yes. And of course, now I’m not alone in feeling this way. It was a feeling that I really guarded when I was a young girl, because people would have laughed at me, I thought. And now, it’s quite common for people to have this feeling and this concern. Whether it will help or not, I don’t know. (Awano, 2006, n.p.)

In the first set of questions and answers, Munro considers Wordsworth as a literary figure, in relation to James Hogg, a shepherd who became a writer and was Wordsworth’s contemporary, as well as an ancestor of Munro’s. Munro writes about Hogg and claims him as a literary ancestor in The View from Castle Rock (2006), the book that is closest to an autobiography in her oeuvre, and in which she explores her Scottish ancestry. In this interview, in her comment on the reported anecdote of Hogg’s visit to Wordsworth, she foregrounds Hogg’s self-confidence, despite his humble origins, in contrast with the more mannerly, conservative Wordsworth. By siding with the more brazen of the two personalities, Munro is simultaneously claiming Wordsworth as part of her literary heritage, and keeping a distance with him.

In the second part of the exchange, Munro considers Wordsworth’s philosophy, and his ideas about nature, that is to say the Romantic idea of nature in its relation to man as a key source of meaning in man’s existence. When she says “I just absorbed it” (that is, Wordsworth’s philosophy), and nearly says “I was [interested] when I was younger,” Munro indicates that Wordsworth’s poetry was part of the culture that she grew up with, and that his Romantic outlook on nature is part of her own intellectual framework. She has always been an avid reader, and her reading of Victorian literature, for instance of Dickens and Tennyson, has been well documented (Thacker, 2005, 67-71). This interview shows that she was also familiar with Wordsworth’s poetry and life, and is well informed about his contemporaries, including James Hogg—although she did not find out about her family connection with Hogg until she did research in Scotland later in life. Yet her relation to that Romantic culture is an ambivalent one, and there is a felt need to keep it at a distance, or to keep it secret when she was young. In earlier interviews, she acknowledged more readily the influence of American Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty, while British writers appeared as more distant ancestors, a part of her background through childhood readings (Metcalf, 1972, 56; Gibson, 1973, 248). Yet their influence is definitely present; Munro’s sense of communion with nature, in an almost mystical way, is explicitly linked to a Wordsworthian, Romantic way of looking at the world.

I will now take a step aside from Wordsworth, while remaining in relation to the theme of nature, by looking at another piece by Munro, published in May 1974 in The Globe and Mail, entitled “Everything Here Is Touchable and Mysterious.” In it Munro evokes her fascination for the local river close to where she grew up, called the Menesetung by the Indians, and the Maitland by the first settlers. She concludes, in a paragraph that has been often quoted:

We believed there were deep holes in the river. We went looking for them, scared and hopeful, and never found them, but did not stop believing that. Even now I believe that there were deep holes, ominous beckoning places, but that they have probably silted up. But maybe not all. Because I’m still partly convinced that this river—not even the whole river, but this little stretch of it—will provide whatever myths you want, whatever adventures. I name the plants, I name the fish, and every name seems to me triumphant, every leaf and quick fish remarkably valuable. This ordinary place is sufficient, everything here touchable and mysterious. (Munro, 1974, 33)

Munro’s mention of the native name of the river links it up to a whole other range of myths, different from those of the settlers, in a way that brings a form of renewal to what could be a clichéd way of looking at the place. At the same time, the juxtaposition of the two adjectives “touchable and mysterious” encapsulates her double vision of the real, the immediate, the ordinary, and the extraordinary, the hidden, what remains elusive and beyond our grasp. A process takes place, whereby these two elements, the ordinary and the extraordinary, coexist in any Munro character’s surroundings, in the same way as the old culture (as embodied for instance by the Romantic culture inherited from the Lake poets) and the new culture (the settlers’ culture, that coexists with, or superimposes itself onto the native one), are merged and give rise to a new perspective.

It is worth noting that the settlers’ culture is very present in Munro’s outlook, including in the description of the river, its flora and fauna, in the quoted article. A nine-page letter from her father, dated 10 February 1974, and presumably following a request for information by Munro, indicates that the list of plants and fish that Munro gives in the article was provided by him, and so was the information about the history of the settlement of the area. A joint reading of her father’s letter and Munro’s own piece reveals how attached he was to the river and the area, how he passed on his fascination for it and sense of magic to Munro as a child (as can be seen in “Images” for instance), how he passed on to her the names of fauna and fish (even though she then writes “I name,” appropriating the Adamic powers she owes to her father), and how she turned it into poetic material to nurture the imagination:

I’m glad you want to write about the Maitland. To me it is not the Maitland it is The River, my river. I played beside at Marnock as a child. Trapped and hunted along it as a young man, built the fox ranch and lived beside it, and raised you kids, all my adult life to now. I hope I shall never will be too far from it. I know there are thousands of little rivers like it but to me it has the greenest shores the brightest shallows and the most interesting bends and coves of any river there is. (Laidlaw, 1974, 5)

To go back to the Awano interview, in the third and last part of the exchange on Wordsworth, Munro enlarges the temporal perspective by considering current times. We understand that the “feeling” she refers to is that of the need to respect nature more, in light of the environmental dangers that face the late 20th century. This has become a widespread feeling, a common worry, and Munro voices her awareness of the ecological risks in the present and her concern for the future (“Whether it will help or not, I don’t know”). But as with issues related to feminism earlier in her writing career, she avoids taking a political stance about this public issue, which she prefers to evoke obliquely, without even naming it.

Having outlined, through an analysis of Munro’s own understanding of her relation to Wordsworth’s heritage as expressed in the interview, the extent and meaning of his influence on her, and the importance of nature in her outlook, I would now like to examine her approach to nature—by which I mean “plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed to humans or human creations or civilization” (OSED)—in some of the stories from Dance of the Happy Shades. I will show how the perception of nature triggers a range of feelings, and evolves as the protagonists age, from a sense of symbiosis with nature and its elements, to a sense of time defined by nature, which on its largest scale corresponds with geological time, to a dawning awareness of ecological questions related to human activity. In these various ways of defining the relation of the self to the environment and the landscape, Munro discreetly renews our perspective of the world.

1. The Call of the Wild: focus on “Boys and Girls”

The short story “Images” conveys a strong sense of the opposition between nature and culture, through the contrast between gendered spaces: the indoors, comforting, domestic world of the mother, who is about to give birth and produce a baby who will be the first sibling of the girl narrator, is quite alien to the outdoors, the more mysterious, wilder world of the father that the girl ventures into during a walk with him near the house. At such time of crisis, with the baby due soon and rivalry looming, the girl longs for her father’s company, and fully appreciates the privilege of being his companion during his round on his natural territory. Nature gives her the same sense of freedom that it gives him.

Similarly, in “Boys and Girls”, the contrast between nature and culture is strong, with the inside of the house on the one hand, where most of the mother’s tasks are performed, and where the girl is expected to spend more time helping as she grows up, and on the other hand the father’s farm, with the fox pens, and the house cellar where he skins the animals. The children find the inside frightening, not the outside, because of all the intriguing objects at night in the upstairs of the house where their shared bedroom is. During the day, the girl longs for the outdoors, for adventure. Curiously, she also feels comfortable in the cellar, and unlike her mother does not mind the smell of the dead foxes: “I found it reassuringly seasonal, like the smell of oranges and pine needles.” (Munro, 1968, 112) She describes the fox pens as a miniature city, and appreciates the foxes’ apparent malevolence: they watch her, and she looks back at them, finding them beautiful, “especially for their faces, drawn exquisitely sharp in pure hostility, and their golden eyes” (Munro, 1968, 115). The distribution of roles and of the significance of spaces is thus reversed: animals are familiar in their malevolence, the children’s bedroom is a frightening space, and the kitchen is to be avoided. This runs counter to the notions of garrison mentality (Frye, 1965, 225) and survival (Atwood, 1972) that have been associated with Canadian literature, and closely binds the girl to the natural environment that surrounds her.

Yet this unusual order comes to an end when Flora, the mare, is slaughtered. This event is a turning point in the girl’s development, and marks the time when the innocence of childhood comes to an end, as she herself is getting closer to adolescence. A different economy is revealed, in which human activity is no longer so natural: “I did not have any great feeling of horror and opposition, such as a city child might have had; I was too used to seeing the death of animals as a necessity by which we lived. Yet I felt a little ashamed, and there was a new wariness, a sense of holding-off, in my attitude to my father and his work.” (Munro, 1968, 123-124) Intuitive gender affiliations are shifting with adolescence.

When Flora is due to be slaughtered, the girl spontaneously opens the gate without thinking twice about why she is doing it, or what the consequences will be, so the mare can escape. It is as if her action was dictated by some sort of animal instinct, out of empathy with the mare, and for their common fate, which is to be controlled by men, be it “men” as opposed to women, or to animal species. And yet, she knows that there is no escape: “There was no wild country for her to run to, only farms.” (Munro, 1968, 125) With this realization, the state of nature that she may have thought she had lived in comes to an end.

In “Boys and Girls”, as in “Images”, there is a sense of actions being dictated by instinct, of desire for freedom, of wanting to be in the wild rather than in the civilized world. The rural life described in the childhood stories leaves this possibility open, as the lifestyle is still close in some ways to that of the first settlers: in “Images” the father’s trapline along the river is still a primitive, “natural” way of making a living, although he does it as a complement to his main activity, and because he enjoys it. However, with the fox farm in “Boys and Girls,” the father’s activity is a form of human exploitation of nature. There is a sort of nostalgia for an almost idyllic, picturesque and harmonious lifestyle between man and nature, for instance in winter, when “it was convenient to go to town with a horse and cutter” (Munro, 1968, 118). But human activity and progress now dictate otherwise: “After the war the farmers were buying tractors and gradually getting rid of horses altogether” (Munro, 1968, 118). Even when their life is prolonged on the father’s farm, the horses are bound to be slaughtered.

Despite elements of nostalgia for a lost paradise in which man and beast can live harmoniously, both stories end in a form of disillusion, and perhaps the idyllic state that is hoped for is the idyllic but short-lived world of childhood, which ends when a baby sibling arrives, or when a girl grows into a teenager.

2. Geological and historical time: “Walker Brothers Cowboy”

Nature is once again associated with the father figure in “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” when the father takes the girl to “see if the Lake’s still there” (Munro, 1968, 1). The joke about the immobility of the lake foreshadows the father’s geology lesson and the way it casts time under a different light, as he tries to give the girl a sense of geological time. The father turns into a story teller, telling the girl about the ice age, emphasizing the irresistible force of the glacial process, hinting at man’s vulnerability in passing: “Well, the old ice cap had a lot more power behind it than this hand has.” (Munro, 1968, 3). But the ice itself is anthropomorphized – it “left its fingers of ice in the deep places it had gouged” (Munro, 1968, 3) – which should make the process less threatening and more natural to the girl.

However, the girl finds it hard to imagine another scale of time:

I try to see that plain before me, dinosaurs walking on it, but I am not able even to imagine the shore of the Lake when the Indians were there, before Tuppertown. The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in. He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist. He was not alive when this century started. I will be barely alive—old, old—when it ends. I do not like to think of it. I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown. (Munro, 1968, 3)

The time before the settlement by Europeans, the time “when the Indians were there,” is hard to imagine, as it is outside the child’s time scale. It can be argued that in this passage, focalization through the child and through the adult is mixed: “my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted,” is arguably the child’s viewpoint, while the elaboration on the father’s place on a historical scale, using technological landmarks, is the adult narrator’s, or may have been prompted to the child by an adult, possibly her father: “He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist. He was not alive when this century started.” This would be in keeping with the father’s strong sense, in the childhood stories, of issuing from a vanishing settler society, but no longer being entirely part of it. The child’s instinct, by contrast, is to favour the reassuring bearings of childhood: “I do not like to think of it. I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.” The “safe-swimming floats” are a clear sign of the safety that she feels as a child.

Images related to landscape and geology, as natural elements filtered through human perception, gained importance in Munro’s writing after she went back to Ontario in the 1970s and lived with her second husband, a geographer (McCulloch and Simpson, 1994, n.p.). In “What Do You Want to Know For?” (The View from Castle Rock, 2006), the geological landscape is seen as both “a record of ancient events” that changes her relationship to time and as a “vulnerable” landscape (Munro, 2006, 318), in an parallel with the ageing human body and human memory. It appears as an increasingly adequate analogy to revise man’s place on earth, in times of environmental change and risk. In colonial times, Darwin’s theories of evolution revolutionized man’s place in the natural world. By the second half of the 20th century, man’s impact on the natural world had become considerable, to the point of altering substantially the environment. This led some scientists, at the dawn of the 21st century, to coin the term “anthropocene.” Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer thus argue: “it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term “Anthropocene” for the current geological epoch. … [M]ankind will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years, to come” (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000, 40, 41). In the same way as Wordsworth and other Romantic poets reacted to major revolutionary changes in their times, Munro discreetly addresses issues of her times by paying attention to her surroundings, and emphasizing a certain sense of historical continuity in human development. It may be argued that both Wordsworth’s and Munro’s turn to nature, one at the end of the 19th century and the other at the end of the 20th, are part of a continued response to a process that started with “the advent of the Industrial Revolution around 1800” (Steffen et al, 2011, 842), and which 19th-century colonization and settlement was part of.

3. Dawning ecological questions: “The Shining Houses”

The contrast between settlement and modern civilization in its late 20th-century version, that is to say between a traditional, small-scale economy, and consumer society, is a prominent theme in “The Shining Houses,” through the contrast between Mrs. Fullerton’s old house and the new suburban developments for young up-and-coming families. There is something organic about Mrs. Fullerton’s house and the way it has grown into what it now is:

The house and its surroundings were so self-sufficient, with their complicated and seemingly unalterable layout of vegetables and flower beds, apple and cherry trees, wired chicken-run, berry patch and wooden walks, woodpile, a great many roughly built dark little sheds, for hens or rabbits or a goat. Here was no open or straightforward plan, no order that an outsider could understand; yet what was haphazard time had made final. The place had become fixed, impregnable, all its accumulations necessary, until it seemed that even the washtubs, mops, couch springs and stacks of old police magazines on the back porch were there to stay. (Munro, 1968, 22)

Mrs. Fullerton’s many animals are like her own Noah’s ark in the middle of the city, and her place seems to have a natural order of its own. To the list of plants and animals are gradually added objects of consumption (“the washtubs, mops, couch springs and stacks of old police magazines”) so that even though there is nothing natural about these accumulated objects, time and a sort of sedimentation process has made them part of Mrs. Fullerton’s natural environment. There is also, however, a deeper organic link between old houses like hers and the natural environment:

But houses like Mrs. Fullerton’s had been separated from each other by uncut forest and a jungle of wild blackberry and salmonberry bushes; these surviving houses, with thick smoke coming out of their chimneys, walls unpainted and patched and showing different degrees of age and darkening, rough sheds and stacked wood and compost heaps and grey board fences around them—these appeared every so often among the large new houses of Mimosa and Marigold and Heather Drive—dark, enclosed, expressing something like savagery in their disorder and the steep, unmatched angles of roofs and lean-tos; not possible on these streets, but there. (Munro, 1968, 24)

The old houses are surrounded by forest and bushes, and survive among them; they do not dominate the landscape. They retain a degree of savagery, in their unkempt outlook, that contrasts with the kind of civilization epitomized by the new houses, which are an eyesore and a wound in the mountain:

The new, white, shining houses, set side by side in long rows in the wound of the earth. [Mary] always thought of them as white houses, though of course they were not entirely white. … Last year, just at this time, in March, the bulldozers had come in to clear away the brush and second-growth and great trees of the mountain forest; in a little while the houses were going up among the boulders, the huge torn stumps, the unimaginable upheavals of that earth. (Munro, 1968, 23)

A process is under way, which seems impossible to go against, and Mary is engulfed by it. Her neighbours are also full of good will, and she cannot find the words to argue with their position. Deep down she knows there is something wrong with what is happening, but also that it is an unstoppable process of civilization. So: “There is nothing you can do at present but put your hands in your pockets and keep a disaffected heart.” (Munro, 1968, 29) I like to think that this “you” is Mary’s internal voice, in her solitude, but also echoes our feeling of helplessness, as human beings facing ecological challenges on planet earth.

Conclusion

This analysis of Munro’s take on nature and the reading of three stories from Dance of the Happy Shades reveal a pervading and powerful sense, in Munro’s writing, of the impact of European settlement on the Canadian natural environment, while conveying an insider’s understanding and fondness for that culture. In hindsight, the form of inhabitation of early-20th century settler colony seems like an important but mild phenomenon by comparison with post-World War 2 society and the development of consumer culture and suburban housing, as nature loses some of its sway over humans and they increase their control over it. Rural colonial society is also the world of Munro’s childhood, and for that reason, remains imbued with the sense of a more organic form of life, in contrast with the contemporary environment, which is evolving in a disquieting way.

Works Cited

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

AWANO, Lisa Dickler. 2006. “An Interview with Alice Munro.” Virginia Quarterly Review 82 (3). http://www.vqronline.org/web-exclusive/interview-alice-munro.

CRUTZEN, Paul J., and Eugene STOERMER. 2000. “The ‘Anthropocene.’” Global Change Newsletter, no. 41 (May): 17–18.

FRYE, Northrop. 1965. “Conclusion.” Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Reprinted in The Bush Garden: Essays in the Canadian Imagination, 213-251. Toronto: Anansi, 1971.

GIBSON, Graeme. 1973. “Alice Munro,” in Eleven Canadian Novelists, 237–64. Toronto: Anansi.

LAIDLAW, Robert. 1974. Letter to Alice Munro, 10 February. MsC38.1.165. Munro fonds, Taylor Family Digital Library, University of Calgary.

METCALF, John. 1972. “A Conversation with Alice Munro.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 1 (4): 54–62.

MUNRO, Alice. 2000 (1968). Dance of the Happy Shades. London: Vintage.

———. 1974. “Everything Here Is Touchable and Mysterious.” Weekend Magazine, Toronto Globe and Mail, May 11.

———. 2006. The View from Castle Rock. London: Vintage.

MUNRO, Sheila. 2001. Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

STEFFEN, Will, Jacques GRINEVALD, Paul CRUTZEN, and John MCNEILL. 2011. “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369: 842–67.

THACKER, Robert. 2005. Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives. A Biography. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Christine Lorre-Johnston, "Nature after Wordsworth in Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2016. Consulté le 20/02/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/litterature-contemporaine/nature-after-wordsworth-in-dance-of-the-happy-shades-by-alice-munro