(About the short story Children Stay)
Alice Munro deals with the big topics like love, death, passion, infidelity, disappointment in all their forms, but with hope too… Yet, she plunges into them through little micro windows and doors, through tiny cracks on the human skin, making her way through the bloodstream, reaching every cell. How meek Alice Munro is! I have always believed that appearance reflects the inner world, which in turn is reflected on paper. Looking at her photos from childhood to this age, I get the same impression on all of them. Meekness, kindness, walking without haste, but at the same time incredible confidence, sharp as a knife with the power to perceive and empathize on another level. I imagine being around her will make me feel a little bit uncomfortable; the thought of it scares me because I know she will capture all my deepest buried thoughts
Munro has a sixth sense, a special radar for detecting things we all encounter daily, our experiences and struggles as we don’t have the knowledge to make them tangible, give them the right shape and seize them. Depths are her terrain. She directs her light toward the jumble of unimportant things left in the dark where no one sees them and succeeds in illuminating moments that prove essential and would otherwise go unnoticed. Thus, she evaluates all relations, all trite conversations, discovers and re-discovers our nature, and she is fearless while doing it. When we read her stories, she helps us concretize ourselves, re-examine ourselves, and, most importantly, be brutally honest with ourselves.
Last week, I read the short story collection The Love of a Good Woman (a present from my best friend). I became particularly obsessed with the story Children Stay. After reading it, I got the urge to share it with someone right away, but I found myself falling into a trap once I started thinking about the theme.
What is it about? In short, Pauline and Brian are a young couple, parents of two little children on vacation with Bryan’s parents (on the east coast of Vancouver Island, 30 years ago – the story setting). Pauline cheats on Brian, and while they are on vacation, she decides to leave them and go to her lover. It is not easy to write about a woman leaving her children, is it? If the father does that, we will not be surprised, but a mother!? We have different, higher expectations from mothers.
However, Munro goes deep into the causes and subtle nuances that inevitably lead to the cause of someone’s behaviour. She does it without a strong sense of empathy or condemnation, without taking sides. That is the difference between Tolstoy’s tragic heroine – Anna Karenina (Munro does not mention her by accident in the story), and Pauline, who neither possesses sublime beauty nor is fatally in love. So, Pauline leaves her family and goes to her lover, but the reason is not some elevated love. Then, for God’s sake, why would a woman do that? Why would she even think about it?
Pauline is a young mother (26) of Caitlin and Mara. Although she is not even an amateur actress, she accepts the role of Eurydice in a modern drama inspired by Greek myth and directed by her future lover. It’s a metaphor for her state of mind. Pauline’s inner being is slowly dying. She disappears completely into the circumstances and relationships she is in. Munro captures that state in an incredibly detailed and precise manner, so many can easily recognize themselves in Pauline’s character. The presence of Brian’s parents just underlines her mood. Brian and his father are busy with constant discussions and a covert competition to see who is better (in a sense, they are the same man). A classic battle between the head of the family and his offspring in a patriarchal setting. On the other side, Brian’s mother is constantly ridiculed with one million remarks: for example, that she cannot read a map because she is a woman. She avoids arguing with them on any subject; she has decided that is the best way to live in peace, at least seemingly. Her only job is to take care of the family. After all, it’s not important who she really is. If Pauline decides to stay in her marriage, her mother-in-law is a clear projection of her future. Pauline feels suffocated, imprisoned, trapped, invisible, pulled apart between taking care of the children (which she does almost alone), Brian’s lack of interest in her true nature and needs, and the imposed stereotypes about the role of a mother, a wife and a daughter-in-law.
Accepting the role of Eurydice represents the last grasp at a straw to retake control of her life to devote some time to herself so as not to forget her own being entirely. The romance with Jeffrey, the director, represents just an excuse for her to leave the old life in which she slowly fades away.
She takes a step towards a new life, but it is more of a step towards herself. From the phone conversation with Brian, it is clear that he will never understand what is wrong with their relationship. He does not even know who she is leaving with. Their relationship is simply said to be superficial. Children stay!–he repeats several times, threatening that the children will stay with him, as they are his only means to punish her decision.
In this story collection, Munro deals with the choice. That is, with the moment of choice, which includes a destructive feeling of guilt, an extremely high price that will be paid every day in the form of pain, chronic pain. Not a single day will pass without it, as stated at the end of the story.
Thirty years later: Her children have grown up. They don’t hate her for going away or staying away. They don’t forgive her, either. Perhaps they wouldn’t have forgiven her anyway, but it would have been for something different.
Munro opens a seriously sensitive debate with this story. Many would immediately condemn Pauline, but wouldn’t that be just because she’s seen only as a mother? Is it enough for women to be reduced just to the role of motherhood? Shouldn’t a woman become fulfilled independently of her family, find her personal happiness, or should she be placed entirely in the family’s service? What should the relationship between the partners look like for that happiness to be part of the marriage? Should we analyze and judge only Pauline’s actions and ignore her husband’s behaviour just because society’s expectations from him as a man are decreased to a minimum, i.e. practically do not exist?
Whatever your attitude towards Pauline’s decision is, what is crucial is that Alice Munro raises the question of contentment in a relationship through this story. The need for emotional fulfilment, to understand and to be understood. The absence of these essential elements makes every relationship meaningless. Their demand is categorized as a woman’s foolishness. Women are perceived as needy, constantly wanting to be understood, right? The lack of emotional connection is often accepted as a destiny, and women continue to live deeply unhappy, something like Brian’s mother. She is just a vanishing shadow of the woman we assume she once was.
Alice Munro became the 13th female winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013. The Swedish Academy called her a master of the contemporary short story, and that catapulted her into the 100 most influential writers. Thanks to Munro, the stereotypes surrounding short stories slowly broke, and they received their well-earned place in literature. But Munro is much more than that. Her work has contributed to the development of female consciousness. Her work is of high artistic value and offers controversial subjects for debate.