BORN: 1931, Wingham, Ontario, Canada
GENRE: Short stories, novels
Lives of Girls and Women (1971)
Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories (1974)
Who Do You Think You Are? (1978)
The Moons of Jupiter (1982)
Alice Munro. Munro, Alice, photograph. AP images.
The Canadian master of the short story, Alice Munro specializes in making the ordinary scenes of life extraordinary through straightforward storytelling that focuses on relationships, unpredictable characters, and mysterious endings. Many of her stories are set in southwestern Ontario, Canada.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Years in Ontario. Born Alice Ann Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario, Canada, on July 10, 1931, Munro is the daughter of a schoolteacher and a farmer. Perhaps she inherited her literary ambitions from her father, Robert Laidlaw, who would write a novel about pioneers in his later years. However, her family, especially mother Ann Chamney, discouraged her ambitions to become a writer and tried to focus instead on raising a future farmer’s wife. As a result, young Munro hid her efforts at short stories.
At age sixteen, she sold her first story to CBC Radio in Canada. She won a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, which she entered in 1949. In 1951, she left the university to marry James Munro, with whom she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. Nostalgic for her home, she began to focus her stories on the Wingham area of Ontario. Indeed, rural Ontario would feature prominently in her work through her career. However, her career took a back seat for a while when she gave birth to three daughters in four years. Her second child died soon after birth. Munro would have another daughter in 1966, completing the family. The experience of marriage and motherhood provided inspiration for many of Munro’s stories, which deal poignantly with intimate family relationships.
Another frequent backdrop for Munro’s stories is the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and Canada, particularly the women’s rights movement. Many of her female characters undergo transformations that echo social transformations of this time. They question established female roles and try—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to live lives that they find truly satisfying.
Inspired by Southern Fiction, Launches Successful Writing Career. The Munro family moved to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1963 and opened a bookstore called Munro’s. Inspired by the books that surrounded her, Munro rededicated herself to fiction and began to publish stories in Canadian magazines and sell them for broadcast on the CBC.
Munro found inspiration in the stories of American Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. She saw parallels between her life in rural Ontario and the life they described in the closed society of the South. Though she wrote about what was familiar to her, she has remarked that during this time she felt as if she were leading a double life—a solitary life as a writer, and an external life as wife and mother.
After a series of rejections, Munro’s first book of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968. It emerged to great critical success, winning the Governor General’s Award for fiction in 1969 and gathering a wide audience for Munro. The stories laid a groundwork for her future writing, which would deal with unique moments in real life, adding a bit of magic to the everyday.
Determined to gain further success as a writer, Munro began work on Lives of Girls and Women, a collection of connected stories she intended to be a novel. Munro had been thinking about this book for nearly a decade, and she worked on it at least three hours a day in the years after her first book’s appearance. The book won the 1971-1972 Canadian Booksellers Award, was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and went through a number of printings in Canada and abroad.
By this time, Munro’s marriage had gone sour, and she moved to London, Ontario, in 1972 with her younger daughters. Her alma mater, the University of Western Ontario, invited her to take a writer-in-residence position in 1974 and 1975, which she accepted. She married Gerald Fremlin in 1976, and they moved to Clinton, Ontario, where she has lived ever since.
Mature Work About Complicated Issues Facing Women. Some critics had wondered if Munro would ever deal with anything beyond the teenage experience in a small town. Munro’s 1974 collection, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, answered this concern with a series of stories dealing not only with country life, but also with urban living, adult relationships, and conflict between generations and the sexes. The stories in the collection often rely on contrasts between old and young, city and country, past and present, to develop their characters and tell their stories.
In 1978, Munro published another collection, Who Do You Think I Am? This book dealt with a young woman’s return to her hometown after reinventing herself in years past—a theme clearly tied to Munro’s own life experience. Its issues of identity and guilt met with positive critical response. The book won the Governor General’s Award in 1979 and was a runner-up for the Booker Prize in England. In addition to her blooming career in short stories, Munro also found success in scriptwriting around this time, with her CBC film on the Irish airing in 1978.
Although it was widely believed that short stories could never make any money, the publication of The Moons of Jupiter in 1982 proved critics wrong. The book’s paperback rights sold for a record amount, and the book debuted to great reviews. Dealing with women at various stages in life, The Moons of Jupiter showed women coping with the random hand dealt to them by fate.
Munro continued to publish books about every four years throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The Progress of Love brought Munro yet another Governor General’s Prize, and both The Love of a Good Woman and Runaway (2004) won the Giller Prize for fiction. Munro continues to publish short stories in magazines like The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic Monthly, has toured the United States, Asia, and Europe promoting her books, and shows no sign of slowing her now-legendary literary career.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Munro's famous contemporaries include:
Maya Angelou (1928—): American poet and Civil Rights figure famous for her autobiographies and activism.
Fay Weldon (1931—): British novelist and scriptwriter whose often comic work focuses on the trouble of women in contemporary society and the oppressiveness of marriage.
Philip Glass (1937—): American composer known for his minimalist musical style.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987): American artist and Pop Art icon.
Works in Literary Context
Although she claims to have been strongly influenced by writers of the American South such as Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers, Alice Munro is most widely compared to the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who was known for his short stories and attention to detail.
Small-Town Life. Most of Munro’s stories are set in small towns and use small-town life as a way of shining light on such human experiences as love, loss, and generational conflict. The focused setting of a small town allows Munro to explore the deeper meanings of seemingly normal experiences like preparing a turkey for a meal or meeting an old friend.
Random Encounters. Munro often deals with themes of random experience and seemingly haphazard fate. The incidents that initiate conflict in her stories are often random or accidental: for example, in ‘‘Accident’’ a child’s death in a random car accident sparks the beginning of one marriage and the end of another. Other stories feature random encounters such as old acquaintances running into one another. Though the initiating event is often random, the series of events that follow always points to a bigger picture.
Generation Gap. Munro’s mother suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and her stories often involve children taking care of their parents. In addition, her stories frequently deal with conflict or lack of connection between generations. Outrageous parents clash with timid children, a daughter comes to realize that she has given up life’s opportunities to avoid being like her mother, and children must navigate a new world without their parents.
Magic Realism. Although Munro’s work does not fall within the literary movement of Magical Realism, her use of exact details to create a better-than-the-real-thing world is reminiscent of such visual artists as Edward Hopper and Jack Chambers, who adopted a magical realist style in their paintings. Munro likes to take everyday situations and twist them just enough to make them seem magical and exciting. Her recognition of mysterious and enchanted moments in life makes all of life seem less ordinary.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Alice Munro's short stories often deal with conflicts between people of different generations. Here are a few other works that focus on contrasts between different age groups:
Fathers and Sons (1862), by Ivan Turgenev. One of the first Russian novels to find widespread popularity, Fathers and Sons highlights what Turgenev saw as the growing generational divide in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century.
Cheaper by the Dozen (1946), by Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, tells the story of a family of twelve children whose wild ways clash with their parents' interests in efficiency.
The Catcher in the Rye (1951), by J.D. Salinger. In this novel, teenager Holden Caulfield feels alienated against the adult world around him during a visit to New York City.
The Joy Luck Club (1993), by Amy Tan. Tan's best-selling novel is a series of vignettes told by Chinese mothers, all immigrants to America, and their Chinese-American daughters.
Works in Critical Context
Alice Munro’s short stories and books have been hailed by modern critics, gathering an impressive list of awards and becoming best sellers worldwide. While her initial work met with rejection and difficulty finding a publisher, her perseverance paid off and her later work met with almost unanimous praise.
Though critics liked Munro’s early books, they disliked her tendency to write about adolescents in small towns. Munro answered their challenge in her later work, which deals with child and adult experiences and even added urban settings to the mix. Critics are especially appreciative of Munro’s attention to detail and her willingness to leave the reader hanging with her ambiguous endings and uncertain stories.
Some critics are unwilling to admit that the short story still has a place in English-language literature, but many critics hail Munro’s work as a new renaissance for the form. Joyce Carol Oates, herself a master writer, has stated that ‘‘Munro writes stories that have the density—moral, emotional, sometimes historical—of other writers.’’ Another reviewer stated that ‘‘from rather unpromising-sounding subject matter, [Munro] fashions short stories of extraordinary delicacy and resonance.’’
While relatively few books have been written about Munro to date, a number of periodicals and Web publications have devoted pages to her life and works. Robert Thacker gives a good overview of critical response to Munro’s work in his essay ‘‘Go Ask Alice: The Progress of Munro Criticism,’’ which appeared in the Journal of Canadian Studies in 1991. Munro’s continuing career will doubtless bring ‘‘the mother figure of Canadian fiction’’ to an even wider and more receptive audience.
The Moons of Jupiter. With this book, Munro put the lie to the notion that readers do not buy or read collections of short stories. The Canadian paperback rights were sold to Penguin of Canada for $45,000, a record amount for a Canadian short-story volume. The reviews were almost uniformly laudatory, with William French of the Toronto Globe and Mail asserting that Munro’s ‘‘ability to convey nuances and imply the ambiguities inherent in human relationships has never been greater’’ and Benjamin De Mot in the New York Times Book Review, calling the book ‘‘witty, subtle, passionate ... exceptionally knowledgeable about the content and movement—the entanglements and entailments—of individual human feeling.’’
Runaway. Munro’s Runaway also impressed critics, who praised it in the highest terms. Kirkus Review declared: ‘‘In a word: magnificent.’’ The Boston Globe's David Thoreen wrote: ‘‘Munro’s stories are often praised for their scope and depth, and rightly so. Each of the stories in Runaway contains enough lived life to fill a typical novel, and reading them is to become immersed in the concerns and worlds of their various characters.’’ In fact, some reviewers found the book so perfect they were at a loss for words of praise sufficient for it. Jonathan Franzen of the New York Times Book Review wrote: ‘‘Basically, Runaway is so good that I don’t want to talk about it here. Quotation can’t do the book justice, and neither can synopsis. The way to do it justice is to read it.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Alice Munro was discouraged in her ambitions to become a writer, and her family tried to steer her toward a more traditional role as a farmer’s wife. How do you think this upbringing influenced the subject matter and themes of her stories?
2. Alice Munro has compared her own work to the short stories of such Southern writers as Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. Read a short story by one of these authors and compare and contrast it to one of Munro’s stories. How do their portrayals of small-town life differ? How are they similar?
3. Munro’s attention to detail is legendary. To find out more about how Munro's use of detail informs her writing, take a two-paragraph section of the Munro story of your choice and remove all description and detail. How does it differ from the original passage? Does removing detail improve or take away from the story? What does this exercise teach you about Munro's use of detail?
4. Munro is often compared to Anton Chekhov, an influential Russian writer of the nineteenth century. Using the Internet and the library, write a paper on the life and work of Chekhov. How might Chekhov compare to Munro? How does his work differ from Munro's?
Besner, Neil K. Introducing Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women: A Reader’s Guide. Toronto: ECW Press, 1990.
Carrington, Ildikao de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989.
Dahlie, Hallvard. Alice Munro and Her Works. Toronto: ECW Press, 1984.
Heble, Ajay. The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro’s Discourse of Absence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Miller, Judith, ed. The Art of Alice Munro: Saying the Unsayable. Waterloo, Ontario: University of Waterloo Press, 1984.
Rasporich, Beverly Jean. Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro. Edmunton, Can.: University of Alberta Press, 1990.
Ross, Catherine Sheldick. Alice Munro: A Double Life. Toronto: ECW Press, 1997.
Boyce, Pleuke, and Ron Smith. ‘‘A National Treasure: An Interview with Alice Munro.’’ O Canada (1995): vol. 2.
Dahlie, Hallvard. ‘‘The Fiction of Alice Munro.’’ Ploughshares (1978): vol. 4.
Franzen, Jonathan. ‘‘Alice’s Wonderland.’’New York Times Book Review. November 14, 2004.
Hoy, Helen. ‘‘‘Dull, Simple, Amazing and Unfathomable’: Paradox and Double Vision in Alice Munro’s Fiction.’’ Studies in Canadian Literature (1980): no. 5: 100-15.
McCulloch, Jean, and Mona Simpson. ‘‘Alice Munro: The Art of Fiction CXXXVII.’’ The Paris Review (1994): 131.
Metcalf, John. ‘‘A Conversation with Alice Munro.’’ Journal of Canadian Fiction (1972) vol. 1(4).
Tausky, Thomas E. ‘‘’What Happened to Marion?’: Art and Reality in Lives of Girls and Women.’’ Studies in Canadian Literature (1986): vol. 11(1).
Thacker, Robert. ‘‘Go Ask Alice: The Progress of Munro Criticism.’’ Journal of Canadian Studies (1991): vol. 26(2).
Thoreen, David. ‘‘From Munro, lives of Canadian desperation.’’ Boston Globe. November 14, 2004.
Wachtel, Eleanor. ‘‘An Interview with Alice Munro.’’ Brick (1991): no. 40: 48-53.
Vintage Books. A Conversation with Alice Munro. Accessed on February 4, 2008, from http://www.randomhouse.com
H. H. Munro