Runaway by Alice Munro

Alice Munro’s Runaway consists of eight stories, all longer, all complex and compelling. Complexity is the point I’d like to focus on here. You see, Munro gives the reader abundant access to the feelings of her characters. What is interesting about his though is how and why she does this. She illustrates for us how things are not often what they appear to be, how we all too often submerge our feelings for fear, for comfort, for love, or because we just don’t know how to bring them to the surface or even what they truly are. She shows us that a feeling is often fleeting, that sometimes to protect our own hearts we tell ourselves we feel things that we don’t. She demonstrates the complexity of the human soul by showing us the incongruity of thought and action, of desire and response. Two stories that illustrate this and are connected in that they have the same main character (at different points in her life) are “Soon” and “Silence”.

Soon tells the story of Juliet going home to visit her sick mother and her aging schoolteacher father. Her daughter, Penelope, is less than two years old. She was born out of wedlock, which seems to bother her more conventional parents in their more conventional town, but to the educated, worldly, atheist Juliet, it’s not of much consequence. The opening line “Two profiles face each other” (88) signifies a major theme in this story that is born out in the way that the characters feelings and reactions are described throughout. The idea of how our own weaknesses and our perceptions of what is expected of us impact our ability to be our authentic selves. Penelope, the child, has not yet developed this, and so “tensed at the first sound of her grandmother’s voice, now yelped and turned away, and hid her face in Juliet’s neck” (90). Whereas Juliet “spoke admiringly as seemed to be expected”(91), “[pretended] to be mystified and amused” (93), and throughout is often embarrassed and sometimes mystified by her own feelings and reactions, as she is when she finds and reads the letter she wrote to her husband some years later, after her mother has passed, her father remarried: “When she read the letter, Juliet winced, as anybody does on discovering the preserved and disconcerting voice of some past fabricated self. She wondered at the sprightly cover-up, contrasting with the pain of her memories” (125). This story and the story that follows, in juxtaposing action and reaction, articulated feelings and submerged feelings, along with the occasional outburst as happened in Juliet’s argument with the minister about God’s existence, demonstrates that often thought and feeling are submerged too deeply to see.

“You don’t go on forever appearing on television” (150) marks the start of a new phase in Juliet’s life about half way through the story “Silence”. A phase when she has mostly given up hope of seeing her estranged daughter and has chosen a life less about appearing a particular way. She had been a television anchor, dependent on the love of her daughter. She becomes a poor scholar with a few good friends and though not without heartache, relatively happy, particularly compared to her early married life. This early life that “she claimed had broken her heart” (138), that “she now believed” (139) she had felt one way, that only “in her quieter states she knew that” (139), where she pretended to be who she thought she was supposed to be, as she did for her daughter when her father died, “Juliet’s manner was sprightly beyond anything intended—her behavior close to that of a good sport” (144).

We see the woman Juliet is, a woman who submerges her true thoughts and feelings for what others expect, because of who she thinks she ought to be, and to protect her own fragile heart through the incongruity between what she says, thinks, feels and does. In the end, she is not unhappy, but her life is safe, academic and relatively joyless. We know this because throughout the author knows more about Juliet than we do and lets us in on it. That technique works in this story because the point is that Juliet does not know herself very well at all. She is submerged. The author has to bring her to the surface for us.

 

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