On the bench outside the station, I sat and waited. The station had been open when the train arrived, but now it was locked. Another woman sat at the end of the bench, holding between her knees a string bag full of parcels wrapped in oiled paper. Meat — raw meat. I could smell it.
Across the tracks was the electric train, empty, waiting.
I’m developing a much deeper appreciation for Alice Munro, thanks in no small part to Professor Charles May and his blog, Reading the Short Story. As I did when I posted about “Corrie,” I’m going to draw heavily from his expertise and extensively quote his post on this story. Happily, the story itself is available online as well. I love it when the Internet all comes together like this.
[I]n the short story, realistic details are often transformed into metaphoric meaning by the thematic demands of the story, which organize the details by repetition and parallelism into meaningful patterns. – Charles May
We’re introduced to the story with lots of details but little context: the first-person narrator and “another woman” (so we know the narrator is a woman) wait at a train station. Two strong details emerge: the smell of raw meat, and the “empty, waiting” train. I don’t know about you, but I was disoriented. Meat? Who are these women? Is one “empty, waiting” and the other raw meat? Where are they going? Why is she carrying so much raw meat – enough for the narrator to smell it?
My disorientation is perhaps a reflection of the narrator’s (“at first I thought… I couldn’t tell…” as she observes other passengers and the train ride to her destination:
Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark…. And the building, with its deliberate rows of windows and its glassed-in porches at either end. Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds. So still, so immense an enchantment.
But the birch bark not white after all, as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.
Nothing looks the same up close, does it?
We finally find out she’s the new teacher at the TB sanatorium. At last, I’m a little oriented in time, space, and purpose – just as the narrator is when the woman with the meat directs her to the appropriate place to check in.
“When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure…” “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well. There has to be a feeling in the story.” Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood.” – Alice Munro interview with Geoff Hancock, quoted in Reading the Short Story post by Charles May.
I think she’s accomplished that quite handily so far. Disoriented, austere – in a few paragraphs, add dark and windowless – little human warmth; yes, there’s a definite mood here. And, lest we forget – raw meat.
We find out a few other details – the narrator’s name is Vivien “Vivi” Hyde (what an interesting name – “vivi” connoting life and energy, Hyde bringing something entirely different to the party); she meets Mary, teenage daughter of the kitchen manager (presumably the woman with the meat, though I don’t think this is spelled out) – and then we meet Dr. Fox. He has the smug self-importance of the petty bureaucrat, and makes it clear he views Vivien as more of a baby-sitter than a teacher:
Usual notions of pedagogy out of place here. Some of these children will reënter the world or system and some will not. Better not a lot of stress. That is, testing, memorizing, classifying nonsense.
Disregard grade business entirely. Those who need to can catch up later on or do without. Actually very simple skill set of facts, etc., necessary for going into the world. What about Superior Children, so called? Disgusting term. If they are smart in academic way, they can easily catch up.
Forget rivers of South America, likewise Magna Carta.
Drawing, music, stories preferred.
Vivien is not that easily dissuaded (“In the janitor’s cubbyhole, I had seen a globe. I asked to have it brought out. I started on simple geography. The oceans, the continents, the climates. Why not the winds and the currents? The countries and the cities? The Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn? Why not, after all, the rivers of South America?”) but Dr. Fox visits her class and makes a mockery of her. It’s painful to read. Again, I think of the mood being created.
As I see it, Fox’s interference with Vivien’s role as teacher is merely a specific instance of his view that women in general as not quite worthy of their humanity. This becomes one of the major themes, this division between men and women. It’s introduced in the first scene, when Vivien is first on that train: a group of men, sawmill workers, board, and get off a short distance away: “it wouldn’t have been more than ten minutes’ walk,” she notes at the time. It’s one of those little touches that’s easy to overlook on first read (it’s through Prof. May’s blog entry on the other Munro story I read recently, “Corrie” that I discovered this way she has of writing stories that beg for multiple reads).
This pattern plays out between Vivien and Fox – he demeaning her, she accepting it. He invites her to dinner at his house (and a least-effort-possible dinner at that), and they begin an odd affair. Mary, the meat lady’s daughter, is also crushed under Fox’s power-grabbing pettiness when she shows up during a second dinner, vying for attention (Vivien had missed her performance in a school play for the first dinner with Fox, most likely a deliberate scheduling conflict on his part). My thought was that Mary was behaving as the woman scorned, though she’s only 15, and Fox is playing the role of squelching her yet enjoying her continued pursuit. I could easily be wrong about this; it’s kind of outlandish. But there’s something very creepy about the scene. Mary in general is a character laden with significance.
I noticed another men-and-women scene right off the bat:
The coffee shop didn’t have a ladies’ room, so you had to go next door to the hotel, then past the entrance to the beer parlor, always dark and noisy and giving out a smell of beer and whiskey, a blast of cigarette and cigar smoke fit to knock you down. But the loggers, the men from the sawmill, would never yelp at you the way the soldiers and the airmen in Toronto did. They were deep in a world of men, bawling out their own stories, not here to look for women. Possibly more eager, in fact, to get away from that company now or forever.
This creates that “mood” to which Munro referred above, with the male condescension as thick as the cigar smoke. Vivien seems to see the men in two varieties: yelpers, and ignorers. Neither seem particularly fun to be around.
The romance, if that’s what you want to call it, proceeds to a secret engagement that Fox breaks in another stunning scene of details and encounters important not for the events but what they allow to happen in Vivien’s mind and thus in the narration.
The story ends with a flash-forward and a chance meeting a decade later. Vivien is married by then, and enthusiastically claims to be happy though she’s troubled: ” I was having some kind of dragged-out row with my husband, about our paying a debt run up by one of his children.” It’s not uncommon to claim to be happier than one is when one runs into a former love, but the interesting detail here is the phrase, “one of his children.” Not one of her children; we can infer she’s married an older man with children by some other woman, at least one of whom is of sufficient age to be running up significant debts. I’m not sure of the significance of this. Another Fox? Another man who puts her last simply because she is a woman? The best she could do? This would have taken place in the mid-50s, when blended families happened (I was part of one) but were politely discreet. It’s an interesting little detail to throw in so casually – it’s almost hidden – so I think it must have great significance. But of what, I’m not sure.
There’s much more in the story; every paragraph seems to contain a detail that adds a new level to the mix. I should go back and read some of her earlier stories. I’ve always struggled with Munro. Until I started blogging, which forces me to do some research. And, in the process, learn how to truly read. So it’s worth the time spent.