My curiosity stimulated by Alice Munro’s receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature and having previously read only one of her short stories, I bought her most recent collection “Dear Life.” My intellectual and emotional reactions were quite at odds. Intellectually, I found the stories well-constructed, subtle, and occasionally surprising in their resolutions. Emotionally, I found them depressing in their depiction of the repressive social structures and customs of the Canada of my parents’ generation, especially in small-town southwest Ontario.
I’ll expand a bit on both reactions. My recent research on managerial narratives has involved structural analysis. From reading just 14 of Munro’s stories, I could see recurring patterns of plot structures, themes, characters, settings, and choice of narrator. It struck me that Munro’s entire corpus of work – some 150 stories – would be great material for structural analysis. This brought to mind the one Munro story I had read some 20 years ago. It was for a course on psychoanalysis and literature, and the instructor chose it because it so clearly illustrated some of the basic themes of Freudian analysis. I don’t remember which story it was, though I’m sure I would if I re-read it, and I don’t remember all of the Freudian themes. One I do remember, however, was what is referred to as “the primal scene,” and I encountered that theme three or four times in Dear Life.
I could imagine applying to SSHRC for a research grant to undertake structural analysis of Alice Munro’s corpus of stories. The coding and analysis would readily occupy a small team of graduate students for a considerable length of time – something SSHRC encourages. The problem is that I’m a management professor, and the English literature professors who populate the review committee would never permit an invasion of their turf by a management professor, even if he has compiled a strong record for the structural analysis of stories concerning management, organization, and politics. They would say that the politics of the family is so different that my qualifications are irrelevant.
The second perspective on Munro is more personal. My late father’s family grew up in rural southwestern Ontario, specifically the town of Markdale. My grandfather was a successful businessman who owned three creameries and became reeve of Markdale. My grandmother, however, was a difficult person, who erected barriers between herself and the world, and reinforced the barriers by drinking. My grandfather began a long-standing affair with his single book-keeper. News of the affair became public and the family left for Toronto. But the book-keeper came too, and the affair continued. This long-standing dishonoring of my grandmother insprired rage on my father’s part, and anger he felt toward my grand-father darkened the rest of their lives. As a child, I was aware of the anger, but not of its origins. That understanding came later, as I became an adult, and after the passing of my grandparents and of my father.
Reading Alice Munro’s stories, many of which have as their theme family dysfunction and illicit sexuality, and their setting a repressive neo-Victorian society, brought back to mind my grandparents’ and my father’s story, and my own feelings of sadness about it. In a way, Munro was telling their story. Had she known their story, she could have embellished it and turned it into an exemplar of her art.
I’ve resolved to read more Munro. And, who knows, maybe in my retirement, after having completed the structural analysis of more managerial fables, I’ll shift my perspective to analyzing her disquieting vision of the politics of the family.