Alice Munro, dance of the happy shades, empathy, fiction, Nobel Prize for Literature, Reading, short story collections, The Alice Munro Project
About a year ago, several months before Alice Munro so deservedly won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I set out to read all of her collections of short stories, a project I dubbed the “Alice Munro Project,” certain that they would teach me things about writing that I couldn’t find or learn from reading any craft book. And, project set, I began with Dance of the Happy Shades, Alice Munro’s first collection of short stories, published in 1968.
I stand by the premise of The Alice Munro Project, but I now disagree with the way I set out to read these stories. I was going to reach each story deliberately, taking time to take notes on each story for the execution of craft, blogging about each story in turn. This deliberate movement through stories is good preparation for an academic article, or preparation to teach a class based on a collection, but it stifled the reason for which I love Alice Munro – which is for the sheer delight of her stories. I love reading her stories and not knowing where she is going to take me. I love how deftly she moves back and forth in time so that a short story can decades and years of lives, and yet stay and linger so perfectly in the smallest moments. I love Alice Munro for the way she entertains me, and shows how people live their lives immersed in their own private, but all-consuming, dramas.
Since I was reading deliberately, a book that I usually would have read in days took me over a year, because it was filed away as “work.” That categorization of reading as “work” is something that I worry about as an English professor, both for myself and my students. In my short story classes, our job is to read carefully, to spend a week discussing three or four stories, dissecting them for craft and the way they speak to larger themes. There is a distinct pleasure in this sort of deep reading – it is the pleasure of treasure hunting, of seeking and finding revelations that the casual viewer would never see. Some works of the literary canon seemed designed to be taught in literature classes, books like George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment very much benefit from the close study of a class, but these books can also be a delight to read. Indeed, all too often we forget that books in the canon have endured because they were, and are, good reads. They are entertaining and thought provoking. I read Don Quixote for the first time last year, and was surprised at the delightful comedy of the book, but this shouldn’t have been a surprise. It is, after all, a comic novel. But we are so often intimidated by the idea of works being “important” and we forget to love them. I love to study books, but first and foremost, I love to read and escape within books. Beyond the books I am teaching and studying, it is important for me to always have one or two books “going” at any given time – i.e. books that I am reading simply for pleasure. Pleasure reading is not the same as “guilty” pleasures of genre fiction. Pleasure reading can be literary fiction. It can be “important” books like Crime and Punishment or Don Quixote, both of which I read on my own, and not for a class. The books I blog about here, and catalog on Goodreads, were almost all pleasure reads, and are also almost all “literary.” But I didn’t read them slowly, pen in hand, taking notes and dissecting every sentence. I read them with the exuberance of a reader, being led into new worlds and being shown new perspectives and ideas.
So this brings me back to Alice Munro. According to Goodreads, I began reading Dance of the Happy Shades on July 27, 2013, so about ten months ago. Since beginning that book, I have read forty-nine other books. I should have read all of her collections by now, and yet I’ve just finished this one, and that is because I made the reading of Alice Munro work, and so I could not unwind with her at the end of the day, I could not take a break with her at lunch, or share breakfast with her, or spend four hours on a Saturday morning immersed in her world. She lingered on the shelf with all the books that I use for teaching – books I read with pen in hand to prepare and revise lecture notes. Books that I skim when I am rushed for time. I don’t want to skim Alice Munro, I want to read her. I want to live with her words. And so, from here on out, I will. I won’t write a detailed blog on every story, as I first said I would, because I want to read her with my morning bagel.
So, with all that said, I did finally finish reading Dance of the Happy Shades, and it was gorgeous. Reading this book, it is hard to believe that it is a first collection, and it is so obvious that Munro had been working for years in honing her craft. She had been reading and writing and rewriting, so that when this book came into the world, she emerged a master. Not that all stories in this collection are equally masterful, and not that she doesn’t get better through the years, because she certainly does continue to improve, it is just that this, her first book, is already excellent. It is not the excellence of a prodigy – a genius with one great work in her. It is the excellence of a craftsmen, bent upon communicating with the world via story-telling. In this, I don’t mean one-way communication, with Munro didactically teaching us about the world – it is communication in the sense that all great literature is communication – it is a true conversation in which we sense that Munro is learning as much about the world in writing the stories and we gain from reading the stories. These are stories that drip with honesty – with a yearning to tell the story true. As Gustave Flaubert once wrote, ““The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe,” and these stories give that sense.
While I could write about so many of the stories in this collection, I’m going to write about the final story, and title story, of the collection: “Dance of the Happy Shades.” I had stumbled upon this story once years ago in a literary anthology, and I didn’t love it then. I was in a rush, and I was looking something to teach to my Introduction to Literature class, and as the story wanders its way into the present action, I feared the student complaints of the story being “long and boring.” I am glad I didn’t teach it then, because I got to experience the story now. It actually isn’t a long story at all – it is only thirteen pages, which is almost flash fiction by Munrovian standards. And yet within the thirteen pages, Munro starts in the present action of a mother’s dread of an upcoming June recital, and then careens back and forth from present to past to future in the pages that follow. There are not full, flushed out scenes in the backstory, but rather a dipping in and out of memory, in the sort of daily intersections our lives have with the past. Through the moments of backstory we learn that the mother is sending her daughter for piano lessons, and attending the recital, because of an obligation to her own childhood memories of the same ritual. As the daughter observed as the story’s peripheral first person narrator, the mothers continued to send their children for lessons due to:
a rather implausible allegiance – not so much to Miss Marsalles as to the ceremonies of their childhood, to a more exacting pattern of life which had been breaking apart even then but which survived, and unaccountably still survived, in Miss Marsalles’ living room.” (215).
That is the way that memory works – our childhoods push and direct our adult behaviors in ways of which we are both aware and unaware, and at any given moment of the day, we can have an instant, a scrap of song, an aroma floating on a breeze, and we are pulled into the past, and then are pushed back out into the present mere seconds later.
The story’s plot and characterization and setting all conspire to build the tension of embarrassment in the story. The mother dreads the recital, and in her dread, we are filled in via backstory the cloying atmosphere of the recitals, the embarrassing, naïve love for children of the spinster teacher, and the pity that the mother’s feel for their former teacher. There are worries for how the teacher supports herself, compounded by the teacher’s having to move to progressively smaller houses and poorer neighborhood’s, until ending up in the apartment of the present action of the book. The descriptions of the Miss Marsalles’ was almost grotesque. She is described first as:
Miss Marsalles herself, waiting in the entrance hall with the tiled floor and the dark, church-vestry smell, wearing rouge, an antique hairdo adopted only on this occasion, and a floor-length dress of plum and pinkish splotches that might have been made out of old upholstery material. (214)
and then later, in the present action, she is described as:
Miss Marsalles is wedged between the door, the coatrack and the stairs; there is barely room to get past her into the living room, and it would be impossible, the way things are now, for anyone to get from the living room upstairs. Miss Marsalles is wearing her rouge, her hairdo and her brocaded dress, which it is difficult not to tramp on. In this full light she looks like a character in a masquerade, like the feverish, fancied-up courtesan of an unpleasant Puritan imagination. But the fever is only her rouge; her eyes, when we get close enough to see them, are the same as ever, red-rimmed and merry and without apprehension. (217)
In this description, and in the couple pages that follows, Munro stirs a pity and embarrassment in the reader for Miss Marsalles. She seems a naïve, poor woman, who is ridiculed by her own guests. Usually this ridicule is done in private, at home before and after the party, but this time the neighbor is there, and makes comments about how the “poor babies” (referring to Miss Marsalles and her invalid sister) hate to “forget anything,” and worry themselves about the details of the party, putting out the sandwiches much too early, and pouring the ginger ale into the punch hours before the recital, so it has long since gone flat. In this gossiping, we feel that flush of shame or dread we feel when someone embarrasses themselves, particularly someone vulnerable.
So this story seems to be a story about that, about the painful embarrassment of feeling pity for someone, and the anger that this can also engender, at why Miss Marsalles continues to put on these parties and to act in her naïve, kind and simple way. But, that isn’t what the story ends up being about, or rather that is just one part of the story. Because, after the entrance of the narrator and her mother, the narrator observes that “Miss Marsalles was looking beyond us as she kissed us; she was looking up the street for someone who has not yet arrived.” (217) This seems to be yet another way of showing how Miss Marsalles is an object of pity, in her hoping for more arrivals, and so we skip right over the part of the description that her eyes were “the same as ever, red-rimmed and merry and without apprehension.” (217)
Just when the narrator is playing her piece, and the recital seems ready to end, “the final arrival, unlooked-for by anybody but miss Marsalles, takes place.” (220) A group of about ten children all come in, and as they do, there is slowing a settling awareness that these children are different. That the children share the same profile of “heavy, unfinished features, the abnormally small and slanting eyes,” and so we become aware that the children have Down’s Syndrome. (221) It is here that the story shifts, and we begin to see how we had been swept up in the same sort of judging behavior of Miss Marsalles as the narrator. We had felt pity for her earlier, in the description of her as “kindly and grotesque” (214), and with the description of her:
idealistic view of children her tender- or simple-mindedness in that regard, made her almost useless as a teacher; she was unable to criticize in except the most delicate and apologetic way and her praises were unforgivably dishonest. (213)
But now, when the pity and anger is now pointed toward these children, the embarrassment of not knowing where to look, because:
For it is a matter of politeness surely not to look closely at such children, and yet where else can you look during a piano performance but at the performer? There’s an atmosphere in the room of some freakish inescapable dream. My mother and the others are almost audible saying to themselves: No, I know it is not right to be repelled by such children and I am not repelled, but nobody told me I was going to come here to listen to a procession of little – little idiots for that’s what they are (222).
In the reaction of the women in the room, we see ourselves in an uncomfortable light. While this story was published in 1968, it is a quite fitting depiction of the reign of “tolerance” that is still practiced today. The idea of being politically correct as being enough – that having tolerance for those that are different for you is enough, even if that tolerance comes with judgment, pity or disgust (or all three). That is the same sentiment behind people saying that they don’t care what gay people do, they just don’t want it “shoved in their face,” or forced upon them. Substitute this for interracial marriage, for people of different religions, for any sort of difference you can imagine. Where there is a difference, there are people that can manufacture and perpetuate a disdain for that difference. Tolerance is held up as noble, as something to which aspire, rather than a rather base action of merely tolerating something. What this sort of tolerant intolerance overlooks is the true connecting power of empathy instead of sympathy. The act of truly trying to understand and see the world from another’s perspective is a revolutionary and courageous act. You cannot hate while feeling empathy. Empathy is a worldview that reaches beyond the black and white and good vs. evil. And this complex way of seeing and relating to the world is the domain of fiction.
Numerous articles and programs in the popular press and radio have been published about this link between empathy and fiction, all of which are based on articles like this in Science, making rather conclusive links between reading literary fiction and temporary increases in “Theory of Mind” (ToM) and “suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.” Many writers agree with this assessment of the empathy increasing powers of fiction, and while the researchers have yet to prove causation, as Albert Wendland, the director of a master’s program at Seton Hall, said in the New York Times,
Reading sensitive and lengthy explorations of people’s lives, that kind of fiction is literally putting yourself into another person’s position — lives that could be more difficult, more complex, more than what you might be used to in popular fiction. It makes sense that they will find that, yeah, that can lead to more empathy and understanding of other lives.
Basically, the more we gain practice in seeing the world through other people’s perspectives in fiction, the better we become at that work in the real world. Rather than seeing Miss Marsalles as an object of pity because she exists outside of the “normal” world of the mothers, we see how her love of children, which had seemed pitiable before in how she saw only their good and not their perceived flaws, is perfectly suited for her work with the kids with Down Syndrome.
The story culminates in the playing of one of these children who is able to play perfect and transcendent music, much beyond anything ever played before at one of these recitals. As she plays the song that will be revealed to be “The Dance of the Happy Shades,” the narrator thinks Miss Marsalles might take special ownership of this one remarkable student, but instead remarks that:
it seems that the girl’s playing like this is something she always expected, and she finds it natural and satisfying; people who believe in miracles do not make much fuss when they actually encounter one. Nor does it seem that she regards this girl with any more wonder than the other children from Greenhill School, who love her, or the rest of us, who do not. To her no gift is unexpected, no celebration will come as a surprise. (223)
Miss Marsalles sees her students as the people they are, treating them the same as all the children in all of her classes. And so the mothers, the narrator, and we the reader, become ashamed, because this story isn’t, after all, about a poor old woman who embarrasses herself, it is about the smallness of the perspective of dutiful tolerance.
When the girl finishes, it is as if the spell is broken, and “The music is in the room and then it is gone and naturally enough knows what to say.” (223) This is one of those unexplainable moments that is the domain of fiction. The narrator writes that:
For the girl’s ability, which is undeniable but after all useless, out-of-place, is not really something that anybody wants to talk about. To Miss Marsalles such a thing is acceptable, but to other people, people who live in the world, it is not (223).
And then, in the final paragraph, the story ends with the mother and daughter driving home, and the narrator asks:
why is it that we are unable to say – as we must have expected to say – Poor Miss Marsalles? It is the Dance of the Happy Shades that prevents us, it is that one communique from the other country where she lives (224).
And so the story ends with that epiphany ending – that understanding of what James Joyce explained to his brother as the “whatness” of a thing. The mothers and daughters all were touched by that other world, that world within Miss Marsalles and the children of the Greenhill School – a world free from judgment and pity and tolerance. And they weren’t instantly transformed into better people because of this, but they were touched – they were shifted, just a bit, from how they saw the world before the party. And we, the reader, are shifted as well
Alice Munro accomplishes all of this in thirteen pages due to her mastery of point of view, her deftness of characterization, and use of setting in characterization, and in the way she moves plot forward and backward in time. She also achieves this because Alice Munro writes the stories about the world she inhabits, and the things she observes, and the questions that drive her. That, ultimately, is the lesson I take away from this story – that to write well, to write like a master, you need to wade into the real, awkward, sticky stuff of life, not as a voyeur, but as an engaged, non-pitying participant. That is source of truly great writing.