Alice Munro’s “The Beggar Maid”

The collection of Alice Munro short stories that I am reading is published by the Everyman’s Library, and is titled Carried Away. The first two stories are “Royal Beatings,” and “The Beggar Maid,” from the 1978 collection The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, published in Canada as Who Do You Think You Are?

The first of these stories, “Royal Beatings,” describes in a snapshot the childhood of the protagonist, Rose. It takes place in the — apparently fictional — Canadian village of Hanratty, Saskatchewan, where Rose grows up in deep poverty with her impersonal father, petty step-mother Flo, and her younger brother, who is peripheral to this story.

This story describes a particular episode in a manner that suggests its normalcy in the life of the family. In that episode, a pre-adolescent Rose irritates Flo to the point where Flo, overreacting, complains to Rose’s father and exaggerates Rose’s misbehavior. Rose’s father in-turn overreacts and beats Rose. Flo then appears to feel regret over instigating the episode, and there is a superficial reconciliation, but Rose remains distrustful of Flo. Because Rose’s father is an impersonal force in the story, he appears to be mostly exempt from Rose’s resentment and hurt.

The second story, and the one that interests me more, is “The Beggar Maid.” In this story, Rose has earned a scholarship to attend University. She feels her poverty as a symptom of inadequacy compared to her peers. In the library she meets Patrick, a graduate student and scion of a wealthy mercantile family. He aggressively woos her, and she passively accepts his marriage proposal.

Though Patrick is doting, Rose feels very ambivalent about him. She is attracted and repelled by his devotion to her. She feels that his view of her is unrealistic; when she takes him to her home, he dismisses it as not her “real” childhood because Flo is her step-mother, and her parents are dead. He is insecure, constantly imploring her for affirmation: “Do you love me? Do you really?” he begs several times.

There is a lot in the story that is wrapped up in her attempts to reconcile his view of her with her own view of herself; the two clash considerably. But what really interests me is the relationship between the narrator and Rose. The story is told in the third person, and the narrator appears omniscient and reliable. But the narrator is also describing the story from Rose’s point of view, which creates a kind of dissonance. Rose is a very timid and passive character, and gives the impression of being somewhat simple. It is hard to believe that her observations of Patrick are as incisive and detailed as those provided by the narrator. I feel as though Rose herself has rather impressionistic thoughts and feelings about Patrick, rather than fully articulated observations. Consequently, it seems to me that the narrator, by putting into words the inchoate feelings that Rose has about Patrick, is acting as a translator of an undefined internal experience, rather than simply transcribing it.

Rose’s accurate, but inarticulate view of events contrasts nicely with Patrick’s denialism. Patrick insists on seeing Rose as he wants her to be; Rose tries to see Patrick in a way that highlights those things about him that she likes, but cannot help but see the his repellant characteristics also. He is an idealist, prepared to forgo his family wealth and approval to pursue an intellectual career. She is a child of poverty and low self-esteem, willing ultimately to forgo career aspirations, and ultimately happiness, in exchange for the security brought by marrying a man for whom she often feels contempt.

Both stories reach more broadly into the communities surrounding the relationships between the characters. You meet the butcher, the baker and the professor, in addition to the families of the protagonists. You get history of people and of places. These flesh out the protagonists by giving them a sense coming from a particular of history and culture.

Finally, there are interesting plot twists and turns, that bring the reader along while reading the story. These are not stories that sit quietly at one moment in time and observe the internal life of the characters; they describe a passage of events that draw along the reader who wants to know what happens next to these believable and relatable characters.

Originally published at bendstowardsjustice.blogspot.com on April 21, 2014.