A Look at Shame: Alice Munros's Peripheral Narration
By Karen Ackland
I’ve been thinking about shame. Like virtue, there seems something quaintly old-fashioned about the word, as if in our contemporary culture the emotion has lost its currency. More often than not, we’re told we’ve nothing to be ashamed about. Still, whenever I consider it, my brain goes dumb, a soggy blanket thrown over my thoughts. There is power there. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we cover our shame, run from it and hide—yet it doesn’t go away.
For a literary view of shame, I turned to one of my favorite authors, Alice Munro, who confronts shame indirectly, using a peripheral focus in her stories. In “The Progress of Love,” a story from the collection with the same name, we see that shame is not just a theme, but Munro’s method, revealed by techniques such as multiple time periods and a reflective voice. And perhaps that is the way to approach shame—quickly, sideways—before the audio is turned up and the voices start screaming.
Multiple time periods. There are three main time periods in “The Progress of Love”: a contemporary setting with an adult narrator; the summer of 1947 when the narrator was twelve; and a story the narrator relates about her mother’s childhood. Half of the twenty-two page story occurs in the 1947 frame, which is told in three sections. The mother’s story occupies slightly more than three pages. The contemporary period is made up of eight short, reflective sections.
Munro provides markers so that we always know which time period we are in. The story opens this way: “I got a call at work, and it was my father. This was not long after I was divorced and started in the real-estate office… It was a hot enough day in September.” The narrator’s aunt, Beryl, comes to visit, “in the summer of 1947, when I was twelve.” And, “the farm was sold for five thousand dollars in 1965.”
Joan Silber calls Munro’s use of multiple time periods “switchback time,” which she describes as a “zigzag movement back and forth among time frames.” Similar to a switchback up a mountain, the story faces in one direction, then turns and heads in the opposite as the focus of the story changes. These switchbacks build tension. The different times are not presented as flashbacks, but rather each period seems to exist concurrently as if in alternative universes. The reader holds the unresolved story in her mind as the narrator holds the story in her memory, waiting for resolution.
In the first three pages, there are six short sections. The narrator’s father calls to say that her mother has died. This is followed by sections about the narrator’s mother, father, and the old farmhouse, as if the narrator is undecided about how to begin her story. She starts, stops, and starts again from a different angle. Just tell the story, we want to say, we’re listening—yet the false starts also build our trust in the narrator. We know how complicated family stories can be, how we pull the curtains on our own uncomfortable memories.
The seventh section begins with the twelve-year-old narrator helping her mother wallpaper the spare bedroom in preparation for a visit from the mother’s sister. It is the longest section so far, and it feels as if the narrator has overcome her nervous false starts and the story is finally about to begin. But after a page and a half, she confronts a painful memory and starts a new scene, this time telling a story from her mother’s childhood.
This extended scene relates a traumatic incident in which the narrator’s mother, as a young girl, discovers her mother about to hang herself and runs to find her father. She returns home alone to find the barn empty, her mother in the neighbor’s kitchen drinking coffee. Unlike the other two time frames, which are told in first person, this one uses third person and refers to the mother as Marietta. The narrator apparently tells the story exactly as her mother told it to her.
Munro has said that she is not interested in stories told chronologically, and in “The Progress of Love” she has compressed a family narrative that spans forty years into a single story. But the gaps are more than a compression technique. To examine the story is to follow the white spaces when the narrator breaks off and switches direction. They indicate where the material has become emotionally sensitive to the narrator, when something important, perhaps shameful, is about to be revealed. The reader learns to pay attention when the story looks away.
Misunderstandings. On the surface, “The Progress of Love” appears to be about different ways of looking at the same thing, about the inability to communicate precisely. The tension in the 1947 sections initially comes from the clash between rural and urban sensibilities: the characters don’t speak the same language. On the morning after the arrival of Beryl and Mr. Florence, the narrator’s father asks Mr. Florence, “I hope you got some kind of sleep on that old bed in there?” It was Mr. Florence’s cue to compliment the feather bed. Instead he replies, “I slept on worse.” Although the exchange is comic, it hints at larger misunderstandings to come.
The character’s names change—Marietta and Mother; Euphemia and Fame (which rhymes with shame)—depending on the time period. There is nothing surprising in this. Children usually refer to their parents, not by their given names but via some version of Mother and Father. It makes sense that an old-fashioned name like Euphemia would be shortened into a nickname. But the names also illustrate how the same story can be reshaped by different people and even by the same person at different times.
Not only do the same words mean different things to different people, but sometimes people don’t have the skills to communicate effectively. Marietta’s German neighbor “didn’t have many English words to describe things.” At a crucial moment, the one sympathetic adult didn’t have the vocabulary to help Marietta understand what happened when she found her mother standing on a chair in the barn.
These failures of communication set the stage for a larger conflict. At the restaurant where Beryl and Mr. Florence have taken the narrator and her parents for Sunday dinner, we learn that Beryl has a completely different version of Marietta’s childhood story: the mother hadn’t attempted suicide; the noose wasn’t attached to the beam. While Marietta’s understanding of the situation is tragic, Beryl sees it as a joke carried too far.
If that were the end, we would be left with an O’Henry-type story, where the daughter hates the father because of the mother’s attempted suicide, which we later learn was merely a prank. But Munro complicates the story again. Beryl asks how Marietta used the money she inherited from the father, and Marietta announces that she burned it. The narrator believes her father watched this act.
A personal, reflective voice. While the 1947 sections provide answers, the contemporary sections pose questions. It’s as if the narrator is writing a memoir, attempting to get to the bottom of a family story that has always mystified her. The narrator’s voice is direct, almost candid, the tone more confiding than confessional, more analytical than emotional. She seems to be puzzling out what happened, asking questions to determine the truth in her mother’s story. It’s a voice in keeping with the narrator’s country background, straightforward and trustworthy.
At the beginning of the sixth section the narrator declares, “All these things I remember. All the things I know, or have been told, about people I never even saw.” The certainty of what she knows will dissolve as the story progresses. The section ends with a question, “…but unless I moved away from here, how could I do that?” It’s one of the story’s central questions. How could she do or remember differently? How could she separate from her mother’s story or even this place where she grew up? Who would she be if she asked the questions differently?
After learning Beryl’s ending to her mother’s story, the narrator tries to justify the difference by asking, “Why shouldn’t Beryl’s version of the same event be different from my mother’s? Beryl was strange in every way.” The narrator, absorbed with the novelty of “mashed potatoes laid on the plate with an ice cream scoop and the bright diced vegetables out of a can” hears Beryl’s story, but it is her mother’s story she continues to tell.
But by the last section the narrator, so certain of what she believes at the beginning, has begun to question her memory.
My father did not stand in the kitchen watching my mother feed the money into the flames. It wouldn’t appear so. He did not know about it—it seems fairly clear, if I remember everything, that he did not know about it until that Sunday afternoon in Mr. Florence’s Chrysler, when my mother told them all together. Why, then, can I see the scene so clearly…?
The narrator claims she’s stopped telling the story, but not believing it. Instead, she begins to ask questions closer to the ones the reader is asking. Why did the mother continue to tell the story of her mother’s suicide attempt? Why does the narrator believe her father watched the mother burn the money? Why does she call it love?
Shame’s physicality. The characters in “The Progress of Love” often exhibit an involuntary reaction to shame. The young Marietta faints after coming home to find her mother alive. Fainting seems a natural reaction to seeing her mother with a noose around her neck. But fainting—also known as blacking out or losing consciousness—means that Marietta has missed the resolution of the story, the coffee and pastries by the kitchen table, and remembers only the traumatic version, the one she later tells her daughter.
In the contemporary section that follows Marietta’s story, we’re given a paragraph that mentions shame directly:
I always had a feeling, with my mother’s talk and stories, of something swelling out behind. Like a cloud you couldn’t see through, or get to the end of. There was a cloud, a poison that had touched my mother’s life. And when I grieved my mother, I became part of it. Then I would beat my head against my mother’s stomach and breasts, against her tall, firm front, demanding to be forgiven. My mother would tell me to ask God. But it wasn’t God, it was my mother I had to get straight with. It seemed as if she knew something about me that was worse, far worse, than ordinary lies and tricks and meanness; it was a really sickening shame.
The passage suggests a bond of shame that connects the mothers and daughters in the family. The narrator “beat against my mother’s front,” trying to pound out the shame that belongs to them. She is relieved when she has sons so that this inherited pattern is broken: “I felt as if something could stop now—the stories, and griefs, the old puzzles you can’t resist or solve.” Her sons may be exempt, but the narrator cannot escape her mother’s story.
The narrator’s age in the 1947 narrative—twelve—is significant. Not only is the narrator on the cusp of transitioning from girl to woman—a transition that marks an end to childhood innocence—but she is waiting to hear the results of her high school entrance exams, not realizing that her parents can’t afford to send her to school. This conflict hovers just off the page, waiting to happen.
In the penultimate contemporary section, the only one longer than a page and that contains a scene, Fame has returned to the family farm with a friend, Bob Marks. She tells him that her mother once burned three thousand dollars in the kitchen stove. Marks questions the act and Fame replies, “My father stood and watched and he never protested. If anybody had tried to stop him he would have protected her. I consider that love.”
As they continue through the house, Marks comments, in the room Fame had wallpapered with her mother before her aunt’s visit, “I guess this was where they carried on their sexual shenanigans.” Fame claims it is his familiar tone, the “not particularly friendly lust of middle-aged respectable men” that angers her. Her reaction reads as a tired realization that the man she is dating is a compromise. But anger is a defense mechanism when shame is threatened with exposure. Fame flares-up when Marks questions her version of her parents’ relationship, even though she has known since she was twelve that the story is untrue. She has known that Marietta’s mother didn’t attempt suicide, and yet she continues to tell both stories. Of all the questions the adult narrator asks, she hasn’t asked why the stories persist. We never witness the scene when the narrator’s parents tell her she will not be able to continue her schooling, although we know she runs away three years later. Fame may be responding to this as much as to Marks’ mention of sexual shenanigans.
At first glance, the title “The Progress of Love” doesn’t match the story. The story seems more about misunderstandings and grudges—even shame—than love, which is only mentioned in Fame’s description of her father watching her mother burn the money. A scene that never happened.
We get a clue as to the relationship between love and the story when the narrator says, “It was my mother’s version that held, for a time. It absorbed Beryl’s story, closed over it. But Beryl’s story didn’t vanish; it stayed sealed off for years, but it wasn’t gone.”
Contrast this to the final paragraph of the story after the narrator has apologized to Bob Marks:
Moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having, even if the parting has to come sooner or later. I wonder if those moments aren’t more valued, and deliberately gone after, in the setups some people like myself have now, than they were in those old marriages, where love and grudges could be growing underground, so confused and stubborn, it must have seemed they had forever.
Both descriptions provide a working definition of shame. The story sealed off, growing underground, distorted and confused. In the second passage we find love and grudges stubbornly paired. The narrator seems to believe she has broken the cycle of shame, but she has really only involved herself in the larger effort of placing herself in the family cosmos.
Shame isn’t what we do, but who we are. It is an unavoidable part of our family inheritance, mothers to daughters. In “The Progress of Love” Alice Munro doesn’t celebrate shame: the story offers neither transformation nor redemption. She merely claims the emotion exists and teaches us how to look at it. Quickly, on the periphery, while the story moves elsewhere. We can reject shame, smother it in mashed potatoes, faint, or run away from home, but it doesn’t go away. It’s embedded within oft-told stories and the walls of family homes. It progresses hand-in-hand with love.