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Alice Munro’s Men

The late author Alice Munro’s work is criticized for its portrayal of men. But radically, not all her rejected male characters are mediocrities.

When I reread essayist Joseph Epstein’s complaint after Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro‘s recent death, I was at least relieved that he thought her work focused on “straying women too good for the men” – a judgment with which her most ecstatic admirers might concur. “As a writer of short stories, I do not understand the vaunting of Alice Munro, who in 2013 won the Nobel Prize,” Epstein said. Hers seemed to him all “one and the same: A woman of middle years in provincial Ontario is having a love affair, or has recently had a love affair, or long ago had a love affair, with a man not worthy of her, and has been, or soon will be, plunged back into the doldrums of provincial life.”

In an otherwise favorable New Republic review of 2009’s Too Much Happiness, Ruth Franklin found the male characters “uniformly unworthy”—ranging “from mediocre to truly monstrous”. Reluctantly, she concluded that “there is a problem with Munro’s portrait of the human world.”

To consider all of her stories, though, and where Alice Munro came from is to wonder if the “problem” is not with her portrait of men but our world. Born in 1931 in Wingham, Ontario, Munro set much of her fiction in the time and place she had come of age. She married after two years at university—precisely when her scholarship ran out—and frequently observed that if there had been no fiancé (her first boyfriend, as it happened), she would have been forced to move back home and take care of her ailing mother. Maybe she would have married a farmer (“How could I possibly have found time to write as a farmer’s wife?” her daughter, Sheila Munro wrote in 2001’s Lives of Mothers & Daughters); maybe not. “Even though she was pretty, boys sensed that there was something odd about her, and kept their distance,” her eldest daughter, Sheila continues.

Alice Munro’s imagination and intellect were odd indeed. As she put it in 2004’s Runaway, gifts of this sort were often locally relegated to “the same category as a limp or an extra thumb.” Franklin calls Munro’s women “strong, distinguished, unconventional”. They are also profoundly isolated. Again and again in her stories, we meet women who are wasted not only on those who don’t show interest in them but also on the few who do.

If this sounds snooty, consider the particulars of her short story “Carried Away” (1994). Near the end of World War I, Louisa, a small-town librarian, receives increasingly fervent love letters from a soldier in Europe who had once watched her from afar in the library. After he approaches her and dutifully mentions books, she tells him that her favorite authors are Thomas Hardy (“who is accused of being gloomy but I think is very true to life”) and Willa Cather. The soldier replies that he enjoyed Zane Grey, though he had drifted from “fiction stories to reading History and Travel. I sometimes read books away over my head, I know, but I do get something out of them.”

In this and other exchanges, Alice Munro establishes the great gulf between them, which Louisa herself surely registers. But the soldier has no competition – intellectual or otherwise – for her affections; pickings are slimmer for Louisa in this town than they were on Egdon Heath for Hardy’s Eustacia Vye in 1878’s Return of the Native. (As for Cather, one of her male protagonists reflected that “it was a hard destiny to be the exceptional person in a community, to be more gifted or more intelligent than the rest. For a girl it must be doubly hard,” she writes in 1923’s One of Ours.) Louisa’s besotted soldier, it is later revealed, was engaged to a local young woman before going overseas. Upon returning home, he marries her.

A devastated Louisa tells the story to a traveling salesman at the hotel where she lives and subsequently goes to bed with him. He’s nice enough, this salesman, but he’s also no match for her. Had Louisa sought female companionship, the landscape would have been similarly bleak: there seem to be no serious-minded women around, either.

“Occasionally,” critic and essayist James Wood ventured in 1997, “one feels that [Munro] makes things easier on herself by limiting her canvas to smaller societies in smaller times.” In a 2004 CBC interview, when Eleanor Wachtel broached obliquely, Alice Munro balked: life in her stories was so hard! But, of course, Wood meant narratively easier, and it’s reasonable to believe that Munro would have seen his point. After all, when Rose, in 1977’s “The Beggar Maid” looks back on why she married, very young, a man she knew she didn’t love, she admits that “if she had had the price of a train ticket to Toronto her life would have been different.”

How would Alice Munro have written about women forging independent lives in the wider world? Very few of her characters have jobs outside the home, and when they do, they are the sort that allow plenty of free time (writing, acting); we rarely glimpse these women in their professional lives. My one regret about Alice Munro’s fiction is that too little of it revolves around work. On the evidence of what she told The Paris Review about her brief experience teaching creative writing in a 1994 interview, I would have welcomed a story on even this overdone subject. “It was good for me to learn to shout back and express some ideas about writing that I hadn’t sharpened up before, but I didn’t know how to reach (the students), how not to be an adversary,” she said to Jean McCulloch and Mona Simpson. “Maybe I’d know now. But it didn’t seem to have anything to do with writing—more like good training for going into television or something, getting really comfortable with clichés.”

Would Alice Munro’s women, mingling with various people in the workplace, find more men who are right for them? Alas, perhaps not as many as feminist progress would lead us to expect. At the very moment Munro was looking back to the 19th century to write about the romantic miseries of a real woman, the novelist and mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky (appearing in the title story of Too Much Happiness), a real woman named Sandra Boss was dealing with the discovery that she’d married a serial imposter whose alias when they met was Clark Rockefeller. The imposter would later be convicted of murder.

Walter Kirn, who covered the trial, told an audience at the 2014 Chicago Humanities Festival that he’d been heartbroken by Boss’ testimony about what first drew her to Rockefeller. It wasn’t money: a Harvard MBA and McKinsey partner, she made her millions. “She said, ‘I have an IQ of 160. I scare men away. No one had ever brought me flowers before…lain in bed with me talking into the night.'” This is an extreme example of “unpleasant” men, to be sure (though Munro was drawn to darker subjects in her later stories). However, as women continue to outpace and outnumber men in higher education, journalism about their romantic and domestic frustrations is the stuff of every day.

“You’re smarter than I am, I can’t go out with you,” an anthropologist quoted by the Guardian in 2023 said the women she interviews are often told on dating apps. The same year Ruth Franklin lamented the unworthiness of Alice Munro’s men, Lori Gottlieb published the New York Times bestseller Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. 

Stories are not arguments; they are more persuasive, and Alice Munro’s fiction amounts to a powerful case against settling for what’s available. Her women have adulterous affairs—not usually, it must be said, love affairs—almost always as a means of getting out of an unfulfilling marriage. Sometimes, though there is no domestic violence, the escape is desperate. In the short story “Nettles” (2000), she writes, “I had moved for the newfangled reason that was approved of mightily but fleetingly, and only in some special circles—leaving husband and house and all the things acquired during marriage (except of course the children, who were to be parcelled about) in the hopes of making a life that could be lived without hypocrisy or deprivation or shame.”

In the 1989 story “Differently” she writes, “She saw herself as a person surrounded by, living by, a sham. Because she had been so readily unfaithful, her marriage was a sham. Because she had gone so far out of it, so quickly, it was a sham.” In 1977’s “Providence”: “She had always been planning, at the back of her mind, to do what she was doing now. Even on her wedding day she had known this time would come, and that if it didn’t she might as well be dead.”

Perhaps here is the place to suggest what may be most radical about Alice Munro’s stories: when you look at her male characters closely, they are not all mediocrities. Many are bright, kind, funny, attractive, and very good at their work. Still, the women don’t love them or don’t love them enough. If you haven’t read Munro, you may think her characters are too fussy, but is it so difficult to fathom two seemingly compatible people failing to generate a spark between them?

If so, see how it goes in Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Alice Munro’s only novel. The character Del Jordan has the second-highest IQ in the county; the highest belongs to Jerry Storey, who dreams of M.I.T. and dismisses French and history as “memory work” (Del compares his mind to “a circus tent full of dim apparatus on which, when I was not there, he performed stunts which were spectacular and boring.”) With no one else to turn to, Del and Jerry give it a go: “Our bodies fell against each other not unwillingly but joylessly, like sacks of wet sand. Our mouths opened into each other, as we had read and heard they might, but stayed cold, our tongues rough, mere lumps of unlucky flesh.”

Though Alice Munro rarely wrote male protagonists, it was not only the perils of women’s settling for a man that she took seriously. In 1999’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, Grant, a retired professor whose wife has Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home, contemplates a woman whose husband is in the same facility. “He might have married her,” he shudders. “Think of it. He might have married some girl like that. If he’d stayed back where he belonged.”

Dear Life (2012), Alice Munro’s final book of stories, contains a story about a poet who, at 83, has a chance meeting with the woman about whom he had written a “pretty raw” poem called “Dolly”. They had spent two torrid weeks together before he was deployed in the Second World War. She is now selling beauty products door-to-door, and the poet’s partner, a retired teacher writing about a forgotten novelist, struggles to explain this project to her visitor. “You mean like all this stuff will get printed?” the saleswoman asks. “Like in the paper?” In a book, she is told. “She exhaled somewhat dubiously,” the poet’s partner reports.

Casting about for something more interesting to say, she comes up with a tidbit about the forgotten novelist’s husband, who is alleged to have written parts of the novel, though his name isn’t on it. “Maybe he didn’t want the guys to kid him,” the saleswoman says. “Like, you know, what are they going to think about the kind of guy who writes books.” He might have married her we realize of the poet—almost certainly if she’d become pregnant. (She believed that she couldn’t get pregnant “because she had been a twin and wore her dead sis’s hair in a locket around her neck.”)

In the presentation speech for the 2013 Nobel Prize, member of the Swedish Academy Peter Englund writes, “Alice Munro demonstrates that love rarely saves us or leads to reliable happiness.” However, it is love’s absence, particularly within relationships, that causes trouble. “Luck exists, so does love, and I was right to go after it,” Munro wrote to a friend about life with her second husband, Gerald Fremlin, whom she took up with when he was 50 (quoted in Rober Thacker’s 2005 biography, Alice Munro: Writing her Lives). There are durable, happy unions in her stories, too, but they tend to be between older people, men and women facing fewer of the pressures—money, convention, biological clocks—encountered in early adulthood.

In “Carried Away”, when she is no longer young, the librarian, Louisa, marries a widower, a thoughtful, sensitive man who owns the factory where her smitten soldier once worked. “You could not say with any assurance that she had a bad reputation,” he muses. “But it was not quite a spotless reputation, either.” At his age and hers, no matter.

As for the women whose endings aren’t spelled out, where is the evidence that they have been or soon will be returned to the doldrums? “So her life was falling forwards; she was becoming one of those people who ran away,” Munro writes of an unhappy wife in 1997’s “The Children Stay”. “A woman who shockingly and incomprehensibly gave everything up. For love, observers would say wryly. Meaning, for sex.” In fact, the wife is running for, and to, life; nothing suggests she doesn’t find it.