Alice Munro: In the Footsteps of Chekhov

Alice Munro: In the Footsteps of Chekhov

A story is a bundle of instruction, a collection of wisdom and understanding and a store house of knowledge and discretion as well. It wields enormous power to showcase the human experiences and interweaves reason with emotions to build the blocks/bridge between man and nature, man and man and man within and man without. A story increases your life learning and edifies your socio, political, moral perspectives to sustain the academic and civic slanders.

Munro’s writings speak of modern problems with heart full of love and concern because they concern human nature. Munro’s writings, in fact have wider implications of global, socio-cultural implications through local characters and settings. She has used the thread of human experiences to add color to the fabric of feelings and emotions.  

Why would on earth the people call her “the Canadian Chekhov”? Is it a sort of comparison or accolade? It is emotional and intellectual enough to answer these questions through Chekhov’s stories.

Chekhov’s stories carry loads of matters that deal with human lives. You are driven to get along with characterization instead techniques such as plot or series of events unfolding the story in literary, chronological order. When you read his stories, you walk with his characters and listen to them with patience and make a way for them to cry on your shoulders to some extent. The very fabric of Chekhov’s stories is made of human’s passion, love, ‘longing for life and freedom’, hopes and desires, unfulfilled dreams, psychological, social, moral, spiritual and personal conflicts, shouldering the consequences, and so on. You cannot pull down any of the thread from this beautifully embroidered fabric of stories with human touch. Anton Chekhov is endowed with such a gift of stirring your soul and making you a personality with a difference. Your countenance doesn’t get disfigured but transformed in ideas and outlook. This is what, if not all about, but something remarkable about Anton Chekhov, the 19th century Russian story writer.   

Alice Munro, called ‘the Canadian Chekhov’ has followed the footsteps of Anton Chekhov in terms of using ordinary characters with all their love and hate and hopes and hopelessness in day-to-day life. Her thoughts are straightforward and she speaks out what she thinks. It is all about her simple yet profound ideas and principles in lively description with a common man’s tongue. The way she conveys things through her stories are just running like clear water so sparkling and transparent. It is just the presentation of reality or real world situation but ‘being real’ or ‘being of itself’ is very much evident in her writings. Munro in her story ‘Boys and Girls’ shows what ‘being real’ means saying:

My mother, I felt, was not to be trusted. She was kinder than my father and more easily fooled, but you could not depend on her, and the real reasons for the things she said and did were not to be known. She loved me, and she sat up late at night making a dress of the difficult style I wanted, for me to wear when school started, but she was also my enemy. She was always plotting. She was plotting now to get me to stay in the house more . . . and keep me from working for my father. It seemed to me she would do this simply out of perversity, and to try her power. It did not occur to me that she could be lonely, or jealous. No grown-up could be; they were too fortunate. I sat and kicked my heels monotonously against a feed bag, raising dust, and did not come out till she was gone.

It’s interesting to observe that how this young girl on her way to womanhood pours out her heart through these words. Munro’s concern seems to be more than reality or real situations. It’s about human psyche. It’s about being of just oneself in its entirety. Munro’s phrases such as ‘simply out of perversity’, and ‘to try her power’ do not condemn the narrator’s attitude or loss of motherly nature but the subject’s experience of being a girl with all her unanswered questions, unnoticed feelings and unheeded suggestions.   

Munro interestingly enough takes the readers through rusty patches, pastoral, leafy green places with shepherds, a barn filled with domesticated animal and birds, pens and kennels, milking cow sheds and horse stables, an open field, farms and rural, remote dwellings magnified in all glory against hustle and bustle of the cities. Munro in her story ‘Train’ paints the picture of an immaculate, rural landmark that is located near a small town called ‘Oriole’. Her description underscores the interconnectedness of physical, lush green landscape and simple and carefree life style around the country side. Munro’s depiction of such a place in ‘Train’ helps us to capture the essence of socio-cultural values when she describes telling:

Fields green or rusty or yellow. Pasture, crops, stubble. He knows just that much. It’s still August. And once the noise of the train has been swallowed up he realizes there isn’t the perfect quiet around that he would have expected. Plenty of disturbance here and there, a shaking of the dry August leaves that wasn’t wind, a racket of unknown, unseen birds chastising him.

In this techno-driven world, Munro voices out clear, purpose-driven reasons to uphold human values and principles. Of course, she is standing for something noteworthy.

Life is all about a constant struggle for recognition and acceptance. No one is exempt from this warring attitude till the grave is reached. Munro’s characters, though simple and outspoken, continually strive for social acceptance. It’s evident in her writings that almost all characters, especially girls and women are trying to break open the hard shell of less importance in terms of ‘socialization’. This struggle is more of internal dealing with resilience, fortitude, mental toughness and resistance than of external. Many a time, this fight for freedom from subjectivity lands both men and women in irreparable or lost relationship and ethical conflicts. It is a call to learn moral resistance, justification of means and ends, practicing freedom from servitude and to respond to the demanding world with ‘patient endurance and contentment’ within and without in all situations. Munro in ‘Boys and Girls’ vividly pictures a young girl’s mental agony, disturbed spirit and her hidden rebellion to prove her unstoppable cry for social inclusion and recognition:

I was given jobs to do and I would sit at the table peeling peaches that had been soaked in hot water, or cutting up onions, my eyes smarting and streaming. As soon as I was done I ran out of the house, trying to get out of earshot before my mother thought of what she wanted me to do next. I hated the hot dark kitchen in summer, the green blinds and the flypapers, the same old oilcloth table and wavy mirror and bumpy linoleum. . . .  It seemed to me that work in the house was endless, dreary, and peculiarly depressing; work done out of doors, and in my father’s service, was ritualistically important.

In all her complaints, the young girl becomes the victim for all the dos and don’ts, but her younger brother named Laird is recognized as a man. It is merely making an adult out of a child. The world recognizes the babyish Laird and accepts him into the fold bread winning team but this female narrator is left with a tag- “Never mind, she’s only a girl.” Munro writes the last but the lasting line-“I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true,” with a sad note but not silenced altogether to get the feel of a caged spirit but desperately wanting to fly high over the cliffs of all challenges.   

It is Munro’s local consciousness that makes all the difference in her ideas and outlook. She might have located her characters within a small village or town but they impart a universal message – everybody, irrespective of gender owns their God given space in the world. It is an order and no one can encroach on this space. When one of our own kinds is spaced out, it is not SH/E is spaced out but we are all on this earth. Let’s remember Chinua Achebe’s words, “the centre cannot hold, when things fall apart.” When values such as mutual respect honor and dignity, equality and genuine love fall apart, where is the room for the term ‘center’? Who is there to hold you and me? What is left over there to uphold?