31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 17: “What Is Remembered” by Alice Munro

August 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

400000000000000076392_s4Like many writers, Alice Munro has consistent themes and obsessions to which she has returned over the course of her literary career. Specifically, Munro spends much of her time focusing on the erotic undercurrents that dog her female characters. The tension in her stories often arises out of a conflict between the propriety and decorum dictated by the social roles in which Munro’s women find themselves and the primal desires that threaten to undo this decorum. A Munro heroine is frequently precocious and headstrong, reckless enough to pursue her own self-satisfaction at the expense of her life’s stability. Marriages in Munro’s fiction – especially first marriages – rarely last.

Which makes “What Is Remembered” something of an oddity in the Munro canon, since the marriage between Meriel and Pierre endures right through the latter’s death, although in many ways the reader can be forgiven for expecting it to unravel at the seams long before this.

Set in Vancouver, the story involves a chance meeting between Meriel and a doctor at the funeral of Pierre’s best friend. The doctor conspires to get Meriel alone for the afternoon, which the two spend having passionate sex. They then part company, never to see each other again. Meriel returns to her marriage and lives out the rest of her time with Pierre recalling details of that torrid afternoon.

As with all of Munro’s best stories, the relationships between and among the characters are subject to subtle shifts and movements, most of which take place beneath the surface of the story’s action. Asher, the doctor, offers to drive Meriel to her rendezvous with her namesake, a mentor of her dead mother – “[f]irst an inspiration, then an ally, then a friend” – now confined to a nursing home in Lynn Valley. Suffering from cataracts, Aunt Muriel nevertheless recognizes the contours of the situation when Meriel shows up with Asher:

“What’s your husband’s name?”

“Pierre.”

“And you have two children, don’t you? Jane and David?”

“That’s right. But the man who’s with me –”

“Ah, no,” the old Muriel said. “That’s not your husband.”

When Aunt Muriel hustles the two away with a quick brush-off – “I’m sorry, it’s rude of me, I have to tell you, I get tired” – she becomes complicit in Meriel’s infidelity. Aunt Muriel is quite aware of what she is doing; despite her faulty vision, she is more than able to see the dynamic that exists between the two visitors. “You are here with her,” Aunt Muriel says to Asher:

And he said to Aunt Muriel, “How could you tell that? By my breathing?”

“I could tell,” she said with some impatience. “I used to be a devil myself.”

After Meriel and Asher’s tryst, she rides the ferry across Horseshoe Bay to reunite with Pierre. “She ached in expected and unexpected places,” we are told. She decides that she must remember the experience with Asher, she must “store it away forever.” Which she does for the next 30 years, living with her husband while continually undergoing “wave after wave of intense recollection.”

Implicit in Meriel’s recollection is the notion that it is only her memory of this encounter, the one moment in which she permitted herself to slough off the socially sanctioned role of wife and mother and give into her suppressed desires, that allows her to continue in her marriage to Pierre. But her “intense recollection” of the afternoon glosses over a salient detail, a humiliating slight that she retains almost subliminally, refusing conscious acknowledgement until after her husband’s death. It is this detail, she believes, unconsciously forgotten for more than 30 years, that could have tipped the scales and made her abandon the safety of her marriage for “another sort of life she could have had.” Coming to a full recollection only after her husband’s death, “she could think of that other sort of life simply as a kind of research which had its own pitfalls and achievements.”

In “What Is Remembered,” unlike many other Munro stories, the protagonist is allowed to indulge her carnal desires without sacrificing the stability of her marriage; she is granted “a kind of research” into her adulterous erotic impulses, but only because she refuses to fully confront the totality of her experience. By repressing one aspect of her “intense recollection,” Meriel ensures for herself a return to the safe shores of domesticity, and, consequently, to a kind of happiness.

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