I am one of the many who think that Alice Munro deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature, so I am offering an alternate reading of “Pride” (Harper’s, April 2011), a short story, which is what Munro almost exclusively writes. “Pride” (a story John Madera discussed earlier on Big Other) is exemplary of her work, a classic Alice Munro story, encompassing a fullness of vision, examining social class, love, death, the history of the middle of the past century, and most significantly, our human nature to fail each other, which could even be interpreted, in this story, in a nearly biblical sense.
Munro writes almost exclusively about Canadians in the first or middle half of the last century, and like Flannery O’Connor, the confines of her scope are what help her illuminate human nature. As Jack White said once about his “trinity”—his writing of songs around three instruments, guitar, voice, drums, his symbolizing this as well with the three colors of black, white and red- there is great freedom in constraints.
Pride is the reason, the sin, that gives existence to the devil himself. It is the reason for the fall of God’s angel, Lucifer, who according to Christianity, is ruling hell to this day. “Pride” is told in the first person, from the point of view of a disfigured man, a man with a harelip, coming of age in the 30s and 40s in a small town in Canada. He tells the reader a story about the wealthy family in town, the owner of the town bank, Horace Jantzen, and his only daughter, Onieda, also known as Ida, and their demise from a bad business deal. But, of course, the story ends up revealing even more about the narrator himself, regardless of how little time is spent on “his” story.
The issue of pride is first brought up in regard to Jantzen’s demise. After he loses his fortune and his position at the bank, he is given a sort of fake job that the narrator expresses: “Surely he could have refused, but pride, as it was thought, chose otherwise. Pride chose that he drive every morning those six miles to sit behind a partial wall of cheap varnished boards, no proper office at all. There he sat and did nothing until it came time for him to be driven home.”
World War II begins, and the town transforms as the entire world did. Young men go off to war. The economy changes, the depression of the 30s gives way to prosperity, opportunity, change, and growth. And yet the narrator’s life changes very little if not at all. Munro is genius at showing the stunted life and in doing so, shows how in the kernel of all of our hearts, we refuse to grow or change in meaningful ways. He remains in town as others go off to war, and thinks: “Why should a harelip…have been considered enough to keep me home? I must have got my notice. I must have gone to the doctor to get my exemption. I simply don’t remember.” So the narrator stays home, continuing his work as a bookkeeper, living with his mother, as the world swirls around him. And when he says, “But it didn’t occur to me to feel sorry for either of us. I didn’t miss a father dead before I could have seen him, or any girlfriend I could have had if I’d look differently, or the brief swagger of walking off to war,” it is true and untrue at the same time. There is no doubt about his lack of feeling, but that he can acknowledge that lack of feeling later, betrays a glimmering of the actual feeling always having been there—hidden, repressed, but a force under the façade.
The war is underway. He listens to the news with his mother and one night a civilian boat sinks near Canada. He remembers: “That night I could not sleep and walked the streets of the town.” And here is where Munro does something that so few can do in short fiction—she lets her narrator say, “I had a very strange feeling that was part horror and part—as near as I can describe it—a kind of chilly exhilaration. The blowing away of everything, the equality—I have to say it—the equality, all of a sudden, of people like me and worse than me and people like them.”
Unlike the “fake” darkness in much of contemporary literature, Munro’s darkness is not ironic, nor is it often graphic—although it can be and when it is, it never misses its mark. But she never shies away from the ugly truth of human nature and her ability to go there, to really go there, surpasses the vast majority of writers writing today.
The narrator runs into Oneida a few times, but after the war ends, and his mother and her father have died, she asks him for advice about selling the large house in which she had lived with her father. Despite her best intentions, her stately, beautiful home is sold to a man, a liar, who rips down the house and builds an apartment building. Here we are again back to the delicate, but all important issues of class, and more specifically, downward mobility. Oneida ends up renting an apartment on the “top floor.” At this point, the two, the narrator and Oneida, are seeing each other regularly, her desire to talk about “her housing woes and decisions” and the narrator having bought a television, bringing them together.
Then Munro condenses time. In a few swift paragraphs, we are in the 1970s and the two main characters are old. The narrator falls ill during one of their visits and Oneida takes care of him for days, staying at his house, much to his embarrassment, not that he is without gratitude. He gets better and she leaves, but when she returns, to their regular TV night, she explains how she should move in, how she doesn’t like her apartment, how they could take care of each other.
Here’s our narrator’s chance. Here’s his chance, even so late in life, to embrace the comfort the two have given each other. But—the sexlessness of their relationship, the fact that he was to her “a neuter…an unfortunate child” has hardened him beyond reason. He cannot do the right thing. He cannot accept her offer. Pride, sexual pride, personal pride, pride for sure, makes him decline her offer, makes him lie and tell her he’s selling the house. And so he must.
Oneida replies: “So it just didn’t come to me soon enough…Like a lot of things in my life….I always think there’s plenty of time.” But there isn’t plenty of time. Time is a a fleeting gift, not just for Oneida, but for the narrator as well.
Munro, deep into her seventies, is wonderful at capturing regret. She knows what it means to be in the twilight of life. The narrator ends up moving into the same apartment building, but not on the top floor like Oneida, rather on the bottom. As he’s packing up to leave his house, she comes to visit. Suddenly, Oneida shrieks and points to the window to look. The birdbath that the narrator put in years ago for his mother, who loved birds, is full of creatures. Not birds, but skunks. “Little skunks, more white in them than black,” says Oneida. The narrator thinks: “But how beautiful. Flashing and dancing and never getting in each other’s way, so you could not tell how many there were, where each body started or stopped.”
And in all these lost chances, in all this loss and bad decisions and death looming close, Munro gives us a moment of grace. She ends the story: “We were as glad as we could be.” And so it is. “Could” seems key in this sentence. “Glad,” too, is very precise—it is not happy, it is not love, it seems only the opposite of all sorts of sadness. And when I think of the lives I see lived, when I think of my life and everyone around me, I think that nothing is truer than “could,” that it’s better than “would have been.” than ”should have been,” than “isn’t” and “wasn’t”—that we are really only what we are, what we can be, in every moment, in all the moments that pass by so quickly and become a part of what we are.