Literature Interpretation Theory

LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory
ISSN: 1043-6928 (Print) 1545-5866 (Online) Journal homepage:
The baby or the violin? Ethics and femininity in the
fiction of Alice Munro
Naomi Morgenstern
To cite this article: Naomi Morgenstern (2003) The baby or the violin? Ethics and femininity
in the fiction of Alice Munro, LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, 14:2, 69-97, DOI:
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Published online: 18 Oct 2010.
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Naomi Morgenstern
Naomi Morgenstern is an Assistant Professor in the Department of
English at the University of Toronto. She has published essays on Willa
Cather, Toni Morrison, E. L. Doctorow, and feminist and psychoanalytic
Doing this in the name of the good, and even more in the name of the
good of the other, is something that is far from protecting us not only
from guilt but also from all kinds of inner catastrophes.—Jacques Lacan
Ahhhh! No Lessons. No lessons ever!—Alice Munro
When asked in a 1982 interview whether or not she ‘‘embed[s] lessons
in [her] stories,’’ Alice Munro objected in no uncertain terms (Hancock
223). And surely no one would want to call Alice Munro a ‘‘moral’’
writer. Her narrators and central characters provocatively resist final
acts of judgment, leaving readers confronted by the complexities and
impossibilities that characterize the ethical.1 The name morality,
Derek Attridge has recently suggested, is often given to ‘‘specific
obligations governing concrete situations in a social context, which
require the greatest possible control of outcomes,’’ whereas ethical
demands involve ‘‘responsibility’’ and ‘‘obligation,’’ but also ‘‘unpredictability
and risk’’ (28).2 Munro’s stories represent the risks of the
ethical (the possibility that the call from the other has been misidentified;
the possibility that the other’s otherness has been compromised
in the work of responding; the risk that the subject of an
ethical intervention will never recover herself) even as they insist on
giving us nothing but ‘‘specific obligations’’ and ‘‘concrete situations.’’
Take, for example, the recent ‘‘Post and Beam.’’ Lorna, a young
married woman with two children, is visited by her needy cousin Polly.
Already weighed down with responsibility and fantasizing of escape,
Lorna wants to be able to think of Polly and her other relatives back
home as ‘‘some people she knew and liked but was not responsible for’’
(103). ‘‘You should live your own life,’’ Lorna tells her older cousin with
Literature Interpretation Theory, 14: 69–97, 2003
Copyright # 2003 Taylor & Francis
1043-6928/03 $12.00 +.00
DOI: 10.1080/10436920390215348
exasperation (100). But when Lorna and her husband and children go
away for the weekend, leaving the houseguest behind, Lorna is tormented
by the thought—the very definitive image—of a Polly who
will have committed suicide in their absence. Lorna will have failed
Polly; she will not have responded to her call. For Lorna, it is as if
others are at risk if one refuses to take responsibility for them (which
is, of course—just to complicate matters—sometimes the case). In the
car on the way home Lorna tries to reason her way out of responsibility
for Polly. After all, Polly is an adult; Lorna has children of her
own to care for. But ‘‘No sooner had she put the argument in place
than she felt the body knock against the door as they tried to push it
open. The deadweight, the gray body. The body of Polly who had been
given nothing at all’’ (105).
Lorna’s attempt to reason her way out of concern for her cousin is
disrupted by something which has the feel of exteriority: ‘‘No sooner
had she put the argument in place than she felt the body knock against
the door as they tried to push it open’’ (105). Munro’s words here
demand careful attention: Lorna’s call to responsibility is experienced
as the uncannily intentional ‘‘knock’’ on the door given by a corpse.
This corpse, moreover, has been put into motion by the subject’s
attempt to respond (by opening the door). Lorna’s image (for it is, after
all, her corpse—her conjuration) figures the call of responsibility as a
call from beyond; the dead body of Polly knocks against Lorna’s reasoning,
even as it is Lorna’s concerned pushing that sets the body in
motion. Lorna is more than aware of the ‘‘neurotic,’’ ‘‘primitive,’’
childish nature of her fears and their tendency to discount the otherness
of others even as they overcome her with concern. Nevertheless,
she cannot shake the knocking of the corpse and so decides to make a
‘‘bargain’’ on the drive home (109). What will she, Lorna, have to
sacrifice, so that Polly will survive her betrayal? When Lorna returns
home, Polly is more than all right. She stands strongly independent
and may even have taken up with the ‘‘friend of the family,’’ Lionel,
who had represented Lorna’s own fantastic possibilities of escape, a
possible shadowy affair (106). What Lorna realizes is that others exist
independently of her fantasy life and psychic economy. She looks out
on the backyard at her husband, Brendan, at Polly, at Lionel, at her
daughter Elizabeth, at their mundanely pleasant interactions, their
otherness, their separateness, the fact that they are all temporarily
happy without her. It is both something of a miracle and the simplest
of truths: ‘‘How had that happened? [ . . .] A scene so ordinary and
amazing come about as if by magic. Everybody happy’’ (108).
The end of ‘‘Post and Beam’’ tells us, with a jolt, that this all happened
long ago (something we both know and do not know as we read
70 N. Morgenstern
the story) and that Lorna will continue to make bargains. In other
words, she will repeatedly confuse herself with others: ‘‘It was a long
time ago that this happened. In North Vancouver, when they lived in
the post-and-beam house. When she was twenty-four years old and
new to bargaining’’ (109). Why, then, Munro’s story leads us to ask,
does the ethical insight—that the other exists beyond the self—need
to be repeated? Why does it fail to sustain itself? Munro’s stories, I will
argue, offer us more than one answer. First of all, they suggest that we
cannot but live in the stories we tell ourselves; if confusing life with
literary narrative is a mistake, it is also an inevitable one (Munro’s
stories insist on this again and again).3 The unmaking and remaking
of a subject and the world she inhabits are a repeated process in
Munro’s fiction. But the stories do not allow us to stop here; the ethical
insight is also impossible to maintain because this simple truth—that
the other is radically exterior—is simultaneously false. And this is
why many have contended that ethics are ‘‘impossible’’ or ‘‘paradoxical.’’
(‘‘It is on the basis of the thinking of a certain impossibility,’’
writes Jill Robbins, ‘‘that the ethical becomes legible’’ [xv].) How can
one reach out to the other without doing violence to their otherness in
the very attempt to fold them into the self ’s understanding? How can
an encounter with alterity not do violence to the encountering subject
(ethical responsibility, writes Emmanuel Levinas, ‘‘requires subjectivity
as an irreplaceable hostage [ . . .] my being that belongs to me
and not to another is undone’’ [qtd. in Keenan 20])?4 Would the subject
be capable of ethical response if he or she were not already the subject
of a constitutive alterity? ‘‘If the settled patterns of my mental world,’’
writes Derek Attridge, ‘‘have been so freed up that the truly other
finds a welcome, my subjectivity will have been altered in some degree,
and thus—especially if the cumulative effect of such events is taken
into account—the self too can be said to be a creation of the other’’
(21). In ‘‘Post and Beam’’ Lorna realizes that her life itself is already
the bargain, a compromise, a giving up, not discrete in itself; she is
inhabited by otherness. Where in one’s life story could one hope to
locate a time or space outside of dependence and responsibility?
Lorna’s back and forth between a registration of the absolute
exteriority of the call to responsibility and a refusal to recognize the
other’s radical exteriority (the reduction of all others to characters in
the drama of the subject’s responsibility) defines a compelling
engagement with the complexities of the ethical. ‘‘Can there be
something,’’ Levinas asks, ‘‘as strange as an experience of the absolutely
exterior, as contradictory in its terms as a heteronomous
experience [ . . .] whose movement unto the other is not recuperated in
identification, does not return to its point of departure [?]’’ (‘‘Trace of
Ethics and Femininity in Alice Munro 71
the Other’’ 348). Munro’s characters experience ethical crisis as an
encounter with demands that cannot be comfortably located or
coherently translated, and this is part of their appeal and their
sophistication. It is not easy to describe who or what one responds to in
the ethical moment (‘‘Exactly to whom we are responsible or answerable
in this situation is one of the questions I shall have to leave
unaddressed,’’ writes Attridge [27]; ‘‘A fragility at the limit of nonbeing,’’
is one of the ways Levinas finds to describe that which calls one
to responsibility [Totality 258]), but in Munro’s fiction the relationship
established by ethical responsibility resists the banality of an economic
exchange—of needs and their satisfaction; of knowledge and
understanding—between two intentionalities figured as equal partners.
The call of the other in ‘‘Post and Beam’’ is indissociable from the
force exerted by the same; the call is as much Lorna’s as is her attempt
to reason a way out of responsibility. In this respect the story suggests
that the possibility of an ethical response is linked to the violence of an
attempt to contain the other’s otherness within an economy of the
same. But as Jacques Derrida writes in his commentary on Levinas,
‘‘the irreducible violence of the relation to the other, is at the same
time nonviolence, since it opens the relation to the other’’ (‘‘Violence’’
Alice Munro’s stories of ethical crisis, then, depict characters
responding—or failing to respond—to calls defined by their ambiguous
intentionality and potential meaninglessness. Hesitating on the
border between the mechanical and the human, the physiological and
the intentional, or the outside and the inside of the psyche, these calls
put language, and hence being, into question. In what follows, I want
to elaborate on the relationship between ethics and intersubjectivity in
Munro’s fiction by focusing on two stories in which a dreaming woman
is called, quite literally, to responsibility by cries that verge on the
inhuman: that of a yowling, nameless woman in ‘‘Meneseteung,’’ and a
screaming infant, who also happens to be the narrator, in ‘‘My
Mother’s Dream.’’ While dreams are usually taken to be the ‘‘royal
road’’ to the individual’s unconscious, in Munro’s narratives, I claim,
dreams fleetingly register the other’s otherness. In reading ‘‘Meneseteung’’
and ‘‘My Mother’s Dream’’ together, then, I am insisting on
their specific registration of an ethical dilemma. These stories explore
the impossibility of the ethical and the crises of responsibility generated
by ethical relations, and they address the question of why it is
that the ethical insight—that the other exists beyond the self—needs
to be repeated. In addition, I want to pay particular attention to
the ways in which these stories inflect ethical encounters with crises of
gendered subjectivity. In Munro’s stories, sexual difference is never
72 N. Morgenstern
left behind, but neither is it simply mapped onto the opposition
between self and other. ‘‘Meneseteung’’ presents us with what I will
call an ethical ‘‘primal scene’’ that threatens conventional femininity
and its accompanying limited and calculable acts of generosity, while
‘‘My Mother’s Dream’’ explores the relationship between object loss,
lack, and gendered subjecthood. Re-reading the classical psychoanalytic
account, Munro provocatively suggests that ‘‘femininity’’
reconsidered may coincide with the relational itself. These are feminist
stories, I argue, that repeatedly refuse to think of ethical questions
as separable from embodied life (although, of course, this does
not mean that involving the body provides any simple answers).
Munro’s stories, I suggest, can be read to expose the mystical and
somewhat desperate fiction (woman and man as ‘‘opposite’’ sexes) that
has been crucial to notions of alterity promised by the metaphysics of
Recently critics have argued that while Munro herself is no theorist,
her writing speaks powerfully to feminism and to literary theory.5
While concurring with this assessment, I add that Munro’s stories
have much to contribute to contemporary efforts to think about literariness
and ethics.6 Intriguingly, Magdalene Redekop’s study of
Munro’s fiction ends (except for the postscript) with an insistent
repetition of the word ‘‘responsibility.’’ ‘‘Meneseteung,’’ she argues,
defines ‘‘an explicit responsibility—that of the contemporary woman
writer to the voices of the past. It is a responsibility, however, that is
linked to the writer’s responsibility to her craft [ . . .] The writer’s
responsibility, in turn, is linked by Munro to our responsibilities in the
real world that contains a river called the ‘Meneseteung’’’ (228; italics
mine). This insistence, then, is my starting point for a consideration of
gender and ethics in the fiction of Alice Munro.7

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