The Short Story’s Way of Meaning: Alice Munro’s “Passion”
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The Short Story’s Way of Meaning:
Alice Munro’s “Passion”

“A text cannot belong to no genre, it cannot be without or less a genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging.”

—Jacques Derrida

Although Alice Munro has always insisted that she does not write as a novelist does, many reviewers and critics have tried to account for the complexity of her short stories by suggesting they are “novelistic.” I assent to the wise advice of C.S. Lewis, who once reminded us that, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. … As long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins and the cathedral for entertaining tourists, you can say nothing to the purpose about them (1).”

I hope to say something to the purpose here about a single Alice Munro story by demonstrating that its complexity is not “novelistic,” as many critics and reviewers claim about her short fiction, but rather due to its generic characteristics as a short story. Munro once said that originally she planned to write a few stories just to get some practice, but got used seeing her material in a short story way (Rothstein). Accepting the critical assumptions of Medvedev and Bakhtin that some genres are adapted to conceptualizing aspects of reality better than others, with each genre possessing definite principles of selection—that genre is a “schema” that shapes seeing and that every genre has its own methods and means of seeing and conceptualizing reality (134)—I will try to delineate the short-story way of Alice Munro in the story “Passion” from her 2004 collection, Runaway. [End Page 172]

The usual way that critics and reviewers try to account for the complexity of Alice Munro’s stories is by calling them “novelistic.” For example, Tricia Springstubb in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, likens short stories to fireworks, e.g. launch, trajectory, burst of color, fading sparks. But in Alice Munro’s stories, she says you get the history of the man lighting the fuse, the memories of an old woman watching, the implications for a couple at the display on a blind date. “You get, in fact, all the complexity and nuance of a novel, concentrated within several dozen pages.” Novel complexity, according to many Munro reviewers, seems to be defined as a lateral or metonymic complexity, a complexity created by multiplying data over time in a linear fashion.

Merilyn Simonds says in a review in the Montreal Gazette that Munro creates “Characters so complex, their lives so finely detailed, the narrative supported on a framework of thought so profound that each story leaves us feeling we’ve just turned the last page of a door-stopper novel.” However, Simonds does concede that the structure of Munro’s stories only seems haphazard and random as life, when in fact they are tightly structured, “the rippling consequences of every action driving the narrative towards its surprising conclusion, one that, in retrospect, seems inevitable.” Simonds says the stories, in typical short story fashion, end with a shock wave like you feel when you look in the rearview mirror and “realize the landscape you’ve just driven through is not at all what you thought it was.”

In her essay, “What is Real,” Munro confirms her commitment to a structure that is anything but linear. She says when she reads stories, she can start reading them anywhere, at any point in the story, beginning, end or in the middle. She says she does not take up a story and follow it as if it were a road “with views and neat diversions along the way. I go into it and move back and forth and settle here and there, and stay in it for a while. It’s more like a house. Everybody knows what a house does, how it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another...