- Munro’s Handling of Description, Focalization, and Voice in “Passion”
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—Success in Circuit lies—Emily Dickinson
In discussions of Alice Munro’s short fiction, a recurring motif is the tension readers perceive between narrative surface and undercurrents of motifs, emotions and hidden reality. One source of this tension is what George Woodcock has described as the author’s visual style:
Her visuality is not merely a matter of rendering the surface, the realm of mere perception, for she has understood that one of the great advantages of any effective imagist technique is that the image not merely presents itself. It reverberates with the power of its associations, and even with the intensity of its own isolated and illuminated presence. Munro herself conveyed something of this when John Metcalf, remarking on the fact that she seemed to “glory in the surfaces and textures,” asked whether she did not in fact feel “surfaces” not to be surfaces, and she answered that there was “a kind of magic … about everything,” “a feeling about the intensity of what is there.”(236)
In the short story “Passion,” the reader is treated to another set of components in Munro’s method of indirection. One of them is the distribution of descriptive details, wherein the way surface reality is presented in the text is used as an indirect instrument of characterization. This gives rise to some noteworthy changes in the narrative [End Page 198] rhythm of the text. The bulk of the narration maintains a rather even pace, where the elements of setting and plot are rendered in a straightforward, mostly linear manner through a balanced alternation between narrative description and dialogue. But then there are passages where the number of descriptive details multiply in a way one tends to associate with novels rather than short stories. Furthermore, many of these passages occur in parts of the story where the logic of the plot would seem to call for the opposite. Twenty pages or so give us young Grace’s summer, interacting with the Travers family, a period covering several months, whereas nearly as many pages—fifteen—are devoted to the action of 24 hours at the very end of that summer, the day and night when Grace joins Neil, her boyfriend’s older brother, on an ill-fated car ride which ends with his suicide. Because of the packed drama of those 24 hours one would expect the speed of the narration to pick up, but the opposite happens. It is in the last fifteen pages that most of the accumulation of “novelistic” narrative detail appears, detail which serves to slow down the narrative pace rather than the reverse.
This narrative asymmetry is coupled with fluent shifts in focalization and narrative voice in the story. Importantly, the extra concentrations of descriptive detail coincide with changes in diegetic level, where the perspective of the narrator yields to that of Grace, the main character, leading in turn to subtle, but nevertheless noticeable modulations of narrative voice. The story centers around crucial existential—and, I will argue—ethical dilemmas that Grace confronted during her summer with the Travers family, dilemmas that still remain unresolved when at the beginning of the story she returns to the Ottawa Valley, forty years after that fateful summer. The way the author1 moves between extradiegetic and intradiegetic levels of narration in “Passion” invites a reading in which Grace’s solipsism is seen to shake her ethical compass to disturbing effect at existentially crucial moments. Such a reading derives support from the steadily expanding body of theory surrounding the connection between narrative form and “the ethics of fiction.”2
Certainly, tracing shifts in diegetic levels can hold heuristic clues in the analysis of novels, as articles about Jane Austen’s fiction in earlier issues of Narrative demonstrate.3 However, when modulations of perspective and voice occur in the concentrated expanse of the short story there is reason to pay extra attention. In the essay “Recalcitrance in the Short Story,” discussed in the Introduction to the present issue of Narrative, Austin Wright addresses the “intensity of detail that shortness confers” (120). He here voices...