Engagement via Emotional Heightening in “Passion”: On the Grammatical Texture of Emotionally-Immersive Passages in Short Fiction
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Engagement via Emotional Heightening in “Passion”:
On the Grammatical Texture of Emotionally-Immersive Passages in Short Fiction

The Traverses are a large family, happy and unhappy in their own distinct ways, as we find out in Alice Munro’s story, “Passion.” Grace descends upon them: an intelligent, frustrated young woman, with a touch of the young Alice Munro about her no doubt (just as the older Grace may echo the older Alice, who could herself get onto Highway 7 to visit the Ottawa Valley, driving from Clinton to Stratford, in under an hour). Maury courts her, and assumes they will marry, but really what attract Grace are the space and creativity and scope for fulfillment that the family—especially Mrs. Travers at its center—seems to nurture and ratify in her. The Traverses are helping her to “get across” the socioeconomic gulf that separates working stiffs (caning chairs) from a life of thinking, possibility, leisure, and pleasure: life with a taste to it (to rewrite the sentiments of her stand-in parents and her high-school principal, who sanction her going off to get “a taste of life”—but always on the assumption that thereafter of that apple she will eat no more).

Into this familiar configuration, on Canadian Thanksgiving eve, swerves the restless and dangerous Dr. Neil, in his wine-colored convertible, and there is an immediate mutual attraction and some borrowing (his surname is Borrow): her from Maury, him from Mavis. Still nothing might have eventuated, but for a nice convergence of Darwinian random conditions, where the chief uncertainty concerns how far back to trace these. But for Thanksgiving, there would have been no expedition to buy cranberries; but for Wat being out in the boat, Maury would not have had to drive away to get said cranberries; but for the insistence of Janey and Dana, Grace would have [End Page 210] accompanied Maury on the cranberry quest instead of going to admire the swing that grandfather had put up, in the course of which—but for her poverty (perhaps?) and the cheap footware this entailed—Grace would not have broken one of her sandals and opted to remove her shoes, but for which she would not have cut her foot after trying the swing herself and then jumping off, landing on a clamshell hidden in the leaf-strewn soil only because Dana had left it there when Ivan got away. (Ivan is Dana’s snail, for whom the clamshell was to have been a home: here’s a submerged story thread about real homes and pretend homes).

Now a damaged foot can drive the plot, a device as old as Oedipus. Grace can take off with Neil, they can see where a game of doctors and patients takes them, easily giving Maury the slip. According to the story itself, they learn very little about each other: it’s a simple primal physical attraction. After they have left the hospital in Neil’s car, the accuracy of the report of what happened that afternoon and evening (from Grace’s viewpoint, recollected some forty and more years later) is questioned by its narrator, who is closely aligned with the older Grace. But the couple’s aimless road trip around the countryside, which begins with Grace’s flesh “nothing now but a stream of desire,” modulates by degrees into something different, darker and colder, only to be resolved from outside (by a one-thousand-dollar check). Does all this make the story seem too schematic, too melodramatic because insufficiently motivated, particularly after Grace is returned to the hotel at Bailey’s Falls, and Neil kills himself by crashing his car on his way home? Perhaps the latter makes this story less perfect than Munro’s finest; I will not comment on that here.

Instead I will seek to analyze those passages in the story which I propose are the ones that are most emotionally engaging, most immersing, for the reader, passages which I hypothesize are critical for the effectiveness of the story, because by virtue of being most emotionally engaging they are also most ethically arresting too. It should be no surprise to find that they occur...