The Stories of “Passion”: An Empirical Study
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The Stories of “Passion”:
An Empirical Study

If you think “Passion” is about Grace, you are right. Most of the story takes place during the summer when this vibrant girl, who is poor and adventurous, meets the Travers family, who are … complicated. Now, more than forty years later, Grace has driven back to the scene of the romance, or the crime, or both. Though traditional in structure—an initiation-story within a frame-tale—the narrative isn’t simple. That younger self, on the cusp of adult life, is recalled by the sixty-something woman we meet on the first and final pages. She is driving, alone, through a landscape both familiar and strange, looking for a house that once belonged to the people who changed her life.

For the literary critic trying to achieve the fullest understanding of Grace’s character; for the story-grammarian trying to parse the narrative sentence of her life; for the short fiction theorist seeing Munro as a challenge; and, last but not least, for the undergraduate student wondering, “Who is this woman, and what’s going on?”—for all these readers, there is a hole in the text. Grace is absent between her twenties and her sixties, living, it seems, in Australia. Those decades are missing. And yet the narrative presumes them, else the frame wouldn’t matter. And obviously, it does. It positions us to look back over a void to encounter a mystery. We’re to wonder about that girl whose life turned so many corners within the space of a few months. What was she like then? Was she naïve or self-serving, willful or rudderless … the driver or the passenger? Because we meet Grace in a short story, we cannot ask these questions without noting the typology of the narrative she inhabits. In this genre, whose brevity and integrity descend from the anecdote, the exemplum, and the folk-tale, it is more than a quip to say “character is sequence, and sequence is character.” To learn who Grace is, we need, in a very technical sense, to graph the route she’s traversed with the help of the Traverses. Yet the path disappears. [End Page 226]

When I am faced by a nagging problem in a short story, I look for insight—into that text and into the nature of the genre itself—by drawing upon the unconscious wisdom of ordinary readers. By the age of five, humans have developed a form of “story-competence,” an ability to recognize what constitutes, in their culture, a tellable, stand-alone segment from an endless string of narrative. It is a commonplace to say that stories are a primal mode of knowing, the very currency of culture. Hence the popularity, now somewhat faded, of studies in orality and communal story-telling. Newer work by linguists, neurologists, and cognitive scientists suggests that the future of genre theory lies in the study of brain-function. Nevertheless, believing that readers’ ingrained sense of storyness is an invaluable resource for humanists as well, I have looked for literary ways of tapping into this hidden vein of knowledge, to use its primacy to advantage in a study of this art form.

For many years, I did so by asking readers to identify preclosure points within a text. I looked at the series of putative—and often paradigmatic—stories embedded within the actual text on its way to real closure. Those were experiments in narrative interruption. What I am going to be discussing now is an experiment in narrative continuity, aimed at helping me to understand Grace, Alice Munro, and the contour of “Passion.”

My participants were the students in two undergraduate literature classes at The University of Iowa, plus one visiting scholar from China, for a total of 46 readers. Most of these readers had never heard of Munro, and I was reasonably sure that none of them had read “Passion.” Each was given the first paragraph of the story. Half of the readers saw the paragraph as Munro wrote it, in the third person; half saw a first-person version of the same text. All were asked to choose the one word...