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KAREN SMYTHE Sad Stories: The Ethics of Epiphany in Munrovian Elegy With me it rwritingJ has something to do with the fight against death, the feeling that we lose everything every day, and writing is a way of convincing yourself perhaps that you're doing something about this. (Alice Munro)' What Eileen Dombrowski calls Alice Munro's 'vision of ephemerality' leads to the production of fictions wherein death 'emerges as a narrative device; it evokes conflicting responses in characters; and it challenges them to define its significance.'A Munro's texts also encourage such responses in the reader, chal1enging us to define both the significance and the signification of death. Her narrative style constitutes an elegiac rhetorical ceremony, which, as Frederick Hofhnan says of such rhetoric, Jprevent[s] the corporeality of fact from communicating with too intense directness' - it medlates, in elegiac fashion, the fact of death.3 In other words, Munro uses a rhetoric of rea!ism as a trope of persuasion, what Barthes would call a 'referenfial illusion' in the mode of modern 'vraisembJance.1.I But more predsely, this rhetoric produces what many have called a type of photographie: realism, one that is clearly reJated to the genre of elegy. Susan Sontag Vflites: Photography is an elegiac art, a twiJjght art. Most su.bjects photographed are~ just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos.... All photographs are memento mori. ". Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.5 Munro's realism creates such an elegiac art, displaying slices of life ~ metonymies of the real world - inventing 'a new, parallel reality' (Sontag, 77), an affinnative 'magic' reality6 that consoles the reader by providing what Sontag calls 'imaginary possession'(9)· Munro, then, uses intensely realistic detail to root her fiction in the illusion of the 'real' world - in life. The tension between art (aestheticism) and life (reality) inherent in the term 'realism' itself allows her narrators and characters to 'come to tenns' with the unknown; indeed, the abstract notion of death - itself a metaphor - is translated into terms, into figurative language, in her stories. Thus the componentof photographic realism inher work might better be considered 'photographic elegism/? since Munro's UNJVF..R$ITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 60, NUMBER 4, SUMMER 1991 494 KAREN SMYrHE stories may be broadly classified as 'elegiac fiction! Such fiction contains at least some elements of the genre of elegy: a defined loss, meditations on the past, digressions, a focus on the self (as survivor and as an artist-figure, an elegist), temporal fluctuations, consolation. Fiction by Thomas Hardy (Tess of the d'UrbervilIes), Charlotte Bronte (Villette), Thomas Mann (Death in Vmice), Henry James (The Ambassadors, and everything else), and William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury) would be representative of this classification. But a term that would more specifically describe fiction which is predominantly elegiac (such as Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Jacob's Room) is 'fiction-elegy,' a compound which is also differentiated from the term 'fictional elegy' (that is, non-occasional eJegiac poetry).s Clearly, the fictional form allows writers to employ the conventions of elegy on an extended scale, and to explore the work of mourning tlu-ough amore fully represented c.onsciousness of character. But the form offictionelegy , structurally analogous as a whole (and not only in certain portions of the text) to the poetic version, enables Munro to provide the reader with 'intense, but not connected, moments of experience' as she says in another interview.9 As participating readers, we must make the c.onnections betw'een such textual moments for ourselves. Munro's epiphanies. what she calls 'queer bright moment[sL"O are used as tropes of consolation for the reader, to whom 'some of the seeing i.s always left/ as James Carscallen notes. II TIle moment is necessarily bright, just a5 photographs require a flash of light for their production. The 'queerness' arises from the juxtaposition of unexpected, surprising phrases or ideas, which results in a defamiliatization of the ordinary. The queerness of the experience js a modification of the conventional modernist revelatory moment; Munro's epipha rues, like...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 493-506
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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