Saturday, March 26, 2011

Short-a-Day: Alice Munro's "Pride"

Originally published in Harper's, April 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 70.

In a town "where nothing is forgotten (any town, that is, any town is a place like that)," our harelipped narrator points out two different types of people: those who get things wrong but remain silent and prideful, never showing weakness (like him); and then those who embarrass or unsettle those around them by blatantly getting things wrong, and continuing to do so, like Oneida, who came from a well-off family and yet wound up alone and unable to properly manage her own estate. The meat of this story is not in the plot, which spans seventy years, but rather in the way these two continue to cross paths, and how that affects our protagonist, who has worked so patiently to maintain his personal pride, shaken only briefly in the light of a tragedy during World War II: "The blowing away of everything, the equality [of death]--I have to say it--the equality, all of a sudden, of people like me and worse than me and people like them."

In reality, he thrives on overcoming an invisible adversity: "All my school years had been spent, as I saw it, in getting used to what I was like--what my face was like--and what other people were like in regard to it." Childhood makes us believe that we are all different based on our outsides; adulthood leads us to understand that we are all the same inside, and so it is that the dissimilar narrator and Oneida begin a ritual of eating and watching television together, culminating when our nameless hero grows ill for a spell and relies on Oneida to care for him. Just after he has recovered, Oneida springs this on him: "We had a certain feeling for each other, she said. We had a feeling which was not just the usual thing. We could live together like brother and sister and look after each other like brother and sister, and it would be the most natural thing in the world."

Instantly, our hero severs ties with Oneida -- in fact, he sells his house simply to maintain his lie of an excuse for refusing her proposition. Either it's because he has feelings of the non-sibling variety for her, which isn't demonstrated by the story, or it's because after all his time spent detailing the two different types of people, and the pride he takes in the way he's quietly built himself up, he cannot stand to be so easily lumped in with this woman who, despite having everything going for her, has brought herself down to his "level." This is his pride, pride that keeps him from going to the doctor to have corrective surgery: "How could I explain that it was just beyond me to walk into some doctor's office and admit that I was wishing for something I hadn't got?"

So it is that the story ends with a poetic image: baby skunks splashing in a birdbath: a creature we normally scorn is seen to be beautiful, is seen on its own merits. The story runs a little long to make this point, and I don't feel as I've lived enough in this man's shoes, but I get the general drift of what pride and tolerance mean, of what the difference is between those who silently struggle and those who loudly fall. Munro's working hard, and it's hard not to admire that, especially when her writing is as muscular as ever. (And look closely, even if only at the quotes I've selected, at her brilliant use of repetition.)

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