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Realism And Narrative Techniques In Short Stories English Literature Essay

Alice Munro is one of the most well-known and highly praised representative of Canadian short fiction writing, both on the Canadian and on the international scale. As American writer Mona Simpson notes, „[Munro’s] genius, […] has the simplicity of the best naturalism, in that it seems not translated from life, but, rather, like life itself.” In other words, she is praised for being a realist writer. In another article, Canitz and Seamon showed what techniques Munro uses to create the impression of her stories not being stories, but „truth”, or the „reality” as such. Also, they comment on how the narrator in Munro's stories reflects from time to time on the narrative technique or the plotline and the development of the story. However, they have omitted some aspects of Munro's work which would in fact support the argument that despite her realism, her short stories are in fact very well-structured, and fit into the general pattern of tradtional criteria towards short stories: they excessively use foreshadowing technique, the opening sentence initiates the predesigned effect and every word has its place in the story line, they are indeed chosen very carefully in order to contribute to the effect that the author wants to create, and thus creating a dense text. (Critical perspective… online) In this paper, I show how the techniques described by Canitz and Seamon can be depicted in Munro's novella Miles City, Montana. Then the essay goes on to discuss the other techniques employed by Munro in this short story, including the ones that do not fit into this analysis of „realist fiction.”

Canitz and Seamon explain how Munro, as all realists, must somehow persuade her audience that her fiction is not a product of imagination and creativity, but it is rather the „truth.” (Canitz and Seamon, 1996: 67) This is done in her writings „through a variety of subtle strategies which she uses to build our faith in her reality.” (Canitz and Seamon, 1996: 68) Moreover, as Munro is aware that including realistic details into her stories would not suffice to convince readers that the story presented to them is not fictional, she rather chooses, in a post-modern manner, to acknowledge that she is making up a story. So, we are not simply exposed to the story line, but we are included in a way in the process of writing down the story and creating the characters. Ironically, this technique is in fact a doubly-twisted tool: the fact that she drags the reader into the process of writing does not mean that the writing in fact happened in the way as she told us within the frames of the story. However, this is not obvious at the first glance, and is indeed an effective method to persuade readers on the reality of what they read.

Interestingly, the short story Miles City, Montana, involves a triple twist as to the narrative technique: the narrator is also a character at the same time, who reflects on her story-telling. For example the narrator says at one point: „It seems to me now that we invented characters for our children.” (Munro, 1985: 661) And indeed, all happenings are told from one point of view, and we only know about other characters what the mother and wife, who is also the narrator, reveals about them. Moreover, this point of view is not consistent in itself: both childhood and adult memories are involved, (Tragedies that help… online) which means a change in the way events are seen by the narrator, and also a change in her feelings. This fluctuating view-point, or in better words „multiple […] perceptions of single events” can be seen as a post-modern feature in the narrative construction. (New, 2003: 239) In other words, what we read is not the reality, but we are explicitly told that it is not real, therefore we are more willing to trust the narrator.

The second method used by Munro to create the impression of reality is, - as the pair of authors point out - that the storyline is not linear. Rather, it fluctuates in time and location and subject, and it is left to the reader to figure out the reasons why the shifts are made where and how they are made. (Canitz and Seamon, 1996: 69) Sometimes Munro reflects on the shifts - "I have forgotten to say that..." - but in Miles City, Montana, the shifts are not explained. However, careful reading reveals why the chunks of paragraphs follow each other in the way they do. Steve Gauley's story is told first to open a frame structure, to set the tone and to begin the foreshadowing sequence that follows. The view of the landscape on their road trip to Ontario evocates childhood memories from the narrator, so this time, it is a stream of consciousness that links together the paragraph on their trip with the following sentences on her past. Then when the mother talks about her hope of Meg not having a temperature, and then jumping back right next to her relation with her parents-in-law, it might be not too far-reaching to conclude that the link that bounds together these two events is the feverishness of the mother to meet up to Andrew’s parents’ expectations. "I hope she isn't feversih", says she, and at the same time she herself is overly anxious about what opinion her husbands parents would have on their family life. She even compares herself and her husband to strenuous children. (Munro, 1985: 668) Finally, while she goes to get some drink in the park in Miles City, she observes the environment very carefully -as carefully as she is supposed to watch out for her daughters. „[Y]ou feel their singleness and precise location and the forlorn coincidence of your being there to see them.” (Munro, 1985: 670) This is the sentence that precedes her sudden thought of the children, and it can be interpreted in both ways: meaning the nature, and meaning Cynthia and Meg as well. So, Munro’s story-telling is of a "rambling nature" (Canitz and Seamon, 1996: 68) which reminds the reader constantly that what he or she is reading is only a recollection, and successfully creates the impression that we are not being exposed to a story, but to a real, true event.

Finally, the article notes that „[m]any brief passages in Munro’s stories „quietly create the 'reality effect' […] she seeks.” (Canitz and Seamon, 1996: 73) For example when the parents reflect on Meg’s accident, both reject its unnatural, or supernatural features. The mother denies that she would have a mothers’ instinct, and attributes her sudden thought about the children to mere luck. Similarly the husband does not recollect properly how he had jumped over or climbed the fence, but plainly states that he cannot understand it, rather than mythologize what had happened. Thus, the narration becomes „free of legend-making.” (Canitz and Seamon, 1996: 77) On the other hand, this episode could be also interpreted as a sign of the ambiguity and unreliability of experience, a sign of how „events and memories, experience and fictional reconstruction, never precisely coincide” which is also characteristic of Munro’s style. (New, 2003: 239 and 299) In addition, by the end of the short story, when we already know that Meg had survived the accident, we are nevertheless confronted with another possible ending to this story - details of a tragic ending with Meg being dead are elaborated in a lengthy paragraph, at the end of which the narrator poses the question: „There's something trashy about this kind of imagining, isn't there?” (Munro 1985: 673), again reflecting on the story-telling.

Having showed all this, and before turning towards other techniques that are in contradiction with the claim of „reality” in the short story, let me point out some further evidence that support Munro's realism, but are not elaborated in Canitz’s and Seamon's article: Firstly, Munro's language is not very poetic or literal. She prefers to use everyday langauge, which adds to the real life taste of her stories. As one crticic puts it, Munro's stories „are translations into the next-door language of fiction of all those documentary details, those dazzling textures and surfaces, of remembered experience.” (Ross, 112, quoted in Canitz and Seamon, 1996: 68) However, simple language does not exlude the use of lirical devices. All characters in the short story create images, and make lirical similes themselves. The narrator compares Steve Gauley to a „heap of refuse” (Munro, 1985: 656) and draws a parallel between the Gauley’s tumbledown house and their shackly family life. The children, who „play important, but not dominent [sic!] role (Jakabfi, 2003: 195) give an old-lady like image to their previous family car, and a sporty image to the new one. The parents make fun of their daughters by the father telling them about the beach which would be after the next curve and the mother pretending to produce some lemonade and grape juice with her magic wand. Cynthia adds that „[i]n Miles City, there is a beautiful blue swimming pool for children, and a park with lovely trees.” (Munro, 1985: 668) In short, it seems that they are creating reality around themselves.

Canitz and Seamon claim that „Munro creates the impression of realism [by giving] a significant place to improbability and contingency, elements that are opposed to the conventionally well-constructed realist narrative.” However, some techniques utterly contradict the claim that this story would be developing before our eyes, with no obvious plotline at hand at the beginning, but through accidents rather. The most obvious such tool is that of foreshadowing. In Miles City, Montana, there are several hints in the story that imply what the readers can expect to happen by the end. Throughout reading the story, as soon as we learn about the road trip, we fear that one family member, possibly one of the children, will die. This impression is already created in the very first sentence of the novella: "My father came accross the field carrying the body of the boy who had been drowned." (Munro, 1985: 656) Immediately, the tone is set: it is rather sinister. The narrator continues to give readers hints about an expected tragedy. Meg waves good-bye to the house, and although Cynthia, the elder girl assures her it is not forever that they are leaving it, the readers are left with a feeling of doubt and uneasiness whether the family would really return. On their way to Ontario, they see a dead deer on the road, which was probably hit by accident – readers wonder is one of the family members going to suffer an accident? This fear of one character dying at the end is reinforced by Cynthia song, in which five little ducks go out, but only four come back. Then we learn about the narrator and her husband not living together anymore, which raises the question did their marriage got ruined because of the death of a child? This is followed by the recollection of the narrator and her father saving turkeys from drowning, and finally, the family plays "Who am I?", and Cynthia is someone dead. This massive amount of hints indicate a very consciously used foreshadowing technique by the author.

To sum up, I have showed in the above paragraphs how the narrative technique of Miles City, Monatana, is in accord with what the Canitz-Seamon article argued about Alice Munro’s techniques to create the sense of realism in fiction. I have added that language and creating imagery are also techniques used in this short story, while at the same time pointing out that the excessive use of foreshadowing technique does not fit into the line of argument about Munro’s realism and conscious restraint from linear story-telling. A look at other Munro short fiction could lead to a better understanding of Munro’s status as a realist writer.

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