It had all begun with Sabitha saying, on the way to school, “We have to go by the Post Office. I have to send a letter to my dad.”
There are a lot of things to note about “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” the title story of Alice Munro’s tenth collection: her handing of perspective, the way she sketches just enough setting to bring post-war Saskatchewan to life, how she illuminates a character through their reflections on other characters. But what makes it most interesting from a writer’s perspective is how she builds the story around a deception that is never uncovered by any of the characters.
Deception is difficult in fiction: it depends on the characters being truly in the dark, while the author and, eventually, the reader are thoroughly in the know. But because the characters spring from the author’s mind, it’s far too easy to subtly tip the characters off to the subterfuge. And if it was an especially good deception, the temptation is to have a big reveal scene, where the deceived parties discover the truth and reflect back on how they were fooled all along.
Munro doesn’t reveal that there is a deception until the middle of the story. Until then, we are entirely within the perspective of Johanna, a spinster housekeeper and nanny who is preparing for a journey west. She’s revealed to be a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense woman whose practicality is only slightly derailed by a suggestion of romance. The scene in the dress shop, where she is selecting an outfit that she will wear to be married in–not “pure white froth or vanilla satin or ivory lace,” but “a brown wool dress … about as plain as you could get”–is wonderful, revealing much about her character and nothing about her history in her conversation with the shopkeeper.
The deception is introduced in a sudden change in perspective, when the consciousness of the story switches from Johanna to Edith, the clever friend of the girl, Sabitha, whom Johanna cares for. Johanna’s entire undertaking–the selection of the dress, the arrangements for transporting furniture, the journey to Saskatchewan–is thrown into question, and we stop admiring Johanna for her pluck and practicality and start to pity her for being played for a fool.
And if she had ever learned of the deception, Johanna would have remained pathetic; but because she continues straight ahead on her plans–her character never changes, just our perspective on it–she soon regains our esteem. The deception in this story is helped by distance–it’s a long way from Toronto to Gdynia–and by its tight conspiratorial circle of two. There is a hint that Johanna has put the pieces together in the end, but she is too unreflective to dwell on it: she lives very much in the present, with her focus on practical matters.
The successful deception is, in a way, anti-climactic: there’s no reveal, no great scene of recrimination and accusation. A childish prank launches a woman on a new life she would otherwise never have pursued; whether it’s actually a better life than the one she leaves behind is almost beside the point. Edith is both relieved and embarrassed by her part in the story, and also amused that she has played the part of Fate without intending it.
What makes the deception in “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” work is Munro’s management of the characters’ knowledge. The story is told mostly in a close third-person perspective, with the consciousness moving primarily between Johanna and Edith (with a brief slip into the mind of Mr. McCauley, Johanna’s employer, mostly for expository purposes); nothing that either one of them could not know–the letters, the state of the hotel in Gdynia, the history between McCauley and his son-in-law–makes its way into their respective sections. With an omniscient narrator, or with a first-person perspective, the story wouldn’t have worked as well: an omniscient narrator would risk revealing too much too quickly, and neither Edith nor Johanna knows enough to be able to tell the whole story. Sometimes voice dictates a story, as when a character suddenly speaks up and demands to be heard; but sometimes the story dictates the voice. Knowing which to let lead is part of the wisdom of a writer of Munro’s caliber.
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