Munro’s Narrative Art

  • Isla Duncan
    Alice Munro's Narrative Art. Palgrave Macmillan (purchase at

Since she received the Nobel Prize for literature in November 2013, I guess almost everybody knows Alice Munro by now. She is not only the first Canadian recipient of the Award, but she is also the first beneficiary receiving it for writing almost exclusively short stories. Isla Duncan reminds us that Munro wrote only one novel and more than one hundred short stories from ten pages to seventy pages long. Duncan’s study certainly shows how her short stories are deceptively simple. However, because this study is very technical, it is not a book for the lay reader who wants to discover Munro but rather for university students and professors. This is a beautiful demonstration of how “narratology” can help to better understand the aesthetics and the beauty of Munro’s stories. While everybody understands “narrative art” as the art of telling stories, few would even know the word narratology and even less its analytical tools.

Duncan, a British scholar, is a specialist of Canadian women’s writing but she is fascinated just as much by narratology, and she explains the concepts, some of them quite challenging, for non-narratologists. She spends the first chapter defining these narratological concepts as “invented” and refined by great scholars such as Vladimir Propp, Roland Barthes, Bal, Prince, and most recently, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan. She uses examples from Munro’s stories because these technical terms offer “the best possible descriptive and explanatory models for analyzing and discussing Munro’s work.” Each one of the seven following chapters uses one or two of these narratological concepts to analyse one or two short stories broadly following a chronological order. The first one is about first-person narration used by Munro as early as in the mid-1950s such as in “The Peace of Utrecht” from Dance of the Happy Shades (1955; 1983) and “Material” from Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1960; 1984). After briefly using the omniscient narrator in the very first stories published in the early 1950s, Munro almost systematically used the first-person narrator in her twelve anthologies published over her sixty-year career. This choice presents a limited perspective to the readers and therefore it implies ellipsis in their knowledge, made typographically visible by the fragmentation of the text. Duncan explains that what is felt by the reader, for example, a character’s sense of guilt, is not simply produced by Munro’s saying plainly “she felt guilty,” but rather by way of using specific techniques that imply such a feeling.

Overall, one might argue that Duncan’s study does not bring new knowledge about Munro’s texts but rather confirms the previous understanding of her fiction in a more rigorous way. Previous studies of Munro’s work, using other approaches such thematic and biographical studies, have already emphasized similar findings (see Carol Mazur and Cathy Moulder’s Annotated Bibliography, 2007). Moreover, three of the chapters have already been published (in 2003, 2006 and 2009) albeit “in a slightly different form.”

However, one of the new theses of this book is that Munro’s techniques became more refined and the world she describes more complex while her protagonists do not learn anything to make them smarter as would be the case in a bildungsroman. Interestingly, her use of more complex techniques does not make her “worlds” more realistic, or plausible, but rather more incomprehensible, adding “layers of mystery and uncertainty” to ambiguous stories of Canadian small town life. In other chapters, Duncan uses technical concepts such as analepsis, prolepsis, and shifting focalization to analyze stories in which these concepts are the most relevant.

Finally, one will be surprised to find so few references to feminist narratology in relation to a writer like Munro by an academic primarily interested in Canadian women writers. Except for some little problems (the spelling, especially in French names or words, is not always right, such as Génette instead of Genette, and the bibliography is not always clear, especially in regards to dates for anthologies), and its very technical nature, this book is certainly well done and welcome. It shows first of all how narratology is still useful (Duncan talks about a “renaissance” of the field) and secondly how rich Munro’s prose is. Published two years before Munro received the Nobel Prize, this prescient study will contribute to inspiring students to read or reread these beautifully constructed stories more carefully, more attuned to narrative variations and life’s subtleties.

This review “Munro’s Narrative Art” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 154-55.

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