Endings That Change Everything: On Alice Munro’s Literary Innovations

Elizabeth Poliner Close Reads Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling” and Munro’s “Friend of My Youth”

Some endings of works of fiction provoke the reader to look back and see the story in quite a different light. The effect of these “endings that change everything,” as I’m calling them, is to radically enlarge a given story while at the same time resolving it. The ones I’ve read—and these are rare, to my experience—are master endings, deeply innovative, and, indeed, the two writers I’ll focus on, Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro, are prized for just these qualities: mastery and innovation.

The protagonist of Chekhov’s “The Darling” is Olenka, a daughter of a retired and sick assessor. Olenka is often referred to as “you darling” by those encountering her as she’s a soft-hearted young woman who “could not exist without loving.” All this sounds fine until we see that loving for Olenka is an extreme act: over and over throughout the story we watch her fall in love only to lose her entire identity in the process.

At the story’s start we see Olenka adopting all the concerns of a man she loves named Kukin, a theater manager. As Olenka’s life intertwines with Kukin’s in marriage, we see her literally mimicking him as well as taking on all his concerns. We’re told: “[W]hat Kukin said about the theater and the actors [Olenka] repeated. Like him she despised the public for their ignorance and indifference to art; she took part in the rehearsals, she corrected the actors, . . . and when there was an unfavorable notice in the local paper, she shed tears, and then went to the editor’s office to set things right.”

Soon into her marriage Kukin suddenly dies, and Olenka falls into a deep grief in which her existence without him feels senseless. But three months later she meets a timber merchant with whom she falls almost instantly in love, and she soon marries again. In so doing she transforms, assuming so completely the timber merchant’s concerns that she dreams of “perfect mountains of planks and boards, and long strings of wagons, carting timber somewhere far away.” As Chekhov tells us, “[h]er husband’s ideas were hers.”

Some endings of works of fiction provoke the reader to look back and see the story in quite a different light.

When the timber merchant dies Olenka once again deeply grieves. But, like before, another man soon enters her life, a veterinary surgeon, and the two come quickly to live together. True to her selfless character, Olenka is suddenly obsessed with foot and mouth disease and the workings of the municipal slaughterhouse. But once again her happiness doesn’t last as the veterinary surgeon—who was married the whole time—soon leaves. Without him, Olenka not only despairs, but can’t even think. “She had no opinions of any sort.”

Happily for Olenka, the veterinary surgeon returns, though with his wife and child. Olenka, always the selfless darling, instantly offers the family her home while she retreats to a lodge. Soon, she’s attached maternally to the surgeon’s boy, Sasha, and, loving once again she can also think again: but only about Sasha’s schooling. When the boy’s mother leaves, Olenka becomes Sasha’s surrogate mother. “[N]ever had her soul surrendered to any feeling so spontaneously, so disinterestedly, and so joyously,” Chekhov states of Olenka in this motherly role.

The story ends with this caretaking ongoing, with Olenka and Sasha’s lives, now fully joined, falling into a pattern: at 3 o’clock each day they dine, in the evening they learn their lessons together, and finally Olenka puts the boy to bed, and typically goes to bed herself.

And here is where we get, at the story’s end, information that for me, at least, changed everything in that it changed my perception of Olenka from being merely pathetic, a character Chekhov might have been using to mock the prevailing patriarchal ideal of a woman who lives entirely for her man, to a character whose suffering is all too human. The new information consists of a recurring anxiety we’re told Olenka has each night, one in which a knock at the gate—the surgeon’s daily return—signals to a half-sleeping Olenka the likelihood of Sasha’s mother returning and the boy, therefore, suddenly disappearing from Olenka’s life. A familiar despair then fills Olenka. But finally she realizes she’s wrong—the surgeon has simply come home, as always—and her despair eases.

This is a story with patterning, with cycles of attachment and loss, and it’s this last pattern of the recurring doomed dream that works to show how Olenka’s extreme behavior in love has not been merely ludicrous, but is integral to the trauma she’s experienced of one abandonment after another, and probably since birth since there’s no mention of her ever being mothered.

The effect of these “endings that change everything,” as I’m calling them, is to radically enlarge a given story while at the same time resolving it.

If that weren’t enough to change everything—to deeply humanize Olenka—in his final sentences Chekhov extends the pattern to a clearly traumatized Sasha, whose anguished and unconscious nighttime cries—“I’ll give it to you! Get away! Shut up!”—are directed perhaps to his own lost mother, or perhaps even to Olenka herself. Sasha’s words, the very last of the story, reinforce our understanding of Olenka as a wounded soul, universalize her experience, and suggest that as a possible source of Sasha’s anger Olenka—who has just a moment before become our darling—will likely see the pattern of abandonment continue. In this way, the ending—brilliant!—enlarges the story while resolving it all at once.

*

Like Chekhov’s “The Darling,” the end of Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth” brings radically new understanding to the story.

“Friend of My Youth” is about forgiveness—a daughter’s forgiveness of a mother who got sick and died before the daughter was fully grown. Told by a first person narrator, a middle aged woman, it’s told in Munro-esque layers, the opening consisting of an easy forgiveness, the closing consisting of a much more difficult and hard-earned forgiveness. The easy forgiveness at the story’s start is the mother’s toward the daughter, which the daughter receives in a dream. In this dream the mother is alive. Importantly, she’s also well, or, as the narrators states: “She looked not exactly youthful, not entirely untouched by the paralyzing disease that held her in its grip for a decade or more before her death, but so much better than I remembered . . . How could I have forgotten this . . . the casual humor she had . . . the lightness and impatience and confidence?” In the dream the daughter apologizes for forgetting, and the mother responds with that surprisingly easy forgiveness. “Oh well,” she replies, “I was sure I’d see you some day.”

The story’s next layer then begins, an account of a time in the mother’s life when she befriended Flora Grieves. This was when the mother, then an engaged young woman, went off to teach in the Ottawa Valley. There she boarded with the Grieves family, with Flora, a single older sister, Ellie, a married younger sister, and Robert, Ellie’s husband. They were Cameronians, a strict, eccentric religious sect. Due to the family’s own oddness they lived without a car, electricity, or telephone, but it was the religion that forbade any secular activity on Sundays. Another oddity in their lives was that the house was partitioned. Ellie and Robert lived on one side, in several ample rooms, given to them with the expectation of children. Flora had the other, smaller side, and it’s there that the narrator’s mother boarded.

During this time Ellie was sick, as she’d been for her entire marriage of a dozen years. She’d also been pregnant many times but had never successfully delivered. Ellie was in fact so sick that she was largely bedridden, and it was Flora who cared for her, Flora, whose health was in direct contrast to Ellie’s: she had an abundance of energy as startling as her sister’s lack of it.

Like Chekhov’s “The Darling,” the end of Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth” brings radically new understanding to the story.

After a fairly detailed description of Flora’s spring cleaning that year, done with so much gusto as to be “devastating,” Munro then gives us the family’s backstory. Robert arrived some months before the girls’ father died and soon enough, Robert and Flora were engaged. Ellie was but a girl then, a beloved younger sister to Flora, and both had an abundance of energy.

Before the couple’s wedding, Ellie became suddenly sick: she was vomiting, howling, running in circles, acting deranged. In fact she was pregnant, with Robert’s child as it turned out, and instead of Flora marrying Robert, Ellie did, and quickly. This is how the house came to be partitioned. And Flora’s goodness about this apparent betrayal—her willingness to live with Ellie and Robert, and to care for them—is why the entire community, including the narrator’s mother, considered her a saint.

Throughout the mother’s tenure with the Grieves Ellie was actually dying, and eventually a nurse joined them—Nurse Atkinson, impatient, selfish, and silly enough to listen to romantic radio shows like “Make-Believe Ballroom.” But while the narrator’s mother couldn’t stand her, oddly Flora didn’t seem bothered. By the time the narrator’s mother left the Grieves she hoped that when Ellie died—which was inevitable—Flora could at last marry Robert.

A few months later the mother was shocked to learn that Nurse Atkinson married Robert following Ellie’s death. Outraged for Flora—that she lost her chance with Robert yet again—the mother wrote Flora what she thought was a sympathetic note. But to her surprise, Flora answered that she was happy, and even scolded the mother for meddling.

The next layer of this story involves the narrator recalling her mother’s reactions to Flora’s fate. This would be years later, after the mother becomes ill, when she talks of Flora to the narrator, then a teenager. If the mother were to have written Flora’s story, she tells her daughter, she’d have called it, “The Maiden Lady,” an idea that instantly offends the daughter, as it romanticizes Flora for all she’s suffered. In contrast, the daughter’s version would celebrate the tale’s implicit sex—first between Robert and Ellie, then between Robert and Nurse Atkinson—while faulting Flora for her celibacy. But with hindsight the adult narrator grasps that she so opposed her mother’s version not only for its ideas, which seemed old-fashioned, but because it hinted at her mother’s suffering, including as it did “an incontestable cripple-mother power which could capture and choke me. This is a fancy way of saying, [the narrator continues], that I was no comfort and poor company to her when she had almost nowhere to turn.”

The end? Well, for most writers yes, this highly textured story would be plenty. But Munro goes one crucial step further.

Gradually, through a series of reflections like these, the story returns to the opening frame—that dream of the mother encountering the adult daughter, and, implicitly, the theme of forgiveness. We’re told that not long before the mother died she heard from Flora, who wrote that she no longer lived with Robert and Nurse Atkinson, but that she’d moved into town and worked as a store clerk. This was all the news, and it begged many questions. But by then the mother was too sick to respond.

We’re told next that the adult narrator is a writer—of stories—and indeed all along “Friend of my Youth” has had a strong autobiographical feel, at least emotionally. It’s that adult narrator, a story-teller, who, in the story’s next layer, begins to fill in the blanks of that brief last letter from Flora. And it’s here at the near-end of this story that the narrator imagines actually encountering Flora and telling her what she’s invented, only to find Flora responding with a look that says “you really don’t know anything about me.” This image of Flora then blends with that of the mother from the dream, that person who so causally offered forgiveness. But now the daughter understands when she encounters her mother that, like Flora, she doesn’t know the half of it, and it’s this last vision of the mother that is transformative for the narrator. “My mother moving rather carelessly out of her old prison, showing options and powers I never dreamed she had, changes more than herself,” she states. A bitterness in the daughter finally softens, yields, and a forgiveness—this time difficult and hard-earned—is finally achieved toward that maddeningly sick woman the mother turned into.

The end? Well, for most writers yes, this highly textured story would be plenty. But Munro goes one crucial step further. After a space break, she closes with a strange, final paragraph that reads almost like an encyclopedia entry. In it, the narrator tells us she’s learned a bit more about the Cameronians, that they’re the kind of people who, after going into battle singing Psalms, hacked the Bishop of St. Andrews to death on the highway and rode their horses over his body. The story’s last sentence reads: “One minister, in a firm rejoicing at his own hanging, even excommunicated all the other preachers in the world.”

As with Chekhov’s ending, then, Munro’s enlarges the story while also resolving it at its deepest emotional core.

That’s weird, I thought to myself the first time I read it. And emotionally kind of flat, I thought too. But with time I’ve come to love this ending and see it as nothing other than a bomb Munro has carefully planted after the story appears over, a bomb that doesn’t change everything as much as it explodes everything you’ve just believed to be true about Flora Grieves, who may be the quintessential Cameronian, who may very well have thrown her darling, naïve sister Ellie at Robert, or, who may very well have maneuvered Ellie into a marriage with a man who raped her in order to save herself. We don’t know exactly what happened, but this ending begs us to reexamine Flora’s character and her story, to question the meaning of Ellie falling dramatically sick after a first and obviously unexpected sexual encounter, behaving in a way that you could certainly call suicidal. It asks us to reexamine why this otherwise healthy girl remains sick for her entire marriage. It asks us to question the relationship between Ellie’s demise and Flora’s near limitless vitality. And it asks us to ponder again how it was that Nurse Atkinson, with her obvious flaws, was never a bother to Flora before or after her marriage to Robert. In order to preserve herself from a sexual brute like Robert it appears that Flora, like the deranged Cameronian minister of the story’s last sentence, has, quite cruelly, excommunicated everybody.

And maybe in that final understanding an avenue toward even deeper and more difficult forgiveness opens, that of self-forgiveness. For if the ending suggests a streak of cruelty running in the Cameronian line it also suggests how that cruelty can be connected to survival, and let’s not forget that the ultimate “friend of my youth” in this story is not Flora Grieves but is a mother who grows sick and dies, and the daughter’s cruelty—a hardness she showed her dying mother and one she’s carried long after her mother’s death—may have been her best defense in the face of such a devastating, unending loss.

As with Chekhov’s ending, then, Munro’s enlarges the story while also resolving it at its deepest emotional core. It changes everything; though in this case that everything—at least with regard to Flora—may be a little hard to accept.

Elizabeth Poliner
Elizabeth Poliner
Elizabeth Poliner is the author of As Close to Us as Breathing, a novel (winner of the 2017 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize in Fiction and an Amazon Best Book of 2016); Mutual Life & Casualty, a novel in stories; and What You Know in Your Hands, a poetry collection; and Sudden Fog, a poetry chapbook. She is an associate professor at Hollins University, where she currently holds the Susan Gager Jackson Chair in Creative Writing.





More Story
A World Beyond Our Skin: Jenny Erpenbeck and the Potential of Fiction When the Berlin Wall fell, Jenny Erpenbeck was sleeping. “I spent that evening with friends,” the acclaimed German writer...