Last reviewed: June 2017
Canadian short fiction writer and Nobel laureate
July 10, 1931
Wingham, Ontario, Canada
Alice Munro is one of Canada’s best writers of short fiction. She was born Alice Ann Laidlaw to Robert Eric Laidlaw, a fox farmer, and his ailing but ambitious wife, Ann Chamney Laidlaw, a teacher. In 1949 Munro left her birthplace of Wingham to attend the University of Western Ontario. In 1951 she married James Munro and moved to Vancouver, where she and her husband had two daughters. In 1963 the couple moved to Victoria, British Columbia, and in 1966 they had a third child, another daughter.
From her youth, Munro had been writing stories. Her early efforts were romantic tales, like her first published work, which appeared in a student publication in 1950. Yet she soon turned to short stories, many of which were set in small towns like Wingham. Although some of these stories appeared in small literary magazines, it was not until the publication of her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, that Munro was recognized as one of Canada’s outstanding young writers. In 1969 that collection was given the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. Drawing of Alice Munro.
Drawing of Alice Munro.
Drawing of Alice Munro.
Although her second book, Lives of Girls and Women, was called a novel, it could as logically be considered a collection of short stories. Each section deals with an important episode in the life of the central character, Del Jordan, as she matures in a small town in southern Ontario, outwardly conforming but inwardly preparing to leave for the larger world and a career as a writer. Like most of the stories in Dance of the Happy Shades, this novel focuses on the discoveries of childhood and adolescence.
In 1972, after separating from her husband, Munro returned to Ontario, settling in London. The works in her second collection, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, reflect the broader experiences of her adult years. Only six of the stories take place in rural Canada; seven of them have urban settings. Furthermore, many are more complex in form, particularly in the handling of time, and many of the characters are older, some even elderly. Like the novel, they also reflect Munro’s increasing preoccupation with the writing process, which is frequently discussed in the course of the narrative.
In 1976 Munro was divorced. She soon married Gerald Fremlin, and they moved to the small town of Clinton, Ontario, a few miles southwest of her birthplace. Here, close to her own roots, she continued to write fiction which often deals with characters’ unbreakable ties to their past.
Munro’s book of linked stories, Who Do You Think You Are? (also published as The Beggar Maid), has often been compared to Lives of Girls and Women, because each work consists of episodes in the life of a central character. The protagonist of The Beggar Maid is Rose, a successful television actress who has returned to her Ontario hometown in order to put her stepmother, Flo, in a nursing home. While she is there, she relives the past, which she comes to realize will always be a part of her, no matter what role she assumes in the urban world. The Beggar Maid illustrates the dominant themes in Munro’s works: the influence of the past, particularly of one’s childhood; the persistence of guilt about that past; the loss of identity which so often accompanies worldly success; the fact of human isolation, which is most severe for artists and others who choose to be different from their neighbors; and the difficulty of achieving satisfying relationships with others. In these earlier stories, the protagonist comes to understand how these issues have affected her. For example, Rose recalls her own feelings when a teacher rebuked her for learning a poem her own way, instead of following the teacher’s directions. The teacher’s words to Rose (“Who do you think you are?”) reflect a small town’s attitude toward anyone who is independent in thought and action. While the townspeople tolerated the abnormal and childlike Milton Homer as a source of mirth, they could not excuse Ralph Gillespie, who proceeded from imitating Homer to imitating everyone he knew. In Ralph, the imaginative actor, Rose, the actress, recognizes her double. This revelation is a step in coming to understand her own identity.
For The Beggar Maid and her fifth collection, The Progress of Love, Munro again received the Governor General’s Literary Award. In her later books, she has expanded her range of narrative voices and styles while continuing to explore the paradoxes of her characters’ lives. Her stories, especially those in Friend of My Youth and Open Secrets, have become more intricate as she experiments with time sequence and alternate realities. Her mature work is densely layered, and she has mastered the art of holding back, as she does so skillfully in “Carried Away” and “The Albanian Virgin,” from Open Secrets.
By the mid-1990s Munro was dividing her time between Clinton, Ontario, and her winter home in Comox, British Columbia, and continuing to write short fiction, which appeared regularly in The New Yorker and other magazines. Her works are acclaimed by critics. The fact that the public is similarly enthusiastic about her stories is indicated by the substantial sales of her collections, both in hardback and in paperback. It is generally agreed that in an age of minimalist fiction, with its sketchy plots and superficial characterization, Munro has proved the lasting appeal of realistic, substantial stories that grapple honestly with universal human problems.
The Love of a Good Woman relates tales of murders, affairs, and other secrets. The collection won the National Book Critics Circle award in 1998. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage was nominated for the same award in 2001. One of the stories in the collection, “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” about the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on a married couple’s relationship, was later adapted for the 2006 film Away from Her, directed by Sarah Polley.
In the 2000s and 2010s Munro has published several original short story collections as well as selections from previous works. Munro’s original collections from this period include Runaway (2004), three stories from which formed the basis for the film Julieta (2016), adapted and directed by Pedro Almodóvar; The View from Castle Rock (2007); Too Much Happiness (2009); and Dear Life (2012), which Munro has stated will be her last story collection. Munro’s honors during this time include the 2009 Man Booker International Prize and the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.