Authors: Alice Munro

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Canadian short fiction writer and Nobel laureate

July 10, 1931

Wingham, Ontario, Canada

Biography

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.

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By Hogne [CC-BY-SA-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0) or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Drawing of Alice Munro.

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By Hogne [CC-BY-SA-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0) or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Short Fiction: Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968 Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories, 1974 Who Do You Think You Are?, 1978 (pb. in U.S. as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, 1979) The Moons of Jupiter: Stories, 1982 The Progress of Love, 1986 Friend of My Youth: Stories, 1990 Open Secrets: Stories, 1994 A Wilderness Station, 1994 Selected Stories, 1996 The Love of a Good Woman: Stories, 1998 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, 2001 Runaway, 2004 The View from Castle Rock, 2007 Too Much Happiness, 2009 Dear Life, 2012 Long Fiction: Lives of Girls and Women, 1971 Bibliography Blodgett, E. D. Alice Munro. Boston: Twayne, 1988. This volume provides a general introduction to Munro’s fiction. Supplemented by a useful critical bibliography. Canitz, A. E. Christa, and Roger Seamon. “The Rhetoric of Fictional Realism in the Stories of Alice Munro.” Canadian Literature, no. 150 (Autumn, 1996): 67–80. Examines how Munro’s stories portray and enact the dialectic between legend-making and demythologizing; discusses techniques that Munro uses to adapt the opposition between fiction and reality to the expectations and ethical beliefs of her audience. Carrington, Ildikó de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989. A good critical study of Munro’s fiction. Includes a bibliography. Carrington, Ildikó de Papp. “Talking Dirty: Alice Munro’s ‘Open Secrets’ and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 495–606. Discusses Munro’s foregrounding of language in three categories: spoken language, written language, and body language, primarily in “Open Secrets.” Analyzes Munro’s use of deferent kinds of language to interpret what has happened and to conceal secret, dirty meanings under innocuous surfaces. Traces the story’s allusions to Steinbeck’s Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1937). Champagne, Christine. “Behind the Script: How Pedro Almodóvar Turned Alice Munro Short Stories into ‘Julieta.’” Fast Company, 26 Dec. 2016, www.fastcompany.com/3066704/behind-the-script-how-pedro-almodovar-turned-alice-munro-short-stories-into-jul. Accessed 10 May. 2017. Describes the process of the director’s adaptation of three stories from Munro’s 2004 collection, Runaway. Clark, Miriam Marty. “Allegories of Reading in Alice Munro’s ‘Carried Away.’” Contemporary Literature 37 (Spring, 1996): 49–61. Shows how the stories in Munro’s Friend of My Youth and Open Secrets dismantle the foundations of realist narrative, figuring or disclosing the many texts in the one and so refiguring the linked practices of writing and reading; claims that “Carried Away” addresses allegorically the politics of the library and the ethics of reading. Crouse, David. “Resisting Reduction: Closure in Richard Ford’s ‘Rock Springs’ and Alice Munro’s ‘Friend of My Youth.’” Canadian Literature, no. 146 (Autumn, 1995): 51–64. Discusses how Ford and Munro deal with the problem of realistic closure and character growth in their short stories by manipulating time. Shows how they use various narrative devices to give more interpretive responsibility to the reader. Goldman, Marlene. “Penning in the Bodies: The Construction of Gendered Subjects in Alice Munro’s ‘Boys and Girls.’” Studies in Canadian Literature 15, no. 1 (1990): 62–75. This essay presents a study of conflict between the adult voice and the child’s idealistic perception of reality. Heble, Ajay. The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro’s Discourse of Absence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Includes a bibliography and an index. Hiscock, Andrew. “‘Longing for a Human Climate’: Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth and the Culture of Loss.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 32 (1997): 17–34. Claims that in this collection of stories, Munro creates complex fictional worlds in which character, narrator, and reader are involved in the business of interpreting versions of loss, tentatively attempting to understand their function and status in a mysteriously arranged reality. Martin, Walter. Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1987. An analysis of Munro’s use of narrative techniques and language. Complemented by an excellent bibliography of her writings. Mayberry, Katherine J. “‘Every Last Thing … Everlasting’: Alice Munro and the Limits of Narrative.” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Fall, 1992): 531–541. Discusses how Munro’s characters use narrative as a means of coming to terms with the past, how they manage their pain by telling. Argues that most of Munro’s narrators come to realize the imperfections of narrative because of the incongruence between experience and the story’s effort to render it. Murphy, Georgeann. “The Art of Alice Munro: Memory, Identity, and the Aesthetics of Connection.” In Canadian Women: Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993. Discusses a number of recurring characters, themes, and concerns in Munro’s short stories, such as writing as an act of magical transformation, familial connection, death as a violent upheaval, and sexual connection inflicting psychic pain. Noonan, Gerald. “The Structure of Style in Alice Munro’s Fiction.” In Probable Fictions: Alice Munro’s Narrative Acts, edited by Louis MacKendrick. Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1983. A study of Munro’s stylistic evolution from Dance of the Happy Shades to Who Do You Think You Are? Nunes, Mark. “Postmodern ‘Piecing’: Alice Munro’s Contingent Ontologies.” Studies in Short Fiction 34 (Winter, 1997): 11–26. A discussion of Munro’s postmodernist focus on narrative strategies. Argues that quilting and piecing in the stories are metaphors for narrative. Instead of suggesting a disruptive postmodernism, quilting in women’s writing functions as an icon for the recuperation of fragmented traditions into a healed whole. Rasporich, Beverly. Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1990. A very interesting analysis focusing on male/female contrasts and relationships in Munro’s fiction. Augmented by a critical bibliography. Redekop, Magdalene. Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro. New York: Routledge, 1992 Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. Alice Munro: A Double Life. Toronto: ECW Press, 1992. A literary biography by a scholar who has written extensively on Munro’s fiction. Serafin, Steven R. “‘Alice Munro.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 12 June 2015, www.britannica.com/biography/Alice-Munro. Accessed 10 May 2017. A brief biography of Munro. Sheldrick Ross, Catherine. “‘At Least Part Legend’: The Fiction of Alice Munro.” In Probable Fictions: Alice Munro’s Narrative Acts, edited by Louis MacKendrick. Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1983. A study of the way in which Munro’s characters perceive legendary qualities in real life experiences. Smythe, Karen E. Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro, and the Poetics of Elegy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992. A generic study of Munro’s stories based on the premise that her fiction, with its emphasis on loss and the importance of story telling as a way of regaining knowledge of the past, enacts a poetics of elegy. Thacker, Robert. “Alice Munro—Biographical.” Nobelprize.org, Nobel Media, 2014, www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2013/munro-bio.html. Accessed 10 May 2017. Initially written at the time of Munro’s award in 2013, this autobiography/biography was later published in Les Prix Nobel / Nobel Lectures / The Nobel Prizes book series.

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