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Author Study: Alice Munro Curated by Jenny Fu '20

Thank you so much for visiting this LibGuide about Alice Munro! Whether you are here for a class, leisure, or pure curiosity, you will definitely find something valuable. I hope you will enjoy and get to know Alice Munro.

Social Context

Social Context 

        Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Huron County, Ontario, Canada and is 87 years of age at the time of this writing. As Munro said, "the stories we tell other people are merely different versions of our own past." The society, the experiences, the twists and turns in her life shaped both her and her writing. Thus, many of her experiences are embedded in her short stories, including "The Beggar Maid," "Walker Brother Cowboy," "Friend of My Youth," and "Royal Beatings." Munro even ends with autobiographical pieces in her retirement work Dear Life, stating in an interview, "I believe they are the first and last -- and the closest -- things I have to say about my own life." Indeed, as readers explore her works, which often involves life on a farm, mother-daughter relationships, class, family, and betrayal, Munro's own experiences are seen. Please refer to Personal Life for a more complete biography of Alice Munro. 


Map of Huron County and Ontario: Munro's

hometown into perspective 

The Beggar Maid 

The Beggar Maid (1978) is a short story collection named after one of its featured stories. The series focuses on Rose's life from childhood to an elder age, describing the physical, behavioural, and emotional transformations of Rose as she ages. There is no comprehensive plot throughout, but each presents Rose at a different stage of life. Despite being a collection of short stories, many critics label it as a novel due to the recurring themes and characters as well as their complex development throughout the pieces. 

Table of Contents: "Royal Beatings", "Privilege", "Half a Grapefruit", "Wild Swans", "The Beggar Maid", "Mischief", "Providence", "Simon's Luck", "Spelling", "Who Do You Think You Are?'"

"Royal Beatings"

According to Munro, "Royal Beatings" is a story inspired by a beating she received from her father. The story explores Rose's youthful mind, her family dynamics, and her role in it. 

A trend in Munro's story is the use of the fictional region, Hanratty, a mirror reflection of the town (Wingham) she grew up in. "They lived in a poor part of town. There was Hanratty and West Hanratty, with the river flowing between them. this was West Hanratty. In Hanratty the social structure ran from doctors and dentists and lawyers down to foundry workers and factory workers and dray-men; in West Hanratty it ran from factory workers and foundry workers down to large improvident families of casual bootleggers and prostitutes and unsuccessful thieves. Rose thought of her own family as straddling the river, belonging nowhere, but that was not true. West Hanratty was where the store was and they were, on the straggling tail end of the main street." 



The Beggar Maid (1978)          Original Canadian Version, 

by Alice Munro                  Published as Who Do You Think You Are? 


"I just looked at where I was and wrote about it."

                                                             -- Alice Munro 


Cultural Context

Cultural Context

Although Alice Munro is Canadian, she has a Scottish-Irish background. Her father's family emigrated to Upper Canada from Ettirck Valley on the Scottish borderland in 1818. They were amongst the mass exodus of settlers from Britain who moved to Canada hoping for land and opportunities. Since then, the family settled to work in the farming industry. On the other hand, Munro's mother descended from Irish Protestants. Her mother's grandfather resided in Huron County and his sister married a farmer on Scotch corners, giving birth to Munro's mother. 


Many of Munro's works -- such as "Friend of Youth" and "A Wilderness Station" -- incorporate various aspects of Scottish culture, including:


1. The Scottish Reformation 

2. Kailyard genre: authors focus on depicting the everyday life of Scotts. 

3. The Scottish ballad: native Scottish songs sung without accompaniment. 

4. Cameronian: a Scottish religious faith developed by Richard Cameron. 


Literary magazines in 2004 notes:   “Her latest project is a memoir about her family, tracing her roots to the borders of Scotland in the seventeenth century. Her ancestors were shepherds, but they were writers, too; their letters and diaries have been handed down through the generations.”


"Friend of My Youth" (1990)

A vivid example of how Alice Munro incorporates Scottish culture could be seen in her short story "Friend of My Youth," where the narrator recalls her Mother's memories from reaching two young girls during her youth. Two of the main characters, Flora and Ellie Grieves, are believers of Cameronian faith and practice it piously. As Munro writes early on: 

"The Grieves worked hard and they were far from ignorant, but they were very backward. They didn't have a car or electricity or a telephone ... some people thought this was because they were Cameronians -- they were the only people in the school district who were of that religion -- but in fact their church (which they themselves always called the Reformed Presbyterian) did not forbid engines or electricity... just card playing, dancing, movies, and, on Sundays, any activity at all that was not religious or unavoidable." 

At the end of the story, Munro even dedicates a paragraph to explain the history of Cameronian. Indeed, Munro utilizes her cultural context and apply them to her works. 


"I grew up in the country-side, with people who were generally Scotch-Irish..."                                                                                                                                -- Alice Munro 


Yet, the more prominent cultural aspect of her writing remains to be influenced by Ontario, Canada. Many of her stories are set in Ontario and describe the resident's daily lives, contributing to her fame as an author of Southern Ontario Gothic, a classical genre of Canadian literature in which authors aim to describe Ontario and its inhabitant's realistic experiences. Characters face moral dilemmas that prompt them to act against morality and logic. Other prominent Southern Ontario Gothic authors include Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and Barbara Gowdy. Often set in Toronto, London, and Huron, Munro's stories coincide in the settings and character development. 


"I'd like to think I represent Canada and though I have certainly written most about Ontario; it's where I grew up ... I want to give you something of the feeling of being someone growing up in a place like a small town in Ontario."

                                                                                                              -- Alice Munro 




Historical Context

Historical Context

Born in 1931, Alice Munro experienced 2 major events in world history: The Great Depression and World War II. 

Munro's Father's fox farm business failed due to minimal capital and a late start, causing the family to fall into a state of bankruptcy. Like the surrounding Huron County, Munro's family was not affluent. With her Mother's disease and a failing family economy, the environment Munro grew up in was extremely harsh. Later on, her writing contains tints of these experiences and the historical outlook of Ontario during the Great Depression. 


A Wilderness Station

"Walker Brothers Cowboy" (1968)

            A story by Alice Munro set in the 1930s, the plot describes wedded man Ben Jordan bringing his children with him to work: selling Walker Brothers Products around the neighbourhood. The three of them -- father and children -- meet Nora, a woman of Jordan's past. Gradually, the children explore bits and pieces of their father's previous affairs. 

Munro characterizes the family with, "Up until last winter we had our own business, a fox farm. My father raises silver foxes and sold their pelts to the people who make them into capes and coats and muffs. Prices fell, my father hung on hoping they would get better next year, and they fell again, and he hung on one more year and one more and finally it was not possible to hang on anymore, we owed everything to the feed company." This closely relates to her own experience during the Great Depression of how her family fox farm business failed. 

Munro also describes the setting, the Ontario she experienced: "The 1930s. How much this kind of farmhouse, this kind of afternoon seem to me to belong to that one decade in time, just as my father's hat does, his bright flared tie, our car with its wide running board... no living things to be seen... One yard after another, then old cars, the pumps, dogs, views of grey barns and falling-down sheds and unturning windmills."


"Carried Away" (1991)

                 A short story by Alice Munro set around world war I, "Open Secrets" explores the past, present, emotions, and relationships of the main character Louisa. Again, Munro uses intricate structures and travels between time frame to dig out the character's past piece by piece.  

Munro characterizes the scenes with letters and conversations during the war. The soldier, Jack Agnew, describes his mental state of being during warfare in a letter to Louisa, "I do not think you and I will ever meet again. I don't say that because... it just seems to me that it is the most probable thing to happen, though I don't dwell on it and go along every day doing the best I can to stay alive..."


"Walker Brother Cowboy" and "Carried Away"

included in this collection. 



Political Context

Political Context

In many short story collections, Alice Munro captures women's views intricately, leading many to see feminism in her works. Some audience read Rose in The Beggar Maid as a woman possessive of power in relationships with the ability to influence her partner. Others praise how detailed The Lives of Girls and Woman is in describing, ultimately, the lives of girls and woman. Munro admitted her position as a non-political feminist during an interview, claiming that the experience and emotions of women are important and should be known. 


In their essay "Alice Munro's Stories and Feminism" (2011) Dr. M. Prabhakar and K.Venkat Satish believe that Munro's works display a feminist outlook. They wrote, "Munro’s stories are the episodic recollections that chronicle the emotional development of girls and women... In her stories, Munro reveals the barriers to women's autonomy and individuality. Her stories are centred on liberation... She points out the impact of class and generation gaps and the effect of relationships on woman... "