Readers of Alice Munro do not expect the reference to Tennessee Williams, an American playwright, steeped in all the mythology of the South of the United States, to be relevant in describing Canadian mores. However, the works of these two writers, although anchored in geographically distant circles, are quite close to each other.
Comparison of their works reveals that the people of Ontario can, on occasion, be as sensual and sassy as those of fascinating Louisiana. In addition, the biography of Alice Munro recalls certain aspects of the existence of Tennessee Williams.
We know that the latter’s work was greatly influenced by an unhappy youth. Her mother was one of those “southern beauties” who dreamed of becoming an actress. She married a man from Tennessee who gradually turned out to be quick-tempered, drinker, and die-hard poker player. He terrified his children. His son suffered greatly from his authoritarianism, and a long psychoanalytic treatment was necessary in order for him to exorcise this threatening father figure.
As for the schizophrenia of the playwright’s sister, Rose, she haunts his work, notably A Streetcar Named Desire (A tram named Désir, 1947). In the play, the very concealing Blanche du Bois, arrives one day in New Orleans, with her sister and her worker husband, to disrupt the pair of fusional lovers with her crazy demands.
This play obviously echoes some family memories of Alice Munro. She evokes it in “Family Furnishings” one of the short stories published in the collection entitled Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001). Metaphorically, the title evokes the traumas caused in a family by cumbersome secrets.
Alfrida is the eccentric cousin of the narrator’s father, as is often the case, very close to the author. In a modest family, most of whose members are poorly educated, this character stands out for his profession as a newspaper columnist.
Based in a small provincial town, Alfrida is responsible, under the name Flora Simpson, for a section intended for mothers of families: The Flora Simpson Housewives’ Page. Full of practical or medical advice, and written in the tone of connivance, his articles are acclaimed by naive readers.
The irony of the narrator does not spare Alfrida, the character of a single woman, emancipated enough to live on her pen, but not voluntary enough to declutter her small apartment from the heavy furniture inherited from her mother.
The narrator remembers that, in her childhood, her parents received Alfrida at least once a year: her mother would then set an exceptionally refined table and her father, however unwilling to accept emancipated women, patiently listened to her speeches. pretentious and vain without ever contradicting her.
These anomalies must have an explanation. What mysteries is Alfrida hiding, whose mere presence seems to radically change the character and habits of those close to her?
As always with Munro, analyzing a character’s relationship to books is enlightening. Now, Alfrida hates books. The modest library of the narrator’s parents is the object of all her sarcasm: George Eliot, Jack London or Walter Scott find no favor in her eyes. This is a bad sign.
The day when, become a student, the narrator is invited to Alfrida’s, giving up public transport, she crosses the whole city on foot to go to a district far from her home. She discovers there that Alfrida is having a passionate affair with a certain Bill, a rough man, but handsome and sensual.
During the meal, the narrator incidentally recounts one of her recent evenings. She took the train with friends to the Toronto theater where Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire was represented. Alfrida is shocked. Face contorted in a smirk of disgust, she exclaims, “That filth!”: “That filth!”
Alfrida’s contempt for any cultural manifestation is not enough to explain the violence of his reaction. And besides, at the time, neither the narrator nor the reader understood her reply. Of course, it is easy to see that the situation echoes distantly A Streetcar Named Desire. The short story would, in fact, be a loose form of rewrite of the play, and the narrator a figure of Blanche du Bois.
The end of the story reveals not one, but two closely related secrets. The narrator despised Alfrida. Yet it was thanks to this talentless columnist that she became a short story writer. Indeed, his first published text was inspired by the personal memories Alfrida had recklessly recounted to him. The story being very derogatory, it resulted in a quarrel between Alfrida and the father of the narrator.
This dispute was regrettable because in their early youth, Alfrida and her cousin had loved each other. They had never said a word to anyone but in the euphoria of the end of the Great War, they had conceived a child together. Too young then to get married, the young lovers had abandoned the baby for adoption.
At her father’s funeral, when she has not heard from Alfrida for years, the narrator meets a stranger: her hidden half-sister. The revelation of this family bond, abruptly revealed, wavers its benchmarks.
In her own way, she played, with her father, the role of the disruptive element comparable to that endorsed by Blanche du Bois with her sister. Because of his egoism as a writer, he was deprived of the satisfaction of recognizing his illegitimate daughter. The profession of writer is therefore a form of obstacle to family harmony.
There is no question for the narrator to stop writing. But from now on, she will have to avoid the facilities and expose herself more. Her own weaknesses, and not those of those close to her, must nourish her works if she wants to remain faithful to her vocation as an artist.
Thus the main themes of A Streetcar Named Desire are they ironically repeated in “Family Furnishing”: sensuality, sexuality, family secrets, saving writing. Without ever being demonstrative, by insisting on the contrary, just like Tennessee Williams, on the mysteries of existence, once again, Munro lays bare the savagery of family relations and the cruelty of writing.
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