"Dulse" by Alice Munro

sunset at "Whistle" light house, Grand Manan, via Wikipedia


At the heart of Alice Munro's story "Dulse" is a question the protagonist wonders about the writer Willa Cather: How did she live? It is a question of vital importance to her, because she is at a moment of transition in her own life, and her future feels unclear. 

Munro knows that the power of fiction is in posing questions, not answering them, and the wonder of this story is that it shows us that such questions as how to live may sometimes be the wrong ones — that how is not nearly as important as to live.

"Dulse" was first published in The New Yorker in 1980, then revised for inclusion in Alice Munro's 1982 collection The Moons of Jupiter. The biggest change between the magazine and book versions is the point of view: in The New Yorker, "Dulse" is a first-person story; in The Moons of Jupiter, it is third-person.

The Moons of Jupiter is an important collection in Munro's development, a collection that can be seen to stand at the point where she rejects the metafictional flourishes she sometimes experimented with earlier and moves instead toward the extraordinary depths she would achieve later. In 1989, Helen Hoy noted the change well, saying that in the collections after The Beggar Maid (aka Who Do You Think You Are?), the immediate predecessor to Moons, "metafictional self-consciousness is less frequent and more buried; Munro looks less at the literal fictions to be made out of our lives and more at the extent to which lives are themselves already self-created fictions." 

There are other, equally valid, ways to periodize the development of Munro's stories, but the difference between Beggar Maid and Moons of Jupiter is helpful for us at the moment, because "Dulse" is one of those buried metafictions, one that demonstrates just how much depth is possible when questions of art and literature open out to broader ideas and possibilities.

"Dulse" tells the story of Lydia, an editor at a publishing house who is also (quietly, perhaps even secretly) a poet. She is in the midst of a mid-life crisis — now in her mid-40s, she has been divorced for 9 years, her children have "started on their own lives", and she has very recently broken up with a man she was living with for 18 months, leaving her feeling adrift, uncertain of her life, uncertain of her self. She heads out on vacation (or escape) one summer day and ends up on Grand Manan island, 1,300 miles from her Toronto home, off the coast of northern Maine. She rents a room at a guest-house in a village, and here "Dulse" begins, telling of her interactions with the owners of the guest-house, with three workers from the New Brunswick Telephone Company who are laying cable, and with an elderly man from the US who is visiting because of his love for the writings of Willa Cather, who, with her companion Edith Lewis, had a cottage on the island. A few brief flashbacks to Lydia's time with Duncan, the man she has broken up with in Toronto, offer contrast with the story's present. The title comes from the name of a seaweed common to the north Atlantic coast, which the oldest of the telephone company workers, Vincent, is partial to — it's a food people from away maybe don't appreciate, something to separate locals from exotics, and at the end of the story Vincent leaves a bag of dulse for Lydia, believing she does, indeed, understand and appreciate it.

A lot can be said about Munro and Cather. One of the most prominent Munro critics (and her biographer), Robert Thacker, wrote a good essay about how "Dulse" connects with Cather's life and writings. I'll leave most of that to Thacker, but there's something he doesn't mention that is for me quite meaningful. 

In the New Yorker version of the story, the elderly man, Mr. Stanley, who is obsessed with Cather, says the newspaper he worked for is a little daily paper in an industrial town in New Hampshire; in the book version, the state is not mentioned, just "the daily paper of an industrial town". 


Edith Lewis (standing) and Willa Cather (sitting) in NH, 1926 (via Brainpickings)


Naturally, as a native of New Hampshire, I wish Munro had kept the reference. But it's even more intriguing in a story about Willa Cather — because Cather is buried in the southern New Hampshire town of Jaffrey. She often spent time in Jaffrey in the autumn on her way back to New York from Grand Manan with Lewis. I can only assume Munro cut the reference because it felt too specific, and as Thacker shows in his exploration of the story's drafts, she worked hard to keep only the most necessary specificities. Still, for me, it's a loss.

Munro has frequently been praised for her complex use of time and history; it's one of her great contributions to the art of the short story. Her most impressive temporal effects come in later stories, but time remains a major concern in "Dulse", where Lydia seems unstuck — not so much unstuck in time itself as unstuck in age. Her own age, clearly, but also that of other people: she consistently misperceives the other characters' ages, seeing them as younger than they in truth are. She misjudges life's span.

She also misjudges life's possibilities. She does so because she was not able to imagine living outside the limited template she accepted as normal: she married, had children, got a stable job. That, in Lydia's world, is life. What is she to do now that her marriage is over, her children are grown, and she lacks enthusiasm for her work? She isn't sure she wants to write poetry anymore, she despairs of her lack of skills, and the best vocation she can imagine for herself is as a cleaner, even though she knows nothing about it: "She was thinking that she could not cook well enough to do it for pay but she could clean. There was at least one other guest-house besides the one where she was staying, and she had seen a sign advertising a motel. How many hours cleaning could she get if she cleaned all three places, and how much an hour did cleaning pay?"

As someone who has now reached Lydia's age, I have great sympathy for her feelings, even though I have avoided having a husband or children and have never perceived life as needing to be bounded by such things. Nonetheless, at this age there is an uncanny feeling that accompanies the accumulation of experience, a vertiginous feeling when thinking back over the decades of life behind you, and perhaps one of the causes of midlife crises (or at least midlife moments of pause for reflection) is not so much the sense that death is getting closer, but that you now possess, and carry with you, the weight of a substantial history. This is really not something I recognized until recent years, because so much of who I was and what I was doing focused on moving forward. I distinctly remember in my late 30s pausing to realize that there was now a trail of experience to look back on, and, even more than that, that there was distance between my present self and a lot of that experience. I remember that moment of pause because I felt a sudden disassociation, a sense of floating above and away from self, of being separate from a person whose memories I carried. The feeling passed, but it was shocking. 

Munro's stories capture these feelings better than anything else I have read. The feelings that accompany the experience of aging and memory are a persistent concern for her, one that she has carried forward in ever more astonishing ways as she herself as moved from midlife into old age.

Lydia struggles to understand her relationship to men, to their gazes and beguilements. "Like many women of her generation," she thinks to herself accusatorily, "she has an idea of love which is ruinous, but not serious in some way, not respectful." Her idea of love (if it can even be called that) is an idea of power, and a zero-sum game of power at that, a competition. Only she or the man can have power. If the man has power, she has ceded hers to him. If she has power, the man is weak, or at best dull. We see this in her consideration of the three telephone company men: Eugene, who is 25 but seems to her a child; Lawrence, mid-thirties, the boss and something of a bully; Vincent, early 50s, a kind but unambitious man. She imagines making love to them, with Lawrence attentive but always clear about who is in charge, Eugene generous and "self-forgetful", Vincent harder to imagine, less stereotypical because less a man of power, which makes him actually more alluring: "She liked him for the very things that made him different from Lawrence and ensured that all his life he would be working for Lawrence — or for somebody like Lawrence — never the other way around."

What she wants, but can barely conceive, is a relationship free from obvious, predictable inequities of power. Her idea of Eugene is particularly revealing, not so much about Eugene as about her understanding of men and women. The women he had flings with would not hold it against him when he left: "They would not try to trap him; they wouldn't whine after him. Women do that to the men who have held back, who have contradicted themselves, lied, mocked. These are the men women get pregnant by, send desperate letters to, preach their own superior love to, take their revenge on." This, it seems, is how Lydia conceives of women's power: the power to entrap men, to whine and cling. It's a shallow, desperate, even self-hating vision. Similarly, her idea of what happens when Eugene decides to settle down: "Then he would marry a rather plain, maternal sort of girl, perhaps a bit older than himself, a bit shrewder. He would be faithful, and good to her, and she would manage things; they would raise a large, Catholic family." She sees Eugene giving up freedom for drab family life, surrendering himself to a woman ("she would manage things"). Lydia's idea of such a woman's power is procreative: the wife is in charge and uses her husband to produce lots of children.

Which brings us to Willa Cather. As Mr. Stanley discusses Cather, Lydia grows more and more skeptical of her. The idea of Cather being happy and successful is a threat to Lydia's perception of what women can do and be — a woman who created books, not children; a woman who never married but had a satisfying companion in another woman for decades; a woman who made demands, who said what she liked and didn't like. "Willa could be imperious," Mr. Stanley says. "She was not perfect. All people of great abilities are apt to be a bit impatient in daily matters." The next sentence gets a paragraph of its own: "Rubbish, Lydia wanted to say. She sounds a proper bitch."

Then Mr. Stanley tells a story of talking with a woman who went to Cather for advice about marriage. "What would she know about it, anyway?" Lydia asks Mr. Stanley. Her understanding of women's place in the world, and of herself, is clearly threatened by the example of Cather. She lashes out, lest the foundation of her self-conception crumble.

"Willa Cather lived with a woman," Lydia said.

When Mr. Stanley answered he sounded flustered, and mildly upbraiding.

"They were devoted," he said.

"She never lived with a man."

"She knew things as an artist knows them. Not necessarily by experience."

"But what if they don't know them," Lydia persisted. "What if they don't?"

He went back to eating his egg as if he had not heard that. Finally he said, "The woman considered Willa's conversation was very helpful to her."

Robert Thacker writes that "Cather is directly relevant to Lydia's situation because of the unwavering persona she presented to the world throughout her life. For her, the preeminence of art, and of her own vocation as an artist was, always, the uncompromised value." While certainly there's some of that in the story, and the challenges of being devoted to both art and ordinary life are challenges of great concern to Munro through much of her career, this doesn't seem primary here, where really the latter part of the story has nothing to do with Cather's art or stubbornness and everything to do with Lydia's narrow imagining of gender relations. That Lydia has sometimes thought of herself as a poet seems to me to show that she has sometimes thought of herself outside the role of wife and mother, but has rejected any devotion to art because it would lead her to question the structures of her life. Art is a threat. 

We do not need to agree with Lydia that Cather "sounds like a right bitch." That's her defensiveness talking. The woman Mr. Stanley interviews, who was the direct recipient of Cather's "imperious" behavior, did not seem to see her that way. Lydia's Manichean ideas of power make her unable to interpret a woman who takes control of her life and desires as anything other than "a right bitch".

The Cather of Munro's story is someone for whom the vocation of art was, yes, "the uncompromised value", but the vocation of art is also, here, the persona Cather wore, her shield against a world that lashes out at any flouting of norms. The persona is what results from the choice to take control of your life and desires, a choice that links the commitment to both art and life. What the figure of Cather offers to Lydia is another way of approaching life. Instead of seeing everything as a struggle between male and female power for limited resources, life may be known more artistically. Of course Lydia is thinking of quitting poetry — she must give up either it or her narrow idea of how to live.

They were devoted, Mr. Stanley says. That is what Lydia lacks: devotion. Mr. Stanley is alone, but does not seem lonely, because he has devoted himself to Willa Cather. Cather was devoted to her writing and to Edith Lewis, and Lewis was devoted to her. Devotion allowed them to live outside the hegemonic structures of heterosexual family, and to do so with apparent contentment, even happiness (certainly, more contentment and happiness than Lydia has found). Lydia doesn't know what she could be devoted to because she hasn't let herself imagine beyond what the world has told her is imaginable.

Lydia clearly is considering whether Vincent, for all the weakness she thinks he displays, might be the man for her. Vincent has a small devotion of his own: dulse, which he eats at the start of each morning and end of each night. Maybe that's where Lydia needs to begin, with something simple to commit herself to. Maybe she'll find companionship in sharing Vincent's devotion. Or maybe she needs to give up on men altogether. Maybe she needs to be more like Willa Cather. We don't know; nor, really, does she, not yet.

In both The Moons of Jupiter and Selected Stories, Munro places "Dulse" next to "The Turkey Season", a story with a character whose sexuality the narrator wonders about. (For anyone seeking a discussion of it, B. Pietras recently delved into that story's presentation of homosexuality for Lit Hub.) "I don't want to go into the question of whether Herb was homosexual or not," the narrator says, "because the definition is of no use to me. I think that probably he was, but maybe he was not. ... He is not a puzzle so arbitrarily solved." This seems to me the perfect position, and the most honest one. Munro is a writer exquisitely sensitive to the accumulations of identity we all carry with us, and sensitive, too, to the ways desire, identity, and power intermingle, shift, flow. The narrator of "Turkey Season" doesn't need to know whether Herb was actually having sex with Brian, a character who causes many problems in the second half of the story, and to whom Herb has some sort of deeper connection than to the other workers at the turkey barn. They were companions, though Brian's erratic, combative behavior likely made them unstable ones. But so, too, are many other companionable relationships in this story and the others in the book unstable; the gender is important only to the extent that gender limits lives through its traps of expectations. The characters' sexual behaviors are relevant to nothing outside those characters' own immediate relationships, a statement that could be made about Cather and Lewis, as well. (While the question of whether Cather and Lewis were "really" lesbians is useless and in many ways offensive, I have no hesitation about claiming Cather and Lewis for lesbianism and [especially] queerness, because to do otherwise is to reduce lesbianism and queerness to the mechanical facts of what people do with each others' bodies. Denying lesbianism and queerness for such relationships, whether historical or literary, also suggests that lesbianism and queerness are things for which one must be proven guilty. I feel impelled to claim such relationships for lesbianism and queerness because it then allows us to move beyond that question — that puzzle to be solved — and instead revel in the panoply of structures and feelings that human beings cobble into lives.)

I wonder about the switch from first- to third-person point of view that Munro made between the story's magazine and book appearances. This is a fairly common practice for her, and Thacker and others who have worked in Munro's archives report that she often switches points of view between drafts. Drafting "Dulse" was particularly uncertain, as Thacker reports: "there are drafts using each point of view in the papers: the holograph drafts are, respectively, in third and first, and the typescript drafts are third, first, and third". 

Munro seems to have struggled to decide how close she wanted us as readers to be with Lydia, how intimate. The first-person of the New Yorker version tempts us to agree with her more easily, leading Munro to a particularly interesting moment, one that is basically third-person in both versions. Thacker sees this as an authorial intrusion in the first-person version, a moment where Munro the writer inserts her own opinion of Lydia. But it does not need to be read that way. We have to pay attention to the movement between paragraphs. Thus, as the story appears in the magazine:

I was tempted to picture myself trembling delicately all over like a dancer on her toes, afraid that I would let him down on the next turn.

But there is more to it than that; take a look at Lydia. Her self-absorption equals Alex's [Duncan's], but it is more artfully concealed. ... She was out to defeat him.

Is that the truth?

I said to a doctor last spring, "The worst thing is not knowing what is true, about any of this."

It is the second paragaph there (which I have cut the middle out of) that is in third person, and while it's possible that Thacker's interpretation of this as authorial intrusion is accurate, it makes sense to me to think of it as Lydia trying to step outside of herself, trying to get some perspective. It's a moment, and a change, worth considering. As a first-person story, "Dulse" foregrounds Lydia's struggle with herself, her need to get outside herself and consider her life from a more objective distance. That struggle is still present in the third-person version, but more submerged within the narrative, which provides the natural distance of third person, of narration rather than self-narration.

The book version adds a paragraph elsewhere that makes clear a central question for Lydia — and for the story, and for us, asking, "should she have stayed in the place where love is managed for you, not gone where you have to invent it, and re-invent it, and never know if these efforts will be enough?"

Invention and re-invention. The story itself was invented and re-invented, but then, all stories are. It is the place where stories and love and life converge. And we never know if any such efforts will be enough.