Before I jump into the story, I’d just like to say that what follows are my notes–opinion not fact. And I hope to hear more opinions from you. Also, LONGEST POST EVER ALERT (I suggest a beverage of some sort, maybe a snack) and SPOILER ALERT:
“Dimensions” by Alice Munro from her new collection, Too Much Happiness:
Type of story: journey
Type of beginning: starting the journey
Type of ending: stopping the journey
Point of View: On my first read, I thought it was third person limited to Doree, but on my second read, it appears that Munro actually moves briefly into the heads of two other characters: Mrs. Sands for a moment in the 3rd section (page 7 of the book) and Maggie for a moment in the 11th section (page 18). So the point of view is third person limited to one character at a time, and the main point of view character is Doree.
Distance at the beginning: The first few sentences (in fact the whole first paragraph with the exception of one sentence) seem distant, with Doree being observed which I think Munro starts with for three reasons: 1) because the gory subject matter to come needs distance to avoid melodrama; 2) so she can dip into the other two characters without jarring the reader; and 3) so the reader can look at Doree as separate from the reader because Doree does things the reader finds difficult to believe.
Structure: 31 pages>19 sections (marked only by white space, which Munro uses mainly to mark shifts in TIME )
[green =forward action/red=backstory/blue=Mrs. Sands/orange=Maggie]
1st section: Munro gets the story moving forward—literally and figuratively. We know something happened but we don’t know what—the unknowing adds tension and moves the story forward. And we have enough concrete details and action that we’re willing to wait for the “what.”
2nd section: Introduction of new character: Mrs. Sands (we guess she’s some sort of therapist and is “the reasonable person” to anchor the reader in the story). *[If you're reading the story in The New Yorker, this section splits here creating 20 sections total instead of 19-I'm guessing she combined them in the later version to avoid 2 sections of backstory at the beginning.] Then a moment of backstory that starts when Doree meets Lloyd and clues us we’re going to lead up to what happened.
3rd section: Story moves forward again. Brief dip into Mrs. Sands POV. This section serves to reassure the reader that there is a story and that the character we just met is part of it.
4th section: Hunk of chronological backstory—the sure hand of storytelling.
5th section: Out of order backstory—I asked myself WHY? I’m guessing it serves to give the reader a little more information about what happened so we don’t get antagonistic. It also acts as foreshadowing and adds tension.
6th-10th sections: Chronological backstory with new character—the friend Maggie. Munro filters Doree’s reaction to the murders through Maggie (dips into M’s POV) to avoid melodrama. Also Munro needs the character of Maggie during these pre-Mrs. Sands scenes. (Maggie and Mrs. Sands are both “reasonable people” who arguably stand in for the reader. Including them and dipping briefly into their POV seem to be the equivalent of the story putting an arm around the reader.)
11th section: All the threads come together (red, blue, orange) for the “what happened” and then push past it.
11th-19th sections: The story moves forward from the “what happened,” with the continued appearance of Mrs. Sands as stand-in for normal as against Lloyd, which is the battle that is going on in Doree’s head.
12th: Doree’s INTERIOR THOUGHTS- she thinks back to being on the bus at the beginning of the story-no physical location of her body-and apparent continuation of interior thoughts in previous section-SO WHY DOES MUNRO SEPARATE THIS SHORT SECTION BY WHITE SPACE instead of adding it to the end of the section before?
- I think to draw attention to Doree’s realization of getting off the bus as a possibility, which foreshadows the ending
- And to highlight Doree thinking for herself
- And to have the opportunity to mention “good or bad” twice
- “When she realized what was in her head, she should have got off the bus. She could have got off even at the gates, with the few other women who plodded up the drive. She could have crossed the road and waited for the bus back to the city. Probably some people did that. They were going to make a visit and then decided not to. People probably did that all the time.”
18th: Munro pits Mrs. Sands against Lloyd (good versus evil & echo of the ”did it make you feel good or bad from sections 11 & 13 that bookend Doree beginning to think for herself in section 12)
- “And who had given it to her? Not Mrs. Sands…”
- “Lloyd had given it to her. Lloyd, that terrible person, that isolated and insane person.”
- “…THE THOUGHT THAT LLOYD, OF ALL PEOPLE, MIGHT BE THE PERSON SHE SHOULD BE WITH NOW. WHAT OTHER USE COULD SHE BE IN THE WORLD—SHE SEEMED TO BE SAYING THIS TO SOMEBODY, PROBABLY TO MRS. SANDS—WHAT WAS SHE HERE FOR IF NOT AT LEAST TO LISTEN TO HIM?”
19th: The first line: “So she found herself travelling on the bus again…”
- Lloyd versus Mrs. Sands: “Who but Lloyd would remember the children’s names now…Mrs. Sands…did not even call them children but ‘your family,’ putting them in one clump together.”
- accident, bus stops, driver tells everyone to stay on the bus but Doree gets off “AS IF SHE HAD NOT HEARD THAT, OR HAD SOME SPECIAL RIGHT TO BE USEFUL, DOREE GOT OUT BEHIND HIM.”
- Similarities between Doree’s children and the victim:
- The driver refers to the victim as “kid”
- Doree sees him: “The boy was lying on his back, arms and legs flung out, like somebody making an angel in the snow….He was so young…”
- “Be quiet, be quiet, she wanted to tell them. It seemed to her that silence was necessary, that everything in the world outside the boy’s body had to concentrate, help it not to lose track of its duty to breathe.”
- Echo of beginning of story with Doree not wanting to talk.
- Also a bit of her taking charge, at least in her own mind
- And these are words she could be saying to Lloyd and Mrs. Sands
- I also see Doree as the boy here
- Unusually beautiful sentence from Munro with echoes of the “journey” aspect of the story: “Shy but steady whiffs now, a sweet obedience in the chest. Keep on, keep on.”
“Go on,” Doree said. “I’ll hitch a ride to town with them and catch you on your way back tonight.”
He had to bend to hear her. She spoke dismissively, without raising her head, as if she were the one whose breath was precious.
“You sure?” he said.
“You don’t have to get to London?”
About the ending:
- The key to the meaning of the story can be found in the concrete: in the repetition of the word USE.
- In the beginning of the story, there is death; in the end, life.
- Despite all the ugliness of Lloyd, he is “useful” to Doree because that’s how she knows to breathe life into the victim.
- Doree does not choose either Lloyd or Mrs. Sands but finds her own place in the world.
- The reader “knows” Doree will not go back to Lloyd because she has found another reason to be in the w orld.
- In a beautiful return to the game she played in #1, Doree makes the word “no” out of the word “London.”
- Also by her not saying the last two words, only thinking them, there’s another return to section #1—Doree not wanting to talk to people.
- She got off the bus. Her life has changed. Munro shows this in the quietest of ways.
So if this is NOT ENOUGH MUNRO for you, I actually made a simple, color-coded chart that just shows the movement of the threads, but I can’t figure out how to include it here. If you would like to see it, just request a copy in the comments section (no need to put your address in the comments) and I will email it to you.
Hallelujah I’m done!
Despite the fact that I’m done, this post does not exhaust the ways we can take apart this story. There’s still how Munro uses distance throughout (it changes), how she presents the different characters, how many times and why she repeats “three,”…….
Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Reading like a writer
Part 2: Taking it to a new level
Part 3: Questions to ask
Part 4: Reading a story
Part 5: Taking a story apart