Night: Alice Munro, thoughts on family – not a model answer.

This is the longest and most complex of the short stories included in the Edexcel IGCSE Anthology and it requires some breaking down. In this post I am going to focus on a putative question: ‘How does Munro depict her relationships with her family?’

The whole text can be found here:  International_GCSE_Anthology_English_Language_A_and_English_Literature

So in this passage, Munro looks back on her teenage years and presents herself as a troubled teenager full of fear and anger. She is certainly no stranger to ‘dark’ thoughts as she contemplates doing the ‘worst’ -strangling her sister in her sleep, before reaching some form of understanding in a dawn conversation with her father -himself beset by the troubles of insolvency and a critically ill wife.

Munro places her crisis within the context of the ill mother-  ‘well enough as yet to handle most of that work’. We do not know what has befallen the mother, but Munro has planted clues in her story about her appendicitis. Having set up the family situation as isolated and in poverty she refers to a conversation with her mother about her operation. It is revealed that a growth ‘the size of an egg’ was removed at the same time as the appendix. Munro uses anadiplosis to highlight the importance of this news to a teenage girl: ‘the main thing that concerned him was a growth. A growth, my mother said…’ and here starts the events which propel the narrative. Munro is clear that she and her mother do not share a close relationship in the modern sense – the information was given and received without further comment. Reflecting on this she offers the idea that there must have been a cloud around that word’ suggesting a reason both for the mother’s illness and the unwillingness to discuss further such a troubling idea.

Her tone is conversational – discourse markers such as ‘So’ or ‘Now’ suggest a relationship with the reader as she imparts the secret darkness in her teenage years. She is careful to describe the house and the sleeping arrangements – the bunks are introduced with humour as the spitting game is explained in retrospect – noting that in the time described she was ‘much too old for such fooling’. I think students can read too much into this description of family teasing – it need not mean an unhappy childhood at all, That said, with a 5 year age gap, the older child enjoyed her role as tormentor and teller of ‘hair-raising’ tales whilst acknowledging the ‘asinine’ nature of such teasing. Catherine does not get a chance to comment – this is not her story.

After her operation, Munro is often alone by day and unoccupied. This unusual state of affairs has replaced the chores and jobs usually performed around the house. One consequence of this inactivity was ‘trouble getting to sleep’ – presumably since she was not physically tired. Not only this, but her parents have evidently decided to let her have some extra independence – ‘I was left to make up my own mind…’ She is being treated as a young adult. She makes no mention of her mother’s health at this stage and thus we cannot say whether this new attitude was partly due to the focus of the adults being moved closer to themselves.

She tries to make light of her new situation – alone and unable to sleep – not herself. This new sensation allows her subconscious to explore the darker recesses of the teenage mind. She describes over several paragraphs with a holding back from clearly expressing her desires to build tension, how her mind proposed the murder of her sister. She is clear that here is no ‘vengeance, no hatred’. Her sister has evidently done nothing to prompt this thought process which builds slowly whilst Munro stresses both the vulnerability of her ‘little sister’ and the love she has for her. In a single sentence paragraph she makes this clear: ‘The thought that I could strangle my little sister, who was asleep in the bunk below me and whom I loved more than anybody in the world.’ She finally states the precise action she is contemplating (strangle) and reinforces the the idea of the thought (repeated) growing into fruition in this subordinated sentence.

This idea – to do the ‘worst’ drives her out of doors, though we wonder if the replacement of the finite verb ‘strangle’ with this abstract concept is already an indication that she has no intention of acting as her mind prompts. She questions her sanity as many teenagers before and since do as they try to come to terms with momentous issues in their lives.

Driven outside by her subconscious death-fixation she notices the peace and calm of nature and finds sleep arriving just as the house began to stir. She seems to move into a curiously cut off relationship – she swings in the hammock with her sister, but talks to no one about her fears and is offered no solace and suggested cure. An unspecified time passes before one night she is surprised to find her father on the stoop waiting for her. Or not. We never find out – this is Munro’s story, not her father’s.

Their relationship has not been drawn at all at this stage. No we meet this farmer whose wife is dying and who is beset by financial concerns as well as by the behaviour of his elder daughter. Again, the insular nature of the family is suggested – ‘we weren’t accustomed to such greetings in our family’ as she is surprised by his simple greeting. No wasted words here. As she writes she reflects on her father – not dressed in his ‘overalls’ but in the next thing to overalls, but not quite’ and only as she writes does she pause to consider her father’s ulterior motives for being in her thinking place that morning. If he were going into town, that suggests a visit to the bank or to a doctor and this thought is recognised at the end of the passage, along with being ion love with ‘an impossible woman’. This curious phrase may suggest some form of unrequited love affair – impossible to countenance for a number of reasons, or of course, to Munro herself – the father’s response to her telling of her concern is masterly – understated and undramatic, whilst giving the soundest advice possible.

The pair talk, possibly more than ever before, and she realises the concern which he has felt as she tells him of her thoughts about strangling her sister. As day lightens and the birds sing, suggesting a new dawn in her relationship with herself, she revels all – writing her father in a personal direct speech and relating her responses indirectly and with a lack of overt emotion. He simply waits and allows her to speak – she is clear that she would never have spoken ‘If he had given the slightest indication that he knew there was more’. She reveals the secret despite her attempts to remain silent – ‘strangle her’ I said then. I could not stop myself after all. As she writes this she gives voice to her worry in the only direct speech of this sequence given to her words.

His response is calm and engenders calm in her – this powerful figure in her life has listened to ‘the worst’ and explained it, not blamed her. He has ‘set [her] down without either mockery or alarm, in the world [they]were living in – the real world and not the world of ‘thoughts’ such as those which trouble her so. Life goes on.

As the passage closes she reflects on her childhood and this figure who made such an impact. Hers was not an upbringing wholly without pain – it is clear from the ‘razor strap and belt’ that she was beaten – not for malice but because it was the right thing to do. The same lack of drama which pervades this story is shown in her perception of her father’s straightforward response to her ‘sass’ when growing up. She is able to equate this impersonal punishing with the lack of melodrama attached to his response that morning. In the words of Alice Walker in poem at 39 from the third part of the anthology, ‘telling the truth did not always end in a beating’.

Both the poem and this text place a father as a key influence in the growth and development of a young woman who will grow to be a writer. Both are non-demonstrative and possibly only recognised for their strength long after the events described. Both are key to the growth of the child.