I seem to come back to Night each time I teach it and feel the need to explore it again. It is a long passage and this year I am focused on establishing a clear framework into which my students can place events or thoughts which will facilitate their writing when under pressure.
This year I have begun by dividing the text clearly into sections:
- Exposition (lines 1-50).
- Rising Action (lines 50-90)
- Crisis (lines 90-111)
- Falling Action (Lines 112-163)
- Resolution (lines 163 to the end)
These sections are indicated I believe in the text and should help to organise the thinking of the students.
In this opening section we find the setting and contexts put in place, as we might expect. This semi autobiographical piece is broadly linear in the telling, though Munro is able to hint at events to come by foreshadowing at times.
We are set in Canada close enough to the end of the Second World War to make it worthy of comment – ‘the war and gas rationing had changed all that’. The family farm is isolated and the combination of this and the harsh Canadian climate means that crises can be hard to deal with – Munro recalls ‘blizzards’ as accompanying all medical emergencies. Unlikely, but a neat piece of Pathetic Fallacy for all that.
Indeed as she establishes the event which is the catalyst for all which is explored in the piece, there is a blizzard. Hospital can only be reached using the ‘neighbour’s team’ essentially placing 1950s Canada in the same position in terms of infrastructure as that of a century earlier. The hospital removes her appendix.
At this point the punctuation (. …) suggests a cut in the passage, rather than a piece of deliberate story telling. All goes well, and there is a brief digression about payment which introduces the relative poverty of the family. Munro is conversational in tone (‘So I lay…’) and there is little sense of what is about to be revealed.
When her mother tells her about the ‘growth’ – the significance of which is stressed by anadiplosis – there is still little urgency. The metaphor of the ‘turkey’s egg’ will become a euphemistic alternative for the tumour later in the passage, however the single sentence paragraph at line 24 might alert us to the idea that all is far from over. This being written retrospectively, we know Munro to be alive and her writer’s persona seems fairly blase about the whole thing – ‘suppose it was benign or skillfully got rid of’ – as she can now pass it off without thought. We are not being prepared for the story which will emerge at this stage. Munro continues by describing a fairly normal family relationship of sibling squabbles and petty cruelties in the name of establishing precedence – the bedroom and the bunk beds again help us to see that this is not a financially comfortable upbringing, but it is far from abnormal.
She does however hint in l33 ff at what will happen. In what seems like more basic information about that particular June she lays a little hook: ‘nobody knew there was a thing the matter with me’. This is picked up after a couple more cuts in the rising action.
Returning to June as the central core of the tale, Munro begins to add detail. Rising and Falling Action can be made up of numerous steps, and student should note these as they arrive.
Step 1: At first there is a sense of ease, despite the foreshadowing of the mother’s illness when Munro interpolates ‘as yet’ into an otherwise positive comment about housework. We know there is a change coming. Still all is relatively calm – chores and free time in order to recuperate. Yet within this, there are indications of the mental health issues which emerge: ‘this uselessness and strangeness I felt’ is not explained at this stage, but the hook is clear and we realise that information is being delivered slowly and taking its turn with snippets of narrative description more suited to a novel than to a straight autobiography.
Step 2: At line 64, the conversation develops further (‘so maybe’). In this section we learn of Munro’s trouble sleeping. At first delivered objectively and with more comment about the family to prevent over-quick engagement with the deeply personal, Munro begins to explore the issue of insomnia brought on by what will seem to be a paranoia at some level. She addresses the reader directly at line 76 (‘you might think’) and in this section the narrative changes. The shift from explanatory prose to something more direct begins here and is best shown in the fractured structure of lines 83-89. At this stage Munro creates via free indirect speech, the voice of her inner mind which challenges her directly: ‘so who do you think you are then?’ Her response, given in the form of dialogue is only expressed indirectly , yet the mind’s comment ‘think again’ is clear. Far from assuming the ‘routine jeering’ as safe, she realises (or believes) that here is real menace in the idea that she ‘is not herself’. The danger of mental slippage is all too clear.
As we begin the crisis, the short section at the apex of the tale, Munro shows us the power of the mind to ‘tell me to do things’. A chain around thinking and thought is established in lines 96-103, ending in the anaphora of ‘the thought’. The first thought is ‘hanging there’ already symbolic of threat if not specific action, and then the thought is formalised as ‘the thought that I could strangle my little sister… whom I loved more than anybody in the world’. Here the ‘little’ sister serves to increase the vulnerability of the infant and we are shown the real moral dilemma for the teenage Munro. She seems to be split between love and the urge to do ‘the worst’. Again, strengthened by anadiplosis, Munro admits the darkest secret: an urge to murder, presumably brought on in someway by the awareness of her own brush with death.
Readers will also recognise that she does not manage to do the worst: we know enough of her lifestory to be aware that she was not a child killer.
Step 1: In this section Munro recounts the ways in which she countered the urges: removal from the scene at night. Here begins the descriptive passages around night fears and which seem almost Gothic at times – the sections at LL 114-121 or 164-168 would not be out of place in a novel such as the Woman in Black. Students should note the way in which longer descriptive sentences and emphasis on the need for silence increase tension and allow Munro to move from autobiographical writing into something closer akin to fiction in this section.
All is dark – true, it is night – but symbolically this works on another level, perhaps offering a vision of her mental state. As the resolution begins, she will meet her father at dawn and we recognise the idea of hope returning to her in this comparison. Each morning she returns to bed, ‘fell into her pillow’ and recovered.
Step 2: Munro acknowledges the absurdity of her position – placing the word alone in a line at 144 before describing how in the daytime the relationship was easy and typical -hammock swings with her sister after school. She is also able to rationalise her sleeplessness as she looks back and realises she spent much of the daytime asleep in the hammock while the others were at school.
Step 3: Following this peaceful interlude, the narrative returns to the night-fears and walking leading to the confrontation which will bring about the resolution.
Munro is surprised to meet her father. The narrative has the quality of a ghost story – ‘I got a sense, too late for me to change my mind…’ – and yet the meeting is a positive one. Munro delays the direct recording of the conversation by describing her father in some detail. She will return to this later. At this stage we note that he is dressed for the day and that his behaviour is strangely formal: much is made of his greeting ‘good day’ in a family where such small talk is often seen as superfluous. He is smoking and looking into town, and in later life Munro will recognise the significance of these small details. Within the narrative they serve to delay the inevitable confrontation which she expects and which she has set up.
As they converse, punctuated by Munro’s commentary on the action, we realise that rather than a confrontation, her father’s understated reaction is what she needs. Her silence has been imaginary and he has been aware of her nocturnal walks due to ‘bad dreams’. He even seems to be underwhelmed by the ‘worst’. His monosyllabic response ‘well’, suggests a calmness which begins to transmit itself to her. He allows her to see that she is not abnormal, yet does not belittle her fears and seek to admonish her or seek to ‘blame’ her.
This leads Munro to the single sentence which sums up the philosophy of the passage: ‘People have thoughts they’d sooner not have in life’. This seems a typically unemotional and calm response to a crisis – a response well suited to this loving but undemonstrative family.
Conclusion: Moving into direct address, Munro speaks directly to the reader from line 237. She considers the dichotomy between a father who beat her at times and expected her to ‘lump it’ had she ever complained and a father who got it just right on this occasion. This allows her to conclude with a reflection on his life – dressed well to visit a bank to save his loan from being called in or to visit some medical authority about his wife’s illness.
Who the ‘impossible woman’ maybe is not explored – his wife, impossible as death is coming to her – is the charitable response and I prefer this to the idea of a lover, impossible because of her father’s sense of duty. Munro’s ‘never mind’ closes the question in her mind and in ours. The crisis in her teenage years is over.