A few years ago I was talking to a friend about one of my favorite writers, Alice Munro, when she said that reading a Munro story was like wandering through a house where you start in the upstairs bedroom and then at the end of the story finally arrive at the front door. I realize now that my friend hadn’t made up this metaphor, but had borrowed and altered it from Munro herself, who talks about stories this way in her essay “What is Real.” Either way, it is a useful metaphor, as Munro’s stories are narrative mazes that move backwards and forwards chronologically and can often run 30-40 pages long. I had one student call Munro’s stories a slow burn, and another explain that they shouldn’t be printed in a standard book format, but instead a map that pulls out and mimics the process of unfolding that occurs within them.
To say the least, Munro’s stories are dense, and as a teacher it can be challenging to figure out where to even start in-class discussion about a story that is so nuanced and complex. Additionally, her stories relay subtle psychological shifts of character, which can leave first year literature students wondering why nothing much happens in the plot. This isn’t like teaching Hawthorne or Poe where symbolism and plot are obvious places to start. But there are benefits to teaching Munro, and specifically to teaching her longer stories. Spending an entire week on a Munro story can yield the same kind of in-depth discussions you can have when reading a novel together. Her stories can also fill in awkward pockets of scheduling time where you don’t have the space for a novel and also don’t want to start over with a new short story every day.
Another reason to teach Munro is that she’s one of a kind. She’s the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (2013) and is the only Nobel winner who exclusively sticks to the short story form. Lucky for her readers, Munro is a master at form and her stories offer a great opportunity for students to learn about subtext, metaphor, and character.
When I was a final candidate for my current job, I was assigned to teach Munro’s short story, “Vandals” for my teaching demo. “Vandals” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1993 and in Munro’s story collection Open Secrets in 1994. The story takes place in the rural town of Dismal at the property of Ladner, a hermetic taxidermist who has built a private nature preserve on his wild land. Eventually Bea Doud, a woman ruled by her relationships with men, moves in with Ladner and the story begins many years later when Ladner is in the hospital in Toronto and Bea calls upon Liza, their previous neighbor who lived next to them as a child, to look in on their old house during a snow storm. Liza, a Christian convert and married, returns to the property with her husband, Warren, and the couple vandalize the place together. That, at least, is what happens on the surface of the story. Underneath the text is where the real story happens, and it’s one of Ladner’s pedophilia and abuse of Liza and her brother, and Bea’s ignorance of the abuses happening around her. I was tasked to teach the story to an Intro to Literature class full of students I’d never met as well as the entire English Department faculty, which brings with it its own obstacles. And when preparing for that teaching demo I did what I usually do when thinking about how to teach something new — I Googled it. Much to my dismay there is very little on “Vandals” available online or in any teaching companions I’m aware of, so I spent days thinking through approaches, making lesson plans and changing them, then changing them again. What’s to follow in this post is a framework for what I ended up with, and in hindsight I realize this is an approach I take a lot when I’m baffled about how to start talking about a dense text. It’s a way to break the text down into component parts without reducing or trivializing its complexity.
- What happened? First and foremost, it’s important the class understands the subtext of the story. Part of what makes Munro so masterful is that she never comes out and says what Ladner’s done to Liza and her brother, but this abuse is inferred through description and connotation. To accomplish this, I take students to a very telling moment in the story when the narrator says, “Here are scenes…and places where Liza thinks there is a bruise on the ground, a tickling and shame in the grass.” The words “tickling” “bruise” and “shame” give us the idea of sexual abuse, and from here we can surmise what has happened in this place to Liza and her brother on Ladner’s property.
- Something to hold onto. Next, I give students something to hold onto. Oftentimes this is an image, a metaphor, a motif, or some idea that is compelling but is also perhaps something I can’t quite make sense of. This is our way into the text, and I have students take a solid 5 minutes at the beginning of the class to write their impressions of it. In “Vandals,” Munro does a lot of work with the spaces her characters occupy. Ladner tries to control and maintain the wild, outside world, yet he brings the outside into his home when working as a taxidermist. There is also a poignant moment when the narrator describes Bea Doud: “What she did think was that some women, women like herself, might be always on the lookout for an insanity that could contain them. For what was living with a man if it wasn’t living inside his insanity?” Here, Munro is talking about a metaphorical space, and I am particularly interested in talking with the students about what it means to “live inside” of something. After 5 minutes of writing on this idea and talking through the differences between what it means to live inside and outside of something, we have the necessary framework to continue talking about space in a more detailed way.
- Close reading. Now that we have our framework, or our something to hold onto, we go through the story and parse out what kinds of spaces are represented and what we can make of them.
- Inside. We look at Ladner’s house. Typically, houses represent comfort, rest, safety and protection, but Ladner’s house is filled with wild animals, old history books, turpentine, and wood shavings. Ladner performs banal domestic tasks inside like making tea and reading, but he also relegates where Bea can and cannot keep her belongings. Also, Liza and Warren destroy the inside of Ladner’s house, or inside space, at the end of the story.
- Outside. Typically the outdoors are thought of as wild, natural, and free. However, Ladner’s nature preserve takes on “inside” characteristics because he tries to control and contain it. He puts his taxidermy animals inside of glass displays and labels them as if they’re in a museum. He also posts signs such as “no trespassing” and “no hunting,” which control who occupies this outside space. Others often get lost or feel confused in this space and Liza thinks of Ladner’s outside land as “a different world.”
- Vandalism. We talk about what it means to vandalize a space, since this is the title of the story and the story’s climactic event. Vandalism marks or mars something, and we spend time looking at descriptions of how Liza vandalizes Ladner’s home and why her husband helps her do this. We also spend some time talking about why Liza chooses to vandalize the inside space in the story if the sexual abuse took place outside on Ladner’s nature preserve.
- Return to framework. Finally, we return to the framework, which is in this case “living inside” of something. The return to the framework helps connect close reading to the major idea of space. As one final complication in our reading story I ask students to think about why Bea lives inside of someone else insanity. Then, I have them define Liza’s husband’s name, Warren, which can mean protector, gamekeeper, or an enclosed piece of land, oftentimes for rabbits. If Liza is trying to escape control and confinement by destroying Ladner’s house, what might it mean that she has married a man whose name conveys such similar qualities? This is a lingering question, and one we may start with at the beginning of the next class to see what answers students have come up with or to segue into the next text.
This is only one way to approach layered long short stories, and while “Vandals” does teach well I’ve also had success teaching Munro stories such as “The Progress of Love,” “The Beggar Maid,” and “The Moons of Jupiter.” This method does privilege depth over breadth and it’s a strategy that can also work for other texts when you’re looking for that preliminary way in to a particularly dense text.