by Jennifer Schifano
Alice Munro’s short story collection, Runaway, overflows with rich thematic parallels of running away, gender inequalities, aging, dependent family members, and changing relationships. Munro communicates these themes through a variety of craft elements, but the most notable is the seamless cohesion of Munro with her protagonists. Her use of free indirect style becomes the standout craft element.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood defines free indirect style and how it can enhance a narrative:
As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called “free indirect style,” a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for—”close third person,” or “going into character” (8).
Accordingly, while operating in third person, Munro’s tone and thoughts blend with that of the protagonist. She is able to achieve this cohesion—this closeness—through her absence of authorial flagging in dialogue, her use of italics, quotation marks, and dashes, and the characterization of other characters through the reliability of the author/protagonist duo.
Wood explains that free indirect style is “…the most recognizable, the most habitual, of all the codes of standard realist narrative (9);” in fact, there are physical cues on the page due to the absence of “authorial flagging” (9). In all of Munro’s stories and collections, there is a tactful execution of dialogue. Munro writes direct speech only when absolutely necessary; whenever possible, she keeps dialogue indirect and eliminates quotation marks. Through this method, dialogue never becomes predictable or dull. When a character speaks, his or her statement is loaded, full of life and nuances that further the plot, themes, and characterizations. In the opening story “Runaway,” the protagonist, Carla, conveys to her neighbor, Sylvia, the reality of her troubled marriage:
Carla said, “I can’t stand it anymore.”
What could she not stand?
It turned out to be the husband.
He was mad at her all the time. He acted as if he hated her. There was nothing she could do right, there was nothing she could say. Living with him was driving her crazy. Sometimes she thought she already was crazy. Sometimes she thought he was.
“Has he hurt you, Carla?”
No. He hadn’t hurt her physically. But he hated her. He despised her. He could not stand it when she cried and she could not help crying because he was so mad.
She did not know what to do.
“Perhaps you do know what to do,” said Sylvia (23).
Carla and Sylvia are engaged in a real-time conversation, which is obvious by the way the direct dialogue reacts to the indirect dialogue and vice versa. By eliminating authorial flagging, Munro leaves space for readers to crawl into the conversation and visualize with more freedom the anger and hatred of the husband, Carla’s hopelessness, and the couple’s daily interactions at home. The space is open for readers to visualize the way Carla speaks as she tells her neighbor of her desperation. Furthermore, the knowledge of Carla’s inner thoughts strengthens the reliability of Carla as a character and Munro as a writer/narrator.
However, Munro takes the absence of quotation marks a step further, which allows her to fold into her protagonist even more. In every story, Munro is heavy-handed with italics, parenthesis, and dashes—punctuation commonly reserved for extreme moments. Munro flips the common professorial rule to be stingy with unconventional punctuation totally on its head and uses punctuation to draw us closer into the thoughts of characters. In “Silence” Juliet considers her relationship with the deceased father of her daughter and his marital infidelity when he was alive:
What she did object to—what she claimed had broken her heart—had happened after that. (But still a long time ago, said Eric.) It had happened when Penelope was a year old, and Juliet had taken her back to Ontario. When Juliet had gone home to visit her parents. To visit—as she always pointed out now—to visit her dying mother. When she was away, and loving and missing Eric with every shred of her being (she now believed this), Eric had simply returned to his old habits.
At first he confessed to one (drunk), but with further prodding, and some drinking the here-and-now, he said that possibly it had been more often.
Possibly? He could not remember? So many times he could not remember?
He could remember (138-139).
In short, this punctuation gets us closer to a looser stream of consciousness, leaving space for the reader and the writer to interpret both the inner feelings and the outer projections of the character.
Wood states that another element of free indirect style is when, “…the gap between an author’s voice seems to collapse altogether; when a character’s voice does indeed seem rebelliously to have taken over the narration altogether” (22). This collapse occurs most commonly when Munro describes other characters through the protagonists’ eyes and unique language. For example, Delphine from “Trespasses” works at a hotel and forms an unconventional relationship with a schoolgirl, Lauren, who comes to visit her at work everyday. Lauren is the protagonist and therefore—through free indirect style—works with Munro to deliver Delphine’s characterization:
It’s a dump. Delphine said things like that. She spoke vehemently—she did not discuss but stated, and her judgments were severe and capricious. She spoke about herself—her tastes, her physical workings—as about a monumental mystery, something unique and final.
She had an allergy to beets. If even a drop of beet juice made its way down her throat, her tissues would swell up and she would have to go to the hospital, she would need an emergency operation so that she could breathe.
“How’s it with you? You got any allergies? No? Good.”
She believed a woman should keep her hands nice, no matter what kind of work she had to do. She liked to wear inky-blue or plum fingernail polish. And she liked to wear earrings, big and clattery ones, even at her work. She had no use for the little button kind (210).
Readers understand Delphine because her memorable characterization is filtered to us through Lauren’s thoughts as Lauren and Munro fold into each other. In the nature of short story collections, the characters—in Runaway, the female protagonists—of these stories are connected by their experiences and the themes that blossom through shared experiences and themes. Therefore, these characterizations echo the opinions of all of Munro’s protagonists and lend themselves to the chorus narration that Wood calls “unidentified free indirect style” (24). Lauren’s description from a child’s perspective parallels Nancy’s voice and manner of observation in “Powers.” Delphine’s motherhood void and apparent isolation parallels Juliet’s in “Silence.” Together, these women give readers their opinion of the other characters, inviting the readers to agree or disagree with their communal conclusions.
Through free indirect style, Munro coaxes readers to live inside of the characters and inside of their situations: “A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge—which is free indirect style itself—between them simultaneously closes the gap and draws attention to its distance” (Wood 11). Munro becomes this bridge through removing authorial flagging, adding smart punctuation to incorporate stream of consciousness thought, and utilizing the character’s voice and thoughts to intensify character description. Munro’s intelligence and expertise allows readers to also hear and understand the voice of the author herself and cross the bridge into her world, where she coexists with Sylvia, Julia, Lauren, and all of her other creations.
Munro, Alice. Runaway: Stories. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2005. Print.
Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
Jennifer is a graduate of Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and a current MFA candidate at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Jennifer is the 2011 recipient of the Dorothy McCollum Seibert Award for social justice in creative writing for her short study collection, Las Voces. Jennifer lives in Philadelphia where she works with middle school English language learners, runs marathons, and writes.