14 New Historicism

The effects of Perception in “dear life”

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“Perception.” by 612gr is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In the short narrative “Dear Life”, the author Alice Munro exposes the influence that perception has on human understanding; seeing something and fitting it into a box, rather than exploring its actual meaning. The story describes Munro’s upbringing in a small town and the people she knew and met; but the focus of the story revolves around the examination of human existence. By examining “Dear Life” through a New Historicism lens, the intricate layers and perceptual nuances of human narratives can be revealed.

In the fifth paragraph of the story, Diane and her grandmother are introduced. The pair, assumingly along with the grandfather, lived in “one of those houses with a sidewalk” (Munro), which were close to town. In this paragraph, Munro’s experience with this family is harmless, but when her mother comes to pick her up, it apparently is seen as treacherous. While the reader sees one little girl teaching the other a dance, Munro’s mother perceives the family not to be interacted with, and that they are tainted and sinful because of the little girl’s mother’s actions. The mother talks about what the priest said at the little girl’s mother’s funeral, and how “the wages of sin is death” (Munro). Diane is a nice girl who taught Munro a dance, and taking this lovely character and piecing it with this condemning phrase due to her profession in later years conflicts the perception of the mother and the perception of what the reader knows from the text. The author artfully crafts a scene through the use of text, within which we see two different people’s perceptions–and later on, see how Munro’s perception changed as she learned the truth of the little girl’s mother and what the little girl ended up doing as a career. The words with which the grandmother described her granddaughter’s profession of wearing a sequined outfit, compared with how Munro perceived them by saying it was a place of work in which she also “took the sequin outfit off” (Munro) shows the nuances of perception.

In another compelling section of this story, Munro writes about her mother’s fascination with people “who enjoyed a degree of leisure” (Munro). She describes the human impulse to integrate oneself into a higher-class of living, as the text references the “lifestyle difference between city and country life” (Jumani, pg. 6). The investigation into the backstory behind the golf-bag in the corner reveals several layers of Munro’s mother: the belief that “after such striving she would be welcomed anywhere” (Munro), the idea that societal boundaries did not exist, and the dream that both she and Munro’s father could be transformed into town people. Much like how young Munro was resistant to leaving Diane’s house due to the social limitations her mother forced upon her, Munro’s mother was faced with the same limitations when it came to trying to become like the town people. Both Munro and her mother were “resistant to the borders erected by social conformity” (Fiamengo).

In a similar sense, her father is also disappointed by the failure of his dream to run a special kind of farm that would produce magnificent furs. Both him and Munro’s mother put all their money into this farm, only to have it be realized that they “got into the fur business just a little too late” (Munro). The pair’s money-filled dreams had certainly not been fulfilled once they were forced to sell it all and have Munro’s father take a job at the foundry. The author’s writing shows that even though it is human to dream, many times those dreams do not come true and other paths must be taken.

One can see the personal levels that Munro takes the text to. When writing about how her father used to beat her, she makes her mother sound almost childish for going “to the barn to tell on me” (Munro) after she seemed to hurt her mother’s feelings. In a New Historicism approach to how she describes the beatings, one can gather that Munro approaches the subject with a matter-of-fact tone. When peeled away and put together, the text describes an aching and painful long-lasting memory. The description of the beatings are short, the first implying that it was an inconvenience for her father to beat her, the second describing where the beatings took place and how the changes to the house comforted the memory, and the third taking a sarcastic approach of how people described such beatings as “beating the tar out of me” (Munro) in a blissful fashion.

In this story, Munro especially analyzes her mother’s perceptions on the world around her. Starting with the removal of Munro from Diane, to the belief she could join a higher society, and finally to the story of Mrs. Netterfield. Mrs. Netterfield is first described as a crazy woman who attempted to murder the delivery boy. According to Munro’s mother’s telling of the story, Mrs. Netterfield used to live in Waitey Street’s house.  Like most everyone during those times, she got her groceries delivered to her house. During one of these times, “the grocer forgot to put in her butter, or she forgot to order it” (Munro) and Mrs. Netterfield became so upset that she attempted to penalize the delivery boy with the hatchet she conveniently held. Munro’s understanding of this story is that it was confusing; how did Mrs. Netterfield see that the butter was not there, and how was she so conveniently holding the hatchet at that exact moment in time? While Munro’s mother perceives this story and Mrs. Netterfield as a crazy woman, Munro perceives the story as something with many holes in it, and many unanswered questions.

In another recounting of Mrs. Netterfield, the text describes a terrifying tale in which Mrs. Netterfield paid a visit to Munro’s house. Through the storytelling of Munro’s mother of the experience, we peel back another layer of her character as we see she “had sympathy for people who were weird, as long as they were decent” (Munro). Even with this sympathy, as Munro’s mother saw Mrs. Netterfield approaching the house she quickly ran outside, grabbed baby Munro from the carriage that was sitting on the lawn, and went to hide by the dumbwaiter. In her telling of the story, she says that she locked the kitchen door behind her and made no move to find and acquire one of the several firearms that were in the house. According to Munro, though, there was no lock on the kitchen door, only that they had to use a chair to prop up against it. After this flurry to shut the door and hide, it’s said that Mrs. Netterfield did not knock or bang on the door, but rather leisurely walked around the house and looked in the windows. In the different versions of this story, “Munro says the earlier versions of her mother’s story of old Mrs. Netterfield ends here with the old woman peering in the windows, but in later versions the old woman gets impatient and goes away” (May).

What is most peculiar about this story is the information Munro learns later on in her married life in Vancouver. A woman by the maiden name Netterfield had written a poem about her childhood in the poem, describing similar scenes that were introduced in the beginning of the narrative. The reading of this poem uncovered a part of Mrs. Netterfield that showed how she used to live in Munro’s childhood home. This experience changed Munro’s whole perception of Mrs. Netterfield and what she was doing on that day, visiting her house. She realized how Netterfield could have been attempting to relive her past–looking for her own child in the baby carriage and inspecting the house that was hers. This was information that Munro’s mother perhaps did not have, so it affected her perception of Mrs. Netterfield to be one of fear and craze.

When looking at this narrative through a New Historicism lens, we can see how Munro creates a story that examines how perception influences understanding. While one person may see something as good or innocent, another may see it as evil or sinful. Munro also explores the intricacies of human existence when writing about social boundaries and failed dreams, and how human it is to judge and to wish for things. While Munro’s perception of Mrs. Netterfield was influenced by her mother, it is later changed by the arrival of new knowledge. By analyzing the text in “Dear Life”, one can illuminate how the influence of perception affects human understanding of existence.

Works Cited

Munro, Alice. “Dear Life.” New Yorker, vol. 87, no. 28, Sept. 2011, pp. 40–47. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=65511674&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Fiamengo, Janice Anne, et al. “‘First and Last’: The Figure of the Infant in ‘Dear Life’ and ‘My Mother’s Dream’ .” Alice Munro’s Miraculous Art: Critical Essays, University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa, 2017.

Jumani, Fariha Ali. “Textual Analysis of Dear Life by Alice Munro.” 10 Dec. 2016, https://www.academia.edu/30715556/Textual_analysis_of_a_short_story_Dear_life.

May, Charles E. “Alice Munro’s ‘Dear Life.’” Alice Munro’s “Dear Life.,” Blogspot, 1 Oct. 2011, may-on-the-short-story.blogspot.com/2011/10/alice-munros-dear-life.html.

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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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