16 Psychological

A psychological lens of “dear life”

Tessa Okeson

“Trees” by www.metaphoricalplatypus.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“Dear Life,” a short story by Alice Munro takes the reader through the lens of a young Alice Munro as she goes through the events in her life, ending with her thoughts and reflections of her experiences from a child to an adult. Themes of exploration and change are seen in tandem with the events that Munro portrays in her story. Using Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, one can analyze the behaviors and cognitive reasoning of the speaker throughout the story and how her opinions about her experiences change with time based on her understanding and influence of those around her.

In Alice Munro’s “A Childhood Visitation,” the speaker masterfully blends the past with the present in her retelling of her childhood events. One can see Munro explaining something that happened during her childhood, while also reflecting on how her thoughts on the matter have changed over time within the same paragraph, or even the same sentence. For example, we can see this element applied within the first sentence, “I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me” (Munro para. 1). The word ‘seemed’ exudes the notion that Munro understands the fact that her childhood mind perceived things differently than her adult mind, even with something as simple as a road. This change in perception is a crucial element to Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, that is, that our understanding of moral importance adapts to our environment and experiences as we grow up.

Munro begins her story by explaining where she lived, in a small town where she attended a small school in which she often got bullied. She then attended another school after this when war broke out with Germany. However, Munro takes the time to expand on her experience with the first school, in which she made a friend named Diane. Diane is a crucial character to Munro’s story because this is where we first see Kohlberg’s theory of moral judgement take place within Munro’s life. She is seen going to Diane’s house where she learns a dance called the highland fling. It is revealed that Diane is taken care of by her grandmother because her mother died. “I did not find out then that the mother had been a prostitute and died of some ailment that it seems prostitutes caught” (Munro 7). Munro then explains that at Diane’s mother’s funeral, the priest had said, “The wages of sin is death” (Munro 8). Munro’s own mother thought the priest said the right thing, while others at the funeral disagreed. This in itself is not where Kohlberg’s theory comes into play for me, but instead it is within the next paragraph of Munro’s retelling.

After Munro is not allowed to see Diane anymore because she got ‘sent away somewhere’, she often ran into Diane’s grandmother, who explained Diane’s whereabouts. “According to her grandmother, she then got a job in a restaurant in Toronto, where she wore an outfit with sequins on it. I was old enough at that point, and mean enough, to assume that it was a place where you also took the sequin outfit off” (Munro 10). While Munro’s explicit opinions on Diane and her choices are not shown, one can apply Kohlberg’s theory to how Munro must have felt here, even though it is widely up to interpretation. To explain this idea though, we must look at Kohlberg’s stages of moral development and how they happen.

A stage of moral development is described by Joseph Reimer, a research associate for the center of moral education at Harvard university as, “a construct used to describe consistent differences and similarities in people’s moral reasoning” (Reimer, 3). He then uses an example of a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old, and how they would both have a different response to the idea of stealing. The 6-year-old would believe that stealing is wrong, point blank, whereas the 8-year-old may consider the fact that one may have to steal to save someone’s life, as used in the example by Reimer. They both have different ideas on this case, because the older child now has a different stage of moral reasoning than the younger one due to his cognitive development and the things around him that affect his moral learning.

This can be applied to the situation in Munro’s story, where Diane is seen taking a similar route to her late mother in where she works and what she does. At one point, Munro may have disagreed with Diane’s actions because her own mother did. But according to Kohlberg’s stages of moral judgement, Munro’s ideas may have changed as well, after all, Diane was just trying to make money, right? So, did this need for money overshadow the act of prostitution? Not to mention the fact that Munro’s sweet friendship with Diane may have affected her outlook on whether what Diane was doing was right or wrong, despite the opinions of Munro’s mother. All these elements affect moral judgement, and we can see in this story how these elements may have affected Munro’s outlook and decisions regarding her opinion of her friend Diane.

This idea is further supported by a quote from Reimer, which states, “However, in as complex and heterogeneous a society as our own, where there are few firm guidelines which are commonly accepted as binding on all people, we frequently find ourselves in morally conflicting situations and often find that the values we have learned are being challenged by the social reality of everyday life. In this context a theory of the development of moral judgment takes on added significance” (Reimer 2). This describes not only the situation with Munro’s friend Diane, but with many other aspects of Munro’s story too.

The case of Mrs. Netterfield is another example of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development in “Dear Life,” as Munro questions the validity and intentions of the situation. Because the story of Mrs. Netterfield, an old woman who is often breaking into their house when Munro was a baby is told through her mother’s eyes, there are some gaps in perspective, yet Munro is still able to make conclusions of whether this act was right or wrong based off moral reasoning. In Reimer’s explanation of moral reasoning, he gives the example of a man stealing a drug for his dying wife because he couldn’t afford it. When asked if people thought this was right or wrong, Reimer’s conclusion was, “Although subjects A and B come to different conclusions about what Heinz should have done, they both justify their conclusions in terms of “acting to meet one’s own interests and needs, and letting others do the same” (Reimer 64). In this example, the doctor thought that charging more for the drug was right, and on the other hand the husband ultimately thought that stealing the drug was right, because his wife’s life took precedent over the law.

The situation with Mrs. Netterfield is arguably quite similar to this case, as Mrs. Netterfield and Munro’s mother were both doing what they thought was right. It is revealed at the end of the story that Munro finds out that Mrs. Netterfeild used to live in their house, and that is why she may have been breaking in. In this instance, one can wonder if their safety is more important than an old, confused women, who in her mind is just trying to protect ‘her’ house. By this notion, we can see that Mrs. Netterfield was operating in stage two of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, which is described by Stephen Forsha as “Maintaining the expectations of the individual’s family, group or nation is perceived as valuable in its own right, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences” (Forsha 432). This is a lower level of moral development, but in Mrs. Netterfield’s mind (probably due to old age and possibly suffering from something like Alzheimer’s), she must have believed that she was thinking at the highest level of moral development. “Rest (1973) reported that individuals prefer to function at the moral orientation of the highest level that they are capable of understanding” (Ostrovsky 4). But on the other hand, the speaker is seen at thinking at around stage five or six of Kohlberg’s stages, described as, “A clear effort to define moral values and principles Virtue and Moral Development that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups or persons holding these principles” (Forsha 432). We can see this act of trying to understand where one stands morally when Munro looks back on the stories about Mrs. Netterfield.

Munro says, “Some things about this story were puzzling, though I didn’t think about them at the time and neither did my mother” (Munro 34). Her perspective of Mrs. Netterfield then changes when she is older, from seeing her as a crazy old woman (“My mother told me that Mrs. Netterfield was said to have been a lady when she was younger” (Munro 34)) to a woman who was deeply confused, and probably frightened. This would most definitely be stage six of moral development. “Is it possible that my mother never knew this, never knew that our house was where the Netterfield family had lived, and that the old woman was looking in the windows of what had been her own house?” (Munro 69). Munro is seen contemplating whether Mrs. Netterfield was looking for her own baby in the carriage at their house and wondered if Mrs. Netterfield’s daughter was the one that eventually took Mrs. Netterfield away.

The situation of Mrs. Netterfield in “Dear Life” uses many elements of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development and is more complicated than, for example, stage one of moral development, which is punishment orientation. This is exemplified by Munro in her story when she describes how her father would beat her. “Afterward, I’d lie weeping in bed and make plans to run away. But that phase, too, passed, and I became manageable” (Munro 20). This is quite literally Munro explaining how she went through phase one of moral development and grew to understand that certain actions permit a certain response. Responses, such as physical pain that are avoidable when one becomes ‘manageable’ as she described.

Throughout “Dear Life,” Munro blends her previous experiences with her current revelations and brings it all together to tell the story of her childhood. Stages of Kohlberg’s moral development is seen through Munro’s friend Diane, who goes down the same path as prostitution as her mother, Mrs. Netterfield, who is revealed to have more of a reason for rifling through Munro’s house than they previously thought, as well as the first stage of development, physical punishment from Munro’s father. Munro’s thoughts and comprehension for all of these situations change considerably throughout the story, displaying Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development clearly in her life.

Works Cited

Forsha, S. (n.d.). “Virtue and Moral Development, Changing Ethics Instruction in Business School Education.” https://web-s-ebscohost-com.cwi.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=bbb5744d-49e0-4545-86f4-291afd960e6d%40redis

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.

Ostrovsky, Parr, & Gradel. (n.d.). “Promoting Moral Development through Social Interest in Children and Adolescents.” https://web-s-ebscohost-com.cwi.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=487376a0-40d1-439d-b6ea-632670fb4e31%40redis

Reimer, J. (n.d.). “A Structural Theory of Moral Development.” https://web-s-ebscohost-com.cwi.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=5baf4661-d626-45e3-a053-2685c47d03ed%40redis


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book