17 Queer Theory

NONLINEAR MEMOIRS: CHALLENGING HETERONORMATIVITY IN “DEAR LIFE”

Lia Siratsamy

Memory
“Memory” by Kevin Dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Alice Munro’s short story “Dear Life” recalls her childhood in vivid detail to understand topics such as innocence, loss, and growing up. In it, she reminisces about both beautiful and ugly memories, such as her mother’s tender care or a terrifying incident that when Munro was just a mere infant. Themes such as memory, growth, and family dynamics are ever-present within this story. “Dear Life” is written in such a way that the interpretations are endless. To narrow the scope, I will be examining how heterosexual and homosexual norms are reinforced or defied within this story using the Queer Theory critical theory. I’ll be dissecting Alice Munro’s skillful use of various elements such as narrative structure, characterization, and themes.

“Dear Life” employs a non-linear narrative structure. Within the story, Munro often uses shifts in time and perspective or flashbacks to explore the complexities of human memory and identity. The story begins with Munro’s childhood and then goes into her early teenage years before jumping into a story from when she was an infant. Munro’s mother tells this story, presumably when she is still healthy and has not been deeply affected by an on-set illness that occurs later in her life. After this suspenseful anecdote, the narrative jumps back to Munro’s perspective, only this time she is much older and is reminiscing about her childhood town. According to Jack Halberstam in his 2005 book titled In a Queer Time and Space, “Queer uses of time and space develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction.” (p. 1). Munro’s story contains all three of these heteronormative ideas, yet the use of a nonlinear narrative structure reinforces queer norms. The events in “Dear Life” are not strictly chronological and therefore are not binary, which is what Queer Theory aims for; it looks for non-binary elements within texts. The multiple shifts in time can be seen in paragraph 42, where Munro is talking about her teenage years and how she thought about running away, and then in paragraph 23, where she has shifted to a time before herself- to the two miscarriages that her mother had. It is also important to note that throughout the narrative, there are moments that are left vague and up to the reader’s interpretation. These moments further play on the idea of non-binaries because Munro allows human error in her memoir- which is supposed to be based on fact and memory. Nunez (2014) argues that Munro’s way of writing memoir is valid: “Munro’s insertion of “sometimes” suggests a cautionary note about the reliability of memoir or autobiography. But does the reader need this autobiographical information to appreciate or understand the stories Munro creates?” Nunez is correct in that even though the events or memories within “Dear Life” may not be one hundred percent accurate, the story that Munro tells sheds light on seemingly ordinary things. By employing this unique way of recalling memories, she defies the binaries of memoirs and autobiographical pieces, which in turn further supports the idea of Queer Theory.

Because “Dear Life” is a short story memoir, it is not strange that Munro recalls multiple people from her childhood. These people are characterized and portrayed in such a way that both reinforces and defies heteronormative norms. The most important characters to Munro in this story are her mother and father, who reinforce heteronormative ideas. They fit the ideal versions of a man and woman- her father is quiet, aloof, and masculine as he works an arduous labor job at a factory to provide for his family while her mother is agreeable and inherently feminine. They further reinforce these ideals with their parenting styles. Munro’s father is rough around the edges and is the one to dish out punishments: “I hurt her feelings, she said, and the outcome was that she would go to the barn to tell on me, to my father. Then he’d have to interrupt his work to give me a beating with his belt.” (para. 20). On the other hand, Munro’s mother is typically seen as an agreeable woman who takes good care of her children: “…and my mother was doing some clothes washing at the sink. For a first baby there was a lot of knitwear, ribbons, things to be washed carefully by hand in soft water.” (para. 36). According to Queer Theory, Munro’s mother and father reinforce heterosexual norms because they fit their respective female and male “roles”.

Themes such as memory, growth, and family dynamics are consistently sprinkled throughout “Dear Life.” Memory and growth are the most easily identifiable themes within this narrative. This is seen within the nonlinear structure- which jumps from Munro’s childhood years to her teenage ones, back to her childhood years, and then finally to adulthood. Marrone (2017) argues that the use of changing perspectives within this short story “emphasizes that the child’s and the adult’s perceptions may differ.” One example of Munro’s growth throughout the narrative is located in the very first sentence: “I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.” The former part of the sentence suggests that Munro had seen this road as very long in her childhood years, but since maturing and growing into an adult, it only seemed that way because she was a child. Family dynamics are easily identifiable as well. This is supported by the fact that Munro’s mother and father fit the heteronormative ideals of typical parents. Additionally, it becomes clear that their family dynamics are relatively healthy, at least for the time period that Munro grew up in. An example of this can be seen in paragraph 32:

Sometimes my mother and I talked, mostly about her younger days. I seldom objected now to her way of looking at things. Even her quavery voice, which surfaced especially when she spoke about how sacred sex was because it brought us little children, was something I could now endure or pass over.

This shows that while Munro may have objected when she was younger, she no longer did so as an adult. The small tidbits of reminiscent or nostalgic feelings sprinkled throughout the narrative show Munro’s growth from a young girl, resistant to her mother’s talks, to an adult woman who tolerates them. These themes are portrayed in such a way that they exemplify what typical heterosexual experiences may be like. Things such as memory, growth, and family dynamics would be different for queer individuals because according to Halberstam: “…part of what has made queerness compelling as a form of self-description in the past decade or so has to do with the way it has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space.” (p. 1-2). “Dear Life” is a great example of typical heteronormative individuals and ideals when compared to queer lifestyles and interactions.

In “Dear Life,” Alice Munro challenges conventional storytelling and autobiographical approaches. She utilizes a non-linear narrative structure, characters with heteronormative ideals, and the unreliability of memory. Her unique approach aligns with Queer Theory’s non-binary perspectives. Through themes of memory, growth, and family dynamics, Munro contrasts typical hetero experiences with queer narratives, offering a nuanced exploration of societal norms. Ultimately, “Dear Life” is a beautiful memoir that highlights the many narratives that life can take beyond societal confines.

Works Cited

Halberstam, Jack. “In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.” New York University Press, 2005, pp. 1-2.

Marrone, Claire. “States of Perception and Personal Agency in Alice Munro’s ‘Dear Life.’” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 50, no. 2, 2017, pp. 85–101. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44862251.

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.

Nunez, Elizabeth. “Truth in Fiction, Untruths in Memoir.” Callaloo, vol. 37, no. 3, 2014, pp. 499–504. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24265136.

License

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