Alice Munro: Short Stories

"Identical Seeming Skins:" Identity and the Short Story in The Beggar Maid College

In an oft-cited review of Alice Munro’s fourth published collection, critic John Gardner asks a pertinent question regarding “whether The Beggar Maid is a collection of stories or a new kind of novel.” While this question is not only germane, but even imperative to interpretation of Munro’s work, Gardner’s treatment of it is careless. He offers the question merely as rhetorical bait for his rave commentary, and his response is flippant: “I’m not quite sure, but whatever it is, its wonderful.” While this kind of flattering glibness is innocuous enough in quotation marks beneath the gloss of a paperback, Gardner’s question unwittingly introduces – and foolishly dismisses – a crucial argument concerning the text it praises. No greater mistake can be made in approaching The Beggar Maid than to do so viewing it as a novel – whether “a new kind” or otherwise. The collection’s primary thematic concern, the fragmented and mutable nature of identity, depends entirely on its narrative structure as a variety of distinct stories. In this collection, Munro exposes and rejects the notion of life and characterization as one continuous, linear progression, a myth inherently promoted by the novel form. Instead, Munro presents a worldview in...

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