Last weeks New Yorker contains a typically wonderful short story by Alice Munro. (Here it is; subscription required.) Haven tells the story of a young girl who is forced to live with her aunt and uncle for a year during the 1970s after her parents go off to teach in Ghana. The move from one household to another is a culture shock. The narrators parents, who lived in Vancouver before leaving for Africa, are liberal both in religion (they are Unitarians and believe, the girl says, that every person has his own idea of God) and in lifestyle: they encourage religious discussion, afford the women of the house a real voice, and generally maintain an environment of intellectual seriousness and physical disorder.Things are altogether different with Aunt Dawn and Uncle Jasper. There, grace is said before every meal, without fail. There, the house is clean and crisp, with bright sterling spoons and forks, polished dark floors, comforting linen sheets. There, gender roles are defined quite clearly. Jasper is a doctor, and Dawn is a housewife; he talks, and she listens; the house was his, the choice of menus his, the radio and television programs his, while the cleaning and the cooking are hers (with help from a maid named Bernice). At one point, the girl tries to sum up the feel of the household: Haven was the word. A womans most important job is making a haven for her man. Did Aunt Dawn actually say that? I dont think so. She shied away from statements. I probably read it in one of the housekeeping magazines I found in the house. Such as would have made my mother puke.In an essay trumpeting Munros brilliance, Jonathan Franzen praised the writers rhetorical restraint and her almost pathological empathy for her characters. Given these gifts, it should come as no surprise that Munro challenges the easy binariesliberal versus conservative, lively versus stultifiedlaid out above. We come to see that an orderly house could be quite agreeable, even if this agreeableness comes at a cost, and that charitable intentions can unwittingly hurt others. (As the narrator says, I had not approved of my parents going to Africa. I had objected to being dumpedmy word for itwith my aunt and uncle. I may even have told them, my long-suffering parents, that their good works were a load of crap.)Munro even succeeds in humanizing the bullying Jasper. At one point, after being served a dissatisfying meal, Jasper quietly expresses his disapproval and then makes himself a peanut butter sandwich: he had eaten [all of the meal] before pronouncing his verdict. So he was propelled not by hunger but by the need to make a statement of pure and mighty disapproval. This is Jasper at his worst, domineering and uncaring.But even here, Munro forces us to reconsider the situation: It occurs to me now that something might have gone wrong at the hospital that day, somebody might have died who wasnt supposed toperhaps the problem wasnt the food at all. But I dont think that occurred to Aunt Dawnor, if it did, she didnt let her suspicion show. She was all contrition. The conditionalmight haveis a distinctively Munrovian tense, and Haven is shot through with maybes and perhapses. Munros fiction is obsessed with what might have happened, both in the sense of lost opportunity (characters constantly think of how their lives might have turned out differently) and in the sense of the ultimate mystery of other people: we can never know what other people are thinking or feeling, a fact that should lead to sympathy and forgiveness.This isnt to say that Munro explains away all wrongdoing. Regardless of why Jasper reacted in the way he did, his actions hurt Dawn, and this is a fact that cant be ignored. Rather, Munro reminds us that people are more complexboth more culpable and more deserving of forgivenessthan we normally imagine. This is something that Munro's stories have been teaching us for a long time. "Haven" is further proof that Alice Munro is one of our best best living writers.
Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.