“Cortes Island” by Alice Munro

“‘Forget it,’ he said, and made a halfway joke to cheer me up.

‘What is the point of an old woman anyway?'”

I know my reading habits pretty well, and there are times when I am thrilled to be finished with a novel, because it means I can get back to the short stories I love – and there are times when I feel additional comfort knowing what I’ll soon be reading is an Alice Munro story.  She addresses human behavior in a way that is more honest and inquisitive than every other writer I know, and when I read “Cortes Island” for the first time, it was unlike anything I had read.  I wasn’t even aware I was in the midst of a story until I found myself hooked and mesmerized and horrified and titillated.


“Cortes Island” is the story of a bride whose name we don’t really learn beyond her nickname of “Little Bride.”  She and her husband have moved to a small room east of Vancouver early in their marriage.  Our narrating bride admits to us that they had married, basically, out of lust, coming “from homes where unmarried sex was held to be disgusting and unforgiveable, and married sex was apparently never mentioned and soon forgotten about.”  They live underneath the Gorries, an elderly couple in which the wife is looking after her husband sometime after a debilitating stroke. 


The bride has much time to ruminate and read, and under the microscope of Mrs. Gorrie is sort of horrified and sort of irritated – Mrs. Gorrie is difficult, socially self-conscious, full of awful stories, and, mostly, annoying beyond belief.  We watch our bride recoil in disgust at her conversations with Mrs. Gorrie, but feels that “maybe my peculiarities, my ineptitutde, were in a class with Mr. Gorrie’s damages.”  But something else emerges when the bride begins to look after Mr. Gorrie himself – a hint of a past.  Through a series of saved news clips, Mr. Gorrie shows the bride what once was the wild soul beneath the haggard exterior of Mrs. Gorrie now – news clips showing an affair that burned down a house on Cortes Island, sending Mrs. Gorrie’s child to be lost in the woods for days.  After developing what seems like a sense of communication, the bride pictures Mr. Gorrie saying to her, “Did you ever think that people could be like that and end up like this?  Well they can.”


That was the line that kept me coming back to this story, and it changes for me each time I read it.  During the first time I read that line, it was an attempt to humanize a character of intense puzzlement.  Mrs. Gorrie is disgusting, judgmental, unaware of boundaries and decorum but also obsessed by them.  We’ve all perhaps known people in our life like this – people who seem in the midst of nervous breakdowns, and we too can sense their confusion and instability.  I thought that Munro, who seems to never employ a first person voice, wanted to use it here to allow an outside character to be a further form of speculation.  And I thought, most of all, that the craziest among us have something we can identify with.


Perhaps that is true, but I got a different sense in my second reading of “Cortes Island.”  Here is a peripheral story containing a story of a couple whose passion was so strong it burnt down the forest around them, and now, it lead to the same isolation and duldrums they always feared, incapable of avoiding the boundaries of love and sex and social decorum they so feared.  This time, I read the story and saw an implicit endorsement of the “conventional” mode of love and life – our bride, confused as she is, finds herself admitted to a club she thought she could never be a part of, and it is her compromise based on lust that allow it to happen.


But that is not entirely the case either, and if it were, then it could not explain the final sections of the story, in which the bride begins to have sexual dreams about Mr. Gorrie, about the woods he burnt up around them.  What “Cortes Island” does is expose the raw nerve of lust and sex that underscores motivation and gets hidden in social interaction.  Merely in the interplay between two women, we’re given access to the varieites of inspiration, lust, and irrationality that motivates the behavior of women – and men.  Munro is always at her strongest when she seeks to expose these rawer sensations that underscore our constructs as society, but what makes the writing so strong is that she does that through slight, invisible characterization.


Throughout The Love of a Good Woman, characters are consistently shocked by the own source of their motivations.  In “Rich as Stink,” we view a housewife undone by her desires through the eyes of her bewildered daughter.  In “Save The Reaper,” a woman cannot bring herself to fully describe her day’s actions to her grown daughter and son in law, even though, we realize, they are not that bad – they simply expose her loneliness and desire.  In “The Children Stay,” we see a woman enter an extramarital affair without thinking much of it at all.  Yet “Cortes Island,” I think, goes deepest with its themes because it has such a stark behavioral contrast at its center – Mrs. Gorrie’s total irrational behavior is given a Venn diagram specificity in the way it overlaps with the more rational, introspective actions of the story’s narrators, whose true life, like her name, is hidden in the small, outlying details.  Munro is the type of writer whose craft is so exciting, you don’t know it’s exciting, whose work is so under the surface, you’re breathless before you realize what you’ve read.  “Cortes Island” pinches the nerve of human interactions and rips it out without ever, seemingly, having to break the skin.


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