115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Visual Hauntings and the Gothic in Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are?

Laura Davis, Red Deer College

This paper examines two short story cycles by Canadian writer Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women (1971) and Who Do You Think You Are? (1978). It demonstrates how the author mobilizes visual images related to haunting, and how, by doing so, she disassembles and unravels structures that uphold imperial time as linear and progressive. 


For Del’s mother in Canadian writer Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (1971), “scenes from the past were liable to pop up any time, like lantern slides, against the cluttered fabric of the present” (70). This statement is indicative of how the author invokes the visual to mark haunting. In two of Munro’s collections of short story cycles, Lives of Girls and Women (1971) and Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), the author continually foregrounds the visual to evoke the spectral. The dead of the past erupt into the present at times of crisis to reveal histories that are not over and have not yet been resolved. Critics Cynthia Sugars and Gerry Turcotte note that “gothic discourses have… been paired in critical invocations of the ‘unhomely’ or ‘spectral’ legacies of imperialism” (vii). Such legacies, they explain, are “readily figured in the form of ghosts or monsters that ‘haunt’ the nation/ subject from without and within” (vii). In this paper, I will examine how Munro’s writing employs visual and gothic images in order to critique Canada’s history as a settler-invader country.

In Lives of Girls and Women, Del’s supposed mistake—she thinks that her Uncle Craig was in a photograph that was taken before his time (28)—marks her resistance to what Paul Huebener calls “imperial time” (29) and initiates Del’s haunting by the town’s colonial history. Later, Del’s aunt Grace herself becomes a spectral image who haunts: she dresses up as a “darky” to scare the hired man, an Austrian (32-33). By mimicking the presence of a dark skinned man to fool an immigrant on so-called settler space,  Grace’s performance demonstrates  racial and cultural diversity and implicitly contests the historical narrative that denies it.

In Who Do You Think You Are? Munro again invokes the spectral through the visual with reference to Edward Burne-Jones’s Pre-Raphaelite painting of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (101), an image that Rose’s fiancé Patrick associates with Rose. Furthermore, Munro relates the visual to language and literature, highlighting both the painting of “The Beggar Maid” and Tennyson’s poetic interpretation of it. In Lives, history is understood as a “whole solid, intricate structure of lives supporting us from the past” (31),  yet that  “unreliable structure” is fragile and indeterminate (234): it results in the dead’s continual and unrelenting act of haunting. Referring to critics such as Marlene Goldman (DisPossession), Cynthia Sugars and Eleanor Ty (Canadian Literature and Cultural Memory), and Sugars and Gerry Turcotte (Unsettled Remains), in this paper I argue that Munro’s writing mobilizes the gothic mode in visual images related to haunting, the rise of the dead, and the ghostly. By doing so, she unravels and disassembles the structures that uphold imperial time as linear, progressive, and singular. 

Topic Area: