The Lonely Voice: 'The Children Stay' By Alice Munro
“The Children Stay.” That’s a curious title. It’s a declaration made by a husband to his wife who has left a family vacation spot cottage for a hotel in the town to meet a lover who has followed her there.
Perhaps because she is away from her home base and in this temporary space with her husband, children, and in-laws, Pauline is already disconnected from her role and routines as wife and mother and already drawn to the attentions of another man who represents something we don’t at first quite understand on the surface of things.
The interpersonal relationships are complicated in the family unit. Pauline has been true to her roles for years and tries to imagine going through the motions of a life with this other man. In a move that defies reasonableness and maybe even believability, she leaves her husband and children during the family vacation.
When he learns of her leaving, husband Brian declares, “The children stay.” And that is the starkest revenge he can take upon her for her infidelity. She is unmoved by the threat.
There follows for the mother the thought of an “acute pain” the narrator tells us, but did Pauline stay with Jeffrey or even really want to make a life with him or was he merely an excuse to leave an unsatisfying life that she refused to endure?
What she sought out appeared before her like an expansive possibility yet to be explored over the rest of her life. She convinces herself that she will manage this “acute pain,” this predictably torturous cloud of sorrow that will follow her, but that will be easier somehow because she can “carry along and get used to until it’s only the past she’s grieving for and not any possible present.”
In his essay “Surviving the Lives We Have” Peter Orner discusses a short novel by Andre Dubus, Voices from the Moon. The opening line of this work is “It’s divorce that did it.” Larry and Richie are the sons of the divorced parents. Richie, writes Orner, “Understands that we, whether or not we are fathers or mothers, will always do damage to our own families. All the faith and love in the world can’t make us stop.” He tells us that two years before the story opens, the boys’ mother, Joan, “committed what many might consider an even more unforgivable sin against conventional morality.” She walked out on her husband and her ten year-old son. She sees Richie regularly, but the hurt never relents. She says, “We don’t have to live great lives. We just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.”
When the protagonist of “The Children Stay” first meets Jeffrey, the man with whom Pauline will have the affair, he doesn’t really pay attention to her. But he looks directly at her, “impertinently” and “searchingly” when Pauline’s husband Brian points out she could be a talented actress in his production of Euridice except for her lack of confidence. Now Jeffrey trains his eyes on Pauline, someone he does not believe is especially beautiful but that he finds irresistible.
In his essay, “A Palm-of-the-Hand Story,” Peter Orner points to another work of literature, the novel Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata where a man looks into the eyes of a woman—well, the reflection of the woman’s eye on the window as she sits across from him on a train. It is the opening of their star-crossed union— like the one in “The Children Stay” where there is “nothing remotely romantic,” even as it might be “sexually charged.”
What the protagonist seems to be after is what Orner describes as “the ecstasy of a beginning.”
Perhaps that is the same kind of energy Pauline is searching for in leaving her family—even if she doesn’t know for sure if looking straight ahead will save her from what is behind her.
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