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Analysis of the Short Story Meneseteung by Alice Munro

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The narrator of Alice Munro’s short story “Meneseteung” wants to glorify the fictional late 19th century poet, Almeda Roth. Her motivation lies in that little is known of Roth except where she lived and some family history both detailed in the preface of Roth’s “Offerings”, a collection of Roth’s poems, and even if there was some information, not much is specified “Meneseteung”. There is something said about her in the Vidette, the local paper in the town where Roth lived. The article reads, “April 22, 1903.

At her residence, on Tuesday last, between three and four o’clock in the afternoon, there passed away a lady of talent and refinement whose pen, in days gone by, enriched our local literature with a volume of sensitive, eloquent verse” (71). It’s an obituary, and it goes on to say more of Roth’s poetry and Roth herself in her final days. Yet a preface in a book and an obituary can only say so much about a person’s life. There is no biographical story of the life of Almeda Roth, so the narrator will create one.

In “Meneseteung”, every part opens up with a verse of Almeda’s poetry. The verse usually coincides with the story or it sets the tone for the part and this setting the tone only glorifies Roth’s poetry even more. In Part III it begins with the verse, “Here where the river meets the inland sea, spreading her blue skirts from the solemn wood, I think of birds and beasts and vanished men whose pointed dwellings on these pale sands stood” (57). In Part III Jarvis Poulter is introduced and makes advances to Almeda as they get to know each other.

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This is where the line “Here where the river meets the inland sea” fits in as the two main characters in this story meet. Almeda then thinks about the rumors circulating around town and the gossipy entries in the Vidette that Jarvis and her are courting, which coincides with the line “Spreading her blue skirts from the solemn wood”, by which “spreading her blue skirt” means being flirtatious, though, in a coy manner. The last two lines, “I think of birds and beasts and vanished men, whose pointed dwellings on these pale sands stood” show two feelings of Almeda.

One, that she does not care for Jarvis and while he talks of salt mines she has her mind on other things and, two, that she misses her family, namely her father (“vanished men”), and she has not let them go, and, as evident, in the verse of her poetry on top of Part VI, “I dream of you by night, I visit you by day. Father, Mother, Sister, Brother, have you no word to say? ” (71), she never did. The narrator shows her appreciation even more by being very sympathetic to Almeda, if not taking pity on her.

Almeda inherits her family’s house after her father passes away. She lives a simple and lonely but self-reliant life. She doesn’t get out of the house much besides shopping and going to church. She has few friends, if any, besides her neighbor Jarvis Poulter; who walks her home from church every Sunday talking of his business in the salt mines. Though she does show some interest in him, noticing she “can smell his shaving soap, the barber’s oil, his pipe tobacco, the wool and linen and leather smell of his manly clothes” (60), she could not see him as a husband.

She makes the point that married women have to “make” their husbands, meaning “they have to start ascribing preferences, opinions, dictatorial ways … Almeda Roth cannot imagine herself doing that” (60), and besides walking with him home from church Jarvis and her don’t walk together at any other time, so they remain simply acquaintances throughout. It’s through Jarvis and some other townspeople, however, that the narrator’s view of Almeda becomes almost extreme. In the case of Jarvis Poulter, he is the only guy that is that has made advances to Almeda.

He’s a successful businessman, yet he only cares to talk about his business, which makes him out to be a self-righteous and vain. Though he dresses, walks and talks like a gentleman, there’s also a side of Jarvis Poulter that isn’t gentlemanly at all. It shows itself when a drunk woman faints on Roth’s fence, and she believes that woman to be dead given the conflict the night before, and Almeda goes to Jarvis for help, he handles the woman like a brute; kicking her awake, pulling her hair and pushing her off.

He says, “There goes your dead body! ” (67), which is distasteful considering she got scared half to death. After that, when Almeda returns to her house, Jarvis follows her and walks into her house uninvited and then sees her in her morning look, “her loosened hair—prematurely gray but thick and soft—her flushed face, her light clothing, which nobody but a husband should see” (67). He’s being very forward after getting scared like that. He then invites to walk with her to church, which back in this time was the equivalent of asking a woman out.

There’s the icing on the cake; after not taking Almeda’s fear seriously, treating the other woman like trash, and harassing Almeda, he tries to take advantage of her while she’s in state of confusion and vulnerability. In another case, Almeda has to go to the doctor to for her sleeplessness. She has problems with the medicine the doctor prescribes, so the doctor tells her don’t read, don’t study, do chores. He adds her problems would be solved if she got married.

While this is technically fitting for what a doctor in this time would say, it doesn’t paint his character in a prettier picture. It’s as if almost everyone in the whole town except for Almeda is completely unsympathetic. The town is riddled with street gangs who cause all kinds of trouble; stealing from travelers coming through town, harassing the town drunk Queen Aggie, and even hanging out by the train station betting each other if they could jump on or off the cars as the pass.

The town has its own ghetto just down Pearl Street; the street Almeda’s house is on, just a few blocks from her house. Near the end of her story, following Jarvis’ “declaration”, Almeda shuts herself inside her house for the rest of the day and probably the rest of her life. As she sips tea trying to calm down she looks around the house at the curtains, the carpet, the walls, and the various decorations, and her observations make her think of words to describe them. They culminate to one word; poetry.

She thinks of writing a poem that would trump all the other poems she’s ever written. She feels liberated, liberated from the town of ghetto and cozy suburb, liberated from being tied down to housekeeper and wifehood, “Almeda is a long way now from human sympathies or fears or cozy household considerations. She doesn’t think about what could be done for that woman or about keeping Jarvis Poulter’s dinner warm and hinging his long underwear on the line” (70). Almeda has been a poet since childhood; she has always wanted to create words to describe scenes and settings.

If she were to walk with Jarvis to church, marry him, keep his house tidy and do what a woman of this time would be expected to do, what would happen to her poetry? It’s in this break from social norms that Almeda Roth finds inspiration for her poetry more than ever. All in all, the narrator did manage to glorify Almeda Roth; by not submitting to marriage and a “normal” and “comfortable” life she had more time and more inspiration for her poetry. One could look at this as a feminist message; maybe the narrator is a feminist hence the feminist undertones.

Though more likely the case is that the narrator has done extensive research on the times Roth lived in to know what it means for a woman of that time to have such freedom. Although maybe that isn’t even the case, maybe the narrator simply has a great appreciation for Almeda Roth and wants to convey that appreciation. The narrator even admits that “I may have got it wrong” (73) showing that he/she doesn’t know for sure and, really, nobody knows the full story of anything.

This essay was written by a fellow student. You can use it as an example when writing your own essay or use it as a source, but you need cite it.

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