The New Yorker: “Amundsen” by Alice Munro

New Yorker 8.27.12August 27, 2012: “Amundsen” by Alice Munro

This isn’t going to be one of my favorite Munro stories. It’s about Vivien Hyde, a young woman from Toronto who takes a job as a teacher at a children’s TB Sanatorium in the north woods shortly before the end of WWII. She arrives, is given her assignment by Dr. Alister Fox (known as Reddy by the daughter of one of the staff), and begins work. She watches Fox, and eventually he invites her to dinner, then later to bed, then to marry. She goes along because she seems to fallen in love, despite his evident flaws.

But then there’s a problem.

The ending is standard Munro. After the climax there’s a jump ahead in time—ten years in this case—and we get a glimpse of the future and a non-resolution to whatever the problem was that the characters had to deal with. Fox relates better to men than to women, but is that meant to suggest a reason why he didn’t go through with their wedding?

I don’t know, but it isn’t a satisfying conclusion, in my opinion. I understand that the war is relevant, the isolation of the woods and the sanatorium, but I fail to understand Dr. Fox’s behavior.

14 thoughts on “The New Yorker: “Amundsen” by Alice Munro”

  1. Maybe I’m getting too cynical in my old age, or perhaps a reaction to the politically-correct sensitivity I presume Munro wanted me to feel while thinking about kids with TB, but it had occurred to me that Dr. Fox never for a moment intended to marry Vivien and that the so-called engagement etc. was just a scam he devised to get her into bed and then get rid of her when he got tired of her.

  2. Interesting takes on this story. I took Dr. Fox’s jilting of Vivien at face value: he simply gets nervous and backs out. It breaks her heart and she never gets over it. Basically a simple plot, rendered as a moving story thanks to Munro’s skill in making all these characters and the setting feel so real.

  3. I wondered what function Mary played in the story. Was she just there to provide explanations? I do think this story could stand a little more discussion here.

  4. Mary is something of a bridge between Amundsen and the hospital and is basically the opposite of the main character, so maybe she’s there for contrast. It’s purely speculative, but it might not be long before Dr. Fox turns his attentions on her . . .

    1. I think Mary is Fox’s daughter, and that the reason he ultimately doesn’t go through with the marriage is that he feels guilty and uneasy about Mary’s mother. And about Mary, as well.

  5. I loved this story. I think it is classic Munro with its ambiguous and melancholy ending. I was completely swept away by the depiction of the characters. Again, classic Munro! Cliff – I like your theory about Mary and the doctor. Seems very plausible!

  6. I felt like Mary’s purpose was to help emphasize Dr. Fox’s ambivelent nature. It sounded like Dr. Fox spent a lot of time with Mary and her patient friend, and then suddenly, without warning, dropped her like a bag of garbage. No more sled rides, no more treating her like a person. And then, this is exactly what he does with Viviene – completely dropping her without warning. And in both cases it was a very clinical decision , made based on logic, and expecting that everyone would understand, just like a medical procedure.

    Maybe the Dr. also had a similar relationship with Mary’s mother. That is never hinted at, but I did wonder why he spent so much time with the girl, who is now obviously a nuisance to him.

  7. Good insight. What I was looking for but couldn’t quite see. Is Vivien a classic Munro character? They seem to be a lonely lot, with no close caring relatives that might provide direction and advice.

  8. I loved the story. I think the Doc was genuinely struggling to deal with his job and his life, and was incapable of giving himself to a relationship with the teacher or anyone else. He was conflicted between his need and desire for a family life and his inability to commit himself to it. The constantly lurking presence of death had compromised his ability to commit to life. (This could also be a reason for the wartime setting- a time when everyone feels the brevity of life more acutely, and clings more closely to loved ones.) We could see him struggle with the emotional aspects of his job in his eccentric appearance in the classroom shortly after a patient died and in his erratic behaviour towards Mary; by turns paternal and cruel. Perhaps the death of Anabel, to whom he had, on Mary’s evidence, allowed himself to be like a father, had made him wary of allowing himself to feel too much affection for Mary.
    So I have Doc Fox as a sensitive soul who is deeply troubled and can’t allow himself to show true emotional committment to others because of the shadow of death that follows him around.

    1. Great story! It’s amazing how different are our reactions. Roy sees the doctor as a sympathetic character while I see him as a despicable, devious and manipulative misogynist, one who has been planning to jilt Mary for months, perhaps since the night he first bedded her. (His insistence on keeping their engagment secret and his detailed plan for her return to Toronto confirm that he has taken considerable time to plan the jilt.) Early in the story, during a barrage of questions designed to put Mary on the defensive, he asks her if she thinks him “rude,” but he is far worse than that, for his questions go beyond rudeness and are designed to bring her to submission. One wonders why Mary falls in love with him, although the complete absence of eligible suitors may excuse her bad judgement. I find the stoy horrifying, the most obvious horror being of course the jilt, but the most perplexing is her lingering love for Fox, with no indication of hatred, which would seem a natural response had not Dr. Fox completely mastered her.

      1. Sorry, I referred in my posting above to Vivien Hyde as “Mary,” which of course is the name of the young girl in the story.

  9. Although I have read the New Yorker & been a subscriber since college days of paying for it with pennies, rare is it that I would be piqued to the point of searching for commentary; however, after I read it, I wanted to hear feedback…whether it fortified what I had garnered from the story, to being seduced by another’s perspective. I felt Vivien’s character was of the zeitgeist of women who intentionally tightened when climaxing, to hide her orgasm, which many women did out of shame. I apologize for my brashness, but there lacks a better way o illustrate how obsequious & shame-based Victorianism of the era, right?

    I also am divorced in e two philosophies presented on Dr. Fox, by Rick, Roy & Clint. Superb presentations, all of you. I felt the earnestness of Mary was designed to walk the fragile line in the backs of all of our minds, that nervous–almost shrill– manic happiness presented by Mary, as her only defense against taking inventory of being a kid surrounded by death, and having witnessed it herself, while she is too young o have the tools to deal with such adult concepts. The phrase, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry” comes to mind because, think about it, Fox’s treatment of her for accidentally interloping a tepid dinner, would have had a regular kid crying its eyes out. But Mary just dances through it, indicating functioning in a dream world, but perhaps that is taking it a bit too far.

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