An essay by Veena. N Nagamuthu
For Prof. Irene Ogrizek’s English 102 course
“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” In one sentence, Thomas Gray summarizes the simple truth that takes the narrator of “Wenlock Edge” far too long to realize. Her path to self-discovery is demonstrated through her relationships with the characters in the story. Most of what we learn about her personality comes from the judgments she passes on to others. As smart as she might be, she is crippled by a sense of pride and superiority and trusts that her intellect will guide her through any dangers she might face. The narrator’s encounters with the various people she meets teach her that she has fooled herself into believing she is equipped to handle life, when really she is gullible and easily manipulated. By the end of the story, the narrator’s maturity is awoken for the price of her innocence.
The narrator is introduced through her comments about her cousin Ernie. While they share dinner she worries that someone might see them together and assume they are a couple, which demonstrates that she has an overly simplistic view of what a mature relationship is. Despite the fact that Ernie keeps an eye out for her and treats her to meals, the narrator is ungrateful and takes his actions for granted. She pokes fun at his appearance with a childish nickname, ‘Earnest Bottom’ and shows her arrogance by looking down on what he calls “serious reading.” All he does is read Condensed Books of the Reader’s Digest. She admits to having a bit of a “mean tongue,” but justifies it by thinking she means “…no harm. Hardly any harm” (62). Although she derides Ernie, she appreciates that he respects her studious nature.
Considering she comes from a rural and presumably poor family, she takes pride in her achievements in school and especially in the scholarship she earned. However, her country upbringing causes her to be naïve and unworldly and she hinges most of her feelings of self-worth on her academic accomplishments, making her feel insecure in anything unrelated to her education. Her focus on acquiring knowledge causes her to be a bit of a smart aleck and a know-it-all. These qualities are seen through her judgments towards her neighbors and acquaintances, such as Kay and Beverly, who she considers, “…a disappointment to me” (64). She finds it wasteful and shameful how their hard work in their program “Modern Languages” is unused. Their conversations are not any different from most girls. She is critical of them wanting to get married and just be teachers, feeling like they are settling for less. Her academic background isolates her from other people and makes it impossible for her to realize that they have different definitions of a successful life than she does. When she gets a job at the cafeteria she disregards her neighbor’s opinion that “Boys won’t ask you out if they see you at a job like that” (65) and she looks down upon Beth’s dedication to motherhood, assuming that her life is sad and unfulfilled because of her non-stop labors.
Although the narrator is harshly critical of her neighbors and pursues her education above all, the introduction of Nina in her life fascinates her. Nina is unique, having been to several places like Europe and Japan, having unusually warm skin, a distinctive fragrance, and expensive clothing. But despite seeming glamorous, Nina’s life is out of control. She already has two kids living with her grandmother, but the narrator’s infatuation with her blinds her to Nina’s shortcomings. Interestingly enough, the narrator only notices Nina’s flaws in the domain of education, which is the aspect of life she concerns herself with most. Nina is unfamiliar with even the basics of her program, not knowing “…whether the French Revolution came before the First World War” (71). This is the only imperfection the narrator notices and tries to help her with, but glosses over the real problem: that due to Nina’s lack of education and life skills, she is dependent on others and goes from man to man to support herself. Her state of vulnerability makes it easy for Mr. Purvis to take advantage of her.
Because Nina fascinates the narrator, she never questions her. This is obvious to the point that Nina even says, in reference to Mrs. Winner, “she’ll be there till midnight. Or later, I don’t know. If I went out she’d follow me and hang around wherever I went and follow me back” (70). Just like the narrator doesn’t question Nina, she doesn’t question Mrs. Winner, though for different reasons. When she meets Mrs. Winner, the older woman cleverly avoids being questioned by the narrator, diverting her attention and manipulating her insecurities with the challenge, “I hope you’re not a baby” (75). She persists by asking, “Do you think you’re any different from the rest of us? You think I haven’t seen it all you got before” (75). Mrs. Winner continues to goad the narrator by forcing her to defend her sophistication and uniqueness as well as her intellect. She takes this as a dare and falls for the trap, thinking that, “it was partly her contempt that made me stay. Partly. That and my pride.” (75). She mistakenly feels she has the power to leave whenever she wants and does not see the potential consequences.
Mr. Purvis picks up on this vulnerability and takes advantage of her secret need to feel superior by putting her in a classy environment. He indulges her with fine dining she associates with the upper class and encourages her to discuss intellectual topics. The narrator tries to mirror the elite she admires but her insecurities hold her back. She “… tried to look at him when I spoke, but against my will I would suffer waves of flushing” (78). Whenever she does become uncomfortable, Mr. Purvis reels her back in with a soothing tone of voice, “just as if he’d made a winning move in a game” (78-79). He makes her forget her unease and she has a sense that she has “… come to feel somewhat remote and philosophical” (81), her “shame receded” (81). It’s ironic how the narrator later writes an essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when the complete opposite of being saved and honored by the knight has just happened to her.
The narrator’s lack of awareness lasts even after she leaves, the only thought concerning her being that of forgetting her scarf. She thinks, “I had come close to abandoning it, in this place” (82) instead of considering the loss, or ‘abandonment’, of her purity. Upon coming to know that Nina and Ernie are living together, the narrator is bewildered by the idea of them having a baby and is finally awoken from passive naivety. Having first hand experience with the turmoil that Nina brings, she no longer wants her destructive presence in her life. The birth of a child would force Ernie to take care of it and chain him to Nina for the rest of his life. The words of the poem she read to Mr. Purvis begin to haunt her and she thinks that, “I would never think of those lines again without feeling the prickle of the upholstery on my bare haunches” (88). This guilt, coupled with her concerns about Ernie’s future, spurs her into action and she deceitfully arranges to have Nina returned to Mr. Purvis’ ‘care’.
Reiterating the words from the narrator’s valedictorian speech, “Ave atque vale.” Hail and farewell. In a way, she says farewell to her inner peace and becomes worldly in the worst possible way. She realizes that education couldn’t save her from making the wrong choices or spare her the emotional damage dealt by Mr. Purvis and Mrs. Winner. Pain is a memory never forgotten and she accepts responsibility for it, saying, “I would always be reminded of what I had agreed to do. Not been forced, not ordered, not even persuaded. Agreed to do” (89). The narrator has lost a significant amount of her confidence and there is an air of futility in her life. After this event, the narrator will forever blame herself for her actions and live with the shame. She becomes aware that she was played, not only by Mr. Purvis and Mrs. Winner, but by Nina as well, and becomes a much wiser and sadder person as a result. She realizes that there is more knowledge to be had than what can be found in books and, as she watches other students go by, thinks that they are all, “on their way to deeds they didn’t yet know they had in them” (92).
BrainyQuote. Xplore, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.
Munro, Alice. “Tricks” in The Short Stories of Alice Munro Course Pack. Ed. Irene Ogrizek. Montreal: Dawson College. 2013. 40 – 56. Print.