About the author:
As I am completing my final year in the Law, Society, and Justice program, I have come to realize that our lives are governed by both human agency and an overarching narrative shaped by grand institutions. I find this adversarial relationship, especially in its involvement in law, to be fascinating and to merit thoughtful reflection. As such, I have found that Alice Munro’s ability to ground her short stories and characters in very honest and common human realities and struggles to be particularly evocative and compelling. I plan to build on the knowledge I have acquired in classes at Dawson such as The Stories of Alice Munro; Sociology of the Law; and Crime and Punishment by entering a bachelor’s of Law and furthering this reflection.
“Floating Bridge” and the Picaresque Tale: An Unlikely Feat of Character Development
By Julia Colletti
for The Stories of Alice Munro with Prof. Irene Ogrizek
Upon an initial reading of Alice Munro’s “Floating Bridge,” the story, uncharacteristically, comes across as uneventful and linear. Uniquely, Munro utilizes the picaresque structure in this story. Beyond a superficial reading, it becomes apparent that the story departs from the traditional stifling of character development favoured by this narrative form. While this story is flat, the physical journey underpins the drama that is occurring in Jinny’s head as she attempts to comprehend the implications of the life-changing news of her apparent remission. Munro achieves this character development by employing satire and profanity to highlight the sacred; by instilling symbolism in the locations visited by Jinny throughout the day, and by according her with rascally tendencies once the process has begun. These are all characteristics of this type of episodic recounting of adventures on the road.
A central component of this story and Jinny’s mental process is the competing voices between the satirical/profane and the sacred. At first, this interference thwarts Jinny’s ability to unravel what is happening to her. For one, Munro presents Neal, Jinny’s life partner, in a satirical fashion by holding him up as someone who is inherently political, and who caters to the desires and the needs of everyone around him. Significantly, though, he is oblivious to those of his wife in her fragile state. This becomes an impediment for Jinny. An example of this is when Neal insists they go eat chili with Matt and June, and Jinny pleads: “I can’t do it. . . Just tell them I can’t” (Munro 157). When he eventually resolves to let her have her way, she thinks: “But to be alone was a great relief” (158). This demonstrates how Neal, the satirical caricature, is a hindrance to Jinny’s coping. Only when she is finally rid of the stifling effect his profane nature has on her can she properly confront her new reality. Furthermore, the crudeness from Matt and his satirical characterization caused by the juxtaposition of his lewd joke and the doctor’s sacred diagnosis also seem to intervene in Jinny’s thought process. Indeed, his telling of the joke seems to have been the last straw; as he concludes his jest, she exclaims: “It’s too much” (165). This sparks her reflection because next, she ponders: “She had not said anything like that to the doctor . . . But it was true. It was too much. What he had said made everything harder . . . It removed a certain low-grade freedom. A dull, protecting membrane that she had not even known was there had been pulled away and left her raw” (165). This is one of the initial instances where Jinny truly faces her new reality. She takes the first step by acknowledging her fear and her deep ambivalence. What’s more, the effect of the profanity and the parody come full circle at the end of the story. Instead of having her palms read by June as Neal is, Jinny is on the floating bridge hanging between life and death. In this momentous happening and ironic parallel between superstition and the sacred, Jinny is deciding whether and, if so, how to embrace the new life that has seemingly been gifted to her. The profane and the satirical are determinants in Jinny’s process of comprehending and welcoming the life ahead of her and as such, highlight the sanctity of time.
Next, the van and its seemingly aimless wandering and stops are instrumental in Jinny’s coping. The van and Jinny are simply going from place to place, but there is a deeper subtext as the settings change. Foremost, the unexpected journey she embarks on with the van symbolizes the dramatic shift in Jinny’s life spurred by the doctor’s announcement: “The turn they made at the next corner was one Jinny had not expected” (145). Furthermore, in this road trip, she is led to a cornfield by Matt and June’s house. Amidst the corn rows, this natural setting is conducive and symbolic for the realignment that begins in her mind and foreshadows the indispensable help she is yet to receive. In trying to find a moment alone with her thoughts, she gets lost amidst the corn rows. This sense of loss of physical orientation is akin to her mental state. In these moments, she experiences an important breakthrough: she uncovers a new will to stop being passive in life. Although she meant to get a moment of reprieve in the field, because the rows are too close together, she cannot rest or retreat. Just like that of her self-realization, this is not a peaceful process. She ultimately makes it out of this maze by receiving exterior aid: signals to reorient herself in her physical environment and circumstances. This is a parallel to the instrumental help Ricky will offer her. Her final adventure on the road and the crucial step in her process is her passage through the quarry and the floating bridge. The quarry is an intimate space despite its large expanse. It is a hushed environment away from the city and deprived of ambient light. The visible stars and the gentle rocking of the bridge have a cradling effect. In this serene environment, she is finally sheltered from the constant mental bombardment emanating from her tired city and from her callous relations. This cathedral-like atmosphere enables her to think. It is a liminal space in which great character development occurs. Jinny takes the first literal step towards her new life by slipping away with Ricky. We get the sense that she has come to some kind of resolution in this final stop of the road trip: “A swish tender of hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given” (176). These various backdrops of this episodic tale are crucial to understanding Jinny’s thought process and to her digesting her new reality.
The rascally position that Munro has Jinny adopt at the end of the story is telling of her character arc. At the beginning of the story and before receiving the news of her probable remission, the woman is extremely repressed, shy and reclusive. Through a flashback of a gathering Neal had organized at their house, it becomes apparent that Jinny wished she was more assertive: “She was outraged at having to sit there and listen to people’s opinions of her. Everyone was wrong. She was not timid or acquiescent or natural or pure” (162). Notably, much of this dissociation was self-inflicted. On the floating bridge, when Jinny engages in the rascally action of kissing Ricky (another rascal), it is revealing of the psychological process she is undergoing and how she will and is coming out differently on account of it. Throughout her entire life, she has been passive, but the revelation of her remission has woken her up to this. She remarks that “If she was back in her old, normal life she would not be here at all” (173). She would not have left without notifying her husband; she would not have followed a stranger into the night; and, laid bare as she was, she would not have offered up a kiss so mindlessly. With the new time accorded to her, she takes the reins of her life. The rascally undertaking of stepping out with Ricky points to the fact that the feat of processing the tremendous news of her remission has commenced. In welcoming her rascally side, she has begun accepting her new circumstances and growing with them.
In conclusion, Munro uses three elements of the picaresque novel: satire, the road trip and rascality to delve into Jinny’s character arc—the monumental process of thinking through her likely remission. In combining these three constituents, Munro emphasizes a characteristic traditionally absent in such a narrative form: character development.
Munro, Alice. “Floating Bridge.” Away From Her, Penguin, 2007, pp. 137-176.