LITERATURE: Munro’s Visitors

Munro sets the stage: an older couple, Mildred and Wilfred, entertaining visitors, his brother Albert, his wife and her sister, in their small home for the summer. Then she paints in the characters, Mildred and Wilfrid are large, robust people; his brother–whom he hasn't seen in thirty years–and his family are thin, quiet, the women are mouselike.

Against this delicate balance of family reunion that proves to show they have little in common, we get a taste of some small but acceptable flaws that Mildred sees in her husband. We see however that each, though married late in life, have led lives of relative flamboyance in contrast to brother Albert. She came to him fresh from the death of her lover, an elderly married man. He traveled and took jobs where he could, likes his buddies and drinking and slightly off-color jokes. The difference in the two families may have been formed in the way they grew up, yet we see a strong love in the relationship of Mildred and Wilfred that's absent in the others; a more natural, easy caring, a zest that feels the emotions of life.

There is a leit motif (I think) in the story that illustrates the division:
They had a kitchen not much wider than a hallway, a bahroom about the usual size, two bedrooms that were pretty well filled up when you got a double bed and a dresser into them, a living room where a large sofa sat five feet in front of a large television set, with a low table about the size of a coffin in between, and a small glassed-in porch. (p. 199)

"You could be standing on the step, Albert," said Mildred, with as much interest as she had energy for.
But Albert said, "We never had a step at the front door. We only opened it once that I can remember, and that for Mother's coffin. We put some chunks of wood down then, to make a temporary step." (p. 212)
The image of the coffin–and their mother had died within weeks of giving birth to Wilfred and he was farmed out to an aunt–serves two situations here. In the first instance, it is an acceptable large part of their living space. In the other, Albert rather coldly refers to his mother's coffin being taken out of the house.

There is also the underlying theme of physical size, Mildred and Wilfred being very large but happy in a small space and the shrunken and dry appearance of Albert, his wife and her sister. This emphasis that Munro places on size–including the landscape where the brothers were born–seems to echo the personalities of the characters. While Mildred and Wilfred have traveled and lived elsewhere, they seem to bring their live-life-to-the-fullest attitude wherever, and squeeze it into whatever space they find themselves in, At one point, Mildred is squished in the back seat of the car with the two skinny sisters on each side yet they both have their heads down in embroidery rather than looking around at the countryside. They don't even get out of the car to walk up to where Albert and Wilfred were born.

It's a wonderful little story about a simple visit, and Munro makes it powerful with character.

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