Alice Munro’s confrontation with Politically Incorrect Sex
in Lives of Girls and Women
By John Kehoe
In the middle of the twentieth century the sexual liberation had not yet matured into the carnival of openness and candour that we enjoy today. What was deemed politically incorrect, in terms of sexuality, during the period and place in which Lives of Girls and Women (LGW) is set is in sharp contrast to today’s acceptance and even popularization of coming of age females. What Munro presents is both an attack on the conservative sensibilities and attitudes towards female sexuality through the character of Del Jordan and, as author, a confrontation with Canadian (especially rural) readers whose views of political correctness discriminated against these types of books.
Munro establishes the context in which the politically incorrectness of sexuality will be examined throughout the book with the story of Mary Agnes’ disrobing by a group of boys. The sexual lasciviousness of the boys is viewed as tolerable and thus politically correct but for the girl it was a form of degradation (36). Mrs Jordan represents the contrast to this traditional view of women. She is characterized as a liberal minded proto-feminist and believes “there is a change coming … in the lives of girls and women” (146). Her liberal philosophies have discriminated her within the town of Jubilee yet serve to influence Del’s outlook on the world. However, what Del consciously resists of her mother is her “virginal brusqueness, her innocence” (150); unlike her mother, Del wants “men to love [her]” (150). A young Del believes that the “itchy hot play of sex belonged to childhood, and was outgrown by decent adults” (75); but this view of sexuality would soon change. When Del displays her naked body to Jerry she feels “absurd” (169) and it is only when having sex with Garnet that she feels “freedom in humility” (181). This is in sharp contrast to society’s general attitude towards female sexuality as expressed by Naomi and her mother who feel that premarital sex and pregnancy are the fault of the “girl” because their “sex organs are on the outside” and thus they “can control [their] urges better than [boys] can” (112). As Birbalsingh notes, “this unequal view of sexual responsibility acknowledges…the ethical and moral conventions that prevail the environment where [Del] grows up during the 1930s and 40s” (133).
Though LGW received international praise it was, nevertheless, not readily accepted throughout all of Canada. When Munro told her father about favourable reviews for the book in international papers, he responded, “Well, you’ll never get one in the Wingham Advance-Times” (Ross, unpublished interview). And indeed, with the publication of LGW “the residents of Wingham - were not appreciative. They wrote wounded editorials and angry letters; attempted to ban her in s
chools; there was even a death threat” (Edemariam). W.R. Martin speculated that Munro’s first book, Dance of the Happy Shade, won the Governor General’s Award because it has “no use of the new licence in four-letter words or the explicit description of sexual experience to shock the more conservative sensibilities” (56); this suggests that LGW could not, and in fact, did not, win the award because of its having these characteristics. Furthermore, the book was subjected to attempts of censorship:
In 1976, the principal of [a] high school in Peterborough, Ontario, removed the work from the Grade 13 reading list. He “‘questioned its suitability’ because of the explicit language and descriptions of sex scenes” (Sallot 3). A couple petitioned a high school in Toronto in 1982 to delete the work from the curriculum as they “objected to the ‘language and philosophy of the book’”. In 1984 the Etobicoke Board of Education, Ontario, defeated a motion from a trustee, who described the book as “porn, pure and simple,” to remove the work from the high school English supplementary reading list (BPC III. 5) (Bennett, 23).
Such reaction to the book displays the extent to which LGW was deemed politically incorrect. The main reason for this discrimination is the book’s unapologetic and honest depiction of female sexuality. Perhaps, as Lorna Irvine suggest, Munro’s “concentration on social transformation insists on a fluid narrative, one that refuses closure in order to allow the female characters room to alter the insistent endings …of novel[s] where women’s fates are closed: death or marriage” (101). This is an assault upon the normal, politically correct, depiction of women up to that time. After all, Munro’s goal in writing LGW was “to write the kind of thing about a young girl’s sexual experience that had often been written about boys” (Hancock, 112). This may sound tame to our sexually liberated ears but would have resounded at the time of its publication like progressive first wave feminism: a direct affront to those that maintained the, then politically correct, attitude that female sexuality, and writing about it, was wrong.
Bennett, Hugh. "The top shelf: The censorship of Canadian childrens and young adult literature in the schools." Canadian Children's Literature #68. 1992.
Birbalsingh, Frank. "Women in Alice Munro's 'Lives of Girls and Women'."
In (pp. 131-9) Carlsen, Jorn, and (eds), Canadiana: studies in Canadian literature. Canadian Studies Conference, Department of English, University of Aarhus. Aarhus: Dept of English, Aarhus Univ. [1984:63].
Book and Periodical Council (BPC). Freedom to read week February 24-March 2 1992. Toronto: BPC, 1992.
Edemariam, Aida. "Riches of a double life," Guardian [UK], Oct. 4, 2003 (http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,6000,1055 426,00.html).
Hancock, Geoff. "An Interview with Alice Munro." Canadian Fiction Magazine 43 (1982):74-114.
Martin, W.R. “Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel.” Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1987.
Munro, Alice. “Lives of Girls and Women.” New York: Signet, 1974.
Sallot, Jeff. “Students ‘overwhelmingly against’ high school principal who opposes Munro.” Globe and mail 13 Feb. 1976:3.