Lichen by Alice Munro

This is a bit of an old essay, but one of my favourite’s so felt the need to share!


TheProgressOfLove.jpgAlice Munro once said in an interview “there’s something about aging when you’re a woman [that makes] you feel you can’t win.”(Carrington, 1989).  In Lichen, his sentiment is expanded to show that men find aging equally problematic.  Munro represents bodies through idealization and fragmentation to show the humiliating effect this has on both men and women.

Ildiko Carrington says that Munro’s work is characterised by an attempt to ‘control what cannot be controlled’ (1989).  Both Stella and David, the main characters, are middle-aged.  But it is obvious that David is struggling to accept the process.  The narrative, which alters from omniscient perspective to the point of view of a particular character, takes on David’s perspective early in the story.  His angry, misogynistic views toward aging women are clearly shown by his attitude to the body:

There’s the sort of woman who comes bursting out of the female envelope, flaunting fat or an indecent scrawniness, sprouting warts or facial hair, refusing to cover pasty, veined legs (p43)

David’s anger projected onto women is anger at the aging process.  He appears at the house of his ex-wife with his new lover, Catherine, who is nearing forty, but his description of her as someone ‘drooping over [Stella], a tall, frail, bony woman’, (p 44) makes it very clear that she is soon to be replaced.

Aging is about bodies for David.  He is revolted by the appearance of his father-in-law with his ‘bluish-grey skin with dark blue spots, whitened eyes, a ribbed neck with delicate hollows like a smoked glass vase.’ (p68)  He does not believe his father-in-law is human but a ‘post-human development'(p67).  David fragments the body into a list of parts and depersonalizes both men and women, turning them into mere flesh, thereby allowing them to become disposable and replaceable.

David forces Stella to consider bodies when he forces her to see the photograph of Dina.  Like David, STella also chops up the bodies into parts but perhaps not for the same reason.  She is hurt and angered by David’s insistence on showing the lovers; it is her way of coping with her feelings.  Stella reduces the body either by transforming it into an animal or a plant or by amputation.  Catherine makes ‘Stella think of an amputee.  Not much cut off just the tips of her fingers and the toes maybe.’.  When Stella looks at the photo of Dina, she thinks her pubic hair looks like lichen or ‘the pelt of an animal with the head and tail and feet chopped off.’  The imagery of amputation that Stella uses is interesting because it frames David’s decision to give Catherine the ‘big chop’.  David’s women are victims, as far as Stella is concerned.  What is more noteworthy, however, is the fact that Dina is more extensively amputated than Catherine.  The message is clear; the younger the lovers become, the less real they become.  In Dina’s case of the fading photograph, she has begun to cease to exist at all.  Stella understands these girls are merely David’s attempt to thwart the aging process.  Dina is not about love: it is David who suggests that real love is ‘going on living with Stella or taking on Catherine.’

David’s attitudes to bodies enables him to reject the aging process but he remains an immature character, always ‘someone learning to be a man.’  He turns up at his ex-wife’s home like a ‘prodigal son’ to parade his latest girlfriend.  But he is like an adolescent; he boasts to Stella’s neighbours and  he insists Stella also sees the pornographic photograph of Dina.  He seems to take sadistic pleasure in forcing Stella to see what he views as a symbol of his power and eternal youth.

There is irony, however, in David’s assertion that his activities keep him young.  Effectively he is no different from his father-in-law who Stella says ‘fixes up the past of anything he wishes had happened did happen.’  David has idealized memories of Stella at a party, ‘coming across the lawn with her sunlit hair…and her bare, toasted shoulders.’ (p70). He treasures the picture and memories of Dina, but part of him knows he fantasises.  Dina was unlike his description, never ‘so wild or so avid or doomed as he pretends she is.’ (p65). David is concerned for the disguises of youth to remain in place.  By idealizing Dina’s image in the form of a photograph, he hopes to confine her to the female envelope.  As Susan Sontag says, ‘to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed’ (1989).  David wishes to appropriate youth and by doing so, gain control and power.  But his male fantasy is just an illusion and he suffers because of his need to deny his own humanity.

Just as David is trapped by his own desire to reject aging, Munro also shows that there can be freedom in aging as exemplified by Stella; she is no longer at the mercy of a man’s desire.  She has burst out of her ‘female envelope’, a term used so disparagingly by David but one which can be seen to be a positive term of liberation. The trappings of constructed femininity harm and restrain women’s bodies and women; we see Stella’s bra ‘biting the flesh of her shoulder’ (p49).  Unrestrained, she is a busy, productive and creative woman, growing vegetables with ‘considerable skill and coaxing’.  She writes, makes jam and is an active member of her community.  To reinforce her own independence, Stella tells David and Catherine about a woman who weaves her own cloth.  The women in Stella’s community are not just flesh to be lusted after.  They provide for themselves but this does not translate into ‘man-haters’ as David believes.

At the end of the story, the photograph has been left to fade.  The pubic hair has become lichen, the simile that Stella first used to describe it.  Lichen is a ‘parasitical plant’  (Micros, 1998) dependent on a host; Dina does not appear physically in this story; she is dependent on David to give her life.  But this is a fantasy; Dina is no more than an image through David and of David.  He is an incomplete individual, desperate for time to stop.  As Stella’s words become true, as the pubic hair becomes lichen, it is clear that Stella has the power to move on in her life.  She accepts the pain of the ‘harsh little breaks in the flow of the days’ as part of the rhythms of her life but it is clear that Stella will grow as a complete human being.

Munro’s Lichen puts bodies under the microscope, transforming, amputating and depersonalizing them.  David does this in order to gain control of a body that is aging before he is ready.  His desperation means that he continually renews and starts afresh, adding nothing to his life.  He thinks he has power but he cannot stop even the photograph from fading.  As it does, David is understood to lose his power.  Stella mutilates bodies to reduce them to a size she can deal with so that the pain of what David is doing does not destroy her.  Independent of David, she is a busy, creative woman, adding value to the world; she produces writing, jam and vegetables.  The photograph which changes appears to change because of her words; the suggestion gives power to Stella.  Without the harmful gaze of a man’s desire, confining or restraining her, Stella strives.


Carrington, Ildiko, 1989. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. Northern Illinois Press, USA

Micros, Marianne, 1998  Et in Ontario Ego: The Pastoral Ideal and the Blazon Tradition in Alice Munro’s “Lichen”. In ed: Robert Thacker Critical Essays on Alice Munro  pp 44-59. ECW Press, Toronto

Munro, Alice, 1986.   Lichen in The Progress of Love pp 43 – 734. Penguin, Toronto

James Joyce’s The Dubliners: an essay

The Dubliners

Gabriel Conroy’s story about Johnny the horse in the short story, The Dead, sums up the theme that runs throughout Dubliners. Like the horse, who endlessly circles the inanimate statue of King Billy, the lives of Dubliners are stagnant, going round in circles, going nowhere.

 Dubliners was written in the shadow of the 19th   Century, an era which gave ‘didacticism, the pedestrian moral lessons’ to fiction (Burgess, 1992).  But the modernists of the 20th Century wished to respond to their own time, a time that was chaotic and confusing. The increasing voices of the women’s movement, mechanization and the accompanying urbanisation of the population, psychological and scientific breakthroughs were just some of the factors affecting writers of the time. In the 1930s, Ezra Pound looked back at the early years of the 20th Century and said it was a time in all to ‘make it new’. Malcolm Bradbury goes further: ‘modern arts have a special obligation… go ahead of their own age and transform it.’ (Bradbury, 1988). Joyce was one writer trying to transform his time.

Joyce was a leading figure of the modernist movement. He had a modernist suspicion of city life, believing that it degraded humanity. Through his use of the colour brown and his insistence on the drabness of Dublin, Joyce makes his feelings clear. He wished Ireland and Dublin to take a look at themselves, to free themselves from the stagnation that Johnny the horse’s circles represent. He amplifies the monotony by creating his own circles of words; the opening paragraph of The Sisters uses the words ‘softly’ and ‘faintly’, words used again in the closing paragraphs of the final story, The Dead. Joyce insists on the paralysis of Dubliners in order to gain spiritual liberation.

In Dubliners, Joyce claims that he wished to ‘betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city’ (Joyce letters, 2003). His series of short stories form a novel in as much as they journey from childhood to adolescence and finally to maturity. Joyce insists on the paralysis of Dublin throughout his stories. Dublin is a city and a society paralysed by ‘Catholic dogma, British exploitation…self-delusion, alcoholism, Irish hyperbole and blarney’ (Schwarz, 1993). Paralysis sets the theme for all the stories in Dubliners. It opens in The Sisters with the literal, physical paralysis of a stroke but it is soon made clear that it is moral and spiritual stagnation that keeps the lives of Dubliners in shackles. In The Sisters, the word paralysis is brought to our attention: ‘every night, I gazed up at the window, I said softly to myself the word paralysis.’ The boy says the word like an incantation. He has the morbid desire to see the work of paralysis on the body of Father Flynn. But by insisting on the word ‘paralysis’ and by drawing attention to its ‘deadly work’, Joyce demonstrates that paralysis is not simply a physical condition. In The Sisters, the boy is already learning how to be paralysed. On hearing of Father Flynn’s death, he says ‘I knew that I was under observation so I continued eating as if the news had not interested me.’ Indeed, he appears relieved that the priest was dead, feeling as though he had been ‘freed from something by his death.’ But he had had a good relationship with the priest, had learnt much from him and had been fascinated by the priest’s exotic education away from Ireland. Life in Dubliners is a lesson in frustration and disillusionment. As the boy dreams of being able to absolve the paralytic from the ‘simoniac of his sin’, a powerful role reserved for Bishops in Catholicism, as the boy dreams of exotic Persia, we learn that the priest lost his faith, that he died in disillusionment. In the end, he discovered that even a priest (one who should be able to attain spiritual liberation) was not free but paralysed by an institution. The priest’s death freed the boy from searching for the unattainable liberation in the Church.

The story of Eveline moves beyond childhood into adolescence. Eveline’s paralysis is shown in her ‘inability to reject the little brown houses of her neighbourhood.’ She is the only character to be offered the positive opportunity to leave the oppression of Dublin. But in the end, she does not. Like the boy in The Sisters who dreams of Persia and power, Eveline dreams of life in Buenos Aires with Frank. She dreams of freedom from the dust, from her father’s violence, for the hard work of a life in a city in which the physical changes did not spell progress but further stagnation. Eveline knows she had a ‘right to happiness’ and knows that Frank’s is the only hand reaching to save her, to take her from a life in which she had become a replacement for her mother. But Eveline fears love, she cannot step out of the gloom of her childhood into independent maturity. The ‘illumined portholes’ which symbolise life and hope are not bright enough for Eveline who fears psychological death away from Dublin. She does not realise that the city is the cause of her fear, or that she will stagnate in Dublin.   As Laurence Davies says, ‘she might as well have had a stroke.’ (Davies, 1993) In choosing to reject a new life she has accepted her existence in Dublin, an existence of stagnation and decay.

The final story in the collection is The Dead, a story that adds much to the theme of paralysis. It does not, however, end in the frustration of Eveline or the disillusionment of The Sisters. Gabriel Conroy has been away from Ireland; he has been to the Continent. He is the ‘new generation, educated or hyper-educated’ of his after-dinner speech. He is also the generation ‘anaesthetized…to feelings’. In this story, as in The Sisters, Joyce connects death with freedom from paralysis. In The Sisters, Flynn’s death saved the boy from his search through religion for the unattainable liberation. In The Dead, Gretta’s story of the dead Michael Furey saves Gabriel from his psychological paralysis. Michael Furey was a boy who experienced the full extent of emotional and spiritual liberation, he was a boy who died for passion and as Gretta says, ‘who died for me’. There is more life in the story of the dead boy than in any of Gabriel’s self-conscious, pompous pedantry. Gabriel is self-obsessed. He is self-conscious that he married a girl described as ‘country cute’ by his mother. He is aware the guests at the party are ‘a grade of culture beneath him’. He communicates as an after-dinner speaker but is afraid of intimacy. All his words are ‘lame and useless.’ Gretta’s story transforms him. Gabriel begins to feel as though he and Gretta ‘had never lived together as man and wife.’ He experiences real emotion. His eyes fill with tears. His soul moves and his cultured, anaesthetized identity melts into a union with the world. The snow is a symbol of this union; falling all over Ireland, it falls, ‘upon the living and the dead.’ This is one of Joyce’s moments of epiphany, special moments of reality which transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. They are moments of release and moments which offer hope for the future.

Joyce says of Dubliners that he wrote with a ‘scrupulous meanness’, an unsentimental, deromanticized account of the people of Dublin. He wanted to show the society for what he felt it was; a society paralysed by the institution of the Catholic Church and political friction between England and Ireland. But he felt the people contributed to their own stagnation too. Through a series of short stories, Joyce views paralysis through all ages and from all angles, from the physical paralysis of Father Flynn, to the cultured paralysis of Gabriel Conroy. Nobody is free in Dubliners. But moments of epiphany are the small moments that offer hope for Dublin’s society and hope of achieving spiritual liberation.

© Jacqui Thatcher 2015


Bradbury, M. 1988. The Modern World. London. Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd.

Burgess, A. 1992. Dubliners and A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. London. Minerva Press

Davies, L. 1993. Introduction to Dubliners in Dubliners. Hertfordshire. Wordsworth Edition

Joyces, J. 1993. Dubliners. London. Hertfordshire. Wordsworth Classics

Joyce, J. 2003. Selected Letters of James Joyce. London. Faber and Faber

Schwarz, D. 1993. The Dead (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism Series). Boston. Bedford/St Martin’s.