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