Alice Munro has a gift for making a wallflower leap off a page.
“Red Dress–1946” is a short story from Munro’s collection Dance of the Happy Shades that sings a siren song to a reader, even though the protagonist is somewhat feeble and fumbling, as thirteen year-olds often are.
Why would we follow a shade of a girl who isn’t aggressive, angry, or mischievous like, say, Scout Finch? Scout throws punches, says the unmentionable, and leaves us wanting more. Meanwhile, Munro’s character doesn’t even have a name. So how does Munro make us care about Pallid Polly (what we’ll have to call her going forward)?
1. The secondary characters surrounding the protagonist yearn hard after something. There is the mother, who dolls her daughter up in costumes of Victorian lace, Scottish plaid, or embroidered peasant blouses with black-lace bodices. There are boy-crazy girls infesting the high school dance, too, ones the angry Mary Fortune slams, an upperclassman who gives PP a cigarette. Her motto: “Live dangerously.” She invites PP on what might be more date than outing. Everywhere in PP’s world swirls hot, angry, and sad desire, and some is projected straight onto her limp, acquiescing body. She almost leaves the dance with Mary but is stopped by Raymond Bolting, a boy in her class: “He was in my way…He thought I meant yes. He put his hand on my waist and almost without meaning to, I began to dance.”
2. The protagonist finds her desire in counterpoint to everyone else’s, and that tension is interesting. PP wants only to miss this first dance, moving inexorably toward her. Because she is a nervous wreck in high school, unable to keep from trembling at the board, at being called on, in any instance, the dance looms like a horror. She invents a desperate measure to thwart it:
I started getting out of bed at night and opening my window a little. I knelt down and let the wind, sometimes stinging with snow, rush in around my bared throat. I took off my pajama top. I said to myself the words “blue with cold” and as I knelt there, my eyes shut, I pictured my chest and throat turning blue, the cold, greyed blue of veins under the skin.
It’s this sick desire for illness that resonates with everyone who has ever taken the path most twisted when they don’t dare buck the system.
3. The setting vibrates with anxiety and lust. Most readers are ready to sign up for this ride, just to rubberneck and snap a photo. After describing a humiliating moment where her male classmates reduce their young English teacher to tears, PP explains the school in deft exposition of teen angst:
But what was really going on in the school was not Business Practice and Science and English, there was something else that gave life its urgency and brightness. That old building, with its rock-walled clammy basements and black cloakrooms with pictures of dead royalties and lost explorers, was full of the tension and excitement of sexual competition, and in this, in spite of daydreams of vast successes, I had premonitions of total defeat.
The photo we snap is one of ourselves. Who hasn’t walked into a situation with total dread of failure?
4. The angst feels epic because PP carries someone else’s happiness in her hands. No spoilers here: Just read the whole story, and then embrace those final lines. You’ll feel sad and yet fulfilled.
I wish I could say, Here’s the straight formula–here’s the step-by-step science of it all, but it’s not as simple as my four points. They are a start for those of us who would make our writing great. And if we must have a Dull Dina, a Wimpy Wanda, or a Pallid Polly serving as protagonist, then something must happen, something must matter. Munro shows us one way to make it so.