Tarrying with trauma while improvising gender in Alice Munro’s 1978 collection Who Do You Think You Are?
gender, Alice Munro, literary criticism
Alice Munro’s 1978 collection of linked stories, Who Do You Think You Are? enacts what Lorraine York calls Munro’s theory of fiction as “tarrying with difficult emotions and knowledges.” Judith Butler’s seminal 1988 theory of gender performativity postulated that improvising gender incurs obvious and covert social punishments, but that performing gender includes the possibility of innovation. Rose, the protagonist, succumbs to and contests norms imposed on women in the southwestern Ontario township of Huron County during the 1940s to 1970s. This thesis explores Rose surviving punitive social conventions in her cultural context which are contiguous with trauma. For Rose, failure to conform is what Jack Halberstam defines as “queer failure”: it is a triumph of personal authenticity over gender essentialism and an acceptance of human imperfection. In the journey towards self-knowledge, Rose’s surviving trauma and defying gender scripts cause the “sticky affects” of shame and humiliation identified by Amelia DeFalco; the feeling that women are not afforded hope; and, in stressful situations, emotional dissociation and emotional economies, as identified by DeFalco and York. Rose’s marriage fails because of a sadomasochistic power struggle. Rose tarries with disconnection from others and from self; however, she innovates gender and subverts the intergenerational cycle of victimvictimizer by achieving a sense of community and strengthening personal authenticity, which Margaret Atwood says is, for “Munro’s women,” “an essential element, like air.”
Presented on April 21, 2022 at Student Research Day at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta.
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