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When does the conflict arise in a relationship between a man and woman? At the beginning? Not usually. Many romantic relationships between a man and a woman are formed with reasons that are plain, simple, and easy. Complications usually begin to bubble up, under the surface, once some time has passed and the couple really start getting to know each other, start seeing some of the ugly. Rose, the central character of Alice Munro’s “The Beggar Maid” from The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, is one such person that starts out a relationship with graduate student Patrick Blatchford for fairly simple reasons.
As the relationship develops, though, she finds herself increasingly annoyed with the way that Patrick worships her in his love. Conflicts begin to brew and eventually erupt when Rose breaks off her engagement to Patrick in a scene of intense emotions and conflict. This scene is easy enough for a critical reader to interpret and understand, but what comes as a complete surprise is when, several days later, Rose seeks out Patrick in the library and contemplates the possibility of running back to him, begging his forgiveness, and reassuring him of her love.
The temptation for this action “was not resistible, after all. She did it” (Munro 182). A reader cannot help but stumble over this scene, question it. Why did Rose run back to Patrick that day in the library? She knew and had experienced the conflicts of their relationship, she had encountered intense unhappiness, so what drew her back to him?
The question can only be answered by exploring Rose’s motivations throughout her entire relationship with Patrick, from the beginning when she agrees to go out with him to when she breaks off the engagement.
The clearest reason the text provides for her initial agreement is “partly because Dr. Henshawe was always saying she was glad Rose did not waste her time running around with boys” (Munro 161). Dr. Henshawe is an older, single woman that used to teach English at the college Rose attends and she houses Rose for the year. A theme in this short story is identities that are given to Rose by people in her life. Dr. Henshawe continually pronounces Rose to be “a scholar” and tells her what she should be interested in, or what she would not like. Rose resents and rejects this identity that Dr. Henshawe gives her, thus choosing to “run around with boys” when the opportunity presents itself. Patrick himself gives an identity to Rose, one of a “beggar maid” from a painting “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, and this identity will be discussed further on.
Other critics of this story find separate reasons for her choice to be with Patrick. One critic writes that “Rose, while growing in sophistication and knowledge of the world, from academic topics to tasteful interior decoration, experiences as part of her sophistication a growing awareness of the poverty and ignorance of her family” (Hooper 53). This thought is extended by another critic who comments that “Rose is always on the lookout for roles to play [because she is later to become an actress], and so this is perhaps, in the beginning at least, not uncongenial to her, especially as Patrick, who is from a wealthy Vancouver family, seems to offer an escape from West Hanratty and bucolic coarseness” (Martin 109).
Most critics picked up on the issue of identity in this text, some of them believing that she goes out with Patrick and decides to marry him because she longs for the identity of the beggar maid that he gives her. Lorrain York writes, “Her attempts to forge sexual connections are disastrous, mostly because she expects to derive her essential identity from them. She marries Patrick because he will worship her, make her his “White Goddess,” his “Beggar Maid…” Although York writes this from 1987, the idea still holds through 1998 when Coral Ann Howells writes in a book on Alice Munro, “The answer would seem to be that at an emotional level she truly is a beggar maid needing to be loved and worshipped, just as her more worldly self is attracted by the image of social prestige which this marriage offers…” (Howells 61). Paula Miller, writing in 2010 on this story, might disagree with York and Howells, when she comments, “When she meets Patrick Blatchford, she accepts the young man’s admiration but feels she cannot adequately return his love. She resents his upper-class status as much as she wants to escape her impoverished roots.”
It is understandable for there to be mixed reviews on Rose’s motivations because the text indicates that Rose desires to be worshipped, and Patrick provides her that worship. However, what York and Howells ignore is that the text also clearly demonstrates Rose’s disgust with the worship Patrick gives her. “She had always thought this would happen, that somebody would look at her and love her totally and helplessely,” but she then combats that sentence with, “It was a miracle; it was a mistake. It was what she had dreamed of; it was not what she wanted” (Munro 164). Soon after, the narrator writes that Rose “didn’t like worship, really; it was only the idea of it she liked” (Munro 169).
This worship and related identity that Patrick gives Rose are the reasons that she breaks off her engagement from him. Patrick thinks of Rose as “delicate,” and embodying the image of the beggar maid from the painting, whom Rose describes as having a “milky surrender,” “a helplessness and gratitude” (Munro 163). Critic Thomas Willard writes, “Rose assumes that that [King Cophetua] is how he sees himself — as a gentleman rescuing a waif. It is not, however, how she sees herself. She feels no need to be rescued and often must reassure Patrick that she is not a weakling.”
These critical comments are easy to see in the text, but the motivation for why Rose breaks up with Patrick is deeper than what critics have mentioned because she continues in the relationship in the midst of this awareness that she does not want the identity Patrick has placed on her. The moment she breaks up with him only comes when she feels herself being influenced towards that identity, the moment she recognizes that she is becoming the beggar maid. This occurs after she has become engaged to Patrick and women she does not know begin to fawn over her and congratulate her on her good match. A dentist’s wife from her hometown Hanratty blissfully exclaims that she and the other town women must have a tea for Rose, “And Rose—oh, this was the shame of it—Rose, instead of cutting the dentist’s wife, was blushing and skittishly flashing her diamond and saying yes, that would be a lovely idea” (Munro 176). When she is asked if British Columbia is beautiful and never winter, she dimples, sparkles, and cries, “Oh, yes!” and “Oh, no!” Rose hated British Columbia and thought it felt like the middle of winter in March. Immediately after this, she goes to Patrick’s apartment to break off the engagement. This juxtaposition may be interpreted as Rose recognizing herself falling into the lifestyle of Patrick’s family that she was repulsed by; she is becoming exactly who she does not want to become.
This might be a place to end the story. We see Rose having the strength to walk away from a false definition of herself. However, this is not enough progression for Rose. We already knew that she rejected the identities that people had put on her. Munro, therefore, surprises us with Rose running back to Patrick, after she has just been psychologically and emotionally victorious over his influences on her. Other critics that asked this same question grope for reasons of power or weakness combined with the temptation of a performance. Carol Beran writes, “Rose asking, ‘Would he take it from her, would he still want it?’ (96) suggests the reconciliation stems not simply from nurturing tenderness but also from her need to test her power over him, to prove she can make him want her again in spite of the insults she had delivered as she broke the engagement.” Beran also writes that “Breaking her engagement to Patrick plunges him into misery. When she becomes aware of her power to confer happiness on him by merely changing her mind, she does so.” Walter Rintoul Martin writes that Rose makes a “fairly determined effort to free herself from the engagement (89-92), but, never sufficiently assertive, and always prone to restless experiment, she gets herself re-engaged…” Martin also writes that “Rose, the university student and immature actress, imagines a dramatic scene for herself and cannot resist performing it.” Martin believes Rose is “caught and confused between reality and her role-playing” (Martin 110). However, Rose’s future career of acting is not mentioned once in this story, therefore preventing the fact from being relevant to her reasons here.
What these critics fail to have noticed is that Rose herself provides the reason for why she ran back to Patrick that day in the library. She goes through stages of belief, the first of them being a “comradely compassion” that overcame her; the second being a fear of having no one to look after her, which would have been an embodiment of Patrick’s identity for her as the frail and needy beggar maid; the third reason given is the “test of power,” to see if she had enough power over him to bring him back to happiness. However, these are all false, Rose implies, because there is a truth that she tells no one, a reason that no one would understand. This truth is that she saw a “vision of happiness.” This is complex, though, and one needs to revisit other moments of the story to understand it’s implication.
The story opens with the line, “Patrick was in love with Rose.” And the text then states that it was an idea—not a reality or truth, but an idea that had become “fixed” and “furious” in his mind. We are not given any mention of Rose being in love with Patrick. For Rose, his love was a “continual surprise” (Munro 151). Careful reading brings the connection that these surprises were “visions of happiness,” moments when Rose senses a hope of her own love and happiness. This is what keeps her going in the relationship, and what draws her back to Patrick in the library. In the scene at the library, Rose has become free of Patrick’s worship that she despises: “She was no longer irritated by him, no longer frightened by him; she was free. […] She could appreciate him” (Munro 181). This moment reminds a close reader of when Rose had felt these surprising moment of hope and possible love in the scene when Rose experiences sexual pleasure with Patrick. “If this sexual surprise was possible, wasn’t anything?” (Munro 168). If Rose could find a surprising happiness this time, she is filled with the hope that there may be other moments of surprising happiness. Soon after this, Rose thinks, “…he must allow things to be funny when she was not here—she could see him as a likeable, intelligent, even humorous person; no hero; no fool. Perhaps they could be ordinary” (Munro 169). This is the person she sees in the carrel, when she has become free of what makes her despise him. She sees an honorable, likeable, intelligent, potentially humorous person. She sees the possibility of happiness, but it has only come in the wake of separation, when there was a confrontation with what she hated about him. This is what carries Rose through their marriage for ten years, made especially clear when Rose notes that “…sometimes, without reason or warning, happiness, the possibility of happiness, would surprise them” (Munro 183).
The two most prominent parts of “The Beggar Maid” coincide in the marriage between Rose and Patrick. It is implied that the marriage is horrible because Patrick continues to hold onto his image of Rose as the beggar maid, worshipping and obsessing over her, and Rose continues to resist it in moments of built-up outrage. What keeps her from leaving him, though, is the continual hope of happiness that had originally drawn her back to him. The text sets the reader up to understand that these moments of breaking and reconciling occur over and over again in their marriage until enough “damage had been done” for them to separate (Munro 183). It was not a choice of Rose’s, the text implies, because she had seen the possibility of happiness again when they saw each other in an airport nine years after their divorce. Rose even feels the possibility of running to him like she had in the library. But again, the reader is surprised because it is Patrick who looks at Rose with a face of complete loathing as if she were his enemy. The story ends brilliantly with the question of who could hate Rose and the answer: “Oh, Patrick could. Patrick could” (Munro 185). After ten years of pushing away and running back, without ever achieving the fulfillment of happiness, Patrick had had enough.
Alice Munro has written a remarkably complex and fascinating exploration in the psychology of identity in relation to the motivations and actions of people in love. Initially, the story demonstrates an important focus on Rose’s identity and the possible interpretation that she has not found one for herself. Once connections have been drawn throughout important scenes in the story, it becomes evident that Rose did not choose to run back to Patrick out of a desire for the identity he gave her, or any weakness on her part, but out of honest hope for the potential of happiness which she had already encountered in their relationship.
As relevant, outside reading, I chose “Royal Beatings,”1 in which Rose receives a beating from her father at the request of Flo, “Wild Swan,” where the reader sees Rose rebel against her mother’s advice, “Simon’s Luck,” in which Rose meets and falls in love with Simon, and “Who Do You Think You Are,”2 the last story in the collection when we are introduced to a childhood friend named Ralph that Rose says is the closest to her of all the men she had been with. All of these stories are part of the collection The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose.
I was hoping that because all of these stories follow Rose, more details on her life would open greater understanding to her character, motivations, and complexities that I saw in “The Beggar Maid.” However, I was a bit surprised, but interested, to realize that Munro has a very unique way of writing each story in episodes that are actually quite independent from one another.
Certainly Rose develops throughout the collection, but each story is so focused on a specific person in her life or a situation that it is difficult to read the stories into each other. I don’t actually think Munro intends for readers to draw many connections across stories. I believe she is completely intentional on keeping each story separate and provides exactly the amount of information in each singular story that is needed to understand it. Therefore, while I thoroughly enjoyed reading the extra stories, I believe that it would take away from Munro’s brilliant skill to go outside of “The Beggar Maid” to try to find answers to the questions that are brought up.
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