on “Dimensions” by Alice Munro


[CN: Misogyny, abuse, family violence, spoilers]

(im pulling quotes from the story as it appears in the collection TOO MUCH HAPPINESS, the New Yorker version in the link has some differences such as the name of the hotel.)

“Dimensions,” or “Dimension” singular as it appears in the New Yorker, starts with us meeting Doree as she is taking an extended bus trip to some place out of her way in London (two transfers and “a hundred odd miles.”) Munro doles out some details, but they leave a lot unexplained, and they lay down a foreboding tone.

She was a chambermaid at the Blue Spruce Inn. She scrubbed bathrooms and stripped and made beds and vacuumed rugs and wiped mirrors. She liked the work — it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out so that she could sleep at night.

Damn, what kind of calamity has struck this woman so that these horrible aspects of work are actually a salve?

We learn further that she’s going by her middle name, and has changed her appearance. At some point in the past Doree has felt the need to reinvent herself, in part because her face has appeared in the papers, when she had brown wavy hair, which is now short, bleached, and spiked.

Seventh paragraph: descriptions of the other passengers whom Doree anxiously regards. They are demure and church-going in appearance:

The older ones looked as if they were going to strict old-fashioned churches where you had to wear a skirt and stockings and some sort of hat, while the younger ones might have belonged to a livelier congregation, which accepted pants suits, bright scarves, earrings, and puffy hairdos.

Doree herself is secular, but the trappings of Xianity are woven through the text with a payoff towards the end. Doree is traveling to meet Lloyd, whose first mention is in this sentence:

She had got out of the way of wearing makeup because he hadn’t allowed it, and now, though she could have, she didn’t.

Doree met Lloyd when he was a male nurse in the hospital her mother was staying in. Lloyd is paranoid, jealous, controlling, abusive. She marries him at sixteen has a child the next year. (i only scanned the other stories in the collection, but women who marry and get pregnant at a really young age seems to be a recurring element, as is family problems being quickly blamed on bad mothering.) He doesn’t allow her to wear makeup. He forbids her form taking birth control. She has two more children by him.

The red flags and evidence keep mounting as Munro shows us flashbacks of Doree’s narrative intercut with her attempts to visit Lloyd in his new location, and appointments with a counselor. You’re screaming at Doree to DTMFA, but Munro so skillfully renders the dynamics of abuse and the self-doubt inculcated by abusers in their targets.

Doree is half-convinced that Lloyd’s insistence that their problems are from her shortcomings (her youngest’s health problems must be her bad milk, she must not be treating Lloyd properly), but she is also aware that this is fucked up how she is being made to apologize for Lloyd’s disgusting treatment of her, and has to guard herself around her friend and confidante Maggie in case she gets suspicious. And there’s that danger in all long-term relationships that go south: the fear that things will totally collapse if Doree breaks off, even as Lloyd continually poisons her internal life.

The foundation of abuse and the broader culture that sanctions it is that the victims are manipulated into taking abusive behavior for love and care. i think there’s also a more broad dynamic addressed by the story, in how society, its patriarchal culture and legal system, distributes labor and responsibility.

Lloyd commits a triple homicide on their kids, and rationalizes it as a punishment for Doree’s alleged bad motherhing. Lloyd is not incarcerated but declared criminally insane and kept in an institution. Now, anarch that i am, im not happy with anyone being ground up in the prison system. And yet the text presents a man absolved of all responsibility for an act of extreme violence, while Doree has been burdened with blame and criticism simply bc a man’s voice, no matter how irrational, is beyond dispute or reproach. Reading the text in light of the bullshit thrown at Sulkowicz has made this aspect more striking.

This unfairness is compounded when, after finally accepting Doree’s visits, Lloyd opens up in a couple of letters, the second of which claims he has encountered their dead children in another dimension. Why does this apparent closure visit Lloyd and not Doree? But the story ends on a hopeful note (albeit with another small tragedy on the road). It’s a mature ending, one that doesn’t emphasize forgiveness or absolution, but rather agency and and how caring for others, when done with competence and poise, can give the caretaker self-gratification and a kind of inner peace.

This excerpt has some interaction between Doree and Maggie. It shows us some of the internal strife going on in Doree, who is struggling with her recognition of Lloyd’s awful behavior and her conditioned resignation. Munro’s sentences keep it simple, as befitting the house style of the “well made” realist short, but they take it to another level with how the precisely chosen details hint at something really sinister and chilling: “She was even allowed to laugh with him, as long as she wasn’t the one who started the laughing.” “If Doree could watch her own loyalty it would be all right.”

Munro is 2 good.

“Dimensions” by Alice Munro

Doree and Maggie got into the habit of shopping for groceries together, after they’d picked up the papers at the school. Then sometimes they got take-out coffees at Tim Horton’s and took the children to Riverside Park. They sat on a bench while Sasha and Maggie’s boys raced around or hung from the climbing contraptions, and Barbara Ann pumped on the swing and Dimitri played in the sandbox. Or they sat in the mini, if it was cold. They talked mostly about the children, and things they cooked, but somehow Doree found out about how Maggie had trekked around Europe before training as an optometrist and Maggie found out how young Doree had been when she got married. Also about how easily she had become pregnant at first, and how she didn’t so easily anymore, and how that made Lloyd suspicious, so that he went through her dresser drawers looking for birth-control pills—thinking she must be taking them on the sly.

“And are you?” Maggie asked.

Doree was shocked. She said she wouldn’t dare.

“I mean, I’d think that was awful to do, without telling him. It’s just kind of a joke when he goes looking for them.”

“Oh,” Maggie said.

And one time Maggie said, “Is everything all right with you? I mean in your marriage? You’re happy?”

Doree said yes, without hesitation. After that she was more careful about what she said. She saw that there were things that she was used to that another person might not understand. Lloyd had a certain way of looking at things; that was just how he was. Even when she’d first met him, in the hospital, he’d been like that. The head nurse was a starchy sort of person, so he’d called her Mrs. Bitch-out-of-hell, instead of her name, which was Mrs. Mitchell. He said it so fast that you could barely catch on. He’d thought that she picked favorites, and he wasn’t one of them. Now there was somebody he detested at the ice-cream factory, somebody he called Suck-stick Louie. Doree didn’t know the man’s real name. But at least that proved that it wasn’t only women who provoked him.

Doree was pretty sure that these people weren’t as bad as Lloyd thought, but it was no use contradicting him. Perhaps men just had to have enemies, the way they had to have their jokes. And sometimes Lloyd did make the enemies into jokes, just as if he were laughing at himself. She was even allowed to laugh with him, as long as she wasn’t the one who started the laughing.

She hoped that he wouldn’t get that way about Maggie. At times she was afraid she saw something of the sort coming. If he prevented her from riding to the school and the grocery store with Maggie it would be a big inconvenience. But worse would be the shame. She would have to make up some stupid lie, to explain things. But Maggie would know—at least she would know that Doree was lying, and she would interpret that, probably, as meaning that Doree was in a worse situation than she really was. Maggie had her own sharp no-nonsense way of looking at things.

Then Doree asked herself why she should care, anyway, what Maggie might think. Maggie was an outsider, not even somebody Doree felt particularly comfortable with. It was Lloyd and Doree and their family that mattered. Lloyd said that, and he was right. The truth of things between them, the bond, was not something that anybody else could understand and it was not anybody else’s business. If Doree could watch her own loyalty it would be all right.


One thought on “on “Dimensions” by Alice Munro

  1. I just finished reading this collection and really like your take on “Dimensions”. It’s incredible the way Munro deals with the after affects of such a traumatic event. One of my favorite lines in the whole story: “But think. Aren’t I just as cut off by what happened as he is? Nobody who knew about it would want me around. All I can do is remind people of what nobody can stand to be reminded of.” I never seen abuse/murder and its after affects dealt with so plainly and straightforwardly.

    Liked by 1 person

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