Throughout her writing career, which extends over more than 60 years, Alice Munro (b.1931) has produced numerous short stories.
The American author and Munro fan, Ben Dolnick, compares picking which Munro story to read to choosing "what to eat from an enormous box of chocolates." Here we have chosen to focus on "Amundsen" from her latest collection Dear Life (2012).
Many of Munro's stories can be traced to her childhood in a small town in Huron County, Ontario, Canada. The story "Amundsen", however, is set in an even more remote place; a place far from Toronto, but which is accessible by rail. The climate is unfriendly and cold, and the inhabitants are unaccustomed to strangers. As Norwegians we are puzzled by the name Amundsen. Is Amundsen referring to our polar explorer Roald Amundsen? A lot of places in the vast country of Canada are named after our national hero. If you look closely at a map, you will even find a small place in Northwest Ontario by that name. Perhaps it was this place which inspired the author.
Tuberculosis and Sanatoriums
One day, towards the end of World War II, a new female teacher from Toronto, arrives at the remote settlement in the middle of winter. In those days turbercolosis - a serious infectious lung disease - held a nasty grip, especially on the young generation. Sanatoriums were set up to treat those infected and to isolate them in order to prevent the disease from spreading. These sanatoriums were often placed in far-away places. Young Vivien (Vivi) is going to teach the hospitalized children. The prospects for the recovery of the children do not seem too good, and the new teacher is met by a hospital atmosphere, with an air of sadness and defeat.
Read the Story
Answer the questions by making references to the text:
- What kind of place is Amundsen?
- Read the introductory scene. Describe the young woman's first encounter with the place.
- How is the misinterpretation with "Sam" for "San" significant?
- World War II and the deadly disease of tuberculosis make a sinister frame for the story. How?
- The gender gap is apparent in the story. How is this revealed?
- What makes Vivi stand out as an outsider in this community?
Answer the questions by making references to the text
- Make a characterization of Vivi
- What makes Vivi from Toronto apply for the vacant position as a teacher in this far-away place, do you think?
- Is she lonely?
- Do you believe her when she says she has a boyfriend? If not, what might be her reasons for making him up?
- What makes Vivi attracted to Doctor Fox?
- Does she really love him?
- What flaws does she see in his character?
- In spite of these flaws, she wants to marry him. Why do you think?
- In what ways is the male world inaccessible to Vivi? How does she feel about it?
- Does she bond with the other women?
- Is she a reliable narrator, do you think?
- Make a characterization of the doctor.
- What makes him so powerful in this community?
- Why is he generally admired by the women in this place?
- Why does he propose to Vickie, do you think?
- What makes him cancel the wedding?
- Does he exploit her?
- What might be his reasons for bullying Mary?
- Describe how he bonds with the males.
- Is he an all-bad character?
- Might his name be symbolic? How?
The Conclusion and Your Review
"It still seemed as if we would make our way out of that crowd, as if in just a moment we would be together. But it was just as certain, also, that we would carry on in the directions we were going, and so we did." Munro goes on to describe how Vivi walks home; "feeling the same as when I'd left Amundsen...Nothing changes, apparently, about love."
- What is your interpretation of this?
- Do you think the relationship between Vivi and Dr Fox was about love, or something else? If so, what?
- In your view, is this a love story?
- "It was just as certain, also, that we would carry on in the directions we were going, and so we did." Considering the story, could this also refer to the separate worlds of women and men and how we communicate?
Ben Dolnick, who is a devoted Munro fan, compared deciding which short story to read to making up your mind about which chocolate to taste from an enormous chocolate box, he goes on:
" -- and, while you're very likely to choose something delicious, there is the slight but real possibility of finding yourself stuck with, say, raspberry ganache."
Do you think this characterization applies for this short story? Did you like the story? Write a brief review of "Amundsen".
In your review you might also consider:
- Do you think the persistent focus on gender, as it appears in the story, is irrelevant today?
- Would Doctor Fox stand out as admirable to women today?
- Will women always be fascinated by powerful men?