We're introduced to the narrator's searching tone early on:
What was Grace really looking for when she had undertaken this expedition? Maybe the worst thing would have been to get just what she might have thought she was after. (7)
Throughout the story, the narrator steps in to ask questions, as if engaging the reader in an attempt to get at some sense of meaning.
Even when there is an answer, Munro's word choice doesn't shut down any possibilities. "Maybe," the narrator says, which suggests there could be any number of correct answers, which opens things up to interpretation or extrapolation. It can be boring (and annoying) to be told what to think, but that searching narrative tone is like listening to a wise friend who doesn't pretend to be wise, and doesn't pretend to know the answers.
While there are certainly suggestions of hope and glimmers of happiness in the story, "Passion" deals largely with some pretty dire subject matter:
She had come on this rock-bottom truth. This lack of hope—genuine, reasonable, and everlasting. (279)
We understand if your heart box feels a little bit heavy.
"Passion" can be categorized in the Coming-Of-Age genre because it explores Grace's transition from adolescence to adulthood. Did that explanation blow your mind? We thought it might. It's interesting to consider that while "Passion" qualifies as a Coming-Of-Age story, the vast majority of all that "becoming an adult" business takes place off screen. We meet Grace as an old woman at the beginning of the story, and spend a summer with her when she's twenty years old, but everything that happened in between is left for us to imagine.
Postmodernism might sound super fancy and kind of intimidating, but all it means in this case is that "Passion" is experimental in form.
Munro is never flashy about being experimental, but her stories often follow nonlinear narratives and play with time in interesting ways. It's a good way to make the form of a story reflect memory—how we remember things out of order, reconstruct or misremember certain details, and how memories usually come drifting back in unexpected ways.
As for Tragedy, "Passion" deals with some somber themes. There's a general mood of impending disappointment, as if every twist or turn in the road will eventually lead to a letdown.
Still, that doesn't mean there aren't things to be cheerful about. There's the story of how Mr. Travers "searched and searched for the particular pink granite, because Mrs. Travers had once exclaimed over a rock like that" (12). There's the final embrace that Neil gives Grace, as if to tell her, "Everything was possible" (302). Throughout the story there are small acts of kindness and small examples of love amid all that murky sad sauce.
We suspect there are a lot of things up with the title in this case, but it may have an extra-special something to do with Mrs. Travers saying:
I suppose that's just how your sympathies change as you get older. Passion gets pushed behind the washtubs. (58)
We tend to speak about passion with positivity. "She's got a passion for running," someone might say, or "He's passionate about blowfish," or "They went walking on the beach at sunset and shared a passionate kiss." It's a word with a lot of implied meaning rolled into it: love, intimacy, motivation, and attachment. It's like a big, mysterious meaningful burrito.
So what happens to people who lose their passion? Do we all tend to push passion "behind the washtubs" as we get older? What makes us do it? Can life be enjoyed without it? Can we get it back once we've lost it? There's a lot to ponder, and Munro is whetting our appetite for reflection and introspection with the story we have here.
"Passion" is not a cheerful story. It would earn three violins and a raisin on the Shmoop Sadness Scale (which we got rid of because it didn't make any sense). But maybe the story's final line suggests some hope:
In those days, it was enough money to insure her a start in life. (317)
It's not an attention-grabbing last line. It's the kind of last line that might inspire a shrug or an exasperated "That's it?" And in that case you might wonder why we ever thought to compare Alice Munro to Lebron James, because surely Lebron James would end his short story with a Sportscenter-worthy slam-dunk.
There's a lot of potential meaning to that final line. We're talking the kind of stuff that inspires amazing essays and spirited dinner conversations.
Grace stares into a storm of sadness, wrapped in a tornado of despair. Yet we know (with that last line that might at first seem so worthy of a shrug) that she chose to live her life. She got old, and maybe she fell in love and had a family. Or maybe she didn't. Maybe she became the world's greatest chair caner, or maybe she owns a hockey team. In any case, her life was probably like every other life—full of sad moments and happy moments, and altogether interesting.
So actually, the story's ending might be a secret slam-dunk. How does one perform a secret slam-dunk? We're not sure, but the mystery is part of the fun.
Alright, here it is: the super fantastical, extra spectastical "Passion" setting breakdown.
The story takes place in Canada's Ottawa Valley. Located between Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec, the Ottawa Valley is a go-to destination for quaint prettiness. Do you like corn farming? There's lots of corn farming. And pine trees…and probably deer. We also imagine there are gift stores filled with jelly made from Ottawa Valley pine trees. This is an out-of-the-way kind of place. It's the countryside. At the beginning of the story, when Grace is looking for the Traverses' summer house, she remembers there being just "one dirt road running towards the lake, then the one dirt road running rather haphazardly along the lake's edge" (1).
Whether you grew up in New York City, a small cabin in Wyoming, the Ottawa Valley, or a boat in the middle of the ocean, chances are you'll be influenced by cultural expectations. For instance, are those shoes you're wearing "normal"? What will people think if you're a guy and you really want to be a cheerleader, or if you're a girl and you really want to play football? Figuring stuff out (let alone figuring yourself out) can be difficult anywhere, but sometimes growing up in a place like the Ottawa Valley can make it even more difficult since there are fewer people, meaning what you do and who you are gets noticed more.
This might be an important factor to consider when it comes to Grace. There's a constant sense of conflict between the life she dreams about and the life she has. What do people think of her desire to learn about subjects that don't have anything to do with getting a job and earning a living? How do cultural expectations (e.g., this is what boys like, this is what girls like) influence what people think? How might those expectations make us feel trapped?
The majority of the story takes place during one summer. Grace is twenty years old and just out of high school. And although no explicit dates are stated, there are clues (like the fact that Grace and Maury go to see Father of the Bride) that let us know we're probably in/around 1950. This is probably worth keeping in mind if you consider the heaviness of those gender roles and expectations.
"Passion" is short. Hey, they don't call it a short story for nothing. It's also pretty accessible, so you don't have to go into it with an extensive knowledge of Canadian legislative policies or spelunking—but something you'll repeatedly hear about Alice Munro's stories is that they have the complexity of a novel. In other words, these may be short stories, but Munro is really good at stuffing a bunch of stuff into her stories, which might be annoying if she weren't such an artful, Nobel Prize-winning story stuffer. "Passion" seems simple enough. It isn't until you start trying to unpack it that you realize how complex it is.
All that narrative wisdom that helped earn Alice Munro a Nobel Prize wouldn't be possible without some bomb subtlety skills. With subtlety you can be wise without being preachy and entertaining without being flashy. You can make your story seem like it's about a lot of things all at once.
Subtlety is all about small details, like when Mrs. Travers rushes out to tell Grace how glad she is because Grace will know how to keep Neil from drinking. In that moment Grace is struck by minute changes in Mrs. Travers' physical appearance:
A weepy gladness leaking out of her eyes…a faint crust showing at the corners of her mouth, like sugar. (155)
It's like a facade has suddenly been stripped away to reveal Mrs. Travers' true appearance. But what does that true appearance mean? Why, until that moment, was Grace only seeing the facade? It's such a brief moment, with very little detail amid the larger context of the story, yet it contains a world of meaning.
In other words, it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. How does Munro do it? We don't know. What we do know is there's a lot going on. Characters reveal hidden depths, unanswerable questions are asked, and time is messy. Still, the always-classy Munro never points a sign at these complicated things she's doing. They just tend to unfold organically, as if the story couldn't be told any other way.
For an example, let's take a look at the short scene in which Grace arrives at the Travers home for Thanksgiving dinner. Mrs. Travers is helping her granddaughters put together a jigsaw puzzle, and when she sees Grace she jumps up for an embrace—"the first time she had ever done this" (86)—and scatters some jigsaw pieces with a clumsy motion of her hand. This seems small, right? It seems like something out of a sitcom. There'd be a sad trombone sound and canned laughter from the fake studio audience. But a moment later, as her granddaughters complain about the destroyed puzzle, Mrs. Travers ignores them and is "still squeezing Grace's arms" (90).
It's like the camera lingers just a little bit longer than we'd expect, and by doing so we're seeing something quietly dramatic. Mrs. Travers is desperate, she's really happy to see Grace, she's ignoring her grandchildren, and Grace suddenly sees that calm and independent aura that surrounds Mrs. Travers slipping a bit.
This is how we feel about water when it shows up in "Passion." Utterly terrified.
Why the sheer water terror? It might have something to do with Grace's perception of Neil:
What she had seen was final. As if she was at the edge of a flat dark body of water that stretched on and on. Cold, level water. Looking out at such dark, cold, level water, and knowing it was all there was. (290)
It all sounds pretty hopeless and mysterious. Also, remember the line about the "deep unfathomable caves of ocean bear"? There's a lot of water in "Passion," but rather than taking on a cleansing, purifying connotation, it seems to instead represent mystery and darkness. What choice does a person have when she looks into the void and feels as if it's all there is? Does she throw herself in? Does she acknowledge its existence and decide to live anyway? We like to think life can be lived and enjoyed without dwelling on the existence of the big endless water void (a.k.a. the lake) that lies just down the street—but what do you think has drawn Grace back to the fateful lake from a summer long since passed?
Remember all that stuff about acknowledging the hopeless void but turning around and choosing to live life anyway? You could argue that the one thousand dollar check is a symbol for the fact that Grace chooses to live her life anyway. In choosing to accept the check, she is taking advantage of an opportunity that is presented to her, rather than turning away from the figurative promise that one thousand dollars offers her.
Also, you might think about what else that check represents. Why did Mr. and Mrs. Travers decide to give Grace a one thousand dollar check? What does that money allow Grace to do? Thinking about these questions will probably be a much more cheerful endeavor than thinking about that endless body of cold flat water.
Dreams have to symbolize something, right?
While Neil is in the bootlegger's house, doing whatever it is people do in the bootleggers' houses, Grace falls asleep and has a dream about seeing her uncle, "stooped and baffled, looking out at her, as if she had been away for years and years. As if she had promised to go home and then she had forgotten about it, and in all this time he should have died but he didn't" (252).
You could get very creative with what this dream might symbolize, but some basic possibilities might be regret or the passage of time. Or maybe it represents Grace's supposition that there's a thin line "between some threadbare ways of living that were respectable, and some that were not" (250). Chair caning? Good. Bootlegging? Bad. We know this because society says so. But why does society say so? Why do we listen?
In this case we're referring to the Thanksgiving drive that Neil and Grace take, which could be an allegory for lots of different things: loss of innocence/becoming an adult, disappointment, redemption…the list probably goes on, and it's definitely worth thinking about why those ideas might be represented by the drive.
But, we're going to concentrate on this passage:
<em>What she [Grace] remembers is…hardly distinguishable from her idea, her fantasies at that time, of what sex should be like. The fortuitous meeting, the muted but powerful signals, the nearly silent flight…an airy surrender, flesh nothing now but a stream of desire.</em> (174)
Go ahead and marinate on that for a moment.
Munro's narrator is like a wise housefly. It buzzes around, hangs out on walls, and reports stuff to us. Plus, it has access to characters' thoughts (because houseflies are cool like that), though it tends to stay especially close to Grace. This means that our perceptions are sometimes shaped according to how Grace views and reacts to the world, rather than being wholly impartial observations.
When Grace struggles to articulate why, exactly, she hated Father of the Bride, Munro's narrator steps in:
She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn't altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. (164)
As a result of these interjections, it's possible to guess what kinds of things the narrator is passionate about. As an example, we get a whole paragraph about why Grace felt rage after seeing Father of the Bride:
It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like…that was what men—people, everybody—thought they should be like. (164)
Our omniscient housefly narrator isn't interested in telling us what to think, but despite the third person distance there is occasionally a certain bend on a question or idea that tell us, "This is important."
This also happens when the narrator steps in to ask questions, like when we're told that Grace took extra high school classes. "Why was she doing it? Did she have any plans?" (27). By asking these questions the narrator invites us to participate in the story's meaning. We're not being told what to think, and that opens the story up in unexpected ways. It's a big reason why Munro's stories are so complex.
Grace hasn't visited the Ottawa Valley for a long time. But now she's back, she's older, and she's looking for the Traverses' summer house. Also, we hear a lot about how things have changed.
Flashback. It's summer, decades ago, and Grace is once again a teenager. Maury asks Grace out on a date, which is the beginning of Grace's involvement with the Travers family. The story wouldn't be possible without this complication.
Grace cuts her foot on a clamshell and Neil Travers arrives. He applies some first aid (and by "first aid" we mean sexual tension…and first aid) before proposing to drive Grace to the hospital. The story couldn't resolve without that small scene in which Grace cuts her foot.
Neil and Grace go for a drive. They stop at a bar, they stop at a house, Neil drinks whiskey and licks Grace's palm. Basically, things happen.
Grace hears that Neil died in a car crash. Mr. Travers gives Grace a check for one thousand dollars, and everything is resolved. (Since it's an Alice Munro story, "resolved" might be an overstatement. Let's just say things reach a conclusion.)