A Way of Seeing: How to write like a Woman

Those of us who write fiction aren’t sure when we start out what our life-long themes will be. They evolve in the writing, often surprising us, surfacing in our images and characters, the nuts and bolts of stories. Our narratives offer a map to our deeper concerns. The better our explication skills, the more we are able to uncover them. Alice Munro’s early works are rich in such details and demand a close reading, in particular, the episodic novel Lives of Girls and Women. It follows Del’s development as an artist in a small Canadian town, paralleling Munro’s evolution as a writer.

The title of the second story in Lives, “Heirs of the Living Body,” is suggestive. In one sense, Munro is referring to the physical body itself, and especially the female body. She also is concerned with the body of literature and how women writers fit into it. Or, as Barbara Godard points out, Munro wants to know “How to write as a woman?” (43).

The word “heirs” itself implies that there is something to pass on, an inheritance. It also conveys the sense of a past that lives in the present. An image from the opening paragraph already sets forth this notion: a picture of a log cabin contained within the modern brick house, the family home of Del’s Uncle Craig. Del, of course, is the narrative’s main character. The cabin “seemed to have been in another country, where everything was much lower, muddier, darker than here” (Lives 24). However, while the log house appears to be an anachronism, it inhabits the same space as the more contemporary home.

“Heirs” also sounds very much like “hairs,” making a different kind of connection between heir and body. Hairs act like sensors, often standing on end in response to danger or even delight. Hair also conveys the relationship between humans and animals. Our hair can protect the skin, keep us warm. It can hide and/or mask, as with beards and body hair, having the closest, most intimate relationship with the body. All of these associations reveal something more about “heir”: they show how close heir/hair and body are, how inseparable the past is from the present, how bodies (physical and literary) embody past and present.         

While Del—Munro’s alter ego—may not complete her Uncle Craig’s project, “a history of Wawanash County and a family tree going back to 1670 in Ireland” (26), she does inherit from him his interest in “the whole solid, intricate structure of lives supporting us from the past” (26), as well as people’s daily lives. From this perspective, the past can be viewed as a physical entity, an objective correlative of our innermost selves.

Del’s Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace are interested in history, too, but theirs is an oral history, the stories that keep them connected to their family and the past. The two women live essentially in the past, as does Uncle Craig. But while his past consists of outer events, newspaper clippings, descriptions of the weather, “a great accumulation of the most ordinary facts” (27), the aunts’ past is of narratives depicting specific moments in time, complete with dialogue. These stories provide support for the women, an emotional history they shape in the telling, giving Del a picture of the family’s inner life she otherwise would not have had.

Yet the aunts don’t just provide a view of the family. They also show Del how stories can shift depending on who communicates them. When the aunts tell the story of the hired man (28), an Austrian who had appeared one day, needing work, they constantly modify each other’s memory, giving another account. In this instance, one of the aunts (the passage doesn’t indicate which one) decided to play a trick on the man. She darkened her hands and face, wore uncle Craig’s overalls, and tucked her hair under her father’s hat. Then, after lying in wait behind some trees and with a kitchen knife in hand, she confronted the Austrian. Terrified, he yelled and lit out for the barn. Then we learn that she had returned to the house and changed back into her own clothes. Not long after,

           Father and Mother got back from town. There we were, all sitting round the
           supper table, waiting on him. We were hoping secretly he’d run off.’
           `Not me. I wasn’t. I wanted to see the effect.’ (29)

While the aunts seem more connected to the countryside, Del’s mother values culture—what she finds in the town. She’s educated and literary; the aunts aren’t. Elspeth and Grace are as lost in the mother’s world as she appears to be in theirs:           

           My mother went along straight lines. Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace wove in and
           out around her, retreating and disappearing and coming back, slippery and soft-
           voiced and indestructible…. There was a whole new language to learn in their
           house. Conversations there had many levels, nothing could be stated directly,
           every joke might be a thrust turned inside out. My mother’s disapproval was open
           and unmistakable, of kindness. (31)

From Del’s encounters with these women—her mother and her aunts—she is learning her writer’s craft, the many levels of reality that a writer portrays, the texts and subtexts that underlie seemingly innocent conversations and gestures. Godard says, “From these aunts, Del learns a ‘whole new language’ (Lives 37), one of ‘rampaging mockery, embroidered with deference’” (55).

One of Del’s equally important female teachers is Mary Agnes, her mentally disabled  cousin. More animal than human in behavior, not belonging to the adult or the child’s world, she rolls Del around on the floor as if she is a dog (Lives 35). Mary Agnes does not have an identity of her own. Del says, “She spoke to me in the harsh, hectoring, uncertain tones of somebody who is not just teasing but imitating teasing, imitating the way she had heard certain brash and jovial people, storekeepers maybe, talking to children” (35).

Someone without an identity easily can be filled, a direct vehicle for the unconscious, not unlike the artist herself: to be most effective, an artist must be open to the inner world, giving it voice—sensitive to what’s pushing up from below (or beyond), what wants expression. In the scene where Mary Agnes and Del come upon a dead cow, Mary Agnes can experience death directly, unlike Del, who uses a stick to tap the cow’s hide and explore its contours, and is “shy about looking at its eye” (37). Unable to touch the cow herself, Del says to Mary Agnes, “Touch a dead cow” (38):

           Mary Agnes came up slowly, and to my astonishment she bent down, grunting,
           looking at the eye as if she knew I had been wondering about it, and she laid her
           hand—she laid the palm of her hand—over it, over the eye. She did this seriously,
           shrinkingly, yet with a tender composure that was not like her. But as soon as she
           had done it she stood up, and held her hand in front of her face, palm towards me,
           fingers spread, so that it looked like a huge hand, bigger than her whole face, and
           dark. She laughed right at me.

           ‘You’d be scared to let me catch you now,’ she said, and I was, but walked away
           from her as insolently as I could manage.

           It often seemed then that nobody else knew what really went on, or what a person
           was, but me. For instance people said ‘poor Mary Agnes’ or implied it, by a drop
           in pitch, a subdued protective tone of voice, as if she had no secrets, no place of
           her own, and that was not true. (38)

These two characters mirror each other: Mary Agnes has secrets, and so does Del. Mary Agnes can sense the moods and thoughts of others. In this scene, she knows Del fears death and the cow’s unseeing eye; she’s able to do what Del can’t yet. Mary Agnes shows Del the way to apprehend the unknown because Mary Agnes doesn’t seem to fear death or darkness. It’s as if she lives closer to a preconscious state and has a direct connection to the unconscious mind. As a budding artist, Del also has such a connection, and, like Mary Agnes, she can see into people and situations. In recognizing this capacity in Mary Agnes, she’s acknowledging it in herself.

In this passage, Del also discovers a map on the cow that she traces with a stick: “The brown could be the ocean, the white the floating continents. With my stick, I traced their strange shapes, their curving coasts, trying to keep the point of the stick exactly between the white and the brown” (37). Cows move slowly, grazing and transforming grass into milk, a continuing cycle. A cow’s milk can replace a woman’s, essential nourishment for an infant. A cow is female.

In certain myths, the cow has a sacred role and has been associated with the feminine principle.[1] Beverly Rasporich, in Dance of the Sexes, talks about “Isis, the teacher of agriculture and goddess of fertility whose sacred symbol was the cow” (47). And there’s such abundance, not just one teat or two, but four, a banquet of milk. The process a cow goes through by digesting her food in four stomachs suggests how a writer/artist works, taking base materials, her experiences, and changing them into art, a product that nourishes humans.

Roberto Calasso, in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, describes the descent of Europa, a Phoenician princess loved by Zeus, from Io, her great-great-grandmother who had been turned into a heifer by Zeus. Io had been transformed from a priestess into a cow to fulfill a dream prophecy she’d had. Eventually, Io became a girl again and was united with Zeus. Europa inherited her ancestor’s destiny. In Calasso’s words, “A bull would carry her off from Asia toward the continent that was to be called Europe, just as years before the desperate sea wandering of a young cow who had first grazed in Greek pastures was to end in Egypt with the light touch of Zeus’ hand” (6). The touch in Munro’s modern-day tale, though, comes from a woman, Mary Agnes, who “sees” through her hands, as the writer Del does. The hands of an artist seem to have a direct link with the unconscious, as if connected to an inner eye.

After the “Heirs of the Living Body” section, Del’s mother takes a more central role. In a later work, Munro states that her mother “is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken” (Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You 246). For many female artists, this search for the mother, in Jung’s deeper, archetypal sense—meaning the impersonal mother principle [2] that has given birth to us all—has become the quest. In finding the mother, the source of their being, they find themselves, a truer, more complete, grounded sense of themselves. They also find their “voices,” a way of working that articulates their vision. This discovery may include challenging the language they’ve inherited and its meanings. Del says, “Day-ud, cow” after Mary Agnes warns her to leave it alone: “That old dead cow. It’s dirty. You get yourself dirty” (Lives 37).

Mary Agnes’ words are not her own. These are sentiments she has learned from others and are not necessarily her own ideas about dead cows. Del, in her intuitive way, senses what is going on and attempts to rename what she’s seeing (day-ud), changing the meaning slightly not only of the experience but of the word—dead. Instead of dead suggesting the end, the new word brings light into it, daylight, and a shortened version of udder—ud. (One can’t help but also hear “id” contained in “ud.”) These alterations suggest that Del will find in death its opposite, something fruitful for her vision of the universe. It won’t be all dark and unfathomable; rather, it will nourish, as a cow’s milk can nourish, as a mother’s does.

For Del, a heightened vision comes in facing death, in not letting it overwhelm her with its power. It’s part of her development of an artist’s way of seeing. As Rasporich says,

           From childhood through adolescence, Del is perennially in a state of heightened
           imagination. Her psychology is composed of visionary states: at Uncle Craig’s
           funeral caught in a vision…of confusions and obscenity—of helplessness, which
           was revealed as the most obscene thing there could be… [a vision] … which
           collapsed of its own intensity’…. In short, Del becomes in the course of the
           narrative not only a female adolescent heroine, but the developing artist and, as
           other critics have observed, a female version of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in A
           Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (Dance 51).

One could say she’s learning to see with the impersonality of the dead cow’s eye, a lens similar to that of the photographer described in “Epilogue: The Photographer,” a section I’ll discuss later in this essay.

Then there are the markings on the cow’s hide, suggestive of continents. What territory is Del discovering here? What world has she stumbled upon? Is it death? Darkness? Land and water, the conscious and unconscious mind? A new land, new contents to be discovered in writing? The stick she uses to trace their “strange shapes” seems reminiscent of a writer’s pen, similar to the tool used by the Egyptian god Thoth, scribe of the gods, a device that Del will one day take up, using it deliberately to trace out the world of her imagination.

When Del attends her Uncle Craig’s funeral, her initiation is complete. Again, as with Europa, women are her initiators. Del’s mother insists that her daughter join her. She says, “You have to learn to face things sometime” (Lives 39). But after Del’s initial curiosity about death, she becomes frightened and seeks refuge in the storeroom, an area that reminds her Auntie Grace of a tomb. Del says, “I loved the sound of that word when I first heard her say it. I did not know exactly what it was, or had got it mixed up with womb, and I saw us inside some sort of hollow marble egg, filled with blue light, that did not need to get in from outside” (45). The egg and its self-contained blue light suggest something gestating, and womb has the same association—a place of birth.

This birth happens in a room that appears to be part of the original house, shown in the photo in the story’s opening paragraph: “I went through the door at the end of the side hall into the old part of the house. This part was called the storeroom; from outside, it looked like a little house of logs tacked on to the side of the big brick house” (45). In itself, this seems significant. The past lives on in Del, the history that she will reshape into art. But more important, her particular vision has emerged from whatever she inherited from her Scots-Irish ancestors and what they, in turn, bring with them from their Celtic origins. She will not be content to take up the Christianity she explores in another section in Lives but probes beneath it, as her mother did, in trying to explain to Del her ideas about death:

           All these things, what are they? combinations of elements! combine them—
           combine the combinations—and you’ve got a person! We call it Uncle Craig, or
           your father, or me. But it’s just these combinations, these parts put together and
           running in a certain particular way, for the time being. Then what happens is that
           one of the parts gives out, breaks down. In Uncle Craig’s case, the heart. So we say,
           Uncle Craig is dead. The person is dead. But that’s just our way of looking at
           it. That’s just our human way. If we weren’t thinking all the time in terms of
           persons, if we were thinking of Nature, all Nature going on and on, parts of it
           dying,—well not dying, changing, changing is the word I want, changing into
           something else, all those elements that made the person changing and going back
           into Nature again and reappearing over and over in birds and animals and
           flowers—Uncle Craig doesn’t have to be Uncle Craig! Uncle Craig is flowers! (40)

Nature and its mysteries, symbolized in the dead cow by the river, a world before civilization imposed structures upon it, will be Del’s inheritance, a way of seeing that bypasses received truths to discover new ones: “Day-ud cow.” As Barbara Godard points out,

           Del is her mother’s daughter as she rewrites him [Joyce], ultimately accepting her
           mother’s agnosticism with its revisionary swerve: ‘God was made by man! Not
           the other way around! … Man made God in his own image’ (Lives 107). Such a
           statement invites a theory of difference whereby woman might make God in her
           own image. (“Heirs” 68).

In the storeroom, again Mary Agnes is present and recognizes Del’s discomfort about seeing her dead Uncle Craig. Mary Agnes says, “You come and—see—Uncle Craig” (Lives 46). Then Mary Agnes tries to force Del to go with her. Del says, “I dropped my head and got her arm in my opened mouth, I got her solid downy arm just below the elbow, and I bit and bit and broke the skin and in pure freedom thinking I had done the worst thing that I would ever do, I tasted Mary Agnes Oliphant’s blood” (46).

This scene is another stage in Del losing her innocence; a blood bonding occurs as if Del and Mary Agnes have formed a secret society. Not frightened of death, Mary Agnes, Del’s alter ego, is able to face what is terrible. Here Del partakes in Mary Agnes’ ability to taste what isn’t visible to the average eye, Mary Agnes’ knowledge—her secrets. There’s a bond now between them. No longer just cousins, they are blood sisters.

The final step in Del’s initiation occurs when Del decides to enter the front room where her uncle’s body lies, “just in time for the Last Look” (49):                                                       

           He himself was wiped out; this face was like a delicate mask of skin, varnished,
           and laid over the real face—or over nothing at all, ready to crack when you poked
           a finger into it. I did have this impulse, but at a level far, far removed from
           possibility, just as you might have an impulse to touch a live wire. Uncle Craig
           was like that under his lilies, on his satin pillow; he was the terrible, silent,
           indifferent conductor of forces that could flare up, in an instant, and burn through
           this room, all reality, leave us dark. (49)

Through looking intensely, Del’s newly awakened eye “touches” the image of death, as Mary Agnes’ hand had done in the scene with the cow. The first thing Del notices is that the surface of things can’t be trusted, that her uncle’s real face is under this “varnished” surface. Here she is seeing a totally new reality, a new way of being. Death casts a cloak over things, takes the essence of a person and leaves only a shell—a mask. The dead Uncle Craig becomes a symbol of all that’s unfathomable in life, the unpredictable and uncontrollable themes that turn up repeatedly in Munro’s later work. Striking with the finality of death, these forces can undermine whatever certainty we have in an orderly world, art as ephemeral as anything else that we humans may produce. Still, as Ildiko de Papp Carrington notes in Controlling the Uncontrollable, “… Del’s struggle to control a frighteningly loose power embodies one of Munro’s own purposes in writing” (82).

Death’s constant presence shimmers in everything (day-ud), lighting up as it darkens. Death provides the electricity of the unknown. It attracts as it repels, containing the excitement and power of sexual attraction: Thanatos collaborates with Eros in this new vision. Uncle Craig’s mask-like face suggests that the everyday world is one of illusion, as followers of certain religions believe. Something lies beneath these surfaces.

In “Epilogue: The Photographer,” Munro presents her artistic manifesto—her credo, drawing closer to this underlying world. The photographer referred to here is a character in Lives of Girls and Women:

           He drove around the country in a high square car whose top was of flapping black
           cloth. The pictures he took turned out to be unusual, even frightening. People saw
           that in his pictures they had aged twenty or thirty years. Middle-aged people saw
           in their own features the terrible, growing, inescapable likeness of their dead
           parents; young fresh girls and men showed what gaunt or dulled or stupid faces
           they would have when they were fifty. Brides looked pregnant, children
           adenoidal. So he was not a popular photographer, though cheap. However no one
           liked to refuse him business; everybody was afraid of him. (205)

These photos illustrate the power of the camera’s impersonal eye to penetrate behind surfaces and show what may not be readily apparent to the human eye. The camera, just as the writer/artist does, objectively takes in everything, revealing what we would prefer to ignore: the inevitable passing of time and its results, the way we are often trapped by our history—our genes—into perpetuating family weaknesses. As Lorraine M. York states, “…the photographs reveal what is present—whether in the past or in the future—or what is potentially true….. The truth which the photographer reveals, Munro emphasizes, is an unpleasant but ‘inescapable’ one” (The Other Side of Dailiness 38). The writer can see into the future, even create a future that may not exist. She sees what lies behind the surface of things, discovers the town that “was lying close behind the one I walked through every day” (Lives 206).

In creating Del and exploring her world, Alice Munro has learned what it means to write like a woman. In Del’s/Munro’s words: “No list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, a stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting” (Lives 210). She’ll embrace multiplicity, moving back and forth between kitchen and culture, the nursery and the world, involved simultaneously with a baby’s cry, sexual desire, food, and death, images forming under her pen, breaking apart, transforming themselves on the page and in the reader’s imagination, connecting us to our pasts, to each other.


Works Cited

Calasso, Roberto. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Trans. Tim Parks. New York: Knopf, 1993. Print.

Carrington, Ildiko de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. Dekalb, ILL: Northern Illinois UP, 1989. Print.

Godard, Barbara. “’Heirs of the Living Body’: Alice Munro and the Question of a Female Aesthetic,” The Art of Alice Munro: Saying the Unsayable. Judith Miller, ed. Waterloo, Ontario: University of Waterloo Press, 1984. Print.

Martin, W. R. Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta
Press, 1987. Print.

Rasporich, Beverly J. Dance of the Sexes. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1990. Print.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. “Alice Munro.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, No. 53. Print.

York, Lorraine M. “The Other Side of Dailiness”: Photography in the Works of Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Laurence. Downsview, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1988. Print.


Blodgett, E.D. Alice Munro. Boston: Twayne Publisher, A division of G.K. Hall & Co., 1988. Print.

Calasso, Roberto. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Trans. Tim Parks. New York: Knopf, 1993. Print.

Carrington, Ildiko de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: the Fiction of Alice Munro. Dekalb, ILL: Northern Illinois UP, 1989. Print.

Contemporary Literature, Volumes 10 & 19.

Dahlie, Hallvard. Alice Munro and Her Works. Toronto: ECW Press, 1985. Print.

Godard, Barbara. “’Heirs of the Living Body’: Alice Munro and the Question of a Female Aesthetic,” The Art of Alice Munro: Saying the Unsayable. Judith Miller, ed. Waterloo, Ontario: University of Waterloo Press, 1984. Print.

MacKendrick, Louis K., ed. Probable Fictions: Alice Munro’s Narrative Acts. Downsview, Ontario: ECW Press, 1983. Print.

Martin, W. R. Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel. Edmonton, Alberta:
University of Alberta Press, 1987. Print.

Munro, Alice. Dance of the Happy Shades. Toronto: Ryerson, 1968. Print.

__. Lives of Girls and Women. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1971. Print.

__. Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. New York: McGraw-Hill; Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974. Print.

__. Who Do You Think You Are?/The Beggar Maid. Toronto: ˜Macmillan, 1978. Print.

__. The Love of a Good Woman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Print.

__. The Moons of Jupiter. Toronto: Macmillan, 1982. Print.

__. The Progress of Love. New York: Knopf; Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986. Print.

__. Friends of My Youth. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1990. Print.

__. “Working for a Living.” Grand Street 1, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 9-37. Print.

Rasporich, Beverly J. Dance of the Sexes. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1990. Print.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. “Alice Munro.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, No. 53. Print.

York, Lorraine M. “The Other Side of Dailiness”: Photography in the Works of Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Laurence. Downsview, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1988. Print.


[1] I’m using “feminine principle” in a Jungian sense where, psychologically and physiologically, males and females each have the other’s gender characteristics. Jung’s thinking here corresponds to the Chinese idea of “yin” and “yang,” yin representing the receptive, feminine force in the world, “yang” the assertive, masculine energy. One is always contained in the other, as in the yin/yang symbol of dark embodying light, and vice versa.

[2] Again, I’m using “mother principle” in a similar way as “feminine principle.” Underlying each human mother is an image of mother—an “archetypal” pattern—that both contains the actual individual mother image and extends beyond it to an impersonal mother source.    

Lily Iona MacKenzie

A poet, essayist, and novelist, Lily MacKenzie's work has appeared in over 165 venues. She has also published four novels (Fling!, Curva Peligrosa, Freefall: A Divine Comedy, and The Ripening: A Canadian Girl Grows Up, a sequel to Freefall). Her poetry collection All This and chapbook No More Kings are also published. Shanti Arts Publishing will release her hybrid memoir Dreaming Myself into Old Age: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in 2023. I teach creative writing at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning and blog about reading and writing at http://lilyionamackenzie.com.