‘Royal Beatings’ by Alice Munro

There are so many things about Alice Munro that are worth celebrating, any given story of hers could fit into this entry – her gifts are always in evidence. A story like ‘Runaway’ is the sort of thing that threatens to become déclassé merely because it nails a thing so perfectly (in that case, use of an animal as locus of a sublime moment) that it becomes easy to imitate. Her later story ‘Dimension’ was the first of hers that I read. There was a specific character in that story – Maggie – who I so hoped would be a hero, and when she was revealed to be merely human, I knew Munro was going to be the living writer I most envied.

‘Royal Beatings’ has all the qualities of Munro’s writing that I love and could hold forth continually about. I chose it as a focus specifically because of the elements of ritual and meaning within it. Like the works of Márquez and Kono highlighted elsewhere on this list, there is a kind of ecosystem evident in the fiction that is darkly cast. In these stories, violence transforms the order of human relations rather than obliterating it, and the results are profoundly sad, strange, and compelling.

Rose, a girl in the past of the story and a woman in its present, lives with her stepmother Flo and her physically abusive father. The beatings that Rose’s father inflict upon her are so routine that they become essential to their relationship, accruing elements of performance, or litany. Violence becomes a means of affirmation and, obscurely, communication, while actual spoken language between them is denatured (“The person who spoke those words and the person who spoke to her as her father were not the same, though they seemed to occupy the same space.”) 

The action of the story is illustrated in a move from past tense to present, the sort of simple trick that I will always imitate and never master. The vagueness with which the scene is set – a Saturday arbitrarily chosen, the ages of the characters in a range, the circumstances uncertain – lends the lead-up to Rose’s first royal beating the frayed character of actual memory. Rose’s climactic outburst is a linguistic surge of life in large part defined by the anticipation of violence (the moment of the outburst is both “dangerous” and “delightful”, Flo’s rage is “predictable”). Relations of power are articulated bluntly, the complete knowledge of what is to happen as it happens (“She calls him in a warning, summoning voice, as if against her will preparing him for bad news.”) When the violence arrives it is suffused with dread frisson and terrible clarity. 

One of the things that Munro does so well is chart courses beyond the typical beats of plot – I can’t remember where I read it, but someone once observed that Munro, in her signature fluid approach to time in stories, will often set their beginnings after what we’d consider a point of narrative climax. Her stories aren’t anticlimactic but rather speak to a solidity of narrative outside the walled garden of Freytag’s Pyramid. Rather than the expected rising and falling actions, you get something like the rhythm of actual life, at turns gentle and turbulent, stubbornly refusing ease and simplicity. When the violence ends, as definite and singular as it seems, Munro intimates that it could be one of countless ritual scenes. “He has never managed really to injure her, though there are times, of course, when she prays that he will.”

A disquieting implication of the text is that certain thresholds of violence can be not only bearable, but digestible, mistakable as love. On the level of family it suggests truth in the axiom that the more dysfunctional a given system gets, the more resilient it becomes (“By stages, by arguing, they are being drawn back into themselves.”) The influence of southern gothic is evident, in the story’s matter-of-fact tone, and in ancillary characters like the polio-scarred Becky Tide, “a big-headed loud-voiced dwarf, with a mascot’s sexless swagger,” as grotesquely human a figure as anything dreamed by Flannery O’Connor or Harry Crews. The ghost of class and money, and their relationship to violence, hang unspoken. “…treachery,” as she writes, “is the other side of dailiness.”

I once attended a Carmen Maria Machado reading in which she opined on what she termed “mysterious vistas” in fiction. These were things in a story hinted at but not truly revealed to the reader – a cryptic message, a monument of unknown provenance, a locked door that never opens – which are particularly endemic to “world building” in genre fiction. When she defined this concept I immediately thought of a particular passage in ‘Royal Beatings’, wherein Rose, after her father has passed away, finds a trove of papers on which her violent father wrote both financial records and personal musings. One entry is excerpted:

Ate new potatoes 25th June. Record.
Dark Dary, 1880’s, nothing supernatural. Clouds of Ash from forest fires.
Aug 16, 1938. Giant thunderstorm in evng. Lightning str. Pres. Church, Turberry Twp. Will of God?
Scald strawberries to remove acid.
All things are alive. Spinoza

The journal entry, and the poetic asides overheard by Rose in her youth (“The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces”) turn the abusive father’s internal landscape into a mysterious vista of the story. It doesn’t make him sympathetic or complicate the violence he commits. His capacity for unexpected private thought does not make him rare. Neither does his capacity for violence make him especially monstrous. Rather it shows us the reel which ties Rose to her father, the palimpsest of a person she is refused access to.

From one angle, this might seem the sort of WASPy remove that makes the canon of contemporary realist literature difficult for so many readers to enjoy – not for nothing that this was Munro’s first published story, out of 60 plus total, in the New Yorker. But rather than cruelty, I think Munro’s mode of compassion is akin to agape, the distant love of a God toward Her creation. It’s a quality that she shares, in my mind, with Toni Morrison. It might be that such things are impolitic in 2021, or maybe it only feels like this kind of writing is scarce, beyond the Ferrantes of the world. It’s all exquisite pain, like biting down on a loose tooth, or the vital itch of a wound beneath its bandage.

First published in The New Yorker, March 1977, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Who Do You Think You Are? a.k.a. The Beggar Maid, Alfred A. Knopf 1978, and in the Selected Stories, McLelland and Stewart, 1996

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