A reader wrote to say she had some questions about Alice Munro’s short story, “Wenlock Edge,” and wondered if I had any insights. Curious, I read the story then searched for reviewer’s remarks on the web. I found few. One commentator did point out that the trick to understanding the story is to recognize it isn’t linear and that time shifts for a backward glance near the end. Failing to catch Munro’s trick might leave a person unable to understand that it is the narrator who betrays Nina, her college roommate, and makes it possible for Mr. Purvis to find the girl and reestablish his dominance over her.
Once I’d established the perpetrator, I was free to review the story with a clearer eye. What I found was a feminist protest, a tableau of women whose lives are overshadowed by the masculine world. For example, the two female students who live downstairs, in the small apartment house where Nina and the narrator share a flat, are students of literature. But instead of arguing Chaucer and Shakespeare, much of their time is devoted to talk about the ways to snag a husband. Their obsession makes them blind to the possible outcome of their success — a life lived as their landlady, a woman exhausted by her children and who gets little help from her frequently absent husband. Like the landlady, Nina also wants freedom and attempts to escape her keeper, Mr. Purvis, if only for a time, by taking a few courses at the university nearby. She escapes his roof by not his dominion, however. Mrs. Winner, his employee, follows her everywhere. And, though the narrator feels superior to the women around her, she, too, cracks when Mr. Purvis asks her to remove her clothes at the dinner to which she has been invited. She balks at first, then decides to comply, telling herself it is a meaningless game.
Throughout her story, Munro’s weaves in recurrent references to A. E. Housman’s poem, “A Shropshire Lad.” We learn why at the end when we are told that Uricor in Housman’s poem refers to an ancient Roman camp. It is now the site of the modern town of Wroxeter where the hill Wenlock Edge stands. The reference appears to be a backward glance, tying the storms of ancient days to modern chaos. Certainly, Nina brings a storm into her roommate’s life that awakens some primal instinct within her. The knowledge is unwelcome. It destroys bucolic innocence and for that Nina must be betrayed.
The central question of the story, why the narrator removes her clothes, remains unanswered. Perhaps that’s why the tale is so intriguing. Munro leaves us with a question because it is more important to ponder than the answer. Why does evil exist?
(First published 10/13/14)