Creating and Maintaining Symbol in Alice Munro’s “Runaway”
One of the problems many if not most of us beginning writers have is the Catch-22 of symbols, especially in a short story: how do you develop a symbol in a short story that (1) doesn’t hit the reader over the head, and yet (2) is strong enough to carry the universal implications you want and need? Alice Munro short story “Runaway” could be a source of study for us all in this regard.
The cover flap of the short story collection Runaway describes the short story “Runaway” like this: “The runaway of the title story is a young woman who, though she thinks she wants to, is incapable of leaving her husband.” “Runaway” is indeed a story about Carla, a young woman who originally ran away from her parents to marry Clark, a horse trainer/boarder. And yes, Carla did attempt to run away from Clark too (“I have gone away. I will be all write”) with the help of their neighbor Sylvia. But she could not go through with it, and returned home to Clark. But as the main, literal story line progresses, a back story about a barn goat named Flora also takes shape. The story of Flora the goat is seemingly and innocuously presented at first, but is present throughout and is paramount in the pivotal scene and ending of “Runaway.”
As we are introduced to Flora, we realize, subtly, that Carla is possibly not the only runaway in the story (p. 7):
But the worse thing as far as Carla was concerned was the absence of Flora, the little white goat that kept the horses company in the barn and in the fields. There had not been any sign of her for two days. Carla was afraid that wild dogs or coyotes had got her, or even a bear.
Munro introduces us to Flora after she has gone through a litany of miseries for Carla and her relationship with Clark: the summer was rainy, the clients did not come to their boarding place and training classes; Clark is abrasive socially and is perpetually in a bad mood (“’You flare up,’ said Carla. ‘That’s what men do,’ said Clark.” p. 6). Yet “the worse thing as far as Carla was concerned,” we’re told, was the missing goat. So we are clued in, not clubbed over the head, with the significance of Flora to the story. In a bit of overkill, though, just to make sure we got it, Munro gives us two dream sequences that strongly associate Carla’s story with Flora (p. 7):
She [Carla] had dreamt of Flora last night and the night before. In her first dream Flora had walked right up to the bed with a red apple in her mouth, but in her second dream — last night — she had run away when she saw Carla coming. Her leg seemed to be hurt but she ran anyway. She led Carla to a barbed-wire barricade of the kind that might belong on some battlefield, and then she — Flora — slipped through it, hurt leg and all, just slithered through like a white eel and disappeared.
Dreams in literature, of course, signal an ascent into the psychological realms, especially for archetypes and symbols. So this may be a little heavy-handed by Munro, but swift and buried as it were in numerous details regarding Carla, she might be forgiven. First we have the goat’s name: Flora, representing life, bountifulness, vegetation and flowers and gardens — in short, the good life. Also, we are reminded that the goat could be a runaway, ie having run away from home. However, “runaway” also means excess, as in “the runaway train” or “runaway economy.”
We have two incidents, two dreams, and we know that one more appearance of Flora is coming (symbolic number three). At the least we know that we haven’t heard the last from Flora yet. A goat in itself suggests sacrifice and Old Testament themes, and the apple further suggests religious themes (Garden of Eden, tree of knowledge, Carla as Eve) as well as the literal image of the goat as a “sacrificial lamb,” as it were. Carla’s close relationship with Flora reflects the importance of the goat as symbol. Here too (second dream) we get foreshadowing of the runaway, and association of the goat as runaway, and wounded (reason for running?), but we also get foreshadowing that whatever the goat represents is forbidden to Carla (ran away, barricade, barbed wire). In a neat trick of writing, we also get some intentional pronoun reference confusion with the goat and Carla: “…and then she — Flora — slipped through it”). “Slithered though like a white eel” gives us yet another religious image from the Garden of Eden (eel= snake), and additional references to rarity and purity — white, albino. We realize, like Carla is about to realize, that the truth, or at least the truth and the good, bountiful life that Flora represents, is illusive and “disappears” early on for Carla, that it is, perhaps, even forbudden.
We hear more about Flora a few pages later, when Carla calls and whistles for her while soaked in the rain (again, water as symbolic of an overabundance, of life overwhelming, life itself). Munro distracts us briefly with the plot to seduce money from Sylvia the neighbor over alleged (and as Carla finally admits, false) accusations of sexual abuse by Sylvia’s husband, the poet, in order to swindle money out of her. But this misdirection does serve to give us some initial insight on Clark.
In some ways, Carla was like Flora to Sylvia, as comfort, life and energy personified in a sick-bed house (p. 20):
She [Sylvia] had already mentioned Carla to Maggie, and to Soraya, her other friend there, telling them how the girl’s presence had become to mean more and more to her, how an indescribable bond had seemed to grow up between them, and had consoled her in the awful months of last spring.
“It was just to see somebody — somebody so fresh and full of health coming in to the house.”
Maggie and Soraya had laughed in a kindly but annoying way.
“There’s always a girl,” Soraya said, with an indolent stretch of her heavy brown arms, and Maggie said, “We all come to it sometime. A crush on a girl.”
Sylvia was obscurely angered by that dated word — crush.
“Maybe it’s because Leon and I never had children,” she said. “It’s stupid. Displaced maternal love.”
Her friends spoke at the same time, saying in slightly different ways something to the effect that it might be stupid, but it was, after all, love.
These scenes are important, because they set the stage for Sylvia to help Carla escape (she sees something different, something more in the girl than others do, especially Clark), and because it sets the stage for Sylvia to be present at Flora’s re-appearance. These scenes also support the main story line of why Sylvia might help Carla so readily to run away.
Clark is also present at Flora’s surreal re-appearance after Carla has returned from her “escape” from him. Before this critical scene, we learn that Flora was originally Clark’s animal, whom he purchased to calm the horses, but soon became Carla’s pet — which sets up a potential theme of ownership and jealousy on Clark’s part. Clark also suggests that perhaps Flora merely ran away to find a billy goat and mate — which gives us further insight into his personality, motives and fears.
One of the things we can learn about creating and maintaining symbolism from Munro is how tightly the symbolic element is wrapped around the main story line, and how realistic the encounters are. Forgiving Munro’s earlier dream sequence, Clark confronts Sylvia on Carla’s return in very realistic and in-character fashion. Clark confronts Sylvia with the clothes she lent Carla for her escape attempt. They argue some. Sylvia is uncomfortable and even a little afraid of Clark. And then they see something (pp. 39-40):
“What’s what?” he said, as if she were trying out a trick on him and it would not work. But then he caught sight of something reflected in the window, and he snapped back to look.
Not far from the house was a wide shallow patch of land that often filled up with night fog this time of year. The fog was there tonight, had been there all this while. But now at one point there was a change. The fog had thickened, taken on a separate slope, transformed itself into something spikey and radiant. First a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then condensing itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, hell-bent, something like a giant unicorn, rushing at them.
“Jesus Christ,” Clark said softly and devoutly. And grabbed hold of Sylvia’s shoulder. This touch did not alarm her at all — she accepted it with the knowledge that he did it either to protect her or to reassure himself.
Then the vision exploded. Out of the fog, and out of the magnifying light — now seen to be that of a car travelling along this back road, probably in search of a place to park — out of this appeared a white goat. A little dancing white goat, hardly bigger than a sheepdog.
Clark let go. He said, “Where the Christ did you come from?”
“It’s your goat,” said Sylvia. “Isn’t it your goat?”
“Flora,” he said. “Flora.”
And so, the third time, the third appearance of Flora, is the charm. The appearance itself is dream like, like a near-death experience in reverse. The apparition is “unearthly,” it is “hell-bent,” it is “something like a giant unicorn” i.e., mythical. Clark evokes no less than Jesus Christ twice, and denies ownership of the goat by naming her instead of claiming her as his. Despite the quick explanations of what their experience “must” have been (explained as ground fog, as a car’s headlights), both characters are changed significantly, brought together by a good old-fashioned epiphany and super-realistic experience.
Significantly, however, Clark doesn’t share this surrealistic experience with Carla. He makes no mention of it when he returns home to her, even though he has sufficient opportunity to. Looking back, Clark had already delivered a chilling resolution to Sylvia even before he leaves her (and presumably takes Flora with him): (p. 40)
“Goats are unpredictable,” Clark said. “They can seem tame, but they’re really not. Not after they grow up.”
“Is she grown up? She looks so small.”
“She’s big as she’s ever going to get.” (my emphasis)
Clark says to Carla that night, instead: “When I read your note, it was just like I went hollow inside. It’s true. If you ever went away, I’d feel like I didn’t have anything left inside me.” (p. 42). Later, in a small exchange between Clark and Carla, Clark says he would “tan her hide” is she “ever tried to run away on me again.” “Tanning hides” is a very animalistic reference from Clark, revealing further his selfish nature, or at least animalistic struggle for survival and his regard of Carla.
We are left with the conclusion that Clark killed Flora so that Carla would never leave him again, never feel the pull of the life-force without him, the tug of her own accomplishments and fulfillment. However, this might not have been necessary, because Carla is beaten already. She learns of the catalytic appearance of Flora from Sylvia (“she has her place as a good angel in my life, and perhaps your and your husband’s too” pp. 45-46), but Carla crumples and burns Sylvia’s letter, perhaps because she doesn’t want Clark to see the note and know she knows what happened, or that she can’t stand the truth herself. Sylvia moves away to town, closer to the university and knowledge. The last scenes, again tied to the animal reference of the buzzard, leaves little doubt as to what Carla’s existence from now on will be like: (pp. 46-47)
It was as if she [Carla] had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully, she could avoid feeling it. But once in a while she had to take a deep breath, and it was still there…
As the golden days of fall came — an encouraging nd profitable season — Carla found that she had got used to the sharp thought that had lodged in her. It wasn’t so sharp anymore — in fact, it no longer surprised her. And she was inhabited not by an almost seductive notion, a constant low-lying temptation.
She had only to raise her eyes, she had only to look in one direction, to know where she might go. An evening walk, once her chores for the day were finished. To the edge of the woods, and the bare trees where the buzzards had held their party.
And then the little dirty bones in the grass. The skull with perhaps some shreds of bloodied skin clinging to it. A skull that she could hold like a teacup in one hand. Knowledge in one hand.
Or perhaps not. Nothing there.
Other things could have happened. He could have chased Flora away. Or tied her to the back of the truck and driven some distance and set her loose. Taken her back to the place they’d got her from. Not have her around, reminding them.
She might be free.
The days passed and Carla did not go near that place. She held out against the temptation.
Truth. Knowledge. Temptation to know for sure, to hold “knowledge in one hand” that she “held out” against. Yes, “Runaway” is the story of a young wife that tries but is unable to run away from her husband. But because of Munro’s skill at creating and maintaining symbolism, it is also a story of more universal themes, of women in general trapped in their lives, dominated by animalistic men that regard women not as humans but as an animal form. It is a story perhaps even reflective of a life in a world without knowledge, where an Eve that was tempted but not strong enough never did eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge; where one form of Eden continued, a sunny Fall landscape of Clark’s world, without women’s freedom or full participation.
Postscript: Even as I praise the writing and themes here, I’m bothered by several inconsistencies with the theory presented. First, where was Flora before she appeared out of the fog to Sylvia and Clark? Had she indeed run away, or had Clark more ominously tried to lead her away or kill her? Unclear. Second: why did Flora try to butt Sylvia at the end of the “appearance” scene in the fog? Sylvia was the strong independent woman, the one that tried to help Carla escape for her own good when she (Carla) had a chance. Perhaps with Sylvia in the picture Carla couldn’t/wouldn’t stay passive, ie fat dumb and happy. A third issue: The rain stopped and the sun came out when Carla returned home. I wondered about that (usually pathetic fallacy is the opposite, ie would have reflected Carla’s gloomy disposition versus Clark’s sunny disposition after murdering the goat and finally having his wife in his full control? Hmmm.) Maybe the third runaway in this story is Clark…? A runaway from normalcy, reality… More study needed on these themes and seeming inconsistencies.
Munro, Alice. Runaway: Stories. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2004.