Alice Munro

Dance of the Happy Shades: And Other Stories

  • This summary of Dance of the Happy Shades: And Other Stories includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Dance of the Happy Shades: And Other Stories Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Dance of the Happy Shades: And Other Stories by Alice Munro.

Dance of the Happy Shades: And Other Stories (1968) is a collection of fifteen short stories by acclaimed short story writer and novelist Alice Munro. The writer’s debut collection, it won the 1968 Governor General’s Award for English Fiction.

Set in sleepy farm towns throughout rural Southwestern Ontario, the collection explores the ordinary lives of men and women dealing with self-discovery, love, and loss. Through the mundanity of her characters, Munro expresses a certain universality of their fears, sorrows, and aspirations, allowing us to see something of ourselves within each character and, therefore, to connect intimately with these stories.

Although on the surface the setting may seem placid, Munro peels back the surface to reveal the same strife and suffering that exists in any part of the world. Each story follows the life of a different woman, and although they differ in age and appearance, they share a commonality — their strength and ability to endure whatever comes their way. Through her writing, Munro loves to delve deep into the human experience through the lens of sex, culture, and social class.

This is apparent in the story “Boys and Girls” where Munro’s adolescent narrator is a self-described tomboy who takes pleasure in physical labor, enjoying her life growing up on the farm and doing work normally reserved for men. She describes the task of skinning foxes in detail and with much adoration. Although she may be able to compete physically with her male counterparts, she is still not viewed as equal, and her brother and father continuously dismiss her as being “just a girl.”

Munro’s characters have a complexity that is not soon forgotten and that is demonstrated beautifully in this story as the narrator undergoes a complex development in just a few short pages. On the one hand, she is dead set on continuing to be who she is, resenting being dismissed as a girl; but on the other, she wonders if it is true, even pondering to herself whether she will be pretty when she grows up.

As with the rest of her characters, this speaks to a sense of longing to belong, to be understood, and accepted for one’s true self. This is especially relevant when considering the position of women during this era, as they questioned their goals and desires, making the social limitations of gender and class brutally obvious.

In “The Office,” the first person narrator is a writer who struggles to find time and space to do her work with her husband at home and family in the background. She expresses her desire for a room of her own, which reflects on a common feminist mentality of the era. She strays from the norms of females who are expected to tend to their children and husbands without much care for anything else.

In “Sunday Afternoon,” Munro draws on themes of physical awakening and class distinction. Seventeen-year-old Alva works for the wealthy Mrs. Gannett. She is intimidated by the working environment and by Mrs. Gannett herself, who expects that Alva will assume the role of her subservient employee and will not act as an equal. Things change for Alva when she is in the kitchen one day and Mrs. Gannett’s cousin kisses her. This is enough to give her some sense of validation that she is indeed growing into a beautiful woman and that she is not a lowly commoner as Mrs. Gannett makes her out to be. She feels a sense of social equality, as though she has transcended the social boundaries.

The narrator of the title story, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” is a teenage girl who is a pupil of the piano teacher, Miss Marsalles. They are preparing for a recital that will gather all of the teacher’s students in a grand performance with their parents as the audience. Although the children’s parents seem less than thrilled by the idea, Miss Marsalles is truly proud of her students and their musical talents. She loves children and maintains a childlike nature herself. As part of the recital, one of her disabled students from Greenhill School performs a musical piece called “Dance of the Happy Shades,” after which the parents sit stunned in an uncomfortable silence. They are surprised to find that the girl has quite a talent, though they agree that the talent is wasted on someone with such a handicap. Miss Marsalles staunchly disagrees, demonstrating her willingness to go against the grain to defend her student, maintaining that the girl is gifted, regardless of what anyone else may think.

The women of Dance of the Happy Shades are filled with passion that they are forced to stifle, though it manages to seep out in strange and unexpected ways.