The Beggar Maid
(1977), a series of interwoven short stories by Alice Munro, follows the relationship between two very different family members spanning over four decades, revealing through their dialogue how they both mirror and resist each other. One of the women, Flo, is level-headed and critical of the pretensions she sees in most people, sometimes feeling disdain for them. The other woman is her stepdaughter Rose, who is clumsy and anxious but dreams of leaving her small hometown to make it in the world. For her nuanced investigation of the embedded and transcendental truths in seemingly ordinary narratives, Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The book starts in Ontario, a province of Canada, in the town of Hanratty. Rose lives with her father, who works as a furniture repairman, and Flo, a housekeeper who also tends to the family business. On an ordinary day, Flo punishes Rose for telling Brian, her little brother, a vulgar version of a nursery rhyme
. Rose’s father takes off his belt and whips Rose despite her begging him to stop. Injured, she goes to her bedroom. Flo consoles her with a plate of food.
In the next scene, Rose’s father criticizes their neighbors because they believe that a star to the west over Lake Michigan is an airship. She forgets the incident until decades later when one of the men her father called an idiot is on the radio for his one-hundredth birthday. She wants to tell Flo about the radio appearance and reminisce about the time, but she is too old to remember.
The next story concerns Rose and her childhood school in the country. She is repulsed by the school’s outhouse facilities, frequently opting to wet her pants on the way home. Flo notices Rose’s accidents and constantly mocks her. Meanwhile, her teacher ignores the constant problem of the older students antagonizing the younger ones. She locks them outside during recess, perpetuating the behavior by declining to supervise. Trying to protect herself, Rose befriends Cora, an older, fashionable, lipstick-wearing girl. Cora ends up taking Rose in, even painting her fingernails. Rose tries to return the favor, stealing candy for her. Cora returns it to the store, apologizing. Flo teases Rose about her infatuation with Cora. She makes fun of Cora’s body, telling Rose that she will be fat when she reaches womanhood. This experience is formative for Rose’s shyness and sense of distrustfulness.
In the next section, Rose’s father passes away due to lung cancer. As a result, Rose has to care for Flo until she goes to college outside of Hanratty. Once in college, Rose finds a mentor and female role model named Dr. Henshawe. An English professor who believes in Rose’s intelligence, she bolsters her confidence as their relationship grows stronger. One day, in the college’s library, Rose encounters Patrick Blatchford, a pale but handsome graduate student. He compares her to a painting by Edward Burne-Jones that depicts a beggar transforming into a queen.
Rose later takes Patrick to Hanratty, where she becomes aware of the stark contrast between his wealthy upbringing and her vulgar childhood in the country. They marry, but Rose always prevents herself from completely falling for him. The story shifts forward several decades to a scene where she sees him in an airport bar, looking at her with disdain.
Rose becomes friends with a number of artistic people who contrast with Patrick and his family. She falls in love with Clifford, a violinist who is already married to Jocelyn. When she visits them years later, they have settled into a monotonous life. She notices that they own many objects that they once claimed to hate.
Ultimately, Rose decides to end her marriage with Patrick. She goes on to become an actor and finds work at a radio station in Canada. Anna, her daughter, comes along. Rose is conflicted, believing she cannot cultivate parenthood along with her career and love life. Anna goes back to be raised by Patrick, who has remarried. Rose teaches classes at a university and meets Simon, a professor who studies classics. They make plans to plant a garden at her home, but Simon leaves without ever returning. She later finds that he has passed away due to pancreatic cancer.
At the end of the story, Rose goes back to Hanratty. Flo is too old to live independently, and Rose takes her to her home. Her hometown recognizes her from her television performances, and she becomes a local celebrity. In her concluding interactions, Rose finally feels connected to them, though in a way that is impossible to express. Munro’s book thus suggests that people who live in the same community form implicit ties regardless of their ostensible life paths, characteristics, and ambitions, even if they try to physically depart.