Examine the opening of ‘Postcard’.

Show how Munro establishes mood, atmosphere and relationships in the story’s exposition. Throughout her anthology ‘Selected Stories’, Alice Munro explores many different themes, all relating to everyday life, and principally people or human nature. Alice Munro is a 20th century Canadian short-story writer on the side of women. She grew up in small town Canada, and consequentially her stories tend to have this backdrop. Her intentions in ‘Postcard’ are: commenting on small town life and its effect on Helen Louise, her apparent naivety, and her relationships with the people central to her life. The short-story form is comprised of an exposition, complication, climax and resolution. The function of this story’s exposition is to set up the inward, almost isolated presence of small town life, and show Helen’s place in Jubilee. Munro uses first person narrative and the exposition almost instantly binds the reader to Helen’s point of view. The ‘stream of consciousness’ effect leaves the reader feeling as if they are included in her life. This connection is important to establish before the complication, the marriage, occurs, so the reader will empathise with Helen-Louise. The mood of ‘Postcard’ is influenced by Helen Louise’s character and disposition as she recounts the story. The first person narrative used by Munro to great effect, as in many others in ‘Selected Stories’. The effect of this is to make the reader identify with Helen Louise. The first example of this is “Yesterday afternoon, yesterday, I was…” The parenthetic commas emphasise the reminiscing mood of the story, and with just these Munro conveys the feeling of recollection. They show a wistful pause, preparing us for the event of a complication. Helen Louise comments on how “…sick she was of snow, sore throats, the whole dragged out tail end of winter.” The use of sibilance at the beginning of this quote accentuates her miserable mood, almost distaste at the weather and atmosphere in the town. This gives the name ‘Jubilee’ an almost ironic edge, jubilation being practically the antithesis of the sleepy mood of the town. The weather here prepares the reader for a despondent, maybe hopeless, climax. Helen’s retort “There’s days when I think I wouldn’t mind breaking a leg,” shows Helen’s temper at the beginning of the story, and also her child-like character. Similarly, the mood of the story accentuates the atmosphere of the whole town. The sentence starting “It was Wednesday afternoon…” shows the atmosphere of small town life. The ‘department store’ represents the way the town works and develops. The use of names like ‘Mr King’ – and the use of his death as a landmark in time illustrates the enclosed atmosphere of Jubilee, a place where everyone knows everyone’s business. Helen’s memory of Mr King saying (referring to raisins) “…I only give them to the pretty girls.” shows the reader the sort of people and attitudes Helen is surrounded by in Jubilee. It may also set the story slightly back in time, in the recent past, although there probably still are towns with a similar outlook on women’s position in society in our time. Again, the noting of her visit to the post office and the notion that there are very few major landmarks makes the town seem very enclosed and inward-looking. Another aspect of the atmosphere is the awkward position Helen is in with her mother and Clare. She feels like she is left out of conversations, for example, “I felt like their child, sitting between him and Momma…”. Munro creates this awkward atmosphere with Helen’s exclusion from the odd relationship between her boyfriend and mother to produce tension and it prepares us for a problem in her relationship with Clare.

Relationships play a vital part in ‘Postcard’. The first relationship we meet is Helen and Clare’s. He is first mentioned at the bottom of his postcard. Here one does not know what role he plays to Helen, and the phrase “Be a good girl.” Suggests he may play a fatherly role in her life. Throughout the exposition no sort of intimacy is shown between Clare and Helen, no real sign of what kind of relationship they have. The differences shown between Helen and ‘the MacQuarries’ only emphasises this further (“…we’re as good as them.”). Another important relationship shown in the exposition is that of Helen and her mother, whom she calls “momma”. This not only shows the character of Helen – hinting that she is childlike for her years – but also says something about their relationship. Her mother still takes the parental role; Helen lives in the same house, and is chided by her for silly remarks, for example “Don’t say things like that”. This surprisingly dependant relationship Munro has chosen to show here sets us up for Helen’s naïve way of thinking later in the story, and how she misunderstands her relationship with Clare. It could be said that Helen-Louise is not naïve in her approach, but rather is misled by Clare into believing their relationship has a future, despite clues to the contrary given by Clare later in the story. A less stressed relationship in the exposition is that of Helen and Clare’s family. Helen comments, “I had the feeling they didn’t like me.” This rift of class between Helen and the MacQuarries shows that there is a large chance the relationship is going to fail. The differences between Helen and ‘Porky’ stress the differences between Helen and Clare. The last, and probably the strangest relationship portrayed in the exposition is Clare and Helen’s mother. They have a rapport beyond that expected, and their joking and conversations show that Clare is more than likely an age closer to Helen’s mother than Helen herself. He treats Helen more like a daughter than partner, and this emphasises the difference in generations, which is an important theme in ‘Postcard’. Munro sets up these relationships in the exposition, as the relationships are the basis of the story. The relationships are closely linked to the mood and atmosphere, as the reader can see that the interactions between the characters are a little peculiar. During the exposition, the reader meets the three main characters, Helen Louise, Momma and Clare – although Clare is not actually present – and we understand how each of them is connected. There are a few minor characters, like Porky and Mr Hawes the department store manager. Helen’s character is most evident in the exposition, due to the choice of first person narrative and the ‘stream of consciousness’ effect used by Munro. Near the beginning of the story, Helen remarks that Mr Hawes doesn’t pick on her because he knew she “wouldn’t take it if he did.” This shows that Helen is a more strong-minded woman than would be expected in this small town environment. Her attempts at convincing her mother that they were equal to the MacQuarries conveys the feeling that she does not agree with the class boundaries set by the society she lives in. As Helen returns home, Momma is waiting, watching through the window. “The milkman nearly took a header…” hints at the fact she does not really have anything better to do than watch out of the window all day: Helen’s mother is probably a housewife. Clare is portrayed as a typical ‘aggravating’ boyfriend, refusing to write Helen a letter. The ‘old ladies’ also refer to Younger Clare as “a nice fat boy, so mannerly” and so it comes of no surprise when Clare gets on better with Helen’s mother than Helen. His age becomes more obvious by the end of the exposition as Helen “can’t ever remember him except as a grown up man.” This adds to the gap one already sees growing in Helen and Clare’s relationship. Munro utilises the characters to change the mood of the story and to foreshadow the climax.

Clare’s faults as a boyfriend and the mother’s mundane life accentuate the little problems in Helen’s life which eventually leads to her ruin. Munro uses a variety of techniques in the exposition of ‘Postcard’, establishing the characters and setting before the complication. She uses first person narrative to create the character of Helen and her views of Jubilee and her relationships are the ones we agree with due to this first person outlook. Munro conveys the ‘small-town’ atmosphere with the use of few landmarks and a familiarity with people and names by Helen. Helen’s mood stains the story with a stark and desolate feel, and techniques like the use of sibilance and parenthetical commas, creating a thoughtful air and prepare us for the climax. Relationships are introduced in a strange way. Clare’s postcard is not explained, and in this way Munro makes the reader curious as to what role Clare plays in Helen’s life. All of these techniques, plus the foreshadowing of the climax of ‘Postcard’, are effectively used.

Holly Robbins

1,476 words

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful