Small-town Nineteenth Century Life in “Meneseteung”

by Isabelle Dussault

 

In the mid-nineteenth century, Canadians, then called British North American subjects, were living in an era of rapid change. “New ideas, new methods of transportation, and new ways of doing things were quickening the pace of life and requiring people to adapt to new challenges” (Conrad et al. “Beginnings” 536). Consequently, the countryside of Canada gave way to the Industrial Revolution, transforming the economy and the social structure of North America. Elements of the Industrial Revolution had a huge impact on the historical and societal contexts in “Meneseteung,” by famous Canadian author Alice Munro.

In “Meneseteung,” Munro presents one major moment of the mid-nineteenth century where a greater population shift was taking place in what will be called Canada after Confederation in 1867. In 1854, Almeda Joynt Roth, the protagonist in “Meneseteung”, and her family moved from the countryside to “the wilds of Canada West (as it then was)”, today known as Ontario, where her father “was able to set up a harness and leather-goods store” (1028). Despite the enthusiasm of urbanisation, small-towns were not always pleasant places to live. Change came so fast that society barely had time to adapt. Munro’s story describes it:

Like an encampment, it’s busy all the time—full of people, who within town, usually walk wherever they’re going; full of animals, which leave horse buns, cowpats, dog turds, that ladies have to hitch up their skirts for; full of noise of building and of drivers shouting at their horses and of the train that come in several times a day. (1030)

Furthermore, “Meneseteung” evokes small-town life with reference to social class. During this time period, “class in colonial society was based on kinship, wealth, and relationship to production” (Conrad et al. “Beginnings” 495). Most people lived in the middle and lower ranks of society and faced a lifetime of hard work. As Munro's story demonstrates, life in these wild Ontario lands was mostly divided into three classes. On the lower end of the middle-class, people often struggled to survive and even “children–boys –rive through the streets in gangs. School is compulsory for only four months a year, and there are lots of occasional jobs that even a child of eight or nine can do” (1031). Lower than that, “the poorest people, the unrespectable and undeserving poor, would live there at the edge of the bog-hole (drained since then), called the Pearl Street Swamp” (1031) where there are gangs, violence, crimes, and poverty. Then, at the top of the middle-class spectrum, in the better sections of town, live the merchants; people with money and influence. “Almeda Roth’s house faces on Dufferin Street, which is a street of considerable respectability” (1031). Social attitudes expressed by the mid-class small-town individuals in the story suppose a firm morality and strong religious and ethical beliefs, which influenced people’s behaviour during much of the century.

In the nineteenth century, individual identity was determined by class, religion, and gender. Many of the social customs and beliefs were still influenced by Britain, its parent country. Based on Canadian historical and societal contexts and on ethical issues, Munro’s story examines the expected place of women in Almeda’s male-dominated society which “often expressed itself in a focus on marriage and family — including the proper, dependent role of respectable women — and conservative sexual attitudes,” none of which she pursued (Answers.com). For Almeda Roth, her independent spirit does not fit the stereotypes and the expectations of a community where the opportunities for women are limited. One day, the Vidette speculates on the possibility of Almeda and Jarvis Poulter getting married, the newspaper says, “She is not too old to have a couple of children” and “She is a good enough housekeeper” (Munro 1033). Beliefs and conventions were strongly anchored in townspeople’s minds; even the doctor believes that her health will get better if she gets married. He gives her “medicine prescribed for married women” (Munro 1035). But in the late 1800’s, at the coming of the first-wave of the feminism movement (Conrad, Finkel and Strong-Boag, “Present” 135), Almeda ignores the community’s conventional speculations and becomes more of a “stubborn eccentric” (Munro 1028).

According to the “History of Canadian peoples: Beginnings to 1867”, the accelerated pace of change in small-towns in the nineteenth century was a source of growing anxiety, especially for middle-class people. “Businessmen complained of “distress,” while women often took to their beds with mysterious illnesses diagnosed as neurasthenic or “nerves” (567). At some point in Munro’s story, Almeda’s inner struggles and disillusionment reveal the disparity between the society and its historical reality. “Long before the nerve medicine has started to affect her sense of reason, Roth has given up on humanity. She never fully rejoins human society, instead choosing the comfort of living in an imagined reality. She locks herself away” (Answers.com).

Finally, Alice Munro chose representative images to depict nineteenth century life in Canada, where the lives of small-town people were rapidly transformed. The economy became healthier and the communities grew larger; barely leaving time for people to adapt to the changes. All these contextual changes evolved around people caught in a rigid ideology and gender convention which were not suitable in Almada’s society anymore. Revolution brought fast money and poverty, happiness and pain, and also created a society living with its struggles. As Munro wrote: “It’s true that you can gather wildflowers in spring in the woodlots, but you’d have to walk through herds of horned cows to get to them” (1035).

 


 

 

WORKS CITED

Conrad, Margaret, Alvin Finkel and Cornelius Jaenen. History of the Canadian Peoples:  Beginnings to 1867. Vol.1. Toronto, ON: Copp Clark Pitman Ltd, 1993. 2 vols.

Conrad, Margaret, Alvin Finkel and Veronica Strong-Boag. History of the Canadian Peoples: 1867 to the Present. Vol.2. Toronto, ON: Copp Clark Pitman Ltd, 1993. 2 vols.

“Meneseteung.” Answers.com. 2006. 15 Nov. 2007 <http://www.answers.com/topic/

meneseteung-story-5>.

Munro, Alice. “Meneseteung.” Fiction 100: an anthology of short fiction.11th ed. Ed. James H. Pickering. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2007.