In “Lives of Girls and Women” Munro uses the technique of character doubling to create drama by juxtaposing and contrasting characters. Munro’s technique brings the characters side-by-side so that they become distinct to the reader.  Throughout the story she describes characters together in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. The contrast which emerges as a result of this character doubling technique shows a relationship of opposition between the characters clearly, e.g. in the numerous passages where Munro describes and contrasts Del’s mother and Fern. Subplots and mysterious complexity emerge from character doubling. Del and Naomi get described together, and Munro creates a subplot to the main sexual plot of Del/Chamberlain when Naomi falls sick and returns from her illness and she’s suddenly become prim, the opposite of Dell. The technique of character doubling thus helps make the characters round and vibrant.

“Lives of Girls and Women” contains three sections of text separated by line breaks, and Munro uses the character doubling technique on the second page of the first section in her initial descriptions of Fern and Del’s mother. The story opens with a brief scene about the photograph, and at the close of the scene Munro segues into a paragraph in which the friendship between Fern and Del’s mother exhibits contrast: “Her voice was small for such a big woman, plaintive, put-upon, but in the end good-humored, yielding. All those qualities my mother had developed for her assault on life—sharpness, smartness, determination, selectiveness—seemed to have their opposites in Fern, with her diffuse complaints, lazy movements, indifferent agreeableness.” Munro begins with a description of Fern and sets up the contrast in the sentence following about Del’s mother. Two paragraphs later, Munro brings Fern and Del’s mother together again in a long descriptive paragraph concerning the role opera plays in the friendship between the two women.

“Fern Dogherty and my mother were friends in spite of differences. My mother valued in people experience of the      world, contact with any life of learning or culture, and finally any suggestion of being dubiously received in Jubilee. And Fern had not always worked for the post office. No; at one time she had studied singing….My mother had a book of operas. She would get it out and follow the story, identifying the arias, for which translations were provided. She had questions for Fern, but Fern did not known as much about operas as you would think she might; she would even get mixed up about which one it was they were listening to….”

So even as Munro shows the two women sharing a common interest in opera, the specific details she gives about each women’s individual approach to the subject differ greatly. The side-by-side portrayal of the two women clearly sets up Del’s mother as stringent, determined, a questioning, thinking woman, in stark contrast to Fern who is passionate and free in her behavior, shown with her bursting into song at the paragraph’s close. This contrast in character doubling feeds the story by creating different subplots lines that stem from the characters, i.e.,Del’s mother’s rigid women’s rights agenda is the opposite of Fern’s loose sexual subplot with Chamberlain.

The second section of the story focuses on the main plot of Del and Mr. Chamberlain; the relationship between Del’s mother and Fern falls somewhat into the background. However, Munro brings the character doubling technique back again in the third and final section of the story, continuing the contrast and dramatic opposition between Del’s mother and Fern. Another paragraph in which the two women are described side-by-side occurs after the dinner scene. Fern has just received the letter from Chamberlain announcing he has left town.

“When Fern talked about having a good time she meant going to dances at the Lakeshore Pavilion, going to the Regency Hotel in Tupperton for drinks and dinner, being driven from one roadhouse to another on Saturday night. My mother did try to understand such pleasures, but she could not, any more than she could understand why people go on rides at a fair, and will get off and throw up, then go on rides again.”

Like the character doubling Munro uses throughout the story to show the dramatic opposition in the friendship between Fern and Del’s mother and spawn subplot complexity, the paragraph describing Naomi post-illness contrasts her with Del. The narrator states, “I had meant to tell Naomi all about Mr. Chamberlain, now it was over. But Naomi (here the but-construction alerts us to the forthcoming depiction of opposition in the “new” Naomi) came out of her illness fifteen pounds lighter, with a whole new outlook on life. Her forthrightness was gone with her chunky figure. Her language was purified….She sat under a tree with her skirt spread around her, watching the rest of us play volleyball, and kept feeling her forehead to see if she was feverish…”  In her description of Naomi,Del places herself apart with her use of the phrase “rest of us.”  Naomi has her own character subplot as is shown here in the contrast between the two teenage girls; the contrast resonates mostly with Munro’s careful attention to Naomi’s physical alteration. The Naomi subplot crosses the main plot of Del’s sexual initiation, and the character doubling contrast becomes clear in the sentence illustrating what happened to Naomi while Del and Chamberlain got together: “All the grosser aspects of sex had disappeared from her conversation and apparently from her mind although she talked a good deal about Dr. Wallis, and how he had sponged her legs himself, and she had been quite helplessly exposed to him, when she was sick.” So each teenage girl has undergone her own change, and the changes are vastly different in regards to sex which creates heightened dramatic resonance and meaning for the overall story.

In Fern and Del’s mother’s last scene together, Munro uses the character doubling technique again.  Here the character doubling shows not only the differences between the two, but creates complexity in the story by tying-in to the larger religious and societal structures of Jubilee as Fern departs for the strawberry supper (Munro also makes use of a rhetorical questioning device in the middle of the character doubling description which helps add thematic inquiry to the paragraph).

“We heard her high heels going down the sidewalk….Sociable noise of the United Church affair washed as far as our steps. Did my mother wish she had a hat and a summer sheer dress on, and was going? Her agnosticism and sociability were often in conflict in Jubilee, where social and religious life were apt to be one and the same. Fern had told her to come ahead. ‘You’re a member. Didn’t you tell me you joined when you got married?’

‘My ideas weren’t formed then. Now I’d be a hypocrite….’”

The subplots branching out from the character doubling technique are extended in the exchanges between Fern and Del’s mother, in Munro’s use of what writer Janet Burroway dubs “no” dialogue, or dialogue in which the characters disagree and perpetuate the conflict.

The repetitive techniques of character doubling and subplot in “Lives of Girls and Women” create a complex story line. As the story goes forward, the branches developed as a result of the side-by-side character descriptions; the resulting contrasts help to clarify the differences between characters and spawn branches out of their opposing action. The repetition of the character doubling technique in passages throughout the story creates branches, and these branches complicate the main plotline. The complication of character doubling and subplot enhance the unity and coherence of the story, as well as give “Lives of Girls and Women” vitality and greater dramatic meaning.

*For a more in-depth analysis of Munro’ s short story techniques, I recommend, “The Mind of Alice Munro,” by Douglas Glover, which you can find, among other excellent essays on writing, in his collection, “Attack of the Copula Spiders.”

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