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The View from Castle Rock Reader’s Guide

By Alice Munro

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro


<p align=”left”>“Masterful ….Munro really does know magic: how to summon the spirits and the emotions that animate our lives.” —The Washington Post Book World <p align=”left”>  <p align=”left”>The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s conversation about Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, a collection of stories in which she transforms her family’s history—and her own—into gloriously imagined fiction.


In her most personal collection to date, Alice Munro has created stories based on her own past as well as by elaborating on the traces—letters, records, tombstones—left behind by her ancestors from Scotland who sailed for Canada in 1818.  In the title story, ten-year-old Andrew Laidlaw is taken by his father James to see the view of America—though later he learns that it’s really Fife—from Edinburgh’s Castle Rock. When the family takes ship for the new world, the father who had longed to leave Scotland becomes solidly a man of his homeland, nostalgic for the world he’s left behind. His daughter-in-law gives birth at sea, and his son becomes intimate with a young woman dying of tuberculosis. The immigrants struggle to create a new world for themselves, as their lives become a part of the history of the land they’ve settled. A father dies, a newborn baby disappears—apparently kidnapped—and is found again. In the second part of the book, Munro moves closer to her immediate family and her own girlhood in a world where families struggle to get by on small farms along Lake Huron. A hired girl, working for a wealthy family at a summer resort, is faced with the realization of her lack of status in the social world. In an apple orchard, a clever girl and a canny young man discover a private place for romance. A young woman about to be married hears about the love affairs of her grandmother and great aunt, and is offered a surprising gift. The landscape, throughout, is marked with human toil and traces of habitation, and all its vanishing details—a cellar hole, a grave—hold the stories of those who lived there long ago. In The View from Castle Rock, Munro brings the passions, the labor and the yearnings of the dead to life again, allowing readers to recognize, in them, ourselves.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. “No Advantages”
Visiting the graveyard of Ettrick Church, Munro finds the tombstone of her great-great-great-great grandfather, and is struck with a feeling that “Past and present lumped together here made a reality that was commonplace and yet disturbing beyond anything I had imagined” [p. 7]. What is disturbing about this merging of past and present?

2. “The View from Castle Rock”
Agnes is a willful, sexually alert woman, trapped in her fate as a woman and mother [p. 72]. She is married to Andrew Laidlaw although she had been involved with his brother James [p. 67], who has already gone out to Nova Scotia. Andrew, we are told, “was the one that she needed in her circumstances” [p. 55]. What might her circumstances have been? In what ways does Agnes seem to embody the desires and frustrations of women in her time, and possibly in our time?  

3. Why does the old James mention “the curse of Eve” with regard to Agnes [pp. 44-45]? Discuss Munro’s prose in the paragraphs describing Agnes’ childbirth [pp. 46-47]. What is most effective, moving, or realistic about this scene?

4. Though Walter refuses Nettie’s father’s offer of work and in doing so refuses to commit himself to Nettie, in later life “he will find that she is a source of happiness, available to him till the day he dies.” He imagines her “acquiring a tall and maidenly body, their life together. Such foolish thoughts as a man may have in secret” [p. 78]. Why does Walter pass up this offer?

5. James Laidlaw has wanted all his life to go to America with his family [p. 62]; why, once he is on the ship, does he lose interest? Why does he become, on the ship, so profoundly and comically a man of Ettrick? What do his letters home [pp. 82-84] tell us about him?

6. Munro writes, “I am surely one of the liars the old man talks about, in what I have written about the voyage. Except for Walter’s journal, and the letters, the story is full of my invention” [p. 84]. Discuss the ways in which factual evidence [pp. 84-87] and imaginative embellishment work together in this story, as well as the effect of this mingling.

7. “Illinois”
Andrew muses on what it was in America that had suited his brother Will and also possibly contributed to his early death: “there was something about all this rushing away, losing oneself entirely from family and past, there was something rash and self-trusting about it that might not help a man, that might put him more in the way of such an accident, such a fate” [p. 110].  Does the collection draw distinctions between those who remain attached to family, even in a new land, and those who are more eager to cut their ties?

8. “The Wilds of Morris Township”
The Laidlaws who settled in Blyth, Ontario—including Munro’s great-grandfather Thomas—lived seemingly joyless lives: “without any pressure from the community, or their religion …they had constructed a life for themselves that was monastic without any visitations of grace or moments of transcendence” [p. 118]. Munro’s father marveled at the change, in a generation, from adventurous emigrants to cautious settlers: “To think what their ancestors did …To pick up and cross the ocean.  What was it squashed their spirits?  So soon” [p. 126]. What might be possible answers to this question?  

9. “Working for a Living”
Foundering late one night in a snowdrift as he walked home from work, a father thought only about his failures: about the fact that he would die in debt, about his invalid wife and the children he would leave behind. On hearing this, his daughter wondered, “didn’t he struggle for his own self? I meant, was his life now something only other people had a use for?” [p. 166]. What does this incident tell us the realities of adulthood, and about the daughter’s ambition and her sense of self-importance?

10. In what details does this story show how life’s economic difficulties diminish people? Does the father seem somehow heroic in the face of his disappointments? What becomes of the mother’s early entrepreneurial talents? How do these people come to terms with their disappointments and continue to face the future?

11. “Fathers”
Bunt Newcombe is so brutal with his wife and children that his daughter Dahlia speaks constantly of her desire to kill him. The narrator says that now such a family “might be looked on with concern and compassion. These people need help.” But in that time and place, such misfortunes were taken at face value: “It was simple destiny and there was nothing to be done about it” [p. 175]. The narrator, however, is also sometimes beaten by her father: “I felt as if it must be my very self that they were after, and in a way I think it was. The self-important disputatious part of my self that had to be beaten out of me” [p. 195]. What does this story tell us about the expectations of the world in which Munro grew up, and about how she managed to survive it with what she would need to become a writer?

12. “Lying Under the Apple Tree”
Since the story is told long after the events narrated, an older woman is narrating the experience of her younger self. What effect does this have on the reader’s understanding of the girl’s sexuality? Would the girl have had the words to express what she was feeling at the time? Does the girl’s desire come through more clearly in the words of an older woman? Think about Munro’s perspectives, throughout the collection, on sexuality and desire as experienced by women.

13. What are the signs that the Craik family is slightly lower down on the social scale—or at least on the scale of social striving—than the narrator’s own family?  What does she mean in saying, “I was deceiving this family and my own, I was at this table under false pretenses” [p. 218]?  How surprising is the story’s ending, in which the narrator discovers that Russell is Miriam McAlpin’s lover?

14. “Hired Girl”
As with “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” this story explores the experience of learning about one’s place in the hierarchy of social class. The hired girl, noticing the difference between the Montjoys’ kitchen and her own family’s, thinks, “it seemed as if I had to protect it from contempt—as if I had to protect a whole precious and intimate though hardly pleasant way of life from contempt” [p. 240]. Given this feeling, how does the girl handle herself in the presence of the family she works for?  What is she ashamed of?

15. “The Ticket”
This is a story about leaving home, and about how marriage often was, for women, the ticket out. Yet Aunt Charlie suggests, intuiting the girl’s true feelings, that the man she has chosen might not be “just the right ticket for you” [p. 283]. Discuss how this urgent communication between the older woman and the bride-to-be is handled in the narrative. What details make the end of the story so effective?

16. “Home”
The narrator goes back to visit the house where she grew up, which has been modernized by her father and stepmother: “So it seems that this peculiar house—the kitchen part of it built in the eighteen-sixties—can be dissolved, in a way, and lost, inside an ordinary comfortable house of the present time” [p. 289]. How does the story serve to lay bare again the life within the house, which the narrator calls “a poor man’s house, a house where people have lived close to the bone for over a hundred years” [pp. 289-90]?

17. When her father says, “I know how you loved this place,” the daughter thinks , “And I don’t tell him that I am not sure now whether I love any place, and that it seems to me it was myself that I loved here—some self that I have finished with, and none too soon” [p. 290]. How has the daughter’s self-love helped her to escape from the life she might have had, had she stayed close to home?

18. “What Do You Want to Know For?”
What is the connection between the major elements in this story—the mysterious crypt, the regional landscape and its history, and the lump in the narrator’s breast? What is the significance of the lamp sealed inside the vault, and Mrs. Mannerow’s comment upon it: “Nobody knows why they did it. They just did” [p. 339]?

19. “Messenger”
Munro writes in her epilogue, “We can’t resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life” [p. 347]. What is the overall effect of these stories, and how do they make you think about your own family’s history and your place in it?

20. On The View from Castle Rock
Discuss Munro’s decision to create a collection of stories from her own and her family’s history. She writes in her foreword, “These are stories. You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. The part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative”. How and why is this approach interesting? Do these stories, in any substantive way, differ from those in Munro’s earlier collections?

About this Author

Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario. She has published thirteen collections of stories as well as a novel, Lives of Girls and Women, and two volumes of Selected Stories. During her distinguished career she has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including three of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and two of its Giller Prizes, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Lannan Literary Award, England’s W. H. Smith Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. In 2013 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, Granta, and other publications, and her collections have been translated into thirteen languages. She lives in Clinton, Ontario, near Lake Huron.

Suggested Reading

Andrea Barrett, Ship Fever; Charles Baxter, Harmony of the World; A. S. Byatt, A Biographer’s Tale; James Hogg, Confessions of a Justified Sinner; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Claire Keegan, Walk the Blue Fields; D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; Alastair MacLeod, Island; John McGahern, Beside the Lake; Edna O’Brien, A Fanatic Heart; Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries.
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