This is a favorite quote from a favorite story from a favorite collection, Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid. (The title comes from this legend and painting.) "Royal Beatings" especially is a story I return to again and again. Frankly, it deserves more than one post.
For today, I am enthralled by how accurately the story portrays our inability to fully know one another, and in particular, our great difficulty in knowing our parents, whose person-hoods are often eclipsed by roles.
Rose senses role changes in her parents and other adults as a child and eloquently recalls her thoughts and feelings as an adult.
Her father is a quiet man who repairs furniture and recites poems. He is also king of the royal beatings, "his face like his voice [...] quite out of character" (19). Her stepmother, Flo, is the woman who sets the royal beating in motion by goading her, and she is the woman who pleads with her husband not to whip so hard, the woman who rubs cream on Rose's back and brings her a special meal when everything is over. The neighbor, Becky Tyde, is an elegant yet physically mangled dwarf, a daily presence at Flo's store but also the subject of horrendous town rumors.
In this story, everyone's a mystery. The mystery never redeems the violence, but it allows us to see how the characters co-exist with it, how they miraculously survive, manage love and joy. In a scene near the end, Flo does tricks with her double-jointed arms. The family looks at the stars. "The planet Venus!" Rose's father says, applauding Flo. "Ten thousand electric lights!" (24).
my 1982 Bantam mass-market copy
P.S. The line Rose's father recites is from Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Propspero: "The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself.
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a wrack behind." (4.1)