Equity & Imbalance: Courtney Harler Reviews Julieta by Alice Munro

Sony Pictures Classics (c) 2016

The three short stories of Alice Munro’s Julieta—“Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” —were first published in The New Yorker, and then again in her collection Runaway, both in 2004. This First Vintage International Edition, published in December of 2016, serves as the tie-in to the recent film directed by Pedro Almodóvar, who transports Munro’s trio in time and place. Munro’s protagonist “Juliet” becomes Almodóvar’s “Julieta,” and the tie-in takes the new title.

In his foreword called “Things Within Things,” Almodóvar warns viewers not to expect a “literal translation” of Munro’s work (xii). While Almodóvar makes interesting changes, I agree that a direct comparison of logistical differences would be less fruitful than a discussion of their conceptual commonalities. For what holds true for Munro’s Canada in the sixties also holds true for Almodóvar’s Spain in the eighties: Juliet(a) suffers hardships specific to her role as a woman in modern society, particularly within the feminist struggle for equity, as well as within the often inevitable imbalance of mother-daughter relationships. For the sake of clarity, I’ll focus on the text here, but I invite readers to consider these two works in tandem, as the textual examples I put forth here resonate clearly in Almodóvar’s film.

Even as a vibrant, intelligent young woman in the first story, “Chance,” Munro’s Juliet feels she must somehow justify her career goals merely because she is a woman: “And she would not be able to defend the oddity of her choice of Classics, to accept what people would see as irrelevance, or dreariness, to slough that off the way a man could” (8). Indeed, male professors worry that she will marry and leave the field , thus “wast[ing] all her hard work and theirs” (8).

In “Soon,” when Juliet becomes a mother herself, she does leave work for a time, but she does not actually marry, much to her parent’s chagrin. Juliet and her daughter Penelope visit Sara, the dying grandmother. Stuck in a stagnant cycle of caretaking, Juliet recalls her own rejection of traditional womanhood in favor of what she sees as a more ambitious, more intellectual life: “And then abruptly, Juliet hadn’t wanted any more of [domesticity], she had wanted instead to talk to Sam [her father] late at night about black holes, the Ice Age, God” (55). Yet ironically, though both Juliet’s parents were career teachers, they now expect their adult daughter to embrace a more conventional role because she is now a mother. In short, small-town patriarchal expectations fracture this family: Sam loses his job, Juliet fights with Sara’s pastor, and Juliet can’t wait to go back to Whale Bay, a more progressive and thus less “disgusting place” (60). Time and place, as they give rise to personal limitations, remain relevant to Munro’s fans today. Readers and viewers alike may recognize Juliet(a)’s difficult choices as functions of her predetermined role, and not necessarily of her temperament. In this vein, Munro’s examination of gender as a societal impetus is as remarkable for its clarity as it is for its complexity.

The third story, “Silence,” flashes forward twenty years. Penelope is grown and gone, and Juliet feels abandoned. A church leader tells Juliet, “There you were, with your wonderful busy successful life—but Juliet, I must tell you that your daughter has known loneliness” (87). After the tragic death of Penelope’s father, Juliet had pursued a career as a television interviewer. Penelope’s voice on the page is quite limited, but her wanderings seem to be indicative of a need not met at home. Upon Penelope’s rejection, Juliet shifts her life’s focus to this loss, and all her accomplishments are rendered insignificant. Akin to when Juliet coldly dismisses Sara at the end of “Soon” (80), the mother-daughter relationship is again upended, imbalanced by each woman’s strivings to be fully herself on her own merits.

Munro’s women are thus overset by their circumstances. Sara, Juliet, and Penelope—indeed many of the women of these stories, even the various housekeepers and mistresses—are pitted against one another when they are unable circumvent patriarchal power structures. The imbalance takes many forms: youth versus age, liberal versus conservative, domestic versus professional, stationary versus mobile, sickness versus health. These customary dichotomies play out on page and screen, but both Munro and Almodóvar ask us to interrogate our assumptions. To what extent is Sara culpable for Juliet(a)’s issues, to what extent is Juliet(a) for Penelope’s? Mother-daughter strife is pervasive, but neither Munro nor Almodóvar permit ready resolutions. Again in “Things Within Things” Almodóvar writes, “It’s very tough…and at the same time something natural but not any less heartrending for that” (xi). For all their human weaknesses, Munro’s women too are “tough” enough to withstand this measure of unrelenting scrutiny. Simply put, as Almodóvar reinvents Munro’s stories for the screen, Julieta compels us to revisit our own notions of womanhood, motherhood, and personhood. The film and book tie-in offer us a new, vigorous approach to some of Munro’s most accomplished, most memorable short stories.

5/5 stars


Alice Munro
(Movie Tie-In Edition)
Vintage International
December 13th, 2016
128 pages