Nobel-Prize winner Alice Munro is a Canadian author popularly known for advancing the genre of short stories both in their form and content. By thrusting her works on the everyday experiences of her characters, especially women, Munro sheds light on the gendered-driven challenges and complexities in life. The inclusion of other styles of writing such as letters and dramatic dialogues renders her fiction a touch of reality. “Runaway” predominantly operates on similar concerns. A wife’s dilemma to leave her controlling husband and the failed attempt of the same after encouragement from a fellow woman drives the plot of the story. However, the climax introduces the element of the supernatural, altering the flow and tone of the narrative. A lot is left unsaid towards the end of the story for readers’ own interpretation. The story was published in a collection of the same name consisting of eight short stories that observe the lives of Canadian women dealing with some undisclosed crisis in their lives. The story was first made available to the public through the 2003 issue of The New Yorker and later appeared in 2004 as a part of the collection.
Runaway | Summary
The story is set in rural Canada where a married couple Carla and Clark live in a “mobile home” and work as horse riding trainers and also give horseback trail rides to meet their ends. Their mutual love for animals, especially horses influences the beginning of their relationship. Past and present work in harmony as the narrator reflects on the back stories of these characters. Carla belongs to a wealthy family and is educated while Clark is a dropout who engages in various jobs before finally settling with Carla. The wanderlust experience Clark proposes attracts Carla and she runs away with him against her family. But as life is, she gradually begins to witness Clark’s possessiveness and loose temperament.
Since they couldn’t earn enough money by relying on their horses, Clark compels Carla to work as a house cleaning lady for Jamieson’s whose patriarch Leon Jamieson recently died. Carla reluctantly agrees but to trouble her husband and get rid of the job, she fabricates an assault story where Leon Jamieson in his last resting days discreetly asks Carla for favours. But Carla meets an opposite reaction as Clark believes it to be a fruitful way of extorting money from his wife Sylvia Jamieson on an account of blackmail and preservation of her dead husband’s reputation. However, the ploy fails as Clark learns the truth and as a means of punishment orders Carla to perform the cleaning duty. During her visits, Carla and Sylvia tend to form a comforting bond with each other. Sylvia who is almost her mother’s age fills the void of an elderly presence in Carla’s life and the latter does the same for Sylvia by establishing her presence as that of a young one in the house.
Further, Carla’s pet goat named Flora goes missing and she misses her dearly. Clark believes Flora to have run away to find a mating partner. The absence of Flora in Carla’s life mirrors the absence of a child in Sylvia’s who develops an attachment to Carla. One day when Carla emotionally outbursts her misery, Sylvia does not take a moment to suggest her leaving Clark. She even prepares her departure to Toronto in order to let Carla enjoy her freedom. The excitement and freshness of the idea tempts Carla but when she’s on the bus, second thoughts cloud her judgments and she couldn’t bear to contemplate the consequences of leaving her husband and returns back to him. Clark harasses Sylvia in the middle of the night threatening her to stay away from his family and in the meanwhile out of nowhere Flora appears and frightens both of them. He calms down his anger and leaves Sylvia’s premises.
The story culminates with Carla living her life ‘carefully’ as to not upset her husband and learning about Flora’s return through Sylvia’s apologetic and farewell letter. She believes Clark to have possibly killed Flora or left her to run away again but resists investigating the matter further. Her traumatized self chooses to live in denial and ignorance.
Runaway | Analysis
For a comprehensive understanding, the story shall be critically viewed under various heads-
Runaway | Narrative Strategy
Munro employs a third-person omniscient narrator who adopts a contemplative tone throughout the story while also occasionally satirizing the harsh realities of life. The prose also includes epistolary writing such as the letters Carla exchanges with her parents and Clark and Sylvia’s farewell letter at the end, along with dialogues that render a dramatic touch. The dialogues bring the characters to life and a reader is able to connect with the moment. Songs also find a space in Munro’s fiction thus enabling an intermingling of genres.
Certain words in the story are italicized and repeated often to emphasize the inner thoughts of the character. For instance, at the beginning of the story, Carla hopes for a delay in the return of her neighbour Sylvia Jamieson to protect her false story. Her wish is exhibited in the italics “Let it not be her” to amplify her fear. Similarly, in the climax when Flora returns magically, Clark expresses his astonishment and playfully chides the innocent animal- “‘Flora,’ Clark said. ‘Where the hell did you come from? You scared the shit out of us.’ Us.” The repeated “us” is an inner thought which could either belong to Clark or Sylvia. But indifferent to whom it belongs to, the italics highlight the togetherness of two different personalities who moments earlier were arguing with each other.
While the story moves chronologically and smoothly, flashbacks are introduced at appropriate stages to maintain the flow of time and allow a peep into the characters’ past that influences their actions in the present. The to and fro is less than confusing and binds the plot firmly. Coupling with flashbacks is foreshadowing that predicts the future course of events. For instance, Carla’s return to Clark hints at Flora’s return in the story and the latter’s inability to make it safe for Flora suggests Carla’s inability to make it safe in presence of her husband. She’ll always be threatened by him and would never be able to summon the courage to pursue her freedom.
Serious issues such as manipulation and exploitation come to the fore with dark writing but Munro also provides moments of rejuvenation with sarcastic commentary on notions such as winning an award for poetry. When Carla and Clark learn about Leon Jamieson’s achievement as a poet, it was unbelievable at first- “Nobody had ever mentioned this. It seemed that people could believe in dope money buried in glass jars, but not in money won for writing poetry.” Hence, the author balances the narrative well through her rich vocabulary and literary techniques.
Runaway | Countryside Setting
The story is set in rural Canada where Carla and Clark live in a “mobile home” on a farm and earn their livelihood by providing horse riding lessons and horse trail rides to their customers. They also have other animals who are interestingly named and are looked after like their own children. The countryside is symbolic of purity and sacredness, untainted by the corrupted world. However, in the story, the rural setting becomes a site of collapsing manners. Clark as a character is not only an emotionally abusive husband but also a potential murderer. Though the author does not explicitly mention Flora’s death, her disappearance at the end of the story despite her return suggests Clark murdered her. Flora was dear to Carla and in this way; he refuses Carla to own anything which might take her away from him. Countryside also represents traditionalism and conventionality. But most of the countrymen were giving up o the country life by selling off their animals. Hence, modernity was making its way.
Runaway | Themes – Marriage, Gender and Relationships
In the story, two couples are penned down by the author. Middle-aged Sylvia and Leon Jamesion and younger Carla and Clark stand at the opposite ends of the marriage spectrum. Leon is dead in the story and only finds a mention in the flashbacks. But he was a gentle husband who loved Sylvia and even compared her personality to that of Dorothy Wordsworth. Carla and Clark on the other hand share a master oppressor kind of relationship where Clark holds a dominant status. He orders Carla to clean the Jamieson house in order to earn extra money and also emotionally tortures her. They didn’t have a traditional marriage as they ran away against the wish of Carla’s parents. Since Carla is now devoid of solid backing, Clark in various ways uses the fact to his advantage. The couples do share a similarity- both do not have any children of their own. Carla fills the void through her domestic pets and Sylvia through her international vacations and later Carla’s presence.
There are various relationships in the story- between a man and a woman, between women, and between humans and animals. The degree of freedom varies in each kind. The accepted man-woman relationship adheres to patriarchal dictates such as the wife dutifully obliging to her husband’s demands and needs without voicing her own concerns. Nonetheless, a female fraternity which is seen through Carla and Sylvia’s bond lends the women characters a much-needed voice. Carla feels safe sharing her misery with Sylvia who happens to assist the former in her escape from the drudgery. But the plan fails as Carla could not imagine her identity without her husband’s. This conditioning of passivity in women weakens female friendships and strengthens masculine dominance. The story tries to untie the knots of Carla’s desires which could not find an appropriate expression. No one learns what she really wants and with that, the story ends in that mystery.
Runaway | Sylvia and Carla’s Bond
The most obvious interpretation of the connection shared by the two women fits perfectly in the mould of a mother-daughter relationship. Since Sylvia is an aging woman who has no child of her own, she views Carla as that missing child for whom she feels responsible and wishes nothing but happiness. But this reading only comes into existence after dispelling other opinions such as that of homosexuality. When Sylvia’s friends tease her to have a crush on Carla, she dismisses it by referring to the “displaced maternal love.” However, the streak of homosexuality or at least a feeling different from maternal affection does surface in the narrative. The moments when Sylvia desires to hug Carla and console her but restricts herself cannot be viewed in a maternal light. She definitely feels something other than motherly devotion for Carla.
Even Clark’s threat to Sylvia as a consequence of her interference in his life establishes her presence as that of competition in Carla’s life. The farewell letter towards the end of the story also adopts a tone of a lover departing from another and not a mother or a female friend bidding adieu to another. Thus, in some ways, Sylvia completes Carla by providing both maternal nurturance and companionship.
Interestingly, Sylvia and Carla are foil characters to one another where the former is rich, comparatively more educated, wise and aged and the latter is poor, educated only till the school level, innocently foolish and young. Sylvia loses her husband and Carla works hard to be with hers.
Runaway | Parallelism
Munro employs the technique of parallelism through Flora and Carla. When Flora is brought in by Clark, “she had been…[his] pet entirely, following him everywhere, dancing for his attention. She was as quick and graceful and provocative as a kitten, and her resemblance to a guileless girl in love had made them both laugh.” Carla too like a pet follows her husband’s orders throughout her life. Both Flora and Carla eventually return to their ‘owner’ i.e. Clark after an adventurous escape. In the end, the narrator hints at Flora’s murder by Clark which mirrors the murdering of Carla’s dream of freedom and all her aspirations as well.
Runaway | Supernaturalism
Amidst the banal struggles of life, Flora the pet goat returns magically in the story. Her timing is appropriate as she saves Sylvia from Clark’s further harassment like a god-sent miracle:
“The fog had thickened, taken on a separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First, a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then condensing itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, hell-bent, something like a giant unicorn, rushing at them. Then the vision exploded. Out of the fog, and out of the magnifying light —now seen to be that of a car travelling along this back road, probably in search of a place to park—out of this appeared a white goat.”
Flora’s arrival is equivalent to a supernatural intervention which sends a symbolic message to both Sylvia and the readers. Similar to the goat’s return to its owner, Carla’s return to her husband was inevitable.
Runaway | The Title’s Significance
The literal meaning of the title delineates running away from a person from a family or an institution. In the story, there are multiple runaways. Beginning with Carla, she runs away first from her parents and the sophisticated upper middle-class lifestyle to marry Clark and second, when she runs from Clark himself to escape the emotionless marriage. While the first runaway meets success, the latter one finds itself trapped in the complex web of societal expectations and gender roles. A woman’s identity requires the support of a man according to Carla who finds it incomprehensible to imagine a life without Clark. The other runaway is posited by the goat Flora. It is ambiguous whether she leaves herself or Clark facilitates her escape. Another kind of runaway can be observed in Sylvia’s vacation in Greece which becomes a coping mechanism for losing her husband and later in her resort to a location near her University, away from Carla in order to be absent from her life.
The title embodies a life lesson which teaches that while running away can often be seen as a cowardly act and it is deemed best to face the troubles, sometimes it is wise enough to run away from the problems because that might be the only key to the solution.
Runaway | Literary Devices
Flora…just slithered through like a white eel and disappeared.
Sylvia felt this laughter running all through her like a playful stream.
Sylvia saw it as a bright blossom, its petals spreading inside her with tumultuous heat, like a menopausal flash.
“The goats. They were quite small even when they were full-grown. Some spotty and some white, and they were leaping around up on the rocks just like—like the spirits of the place.”
He thought families were like a poison in your blood.
She saw him as the architect of the life ahead of them
She was sinking to the ground like a stricken horse who will never get up.
leaves overhead sending down random showers
The pasture grass and even the poor beaten crops lifted up their heads.
Carla said she did not want to talk about it anymore and he said okay. But they talked about it the next day, and the next and the next.
He used to call her his Dorothy Wordsworth. She was the sister of the famous Romantic poet William Wordsworth.
This was her second time to leave everything behind. The first time was just like the old Beatles song—her putting the note on the table and slipping out of the house at five o’clock in the morning, meeting Clark in the church parking lot down the street.
The fog was there tonight, had been there all this while. But now at one point there was a change. The fog had thickened, taken on a separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then condensing itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, hell-bent, something like a giant unicorn, rushing at them.
Runaway | Characters
Carla – She is a young woman who lives with her husband Clark without any contact with her family as a consequence of her running away with her husband. Coming from a wealthy background inclines her more towards Clark’s free-spirited life. However, when the economic crisis hit their lives, she begins to observe Clark’s changing attitude towards her and becomes a silent recipient of it. Despite being educated and ambitious, she opts for a more passive outlook toward her fate. She even misses the opportunity to run away from her husband with the help of Sylvia, the neighbour and her employer, due to the incomprehensibility of her life’s meaning without her husband. The trap of gendered conventions and patriarchal domination oppresses her even in her dreams and she fails to revolt back.
Clark- He is Carla’s husband who only shares one similarity with her i.e. a mutual love for horses. In all other aspects, he stands in great contrast with her. Being a college dropout leads him to engage in various small jobs such as that of an “attendant in a mental hospital, a disc jockey on a radio station in Lethbridge, Alberta, a member of a road crew on the highways near Thunder Bay, an apprentice barber, a salesman in an Army Surplus store [etc].” The wild and wandering lifestyle attracts Carla and they both run away to get married. Physically he is a tall, lean and well-built man but something is artificial about his appearance. Ethically, he often digresses from the moral path which is evidenced in his ploy of extorting money from Sylvia. He is controlling and emotionally manipulative and exploits his wife and her feelings. Murderous instincts affirm at the end when the possibility of killing Flora the goat by him surfaces in the narrative.
Sylvia Jamieson – She is a middle-aged woman who teaches Botany at the University. Childless and eventually a widow, she finds solace and fulfilment in Carla’s company during her cleaning visits. Her ambiguous feelings towards Carla are dismissed by her as “displaced maternal love.” She cares for the young woman and wishes her to be free from the shackles of an emotionally abusive marriage. Though she attempts to plan the same, Carla’s withdrawal fails which sparks an enmity with her husband Clark. He harasses her the night Carla returns back and warns her to stay away which she affirms and decides to maintain her distance from them and shifts to a closer location to the University.
Leon Jamieson – He is Sylvia’s poet husband who dies in the story and leaves her a big estate to look after.
Ruth Stiles – She is Sylvia’s friend living in Toronto with whom arrangements are made for Carla’s stay during her escape from Clark.
Joy Tucker – He is the librarian who boards his horse Lizzie with Carla and Clark.