Train, by Alice Munro
This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve. Jackson is the only passenger left, and the next stop is about twenty miles ahead.
A great short story poses questions right out of the starting gate, and Munro poses plenty in this opening line. Why is the train slow? Why has it slowed? Who is Jackson? What will happen at the next stop, or will he even make it to the next stop?
While this story is a wonderful study in plot, it also demonstrates the deft use of a particular kind of third person point of view.
Please read the story before reading my notes on the story.
I'd like you to read it with fresh eyes, noticing point of view and plot and anything else that stands out to you. Also, the notes contain spoilers. The notes below offer my analysis of certain aspects of the story and what we, as writers, can learn from it:
Notes on TRAIN, by Alice Munro
Notice how, as the story opens, we are seeing the world through Jackson's eyes:
He heaves his bag, and sees it land just nicely, in between the rails. No choice now — the train’s not going to get any slower.
He takes his chance. A young man in good shape, agile as he’ll ever be. But the leap, the landing, disappoints him. He’s stiffer than he’d thought, the stillness pitches him forward, his palms come down hard on the gravel between the ties, he’s scraped the skin. Nerves.
In paragraphs 1 - 6, the story hews closely to Jackson's point of view. We get glimpses of who he is, what he has come home from (war). We see the world the way he sees it: the trees for which he doesn't know names, the receding train, the garter snake.
Then, in paragraph 7, something interesting happens. A new consciousness is introduced: Belle. We see through Belle's eyes, and even the voice shifts, as we dip into Belle's thoughts:
Something moved in the trees. A man’s voice called out that it was all right.
Well of course it was all right. Did he think she was afraid of him attacking Margaret Rose who had her horns still on?
It is Belle who sees something moving in the trees. Belle who thinks "of course it is all right," Belle who "noticed the bag he had hold of."
What Munro is doing here is what I like to call the roving third person. Although the authorial voice, the narration, can see into the thoughts and minds of all characters, even the cow--a narrative trick known as omniscience--we are close in on the thoughts of two characters: Jackson and Belle.
While in the first section, Jackson's consciousness is the only one we have access to, in the second section, the consciousness moves back and forth deftly between Jackson and Belle. The challenge of using the omniscient point of view is to make it clear who is thinking and seeing what.
"...We used to keep hens but the foxes kept getting them and we just got fed up.”
We. We used to keep hens. That meant she had a man around somewhere.
It's clear that the unquoted "We used to keep hens" is Jackson ruminating on what Belle has just said. And the next sentence, "That meant she had a man around somewhere," can only come from him, of course. Belle knows whether she has a man around; Jackson is just figuring it out.
This is a chilling moment in the story. Not only are we wondering what is in the bag, but we're also wondering if Jackson has come to do her harm, if he is scoping the place out.
Later, after the story has taken a number of surprising twists and turns, we go back in time and drop into the consciousness of yet another character, someone from Jackson's past: Ileane. We see the young Jackson through the young Ileanes eyes, but only after we have seen the adult Ileane.
Ileane knew that his mother had died in a car accident when he was very small — this was sometimes taken to account for his shyness. She thought that the drink was probably making him exaggerate, but she didn’t try to make him talk about it any further.
Plot & revelation of information over time
The story also demonstrates the slow drip of plot, how information is revealed over time in a story. As the story begins, we know only that there is a young man on a train, nervous, going somewhere. But in paragraphs 4 and 5, our understanding of the situation begins to develop and take on new mysteries:
He would have been believed. Coming home from so far away, from Germany and the war, he could have got mixed up in his head. It’s not too late, he would be where he was supposed to be before midnight. But all the time he’s thinking this he’s walking in the opposite direction. He doesn’t know many names of trees.
In terms of character, we learn more about who Jackson is: a soldier coming home from the war in Germany. But we also learn that he isn't where he's supposed to be. Why is Jackson getting off at the wrong stop? Where is he going? Whom is he deceiving?
At the end of the seventh section, we are clued in to the passage of time:
“I always thought you and your sister was Mennonites but ones that wore a different kind of outfit,” the dealer said.
That shook Jackson up a little but at least it was better than husband and wife. It made him realize how he must have aged and changed over the years, and how the person who had jumped off the train, that skinny nerve-wracked soldier, would not be so recognizable in the man he was now.
This is fascinating in terms of narrative movement. The harm we might have expected to come to Belle has not come to pass. Instead, Jackson and Belle have made a life together, but not as husband and wife. The surprise is in the passage of time and the ordinariness of their existence together; in the hands of a lesser writer, the story might have ended soon after Belle and Jackson's first encounter, with the predictable conclusion that he planned to harm her or steal from her or was otherwise up to no good.
Later, at the hospital:
“When I come out of this I am going to make a will,” she said. “All yours. You won’t have wasted your labors.”
He had of course thought about this, and you would have expected that the prospects of ownership would have brought a sober satisfaction to him, though he would have expressed a truthful and companionable hope that nothing would happen too soon. But no. It all seemed quite to have little to do with him, to be quite far away.
Interesting because for a moment, we think perhaps his motive all along was to own the house. But then, there's that final sentence--"it all seemed quite to have little to do with him.
What is fascinating is, this late into the story, we're still wondering what Jackson really wants, what is motivating him. And that question, in many ways, drives the story. It goes agains the advice to make the character's desire first and foremost in the story, but somehow, Munro pulls it off.
And then, very late in the story, we come to this:
Then it came to him quite easily, that a person could just not be there.
Finally, we understand why he got off at the wrong train station. We understand what he was avoiding. There is something devastating in this realization--that it was all to avoid being with the woman he had promised him to. But by this time, we already know that she married and had a daughter, that her life continued without him. But we also discover that the daughter she had was his, and that the daughter--his own daughter--was in the apartment recently, and he never paid much attention to her.
And an even stranger revelation: he wants to have nothing to do with the woman, Ileane. So he must move on again. And then finally the revelation about his abusive stepmother: a detail, revealed at the very end of the story, which helps us to better understand why he keeps moving on, why he doesn't "find a wife and settle down."
This is a strange story that ends in a logical place, but not at all where one would expect it to end. The best stories do that: bring us to a place that is unexpected, but logical, with character being revealed up until the last moment.
We'll talk about dialogue in depth in a different module, but I wanted to point out the use of indirect dialogue in this passage:
Her father — she called him her daddy — had bought this place just for the summers, she said, and then he decided that they might as well live here all year round.
In this paragraph, we get an unquoted paraphrase of what Belle is saying; this is called indirect dialogue, because it's not being told to us word for word.
There is a beautiful moment in the hospital, where Jackson has brought Belle to be seen about her lump:
The nurse took him to sign something before he left. He hesitated where it asked for what relation. Then he wrote “friend.”
Here, if a reader has been wondering what the story is about (as I have), it begins to come into focus: it is a story about friendship.Or it appears to be. Later, we discover that it is something else: a story about a man fleeing his past, going to great pains to avoid someone to whom he had made promises.