Red Dress—1946 by Alice Munro
In Red Dress—1946 by Alice Munro we have the theme of appearance, insecurity, acceptance, hope, freedom, opinion and connection. Taken from her Dance of the Happy Shades collection the story is narrated in the first person by a young thirteen year old girl and after reading the story the reader realises that Munro may be exploring the theme of appearance and insecurity. Throughout the story there is a sense that the narrator longs to be like other girls, particularly her friend Lonnie. First the reader is told that the narrator wishes that rather than having her dresses made for her by her mother she wishes that like Lonnie, she could buy her dresses in Beale’s store. Also while she is trying on her dress the narrator tells the reader that again she wishes she was like Lonnie, ‘light-boned, pale and thin.’ This line in particular may be important as Munro could be using it to highlight just how insecure the narrator feels with regard to her own body image, something that becomes clearer to the reader when the narrator describes her body as ‘a great raw lump, clumsy and goose-pimpled.’ The most striking thing about the narrator’s opinion of her body is how unflattering she is to herself which may further suggest that the narrator is not only insecure about what she looks like but it is possible that she views her physical appearance negatively because of how she will be perceived by others, particularly her peers and boys. It is possible that the narrator’s concerns about her body image are driven by her awareness of societal opinion or perception as to what a girl’s body should look like with the commonly held perception in society being that a girl who is ‘light-boned, pale and thin’ is more acceptable or desirable than a girl who is ‘a great raw lump, clumsy and goose-pimpled.’
How important appearance is to the narrator or how strong her desire to be liked or accepted by others is further noticeable when she is in her bedroom with Lonnie. The reader discovers that she has filled out some questionnaires from a magazine to see if she (and Lonnie) would be considered popular. Though some critics may suggest that the narrator is lacking any type of individuality and that she is conforming to how society may expect a young girl to act, it is more likely that Munro is highlighting the pressure that a young girl may feel while growing up and just how important it is to a young girl to feel that they ‘fit in’ with their peers or that they are popular. The fact that the narrator is also inquisitive with regards to the boys in her class and whether they might like her may also be significant as it suggests that she is starting to become sexually aware. Something that is further noticeable when the reader discovers that the narrator has also read an article about what a girl should do if a boy tries to go too far. Though again some critics may suggest that the narrator (and Lonnie) lack any sense of awareness when it comes to the politics of gender and as such are following societal perceptions of how a young girl should act.
It is also possible that by using a first person narrative Munro may have been attempting to develop a connection between the narrator and the reader. For the reader to feel empathy for the narrator or to imagine themselves in her shoes. Whether Munro has succeeded in connecting the reader and narrator is up to each individual reader to decide. Some might suggest that the narrator is being selfish, wanting to escape from her mother because she may feel oppressed when the reality is that there is nothing in the story to suggest that her mother is oppressing her. However it is also possible that the narrator is going through a stage in her life, as do many young people, in whereby she feels the need to free herself from her environment or that she has outgrown her mother and as such many readers may identify or connect with her.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be significant. The fact that the dress is red may be important as red is usually associated with desire and passion and throughout the story the reader can sense just how strongly the narrator wishes to be able to connect with a boy. Munro also appears to be contrasting the colour red against the colour blue, which at times in the story Munro is associating with the narrator’s mother. The narrator describes her mother’s legs as being ‘marked with lumps of blue-green veins’. Also when the narrator’s mother was younger she was given a dress with ‘royal blue piping down the front.’ It is possible that by using the colour blue (against the red of the narrator’s dress) that Munro is highlighting the narrator’s wish to disassociate or free herself from her mother. It is also noticeable that Munro at moments when the narrator feels anxious or wants to isolate herself from the world around her also uses the colour blue to symbolise the anxiety that the narrator may feel. When the narrator becomes anxious about going to the dance and tries to make herself sick, she opens her bedroom window to allow the cold air into her room and says to herself ‘blue with cold.’ Similarly the narrator as she is standing in her bedroom pictures her ‘chest and throat turning blue.’ These actions by the narrator are important as they suggest that she (at times) feels more secure in following a path that she would usually associate with her mother. That being a life of loneliness and isolation. How lonely the mother may feel is noticeable when she says ‘au reservoir’ to the narrator and Lonnie when they leave to go to the dance. The narrator tells the reader that this is exactly what she and Lonnie say to each other when they say goodbye to one another. If anything the mother is attempting to connect with both the narrator and Lonnie, much to the narrator’s disapproval. The fact that the narrator also shares her handkerchief with Raymond may also be symbolically important as Munro could be using the handkerchief to suggest or highlight a common connection between the narrator and Raymond. Though Raymond may be unaware of it.
The ending of the story is also interesting as some critics differ as to what Munro’s intentions may have been when the reader discovers that the narrator feels she has been saved by Raymond and rather than leaving the dance with Mary Fortune decides instead to dance with Raymond and walk home with him. Some critics suggest that by not following Mary Fortune the narrator is displaying an inability to think for herself as Mary Fortune appears to be able to do and in reality she is again conforming to societal norms or expectations as to what a young girl or woman should do. However it is possible that the narrator is already thinking for herself, the reader aware of just how much importance the narrator places on making a connection with a boy. It might also be a case that Mary Fortune’s outlook on life, though at first appealing to the narrator, is more reactive than proactive. Having already experienced the pain of being isolated from others Mary Fortune may feel that rather than connecting with another person (or boy) she is safer following her own path as she is less likely to get hurt. The fact that the narrator also decides that she will not tell her mother about how she got on at the dance may also be important as it suggests that the narrator is taking a further step in freeing herself from her mother and is beginning to stand on her own two feet. Whether the narrator’s actions are right is left to each individual reader to decide.