Sunday Afternoon by Alice Munro
In Sunday Afternoon by Alice Munro we have the theme of innocence, acceptance, appearance, desire, class and hope. Taken from her Dance of the Happy Shades collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Munro may be exploring the theme of class. Throughout the story there is a sense that Alva is very different from any of the other characters. Her place is in the kitchen to help Mrs Gannett, while the other characters, all friends or family of the Gannett’s are there to enjoy themselves. It is only on the promise of being allowed go to the Island does the reader get a sense that Alva may be allowed to live her life outside her duties as a maid. The island itself may also be symbolically important, at least for Alva, as it symbolises hope. She has heard about how much fun those who go to the island have and in many ways she has the same aspirations (or desires) herself. She too wants to go to the island to relax.
Munro also appears to be exploring the theme of appearance. By choosing to read King Lear Alva may be displaying her desire to impress not only other people but men in particular. She is after all seventeen and would have an interest in men (or boys) and by reading King Lear she may be hoping that educationally some of her suitors will be impressed. Though it’s not directly stated in the story Alva through her living arrangements also appears to be living her life less opulently (or least extravagantly) than those around her. All the furniture in her room is a mismatch of items that are no longer of any use in any of the other rooms in the Gannett’s house. This may be important as it suggests that Alva as the maid in the house is on the outside or is isolated from others. Though she might live in the same house as the Gannetts she is not really a part of their every day life. She has a duty to perform or a role to play. That being as the maid to the Garnetts. Which would also directly play on the theme of class. Alva is answerable to the Gannetts though there is a sense that she longs to live her life as they do. To have the same luxuries.
There is also a sense of innocence in the story. Not so much from Alva but from her mother. Something that is noticeable when Alva is writing her mother a letter. It is as if Alva is explaining the rules of her employment to her mother or at least Alva appears to be accepting of her place in the Gannett’s home and is making sure that her mother follows the same rules too. Likewise Mrs Gannett’s daughter Margaret is unsure if she should ‘start to neck’ and it is through Alva’s advice that she decides she will. Another interesting thing about Alva’s engagement with Margaret is the noticeable difference in the amount of clothes both girls have and in the quality of the clothes. Which in many ways not only further plays on the theme of class but also on the theme of appearance.
There is also some symbolism in the story, apart from the island, which may be important. As mentioned Munro may be introducing all of Margaret’s dresses to highlight at least symbolically the differences in class between both Alva and Margaret. Munro’s description of the streets (crescent) outside of Alva’s window may also be symbolically important as it is perfect in Alva’s eyes. It is the type of environment that Alva herself strives to live in (upper class area). The introduction of Mrs Gannett’s cousin may also be important as it is by having him kiss Alva (unexpectedly) that Alva begins to feel part of something. Munro telling the reader ‘this stranger’s touch had eased her; her body was simply grateful and expectant, and she felt a lightness and confidence she had not known in this house.’ For the first time in the story Alva feels connected in some way. The title of the story may also have some symbolic significance as throughout the day (Sunday) Alva is expected to work. Which suggests that Alva may never have any free time for herself. She is a full time maid to the Gannetts.
The end of the story is also interesting as despite a renewed excitement about going to the island. Alva is still holding back a little. Though she welcomed the kiss from Mrs Gannett’s cousin she is not necessarily prepared to commit herself fully to him. She knows she can’t due to her social status. If anything Mrs Gannett’s cousin (an older man) has seduced Alva and for her to pursue him in any way will only lead to her being humiliated. Even at the end of the story Alva knows her place. She is a working class maid who is answerable to her upper class employer. However there is one advantage for Alva at the end of the story. Mrs Gannett’s cousin by kissing Lava has restored her self-confidence. She believes in herself again and is no longer as isolated or as lonely as she has previously been in the story.