The Shining Houses by Alice Munro
In The Shining Houses by Alice Munro we have the theme of change, appearance, conflict, modernity, independence and acceptance. 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 change. By setting the story around the building of a new subdivision Munro may be highlighting to the reader the inevitability of change in people’s lives and how that change may affect an individual. Something that is noticeable by the continued exclusion of Mrs Fullerton by those who have just moved into Garden Place and who wish to have her property demolished. By singling out Mrs Fullerton Munro may also be highlighting the differences between not only new and old (or future versus past) but also the differences that may exist between generations. Out of all the characters in the story Mrs Fullerton is the only one who is described as being old. If anything there is a sense that Mrs Fullerton’s neighbour’s (with the exception of Mary) rather than respecting Mr Fullerton or her right to continue living in Garden Place consider her to be no more than a hindrance to their own progress and prosperity in life
Munro may also be exploring the theme of appearance. Each of Mrs Fullerton’s neighbours want her property demolished not so much because they want to build a lane, that if anything is only an excuse or an afterthought but rather they do not like the appearance of Mrs Fullerton’s property which unlike their own newly built houses sticks out and is not in line with the direction that the neighbours want Garden Place to take. It is also interesting that Mrs Fullerton’s neighbours consider the value of their property to be more important than Mrs Fullerton’s right to be allowed to life her life as she sees fit. It is possible that by highlighting to the reader the concerns that the neighbours have with regards to the impact on the value of their property should Mrs Fullerton’s house remain as it is that Munro is suggesting that money is more important to an individual rather than having any compassion or concern for others (Mrs Fullerton). Where once people may have appreciated their neighbours or have had some genuine concern for them each of the residents in Garden Place (again with the exception of Mary) appears to be more concerned with the value of their property. It is also possible that Munro is suggesting that with change or modernity comes the inevitable isolation of an individual who may or may not follow the lead of those around them. Which appears to be the case for Mrs Fullerton who has no intention of changing the appearance of her property just in order to suit the wishes of her neighbours.
The theme of conflict is self-evident in the story. Not only are the neighbours in conflict with Mrs Fullerton over the physical state of her property but there is also an internal conflict within Mary when it comes to signing the petition which will ensure that Mrs Fullerton’s property is demolished. Mary unlike the rest of Mrs Fullerton’s neighbours feels that Mrs Fullerton, having lived in Garden Place for so long, should be allowed to continue to live there regardless of how her property might look. Which may suggest that rather than placing a value on her own property, as the other neighbours are doing, Mary instead seems to be placing a value on Mrs Fullerton’s right to be allowed to live as she wishes. By also being the only person who does not wish to sign the petition Mary in many ways is highlighting her ability to think for herself or to remain independent of others. Which is how Mrs Fullerton herself also appears to live her life without concern or worry as to what those around her may think of her. Though it is noticeable at the end of the story that Mary does not voice her disapproval of her neighbour’s actions.
There is also some symbolism in the story that may be important. It is possible that Munro is using Mrs Fullerton’s house to symbolise the past and the newer houses in Garden Place to symbolise the future and by wanting to demolish Mrs Fullerton’s home Munro may be suggesting that the neighbours no longer wish to live in the past or live their lives as those who came before them may have lived. By telling the reader that the eggs are cheaper in the supermarket compared to the prices that Mrs Fullerton charges it is possible that Munro is symbolically highlighting the inevitability of modernity and the decline of self-sufficiency or independence. Something that becomes a little clearer to the reader when we discover that a shopping centre is also going to be built in Garden Place. It may also be a case that by telling the reader that Mrs Fullerton intends to sell some cherries from her house Munro is highlighting again how independent or self-sufficient Mrs Fullerton actually is unlike those who live around her. By calling the subdivision Garden Place Munro may also be introducing irony into the story as a garden would usually be associated with plants, flowers, trees or maybe some bushes. However it is clear to the reader that rather than looking like a garden, Garden Place has the feel and look of a building site with very little greenery. The fact that part of the story also takes place at a children’s birthday party may also be symbolically important as by introducing the birthday party into the story Munro may be further highlighting the inevitability of change. As previously mentioned out of all the characters in the story Mrs Fullerton is the only one who is considered old and who has already reared her children. By introducing the party into the story Munro may be highlighting the arrival of the next generation.
The ending of the story is also interesting as Munro appears to be exploring the theme of acceptance. Though Mary refuses to sign the petition there is a sense that she accepts that what her neighbours are planning is going to happen with or without her agreement. It may also be important that the reader is aware that Mary is unable to express herself as she would like to. It is possible that by not being as vocal as she would like to be when it comes to her neighbour’s intentions that Mary also longs to be accepted by her neighbours. Rather than challenging them she is prepared to accept their plans for Mrs Fullerton’s property in order that she is not isolated by her neighbours to the same extent that Mrs Fullerton is. Though she remains disaffected with her neighbour’s plans she still nonetheless accepts them. Which suggests that the only truly independent person in Garden Place is the same individual (Mrs Fullerton) that everybody else wants to get rid of.