Wild Times in West Hanratty:
Sexual Fantasy and Transformation in “Wild Swans” by Alice Munro
By Grant S. Robertson
Written December, 2005
Growing up poor is pretty bad. Growing up poor with a nasty stepmother who grew up even more poor and never lets one forget it is much worse. Such is life for Rose of West, Hanratty, Ontario,
In “Wild Swans” another bridge is crossed both physically and metaphorically which makes this story an important turning point in both the book and Rose’s life. While the story is ostensibly about Rose’s first trip on her own out of town to the big city of Toronto, the main focus and, ahem, climax of the story involve an “incident” that took place on the train trip there. A man, claiming to be a minister sat down next to Rose and supposedly sexually assaulted her while feigning sleep. There seems to be some debate within the literary community as to whether this transgression was real or imagined. However, closer examination reveals many clues that it was pure fantasy. But that's not such a bad thing. Many psychologists now claim that a healthy fantasy life is important. Roses "experience," though likely a flight (or train ride) of fancy, was real enough to her and vital in her greatly desired transformation from a chubby young girl of West, Hanratty to an independent young woman of the world.
To better understand the “experience” portrayed in this story it will be helpful to know a little of the motivations of the author. As it turns out Alice Munro often explored the role of fantasy within her character’s lives. As Coral Ann Howells writes in her book titled simply Alice Munro,
Munro writes very well about the banality and the power of fantasy, which remains a central fact not affected by age or gender but which provides an inner space in which to invent new images of the self. She is very interested in erotic fantasies as an urgent part of sexual experience for women […]. (60)
Referring specifically to Rose, Howell states, "Rose's fantasizing coexists with her normal everyday living for the possibilities envisaged by her […] do not exist outside reality; instead, they are hidden within it." (57) With an author known to have a fetish about fantasy it is not hard to believe that this story is an exploration of that same topic.
Characters often are extensions or expressions of an authors interests. As it turns out Rose does have a bit of a thing for fantasy. She has quite a long history of it, actually. Despite, or perhaps even because Rose's family "were all most prudish people" (Beatings 6) both Flo and Rose seemed to be obsessed with sex. From the very first paragraph of “Wild Swans” Rose and her stepmother, Flo, are imagining things related to sex; what with Flo spinning stories about white slavers and what they do to girls. Even a retired undertaker is turned into a lecherous old man when viewed through the steamed up looking glass of Flo's imagination. (Swans 142) Flo even went so far as to plant the idea of being "diddled" by men in authority just before Rose got onto the train. (Swans 141)
Critic Halvard Dahlie believes that only Rose can know whether the "diddling" in question actually took place, claiming that "Rose's experience here remains in that ambiguous area that lies between fantasy and reality[…]" (36) However, Dahlie himself points out the passage in the text where Munro informs us that "[Rose's] imagination seemed to have created this reality." (Swans 146) reducing the credibility of his claim. Moreover, just as Rose is beginning to suspect/fantasize that what is touching her leg is the minister's hand, the author makes sure to inform us that Rose has fantasized specifically about men's hands many times in the past; "think[ing] about everything they could do." (Swans 146) Even the overweight, older men turn Rose on. (Swans 146) To be sure, we aren't talking about innocent romantic fantasies either. Munro tells us that Rose "had a considerable longing to be somebody's object. Pounded, pleasured, reduced, exhausted." (Swans 146) It is quite clear that the adolescent Rose is bursting with hormones.
It is also clear that Rose has been quite active in her own personal "experimentation," making use of "root vegetables or humble kitchen tools that people tell jokes about;” and marveling that, “the world is tumbling with innocent-seeming objects ready to declare themselves, slippery and obliging." (Swans 148) Rose even acknowledges a kinky side when she declares, "the worse the better, as we ride the cold wave of greed […]." (Swans 148) Not that any of this is a bad thing. Far from it. But it does provide evidence that Rose has a very, very healthy erotic fantasy life.
There are other less overt clues within the text that this experience is simply an extension of Rose’s ongoing fantasies. Even before grade school "Rose's nature [had been] growing like a prickly pineapple […]." (Beatings 7) She had continuously egged Flo on, resulting in many beatings and knowing it would result in many more. (Beatings 16-17) So it is hard to believe that Rose would be too timid to simply ask a man to move his hand. Perhaps it didn't occur to Rose to simply move the minister's hand (Swans 146) because it wasn't anywhere to be moved from. Perhaps she couldn't bring herself to say anything (Swans 146) because there was truly nothing to say. Then there is the matter of physical evidence. After Rose's "spongy tissues [and] inflamed membranes" (Swans 147) had produced their "Niagara" (Swans 148) of wetness, supposedly allowing the minister's hand to come "sliding down," (Swans 148) "slippery and obliging" (Swans 148) it is very difficult to believe that the minister simply got up and collected his papers when the conductor came by. There is no mention of the minister extricating his hand from its precarious position. There is no explanation whatsoever of what happened to all the wetness which would have been as sticky as the metaphorical jam and marmalade (Swans 148) all over that hand by then; no wiping, no "shameful smells," (Swans 147) nothing. He just simply gets up and walks away. It seems apparent that a skilled "diddler" would either wipe his hand after finishing or, at the very least, plunge it along with its coating of evidence into a pocket to avoid detection.
Just as soon as the minister leaves, Munro tells us that he also becomes a subject for fantasy many times in the future. With an entire book in which to have mentioned this little tidbit, it seems quite telling that it is given to the reader immediately after the "incident." After the minister has gone and Rose is contemplating everything, if she had actually done something, or had it done to her, any normal person would have thought something like, "How could I have let that happen?" or maybe even, "That was one hell of a ride!" but Rose did neither. Instead she thought about how "she had come as close as she had, to what could happen […]." (Swans 149) When someone talks about could have happened, that generally means that it did not happen.
The final, and perhaps most subtle, clue of all is the ten dollars Flo sewed in a bag to Rose’s slip which was now rubbing against Rose's skin. (Swans 149) Many literary analysts will interpret Rose’s supposed orgasm – indicated metaphorically by the flock of birds exploding from under one big dome together (Swans 148) – as proof that Rose was, in fact, being physically stimulated to an actual orgasm. However, that ten dollars tells a different story. After one has achieved orgasm one usually feels comfortable and relaxed in one's own skin. However, if one has gotten oneself worked up over a fantasy but not actually reached said fulfillment then one will often be edgy and feel uncomfortable with things touching one's skin. Rose must have been pretty worked up without release because she "knew she would feel" that bag (and the horny edginess it implied) "all day long, rubbing its reminder against her skin." (Swans 149) Considering the short shrift the author gave the topic at the beginning of the story, it seems it was only inserted there so it could be brought up again at the end for the specific purpose of indicating – by way of metaphor – this exact feeling of unease.
Like sex, another thing Rose seems to be obsessed with is transformation. Her life is awful at home (Beatings 16-17) and it was just as dismal at grade school as is evidenced in almost every paragraph of the short story, "Privilege." She wants to be somewhere else. She wants to be someone else. Rose, like many young girls is eager to be transformed into something better. She wants a better body, and a better life. In "Privilege," there was a girl named Cora who wore satin dresses and was the leader of the popular clique. It is here that we see Rose's first grade-school-aged desire for transformation. Though this Cora was overweight, Rose still wanted to be like her. "Rose walked around the yard behind the store, imagining the fleshy satin rippling over her own hips, her own hair ironed and dipping, her lips red. She wanted to grow up to be exactly like Cora. She did not want to wait to grow up. She wanted to be Cora, now." (33) Later, after Cora deigned to be nice to Rose for a time "Rose was obsessed. She spent her time trying to walk and look like Cora, repeating every word she had ever heard her say. Trying to be her." (34) Even though Cora was far from even the perception of being perfect she was the most mature and successful girl in Rose’s awful little world. Cora represented the best that Rose could possibly fathom herself achieving. Rather than simply aspiring to be like Cora, Rose wanted to be Cora; so much so that she actually pretended to be her. As if, by this pretending Rose could transform herself into the person she wanted to be.
Now in high school, Rose has gotten over her infatuation with Cora but she is still infatuated with transformation. Among the things Rose wanted to buy on her trip to Toronto were, hair-remover for her arms and legs, and some sort of inflatable contraption to make her look slimmer along with jewelry and a sweater. (Swans 144) "She thought they could transform her, make her calm and slender and take the frizz out of her hair, dry her underarms and turn her complexion to pearl." (Swans 144) As she looked out the window of the train, Rose noticed how different things looked from the way they did at home (Swans 144); different, and by implication better. Finally, after the whole “incident” was over, in the last few paragraphs of the story, Rose's thoughts turn to a woman named Mavis whom Flo had told stories about. A woman who had transformed her appearance then posed as movie star while on vacation one time. Rose was particularly interested in this, thinking "it would be an especially fine thing to manage a transformation like that. To dare it; to get away with it." (Swans 150) According to Dahlie, this shows that Rose is "eager for a kind of metamorphosis or transformation to a stage where she could 'enter on preposterous adventures in [her] own, but newly named, skin'." (Dahlie 37; Who qtd. in Dahlie 64) It’s interesting how mere minutes after supposedly being sexually assaulted, Rose is still preoccupied with transformation. What is even more telling is that Munro chose to end the story in this manner. This is where it becomes clear that the story isn’t about a train ride or even about an erotic fantasy. The entire story – the train ride, the fantasy, the bridge crossing, all of it – is truly about transformation.
Rose has crossed the bridge from grade school to high school and now she is crossing the symbolically transformative bridge into young womanhood. In many ways Rose herself is like a wild swan. She has started out in the ugly duckling world of West Hanratty and traveled to a better world. A world of independence, and sexual awakening. No longer will she need to rely on Flo and her twisted perceptions of reality. Rose can now see it for herself; and then decide for herself what role she wants to play in it. Sometimes that role may be pure fantasy. But at least it will be Rose’s fantasy and it will be one she can definitely enjoy.
Dahlie, Hallvard. Alice Munro and Her Works. Toronto: ECW Press, 1984.
Howells, Coral Ann. "Only formal connections: The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose." Alice Munro. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998. 51-66
Munro, Alice. Beggar Maid, The: Stories of Flo and Rose. 1st American ed. New York: Knopf, 1979.
---. "Privilege." Beggar Maid, The: Stories of Flo and Rose. 1st American ed. New York: Knopf, 1979. 25 - 39.
---. "Royal Beatings." Beggar Maid, The: Stories of Flo and Rose. 1st American ed. New York: Knopf, 1979. 3 - 24.
---. “Wild Swans.” Selected Stories. New York: Vintage, 1997. 141-150.
 The reader should be warned: This paper deals with adolescent sexuality in a very adult manner. Those who may be offended should stop reading now.
 Please Note: The book The Beggar Maid was first published as Who do You Think You Are? in
This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.