“Prue.” The Moons of Jupiter, Alice Munro. Penguin, 2006.
Essay By Chris Gilmore
Prue: “Somebody Who Doesn’t Take Herself Too Seriously”
In “Prue,” the title character is described as “somebody who doesn’t take herself too seriously” (Munro 130). In moderation, humility is an admirable trait; however, Prue’s humility is so pervasive that it becomes a generalized sense of unworthiness, a kind of inferiority complex. Prue is not taken seriously by anyone in her life, including herself. Why? Typically, people do not take themselves seriously because they are not taken seriously by others, and they are not taken seriously by others because they are not taken seriously by themselves. It is a chicken-and-egg problem. But what does it mean not to take oneself seriously? Essentially, it means saying “I am not worthy of love, respect, or anything beyond minimal recognition and superficial investment.” Prue recognizes her dismal state for what it is, but she seems reluctant or unable to change it. Instead, she resigns herself to a life of ironic stoicism, wherein she can hide her secret resentments and forget her private failures, like trinkets at the bottom of an old tobacco tin.
Prue is surrounded by friends and family, yet she remains isolated and unhappy. Although she “had many friends in Toronto […] most of them [were] Gordon’s friends and his wife’s friends,” and although they “liked Prue [they] were ready to feel sorry for her” (130). In other words, Prue’s only “friends” are patronizing acquaintances from a failed relationship. Even her children “come to see her, and instead of wanting money, like other people’s children, they bring presents, try to do her accounts, arrange to have her house insulated” (131). Effectively, Prue’s condescending children appoint themselves as managers of her life and even give her a tobacco tin (from a junk shop) as a birthday present to help her quit smoking: “the children were worried about her, so they gave her this tin full of toffees, jelly beans, and gumdrops, with a note saying, ‘Please get fat instead.'” (134). No one in her life treats Prue as an equal, as an autonomous human being; however, she rarely protests. The “only thing she complains about readily is her name. Prue is a schoolgirl, she says, and Prudence is an old virgin” (130). She resents her parents for being “too shortsighted” and condemning her to a life of metaphorical chastity, perceived at once as a little girl and an old lady, never as an adult woman. “What if she had grown a great bosom […] or developed a sultry look?” Prue asks herself. “Or was the name itself a guarantee that she wouldn’t?” (130). She feels cursed, like the members of the House of Atreus or Romeo and Juliet, whose last names ensure that they will never be together. Prue is convinced that she was predestined to a life of insignificance: “In her late forties now […] she might not be far from what those parents had in mind: bright and thoughtful, a cheerful spectator. It is hard to grant her maturity, maternity, real troubles” (131). With a name like “Prue,” and a personality to match it, it is hard for people to grant her much of anything.
Prue’s name instantly recalls another (not-so-cheerful) spectator who feels condemned to the sidelines of life: Prufrock. In T.S. Eliot’s poem, Prufrock views himself as “a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, a nobody in search of connection, acceptance and meaning (73-4). Even in his own eyes, he is insignificant:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/ Am an attendant lord, one that will do/ To swell a progress, start a scene or two,/ Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,/ Deferential, glad to be of use […] At times, indeed, almost ridiculous–/ Almost, at times, the Fool. (111-19)
Prue also sees herself as a minor character in her own life, a nuisance for some, an amusement for others, but most of all a distraction: a toy to be played with for a moment, then tossed aside when real life returns. She is “very likable” but not very lovable (Munro 130). She is that archetypal quirky friend who is good for a laugh but little else, pleasant from a distance, tolerable only in small doses. Her unusual accent “helps her to say the most cynical things in a winning and lighthearted way,” allowing her to laugh through her pain, deflecting as much as possible and suppressing the rest (130). Prue relies on her exotic accent and her mask of humour to reach out to her audience (who would likely not hear her complaints otherwise), but to them she is little more than a comedian, telling jokes for their enjoyment. Like Prufrock, she feels ridiculous, as if she is playing the Fool. Not surprisingly, her particular brand of humour is dark; she “presents her life in anecdotes, and though it is the point of most of her anecdotes that hopes are dashed, dreams ridiculed, things never turn out as expected, everything is altered in a bizarre way and […] people always feel cheered up after listening to her” (130). Prue’s life is reducible to bar stories, pathetic anecdotes that form “a heap of broken images” (to borrow T.S. Eliot’s phrase) rather than a coherent narrative. Like Prufrock, Prue tries to make sense of her absurd existence and can only find fragments of meaning; consequently, she concludes that her life is doomed to be tragicomic, at best. Genuine tragedy is reserved for the Prince Hamlets of the world: Gordon, his wife, his lover, his friends.
Prufrock is not funny (at least, not intentionally), but he could easily be described, like Prue, as “unintense and civilized,” someone who suppresses his authentic self in order to fit in, someone who may appear to be content and popular but is secretly miserable and alone (130). He is someone who desperately seeks intimacy but is forced to settle for superficial interactions; he is someone who longs to be taken seriously. Like Prue, he asks himself the crucial question, “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?”, and implicitly a second question: “Could I disturb the universe, even if I wanted to?” (Eliot 45-6). In other words, would anyone care if Prue (or Prufrock) disappeared? To those around them, they are part of the landscape but hardly the center of attention. When they are on people’s minds–Prue, in particular–they are perceived as pity cases: “Her children hope she is not staying on in Toronto because of Gordon. Everybody hopes that” (Munro 131). “Everybody” knows about Prue’s relationship with Gordon; it seems to be a favorite topic for gossip, a condescending inside joke of which Prue is aware yet powerless to stop. Using her standard defence mechanism, she “would laugh at the idea. She gives parties and goes to parties; she goes out sometimes with other men” (131). Presumably, Prufrock would not give parties, but he certainly goes to them, and, evidently, he goes out with women–none of which implies that he is happy. Going to parties, “attending to customers with a dutiful vivacity, giving pleasure to dinner guests,” going out sometimes with other men: these are nothing more than rationalizations, justifications, and smoke screens concealing Prue’s unhappiness (131).
The key difference between Prufrock and Prue is how they respond to their unhappiness: Prufrock broods, Prue laughs. Externally, they are opposites; internally, they are the same. For instance, their attitudes toward sex seem different–Prufrock desperately seeks it; Prue passively avoids it–but at the core they reveal a common fear of vulnerability and loneliness. Prufrock has “known them all already, known them all” and is afraid that his metaphorical mermaids will not sing to him, while Prue “seems to regard sex as a wholesome, slightly silly indulgence, like dancing and nice dinners–something that shouldn’t interfere with people’s being kind and cheerful to each other” (Eliot 49; Munro 131). “Seems” is the key word in that sentence; it throws everything that follows into question. Prufrock fears a cold, indifferent universe and tries to find meaning and warmth in the arms of a lover. His fear of loneliness trumps his fear of vulnerability, since the real vulnerability (in his mind) is metaphysical, not merely existential. A meaningless world is bearable with meaningful company. Prue, on the other hand, dismisses sex as a “silly indulgence” to avoid being hurt by what it symbolizes and what she sorely lacks: love. She rejects love before love can reject her, and as a result she lives a half-life of comfortable numbness, unlike “those of her friends who get into terrible states of passion and jealousy, and feel cut loose from their moorings” (131). Being fully alive means being in love, and being in love means being in pain. Perhaps Prue has been denied love so many times that she has finally decided to retreat into her shell and scuttle across the floors of silent seas instead.
Gordon brings Prue’s pain to the fore. He is the one who got away, the love of her life, the perpetual thorn in her side; she is his back-up plan, his guilty pleasure, his distraction from real life. Their relationship history highlights this emotional imbalance: she only lived with him “after Gordon had left his wife and before he went back to her–a year and four months in all” (130). To Gordon, Prue is more than a rebound but less than a contender; she is a consolation prize. After little more than a year with Prue and after a divorce “came a period of indecision, of living together off and on [with his wife]; then the wife went away to New Zealand, most likely for good” (130). “Indecision” is a motif for Gordon, who constantly seems to be struggling to decide what he thinks and feels, to distinguish who he truly wants from who is simply convenient. In that sense, Gordon plays “Prince Hamlet” to Prue’s “attendant lord” and “Fool.” Gordon’s pensive body language and physical gravitas, his intimidating castle-like home, his enigmatic inwardness–everything about him recalls Shakespeare’s melancholy prince:
Gordon is a large man, with heavy features. He likes to wear thick clothing, bulky sweaters. His blue eyes are often bloodshot, and their expression indicates that there is a helpless, baffled soul squirming around inside this doughty fortress. (132)
Gordon takes himself seriously and demands that others do the same. Prue, on the other hand, wields no power, commands no authority. She has no choice but to take Gordon seriously, while aware that his “seriousness” is at times ridiculous, a euphemism for self-absorption that borders on solipsism. Gordon, in other words, is arguably more of a “Fool” than Prue, since Prue is at least aware of her absurdity. Despite his moody posturing, Gordon yelps and waves his arms in the air when his crème brûlée is threatened. Despite his all-knowing demeanor, Gordon is helpless when confronted with his lover’s anger. Prue later admits, “I think he was afraid I was going to laugh. He doesn’t know why people laugh or throw their overnight bags at him, but he’s noticed they do” (133). Surely, Hamlet would understand why Ophelia might throw an overnight bag at him. At the very least, he would duck to avoid it. Perhaps Gordon, in the final analysis, is closer to playing the Fool than playing Hamlet.
However, for Prue, Gordon remains the melancholy prince, the unobtainable object of desire. Even when they are together, they are not equals: “Now that his wife is gone for good, Gordon comes to see Prue occasionally, and sometimes asks her out for dinner. They may not go to a restaurant; they may go to his house” (131). Only after his wife left “for good” does Gordon “occasionally” see Prue, and only “sometimes” are their meetings an actual date. Gordon is perhaps too embarrassed to be seen in public with her, so they eat at his house instead of a restaurant. Even in a socio-economic sense, Prue and Gordon are on different levels: “Gordon is rich, by Prue’s–and most people’s–standards. He is a neurologist” (131). Prue works at a shop and, by most people’s standards, is anything but rich. Gordon’s massive house serves as a tangible reminder of their inequality: “new, built on a hillside north of the city, where there used to be picturesque, unprofitable farms. Now there are one-of-a-kind, architect-designed, very expensive houses on half-acre lots” (131). Like Gordon, wealth demolishes sentiment, beauty, and anything else it thinks it can buy or rationalize. Prue observes, “Do you know there are four bathrooms? So that if four people want to have baths at the same time there’s no problem” (131). Her jokes, as always, are defense mechanisms, barely concealing her intimidation and her reluctant gratitude to be worthy of this man’s attention. She knows she should laugh at this fool in the guise of a prince, but she is continually distracted by his trappings of royalty.
Consequently, Prue remains the attendant lord, “an easy tool,/ Deferential, glad to be of use” (Eliot 114-15). Even when Prue has Gordon to herself, his attention is divided; she will always be his second priority, at best. During their date, Gordon’s lover, the woman with whom he “thinks” he is in love, interrupts and quickly ruins their dinner. Both literally and figuratively, Prue remains in the background, forced to witness the drama from an obscure vantage point:
Prue heard a female voice. The person it belonged to was still outside, so she could not hear the words. She heard Gordon’s voice, pitched low, cautioning. The door didn’t close–it seemed the person had not been invited in–but the voices went on, muted and angry. (Munro 132)
The narrator focuses on Prue instead of the main dramatic incident (of which Prue has very little knowledge), capturing the general dynamic of Prue’s relationships. She is never the lover at the door, over whom men like Gordon brood, nor is she the parent whom her children admire, or the friend in whom people confide. She seems destined to view life from the sidelines, but even on the sidelines, her view is limited: she hears a “female voice” and is forced to deduce, based on volume and pitch, where it is coming from and what it might be saying. However, the identity of Gordon’s lover is irrelevant; she is an idea more than a person, another painful reminder of Prue’s status in Gordon’s hierarchy. The lover, the crème brûlée, Prue: these are Gordon’s priorities, in order of importance. During the second incident, after the woman dramatically rings the doorbell thrice, all Prue hears is “a crash” and the door slamming (133). From her distanced perspective, Gordon’s romantic drama is vaguely comic, until she realizes what such distance implies and how much she longs to be part of that comedy. For instance, if Prue were to confront Gordon and his lover in the doorway, they would likely be indifferent towards her. She is part of the love triangle only from her perspective; the others do not take her seriously.
Gordon’s indifference is best encapsulated and explained by his counter-intuitive dilemma: “The problem is that I think I would like to marry you” (132). As expected, Prue responds with a joke, but her standard defence mechanism proves futile (132). Gordon admits, “I think I’m in love with this person” but “I do think I want to marry you, in a few years time,” to which Prue half-jokingly replies, “After you get over being in love?” (133). In the face of such absurdities, Prue can only counter with an absurdity of her own: “I guess nobody knows what can happen in a few years’ time” (133). That Gordon views being in love as a “problem” that he must “get over” exposes the extent of his hyper-rational cluelessness and the nature of his feelings for Prue. He has never loved her and never will, which paradoxically makes her his ideal candidate for marriage. In light of his tumultuous previous marriage and his apparently exhausting current relationship, it is not surprising that Gordon would prefer a non-threatening companion like Prue, with whom he could create a bland, conflict-free life. First, however, Gordon must shed any remaining traces of passion with his overnight bag-throwing, crème brûlée-spoiling companion, whom he loves far too much to consider marrying.
After the story’s only white space, the narrator flashes forward to a time when the previous scene has become the subject of an amusing anecdote, suggesting that ultimately Gordon did not marry Prue, and that their relationship continues to haunt her. When she recites the story, she retains her sense of humour, but that is not necessarily proof of a happy ending. If anything, her ironic tone suggests that although time has passed, the wound has not fully healed, and she needs humour more than ever to counterbalance the pain. The morning after the dinner scene, Prue is reminded again of her second-class status, realizing that “she is alone in Gordon’s house; he has gone off early, as he always does” and that she “doesn’t have to be at the shop until ten; she could make herself breakfast, stay and have coffee with the housekeeper, who is her friend from olden times” (134). Gordon works a full day, like all “successful” people, whereas Prue is on the same schedule (and thus the same level) as the housekeeper, with whom Gordon has a very superficial relationship. Prue then has a brief epiphany: “The house seems too bleak a place to spend an extra moment in”; however, against her better judgment, she continues to see Gordon (134). The precise form and duration of their relationship is unclear, but it is clear that it ends eventually–and, most likely, unhappily.
Prue’s only escape from victimhood resides in her tobacco tin, filled with trinkets taken from Gordon’s house. The stolen cufflink was purchased on a holiday with his ex-wife “when they got back together again” and is thus a symbol of their passionate relationship, the kind Prue wants with Gordon but will never have (134). By taking only one of the pair, Prue provides a poetic reminder for Gordon that his relationship with his ex-wife was cleaved in two, that Prue always wanted a piece of him, and a painful reminder for herself that she was never more than half of an ornament to Gordon. In her customary humorous way, Prue convinces herself that “taking one is not a real theft. It could be a reminder, an intimate prank, a piece of nonsense” (134). However, behind every piece of nonsense is a piece of seriousness, and the tobacco tin that stores such symbolic trinkets is ultimately as pathetic as it is empowering:
Now the tin has in it several things besides the cufflink–all small things, not of great value but not worthless, either. […] These are not sentimental keepsakes. She never looks at them, and often forgets what she has there. […] She does not take something every time she goes to Gordon’s house, or every time she stays over, or to mark what she might call memorable visits. […] She just takes something, every now and then, and puts it away in the dark of the old tobacco tin, and more or less forgets about it. (134)
Prue’s unusual pastime can be seen as her particular brand of revenge against Gordon. She does to him what he did to her: belittles, objectifies, dismisses, and forgets. This secret form of retribution is admirable, almost inspiring; however, it reiterates the saddest aspects of Prue’s life. She can only gain a sense of peace privately, through a fetishistic activity that is part sublimation, part repression.
Prue’s tobacco tin is the pragmatic equivalent of a voodoo doll or a punching bag on which she can vent her frustrations, but if no one notices this quiet form of justice, can it be called justice at all? If Prue can only “more or less” forget about the contents (let alone the existence) of the tobacco tin, is her pastime closer to a masochistic repetition compulsion than a productive form of sublimation? The story provides no definitive answers; however, one hopes that the tobacco tin will someday have served its purpose and become a relic, something she can more or less forget about or dispose of altogether. One also hopes that someday she will relinquish her status as a consolation prize, an attendant lord and fool, that she will find someone who can take her seriously and who can convince her to do the same.
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Collected Poems: 1909-1962. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.
Chris Gilmore is currently pursuing a Masters in English and Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. He writes fiction, plays and screenplays.