By Esyllt Jones
A century ago, people living through World War I, the global influenza pandemic, and waves of social unrest experienced a world in turmoil. These world-historical events must have been interconnected, and those connections must have affected people’s lives. This all seems obvious, yet the specifics are difficult to pin down. Consequently, historians usually consider the war, the pandemic, and social movements separately from each other. Labour historians have rarely explored the pandemic’s impact on working people; disease historians say little about labour and social movements. As the Black Lives Matter movement strengthened during the early part of the Covid-19 outbreak, I was reminded again that the relationships between equity struggles and a disease event are as important as they are difficult to define. It is not that one causes the other, or is a simple reflection of the other. As historians, we are limited by the demands of scholarly argument, and the need to prove more than coincidence. Fiction, however, is not limited by these structures and conventions, and the freedom from a closed, tidy narrative opens up a renewed understanding of the past.
A couple of years ago, before Covid began, I experienced an unexpectedly moving ‘a-ha’ moment when I re-read the long short story “Carried Away,” by Canadian Nobel Laureate Alice Munro. “Carried Away” is the lead story in Munro’s 1994 collection, Open Secrets; it first appeared in the New Yorker in 1991. At that time in my life, I read all of Munro’s work, often when it was released in that magazine. There is a copy of Open Secrets in my personal library. Although I have no memory of reading the story then, in my case this likely has nothing to do with my original response to it. As I joke to my students, I am living proof that one can be a pretty good historian while having a terrible memory.
I wonder, now, whether “Carried Away” was percolating in my unconscious mind since I was in my twenties. A girl who grew up in small towns myself, Munro’s work had always signaled to me (as it has for many others) that it was not impossible to matter – or, to write – if one was shaped by an upbringing and a life far from the sophisticated metropole. So, when I belatedly returned to graduate school and chose a dissertation topic, about a decade after the story was first published, maybe her way of writing about both ‘ordinary’ life and pandemic disease, was buried in my consciousness someplace.
It was the work of literary scholar Jane Fisher that first reminded me of the story, and its relevance as a piece of fiction speaking to both World War I, and the flu pandemic – part of a set of women’s writings that have been neglected in both cultural histories of modernism, and in the cultural history of the influenza pandemic. “Carried Away” is not a story about influenza, it is a story of lives lived over time, tossed about by the forces of 20th century modernity over which Munro’s characters have little control and yet must try to survive and comprehend – war, pandemic influenza, and the power of capitalism. Fisher argues that “Carried Away” is primarily about “accident, disorder and vulnerability.” (Fisher, 149) But the story also draws intimate connections between historical events, situating influenza victims and survivors in a tumultuous and violent world, characterized by overlapping oppressions – of gender, of class.
The main character in “Carried Away” is a librarian named Louisa living in the small town of Carstairs, Ontario. Munro’s story has four sections: “Letters,” “Spanish Flu,” “Accidents,” and “Tolpuddle Martyrs.” The story begins with letters between Louisa and an injured World War One soldier from the town, Jack Agnew, with whom she has an epistolary love affair. At the end of the war, as she recovers from the pandemic influenza that has struck her community, and awaits Jack’s return, Louisa unexpectedly reads in the local paper of his marriage to another woman. This relationship remains central to Louisa’s memories of her life despite the fact that the two of them never meet.
The section “Spanish Flu” is written as a conversation taking place in 1919 between Louisa and a traveling salesman staying at the hotel where she is living, Jim Frarey. Frarey boasts of continuing to work and travel throughout the fall flu outbreak, and calls those who supported school and church closures “cowards.” Louisa tells him that she kept the library open even during the peak of the influenza pandemic, but she also confesses why. She was waiting for Jack Agnew. Munro writes, “When she entered the Town Hall she always felt he might be there before her, leaning up against the wall awaiting her arrival. Sometimes she felt it so strongly she saw a shadow that she mistook for a man. She understood now how people believed they had seen ghosts.”
This may be a foreshadowing. In the section “Accidents” Jack Agnew is gruesomely decapitated on the job at a major local industry – the piano factory. The horrific quality of his death leaves no doubt about the dangerous nature of factory work, and the vulnerability of working bodies: Jack survives a bloody war and a pandemic, but it is industrial capitalism that takes his life.
The piano factory, a family business, is owned by Arthur Doud. He is psychologically unsettled by Agnew’s brutal death (the story includes a scene in which he cradles Agnew’s decapitated head) although outwardly he admits no responsibility for it. The psychological impact of influenza and events at the factory are drawn together in Doud’s perception that his life has changed. “Perhaps he did not feel so sure that trouble wouldn’t come near him, as he had felt before his wife died. She had died in 1919, in the last flurry of the Spanish flu, when everyone had got over being frightened. Even she had not been frightened. … it still seemed to Arthur like the end of a carefree time in his life.”
In the story’s final section, “Tolpuddle Martyrs,” set in the early 1950s, Louisa is now a widow. Visiting a heart specialist in London, Ontario, Louisa sees a notice for an event at Victoria Park to honour the 120th anniversary of the arrest of the 19th century British union activists known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, some of whom had later migrated to Canada and settled in the area. One of the speakers is listed as John (Jack) Agnew, a union spokesman from Toronto. An uncertain Louisa goes to the park out of curiosity, but changes her mind and heads to the bus depot to return home. While she is waiting at the depot, Jack Agnew finds her, having glimpsed her in the crowd. This ‘phantom’ Jack gives Louisa news of his wife and daughter, while a confused Louisa tries to grasp the contradiction between this Jack, and her memory of his death.
“Carried Away” ends with this ghostly encounter between a phantom Jack Agnew, labour organizer, and Louisa. It suggests both the power and the complexity of memory, and the emotional sensibilities of a society riven by mourning, repressed stories, and the weight of lost human potential. As a fiction writer, Munro can access these lost histories and draw them together in a way a historian might find difficult. The ghostly Jack has lived the life he aspired to – not the man he was in real life. Perhaps Louisa has carried a powerful imaginary of Jack within her, and he is something more than mere memory: it is as if another, alternate Jack lived a fulfilled life, a working-class, library visiting, autodidact who read Bertrand Russell, not a man who died a headless worker in a factory. In a bus depot, near the end of her life, Louisa’s subconscious gives her (and Agnew) a gift. It is an act of healing.
In “Carried Away” war and pandemic are interwoven with social upheaval and the call for labour rights, democratic socialism, and greater equality. Munro allows inequity and women’s experience to merge with the history of influenza, of war, and of grief and family. These social realities are fused together, but she presents them as fragments — like a cubist painting which reveals the human form in a new way.
Josephine Humphreys, reviewing Open Secrets in the New York Times, described the story’s power this way: “Ms. Munro’s fiction is out to seize — to apprehend — the mystery of existence within time, ‘the unforeseen intervention,’ the unique quality of a person’s fate.” (September 11, 1994) “Carried Away” challenges what it is that history (our story of existence within time) has chosen to remember, and how it has been told. Munro brings the experiences of ordinary men and women to the centre of the frame, but is no determinist. Rather she suggests the value of considering pandemics – their memory and interpretation – as entangled, open-ended, and as part of our mystery.
Alice Munro, Open Secrets. McClelland and Stewart, 1994.
Jane Fisher, Envisioning Disease, Gender and War: Women’s Narratives of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.