The View from Castle Rock

This article refers to The View from Castle Rock (book) written by Alice Munro. It focuses specifically on the relationship between the text and the context Imaginative Landscape.

The following is the transcript of a video to be released soon. Watch this space!


Today we’re discussing The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro in relation to the Imaginative Landscape. If this isn’t one of your texts, or you haven’t watched our video on Imaginative Landscape yet – stop! – go watch that first and come back.

There are four possible texts you could be studying for Imaginative Landscape, of which this is one. Make sure you’re not watching videos for texts you’re not studying.

Alright- on to the novel, which I’ll just call Castle Rock from now on.

Munro explores a range of ideas associated with the Imaginative Landscape in her collection of stories. The physical landscape, as well as the way characters respond to it, is significant in Munro’s narrative. One of the best ways to approach this text is to read the collection in its entirety so you have a handle on all of the themes and ideas, and then choose three or four stories to focus on so you are not overwhelmed with examples.

Munro’s style

  • Narrative structure (The stories are organised chronologically, but often jump forwards and backwards in time as the writer reflects on aspects of her past, or her ancestor’s lives. Furthermore, Munro often draws attention to the historical setting of the stories by commenting on some aspect of the narrative from her modern perspective.)
  • Character identification (Many of the stories are preoccupied by the generational inheritance of landscape. Because of this, often characters are identified not by their own names, but by the names that identify their position within the family; father, grandmother and so forth.)
  • Imagery (Munro’s writing is littered with vivid imagery, whether physical or metaphorical, that allows for the reader to visualise the world being described or imagined.)
  • Metaphor (The landscape often forms a metaphor for something else in the stories, or a symbol of the physical world is used to represent something else.)
  • Rhythm and metre (Often Munro’s prose can reflect the mood of the scene she is depicting through measured rhythm, often created through repetition.)
  • Personification (Sometimes Munro invests the landscape with human qualities.)
  • Appeals to the senses (Often to create a more vivid picture of a scene Munro describes how something looks, smells, sounds, etc to give the reader a more complete idea of what she is trying to depict.)

Major themes

Subjective nature of landscape and different ways of understanding and connecting to landscape

The characters each invest the landscape with their own point of view, revealing a range of responses to the same place. The lands described are harsh yet beautiful, strange yet familiar, and characters come to terms with these paradoxes in very different ways.

This contrast is particularly vivid in the comparisons between characters’ perceptions of Ettrick, Scotland and America (which is really Canada) in the short story The View from Castle Rock. While many of the characters share William’s perspective from No Advantages: “So scornful is he of the place where he was born, as to write- in a letter to the girl he later marries- that it would be unthinkable for him to live in the Ettrick Valley ever again.” In contrast, after leaving Ettrick for the long imagined America, Old James’ refusal to see the last speck of Scottish land highlights the significance of his tie to his home: “it is nothing to me. I have seen the last of the Ettrick so I have seen the last of Scotland already.”

Gender plays a major role in how people interpret the landscape, particularly in The View of Castle Rock which reveals the hardships and banalities of domestic life endured by women in the eighteenth century. On the ship to the new world Agnes reflects that “she will wash and sew and cook and almost certainly suckle more children. Where that will be does not much matter. It will be in a house, and not a fine one.” The landscape- even the landscape of opportunity that Old James has promised his family- is meaningless to Agnes because her life is entirely constrained by her gender and social status, regardless of her location.

Identity and tradition are also identified as major factors influencing an individual’s interpretation of landscape. Many of Munro’s stories explore the significance of a person being from the country versus the city in their understanding of the world around them. Perceptions of “nature” are contrasted between country folk, who work in the outdoors all day and consequently want to escape from it in their downtime- constructing their houses to avoid looking at it- against the romanticised, idealized perspective that wealthy individuals, who travel into the country to hire a Native American guide, hold. The significance of the influence of a country identity on one’s interaction with the natural world is highlighted in Hired Girl when Munro reflects that “taking any impractical notice of the out-of-doors, or mooning around about Nature- even using that word, Nature– could get you laughed at.”

Munro also identifies how past experience and memory can be influential on a person’s interpretation of landscape. Living quite differently from her experiences as a child, Munro’s adult mind craves the mundane sights that her current life is lacking in Home.

Relationship between landscape and identity

Munro draws links between landscape and identity in many of her stories. Not only the way that characters see themselves, but their relationship with places other than their home is influenced by the place itself. Remember that identity is not simply influenced by landscapes we connect to, but also landscapes that we feel isolated from or reject.

As many of Munro’s stories portray country life, she often identifies and explores the links between where a person lives (and how they use the land) with their sense of self. This is a major consideration in Working for a Living.

Furthermore, Munro explores the ways in which people’s landscapes, specifically homes, can represent their situation or identity to other individuals, specifically in relation to social status. Consider how this is explained in relation to Munro’s mother’s perspective of certain people’s houses in Lying Under the Apple Tree.

The way in which landscape changes in Castle Rock

In the collection, Munro explores the notion of changing landscapes both through physical changes to the environment and individuals’ attitudes towards the landscape.

Because Munro’s stories span across a great length of time, but are often set in the same place, she is provided with a means of discussing the physical changes that take place to the environment in that time. Consider the narrator’s descriptions of place in What do you want to know for?

Beyond these physical changes, Munro’s stories also consider how a landscape can shift in meaning over time. The fox pens the narrator’s father uses to raise animals for fur are described in vivid detail in Working for a Living– conveying their physical complexity and financial and emotional significance to her father. However, after the collapse of the family’s fur business, the pens become negative to him:

‘He would die in debt, and before he had even finished pulling down the pens. They would stand there-drooping wire on the cedar poles that he had cut in Austins swamp in the summer of 1927- to show the ruin of his enterprise.’

Furthermore, Munro often reflects on how remembering a place and using it in one’s writing influences our view of it. In Home she describes the town she grew up in: “stays very much the same- nobody is renovating or changing it. Nevertheless it has changed for me. I have written about it and used it up.” In the process of internalising and re-imagining a place in her mind, Munro’s interaction with that space has been altered.

Munro’s exploration of landscapes of the imagination

While much of the collection is focussed on physical landscapes and human interactions with them, Munro’s writing also explores the idea of landscapes which are contained entirely within the imagination. Furthermore, the collection presents physical landscapes that have been transformed by the mind of the characters who experience them.

Old James is so fixated on the idea of America in The View from Castle Rock that he creates an idea of what that place will look like and represent for his family in his mind before ever experiencing it. The significance of his imagined idea of place is exemplified in his comment to his son after they ascend Castle Rock to gaze at what Old James has identified as America (really another place altogether): “so there you are my lad and you have looked over at America…God grant you one day you will see it closer up and for yourself.” James’ vision of success for his family is so tied up in escaping to America that his perception of the physical land is affected: he looks out from Castle Rock and identifies this land of opportunity in the distance, despite the fact that, logically, America cannot be seen from Ettrick.

Munro’s father is depicted as having a similar affinity for imagining a place that he has never experienced in Home. When he first becomes sick and is trying to avoid going to hospital he sits at the kitchen table, studying the Historical Atlas he so loves that allows him to escape to other worlds in his mind.

In contrast to this, Mary in The View from Castle Rock does not have the same imagined landscape as Old James or Munro’s father, but one that mirrors the experiences of place she has already had:

‘She has no idea where they will go when they reach the other shore, but imagines it will be some place inland, among the hills, some place like the Ettrick.’

This reveals how our internal landscape can be influenced by the physical landscapes we encounter, particularly the places we identify as familiar, like home. We use the experiences of landscape we have already had to predict and make sense of the unknown and future interactions we might have.

The relationship between landscape and memory

Munro explores the idea that the Imaginative Landscape is not limited to the present physical surroundings of an individual, but is instead influenced by, and connected with, how that landscape is positioned in the individual’s memory. The stories are linked by the common ancestry of the characters and many of the stories take place in the same physical landscape, albeit at different points in time. The stories show how these links and experiences can affect an individual’s interpretation (and engagement with) landscape in the present, including Munro as the central narrator.

In Working for a Living, the landscape of the past is used as an escape from the present by Munro’s mother who is suffering from Parkinson’s:

‘…but my mother, walled in by increasing paralysis, was always eager to recall the Pine Tree Hotel, the friends and the money she had made there.’

The claustrophobia that Munro’s mother begins to feel as a result of her own failing body is assuaged by her memory of success selling furs in the Pine Tree Hotel some years earlier. Memory forms a refuge from the pain and isolation of her current situation.

The complexity of our relationships with places from our past is explored in Home. Munro reflects on her misconstrued connection to place by her father:

‘”I know how you love this place,” he says to me, apologetically yet with satisfaction. And I don’t tell him that I am not sure now whether I love any place, and that it seems to me it was myself that I loved here-some self that I have finished with, and none too soon.’

Here, Munro is unsure whether her sentimentality towards the landscape of the past has to do with the place itself or her memory of how she (and her life) was back then. This reveals the complex notion that our fond memories of place aren’t necessarily related to landscape, but to how we, and our perception of the world, were different when we experienced it.

Reflection on the two way relationship of humans impacting the landscape and affecting us in turn

The profundity of human interaction with landscape is portrayed through the changes, real and perceived, that each evokes in the other. Munro’s writing reflects on both forms of impact, which is made more intense by the heavy descriptive passages of both characters and setting. Depictions that paint places as suffering from human intervention in the natural world punctuate the stories. So too are links continually drawn between the landscape and the generational connection of inhabitants.

The depictions of humans attempting to change landscape not only paint a mental picture of the places Munro is describing, but reveal something about human attitudes towards the environment. In Working for a Living the narrator reflects on historical attitudes towards place that have resulted in widespread control and destruction.

Equally, Munro’s stories reflect on how nature is attempting to regain its former position, depicting an ongoing conflict between nature and the humans who attempt to tame and dominate it. In What do you want to know for? Munro reflects on how “the bush will never again take over completely, but it is making a good grab.”

In this way, Munro as the narrator is positioned to comment on shifts that take place in the battle between humans and natures over time, and how these changes influence the individuals who experience those places. Consider the ways in which Munro explores how these changes to the landscape affect the characters (in particular herself and her immediate family) who see them take place.

This is just a bit of a taste of Imaginative Landscape within Castle Rock but hopefully it gives you some good talking points for your next context piece. Make sure to check out the video on Imaginative Landscape and how to write different context pieces!