It has been said of Anton Chekhov, the renown Russian short-story writer, that in all of his “work, there is never exactly a point. Rather we see into someone’s hear – in just a few pages, the curtain concealing these lives has been drawn back, revealing them in all their helplessness and rage and rancor.” Alice Munro, too, falls into this category. Many of her short-stories, such as “Royal Beatings” focus more on character revelation rather than plot.
That is not to say that nothing happens in Munro’s short-stories. Instead, multiple scenes take place in “Royal Beatings.” The narrator, Rose, tells us of her life as a child growing up in Hanratty, Ontario; of her stepmother, Flo’s, stories and work in the store the family owned, of her father’s habit of isolating himself in his furniture shed, of being beaten and then indulged. However, the plot is secondary to the story. The scenes created by Munro are not based in action, but emotion and character revelation.
“Royal Beatings” begins in the imperfect tense with Rose telling us what her life was like. Her attitude and her circumstances are immediately revealed. Her mother had died when she was still a baby, and so she grew up with “only Flo for a mother.” Her father was not readily available and somewhat scared Rose. Rose loves her family but is not like them; she is clumsy instead of clever and had a need to “pursue absurdities.” Characters are revealed and emotions are discovered but the story does not become about action until nine pages into the story. Then, the reader is thrust into present tense action. Rose vividly describes a Saturday of which she and Flo argue and irritate one another. Rose’s father is called in from his shed by Flo and so he gives Rose what the reader can interpret as a “royal beating.” The present tense used here allows the reader to see Rose as she reacts to her father and to experience Rose’s emotions as they happen. The reader cringes as Rose runs from her father as he beats her dramatically, though with some restraint, and then smiles as Rose behaves just as dramatically in her room afterwards. Then, again, the story shifts tenses, now to the future tense in which Flo, like she always does, apologetically coddles Rose, bringing into her room her favorite foods and treats. Though Rose would like imagine herself superior to Flo’s gifts and injured enough to die, she will realize, as ever, that “life has started up again.” Back to past tense, and the family sits around the table. Despite what has happened, they are genial and relaxed amongst each other, and even happy.
This section of the story is longer than the rest and carries more emphasis than the other scenes, and could, effectively, work as a complete story in itself. The true meaning, however, is revealed through two other scenes in “Royal Beatings” – the story of Becky Tyde and the interview with Hat Nettleson. Four pages into “Royal Beatings” Rose relates a story told by Flo about a dwarf named...