Literature Annotations


Munro, Alice
Comfort


Genre Short Story (36 pp.)
KeywordsDeath and Dying, Disability, Grief, Individuality, Love, Marital Discord, Mourning, Nature, Religion, Science, Suicide
Summary

Nina Spiers comes home to find that her husband, Lewis, has committed suicide. Lewis, a former high-school biology teacher, had ALS, and they had discussed this possibility, but Lewis has not included Nina in his final decision and its enactment. She searches in vain for a last message from Lewis, but can find nothing. We learn that Lewis left his teaching job over the community's pressure on him to incorporate the possibility of divine creation in his teaching of evolution; profoundly rationalist and scornful of religion, he refuses and resigns.

Lewis's body is taken to the local funeral home where, inadvertently, it is embalmed, which he would not have wanted. Ed Shore, the undertaker, arranges to have the body cremated immediately and brings Nina a note found in Lewis's pajamas. Instead of a message for her, it is a piece of badly-written satirical verse about the school and the argument between creationism and science. There is nothing for Nina.

Later Ed brings Nina the ashes. Ed and Nina have a history: once, on an evening when Lewis and Kitty, Ed's saint-loving Anglican wife, were engaged in a fierce argument, Ed had kissed Nina. Now, they talk of the preservation of the body and the existence of the soul. Nina then takes Lewis's ashes and scatters them at a crossroads outside of town. At first she feels shock at what she is doing, and then pain, but we infer too that as she sheds the comfortable self-effacement of her role as Lewis's wife, Nina is perhaps coming back to life herself.

Commentary

Munro explores the relationship between passion and compromise in marriage and in life. Lewis, the scientist and evidently a brilliant biology teacher, is unambivalently contemptuous of those who believe in God or any other non-verifiable power. He despises ceremony, fiction, and anything that smacks of the sentimental. Nina has fitted herself to his requirements; they love each other and the marriage works.

But we suspect that Nina had hoped his illness would somehow soften Lewis, make him more open to the emotional and spiritual. Instead, he ends his life alone, and what he leaves behind, an undignified last volley in his battle with people of faith, shows her the true extent of his commitment, which is also his selfishness. Ed is different. He cares for dead bodies and he believes in the soul without being filled with conviction, and after talking with him, Nina is able to fulfill what Lewis would have wanted but also to separate herself from him.

The title "Comfort," opens up several ways to explore the story. The term seems at first to be wholly positive, contrasted with Lewis's illness and his decision to escape from suffering by killing himself. Having rejected all the belief-systems and customs that human beings usually employ to makes sense of suffering, he has no other resources. He can also offer his widow no reassuring last words. Instead, she finds something harder but possibly better; she is forced to leave the selfless comfort zone of her marriage behind.

SourceHateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
PublisherAlfred A.Knopf: Random House
Edition2001
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by Belling, Catherine
Date of Entry 05/02/05