To try to trace Alice Munro’s narrative techniques to any particular development in the short story The Albanian Virgin would be difficult. This could be because it is simply written from careful observations as are many of her other short stories. In her short stories, it is as though she tries to transform a common, ordinary world into something that is unsettling and mysterious as was seen in Vandals. Most of her stories found in Open Secrets, are set or focused on Munro’s native Canada, Huron County, and particularly in the small fictional Ontario town of Carstairs, although the setting in The Albanian Virgin is in British Columbia.
The story, The Albanian Virgin, found in Open Secrets, exemplifies Munro’s characteristic approach to short story writing as it explores central character’s lives that are revealed from a combination of first person narrative and third person narrative. By using both narratives, Munro adds realism, some autobiographical information about her own life in the short stories, as the stories are also based on fiction as can it be found in earlier written short stories.
Since many of her stories are based on the region in which she was born, the characters and narrators are often thought of as being about her life and how she grew up; and making her stories appear from a feminist approach. This could also indicate why the central characters in the short stories in Open Secrets, are all women: a young woman kidnapped by Albanian tribesmen in the 1920’s in The Albanian Virgin, and a young born-again Christian whose unresolved feelings of love and anger cause her to vandalize a house in Vandals.
Her theme has often been the dilemmas of the adolescent girl coming to terms with family and a small town. Her more recent work has addressed the problems of middle age, of women alone, and of the elderly. The characteristic of her style is the search for some revelatory gesture by which an event is illuminated and given personal significance. (The Canadian Encyclopedia Plus 1995) Munro’s later work can probably be seen as that of her later or more recent memories, as she ages so does the characters of her short stories.
The short story, An Albanian Virgin, begins with the telling of a story by Charlotte, who the reader is later told is in the hospital dying. She tells an autobiographical tale of a woman captured by a mountain tribe while traveling in Albania. She is rescued by a Franciscan priest who may in fact be Gjurdhi, her present lover. This tale of a young Canadian woman traveller kidnapped by Albanian bandits in the 1920’s “is based on a real-life episode of a Clinton (town where Munro grew up in) librarian, Miss Rudd, who got separated from her travelling party in Albania. Turbide, 49)
Munro heard this story from her second husband, when she moved back from living in British Columbia for a period of time. Later, she investigated the story and verified some of the details from a local newspaper. Also, the story as Munro acknowledges is not really about a “high romance in Albania” as she describes it. “What really grabbed Munro’s attention was the role that sex played in determining a woman’s status in the tribal culture of that time. If a woman renounced sex to become a “virgin,” she could live as an equal with men: she could own land, carry a weapon, be served food prepared be women. Turbide, 49)
Women were not seen as equals to men in Albania at that time, and so it was seen throughout the story as “women were with women and men were with men, except at times in the night (women were teased about such times were full of shame and denial, and sometimes there would be slapping) and at meals, when the women served the men their food. (Munro, 88) The short story An Albanian Virgin, is often referred to as a “kaleidoscope”, as the narrative moves from the bookstore owner, the narrator; to Charlotte, the bookstore owner’s storytelling friend; then to Lottar, the mysterious heroine in Charlotte’s story.
Munro offers us (the reader) a bouquet of stories in one: the narrator’s escape from and longing for both lover and husband; Charlotte and her husband Gjurdhi, who are somewhere between threats, exemplars of surviving love and pathos (as Munro’s late middle aged couples often are); the adventure of Lottar and the Franciscan priest who helps her escape from what is both new home and prison; the antagonistic mating dance between the bookstore owner and her new, odd friends, Charlotte and Gjurdhi. (Bloom 1995)
The change from one character’s point of view or narrative to another is changing the setting and mood of the story. The narrator is indirectly portraying her as they both moved to British Columbia and opened a bookstore. It is like telling the story of three individuals with relation to her own life. When Munro was asked once in an interview as to why she used both first and third person, her reply was “it allows you to move around a bit more, and it allows you to say things about other characters” (MacKendrick, 24).
Munro’s use of stories is one of her many forms of conforming the different narratives and points of view together. She tells the story the way that she sees it forming and lets the reader figure it out for themselves. In this story, the reader has to first realize that the main story is not on the bookstore owner, but on Charlotte, the woman dying in the hospital and also is telling the story about the Albanian Virgin, who also turns out to be herself. In this realization, “Munro manages to link foreign adventure to a young Victoria woman almost 50 years later in way a… making the story’s meaning clear” (Turbide, 49).
Second, the reader has to relate to trying to understand the whole purpose behind telling that story to the bookstore owner, being that Charlotte wanted the bookstore owner to realize that “Lottar” was actually Charlotte. The connection of the story characters Lottar and Charlotte being of the same person can be made once the reader knows Charlotte’s name and when she begins telling the bookstore owner the story. “In the mountains, in Maltsia e madhe, she must have tried to tell them her name, and “Lottar” was what they made out of it” (Munro, 81) The language barrier between the Albanian people and Charlotte must have been the reason.
This can also account for the language Munro uses to describe situations in her stories into making them more realistic. Munro’s use of languages in her short stories makes the reader figure out what is really happening. From the time a reader starts to read the story, there is a tendency to ask what is the real story. Is it the life of the bookstore owner or of the woman in the hospital? There are many ways to interpret the meaning of this story. By adding the a story within a story, there is a kind of way of jumping backwards in time, when the story of the captivity of the woman “Lottar” took place.
Munro’s use of jumping in and out of present and past views can be seen in many of her other stories as well. In Vandals for example, Bea Doud, is writing Liza, once a little girl neighbour, a letter, thanking her for checking on the house while she was in the hospital with her recent husband who had just died. The story then goes from the writing of the letter to going into the back with the memories of things that had gone on in that house. The use of narratives, both first person and third person brings about the unique style of Alice Munro.
Not many writers could write in such a way that makes the reader feel like they are the narrator in a way. Most of her stories have often been compared to be more near autobiography than to fiction by some critics. It is true that much of her stories in some way or another do relate to her life, being that of her childhood or that of her later years. The point of the matter is that although the reader can distinguish some similarities in the stories, they are for the most part fictitious with an add of some realism to them.