An important question to consider in reading Munro’s short story ‘‘Day of the Butterfly’’ is whether the story is an accurate representation of Helen’s memories. The point is not to question the reality of Myra’s illness, of course, but to question Helen’s memory of her treatment of Myra. Childhood memories are often poorly recalled. Many are deliberately falsified and some are simply incomplete. Childhood memories are revised memories because of our need to protect ourselves and the image we have created of who we are. Helen’s rendering of Myra’s last few months in Grade Six is the memory of an eleven-year-old child, but it is told and filtered through the psyche of an adult. Remembering Myra and the events of that spring when she became ill is an act of atonement, in which Helen tries both to justify her actions and to rewrite them more favorably.
In telling a story, people often remember the version they told most recently, rather than remembering the actual event. Helen is recalling this story of childhood from a distance, presumably as an adult. Her first-person narration is colored by the haziness of memory as she recalls the events through the prism of time. As a result, there are really two narrations in ‘‘Day of the Butterfly.’’ Munro scholar Robert Thacker suggests that as Helen is narrating the story, she is also creating a dialogue between the eleven-year-old Helen, who experienced these events, and the adult narrating Helen, who as she recalls Myra, rewrites their story. In his essay ‘‘‘Clear Jelly’: Alice Munro’s Narrative Dialects,’’ Thacker writes that Helen is ‘‘a remembering narrator’’ who shapes her memories, ‘‘in a somewhat covert manner,’’ as she relates them. As a result, her narration creates ‘‘an impression of immediacy and a detached understanding’’ for the reader. Helen seems to be telling a story that just occurred, but a careful study demonstrates that she is rewriting a story from her distant past. Helen is both narrator and editor of her story.
When Helen is given an opportunity to speak with Myra, Helen is initially unsure whether she should do so. Helen does not want to be seen speaking with Myra, since it puts her own fragile grasp on popularity at risk. However, Helen also likes the idea that by speaking to Myra, she can appear to be a more caring individual. Because she is telling the story some time after the events have occurred, Helen has been able to intellectually process this earlier meeting and assess what she discovered in talking with Myra. For instance, as the two girls talk and learn about one another, including the fact that they both read and enjoy the same newspaper comics, Helen begins to see Myra as a real person, as an individual, and not just as an entity to be ridiculed and teased. When she touches Myra’s hand, Helen is surprised to discover that Myra’s skin feels just like her own, although it is a different color. While the eleven-year-old Helen is worried that someone will see her walking with Myra and think they are friends, the adult Helen has had a chance to analyze her feelings. Helen justifies her earlier treatment of Myra by mentioning that she is not a town girl. Her clothing is different and she eats lunch alone in the cloakroom. In the story, Helen describes that she ‘‘felt a little danger’’ because she is different, but then she adds she ‘‘could not tell exactly what it [the danger] was.’’ The eleven-year-old Helen knows the risk of talking with Myra, but it is the adult Helen who adds that, in retrospect, she was not sure then where the danger lay, only that it was present.
In another example of Helen’s adult memory, she describes the Sayla children standing on the school porch at recess, watching the other children playing. Helen describes the shape of their faces and their expressions, which are ‘‘melancholy and discreet.’’ Their eyelids are never raised and ‘‘they had a weary look.’’ These are not the observations of a child. A child would have noticed the clothing the Sayla children wore and that their hair seemed oily, and, while perhaps noticing an oddity about their expressions, a child would not have been able to articulate the specifics of why their expressions were different. The adult Helen is able to do so. The most obvious example of how the adult Helen is able to commingle the child and adult narrative is in her description of Myra and Jimmy as resembling ‘‘children in a medieval painting.’’ They are ‘‘like small figures carved of wood, for worship or magic … cryptically uncommunicative.’’ These are not the words of an eleven-year-old. As Thacker points out, ‘‘the language and diction are too refined, the narrator’s understanding of the scene’s ramifications is too acute.’’ In Helen’s description of Myra and Jimmy Sayla, Munro is commingling two narrations—the child Helen and the adult Helen; however, this commingling of the two narrators is so flawless that it is scarcely noticeable. There is no indication of the age of the adult Helen, and, as Thacker observes, Munro never calls attention to the fact there are two first-person narrations within the story.
Helen’s detached reminiscing about her relationship with Myra—the absence of details about the role that Helen plays in ridiculing her classmate and her betrayal of Myra’s offer of friendship—may be a way to deal with the lingering guilt, and perhaps grief, that she still feels at Myra’s death. In the last two paragraphs of the story, Helen remembers the treachery of her betrayal of Myra. A final view of Myra, whose future will now be in that ‘‘unknown’’ place after death, reveals ‘‘her brown carved face immune to treachery.’’ Helen’s recasting of the story as she rewrites the events accounts for her ‘‘legendary’’ use of Myra’s memory. She is using Myra’s story as a way to rewrite the past.
The semi-autobiographical nature of Munro’s stories, in which she rewrites her own past, is not unlike what Helen is doing in ‘‘Day of the Butterfly,’’ when she subtly and covertly rewrites her past. In an interview with Geoff Hancock, Munro tells Hancock that her stories often upset the people who live in the small town in which she grew up. They do not remember their pasts in the same way that she does. But that is not unusual; most people recall events very differently than those who were also present. Munro says that people edit their lives as they live them. It is an emotional response, and these memory rewrites are ‘‘the different editions people make of their lives.’’ This is what Helen does in rewriting her memory of Myra. Helen is making a new edition of the past, one in which she bears less blame for betraying Myra and one in which she diminishes her role in ridiculing and bullying her classmate.
The last time Helen sees Myra is at the hospital, where the class celebrates her birthday. Helen remembers that as Myra opens her gifts, ‘‘everyone explained their presents to her and there was talking and excitement and a little gaiety, which Myra presided over, though she was not gay.’’ This is a very adult, reflective comment for a child to make, as are the final details of Helen’s memory. As ‘‘Day of the Butterfly’’ ends, Helen hears the children on the street, ‘‘maybe chasing the last snowballs of the year.’’ The sounds that Helen hears from the street ‘‘made Myra, her triumph and her bounty, and most of all her future in which she had found this place for me, turn shadowy, turn dark.’’ A ten- or eleven-year-old child might be aware of a chill of foreboding, but the interconnection of children playing, the end of winter, the rebirth that occurs in spring, and the journey of Myra to the larger hospital in London, Ontario, reveal a complexity of awareness that a child does not possess. However, in recalling these details after many years, Myra’s future is now tinged with foreboding because the grown-up Helen knows that Myra died. She never returned, and thus Helen was never forced to keep her promise to play at her classmate’s house.
Helen is able to tell the story of Myra in such a way that she justifies her choices. In her essay ‘‘The Art of Alice Munro: Memory, Identity, and the Aesthetics of Connection,’’ Georgeann Murphy suggests that ‘‘writing can be an act of reconciliation’’ in a Munro short story. As they tell their stories, Munro’s first-person narrators rewrite their lives and are able to reconcile themselves to the choices of their past. As a child, Helen betrays Myra’s offer of friendship because being a part of the group is more important than a single friendship. As Helen tells the story later, she reassesses those earlier decisions and inserts explanations for why she behaved as she did. In ‘‘Day of the Butterfly,’’ the connection between past and present and the change that occurs between the two is important in understanding the complexity of Helen’s narration. Murphy argues that Munro is often concerned with how people change as they grow and how they try to prevent change. According to Murphy, Munro’s ‘‘focus is always on the connection between what went before and what comes after the change.’’ In this case, the child Helen is concerned with preserving her somewhat precarious role in her group of school friends, while the adult Helen is focused on making her actions appear less selfish and self-absorbed.
The commingling of child and adult narratives exposes Helen’s purpose. Munro’s use of this kind of double narrative reveals that Helen has come to understand the past more fully and she has rejected part of those memories. Of Munro’s use of this double narrative, Murphy writes that one of the important parts of the narrative ‘‘is the distance between the former (narrated) self and the present (narrating) self: for these retrospective narrators, realizations come only after the fact, if at all.’’ Since Helen cannot change the past, she chooses to rewrite it. Myra died, but Helen can rewrite her own rejection of her classmate, if she revises her memory of what happened.
Rewriting the past gives the storyteller an opportunity to change the past and make it fit the needs and expectations of the present. Helen begins her narration by telling readers that she did ‘‘not remember when Myra Sayla came to town, though she must have been in our class at school for two or three years.’’ Helen only remembers Myra’s presence that final spring, when the class made Myra a scapegoat and when she became too ill to continue in school. Munro ends ‘‘Day of the Butterfly’’ with Helen’s memory of Myra sitting in her hospital bed, ‘‘her brown carved face immune to treachery.’’ It is Myra, whose offer of friendship is ‘‘set apart for legendary uses, as she was even in the back porch at school,’’ whose story must be written. Her story belongs to Helen to tell in whatever version of the truth best fits her needs. Just as Munro rewrites her life through her short stories, Helen is rewriting her memories of Myra in this narration of childhood betrayal.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Alice Munro – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on ‘‘Day of the Butterfly,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.