A Closer Look at Alice Munro's 'Runaway'

The Goat and the Girl

Fog at night
(Space][rucker)

"Runaway," by the Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author Alice Munro, tells the story of a young woman who refuses a chance to escape a bad marriage. The story debuted in the August 11, 2003, issue of The New Yorker. It also appeared in Munro's 2004 collection by the same name. You can ​read the story for free on The New Yorker's website.

Multiple Runaways

Runaway people, animals, and emotions abound in the story.

The wife, Carla, is twice a runaway. When she was 18 and college-bound, she ran off to marry her husband, Clark, against her parents' wishes and has been estranged from them since. And now, getting on a bus to Toronto, she runs away a second time—this time from Clark.

Carla's beloved white goat, Flora, also appears to be a runaway, having inexplicably disappeared shortly before the start of the story. (By the end of the story, though, it seems likely that Clark has been trying to get rid of the goat all along.)

If we think of "runaway" as meaning "out of control" (as in "runaway train"), other examples come to mind in the story. First, there is Sylvia Jamieson's runaway emotional attachment to Carla (what Sylvia's friends describe dismissively as an inevitable "crush on a girl"). There is also Sylvia's runaway involvement in Carla's life, pushing her along a path that Sylvia imagines is best for Carla, but which she is, perhaps, not ready for or doesn't really want.

Clark and Carla's marriage seems to be following a runaway trajectory. Finally, there is Clark's runaway temper, carefully documented early in the story, that threatens to become truly dangerous when he goes to Sylvia's house in the night to confront her about encouraging Carla's departure.

Parallels Between Goat and Girl

Munro describes the goat's behavior in ways that mirror Carla's relationship with Clark.

She writes:

"At first she had been Clark’s pet entirely, following him everywhere, dancing for his attention. She was as quick and graceful and provocative as a kitten, and her resemblance to a guileless girl in love had made them both laugh."

When Carla first left home, she behaved much in the starry-eyed manner of the goat. She was filled with "giddy delight" in her pursuit of a "more authentic kind of life" with Clark. She was impressed by his good looks, his colorful employment history, and "everything about him that ignored her."

Clark's repeated suggestion that "Flora might have just gone off to find herself a billy" obviously parallels Carla's running away from her parents to marry Clark.

What's especially troubling about this parallel is that the first time Flora disappears, she is lost but still alive. The second time she disappears, it seems almost certain that Clark has killed her. This suggests that Carla is going to be in a much more dangerous position for having returned to Clark.

As the goat matured, she changed alliances. Munro writes, "But as she grew older she seemed to attach herself to Carla, and in this attachment, she was suddenly much wiser, less skittish—she seemed capable, instead, of a subdued and ironic sort of humor."

If Clark has, in fact, killed the goat (and I do think he has), it is symbolic of his commitment to killing off any of Carla's impulses to think or act independently—to be anything but the "guileless girl in love" who married him.

Carla’s Responsibility

Though Clark is clearly presented as a murderous, stultifying force, the story also places some of the responsibility for Carla's situation on Carla herself.

Consider the way Flora allows Clark to pet her, even though he may have been responsible for her original disappearance and is probably about to kill her. When Sylvia tries to pet her, Flora puts her head down as if to butt.

"Goats are unpredictable," Clark tells Sylvia. "They can seem tame but they’re not really. Not after they grow up." His words seem to apply to Carla, as well. She has behaved unpredictably, siding with Clark, who was causing her distress, and "butting" Sylvia by exiting the bus and forgoing the escape Sylvia has offered.

For Sylvia, Carla is a girl who needs guidance and saving, and it is hard for her to imagine that Carla's choice to return to Clark was the choice of an adult woman. "Is she grown up?" Sylvia asks Clark about the goat. "She looks so small."

Clark's answer is ambiguous: "She’s as big as she’s ever going to get." This suggests that Carla's being "grown up" might not look like Sylvia's definition of "grown up." Eventually, Sylvia comes to see Clark's point. Her letter of apology to Carla even explains that she "made the mistake of thinking somehow that Carla's freedom and happiness were the same thing."

Clark's Pet Entirely

On first reading, you might expect that just as the goat shifted alliances from Clark to Carla, Carla, too, might have changed alliances, believing more in herself and less in Clark. It's certainly what Sylvia Jamieson believes. And it's what common sense would dictate, given the way Clark treats Carla.

But Carla defines herself entirely in terms of Clark. Munro writes:

"While she was running away from him—now—Clark still kept his place in her life. But when she was finished running away, when she just went on, what would she put in his place? What else—who else—could ever be so vivid a challenge?"

And it is this challenge that Carla preserves by holding out "against the temptation" to walk to the edge of the woods—to the place where she saw the buzzards— and confirm that Flora was killed there. She doesn't want to know.