[(essay date spring 2003) In the following essay, Shih applies the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud to the intimate relationships in "Bardon Bus," emphasizing the role of parental influence on the characters' sexuality.]
In a 1982 interview, Alice Munro commented on characterization in her short stories by saying: "[T]he whole mother-daughter relationship interests me a great deal. It probably obsesses me. The way fathers obsess some male writers" (Interview [Hancock] 215). Making that observation on the eve of the publication of The Moons of Jupiter (1982), a short-story collection whose treatment of female experience is frequently centered in mother-daughter relationships, Munro acknowledged her personal investment in one of the most fundamental psychoanalytic narratives of subjectivity--the loss of the mother and the necessary repudiation of that loss. While Munro's latest collection--Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001)--deals with the "stuff of adult life: love, sex, success, failure, hope, death" (McClelland and Stewart book jacket), I find an ambitious if under-appreciated discussion of the paradoxes of compulsory heterosexual and female gendering in "Bardon Bus" (Moons [The Moons of Jupiter]) that Munro herself dates to a more "autobiographical or personal" period of fiction (Interview [Wachtel]).1
"Bardon Bus" is the first-person testimony of an unnamed female freelance writer who returns to Toronto after a research trip in Australia, during which she had a casual affair with a married man of former acquaintance. The period and setting of the affair are described in florid detail. The narrator's subsequent obsession over her male lover, whom she calls X, is intense and compelling, implicating his friend, Dennis, and hers, Kay, in two barely intimated love triangles. The lovers' apparently sophisticated adult sexual relationship is prefigured by the narrator's unresolved oedipal loss, by which she and in fact all of the major characters in the story became gendered in the first place. Munro's self-acknowledged obsession about "mothers and daughters" is evident in ambivalently epiphanic moments of the narrator's testimony, by which the woman gradually recognizes that the source of her suffering is not her faithless lover. It lies instead in her melancholic incorporation of the absent mother in and as her own ego, a loss that has traumatically constituted the narrator's sexuality, and that she unconsciously repeats in the heterosexual bond.2 The narrator's obsession over X is only the central conflict in a larger landscape of psychosexual crisis in "Bardon Bus."
Following Freud, classical psychoanalysis posits a "phallic" phase in infantile development that for children of both sexes follows the oral and anal phases but precedes the oedipal one (Freud, "Infantile" 139-45). During the phallic phase, the child (not yet a subject) takes as the primary erogenous zone the phallus that Freud problematically equates to the male penis. The unconscious fantasy of this period is that one's mother has the phallus (be it the penis or other site of ontological power) because her adaptation to the child's needs is so close that she seems to be omnipotent. The infant's fantasy lasts until sexual difference...