Throughout Alice Munro’s “Open Secrets” the narrator places considerable emphasis on Maureen’s uncanny ability to interpret various forms of language-anything from spoken word to unspoken words, and even body language. This emphasis by the narrator on Maureen’s capabilities to interpret language ultimately establishes Maureen as the detective tasked with solving the mystery of the disappearance of Heather Bell. Though Maureen is portrayed as a master in almost all aspects of language, however, the narrator emphasizes one facet of language which Maureen struggles with: profane language. Ultimately, it is the lack of mastery in this area-the only chink in her armor with respect to language-which results in Maureen coming up short in solving the mystery of Heather Bell’s disappearance and unable to fully comprehend the “Open Secret” right before her eyes.
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The narrator first brings to attention Maureen’s abilities in the discipline of language through her relationship with her husband. Once a practicing attorney, Maureen’s husband-referred to as Lawyer Stephens-relied on her to essentially act as his scribe. Moreover, Maureen not only performed this task ably, but was revered by her husband for the value she added to the office. The narrator emphasizes this point by referencing their former workplace relationship: “His name for her, in the office, had been the Jewel, because she was intelligent and dependable, in fact quite able to draw up documents and write letters on her own,” (Munro 138). Mention of this nickname emphasizes Maureen’s mastery over language, and the degree to which her husband relies on her for matters involving language.
Later in life, moreover, Lawyer Stephens’ reliance on Maureen’s mastery of language is exponentially increased after he suffers a stroke. As a result of the stroke, Lawyer Stephens’ speech is affected. Consequently, the narrator is deliberate in pointing out that Maureen adopted the role of his interpreter, because she was the only one who could understand him: “His speech was sometimes slurred, so she had to stay around and interpret for people who did not know him,” (Munro 137). It also bears significance that the narrator points out that Lawyer Stephens’ still refer to Maureen as “The Jewel” to the current day. The fact that the nickname has survived time and remained as a referent to Maureen’s skills, indicates that she hasn’t lost a step in her language skills since her days as “The Jewel.” Furthermore, to underscore the effect of Lawyer Stephens’ stroke, and to further underscore Maureen’s role of interpreter, the narrator deliberately recites Lawyer Stephens’ slurred speech. For example, upon approaching Maureen and Frances, Lawyer Stephens asks “Whaur doing out there?” (137), as opposed to merely correcting Lawyer Stephens’ slurred speech for the reader. The fact that Maureen answers her husband’s slurred speech with perfect understanding and without skipping a beat is another solid indication of her mastery of language-and the importance of this mastery within the story.
A particularly important scene in the story is the love scene between Maureen and Lawyer Stephens, because it juxtaposes Maureen’s mastery of language against her only inadequacy with respect to language. The beginning of this scene emphasizes Maureen’s language abilities by demonstrating her knack for interpreting the unspoken language of body language. After Marian and her husband leave Maureen’s house following their meeting with Lawyer Stephens, Maureen’s husband approaches her for sex. Before Lawyer Stephens has the chance to verbally proposition Maureen, however, the narrator provides Maureen’s perspective on the situation through her interpretation of her husband’s body language. Maureen’s subtle assessment of the situation-“His mind was on something else,” (154)-is subsequently confirmed when her husband asks her to “Come on down here,” (154) to engage in intercourse. The narrator further refers to Maureen’s ability to read body language by referring to the signs she has perceived to mean that her husband wishes to have sex: “Now his eyes would cloud over and his face would seem weighed down,” (155). This focus by the narrator on Maureen’s ability to interpret the unspoken language of her husband is one of the strongest depictions of Maureen’s interpretative language skills.
Though the narrator’s prelude to the love scene between Maureen and her husband provides arguably the strongest evidence of her interpretative language skills, it is the actual love scene itself which reveals Maureen’s only-but ultimately fatal-language flaw. The way in which the narrator ultimately presents this flaw, moreover, further emphasizes the breadth and seriousness of the flaw. Immediately before revealing Maureen’s only language flaw, the narrator provides another extremely strong example of Maureen’s mastery of language-specifically in the area of interpreting her husband’s slurred speech. Prior to reaching the height of arousal, Lawyer Stephens provides Maureen with an instruction, which the narrator carefully frames as an indication of Maureen’s ability as an interpreter: “â€¦a command that perhaps would be incoherent to anybody but Maureen but that would still speak eloquently, like lavatory noises, of his extremity,” (155). It is also important to mention that the narrator also recites Lawyer Stephens’ command with phonetic accuracy-“Ta’ dirty! Ta’ dirty!”-emphasizing the “incoherent” nature of the command, which only Maureen would understand. In direct juxtaposition to this display of Maureen’s language skills, however, the narrator immediately reveals Maureen’s only language flaw. Though Maureen understands the slurred speech of her husband’s command, she struggles to actually perform it. The narrator emphasizes this point by delineating specific areas of the language process that Maureen struggles with in “Ta’ dirty”: “Maureen knew enough words, but it was difficult for her in her shaken state to call up just which ones might suit, and to utter them in a tone that would be convincing,” (157). In this way, the narrator emphasizes the fact that Maureen struggled to think of the appropriate words for the situation, and deliver the appropriate language in an authentic way. Thus, the narrator reveals that profane language-through a depiction of her inadequacy to “Ta’ dirty”-is one area of language in which Maureen has not attained mastery.
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Though her inadequacy with respect to profane language may seem confined to her bedroom experiences with her husband, there is an argument to be made that it extends to all things profane-including the truth behind Heather Bell’s disappearance and murder. Following the departure of Marion and her husband, Maureen has a vision which is inextricably linked to the truth behind Heather Bell’s disappearance, and which points to Marion’s husband as the culprit. This argument is supported by the fact that the narrator is careful to cast doubt upon the potential guilt of Mr. Siddicup each time this possibility is mentioned-through suggestive phrasing such as “Many people will continue to believe that he did something or saw something,” (160). In fact, the last words of the story-spoken by the narrator-demonstrate Maureen’s inability to put into words the fruits of her vision: “In kitchens hundreds and thousands of miles away, she’ll watch the soft skin form on the back of a wooden spoon and her memory will twitch, but it will not quite reveal to her this moment when she seems to be looking into an open secret, something not startling until you think of trying to tell it,” (160). Ultimately, with these last words the narrator leaves the reader with the impression that Maureen cannot come to terms with the explanation behind Heather Bell’s disappearance because she is unable to muster up the profane language necessary to explain what happened to the little girl.
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