‘Floating Bridge’ is a short story written by Alice Munro, originally published in The New Yorker.
Alice Munro won the third prize at the prestigious The O’Henry Short Story Prizes for the ‘Floating Bridge’ in 2001. Alice Munro also received a Special Award for Continuing Achievement in fiction the same year.
“The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life. Then from shame you must compose yourself, and stay very quiet.”
This is the premise on which ‘Floating Bridge’ lets you dangle on emotional turmoil, despair, loneliness and a compromised space for woman in a marriage. Is it a sad tale? No, it is rather liberating to read about the protagonist with her restricted life options, and to continue with the routine, as the majority of women do. There is no magic wand in real life, only moments that uplift us for some time. The petty things and the freedom of our lives.
‘Floating Bridge’ begins with a lofty fairytale beginning, ‘ONE TIME, she had left him.’ On one instance when Neal gobbled up a gingerbread cake with a couple of young offenders, Jinny decided to leave the house for this petty issue (as she thinks it to be). She went and sat at a bus stand on the main street for a couple of hours. Sitting under this shelter, Jinny read the random things that people had written on the walls. She got engrossed in reading each message. She imagined if her plan to be alone persisted, perhaps she will be compelled to write similar statements on public places.
Jinny’s loneliness and the feeble relation with her husband is exposed in her feeling connected with the people who wrote these strange messages on the walls. Neal had not noticed her leaving the house and had not even come looking for her. She realizes that the way her life is moving ahead, she may not have anybody or anything worthwhile; also she never had many people around her. On her return, with a pacified temper she tells Neal about her wait and asks if he would have come after her. The answer she receives is, “Of course. Given time.”
Now the story begins on a late afternoon in the month of August, set in Ontario, Canada. Jinny is forty-two years old and Neal is fifty-eight years old, married for about twenty-one years. Together, in the past, they had spent their spare time in efforts at preservation of historic places, forests, rivers, etc. Their front room which was utilized for the purpose of these campaigns was now changed into a sick room as Jinny was diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing medication.
On her return from the oncologist, Neal was waiting for her in the car with Helen. Helen was being hired to take care of Jinny during the illness. Neal had the habit of becoming more animated and enthusiastic around other people and Jinny had come to accept this. Living with Neal for so long had made Jinny ‘more reserved and slightly ironic’. Neal’s over-enthusiasm was evident with Helen’s presence in the car. He had found Helen from the Correctional Institute for Young Offenders. Helen’s father was an incestuous old man. After running away from home, Helen and her sister were adopted by the foster parents but they had a difficult childhood.
Helen had to pick up her shoes from her sister, who was working at the hospital. Neal readily drives her there but Helen’s sister forgets to bring the shoes. Neal seemingly flirts with Helen. It is indeed strange that Neal shows no interest in asking Jinny about her visit to the doctor. He seems rather a bit too concerned about Helen’s delay in return.
Jinny was wearing a ‘wide-brimmed straw hat’. This hat somehow symbolizes a sense of security for Jinny. Inside the car, Jinny felt hot and suffocated, she was using this hat to fan herself all the time, while Neal seemed not a bit concerned. Neal continued to drive around the town as Helen refused to tell the address of her sister’s residence to collect the shoes. Helen finally gave in and they reached Matt and June Bergson. The couple seemed cordial to the Lockleys and asked them to come inside. Neal jumped to the invitation but Jinny wanted to stay inside the car.
Neal was angry at Jinny for turning down on the Bergsons to sit inside the car. Though Neal had put up a cordial concerned face for the sake of others leaving Jinny in the car. She had seen Neal behave in this manner even before. She had come to know that his ‘boy’s time’ would be up and he will go away. But things did matter more today than yesterday. The hope of her survival as the doctor had suggested during her visit had brought about this sadness. She had thoughts coming to her of the things she was in charge of and that might just be thrown away when she died. She reckoned perhaps the only wrong opinions about her, given by other people would survive.
Left to herself inside the car, Jinny wanted to go into the cornfield and wanted to sleep there. When she stepped outside, she realized the rows of corns were too close and was now angry at herself for taking the effort to reach there. The cornfield was like a labyrinth; Jinny could not find her way out until she saw Matt coming in her direction. He asked her to join them inside or atleast have water but Jinny did not feel like it. She was annoyed at Matt for thinking she came out to the cornfield to pee. He even tried to crack joke but with Jinny’s antagonist reaction, he turned back to leave.
At certain points in life, we are able to give angry reactions but in many pertinent places, unable to do so. Jinny realizes how she told Matt when he cracked the joke, “I don’t want to hear it. It’s too much.” She could not say the same to the doctor who informed her of the optimism in her therapy.
Again alone near the car, Jinny saw a boy who came along riding a bicycle. He was probably seventeen or eighteen, about Helen’s age and introduced himself as Ricky, June and Matt’s son. Looking at Ricky, Jinny is reminded of the young offenders Neal brought to their home and her occasionally flirting with them. That caused Neal to stop bringing them.
In one section, Alice Munro stresses on the fact that Jinny and Ricky never felt the necessity to wear watches. The two had an intuitive ability to know the accurate time. Ricky who had all the time in his life. And, Jinny who might have imagined her end very soon. With such stark difference, the redundancy of utility of a watch for both conjoins them in their pursuit of life experiences.
The sky had hidden the scorching sun and had the shimmering, sickening colour earlier, changed into a faintly coloured glass – red or yellow or green or blue with Ricky’s presence. Also, Jinny was without her hat. She didn’t feel the necessity to protect herself or fan. Ricky asked her if he could drive her back and took the road through Borneo Swamp. After a few miles, he stopped the car and asked Jinny to walk with her. He took her to the floating bridge. It’s the moment on this floating bridge that Jinny realized her being without the hat. The two share a kiss on this floating bridge.
Jinny’s first time experience on a floating bridge and Ricky’s first time kissing a married woman. The story ends with, “A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of her sores and hollows, for the time given.’ She had thought of Neal and then ‘this rain of compassion, almost like laughter’. Perhaps, she had her revenge against Neal for his doings of that late afternoon. ‘Time given’ had beaten ‘given time’, atleast for now.
This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z challenge under Alphabet A.