It’s an uneasy time to be living in America if your social values happen to be on the conservative end of the political spectrum. It must be frightening to imagine living in a country where people of the same sex can get married (in a minority of states) or where women can choose whether to carry their pregnancies to term and thereby assert control over their bodies and their lives. Wouldn’t it be lovely to go back to a simpler time?
Alice Munro’s short story “Axis” is a sharp reminder of why, no, it would not be lovely.
The story’s plot structure consists of three significant journeys. The first introduces us to two young women, Grace and Avie, who travel by bus from their university to their rural homes, at a time when the common yet unstated purpose of a woman pursuing a higher degree was to find a husband. As Munro writes:
They understood — everybody understood — that having any sort of job after graduation would be a defeat… they were enrolled here to find somebody to marry. First a boyfriend, then a husband. It wasn’t spoken of in those terms, but there you were.
Both women have boyfriends. Avie is stuck with a man she doesn’t really care for because she’s been having sex with him, and there’ve been a few “pregnancy scares.” Grace deliberately abstains from sex, not out of virtue, but as a way to keep her boyfriend interested. In fact, however, he’s getting increasingly frustrated.
The perspective then shifts to Grace’s boyfriend, Royce, who travels by bus to Grace’s home, where the two come up with a scheme to be alone so they can have sex for the first time. In a scene that lurches from comedy to tragedy, they are caught in bed, which ruins their relationship and Grace’s life. For Royce, however, the disaster is a liberation. He’d never liked Grace much anyway, and while hitchhiking back to town, he has a life-changing moment in which he discovers his true calling, geology.
The third and final journey takes place on a train from Toronto to Montreal several decades later. Royce and Grace’s old friend Avie run into each other and compare notes on how their lives have worked out. Neither of them knows what has happened to Grace, who has dropped out of college for “medical reasons.” The story drops a strong hint that she’s gotten pregnant.
Reading this rich and expansive story and thinking about the social issues currently in the news, I was struck by how in its view of social dynamics, conservatism is actually quite similar to its supposed political opposite, communism. Like the communist model of economics, the conservative social ideal fails to take into account the reality of people’s lives.
Both philosophies create a mythic ideal (people working their hardest without any financial incentive to do so; men and women who never have sex until marriage) and then fault people for having human urges and desires that prevent them from living up to it. Just as workers want to be rewarded for their hard labor, gay people exist, and women have sex and sometimes get pregnant when they and their partners don’t want to be. You may not like these facts, but they are facts and no amount of legal bullying is going to change them.
What’s troubling about the latest round of wrangling over gay rights and abortion is how, in their attempt to create this imaginary 1950s-style utopia (that never existed), social conservatives advocate policies with potential to cause real harm to real people’s lives.