Chekhov’s Gun – thoughts on “Axis,” a short story by Alice Munro

Is everyone familiar with the principle of “Chekhov’s Gun?” If not, here’s a brief summary about it from Wikipedia:

Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic principle that requires every element in a narrative be necessary and irreplaceable, and that everything else be removed.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” -Chekhov

Below: An armed Chekhov in a picture from uncyclopedia.com (looks pretty photoshopped to me… 🙂 )

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This may be especially true of short stories, where – due to limited space – details are precious and must have relevance. Experienced readers begin to develop a skill of spotting Chekhov’s gun. Even I sometimes notice one hanging on the wall in a story – and sometimes more than one. This happened to me in reading Alice Munro’s great story “Axis.”

This was my second Munro story in two weeks for my Deal Me In short story reading challenge. Perhaps the hand of fate noticed I wasn’t that taken with the other story of hers that I read (“Menesetung”) and pointed me to this one right away so I might form a better impression of Munro. If so, mission accomplished! Originally published in the New Yorker magazine, I own the story as part of my “The Best American Short Stories 2012” anthology. It’s the story of two college friends, Avie and Grace, and how their lives didn’t quite turn out as expected.

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The bulk of the story takes place “fifty years ago” and Avie and Grace are students at “the university.” Each is pursuing a field of study, but in reality their unspoken purpose is to find their future husbands… The girls have two men in their lives, Avie has Hugo, and Grace has Royce, a former soldier.

The first of Chekhov’s guns came in the form of a dream that Avie had:

“In the dream, she was married to a Hugo, who really was hanging around as if he hoped to marry her, and she had a baby, who cried day and night. It howled, in fact, till she thought she would go crazy. At last she picked up this baby … and took her down to some dark basement room and shut her in there, where the thick walls ensured that she wouldn’t be heard. Then she went away and forgot about her. And it turned out that she had another girl baby anyway, one who was easy and delightful and grew up without any problems.

But one day this grown daughter spoke to her mother about her sister hidden in the basement. It turned out that she had known about her all along – the poor warped and discard one had told her everything – and there was nothing to be done now. ‘Nothing to be done,’ this lovely, kind girl said. The abandoned daughter knew no way of life but the one she had and, anyway, she did not cry anymore; she was used to it.”

When she tells Grace about the dream, her friend’s reaction is predictable. She thinks it’s an awful dream and asks Avie if she hates children. “Not unreasonably,” Avie said. That’s an interesting answer, isn’t it? Anyway, the shadow of this dream (which is related near the start of the tale) hung over the story in my mind as I was reading, and unlike the other Chekhov’s Gun in the story, it is never explicitly resolved. I did finish reading with some pretty strong ideas about its relevance, though.

The other gun of Chekhov’s was more traditional. Early in the story, Royce is traveling by bus to see Grace at her family’s farm in the country. Unlike Avie, Grace is rather straight-laced and hasn’t allowed too much “familiarity” with Royce yet. On the trip, he is harboring hopes of “getting Grace alone” at some point during the visit (I should mention that Grace hopes this too). Along the way, though, the bus passes Avie’s home town and from the bus window, Royce espies Grace’s friend:

“She was standing on the sidewalk of the Main Street, talking to somebody. She was full of animation, whipping her hair back when the wind blew it in her face… She looked carefree, and in immensely good spirits – prettier, more vivid, than he ever remembered seeing her.”

In short, she was everything Grace was not (at least to this point in their relationship). Royce considers hopping off the bus and pursuing Avie on a whim, but common sense prevails and he continues on his journey. Of course, I immediately thought, “These two are getting together,” and began “waiting out” the story until this would happen. As I approached the end of the story, though, I began to get concerned. “There’s only three pages left! Where’s Avie?!”, etc. Well ***Spoiler Alert*** they do meet up again, but in a more poignant and bittersweet way than I would have imagined.

This story first appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 2011

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I really enjoyed the story, and also speculating about the meaning of the title, “Axis,” a word which means something that is revolved around. Is the Axis Royce’s visit to the family farm and its result? Is the Axis Royce’s change in career choice after seeing (and noticing for the first time) the “Niagara Escarpment” – a rock formation – which leads him to become a geologist. Is the Axis Avie’s horrible dream, which cryptically might explain everything (or maybe nothing) about the friends? This will not be my last reading of Alice Munro, that much is certain.

What about you? What short stories have you read recently, and who are some of your favorite short story authors?

(Below: part of the “Niagara Escarpment”)

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Oops! Sorry. Wrong Chekhov!

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14 Comments

  1. July 19, 2014 at 9:19 am

    I’ve never read any Alice Munro, although I plan to fix that this year when the right card comes up. This sounds like an interesting story to add to a future list, and I am glad “the hand of fate” gave you a second chance with Munro!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 20, 2014 at 8:56 am

      I will look forward to reading your thoughts on “Dimension” when it’s your turn to read Munro via DMI. 🙂 “Axis” was one of those stories that I really, really liked but would have trouble convincing or explaining to others why it was so good.

      Like

  2. BookerTalk said,

    July 20, 2014 at 5:11 am

    I’ve read only one collection by her which was the most recently published.some I enjoyed, others were just so so.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 20, 2014 at 8:57 am

      I’ve found that’s the way it goes with short story collections by a single author. Even the great short story writers (e.g. Vonnegut or Murakami) had a few stories intheir collections which didn’t work for me…

      Like

    • JM said,

      January 15, 2015 at 1:40 am

      I encourage you to start with “The Progress of Love,” then read “Friend of My Youth” and then “Open Secrets” — those books are from the apex of her career, and her mastery is apparant in every story, as are her astounding growth and innovation as a writer.

      Like

  3. Paula Cappa said,

    July 20, 2014 at 11:30 am

    I’ve only read two Alice Munro stories many years ago and found both to be flat, I have to confess. I can appreciate Chekhov’s advice in theory but sometimes if that gun hanging on the wall doesn’t go off, that can be significant too as you point out in the Avie, Grace, Royce story. I do look for action at the end of a story and when the action is a “nonaction” I’m a little thrown. It feels like a let down and I expect and desire stories to bring me forward. That kind of nonaction never satisfies me.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 20, 2014 at 6:34 pm

      You make an excellent point, Paula. Maybe the moral of the story is be careful about where you leave Chekhov’s guns lying around. 🙂

      It occurred to me after I hit the publish button that maybe these aren’t very good examples of Chekhov’s gun in its purest sense. They did, however, leave me with the feeling of “aha, there’s a gun over the mantelpiece!” 🙂

      Like

  4. Dale said,

    July 20, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Jay, I had not heard of Chekhov’s gun theory before. If the gun does not go off but is the catalyst for some other type of action – maybe seeing the gun triggers (no pun intended) a memory for somebody – does that count as “action”? Just curious.
    -Dale

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 20, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      I would say that counts. The key for me would be it must affect the story in some way. And again, it’s more relevant to short stories, where there are no words to waste. In a longer work, I’m sure a gun over the mantel could be part of an overall description of a character’s lodging. It may tell something about what kind of character lives there rather than have to be used – or not used – in the novel itself.

      Anyway, old Anton may have the last word, as I drew my card for week 30 today, and it was his story, “The Bet”… 🙂

      Like

  5. July 27, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Since I did Grace Paley this time aroundI should get a collection of Munro’s for the next deck I do. I’ve never read her.

    I once saw a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya in San Francisco. When the curtain opened on the drawing room where the action takes place I immediately noticed the gun hanging over the mantle. I was pleased when it did go off in act two.

    Uncle Vanya is the best by the way. We never miss a production and we’ve never been disappointed.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 28, 2014 at 7:30 am

      That’s great! I’ve never seen any of his plays performed, I’m sad to say.

      I have begun contemplating some kind of Chekhov “mini-project” for October. Maybe I will read some of his plays…

      Munro’s definitely worth a look. This story was probably my favorite of hers thus far. I plan to explore her further, and I already own one of her story collections.

      Like

  6. JM said,

    January 15, 2015 at 1:47 am

    I heartily disagree with your suggestion that those guns didn’t go off. The abandoned daughter in the dream is very clearly Grace; and, even if Royce hadn’t encountered Avis in the end — tho he did, and their encounter is crucial to understanding a major theme of the story — his impulse to leave the bus and have a good ole time with her (while on his way to see the woman he professes to love) tells us VOLUMES about who he is.

    Alice Munro is the undisputed master of the modern short story. She handles complexity more adroitly than you could ever hope to describe. So despite your merriment at trying this “Chekhov’s gun” party game, don’t think you can play “Gotcha!” with the work of a genius. There are no unused props in Murno’s stotries — there aren’t even superfluous commas.

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