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“Open Secrets” and “Skin: Ineradicable Stain” by Alice Munro Essay (Review)

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Updated: Jun 14th, 2022


Open Secrets by Alice Munro is the author’s short story in the eighth book of stories, and can be regarded as a re-visitation of the physical and mental landscapes that have become the most praised aspects of her work. Similar to her earlier books, Open Secrets is a literary work that brings much more to its readers than it initially promised: “the language is quite colloquial although it is written in a very high manner, the events are both dramatic and domestic at the same time, the story is based around small towns in Canada but has a cross-continental reach” (Clapp par. 2).

The “fiction within fiction” storyline is used by the author to emphasize the importance of fiction itself, and it is this attitude, towards the importance of fiction and storytelling, that distinguishes Munro’s work from other authors. It also offers Munro the opportunity to study the notion of an ‘open secret’ itself. By exploring this concept, she is able to emphasize the importance of language, as well as the role it plays in society (Frangipane, 135).

Open Secret is a short story that tells the stories of people’s lives that, in turn, makeup stories themselves. Therefore, a full circle of storytelling is created: the author tells stories and stories are imposed upon the characters; and the characters tell stories with their imagination or their lies. For example, characters in Open Secrets are authors themselves, speculating about events that did not even occur, events that are opposite to what had occurred, or even events that the storyteller could not even remember exactly. This is the defining purpose of the book – exploring the idea that the act of storytelling is embedded within human nature, as well as how language is used to impose a characters’ identity.

Skin: Ineradicable Stain was a project launched in 2003, by Shelley Jackson, involving around three thousand volunteers. The project consisted of tattooing the text of Jackson’s story onto the bodies of volunteers, one word per person.

The only written form the book has been seen in is through these tattoos. The central idea of the project was to make the story more real, and more tangible than those stories printed and published on paper. For example, one of the volunteers that had tattooed a word from the story died as the project was still ongoing. As a result, the story cannot be assembled completely, making the project both physical and ephemeral at the same time.

It is also important to mention that the sequence in which the story should be read is only known to the project’s participants and the author. Furthermore, the participants were to explain why they took an interest in the project in order to be accepted (Flanagan and Booth 293). In such a case like this, a story was literally imposed upon a person who chose to participate in its telling. Contrary to imposing a particular story upon people, people can, themselves, create other stories from the same words and, therefore, create a cycle of creativity. The significance of the project relates to unifying a group of people through language, providing them with an opportunity to become a mortal work of art.

Therefore, while the short story Open Secrets is a literary piece that includes the ‘fiction within fiction’ phenomenon, it can be said that Skin: Ineradicable Stain uses people to tell a story, therefore, imposes the story upon their lives.

Open Secrets short story analysis: The role of language in imposing a character’s identity

When analyzing the story from Munro’s Open Secrets, it has become evident that the concept of language is given much attention. In addition, there are many other kinds of non-verbal language that includes the movement of the body and facial expressions: “The man shook his head as if in discomfort or apology, indicating that he had no choice but to follow his wife” (Munro 203).

It is important to mention that Munro uses various types of language in her telling of the story of an unsolved disappearance of a teenage girl, Heather Bell. The author chooses not to solve the mystery herself. Rather, she imposes the role of detective upon her readers. Therefore, the language is used by Munro to impose the identity of characters, who become detectives. In the text, the author “takes us skillfully, with numerous shifty dodges, through the underbrush of the text” (Carrington 20). This “underbrush” is connected with various language types, such as colloquial, linking the reader and the character of Maureen, the main storyteller, by means of language.

Skin: Ineradicable Stain: The significance of the tattoos and their message

As discussed previously, language can be used to impose an identity upon an individual. Shelley Jackson took this idea literally and started the project of Ineradicable Stain, effectively giving the participants new identities and calling the tattooed project participants “words”. The significance of the volunteer’s tattooing words on their skin can be assessed in relation to the fact that the words cannot be removed easily. Rather, tattoos become ineradicable stains on their bodies that will accompany them through life. One could argue that a tattoo can be removed, and it rarely affects one’s identity. However, the participants of the project, by agreeing to volunteer as living works of art, also promised to keep the tattoos for the rest of their lives.

The actual material fact of the words being tattooed changes the way language is interpreted. A story told through words tattooed on bodies is significant for its tangibility, since human bodies are tangible and will not last forever. As, unfortunately, people will pass away, the story will continue to lose components. Therefore, it is not people who tell the story using language; rather, language uses people to tell a story and impose a new identity upon the person with the tattoo.

Turning people into words may seem quite oppressive. Every single person has his or her own individuality that should not be defined by one specific word. However, it is not meant that the tattooed words define the person’s entire individuality. Participants become one united system, even without any interactions, the same way words become sentences, and then stories, when put in a specific order. The fact that a story is imposed upon people from the outside goes back to the notion of language which is used by someone to tell a story.

Discussion: The exploration of the idea that people are born to tell their stories while the stories are imposed upon them from the outside

The analysis of ideas and significant aspects of Open Secrets and Skin: Ineradicable Stain has led to the exploration that people are born into the world to tell stories while stories might get imposed upon them as time goes on. As already discussed, Skin: Ineradicable Stain is a project that resulted in people creating a story that has the possibility to change if the order of the tattooed words is changed.

In this case, a story is not imposed upon people; on the contrary, people are trying to tell a story that has been imposed upon them. The fact that the projects’ author wanted to transform people into mortal works of art suggests a commitment to an idea that may influence the lives of other people. In her letter to The Times magazine, Shelley Jackson wrote: “It comes from my original call for participants: I specify that once they are tattooed, participants will be known as ‘words’. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as their embodiments” (Kellogg par. 6). A new identity of ‘words’ is imposed upon the project’s participants.

Thus, instead of just becoming a canvas on which a word is written, people become the embodiments of their words and are referred to as the word they are within the project’s framework. It is common for the project’s participants to refer to one another as words; for example, ‘to’ can call ‘the’ and agree to meet during the week. Furthermore, the author emphasized that only the death of the ‘word’ can mean that they are taken away from the text. Injuries of the body part, loss, surgery, and dermabrasion are not considered a valid reason for the ‘word’ to be eliminated from the story. Therefore, the people participating in the project are, indeed, the mortal works of literary art.

When discussing Alice Munro’s Open Secrets, an element of the “story within a story” has been extensively used in this literary work. Like the character of Maureen Stephens, whose life is accompanied by stories, Munro’s readers are also subjected to the same technique. The author showed her readers that stories are very important aspects of people’s lives through different examples of characters who are very similar to real people that live in this world, whose lives are accompanied by many stories, and whose lives become much more significant and meaningful because of such stories (Frangipane 138).

Characters from Open Secrets use storytelling to find a meaning to their lives and to discover themselves as individuals who, unknowingly, have been subjected to a separate story imposed upon them from the outside. They were born to tell stories, while stories are imposed upon them to influence their identity. In the long run, Munro’s work argues that fiction and storytelling are very important in anyone’s life. It has often been argued that for the author “there is no self beyond the story” (Frangipane 138).

The “story within the story” technique in Open Secrets allowed Alice Munro to explore various unique aspects of human life, as well as the notion of the open secret itself: a lie that was told by a person to one’s self in order to provide some comfort in one’s mind. Therefore, in the book, stories are tightly connected to reality while the reality is accompanied by imagination. Open Secret showed its readers that storytelling matters.

To conclude, both Open Secrets and Skin: Ineradicable Stain are the works of art that explore the concept of storytelling in a very unique manner. While the short story Open Secrets is a literary piece that includes the ‘fiction within fiction’ phenomenon, it can be said that Skin: Ineradicable Stain uses people to tell a story, therefore, imposes the story upon their lives. The importance of telling stories as one of the aspects of daily life can be traced in both works.

The project of tattooing words on people’s bodies to transform them into ‘words’ is an idea that can be regarded as imposing the story upon other people’s lives, similar to the way Alice Munro imposed a story upon the characters of the Open Secrets short story. The same way the characters of the short story become involved in a fiction told by another fictitious character of Maureen Stephens, volunteers that participated in the Skin project became parts of the fictional story told by the author herself.

Works Cited

Carrington, Ildiko de Papp. “Talkin’ Dirty: Alice Munro’s “Open Secrets” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Studies in Short Fiction 31.4 (1994): 15-27. Print.

Clapp, Susannah. . 1994. Web.

Flanagan, Mary, and Austin Booth. Re: Skin. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006. Print.

Frangipane, Nicholas. “A Reason to Read: Fiction-Affirming Fiction in Alice Munro’s Open Secrets.” Undergraduate Review 4.24 (2008): 133-139. Print.

Kellogg, Carolyn. . 2011. Web.

Munro, Alice. Open Secrets. London, UK: Random House, 1995. Print.

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