Clark and Carla in “Runaway” by Alice Munro
The short story “Runaway” by Alice Munro focuses on the two main protagonists Clark and Carla, which are a husband and wife and owners of a small horse ranch in rural Canada. The couple have a stringent relationship but remain together, despite Carla’s resentment of her husband and attempt to leave. Munro engages in masterful character building revealing more about the couple and each of the individual characters. Carla, despite being the victim in the abusive relationship, has become the person she is due to her self-destructive and punishing choices, also met with the tolerance of gender expectations, which leads to her a life of built-up anger and resentment.
The individual choices that have led Carla to the present day in the story began prior to her marriage to Clark. As she recalls, she was young when she met Clark. However, he immediately did not draw approval from Clara’s parents or her older brother. While it can be argued that sometimes this happens, there were evident red flags. Not only that, instead of going to college and attempting to make something of herself, Carla chose to elope with Clark, leaving nothing but a note for her family and cutting off contact with them soon after (Munro). By making this choice, Clara did two things, remove any potential support system and attach herself in fate to Clark. From early on, she became psychologically dependent on him, as often occurs in young couples that elope in the context of the initial affection (Allendorf 466). At the same time, as the audience later finds out, she has nowhere to go nor any resources to break free on her own because she handed him full control of her life.
The second critical choice that contributed to Clara’s character building was her attempt to escape. After suddenly and unexpectedly (including to the audience who believed she would attempt to push with Clark’s plan) erupting into tears in front of Sylvia, the reader realizes that the signs of resentment that were noticeable in the relationship before were in fact deeper as Clara reveals the emotional abuse she faces. Sylvia offers her help to get away, going out of the way to buy her a ticket, call in a favor with a friend, and taking care of Clara. However, once on the bus, Clara breaks down, and despite realizing the distrust and anger she feels towards Clark, she feels unable to be without him. Clara thinks, “While she was running away from him−now−Clark still kept his place in her life. But when she was finished running away, when she just went on, what would she put in his place? What else−who else−could ever be so vivid a challenge?” (Munro). She gets off the bus and calls Clark to come get her in tears, almost begging to take her back.
This decision is key to realizing that Clara takes a level of satisfaction of her role as a victim and defines herself and her life fully in terms of Clark. She refutes common sense, logic that she herself understands, and chooses to act irrationally beyond explanation. Without deep exploration of psychology, this is part of victim mentality – an occurrence where victims share equal responsibility with the perpetrators because they consciously and deliberately understand the situation and choose to be a part of it. They are not caught by surprise, anticipating the potential outcomes and damage that may occur to their wellbeing (Zur). In a way that is self-destructive and masochistic, which clearly defines Clara’s mental state and character. Towards the end of the story, when all is seemingly well between the couple, but she has murderous thoughts and has to try to suppress them; it becomes evident that she is potentially just as unstable and ultimately manipulative as Clark.
While the gender expectations that Clara adheres to largely stem from the context above, her desire to appeal to Clark and being a victim, they offer the small insights into her character development. From early on in the story, it is emphasized that she is attempting to be a good wife, fulfilling many of the “female roles” at Clark’s command such as doing dirty work, cooking dinner, and others. Clara also demonstrates strong obedience to Clark, despite it potentially interfering with her desires. Furthermore, Clara is attempting to fit in with gender expectations by being overly emotional and using it to manipulate her husband, such as when she starts crying saying “Just don’t be mad at me” (Munro).
She wants Clark to feel sorry for her, but at the same time, the reader is also exposed to her subtle manipulation. When Clara tells Clark imaginary stories of her sexual encounters with the deceased Mr. Jamieson, ones that she knows are false, but likely told as a way to make her husband jealous and garner attention, the audience is exposed to her manipulative and deceitful nature. This fact creates a sense of conflict, on one hand she is a victim of emotional abuse, but on the other, she cannot be trusted. Such characteristics are stereotypically attributed to women, suggesting she is deceitful but maintains a false pretense of innocence.
Throughout the story, Munro makes subtle parallels between Carla and the goat Flora. Initially, when Clark brings the goat, it follows him around, not unlike Carla when they first met, “At first she had been Clark’s pet entirely, following him everywhere, dancing for his attention” (Munro). When Flora runs away, it is meant to parallel Clara’s attempt to break free, a goat/woman that has become more mature, skittish, and wiser. However, Clara returns having been consumed by emotion, and the goat reappears that night, seemingly miraculously and innocently. Sylvia views Clara as a girl that needs guidance, because an adult woman having realized the negative impacts of the relationship with Clark would not have returned so simply. Therefore, despite seemingly being older and mature, Clara never truly grew the wisdom. Finally, towards the end it is suggested that Clark had killed the goat the very same night, which Clara realizes deep down despite wanting to believe otherwise. It indicates her vulnerability to the abuse and anger at Clark, the killing off of her independence and impulses to leave him (Sustana). At the same time, realizing what Clark had done also awakens a deep “murderous” anger inside of her
The actions of the character Clara and her act to meet certain gender expectations contribute to deep character development and understanding of her struggle. It quickly becomes evident that Clara is submissive to Clark, following his direction in life as well as the day-to-day activities. She has little to say in the major decisions. Meanwhile, Clark is an abusive individual. He is both commanding and seemingly not respectful of Clara’s boundaries. He is also using psychological manipulation in various forms, including pressuring and gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation which often occurs in abusive relationships, where the abuser seeks to undermine the other person’s reality and judgment by misleading the target and creating a false narrative (Sweet 851).
By the end of the story, the audience can realize that Clara’s life situation and internal state is a manifestation of her choices, such as refusing to see the red flags in the relationship, turning away the help to break free that Sylvia offered her, and continuing to adhere to Clark’s control and manipulations. While blaming the victim in abusive relationships is not often right, but Clara does bear some responsibility for the outcomes in her life as she made the self-destructive choices and following the punishing gender expectations.
The complex character development in Munro’s “Runaway” is demonstrated in the interactions between the protagonists, their actions in the plot, and their position in the context of applicable social gender norms. Clara is seemingly a good and innocent young woman who is caught in an abusive relationship with the love of her life, which makes it incredibly difficult. However, an examination of her choices and behavior suggests that she bears some responsibility for her victimization. She has both drawn her into the relationship and continues to perpetuate the cycle despite being given opportunities to escape, placing her into the state of emotional suffering and regret. It never becomes truly clear if she is simply naïve or enjoys the feeling of victimhood and pent-up anger. However, it is evident that she is much more complex on the inside than her behavior lets on, and it is implied there is a certain darkness inside Clara.
Allendorf, Keera. “Schemas of Marital Change: From Arranged Marriages to Eloping for Love.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 75, no. 2, 2013, pp. 453–469, 10.1111/jomf.12003.
Munro, Alice. “Runaway.” The New Yorker, 2003.
Sustana, Catherine. “A Closer Look at Alice Munro’s ‘Runaway’.” ThoughtCo., 2020.
Sweet, Paige L. “The Sociology of Gaslighting.” American Sociological Review, vol. 84, no. 5, 2019, pp. 851–875, 10.1177/0003122419874843.
Zur, Ofer. “Rethinking ‘Don’t Blame the Victim’.” Zur Institute, n.d.