Red Dress by Alice Munro with study notes

NB: Please scroll all the way down for the notes on characterization in BOLD.

This story is about a girl whose mother makes her a red dress
to wear to a Christmas dance at her school. The girl is thirteen
and in the ninth grade. Through her experiences at the dance,
she learns something about her mother, about herself, about
other people, and about happiness and unhappiness.

My mother was making me a dress. All through the month of
November I would come from school and find her in the
kitchen, surrounded by cut-up red velvet and scraps of
tissue-paper pattern. She worked at an old treadle machine pushed up
against the window to get the light, and also to let her look out, past
the stubble fields and bare vegetable garden, to see who went by on
the road. There was seldom anybody to see.

The red velvet material was hard to work with, it pulled, and the
style my mother had chosen was not easy either. She was not really a
good sewer. She liked to make things; that is different. Whenever she
could she tried to skip basting and pressing, and she took no pride in
the fine points of tailoring, the finishing of buttonholes and the
overcasting of seams, as, for instance, my aunt and my grandmother
did. Unlike them she started off with an inspiration, a brave and dazzling
idea; from that moment on, her pleasure ran downhill. In the first
place she could never find a pattern to suit her. It was no wonder; there
were no patterns made to match the ideas that blossomed in her head.
She had made me, at various times when I was younger, a flowered
organdy dress with a high Victorian neckline edged in scratchy lace,
with a poke bonnet to match; a Scottish plaid outfit with a velvet jacket
and tam; an embroidered peasant blouse worn with a full, red skirt
and black-laced bodice. I had worn these clothes with docility, even
pleasure, in the days when I was unaware of the worlds opinion. Now,
grown wiser, I wished for dresses like those my friend Lonnie had,
bought at Beale’s store.

I had to try it on. Sometimes Lonnie came home from school with
me and she would sit on the couch watching. I was embarrassed by
the way my mother crept around me, her knees creaking, her breath
coming heavily She muttered to herself. Around the house she wore
no corset or stockings, she wore wedge-heeled shoes and ankle socks;
her legs were marked with lumps of blue-green veins. 1 thought her
squatting position shameless, even obscene; 1 tried to keep talking to
Lonnie so that her attention would be taken away from my mother as
much as possible,/ Lonnie wore the composed, polite, appreciative
expression that was her disguise in the presence of grown-ups. She
laughed at them rand was a ferocious mimic, and they never knew
My mother pulled me about, and pricked me with pins. She made
me turn around, she made me walk away, she made me stand stilL
“What do’ you/think of it, Lonnie?” she said around the pins in her

“It’s beautiful,” said Lonnie, in her mild, sincere way Lonnie’s own
mother was dead. She lived with her father, who never noticed her,
and this, in my eyes, made her seem both vulnerable and privileged.
“It will be, if 1 can ever manage the fit,” my mother said. “Ah, well,”
she said theatrically, getting to her feet with a woeful creaking and
sighing, “1 doubt if she appreciates it.” She enraged me, talking like this
to Lonnie, as if Lonnie were grown up and 1 were still a child. “Stand
still,” she said, hauling the pinned and basted dress over my head. My
head was muffled in velvet, my body exposed, in an old cotton school
slip. 1 felt like a great raw lump, clumsy and goose-pimpled. 1 wished
1 was like Lonnie, light-boned, pale and thin; she had been a Blue

“Well, nobody ever made me a dress when 1 was going to high
school,” my mother said, “1 made my own, or 1 did without.” I was
afraid she was going to start again on the story of her walking seven
miles to town and finding a job waiting on tables in a boarding house,
so that she could go to high schooL All the stories of my mother’s
life which had once interested me had begun to seem melodramatic,
irrelevant, and tiresome.

“One time I had a dress given to me,” she said. “It was a cream colored
cashmere wool with royal blue piping down the front and
lovely mother-of-pearl buttons, I wonder whatever became of it?”

When we got free Lonnie and I went upstairs to my room. It was
cold, but we stayed there. We talked about the boys in our class, going
up and down the rows and saying, “Do you like him? Well, do you half
like him? Do you hate him? Would you go out with him if he asked
you?” Nobody had asked us. We were thirteen, and we had been going
to high school for two months. We did questionnaires in magazines,
to find out whether we had personality and whether we would be
popular. We read articles on how to make up our faces to accentuate
our good points and how to carry on a conversation on the first date.
We had made a pact to tell each other everything. But one thing I did
not tell was about this dance, the high school Christmas Dance for
which my mother was making me a dress. It was that 1 did not want
to go.

At high school I was never comfortable for a minute. I did not know
about Lonnie. Before an exam, she got icy hands and palpitations, but
I was close to despair at all times. When I was asked a question in class,
any simple little question at all, my voice was apt to come out squeaky,
or else hoarse and trembling. My hands became slippery with sweat
when they were required to work the blackboard compass. I could not
hit the ball in volleyball; being called upon to perform an action in front
of others made all my reflexes come undone. I hated Business Practice
because you had to rule pages for an account book, using a straight pen,
and when the teacher looked over my shoulder all the delicate lines
wobbled and ran togethe~. I hated Science; we perched on stools under
harsh lights behind tables of unfamiliar, fragile equipment, and were
taught by the principal of the school, a man with a cold, self-relishing
voice-he read the Scriptures every morning- and a great talent for
inflicting humiliation. I hated English because the boys played bingo at
the back of the room while the teacher, a stout, gentle girl, slightly crosseyed,
read Wordsworth at the front. She threatened them, she beggedthem, her face red and
her voice as unreliable as mine. They offered burlesqued apologies and when she started to
read again they took up
rapt postures, made swooning faces, crossed their eyes, flung their
hands over their hearts. Sometimes she would burst into tears, there
was no help for, it, she had to run out into the hall. Then the boys made
loud mooing noises; our hungry laughter-oh, mine too-pursued her.
There was a carnival atmosphere of brutality in the room at such times,
scaring weak and suspect people like me.

But what was really going on in the school was not Business Practice
and Science and English; there was something else that gave life its
urgency and brightness. That old building, with its rock-walled clammy
basements and black cloakrooms and pictures of dead royalties and lost
explorers, was full of the tension and excitement of sexual competition,
and in this, in spite of daydreams of vast successes, I had premonitions
of total defeat. Something had to happen, to keep me from that dance.
With December came snow, and I had an idea. Formerly I had considered
falling off my bicycle and spraining my ankle and I had tried
to manage this;’ as I rode home along the hard-frozen, deeply rutted
country roads. But it was too difficult. However, my throat and
bronchial tubes were supposed to be weak; why not expose them? I
started gettil).g out of bed at night and opening my window a little.
I knelt downi and let the wind, sometimes stinging with snow, rush in
around my bared throat. I took off my pajama top. I said to myself the
words “blue with cold” and as I knelt there, my eyes shut, I pictured
my chest and throat turning blue, the cold, grayed blue of veins under
the skin. I stayed until I could not stand it any more, and then I took a
handful of silow from the windowsill and smeared it all over my chest,
before I buttoned my pajamas. It would melt against the flannelette
and I would be sleeping in wet clothes, which was supposed to be the
worst thing of all. In the morning, the moment I woke up, I cleared
my throat, testing for soreness, coughed experimentally, hopefully,
touched my forehead to see if I had fever. It was no good. Every
morning, including the day of the dance, I rose defeated, and in perfect

The day of the dance I did my hair up in steel curlers. I had never
done this before, because my hair was naturally curly, but today I
wanted the protection of all possible female rituals. I lay on the couch
in the kitchen, reading The Last Days of Pompeii 2 and wishing I was
there. My mother, never satisfied, was sewing a white lace collar on the .
dress; she had decided it was too grown-up-looking. I watched the
hours. It was one of the shortest. days of the year. Above the couch, on
the wallpaper, were old games of X’s and O’s, old drawings and scribblings
my brother and I had done when we were sick with bronchitis.
I looked at them and longed to be back safe behind the boundaries of

When I took out the curlers my hair, both naturally and artificially
stimulated, sprang out in an exuberant glossy bush. I wet it, I combed
it, beat it with the brush and tugged it down along my cheeks. I applied
face powder, which stood out chalkily on my hot face. My mother got
out her Ashes of Roses cologne, which she never used, and let me splash
it over my arms. Then she zipped up the dress and turned me around
to the mirror. The dress was princess-style, very tight in the midriff.
“Well, I wish I could take a picture,” my mother said. “I am really,
genuinely proud of that fit. And you might say thank you for it.”

“Thank you,” I said.
The first thing Lonnie said when I opened the door to her was, “What did you do to your hair?”
“I did it up.”
“You look like a Zulu. Oh, don’t worry Get me a comb and I’ll do
the front in a roll. It’ll look all right. It’ll even make you look older.”

I sat in front of the mirror and Lonnie stood behind me, fixing my
hair. My mother seemed unable to leave us. I wished she would. She
watched the roll take shape and said, “You’re a wonder, Lonnie. You
should take up hairdressing.”

“That’s a thought,” Lonnie said. She had on a pale blue crepe dress,
with a peplum and bow; it was much more grown-up than mine even
without the collar. Her hair had come out as sleek as the girl’s on the
bobby-pin card. I had always thought secretly that Lonnie could not
be pretty because she had crooked teeth, but now t saw that crooked
teeth or not, her stylish dress and smooth hair made me look a little
like a golliwog, stuffed into red velvet, wide-eyed, wild-haired, with a
suggestion of delirium.

My mother followed us to the door and called out into the dark, “Au
reservoir!” This was a traditional farewell of Lonnie’s and mine; it
sounded foolish and desolate coming from her, and I was so angry with
her for using it that I did not reply It was only Lonnie who called back
cheerfully, encouragingly, “Good night!”

The gymnasium smelled of pine and cedar. Red and green bells of
fluted paper hung from the basketball hoops; the high, barred windows
were hidden by green boughs. Everybody in the upper grades
seemed to have come in couples. Some of the Grade Twelve and
Thirteen girls had brought boy friends who had already graduated,
who were young businessmen around the town. These young men
smoked in the gymnasium, nobody could stop them, they were free.
The girls stood beside them, resting their hands casually on male
sleeves, their faces bored, aloof and beautiful. I longed to be like that.
They behaved as if only they-the older ones-were really at the
dance, as if the rest of us, whom they moved among and peered
around, were, if not invisible, inanimate; when the first dance was
announced-a Paul Jones-they moved out languidly, smiling at
each other as if they had been asked to take part in some half-forgotten
childish game. Holding hands and shivering, crowding up
together, Lonni~ and I and the other Grade Nine girls followed.

I didn’t dare look at the outer circle as it passed me, for fear I should
see some unmannerly hurrying-up. When the music stopped I stayed
where I was, and half raising my eyes I saw a boy named Mason
Williams coming reluctantly towards me. Barely touching my waist
and my fingers, he began to dance with me. My legs were hollow, my
arms trembled from the shoulder, I could not have spoken. This Mason
Williams was one of the heroes of the school; he played basketball and
hockey and walked the halls with an air of royal sullenness and
barbaric contempt. To have to dance with a nonentity like me was as
offensive to him as having to memorize Shakespeare. I felt this as
keenly as he did, and imagined that he was exchanging looks of dismay
with his friends. He steered me, stumbling, to the edge of the floor. He
took his hand from my waist and dropped my arm.
“See you,” he said. He walked away.

It took me a minute or two to realize what had happened and that
he was not coming back. I went and stood by the wall alone. The
Physical Education teacher, dancing past energetically in the arms of a
Grade Ten boy, gave me an inquisitive look. She was the only teacher
in the school who made use of the words “social adjustment;” and
I was afraid that if she had seen, or if she found out, she might make
some horribly public attempt to make Mason finish out the dance with
me. I myself was not angry or surprised at Mason; I accepted his
position, and mine, in the world of school and I saw that what he had
done was the realistic thing to do. He was a Natural Hero, not a Student
Council type of hero bound for success beyond the school; one of those
would have danced with me courteously and patronizingly and left me
feeling no better off. Still, I hoped not many people had seen. I hated
people seeing. I began to bite the skin on my thumb.

When the music stopped I joined the surge of girls to the end of the
gymnasium. Pretend it didn’t happen, I said to myself. Pretend this is
the beginning, now.

The band began to play again. There was movement in the dense
crowd at our end of the floor; it thinned rapidly. Boys came over, girls
went out to dance. Lonnie went. The girl on the other side of me went.
Nobody asked me. I remembered a magazine article Lonnie and I had
read, which said Be gay! Let the boys see your eyes sparkle, let them hear
laughter in your voice! Simple, obvious, but how many girls forget! It was
true, I had forgotten. My eyebrows were drawn together with tension;
I must look scared and ugly. I took a deep breath and tried to loosen
my face. I smiled. But I felt absurd, smiling at no one. And I observed
that girls on the dance floor, popular girls, were not smiling; many of
them had sleepy, sulky faces and never smiled at all.

Girls were still going out to the floor. Some, despairing, went with
each other. But most went with boys. Fat girls, girls with pimples, a
poor girl who didn’t own a good dress and had to wear a skirt and
sweater to the dance; they were claimed, they danced away. Why take
them and not me? Why everybody else and not me? I have a red velvet
dress, I did my hair in curlers, I used a deodorant and put on cologne.
Pray, I thought. I couldn’t close my eyes but I said over and over again
in my mind, Please, me, please, and I locked my fingers behind my back
in a sign more potent than crossing, the same secret sign Lonnie and I
used not to be sent to the blackboard in Math.

It did not work. What I had been afraid of was true. I was going to
be left. There was something mysterious the matter with me, something
that could not be put right like bad breath or overlooked like
pimples, and everybody knew it, and I knew it; I had known it all
along. But I had not known it for sure, I had hoped to be mistaken.
Certainty rose inside me like sickness. I hurried past one or two girls
who were also left and went into the girls’ washroom. I hid myself in
a cubicle.

There was where I stayed. Between dances girls came in and went
out quickly. There were plenty of cubicles; nobody noticed that I was
not a temporary occupant. During the dances, I listened to the music
which I liked but had no part of any more. For I was not going to
try any more. I only wanted to hide in here, get out without seeing
anybody, get home.

One time after the music started somebody stayed behind. She was
taking a long time running the water, washing her hands, combing her
hair. She was going to think it funny that I stayed in so long. I had
better go out and wash my hands, and maybe while I was washing
them she would leave.

It was Mary Fortune. I knew her by name, because she was an officer
of the Girls’ Athlytic Society and she was on the Honor Roll and she was
always organizijig things. She had something to do with organizing this
dance; she had’ been around to all the classrooms asking for volunteers
to do the decorations. She was in Grade Eleven or Twelve.
“Nice in here,” she said. “I came in to get cooled off. I get
so hot.”
She was still combing her hair when I finished my hands. “Do you
like the band?” she asked.
“It’s all right. ” I didn’t really know what to say I was surprised at her,
an older girl, taking this time to talk to me.
“I don’t. I can’t stand it. I hate dancing when I don’t like the band.
Listen. They’re so choppy I’d just as soon not dance as dance to that.”
I combed my hair. She leaned against a basin, watching me.
“I don’t want to dance and don’t particularly want to stay in here.
Let’s go and have a cigarette.”
“Come on, I’ll-show you.”

At the end of the washroom there was a door. It was unlocked and
led into a dark closet full of mops and pails. She had me hold the door
open, to get the washroom light until she found the knob of another
door. This door opened into darkness.

“I can’t turn on the light or somebody might see,” she said. “It’s the
janitor’s room.” I reflected that athletes always seemed to know more
than the rest of us about the school as a building; they knew where
things were kept and they were always coming out of unauthorized
doors with a bold, preoccupied air. “Watch out where you’re going,”
she said. “Over at the far end there’s some stairs. They go up to a
closet on the second floor. The door’s locked at the top, but there’s
like a partition between the stairs and the room. So if we sit on the
steps, even if by chance someone did come in here, they wouldn’t
see us.”
“Wouldn’t they smell smoke?” I said.
“Oh, well. Live dangerously”
There was a high window over the stairs which gave us a little light.
Mary Fortune had cigarettes and matches in her purse. I had not
smoked before except the cigarettes Lonnie ap.d I made ourselves,
using papers and tobacco stolen from her father; they came apart in
the middle. These were much better.

“The only reason I even came tonight,” Mary Fortune said, “is
because I am responsible for the decorations and I wanted to see,
you know, how it looked once people got in there and everything.
Otherwise, why bother? I’m not boy-crazy.”

In the light from the high window I could see her narrow, scornful
face, her dark skin pitted with acne, her teeth pushed together at the
front, making her look adult and commanding.

“Most girls are. Haven’t you noticed that? The greatest collection of
boy-crazy girls you could imagine is right here in this school.”

I was grateful for her attention, her company and her cigarette. 1
said 1 thought so too.

“Like this afternoon. This afternoon I was trying to get them to hang
the bells and junk. They just get up on the ladders and fool around
with boys. They don’t care if it ever gets decorated. It’s just an excuse.
That’s the only aim they have in life, fooling around with boys. As far
as I’m concerned, they’re idiots.”

We talked about teachers, and things at school. She said she wanted
to be a physicaL education teacher and she would have to go to college
for that, but her parents did not have enough money She said she
planned to work her own way through, she wanted to be independent
anyway, she would work in the cafeteria and in the summer she would
do farm work, like picking tobacco. Listening to her, I felt the acute
phase of my unhappiness passing. Here was someone who had
suffered the same defeat as I had-I saw that-but she was full of
energy and self-respect. She had thought of other things to do. She
would pick tobacco.

We stayed there talking and smoking during the long pause in the
music, when, outside, they were having doughnuts and coffee. When
the music started again Mary said, “Look, do we have to hang around
here any longer? Let’s get our coats and go . We can go down to Lee’s
and have.a hot chocolate and talk in comfort, why not?”

We felt our way across the janitor’s room, carrying ashes and
cigarette butts in our hands. In the closet, we stopped and listened to
make sure there was nobody in the washroom. We came back into
the light and threw the ashes into the toilet. We had to go out and
cut across the dance floor to the cloakroom, which was beside the
outside door.

A dance was just beginning. “Go around the edge of the floor,” Mary
said. “Nobody’ll notice us.”

I followed her. I didn’t look at anybody I didn’t look for Lonnie.
Lonnie was probably not going to be my friend any more, not as much
as before anyway,’She was wha.t Mary would call boy-crazy.

I found that I was not so frightened, now that I had made up my mind
to leave the dance behind. I was not waiting for anybody to choose me.
I had my own plans. I did not have to smile or make signs for luck. It
did not matter to me. I was on my way to have a hot chocolate, with
my friend.

A boy said something to me. He was in my way I thought he must
be telling me :that I had dropped something or that I couldn’t go that
way or that the cloakroom was locked. I didn’t understand that he was
asking me to dance until he said it over again. It was Raymond Bolting
from our class, whom I had never talked to in my life. He thought I
meant yes. He put his hand on my waist and almost without meaning
to, I began to dance.

We moved to the middle of the floor. I was dancing. My legs had
forgotten to tremble and my hands to sweat. I was dancing with a boy
whb had qsked me. Nobody told him to, he didn’t have to, he just
asked me.’ Was it possible, could I believe it, was. there nothing the
matter with me after all?

I thought that I ought to tell him there was a mistake, that I was just
leaving, I was going to have a hot chocolate with my girl friend. But I
did Tlot say anything. My face was making certain delicate adjustments,
achieving with no effect at all the grave, absent-minded look of those
who were chosen, those who danced. This was the face that Mary
Fortune saw, when she looked out of the cloakroom door, her scarf
already around her head. I made a weak waving motion with the hand
that lay on the boy’s shoulder, indicating that I apologized, that I didn’t
know what had happened and also that it was no use waiting for me.
Then I turned my head away, and when I looked again she was gone.

Raymond Bolting took me home and Harold Simons took Lonnie
home. We all walked together as far as Lonnie’s corner. The boys were
having an argument about a hockey game~ which and I could
not follow. Then we separated into couples and Ra~ond continued
with me the conversation he had been having with Harold. He did not
seem to notice that he was now talking to me instead. Once or twice
I said, “Well, I don’t know, I didn’t see that game,” but after a while I
decided just to say “H’m hmm,” and that seemed to be all that was

One other thing he said was, “I didn’t realize you lived such a long
ways out.” And he sniffled. The cold was making my nose run a little
too, and I worked my fingers through the candy wrappers in my coat
pocket until I found a shabby Kleenex. I didn’t know whether I ought
to offer it to him or not, but he sniffled so loudly that I finally said, “I
just have this one Kleenex, it probably isn’t even clean, it probably has
ink on it. But if I was to tear it in half we’d each have something.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I sure could use it.”

It was a good thing, I thought, that I had done that, for at my gate,
when I said, “Well, good night,” and after he said, “Oh, yeah. Good
night,” he leaned towards me and kissed me, briefly, with the air of one
who knew his job when he saw it, on the corner of my mouth. Then
he turned back to town, never knowing he had been my rescuer, that
he had brought me from Mary Fortune’s territory into the ordinary

I went around the house to the back door, thinking, I have been
to a dance and a boy has walked me home and kissed me. It was all
true. My life was possible. I went past the kitchen window and I saw
my mother. She was sitting with her feet on the open oven door,
drinking tea out of a cup without a saucer. She was just sitting and
waiting for me to come home and tell her everything that had happened.
And I would not do it, 1 never would. But when 1 saw the
waiting kitchen, and my mother in her faded, fuzzy paisley kimono,
with her sleepy but doggedly expectant face, 1 understood what a
mysterious and oppressive obligation I had, to be happy, and how 1
had almost failed it, and would be likely to fail it, every time, and she
would not know.


The narrator of this story expresses her insecurities in terms of her
relationship with her mother, her view of high school, and the
Christmas dance, all as they are seen and experienced by a thirteen year-old girl.
Her encounters with other people at the dance cause
her to reevaluate her assumptions about what makes a person
Think about a time when you were in a situation which caused
you to reconsider some of your ideas and feelings.
On your own paper write answers to the following items. Answers
may be one word, a phrase, or several sentences.
1. What fact about her attitude toward the dance does the
narrator keep from her closest friend?
2. What personal characteristic accounts for the girl’s unhappiness
in school?
3. What two experiences at the dance increase her unhappiness?
4. How does she try to escape from her unhappy situation at the
5. What happens that makes the narrator feel that her life is
possible after all?

Prepare to discuss the following questions in class.
1 . The narrator of this story says she fears something is wrong
with her because no one asks her to dance. Only when
Raymond asks her to dance (after she has stopped caring)
does she think it is possible that there might be nothing
wrong with her at all. Why do you suppose a simple invitation
to dance would have such an impact on the girl? If Raymond
had not invited her to dance and had not walked her home
and kissed her, would you agree that something is wrong
with her? Did you find her response to Raymond’s invitation
and to his rather businesslike kiss believable? Tell why or
why not.
2. We learn that the girl narrating the story is afraid of leaving
the “safe” boundaries of her childhood, and that she sees the
dance as a big test which she would prefer to avoid. Two
things happen to her as a result of her experiences at the
dance. One has to do with her feelings about herself: She
realizes that there is basically nothing wrong with her. The
other has to do with her feelings about her mother. What is
the girl’s attitude toward her mother before the dance? What
does she decide when she sees her mother sitting in the
kitchen waiting for her after the dance? Her decision reflects
a change in attitude on the part of the girl toward her mother.
How would you characterize this new attitude? How is this
change in attitude related to the girl’s newly discovered sense
of self?
3. Think about the girl’s discovery of Mary Fortune in the washroom,
her “rescue” by Raymond Bolting, and her relief at
being released from Mary’s “territory” and returned to the
“ordinary world.” Do you think the girl cares for Raymond,
or is she just relieved to be like everyone else? Why do you
think she finds it desirable to be ordinary in an “ordinary
world”? Why does the girl fear Mary Fortune’s “territory”? Do
you think Mary means what she says so scornfully about the
“boy-crazy girls”?

In life you get to know people well by watching what they do, by
hearing what they say, by noticing what they look like, and by
hearing what others say about them. Writers bring characters to life
in the same ways:

(1) They show us characters in action.
(2) They let us know what the characters say and think.
(3) They tell us what the characters look like.
(4) They tell us how other people react to the characters.
(5) Often, writers will tell us directly something about their characters. In “The Scarlet Ibis” James Hurst tells us directly that Doodle is “a nice crazy, like someone you meet in your dreams.” In “To Build a Fire”, Jack London directly states that his main character is “without imagination.”

Each of the following quotations from “Red Dress” characterizes
the narrator’s mother. Tell which of the five methods of
characterization are being used and what traits of the mother are

We also learn about the narrator of the story from what she says
About her mother. What do these comments about her mother I reveal about the narrator?

1. She was not really a good sewer. She liked to make things;
that is different. … she took no pride in the fine points of
tailoring …. she started off with an inspiration, a brave
and dazzling idea; from that moment on, her pleasure ran
downhill. In the first place she could never find a pattern to
suit her. It was no wonder; there were no patterns made
to match the ideas that blossomed in her head.

2. Around the house she wore no corset or stockings, she
wore wedge-heeled shoes and ankle socks; her legs were
marked with lumps of blue-green veins. I thought her
squatting position shameless, even obscene ….

3. “Ah, well,” she said theatrically, getting to her feet with
a woeful creaking and sighing, “I doubt if she appreciates

4. She enraged me, talking like this to Lonnie, as if Lonnie
were grown up and I were still a child.

5. She was sitting with her feet on the open oven door, drinking
tea out of a cup without a saucer. She was just sitting and
waiting for me to come home and tell her everything that had

As you may have realized already, short stories are not only
entertaining to read, but they also provide insight and commentary
about human life. The main idea, or insight, in a story is its theme.
Sometimes the theme is stated directly by the author. More often,
however, the author tells the story and leaves it to the reader to
grasp the theme.

A short story, because it is relatively brief, usually has only one
theme. Sometimes, however, depending on how complex the
subject is, it may address more than one important idea.
The theme of “Red Dress” has to do with the importance of
appearances: Sometimes an emphasis on appearances is at the
expense of honesty. Name some instances in the story that support
this theme.

Connotation is the emotion or association that a word or phrase
may arouse. Connotation is distinct from denotation, which is the
literal or “dictionary” meaning of a word or phrase. For instance,
take the words chow and cuisine. Both words refer to food, but
cuisine connotes elegance, gourmet tastes, expensive restaurants,
and ease. However, most people would probably associate chow
with ordinary surroundings, plain or unappealing food, mess halls,
or even indigestion.
In “Red Dress,” the words that describe clothing often have
connotations that add meaning to the story. For example, in the last
scene of the story, the mother is wearing a “faded, fuzzy paisley
kimono.” With this description, Munro surrounds the mother with
associations of both the exotic and the everyday. Because a
kimono is a Japanese robe and paisleys are designs of Scottish
origin, feelings of excitement, romance, and far-off places arise.
Yet, the looseness of a kimono connotes comfort and relaxation.
,And, just as the robe is “faded” and “fuzzy,” so, too, have the
mother’s dreams become faded, old, worn, and no longer clearly

Give your associations for the italicized words in each of the
following items. If you don’t know a word’s denotation, look it up in
the dictionary.

1 …. a high Victorian neckline edged in scratchy lace, with a
poke bonnet to match ….
2 …. a Scottish plaid outfit with a velvet jacket and tam . …
3. “One time I had a dress given to me,” she said. “It
was a cream-colored cashmere wool with royal blue .
piping down the front and lovely mother-at-pearl
buttons …. ” ,
4. She worked at an old treadle machine pushed up against the
window to get light.

COMPOSITION: Expressing an Opinion About a Story
Everyone who reads a story has an opinion about it. It is important
that you learn to express your opinions clearly and to explain why
you hold them.

Write a short paper (about 200 words) in which you give your
opinion of “Red Dress.”

Think about the story for a few minutes before you begin writing.
What kinds of emotional responses do you have to it? Jot these
down. Beside each response, briefly note why you feel this particular
way. Before beginning your first draft, decide which
response or responses most honestly represent your opinion of
the story.

Express your opinion in your opening sentence. Try to say more
than “I liked the story” or “I didn’t like the story.” Say something
more specific and interesting, such as “I felt as if I were re.ading
about myself in this story” or “I don’t believe this story gives a
realistic picture of a thirteen-year-old girl.” Support your opening
statement with at least three reasons that explain why you hold this
opinion about the story.
Evaluating and Revising
Read your draft. Have you expressed your opinion clearly and
concisely? Have you supported your opening statement with at least
three reasons that clarify your opinion? Revise your draft as many
times as necessary-adding, cutting, or reordering words or phrases.

Alice Munro’s (1931- ) stories and novels are
about the day-to-day lives of ordinary people
who live in the small towns and farms of Ontario,
Canada, where she grew up and attended
college. “Red Dress” is part of a collection of
stories called Dance at the Happy Shades. The
book won the Governor General’s Award for
Fiction in Canada in 1968.