Alice Munro’s ‘The Beggar Maid’ is about a working-class college undergraduate who finds herself the object of a wealthy graduate student’s intense adoration—and allows it to run away with her. In this lesson, we’ll summarize and analyze this intriguing short story.

Plot

‘The Beggar Maid’ is about Rose, an undergraduate from a blue-collar background who attends college on a scholarship. She lives with Dr. Henshawe, an English professor who houses underprivileged students each year. Henshawe offers Rose respect and academic as well as real-world guidance—something most undergraduate and graduate students today go without—but Rose doesn’t fully appreciate it because she’s young and somewhat suspicious of Henshawe’s intellectual, middle-class status. Have you ever felt that way about your teachers or professors?

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Patrick Blatchford, a history graduate student who tells Rose that his father ‘owned some stores,’ falls madly in love with her for reasons she cannot fathom. He is unapologetic about his intellectual prowess and snobbery, yet is oddly insecure about seeming masculine enough and is sometimes both ‘scared and threatening’ in their conversations. He devotedly compares her to the beggar maid in the painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. She sees the ‘meek and voluptuous’ maid, ‘(t)he milky surrender of her, the helplessness and gratitude,’ and wonders, half-disgusted: ‘Was that how she could be?’

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones
King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

As their relationship progresses, Rose feels she’s acting out a part that isn’t genuine, then convinces herself that there’s nothing wrong with this. At first, she’s indifferent about Patrick’s family wealth. She’s more compelled by the feeling that ‘she could not turn Patrick down’ because his love is ‘a large, simple, dazzling object… of doubtful use and punishing weight’ that he is too emotionally vulnerable to bear alone.

They visit his family in British Columbia. Along with the sumptuous beauty of the bayside Tudor-style mansion, Rose notes that in Patrick’s family, ‘(t)here was a terrible amount of luxury and unease.’ His sisters and parents are spoiled, childish, and completely uninterested in anything they aren’t familiar with, and they all seem to strongly dislike Patrick—and Rose by association. Rose thinks of the personal flaws of her own poverty-stricken family and concludes that ‘compared to Patrick’s family, all (her) people seemed jovial and content.’

When they visit her stepmother Flo in Hanratty, Rose is deeply ashamed and suffers an identity crisis. Because she’s college-educated, and because Patrick has trained her to shed her country accent, she’s embarrassed about the crude mentality and manners of her home and community. Patrick’s awkward and pretentious demeanor makes her equally embarrassed about what Flo and the locals will think of him. Worst of all, she can’t identify with either demographic: ‘she didn’t even have any way that she could talk, and sound natural.’ Have you ever been in a similar position? Nonetheless, when Patrick affirms afterward that her home town is a dump that she must hate, Rose resents the insult and begins to feel loyally defensive about her roots.

Rose and Patrick get engaged, and Patrick ‘sells out’: rather than becoming a historian, he enters his father’s business, which he vowed never to do. When the Hanratty locals begin treating Rose more respectfully because of the money she’s marrying into, she’s ashamed of herself for enjoying it and encouraging it. Finally, Rose gathers the courage to call the wedding off, tearfully telling Patrick she doesn’t love him and even insulting him.

Later, she realizes how well Patrick has treated her all along, even while she was cruelly breaking things off, and she wants ‘to undo his unhappiness.’ She asks his forgiveness, declares her love for him, and the two enter a tumultuous ten-year marriage together in which a similar pattern repeats. She becomes the famous host of a TV show. Nine years after their divorce, she sees him in the Toronto airport, and he glares at her. She doesn’t understand why he hasn’t forgiven her and inwardly accuses him of being a hopeless grudge-holder.

Analysis

It’s clear that Rose has extreme difficulty understanding what she wants in a relationship. At first, her concern about Patrick is mainly that he’s too awkward and timid to be the King Cophetua she wants, unapologetically full of ‘fierce desire.’ However, she’s flattered by his dramatic devotion to her and thinks that may be enough. Later, she feels he’s a rich snob who’s made her uncomfortable in her own working-class skin, yet basks in the attention society pays her as his upwardly mobile fianc;e. When she finally calls off the engagement, she accuses him of being a self-absorbed blunderer but decides to win him back because she pities him, enjoys this ‘test of power,’ and can briefly envision them being happy together.

An important theme in ‘Beggar Maid’ is the ability to associate with different socioeconomic classes. Rose comes from a blue-collar town where worldliness and social grace aren’t valued, but meets Patrick and wins his love partly because she’s becoming college-educated. Her mind and body are more important to him than her social roots. Rose is also socially mobile because she’s a woman: society largely expects her to marry, not have a career, and she’s free to marry into any class. How ‘well’ she marries is subjective, too. She observes that ‘(s)he could not realize what a coup she had made because it would have been a coup for her if the butcher’s son had fallen for her, or the jeweller’s; people would say that she had done well.’

Lesson Summary

We’ve learned how Rose, a working-class undergraduate, finds herself unable to resist the devotion of wealthy graduate student Patrick Blatchford. Despite the fact that she finds him alternately too arrogant and too timid, too awkward and too rich, she’s mesmerized by the devotion he heaps on her. Later, she’s also enthralled by the attention society gives her when they become engaged, yet is also ashamed of ‘selling out’ as an upwardly-mobile fiancée rather than an intelligent career woman in her own right. She tries to break off the engagement but fails, and the pair drag themselves through a turbulent marriage, then a divorce.

We also learned that Rose’s education allows her freedom to move between social classes, even though that process is uncomfortable. She also has this freedom because she’s a woman whom society expects to get married rather than have a career, and society also approves of her marrying ‘up’ into a wealthy social class.