The Moons of Jupiter (1982)

© Copyright Penguin Books
© Copyright Penguin Books

It is said that life is a journey of self-discovery. One of the most important themes in Alice Munro’s The Moons of Jupiter is the notion that, with the passage of time, human beings come to discover new facets of themselves and of their relationships with their loved ones, facets that have always existed before. This theme is in part expressed through the story’s narrative perspective, which evokes the subject of self-discovery, and through its plot, which suggests the importance of time and of our experience of it.

Through the use of dramatized narration, in which Janet is the narrator and consequently the focalisor, The Moons of Jupiter allows the readers an intimate understanding of its protagonist. Using familiar language, Janet tells us first hand every step of her self-discovery, making her particularly easy to relate to. The changes in her perspective and opinions become easier to accept because her language is consistent. Janet herself doesn’t change. It is only her understanding that evolves: “I used to tell people that he [Janet’s father] never spoke regretfully about his life, but that was not true. It was just that I didn’t listen to it.”

However, all the other characters are internally focalised from without. Though we are privy to Janet’s every thought, we can only see her loved ones through her limited perspective: “I didn’t know if he [Janet’s father] wanted me to say. I thought perhaps he looked to me for a protest, an attempt to dissuade him.” This emphasizes the notion that, as is the case with Janet, there is little we truly know about the people that surround us and thus that there is still much to discover about them. The limitations of the chosen narrative perspective are meant to represent that of our own real life perspective.

Though our knowledge of others and of ourselves is limited, it continuously expands and changes with time. This notion is illustrated through the constant use of analepsis. The plot begins as Janet joins her father in the hospital. It then moves back and forth through time, mixing anecdotes of Janet’s younger years with events of the last few days as her father prepares for an important operation.

The readers are constantly given new information that, in a chronological logic, should have been known prior to the previous scene. For example, as the short story begins, we don’t know how Janet learned her father is in the hospital or why he’s there. This information is provided much later in the narrative: “The upshot of this was that I rented a car, drove to Dalgleish, brought my father back to Toronto, and had him in the emergency room by seven o’clock that evening.” Our perspective and our understanding of the events and characters constantly changes as the narrative progresses the same way Janet’s views alter as she reflects on past and current events.

Furthermore, the plot brings forth several questions and tangents that are left unanswered by the end the tale. Will Janet’s father survive the operation despite his old age? Will Janet reconcile with her elder daughter Nichola? The narrative ends abruptly with a scene that takes place the afternoon before the operation: “It was getting cold out, so I went inside to have coffee and something to eat before I went back to the hospital.” By making its most important scene, that of the operation, an aporia, the narrative suggests that, unlike the plot, the story is ongoing like time itself. There will always be unanswered questions in life.

The disharmonious relationship between story and plot links the subjects of time and self-discovery by making the readers go through the same process as Janet. Establishing the first scene as the present, we come to discover more about the past as the tale progresses. However, we only discover things that, in a chronological logic, existed before. In other words, the process of discovery is not about uncovering new elements in something or someone. Rather it is the process of understanding old facets that we missed in the past.

This notion is best represented in the image used in the short story’s title: The Moons of Jupiter. Two new moons have recently been discovered around Jupiter. However, as Janet explains, “they’re not new.” The two latest moons to be discovered are as ancient as the first four. Similarly, the discoveries Janet makes about her father and about herself are elements that have always existed in them: “once, when my children were little, my father said to me, ‘You know those years you were growing up—well that’s all just kind of a blur to me […]’ I was offended […] But the years when Judith and Nichola were little, when I lived with their father—yes, blur is the word for it.” With time and age, Janet’s perspective has changed, allowing her to redefine her past, to rediscover it.

Through the use of chronological jumps in its plot and of an intimate, dramatized narrative perspective, The Moons of Jupiter illustrates that with the passage of time, human beings come to redefine their past and make new discoveries about who they were, who they are, and their relationship with their loved ones. These discoveries come to us like “heavenly bodies” or moons suddenly visible in a previously empty sky, and they are just as ancient.

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Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."