Jakarta by Alice Munro: Plot Summary, Analysis & Review

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Jakarta, a short story by Alice Munro, first appeared as part of her collection of short stories in Love of a Good Woman.

Jakarta: Plot Summary and Analysis

The story is set in Vancouver and spans over three decades, starting in the 1950s and lasting until 1990s. It is narrated in a back and forth manner and is split in four parts. Part I and III are set in the 1950s whereas Part II and IV are set in the 1990s.

Part I of the story opens at a beach where Kath and Sonje, two young married women, are hiding behind logs at a beach to avoid the eyes of a group of women they call Monicas – who came there everyday with a bunch of kids in tow.

Kath and Sonje both dread the stage of lives these Monicas are in, Kath more so, being a new mother herself to a baby girl named Noelle.

Kath and Sonje knew each other from the Public library that they both used to work at.

Kath was married to Kent, a conservationist, whom she didn’t feel particularly very attached to, while Sonje was married to Cottar, a free-spirited journalist and a very liberal husband whom she adored.

It was Cottar’s trip to Red China which triggered the scandalous publicity of him being a left-wing writer and that using her job as a librarian, she might be promoting communism among children to further her husband’s cause.

Sonje was not fired, but she quit anyway – to accommodate upcoming changes in their lives.

Kath secretly admired Sonje – both her looks and her intelligence.

One day as they were discussing a story by D.H Lawrence, they got into a fight – which reveals to Kath that she had never felt about Kent the way Sonje felt about Cottar – that Sonje’s happiness depended on Cottar.

She never wanted that to be true for her, but then she never wanted Sonje to think that she was the woman that had missed out on love.

Part II of the story features Kent and Sonje, who happen to meet in the present(1990s), while Kent reminisced events from their past. He went to Sonje’s with his much younger wife, one she mistook to be his daughter.

Looking at Sonje, hearing her speak, her house, her mannerisms, all brought back memories from the past for him.

He got to know that Cottar died more than 30 years ago, caught a bug and was buried in Indonesia before the news got to Sonje.

Sonje took care of his mother till her death (she was best friends with her). They converted her house into a dancing school. The way the house was set up still reminded him of their place from years ago.

He was surprised by how talkative Sonje was, which was in complete contrast to her personality that he had known, perhaps the loneliness causing that transformation in her.

Part III of the story had an account of the party that Sonje and Cottar threw before Cottar’s trip to Indonesia and Sonje’s to Oregon to take care of his mother. The party had a big crowd – friends, neighbors and Monicas.

Once Noelle was asleep, Kath put the baby in the care of the baby-sitter and proceeded to participate in the celebrations. Kath and Sonje met and professed how much they valued their friendship and that they were going to miss each other. 

Kath let Amy do her makeup and she was absolutely impressed with her made up appearance.

Feeling rebellious, she danced and was making out with a stranger when the babysitter called her in to nurse the baby. She got back only to see that Kent was already there with the baby’s bottle. She almost concluded that Kent did not see her with the stranger but  the reaction from Kent convinced her otherwise. Guilt-ridden, she proceeded to wash all the make up off her face.

Part IV of the story is back to the present again where Sonje and Kent are talking to each other. Sonje reveals that she had an idea where she thinks that Cottar might not be dead at all. That she was going to go to Jakarta in person to inquire all about Cottar.

Convinced that he was alive, she was desperate in making Kent see the logic of it. 

Kent, convinced that this was a bad move, in complete honesty, let her know what he felt about it, albeit not with his youthful brashness this time. He wondered if Sonje and Kath were still in touch and if Sonje was going to tell Kath about how good his life looked. He couldn’t help but wonder how Kath and Cottar got away.

While one was, more likely than not, dead, the other couldn’t be more alive – yet both were somehow unreachable. 

Want to read Jakarta?

Jakarta is a short story which is published in a collection of short stories called The Love of a Good Woman. This collection won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. You can use the links given below to check the price of this book:

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Reasons why you would love this story

Like every other Alice Munro story, this one is a wondrous little short story, an astute observation of human nature.

But what stood out in this one was the added layers of complexity and the back and forth narration device. The story is replete with instances that are so real, you can easily find yourself in one of them.

Consider, for example, her description of Monicas –

Where’s your hat? Where’s your ball? You have been riding on that thing long enough, let Sandy have a turn.

Even when they talk to each other, their voices have to be raised high, over the shouts and squalls of their children.

How many times have you seen this happening? How many times have you done this? I can bet that you can find yourself in a beach right now living the same conversation, if not witnessing it second hand.

Munro is pure magic, I tell you.

When she nurses her baby, she often reads a book, sometimes smokes a cigarette, so as to not sink into a sludge of animal function.

It’s scary how she observes, like the human soul is laid bare in front of her eyes and she can pen it with a daftness, I can only believe is second nature to her.

It seemed to her (Kath) that life went on, after you finished school, as a series of further examinations to be passed. The first one was getting married. If you hadn’t done it by the time you were twenty-five, that examination had, to all intents and purposes, been failed.

I can’t tell you how many times I have had this conversation with friends, sometimes fully sober, sometimes in a stupor induced philosophical state. 

Look down, look down – see how the reeds wave in water, they are alive but they never break the surface. And that is how female nature must live within his male nature. Then she will be happy and he will be strong and content. Then they will have achieved a true marriage.

I am not surprised that she would say such a thing, considering how much a society at that time would value patriarchical dominance/influence.

My happiness depends on Cottar.

This is scary, very scary.

And out the window goes every teacher’s wisdom that told you to be happy inside. That reasons of your happiness should not be outside of you. That your happiness is fully dependent on some one else. And that their entry or exit from your life spells an instant doom for you. (this statement and the one before it don’t resonate with earlier statements – they are two different things).

No wonder Kath didn’t want that for herself. I am on her side. 

She changed the spelling herself and scorned her mother’s frivolity. They all scorned their parents then, for something.

Little things like this- children not seeing eye to eye with their parents. Times have changed but this thing never did. It’s as relevant in 2020 as it was way back in 1940s. .

You would expect an old mother would be grief-stricken talking about how her only child had run off and left her, but no. Maybe old people aren’t like that. Really old people. They don’t get grief-stricken anymore. They must figure it’s not worth it.

This one was a terribly tiny tale – a story in itself. Made me think.

Just when you crown her the queen on the sombre human nature, she drops humor on you. She can bring a smile to your face as simply as she can bring tears to your eyes.

There wasn’t any insurance?

Don’t be silly.

If there had been insurance, they would have found out the truth.

This story with so many layers is laden with gems. Exploding with gems rather.

But If I had to pick just the one, I would pick this one- a thought on Kent’s head

You picked up the wrong idea, surely the wrong idea. That somebody dead might be alive and in Jakarta. But when you knew somebody was alive, when you could drive to the very door, you let the opportunity pass.

It was painful to see the composed Sonje, who was completely and thoroughly in control of herself, lost it all for Cottar. Her life and happiness, in a way, were always dependent on Cottar.

She was ready to chase the elusive, chase the unicorn to get the love of her life back. She was sure that he was alive and all she had to do was to track him down.

On the other side was Kent, seemingly composed on the surface, having an interesting life, young wife and all that you would think that would make a person happy, but beyond the surface lied the longing for Kath.

Kath, who wasn’t far from him at all, very much alive, so much so that he could drive up to her house and show right at the door. But he doesn’t choose to do that; he chooses to live life in the past and wonder what it would have been.

Humans are complex and no one has done a better job of bringing that to the fore than Alice Munro. And she does that consistently.

“It’s a wonderful thing for the short story,” Munro said of her Nobel Prize noting that her kind of writing is “often brushed off as something that people do before they write their first novel.”

Well, to be completely out of the line, I don’t think that is true, for each of her stories is equivalent to multiple novels and more. She can do more in a short story that one can do in a novel. That’s her superpower. 

If you have watched The Godfather III and are an Al Pacino fan, you might remember a line from the movie where Al Pacino goes – “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”.

My relationship with Alice Munro’s stories is the same. Although unlike Pacino, I am loving every minute of it.


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