Mavis Gallant’s Across the Bridge was among the fourteen titles (including six works of fiction) chosen by the editors of The New York Times Book Review for the list of Best Books of 1993. Gallant has been publishing short stories, almost exclusively in The New Yorker, since the late 1940’s. It is difficult, however, to place her in any of the better-known generic traditions of the short story, even those usually described as New Yorker stories. Although Gallant has been compared to Henry James and Anton Chekhov, she is probably more related to Jane Austen. As a result, she poses a problem for readers expecting stories that seem to have a patterned point, a metaphoric texture, or a sense of closure. Rather, Gallant’s stories seem to be so forthrightly focused on the everyday lives of her characters that there is little to say about them. They certainly do not appear to need interpretation, the only mystery about them being the mystery of what they are about. Indeed, with everything so clearly laid out in realistic detail, there does not seem to be much “aboutness” about them.
Of course, both James and Chekhov were also accused of presenting little ado about not very much, but Gallant’s stories do not have James’s convoluted syntax, reflecting the complexity of his characters; nor do they have Chekhov’s calculated conciseness, suggesting that more is left out than put in. In fact, Gallant’s characters do not seem very complex at all, at least self-consciously, and Gallant appears to say everything that needs to be said about them. Instead of moving toward some explicit or implicit patterned intention, as readers have come to expect in the short story form, Gallant’s stories seem as if they could go on and on, creating a novelistic “feel” that violates the reader’s usual expectation that short stories will meaningfully lead somewhere. Trying to find out where the meaning lies or how meaning is communicated in a Gallant story is not so much challenging as apparently beside the point. Readers either get so caught up in the creation of character and milieu that they do not care what the story means, or else they tire of the seemingly inconsequential nature of the story and just stop reading.
Like Jane Austen, Gallant presents characters within a circumscribed social world going about their usual manners and morals business without obvious conflict, analytical self-doubt, or troublesome introspection. The comedy of manners that results is a form that is usually too leisurely and too detailed for the relatively short space of the short story, being better served by the novel form. The first four stories in this new collection, because they focus on significant points in the life of one Montreal family, are typical of the novelistic tendency of Gallant’s technique. Upon reading the stories, however, one realizes very quickly that if Gallant had put together eleven or twelve stories about this same family—enough to fill the book—the result would still have been a collection of short stories rather than a novel. The reason for this distinction between novel and short story derives from Gallant’s selectivity of focus and detail as well as her ironic style. On closer analysis, the reader begins to realize that her stories are not quite as realistically inconsequential as they first appear.
The first story, “1933,” introduces Mme Carette and her two daughters, Berthe and Marie, shortly after the death of her husband has forced the little family to move to a smaller place. The strict social conventions of the middle-class Carette family are revealed by the fact that the daughters never see their mother wearing a bathrobe, and that the only English she thinks they need to know are the phrases: “I don’t understand,” “I don’t know,” and “No, thank you.” The central, most telling, statement in the story is the mother’s insistence that the children never refer to their mother as a seamstress, but must say instead, “My mother was clever with her hands.” The thematic point of the story, if indeed “point” is the appropriate word here, is the fear and loneliness of the Carette family because of the loss of the husband/father; its artistry lies in the subtle way Gallant conveys that fear and loneliness.
“The Chosen Husband” focuses on the family in 1949 after Mme Carette receives a legacy of eighteen thousand dollars from a brother-in-law whom she has suspected of various social offenses, not the least of which is being a Freemason. The daughters, now in their early twenties, are in a position to fill the emptiness left by the death of their father by marrying And indeed, the plot of this relatively long story is Marie’s courtship with Louis Driscoll—a courtship that seems straight out of Jane Austen, especially in the language Gallant uses to describe it. For example, when Driscoll makes his first call and chokes on one of his own chocolates, Gallant says “He was in trouble with a caramel,” and the Carettes look away so that he can “strangle unobserved.” The story ends with the marriage; Berthe reflects that, being Montreal girls, she and Marie have not been trained to accompany heroes, or to hold out for dreams, but rather just to be patient.
The last two stories in the mini-saga of the...