Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Mavis Gallant’s outstanding strength as a writer lies in her ability to develop character. Most often her central characters, such as Dédé, are exiled and isolated from traditional society. The narrative never fully reveals Dédé as an individual. Instead he is developed through the other characters’ reactions to him. The Brouets and their luncheon guests all thrive on their conventionality and their secure place in society. In contrast, Dédé is neither conventional or secure but an outsider. When Pascal was nine, he accepted his peculiar uncle, but at age fourteen, it appears that he is rejecting Dédé as he enters into proper society.

This preoccupation with the outsider comes in large part from Gallant’s own life. Born in Montreal of Scottish heritage, she grew up in Canada and was educated there and in the United States. For several years, she worked as a newspaper reporter in Montreal and at the same time began writing fiction. At age twenty-eight, she left Canada and settled in Paris, where she lives while maintaining her links to Canada. Bridging cultures herself, she has frequently focused on those who find themselves adrift in a world that is unfamiliar both physically and emotionally.

Dédé does not suffer from the kind of alienation afflicting people transplanted into another culture. Still, his disconnection with his environment remains as acute as that experienced by those literally separated from their homelands. The narrative reveals that Dédé is drawing plans for an extraordinary apartment in which the inhabitant could spend a lifetime without having to leave. In stark contrast to his dream, Dédé moves through a society both familiar and foreign to him. He is altogether unprepared for a career and unable even to communicate logically, but he is expected to lead the kind of conventional life that the Brouets do. Most likely he will not adjust, for the story’s inconclusive ending hints that Dédé will continue to drift aimlessly, perhaps even to set a few more fires.