Gabrielle Roy Essay - Critical Essays

Gabrielle Roy American Literature Analysis

The scene of The Tin Flute lay almost literally at the feet of Montreal’s literary establishment, many of whom lived in affluent Westmount directly above Saint-Henri, on higher ground with less polluted air. However, no one before Roy grasped the dramatic and tragic possibilities of life in that area, and her book generated a sense of both shock and of belated recognition among its first reviewers.

The contrast between The Tin Flute and traditional French-Canadian fiction made Roy’s work seem especially fresh and original. Such novels stressed the rural roots and Catholic faith of French Canadians. Fur traders and lumbermen exploring the new world of North America loomed large as heroes. Even more omnipresent were bucolic images of pious peasants living self-sufficient lives on the land, obediently following the injunctions of their priests to raise large families whose growth would ensure the persistence of French culture and Roman Catholicism in North America.

Roy’s subject matter was very different. Her depiction of poverty was unsparing. Roy’s training as a journalist showed in the precise language with which she described the sights, sounds, and smells of the slum. The reader could see the miasma of pollution rising from the Lachine Canal, feel trains on the nearby railroad shake the houses, and smell the odor of stale cooking and unwashed bodies that permeated the tenements of Saint-Henri. The reportorial precision of Roy’s descriptive prose was enhanced by careful use of colloquial French Canadian speech in dialogues, which Parisian critics found fascinating. Although unique to Quebec, the dialect of the book was comprehensible to readers of standard French and has been successfully translated into eight languages.

The author refused to sentimentalize the impact of poverty upon her characters. Roy wanted the reader to sympathize with the two heroines in The Tin Flute, but she never suggested that they were ennobled by poverty. Azarius’s inability to earn money eroded Rose-Anna’s love for him; she could be mean and calculating when defending her brood. Florentine used sex to try winning Jean and was willing to deceive Emmanuel about who fathered her child when he became her escape out of poverty.

Roy made extensive use of irony in the French and English titles of her first novel, in the names of her characters, and throughout her body of work. For example, the French title Bonheur d’occasion suggests that the poor must settle for “bargain-basement happiness”; the slum child gets the tin flute he desires only after being hospitalized with a fatal illness. Alexandre Chenevert’s name deliberately suggests characteristics he does not share—Alexander is a warrior king and chenevert is a type of oak tree, but Chenevert is not a warrior, nor does he have the strength of an oak. The major irony running through The Tin Flute is that only war and death will bring the people of Saint-Henri out of poverty.

Both urban novels present direct oppositions of city to country, of artificial to natural, of urban-industrial civilization to rural-agricultural life. Each book has a middle section—one chapter in The Tin Flute and seven in Alexandre Chenevert—in which the characters move to a rural locale. However, Roy is ambivalent about the polar opposition. Natural locales are always more attractive than artificial urban ones, yet they are ultimately disappointing; they do not provide a solution to problems of city life. Rose-Anna looked forward to revisiting the farm where she grew up, but the trip left her depressed. Chenevert viewed the farm as paradise, but paradise was ultimately boring, and he returned to the city before his vacation ended. Roy portrayed the bus trip back to Montreal as almost a descent into hell; houses got closer together, heavy traffic slowed movement, noise and foul odors wafted through the bus. In the city, he was nearly run over crossing the street; when he looked up at the sky, the heavens urged: Drink Pepsi-Cola.

Although Roy avoided direct comments on political or controversial issues and never engaged in feminist polemics, her work has been praised by feminist critics impressed by her clear presentation of the iniquities of women’s position and her nuanced dramatization of mother-daughter relationships in The Tin Flute and her Manitoba stories. She never discussed Catholic views on birth control, but descriptions of the deleterious effects of unlimited childbearing on women clearly convey her feelings to the reader.

Roy disliked proposals for Quebec...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)