Study Guide

Mavis Gallant

by Mavis de Trafford Young

Mavis Gallant Essay - Critical Essays

Mavis Gallant American Literature Analysis

Like her Canadian colleague Alice Munro, Gallant has always given her primary literary allegiance with the often-unappreciated short-story form. In her preface to Collected Stories, Gallant insists that short stories are not chapters of novels and should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along. Although a number of her stories focus on the same characters as they develop over time, it would be exhausting to read a great many of Gallant’s stories one after another; with their careful and precise style, each demands close reading.

Gallant is often referred to as “a writer’s writer,” an epithet suggesting an author whose writing is so polished that it is best appreciated by other authors. On the other hand, this label can suggest someone whose work is seldom read by anyone but other writers. Gallant is not widely enough read for any of her stories to be considered well known. Her stories are often irresolute and seemingly plotless. When she was writing a weekly column about radio for the Montreal Standard in the late 1940’s, she once described one writer’s plays as being unlike the usual radio play because they did not come to a traditional fictional climax. She further defended this practice by arguing that real problems are not always resolved in tidy ways and that if stories seem incomplete, that is because they may be true. However, in spite of this seeming allegiance to the ragged nature of reality rather than to the neat patterns of art, Gallant claims in one of her essays that style is intentional and inseparable from structure.

Indeed, all of Gallant’s stories reflect this apparent paradox. Whereas they seem relatively artless—simple sketches of minor characters caught in impasses of their own making—they are carefully crafted and highly stylized structures of rigid social patterns. Gallant has described her method of getting something on paper as a painfully precise play with the language. In discussing her “outrageous slowness,” Gallant says that she sometimes puts aside parts of a story for months, even years. The story is finished when it seems to tally with a plan she has in mind but cannot describe, or when she believes that it cannot be written satisfactorily any other way. It is precisely this kind of care for the individual word and sentence that has led to Gallant being referred to as a writer’s writer.

Although Gallant has been compared to Henry James and Anton Chekhov, she is probably more similar to Jane Austen. Gallant poses a problem for readers expecting stories that seem to have a clear 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. However, this seeming simplicity of Gallant’s writing is an illusion, for her stories are carefully structured, highly stylized creations of character interrelationships. In one of her better-known essays, “What Is Style?” collected in the anthology Paris Notebooks (1986), Gallant claims that style is part of whatever the writer has to say, concluding—as Henry James might well have—that content, meaning, intention, and form make up a unified whole that must have a reason to be.

Of course, both James and Chekhov were also accused of presenting little slices of life, or huge chunks of verbiage, that were really little to do about not very much. However, Gallant’s stories do not have James’s convoluted syntax, reflecting the complexity of his characters’ minds; nor do they seem to 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 modern 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. Careful readers get so caught up in the creation of character and milieu that they do not care what the story means; inattentive readers may tire of the seemingly inconsequential nature of the story and just stop reading.

Like 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 which results is a form that seems usually too leisurely and too detailed for the relatively short space of the short story. For example, the stories of the Carettes, because they focus on significant points in the life of one Montreal family, are typical of the novelistic tendency of Gallant’s technique. However, upon reading the stories carefully, one soon realizes that if Gallant had put together enough stories about this family to fill a 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.

“Bernadette”

First published: 1964 (collected in The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, 1996)

Type of work: Short story

“Bernadette” is the story of Nora and...

(The entire section is 2430 words.)