Study Guide

Mavis Gallant

by Mavis de Trafford Young

Mavis Gallant Essay - Gallant, Mavis

Gallant, Mavis

Introduction

Mavis Gallant 1922-

(Born Mavis de Trafford Young) Canadian short story writer, novelist, critic, playwright, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism of Gallant's short fiction from 1990 through 2003. See also Mavis Gallant Literary Criticism (Volume 7), and Volumes 18, 172.

Regarded as an important contemporary fiction writer, Gallant is particularly admired for her finely crafted short stories, most of which have been published in the New Yorker. A Canadian who has lived most of her adult life in France, Gallant often depicts the plight of alienated people in unfamiliar and indifferent environments. Populated by alienated expatriates and disillusioned souls, Gallant's stories offer insight into the contemporary human experience in Europe and North America, exposing the ironies of human nature that balance comedy and tragedy. Her fiction often conveys a sense of ambiguity about the past and its effects on the present, and routinely presents narrative conflicts that reflect the prevalent attitudes of postwar society.

Biographical Information

Gallant was born on August 11, 1922, in Montreal, Canada. She experienced a difficult childhood, and themes of alienation and loneliness surface frequently in her stories. When she was ten years old, her father died and her mother soon remarried. Over the next eight years, Gallant attended seventeen different schools, completing her education at a New York City high school after she was sent there to live with a guardian. She subsequently returned to Montreal during World War II, and briefly worked at the National Film Board before she became a feature reporter for the Montreal Standard in 1944. While working for the Standard, Gallant began to publish short stories in a number of Canadian literary magazines. In 1950 she moved to Paris and became a full-time writer. Since that time, she has resided in Paris, although she has retained her Canadian citizenship. Her stories began appearing in the New Yorker, which has continuously published her stories since 1951. Over the next three decades, she published several collections of these stories, such as The Other Paris (1956), My Heart Is Broken (1964), The Pegnitz Junction (1973), and From the Fifteenth District (1979). In 1981 Gallant published Home Truths, which was awarded the Governor General's Award, Canada's most prestigious literary prize. The following year her play What Is to Be Done? premiered at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre. She stayed in Canada for a time, accepting an appointment as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto in 1983 and 1984, but eventually returned to Paris. In 2002 Gallant received the Literary Grand Prix Award at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Most of Gallant's short stories were initially published in the New Yorker, and then published in book form. Her first collection of stories, The Other Paris, explores the theme of dislocation, particularly as experienced by Americans and Canadians in Europe, and emphasizes the ways society affects individuals. In the title story, for instance, a young American woman travels to Paris anticipating romance and adventure, but finds instead a somber postwar ennui. My Heart Is Broken, an anthology of several stories and a novella, examines the despair of a variety of exiles who inhabit a series of run-down hotels in Europe. In a similar vein, From the Fifteenth District centers on a group of North American expatriates in World War II Europe. Another recurrent theme of Gallant's fiction involves exploring the individuality of the Canadian character amid a confusing and challenging outside world. Delineating the lives of young Canadians at home and abroad at different moments of the twentieth century, Home Truths concludes with a sequence of six “Montreal stories,” which approximate the upheaval and rejection Gallant experienced as a child and adolescent in Montreal between World War I and World War II. In Transit (1988) consists of stories previously published in the 1950s and 1960s, separated into three sections that alternately focus on parents and children, adolescents, and pre-adolescent youngsters. Half of the eleven stories in Across the Bridge (1993) recount moments in the lives of the fictional Carette family in prewar and postwar Montreal, and the other half trace their fortunes as expatriates in Paris. The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant (1996) presents a vast selection of Gallant's fiction encompassing her entire career. Paris Stories (2002) collects a variety of Gallant's best-known stories set in Paris, including “The Moslem Wife,” “In Plain Sight,” “Grippes and Poche,” and “The Ice Wagon Going down the Street.”

Critical Reception

Gallant's reputation developed after years of relative critical neglect, especially in her native Canada, and she is now recognized as one of Canada's best short story writers. In the late 1980s critical attention to her work increased as commentators began to recognize her command of the English language, skillful use of narrative forms, and her deft character studies. Her fiction has been compared to that of Anton Chekhov, Katherine Anne Porter, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Conrad. Although some critics have complained that her fiction is relentlessly pessimistic and emotionally cold, others have lauded her work for its understated irony, precise attention to detail, and penetrating insight into the human condition. Moreover, several critics have commended the objectivity of Gallant's perceptions of twentieth-century world history, particularly her views of French anti-Semitism and the Fascist movement. Commentators have explored the link between Gallant's interest in art and her fiction, and have underscored the role of the narrator in her stories. Themes of betrayal, abandonment, loss, memory, cultural identity, and alienation have been viewed as central to her short fiction. Critics have also examined the significance of her expatriate perspective with respect to definitions of the Canadian character.

Principal Works

The Other Paris 1956

My Heart Is Broken (short stories and novel) 1964; also published as An Unmarried Man's Summer, 1965

The Pegnitz Junction (novella and short stories) 1973

The End of the World and Other Stories 1974

From the Fifteenth District (novella and short stories) 1979

Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories 1981

Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris 1985

In Transit 1988

Across the Bridge 1993

The Moslem Wife and Other Stories 1993

The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant 1996; published in Canada and the United Kingdom as The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant

Paris Stories 2002

Varieties of Exile: Stories 2003

Green Water, Green Sky (novel) 1959

A Fairly Good Time (novel) 1970

What Is to Be Done? (play) 1982

Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews (essays and criticism) 1986

Criticism

Ronald Hatch (essay date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Hatch, Ronald. “Mavis Gallant and the Fascism of Everyday Life.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 42 (winter 1990): 9-40.

[In the following essay, Hatch regards several of Gallant's short stories as her attempt to understand and confront the dangers of fascism.]

Mavis Gallant has commented that the most difficult yet necessary task of the postwar period is to reach an understanding of Fascism (“An Interview” 39-41). Although she treats this issue directly in relatively few of her stories, her fiction as a whole presents aspects of human nature that indicate the vulnerability of individuals and societies to potentially fascistic systems of thought. The...

(The entire section is 13260 words.)

Charlotte Sturgess (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Sturgess, Charlotte. “The Art of the Narrator in Mavis Gallant's Short Stories.” Etudes Canadiennes/Canadian Studies, no. 29 (1990): 213-22.

[In the following essay, Sturgess examines the role of the narrator in Gallant's short stories.]

Shifts in focus a certain vocal polyphony, a narration working through fragmentary accumulation, are ways in which contemporary Canadian stories work to revise their national story. Through displacement they seek to find a new space “within” and “without” the colonized territory. The paradox of a “source” to be found at once at the centre of, and in rupture with the heritage, is traced as a revision of borders,...

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Herbert Grabes (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Grabes, Herbert. “Creating to Dissect: Strategies of Character Portrayal and Evaluation in Short Stories by Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant.” In Modes of Narrative: Approaches to American, Canadian, and British Fiction, edited by Reingard M. Nischik and Barbara Korte, pp. 119-28. Würzburg, Germany: Konigshausen and Neumann, 1990.

[In the following essay, Grabes discusses Gallant's strategies for creating character portrayals in her story “Acceptance of Their Ways” and contrasts them with those of Alice Munro's “Who Do You Think You Are?” and Margaret Laurence's “To Set Our House in Order.”]

Let me begin with a few theoretical...

(The entire section is 4708 words.)

Lesley D. Clement (essay date September 1992)

SOURCE: Clement, Lesley D. “Mavis Gallant's Apprenticeship Stories, 1944-1950: Breaking the Frame.” English Studies in Canada 18, no. 4 (September 1992): 317-34.

[In the following essay, Clement surveys Gallant's early short fiction, maintaining that “the exposure to painterly forms and techniques that she experienced can be observed in the evolution of a visually powerful and evocative style within those short stories she wrote during her apprenticeship years.”]

In his 1977 interview with Mavis Gallant, Geoff Hancock, remarking on the visual quality of her stories, conjectured that Gallant “might [have] liked to have been a painter at one time.” To this...

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Karen Smythe (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Smythe, Karen. “The ‘Home Truth’ about Home Truths: Gallant's Ironic Introduction.” In Double Talking: Essays on Verbal and Visual Ironies in Canadian Contemporary Art and Literature, edited by Linda Hutcheon, pp. 106-14. Toronto: ECW Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Smythe argues that “the ironic introduction to Home Truths is the perfect vehicle for Gallant's resistance to a limited and limiting definition of herself as a Canadian writer.”]

Mavis Gallant has come to be known as one of the ironists supreme in Canadian letters. Her fiction is characterized by detached narrators and an ironic tone, producing the effect of what one...

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Karen E. Smythe (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Smythe, Karen E. “Gallant's Sad Stories.” In Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro, and the Poetics of Elegy, pp. 22-60. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Smythe addresses the defining characteristics of Gallant's short fiction, asserting that “Gallant's narrative strategies invite our empathic participation in the texts.”]

Though Mavis Gallant's fiction has received a great deal of critical attention in the last ten or twelve years, much of that criticism has been limited to noting Gallant's main themes: W. J. Keith states that “the concept of abandonment or betrayal” is central,1 and Janice Kulyk...

(The entire section is 14151 words.)

Danielle Schaub (essay date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Schaub, Danielle. “Spatial Patterns of Oppression in Mavis Gallant's Linnet Muir Sequence.”1Studies in Canadian Literature 18, no. 2 (summer 1993): 132-55.

[In the following essay, Schaub addresses the ways in which spatial patterns affect memory in Gallant's Home Truths.]

A wealth of references to spatial constituents charges the atmosphere of Mavis Gallant's Linnet Muir sequence [in] Home Truths (HT 217-330).2 As those stories are the sublimated product of memory,3 numerous crucial images call on spatial polarities.4 These terms combined with other stylistic devices expose local cultural phenomena...

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Diane Simmons (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Simmons, Diane. “Remittance Men: Exile and Identity in the Short Fiction of Mavis Gallant.” In Canadian Women Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 28-40. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.

[In the following essay, Simmons examines the figure of the Remittance Man in Gallant's short fiction.]

In a semi-autobiographical series of stories in Mavis Gallant's Home Truths, the nineteen-year-old Linnet Muir returns to Montreal after a childhood spent, from the age of four, in a series of Canadian and American boarding schools. After probing various mysteries about her family and her past, such as the circumstances of her father's...

(The entire section is 5205 words.)

Lesley D. Clement (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Clement, Lesley D. “Mavis Gallant's Stories of the 1950's: Learning to Look.” The American Review of Canadian Studies 24, no. 1 (spring 1994): 57-72.

[In the following essay, Clement contends that the stories Gallant wrote during the 1950s provide insight into her coherent and vivid imagery and “are particularly good guides for readers learning to see her fiction and hence read it responsively.”]

At a static moment in “The Picnic,” one of the first stories Mavis Gallant wrote after arriving in France in 1950-1951,1 a photographic image is developed of a harmonious scene in which the grande dame of a “typical” French town is surrounded...

(The entire section is 6563 words.)

Judith Farr (review date 8 February 1997)

SOURCE: Farr, Judith. Review of The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, by Mavis Gallant. America 176, no. 4 (8 February 1997): 33-4.

[In the following favorable evaluation of The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Farr emphasizes the role of language and communication in Gallant's short stories.]

I first read Mavis Gallant when I was 16, studying French while boarding for the summer in the Woodmont section of Montreal with a dignified Anglophone lady. Over tea each afternoon, this woman complained that “English Quebec” was being overwhelmed by “foreign speakers,” often pausing to address her maid, a Québecoise, in an accurate but brutally...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)

Danielle Schaub (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Schaub, Danielle. “Text and Image: Overhead in a Balloon.” In Mavis Gallant, pp. 119-39. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

[In the following essay, Schaub offers a thematic and stylistic overview of the stories in Overheard in a Balloon, emphasizing the way the stories explore the “interaction between text and image.”]

Overhead in a Balloon, Gallant's collection of Parisian stories, explores the mentality of her adoptive fellow citizens in the late seventies and early eighties with the sharpness of the best introduced social critic. From an insider's perspective, Gallant exposes the pettiness and superficiality of the artistic and...

(The entire section is 9917 words.)

Mary Condé (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Condé, Mary. “‘Pichipoi’ in Mavis Gallant's ‘Malcolm and Bea.’” Journal of the Short Story in English/Les Cahiers de la Nouvelle, no. 32 (spring 1999): 77-86.

[In the following essay, Condé explores Gallant's treatment of memory, history, and identity in her story “Malcolm and Bea.”]

Mavis Gallant is a writer profoundly influenced by the Holocaust, by “the first pictures of death camps” which, she wrote in 1972, “stopped a whole generation in its tracks” (Gallant 1972 196). In her “Paris Notebook” of the student riots of 1968 she records the seventeen-year-old Barbara's remark that the German students who are being deported are...

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Pilar Somacarrera (essay date autumn 2000)

SOURCE: Somacarrera, Pilar. “Genre Transgressions and Auto/Biography in Mavis Gallant's ‘When We Were Nearly Young.’” Journal of the Short Story in English/Les Cahiers de la Nouvelle, no. 35 (autumn 2000): 69-84.

[In the following essay, Somacarrera asserts that “When We Were Nearly Young” transgresses the genre of short fiction, contending that the piece blends “narrative, essay, journalistic piece, memoir and autobiography.”]

As Claire Obaldia points out, the intensive concern with generic studies in recent times has clearly shown that despite—or perhaps because of—the striking progress in this field, the question of “genre” remains one of the...

(The entire section is 5899 words.)

Lesley D. Clement (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Clement, Lesley D. “Towards an Illumination of Gallant's Late Fiction.” In Learning to Look: A Visual Response to Mavis Gallant's Fiction, pp. 230-48. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Clement traces Gallant's development as a short story writer, focusing on the stylistic aspects and thematic concerns of her later work.]

Speaking generally of “the metaphysic that informs Gallant's vision of reality,” Janice Keefer concludes that “Gallant's way of seeing is at the furthest possible remove from that of the visionary”; nowhere, Keefer contends, are there “the consolations of form, the artist's role as priest of...

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Janice Kulyk Keefer (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Keefer, Janice Kulyk. “‘Radiant Paradigms and Chinks of Light’: Mavis Gallant's Polish Émigrés in Paris.” In Varieties of Exile: New Essays on Mavis Gallant, edited by Nicole Côté and Peter Sabor, pp. 37-48. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

[In the following essay, Keefer assesses “Forain” and “A State of Affairs” as literary achievements.]

“If we are moved by a story, it has meant something, perhaps something important to us; if we are not moved, then it is, as story, meaningless” (Geddes, 817). I've adapted this remark of T. S. Eliot to remind us that whatever our theoretical orientation or critical practice, we must be passionate...

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Barbara Gabriel (essay date fall 2003)

SOURCE: Gabriel, Barbara. “The Wounds of Memory: Mavis Gallant's ‘Baum, Gabriel (1935- ),’ National Trauma, and Postwar French Cinema.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 80 (fall 2003): 189-216.

[In the following essay, Gabriel uses the tropes of French cinema and national trauma in order to explore issues of memory and history in Gallant's “Baum, Gabriel, 1935-( ).”]

… I already am quite rich with significant dates.

—Sigmund Freud, letter to Wilhelm Fliess, 30 May 1896

While history and memory have long been seen as central to the fictional landscape of Mavis Gallant, what has...

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