In “A Canary for One,” a middle-aged American lady travels on a sleeper across southern France during the 1920s. Through speech, actions, beliefs, and interactions with a younger American couple, she displays many not-so-flattering characteristics of post–WWI American culture.
First, the American lady reflects the materialistic and bourgeois attitude of the rising middle and upper classes. Ever the consumer, she purchases an ornamental pet, a canary, because “he really sings very beautifully." She rides in “salon” car in overnight express (“rapide”) train. Her and her daughter’s clothes are purchased from Paris, a
maison de couturier in the Rue Saint Honore. They had her measurements, and a vendeuse who knew her and her tastes picked the dresses out for her and they were sent to America. They came to the post-office near where she lived up-town in New York.
Yet despite her lavishness, she displays a bit of cheapness, bragging that for the imported couture,
the duty was never exorbitant because they opened the dresses there in the post-office to appraise them and they were always very simple-looking and with no gold lace nor ornaments that would make the dresses look expensive.
Abd despite flaunting her supposed good taste (clothing from a “couturier”) and spending, she still complains (yet gets a good deal):
Prices, however, had gone up. The exchange, though, equalized that.
Second, the lady encapsulates the American spirit of a desire to travel and explore, but with a provincial outlook. While vacationing in Italy and France, she must have comforts to simulate home: a newspaper printed in English (The Daily Mail), sanitary packaged water (“a half-bottle of Evian water”), and a comfortable train car to travel in. Of course she still is not happy and whines,
I’ll never travel on a rapide again at night. There must be other comfortable trains that don't go so fast.
Third, this underlying provincial attitude erupts into a full display of the American sense of superiority. She declares,
American men make the best husbands … My daughter fell in love with a man in Vevey … I took her away, of course … I couldn't have her marrying a foreigner. … Someone, a very good friend, told me once, “No foreigner can make an American girl a good husband.”
Yet she has no specific arguments or evidence to support this very biased claim. Anyone who is “other” or foreign in American society during the early twentieth century (and even today) is considered undesirable.
Finally, American society’s optimism in the 1920s was coupled with a desire for control. The lady exhibits this tendency with her desire to dictate whom her daughter will and will not marry. She plans to gift her daughter by adopting a fancy caged bird (which serves as a metaphor for her poor daughter). The lady even feels uneasy with her inability to control her situation on the train:
In the night the American lady lay without sleeping because the train was a rapide and went very fast and she was afraid of the speed in the night.
Yet she still does not shed any of her Americanness the next morning,
looking very wholesome and middle-aged and American in spite of not having slept.
The American lady displays willful ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and disregard for other points of view.