Gabrielle Roy World Literature Analysis
Journalist, short-story writer, and novelist, Roy created a corpus of works that influenced greatly the evolution of French Canadian literature. The publication of The Tin Flute in 1945 was of enormous importance in the development of the French Canadian novel, for it cast a penetrating look at the French Canadian reality of the time. The aesthetics of traditional novels, evoking an idyllic natural setting—countryside, forest, and mountain inhabited by simple, robust, rural characters—gave way to the urban novel, realistic in inspiration, unbiased in the presentation of both character and milieu. More important perhaps than this shift in focus and treatment is the ideological noteworthiness of such an endeavor. The Tin Flute represents a mosaic of French Canadian characters, depicted in a working-class microcosm, created without political partisanship, despite linguistic and nationalistic conflicts that existed between anglophone and francophone at that time, as well as forty years later. Roy’s focus, therefore, is on the existential level of depiction. She does not participate in political debate concerning Canada’s future as a confederation with or without Quebec’s membership. This detailed and probing examination of the average citizen living in an urban setting during a period of economic depression elevated the novel of Quebec to a universal level. Roy’s characters, whether semiautobiographical or fictitious, form a profoundly compassionate vision of humanity through a style that is consistently rich, evocative, and inviting.
Roy’s use of characters, as well as of characterization, is distinctly her own. The individuals whom she creates are hardly unidimensional people serving to reinforce a given ideological or philosophical stance. In the same way that the ideals of French and British realism of the nineteenth century attempted to reveal reciprocal influences between individual and milieu, and the ways in which determinism guides a character’s development, Roy’s intention is, without exception, to demonstrate through her commitment to social realism and strong psychological portraits the place of men and women in society. The threads of individual portraits are intertwined by the writer to create the social fabric of the worlds that she depicts. The characters in Roy’s writings are therefore fundamentally social beings, for their desires, acts, successes, and failures exist because of the place they occupy in the larger scheme of existence. Psychological depth, glimpses of the past contemplated in the present, interpersonal relations, and links with societal structures, such as employment and education, are elements that anchor Roy’s characters in an authentic and complex world.
Recurring thematic structures in her work give Roy’s corpus, be it her fictionalized or semiautobiographical works, a distinct consistency, both in style and in content. Evasion from the present through dream, the impossibility of recapturing the past, the solitude of the individual, the difficulty in achieving true communication, the material and spiritual troubles imposed upon the individual by a modern society—these are some of Roy’s preferred themes.
Translated into nine languages, The Tin Flute is Roy’s most successful novel. Set in Montreal’s working-class district, Saint-Henri, during the end of the economic crisis of the late 1930’s, as well as during World War II, the novel recounts the life of the Lacasse family, an urban family facing unemployment, sickness, and poverty. The sensitivity to the plight of the common person is a distinctive trait of Roy’s literary world. The work is inspired, in fact, by the flood of emotion that she experienced when first visiting this area of Montreal. The photographic realism that characterizes her style in this particular novel lays the foundation for social commentary. With minute detail, Roy re-creates a microcosm inhabited by original characters, some of whom will succeed in extricating themselves from the destiny that awaits the majority of the individuals depicted in this context. It is, of course, paradoxical that the war brings an end, through the creation of employment, to the physical suffering of the Lacasse family. This twist reinforces Roy’s rendering of a society that devalues and exploits the common person, ignores his or her value as a human being, and extols the virtue of a materially successful life without addressing spiritual needs.
The Tin Flute was followed by another urban novel, The Cashier, which focuses on a solitary and despairing bank teller, overburdened by social injustices and unsettling current events, such as the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the Arab-Israeli War, and overpopulation in China. The main character, Alexandre Chenevert, carries the weight of the world on his own shoulders, and in this way, he represents on an existential level the powerlessness, alienation, and suffering faced by the individual in a modern technological society. This theme is underlined by the symbolic nature of the bank booth that imprisons Chenevert, a small cagelike structure with three glass walls, from which the teller observes the monotony of his life, but from which he is not able to escape.
The opposition between city and countryside present in The Tin Flute figures also in The Cashier. As in the former novel, the attempt to extricate oneself from the complexities and tribulations of city life by returning to the countryside is doomed to failure in this work. While Chenevert does find temporary solace at Lac Vert (Green Lake), representative of a simple, natural way of life cut off from mass media that bombard the protagonist with worrisome news items, he is drawn inexorably back...
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