Gabrielle Roy Roy, Gabrielle (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] nature of Gabrielle Roy's vision has … cut her off both from her fellow artists and from the popular audience. The typical heroes of Canadian fiction are intellectuals who search loquaciously for their own identity or Canada's, or "superior" observers who smile condescendingly at Canadian manners, or various sorts of crusaders, pioneers and rebels who face life boldly and bring it triumphantly to heel. Gabrielle Roy knows that such exceptional people do exist, but her whole concern is for the unnumbered thousands who "lead lives of quiet desperation"—the terrible meek. And she records their plight with a tolerance and compassion that rests not an patriotism, humanism or religiosity, but on a deep love of mankind. In the same way, though she shares the existential concern for the individual of such French contemporaries as Sartre, Camus, Malraux and De Beauvoir, she does not wield the scalpel of intellect with their clinical vigour. Gabrielle Roy feels rather than analyzes, and a sense of wonder and of mystery is always with her. She is a "witness" to the aches of her century and her culture rather than a reformer; and she believes that only Love can redeem the time.

Thus in her fiction Gabrielle Roy has held the mirror up to nature in the only way possible to her, but the image which she captures has been less and less a picture which Canadians understand or esteem. Her most popular book is The Tin Flute (Bonheur d'occasion, 1945), a story of Montreal slum dwellers. Its success, however, derives largely from its stunning documentary quality. Even in a decade enthralled by the exposé this book had a stinging authority. It arraigned the monster of big-city poverty with an accuracy that caught the last syllable of the market-vendor's cry and the tragic rhetoric of the Saint-Henri bum; and for English-speaking readers it revealed a backyard squalor which, though unpalatable at home, was vicariously exciting when spiced with un zeste de Québec. The works that followed, though welcomed by a few critics, lacked its topical appeal, and were proportionately less well received. Where Nests the Water Hen (La Petite Poule d'Eau, 1951) and Street of Riches (Rue Deschambault, 1957) were thought of as romantic retreats into a charmingly simple but irrecoverably passé frontier. And The Cashier (Alexandre Chenevert, 1955)—her most important work—was rejected as an altogether too painful case history. (pp. 47-8)

Gabrielle Roy's imaginative landscape, that is, big-city living, with its soot and noise, its mechanical routine and impersonality, suggests simultaneously both the pains of adulthood and the dislocations of this unhappy century. By contrast, the warm and simple life of the frontier and the provincial town is becoming a thing of the past—as dear, and as irrevocably lost as childhood or innocence.

This perception of the controlling pattern in Gabrielle Roy's work is essential to an understanding of her statement. The values of the garden, childhood, innocence, and the past, array themselves against the forces of the city, adulthood, "experience," and the present…. [However], Gabrielle Roy is unflinchingly aware that there is no real escape from the present. Here and now is where Everyman lives; and his greatest gifts in a world where both faith and justice have perished are his ability to endure and to love. The critics who have regarded Street of Riches and Where Nests the Water Hen as day-dreaming retreats from the present, then, are mistaken; these works are rediscoveries, deceptively gentle and subjective, of the meaning of valour, pain, aspiration and love. (p. 49)

If the garden and the past constantly draw her characters away from the cage—the grid-like pattern of the modern city—the prospect of the future constantly beckons to them and entices them. For the ingenuous Everyman, indeed, the future is a shining hope—a world of grandiose dream and fantasy in which suffering will magically end; and it is always just ahead…. The hope of the future is a greater consolation to Everyman than the dream of the past, but Gabrielle Roy's narrative makes it clear that both past and future are insecure anchors. The present is inescapable; it is now; the past and the future are delusions. (p. 50)

It is Everyman's character to hope and aspire; it is his fate, apparently, to learn that his power to achieve is tragically short of his ability to dream.

This is Gabrielle Roy's vision of life. It is far more significant, I think, than the vision of many novels which are more self-consciously "Canadian."…

Is the urbanized life which we are so busy creating totally dismal—a dark valley between the sunny hilltops of past and future—or can the...

(The entire section is 1995 words.)

Phyllis Grosskurth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What in effect [Gabrielle Roy tells is] a fairy-tale. In a fairy tale all manner of misfortunes may befall the protagonists, but we know that they are protected by magic talismans…. Her characters are shielded from the encounter with the stalking familiar. They are treated as children not yet capable of venturing into the more sombre areas of existence.

Essentially Gabrielle Roy possesses a mother's-eye view of the world. The area of action in which her characters move is limited and conditioned both spatially and psychologically by the imposition such a focus places upon them. The predominant figure of her books is the earth-mother. In relation to her own characters, in her loving and protective concern Gabrielle Roy is an extension of this earth-mother. It is this weltanschauung which gives her novels their distinctively "feminine" quality.

The settings of her novels are Montreal, St. Boniface, and the wilds of northern Canada. An extensive arena, admittedly. But if one examines her novels closely, are her characters free to range within as wide a region as appears at first sight?

Montreal is the background for her first and third novels, The Tin Flute and The Cashier. A large, pulsating city throbs behind the action: but how does it function in the lives of the characters? The major point Gabrielle Roy is making about the Lacasse family is the inhibiting confinement of their lives. The riches and the excitement of Montreal might as well be on the moon so far as they are available to the slum-dwellers of Saint-Henri. (pp. 7-8)

In The Tin Flute poverty assumes a terrifying presence that conditions lives and shapes character. Zola described his characters as subject to the same forces as the stone on the road—that is, helpless objects crushed by vast impersonal forces over which they have no control. A similar strain of fatalism runs through The Tin Flute. There are constant references to the feeling of imprisonment experienced by the inhabitants of Saint-Henri. Their only outlet is helpless rage, distorted ambitions, foolish day-dreams, or grim resignation. (p. 8)

Like a steady, gentle flame, the figure of Rose-Anna glows at the heart of the Lacasse family. Her tenacious strength and devotion provide the little ones with the only security they know. Yet she too represents imprisonment. When Florentine reacts in horror to the realization that her mother is expecting her twelfth child, Rose-Anna murmurs, "One can only do one's best."… Florentine herself perpetuates the cycle and it is significant that at the end of the book she returns to share a home with her mother. (pp. 8-9)

The question is, does Gabrielle Roy understand these implications in Rose-Anna? She depicts her as a figure of fortitude, an earth-mother whose natural habitat is in the country with growing things. Fecund and vigorous, her natural role is to produce children, but she is thwarted in her need for happy fulfilment.

Gabrielle Roy seems to accept the traditional French-Canadian view of the mother as the strong centrifugal force in the home. Rose-Anna is planted firmly at the centre of the novel. (p. 9)

Now what is the situation in The Cashier? Alexandre Chenevert works in the heart of the heart of the city—the Savings Bank of the City and Island of Montreal. He feels completely trapped in his Kafka-like cell within the vault of a building into which a sudden shaft of sunlight arouses startled heads. On the streets and in the bus, he finds only further forms of imprisonment. He is incapable of handling a bewildering urban environment. Unable to sleep, he stands helplessly before the cold impersonality of the refrigerator: "Alexandre sensed his utter inferiority as a man, with all his little stomach troubles, his endless colds, his confused problems." He has never managed to function outside the protection of the womb. His continual self-pampering is an extension of the uterine embrace. In the dream-fantasy that finally sends him off to sleep, "A feeling of restfulness overwhelmed his soul as it found ease in the absence of all but vegetable life." Again, when he falls asleep at Lac Vert, the Freudian imagery is unmistakable:

The intoxication of sinking between secret shores, more thickly green than the night! How ravishing the blue fronds which curled about his limbs and then slipped by! The quality of the silence in this muffled land! The unutterable absence of all life, except for the water's even and continuous murmur.

The memory of his strong-minded mother threads in and out of his thoughts…. Is...

(The entire section is 1938 words.)

Jeannette Urbas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "Bonheur d'Occasion" poverty is not an incidental factor: it is basic to the situation of every character in the book. Poverty transcends the individual and becomes the problem of a whole district, of the whole world, when it is traced to its source, the Depression. (p. 69)

The smell of poverty, the grime of poverty, the deprivation of poverty permeate the whole book and the dream of an upward ascension in society is the dream of an escape from poverty….

In "Bonheur d'Occasion" the working-people are individuals but they are also members of a working-class community. One has the sense of the existence of an industrial proletariat. Their lives and loves are closely interwoven...

(The entire section is 779 words.)

Paul Socken

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gabrielle Roy's novels and collections of short stories, from her celebrated first novel Bonheur d'occasion (1945), to the present [Garden in the Wind], form a coherent body of thought and system of values….

"A Tramp at the Door" is the story of a man who comes to the family's home posing as a relative from the East. His presence serves as a catalyst for the father's memories which flood to the surface. By the end of the tale the reader realizes that the stranger has become a member of the family, demonstrating once again the concept of the "family of man" that is at the heart of Gabrielle Roy's vision.

"Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong" recounts the life of a Chinese...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Paul Schlueter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The very heterogeneity of Canadian prairie life is well illustrated by [the four tales in Garden in the Wind], two of which deal with Doukhobor and Ukrainian immigrants, one with a Chinese immigrant, and only one with French-Canadians. The title story deals tenderly with the plight of an aged Ukrainian couple wholly lost in the modern world, forgotten by their children, barely surviving on their minuscule farm…. The poignancy of the story is great, and Roy's tasteful handling of the subtle tensions between husband and wife is superb.

Somewhat the same kind of utopian hope is present in [the tale of] Sam Lee Wong….

The other two stories, while effective, seem less significant, if for no other reason than the relative lack of plot; Roy's skill with atmosphere is as sharply realized as in the others….

There is no doubt that Gabrielle Roy is consummately skilled in the craft of storytelling. These four tales at their best approach the work for which she is best known, but each one is a fine introduction to her skill as a writer.

Paul Schlueter, "Fiction: 'Garden in the Wind'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 38, No. 5, August, 1978, p. 147.

George Woodcock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are books so poignant and so intense that it is hard to believe they do not spring out of personal experience, and one's problem is not to determine the ultimate source but to decide how directly actual events in the author's life are being presented. Gabrielle Roy's latest book, Children of My Heart, is—in my view—one of these rare works. I began to read it with apprehension, since the very subject—a young teacher's relationship with the children she taught—seemed at first fraught with all the perils of sentiment melting into sentimentality; I ended with the sense of surprised satisfaction one experiences when, in this cynical and knowing world of ours, a romantic vision is convincingly carried...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Jonathan M. Weiss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At first glance a reader might think that Ces Enfants de ma vie [Children of My Heart] is a collection of short stories, and indeed Roy does present us with six nouvelles, each of which could conceivably stand on its own….

[Yet] each of the stories is a part of an organic whole, which finds its ultimate expression in the final and longest chapter. This is the story of the narrator's discreet and almost painful attachment for a fourteen-year-old pupil, Médéric. Médéric is the symbol of youth; he has within him most of the characteristics of the children in the other stories, and this overt symbolism makes the last chapter of the book less vraisemblable (though none the less effective for its dream-like quality) than the preceding chapters…. The bouquet of wildflowers thrown to the school mistress as the book closes comes to symbolize … [the] complex and painful period of life between adolescence and adulthood….

Gabrielle Roy has given us a beautiful and delicate vision of the world of a woman entrusted with children not her own, and whom she loves in ways which are undefined and which can hardly even be admitted. This book further confirms Roy's stature as one of the most important of contemporary French Canadian authors. (p. 157)

Jonathan M. Weiss, "Creative Arts: 'Ces enfants de ma vie'," in The French Review (copyright 1979 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. 53, No. 1, October, 1979, pp. 156-57.