[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...
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