Home Truths

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Canadians at home or abroad fill all the stories that make up the collection Home Truths, yet none of the stories carries even a flavor of regionalism. With few exceptions, they are set in the period from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, yet they are not dated. Instead, Mavis Gallant, a Canadian expatriate who lives in Paris, depicts through her characters the human struggle, in any place and at any time, to discover meaning amid uncertainties, to grasp order amid chaos, indeed to learn “home truths.”

Divided into three parts, the collection opens with a group of six stories set in Canada, which Gallant calls “At Home.” In the next section, “Canadians Abroad,” the four stories focus on those who have left their homeland’s security for Europe’s promise of broader experience. The last group of six, entitled “Linnet Muir” after the woman who narrates them, examines what it was like being female in Canada during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

That Gallant named this collection of previously published fiction Home Truths suggests a narrative link throughout. Home, on the literal level, always means Canada, whether those who people the stories are of English or French descent, in Canada or abroad, or occupied with resettling in their native land. Yet this home remains elusive, not quite England or France, even though imitative of both, not quite the United States, although in the shadow of its mighty neighbor. The recurrent quest for national identity, a theme that dominates much writing from the one-time Commonwealth countries, plays freely throughout these stories. “In those days,” Linnet Muir says, “there was almost no such thing as a ’Canadian.’” So the physical home lacks concrete shape, the spiritual home even more so.

Yet the characters continue to seek this spiritual home in order to escape from loneliness, from despair, from isolation, from the burden of pretense, and from the cruelty that one person inflicts on another. The truths they might discover each story points toward but never defines. No home truths appear in Home Truths, only the unsuccessful quest for such. One of the most striking works in the collection, “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” illustrates this point. Peter Frazier and his wife return to Toronto after a failed attempt to do “the international thing,” and at the end of the recounting of their disastrous years abroad, Peter sits in his sister’s apartment recalling a Canadian woman named Agnes with whom he had worked in Switzerland. One night when they had nearly made love, she told him how as a girl she had risen early in a dreary Canadian plains town to see the ice wagon going down the street: “You get up early in the morning in the summer and it’s you, you, once in your life alone in the universe. You think you know everything that can happenNothing is ever like that again.” The hint that the ice wagon contains some kind of metaphysical truth melts away when at the end of the story Peter recalls Agnes’ confession. “Who wants to be alone in the universe?” Peter asks, then reminds himself, “No, begin at the beginning: Peter lost Agnes. Agnes says to herself somewhere, Peter is lost.” Each time the truth about living is about to be seized, it escapes the character’s grasp, and he or she suffers the agony of the unfinished quest, a state that depicts, after all, the essence of the human condition: irony.

The ironic state—that is, the contradiction between what is and what should be—lies at the heart of these stories. For example, in “Thank You for the Lovely Tea,” when the mistress of a schoolgirl’s father takes the girl to tea, it is the child who dominates and makes the older woman ill at ease. “In the Tunnel” traces the adventures of a Canadian girl seeking romance on the French Riviera. Soon she becomes the reluctant mistress of a dull Britisher, formerly a jail inspector in England’s Asian Empire. After a few weeks with the retired inspector and his unbearable expatriate friends, she flees to Canada, only to take up with a man “in terrible trouble—back taxes,...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Home Truths is a collection of short stories concerning the experiences of young people from Canada. Mavis Gallant, an expatriate who moved to Europe in the early 1950’s, looks at the world through the eyes of a woman who has become completely independent in order to survive with her individuality intact. She assumes no fundamental change will ever occur in the state of inequality between the sexes and approaches the struggle not in a political arena, but in a very personal one. The stories in this collection loosely follow experiences from Gallant’s early years. She grew up in Montreal and had the unusual distinction of becoming bilingual from a very early age. When her father died, she was still a young girl and was moved around two Canadian provinces and two states in the United States, attending a total of seventeen different schools. Her mother remarried soon after the death of her father and, eager to have a new life for herself, sent her daughter to boarding schools. The continual changing of school, language, religion, and culture left Gallant with a unique perspective which she has frequently used in her stories.

The sixteen stories that make up Home Truths were mostly written in the 1950’s and make up her sixth collection of short stories. Divided into three sections, “At Home,” “Canadians Abroad,” and “Linnet Muir,” the stories range in location from a small town in Quebec to Paris and in time from the Great...

(The entire section is 558 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Mavis Gallant uses the quest for personal freedom and the plight of dependent children to make her case for the need for equality between the sexes. Her stories take an unsurprising and dreary look at the relationships between women and men, but they usually end with a solution that works for the heroine, if not for women in general. Gallant does not hope for any substantial change in the social or economic status of women. Instead, she looks for individual solutions for her female characters, exactly as she found an individual solution for herself. When she found her first job in journalism, Gallant was told that the reason for a male-journalists’ club was not to exclude female journalists as much as it was to provide a haven for the men from their wives. Realizing that she would never be welcome in the newsroom, and not willing to settle for the dependence and nonexistence of housewifery, she began preparing to earn her living through her own writing. Such independence meant freedom from the inequalities of the pressroom and the working world in general, and it also meant personal freedom from economic dependence on a husband. Linnet Muir marries briefly, but only to prove to herself that marriage is only a dead end in the road to personal freedom.

Gallant’s view of women is not clouded by a false belief in their moral superiority. If the men and women in her stories clash and conflict, so do the women among themselves. She not only writes about women wronged by men but also includes accounts of mothers hindering daughters and women betraying female friends. Those who are on lower social rungs scuffle for survival, leaving them no time or opportunity to work for economic or social change.

Mavis Gallant received Canada’s respected Governor General’s Award for Home Truths in 1982, a year after becoming an officer of the Order of Canada. In 1984, she received two honorary doctoral degrees, from the University of St. Anne in Nova Scotia and York University in Toronto, and served as writer in residence at the University of Toronto.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Booklist. LXXXI, April 1, 1985, p. 1100.

Canadian Fiction Magazine: A Special Issue on Mavis Gallant, no. 28, 1978. Written by many Canadian essayists and critics such as Robertson Davies and George Woodcock, this special issue includes a collection of criticism, reviews of Gallant’s work, and a listing of her publications to 1978.

Grant, Judith Skelton. “Mavis Gallant and Her Works.” In Canadian Writers and Their Works: Fiction Series, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Vol. 8. Toronto: ECW Press, 1989. An essay describing the evolution of Gallant’s short fiction in terms of her successful narrative technique and themes.

Hancock, Geoff. “Mavis Tries Harder.” Books in Canada 7, no. 6 (July, 1978): 4-8. this feature article praises Gallant for her contributions to Canadian literature and offers critical insight into her short stories and novels spanning decades and continents.

Hatch, Ronald B. “Mavis Gallant: Returning Home.” Atlantis: A Women’s Studies Journal 4, no. 1 (Fall, 1978): 95-102. A criticism claiming that Gallant’s work has continued to change, from general observations about individuals and personal freedom to accounts of social upheaval and change stemming from her own experiences.

Keefer, Janice Kulyk. Reading Mavis Gallant. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A close look at Gallant’s writing, covering criticism and the different periods of her work and her life. Childhood and women, two important areas of her work, are also examined, as is her nonfiction. Both sympathetic and analytical, Keefer provides a comprehensive interpretation of Gallant’s writing.

Keefer, Janice Kulyk. “Strange Fashions of Forsaking: Criticism and the Fiction of Mavis Gallant.” Dalhousie Review 64, no. 4 (Winter, 1984-1985): 721-735. A defense of Gallant’s work, claiming that for the most part, she has received little recognition of the importance of her literary achievement. Keefer claims that Gallant’s work not only has not been well received but also has been misinterpreted.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, February 1, 1985, p. 100.

Library Journal. CX, May 1, 1985, p. 76.

Ms. XIII, June, 1985, p. 76.

The Nation. CCXL, June 15, 1985, p. 748.

The New Republic. CXCII, May 13, 1985, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. May 5, 1985, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, February 22, 1985, p. 153.

Ross, Robert. “Mavis Gallant and Thea Astley on Home Truths, Home Folk.” Ariel 19, no. 1 (January, 1988): 83-89. A comparative study of the meaning and use of “home” in both Gallant’s Home Truths and Astley’s A Boat Load of Home Folk.

Time. CXXV, May 27, 1985, p. 88.

Washington Post Book World. XV, April 14, 1985, p. 1.