Mavis Gallant Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Because most of Mavis Gallant’s works do not have conclusive endings, it is difficult to cite in traditional terms the theme or central idea governing her fiction. It may be more important to understand the point of reference from which Gallant views her characters, most of whom are middle-class men and women, children, and adolescents who are adrift in a confused sea of unmet expectations. Her view of her characters is almost always from without, classically dispassionate. A recurring image in her work is the mirror, which shows herprotagonists with pitiless accuracy, faces they often do not recognize as their own, as in the case of “The Late-Homecomer” in From the Fifteenth District. Despite the incoherence of the characters’ lives, the world they inhabit is carefully and cleanly drawn, technically precise, perfect in detail. Gallant’s descriptions of a train station, a café, or a sitting room are exact as to proportion, color, and shape; in contrast, her characters are often indistinct except for their crippling flaws. This indistinctiveness is suggestive, however, never obscuring. Although her characters are emotionally confused and unable to lift themselves out of the morass of indecision and compromise in which they are stranded, they evoke no pity, no sentiment other than a wistful compassion.

Gallant’s concern with homelessness or displacement draws her to the strange amid the familiar. Rest stops—a café, a party, a day’s outing—become symbols of the only kind of home her characters are ever likely to have. Anticipation is the rule; farther down the coast perhaps, or next season, or even tomorrow at a friend’s, things will begin to come clear, problems will begin to resolve themselves. Gallant’s figures are often people of little imagination, burdened with insufficient insight and strength of will to take control of their lives. Inevitably, they drift toward disasters, the consequences of which they foresee dimly, if at all. They live more on hope than by the efficacy of their own actions. The warning sounds they should heed in order to save themselves occur to them as echoes, as sounds of a past already too late to change. Gallant’s sense of time is geometric rather than linear: Lives collide and rearrange themselves like billiard balls subject to the tyranny of physics. Personal realities may be contemporaneous, but they never interpenetrate.

Often the sole correspondence between characters is a familial one, to which they give no more thought than to the color of their hair or to next Sunday’s dinner. For Gallant, relationship by marriage or blood is almost certain to destroy whatever humanness could exist in the bonds between people. Some of her stories rehearse the chronicle of a thoughtless parent, usually a mother, spending her child’s future to pay the debts of her own present, as if another’s life were capital to be borrowed and squandered. “Going Ashore” in The Other Paris offers the flighty Mrs. Ellenger and her daughter, Emma, as an example of this kind of relationship. The spectacle of shallow interests, selfishness, fraudulent friendships, and the conniving of people trying to live in grand style while on the thin edge of penury does not, as perhaps it might in the work of a more romantic writer, lead young people to throw off the tyranny of their foolish parents; instead, the children become more numbed by the constant movement, the maintenance of surface at the expense of substance. In consequence, the characters take refuge in an interior life contrived out of the rag ends of the only kind of existence they know. Rarely are Gallant’s characters guilty of outrageously immoral actions; rather, their small failings accrete to become an attitude, a way of life that denies personal responsibility while insisting that one is doing everything humanly possible to put things right.

In Gallant’s fiction, few characters make good on the occasional second chance. In her short story “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” in Home Truths, Peter and Sheilah Frazier are middle-class vagabonds lately returned from a posting in Hong Kong, out of which, as usual, they have made no profit, either material or spiritual. Their sole talisman of respectability is Sheilah’s Balenciaga gown, which at times has been their ticket to some of the better parties. Peter has allowed one opportunity after another to slip through his fingers while he waits for fate or chance or old friends to rescue him. He walks through the world in lordly fashion, unable to see himself as an aging do-nothing, a failure. Even a small inheritance becomes merely the occasion for a brief episode of happiness in Paris, while the couple imitate those of more substantial and lasting means. At one point, Sheilah’s beauty and charm bring Peter a job offer with possibilities for making their fortune at last. Without comment, Gallant shows the couple having returned from that episode, sitting in Peter’s sister’s kitchen, as forlorn as ever, their sole emblem of prosperity a steamer trunk upended in the corner. The two sit holding hands across the table; there are no recriminations, no bitterness, only a sweetly elegiac sense of the loss of something undefined. Even this sense of loss becomes transmuted through naïve optimism into dreams that can only lead to disappointments, further failures. So it goes with most of Gallant’s weary protagonists. Hope based on false premises, action inappropriate to the situation, bad decisions, ineffective compromises—these take their toll on the slowly dying, who...

(The entire section is 2278 words.)