Mavis Gallant World Literature Analysis - Essay

Mavis de Trafford Young

Mavis Gallant World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Gallant’s experiences often serve as material for her fiction. Her sense of abandonment as a child, her departure from her native Canada, and her subsequent life as an expatriate writer in Paris—these events have contributed to the recurrent themes of alienation, search for a voice, the effect of the past on the future, and the role memory and imagination play in shaping reality and history. Whether the stories take place in Canada or Europe, the protagonists, usually women, attempt unsuccessfully to create an ideal life, reach a point where insight is seemingly unavoidable, and yet often create instead a new reality that reshapes the history that might have precipitated that insight.

For Gallant, childhood is the source of memory, a rich repository of good and, more often, bad events that inevitably affect adult behavior. Often, there is, as amply illustrated in the stories in her Green Water, Green Sky, a destructive relationship between mother and daughter. The daughters’ identities and voices in the stories in this collection are controlled by the mothers, who have accepted the roles society has created for them. Since Gallant regards Canada as a repressive, rigid society, she sometimes equates the mother figure with Canada and the daughter with Europe. The daughter, like Gallant, must escape and live the life of an expatriate in order to free herself and become independent—this, however, seldom happens in Gallant’s work.

Daughters without dominating mothers often seem abandoned, psychologically orphaned, and intent on a man’s approval and love. Fathers are ineffectual absentees who denigrate or patronize their daughters. Prospective husbands (many Gallant stories feature women who confront marital decisions) are not sympathetically portrayed. Retreating from the real world, toward intellectual pursuits, they seldom act decisively; instead they drift into decisions.

As the titles of her novels and short-story collections often indicate, her characters are often in transit or are at a critical junction in their lives. Gallant places them in the present, recounts the past that led to the present event, and then often somewhat abruptly ends the story. A geographical journey often serves as metaphor for the emotional or psychological trip her protagonists make. In The Pegnitz Junction, Christine’s Paris holiday ends in disillusionment, and her meandering train trip back to Germany ends at a junction—she neither makes a decision about her two suitors nor continues her trip. In the six stories about Linnet Muir in Home Truths, Linnet attempts to return home, in this case to Canada (Linnet seems a thinly veiled Gallant). She finds that she, too, cannot return home. In her native Montreal, she remains, like so many Gallant characters, an alien, a foreigner caught between two cultures, between the past and the present.

In Gallant’s fiction, women are often shielded from real experience, and they sometimes resort to creating ideal romantic worlds based on their culturally derived assumptions about men and marriage. In “Across the Bridge,” the title story of Gallant’s 1993 short-story collection, Sylvie constructs an enchanted world; in “The Other Paris,” the title story of her 1956 short-story collection, Carol imagines a “dream Paris.” Both worlds are revealed as unreal. In both cases the protagonist retreats from the revelation and imagines a new world in which she can live a lesser life. In The Pegnitz Junction this ability to create or construct other worlds is carried into the psychic realm. Christine’s “scripts” for other people’s lives, scripts that surpass her own story in interest and action, demonstrate the importance of the imagination and of control of the story.

Gallant’s characters are bound to the historical settings in which their fictional lives exist. Whether it is sterile Montreal, drab 1950’s or activist 1960’s Paris, or the broader canvas of post-World War II Europe, the historical settings shape the characters’ lives. The war in Indochina may not be the focus of The Other Paris, but it is on the periphery; what happens there deeply affects characters’ lives.

Important as history is, for Gallant it is not a fixed, permanent record of past events, but a shifting account shaped by people who record public events (World War II, the Dreyfus case, the war in Indochina) in their own personal memories. Past events are interpreted as commentaries on the failed present by an older generation intent on giving meaning and consequence to their lives. Even professional historians fail to establish a true history. In “Kingdom Come” (1986), Gallant recounts the fate of a professor who attempts to document the linguistic past of an obscure tribe in a remote location. He is rejected by the tribe and his own children, and his “history” is dismissed by his colleagues.

Gallant demonstrates the complex interplay between characters and history by including journals and letters, which possess a documentary quality, in her fiction; by using multiple points of view, which often are abruptly shifted; and by employing interior monologues and flashbacks. Gallant also sometimes shifts the narrative point of view, for example, from third person limited to the omniscient; it is often difficult to detect the exact point of view, making it impossible to identify how aware a character is. The cyclical nature of many of Gallant’s narratives also poses problems for readers, since some stories are framed by similar stories. This lends a claustrophobic air to the narrative. Some stories begin before a climactic moment, retreat into the past, return to the present, and stop just short of actual resolution. Although the “endings” of these stories are not told, they are implied and are, in a sense, created by the character, who anticipates an ending, reinterprets past action, and imagines a resolution that is at once true and...

(The entire section is 2445 words.)