(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Roy’s original French title of Bonheur d’occasion has no precise English equivalent—critics have suggested “chance happiness,” “bargain-basement happiness,” and “second-hand happiness” as approximate translations. The Tin Flute is a toy that young Daniel Lacasse only gets when dying with a fatal illness.

The scene is the Saint-Henri district of Montreal, a slum adjoining factories along the Lachine Canal, from which noxious odors permeate the district. The time is early 1940; news of triumphant German armies forms an ominous background to the novel.

Young Florentine Lacasse, a waitress at a five-and-dime lunch counter, supports her family financially. Her father, Azarius, a carpenter by trade and an idealistic daydreamer, cannot hold a job. Florentine flirts with Jean Lévesque, an ambitious young machinist who realizes that war work is his road out of poverty.

Rose-Anna Lacasse, pregnant with her twelfth child, worries about spending her family’s meager funds. They will shortly need to move, probably to even worse conditions. Her son Eugène proudly tells his mother that he has enlisted and the army will send her twenty dollars a month. When Rose-Anna visits the five-and-dime, Florentine treats her to a meal. As Rose-Anna leaves, she examines a toy tin flute that her sick young son Daniel would like but cannot justify the expense and puts it back.

Emmanuel Létourneau, in uniform...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

The Tin Flute Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the late winter of 1940, Canadians are emerging from the effects of the Great Depression and now face the outbreak of World War II. One young woman, Florentine Lacasse, helps support her family by working as a waitress at the lunch counter in a five-and-dime store in Montreal’s St. Henri slum district. The lunch area’s flashy decor, which appeals to Florentine’s shallow taste, stirs her ambition to escape the dreary poverty that entraps her family.

Jean Lévesque, a young machinist, flirts with Florentine while she is working. She, in turn, is captivated by his slick, confident appearance. Although Florentine dislikes Jean’s arrogance and offhand manner, she agrees to meet him at the cinema. Later, at his lodgings in the district’s bleak warehouse area, Jean analyzes the contradictory nature of his attraction to Florentine’s fragile prettiness and vulnerability. After concluding that his drive for success leaves him no time to waste on an affair, Jean avoids his date with Florentine.

Jean visits The Two Records, a neighborhood snack bar. There, he overhears a heated discussion between the store owner and Azarius Lacasse, Florentine’s father, concerning the war. Azarius argues for the defense of countries victimized by war, such as Poland. Other bar patrons protest, saying that as French Canadians, they will resist fighting in an “English” conflict. Jean notes the similarities between Azarius and his daughter Florentine.

Emmanuel Létourneau, a soldier, stops by Ma Philbert’s restaurant in St. Henri. A former inhabitant of the slum, he is now well educated, gainfully employed, and living in a better neighborhood. He encounters three former school chums—Alphonse, Boisvert, and Pitou—who are unemployed, bored, and disillusioned. They appear surprised and resentful that Emmanuel had joined the military, so Emmanuel gives idealistic reasons for fighting in a war that he believes will change the world, especially its greedy social systems Feeling despondent, Emmanuel leaves and encounters Jean, his close friend. They discuss women, and Jean invites him to meet Florentine.

In her bleak house, Rose-Anna Lacasse worries about her family’s poverty and awaits her husband and two oldest children. Son Eugene comes home wearing an army uniform. He explains to his horrified mother that he had enlisted to be usefully employed, and not for the army pay. Later, Rose-Anna berates her husband for his procrastination in finding the family a cheaper rental home; they face eviction in May. Her house-hunting is described as an annual spring ritual that is shared by many women in the slum.


(The entire section is 1081 words.)

The Tin Flute Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Social realism and photographic detail characterize The Tin Flute, set in Montreal during World War II. This urban novel recounts the joys and sorrows of the Lacasse family: of Azarius, the negligent father and dreamer; of Rosa-Anna, the stoic maternal figure; and of their eight children. The thematic structure of the work is built on oppositions between past and present, dream and reality, as well as the roles and privileges that distinguish men and women during this period. It is, above all else, a poignant portrayal of the working class in Saint-Henri, an underprivileged francophone neighborhood at the foot of a mountain, at the top of which lies Westmount, the anglophone enclave of wealth and power.

Social history provides the foundation for this literary world. Unemployment and industrialization create the backdrop against which characters struggle to attain freedom—personal, spiritual, and material—while, in the case of female protagonists, for example, endeavoring unsuccessfully to extricate themselves from an implacable destiny. Florentine Lacasse, the eldest daughter of the family, works as a waitress in a working-class café in order to help support her family, since her father is not capable of holding down a job and since her mother must take care of the other sickly children at home.

From the opening line, one discerns Florentine’s desperate attempt to escape the reality of her employment, of her family situation, and of her future. Living in a world of unattainable dreams, this sickly, fragile-looking young woman imagines herself the elegant seductress who will be rescued...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

The Tin Flute Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Clemente, Linda M., and William A. Clemente. Gabrielle Roy: Creation and Memory. Toronto: ECW Press, 1997.

Hesse, M. G. Gabrielle Roy. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Lewis, Paula Gilbert. The Literary Vision of Gabrielle Roy: An Analysis of Her Works. Birmingham, Ala.: Summa, 1984.

Mitcham, Allison. The Literary Achievement of Gabrielle Roy. Fredericton, New Brunswick: York Press, 1983.

Ricard, Francois. Gabrielle Roy: A Life. Translated by Patricia Claxton. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999.

Roy, Gabrielle. Enchantment and Sorrow: The Autobiography of Gabrielle Roy. Translated by Patricia Claxton. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1987.