Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605
The Tin Flute was written by Gabrielle Roy in 1945 and published originally in French. The book was originally titled Bonheur d’Occasion, which is generally translated as “Second-Hand Happiness,” but was retitled for the English edition. It is the story of Florentine Lacasse, a poor waitress in the neighborhood of Saint-Henri in Montreal during World War II. Florentine comes from a large family that is struggling in poverty: her father cannot hold a job, her mother is pregnant with her twelfth child, and many of her siblings cannot attend school, as the family cannot afford necessities like shoes for them. Florentine’s brother Daniel eventually develops leukemia, and the family is unable to afford treatment for him. Although her wages are small, Florentine gives her family what she can. Like most people in her neighborhood, she and her family can barely make ends meet; nevertheless, she dreams of building a better life and climbing the social ladder.
One day, Florentine falls in love with a man named Jean Lévesque after he flirts with her at the diner while she is working. Jean is highly ambitious, and she believes that he will deliver her from her pain and suffering. Jean, determined to escape the poverty of Saint-Henri, is studying and working as a machinist in a factory for the war. He has lofty ambitions to climb the social ladder and live in Westmount, the wealthy neighborhood situated on a hill above Saint-Henri. Jean invites Florentine on a date but has conflicting feelings about her and decides not to go. Florentine arrives for the date but goes home distraught after Jean doesn’t come. That night, Jean meets Emmanuel, a friend of his who has recently joined the military, and encourages him to meet Florentine at some point.
Despite his previous decision not to date her and to introduce her to Emmanuel instead, Jean asks Florentine on another date. They have dinner at a fancy restaurant, and Jean again decides not to continue dating her, as Florentine embarrasses him due to her lack of social propriety.
Attempting to avoid a further relationship with Florentine, Jean introduces her to Emmanuel at the diner. Emmanuel falls in love with her, but Florentine, in love with Jean, only flirts with Emmanuel in order to make Jean jealous. Florentine is disinterested in Emmanuel: when Emmanuel invites her to a party at his house, she comes, but only because she believes Jean will be in attendance.
Florentine’s father, Azarius, borrows a truck without permission from his company and takes his family on a trip to visit her childhood home, but Florentine stays behind. Rose-Anna, her mother, becomes even more distraught over her family’s poverty when she sees her children beside their healthier cousins. On the way home, Azarius crashes the truck; he is later fired both for having borrowed the truck without permission and for crashing it. With her family away, and still in love with Jean, Florentine invites him for dinner, and he takes advantage of her and rapes her.
Florentine discovers that she is pregnant with Jean’s child. In desperation to guard her reputation and find economic security despite her pregnancy, she decides to marry Emmanuel, knowing that he will give her a better life. She pressures him to propose, and he does. Florentine is disappointed with her lot in life: she settles for Emmanuel only because she knows the situation will preserve her reputation and provide her with financial stability. They are married before Emmanuel leaves for the war, and Florentine will pretend that the child she carries is Emmanuel’s.