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Last Updated on August 30, 2019, 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...

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081

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.

Jean reconsiders his relationship with Florentine and asks her to dinner. They dine at a classy restaurant, although she remains angry because he missed their first date. Embarrassed by Florentine’s gauche behavior at dinner, Jean decides against dating her again. Later in the evening, when he embraces her, she becomes convinced that he has fallen for her. Days later, Jean introduces Emmanuel to Florentine at her job. Confused by Jean’s indifference, Florentine attempts to make him jealous by flirting with Emmanuel, who is attracted to her. Jean feels confident that he has dumped Florentine on his best friend. Emmanuel invites everyone to a party at his house. At the party, Florentine is impressed by the middle-class prosperity of the Létourneaus. Still, she is distraught by Jean’s absence. She nonetheless dances and flirts with Emmanuel, who is enamored of her.

Azarius takes his family to visit his wife’s childhood home in Saint-Denis-de-Richelieu, a rural area outside Montreal. Initially, Rose-Anna is overjoyed, but she becomes despondent when she compares her own sickly children to their robust country cousins. Above all, her mother’s negative, critical attitude makes her feel inadequate and discouraged. On their way home, Azarius gets into an accident with the truck he borrowed from his employer. He consequently loses his job. Rose-Anna’s dreams of recovering the past collapse, and the family’s fortunes further decline. The youngest son, Daniel, is soon hospitalized with leukemia, and Eugene reneges on his promise to help the family with his army pay.

While the family is away, Florentine invites Jean to dinner. To thwart her expectations of romance and marriage with him, he overpowers her sexually and then disappears from her life. When she realizes she is pregnant and that he has abandoned her, her dreams for a better future vanish. After Rose-Anna discovers her daughter’s pregnancy, Florentine leaves home to stay with her friend Marguerite. Florentine decides to save her reputation and secure her economic future by accepting Emmanuel’s courtship. Confronted by Florentine’s disgrace and the family’s eviction and removal into dreadful lodgings, Rose-Anna’s hopes for her family hit rock bottom.

Emmanuel returns home on furlough and looks for his friends. After visiting The Two Records, he discovers that his old chums have been adversely affected by the war. He ponders their fates and his own future, and he angrily blames the unjust social system for blighting the lives of French Canadians. Burdened by despondency and solitude, he decides to find Florentine. After meeting her at Easter Sunday Mass, he takes her out for dinner and dancing. He further pursues his courtship of her, leading Florentine to push him to propose marriage. He does, and the two are married.

Florentine’s marriage to Emmanuel saves her from the shame of unwed motherhood, but it does not mend the tensions between herself and her mother; they part from each other unreconciled. Little Daniel is sustained by care and attention from his English nurse, Jenny. However, he soon dies, surrounded by his toys but not his family. Florentine’s younger sister, Yvonne, announces her intention to become a nun. The family’s disintegration seems complete when Azarius joins the army, presumably to earn an income; actually, he joins to avoid confronting his failures as a provider. The birth of her newest baby brings Rose-Anna some measure of comfort and hope.

A mixed mood of optimism and despair prevails, as Emmanuel and other soldiers leave for war from Montreal’s train station. Florentine, preoccupied by materialistic plans for the future, appears to be unaffected by her husband’s departure. Emmanuel is depressed by the false bravado of the mob around him and by the ironic thought of “salvation through war,” pondering the future of his world. Nonetheless, his hopes for humankind rebound when, out of the crowd, an old woman—a stranger—gestures to him that someday humanity’s conflicts will end.

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