Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513
In The Tin Flute, Gabrielle Roy explores social class and poverty through the lens of war. By depicting the lives of characters far from the central conflicts of World War II, Roy demonstrates that war functions not only as a global phenomenon but also as a local one: a way for impoverished people in the slums of Montreal to improve or escape their difficult lives.
The Lacasse family lives in poverty in the Saint-Henri slums. They are facing eviction, the father of the family can’t hold a job for long, and the mother is pregnant with another child. Every opportunity that comes their way seems to not work out, such as when Azarius takes his family on a vacation to the countryside, only to crash his company’s truck and lose his job. It’s the same story for most of the people around the Lacasse family; they work at jobs that don’t provide enough money to survive, everyone is constantly being evicted and looking for new housing, their children are unhealthy, and the adults struggle to provide basic necessities like supplies for school. Financial desperation is a world they can’t seem to escape.
Emmanuel Létourneau is a contrast to the seemingly hopeless struggle of the Lacasse family. He is from the same place as them but manages to rise above poverty by joining the military. When he comes home on leave, some of the people there are actually angry that he left, even though it improved his lot in life. Jean is also an outlier, because he has hope that many of them don’t have: that of improving his financial situation and social position through education.
For the characters of The Tin Flute, social mobility is so difficult that only something like war can allow them to better their lives and move out of extreme poverty. Emmanuel manages to escape his impoverished home neighborhood by joining the military. Azarius eventually joins, too, hoping to provide for his family that way. Jean doesn’t join the military, but he uses the situation to his advantage by working in a factory. Even Florentine, after Jean rapes her and she becomes pregnant, manages to benefit from the war: she pressures Emmanuel for marriage before he is deployed, which allows her to make it appear as if Jean’s child is Emmanuel’s. Emmanuel’s career in the military will also provide for her financially. For the people of Saint-Henri, war is one of the only ways to better one’s life.
The fact enlisting is the only way to better one’s life is one of many examples of characters in the book settling for less than they had hoped. Azarius and Emmanuel enlist to avoid poverty and failure; Florentine marries Emmanuel to cover the scandal of her rape; and Daniel Lacasse gets to live in Westmount, but only because he is dying of leukimia. The irony in these characters’ situations may be the origin of the book’s original title in French, Bonheur d’Occasion (“Second-Hand Happiness”).