The Tin Flute is Gabrielle Roy’s first and best-known novel. Considered by many critics to be one of the greatest works of French Canadian literature, it won numerous prizes, including Canada’s prestigious Governor-General’s Award and France’s distinguished Prix Femina. Roy began her writing career as a journalist. Her meticulous description of the St. Henri slum in Montreal is based on her observations for a series of journal articles she wrote about the social and economic crises generated by the city’s growing industrialization.
Roy’s novel is especially important in the development of French Canadian fiction because it marks a turning point in the depiction of the province of Quebec, which had been portrayed by earlier writers as rural, traditional, and inward-looking. By contrast, The Tin Flute, whose English title is taken from the name of a child’s toy—symbolizing the repressed longings of deprived people—presents a grittily realistic panorama of urban life with the dilemmas that threaten to overwhelm French Canadians at a transformative time—when Canada was emerging from the economic hardships of the Great Depression and plunging into the global turmoil of World War II. Critics of the work have especially praised Roy for her capturing of the stark contrast between the poor, decaying environment of Montreal’s French Canadian slum and the orderly, manicured world of the city’s Westmount district—a district inhabited by the affluent Anglophone bankers and industrialists who helped to build the socioeconomic system that has oppressed Quebec’s working classes.
The power of Roy’s storytelling in The Tin Flute springs chiefly from the direct narrative style used to portray the characters and their environment. The sights, sounds, and smells of the places where the protagonists play out their emotional lives—neighborhood streets, restaurants, stores, bars, houses, and churches—are portrayed with near-clinical detail and with striking, evocative imagery. The narrative follows a conventional linear plot structure that traces the stories of individuals in a chronological progression. The author adheres closely to the viewpoints of her characters and provides no specific transitions between chapters, which appear as independent episodes in cinematic fashion.
Roy also goes beyond the viewpoint of the omniscient narrator and deeply probes the psychology of the major players in her story, especially the psyches of Florentine, Rose-Anna, Emmanuel, and Jean. She reveals their doubts, illusions, and self-analyses through an intensely gripping presentation that borders on stream of consciousness. Even an unsympathetic character like Jean is portrayed with complexity and sensitivity, as he ponders his tragic relationship with Florentine. Through her skillful use of dialogue, Roy individualizes her characters by exactly rendering the nuances of dialect and unique speech patterns. She was one of the first French Canadian writers to capture joual, a popular form of Québécois French spoken in Montreal, and employs it extensively in the novel to authentically reproduce the conversations of St. Henri’s inhabitants.
The Tin Flute is an innovative work also for its introduction of the theme of social change into French Canadian literature. As Quebec’s first major urban novel, The Tin Flute has a social realism that undercuts the idealization of rural life that had been the focus of previous French Canadian fiction. The theme of transformation is complexly explored on two levels, within a broad sociohistorical context and within the interrelated stories of individual characters. Thus, Roy juxtaposes the experiences of her two major female protagonists to underscore how differently they react to the stresses of the powerless and harsh existence of Québécois women.
Florentine rejects the patient self-sacrifice that Rose-Anna follows as wife and mother, whose dreams and family disintegrate. Instead, the younger woman acquires an attitude of tough, mercenary practicality...
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and faces her disillusionment with romance and secures her reputation and economic future through a loveless marriage. Many feminists interpret Roy’s portrayal of women in her novel as one of the earliest, subversive critiques of the traditional role women played in French Canadian society, when that society was dominated by the patriarchal institutions of church and state.
Roy also uses her deft talent as an ironist in her treatment of the central theme of the novel: the impact of socioeconomic changes on French Canada. She describes how global conflict transforms the fortunes of St. Henri as World War II pulls the slum inhabitants out of the trap of insularity and poverty; they enlist in the army and thus acquire income for their families and some freedom from responsibility. Others, like ruthless and selfish Jean, survive at home to become successful war profiteers. Emmanuel, Roy’s voice of idealism and Florentine’s “rescuer,” sacrifices himself to the war because he believes it will eventually destroy a rotten system that exploits the underprivileged. Nonetheless, at the novel’s end, he bitterly notes the irony that war is what brings salvation to his community, that is, a form of “secondhand” happiness, as the original French title of novel indicates.
With its complex themes and compelling character portrayals, The Tin Flute adds a modern dimension to the development of French Canadian literature. Through sensitive depiction of human foibles and through intelligent exploration of humankind’s aspirations, Roy’s novel is a masterpiece of fiction that continues to attract universal praise and critical attention.