This is a wonderfully frustrating story. The awful character of Gilles will probably remind you of someone you have known at least once in your life. He is a caricature, to be sure, but not so much of one that he isn’t immediately recognisable. You will feel as if you are stuck inside a car with him yourself. Once you arrive at the house in Burgundy, you’ll feel like an unwelcome guest. You’ll be ignored by a Madame and finally, perhaps, feel a little lighter after someone gets told the truth. But you’ll feel, overall, that you’ve just returned from a very unpleasant trip.
This is the kind of subtle story which would make a terrible movie adaptation, except perhaps in the most subtle of hands. One character confronts another for some wrong-doing, and in one fell swoop the wrongdoer manages to sully the waters with ease, simply because she’s had so much practice.
The idea of a strange, perhaps untrustworthy housemaid is particularly discomfiting to a middle class who can afford such luxury; we hate to think that we invite our own evil into our comfortable homes. An untrustworthy woman let into the home is a familiar trope in horror stories, and is the basis of Mavis Gallant’s short story “Bernadette”.
Sometimes the trope isn’t used in the horror genre, but to lend a bit of horror to a different kind of story.
The reader of Mavis Gallant’s story Bernadette is lead to wonder, what is wrong with this girl and is she about to do something terrible? In fact, the housemaid of this story is simply a magnifying glass into the evil which existed in the house before her arrival.
This short story is a masterclass in keeping part of the main interest out of the frame. One of the central characters is portrayed as an interesting character and I would like to ‘meet’ her on the page. Instead, as the story ends, I realise we’re not going to meet her at all; this is actually a narrative about her mother. This story is equally interesting because although the reader may expect certain tropes, both mother and daughter defy our stereotypes.
A father is called at work and his secretary passes on a letter from his teenage daughter’s headmistress. The letter says his daughter has absconded from boarding school and spent the night with a boy. The father returns home and has a discussion with his wife. The wife is upset not because the daughter has absconded per se but because of an entire set of cultural values around it.The husband refuses to listen to his wife, who is letting on more than he chooses to acknowledge.
Unlike many other stories in this collection, the setting is not one of the characters in its own right. A reference to Grand Central Station tells us the family live somewhere in or around New York. The father has a job in an office, as management; the mother is a model and they send their daughter to boarding school. Written in 1956, this could almost be a family straight out of Mad Men.
This is a portrait of a marriage in which the wife, being trapped in a marriage when it was not easy/socially acceptable to leave, knows that her husband is having an affair but makes the decision to suppress it. But every now and then it all gets too much, presumably when she ‘breaks a string of pearls’. When a cat dies she is overcome with grief. She is hit now, again, when she finds out that her 16 year old daughter has spent the night with a boy. Reminded of her own teenage years, and an incident with a boy, she talks to her husband in a circumlocutionary way about lying ‘men’, when the reader knows (due to the dramatic irony of having been told about Bambi Lawrence) that Marian Kimber is really talking about her own ‘lying husband’.
Charles Kimber either chooses not to listen to his wife, or to wilfully misunderstand her. He has forgotten about his wife’s sister who died 17 years ago, a woman who was so very important to Marian. He chooses to believe that his wife is not really angry with ‘men’, but is simply angry about the situation at hand. Not only that, but he credits himself for a marriage without huge rows, and his own ability to put up with his wife’s many neuroses.
It is clear — especially to a modern audience, perhaps? — that Marian has a good handle on her own plight, and on the plight of women in 1950s America. This was very much a man’s world and women had to put up with a lot. Even her profession is the height of female oppression. She even has to stand in the cold in flimsy dress for the viewing pleasure of others. The scene where her own husband happens to walk past this street scene exists to demonstrate that Charles Kimber is incapable of anything but the most surface of empathies; he sees that she is cold, but can’t see that she is basically pimped out, in a way, and it wasn’t until he read one of his wife’s interviews in a magazine that he learnt the physiological discomfort of not eating enough. Instead, his wife’s inability to enjoy her dinners only put himself in an uncomfortable state of mind, and only ‘at first’. He has obviously learnt to ignore his wife’s discomfort, in eating and in general.
It’s not just the Beautiful girls who have sex. We shouldn’t expect the ‘plain’ girls to be less attractive to teenage boys and to have a lower sex drive.
Beautiful women are held up by society as sexual gods but have their own troubling backstories. Moreover, beautiful women don’t necessarily want this privilege for their daughters.
1950s marriages, ones which seem ‘happy’ are all about sacrifice, and perhaps that sacrifice is all on one person to make.
Happiness equals ignorance, if you can maintain ignorance.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Every Scene Has Multiple Purposes
Apart from the masterful way Mavis Gallant keeps information from the page, asking the reader to work just a little in order to understand the story, Gallant is also shows mastery of dramatic irony. A lesser writer may have dwelt for longer on the fact that Charles Kimber is having an affair with a younger woman named Bambi. Instead, we get one brief scene. In this scene we learn a lot about Charles and this information will allow readers to decode Marion’s sadness later that night when they are in bed: Charles is a man of habit, despite his risqué extramarital relationship (he sees his mistress ‘two times a week’ — no spontaneity even there); he likes that Bambi has no real personality; Bambi is much younger than he is and therefore safe, because the power is with him; Bambi cooks for him at her apartment, showing his traditional attitude towards what women should do for men. The reader now has a very clear idea of what kind of woman this lawyer likes.
Avoidance of, or Careful Use of, Female Tropes
In real life women are multi-faceted, yet in many stories the reader/viewer doesn’t see that. On the other hand, every now and then you find a woman in real life who seems to fit the stereotype exactly. Real life is like that, and this story is a reflection of real life.
The reader will be used to certain narrative conventions, one of those being the vanity of fashion models. Mavis Gallant defies this expectation by having Marion let her daughter eat as many sweets as she likes, saying that the daughter is old enough to do as she likes with her own body. This not only fosters empathy in the reader for Marion, but hints at broader psychological issues; Marion does not feel her own body belongs to her. Even the headmistress of the boarding school is ‘younger and healthier’ than Charles expects; women are defying stereotypes from the very first page. Most defying of all is the plain daughter who has nevertheless attracted the attention of a boy and possibly had sex with him. These counter-caricatures are amplified by the uber-caricature of the mistress, who is not only young but calls herself ‘Bambi’ and has a cat which she treats as a baby, presumably because as the Other Woman she’s not in a position to have her own family.
Approx 4,300 words
Close third person point of view, mainly in Charles’ head. This allows the readers to infer the ‘real story’ for ourselves, as Charles’ view on the world is unreliable. This is an example of an unreliable narrator, but not in the traditional first person point of view. Instead, the narrator explains Charles’ reaction to his world. This kind of unreliable narration is not easy to achieve.
This story can be found in the collection The Cost Of Living.
The first few seasons of Mad Men. Unable to deal with his own emotions let alone his wife’s, Don Draper says to Betty a version of, ‘Haven’t I given you everything you want?’
Away From Her is a short story by Alice Munro (also adapted into film) and, like this story, the reader is left to infer things about the marriage. Also like this story, the reader is at first invited to see the marriage from the husband’s point of view. A few clues tell us this happy marriage has not always been so. Unlike in this story, the husband is forced to confront his own failings to a degree.
WRITE YOUR OWN
Have you ever had a difficult conversation with someone who’s not on the same wave length as you, in which you talk past each other and fail to understand what’s really bothering the other? Perhaps the true meaning of the conversation revealed itself much later.
Have you ever got to know someone and found that they defied your initial impressions of them?
Have you ever had relationships with people in which one person must ‘keep the peace’ by turning a blind eye to bad behaviour?
This short story is interesting for feminist reasons. Think of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique; think of Mad Men’s Betty Draper and compare the idle, childlike helplessness of Cissy, the first person narrator in Autumn Day. This is a post WW2 picture of American housewives. The men had just saved everyone’s bacon in the war, or so they believed. And after bonding with other men in masculine settings, their wives seemed like foreign creatures.
Young and lonely in Salzberg, the newly married 19-year-old Cissy feels estranged from her sergeant husband and fails equally to connect emotionally with any of her local companions. The wife of her husband’s one and only friend is uncomfortably open with Cissy, letting her in on things Cissy doesn’t want to know. Another woman tells her a big secret and then accuses Cissy of leaking it when she hasn’t. Instead, Cissy is drawn to the reclusive singer living upstairs. Hoping to meet the singer before she returns to America, Cissy writes her a note, complimenting her on her singing. The singer invites Cissy to lunch and Cissy is overjoyed to get the invitation, but she is too late; she is given the note the following day and has missed her chance to meet the one woman she thought she might have a connection with.
It is seven years since the end of WW2 and Cissy’s sergeant husband has been posted to Salzberg, Austria, as part of the Army of Occupation. (The American army were stationed in and around Germany following each of the world wars.)
The Allied occupation of Austria lasted from 1945 to 1955. Austria had been regarded by Nazi Germany as a constituent part of the German state, but in 1943 the Allied powers agreed in the Declaration of Moscow that it would be regarded as the first victim of Nazi aggression, and treated as a liberated and independent country after the war.
The story is written from first person point of view by a woman looking back with mature understanding of herself as a 19 year old, so the fictional ‘time of writing’ takes place many years later, perhaps when the narrator is a middle-aged woman. The story itself was published in 1955, 6 years after the events in this story fictionally took place. (Perhaps the narrator is still 25 and has matured considerably in that brief time?)
This story is interesting to me because of the year it was written. As a modern parent, I hear a lot about how ‘parents these days’ are overprotective of our children, interfering too much in their lives, stunting their emotional development. Yet this is a story of one such mother, and it dates from 1952. Have mothers (in particular) always been accused of ‘helicopter parenting’, forever walking that invisible line between caring too much and not caring enough?
This story is darkly comic, a ‘comedy of manners’, starring an eccentric old French aristocratic woman. The reader is afforded a close-up view into her life via an American family, the Marshalls, Major Marshall being stationed in France after the war.
The Comedy of Manners is an entertainment form which satirizes the manners and affectations of a social clcass or of multiple classes, often represented by stereotypical stock characters.
Mavis Gallant died last year, but if she were still around she might not think much of my attempt to dissect her stories in order to learn from them:
Gallant is dismissive of analysing or explaining her work, and distrustful of academic attempts to do so.
The same Guardian article says of her work, ‘One of the most striking things about Gallant’s work…is its cinematic quality, shifting perspectives and chronology, resulting in what Lahiri calls “narrative that refuses to sit still”.’ This is the sort of story that, if you were to upload it to a peer review writing site, would be shot down as an example of ‘head-hopping’. Yet as Gallant’s work demonstrates with ease, it’s possible for an adept omniscient narrator to dive in and out of heads without confusing the reader in the slightest.
Mavis Gallant is a master at condense writing. Of novels she said:
A lot of it is just stuffing between the important things. In between is nothing.
Mavis Gallant herself feels that she didn’t develop her own style until the 1960s, yet this one was written a decade before then.
This story was published in 1951 and the setting is modern for the time. Apart from workings of the telephone (which back then needed operators) and absence of the Internet (in which Paul could have emailed his professor), there is not much about the story that is different from a modern-day setting. We are told that this is set in rural Connecticut.
We are told that this takes place 7 days before Labor Day, significant because both of the young house guests are counting down the days until the end of summer, when they can leave. In the popular imagination, summer is, in contrast, a happy and carefree time, not a time to be endured.
Mavis Gallant introduces a complex cast of characters in the economy of a short story.
The theme of this short story is conveyed through the attitude of Mrs Tracy. Point of view is important, switching between close third-person POV and a more omniscient one when Gallant chooses to tell rather than show. The story starts with the point of view of Mrs Tracy, switching next to that of Madeline, then to Mr Tracy. POV is not strictly adhered to, switching only after double paragraph breaks; the narrator weaves in and out of heads as appropriate.
I know who they are, what they do and what they are saying to each other. And I know more than they do, because I know about all of them.
The main juxtaposition is that between Mrs Tracy’s memories of childhood at the farmhouse, and the reality of living with a single daughter and an emotionally distant husband who is there only on weekends. In an attempt to recreate the bustling, lively childhood she remembers, Mrs Tracy invites guests each summer. There is no backstory about Mrs Tracy’s childhood; it is enough for the reader to be told that it was marvellous: ‘Technically, the Connecticut house belonged to his wife, who had inherited it. Loving it and remembering her own childhood there, she looked upon her summers as a kind of therapy to be shared with the world.’
This main juxtaposition is foreshadowed/explained with a series of present-day incongruities. First there are the incongruities that Mrs Tracy notices herself:
1. Madeline is not the bright-humored girl she thought she might be. Instead, she is a teenage girl suffering the aftermath of a broken family, a father who has left to remarry and a mother who can’t cope with the fact and who has gone off to Europe.
2. Paul is the inverse of Mrs Tracy’s idea of a German. He is dark not blonde, can’t swim, doesn’t enjoy the outdoors.
3. Madeline and Paul do not get on even though they are fairly close in age. So the young house guests themselves serve as contrasts, with Paul being of stable mood and Madeline being emotional; Paul being tidy, Madeline being messy; Paul being sensitive to the emotions of others, Madeline deliberately brushing over them. ‘They did not even have a cake of soap in common.’
Then there are the incongruities that Mrs Tracy is not aware of, but which the reader is privy to via the nature of the storytelling:
1. Although Mrs Tracy is full of plans, she’s not a woman of action, instead leaving the task of making Madeline’s birthday cake up to the housekeeper. Mrs Tracy can’t even remember telling the housekeeper about the birthday cake, thinking she might actually be making waffles for breakfast. While Mrs Tracy is ‘propelled’ out of the house, Doris has ‘a deliberate tread’. Mrs Tracy has an active imagination, who (ironically and comically) imagines that Doris’s imagination may have been ‘uncommonly fired’. Even the task of braiding her own daughter’s hair is off-loaded to the seventeen-year-old houseguest. Mrs Tracy is not the practical sort. ‘[Madeline] could hear Mrs Tracy downstairs, asking Doris if she had ever seen such a perfect morning. Doris’s answer was lost in the whir of the electric mixer.’ In an attempt to make her own life exotic, she thinks of Madeline as a ‘jeune fille’ (when she could just as easily have thought ‘young girl’).
2. Mrs Tracy’s routine life at the farmhouse is not the lively setting she strives to achieve, and so the contrast between the house of her imagination and the reality of running a household is stark. Unlikely comparisons come from Mrs Tracy, demonstrating her richer inner world: ‘The hall seemed weighted at one end–like a rowboat, she thought.’ She finds her husband’s morning greetings tiresome precisely because nothing new happens overnight, and because he says the same thing each morning he’s there.
After lunch with a lawyer friend on a trip to Montreal in 1955, he drove her back and stopped in front of “a very charming looking house with vines growing up it. ‘I’d love a house like that,’ he said. And I said, ‘It’s not for me.’ Saying, ‘How was your school day?’ every evening . . . I’d run away.
– Mavis Gallant
Mrs Tracy says to her daughter, “My summers have always been so perfect, ever since I was a child.” But the reader knows this isn’t true, from the single paragraph outlining the various houseguests over the years, from Mr Tracy’s point of view, in which it is revealed that one of the previous summer guests had been a single mother who killed herself.
2. Although Mrs Tracy is curious about Paul’s troubled childhood in wartime Germany, hoping to use him for her own entertainment, he doesn’t talk about the war at all. Mrs Tracy’s curiosity shows a lack of empathy for a boy who is probably suffering post-traumatic trauma to some degree. Mrs Tracy’s need for socialising and merriment at her idyllic house in the country doesn’t equate to empathy for others. She wonders why the boy sleeps with his shades drawn, perhaps because she’d like to spy on him herself, but likely simply a metaphor for Paul’s introverted ways.
3. Although Madeline is younger in age, it is Madeline who is world-weary and Mrs Tracy who has maintained a youthful but unsustainable optimism. This is established in the first paragraph: The morning of Madeline Farr’s seventeenth birthday, Mrs. Tracy awoke remembering that she had forgotten to order a cake. It was doubtful if this would matter to Madeline, who would probably make a point of not caring. The difference in attitude is underscored later on in the story, when Mrs Tracy enters Madeline’s room to wish her a happy birthday, and Mrs Tracy ‘looks younger’ than the birthday girl. While Madeline was ‘ideally happy’ during her three weeks of isolation in her mother’s abandoned apartment, Mrs Tracy is at her happiest when surrounded by people.
4. Then there is the literary symbolism. For example the radio announcer says that ‘McIntoshes were lively yesterday…but Roman Beauties were quiet‘. Even the garden life is in contrast. The Roman Beauty, incidentally, is a compact evergreen shrub with aromatic, needle-like, dark green leaves with contrastingsilver undersides. Paul looks out Madeline’s window and observes that “The pear tree is dying.” Madeline has already failed to attract the positive attention of Mr Tracy, she doesn’t acknowledge the masculinity of Paul and is feeling down that she has no romantic possibilities in her life.
So there we have garden-inspired contrast again, between Madeline’s nubile age and the dying of the pear tree.
LANGUAGE TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Mavis Gallant uses dialogue tags skilfully. Rather than using, say, adverbs, she explains the subtext of dialogue in a single phrase:
“You probably haven’t read it,” Madeline said, intending the insult.
The ‘starched coverlet’ of Mr Tracy’s bed is a transferred epithet. We learn as the story goes on that the word ‘starched’ could in fact be applied to Mr Tracy himself.
The description of Madeline’s dream is described as an accurate portrayal of how dreams can intersect with the real environs:
In the next room, Madeline had stopped crying and fell asleep. She dreamed that someone had given her a dollhouse. When a bell rang downstairs, it merged into her dream as something to do with school. Actually, the ringing was caused by the long-distance operator, who had at first reported that the circuits to New York were busy and was now ready to complete the call.
The reason for the dream itself is significant, not necessarily in any Freudian way, but because the difference between dreamscapes and reality have been the central theme of the story. Note that Madeline is woken from her dream by a call about a call regarding Paul’s essay; real life minutiae of the dullest kind.
HOW IT ENDS
Sometimes characters in a short story have some sort of epiphany. Other times, it is remarkable that they haven’t changed at all. Who has changed in this story? Mr Tracy realises that he is silly to let the teenaged guest dictate the emotional well-being of his household. “She’s only a kid,” he says, and agrees to come home for Madeline’s birthday dinner. His wife, on the other hand, refuses to believe that things are not hunky dory. “People often say things,” she explains to her young daughter, “You must never pay attention to what people say if you know the opposite to be true.”
By this point, the reader of the story knows that the opposite is true; that no one in this household is particularly happy, and that Mrs Tracy refuses to admit it. The birthday party will go on, presumably, as Mrs Tracy wishes it to, with everyone else there under sufferance. Specifically, the story ends with Mrs Tracy telling Allie for the umpteenth time to call Madeline and Paul so that ‘we can get breakfast over with and get this day under way’. By this point, even Mrs Tracy is starting to endure things. Earlier, Madeline overheard her remarking to Doris what a beautiful day it is. So the last sentence serves to highlight to the reader the contrast between hopes/perceptions and realities.
QUESTIONS LEFT OPEN FOR THE READER
I’m not sure if I’m meant to be wondering this, but I found myself wondering about the nature of the relationship between Madeline and Mr Tracy. Why does Madeline get so upset at a small slight from Mr Tracy in the library? If she cares about his opinion of her, perhaps she has conflicted emotions. Has something happened while Mrs Tracy was absorbed in her own fantasy world? Or is Madeline simply missing her own father, hoping for a more present and engaging father figure for the summer? It is likely that Mr Tracy has no attraction to the girl. His thoughts of her hair are simply about its being ‘too long and thick for the season’. I suspect his assessment of the girl’s hair would be one of admiration if this were a Lolita sort of story.
Approximately 3400 words broken into 1000, 900, 1200, 300 word segments.
The entire story takes place over the course of a few hours, maybe less than an hour, before breakfast.
This story is the first in a collection of Gallant’s earliest stories.
Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party, in which a teenage girl starts her day in high spirits but ends in a quite different frame of mind. See also Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss for an example of a pear tree used symbolically.
Mavis Gallant herself recommends anyone who aspires to be a short story writer should read Chekhov.
She has only two words of advice for aspiring short story writers: read Chekhov! “Anybody who has the English language and doesn’t read the wonderful translations of Chekhov is an idiot.” She also admires Eudora Welty, Marguerite Yourcenar and Elizabeth Bowen, although she was disappointed to read Bowen’s letters to her lover Charles Ritchie, whom Gallant knew. “She turns out to be a snob.
WRITE YOUR OWN
- A birthday (or other instance of contrived fun) which doesn’t go to plan
- A summer (or other season) spent in a place where you didn’t want to be
- A character who perseveres with a positive attitude despite surrounding circumstances which fail to live up to expectations