Short Story Study: The Burgundy Weekend by Mavis Gallant

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.

PLOT

Part One

Lucie and Jerome Girard are due to meet an elderly woman for lunch in Burgundy. They are in France on holiday. Lucie, who tends to think the best of people, should have known better than to ask her insufferable boast of a cousin, Gilles, to pick them up from their cheap hotel in Paris and drive them to Burgundy. He is seven hours late and boasts about himself and his family all the way to Burgundy, despite it being obvious that his life isn’t nearly as excellent as he tells it. (He needs to borrow money for fuel, for example.) The house in Burgundy is unlike any other they have seen. Although they were too late for lunch anyway, it turns out their elderly hostess has had to go to Paris, and would’ve missed them no matter what. Since Lucie didn’t pass on the name of their exact hotel, she’s been unable to send her own apologies. Her granddaughter is barefoot and cold of manner; a bohemian type. Gilles takes off, leaving Lucie and Jerome there. He’s due to be at some conference in Dijon.

 

Part Two

Lucie is charged with the unpleasant task of making small talk with Nadine. Eventually, after dinner (of which Lucie hasn’t enough), Jerome finally starts to warm to Nadine, and then Lucie is grateful that the two are laughing with each other. The reader now has access to the backstory of how they happen to be at this house: The old woman seems to have a crush on Jerome, having met him in his youth. She has been corresponding with him for 20 years, after he was invited to her house for a political meeting many years ago. They are socialists. In bed that night, Jerome paces around the room tearing up papers. Lucie trusts that he’d never do anything truly destructive, but given Lucie’s set-up as naive and forgiving, this scene lends a sense of foreboding for the reader. What is Jerome about to do?

 

Part Three

In the morning Jerome gets up earlier than Lucie. Lucie wants to believe he’s being quiet so as not to wake her. She eventually joins the rest of the household. The housekeeper is getting rid of a rat with a broom. It is clear from the conversation now that Nadine and Jerome have developed a bond, probably the previous evening. Jerome goes out with Nadine to the local village, leaving Lucie at home for the entire morning to ‘play’ Scrabble on her own. Nadine asks Jerome to kiss her. Upon returning to the house, Nadine says that she must drive to the train station to pick up the grandmother, who is due in after one. Lucie sees strain between the two characters, and wonders if they’ve had a fight.

 

Part Four

It turns out Nadine has taken both Lucie and Jerome to the train station with her — Lucie has expressed interest in seeing what a French train station looks like. Nadine abandons them as soon as they arrive — she has her own errand to run for an hour or so. She says it’s to get a key cut, but Lucie doesn’t believe the story, especially given that it’s a Sunday, when a locksmith would not be working.  The grandmother arrives, and ignores Lucie. When she asks Jerome how he is, Lucie answers for him, out of habit, but she is completely ignored. The reader is left wondering if she really said anything out loud at all. She is ignored in the same way she was ignored in the car with the insufferable cousin on the journey from Paris.

 

Part Five

It is now Monday and Gilles has arrived to pick the couple up and drop them off back in Paris. Gilles is full of talk about the food he’d been served in Dijon. He wonders why he’s so interested in food and Jerome starts off on a ranty monologue about how it’s because he’s really a lonely bachelor. Deflecting and ignoring, Gilles tells the dog to shut up. He asks Lucie if Jerome is all right. Lucie replies that yes, he is fine, and his speaking like that only proved it.

 

 

SETTING

Paris, on a Saturday in June. Next Burgundy.

Paris to Burgundy

 

Apart from being the name of a French town, the name of ‘Burgundy’ has associations with opulence and riches. Yet the house in Burgundy is not like that at all. The niece is ‘barefoot’. The elderly house servant Marcelle is too old to be working and she wears a white moustache. They eat in front of the television. There is not enough to eat. This story is all about money.

A sense of colour and brightness comes from the house in Burgundy. Outside, everything is white and searing and bright. Inside, the curtains are red; Nadine eats a (red) strawberry tart. The curtains in the guest bedroom are white. This is a scene full of reds and whites. Yet Gilles’ BMW is blue. Red, white and blue. (These are the colours of the French flag. Is it significant?)

Blue and red are the traditional colours of Paris, used on the city’s coat of arms. Blue is identified with Saint Martin, red with Saint Denis.

– Wikipedia

 

CHARACTER

The reader is set up to identify and empathise most with Lucie. She is surrounded by unpleasant characters and deals with them admirably. We are told in narratorial asides that whenever Lucie happens to ‘answer back’, she means no malice. When she is dished out an insult she assumes nothing bad is meant by it. We all have the experience of such people, and are bound to admire Lucie’s responses. At the same time, we may be slightly frustrated regarding her naivety.

 

Gilles

mussolini portrait shot

In youth Gilles had looked like Julius Caesar, but now that he had grown thickly into his forties, he reminded people of Mussolini.

Originally from Quebec, Canada. Spends 10 months of the year in America. Says he has a huge research grant. Is currently based in France, in Neuilly. Keeps an apartment in Paris for ‘the girls’ education’ because he wants them to be fluent in French.  Has another apartment in New Haven built in 1728. He lives there by himself, seeing his family only sometimes.

Has at three daughters. Wife is called Laure, who sounds as self-important as he is. Their daughter Sophie has an IQ of 180. Another Chantal has an IQ of 175. Chantal’s IQ is between 175 and 180. The girls’ mother ‘was a Soplex of the Soplex mineral water family’. Although he constantly boasts about being rich, he never has the change for anything, expecting others to pay. Supports ‘five people and a dog’. (Who is the unmentioned one?) He admires his wife for her well-off, delicate upbringing, and prides himself on the fact that his wife doesn’t enjoy sex with him. (The reader may well conclude that’s because he’s a selfish lover, but he frames it as though his wife is simply delicate.) The wife suffers from a skin condition (vitiligo?).

Full of self-importance, keeping Jerome and Lucie waiting for seven hours at their grimy hotel in Paris. Only agrees to pick up his cousins because he has to be in Dijon and wants company for the road. He is going to Dijon for an antiquarians’ trade fair, as the guest of a famous professor somebody, ‘a celebrated authority on medieval church carvings’. He calls himself one of the top three or four in his field. An expert in dermatology.

Wears a tweed cap and 1910 goggles.  His blue BMW stinks of cigars. Has a slavering black Labrador sitting where Lucie is meant to sit. His radio is tuned on to a concert.

It is clear from the way Mavis Gallant writes the dialogue, full of non sequiturs, that Gilles isn’t paying the slightest attention to what Lucie has to say, continuing with his own thoughts as if she’d said nothing at all.

Jérôme Girard (late 30s)

Lucie’s husband. There are hints early in the story that all is not right with Jerome. Lucie notes that he is all right on this day. She asks him not to drop sad remarks this weekend. Does he suffer from depression? After Lucie asks him this he won’t speak to her. This sets him up as the antithesis of Gilles, who won’t shut up. He is at least 39, by Gilles’ estimations. Jerome doesn’t speak English. In the 1950s he has taken his university degrees in literature in France. Gilles assumes he did this because he wanted to write something, which is not the case at all. Come from money but is so irresponsible with it that he squandered it all on a series of failed ventures, like the backing of a string quartet who’d run out of the money and been stranded. In his youth, Jerome was a daily communicant (which means he received Holy Communion every day). If he missed Mass he went to Vespers. (Vespers is the evening version of Mass.) He never had enough to eat, but came into the money after his grandfather died. Then he started meeting a different sort of person. That’s when he’d met Madame Arrieu. At a political meeting, where the two had a meeting of minds over the idea of a ‘Negro King’.

 

Lucie Girard (28)

Cousin of Gilles. Last saw Gilles when she was about 12. She is a nurse who had taken six months’ special training in the psychiatric wing of an American hospital, so speaks some English. (We wonder: Did she meet Jerome when he was a patient there? Sure enough, several sentences later we learn that this is the case.) So devout and solemn as a child that her sisters feared she might become a nun. No longer a practising Catholic as an adult. Although her husband is incompetent re life, she does not want to strip him of his manhood, and render him incapable. Lucie is a peacemaker inclined to think the best of people, which explains how she ended up in Gilles’ company in the first place.

Lucie ‘had a special ear for him, as a person conscious of mice can detect the faintest rustling.’

‘Lucie sat alone at the Scrabble board putting together high-scoring words in the best places.’

Jerome thinks of her as a flower sometimes. Although Madame Arrieu is her husband’s friend, it is she who is tasked with the emotional labour of being good guests, even though it’s clear Nadine Besson doesn’t enjoy her company, finding her attempts to make conversation interminably boring. Lucie feels homesick for Montreal.’

Lucie’s dress is white, perhaps symbolising her innocence, her tendency to see the best in situations. This means she also matches the environment at the Burgundy house, with its white walls and curtains and bright white lawn under the sun.

 

Madame Henriette Arrieu

Lucie and Jerome are due at Madame Henriette’s house for lunch, but the delays of Gilles mean they can’t make it in time. Is not at the house anyhow because she has to be in Paris for some sort of memorial service to do with the Resistance. Spent the war in English. An anglophile. Attracted to Jerome. She’d been somehow involved with Jerome’s grandfather for a time.

 

Nadine Besson

The granddaughter of Madame Henriette. Has a French coldness in her manner. Handshake like ‘a newborn mouse’.  A ‘Latin Quarter leftover’ by Gilles’ estimations. Cafe student type.

 

Marcelle the senior house servant

Although she doesn’t speak much in the story, Marcelle’s is a memorable image, especially as she has grown a moustache. Similarly, the housekeeper of One Morning In May (Doris) features large in the story even though the story is not about her as such. Marcelle smokes thin cigars. She has an assistant but lets the assistant play Patience. These two old ladies belong to the old world.

 

THEME

Time marches forward and there’s no going back.

Everything becomes defunct eventually.

Even if a couple doesn’t seem to like the other, or don’t really seem to get on, they can still be mirror images  — one incomplete without the other.

We have the capacity to fool ourselves, but not the more astute of those around us.

TECHNIQUE OF NOTE

There are several mentions of mice, used figuratively. Lucie is attuned to her husband as one might be attuned to a mouse. Nadine Besson at the house offers Lucie her hand, which feels like a newborn white mouse. “A rat got in,” Nadine explains, with Marcelle holding a broom. Why the rodent imagery? Perhaps this is to do with the character of Nadine and her wish to attract Lucie’s husband away from her.

 

There is a wonderful juxtaposition between a life which revolves around insignificant things trumped up: Gilles is off to spend time with a professor the most obscure speciality one could think of. Jerome has squandered his money on a quartet and presumably other frivolities. This is set against a backdrop of political tension: There’s the socialist political leanings of Jerome and the old lady, reference to the Revolution. These characters are living in important times but individual lives are full of unimportant minutiae.

Though the story was written over 1970-71, the character of Nadine says:

“All you people, you intellectuals, are still living in the nineteen sixties.” Before then life had been nothing but legends: grandfather’s death as a hero, great-uncle’s deportation, grandmother in London being brave and bombed.

Against this recent backdrop, anything that happens at the beginning of the 1970s is bound to feel frivolous.

Below we have an example of two ordinary, everyday details bookending a matter of law which, at its heart, is about life and death:

The woman telling [the story] had on a felt hat. An unborn child was considered a legal heir if it had attained five months of its pre-natal life; but if a foetus was unlucky enough to lose a father when it was only four and three-quarter months old, then it came into the world without any inheritance whatever. It could no inherit its father’s land, his gold coins, his farm machinery, his livestock.

“What do you think of my washing machine?” said another woman, cutting off the story.

 

There is also a motif about doubling and duplication and mirror images running through the story.

Jerome and Nadine had dark eyes. It must be like looking at your own reflection on somebody’s sunglasses, she thought.

Nadine mimics Gilles after Jerome has repeated the conversation to her the previous night. Lucie feels both annoyed by and protective of Gilles at the same time.

‘… this conversation kept twisting and doubling back.’

the town with the wall and two towers

Jerome examines his own face in the glass ‘as if he’d forgotten what he was’, after the street has become too narrow for him and Lucie to walk side by side. ‘When they came to a corner they collided, each attempting to cross in a different direction.’

‘a miniature, eager Lucies was held on the surface of her glasses’

There had never been another Haydn.

The reflection imagery could be in regards to the old compared with the new, or it could be a comment on the relationship between Lucie and Jerome.

 

STORY SPECS

At approximately 12,000 words, this is more like a novella, broken into five parts.

This is the final story in the collection The Cost Of Living and was written after Mavis Gallant had published a couple of novels.

The Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant

COMPARE WITH

Six Feet Under, the TV series written by Alan Ball is a great example of frequent, masterful juxtaposition. One moment the story will be about life and death; the next, Nate and David will be talking about paying the bills. David tells his mother he’s gay; Ruth says they’re having veal for dinner. Six Feet Under, also, is about the passage of time and the set design in particular blends the old and the new. The kitchen is timeless, but as soon as the characters set foot outside they are in ‘modern’ California (of the early 2000s).

 

WRITE YOUR OWN

Have you ever felt unwelcome while staying in someone else’s house?

Have you ever been trapped for an extended period of time with an insufferable person who seems a caricature of themselves?

Have you ever felt entirely ignored?

Short Story Study: The Cost Of Living by Mavis Gallant

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.

degas-little-dancer-front
Sylvie is compared to Degas’ Dancer, with her thrust up head and insolent chin.

PLOT

The first big chunk of this story comprises character sketches. It’s important that the reader understand the character of Louise and Sylvie before the turning point, in which Sylvie asks Louise for money. This is outrageous to Louise, who is very frugal and would no more ask someone for money than attend an orgy. This has been foreshadowed by the narrator, Patricia, who has avoided getting to know the bohemians in their apartment block for the very reason that money is always borrowed, which leads to trouble and rifts. Unpredictably, Louise becomes friends with Sylvie, and Sylvie uses Louise to pay for all sorts of big, expensive things. This starts after Louise, completely out of character, buys Sylvie an expensive dolphin necklace, then telling herself it was much cheaper than it actually was. Sylvie eventually takes off to join a Christian commune, feeling that acting hasn’t worked out, sick of Louise now that Louise needs her emotionally. Louise goes back to Australia. Sylvie eventually returns to retrieve her things, boasting to Patricia that material things are not important to her now, while delivering the insult that Patricia could do with being less materialistic herself. (Despite Patricia working for everything she has.) So Patricia asks for her necklace. Sylvie hands the necklace over, but says, ‘It never brought me bonheur.’ Patricia realises that it won’t bring her any, either, and she takes the necklace, though she doesn’t really want it.

Bonheur is explained within the text as meaning ‘luck’. It also includes the sense of happiness/pleasure/good humour.

 

SETTING

The sisters are from Melbourne and during the story are living a bohemian life on the left bank of Paris.

paris-right-bank-left-bank

 

Published in 1962, this is a story about a woman who was widowed very young after the war. Louise’s Protestant attitudes towards frugality are amplified by her wartime sense of frugality. In short, it’s significant that this story is set after the war. Louise feels like a woman of her time.

There was little work in Paris at this time, when bohemian types could afford to live centrally, albeit on Left Bank. Fellow apartment dwellers are living on a knife edge, economically. This is reflected in the title ‘The Cost Of Living’. Money is never very far from the characters’ minds. Mavis Gallant herself moved to Paris as a young woman after having a little success with her short story writing. She gave herself a deadline to see if she could ‘make it’ as a writer’. This feels like a very brave thing to do. No doubt the author herself is very familiar with the cost of living in Paris while trying to make it as a creative.

 

CHARACTER

The Cost of Living characters

We don’t learn much about the narrator, Patricia Tate; only insofar as she is different from her frugal older sister. She paints a detailed character sketch of her frugal older sister, disciplined of mind, in contrast with another young woman living in the same apartment block: Sylvie. While Louise is an older woman, widowed due to war, having spent eleven years looking after a sick mother before joining her younger sister in Paris, Sylvie Laval is flighty and young and inappropriately exuberant. Both Louise and Sylvie are introduced in the very first sentence, though Sylvie doesn’t come into the story until later, leaving us to wonder what her role is.

The character of Louise is fully-fleshed, and we are offered much description, mainly to help us understand how out of character it is when Louise starts paying for Sylvie’s lifestyle. The first character sketch:

Louise’s progress down the steps was halting and slow. At the best of times she never hurried, and now she was guiding her bicycle and carrying a trench coat, a plaid scarf, Herriot’s Life of Beethoven, Cassell’s English-French, a bottle of cough medicine she intended to exchange for another brand, and a notebook, in which she had listed facts about ninteenth-century music under so many headings, in so many divisions of divisions, that she had lost sight of the whole.

If reading that introductory thumbnail character sketch after having read the entire story, we realise that these details set us up for the plot: Unlike her narrating sister, who can see the whole picture due to her slightly removed angle, Louise, when manipulated by Sylvie, ‘has lost sight of the whole’. Wise as she is, she can’t see that Sylvie is taking her for a ride.

An important thing about Louise is that she has the ability to turn a blind eye, despite her need to classify and balance books. She copes with being a widow by almost forgetting that she was married at all. She manages to forget despite wearing her rings every day. When Sylvie breaks a piece off the expensive dolphin necklace, rather than feel let down, Louise barely seems to notice.

What else in this story is she refusing to see? It is clear to Patricia that Sylvie and Patrick are sleeping together. Is it also possible that Louise is in love with Sylvie, but refuses to acknowledge these feelings within herself?

When first describing the character of Sylvie, again the reader is treated not only to a description of her abode and her grimy appearance, but we get a sense of how she moves. This paints her in direct juxtaposition with Louise. While Louise is ‘halting and slow’, Sylvie is ‘flighty’:

Sylvie lived in an ancient linen cupboard. The shelves had been taken out and a bed, a washstand, a small table, a straight chair pushed inside….As she usually forgot to shut [the door] behind her, anyone who wanted could see her furrowed bed and the basin, in which underclothes floated among islands of scum. She would plunge down the stairs, leaving a blurred impression of mangled hair and shining eyes. Her eyes were a true black, with the pupil scarcely distinct from the iris. Later I knew that she came from the southwest of France; I think that some of her people were Basques. The same origins gave her a stocky peasant’s build and thick, practical hands. Her hand, grasping the stair rail, and the firm tread of her feet specified a quality of strength that had nothing in common with the forced liveliness of Parisian girls, whose energy seemed to me as thin and strung up as their voices. Her scarf, her gloves flew from her like birds. Her shoes could never keep up with her feet.

What of the young actor who lives next door to Patricia? He is an eccentric character.

“I never notice young girls,” said the young man, which seemed like a fatuous compliment, but Louise turned pink. [Is he gay, or is he interested in Louise, who is older?]

Although he lives in the same building as Louise and Patricia, he first agrees to meet Louise in the drawing room of some house full of glass cabinets with heads of mannequins and exotic jewellery inside.

He sits at Louise’s feet rather than on a chair.

Patrick is just a stage name.

Close examination of his clothing shows that he is simply pretending to be poor.

Reads in groaning, French classical manner which Patricia can hear coming through the wall.

Wants a visa to join a repertory theatre in America, but never achieves it.

His family lives in Dordogne. He’d go back there after growing old. (Though he is young, he thinks of his elderly years.)

Has had a sexual relationship with Sylvie in the past, but has enough care of other people’s feelings to warn Sylvie not to tell Louise (who may or may not have been sleeping with Patrick herself, briefly — Patricia is not sure.)

‘From the beginning they stood too close; his face was like a painting in which there are three eyes and a double profile.’ (The reader finds Patrick hard to pin down because the narrator does.)

‘He seldom gestured.’

‘He did not believe he was like anyone else in the world, not for a minute….  I saw him twice… but I cannot see him.’

It is significant that Patrick is an actor. Even his name is not his own; he is standing in for someone else. That someone, we find out, is Louise’s first husband. It is only after Patrick leaves that Louise is able to grieve for Collie, who never returned from the war at the age of 20.

 

THEME

Forming acquaintanceships has its rewards but brings unwelcome complications.

It’s easier to see the dynamics between people when you’re not directly involved.

We sometimes fool ourselves better than we fool the people to whom we are closest.

 

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Mavis Gallant could have chosen a great many details to describe Paris, but here she must write about Paris from the point of view of Australians. From the very first paragraph we get that sense: Paris is described as ‘dark’. This is indeed how Europe seems to Australians, coming from a bright landscape with searing sun.

At five o’clock the skylight over the stairway and the blank, black windows on each of the landings were pitch dark—dark with the season, dark with the cold, dark with the dark air of cities.

Louise has been warned of the damp. She is mistaken for an English Miss. Being from Australasia and mistaken for either an English person or an American is a common experience for us, and so I’ve no doubt that Mavis Gallant knew an Australian while she herself lived in Paris. Either that or she travelled to Australia herself and imagined what it must be like. Being Canadian, Mavis Gallant may well have been familiar with mistaken nationalities. She was probably mistaken for being American on a regular basis.

Although this is a story, the reader is encouraged to suspend disbelief by having certain things explained away:

This sort of thing is supposed never to happen in cities, and it does happen. [This explains how two characters who are neighbours meet elsewhere. Sure enough, it happens in real life more often than an author gets away with it on the page. And so it is mentioned within the text.]

In a book or a film one of us would have gone with him as far as the station.

Mavis Gallant makes the reader work a little. Instead of saying ‘Louise went back to Australia’ she writes, ‘One day… she said, “There’s no place like home, is there?” A week later, I put her on the boat train.’

 

STORY SPECS

This is the longest story in the collection, one of Gallant’s longest. Approx 9000 words

First person point of view, from the younger sister of the main character. The younger sister is more introverted. Introverted types tend to be good observers, and are a common choice for narrators.

This is the title story from a collection published 2009.

The Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant

 

WRITE YOUR OWN

Have you ever had several sets of neighbours/classmates/workmates who seem the antithesis of each other?

Have you ever been asked for money, with problematic results?

Have you ever been shocked at someone else’s lack of decorum?

Bernadette by Mavis Gallant

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”.

The-nanny-1965-movie-poster
The Nanny 1965
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle 1992
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle 1992

Sometimes the trope isn’t used in the horror genre, but to lend a bit of horror to a different kind of story.

The evil nanny from season four of Downton Abbey 2013
The evil nanny from season four of Downton Abbey 2013

 

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.

PLOT OF BERNADETTE

A housemaid (Bernadette) working for an English family in Montreal falls pregnant. Eventually some houseguests point her expanding belly out to her employers. The wife, based on knowledge of previous infidelities from her husband, thinks that her husband has made the housemaid pregnant. She confronts him but realises that, on this occasion, she may be wrong. The reader is left wondering the same thing.

In the final scene, Bernadette sits alone, as usual, in the womb-like movie theatre, watching a love story which she knows is not a reflection of real life, but enjoying it regardless. Having come from a destitute family in which the mother did not believe in vaccinations, Bernadette does not believe for a moment that her baby will survive. She thinks of her future dead baby, and that she will have her own little guardian angel for always.

 

SETTING OF BERNADETTE

The story itself is set in Montreal, but this is an English home. In order to fully appreciate the story, ideally the reader would have some knowledge of the political climate in Canada and in particular Quebec in the mid 1950s. Even without this knowledge, though, we are given enough information to deduce that Nora is a left-wing socialist.

Bernadette is French Canadian and comes from Abatibi, a region of Quebec. We are given enough information to know that she grew up in poverty, in an area with parochial attitudes.

Abitibi Quebec Canada

CHARACTER

bernadette characters mavis gallant

Before coming to Montreal, Bernadette had been warned about the licentious English—reserved on the surface, hypocritical, infinitely wicked underneath…

The most important attribute of Mr and Mrs Knight alike is that neither of them is really as they wish themselves to be. They send their daughters to private school even though their politics mean that they don’t believe in the principles behind private schools. Nora Knight pretends to want eradication of the class system as it stands, but has a keen sense of hierarchies herself, telling her housemaid to leave certain arduous tasks for the char. A truly egalitarian attitude would have the family managing their own housework. Robbie Knight is a partner in a firm of consulting engineers but fancies himself a frustrated playwright, getting a cheap fix from offering armchair critique on anything written for the English language stage. Yet Robbie is ‘afraid of words’. “Bernadette reads French better than we do,” Nora says to her dinner-party guests, as if Bernadette’s status as housemaid would automatically render her illiterate and unthinking in her own native tongue.

It is significant that the main characters are not who they appear to be, because at the end of the story the reader is left wondering, as his wife does, if Robbie Knight is who he appears to be. Nora, preparing to move out, imagines the living room as it would look if it were emptied of furniture, knowing that there are cracks in the walls behind the pictures hanging there. There are metaphorical cracks running through this relationship, based on untruths and false political views. Nora holds a party for a priest even though she is anti-Catholic. Even the house is ‘pseudo-Tudor’.

It is significant that Bernadette is Catholic. This is left to be inferred (mainly from the name) but also by the fact that her employer is Protestant, leaving the reader to deduce that Bernadette is not. The difference in religion is just one of many differences between the household and the housemaid.

He prays for me

 

THEME

Things are not as they seem on the outside.

We may think that we’ve been forgiven for our trespasses; indeed we may have been. But don’t be surprised when we’re later accused of something we didn’t actually do.

Forgiveness has its limits. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean revival of trust.

We cannot understand what goes on in another person’s mind. Empathy, too, has its limits when there are class boundaries to be traversed.

Favours done for others are often, if not always, done to appease our own selves.

Egalitarian, socialist political views are easy; harder to stick to your morally correct principles if it means making genuine personal sacrifice.

 

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN BERNADETTE

From the very first sentence the reader is invited to speculate upon what, exactly, Bernadette is counting down to. Given that Bernadette is a young woman, it is easy to guess that she is pregnant, and we feel smart when this is revealed. It is important that the reader guesses correctly because then we are given the confidence to guess at the father of the baby; like Nora Knight, we may well guess that it’s her husband Robbie at fault. We then understand how Nora Knight jumps to the same conclusion. This is a masterful technique which requires the author to understand exactly how the reader is interpreting her work, and at what pace.

The exact setting of the story is not revealed until midway through. The story is set in Montreal, Quebec, where the dominant culture is French. Until this was revealed, I had imagined that the French-speaking housemaid was in an English-speaking part of Canada or America, on the back foot because of the need to converse in a language that is not her own. However, after the revelation that the story is set in the land of the French, this puts the Knights on the back-foot. It is the Knights who are speaking the foreign language. It is the Knights who are compromised in this way. As it turns out, the Knights have communication difficulties between themselves, despite their modern, progressive, California-style way of sharing their feelings and ‘talking things through’ in the kitchen. They are both foreigners in foreign territory, and this atmosphere extends inwards, right into the home. By contrast, the disenfranchised housemaid manages to feel secure, despite being alone in the picture theatre. Is the housemaid really all that much worse off than the people she works for?

There is a phrase which is repeated, in relation to Bernadette: There are certain things of which she never doubts. One of them is that men in the street will want to sleep with her, and so that’s what happens. In the final paragraph the phrase is repeated: ‘It would be born and it would die. That it would die she never doubted.’ This is disturbing given what we have learnt of Bernadette — that she gives herself over to what she thinks must be inevitable. Since this girl will be responsible for the baby’s life, we are left with a sense of foreboding. The last three words of the story are ‘ready for death’. The masterful thing about this foreshadowing is that it culminates in terror.

 

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Who is the father of Bernadette’s baby? For the purposes of the story — in order to understand the theme — no answer is necessary. But is it just that? Are we supposed to try and work it out?

Robbie refers several times to Bernadette’s ‘snail’-like hair. This suggests he does not find her sexually attractive; snails are the least sexual things alive, well-known for being mostly hermaphrodites. It’s unlikely that Robbie found Bernadette physically attractive. But of course this means nothing, because non-consensual sex (if it was that) doesn’t always involve physical attraction, being about other things, such as power.

Bernadette is shown a number of times throughout the story to be a devout, or at least a very mindful, Catholic, which forbids sex before marriage. But when she goes looking in shop windows she usually ends up with a man, ironically because she has been warned about such things and therefore finds it inevitable.

‘Unexpectedly, in that ghostly way they had, he was beside her at the book case.’

Robbie grabs Bernadette’s arm in a baffling way. Bernadette represents warmth and comfort, which she brings into the room with her. It is explained that Robbie has a fascination for women ‘of the people’. In short, he may well be interested in Bernadette because of her difference and mystery. He even tries to get some answers out of her, asking if she has a big kitchen back home, and if her farm is quite modern.

‘she had, in a sense, accepted it as inevitable that Mr. Knight would try to seduce her. When it was over she would have another sin to account for. Mr. Knight, a Protestant, would not have sinned at all. Unique in her sin, she felt already lonely. His apology sent her off into the strange swamp world again, a world in which there was no footing; she had the same feeling as when they tried to make her read books.’ It’s unclear, written in a subjunctive sort of mood, whether this seduction actually happened or if this is something Bernadette is worried might happen, given that Robbie is English, and that she has been warned about the English. The one slip of the subjunctive is ‘His apology sent her off…’ Did Robbie apologise to her, and what was it for, exactly? Are we back in the present now, with Robbie apologising for grabbing her arm?

Bernadette tells Nora that Robbie ‘should know’ about her pregnancy, and doesn’t want him involved at all.

In short, we’re given enough evidence either way, which leaves us in limbo as regards Robbie’s guilt.

STORY SPECS OF BERNADETTE

Approx 8,500 words

Dated 1957

Third person point of view, switching between the characters of Bernadette, Robbie and Nora. The story begins and ends with Bernadette, the title character.

Found in The Cost Of Living.

The Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant

COMPARE WITH

The Heroine by May Sinclair, also about a housemaid who goes above and beyond duty, leading the reader to wonder about her motivations.

WRITE YOUR OWN

Have you ever been baffled by the behaviour of someone you have invited into your home?

Have you ever known someone whose political beliefs do not reflect their real-world actions? Do you struggle with this kind of discordance yourself?

Have you ever been at a party which started off amicably but descended into arguments after the liquor kicked in?

 

Thieves and Rascals by Mavis Gallant

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.

 

in and out of the frame

PLOT

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.

 

SETTING

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.

 

CHARACTER

thieves and rascals mavis gallant characters

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.

 

THEME

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.

 

STORY SPECS

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 Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant

COMPARE WITH

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?’

don-and-betty-draper

 

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?

Autumn Day by Mavis Gallant

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.

PLOT

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.

SETTING

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.

– Wikipedia

Salzberg Austria

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?)

CHARACTER

autumn day mavis gallant characters

In order to emphasise the way a young wife would have typically been regarded, Mavis Gallant emphasised the childlike attitude of the narrator. She first tells the reader how immature the narrator was, then backs this image up with examples (some quite subtle) all throughout the story. The reader is left in no doubt about the naivety, the loneliness and the isolation of the narrator.

Walt is ‘already a little bald’ when she gets off the train that autumn, even though he is still 29. At a youthful 19, a ten year age difference is a lot, and to the childlike Cissy, whose diminutive name is somewhat allegorical. All she sees in her husband is his advanced age.

‘I waved at Walt, smiling, the way girls do in illustrations.’ Cissy still demonstrates the narcissism of youth, in which we define ourselves according to how we must appear to others from the outside looking in. Cissy uses fictional girls in pictures as models for how to act; she has not yet developed her own identity.

Losing a hatbox upset her, ‘nearly in tears’. Concerned with inconsequential material items rather than the fact of moving to a new country to begin life with her new husband should make the reader question her sense of perspective.

Such details continue throughout the story. It is revealed that Cissy doesn’t really consider herself old enough to be pregnant, or how she may have become so. Not knowing whether she is or isn’t, she half-believes Laura McColl when she suggests a possible reason for Cissy’s discontent.

 

 

THEME

One theme is revealed in the title. The seasons are commonly used as symbols to mark passages through life, or through some other event, with spring being a time of growth; summer being a time of naivety and happiness; autumn where everything changes (probably for the worse) and winter being darkness culminating in death.

Within the story, on the most surface layer of meaning, Autumn Day is the English translation of one of Dorothy West’s songs, one which resonates with Cissy and moves her emotionally. On a deeper layer of meaning, Cissy is on the brink of maturity, and she is mourning the loss of the girl she used to be.

Weather is often in stories to mean something more than just ‘the weather’. Here, too, the autumnal cloudscape feels oppressive to Cissy. Like a storm coming, she senses something bad is afoot.

This is also a story about truth-telling versus secret-keeping, with the cast of characters each representing different degrees of possible openness. Dorothy West is the most closed of all, refusing to speak to the other house guests for the during of her stay at the farmhouse. Cissy herself comes next, drawn to the secretive world of Dorothy West. Dorothy West, it is revealed, speaks four languages. Dorothy West is obviously a mature woman of the world who knows things, and Cissy is longing for an older mentor. Cissy’s husband Walt is equally reserved, revealing nothing of himself to his young wife, including the fact that he can read German, for example. Mrs de Kende is charged with the task of keeping a grave secret, but is not naturally suited to the task. Mrs de Kende sees in Cissy what Cissy sees in Dorothy West — a confidante who can keep secrets. They bond over a single incident. When a small bird is thrown into the fire, Mrs de Kende sees Cissy’s discomfort, and extends the metaphor to assume that Cissy is equally sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, who (in a not-so-subtle) metaphorical way were murdered en masse in similar fashion. Existing mainly as an antithesis to Cissy is Laura McColl, who not only talks incessantly to Cissy about the problems in her marriage but speaks rudely about the nanny in front of the nanny (who may or may not understand enough English to realise).

closed-open-personality
Note that by ‘openness’ I don’t mean the kind from ‘The Big 5 Personality Traits’ ie ‘openness to new experience’; rather, to ‘the extent to which one needs privacy’.

This is an interesting story because it bucks a certain trope: The most open characters in stories tend to be the most likeable. Readers identify more easily with those who we can easily ‘read’, who share the most. But in this particular story, the most open of them all is also the least likeable. This partly explains Mavis Gallant’s choice to write in first person point of view. Being such a private person, Cissy might have been a little harder to identify with if we were not allowed to see her exact point of view.

I’m impressed by how the story still feels very modern, and equally disappointed that even today there is a myth (clearly demonstrated in rape culture, for example) that women, as a species, are basically liars. Cissy’s husband warns her not to listen to anything Laura says about her husband, not because Laura has her own particular problems, but ‘because women talk about their husbands’. Cissy is offended by this but can’t at the time articulate why. Her reasons for taking offence are left for the reader to interpret: Cissy is a woman and does not betray confidences regarding her marriage; therefore this statement about ‘women in general’ is incorrect and unfair.

 

STORY SPECS

Approx 5100 words

First person POV from perspective of the narrator who has matured and is looking back on her youth

Written in 1955

Published in The Cost Of Living

The Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant

COMPARE WITH

Prelude by Katherine Mansfield, in which the character of Beryl exhibits the same sort of narcissism of youth, looking at herself in the mirror, imagining what she must look like to someone else. Both Mavis Gallant and Katherine Mansfield convey this feeling in a masterful way.

Lost In Translation starring Scarlett Johannsen and Bill Murray, a film which conveys the feeling of loneliness that can come from being cooped up in a room in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and have no close friends.

 

WRITE YOUR OWN

A time you were in a situation where no one was like you

A person you felt somehow connected to but who you never had the opportunity to know, and who you’ve thought of a lot since

A milestone passage in life, which marked some sort of boundary between immaturity and maturity, regardless of actual age

 

A Day Like Any Other by Mavis Gallant

Girls At The Piano Renoir
Girls at the Piano by Renoir

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?

PLOT

Two girls (perhaps aged 7 and 8) upset their governess by telling her their father has died in order to break up the monotony of their day. The father is actually in hospital, with a condition doctors can’t diagnose.

 

SETTING

Although the Kennedys keep moving from country to country (experiences you’d think would be quite different) each day is essentially the same, revolving around the father’s stomach complaints then basing themselves in pensions near whatever establishment happens to be treating it. The reader is told in the first paragraph about the view outside the window (which includes The Rhine). The masterful thing about this description of place is that it manages to tell the reader where the story is set (to get that ambiguity out of the way) while also showing us a view through the daughters’ eyes, introducing them as ordinary kids eating an ordinary breakfast.

The Rhine

 

CHARACTERS

A Day Like Any Other The Kennedys

Mavis Gallant likes to create married couples who are quite different. By exaggerating their differences by maybe 10 percent more than in real life, the reader is helped to notice character quirks and how these quirks support the theme.

Although Mr and Mrs Kennedy get on fine as a married couple, it’s clear that they have very different attitudes towards their own role as parents. Perhaps typically for his era, Mr Kennedy has little to do with his daughters, explaining to his wife that they’re not at ‘an interesting age’. Mrs Kennedy wonders when they will be at an interesting age. It is mentioned several times in the story that the girls are too young for boarding school, which suggests that they will be packed off out-of-sight as soon as possible, if only boarding school wouldn’t expose them to the wider world.

It is significant that the daughters in this story are indistinguishable from one another. We are told that they are a year apart, but not who is the elder. The reader is offered no information which would distinguish Jane from Ernestine. The reader does learn that acquaintances and strangers refer to the girls as perfect little ‘dolls’. This is the image that Mrs Kennedy strives for. Details delivered by the narrator tell the reader that in fact these are two ordinary children. Although they look like dolls, they are inclined to get grubby and their table manners need work (‘…making whirlpools in her porridge with her spoon’). Sometimes this ordinariness is conveyed by a single word: ‘They abandoned their slopped glasses of milk’; other times we are given more:

“There’s milk all over your mouth, and Ernestine’s hands are filthy. Do you want to make my life a trial?”

We are also told early on that the girls are not old enough to have perfected their theory of mind: ‘It did not enter her head that her mother knew what snow was like.’ This prepares the reader for the innocent lie that comes later.

Mrs Kennedy doesn’t always succeed in maintaining her vision of her own daughters as little Renoirs. In their bedroom, at the end of the story, she finds them together in bed and thinks they look quite ‘ordinary’.

Their governess, Frau Stegel, is the only other rounded character in this story. She is almost a caricature, but a very recognisable one all the same. Have we all known a teacher who is too emotional for their own good, or who doesn’t know they’re being manipulated by their students?

The children were much too pretty to be taxed with lessons. Frau Stengel gave them film magazines to look at and supervised them contentedly, rocking and filing her nails. She lived a cozy, molelike existence in her room on the attic floor of the hotel, surrounded  by crocheted mats, stony satin cushions, and pictures of kittens cut from magazines. 

 

THEME

This is a story about sameness/monotony and about blindness/ignorance.

For this story, the theme of sameness/monotony is conveyed first via the title. The first paragraph, too, creates a world of entrapment:

Jane and Ernestine were at breakfast in the hotel dining room when the fog finally lifted. It had clung to the windows for weeks, ever since the start of the autumn rains, reducing a promised view of mountains to a watery blur.

The hotel brochure has ‘promised’ a nice view from the window. Similarly, the Kennedys have moved to Germany on the ‘promise’ (or hope) that Mr Kennedy will find a doctor who can help him. Living in fog sometimes feels as if you are surrounded by walls, unable to see very far. This is how it can feel to be a child, unable to see the situation fully as an adult can, trying to piece together what’s happening in a family with limited information. Because there are two girls, they can feed off each other, with the older one not sufficiently old enough to explain things to her younger sister. Mrs Kennedy shields her daughters from the world, refusing to let them even see a movie. She doesn’t even tell them that their governess is expecting a baby, afraid that the girls will ask her to explain the finer details of sex. To the daughters, the whole world is a ‘watery blur’, and so the reader excuses them for wanting to spice up their insular lives just a little bit by telling Frau Stengel that their father is dead.

Frau Stengel herself is another example of a character who is insulted, with her ‘mole-like existence’ and ‘pictures of kittens’. The baby inside her is a further extension of living in the comfort of a womb. Frau Stengel is oblivious to the real dynamics operating between herself and the two lovely little girls. But the reader is told:

“We like you, Frau Stengel,” Jane had said once, meaning that they would rather be shut up here in Frau Stengel’s pleasantly overheated room than be downstairs alone in their bedroom or in the bleak, empty dining room. Frau Stengel had looked at them and after a warm, delicious moment had wiped her eyes.

The themes of sameness and blindness are related, since a monotonous, sheltered life in which each day looks exactly the same ultimately leads to the blindness and ignorance. The irony of this story is that although Mrs Kennedy goes to great lengths to nurture her daughters’ minds, going so far as to employ a governess rather than send them to the local Catholic school, it is the girls’ very ignorance which is just starting to lead to some unpleasant behaviour. Mrs Kennedy’s assessment of her daughters at the end of the story (not beautiful, just ordinary) suggests that this may only be the beginning of the lack of empathy which comes from overprotection. Alternatively, Mrs Kennedy may have just had an epiphany, and realise that because her daughters are ordinary they should have a more ordinary life. Readers are left with the invitation to judge Mrs Kennedy, and decide what we would do ourselves if we were in her position.

 

STRENGTHS OF NOTE

The wonderful advantage of an omniscient POV is that the writer can reveal information of which the character is not aware. Mavis Gallant says a lot about a character via small details:

“I have been told that they resemble little Renoirs,” Mrs Kennedy had replied, with just a trace of correction.

We learn that Mrs Kennedy is concerned with appearance, and also likes to be right. (Though she does defer to her husband, who is far more like that.)

Their charm, after all, was not entirely the work of nature; one’s character was just as important as one’s face, and the girls, thanks to their mother’s vigilance on their behalf, were as unblemished, as removed from the world and its coarsening effects, as their guileless faces suggested.

The small irony here is that although Mrs Kennedy knows that ‘one’s character’ is just as important as one’s appearance, it’s all one and the same, really, because Mrs Kennedy wants the girls to develop ‘good character’ so that they appear to the world as she thinks they should. While telling herself she’s not shallow, she demonstrates that she still is.

There is humour in this story, delivered dead pan:

A weaker man might have given up and pretended he was better.

The fog is used as an extended metaphor to show the lack of vision of the characters. At times the ‘fog’ even comes from outside and affects what’s going on within:

Frau Stengel’s favourite music curled around the room like a warm bit of the fog itself.

Another masterfully chosen metaphor compares the little girls lying in bed as ‘two question-marks’; these are two little girls who should be full of questions about the world, but they are not. They seem content with their cutting and colouring and chocolate biscuits. Perhaps it is the questioning of childhood which Mrs Kennedy finds so repugnant, and leads to her thinking of her sleeping girls not as special but as ordinary. She may also be wondering what will become of them. Wishing for grandiose weddings and glittering marriages, she must at times wonder if her dreams for her daughters will play out.

 

STORY SPECS

Approx 6200 words

Published 1952

Via the omniscient POV which sometimes zooms in to reveal the state of mind of the daughters, the reader is reminded what it feels like to be a child:

Down below, on a flat green plain, were villages no bigger than the children’s cereal plates.

The readers know that this perception is simply a matter of distance, size and perception, but we are reminded of how it feels to see the world through a child’s eyes. To the girls, the villages really are the size of plates. “You can see everything,” says one of the girls of the mountains in the distance. Her world is so insular that perhaps she does mean ‘everything’ in the literal sense. This is the kind of detail which stands out on a second reading.

The girls had no idea who Hitler was.

…they ate chocolate biscuits purchased from the glass case in the dining room… (The girls needn’t bother themselves with how the biscuits really got there, or who made them, or who paid for them.)

 

Found in the collection The Cost Of Living, with an introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri.

The Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant

 

 

COMPARE WITH

Sun and Moon by Katherine Mansfield, for a short story about adults who are disconnected emotionally from their own children, caught up in each other and in their own adult world.

 

WRITE YOUR OWN

A teacher/tutor you once had, unremarkable except for perhaps one thing

An incident that happened in class, in which the teacher didn’t fully understand the social dynamics of the classroom

A married couple who have managed to work out an amiable living arrangement despite being quite different

A time you lied/exaggerated as a child, before you realised the wrongness of it

The Picnic by Mavis Gallant

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.

– Wikipedia

PLOT

The plot concerns recent backstory of Madame Pégurin, as a backdrop to the immediate plot, which concerns the Marshall family preparing for a small, inconsequential picnic which has been contrived to foster American-Franco relations in the village. The whole affair has been suggested by a prominent American magazine. (Are we to assume National Geographic?)

 

SETTING

Published in 1952, this story is also set around that time, when WW2 is fresh in everyone’s mind. The recent history of a world war is significant, and the very reason for the story. The town of ‘Virolun’ seems to be a fictional settlement in France, adjacent to American army barracks. Though we are told that it’s near Grenoble and The Alps.

Grenoble France

This is a tidy town with tiled roofs. Ironically, the Marshalls searched and searched for a typically French town and found only five. Which suggests that their idea of a ‘typically French town’ is not actually very French at all.

 

CHARACTER

The Marshall Family The Picnic Mavis Gallant

The most memorable and well-drawn character of this story is of course Madame Pégurin, reminscent of The Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey or of Gosford‘s Constance, Dowager Countess of Trentham (both played by Dame Maggie Smith). This is the trope of the Grande Dame:

The trope is nearly always a Comedy Trope, associated particularly with the Comedy of Manners; as such, it serves as a useful device for mocking social pretensions, and dates back to the ancient Roman plays of Plautus and Terence, where the Grande Dame appeared as the Matrona.

Madame Pégurin is also a Deadpan Snarker (A character given to gnomic, sarcastic, sometimes bitter, occasionally whimsical asides):

“And how is your mother? Does she still have so very much trouble with the vegetables?”

The Deadpan Snarker often exists to point out the ridiculous of a social situation, but in this particular archetype, is also not self-aware of her very own contradictory attitudes. Madame Pégurin throws out The Goulds because of a ridiculous argument which started (comically) with a head of cabbage which Mrs Gould had thrown in the bin owing to its going rotten. Despite Madame Pégurin’s own ostentatious displays of wealth, she off-loads any socialist responsibility by telling Mrs Gould, wife of a mere sergeant, that there are people in France who are starving, and so Mrs Gould should be feeding her family the rotting cauliflower regardless.

[Madame Pégurin] had asked General Wirtworth to tea, and he had finished off a bottle of whiskey  she had been saving for eleven years. He had then been moved to kiss her hand, but that could not make up for her sense of loss.

Despite her wealth, of great magnitude in relation to almost everyone else, Madame Pégurin nevertheless feels a pang of loss when a material item comes to its end. This is a woman whose own children are estranged, having married ‘beneath’ their station, according to Madame, so the old woman’s sense of loss is channeled towards lesser things.

See the McSweeney’s article Confessions of a Closeted One-percenter for an explanation of how such cognitive dissonance can occur.

 

 

 

THEME

A major theme of this story is underscored in the final sentence:

Reassured, the Major thrust his notes in his pocket and strode from the kitchen to the garden, where, squaring his shoulders, he rallied his forces for the coming big struggle.

But a close reading reveals that this theme has been foreshadowed throughout the story. If the details were changed, this story could be one of army tactics:

The General had repeated this to Colonel Baring, who had passed it on to Major Marshall, who had brought it to rest with his wife. … The mammoth job of organizing the picnic had fallen just where he knew it would—on his own shoulders.

“Just see us through the picnic, old man!”

A photographer has accompanied the magazine not to shoot bullets, but to shoot pictures.

This is a story about archetypes, and how reality fails to live up to our imagined, storybook versions.

It is also a story about the stories we tell ourselves to justify contemptible behaviour towards others. Snobbery, in short.

This is also a story which hints at the ridiculousness of war by comparing its machinations to that of a small village picnic. To this end, Mavis Gallant chose certain details specifically for their comic value:

[The Major’s staff] was composed of but two men: a lieutenant who had developed measles a week before the picnic, and a glowering young sergeant who, the Major feared, would someday write a novel depicting him in an unfavourable light.

Against the recent backdrop of life and death big struggles, the (sometimes serious but usually harmless) affliction of ‘measles’ pales in comparison to gaping wounds and loss of limb. The Major is worried about being ‘depicted in an unfavourable light’ at some point in the hypothetical far future, a worry wholly concocted inside his own head. This wonderful detail manages to tell the reader something about both the Major and about the ‘glowering young sergeant’.

…the American magazine had been joined by photographer who wore openwork sandals and had so far not emerged from the Hotel Bristol

Le Bristol Paris is a well-known five star hotel which operates even today. Pictures on their website indicate a luxurious experience, and explains why a photographer on a paid jaunt might not want to leave. The detail of the ‘openwork sandals’ is in contrast with the (unmentioned) army boot. A man who wears openwork sandals is not expecting big struggle anytime soon. This man will be shooting photographs, not bullets: ‘Suggest folk dances as further symbol of unity…Object: color shot.’

 

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

The humour in this story is notable for its execution.

“And while she’s at it, she’s ruining all my good work.” [Mrs Marshall] often used this expression of the children, as if they were a length of Red Cross knitting.

Comparing the children to something closely linked with war efforts is an especially masterful touch, reminding the readers of the setting (though contemporary readers probably didn’t need reminding).

 

 

COMPARE WITH

Margaret Atwood makes much use of the ‘shooting’ metaphor (bullets/photographs) in her novel Surfacing.

Grenfell’s war poem Into Battle opens as if describing a picnic.

Julian Grenfell War Poet

Rose Macaulay wrote a war poem called Picnic in 1917, emphasising just how little war is like a picnic.

 

STORY SPECS

Approx 4500 words

Omniscient point of view, opening with The Marshalls, the Marshall daughters (as they wish to visit Madame Pégurin — the reader’s first introduction to this eccentric character), then on the Major (to explain his problems regarding organising the picnic), back out as a panshot of the Marshall family as a whole, zooming in on the children, shifting scenes to the Major, retreating to include Madame Pégurin etc. The story begins with the children, focuses quite a lot on them, and ends with the Major. The children’s point of view is most interesting as there emerges a gap between what they observe (their admiration of ostentatious wealth) and what the reader concludes (a lonely old eccentric woman with outdated views).

[Madame Pégurin] disliked foreigners; she had told the Marshall children so. But they, fortunately, did not consider themselves foreign, and had pictured dark men with curling beards.

 

The largely invisible cook and maid, Louise, is also zoomed in on. By including the close third person POV of characters from every social class, the ridiculous concerns of the upper class are contrasted with the practical concerns of Louise, such as rubbing hand marks off the wall with bread.

This story can be found in The Cost Of Living: Early and uncollected stories by Mavis Gallant

The Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant

WRITE YOUR OWN

Have you ever known in-real-life an eccentric character such as Madame Pégurin, or like any eccentric archetype from stories you have read/watched? Did you change at all for the knowing?

Have you ever been involved in an event which seemed so very important at the time, to the people involved, but looking back was plagued with petty concerns and pecking orders?

Do you have a global concern which has correlations with something in smaller, day-to-day life?

 

Madeline’s Birthday by Mavis Gallant

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 Guardian, 2009

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.

PLOT

full story available at The New Yorker online but it's behind a paywall
Full story available at The New Yorker online though it’s behind a paywall.

 

SETTING

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.

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.

THEME

 

Madeline's Birthday Jhumpa Lahiri

 

CHARACTERS

Mavis Gallant introduces a complex cast of characters in the economy of a short story.

Characters Madeline's Birthday Mavis Gallant

 

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.

Mavis Gallant

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.

Pear Tree Symbolism

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.

 

OTHER SPECS

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.

The Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant

 

CONTRAST WITH

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