Mavis Gallant’s “My Heart is Broken”

Of all the Mavis Gallant stories which I’ve read this year, this one I yearn to discuss.

With many of the others, company would be nice, not only to see what other readers might unearth in the layers, but simply for the company because the characters’ loneliness and sadness is sometimes thick.

In “My Heart is Broken”, however, I am itching to know if other readers find the same striking relevance of this story.

Here we are, in the wilds of northern Quebec, with a story that probes questions of consent and violation, written and published more than fifty years ago.

Mrs. Thompson is the wife of the paymaster in the road construction camp where Jeannie’s husband, Vern, has been working.

“The Thompsons loved living up north and didn’t miss cities or company. Their cabin smelled of cocoa and toast. Over their beds were oval photographs of each other as children, and they had some Teddy bears and about a dozen dolls.”

Mrs. Thompson visits with Jeannie on occasion, trying to help her adjust to life in this country of “rocks and lakes and muskeg”. It’s partly her responsibility, as the wife of the paymaster, and partly she has few opportunities to socialize.

When this story opens, Mrs. Thompson is telling Jeannie about how she heard the news of Jean Harlowe’s death. Mrs. Thompson is no stranger to city-life or moviestars but, it’s true, that her existence in the camp seems a million miles away from all that now. She is a long way from glamour now.

While she is telling her story, Jeannie is painting her nails with coral-pink Cutex polish. It’s impossible to imagine Mrs. Thompson’s nails painted. 

And, indeed, there is a note of barely concealed frustration with Jeannie’s preening, with the peroxide in her hair and her Evening in Paris perfume.

Then, the conflict is brought out into the room, along with the scent of nail polish and other accoutrements of femininity. (No cocoa aroma here!)

“’Here you’ve got a good, sensible husband working for you and you don’t appreciate it. You have to go and do a terrible thing.’
‘I only went for a walk,’ said Jeannie. ‘That’s all I did.’
‘It’s possible,’ said Mrs. Thompson, ‘but it’s a terrible thing.'”

Is it? Really?

But perhaps there’s more to it.

“’I only went out for a walk,’ said Jeannie. ‘Nobody’ll believe me, but that’s all. I went down the road for a walk.’
‘In high heels?’ said Mrs. Thompson. ‘With a purse in your arm, and a hat on your head? You don’t go taking a walk in the bush that way. There’s no place to walk to.’”

As with other Gallant stories, readers circle around what happened, never quite zone in.

“’It wasn’t exactly what you think. It was only afterwards I thought to myself, Why I was raped and everything.’”

And everything?

It’s possible this is a shorthand for something which Jeannie doesn’t feel comfortable discussing.

But it’s also possible that she is not coming upon the word lately because it was so unfamiliar to her experience but that she has chosen the word without it being truly connected to her own experience but one which summarizes her sense of being ill-used.

“’If he’d liked me, I wouldn’t have minded. If he’d been friendly. I really mean that. I wouldn’t have gone wandering up the road, making all this fuss.’”

All what fuss?

“Amos isn’t all that big, but it’s better than here. There was this German in the hotel. He was selling cars. He’d drive me around if I wanted to go to a movie or anything. Vern didn’t like him, so we left. It wasn’t anybody’s fault.”

So, what happened in Amos wasn’t anybody’s fault, but here, here, it’s different: someone is at fault.

It seems as though this story is perfectly constructed so that readers cannot completely determine whether Jeannie was assaulted.

Many of her statements seem to serve as evidence for each possibility, every extreme.

Including her statement, which also serves as the title: “My heart is just broken.”

The true nature of Jeannie’s heartbreak exists between the lines.

I’ll meet you there.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the sixth story in My Heart is Broken. It also appears in The End of the World. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.

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2017-08-11T13:53:02+00:00

4 Comments

  1. Naomi August 8, 2017 at 5:41 pm - Reply

    I can see why you’d want to discuss this one. I wish I had it!!

    • Buried In Print August 9, 2017 at 8:28 am - Reply

      She does such a fine job of making so many scenarios believable: the truth falls between the cracks. And it’s not even a long story!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings August 8, 2017 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    Wow! Sounds like a book ripe for discussion and with many levels. The ambiguity is intriguing but it sounds like the same judgemental attitudes to women are still there…

    • Buried In Print August 9, 2017 at 8:27 am - Reply

      The story is clearly from another time and place, but the content feels contemporary, with judgement from every direction in terms of what women and men expect and demand.

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