Mavis Gallant’s “Madeline’s Bithday” (1951)

In “Madeline’s Birthday”, the sadness slips to the background, like it does in an Elizabeth Taylor story, with a hint of darkness besides.

Madeline is a guest in the Tracy family’s summer home, and her seventeenth birthday affects every resident.

Readers briefly inhabit the perspective of most inhabitants (even Doris, who comes in daily from the village, although she is peripheral, so only her footprints and the noise of her making the cake are shared).

The Tracy family – Anna, Edward, and their nearly six-year-old daughter Allie – are host to two visitors currently: the birthday girl, Madeline Farr, and Paul Lange.

Mrs. Tracy hoped that Madeline and Paul would bond over their losses – the girl’s parents lost to divorce and the boy’s family lost to war.

(The devastating story of the child of divorce in “The Rejection” comes to mind, on seeing the experiences of these two young people paralleled. And, why not? Divorce is a kind of war, with extensive injuries, even if casualties are infrequent.)

Paul had been adopted by a cousin of the Tracy family, a maiden lady with whom Mrs. Anna had been friends in prewar Munich, and who had brought the boy to America after his mother, too, had died.

Madeline was, as Paul describes it (perhaps in an effort to invite the connection which Mrs. Tracy had hoped for), found alone in a New York City apartment. Her mother had forgotten to instruct her to go to Mrs. Tracy’s for the summer (and obviously she had no intentions of returning to the city herself). Madeline’s father is elsewhere, with a step-mother Madeline has never met.

This matters, for always.

But it matters in particular, here, when one is seventeen and has a birthday.

The step-mother has remembered the date and sent a gift (an inappropriate evening gown, but a nice one). Other than the household residents, this appears to be the only remembrance. (But the story takes place before breakfast, as the household readies for the day ahead.)

So, Mrs. Tracy is in the position of rescuer. For now, and ongoing. She had gone to the city, for Madeline, and “carried her off like a scoop of ice cream”.

That’s a lovely image, at least at first glance, seemingly filled with delight. But, then, one thinks of the melting. Which is just the kind of sweet decay which fits a Mavis Gallant story perfectly.

Mrs. Tracy’s concern is not only for Madeline’s summer, but also for her birthday. Seven days from Labour Day, she is determined to highlight the wonder and possibility of being seventeen, to afford the household a good experience, a worthy celebration.

The kind of good experience that brings Mrs. Tracy back to this Connecticut home every summer. The kind of good experience that she remembers so fondly. (Alternatively, the kind of good experience that she is still dreaming will await her – one of these summers.)

“Edward, therefore, merely added this summer of Paul and Madeline to his list of impossible summers. These included the summer of the Polish war orphans, the summer of the tennis court, the summer of Mrs. Tracy’s cousins, the summer of the unmarried mother, the summer of the Friends of France, and the summer of Bundles for Britain.”

Every bit as much as Doris is peripheral, Mr. Tracy hovers around the edges of “Madeline’s Birthday” too, although his commentary is direct and affords readers the opportunity to refocus their view of his wife, of her remembered happinesses.

Readers meet him, however, in his absence – in Mrs. Tracy’s determination that she will not consider the stuff of his work-week in the city. The summer house is his terrain only on the weekends. And, as he carefully reminds readers, it is, in fact, a legacy of his wife’s family – one step further removed from him.

It could be that there is more to what Mrs. Tracy is saying just as there is more to what Mr. Tracy is observing of his wife’s determination and apparent (or, unapparent) happiness.

“Paul and Madeline were less destructive than the Poles and less expensive than the tennis court. Unlike the unmarried mother, they did not leave suicide notes in the car. They were, on the face of it, quiet and undemanding. But there was an unhappiness about them, a lack of ease, that trailed through the house, affecting the general atmosphere. Sometimes Edward felt that having them there was bad for Allie, but he wasn’t certain why or how. He said nothing about it, since, as he told himself, he saw them only weekends and couldn’t judge.”

Talk of suicide and war, a backdrop of weeping teenagers and snappish children, bathroom floors unmopped and toothpaste uncapped, hopes abandoned and goals overlooked: the details in this story all point to fragmented experiences, both personal and political.

The loneliness isn’t as overpowering as it can be in a Pym novel, but one can imagine a sequel to the story, opening on Madeline’s thirty-seventh birthday, with a faded and worn Mrs. Tracy, alone in the country, longing for the memory of more restorative summers.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the twenty-third story in Going Ashore. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week’s story: “The Wedding Ring”.

2018-01-23T14:39:25+00:00

2 Comments

  1. Naomi February 2, 2018 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    I thought from the title this was maybe going to be a happier story. But no. Poor Madeline with only her stepmother remembering her birthday. And poor Mrs. Tracy, bustling around trying to make everyone happy, but failing, but pretending not to have failed.
    I like what you say about the ice-cream.

    • Buried In Print February 5, 2018 at 4:40 pm - Reply

      On the surface some of the characters seem happier – or, at least, determined to be so – but there is still a lot of sadness and unrealized desire underneath, yes.

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