Mavis Gallant’s “An Alien Flower”

Not one of them. Really?

Not the woman vacationing with her lover? Or the young worker about to go home for Christmas Eve?

Not the mother of teenagers choosing their eclairs? Or the young botany teacher who learned about plants from her father?

Not the old friend who recites Schiller’s “The Glove” from memory? Not a one?

Is there really not one woman in The Pegnitz Junction who is happy, content even?

Neither Bibi nor Helga in this final story will upset the balance.

Although readers have a clearer understanding of Helga’s unhappiness, and we must only infer that Bibi is unhappy, too, if only because she has spent so many years in close proximity to Helga’s unhappiness.

Certainly, it doesn’t seem as though Helga thinks Bibi has any reason to be happy or content.

“I don’t think she ever wanted to marry. She had peculiar opinions and was no good at hiding what she thought.”

Although Bibi’s history is conjecture. (How Helga delineates people of whom one might be ashamed is so revealing, part history and all-Helga-all-the-time.)

“Who were the Brünings? Was she ashamed of them? Were they Socialists, radicals, troublemakers, black-marketers, prostitutes, wife-beaters, informers, Witnesses of Jehovah?”

But one thing is for sure, regardless of the details: Bibi was impure. Helga recalls her elementary biology textbook, the explanation of these significant terms: ‘impure’ and ‘pure’.

“Here was the picture of an upright, splendid, native plant, and next to it the photograph of a spindly  thing that never bloomed and that was in some way an alien flower.”

Helga is a woman apart, the kind of woman who is willing to look at things differently. She not only hires an alien flower but she invites her into her home.

Even though Helga is a careful woman. Even when she is reading the newspaper, she arranges her take on the world with care, deliberately and cautiously.

“I would begin at the back, with the deaths and the cinema advertisements, and work forward to the political news.”

But as welcoming as Helga has been to Bibi, as accepting as she has been of her impurity, it is Bibi’s relationship to Helga’s husband which is at the heart of this story, largely unseen, largely undiscussed.

When the notebook falls out of the cupboard, readers long to read what Helga reads, long to know what Bibi is thinking when Helga questions her.

“But someone, at some time, must have existed and must have called her Bibi. A diminutive is not a thing you invent for yourself.”

Helga only calls her Bibi. And readers can only imagine Bibi’s story.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the final story in The Pegnitz Junction. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in; reading will resume for August 7, 2018.  



  1. Naomi June 11, 2018 at 6:53 pm - Reply

    Okay, I read this story on the weekend, but it’s no longer very clear in my head.
    These characters were living odd lives, weren’t they? It would be cool to read about the same characters but from Bibi’s point of view.
    Poor Bibi didn’t want to go. I think it would have been a nice twist if Helga’s husband left – then the women could have had the house to themselves.

    • Buried In Print June 12, 2018 at 11:30 am - Reply

      Oh! Now I wonder if she didn’t actually try that. Given that I hadn’t expected to meet Willi, from “Willi” again, but there he was in “Ernst in Civilian Clothes” and, apparently, he crops up in a couple others too. If not, Bibi’s story definitely would be interesting to read. It is so “background” ish here. And, yet, Bibi is a character in a foreground of our narrator’s mind all the same! (I know what you mean about the stories not being clear a few days later. I constantly have to reread. I wonder if that’s because these characters are often living such fragmented lives.)

      • Naomi June 12, 2018 at 12:04 pm - Reply

        Uncle Theo is still clear in my mind. 🙂

  2. heavenali June 5, 2018 at 5:41 pm - Reply

    I know I don’t always find time to comment on your posts but I have been enjoying reading about the work of Mavis Gallant, she is very much on my wishlist and my radar now thanks to you

    • Buried In Print June 7, 2018 at 4:46 pm - Reply

      Thanks for saying so. When things are quiet in Mavis’ posts here, I console myself with the idea that once each week (well, most weeks) for the better part of four years, her name will be traipsing through the feed for this site and hopefully that will sink in for a few readers and collectors over time. 🙂

  3. Laila@BigReadingLife June 5, 2018 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    Seems like a story with many layers. It is a shame that there wasn’t one story with a happy woman if only for the variation! Or couldn’t a character be mostly happy, with a little melancholy mixed in?

    • Buried In Print June 7, 2018 at 4:43 pm - Reply

      Maybe it’s like the Tolstoy quote, that unhappy wives/mothers/lovers are not all alike and, so, they make for better story-telling. Admittedly, the stories ARE quite interesting with all their unhappinesses. So, from a reader’s perspective, perhaps this is for the best. guilty look

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