At nearly one hundred pages long, it’s unsurprising that this is the most complex of Mavis Gallant’s stories I’ve read this year. It’s neither the length nor the breadth of the story which complicates it, but the intricate arrangement of details, as readers are gradually immersed in the narration of Jean Price.
She is not named for almost ten pages of the story, though plenty of other details are peppered throughout the text. For instance, we learn almost immediately that the family house was built for her parents in 1913 and that they lived in it for 42 years.
Readers will suspect there is great value to every detail, and indeed there is a narrative to piece together, but it is the broader swathes of story we are meant to consider: “family into family: the interlocking circles”.
Both the details and Jean’s complex story-telling add verisimilitude to the story. Even though, from the beginning, her memory of leaving the family home is at odds with her mother’s.
Jean’s memory of leaving it is like a religious tableau, crowded with gesticulating people and signs of doom. Her mother’s remembrances are completely different.
No matter: readers are here on the page with Jean. “No people are ever as divided as those of the same blood,” she observes.
There are other divisions amongst people. Jean’s father is Scottish and finds evenyone else lacking. (Once upon a time, foreigners were either workmen or refugees, but now they are not so easily recognised, to his dismay.) And French- and English-Canadians are divided on whether the world war is truly Canada’s concern. Even the supporting details, like one character’s reading of Butterfield 8 or listening to Shostakovich’s “Fifth Symphony” hint of class and political conflict.
Regardless, the house is solid and holds its own shape in the story. Although there is little room for nostalgia. “This was the house of my childhood, but not my home.” This is the kind of house in which the ritual of mealtime was more important than the food served and shared.
But the house is at the core of one significant set of remembrances: the three days that Jean and her sister spent with their parents after the death of their brother, Frank, in the last year of the war.
The shape of the story is circuitous, folding back in on itself, rounding to offer more details on another pass, even about core characters.
Readers learned about Frank almost immediately, for instance, but his personality is revealed over time. At first he is simply one of the “lost” – like Isabel, the other sister – who has been removed from the house and from the family, but not by death. His existence is announced with his no longer existing.
Anyway, Isabel has died, too. This is how it is in this story. In one sentence, readers learn that her mother (who is also Jean’s mother, as Isa and Jean are sisters) cried when Isa died. In a neighbouring sentence, readers are offered a peek at the scene in which Isa was briefly reunited with her family, shortly after having written them a letter to arrange the meeting, when Isa was 33 years old.
And isn’t that just how it is with memories of the past. Frequently we store memories according to their emotional impact and even if Mavis Gallant didn’t have the benefit of recent neuroscience (like Julia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion) she must have intuitively understood the phenomenon.
Jean must have been similarly disappointed by both experiences, and so they inhabit nearby sentences although their positions on the timeline are further apart. Sometime after the house has been sold and packed, Jean is remembering these earlier times (the house left behind, “lost”, in 1955, Frank’s death in 1945, and reuniting with Isa in between).
So disappointing – like a death – for Jean to realise that her mother felt Isa’s loss deeply, just when Jean believed that she had finally claimed the entirety of her mother’s affection after Isa married for a second time and moved to Venezuela. Just when she believed that Isa was as “lost” as Frank in a practical sense. “I was the only daughter; I had won.”
And Jean is desperate for attention, a quality which she recognises in others as well, principally in Isa. Nobody else could give Isa what Jean could give her: “the whole attention”. Ironically, nobody understands better than Jean just how much that matters.
Perhaps Jean takes some comfort in Isa’s situation; she views her as “wretchedly unhappy”, considers her family to resemble excursionists from a New England town when the family arranges to meet at the cottage.
Even though Jean has not pursued happiness for her own self. She married her husband, Tom, when she was 24 “just … [to] get away”, choosing a “safe marriage” and having four children, whom she “loved with determination”.
Contentment is valued more highly: when “everyone around one is doing the right thing. The pattern is whole.”
It wasn’t always like this for Jean, however: “Until the time of my own marriage I had sworn I would settle for nothing less than a certain kind of love.”
In contrast, it seems as though Isa was in constant pursuit of that “certain kind of love”, marrying at 18 and having an affair during that marriage, and marrying for a second time in 1948.
Perhaps that’s why Jean imagines “Isabel…as the eternal heroine – never myself.” Jean thinks of stories like “The Little Mermaid” and Heidi, in which the girls are expected to demonstrate constant devotion, and characters like Gatsby’s Daisy and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; she wonders about their particular kind of goodness and happiness (and probably also their betrayals and tragedies).
Jean considers herself “the pattern discarded”. She is the outsider. In her work, during the war, she paints pipelines on city maps, sewers and waterworks in yellow and mauve, but she cannot make these connections in her own emotional life. Other people have something she does not possess. “They were the lighted window, I was the watcher in the street.”
Jean’s memories of Frank are dark, too, in a different way; they are filled with broken promises, supperless nights, and frequent beatings, all comprising an elaborate and mysterious “masculine ritual” which transformed Frank into “the weeper in our dry household”.
Her feeling of disconnection is not new. She bonds briefly with Frank over it – without naming it – when he is on furlough in 1945, shortly before his death.
Readers understand this visit to be significant because it occupies space in Jean’s remembrances, but not because she explains why in any detail.
Partly the significance rests in the fact that, for a brief time she can share Montreal with Frank. She moved there expecting that the distance she felt, from other people and from her own self, would intensify. “At least in Montreal I shall expect people to be strangers.” But it seems as though the feeling lingered. And her expectations were disappointed once more.
Even when she has the opportunity to connect with another, the relationship does not meet her expectations. For a time, while Jean’s husband is in the war, she lives with his sister. Alma is suffering from depression, but this is not acknowledged or diagnosed, and it’s not until Alma attempts suicide in 1952 that Jean gains some understanding of the behaviour she observed when they shared an apartment.
Readers sense that Alma’s depression is not that far removed from Jean’s experience. She could be just as “wretchedly unhappy” as she suggests Isa is when the family reunites. And, yet, she continues to play the role of dutiful daughter and wife. Although one wonders just how well she plays it, if her memories are populated by crowds of gesticulating people and signs of doom.
Are we always one step removed from what is real? Whether in a dream or at some other kind of distance from real-life and real-love, as the Yeats epigraph might suggest?
Perhaps. But “Its Image on the Mirror” is about one woman’s desire to survive, to forget dreams, and to return to life.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fourth story in My Heart is Broken. It has not been collected elsewhere (AFAIK). Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.