We are meant to take Linnet’s observations about this 1891 painting, how it was admired and embraced into so many homes, as an indication of the impact that Dr. Chauchard had on her family’s life.
“The parable is set in a spotless cottage; the child’s bed, composed of three chairs, is out of a doll’s house. In much of the world – the world as it was, so much smaller than now – two full generations were raised with the monochrome promise that existence is insoluble, tragedy static, poverty endearing, and heavenly justice a total mystery.”
The painting matters. It reflects something concrete, but also entire substrata of other significant observations.
On the surface, Linnet responds to the image as many children would. “What I was sensitive to is nearly too plain to be signalled: the dying child, a girl, is the heart of the composition. The parents are in the shadow, where they belong. Their function is to be sorry.”
Beneath the surface, there are many other relationships in this story beyond child and parent, mortality and survival. Many of these have been explored in other Gallant stories.
“This overlapping in one room of French and English, of Catholic and Protestant – my parents’ way of being, and so to me life itself – was as unlikely, as unnatural to the Montreal climate as a school of tropical fish.”
But here we explore language and books, the exchange of ideas, alliances and rebuffs, the pursuit of advancement against a backdrop of a child’s understanding. Er, the understanding of an adult who was once a child.
And we have a beautiful articulation of the respect which Mavis Gallant affords to her young characters.
“Unconsciously, everyone under the age of ten knows everything. Under-ten can come into a room and sense at once everything felt, kept silent, held back in the way of love, hate, and desire, though he may not have the right words for such sentiments. It is part of the clairvoyant immunity to hypocrisy we are born with and that vanishes just before puberty.”
Doesn’t say much for the adults. Indeed, with the adults in this story as representatives, there isn’t much to say.
Home Truths Stories: Thank You for the Lovely Tea / Jorinda and Jorindel / Saturday / Up North / Orphans’ Progress / The Prodigal Parent / In the Tunnel / The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street / Bonaventure / Virus X / In Youth is Pleasure / Between Zero and One / Varieties of Exile / Voices Lost in Snow / The Doctor / With a Capital T
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 Home Truths. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next collection: Overhead in a Balloon.