Mavis Gallant’s “The End of the World” (1967)

It’s a hot and overcast August morning, too early for the neighbourhood to have awakened. On another morning it might seem peaceful; this morning it feels abandoned.

The grass in the park next door is patchy and dry, even though the humidity is high and a woman with two small dogs – one black and one white – trickles along the back garden, the dogs pulling on their leads, one forwards and one backwards, sniffing and restless.

This woman always walks her dogs alone. And they are her dogs. Her husband prefers cats, she says. And they are indoor cats. Never have I seen her husband. If the woman is ever ill, presumably the dogs make do with the yard.

Because I have just been reading Mavis Gallant, I imagine a lonely marriage for the two of them. But perhaps they simply occupy different spheres in the outer world and share a warm and loving home together. But she never smiles, and although she is courteous she is not overly friendly. I wonder if she is as lonely as so many of Mavis Gallant’s characters. She doesn’t seem to be a reader – she has never commented on any book I’ve carried with me – so if she is lonely, I don’t think books keep her company.

I’m not sure if everyone in the title story of this collection is lonely, but they are all disappointed. And disappointment cleaves to loneliness, doesn’t it? Can you be lonely and NOT be disappointed in what the world holds for you?

“I never like to leave Canada, because I’m disappointed every time. I’ve felt disappointed about places I haven’t even seen.”

Billy has, reluctantly, left Canada to attend his father in a hospital in a port of France. The staff tell Billy that his father is dying, but the older man has been told only that he has an egregious form of tuberculosis.

After a couple of weeks, the story wears a little thin. Billy’s father has observed that a screen is placed around a bed on occasion and, eventually, on the other side of it, the man dies. He challenges Billy and Billy answers.

“‘I knew you wouldn’t lie to me,’ my father said. ‘That’s why I wanted you, not the others.’”

unsplash-logoSamuel Zeller

Dundee, United Kingdom

He could have asked Kenny or Lou, people he discusses like strangers, asking Billy for updates as though they were not his children also. But that’s fitting, because he left the family when the children were young.

First, he went to war. Then, he did not return to the family. What readers do not know is what happened between those two decisions, what led him to pursue another path. Some of Billy’s memories suggest that his father was never committed to his wife, and he is presented as a charismatic and attractive man who, even on his death-bed, attracts the attention of the women in the hospital. Billy wishes to share his observation with his brother.

“‘Most people think it was pretty good of me to have come here,’ I wanted to explain – not to boast or anything, but just for the sake of conversation. I was lonely there, and I had so much trouble understanding what anybody was saying.”

Billy both wants to talk and doesn’t want to talk. He wants to hear his father apologize but he doesn’t want to broach difficult subjects.

“I was afraid he would ask, ‘Why doesn’t she write to me?’ and I would have to say, ‘Because she never forgave you,’ and he was perfectly capable of saying then, ‘Never forgave me for what?’”

Billy’s father is not only unaware of his prognosis, he is also unaware of Billy’s disappointment. He views his decisions as his and his alone, the fallout as something he needed to step around personally, not something which put anyone else at risk.

Maybe his behaviour is selfish and maybe it is self-protective: most likely, both.

It is, most certainly, a disappointment. all ’round.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the seventh story 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. Next story, next week: “The Accident”. 

The Other Paris (TOP) / The Picnic (TOP) / About Geneva (TOP) / Acceptance of Their Ways (MHiB) / My Heart is Broken (MHiB) / An Unmarried Man’s Summer (MHiB) / The End of the World / The Accident AUGUST 14, 2018 / Malcolm and Bea (TCoL) / The Prodigal Parent AUGUST 21, 2018 / The Wedding Ring (TCoL) / New Year’s Eve AUGUST 28, 2018 / In the Tunnel SEPTEMBER 4, 2018

2018-08-08T11:10:25+00:00

4 Comments

  1. Naomi August 10, 2018 at 9:51 am - Reply

    One of the things that stood out to me in this story is that the wife was being blamed for her husband’s behaviour. Can you imagine?!

    I’m feeling sad for your neighbour. Maybe her dogs are for company. And maybe she spends her time indoors watching movies and making art? Or cooking up wonderful creations!

    • Buried In Print August 13, 2018 at 4:49 pm - Reply

      And it’s bad enough that her husband blames her for the “darkness”. But when the other women blame her for her husband’s wanderings?! And the one girl’s father, asking “Can’t you keep your husband home?” I am thinking of the scene in “Fried Green Tomatoes”, when Kathy Bates character wraps herself in cling-wrap to meet her husband at the door after work. But the Jalna book I’m reading now has a whiff of this too (1956), with one of the Whiteoaks fellas telling an engaged-to-marry woman that she doesn’t understand the power she has to control her husband (ironically, she only seems to be successful in that book, when she takes his advice; in the next book he attempts to work around her – although I don’t yet know if his attempts succeed). But, then, she doesn’t want our pity either. No “Poor Mirs. Apostolesco!” for her. So for whom are we to feel sorry?

  2. The Reading Life August 10, 2018 at 12:10 am - Reply

    This is an interesting story. I laughed about the “no Canadians allowed sign”. I took it as a joke on Canadians for being naive enough to believe this. Is Mavis harbouring negative attitudes toward Canadians ?
    .

    • Buried In Print August 13, 2018 at 4:42 pm - Reply

      I believe she felt Canadians were rather insular and incurious in comparison to the European company she kept after moving to Paris. Canadians like to think that we are received so differently from Americans when we travel (i.e. we are just so “nice” and so we are welcomed in more places) so I wonder if she wasn’t giggling about that, turning the idea on its head. But also I wonder if it doesn’t just make a good excuse to stay home!

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