“‘Newborn, they’ve got these huge peckers,’ said Mr. Fenton. ‘I mean, really developed.’”
When it comes to writing about Mavis Gallant’s short stories, I often want to begin with their first sentences. Sometimes there is such a swell of emotion at the story’s end, a marvelling at how entire lifetimes of more than one character have been compressed into just a few pages. So I’m compelled to revisit the first sentence, as if to say “Look, this is where it all started.”
But with “The Fenton Child”, I’m compelled to begin with Mr. Fenton’s observation.
Partly because if you’ve been following along with these posts, you probably didn’t get the impression that Gallant’s stories contain observations like this.
That’s true enough: they rarely do. But one of Gallant’s strengths is her insistence that characters emerge on their own terms, and we readers are to make of them what we will.
It’s up to the reader to size things up. Rather like Mr. Fenton does in this scene.
Mr Fenton’s a key player, because the story is about the Fenton family and the young woman who has been asked to accompany the eponymous infant to the Fenton family home. Her father has arranged for Nora to attend the baby from the time he’s handed over to go home with the family, and then she’s to help out for, maybe, a couple of weeks. (As he reminds her, at the first sign of resistance, she has nothing else to do.)
The truth is harder to suss out, not only because central figures have an interest in concealing it, but also because Gallant does not let it go at that. The reasons for the deceptive behaviours have layers to them too.
The scenes and dialogue which couch the action in the story are seemingly innocuous, but they encapsulate characterization and give readers what we need to unravel the story behind the story.
“‘Earl’s people lived up in Montreal North,’ said Mr. Fenton. ‘I went to see them after I got back. They were Italians. Did you know that? He never said.’
‘I knew it the first time he opened his mouth,” said the doctor. “His English wasn’t right. It turned out his first language was some Sicilian dialect from Montreal North. Nobody in Italy could make it out, so he stayed with English. But it sounded funny.’
‘Not to me,’ said Mr. Fenton. ‘It was straight, plain Canadian.’”
“Straight” and “plain” Canadian racism: cushioned by civility. Gallant never hesitates to expose prejudice and, although there are certainly elements of this in her stories set in Europe, she seems acutely interested in exposing hypocrisy and injustice in her stories with North American settings.
In the context of this story, we’re also meant to notice the importance of propriety, of conforming to a set of standards which very few achieve.
In the course of Mr. Fenton’s yacking, we also observe that there is another set of expectations as well, one for women in particular.
“‘She lived over on Bishop,’ said Mr. Fenton. ‘She was visiting some friend and took a shortcut home. Her father was a principal.”’He named the school. Nora had never heard of it.
‘English,’ said Dr. Marchand, placing the story in context.
‘They moved away. Some crazy stories went around, that she knew the guy, they had a date.’
‘I knew a case,’ said the doctor. ‘An old maid. She set the police on a married man. He never did anything worse than say hello.’”
Again, we can consider how the two men are (and are not) empathetic, and we also get a sense of Nora’s naivete. There’s no soapbox in sight, but Gallant hangs out the idea of the credibility of the “old maid” to dry on the line, so that readers can analyze it from a variety of directions.
Readers have an advantage over Nora, in some ways. We don’t know the guy or the girl or the school or the principal or the old maid either. But we can more readily suss out the parts of this current situation that feel “off”.
“‘Now when you’re over there, don’t you hang out with that maid,’ Ray said. ‘She can’t even speak English. If somebody says to you to eat in the kitchen, I want you to come straight home.’”
Nora’s been given some explicit instructions, but she’s missing the information she really needs.
There’s some satisfaction when Mr. Fenton unexpectedly shares a piece of information with Nora that her father hadn’t expected him to share.
But what’s truly satisfying is that Gallant gives Nora enough intelligence and compassion that we, as readers, confidently finished reading and know that she will soon figure everything out.
In the time that it takes us, to leaf back through a few pages, reread a couple of passages, and connect the dots, Nora will have answered all her questions about the Fenton child and also a set of questions that she hadn’t even known to ask yet.
This is the final complete collection of Mavis Gallant stories in my reading project. There are just a couple of stories in two compilations that I’ve yet to read and write about. It’s a fantastic note on which to end, but I’m curious about the remaining stories too.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the last story in Across the Bridge. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next stories: “August”, “In Plain Sight”, and “Scarves, Beads and Sandals” from Paris Stories, currently planned for August 2020.