Mavis Gallant’s childhood was not entirely happy. She was not loved as she needed to be loved. It was a painful time.
It is difficult to set that awareness aside in reading “The Rejection”, even though the story makes it difficult to determine who has been rejected and who is doing the rejecting.
The father and daughter at the heart of the story seem to inhabit both roles: reject-ee and reject-er.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Better to consider, briefly, where it starts.
The two of them in a car, travelling, in motion, in transition.
With the father’s need to declare sides, to have sides declared.
He, too, has been damaged. He craves allegiance, loyalty.
In the meantime, however, he is ill-equipped to demonstrate these qualities.
Tears came to his eyes; none of it had been his fault.
“Who do you think tells the truth?” he said. “Your grandmother?”
“What do you mean?”
“Which of us do you like best? That must be what I meant.”
The child does not position herself on either side, not on the grandmother’s (who is off-stage, existing only in name) nor her father’s.
From the father’s perspective, this seems unfortunate; he craves evidence of some kind of connection with the child.
From the child’s perspective, her parentage is unfortunate. She declares that she would like to live with another gentleman, ostensibly no relation but someone known to the family.
In that moment, travelling in the car, her father agrees. Although he privately ennumerates the reasons which make this older gentleman unsuitable for raising a child. Nonetheless, the father agrees to drive there and to ask him. He instructs the girl to remain at a distance.
He anticipates her disappointment, as do readers. But readers do not anticipate the father’s anger when the gentleman offers another suggestion, a woman to whom the child might be given instead.
The father does not want to seem to not want the girl. Even if, in fact, he does not want her.
Did he always not want her? It’s unclear.
Who was the first to not-want the other? But that does not matter.
All that matters is that there is no way to reverse the not-wanted-ness. On either side.
The solution proposed is both obvious and strange:
“I would like to take you to your mother,” he said, “but it will take a little planning. She may not know anything about you. You are quite like her, I am afraid, though also like me. She may not want to admit who you are like. If she knew you had abandoned that creature, she might tell you there are two sorts of people, that the world is divided …”
The roles of reject-ee and reject-er expand. Readers crave a solution, but Mavis Gallant does not offer one.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the twenty-second story in Going Ashore. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week’s story: “Madeline’s Bithday”.