“The Circus” considers the tensions between expectations and reality. Often, when that theme emerges in a Mavis Gallant story, the focus is a relationship. That is true of “The Circus” as well.

On the surface, this story appears to be about Laurie’s expectations about the circus. He has seen the circus poster with the crocodile and leopard, imagined their battle playing out live before his eyes; but there are no real animals in the circus, only a few nearly starved dogs.

In reality, Laurie is dissatisfied about far more quotidian elements of his young life. Even though he’s not quite at the stage at which he can articulate these disappointments.

While the villagers are chattering in Catalan, he is eyeing the audience and the way that the light plays upon the scene, until he is inspired to mention to his mother that this is “something to paint”.

She discourages him from making such statements. His innate artistry isn’t something that his mother expects will be of interest to others (indeed, perhaps it’s not of interest to her either). Instead of finding his view of the world shared or valued, he is shushed.

Then again, Laurie’s mother – Chris – could simply be impatient with the way that one’s artistry can lead to apathy. Artistry doesn’t pay the bills. And Laurie’s mother is counting on Ralph to pay the bills.

The reason that she and her Laurie (with baby Jennings) are attending the circus is that Ralph has received some money. Like the characters in “When We Were Nearly Young” and “Better Times”, Ralph seems to constantly be waiting for funds. And “The Circus” takes place after some “money had come”, so Ralph has bought tickets to the performance. (Readers have the sense that there were many other items on Chris’s mind – items other than circus tickets.)

The refrain – “We shall never see anything like it again” – is troubling. Not because the circus has been so incredible, the peak of circus-craft – this is no Cirque de Soleil performance – but because it implies that the conditions which have afforded this opportunity might not repeat themselves. There might not be any more money. And, if there is, it’s unlikely to coincide with the arrival of a circus.

So, although this short story does peek into circus life, it’s more about family life. About the way that experiences are drawn in the advertisements. About how we expect things to be. About how loving and supportive parents “might be” of their young charges. How loving and supportive parents “might be” of each other in the pursuit of raising a family and sustaining a committed relationship. Not everything is as advertised.

Meanwhile, Mavis Gallant’s own eye is attuned to details that someone else may have, at one time, dismissed as inconsequential. Her observation and her attention to detail is sophisticated. Something as seemingly inconsequential as the description of a drink – the way that grenadine curls in soda water like a red mist – is not only an image of beauty, but also a reminder of how something distinct in an environment can be quickly overwhelmed. It’s a reminder of how the everyday can obliterate the remarkable.

What’s your favourite circus story?

In Transit‘s stories: By the Sea / In Italy / An Emergency Case / Jeux d’Ete / When We Were Nearly Young / Better Times / A Question of Disposal / The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts / Careless Talk / The Circus / In Transit / The Statues Taken Down / Questions and Answers / Vacances Pax / A Report / The Sunday After Christmas / April Fish / The Captive Niece / Good Deed

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the ninth story in In Transit. 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: “The Circus”.