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Writing Sample 7 - Sample Literary Essay - Short Fiction
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Julien Hendrick
Professor Mary Stowe
English 2050
October 12, 2006

Talking silence in Mavis Gallant's "My Heart is Broken"

      Mavis Gallant has described her composition process as spiral. A typical story, she told an interviewer in 1978, "builds around its centre, rather like a snail" (Hancock 45). At the centre of "My Heart Is Broken," however, there is a silence. Hollow at its core, the story demonstrates how difficult it is for two people to share genuine emotion.

      In the introduction to his 2003 collection of stories by Gallant, Russell Banks comments, "The tension… between remembered and felt experience on the one hand and, on the other, the known truth of what happened lies at the heart of all great short stories" (v). This is precisely true of "My Heart Is Broken," which captures a brief conversation between two women in a northern lumber camp following the rape of the younger woman. As the conversation develops, we glimpse various aspects of the story's characters, but we never learn what really happened in the rape scene or how the victim feels about it.

      We do, though, gain insight into the character of the older woman, Mrs. Thompson, whose garrulousness points up her incapacity to express true feeling. As the rape victim, Jeannie, quietly paints her nails, Mrs. Thompson chats nonstop. She discusses Jeannie's traumatic experience in the same trivializing tone she uses to talk about newspaper reports of Jean Harlow's death, the changing of the seasons, and home decorating. Although Jeannie views her as "a nice, plain, fat, consoling sort of person" (29), Mrs. Thompson does not seem able to empathize sincerely with Jeannie because her own emotional life is so shallow.

      Although Mrs. Thompson claims to be content in her cozy camp cabin, we should be suspicious of the home décor of which she is so proud. The flowers in the window boxes, it turns out, are fake, as is the portable fireplace. The Thompsons seem to live in an artificial state of arrested development. Their cabin smells "of cocoa and toast" (31), tea- time treats for the nursery set, and they have no children but Teddy bears and dolls instead. Significantly, Mrs. Thompson collects her gossip about the conversation between Jeannie's husband and Mr. Sherman while she is pushing one of her dolls in its pram. Psychologically immature, she cannot appreciate the difference in emotional register between the unruffled play world of her dolls and a brutal rape.

      As the story develops, the narrative perspective shifts back and forth among Jeannie, Mrs. Thompson, and a third-person omniscient narrator. Such shifting is typical of Gallant's writing, which is often distinguished by "refused connections, digressions, parentheses and blanks" (Schaub 9). In "My Heart Is Broken," the narrative instability further underlines the absence of real emotional connection. Like Mrs. Thompson, the reader is prevented from fully understanding Jeannie's emotional reaction to the rape, partly because it's not always clear from whose perspective we're seeing the action.

      A notable instance of such confusion occurs when Jeannie finishes painting her nails and sits cross-legged on her bed with a "serene" face (31). Is Mrs. Thompson the lens here, misinterpreting a bland expression for a peaceful look, or is the narrator suggesting that Jeannie has assumed a tranquil mask to hide her inner turmoil? However one interprets the passage, the text underlines how difficult it is to truly glimpse another person's emotional reality.

      The story's conclusion, with its clichéd language, further emphasizes how obscure Jeannie's inner life remains to both her friend and the reader. Although Mordecai Richler claims that Gallant is "never guilty of an unnecessary sentence, or redundant adjective" (251), Jeannie's final words in the story are trite and repetitive: "My heart is broken, Mrs. Thompson. My heart is just broken" (36). The narrative voice gives us no clue as to the tone in which these words are spoken. No facial gestures, sobbing, or changes in inflection are noted. Nonetheless, the worn expression "my heart is broken" seems freighted with understated emotion. Showing characteristic obtuseness, though, Mrs. Thompson does not know how to react. She rocks on in her chair, rather baffled by Jeannie's feelings, musing over whether she herself has ever had her heart broken.

      Allan Pasco has theorized that the narrow scope of the short story compels writers to "make silence talk." In "My Heart Has Broken," the author keeps mysteriously silent about Jeannie's feelings while highlighting Mrs. Thompson's constricted emotional life. The effect is a talking silence that indicates how difficult it is for two people to move beyond surface exchanges to achieve true, sympathetic communication.

Works Cited

Banks, Russell. Introduction. Varieties of Exile: Mavis Gallant. By Mavis Gallant.
      New York: New York Review of Books, 2003. v-xi.

Gallant, Mavis. "My Heart Is Broken." The Moslem Wife and Other Stories.
      Ed. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994. 28-36.

Hancock, Geoff. "An Interview with Mavis Gallant." Canadian Fiction Magazine
      28 (1978): 19-67.

Pasco, Allan H. "The short story: The short of it." Style Fall 1993. LookSmart Find Articles

Richler, Mordecai. Afterword. The Moslem Wife and Other Stories. By Mavis Gallant.
      Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994. 247-52.

Schaub, Danielle. Mavis Gallant. New York: Twayne, 1998.

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