A close critical reading of Mavis Gallant’s ‘The End of the World’

Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant (b. at Montreal, 1922), is a Canadian writer.  Her short story and the subject of this essay, “The End of the World” was in 1967 published for the first time in American magazine, the New Yorker.  Additionally, this was the publication where the majority of Gallant’s catalogue of short stories made their initial appearances (Prescott, 2008).  Gallant enjoyed some success in both the USA and the United Kingdom before her collection “The End of the World and Other Stories” was published in 1974 in Toronto, which attracted extensive acclaim in her native Canada (Prescott, 2008).  In her personal life, Gallant has experienced numerous cultural encounters.  In the story, altruistic narrator, Billy, relates how he is sent for by his father’s carers as he ignorantly lies on his death bed.  The reader learns that the narrator is loathed to leave the asylum of his home and family in Canada as he is “disappointed every time” (Gallant, 1967, in Prescott, 2008, p.125).  However, Billy attends his father in an unnamed French port for his final days.  The story’s setting contributes greatly to its subtext.  This plot, although appearing straightforward on the surface, confronts the reader with the horrors of loss and abandonment while simultaneously debating the theme of cultural encounters.  This essay will attempt to consider how the theme of cultural encounters has been allegorized through a close, critical reading of “The End of the World”.  Particular attention will be paid to Gallant’s use of narrative techniques, language and structure in order to better understand and admire her story.

Gallant’s decision to write in first person narrative is meaningful.  There are similarities between herself and the story’s narrator Billy; Gallant’s own father left the family home when she was young after living a “drifting life of exile” (Prescott, 2008).  However, it is not appropriate to assume that she and her lead, Billy are synonymous.  Gallant employs this narrative mode to lead us toward a stream of consciousness which enables us to see the character’s point of view (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012).  Billy informs the reader that he never likes “to leave Canada” and this perhaps is where any similarities to Gallant herself come to an end.  Gallant has lived happily in Europe for many years, whereas Billy is disappointed about places he has not “even seen”.  As the reader is made aware of this in the very first line, when Billy is “sent for” by the hospital staff of an old convent in France, the reader is anticipating further disappointment.  Aware that Billy loses his father during this trip, perhaps it is not astute to assume that he receives the apology he can justly claim he, his mother and siblings are due.  This is a recurring feature of the story, aside from Billy not having the father figure he required, the hospital “didn’t provide a thing”.  Gallant’s choice of narrative mode delivers successfully when we hear Billy confirm to himself that “This is what a person gets for leaving home” (Gallant, 1967, in Prescott, 2008, p.126).  This becomes progressively poignant throughout, perhaps climaxing at the point of Billy’s dream.  The narrator feels notably guilty for longing for an end to this situation for both the sake of his suffering father and his own intangible reasons; “afraid that my dream showed on my face” further intensifies the son’s feelings of displacement (Gallant, 1967, in Prescott, 2008, p.129).

Just as Gallant’s use of first person narrative contributes to the intimacy and immediacy of the story, so does her use of language.  Gallant’s use of literary devices work to involve the reader, and deepen their engagement with the text.  Some of these devices are non-literal descriptions; there is a generous use of metaphor when describing the father, from the point of view of Billy as a child.  Billy describes his father as having a mouth drawn in, “like an old woman’s”, who rocks on his feet, “like a dancer”.  However, from this point forward, Gallant’s use of metaphor becomes minimal, until the pointed instance in the final exchange between Billy and his father when Billy describes the looming passing of his father as being “like the end of the world”.  The effect this has is cutting.  The reader is not expected to sympathise with the father, however the question is raised, can a bad father expect the same consideration in old age as one who is meritorious?  It seems to Billy that he can.  The dialogue between father and son mostly concerns the day to day business of the hospital; however this final, pregnant exchange is used by Gallant to convey pathos (Benjamin, 2011).  Gallant’s allocation of adjectives is basic; her description of the French port where Billy’s father lies dying is unadorned.  The town looks “bare and new” we are told.  In the same passage we are advised that the town was “shelled twenty years ago” and this is Gallant’s first allusion to a particular point in time.  The story is written in the past tense, “I had to leave Canada to be with my father when he died.”  Although it is safe to assume that this is a very recent past, and that the time and date within the story is very close to the time and date of its writing.  A further characteristic of Gallant’s story is the repeated reference to education.  Billy’s internal monologue tells us that since his father’s departure he has been “supporting your wife and educating your other children”, and this is reinforced further down the same page when the father character asks “Did Kenny do well for himself?  I heard he went to college”.  Billy is well spoken, and the words chosen by Gallant do not characterise him with an accent.  In keeping with the theme of cultural encounters, he struggles to understand “what anybody was saying”.  This is also true of the locals and him, “I guess he doesn’t understand my French” (Gallant, 1967, in Prescott, 2008, p.131).

Gallant opts to structure the story using a linear or chronological plot.  Initially, Gallant introduces the story’s protagonist Billy, who informs us of his aversion to leaving Canada, on account of deplorable experiences.  Billy intimates a time when he was required to leave Canada to “vouch for” and “pay up for“ his older brother Kenny who had stolen a credit card, this serves as an example of how Billy supported his mother and siblings in his father’s absence.  Neither he nor his brother “cared for Buffalo”, and Gallant seizes this opportunity to plant the seed, “Why does a guy with your education do a dumb thing like swiping a credit card?”  Gallant then provides us with further character background, focusing on Billy and the story’s antagonist, the father.  The reader discovers how the father left behind his family, “after the war he just chose to go his own way”.  Billy then explains that he had to leave Canada to “be with” his father when he died.  This is a significant moment in the story, and France becomes the setting for the remainder of the tale.  Gallant chooses to uproot the narrator, and place him in direct conflict with his polar opposite, a man always on the move, forever in flight from his last mistake (Benjamin, 2011).  It is at this point in the story where the theme of cultural encounters is most extensively explored.  Billy considers the place “worse than Buffalo”, complaining that he “didn’t like the food or the coffee and they never gave you anything you needed in the hotels”.  On the surface these may appear like small details, but in the medium of the short story these nugatory components become heightened.  Gallant exhibits one positive facet of Billy’s identity by not having him complain, “I wanted to explain […] I had so much trouble” (Gallant, 1967, in Prescott, 2008, pp. 130-1).

Hence, the manner in which Gallant has used specific literary techniques to craft “The End of the World” serves to greatly enhance the effect of this short story upon the reader.  The reader responds with the requisite acumen, holding the hand of Billy during this affecting narrative that grows ever more delicate, with Billy attempting to protect us all from any more pain than is necessary.  Gallant succeeds in delineating the idea of cultural encounters as a surmountable quandary.  Billy is confirmed as a moral and upstanding man when the apology of the nurse comes to have no meaning, being in truth only what he thought he “wanted to hear” (Gallant, 1967, in Prescott, 2008, p. 132).

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