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Reviewing The Short Stories Of Mavis Gallants English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2087 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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'The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street' is a short story which has as a central theme the power of memory which in this case is presented by means of a process of defamiliarization of the image of an ice wagon which becomes essential for the main character's self discovery as he finally assimilates this image as his own. This process takes place under the form of an epiphany experienced by the main character. In addition to defamiliarization, a few other devices developed by the tradition of Russian formalism can be successfully applied to Mavis Gallant's short story. The former concept refers to the 'ways in which the narrative is deliberately, for aesthetic ends, made difficult or impeded, through the use of difficult words and syntax (…) and juxtaposition rather than transition' (Shklovsky, 4) in order to emphasize that the purpose of art is that of perceiving the poetic image rather than deciphering it. Devices such as juxtaposition or repetition can also be identified throughout the narrative and they are all meant to show the reader a different perspective on how the literary work in which 'nothing happens' can be made to have a great impact due to these devices. All these devices function as strategies that reinforce the idea that 'the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known' (Shklovsky, 4). This view is reflected in Mavis Gallant's short story successfully as the stress is on how life is perceived by the characters through the use of memory. The idea developed by Shlovsky in 'Art as Technique' according to which what is important is not to know the object but to experience its 'artfulness' is reflected in the strategy adopted by Gallant, who uses a process of defamiliarization in order to emphasize the way in which the characters perceive reality through memories.

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To begin with, according to the tradition of Russian formalism an image can become a dominant device which can structure the entire literary text. This image is representative of the 'artfulness' of the work as long as it is not common for the reader. Thus, in order to avoid the automism of perception which according to formalists it occurs when people no longer see what is around them due to the fact that they have grown too familiar with it, it is necessary to defamiliarize automated perceptions in order to see the world in a new light. In 'The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street' the image of the ice wagon is defamiliarized so that an ordinary object comes to represent 'the perfect emblem of the "familiar becoming foreign" process' (Winther, 133). The image of the wagon does not belong to Peter Frazier, the main focalizer of the story, but he manages to assimilate it and to attach to it a different meaning from the initial one which belongs to Agnes Brusen, Peter Frazier's employer and the initiator of the former's sense of self. The image of the wagon appears three times throughout the story, the first time being in Agnes's apartment where she is accompanied by Peter after too many drinks she has had at a party and the second time in their office when Agnes interprets this memory which she has kept from her childhood:

'In the summer and it's you, you, once in your life alone in the universe. You think you know everything that can happen…Nothing is I remember telling you that (the memory of the ice wagon). That was the best. It's the best you can hope to have. In a big family, if you want to be alone, you have to get up before the rest of them. You get up early in the morning ever like that again.'(133)

Agnes's childhood memory of the ice wagon is an example of the defamiliarization device as the wagon is no longer an ordinary object, but the product of an epiphany that comforts Agnes through the burdens of her strict life and gives her the awareness of the universe as she perceives for the first time the sensation of being alone which in her case is a bliss. This epiphany is transferred to Peter towards the end of the short story when he has the impression that he witnesses Agnes's vision of the ice wagon from the position of a protagonist. Although he reconstructs Agnes's vision, this 'will not substitute for an individual's interpretation of his or her experience' (Smythe, 43), which means that by assuming her vision, Peter assigns to it a personal interpretation. This is the third and final mention of the image of the ice wagon and it represents Peter's re-interpretation of Agnes's vision:

'He thinks of the ice wagon going down the street. He sees something he has never seen in his life - a Western town that belongs to Agnes. Here is Agnes-small, mole-faced, round-shouldered because she has always carried a younger child. She watches the ice wagon and the trail of ice water in a morning invented for her: hers. He sees the weak prairie trees and the shadows on the sidewalk. Nothing moves except the shadows and the ice wagon and the changing amber of the child's eyes. The child is Peter. He has seen the grain of the cement sidewalk and the grass in the cracks, and the dust, and the dandelions at the edge of the road. He is there. He has taken the morning that belongs to Agnes, he is up before the others, and he knows everything. There is nothing he doesn't know.'(134)

It is interesting the way in which Agnes's vision is being assimilated by Peter. This proves that although he denies it or does not like to admit it, he feels an emptiness which determines him to identify with Agnes Brusen.

In addition, in 'A Reader's Companion to the Short Story in English', Erin Fallon believes that Peter appropriates Agnes's vision in order to 'grant himself some measure of self-worth' and that his 'true failure consists in his desire to 'substitute' another's understanding for his own.'(178) At first sight this seems a legitimate judgment. However, Peter appropriates Agnes's vision and then discards it as inappropriate. He thus denies once more that there may be something wrong with the way in which he perceives life. Throughout the short story he proves that he can bring unfavorable situations in his advantage, he lies to himself whenever life shows him that he might not have an appropriate attitude towards responsibilities. For example, he considers his post in Geneva just 'a mysterious period of exile' (118) and finds excuses for his inability to find a better position saying that a resentful friend is hindering him from succeeding. (117) Thus, towards the end of the short story he finally rejects Agnes Brusen's childhood memory as he finds it incompatible with his own vision on life: " He could keep the morning, if he wanted to, but what can Peter do with the start of a summer day? Sheilah is here, it is a true Sunday morning, with its dimness and headache and remorse and regrets, and this is life. He says, 'We have the Balenciaga.' He touches Sheilah's hand. The children have their aunt now, and he and Sheilah have each other. Everything works out, somehow or other. Let Agnes have the start of the day. Let Agnes think it was invented for her. Who wants to be alone in the universe? No, begin at the beginning: Peter lost Agnes. Agnes says to herself somewhere, peter is lost." His final think-act is also representative for the discrepancy between Agnes and Peter's view on life. Although they are alike in many respects, as Peter himself realizes it at some point, 'I'd be like Agnes if I didn't have Sheilah' (128), Agnes cannot rely on anybody, she is the one who 'has always carried a younger child.'(134), while Peter trusts his children with his sister in order to be able to carry on with his dreams about the future and recollections from a past dear to him.

Furthermore, there are a few other devices that play an important part in the structure of the short story, one of them being the author's use of juxtaposition. The juxtaposition of settings is subtly inserted in the narrative in order to disrupt the sequential chronology of the text. If the narrative was constructed along a chronological line the earliest events would be the 'three childhood experiences which are juxtaposed with one another'. (Nischik, 194). Thus, Agnes's memory of the ice wagon, Sheila's recollection of growing up in utter poverty and Peter's hiding in his room having his sister read to him from Beatrix Potter are all inserted in the narrative in order to emphasize that the story is ultimately about memory, more specifically about 'the impact of the remote upon the more recent past, and of both upon the present, or conversely about the way in which the changing demands of the present shape, and reshape, one's memories of the past.'(Nischik 195). It is important to notice that not only the past intrudes upon the present, but that the present is also shaped by the recollections from the past:

She put down her hand. There was an expression on her face. Now she sees me, he thought. She had never looked at him after the first day. (He has since tried to put a name to the look on her face; but how can he, now after so many voyages, after Ceylon, and Hong Kong, and Sheilah's nearly leaving him, and all their difficulties- the money owed, the rows with hotel managers, the lost and found steamer trunk, the children throwing up the foreign food?) She sees me now, he thought. What does she see? (132-133).

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Thus, recollections from the past are defined by present events. This strategy of inserting seemingly unimportant narratives into within a main narrative is used by Gallant in order to 'intimate an undeveloped, though implied, narrative that creates a sort of subterranean tension that affects our understanding of the surface events pertaining to the Fraziers.'(Fallon, 178). This effect is attained for example when Peter remembers himself making a scene at the Trudeau wedding. All these intrusions of the past upon the present and of the present on the past are meant to defamiliarize the idea that only the past can have an influence upon the present showing that memories from the past are continually reshaped by the experience of the present.

However, another dominant device throughout the narrative is the play upon images. Thus, mirrors, animals and clothes acquire new perspectives according to the contexts they are introduced in. The episode when Peter sees himself in the mirror can be paralleled with the image of the ice wagon in the sense that they both reflect a moment of epiphany for the character. By watching himself in the mirror Peter has a moment of insight as he sees himself from the outside. This moment of epiphany is transcribed into "a series of mental images that Peter believes suggest 'disaster', but that also appear to have sexual connotations" (Nischik, 199):

He saw her back and her profile and his own face in the mirror over the fire place. He thought, This is how disasters happen. He saw floods of sea water moving with perfect punitive justice over reclaimed land; he saw lava covering vineyards and overtaking dogs and stragglers. A bridge over an abyss snapped in two and the long express train, suddenly V-shaped, floated like snow. He thought amiably of any kind of disaster and thought, This is how they occur. (131)

Thus, by catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, Peter is able to see himself from the outside, that is to objectify his own image of himself.

Taking everything into consideration, 'The Ice Wagon Going down the Street" comprises many devices that could be regarded as belonging to the tradition of the Russian formalists. Thus, throughout the entire narrative various devices can be identified, devices which contribute to the re-interpretation of images and ideas, so that the reader can acquire a fresh perspective of an image which wouldn't have the same impact without the use of these devices. The use of juxtaposition instead of transition, and the defamiliarization of the ice wagon create a new perspective on the narrative as a whole in order to make the character's recollections seem strange and unfamiliar. This is the very aim of Russian formalists, to 'make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception' which 'should be prolonged as much as possible', given that according to Schlovsky 'art is a way of experiencing the process of creation of objects, finished product is not important in Art.' ( qtd. in Naramsihaiah 62).


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