Let’s continue our exploration of the work of Mavis Gallant, in particular her 1963 story, The Ice Wagon Coming Down The Street.
Last time, I talked about how the story expresses a certain emotional tone. Peter Frazier and his wife Sheila are Canadian ex-pats effectively exiled back to Canada after unsuccessful attempts to garner appreciation for their greatness. Peter ruminates over an encounter he had with another Canadian, Agnes Brusen, in Geneva, an encounter that made him confront the failure in his life. A sense of failure, of shame and denial of failure pervades the story.
So, how does Ms. Gallant convey this complex emotion?
Well, if ya read last week’s post, you’d know something, right?
Ms. Gallant deployed a powerful metaphor—Agnes’ memory of the ice wagon coming down the street—to show a sense of childish wonder and personal agency that Peter realizes he has lost. Moreover, this potent image carries a lot of “bang for the buck,” as they say. It conjures ideas about preservation through freezing in ice. The feelings that Agnes and Peter describe are frozen in time.
Another potent symbol in Ice Wagon is the Balenciaga dress that Peter’s wife, Sheilah, owns. It’s not explained how Sheilah came to possess this presumably expensive, designer item, but we can assume it was bought during a time when the couple had money and wanted to display it. It makes a telling appearance at the beginning and end of things, as well as in a crucial scene. “Sheilah has the Balenciaga. It is a black afternoon dress, stiff and boned at the waist, long for the fashions of now, but neither Sheilah nor Peter would change a thread. The Balenciaga is their talisman, their treasure, and after they remember it they touch hands and think that the years are not behind them but lazy and marvelous and still to be lived.”
In Geneva, Sheilah dreams they’re in Paris and that Peter is more than a file clerk. She wears the Balenciaga “…and puts candles on the card table where she and Peter eat their meal. The neckline of the dress was soiled with makeup. Peter remembers her dabbing on the makeup with a wet sponge. He remembers her in the kitchen, in the soiled Balenciaga, patting on the makeup with a filthy sponge…Sheilah sitting straight as a queen.”
The Balenciaga is a symbol of their dreams of success. They maintain it although it is out of fashion and soiled with makeup. Why, you ask, don’t they do a better job of cleaning it? Too literal, my dear. That would be a different story. It is also a symbol of faded glory, of tarnished class.
At the party where Peter is asked to take Agnes home, Sheilah is wearing the Balenciaga.
At the end, when they’ve been exiled back to Canada, “We have the Balenciaga,” (Peter thinks/says). “He touches Sheilah’s hand.”
Now, a different way to present this story would be to have a narrator “tell” the reader that, in this case, Peter realizes he’s a failure. “Peter realized he was a failure.” Or, the character could say, within a scene, “I’m a failure. I will never see the ice wagon coming down the street in the same way Agnes did.” Of course, that would also be a different story—part of the artistry of Ice Wagon is in the delicate showing of Peter’s inner state, a state the narrator is more aware of than is Peter himself. The fact is that Peter’s self-awareness only rarely breaks through his armor of denial. If Peter was the narrator of this story, we could say he was unreliable, unaware of himself. But he is not. We have a separate narrator entity showing us the story. Ms. Gallant does have this narrator saying that Peter is lost, however, she also presents several symbols that express and show what his experience is—in a rather mysterious way.
Well, you’re talking about the objective correlative, correct?
Yes. The venerable T.S. Eliot developed the idea of the objective correlative, saying it is a set of objects, a situation, or chain of events that express a particular emotion the writer is trying to express. An action of creating an emotion through external factors and evidence linked together. One of the effects of this—and we see it in Ice Wagon—is that a distance is created between the character/story and the author.
A distance into which irony falls.
The objective correlative is a useful way to describe the mechanism of Ice Wagon, where the ice wagon story, the Balenciaga dress, and the circumstances of Peter and Sheilah’s life, combine to show an emotional mood of regret, shame, and loss, one that the author, the narrator, and the reader grasp but not Peter.
Till next time.