Stuck in the Slums:
Examining the Causes, Options, and Limitations of Upward Social Mobility for Women in Canadian Society pre World War II
March 17, 2011
University of British Columbia
Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute (originally titled Bonheur d’occasion) is a quintessential novel of Canadian social history. While Gabriel Roy’s first novel is a work of fiction, it very carefully and accurately depicts the times, circumstances, experiences, and feelings of Canadian society before World War II. Set in 1939 and 1940, during the first year of Canada's contribution to World War II, The Tin Flute is a harsh depiction of the all so common life in poverty found throughout Canada. The Tin Flute is a dark, tragic story in a world where women search for well-to-do men to help them escape the burdens of lower class and men sign up for military service and put their lives at risk on the warfront just to escape from their poverty. Throughout the novel we see through Florentine and other main characters the trials and tribulations of what appears to be an impossible process by which to ascend the socioeconomic ladder of class. Roy’s novel depicts the futility of upward social mobility found throughout Canada and the world in the first half of the Twentieth Century, especially for women. By examining the struggles of the characters in The Tin Flute with support from other literature pertaining to pre-war Canadian society the causes and desires for upward social mobility, available options to obtain upward movement and, most importantly, the limitations of social mobility for women can be defined and proven as fruitless.
Social mobility, in terms of sociological and economical studies, is defined as the degree to which someone’s status or class is able to change in terms of position on the social ladder. It mainly refers to material wealth and the capacity of a person to move up in the class system. Upward social mobility is an improvement in social status most often as a result of increased wealth and opportunity. Such desire for increased wealth and opportunity is the leading cause for upward social movement because it leads to a better quality of life. The socio-economic conditions in Saint-Henri, a part of Canada’s largest city at the time, were quite dismal before World War II. “In Bonheur d'occasion, considerable attention is given, for example, to the experience of climbing Westmount” (Moyes 48) as being a part of this community was a dream for the many who suffered in Saint-Henri down below. The quality of life in poverty was rather depressing and gave one much reason to aspire to escape it. This dismal environment is exemplified by how "the infant mortality rate was comparable to Calcutta’s” (Baillargeon 203). Other causes for the desire for upward movement include survival, pride, respect, shame, and disgust. Roy includes all these motivators through the different characters in The Tin Flute.
Florentine Lacasse is the main character and a product of the Great Depression who finds life as tragic and fruitless and therefore strives for something better. As the oldest child of a large family of usually unemployed French-Canadian Catholic parents, she waits tables at a back door diner to support her parents and siblings while chasing after a young man, Jean Lèvesque, who is rising up in the world. Shame and disgust motivate both these characters to desire an escape from their poverty. Florentine tries in various ways to disguise her shame and disgust of poverty through her appearance. She wears fancy clothing and is oft adorned with heavy makeup to try to resemble the higher classes of society. Her disgust of poverty can be seen when she is asked where she bought her party dress in chapter 10, “But it was as if she had denied Rose-Anna’s work of all those evenings. That was an end to her belief that she had a pretty dress. Now she knew it was a poor girl’s dress”...
Cited: Baillargeon, Denyse. “Beyond Romance: Courtship and Marriage in Montreal between the Wars.” Rethinking Canada: The Promise of Women’s History. Eds. Adele Perry, Veronica Strong-Boag, and Mona Gleason. 4th ed. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2002. 203-219
Moyes, Lianne. “Writing the Montreal Mountain: Below the Thresholds at which Visibility Begins.” Canadian Literature 192 (2007): 45-66.
Roy, Gabrielle. The Tin Flute. Translation by Alan Brown. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1980. Print.
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