Undressing the text

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Undressing the text: the function of clothing in Gabrielle Roy's Bonheur d'occasion.(Critical Essay)

Quebec Studies

| March 22, 2004 | Kevra, Susan |
Gabrielle Roy's 1947 speech to the Societe royale du Canada amounts to a brief sequel to her 1945 novel, Bonheur d'occasion. In the address, she describes what had transpired in the lives of her characters in the years since the end of thestory, which was set in 1940. Here is what she had to say about the protagonist, Florentine Lacasse:

Durant la guerre, Florentine a travaille dans les usines de
munitions, puis elle a grimpe l'echelle sociale jusqu'a devenir
vendeuse dans un grand magasin. Pour elle, cela represente une
veritable ascension, un grand pas dans la vie. (Roy 1978, 172)
Using the war as a springboard,Florentine, like many women of her generation, was able to earn a living and move beyond the traditional role of wife and mother, enjoying unprecedented economic agency. Her climb is all the more impressive when we recall the image of Florentine in the opening pages of the novel, a humble waitress in a Montreal diner, clad in a drab green uniform, serving "des hommes mal eleves." The after-novellife that Roy imagines for Florentine leaves no doubt of the affection and pride she felt for this character and her belief that Florentine is a kind of success story: frustrated with her lot in life, she is driven to transcend the poverty of her past and rise to the relatively lofty position of a saleswoman in a department store.
In Au Bonheur des dames (1883), Zola had shown how the new Parisiandepartment stores, veritable cathedrals of consumerism, inspired a cult of fashion. Dazzling displays of sumptuous, ornately decorated fabrics replaced the impressive rose windows of the great cathedrals while beautifully bottled perfumes supplanted the priest's incense-bearing censer. The devoted followers of this modernist religion were, by and large, women. Florentine is a direct descendant ofthe fashion-obsessed women in Zola's novel. Throughout the novel, Florentine is portrayed as the fashion addict, beguiled by the temptations in every shop window which remain largely beyond her grasp, yet confident in the ability of silk stockings or a stylish hat to attract the gaze of men and women alike. Eventually, she will acquire these things, but only by giving herself to a man who canafford to dress her up in the latest fashion, by becoming a kind of commodity herself.
We can look upon Florentine as a victim, and the novel, more broadly, as a tragedy marking the end of rural life, the loss of faith and the unraveling of the family (Lewis 167). Lacking the religious faith of past generations, led astray by empty dreams of consumer culture, the young woman ends up pregnant andmust therefore marry. A number of studies cast her as a victim, powerless and condemned to fulfill her maternal destiny (Drummond, Grace). In my view, however, Florentine Lacasse is a determined underdog who, in spite of her poverty, emerges as an enterprising young woman, profiting from the very system that would seek to imprison her. At once vulnerable, toyed with by the Machiaveilian Jean Levesquewho courts and then rejects her, she is the epitome of resilience, the financial backbone of the family, able to take care of herself even in the most difficult circumstances.
We cannot, however, speak of Florentine as a feminist prototype. It would be unrealistic for Roy to paint a picture of female success given the limitations inherent in the lives of women of her generation. Florentine'smother Rose-Anna typifies the newly (and poorly) transplanted rural woman to the city who faces the challenge of raising a large family in the restrictive and insalubrious space of the city. Although her daughter is part of a new generation of women who would join the workforce, she does so not by choice, but out of necessity. Unlike her contemporaries in Europe and the U.S. for whom the city...
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