Quebec Studies

Undressing the Text: The Function of Clothing in Gabrielle Roy's Bonheur d'occasion

Quebec Studies (2004), 37, (1), 109–124.

Abstract

109 Undressing the Text: The Function of Clothing in Gabrielle Roy's Bonheur d'occasion Susan Kevra Vanderbilt University Gabrielle Roy's 1947 speech to the Société royale du Canada amounts to a brief sequel to her 1945 novel, Bonheur d'occasion. In the address, she de­ scribes what had transpired in the lives of her characters in the years since the end of the story, which was set in 1940. Here is what she had to say about the protagonist, Florentine Laçasse: Durant la guerre, Florentine a travaillé dans les usines de munitions, puis elle a grimpé l'échelle sociale jusqu'à devenir vendeuse dans un grand magasin. Pour elle, cela représente une véritable ascension, un grand pas dans la vie. (Roy 1978,172) Using the war as a springboard, Florentine, like many women of her gener­ ation, 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 élevés." The after-novel life 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 depart­ ment store. In Au Bonheur des dames (1883), Zola had shown how the new Parisian department stores, veritable cathedrals of consumerism, inspired a cult of fashion. Dazzling displays of sumptuous, ornately decorated fabrics re­ placed the impressive rose windows of the great cathedrals while beauti­ fully 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 of the 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 can afford 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 unrav­ eling of the family (Lewis 167). Lacking the religious faith of past genera­ tions, led astray by empty dreams of consumer culture, the young woman ends up pregnant and must therefore marry. A number of studies cast her Québec Studies, Volume 37, Spring/Summer 2004

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Kevra, Susan