My Heart is Broken by Mavis Gallant, 1961

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by Mavis Gallant, 1961

Although she has written many essays and reviews, two novels, and a play, Mavis Gallant's reputation in Canadian literature rests on her short stories. Of these "My Heart Is Broken" is one of the best crafted and most frequently anthologized.

The occasion for the story is Jeannie's rape; the focus is the response of the victim and her best friend, Mrs. Thompson. At first the two women appear to be foils. Jeannie is young, attractive, and silly, while Mrs. Thompson is mature, plain, and sober. Their reactions to the attack are also different. Jeannie seems unnaturally detached as she calmly polishes her fingernails, whereas Mrs. Thompson seems maternal and concerned. As the story progresses, however, their positions shift. It gradually becomes clear that Jeannie is in shock; far from being abnormal, her behavior is typical of a rape victim.

But the more Mrs. Thompson talks, the stranger she seems. What at first sounds like moral and emotional support for Jeannie increasingly resembles attacks as she flip-flops from one disjointed statement to another. She seeks an almost prurient clarification of the details of the rape, advises Jeannie of her legal rights, accuses her of not being willing to adjust to life in a mining camp, criticizes her for deficiencies as a housekeeper, and blames her for having provoked the attack with the overly generous use of the perfume Evening in Paris. Her remarks are a jumble of stock responses that range from viewing Jeannie as a victim to judging her the culprit.

Despite their superficial differences Jeannie's remarks and Mrs. Thompson's thoughts converge at the end of the story. In the final paragraphs Jeannie, who has made only meager responses throughout most of the story, presents her fullest version of the rape. She tells Mrs. Thompson that, if the attacker had been friendly, she would not have made a fuss. According to Jeannie the really shocking aspect of the rape was that, for the first time in her life, she encountered someone who did not like her: "My heart is broken, Mrs. Thompson, My heart is just broken." Even taking into account Jeannie's emotional state, this is a bizarre response. Jeannie suggests that she might have accepted the rape if the rapist had been nice to her. And Mrs. Thompson, who until now has had no shortage of punchy comments, responds to Jeannie's words indirectly by tapping her foot and "trying to remember if her heart had ever been broken, too."

Abandoning her buckshot anger, Mrs. Thompson identifies with Jeannie as the heroine of a romance with an unhappy ending, a romance that Mrs. Thompson enviously craves as a justification and fulfillment of her own empty life. Using Jeannie's terminology of a broken heart, she tries to recall a romantic moment in her life when a man might have found her desirable. Flying in the face of Jeannie's violent experience, both Jeannie and Mrs. Thompson connect rape with sexual attraction, and they both fantasize that rape can be nonviolent. Through the tired appeal to the broken heart, the women come to terms with sexual violation and bestow on it a romantic glow.

The story suggests that this perverse attitude is fostered and sustained by movies. The first paragraph establishes a relationship between Jeannie and Jean Harlow in Mrs. Thompson's mind as she announces that the death of the actress was the most terrible shock she has ever experienced, apparently more shocking than Jeannie's rape. From the very start Mrs. Thompson firmly links Jeannie and the rape to Hollywood fantasies of torrid sexual desire in which Jean Harlow is the star.

Mrs. Thompson has clearly never overcome her adolescent fixations. She not only gives Jean Harlow abnormal attention, but she also enjoys listening to dwarfs singing silly songs on antique records, hangs pictures of herself and her husband as children over beds that are filled with teddy bears and dolls, and takes her dolls out for walks in a pram. The vast emptiness of northern Quebec, the geographical setting of the story, is an accurate setting for a mining camp, but it is also an objectification of her intellectual and emotional state. Nature, however, abhors vacuums, and Mrs. Thompson fills the empty emotional and intellectual spaces with attitudes and language unconsciously borrowed from a commercial, ready-made Hollywood culture that trades in romantic dreams.

If Mrs. Thompson is a grotesque example of arrested development, Jeannie, the child bride with Harlow-like peroxided hair and a name reminiscent of the actress's, is a more attractive version of the same condition. Like Mrs. Thompson's, Jeannie's attitudes are derivative. She is a vulnerable, unconscious tease who models herself after the Hollywood image of the dumb blond in whom assertive sexuality and the appearance of pervasive stupidity are equally represented. And, like the Hollywood dumb blond, she invariably finds herself in sexually ambiguous circumstances. But whereas the innocence of the dumb blond of Hollywood is a calculated effect based on sophisticated sexual experience, Jean-nie's innocence is a blend of cultural deprivation, excessive provincialism, and authentic inexperience. Although married, Jeannie does not appear to have progressed much beyond the notion of sex as an impenetrable mystery, an idea she extrapolated from a Lana Turner movie.

What the Harlow-type movies have neglected to tell her, just as they have neglected to tell Mrs. Thompson, is that rape has less to do with sexual desire than with male anger, frustration, and need to assert power. So strong is the hold of the Hollywood deceptions concerning sexuality that, even after the rape, neither Jeannie nor Mrs. Thompson can recognize or acknowledge its true significance. Both Jeannie and Mrs. Thompson are disabled by the false assumptions of cinema romance that consistently sugarcoat violent sexual behavior, and thus they do not experience the personal and social therapeutic effects of a righteous anger. Jeannie's rape is simultaneously a criminal act and a persuasive metaphor for the psychological and emotional assault that movies—and, by extension, other manifestations of popular culture—commit on the minds and hearts of Gallant's characters.

—Bernice Schrank