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Image et Récit

Héliane Ventura
Simone Vauthier
Jean-Michel Lacroix

I. Les mots et la peinture

The Chapel Paintings in Mavis Gallant’s “in the Tunnel”

Mary Condé


Le tableau de Judas dans une chapelle abandonnée du Sud de la France est l’image qui domine la nouvelle intitulée “In the Tunnel” de Mavis Gallant. Ce tableau est à peine décrit sauf implicitement mais il contrôle le récit de plusieurs manières. Les attitudes des personnages à l’égard de ce tableau établissent des schémas de conduite. Le tableau lui-même correspond de manière inquiétante aux intérêts professionels de Roy et, par extension, à sa vision affective. L’excursion qui conduit Sarah et Roy à la chapelle pour y voir les fresques sonne le glas de leur relation.

Texte intégral

  • 1 First published in the New Yorker, 18 September 1971. Collected in Mavis Gallant, “Home Truths” (f (...)

1The dominating image in Mavis Gallant’s short story ‘In the Tunnel’1 is the painting of Judas in an abandoned chapel in the South of France. This painting is barely described, except by implication, any more than is the lovemaking of the heroine Sarah Holmes and Roy Cooper, but it Controls the narrative in various important ways. Attitudes to the painting establish patterns of behaviour; the painting itself is ominously appropriate to Roy’s professional interests, and, by extension, to his emotional outlook; the excursion to the chapel to see the frescoes marks the death knell of Sarah’s and Roy’s relationship; and the story of Judas and its associations permeate Gallant’s story.

2Attitudes to the chapel paintings establish patterns of behaviour initially through the chapel’s status as a tourist attraction. The first friends the Canadian Sarah makes on the Riviera are a pair of middle-aged American tourists who are, as we learn later, ‘conscientious about churches’ (291), and the first words of Sarah’s which we hear when she meets the Englishman Roy are about their joint expedition to the chapel. Her sentence, “It has frescoes of Jesus and Judas and...” trails away into Roy’s silence, and she continues with a typically North American inflection, converting statement to question, “Their name was Hayes?" (270). This suggestion of uncertainty, supported by the lurking pun on haze, conveys her uneasy consciousness of the incorrectness of tourism. When she later remembers the chapel, ‘feeling a spiky nostalgia, as if she were describing something from home’, she assures the company that “Nobody goes there...” (286), being now sufficiently attuned to their attitude to sightseeing: Tim Reeve has said to her of the Mediterranean, “I do hope you aren’t going to bother with it” (280). It is one of the calamities of Sarah’s second visit to the chapel, with Roy, and Meg Reeve’s niece Lisbet, that they find that some Swiss tourists have arrived before them.

3Confronted by the paintings, Roy and Lisbet go ‘straight to Judas’ (292), ominously appropriate to Roy’s professional interests because the fresco shows Judas after he hanged himself, and Roy, a former prison inspector in an Asian colony (272), has witnessed many hangings, about which he tells Lisbet by way of establishing intimacy-an intimacy she acknowledges by stroking the back of her own neck (293). On a previous outing capital punishment had also been a shared topic of conversation, according to Lisbet, together with “apartheid, miscegenation, and my personal problems with men” (289). Roy’s familiarity with hangings means that he is able to snub Sarah when she praises the realism of the painting (286); his easy acceptance of them is a symptom of his hatred of any kind of analysis rather than punishment. He says of psychiatry,

“I abhor that subject... No sensible prison governor ever allowed a trick cyclist anywhere near. The good were good and the bad were bad and everyone knew it” (285).

4On the chapel outing Roy asks Lisbet in his soft voice, “Don’t you think some people are better out of the way?" (293). This is on one level a treacherous reference to Sarah as well as to the victims of executions, but at the same time it expresses a more pervasive fascism. ’In the Tunnel’ is an excellent illustration of Ronald B. Hatch’s comment in his article ′Mavis Gallant and the Fascism of Everyday Life′ that

  • 2 Ronald B. Hatch, ‘Mavis Gallant and the Fascism of Everyday Life’, Essays on Canadian Writing (Mav (...)

Gallant’s stories reveal that the “small possibilities” that brought the Fascists to power in the 1920s and 1930s were not peculiar to a few European States, but were, and still are, a powerful fact of Western consciousness2.

  • 3 In Canada (1890) a reeve was only the president of a village or town council.

5Roy has been made redundant by the ending of Empire and the advent of the ′New Democracy′ (272), and his friends the Reeves detest socialism, one of their reasons for emigrating from England (279). Gallant underlines the close emotional and political connections between them by drawing attention to their names: Sarah wants to know, “Why Roy Cooper?” (271) and asks, “What are Reeves?” (274). A reeve is a steward (like Judas) or an Old English official of high rank having local juridiction under the king (Roy)3. ’Cooper’ is an apt surname for a former prison inspecter who coops Sarah up in a long windowless room called the Tunnel. The Reeves imprison themselves both literally and metaphorically in their bungalow, violently hostile to the prospect of visitors, xenophobic, and behaving at the height of summer as if it were an English January: typically, they are unable to translate fahrenheit into centigrade (280-281). Tim Reeve is a man for whom it seems natural to talk through bars (297), and when Sarah mentions the title of the thesis on which she affects to be working, ’Urban and Regional Studies of the Less Privileged in British Columbia’, he finds only one word reassuring: ’British’ (278). The same word is used of Roy’s and Lisbet’s reaction to Judas. They are embarrassed by the paintings of Jesus, and go straight to the painting of the hanged and disembowelled Judas, ’who was more reassuring’ (292). Roy is comfortably at home with the idea of punishment, and indeed punishes Sarah at this very point by saying disloyally to Lisbet, “Now, that man must have eaten Sarah’s cooking, a risk many have taken, I imagine” (292). Brilliantly and subtly coalesced at this point are notions of punishment, emotional imprisonment, Englishness, and treachery.

6Roy is punishing Sarah for ‘going bad’ as her sprained ankle has literally done; their relationship has already been characterised by the meat, cheese and peaches which go bad in the refrigerator when Roy turns it off during the night. Sarah reacts to the spoiled food as, it turns out, Roy does with women: she throws it out and gets in more (282). The moral turning point of the story is the moment at which Sarah looks at her bloated ankle and decides,

Of course, it was ugly; but it was part of a living body, not a corpse, and it hurt Sarah, not Roy.

7She reacts to all Roy’s unkindness with a supremely considerate gesture: she tips out all the brandied plums ’so the ants could have a party’(293).

8The excursion to the chapel to see the paintings is the death knell of Sarah’s and Roy’s relationship not only because of Sarah’s new boldness - “Watch out for snakes”, she says to Lisbet-but because she drinks the brandy before bestowing the plums on the ants, and some white wine in addition. In retrospect she summarises Roy’s attitude to her:

She was a disgusting object because of a cracked ankle, because she had drunk too much and been sick behind a chapel, and because she had led an expedition to look at Jesus (295).

9Roy, of course, chose not to look at Jesus but to look at Judas. In the Gospel stories Judas remains a rather mysterious figure; when Sarah first meets Roy she says, “I’d like to know what your motives are, exactly” (271). Matthew implies that Judas betrayed Christ specifically for money, (St Matthew, 26.14-16) and in John’s gospel it is Judas who complains about Mary, the woman with the very precious ointment, again specifically because of money (St John, 12.3-6). In both Matthew and Mark her story is immediately followed by Judas’s negotiations to betray Jesus. In Luke, Christ says of the woman, ’Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much’(St Luke, 7.47). Sarah, whose saving grace is that she ’loves much’, is in some ways a counterpart to Mary, just as the cold, calculating Roy is a counterpart to Judas, and her bestowing of the brandied plums on the ants is perhaps intended as a parody of the very precious ointment episode. She is an extravagantly silly girl, but she has realised by the end of ’In the Tunnel’ that she is out of the tunnel, that she will always be an amoureuse, and that she will never use up her ’loving capital’: indeed, in a moment of what might be termed emotional thriftiness, she uses the postcard of the Judas fresco which she stole from the chapel to initiate her next sexual relationship (300-301).

10The story’s title immediately suggests to us that the psychological imprisonment of Sarah’s affair with Roy will be a temporary one, out of which she will burst into at least a limited freedom. We read of Sarah’s first encounter with Roy with the conviction that their relationship will not last, and in the same way are alerted by Sarah’s opening mention of the chapel paintings to the inevitably crucial role they will play in the narrative. Sarah may have yawned over the remorseless momentum of Racine’s Phèdre (277), but there is the same inherent unlikelihood in a surprise ending to a Greek tragedy and a radically new interpretation of Judas in a chapel painting, firmly bound-ed as this must be by religious and artistic conventions. The chapel paintings, then, doubly exert a feeling of fatalism.

11Another aspect of the paintings is that for a product of Western culture who is not a believing Christian they are comprehensible but not spiritually compelling. The viewer becomes something of a voyeur. Gallant’s story has many images of spying: for instance, Sarah imagines herself soft-footed and disguised in the tribal village (268), Meg puts Roy’s letters on the table face down, ’as if Sarah were likely to go over the post-marks with a magnifying glass’(288), and Meg’s dogs appear to have been eavesdropping (290). It is part of Roy’s betrayal of Sarah that she is seduced by his very treachery. When he mocks the Reeves she imagines that it makes him all the more loyal to her (279). When she is puzzled by the fact that he calls Lisbet a cow but is nice to her face, he sneers, “Why don’t you know about these things without asking?”, and Sarah thinks that the answer is that her father didn’t bring her up well, and resolves to write and tell him so. Coral Ann Howells remarks of Home Truths that

  • 4 Coral Ann Howells, Private and Fictional Words: Canadian Women Novelists of the 1970s and 1980s, L (...)

perhaps what the stories are really about is the entire disparity between social conventions of order and decorum and the individual’s private sense of truth4.

12If so, Sarah at this point has not yet arrived at her ’private sense of truth’, and it is typical of her here that she not only lays the blame for what she considers her bad upbringing on her father, but decides that she is going to twit him with it. Sarah is childishly obsessed with her father, constantly referring her actions to him (268, 269, 270, 272, 273, 275, 277, 280, 281, 288, 290, 292, 296), and he, like Judas, is an almost entirely invisible character who is omnipresent in the story.

13Two images in the story suggest fatherhood in a perversely inappropriate way. First, Roy tells Sarah, as a joke she does not understand, that the only socialist the Reeves can bear is Hugh Dalton, “because Dalton had paid for the Queen’s wedding out of his own pocket when she was a slip of a girl without a bean of her own” (274).

14The joke here is that Hugh Dalton was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1947 when Princess Elizabeth went on her honeymoon without a trousseau because of the postwar clothes shortage. It thus depends on a series of negatives: the Reeves can’t bear Hugh Dalton, he didn’t generously pay for the Queen’s wedding, it wouldn’t have been out of his own pocket, and she wasn’t without a bean of her own. But it falls flat because of a further negative: Sarah has never heard of Hugh Dalton. Her naive question, ‘What did he want to do that for?’ (274), is unconsciously acute, for the reply any good socialist would give to the right question (’Why didn’t he want to do that?’) would be: because he, as the steward of his country, had an unaffected concern for the more pressing needs of the poor. It is open to us to see Dalton as, so to speak, a good Judas, or alternatively, to perceive more lavish wedding arrangements as a kind of very precious ointment - although this might entail the perception of monarchy as a kind of divinity.

The second image of fatherhood is in the fresco of Judas:
His soul was a small naked creature. Perceiving Satan, the creature held out its arms (292).

15A socialist should not have a father’s power over a princess any more than Satan should have a father’s power over a human soul, at least not in the eyes of the Reeves, who see socialism as a base betrayal of the proper paternalist attitudes of the past. Meg says of Roy:

He misses that job of his. It came to nothing. He tried to give a lot of natives a sense of right and wrong, and then some Socialist let them vote (294).

  • 5 Stephen Regan, “The Presence of the Past”: Modernism and Postmodernism in Canadian Short Fiction’, (...)

16Roy’s ironic reference to Dalton operates within the story exactly as Stephen Regan observes that the stories of Home Truths themselves operate; both “break down the traditional distinctions between history and fiction and suggest that both are discourses by which we structure our sense of social reality; together they challenge any simple, objective or neutral recounting of the past”5.

17In each of the images of childhood the ’child’ is seen as particularly defenceless. Princess Elizabeth is satirically described as ’a slip of a girl without a bean of her own’ - a description which may also be intended to apply satirically to Lisbet (‘Lisbet’ being, supposedly, one of the family nicknames for the Queen), who shouts that Meg Reeve would not have dared to speak rudely to her, an Englishwoman (289). Judas’s soul is ’a small naked creature’, and its gesture of holding out its arms to Satan is, strangely, the most moving in Gallant’s narrative. It is reminiscent of Sarah’s reaction when she panics on her first visit to the Reeves: ’in her heart she said, in a quavering spoiled child’s voice, “I want to go home” (277), echoing the words with which she had ruined so many outings for her father. Is there, then, anything satanic about Sarah’s father?

18It is certainly difficult, despite his comforting surname of Holmes (which may, after all, suggest Sarah’s proposed detective work in the tribal village) to associate Sarah’s father with simple, decent, normal Canadian home values. Hallvard Dahlie rightly says of the Reeves’ first meeting with Sarah that:

  • 6 Hallvard Dahlie, Varieties of Exile: The Canadian Experience, Vancouver: University of British Col (...)

Gallant does not offer a facile juxtaposition here between decadent English expatriates and an innocent Canadian one, for her worlds are too complex to allow for such easy categorisations6.

19But from the very opening sentence of the story, ‘Sarah’s father was a born widower’(268), doubt is cast on home and Mr Holmes, and this connects directly with the ’decadent English expatriates’: with the same curious anticipation of the future, ‘Mrs Reeve had not waited for her husband to die before starting her widow’s diet’ (277). The Reeves remind Sarah of her father and a widowed aunt, and Roy Cooper describes himself chillingly at his first meeting with Sarah as “your father’s man” (272).

20That Roy Cooper and the Reeves should have these connections with home draws our attention to the significance of the volume’s title Home Truths: home truths are truths no one wants to hear. Home has always been an ambiguous concept for people like Roy and the Reeves, whose simultaneous pride in it and inability to live there arguably accounted to a large extent for the British Empire. Marilyn Strathern in her critical study After nature: English kinship in the late twentieth century quotes Osbert Lancaster’s preface to the first edition of Homes Sweet Homes:

  • 7 Osbert Lancaster, Homes Sweet Homes, 1939, quoted in Marilyn Strathem, After Nature: English Kinsh (...)

All over Europe the lights are going out, oil-lamps, gas-mantles, electroliers, olde Tudor lanthorns, standards and wall-brackets, and whether or not they go on again in our time, the present moment seems as good as any in which to contemplate the rooms they have illuminated in the past. For the history of the home provides the most intimate, and in some ways the most reliable, picture of the growth and development of European culture7.

21Strathern is here interested in the way that ‘Englishness’ retrospectively takes an architectural form, but significant too is that Lancaster, writing on the brink of the second world war (’the present moment’ is 1939), recalls Lord Grey’s famous declaration on the brink of the first world war (3rd August 1914):’The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime. ‘By doing so Lancaster is making more explicit his implicit question, ’What are we fighting for?’. If the answer is home, then by 1953, in his revised edition of Homes Sweet Homes, Lancaster was speculating a little more acidly on what that implied. He wrote of the word that

  • 8 Quoted in Strathem, 32.

it serves, among other duties, to distinguish a psychological type – ‘homeloving’; a high degree of discomfort-‘home comforts’; a standard of moral values - ’there’s no place like it’; a noticeable lack of physical charm – ‘homely’; and a radio programme of outstanding boredom - B.B.C. Home Service. But despite this tremendous adjectival expansion it still retains, beneath layer after layer of the treacliest sentiment, its original substantive meaning of the house in which one lives8.

22Home, however, does not have this substantive meaning for the expatriates Roy, the Reeves, and Sarah, and this, coupled with their lack of occupation, makes all of them appear to some degree ineffectual and absurd. Sarah, arriving in the Tunnel, ‘was now in this man’s house’, (274) but is clearly not in a home, nor does she feel at home. If Osbert Lancaster is right about the history of the home providing the most intimate and reliable picture of European culture, then Sarah has come to the wrong place for her cultural studies. The ’spiky nostalgia, as if she were describing something from home’ which the memory of the chapel paintings inspires in her is significantly connected with her own statement that “Nobody goes there...”. That strange adjective ‘spiky’, perhaps intended to suggest the crown of thorns, conveys the paradox of the cosy familiarity of a profoundly disturbing story of betrayal, judicial murder and suicide. The imagery of home and Christian imagery both seem divorced from their original meanings.

23The story resonates with Christian imagery: Sarah appears to be saying grace when she asks Roy about his motives, and wets her forehead with the drops from the decanter in a parody of baptism (271), she points out that that you can wash your hands at the chapel (286), and Meg hustles Tim along with the phrase “get to Friday” (281, 285, 298). But despite the pervasiveness of the Judas story in Gallant’s narrative, it is not Gallant’s intention to assign her characters fixed roles from it. The ‘venomous’ Roy of course approximates most nearly to Judas, a scorpion in Christian iconography, but Sarah herself sees that there is a difficulty in managing her memories, represented by the stolen postcard, an image of an image of an image. ’Judas’, she feels, “should have signified Roy, or even Lisbet, but oddly enough it was she, the victim, who felt guilty and maimed” (300).

  • 9 Grazia Merler, Mavis Gallant: Narrative Patterns and Devices, Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1978,36.

24Judas, ‘with his guts spilling’, is a reminder of her own, spontaneous reactions, and in ’In the Tunnel’ perfect health, like Tim Reeve’s (284), is made to seem sinister and disgusting. Meg becomes sympathetic, and draws Sarah round the gate towards her, with the revelation that she has “a small malignant thing” on her cheek (298). As Grazia Merler points out, Meg is ‘an almost pathetic and stoic presence’ at this moment9. Judas did, after all, hang himself from remorse, something Roy promises Sarah, truthfully, he will never show. They are, of course, thinking of two different reasons for remorse, and this exchange is one of the many examples of faulty communication in the story, in which important statements are made through oily gusts of smoke (288) or white netting (296).

  • 10 Neil K. Besner, The Light of Imagination: Mavis Gallants Fiction, Vancouver: University of Britis (...)
  • 11 Janice Kulyk Keefer, Reading Mavis Gallant, Toronto, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19 (...)

25Sarah’s confusion over identification with Judas is not, however, the result of faulty communication. Nor can I agree with Neil Besner that this confusion suggests that Sarah is destined ‘in some measure to assume Roy Cooper’s role herself’10. Sarah, in Janice Kulyk Keefer’s apt phrase, is a ‘determinedly exploited heroine’11, not an exploiter, and she has the grace to perceive in Judas ’a family likeness’ (300) and the grace to feel guilty, like Mary with the very precious ointment, and unlike Roy, who finds Judas ’reassuring’ because his ideas about punishment are inflexibly self-righteous. His inability to tolerate any reinterpretations is confirmed by Sarah’s characterising of his renewed predatory prowlings as a search for ‘a new, unblemished story’ (296).

  • 12 George Woodcock, ‘Memory, Imagination, Artifice: the late short fiction of Mavis Gallant’, Canadia (...)

26Mavis Gallant does not choose a new, unblemished story to control her own, but one of predestined treachery to which all kinds of preconceptions are already attached. The expedition to see the chapel paintings is not, as George Woodcock calls it, merely ‘a final grotesque incident’12, but the event towards which the whole narrative moves, carrying with it not a ‘shapeless conversation’ like Roy’s and Sarah’s (270), but an extended reflection on love, treachery, and fatherhood, which is shaped by the chapel paintings themselves.

  • 13 Michelle Gadpaille, The Canadian Short Story, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988, 51.

27Michelle Gadpaille calls ‘In the Tunnel’ and ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street’ two of Gallant’s best studies of exile. As she notes, ‘The Ice Wagon’ is the most frequently anthologised story from Home Truths13. ‘In the Tunnel’ has received far less critical attention, but like ‘The Ice Wagon’ it has a haunting central image, the more haunting because it is barely described. The Judas painting is the powerful but ultimately mysterious focus of the narrative, drawing together the story’s themes of politics, nationality and cruelty.


1 First published in the New Yorker, 18 September 1971. Collected in Mavis Gallant, “Home Truths” (first published 1985), reprinted in Overhead in a Balloon and Other Stories, London: Faber and Faber, 1989. All references are to this edition.

2 Ronald B. Hatch, ‘Mavis Gallant and the Fascism of Everyday Life’, Essays on Canadian Writing (Mavis Gallant issue), No 42, Winter 1990, 11.

3 In Canada (1890) a reeve was only the president of a village or town council.

4 Coral Ann Howells, Private and Fictional Words: Canadian Women Novelists of the 1970s and 1980s, London and New York: Methuen, 1987,93.

5 Stephen Regan, “The Presence of the Past”: Modernism and Postmodernism in Canadian Short Fiction’, in Coral Ann Howells and Lynette Hunter (eds.), Narrative Strategies in Canadian Literature: Feminism and Postcolonialism, Milton Keynes and Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1991,

6 Hallvard Dahlie, Varieties of Exile: The Canadian Experience, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986,133.

7 Osbert Lancaster, Homes Sweet Homes, 1939, quoted in Marilyn Strathem, After Nature: English Kinship in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 32.

8 Quoted in Strathem, 32.

9 Grazia Merler, Mavis Gallant: Narrative Patterns and Devices, Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1978,36.

10 Neil K. Besner, The Light of Imagination: Mavis Gallants Fiction, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988,124.

11 Janice Kulyk Keefer, Reading Mavis Gallant, Toronto, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989,137.

12 George Woodcock, ‘Memory, Imagination, Artifice: the late short fiction of Mavis Gallant’, Canadian Fiction Magazine (Mavis Gallant issue) No 28, 1978, 78.

13 Michelle Gadpaille, The Canadian Short Story, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988, 51.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1993

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