Opening Lines: Riff No.5

by caroline on September 30, 2011

OPENING LINES: Riff No.5,  September 2011
Where was the young man….

“Where was the young man who had given her so many
admiring glances yesterday?”
Gabrielle Roy, The Tin Flute, 1947.
(translated from the French by Hannah Josephson*)

My mother, pictured here with me and my brother during the WWII absence of our father, would have purchased her copy of The Tin Flute in about 1947. That was the year the English translation came out, and two years after my father returned home to Winnipeg, to a family he did not know.





Gabrielle Roy’s opening line, which introduces the reader to her main character Florentine Lacasse, resonates for me today with all the poignancy  of my family experience in those war years (in a sense, perhaps it stands out as an expression of the poignancy of women’s ever shifting role in relation to all war).

It was an exquisitely disturbing early reading experience to encounter, with my mother’s encouragement, her well worn copy of The Tin Flute. I wish I could hold that same volume today. I can almost feel it in my hands, relive those hours lying in bed late at night, barely breathing as the unfamiliar narrative of such desperate poverty unfolded before me in vivid detail.  The exquisite quality of the experience must be attributed to Gabrielle Roy’s rich artistic integrity.

My second reading of The Tin Flute was as a mature student in a Canadian Literature class taught by The Professor himself.  Since I do have this now resident professor near at hand, let me pass this over to him for a moment:

Is the opening line to The Tin Flute a particularly good one?

Parker Duchemin:
I wouldn’t hesitate to place it right up there with the best of them. One simple sentence contains all the desperation, the feelings of entrapment, the dependence on men, experienced by Florentine, and all women like her, in that era. It immediately calls up the vanity of Florentine,  her need to present herself to Jean, representative of an ambitious male power, which she sees as her way out of entrapment.  The line is also a portent of loss to come, a foreshadowing of Florentine’s humiliating loss of Jean, whose ruthlessness encircles, even in his absence, the rest of her life.

Everything is in that first line.  If one returns to it at any point while reading the novel, it will always resonate.

Florentine as  a heroine, a heroine working in a five and dime store, was unheard of as a character in Quebec literature at the time The Tin Flute was published.  Roy’s novel was a  radical departure from the norm, from the romanticized female in novels such as Maria Chapdelaine. In The Tin Flute, there is no romanticized hero, no romanticized heroine.

*an interesting footnote from Parker: a more recent translation of The Tin Flute (Alan Brown, 1980), dispenses with that superb opening line, and would deprive us of this conversation. Roy herself was quoted as wishing that Brown’s translation had been better, although it was an improvement in some ways. Comments, with the original French, would be most welcome.





Hi Carol
l am such a technophobe l have hesitated to engage but will wrap my head around this.
Your techno-peasant friend.
Joan Anne

by Joan Anne Nolan on 10/01/2011 at 4:25 am. #

Hi Carol,

I really enjoyed reading your blog and seeing your family picture. I have never read “The Tin Flute” but now I am intrigued and will have to pick up a copy to read it. Thanks,


by Erna Ricciuto on 10/05/2011 at 4:57 pm. #