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Pygmalion Syndrome: The Homogenization of the Indigenous Woman in Gabrielle Roy’s


-- Dr Anurag Chauhan, Lecturer in English, Guru Ghasidas University, Bilaspur (C.G.) 495009

Canadian north has several distinctive and original characteristics not only in geographical terms but in

social and cultural terms too. The northern wilderness, with its established, and often, static patterns of

life, stands in contrast to the Western civilization and the ideology of progress that goes along with it.

What happens in Windflower can be understood in the light of what Allison Mitcham says:

Several outstanding contemporary Canadian novelists seem obsessed with the plight of characters

doubly isolated, characters who are isolated, first, from the two mainstreams of Canadian culture

—the French and the English—because they have been born Indian, Eskimo, or Jewish, and

second, isolated from their own tribe, group or race, because, for various reasons, they reject their

own racial or tribal patterns, or for some reason, cannot conform to them.1

Gabrielle Roy’s Windflower is about an Eskimo woman, Elsa, who lives in the Canadian north.

Elsa’s life is one that goes through several dooms. As a young, happy girl, she is raped by an American

G.I. She devotes her life to the care of her son who is born as a result of that union. She, afraid of the

effects of progress brought by a culture not her own, attempts to escape it but has to come back and

embrace the white ways of life for the sake of her son. Elsa wants to give her son the benefits of the whte,

western culture and yet she wants to preserve in him the North, Eskimo culture. But this happy

compromise does not work. And it is her son who forsakes her, as he identifies himself with the absent

father and the white culture. When disowned and left by him, Elsa wants to believe that that is not true

and she tries to create a make-believe world of a son who is very successful and who still loves her. With

the same sincerity with which she narrated stories to him she starts believing this fiction and gets

uprooted from reality. At the end of the story we find Elsa an old, nomadic and deranged woman.
The self-sustaining Eskimo ways are threatened for Elsa when a policeman asks her to send

Jimmy to school for a “regular” education, the education which she is giving being considered

insignificant. This is the overt dominance of a culture. She flees away but has to come back to the white

civilization as Jimmy falls ill. The hospital where Jimmy gets treated is the start of an imprisonment and

Ian considers: “Penicillin – that was what ‘they’ had now, besides everything else, to trap free men.

(Windflower101) Elsa shifts over to the side of the white men and for Jimmy it is the start of

estrangement from the culture he was born in and a growing fascination for an alien one, starting with

pinball machines, bicycles, and sausages, and growing to such an extent that his mother becomes an

Eskimo woman to him. The idea of being born to her becomes so troublesome to him that he asks Elsa if

there had been some mix-up at the hospital where he was born.

In Windflower the white culture is very much the mainstream and the central one, and the Eskimo

one marginal, incidental or peripheral. The white culture is percolated into the other in a one-sided,

aggressive way, both overtly and covertly. The implied, if not expressed, idea is to acculture the other

whenever possible. As in Shaw’s Pygmalion the flower girl must be turned into a lady. That she will not

remain a flower girl anymore is not the issue for the “superior” force. Yet, the colonizer wants the

colonized to ape him but not to be him. So one’s essential identity has to be turned into a hybrid one,

alienating one from the original and the acquired both. Elsa, however, remains quasi-hybrid in this

respect, being rooted to the Eskimo ways, conditioned into the white ways, and yet being mother and a

person’s mixture with confusing allegiances and rejections.

Elsa’s choices are stable, born out of an age old culture with values of stability, patience,

endurance, homogeneity with nature, and sacrifice. The white culture is one of flux, of material gain and

comfort, exercise of power and control of nature. The clash of two becomes inevitable at one point or the

other. One can also see this clash of cultures as one between the stability and fixity of a humanistic one
and the bewildering speed and shifting truths of a modern or postmodern one. So we see Elsa using

utmost ingenuity to manage to refrigerate sausages for her son, working hard to earn and fulfill the ever

growing demands of Jimmy for goods that he sees the white children possess.

From another angle, the power of the white culture resides in it being a materially-oriented,

capitalistic culture. Elsa’s son, Jimmy, would have stayed with her in all likelihood if she had been an

American with more access to and acceptance in the white culture and in their notion of progress. As it is,

the benefits of the capitalistic society outweigh the negatives of being in the shadow of a mother

unalterably Eskimo and unalterably poor.

Elsa’s dilemma about the two cultures is not with sharp edges as the love for her child and her

helplessness both go on to dull her cultural allegiance. The forces that work on her are inscrutable to a

certain extent in the sense that it all seems to be as per her own choice. The tone and setting in

Windflower is naturalistic and Hardian, and within it are the cultural expectations of the whites, at new

Fort Chimo. In such a deterministic setting this young Eskimo girl, Elsa, strives to be happy in her

dreamy, easygoing way.

The innate joy and innocence of Elsa’s Eden garden is gradually tested and corrupted by the

dilemma created by the values of the white culture. A sewing machine, a hut, and some other amenities is

all it takes to prepare the ground for the cultural brainwash. Elsa gets conditioned to believe that the

white ways are the normal, and therefore, acceptable and desirable and, subconsciously, to some extent,

that the Inuit ones are the deviant or abnormal, and thus, wanting and questionable. This is the covert

dominance of the white culture. Later, when realization starts dawning, Elsa is troubled by the gradual

consolidation of the effects of the cultural onslaught on her life, her life being incomplete without her

son, who is the willing victim of this onslaught. She has already seen the devastating effects on some

people she imitated, particularly Mme Beaulieu. The illusion is broken but her own motherly emotions
prove stronger: she can not criticize Jimmy so what he does and believes must be acceptable in effect,

amounting to a closeness to the white culture. Elsa’s well wishers point out to her the mistake of

pampering Jimmy and rearing her up in white ways. As to why she pampers him so much her simple

reply is “Because he is Jimmy.” This prepares the ground for the doom of the mother and the child both.

Jimmy’s happiness is in things different from the Inuit ways. Elsa’s happiness is in Jimmy’s happiness.

But catering to this alienates her son from her because her sensibility is essentially Inuit. Elsa adopts the

white culture as a working convenience to keep Jimmy happy. The mother’s allegiance proves to be

stronger than the person’s allegiance, but the agony of dilemma and disillusionment make the person

suffer whereas the mother suffers too as a result of being forsaken by her own child, and the reason why

the mother and person suffers is the same: the overwhelming presence of a culture.

Just as in Pygmalion the flower girl was adopted by Professor Higgins and turned into a

sophisticated lady, Elsa too, is adopted by the white culture and attempts are made to acculture her to it.

These attempts, however, remain only partially acceptable to her, estranging her from both the white

English culture and the Inuit culture. In fact, towards the end she turns into an automaton like figure,

without the traces of any culture and sensibility. This is a reverse effect. If the attempt to create

Pygmalion by exposing her to a certain kind of culture was an utopian one, this attempt becomes a

dystopian one in case of Elsa. If the flower girl was to become more social, more sophisticated, Elsa

becomes lonely and disoriented. She barely exists, wandering like nomads over wilderness; she is almost

mad. In a war poem the soldier is said to be many things like hurt, captured, tortured and killed, and

ultimately summed up as being mad. Elsa’s predicament is like that. In the novel The Bluest Eye Pecola

goes mad, largely because of the inundating white culture; in Windflower the condition is little different.

Elsa is further trapped by her biological condition. With the rearing of her child being her priority,

and herself being an unwed mother, she has to make compromises everywhere. The force of the white
culture affects her more than it would have any man. Her tragedy starts with her rape and ends with her

derangement, with, as Phyllis Webb says “the act of rape echoing the larger intensities of economic and

political violations.”2 As a woman she is affected both by the patriarchal setup of the society and by

individuals both, with her son becoming the cause of her attempts to homogenize with the white culture,

leading to her downfall. The male dominance in the novel is lower in the hierarchical pattern of power

but whereas the ideological or cultural level of dominance is higher and affects the whole community, the

male dominance also is an ideology governing the society and has more of an individual thrust. This

power allies with the power of the white culture to crush Elsa.

At another level, the attempts at the homogenization of Elsa can be seen as the violation of her

inner space, the private space of an individual. The result of this is an estrangement from society and

reality and a vacuum that finds a relief or release in outer space with which Elsa can relate in silence

without the fear of the consequences of communication or bonds and the resulting pain which she has

experienced before. Thus, Elsa finds a communion with nature, and a similarity between the river

Koaksoak and herself. Like a river she remains, having drifted far from its origin and imbibing all,

wanted and unwanted, in its flow.

What can be concluded than as Gabrielle Roy’s indication or implication is that there is no single

truth or ideology that can be said to be the most equal and the best. Homogenization seems to be the

“Best” and lucrative idea but it can be catastrophic in nature. Elsa represents a minor truth, a minor

identity, which is significant in its own way. What the mainstream or central ideology or culture claims

as its crowning glory is equal opportunities and progress. But the minor identity is separate, not even a

subset. Giving chances is not enough: give choices but in a way that one can make informed decisions.
Allison Mitcham, “The Isolation of Protesting Individuals who Belong to Minority Groups”,

Wascana Review, 7:1, U of Regina, 1972, 43.

Phyllis Webb. Afterword. Windflower by Gabrielle Roy, Trans. Joyce Marshall. Toronto:

McClelland and Stewart, 1970, 155.