Main menu

Seeking Home and Spatializing Daily Struggle: Strategies for Survival

Dominique Hétu


Dominique Hétu

Université de Montréal



Seeking Home and Spatializing Daily Struggle: Strategies for Survival


In Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute, 1945), Hey Waitress and Other Stories (1989), Les enfants Beaudet (The Beaudet children, 2001), and Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006), the characters struggle with exclusion, confinement, and lack of social recognition in precarious environments. The texts dramatize a desire for alternatives to dealing with spatial distress, economic crisis, and sex-gendered boundaries. This desire is represented by the female and child characters’ survival strategies, which show that they are agents of change and capable of finding and preserving minimum comfort in living spaces. One aspect of the transgressive function of the texts is to represent alternative spaces in the lives of women and children that result from their experiences of struggle. For instance, the characters show ambivalence towards their sense of home, and, accordingly, they seek to rebuild and/or negotiate this living space through alternative sites such as embodied, fantasized, or shared spatiality. Drawing on theories of space, home, and the fictional representation of poverty, this paper analyses home, the workplace, the body and the shared space of solidarity as fragile, limited, and conflicting sites. I suggest, more particularly, that the negotiation of space is an important part of the process of identity formation through which the characters in these texts find a sense of home between the material and the psychological, the public and the private, and individuality and solidarity.



Describing kinds of oppression, the experience of oppression, and the creative agency of the oppressed can help form resistance and envision alternatives. 

                   Iris Marion Young


Male and female theorists have explored the role of space in fiction in order to provide interpretations of the ways in which authors represent, use, and organize spatial forms to position their characters and challenge fixed and essentialist notions of difference and identity. In the past decades, the fields of gender and feminist studies have demonstrated that the production of space reflects a gender bias not only in lived space, but also in the “construction of theory and in the avoidance of research that directly addresses women’s lived experience” (Miranne and Young 1). Feminist geographers and philosophers have expanded this discussion by examining micro- and macro-level issues at the intersections of gender, experience, class, and space in order to better understand Western culture’s construction of womanhood. These power forces inscribe the daily living spaces, which in turn delineate the everyday lives of the fictionalized subjects and limit their agency. Thus, by looking at space as a social construction that is not static but dynamic, we can more easily understand how female characters’ identities are “constructed, fixed, and contested” through spaces and places (66).

            To contest the spatial and gender bias, I adapt, among other discourses, feminist standpoint theories to my project by considering that the female characters experience poverty, sexism, and economic distress differently. They are, to borrow Sandra Harding’s words, “multiple ... and contradictory or incoherent, not unitary, homogenous, and coherent” (65). The feminist standpoint approach is useful because it focuses on resisting the historical tendency of misrepresenting and silencing women and children by using “dominant knowledge canons” in which these subjects are often excluded and essentialized (Brooks 56). Therefore, by applying these ideas to my corpus, I wish to demonstrate that the selected female and child characters are not merely represented as victims and as passive individuals. They are representations of subjects who experience situations of oppression and who try to take control of their lives and of their living spaces. More precisely, this study of literary representations of space will show how “space is more than the outcome of social relations and more than one of the dimensions through which the social is constructed. It is an active, constitutive, irreducible, necessary component in the social composition ... [and] it may be that there is more to space then merely being in the centre of confined to the margin” (Keith & Pile 36). From this spatial and feminist perspective, taking space and contesting space through different types of actions play a part in transgressing and challenging imposed spaces and identities. The following readings will show the complex and shifting living spaces as well as the spaces of solidarity that are occupied by the female and youth characters in crisis.

            My readings of Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’Occasion (1945), Helen Potrebenko’s Hey Waitress and Other Stories (1989), Isabel Vaillancourt’s Les enfants Beaudet (2001), and Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006) show how the strategic use of space is an inscription of the fictionalized subjects’ desire to change their everyday experience of poverty. It is the everyday struggle that creates alternative spaces and that causes the fictionalized subjects to resist their lived spatiality. The texts offer counter-discourse and symbolic resistance to hegemonic ideas of space and identity formation. They share knowledge of everyday struggle, sexual oppression, socioeconomic crisis, lived spatiality, sisterhood, and solidarity. Drawing on discourse on space, gender, and poverty as well as on literary theory, I examine, through these four pieces of fiction written by Canadian and Québécois women writers, how the interconnections between space designs and social distress influence the characters’ process of identity formation and response to poverty. This article addressed the literary constructions of material and symbolic spaces of living in order to demonstrate how the characters of the female and children are able to be agents of change. I question how they experience poverty and I compare their behaviour in situations of crisis and of comfort in order to problematize notions of home and belonging. My general hypothesis is that poor subjects in crisis are able to come up with strategies that make them resist the exclusion or that make them complicit with the oppressive power. This way, they challenge the imposed identity and find comfort within both “public” and “private” spaces, for lack of better words, that, once compared, tend to blur and thus raise questions about the necessity to keep opposing both notions. On a more general level, this shows how fiction can work to disturb traditional notions of home and space as well as offer alternatives to the oppressiveness of spaces of living in contexts of precariousness.

            My concern with home is primordial. By looking more closely at how the characters experience home, I argue that their idealized home is not only, for the majority, an imagined place from within. The representations of living spaces are not simply either material or symbolic, for, as Doreen Massey, a contemporary social geographer, stresses, “space is constituted through social relations and material social practices” (146). Spaces of home are, to put it another way, not simply internalized, poetic, individualized expressions of home. Rather, those spaces represent “the production of strategies of self-definition or self-expression” by the poor to resist spatial exclusion from their respective living spaces (Zandy, Calling Home 1).

            The survival strategies of fictionalized female and child subjects against the patriarchal gender system are read as problematic and relational instead of being polarized and fixed as either resistant or complicit with dominant forces. The work of Janet Zandy on working-class women’s identity and their home spaces helps to decode, in Gabrielle Roy’s and Helen Potrebenko’s writings more particularly, the dramatized “working-class [women’s] experience, its contradictions and commonalities” (Zandy, Calling Home 5). Zandy’s observations about working-class women writings allow an analysis of some of the works under study that clarifies the relationship between class, gender, space, place and the female characters’ survival strategies. The writing of Elizabeth Grosz and Iris Marion Young are also useful. They prove to be crucial assessments of embodied spatiality and seek to resituate the female body and female space in more inclusive theorizations of embodied spatiality. The radical philosophical analysis of embodied space articulated by Grosz in her collection of essays Space, Time, Perversion and in her book The Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space, offers interesting avenues for looking more closely at the ways the selected female characters deal physically and emotionally with spatial precariousness. Kristine Miranne and Alma Young’s anthology Gendering the City: Women, Boundaries, and Visions of Urban Life, through their complex and multileveled analysis of the notion of boundary, help to examine women’s capacity to resist unwelcoming environments and be agents of change: “Because of the separation of different roles and functions within the city, and because women often find themselves within separate and less powerful space, women resist, (re)configure, and (re)construct the boundaries they encounter” (Miranne and Young 2).

            My corpus consists of fictional stories about women and children who experience economic, corporeal, and sex-gendered crises in problematic living spaces. Each text dramatizes the hardships of social alienation, spatial exclusion, and economic precariousness. Each text also presents a narrative structure, active female and child characters, and textual elements that serve to portray poor and working-class subjects’ resistance and survival strategies in the context of struggle. Caught between a desire to get out of their difficult situation and a sense of home that is already grounded in some physical places, the characters negotiate their position and often transgress spatial limits. Indeed, the female and child characters express a desire to get out of their precarious situations by using survival strategies. One objective is to show how they create new space through solidarity; escape reality through drugs, alcohol, and fantasy; and use their bodies as shields or as objects of negotiation with dominant forces. The fictionalized subjects develop these different forms of resistance in order to create, preserve, or even displace an often blurry sense of home. By analyzing how class and gender systems of oppression inscribe the poor female and child characters’ living spaces, I am able to argue that, for them, home is a site in which identity is constructed, negotiated, and appropriated. To do so, it is important to explore how the characters use the aforementioned strategies of resistance and/or complicity. These spatial strategies are the main unifying thread between the texts.

            Gabrielle Roy’s modern urban novel convincingly portrays struggling yet resourceful female subjects who refuse to give up their dreams, but instead take action. Bonheur d’occasion is traditionally known for being one of the first urban novels published in Québec and for representing the poverty of French-Québécois people living in urban spaces. Although Roy does not overtly denounce her female characters’ precarious positions, her narrative centers on the psychological and intimate observations of the Lacasse women, which make this realist narrative a lively and poignant defense of subjects from below. The narrative makes the readers aware of female subjects’ difficulty to get out of poverty unless they “marry up” like Florentine. Many critics have already argued the sisterhood between Rose-Anna, the mother, and Florentine, the daughter, is another source of escape and of comfort that helps them to better deal with their struggle. Drawing on the work of Patricia Smart and Roxanne Rimstead, I discuss how this solidarity is part of the text’s spatialization of struggle. The female protagonists, Rose-Anna and Florentine, respectively occupy the spaces of the domestic sphere and the workplace, and their bodies are portrayed as part of their struggle to move freely in the city of Montreal.

            Bonheur d’occasion dramatizes everyday struggle as well as moments of solidarity in the lives of characters who try to preserve the very little they have. The strength of Roy’s novel resides in the unfolding of Rose-Anna and Florentine’s survival strategies to cope with their respective and mutual struggles and living spaces. The desire for sisterhood and the attempts at finding comfort in places that are not designed to offer any show that public and private spheres are open to change, such as when Rose-Anna visits Florentine at the local restaurant or when, at home, Florentine reveals her pregnancy to her mother. These transgressions and moments of togetherness during struggle give them an opportunity to find comfort in a space that they create together. By avoiding emphasizing the negativity of their living spaces and relationships and by focusing instead on their different survival strategies to surmount bodily, material, emotional, and spatial crises, it becomes possible to read this novel as a representation of solidarity between the female characters. Roy’s text portrays women whose lives are devoted to improving their living conditions through survival strategies that are more or less successful, but that also reveal a strong relationship of sisterhood between a mother and a daughter despite their conflict. As many critics have remarked, in Bonheur d’occasion the fictionalized subjects’ strategies dramatize the isolating aspect of poverty and of patriarchy for poor women, but more importantly, they also reveal the empowering dimension of the Lacasse women’s mutual relationship (Rimstead 80).

            Patricia Smart suggests in Writing in the Father’s House: The Emergence of the Feminine in the Quebec Literary Tradition that:


Roy introduces another important structural element in the gradual transformation of patriarchal structures by women’s writing: the relationship between mother and daughter. ... At the heart of Roy’s vision of culture lies the reality of the wounded reproductive bodies of women and the vicious circle of the maternal role transmitted from mother to daughter down through the generations – the circle that must be opened if the transformation of culture is to take place. (167)


Smart also remarks that the interactions between Florentine and Rose-Anna are the sources of hope in the novel despite the exasperation caused by one another: “Counterbalancing all this negativism are Rose-Anna’s love and her tenacity – a refusal to give up hope which, along with that of her daughter Florentine – is literally the energy that propels the novel forward” (Smart 171). And therefore this potential opening of the vicious circle that emerges from a focus on the scenes of mother/daughter negotiations emphasizes how gender, class and space intersect and are, of course, caught in the limits of the social system (Rimstead 81). How these women interact in, deal with, and respond to their living spaces and the in-between, reads as a “rejection and reclamation of home” in the sense that these female subjects are strongly attached to their home but experience contradictory desires to flee from it (81). For instance, Florentine remarks: “Et plus que l’ennui encore, la haine de ce pauvre logis, comme un clos où venaient mourir toutes leurs tentatives d’évasion, la tourmentait1” (“And beyond this feeling of boredom, it was the hatred of the place, like a cage in which died every attempt at escape, that tormented her;” 175), and, on the opposite, Rose-Anna seems more inclined to accept her living spaces, as she says: “certaines maisons prédispos[ent] au bonheur et que d'autres, par un enchaînement fatidique, sont destinées à n'abriter que des êtres éprouvés” (“Some houses are more likely to provide happiness than others, which, due to an unfortunate destiny, always shelter afflicted beings,” Roy 250). The boundaries to homecoming are formed, situated and maintained “both outside dominant culture and inside their own sphere of experience” (Rimstead 82), and this process sheds light on how both women authors and characters, “through politics of identity and politics of place, can formulate strategies

            Rose-Anna and Florentine Lacasse do not feel the same about their home, but both seek being and having at home. The Lacasse house is first mentioned in chapter five, once the restaurant where Florentine works, the Deux Records where the men have a drink, and the streets of Montreal and more particularly Saint-Henri, have been described to the reader. This narrative structure could signify that the home–often referred to as “la maison” (the house) when talking about the physical place and “chez nous” (home) when speaking of the feeling of belonging, of feeling at home – does not stand on its own and is, as mentioned above, connected with other parts of the impoverished neighborhood and challenges the traditional conceptualization of private and public spheres.

            Hey Waitress and Other Stories, written by Helen Potrebenko in 1989, did not attract much formal criticism. Her writings remain, for the most part, outside the traditional canon. In Progressive Heritage: The Evolution of a Politically Radical Tradition in Canada, James Doyle remarks how the political dimension of her writing is what stands out, as Potrebenko’s work often concentrates on “the themes of solidarity against the social injustice, especially to women workers, perpetrated by male-dominated government and corporate power” (289). Her short stories are fictionalized accounts of the experiences of subjects attempting to surmount economic struggles, work-induced physical pain, and relational distress at home and at work. A majority of her fictionalized subjects overtly express their frustration with the precariousness of their jobs and the sexist oppression experienced in the work place, as the protagonist Stella remarks in the short story “Hey Waitress:” “They refused to say that waitressing damaged everyone’s health, and in particular, had destroyed one Myra Semchuk, who was once a woman. Who ever heard of a waitress getting Workers’ Compensation? Workers’ Compensation was for men who had accidents, not waitresses who just suffered the wear and tear of the years” (19). A close reading of what the female characters say about their experiences and those of their colleagues and friends show that the tensions lived in the workspace and in other public spaces are carried within the home and force them to negotiate their life at home: “They batted at each other with the sofa cushions, Ginny winning easily because Stella’s movements were hampered by her feet being in the basin” (7). Stella, a waitress, must put her feet in salty water every night, otherwise she will not be able to work the next morning. The frontiers between home place and workplace are blurred not only because of the suffering body, but because colleagues come home to discuss work-related issues, because daughters follow their mother’s steps and become waitresses, or because money – or rather the lack of money – is an obsession.

            In most stories, while depicting women’s lives as alienated and often caught in systemic, daily patterns of sex-gendered oppression and financial distress, Potrebenko almost always brings in a character through which the protagonist will find support and community, making home or “feeling at home” a little more easy to reach. Potrebenko gives great importance to the need for women to support each other and to sustain community. If some of her stories show that such networking is not always successful, as the nurturing relationship fails in “The Interview,” other stories show that coalitions are successful, as in “Hey Waitress” and in “RSVP,” a very short text about a gathering of male and female lawyers, articling students and secretaries during which women help each other to deal with sexist comments made by men: “No thanks, Carole said, startled. Jack took her arm and said “A pretty thing like you, working so hard, I thought you might want a little recreation. What about your wife? added Carole. Grow up, this isn’t the dark ages Jack said irritably. Isn’t it? Magda asked, having appeared beside them. Could hardly tell the difference from the way women are treated” (Potrebenko 98). In this short story, the secretaries are all at the bar on the side of the room, while the women lawyers and employees of the firms try to find a place within male-dominated circles, which are spread across the room. Women either hover around masculine groups, trying to fit in, or stay on the margins. This geography is not meaningless: the spaces are constructed and influenced by sex-gendered and class relations, which in turn alter how the narrator and other characters identify, cope with, or try to transform those spaces either by forcing herself in a circle, talking back to the men, or helping other women have a place.

            Similar to Florentine’s struggle in Bonheur d’occasion and to Baby’s in Lullabies for Little Criminals, several female characters in Helen Potrebenko’s Hey Waitress and Other Stories experience loneliness and powerlessness in the private realm as well as problematic relationships of servitude and objectification in the public. In “RSVP” and “Hey Waitress,” female characters find great support in the presence of other women, particularly because they share similar, often sex- and gender- oriented conflicts in the workplace. In “The Interview” and “Co-Alcoholic,” the isolation of the protagonists and their confinement in material or imagined spaces (the elevator, the senior citizen’s home, memories of the past or of lost loved ones) make the strategy work differently. However, as previously discussed, both female characters try to make sense of their place in the world through relationships with others and through spatial struggle.

            It is important to note that not all stories from the collection dramatize the power of female solidarity in the process of homecoming, which is why the stories mentioned above are discussed more at length than the others. However, each short story dramatizes a lived experience of poverty and of work-related alienation. “Three Days in Kiev,” “Passion,” and “A Different Story” focus on issues of immigration, Ukrainian history, national identity, and generational poverty, respectively. The last two stories of the collection, “The Bird” and “The Lonesome, Lost Rebellion of Mom’s Café,” use magical realism (a talking bird that only the protagonist can see) and dystopia (mothers and children confined to shopping centers by military forces on threat of violence if they come out) to dramatize female isolation in contexts of economic precariousness and sexist, capitalist politics. The latter two stories focus less on issues of home and daily spatial struggle and more on the subjugating, exclusionary dimensions of financial dependency. Potrebenko’s fiction can thus be seen as a form of protest and as an attempt to show how knowledge about class, gender, and financial precariousness can be found in the representations of poor, elderly, single, working-class women and their daily living spaces.

            Potrebenko uses the narrative strategies of setting (house, workplace, elevator, senior citizen’s home) and point of view (third-person omniscient and first-person narrator for the story written as a diary), and mostly a realistic mode of writing, to unravel the characters’ experiences of working-class and spatial struggle. Potrebenko also uses textual strategies that underline female solidarity and the diversity of female voices. To adjust the little attention that working-class women and their struggle have drawn, she takes the time to thank, in the acknowledgements, the women whom she interviewed “for necessary information about the specifics of the work” (Potrebenko iv). She also does away with the use of quotation marks to identify the characters’ dialogues in the stories, making the expression of their experiences hardly distinguishable. Potrebenko resists the exclusion of working-class women’s voices by highlighting working-class issues, which include work-induced pain; low wages; sexist treatment by employers, colleagues, and customers; psychosocial and spatial alienation; lack of opportunities for salary increase and promotion; and inadequate pension plans. Private and public spaces are sometimes blurred. Place is both location and community; work is often brought home either because colleagues visit or because the body hurts, and at times memories from the past serve as spaces of home.

            The fictional work of Isabel Vaillancourt explores how the living conditions of families are jeopardized by poverty and its social stigmas, and her 2001 novel Les enfants Beaudet precisely addresses the refusal of this community to recognize subjects from below as other than “des pauvres qui mangent dans la main des autres” (“poor eating straight from the hands of others ;” Vaillancourt 43). Set in Rouyn, Les enfants Beaudet is a contemporary take on 1960s poverty through the eyes of Rose Beaudet, nine years old, whose monologues give details about the Beaudet children's actions and reactions to being left on their own, penniless and hungry. Resisting ostracization through acts of violence, the children justify their behaviors in their quest for citizenship, fighting for social recognition and dignity by imitating Hollywood versions of Robinhood and Al Capone they have been watching on television. Their struggle for a space of their own, to be reunited with their family, causes them, on the contrary, to be even more excluded as they become detainees and struggle to make sense of the place in which they are confined: “Si tout ce qu’on a fait sur la rue Perreault était pour l’honneur, comment se fait-il que papa ait disparu de notre vie, que maman en ait perdu la raison, et qu’on nous ait enfermés ici ?” (“If all we’ve done on Perreault street was to save our honor, how come dad disappeared from our lives, how come mom went crazy, and how come we’re locked in here?” 19). Through her monologues and conversations, we come to better understand how embodied and public spaces shape this family and influence the agency and solidarity of the children, whose home is manifested in different forms of belonging: being reunited with their family, attachment to the past, and being considered full members of society.

            One scene is particularly interesting. The nine-year-old narrator Rose recalls a game she used to play with her brother and sisters in which they walked the streets of Rouyn holding signs denouncing their silence: “Mais comme une famille doit tout faire ensemble, j’ai dû suivre Édith, Olivier et Adèle qui se promenaient, en ville, en agitant des pancartes qu’on avait fabriquées et sur lesquelles on pouvait lire: Nous sommes condamnés au silence perpétuel. Les dons en argent sont acceptés” (“But since a family does everything together, I had to follow Edith, Olivier and Adèle who were walking in the city, holding signs we had made and on which we could read: Were condemned to perpetual silence. Donations are welcomed;” Vaillancourt 149-51). The signs are a strategy to partially contest the exclusion from the public sphere. The Beaudet children are empowered by this togetherness and are thus better equipped to resist the exclusion from the public and the confinement in the juvenile detention center. Being on the margins, once again, means struggling inside and outside. The poor subjects’ position is often situated in psychosocial space in which they find empowerment, resistance and, somehow, comfort. On Perreault street, Laliberté street, in the garage they borrowed for temporary shelter, or in the train wagon, the children learn to be at home otherwise, because, as 9-year-old Rose says: “Qui habite partout n’habite nulle part” (“Who lives everywhere lives nowhere”; Vaillancourt 94).

            As in many young characters’ spaces of home, there are material spaces of home that do play the part and that do fulfill the feeling of being home even though they do not offer the best living conditions. Outside the public areas in which they struggle to find food and social recognition, the children’s idea of home is built around expecting parental love and a thriving sense of solidarity that the numerous tragic events have solidified. Having absent parents, being mocked by the inhabitants of Rouyn and having to beg for food at the local hospital and watch television on the sidewalk because there is no place left for them, those young characters struggle to find an identity with which they could be comfortable in all spheres.

            Similar to what David Sibley and Sarah James remark about children living in poverty in Children's Geographies: Some Problems of Representation, these young fictional characters have the capacity and strength to “spend a remarkable amount of time changing the landscape as they make it their own – not through the legalisms of the adult world, but through their own rites of occupation and experience” (Sibley and James 271). The Beaudet children find comfort in food, in the televised life of Al Capone, and in an old encyclopedia and a Bible that offer them an illusion of control over their condition and a chance to improve it in a culture and an urban space that prefer to silence them and make them invisible. More importantly, their “own” rights imply that they have a capacity, as a group, as a small community, to change their situation by using new practices, whether it’s successful or not.

            In Les enfants Beaudet, the daily living spaces put the freedom of the child characters at risk and yet reinforce their sense of belonging to their small group. The only solution the state has for containing those children is detention, which serves to criminalize the four siblings and not to rehabilitate them. Accordingly, Rose narrates her story in a juvenile detention center in which her siblings and she are incarcerated. They were incapable of fitting into both public and private spaces, and so they created their own space of resistance: petty theft and violence. The inscription of space as confining and as exclusionary is another strategy of the text to dramatize the experience of struggle of these child characters. In depicting gang-like attitudes and movements in the city of Rouyn (Rimstead, “Who Cares?” 2011), the story dramatizes confining private spaces and exclusionary public spaces that make the representations of the children’s lived spatiality more complex. The children want a nice house in Florida, want to walk the streets of the city with their heads up and be treated the same as those “citoyens de première classe” who put the children on the margins instead of trying to help them (“first class citizens,” Vaillancourt 54). They become, as a group, a space of solidarity. Although Rose is able to forge her own opinion of what is good and bad and to make her own decisions during her confession, she and her siblings barely function individually.

            Despite Adèle’s negative influence and code of dignity, which leads to the murder of Lucie, they are a lot stronger when together. They reinforce each other’s confidence, sense of hope and of worth, as Adèle commands Rose to be proud of who she is: “Nous, les Beaudet, on est aussi des personnes. Je veux que tu regardes toujours les citoyens dans les yeux. Sans la moindre gêne. C’est une question de dignité...” (“Us, the Beaudet, we’re people, too. I want you to always look citizens in the eyes. Without any embarrassment. It’s a matter of dignity;” Vaillancourt 49). Their spatial struggle reinforces their sense of solidarity as a family. Contrary to the other texts, the children’s solidarity crosses gender lines and is represented by what they do, as a group, to contest exclusion.

            Lullabies for Little Criminals has received significant praise since its publication in 2006. Heather O’Neill’s first novel, set in 1980s Montreal, is narrated by 12-year-old Baby, who tells the reader about being a young girl having to survive extreme poverty and spatial entrapment, being vulnerable to men who lure her into prostitution and drug abuse. In desperate need of someone to take care of her because her father is in and out of drug deals or in rehabilitation centers, Baby experiences different forms of spatial struggle at home, on the street as well being at times objectified despite her ongoing attempts to be treated as a subject. She directly addresses the reader, as the form of narration almost reads like a confession, as when she tells us: “I will let you in on a little secret about being hit by a car” (O’Neill 56). Baby seeks, more than anything else, to be comfortable with others instead of seeking material and physical ease. She is able to establish punctual connections with women who help her strengthen her position in the world. For example, a random girl gives Baby a copy of The Swallower Swallowed, which gives her hope, makes her feel less alone in the world: “It wasn’t one of Alphonse’s presents. A girl in the park had given it to me. She said that someone else always gives someone a copy ... and that you can’t buy it. It was the story of a young girl who was at once enraptured and furious with the world.” (O’Neill 195). Baby’s role models are not people whom she knows privately, but rather people whose places in the public are defined by social standards that exclude them from the centre. Baby identifies with them and lets them give her a sense of home, no matter what they ask of her in return. As a lonely child, she is ready to give a lot from herself in order to receive the littlest form of recognition.

            The boundaries between what she needs and what she does not, between places in which she is welcomed as a subject and those in which she is used, traded for money and objectified are thin but solid, porous but not totally unsafe. Discussing the importance of the boundary in the conceptualization of identity and space, Miranne and Young suggest that


The role of place-based networks in women’s survival strategies demonstrates that women are agents in the production of geographical boundaries.... Understanding how women participate in the creation of boundaries as well as challenge them, and how such boundaries may be enabling as well as constraining, is an important part of constructing a feminist politics based on coalitions and affinities that acknowledges the diversity of women’s experience (82-3).


The spatial boundaries, influenced, and caused by emotional crises and economic distress, underline problematic socio-spatial processes of oppression. Baby’s strategies to fulfill her desire for community dramatize poor women’s incapacity to move freely, and their boundedness is characterized by material and economic constraints (Miranne and Young 70). This dramatization of gender and class struggles is presented in the novel in Baby’s daily life, in her highly intimate strategies that are the result of several spatially-constituted everyday experiences of poverty. For instance, her nomadic lifestyle captures the difficult rooting of her identity and the precariousness of ordinary life with her father. Her use of drugs is also revealing of her attempts to push the boundaries of reality to either escape the oppressive spaces or create new ones in which she will not be confronted with her financial, emotional and physical distress and will find a certain comfort.

            In these four texts, it makes little doubt that both public and private spaces are in contact. The imposed, sometimes materially inadequate and unsanitary housing spaces, and the one qualified by the characters as “home” seem to merge and impinge on one another and push the characters to develop strategies of community building, both in resistance to or in complicity with the imposed living spaces. This hypothesis connects with Miranne and Young’s idea of the boundary and Donna Haraway’s idea that the private and the public should not be conceptualized as polarities but rather as part of a webbed system, as she remarks: “it is now a totally misleading ideology, even to show how both terms [private and public domains] of these dichotomies construct each other in theory and practice. I prefer a network ideological image, suggesting the profusion of spaces and identities and the permeability of boundaries in the personal body and in the body politic” (Haraway 170). Caren Kaplan maintains a similar argument in Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement. She argues that theories of location in which the home occupies a predominant place “do not set up binary oppositions between global and local” but rather reinforce a destabilization of the location/displacement dichotomy which encompasses the concepts of movement, home and homelessness, liminality, private, public, and self (Kaplan 18).

            One way in which the characters can resist the limits of socially constructed space is to create new forms of social community in the form of sisterhood and solidarity. For instance, Baby develops public and private solidarity to recreate daughter/father bonding in Lullabied for Little Criminals. Rose-Anna and Florentine, in Bonheur d’occasion, find a certain comfort in their mother/daughter relationship, and the children in Les enfants Beaudet develop a gang-like community to achieve their goals. The relationship between space and these new forms of community is an identifiable strategy of surviving spatialized in conflict and oppression. Lullabies for Little Criminals also dramatizes a young character’s experience of socio-spatial isolation and exclusion. In order to cope with oppressive living spaces and abusive relationships, Baby uses her body, takes drugs and finds refuge in dreams and fantasized places. It is also undeniable that she is manipulated into using her body for prostitution and initiated to drug abuse by Alphonse. Her strategies relate to space because they serve to make her experience of spatiality easier and her relationships set in dangerous places of the red-light district less traumatic. What quickly becomes apparent in Baby’s movements in Montreal are her attempts at entering into relationships with other marginal figures of the city, which profoundly influence the outcome of her daily life on the streets, in foster homes and in intimate relations with men. Although in the end Baby, as a 12-year-old girl, is taken outside the city by Jules and welcomed by another adult who will take care of her, she is still an agent of change and finds the means to transform her life, which include subversive spatial movements in the public and in the private, the negotiation of embodied space, and the creation of new spaces of solidarity as a result of her struggle to find a father figure.

            As I read the texts side by side, my reading strategies show that the spaces of representation stress class and gender systems of oppression that inscribe the poor female and child characters’ living spaces and lived spatiality. As exposed in the four narratives, the state, employers, male characters, and parental figures are usually power figures that influence the daily activities of the fictionalized subjects and that reduce the characters’ capacity for taking action and for being mobile. Much has been said about the various characters’ places in the world, but less has been observed about their attempts at changing their naturalized location. Hence, by questioning the nature of their movements and locations, and by looking more critically at how they are represented textually, I was committed to seeking knowledge about their active experience of economic, sex-gendered and psychosocial struggle. In the stories, the characters are vehicles for representations of the agency of the oppressed. Although the female and child characters are inscribed by patriarchy and economic distress, and are objectified, the texts do not deny them agency. The settings (urban streets, workplaces, private places) serve to both limit the characters’ opportunities, such as Rose-Anna’s house-hunting scene, and to empower them, as the Beaudet children walk the streets of Rouyn with signs asking the citizens for money. Closely related to mobility, agency is often symbolized by the movements of the characters in struggle. Phyllis, in Potrebenko’s “Co-Alcoholic,” rides elevators not only as a form of escape, but also as a form of agency: she disrupts the boundaries, takes action to find a place of her own and to have a certain form of control over this one space.

            The narratives often dramatize a search for a material and symbolic home, as well as different forms of mobility that are represented by particular movements in specific places and that are a form of opposition to power figures and structures. The transgression of private and public boundaries, as the protagonists live on the street, fear eviction, beg for food in the public, occupy elevators, are not capable of moving freely at home because of work-induced pain, dramatizes the complex representations of mobility. As Massey suggests, “Different social groups have distinct relationships to this anyway differentiated mobility: some people are more in charge of it than others; some initiate flows and movement, others don’t; some are more on the receiving-end of it than others; some are effectively imprisoned by it” (Massey, “Global” 26). Although she does not address literary representations of such struggle, Massey is useful for she decodes the intricacies of space and of people’s “need for attachment of some sort, whether through place or anything else” (26). The four selected literary texts are sites where difficulties and limitations are often beyond the characters’ choice but where a sense of agency and mobility are represented. Indeed, these textual representations offer knowledge about the subjectivities of female and child characters and reveal connections between discourse on space and discourses on poverty, gender, and class, making the representations of space more complex.

            The strategies used by the fictionalized subjects are forms of resistance, and the texts themselves are a form of resistance to the silencing of the poor and to the objectification and trivialization of working-class struggles. The stories use tropes of space, home, body, and poverty to examine and to localize experiences of economic, sex-gendered and spatial struggle. The descriptions of the characters’ struggle and mobility show how they create space and take action in order to, potentially, transgress physical and social boundaries. As Keith and Pile suggest in Place and the Politics of Identity, the openness of space and the malleability of its boundaries give those who live in it a capacity to better localize their struggle and, consequently, to work with the dynamics of space to their advantage. Instead of conformity, then, resistance can be expressed: “New spaces of resistance are being opened up, where our ‘place’ (in all its meanings) is considered fundamentally important to our perspective, our location in the world, and our right and ability to challenge dominant discourses of power” (Keith & Pile 6). The Beaudet’s location and displacement appeal to the emotions of the readers, just as Baby’s destructive everyday choices and Florentine’s limited choices are symbols of the social failure to give equal rights and possibilities to all. Again, these representations of struggle nonetheless also often allow the creation of new space that gives the characters a sense of homecoming.

            The texts use the trope of home to disturb public and private boundaries and to question the meaning of having a home and being at home. Indeed, the material, physical representations of home that are often inadequate and the ones qualified by the characters as “home” impinge on one another. For example, the small, dirty, house of the Lacasse family is often referred to as home in Bonheur d’occasion. In Lullabies for Little Criminals, Baby does not care about the cockroaches on the wall and her tiny room as long as her father is with her in the apartment. What symbolizes home is a mix of home as shelter and as shared space. Because the selected texts situate poor female and child bodies in gender, class, and urban systems of oppression, I argue that home is a site in which identity can be constructed, negotiated, and appropriated through resistance to and/or complicity with these systems. Dramatized in the text, these variables make the home a fragile, porous, and ambivalent place in which it is difficult to thrive. As a response to this spatial tension, the characters struggle to preserve a sense of home and create new space. They take charge of their problematic living spaces by creating a shared space of solidarity with other characters.

            My discussion of spaces and places in the four literary texts stressed how the characters under study, living on the peripheries, struggle to survive exclusionary and confining practices of culturally and economically dominant groups towards them. By making their way home both materially and symbolically, they all try, some more successfully than others, to spatialize their lives differently. By focusing on how the texts unfold survival strategies, which cannot be understood in isolation from systemic conditions that impose spatial organization (Lefebvre 49), I have argued that these texts represent poor women and children who are able to cope with inadequate living spaces by trying to transform their lived spatiality and by working their way around exclusion and confinement through mobility, agency and solidarity. It is also important to keep in mind that, while mobility can be seen as close to and defined by solidarity, it does not negate the limitations enforced by the socio-economic forces and rules which mediate the living spaces.

            When read alongside theories of lived and embodied space by authors such as Grosz and Marion Young, these representations of living spaces and of spatial struggle not only help us understand how subjects in crisis experience space, but also illustrate the socially constructed processes that limit the opportunities for these subjects to take action. The struggle to survive, escape, and obtain living spaces creates other spaces such as community and solidarity. Each text, with its own textual strategies for representing the experience of poverty and related struggles, resists the essentialization of marginalized subjects’ identities, locations and agency.



Works Cited


Primary Works


O’Neill, Heather. Lullabies for Little Criminals. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.


Potrebenko, Helen. Hey Waitress and Other Stories. Vancouver: Lazara Press, 1989.


Print. Roy, Gabrielle. Bonheur d’occasion. 1945. Montréal: Boréal, 1993. Print.


Vaillancourt, Isabel. Les enfants Beaudet. Hull: Vents D’Ouest, 2001. Print.


Secondary Works


Brooks, Abigail. “Feminist Standpoint Epistemology: Building Knowledge and Empowerment Through Women's Lived Experience.” Eds. Sharlene Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy. Feminist Research Practice: A Primer. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006. 53-82. Print.


Doyle, James. Progressive Heritage: The Evolution of a Politically Radical Literary Tradition in

Canada. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier P, 2002. Print.


Grosz, Elizabeth. Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space. Cambridge, M.A., London, England: MIT Press, 2001. Print.


Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.


Kaplan, Caren. Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1996. Print.


Keith, Michael, and Steve Pile, eds. Place and the Politics of Identity. London, New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.


Lefebvre, Henri. La Production de l'espace. Paris: Anthropos, 1974. Print.


Massey, Doreen. “A Global Sense of Place.” Marxism Today (June 1991): 24-9. Web. 15 May



---. “Politics and Space/Time.” Keith and Pile 141-61. Print.


Miranne, Kristine B., and Alma H. Young. Gendering the City: Women, Boundaries, and Visions of Urban Life. Lanham, MB: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print.


Rimstead, Roxanne. “‘Who Cares?’: Respect, Autonomy, and Incarceration in Les enfants Beaudet.” VersUS Research Group Meeting. Université de Sherbrooke. 18 March 2013. Keynote Address


---. Remnants of Nation: On Poverty Narratives by Women. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. Print.


Sibley, David and Sarah James. “Children’s Geographies: Some Problems of Representation.”

Area 23 (1991): 269-271. Web. 8 Nov. 2012. Print.


Smart, Patricia. Écrire dans la maison du père: L'émergence du féminin dans la tradition littéraire du Québec. Montréal: XYZ, 1988. Print.


Young, Iris Marion. On Female Body Experience: "Throwing Like a Girl" and Other Essays. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.


Zandy, Janet. Calling Home: Working-class Women's Writing. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1989. Print.







Stay In Touch

Twitter icon
Facebook icon

Contact Us

Comparative Literature
131 Joseph E. Brown Hall
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602

Privacy Policy


Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
The University of Georgia
© University System of Georgia
All Rights Reserved.