Essays

The Ice Wagon in Reconciling Repetitions and Reflections

Mavis Gallant’s “The Ice-Wagon Going Down the Street” is a story about Peter’s repeated memory as he tries to validate his passive lifestyle. But this is threatened by Agnes, who serves as a reflection of Peter. Repetition is used to define Peter as unchanging and passive, but reflection is used to define activity and hint at change. The image of the ice wagon allows Gallant to reconcile repetition and reflection, to create an emergent space which captures the difference between Peter and Agnes: Agnes ultimately accepts the ice wagon, embracing independence at the risk of alienation; Peter rejects the ice wagon, choosing to remain in his cycle. It is this that gives the story its final poignancy: Peter is changed, but unchanged.

It is first necessary to emphasize that Peter is determined by repetition—indeed, the entire text is a repetition, part of Peter and Sheilah’s cycle of reliving the past. The story begins in the narrative present, but quickly returns to the past. Gallant suggests this repetition is more than just a return to a space or time. It is a way of life, allowing them to “pretend they were in Paris and life was still the same” (Gallant 41). This repetition creates a structure of determinism—indeed, Peter believes greater powers have plans for him. Peter is marked by his lack of will and agency. Repetition is self-perpetuating, becoming both a means and an end for Peter and Sheilah, allowing them to remain in un-ending and un-changing passivity.

In comparison, Agnes is marked by her activity. “She did her work and a good deal of his” (Gallant 50). Agnes is a reflection and a foil of Peter. On some level, they are the same, inheritors of the immigrant ancestors. Indeed, “the others couldn’t tell Peter and Agnes apart” (Gallant 46). But Peter resents her because he perceives himself to be socially superior: “There was a world of difference between them, yet it was she who had been brought in to sit at the larger of the two desks” (Gallant 46). Secretly, Agnes frustrates Peter because she and her activity have a better claim to their ancestors’ inheritance.

Peter believes he is superior to Agnes because he is not alone. “I’d be like Agnes if I didn’t have Sheilah” (Gallant 55). However, Peter is unaware of himself. He too is alienated at the party, abandoned by his wife. It is within this context that Agnes feels alone, and can connect with Peter. The image of the ice wagon in this context is one of alienation. “I’ve never been alone before. When I was a kid I would get up in the summer before the others, and I’d see the ice wagon going down the street. I’m alone now” (Gallant 58). Like Peter, Agnes longs to return to the idealized and familiar past to escape her loneliness. Peter sees this as Agnes’ defeat, and an affirmation of his beliefs, thinking, “This is the best thing that ever happened to you, Agnes; it will you understand how things are for the rest of us” (Gallant 57).

However, Gallant returns to this image again. Whereas repetition served to emphasize uniformity for Peter, repetition allows Agnes mobility. The next day, Agnes re-interprets the image of the ice wagon. “In the big family, if you want to be alone, you have to get up before the rest of them. You get up early in the morning in the summer and it’s you, you, once in your life alone in the universe.” (Gallant 62) It is now an image of independence. Agnes is also able to articulate her alienation at the party: it is because of her disdain of the higher class, who she previously aspired to. Whereas before, the image of the ice wagon confirmed Peter’s fear of alienation, it now threatens him. Could Agnes be a better reflection of Peter?  “He was afraid for himself. The story was still unfinished. It had to come a climax, something threatening to him” (Gallant 62).

The past ends here as the narrative returns to the present. This is the final repetition of the ice wagon, where Peter appropriates the ice wagon for himself. “Nothing moves except the shadows and the ice wagon and the changing amber of the child’s eyes. The child is Peter” (Gallant 63). For a moment, Peter is able to become his reflection in Agnes. But his reliance on repetition and Sheilah is too strong—indeed, he has just come full circle to the present again. “What can Peter do with the start of a summer day? Sheilah is here, it is a true Sunday morning” (Gallant 63). Peter ultimately rejects the ice wagon, and with it, his chance for true independence. Through the ice wagon, Gallant reconciles repetition and reflection, showing just how close Peter is on the precipice, and how the ultimate tragedy is that he will remain there.

 

Works cited

Gallant, Mavis. “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.” The Moslem Wife and Other Stories. Handout. ENGL 327 Canadian Prose Fiction 1. (Laura Cameron.) McGill University. Oct. 2013. Online.

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