Study Guide

Kamouraska

by Anne Hebert

Kamouraska Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Kamouraska is generally considered Hébert’s finest novel. Certainly it is her most complex. It is based on a historical event: the murder in December, 1839, of Achille Taché, Seigneur de Kamouraska. The crime was committed not far from where the author’s grandmother lived, and the murdered man was a distant relative of Hébert’s mother. In her novel, Hébert changed the name of Achille Taché to Antoine Tassy. However, much of her novel is derived from family discussions she heard during childhood.

The story begins in Quebec at the home of Jérôme Rolland. It is told in the first person by Madame Elisabeth Rolland, who has been his dutiful wife for almost eighteen years and has given him eight children. The narrator is in a highly emotional state, but not just because of her husband’s impending death. The fact that she is about to be freed from her marriage brings back memories of an earlier liberation and of all that followed.

In a series of flashbacks, Madame Rolland relives her trial for the murder of her first husband, Antoine Tassy. Her marriage to him was a terrible mistake. He was a drunkard, routinely unfaithful, and physically abusive, sometimes even threatening to kill both himself and his wife. However, Madame d’Aulniéres, a widow at seventeen, and her three spinster sisters, who together reared young Elisabeth in the small town of Sorel, Quebec, saw in the dashing, well-to-do squire of Kamouraska a highly suitable match for fifteen-year-old Elisabeth. Just before the wedding, for a fleeting moment Elisabeth wonders why she is...

(The entire section is 647 words.)

Kamouraska Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Kamouraska presents the psychological drama of Elisabeth d’Aulnières in a series a flashbacks spanning some forty years. As Hébert herself states on the copyright page, she based her novel of passion and murder on real people and historical events of the 1830’s in Sorel and Kamouraska, in the Quebec Province of French Canada.

As she nurses Jérôme Rolland, her dying husband, the first-person narrator-heroine reveals her mysterious past during a horrifying night of alternating insomnia and drug-induced sleep. Her story jumps back and forth from September, 1840, when she was formally accused of complicity in the murder of Antoine Tassy, her first husband, and her subsequent trial and brief imprisonment; she remembers with resentment and even hatred how her still-unnamed lover safely escaped across the Canadian-American frontier to Burlington, Vermont, leaving her alone to face police and prosecutors and the finger-pointing people of her hometown. That is why it became essential to remarry quickly so as to recover her honor as an honest woman. Despite Elisabeth’s eighteen years of selfless devotion, if not love, and eight children, Rolland, now on his deathbed, not only is afraid that she might poison him but also seeks to elicit her confession of sin.

At other times, Mme Rolland relives her childhood and adolescence with her socially correct widowed mother and spinster aunts, when she would rebel against their straitlaced upbringing by chasing after the Sorel boys in the company of her sexually precocious contemporary Aurélie Caron. Terrorized by demons and nightmares, Elisabeth imagines in her fevered mind Tassy’s violent death at the hand of Dr. George Nelson,...

(The entire section is 698 words.)

Kamouraska Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Elisabeth d’Aulnières, the only child of Marie-Louise d’Aulnières, a widowed teenager, has been reared by three unmarried aunts, whose imaginations are formed by romance reading and by piety. The household of Elisabeth’s childhood has been a feminine abode, notable by its absence of men. Shielded from the raw facts of life, Elisabeth has been taught that babies are dumped into the beds of ladies by “Indians.” In her daydreams, marriage is a swirling collage: the marriage at Cana of Galilee in the Gospels, the bride of Lammermoor in Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel, and the romantic French folk song “À la claire fontaine.”

Elisabeth’s aunts prepare their niece lovingly for the governor’s ball, where her beauty attracts the eye of Antoine Tassy, the squire of Kamouraska, a picturesque village four hundred miles from Elisabeth’s home in Sorel. Antoine’s mother, Caroline, asks Madame d’Aulnières for the hand of Elisabeth, and the proposed match is considered advantageous, despite the young squire’s admitted bad reputation.

The two are married.

Madame Tassy counsels her new daughter-in-law to ignore the drunkenness and debauchery of the squire, whom she pronounces basically “a good man.” Despite the affluence of the Tassys, their home is austere, dominated by the mother-in-law, a harsh woman with a club foot who insists on simple meals, rough clothing, and a Puritanical simplicity of residence. She dismisses all emotional displays.

After the birth of two sons, Elisabeth can no longer endure her husband’s drunkenness, carousing, and brutality. She retreats to her former home in Sorel and the protection of her three adoring aunts. There she meets George Nelson, an American physician practicing in Sorel. Nelson is from a royalist family that has converted to Catholicism so thoroughly that his brother is now a Jesuit priest, while his sister is an Ursuline nun. Nelson, however, soon undergoes a religious crisis when his sister appears to lose her faith on her deathbed. Consequently, he chooses to devote his life to science and to the alleviation of...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Kamouraska Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Kamouraska is based upon the murder in 1839 of Achille Taché, squire of Kamouraska, which was plotted and carried out by Doctor George Holmes, the lover of Madame Taché, Elisabeth d’Estimauville. Holmes escaped prosecution by fleeing to Vermont, and in 1841 Madame Taché was found not guilty of the murder of her husband. In 1843, she married Léon-Charles Clément, a notary and later in his life a member of the Canadian parliament. Hébert alters the true events somewhat. In Hébert’s novel, Elisabeth’s flashbacks are the means by which the past floods into the present. Elisabeth d’Aulnières’s psyche is the means through which the plot unfolds. In Hébert’s work, the first husband is named Antoine Tassy, and the lover George Nelson.

The novel, divided into unnumbered chapters, opens as Elisabeth sits at the bedside of her dying husband, Jérôme Rolland, in the family home in Quebec City. Thinking of her tearless eyes behind the black crepe veil she will wear in mourning, Elisabeth recalls the murder of her first husband, and the subsequent two months spent in prison. A dutiful wife for the past eighteen years, living an honorable and upright life, she appears in the eyes of the dying man as a triumphant figure of transfigured death. Flashbacks, daydreams, and nightmares express her repressed rage at standing trial for poisoning Tassy and for being abandoned by her lover, who raced wildly to freedom across the snow in a bloodied...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Kamouraska Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Boak, Denis “Kamouraska, Kamouraska!Essays in French Literature 14 (1977): 69-104. An excellent overview of important motifs in the novel, focusing on the themes of witchcraft, absence, and love.

Knight, Kelton W. Anne Hébert: In Search of the First Garden. New York: Lang, 1998. A thorough examination of how Hébert uses memory to reconstruct the past and thus explain her characters’ present moral dilemmas.

McPherson, Karen S. Incriminations: Guilty Women/Telling Stories. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. This comparative study of the process and language of incrimination looks at crime, culpability, and survival in modern novels by women, including Kamouraska.

Northey, Margot. The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976. The chapter on Kamouraska, though brief, is an insightful analysis of Hébert’s particular kind of psychological gothic.

Russell, Delbert W. Anne Hébert. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A good starting point to and survey of Hébert’s life and works to the early 1980’s. Useful bibliography, mostly of French-language sources.

Shek, Ben-Z. French-Canadian and Québécois Novels. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1991. A short but highly readable introduction to a rich body of fiction, including Kamouraska.