The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In re-creating the circumstances of a historical murder, Hébert concentrates on depths of personality rather than development, portraying characters whose origins are in the Romantic literature of their time and place. Elisabeth has three identities. To her mother and aunts, she is “la Petite” (“the Little One”), to be protected from a nasty world. At sixteen, torn between sexual desire and a need for virtue, she becomes the wife of Antoine Tassy. Battered by a husband she does not love, she nevertheless willingly accepts sexual abuse. Her subsequent adultery and manipulation of her lover to murder Tassy are her acts of defiance against the laws of marriage and society. Finally, as Mme Rolland, she seeks to escape criminal responsibility through self-deceit and duplicity. Acting in bad faith, she distorts the past to accommodate her present, as she had earlier blamed her maid and her lover for her own lack of moral strength. With her second husband dying, she finds herself alone, living behind a mask of wifely innocence, deprived of the salutary and cathartic effects of punishment.

An American living in Canada, George Nelson is an outsider and, as a Protestant, lost and cursed. Doomed in his quest for acceptance, he vainly tries to find a redeeming love with Elisabeth by fulfilling her wish to rid themselves of Tassy. Following a mad ride, tortured by the enormity and horror of his deed, he tells his apprentice that “that damned woman” has...

(The entire section is 472 words.)