In her seminal 1972 book of literary criticism, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, distinguished Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood argues that the main themes of Canadian literature are victimhood and survival. Louis Hémon's 1913 novel, Maria Chapdelaine, conforms to Atwood's model, with its main characters being victims of the Canadian winter, who either endure and survive or who die in their efforts to carve a homeland out of the unforgiving environment of the Canadian Shield.
The theme of survival is particularly apparent in the choices of the protagonist Maria Chapdelaine. She and her family struggle to clear the land for their farm and accumulate enough supplies to survive the long winter. Although this means that Maria is well acquainted with the hardships of pioneer life, she falls in love with a frontiersman, Francois Paradis. Before they can marry, he dies in a winter storm. She has two other suitors, one who promises an easier life south of the border, in the urban United States, and one who will farm in Quebec like her parents. After recovering from a depression occasioned by the death of Francois, and suffering the loss of her mother, Maria chooses Eutrope Gagnon, the farmer, as her future husband, in the knowledge that her own strength and ability to survive are in a sense her destiny, and that with Eutrope she can best fulfill her potential.