Willa Cather is best known for her novels set in the rather wild prairie lands of the Midwest in the nineteenth century; in Shadow of the Rocks she unexpectedly takes her readers to the even wilder and more isolated French province of Quebec in 1697 (inspired by her trip there in 1918). Though it is set in the distant past, this novel contains the relatively modern literary themes of loss and despair, isolation and annihilation.
Twelve-year-old Cecile Auclair is a young girl who has already suffered loss, as her mother died several years earlier. She and her father have come from France; he is the governor's chief advisor and the apothecary for the town. Other devastating physical losses occur in the story, including the death of the Count (the governor) who is probably the Auclairs only hope of ever returning to their native France, a place they miss so much. Despite the fact that they have made their home a sanctuary and a place of peace, they will now have to stay in this place which is a poor substitute for the place they truly love.
Quebec is a wild and untamed frontier. The winters are dark and long, and once the last ship leaves in the late fall, the province is isolated from the outside world until spring. When the snow comes, it blankets everything in silent whiteness; when spring arrives and the ice begins to thaw, sickness begins.
The city is surrounded by a
black pine forest...[that] stretched no living man knew how far. That was the dead, sealed world of the vegetable kingdom, an uncharted continent choked with interlocking trees, living, dead, half-dead, their roots in bogs and swamps, strangling each other in a slow agony that had lasted for centuries. The forest was suffocation, annihilation; there European man was quickly swallowed up in silence, distance, mould, black mud, and the stinging swarms of insect life that bred in it.
While the forest stands for a physical form of suffocation and isolation, many of the characters suffer mental and emotional isolation, as well. Blinker, for example, is physically deformed, a condition which matches his emotional state after having wrongly tortured a woman into a false confession for which she was executed.
When the Count dies of illness, the Auclairs know their chances of ever returning to France again are gone; even worse, they have not prepared for the winter, assuming they would be able to leave. (They do live through the winter because of Pierre, the hunter/trapper who eventually marries Cecile.) The Count's last wish was to buried in his native France rather than in this heathen outpost of his beloved country, so Auclair does what his patron requested. He ships the Count's heart back to France so it can be buried there.
The setting as well as the stories of the characters in this novel reflect the despair and resignation which comes with loss as well as the isolation which comes from both their environments and their experiences. Cather aptly described this novel as being "full of pious resignation." It is a story is filled with imagery and examples which prove the themes of loss and despair as well as isolation and annihilation.