In Les Songes en équilibre, Anne Hébert made it clear that she saw her purpose in writing as a religious one: Her works were intended to help other human beings attain salvation. These early poems reflected Hébert’s Catholic upbringing and, more specifically, the rigid views of the Jansenists, who had largely taken away the French Canadian church from the more forgiving Jesuits. However, Hébert’s views altered drastically during the 1940’s. The imagery of the second volume reflects this change. For example, communion, which in the earlier poems was described as a sacrament that is given and received with childlike faith, is now likened to the violent coupling of doomed lovers. The poet’s attitude toward her art has changed, too. Instead of a means of religious salvation, it is now viewed as itself a form of salvation. The bread of heaven, which united the faithful with their Redeemer, has now become the bread of human expression, which enables poets to break out of the terrible solitude that Hébert now sees as the human condition.
If Hébert had rejected the faith of her childhood, if she now saw Jansenist Catholicism as repressive rather than redeeming, she was far from being a liberated romantic.Like the Jansenists, she still saw human beings as possessing an affinity for sin; like them, she believed that men and women were incapable of choosing between good and evil. However, where Jansenism offered the possibility of redemption through divine grace, Hébert had abandoned any hope of divine intervention.
Occasionally one of Hébert’s characters manages to break loose from social and religious restraints without being punished for her temerity. Thus, in Les Chambres de bois (1958; The Silent Rooms, 1974), a wife leaves her husband, who finds sex repulsive, for a lover who takes pleasure in the act, and it is suggested that the sinful pair will live happily ever after. Similarly, in Children of the Black Sabbath, a nun manages to escape from her psychological prison, and she, too, becomes a whole person, for whom happiness is possible. However, most of Hébert’s novels end in misery. Whether one remains obedient to a repressive church and a repressive society or flees into seeming freedom, the end seems to be the same. Life is defined by disappointment and disillusion, and it leads only to death or, too often, to the kind of living death that is experienced by so many of her characters, such as the heroine of Kamouraska and the hero of Burden of Dreams.
Hébert’s settings underline her pessimistic view of life. Typically, the action takes place in a confined space, such as a single room or a small apartment. The protagonist cherishes solitude but yearns for human contact. However, a character who ventures into involvement with another human being, as Édouard does in Est-ce que je te dérange? (1998; Am I Disturbing You?, 1999) and the Englishman does in Aurélien, Clara, Mademoiselle, et le lieutenant anglais (1995; Aurélien, Clara, Mademoiselle, and the English Lieutenant, 1996) soon finds himself wishing to be alone again. In Hébert’s world view, human beings cannot find happiness in the company of others.
The narrative form that Hébert invented for her stories is as distinctive as her plots themselves. She moves at will from one point of view to another, from a scene in the present to one in the past, and even switches between the present tense and the past. She may use a conventional narrative prose style; she may write in breathless fragments. However, Hébert has such total control that even when the alternations are lightning-fast, one has no trouble following the developing plot. The originality she displays both in the substance of her works and in their style has earned Hébert a reputation as one of the finest writers Canada has produced.
First published: 1970
Type of work: Novel
Even after years of respectability and submission to her lot in life, a woman cannot escape her memories of a brutal marriage and of a love affair that began in bliss and ended in murder.
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 marrying a man she does not love. However, she has no idea of the horrors that face her.
After giving birth to her second child, Elisabeth finally summons the courage to flee to Sorel. When the four women there see how ill she is and hear what she has endured, they decide that Elisabeth and the children must stay with them. Understanding only that his wife is ill, Tassy introduces an old schoolmate, an American doctor who has set up a practice in Sorel. Tassy is sure that Dr. George...
(The entire section is 2569 words.)