The reader of Anne Hébert’s poetry and prose will recognize a kinship of theme and language among the different works. Héloïse opens with a verse from “En guise de fête” (“A Kind of Feast,” from The Tomb of the Kings). Its ironic refrain is repeated as the order of the fictional world collapses: “Le monde est en ordre/ Les morts dessous/ Les vivants dessus” (“The world is in order/ The dead below/ The living above”). Olivia de la Haute Mer (Olivia of the High Sea), the ghost of the murdered Olivia Atkins, returns to float with the tides off Griffins Creek in In the Shadow of the Wind, quoting another poem from The Tomb of the Kings: “Il y a certainement Quelqu’un” (“There is certainly Someone”).
More than the practice of direct quotation, however, the continued exploration of common themes binds the novels to the poems.
The title poem of The Tomb of the Kings best outlines one major theme of Hébert’s work, that of the child/woman victim or sacrifice. Such a figure is to be found in all of her novels, as either a major or a minor character. Catherine, of The Silent Rooms, is brought to the point of death by her husband’s pursuit of an aesthetic of immobility and silence. In Kamouraska, Élizabeth d’Aulnières leaves the feminine cocoon of her aunts’ home to marry a young seigneur, Antoine Tassy, who proves violently abusive, threatening her with death, until he himself is murdered by her lover. In Children of the Black Sabbath, the sacrificial figure is Sister Julie, Lady of the Precious Blood, victim and sacrifice for her parents, adepts of the Black Mass, and the later victim of cruelties at the hands of the mother superior and chaplain of her convent. In these three cases, the victim finally escapes from her tormentors and, in fact, may be said to retaliate: Catherine leaves Michel in utter solitude; Antoine Tassy is murdered by his childhood friend, now the lover of his wife; and the nuns of Sister Julie’s convent suffer numerous troubles from her malice. In Héloïse, however, there is no escape for the young lovers, Bernard and Christine, who are victimized by a pair of vampires, their life and love crushed. Nora and Olivia, the double victims ofIn the Shadow of the Wind, are cousins whose fathers were brothers, their mothers sisters. As they flower into beauty, they absorb the life of the entire community. When they are murdered together at the hands of their cousin, Stevens Brown, their bodies thrown into the sea, their death is the death of the community and their status as victim is doubled with the victimization of other women: an aunt who hangs herself that same summer, never having truly lived; the mother of Olivia, who died of tuberculosis after harvesting the potato crop in freezing weather; the aging cousin abused and abandoned by her young lover.
Yet the toll of victims rises even higher, for the violent Antoine Tassy, Michel, and Stevens Brown, grown men that they are, are all abused children, with the echo of fear ringing in their ears. In Kamouraska, Élizabeth d’Aulnières is told by her mother-in-law, the old Madame Tassy, to ignore her husband’s drunken rages, that his father had done the same. The lover of Élizabeth, Dr. Nelson, recalls Antoine as a schoolboy, his face always drowned in tears, turning to Nelson as his friend in a solitude otherwise complete.
When Stevens Brown kills Nora, then rapes and kills Olivia, he is convinced that the wild wind of a storm drowns out his victims’ screams: The wind is within his mind, the storm his own rage at a childhood of beatings by his father. François, of “The Torrent,” is also an abused child, rendered deaf by a beating from his mother, La Grande Claudine. He hears only the roaring of the torrent, as Stevens hears the stormy ocean. Stevens has an idiot brother, an elemental creature named Perceval, who...
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- Critical Essays