Hébert, Anne (Vol. 13)
John Watt Lennox
[In "Le Torrent" Anne Hébert deals with a protagonist who is] seeking the joy or freedom which … is, at the same time, apart from and part of [his] existence…. Hébert, through the image of the rapids, [articulates] the dilemma of a fragmented personality in search of some healing reconciliation, and in dealing with this search, the [work assumes a symbolic dimension which takes it] from the particulars of presentation into universal considerations of man's relationship to himself and others….
["Le Torrent" deals] with attempts to come to necessary and violent terms with the past which is associated with the dominant figure of a mother who shuts off the protagonist from the community. [The world of "la grande Claudine" is an oppressive, static world] whose very strength lies in unchangeability and in the maintenance of the rational status quo, and it is in the protagonist's violent challenge to the old established order that the [work finds its] full symbolic significance….
François avoids knowledge, and in so doing he remains enclosed within the confines of his own personality….
["Le Torrent" takes place in a closed environment which exists] apart from the larger outside world and which [suggests] the restricted psychological attitudes of the characters…. In "Le Torrent," François and his mother live on a plot of land which is isolated from the outside world by a forest. In this setting, the turbulent rapids at the bottom of the deep abyss come to suggest a masochism and morbidity which foretell violent dismemberment and death. (p. 70)
[François' world] is more psychological than physical, more description and suggestion than actual location, and … François is alienated from the world around him. He is alienated in two ways; through what his mother taught him and through his deafness. "La grande Claudine," his mother …, is someone marked more by her presence than her person…. [She really has no dimensions, but represents the past] and the force with which François must come to terms. She prevents him from establishing any contacts with people in the world around him and François in turn develops an unwillingness to move beyond the world his mother has created for him and to discover the world for himself. His act of revolt is not so much positive action toward a goal as simply an aimless, negative reaction against his mother. His mother strikes him with her large iron key ring … and in so doing, the...
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[Like much of québécois fiction "Le Torrent"] shows the distorting effect of a strict religious upbringing, in this case the stunting of the life of a child by a pious mother who is paying off an old debt to society…. The whole story is built round a series of polarities; the hero is held … between the attraction of a world of movement, smell, colour and danger … and the inculcated urge to call all this evil and master it…. There is no way out of this anguished state and the end can only be tragic. The tragic tone is created above all by an exalted simplicity of writing that reminds one of Camus's L'Etranger. "Le Torrent" is the work of a considerable poet.
Now, thirty years later, in Les infants du sabat, Anne Hébert is still caught in the same dilemmas, or at least she continues to make fiction of them. The hero of the earlier story managed to avoid becoming a priest; the heroine of this … novel is about to take monastic orders when (literally) all hell is let loose. She is invaded by images and desires which rise up from a childhood full of colours, smells, natural life, illicit alcohol, drugs, incest and witchcraft….
In spite of its larger dimensions and more inflammatory subjects, Les infants du sabat is a less powerful piece of work than "Le Torrent". Instead of the obsessional first-person narration we have a shifting point of view which allows the author to make fun...
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[Perhaps] no other Quebecois poet has so successfully presented the long night of the French-Canadian soul as it seeks to exorcise its demons and escape from the small "chambre fermée" in which it finds itself imprisoned and exiled [than has Anne Hébert]. Although [her] poetry is deeply personal and highly original, it is difficult not to remark upon the similarities between the personal adventure of Anne Hébert and the general evolution of Quebec society in recent years. The two collections which make up Poems—Tomb of the Kings and Mystery of the Verb—were originally published in 1953 and 1960 respectively. The contrast in style, tone and content between these two collections reflects the development not only of Anne Hébert but of the collective Quebecois consciousness as well.
Tomb of the Kings is essentially a poetry of absence, an exploration of the pain and anguish which results from an awareness of one's solitude and of an all-consuming blackness. Here the abundant water imagery promises, not fertility, but rather loneliness and silence…. [In one sense] the poet chooses to continue to dwell in this world of silence and darkness, to perpetuate a situation in which she is a (willing?) victim. This apparent choice of a kind of death-in-life presents the fundamental conflict of Poems: the struggle between a pre-established state of inertia and isolation, and a yearning—present in the earliest...
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Joyce Carol Oates
In "Children of the Black Sabbath" [Anne Hébert] poses the timely question of whether a beautiful young girl from an impoverished rural community in Quebec can find happiness and contentment in the Sisterhood of the Precious Blood—whether she can take final vows as Sister Julie of the Trinity before her complicated, colorful past as the daughter of an alcoholic sorceress and a sado-masochistic father (in fact, the Devil himself) can cause mischief. She does not succeed.
Another dramatization of "possession." Another sequence of ostensibly inexplicable events, culminating in the actions (here thwarted) of a Grand Exorcist. One would think that Anne Hébert, or at the very least her publishers, would be hesitant about bringing out a novel that seeks to combine "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby."… Hébert might have turned the screw a bit more and made her nuns intentionally hilarious, or she might have slowed down and written a serious psychological sutdy of the delusions of "possession."… Where another Canadian writer, Marie-Claire Blais, strives to create bitter, elliptical poetry out of the economic and spiritual impoverishment of her region, Anne Hébert seems to have settled for dispirited pop fiction. And that it is so plainly derivative is both puzzling and embarrassing. (pp. 14-15)
Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 24, 1977.
Paul G. Socken
[Children of the Black Sabbath is], simultaneously, the most traditional and the most unique [novel] on the Quebec literary scene…. Anne Hébert makes the point [that people are extensions of the land on which they live] unequivocally at several instances and readers acquainted with Quebec's literature will find the portrayal of the people suffering under the yoke of climate and clergy more than familiar. The worldliness and hypocrisy of the Church, another theme "exposed" here, is also not without literary precedent…. In fact, an analysis of the thematic content will yield very little that is new or dynamic.
What, then, lends the book the awesome power discerned in it by various critics? Its strength, one might suggest, lies in its force of language, evident even in translation, its evocative imagery and its imaginative narrative technique.
Anne Hébert is, above all, a poet. The words spring to life, the images penetrate and reveal….
[The] only "world" absent from the novel, and perhaps by inference from Quebec society according to Anne Hébert, is what we may call normalcy; that is, life not denied the right to act and react freely, not totally dominated by unfulfilled and frustrated needs. That is what disturbs me most about the novel. It seems anachronistic after the Quiet Revolution … to continue painting a picture of Quebec that is one of unrelieved gloom and despair…. There is none of the guarded optimism of a Godbout, the painful humour of a Ferron, the tentative self-acceptance of a Gabrielle Roy.
Anne Hébert is a great talent indelibly marked by her experiences of Quebec in the thirties, forties and fifties, but her communication of a mood of unmitigated futility and hopelessness, associated with that period, may date this work in spite of its technical mastery.
Paul G. Socken, "Almost Anachronistic," in The Canadian Forum, August, 1977, p. 39.