Anne Hébert Hébert, Anne (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anne Hébert 1916–

French-Canadian poet, novelist, short story writer, and dramatist.

Hébert's work is imbued with traditional French-Canadian themes: solitude, the burden of the past, sin, and spiritual struggle.

Poèmes, which won the Governor General's Award in 1960, contains Le tombeau des rois (1953; The Tomb of the Kings) and previously unpublished poems. In this volume, the tension between pleasant childhood reminiscences and adult inhibitions is evoked in powerful imagery of confinement and suffocation. Critics compare the themes and imagery of The Tomb of the Kings to those in Hébert's first novel, Les chambres de bois (1958; The Silent Rooms).

In her recent novels, Les enfants du sabbat (1975; Children of the Black Sabbath), another Governor General's Award winner, and Héloise (1982), Hébert adds a supernatural dimension to her familiar themes of sin and spiritual crisis. Children of the Black Sabbath is a chilling tale of demonic possession and Héloise is a story of vampirism set in the Paris Métro.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 13 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The writing of Anne Hébert records an intense interior drama of poetic and spiritual evolution, though in volume her poetic output has been quite small….

Miss Hébert's first volume of poetry, Les Songes en Equilibre, reveals to us a young girl in the first stages of physical, artistic and spiritual evolution. The style likewise is as yet unformed; on the whole it is thin and frail, but occasionally it gives a foretaste of the clearcut, unadorned style of Miss Hébert's more mature poetry.

The girl evoked in the pages of Les Songes en Equilibre is one who, like [her cousin] Saint-Denys-Garneau, deeply loves the natural joys of life, but who, like him, feels that her salvation and her inspiration lie in renouncing these joys and embracing the anguish of solitude. She has been capable of suspending herself in the present moment, of experiencing a joy not over-cast by the awareness of eternity…. (p. 51)

With the stirrings of maturity, however, comes the realization of poetic and spiritual duty. She wonders at her audacity in believing that the things of the world existed to amuse her; suddenly natural joys fade at the arrival of a calm figure which usurps their place…. (pp. 51-2)

In a series of unequal poems Miss Hébert traces the gradual growth within her of the sorrow of the adult, the poet, and the saint…. (p. 52)

Certain key images are employed in Les Songes en Equilibre, images which will become symbols of profound meaning in Le Tombeau des Rois. In one of the earliest poems, "Les Deux Mains", Miss Hébert introduces the image of the outstretched hands, representing self-oblation. At this stage of her devel-opment, the giving of self is incomplete and only one hand is extended…. The tree image, so prominent yet so obscure in Le Tombeau des Rois, is clarified by Les Songes en Equilibre, and takes on a spiritual connotation by being identified with the cross…. The last poem of the volume, "L'Oiseau du Poète", introduces the bird symbol of the later volume. The bird is the poet, as well as the poem produced…. (p. 53)

A reader of Les Songes en Equilibre who opens Le Tombeau des Rois interested to see the fruits of the intervening eleven years will probably notice first of all a radical tightening of style…. Les Songes en Equilibre has traced the path of the poet into solitude; the poems of Le Tombeau des Rois are songs of this solitude—its sweet sadness and its unbearable anguish.

Anne Hébert's isolation is invariably likened to that of Saint-Denys-Garneau. There is, however, a basic difference. Their development can be paralleled up to a certain point: both delight in the joys of the world but are drawn to reject them and enter into the suffering of solitude. Both are attracted to mystical experience, which is attained only by the denial of all that we commonly call experience. And it is at this point that their paths diverge.

It seems to me that there is here a basic problem to be treated—that of the relationship of mysticism and art. Certainly there can be no real dichotomy between the two, for both aspire to union with the Absolute Good. But there is an important difference, in that the mystic reaches a point where his experience becomes incommunicable; only union with God matters. For the artist, however, the need to communicate his experience to men never ceases to be a driving force; if he isolates himself completely he finds the springs of inspiration drying up. Saint-Denys-Garneau's mystical experience progressed up to the point where he no longer felt the need or possessed the ability to communicate it. That is why it was necessary for him to cease writing: he had made his choice between...

(The entire section is 1571 words.)

Samuel Moon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Tomb of the Kings] is a book closely unified by its constant introspection, by its atmosphere of profound melancholy, by its recurrent themes of a dead childhood, a living death cut off from love and beauty, suicide, the theme of introspection itself. Such a book would seem to be of more interest clinically than poetically, but the miracle occurs and these materials are transmuted by the remarkable force of Mlle. Hébert's imagery, the simplicity and directness of her diction, and the restrained lyric sound of her vers libre…. When these poems are weak, it is because the imagery becomes too elaborate, turns into machinery, and begins to echo that naturalized French citizen, Edgar Poe. The title poem has this fault …, as do a few others, but they are far outnumbered by the poems in which this most difficult subject is given the strange grace of art. (p. 203)

Samuel Moon, in a review of "The Tomb of the Kings" (© 1968 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CXII, No. 3, June, 1968, pp. 203-04.

F. M. Macri

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anne Hébert's story, Le Torrent, and its relation to the rest of French-Canadian literature takes on the same significance as does the relation between an ancient House and its coat of arms. It can be argued that the story is a zenith point within the tradition to which it belongs. (p. 9)

Le Torrent is most accessible through its superficial meaning, through its theme of conflict. It has been stated above that the story is emblematic; as such, it represents the duality that has always characterized French-Canadian literature: the division of being. The same is manifested by the use and opposition of particular symbols. Water opposed to dryness invites life; the closed room or house opposed to the open land or water invites death. This opposition reflects the archetypal conflict between the flesh and the spirit. The lesson to be learned here is that the traditional life of the spirit is really the death of the flesh, not its mere suppression but its death: a paradox indicating the seriousness of the division of being. The persona will try to escape this division through a destruction of the traditional notion of life and an assertion of life by the physical senses, to reinstate the natural equilibrium of existence.

At once the struggle between instinct and reason becomes apparent…. The result is dédoublement, the splitting of the personality by two equally strong forces. The same opposition and splitting characterizes the early poetry of Anne Hébert. Her late poetry is an affirmation of freedom and new life. The dramatic action of the poetry is conveyed through uniform symbols found also in her fiction. The images and symbols can be reduced to a basic concept expressed in the author's total work; that is, to the concept of time and space and its particular relation to the poetic persona.

From her earliest poems, we observe the author's nascent vision of life and existence as a closed space containing no time but the past. Naturally, such a view leads from happy contemplation to disrupting alienation…. There follows a progressive, almost systematic, delineation of images and symbols conveying the sterile condition of a static existence: faded flowers, past memories, lost happiness, sombre dwellings, closed rooms and houses, impenetrable windows and doors, dusty furniture, ashes, mirrors, hydrophobia, claustrophobia, claustrophilia, and finally, the ultimate irreducible dark space of the coffin and tomb. The whole impact of such imagery will be vividly presented in a key poem, "Le tombeau des rois". Here, a descent into the grave of a dead past provides the only means of exiting into a present time which will turn naturally into future. (pp. 9-10)

In Le Torrent, meaning can be intensified by a more profound analysis. The central conflict in the story does not merely reflect an opposition between the Conscious and the Subconscious, the former represented by Claudine the mother, the latter by François the son and narrator, and by the action of the Torrent of water on him. The Mother image in French-Canadian literature embodies more than a symbol for the individual Conscious. In Le Torrent the Mother represents a collectivity and an established order of life. Because of the importance of this figure in the literary history of French Canada …, the Mother cannot perforce be a limited symbol. Indeed, if she is archetypal in Québec, all the ambiguities of such a portent must be taken into account. Claudine, therefore, is not solely François' external world but also a disruptive part of his inner world. She is part of the Self, conscious and unconscious…. (pp. 10-11)

The narration in Le Torrent divides into two identifiable parts with rising and falling intensity. The action intensified by the extreme repression suffered by François, repression by his mother's will, and his own repression of the pull towards the instinctual life of the Torrent also resembles the contraction of the insect. This reaction climaxes in François' sudden deafness, the result of being struck by the mother, and in the sudden importance of the dominating Torrent…. Once the narrator is drawn into the world of nature, he experiences a whirlpool of sensations and feelings. Though the Torrent represents a physical symbol of repressed existence, it also becomes the image of the narrator's actual condition: turbulency, loss of direction, loss of power, absence of will, full domination by external natural forces. Furthermore, the narrator's inability to control his new condition, constitutes a falling action. He recognizes his condition but cannot direct it away from what seems to be a fatal course. Like the horse, Perceval, unable to be broken by the mother, François desires escape from her cruel attempts to break his ego. Because of his deafness, and because of the Torrent's hold over him, François begins truly to experience the duality of his existence and the conflict between life in nature and death by reason; whereas in the first half of the narrative all he knew was the absolute control of his mother's will, now he suddenly finds himself open to himself, unprotected and exposed to a more intense struggle.

In the collection of poems, Le Tombeau Des Rois, there is a progression of images that perfectly describes the poetic journey undertaken by the persona and the dark journey undertaken by François. It proceeds from water and fluid images to more solid imagery, from these through the familiar images of closed rooms and houses to the final tomb image…. Each step of the way to the end has its appropriate victim. In the first poem the victim is a sleepy persona who is ignorant of the water's dangerous enchantment. (pp. 11-12)

Then follow the closed and wooden rooms that imprison the body as well as the spirit. The rooms represent the historical past and the reaches of sterility. Their wood is ancient, permeated with fatal odours. These images of imprisonment and suffocation are enlarged and given a more explicit meaning. Existence in the ancestral manor is characterized by its qualities of absence of objects and people that would...

(The entire section is 2530 words.)

Anthony Raspa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The reader] of Anne Hébert's The Silent Rooms (Les Chambres de Bois) will find that it is a novel about the choice between human normalcy and one kind of art. The English reader may therefore be surprised. The Silent Rooms is not a "modern" novel in the sense of an obvious technical breakthrough. However, it was, and is, a revolutionary novel in French Canada which deals with the alienation of the artist, a theme long familiar to students of English poetry. The Silent Rooms is symbolist, psychological, legend-like, and terse. It is the work of a poet … drawn out beyond symbol into a tale. It poses the choice not between the life of the layman and the life of the artist (painter, poet or...

(The entire section is 961 words.)

David Walker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Traditional Quebecois] rejection of the real world as well as of the pleasures (sinful) of the present and of the body resulted in a collective malaise that is expressed with great sensitivity and power in [Poems by] Anne Hébert.

Indeed, 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. Although this 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...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Kathy Mezei

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Les Enfants du Sabbat we] encounter the archetypal Quebec literary experience; a precocious adolescent becomes the battleground between the commands of the spirit and the desires of the flesh. Les Enfants du sabbat seems to be a logical development of Anne Hébert's earlier novels, Les Chambres de bois … and Kamouraska…. The fable-like, implicitly incestuous world of Les Chambres de bois and the romantic, implicitly demonic northern landscape of Kamouraska develop into a much more explicit, earthy, "experienced" version of incest, mortification and sacrifice in this tale of the devil's struggle for the soul of the heroine, Julie. This "enfant du sabbat" is in the line...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

Henry Cohen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [Kamouraska], which will one day be recognized as a masterpiece of Quebecois literature, Anne Hébert studies the psychology of an actual historical figure of the period 1840. Having been accused of having had her lover kill her husband, Elizabeth Rolland strives to expiate her guilt by playing the roles of devoted wife and mother (which she detests) to her second husband and their children.

[Critic Albert Le Grand] discovers in Elizabeth Rolland "an ethic of contradiction which opposes … irreducibly the present to the past, good to evil, the angel to the beast", contradictions which the widow of Antoine Tassy tries in vain to resolve in the world of dreams into which she plunges to be...

(The entire section is 2773 words.)

Margot Northey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kamouraska is especially suited to begin an analysis of twentieth-century gothic fiction in Canada, since in form and content it provides the reader with a double perspective, a Janus-like look both towards past and present types of gothicism. Looking one way we can see it as a continuation of the traditional black romance, with many of the gothic features and motifs of its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors. Looking another way we see it has characteristics which are undeniably contemporary and which place it in the mainstream of modern gothic writing.

Kamouraska is really a story within a story, and it is this feature in particular which lends the book to a consideration...

(The entire section is 1587 words.)

Kathy Mezei

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Les Chambres de bois, Anne Hébert tells a simple story with few characters, little action, an uncomplicated plot….

Anne Hébert's language is sparse and precise, dépouillé. Time and space are anonymous, and are, in fact, internalized; the real time and space of the novel exist within the characters, within their dreams, within the confined world created by Michel and Lia in their chambres de bois. The tone of this novel, its symbolic language, its deceptive simplicity, its timeless, spaceless quality, its paradoxical concrete abstractness are reminiscent of a fable. It is a story of a journey through death and stagnation into life, of the affirmation...

(The entire section is 2629 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 255 words.)

Paul G. Socken

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Children of the Black Sabbath] is a forceful tale of personal and social anguish. It is the story of Sister Julie of the Trinity, born of parents who practise quasi-occult rites such as incestuous "initiations" and drunken orgies….

The novel is, simultaneously, the most traditional and the most unique on the Quebec literary scene…. Anne Hébert makes the point 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...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Paula Gilbert Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Héloise is a modern-day recounting of the Abélard (here as Bernard) and Héloise legend, with Bernard's wife, Christine, representing the spiritually good life. It is also a modern Dracula, with the atmosphere of a Fellini film, The Damned, and even Cabaret. From the outset of the story, carefully chosen language evokes a somber feeling of perdition, silence, and a void, immediately contrasted with words suggesting life, joy, and light. Surrounding these two distinct realms is the frenetic, urban world of Paris. (p. 763)

Héloise is a well-written novel in Hébert's typically beautiful, simple, and effective style. It is an interesting work, appealing to one's...

(The entire section is 175 words.)

John Weightman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Les Fous de Bassan] applies the term for a sea-bird (fou = gannet) to the half-crazed remnants of a Puritan community living on the eastern sea-board. Since they came up originally from America, have English names and have remained Protestant, it seems unlikely that they would express their sexual frustrations and homicidal tendencies in Canadian French, but one never knows. The blurb suggests that the main character is the seawind, the spirit moving over the waters; perhaps this is why the book seems vacuously ambitious.

John Weightman, "From the Crab Basket," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), January 2, 1983, p. 46....

(The entire section is 102 words.)

Audrey Thomas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The world is in order
The dead below
The living above

This is the epigraph to Anne Hébert's novel Héloïse…. And the dead do indeed come to us in this novel….

Héloïse is no ordinary femme fatale; she's the Real Thing, a vampire and a revenant, as well as a tall, pale, beautiful woman with "night-dark hair." She needs to drink the blood of men in order to stay "alive."…

I do not think this novel will come as a surprise to anyone who read The Torrent, Hébert's collection of novella and short stories, or her novels,...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Delbert W. Russell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1977–78 Anne Hébert returned to drama [the genre in which she created some of her earliest work,] with the short play L'Ile de la demoiselle, which was published less than a year before her recent novel Héloise. Neither of these works is written on the scale of Kamouraska or Les Enfants, but both pick up and reshape certain themes from the earlier works, while bringing new dimensions of their own to the growing canon. Both demonstrate once again the polarity of life and death, but in new contexts and with opposite points of view: in L'Ile it is the will to live which dominates, and in Héloise it is the attraction to death which carries off the characters, with the...

(The entire section is 1816 words.)