Anne Hébert Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What is Anne Hébert’s attitude toward religion?

How does Hébert view marriage? Does she see it as different for a woman than it is for a man?

Other Québec writers idealized rural and small-town life. Does Hébert share this attitude?

Kamouraska and In the Shadow of the Wind have been called “tragic melodramas.” To what extent are they melodramatic? To what extent are they more like classical tragedies?

How do images of confinement and flight function in the novels of Hébert?

How are symbols drawn from nature utilized in Hébert’s fiction?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to her novels, Anne Hébert (ay-BAYR) explored the forms of poetry, short story, and drama. While the novels, for the most part, are works of her mature years, the poems and stories began appearing simultaneously in magazines and newspapers when the author was in her early twenties. These early poetic works are gathered in Les Songes en équilibre (1942), the themes and short-line free verse of which prefigure the more successful Le Tombeau des rois (1953; The Tomb of the Kings, 1967) and Le Torrent (1950, enlarged 1962; The Torrent: Novellas and Short Stories, 1973), a short-story collection that, in its final form, includes stories written from 1939 to 1963.

Both The Torrent and Les Songes en équilibre include juvenilia, but the more finished stories and poems in these collections are beautiful and provocative. The short stories focus on social inequities and the individual suffering they produce. “Un Grand Mariage” (“A Grand Marriage”), “Le Printemps de Catherine” (“Springtime for Catherine”), and “La Mort de Stella” (“The Death of Stella”) deal with the effects of material poverty: an ambitious young man who is on the rise from his indigent beginnings to wealth while betraying his true love, a despised drudge who finds freedom in the chaos of war that destroys those with belongings to protect, and the death scene of a tubercular mother of a young family, cast out from society by the guilt of her own suffering. Although some are simplistic in their development of plot and character, all have the intensity that Hébert later brought to her novels, and “The Death of Stella” and “The Torrent” in particular are narratively complex works, drawing characters whose impact on the reader is strong. The shifts of time frame and narrative voice, through change of character speaking or through change in the mental state of a character, prefigure the later development of these devices in the novels.

Eleven years after Les Songes en équilibre, Hébert published The Tomb of the Kings, which was later reissued with the theoretical essay “Poésie, solitude rompue” (“Poetry, Broken Solitude”), and a new verse...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Anne Hébert reached a position of eminence among Canadian writers through her work both as a poet and as a novelist. The numerous literary prizes that she won in both roles brought her a modest share of international fame among French-language writers while guaranteeing her place in the foreground of Canadian literary circles as a representative of her native province. Her position as a classic French Canadian writer was guaranteed by her early successes in poetry and the short story. She received the Prix David of the secretariat of Quebec province in 1942 for Les Songes en équilibre. It was Kamouraska, her second published novel, however, that brought her talents to worldwide attention. A best seller, Kamouraska was translated into many languages, winning the prestigious Prix des Libraires de France in 1971. A motion picture based on the novel, directed by Claude Jutra, was released in Canada in 1973.

The subsequent publication of eight more novels confirmed Hébert’s commitment to the genre, which she endowed with many of the characteristics of her verse. The novels are painstakingly polished and poetic in their use of language. The emotional atmosphere, as in her poems, is highly charged. Her characteristic choices of theme in both genres are death and the isolation of the individual, embellished by a certain fascination with the supernatural. Hébert’s novels are distinguished by an innovative format in which time and states of consciousness are layered and confused, narrators change, and often lurid subject matter is transformed by the novelist’s touch. These works appeal to a diverse readership, with their poetic attention to language, their intelligent exploitation of the formal possibilities of the New Novel, and their treatment of themes both romantic enough for a broad audience and controversial enough to win a strong feminist following.

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Anne Hébert (AY-behr) wrote novels, plays, short stories, and screenplays in addition to her poetry collections. In most of her fiction, Hébert depicts the culture of rural Quebec, where she spent her childhood and adolescence. She explores the lives of the Québécois who dwell in the small towns, controlled by a religious and repressive society. In her novels, she portrays characters in the act of freeing themselves both physically and psychologically. Topics include witchcraft, vampires, and sorcery, and predominant themes are isolation, alienation, repression, violence, and revolt. Kamouraska (1970; English translation, 1973) and Les Fous de bassan (1982; In the Shadow of the Wind, 1983) retell events drawn from Québécois history. Her historical novels are part of the literary tradition of Quebec, but she radically alters the tradition with the addition of elements of the French New Novel and of Symbolism. Her plays also deal with murder and violence.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Anne Hébert achieved recognition as a major Canadian poet and novelist. She played an important role in the development of Canadian writing because her works brought elements of Surrealism and the New Novel, as well as realistic violence and rebellion, into Canadian literature. She won numerous awards for both her poetry and her fiction. Her first collection of poetry, Les Songes en équilibre (dreams in equilibrium), won the Prix Athanase-David in 1942. She received the Governor-General’s Award in 1960 for Poems, in 1975 for Les Enfants du sabbat (1975; Children of the Black Sabbath, 1977), and in 1992 for L’Enfant chargé de songes (1992; Burden of Dreams, 1994). Kamouraska won the Prix des Librairies de France and the Grand Prix of the Académie Royale de la Langue Françaises de Belgique. The novel, which was also made into a motion picture and has been translated into seven languages, is considered a classic of both Québécois and Canadian literature. In the Shadow of the Wind was awarded the Prix Fémina in 1982. Her novel Est-ce que je te dérange? (1998; Am I Disturbing You?, 1999) was a finalist for the Giller Prize in 1999. Her final novel Un Habit de lumière (1999; A Suit of Light, 2000) was awarded the Prix France/Jean Hamelin.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What aspects of Anne Hébert’s French Canadian background have been useful for her?

What were the chief limitations of Hébert’s French Canadian background upon her career?

What traits in Hébert’s writing seem to have made her more successful in France than other French Canadian writers?

Demonstrate how Hébert was able to take literary advantage of the repressive aspects of Roman Catholic authority.

Cite instances of the importance and power of language in Hébert’s volume Poems.

Discuss the function of dreams in propelling the plot of Kamouraska.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Knight, Kelton W. Anne Hébert: In Search of the First Garden. Vol. 8 in Francophone Cultures and Literatures. New York: P. Lang, 1998. A short book of criticism on Hébert’s work.

Mitchell, Constantina, and Paul Raymond Côté. Shaping the Novel: Textual Interplay in the Fiction of Malraux, Hébert, and Modiano. Providence, R.I.: Berghahn Books, 1996. A comparative study in twentieth century French literature.

Pallister, Janis L., ed. The Art and Genius of Anne Hébert: Essays on Her Works—Night and the Day Are One. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001. Collected essays that pay tribute to the talents of Hébert.

Paterson, Janet. “Anne Hébert.” In Profiles in Canadian Literature, edited by Jeffrey M. Heath. Vol. 3. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1980. Gives an overview of Hébert’s life and work to 1980, including a bibliography of selected criticism.

Russel, Delbert W. Anne Hébert. Boston: Twayne, 1983. An excellent in-depth survey of Hébert’s prose, poetry, and theater to 1980.

Weir, Lorraine. “Anne Hébert.” In Canadian Writers, 1920-1959. Vol. 68 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1988. A concise introduction to Hébert’s life and work to 1982, including a bibliography of selected criticism.