Antonine Maillet Essay - Critical Essays

Maillet, Antonine


Antonine Maillet 1929–

Canadian dramatist, novelist, short story writer, non-fiction writer, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents an overview of Maillet's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 54.

Maillet was the first author to write in the Acadian vernacular, a language derived from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French. Her body of work helped define the Acadian culture, a culture which, over two hundred years, successive governmental powers have tried to destroy. Her best-known work, Pélagie-la-Charrette (1979) dramatizes the exodus that occurred in Canada after the British destroyed a settlement of French-speaking Acadians in 1755 and dispersed the people along the eastern coast of North America. Some, such as the Cajun in Louisiana, formed new settlements, but many surreptitiously made their way back to Canada.

Biographical Information

Maillet was born May 10, 1929, in Bouctouche, New Brunswick, Canada. Both her father, Leonide, and her mother, Viriginie, were schoolteachers. She was educated at various religious schools before obtaining a B.A. from College Notre Dame d'Acadie in 1950. Over the next several years, alternating between periods of teaching and study, Maillet wrote her first two plays—Entr'Acte (1957) and Poire-Acre (1958)—before obtaining her M.A. from the University of Mocton in 1959, a LL.D. from the University of Montreal in 1962, and a Ph.D. from Laval University in 1970. Her doctoral dissertation examined the influences of François Rabelais in Acadian folklore, especially his earthy humor.

Major Works

Maillet's first novel, Pointe-aux-coques (1958), is a semi-autobiographical story about her youth in New Brunswick and was awarded the Prix Champlain. Her next novel, On a mange la dune (1962), is seen by many as an extended metaphor for the isolation of the Acadian experience. The main character is a young Acadian girl whose perspective of the world is limited to the dunes surrounding her small village. Maillet's interest in Acadian folklore can be seen in her short story collection Par derrière chez mon père (1972) and the novel Don l'Orignal (1972), both of which are adaptations of Acadian folk tales. In Mariaagélas (1973) and Crache-à-pic (1984) Maillet presents larger-than-life female main characters, both who are Acadian bootleggers. Many see these women as refutations of the retiring, submissive Evangeline, the Acadian heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem of that name. Maillet confronts Longfellow's Evangeline head-on in her play Evangéline Duesse (1976), wherein her heroine openly scoffs at the actions of the poet's character. In Pélagie-la-Charrette (1979), Maillet uses the title metaphor (translated as Pélagic: The Return to a Homeland in 1982) to present a story of Acadian exodus. Pélagie, an Acadian uprooted in the dispersal of 1755, decides to return to her homeland after fifteen years of working the fields in Georgia. The novel depicts her epic journey, spanning over two thousand miles and ten years, as she leads a growing band of Acadians and other refugees to their northern promised land. Pélagie herself is the cart as she carries her clans along on this exodus with wit, courage, determination, and love.

Critical Reception

Maillet's is the first writer living outside France to receive the Acadèmie Goncourt annual prize for literature. She has generally enjoyed the favor of critics throughout her career and her initial body of work, written in the Acadian dialect and focusing on the Acadian experience, is praised as new and authentic. Her protagonists are poor, illiterate, and in some ways naive, yet portrayed with a folksy wisdom and persevering spirit. Maillet skillfully incorporates the folktales of Acadia in her storylines and uses multiple narrators to recreate the feeling of the oral story-telling experience. As her body of work developed, many of her characters reappeared in subsequent stories. This led some critics to suggest that her work was becoming predictable and repetitive, limited to the small scale of the Acadian experience. But the grand scope of Pélagie the Cart showed that Maillet is capable of painting on a larger canvas. The novel rises to the level of historical saga, encompassing the ten years of Pélagie's return to her homeland, as well as the issues of slavery in the South and the beginnings of the American Revolution. The novel operates on several levels: an adventure, an Acadian folktale, and an allegorical tale about the triumph of the spirit. Several critics see the earthy humor of Rabelais in the novel, as well as a revisitation of the Bible's story of Exodus, with Pélagie as Moses (and his wife). Paul G. Socken says, "Pélagie-la-Charrette, like the Bible, operates on two levels—those of sacred text and historical document; that is, the novel affirms elements of faith which are shared by a people and purports to be historically accurate. As sacred text, both are imbued with ritual, embody symbolism and imply a mission or destiny. As historical document, they are rooted in time and place and chronicle real events." Pélagie begins Maillet's process of expanding the Acadian experience in a manner that speaks to universal truths.

Principal Works

Entr'Acte (play) 1957
Poire-Acre (play) 1958
Pointe-aux-coques (novel) 1958
Bulks de Savon (play) 1959
Les Jeux d'enfants sont faits (play) 1960
On a mange la dune (novel) 1962
Les Crasseux (novel) 1968
La Sagouine (radio script) 1970–1971
Don l'Orignal (novel) 1972 [translated by Barbara Godard as The Tale of Don l'Orignal, 1978]
Par derrière chez mon père (short stories) 1972
La Sagouine (play) 1972
L'Acadie pour quasiment rien [with Rita Scalabrini] (essays) 1973
Gapi et Sullivan [translated by Luis Cespedes as Gapi and Sullivan] (novel) 1973
Mariaagélas (novel) 1973; (play) 1973 [translated by Ben-Zion Shek as Mariaagelas: Maria, Daughter of Gelas, 1986]
Les Crasseux (play) 1974
Emmanuel a Joseph a Davit (novel) 1975
Evangeline Deusse (novel) 1975; (play) 1976
Les Cordes-de-bois (novel) 1977
La Veuve enragée (novel) 1977; (play) 1977
Le Bourgeois Gentleman (novel) 1978; (play) 1978
Pélagie-la-Charrette (novel) 1979; translated by Philip Stratford as Pélagie: The Return to a Homeland 1982
Cent ans dans les bois (novel) 1981
La Contrebandiere (novel) 1981)
Les Drolatiques, Homfiques et Epouvantables Aventures de Panurge, ami de Pantagruel, d'après Rabelais (novel) 1983
Panurge (play) 1983
Crache-à-pic (novel) 1984; translated by Stratford as The Devil Is Loose! 1986
Garrochés en paradis (novel) 1986 (play) 1986
Le Huitième jour (novel) 1986

∗Also published as a novel in 1971 (translated by Luis de Cespedes, 1979); a play, 1972; and adapted for television, 1975


Ben-Z Shek (review dale March 1980)

SOURCE: "Antonine Maillet and the Prix Goncourt," in Canadian Modern Language Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, March 1980, pp. 392-96.

[Shek provides an overview of Maillet's work, praising her style and use of language.]

Late in November, 1979, the Académie Goncourt announced that its prestigious annual prize for literature had been awarded to Antonine Maillet, the prominent Acadian novelist, playwright and short-story writer. This was the first time that the coveted honor, created in 1874 by the will of Edmond de Goncourt, (who, with his brother Jules, was a pioneer of the naturalist novel) was offered to a writer living outside France. Antonine Maillet won it for her novel Pélagie-la-charrette published in Montreal by Leméac and in Paris by Grasset.

Before having affixed to her name the label "Prix Goncourt", Antonine Maillet was best known as the author of the brilliant, moving and expressive series of dramatic monologues, La Sagouine, written in the rhythmic and colorful Acadian dialect of the Bouctouche region of New Brunswick, where she was born. This ancient speech (only slightly sprinkled with anglicisms and names of commercial products by La Sagouine), nearly extinct today, was brought to North America in the 16th and 17th centuries by the colons of Poitou and Touraine. Its peculiar morphology, phonetic system and lexicon were rendered inimitable by the outstanding interpretation of actress Viola Léger.

Maillet's writing career began more than 20 years ago. Her first book was Pointe-aux-Coques, a novel, published in 1958, and was followed by five other novels: On a mangé la dune (1968), Don l'Orignal (winner of the Governor General's Award, 1972), Mariaagélas, (1973), Emmanuel à Joseph à Dâvit (1975) and Les Cordes-de-bois (1977). Besides La Sagouine (1971), she has published six other plays, the short-story collection Par derrière chez mon père (1972), and her doctoral dissertation, Rabelais et les traditions populaires en Acadie (1971).

Antonine Maillet is both a product of, and a catalyst for, the cultural renewal among New Brunswick francophones. Her creative activity grew out of the burgeoning cultural and political awakening of the 1960's during which time the Université de Moncton was created, there took place the struggles of that city's one-third French-speaking population against the bigoted Mayor Leonard Jones, and, eventually, the Parti acadien was formed. Her books were published in parallel with the release of Pierre Perrault's film, L'Acadie, L'Acadie (1971), the records of Edith Butler, Calixte Duguay and Angèle Arsenault (who is from P.E.I.) and those of the musical group, "1755". Some feel that these movements of cross-fertilization have come too late to stem the tide of assimilation in New Brunswick, which has had a history of turbulent struggles to maintain the "French fact". Yet Antonine Maillet and the other creative forces of the Acadian renewal are determined to carry on. It should, however, be noted that they depend a great deal on material support from the institutions and public of Quebec, which certainly acts as the foyer of French-language culture in Canada, and whose own cultural flowering and growing self-confidence have been fundamental supports for the Acadian revival.

Maillet's novel, Pélagie-la-charrette, is in fact linked to a capital moment of her people's history, namely the expulsion in 1755 of the Acadians, mainly grouped then in Nova Scotia, by the British forces, and their scattering throughout the southern colonies of the Atlantic seaboard. This traumatic reference point is variably (and sometimes, euphemistically) called in the novel, La Déportation, le Grand Dérangement, l'Evénement, La Grande Echouerie, La Dispersion.

The novel is indelibly marked by the rhythm of continuity, which is its lifeblood and heart-beat. The dedication by the author is to her mother, Virginie Cormier, an identically named ancestor of whom is one of the characters, and the book ends with the inscription, "Bouctouche, le 23 juin, 1979, en cette année du 375e anniversaire d'Acadie". The very title, named after the heroine who will lead a ragamuffin band of remnants of her people back to Acadia during a 10-year-long trek on foot and in carts of all sizes and shapes, also underlines the dominant theme of continuity: "C'était coutume en Acadie d'apporter en dot une charrette à son homme, la charrette, signe de pérénnité."

The narrative structure, based on a lineage of chroniclers retelling the saga at a distance of 100 years (at the end of the 19th century and today, at the end of the 20th) is, too, one of continuity. The unobtrusive primary narrator in the present (who says symbolically "moi, qui fourbis [nettoie] chaque matin mes seize quartiers de charrette", relates most of the events of the epic return of the Acadians between 1770 and 1780 as they are told to her by her cousin, "le vieux Louis à Bélonie, dit le jeune",...

(The entire section is 2098 words.)

Pierre Gobin (review date March 1982)

SOURCE: "Space and Time in the Plays of Antonine Maillet," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXV, No. 1, March, 1982, pp. 46-59.

[Gobin analyzes the recurring themes in Maillet's plays, emphasizing the author's written word, rather than the production of the plays.]

Antonine Maillet's dual careers, as novelist and playwright, have been developing in parallel for some twenty years now. She began as a novelist with Pointe-aux-Coques in 1958, and also achieved her greatest success with a novel, Pélagie-la-Charrette, which won the Goncourt Prize in 1979. However, her most memorable character, La Sagouine, was created for the stage, and around her a mythical universe has...

(The entire section is 6046 words.)

Antonine Maillet with Martine Jacquot (interview date 3 November 1985)

SOURCE: "Last Story-Teller," in Waves, Vol. 14, No. 4, Spring, 1986, pp. 93-95.

[In the following interview conducted on November 3, 1985, on the occassion of the Canada-in-Commonwealth conference held at Acadia University, Jacquot talks with Maillet about her background and motivation for writing.]

Looking at the Grand-Pré dikes, Antonine Maillet says: "I was here when the Acadians were deported, I was in the blood of my ancestors." And she has decided to write their story because they had no way to do so.

Antonine Maillet is the last of a generation of story-tellers and the first one of a generation of writers. It is because of that deeply rooted...

(The entire section is 1462 words.)

Marjorie A. Fitzpatrick (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Antonine Maillet and the Epic Heroine," in Traditionalism, Nationalism, and Feminism: Women Writers of Quebec, edited by Paula Gilbert Lewis, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 141-55.

[In the following essay, Fitzpatrick examines the female roles in several of Maillet's novels.]

Traditionalist, feminist, nationalist—how is one to classify the broad range of Antonine Maillet's important female characters? The answer has to be: partly each, yet not exclusively any of the above. At the risk of offending partisans of all three groups, I suggest that the wonderfully gifted Maillet—surely one of the best storytellers writing in French today—has simultaneously...

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Bernard Arésu (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Pélagie-la-Carrette and Antonine Maillet's Epic Voices," in Explorations: Essays in Comparative Literature, edited by Makoto Ueda, University Press of America, 1986, pp. 211-226.

[In the following essay Arésu traces the development of Maillet's artistic voice and vision.]

In 1979, Antonine Maillet, the Canadian novelist, playwright and critic, received the French establishment's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt. This award was the capstone of a series of widely acclaimed and brilliantly crafted works that had preceded her last book, Pélagie-la-Charrette. It may first be appropriate to remark that her first novel was not, as...

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David Homel (review date June 1986)

SOURCE; "Antonine Maillet's Eternal Return of the Acadian Character," in Quill & Quire, Vol. 52, No. 6, June, 1986, p. 37.

[In the review below, Homel praises The Devil is Loose, the English translation of Crache-à-pic.]

Beginning in 1755 an event occurred that the Acadians, with wry understatement, call le grand dérangement—"the big disruption"—their expulsion from their homeland in eastern Canada. Was the action directed from Britain, or was it a local initiative? Antonine Maillet, Acadia's best-known writer, is unsure which of the two versions is correct. But the themes of exile and return nourished her writing throughout her career as...

(The entire section is 1579 words.)

Paul G. Socken (essay date Summer 1987)

SOURCE: "The Bible and Myth in Antonine Maillet's Pélagie-la-Charrette," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 187-98.

[In the following essay, Socken delineates in great detail the mythical elements and biblical parallels in Maillet's Pélagie-la-Charrette.]

The parallels between Pélagie's return to Acadia from exile in Georgia and events in the Hebrew Bible are striking and revealing. The story is the Biblical account of the exodus in a modern context enhanced and reinforced by elements of mythology.

The many similarities to the Biblical account are in some cases direct, in others, indirect. I propose to make...

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Michèle Lacombe (essay date Spring 1988)

SOURCE: "Narrative, Carnival, and Parody: Intertextuality in Antonine Maillet's Pélagte-la-Charrette," in Canadian Literature, No. 118, Spring, 1988, pp. 43-56.

[In the following essay, Lacombe examines the references to Longfellow and Rabelais in Maillet's novel.]

According to Linda Hutcheon, the intertext is generated by a reader who recognizes, responds to, and activates the textual referents brought into alignment by the author in a contract with the reader. As with any self-reflexive text, Antonine Maillet's epic novel Pélagie-la-Charrette (1979) is brought into being, in the reader's mind or experience, by the interplay of three factors: text (in...

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Eloise A. Brière (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Antonine Maillet and the Construction of Acadian Identity," in Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers, edited by Mary Jean Green, Karen Gould, Micheline Rice-Maximin, Keith L. Walker, and Jack A. Yeager, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 3-21.

[In the essay below, Briere argues the case for interpreting Pélagie-la-charrette as a feminist epic.]

Although North American historical and literary discourse has spoken about Acadians, only in this century have Acadians begun to speak about themselves, in their mother tongue. The silencing of Acadians is a project that began with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. With its signing, Acadie became...

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Further Reading


Weiss, Jonathan M. "Acadia Transplanted: The Importance of Evangéline Deusse in the Work of Antonine Maillet." Colby Literary Quarterly XIII, No. 3 (September 1977): 173-85.

Discusses the development of Acadian themes in Maillet's works leading up to Evangéline Deusse and examines how Maillet broadens the Acadian exile experience to a universal view.

(The entire section is 88 words.)