Antonine Maillet Critical Essays

Introduction

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.