Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2098
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", who himself had them passed down from his grandfather, Bélonie, a story-teller of the late 19th century, who used to argue about the fine points of the heroic feat with Pélagie-la-Gribouille,both of the latter descendants, respectively, of the nonaganerian Bélonie and the original Pélagie, who actually lived the saga of the arduous homecoming. Continuity is also syncopated by the recurrence of names of typically Acadian families, such as Bastarache, Le Blanc, Landry, Gaudet, Doucet, Maillet and others, and by the Acadian fashion of designating the lineage of male characters through their male line: e.g. "Pierre à Pierre à Pierrot."
Pélagie-la-charrette has other important rhythmic devices that give cohesion and unity to the novel, and fuse its form and content into a whole. One of the most vital of these is the dédoublement between the oxen-led charrette of Pélagie, that of life, of hope, of optimism, and the ghostly charrette de la mort, that of destruction, despair and fatalism, with its six black horses constantly evoked and perceived by the wizened Bélonie, as travelling alongside, and sometimes in the very ruts of, Pélagie's vehicle. The two charrettes "compete" mercilessly throughout the narrative. Old man Bélonie, too, is the source of other elements of fantasy, as he recounts tales of visions of Black Beard, of flaming pirate ships, of the White Whale, and the hallucinatory ringing of the church-bells of Grand-Pré, the village razed to the ground by the British, during sea storms.
The story is structured, too, by the refrain of the traditional Acadian folk-song, "Le Grain de Mil" ("Et j'ai du grain de mil, et j'ai du grain de paille, et j'ai de l'oranger, et j'ai du tri, et j'ai du tricoli …") which is sung on the relatively few happy occasions that broke the suffering of the exiles. Another refrain is that of the expletive, "et merde au roi d'Angleterre", evoked when the burning of the church at Grand-Pré or other tribulations at the hands of British commanders Lawrence, Winslow and Monckton are recalled. Also, there is frequent repetition, with variation, of the phrase, "N'éveille pas l'ours qui dort …" This reference to the Loyalist majority of New Brunswick is evoked at the very outset of the novel, in the prologue: "… surtout pas l'ours qui dort sur le marche-pied de ton logis. C'est pourquoi l'Acadie qui s'arrachait à l'exil, à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, est sortie de ses langes tout bas … Elle est rentrée au pays par la porte arrière et sur la pointe des pieds." It echoes at the end of the novel, too: "Surtout, n'éveillez pas l'ours qui dort. Rentrez chacun à votre chacunière sur la pointe des pieds et attendez le temps qu'il faut." In her commentaries on La Sagouine, Maillet had already explained her views on the passive resistance of the Acadians to discrimination and inequality and the importance of patience and subterfuge in their struggles to redress ancient ills.
While the British troops of the 1755 events and their aftermath are often the butt of Maillet's irony and bitterness, she creates a counter-movement by linking to the Acadian exiles a host of episodic characters belonging to other wronged peoples: Micmac Indians, a Scottish woman miracle-healer, a freed Black slave (sometimes treated a touch paternalistically), the witches of Salem, and, finally, the American rebels of 1776. Yet the rancour of the past gives way to forgiveness, in the hope of starting life anew on Acadian soil: "… le printemps qu'on lui avait volé, à la Pélagie, vingt-cinq ans auparavant, l'attendait sur les rives de la baie Française. Plus rien que ces cent lieues et elle oublierait, et elle pardonnerait, et elle bâtirait son logis incendié."
The language of Pélagie-la-charrette is largely that of the spoken word. Antonine Maillet has given it a more stylized form than she did in La Sagouine, to which she appended a glossary, still keeping its essential flavour while making her text more accessible to the average reader. The oral flavour is present in the "huhau" shouted to the oxen, in the stories within the story recounted mainly by old man Bélonie, in the songs and refrains, and in the constant interpellations to the reader-listener.
The texture of the language is also richly poetic in many instances. Most of the images grow out of the maritime topography of Acadia, e.g.: "Une belle île, celle-là … aux abords déchirés par des anses et des baies, comme si les baleines depuis des temps reculés avaient mordu dans les côtes à belles dents." The poetry inundates the prose towards the end of the novel, in the springtime of the return to Acadia in 1780, and the end of "le plus long hiver de leur vie … un hiver d'un quart d'un siécle", and especially during Pélagie's pilgrimage to the desolate Grand-Pré of her childhood and youth. Poetic, too, and effectively so, is the personification throughout the work of inanimate objects, especially la charrette, and abstract concepts, especially l'Acadie, which are infused with life, joy, sobs, murmurs, cries.
The language is often humorous, as laughter interrupts the tears of the exile and painful return. The humor is earthy, Rabelaisian, démesuré, and is found especially in the tales within the tale recounted by old man Bélonie. Sometimes it is ironic, as in the scenes of the slave auction in Charleston, North Carolina; often it is outrageously hyperbolic as in the tale told by Beausoleil of his crew's having their speech frozen in the Polar region until a hail storm showered them with their own words some six months later, thus giving them back their speech; or that told by another Acadian storyteller a century later, of urine turned into instant icicles at 55 below zero!
Maillet's Pélagie-la-charrette is not without weaknesses, sometimes suffering from rembourrage as in her other works, occasionally turning melodramatic, or presenting historical episodes without sufficient aestheticization. Nevertheless, together with La Sagouine, Pélagie has helped build a corpus which has already left its vital mark on the francophone literature of Canada and beyond.
In an interview with Le Devoir on December 1, 1979, Antonine Maillet stressed the following significance of her Goncourt prize:
Il y a plus important encore: le Goncourt est une reconnaissance universelle. Et c'est un statut qu'on donne à notre langue. C'est important, pour tous les écrivains d'ici qui se sont battus et pour ceux qui nous suivent, de savoir que la langue qu'ils parlent, les idées qu'ils émettent, les personnages qu'ils créent, le monde qu'ils font, sont universels. Depuis le temps qu'on nous disait: 'Vous parlez patois … ou le dialect acadien … ou le dialect québécois …' Il me semble qu'on ne peut plus maintenant entendre ces phrases! Le jour où une académie donne un prix de cette envergure à une oeuvre, c'est qu'elle reconnaît le statut de cette langue aussi.
(There is much one could say on this aspect of the rehabilitation of one of the major dialects of Canadian French, but space does not permit it.) Another key point made by Antonine Maillet in the same interview is that she sees herself as a sujet transindividuel, or sujet collectif, in the terms of the late French critic and sociologist, Lucien Goldmann:
L'écriture, c'est grand. De toute façon, La Sagouine est plus grande que moi, Pélagie est plus grande que moi. Elles valent mieux que moi. Elles sont les produits de tout un peuple qui me les a passées. Et moi, je ne fais que les rendre aux autres. Mais je suis plus petite que mes personnages: ils ont été fait par 375 ans d'histoire. J'ai été tributaire de ces personnages que j'ai rendus au monde. Mais d'autres Jes ont faits avec moi.
In her typically modest fashion, Antonine Maillet nevertheless thus describes a profound truth: the intersection of a people and a creative spirit.
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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 developed. The stage has also provided the medium which enabled Maillet to articulate most coherently a complex Weltanschauung. For the stage she has created a concert of voices and characters (as Godin has shown to be the case in Évangéline Deusse), as well as a succession of monologues in which the narrator/performer explores her memories and her perceptions just as one sight-reads a score—rehearses them, redefines and modulates them. She has also developed a dual intertextual network: the external, explicitly referred to by the author writing as critic; and the internal, reaching from one play to another, with echoes and allusions, or reworking the same "score" in successive versions.
Maillet's dramatic corpus is actually broader and more ambitious than her oeuvre as a novelist. Thus in 1978, with Le Bourgeois Gentleman, "a comedy inspired by Molière," she introduces settings, characters, and problems entirely different from the Acadian background of her other works. Here she devotes her attention primarily to external intertextuality and transposes ideological concerns from relations between classes to relations between national groups in a colonial context (Albert Memmi's Portrait du colonisé may well have served as a source text). But while this latest undertaking is of considerable interest (though not altogether successful), I shall here consider only her Acadian dramatic works (not including three early, unpublished attempts from 1957, 1958 and 1960): that is, the five plays which have been performed and published. Three of these—Les Crasseux (1968/1972), La Sagouine (1971/1974), Gapi et Sullivan, with its expanded version, Gapi (1973/1976)—have been considerably reworked. I shall not consider this aspect of intertextuality here, and shall use the final versions, as well as the other two Acadian plays: Évangéline Deusse (even though it takes place in Montréal, the chief character is Acadian, a demystified successor to Longfellow's archetypal heroine), and La Veuve enragée, published in 1977.
In order to attempt a definition of drama as a specific mode of writing or textual production, I shall, however, make use of the novels, since, by and large, their fables or narrative lines, their sets of characters, and even their locales are similar to what we find in the plays. One can, for instance, draw obvious parallels between Les Crasseux and Don l'Orignal, La Veuve enragée and Mariaagélas as well as Les Cordes-de-bois. The presentation of time and space in the novels thus refers to the same setting as that of the plays, but does not take into account the contingencies of stage production which appear as a significant variable in the comparison.
At one further remove, I shall also consider Maillet's non-fiction writing; i.e., her guide to Acadia and her critical essays (excluding, however, her thesis on Rabelais, which contributes to the external intertextuality); such non-fiction writings indeed make us aware of what I should like to call a referential galaxy, which includes objective systems, ideological complexes, constellations of myths, and whose elements may or may not be consciously developed. These texts involve Maillet only as écrivant, to use Barthes's terminology, or as "transitive writer," whereas the novels and the plays are the work of an écrivain, transmuting into a poetic universe not only the message, but also its spatial and temporal co-ordinates. The referential galaxy claims to represent a world; the poetic universe is a creation in words manifest through the "casting" of "distributed" discourse, and through the relay of speech articulated by the playwright but forever "to be proffered." "The haunting concern with time and space in the Acadian works of Antonine Maillet" was pointed out a few years ago by Hans Runte, who also suggested some of its political and ideological implications.
My aim is to study how the specifically dramatic expression of this concern has developed, not only with the growth of Maillet's corpus (in a syntagmatic extension, so to speak), but also by the reinforcement of a number of paradigmatic connections, through additions or corrections, and by a focussing or adjustment that define a specific style of writing for the stage. However, rewarding though it would be, for lack of space—and of competence—I shall not attempt a study of the "second production," the actual staging leading to and including the performance, and shall limit my remarks to what is inscribed in Maillet's text as part of the "first production." I shall simply note that Maillet, who seems little concerned with the definition of the "performance space" in her early works, and provides but few stage directions and virtually no comments on the pragmatic conditions of performance, becomes more precise and more explicit as she becomes experienced and familiar with the actual conditions of the "second production." This development, I believe, gives a measure of her humility, flexibility, and good sense. On the other hand, what Anne Ubersfeld describes as "hors-scène" (that is, all the events that can be assumed to take place off-stage), growing by metonymy out of what can actually be represented on stage, and "extra-scène" (what may be evoked—through allusion or metaphorical expansion—in the text that is spoken on stage), have all along been extremely important in Maillet's dramatic texts. One may indeed consider that her works are a projection of what Souriau describes as a "sphere"—an expression of the mental universe assigned to the characters—rather than an attempt to meet the contingencies of the "cube" provided by the actual playing area; or, to use another one of Souriau's distinctions, it is clear that in her plays, dramatic time and space are paramount, while scenic reductions, streamlining "the complex interplay between the senses of time" (to use Ubersfeld's description), and, of course, simplifying the presentation of space, are left to the initiative of future directors and producers.
Thus, I have not discovered in the Acadian plays any case where "the performance reinvests in the text its own contingencies." Maillet pioneers the development of a "national" repertoire in a country with very limited resources for staging that repertoire: she conceived the character of the Sagouine for radio, and later had her plays produced in Montréal by the Rideau Vert—a company which, in spite of its flair for discovering new material, is not noted for its propensity to experiment with staging. One should therefore not be surprised if the codes of the stage production are less important for Maillet than the "symbolization of socio-cultural perceptions of space," and if the definition of markers to indicate the passage of time means less than the transposition of a "true story" into an exemplary development. The text, and what it says, is therefore paramount. (It tends to be, at any rate, when it comes to conveying the sense of time, except in the rare cases when a stage device cleverly emphasizes the passing of time [for instance, the tree "covered with leaves" in the second act of Godot] or the arbitrary release from the passing of time [for instance, the clock that strikes twenty-odd times at the beginning of The Bald Soprano].)
All the same, Maillet makes use of a few fairly simple stage conventions, and sometimes defines space and time with the setting or with the props. Thus in Les Crasseux, the railway tracks define an area and relegate the characters to a "wrong side" with powerful sociological connotations, whereas in Don l'Orignal, its novelistic counterpart, the "hay island" is a floating, Utopian territory that is not anchored to any objective geographic co-ordinates nor connected to any specific historical situation. In La Sagouine, the scrubbing pail (le seau à "forbir"), which, while collecting the grime left by others, is a vessel where the protagonist's hands are "purified" and her wrinkled face mirrored, offers a clever visual symbol of the ambiguous status of the character: she is a socially dispossessed and physically broken type, and yet she has soft, white hands, and possesses a magic mirror with which she can engage in dialogue, like the powerful queen of a fairy-tale. In Évangéline Deusse, the stop-sign carried by the guard at the crosswalk and the young, tender fir-tree the heroine wishes to transplant not only offer a contrast between (present) urban space and a (past, nostalgic) rural scene, or a jerky, choppy perception of time (the stop/ go of traffic) and a continuous sense of growth that transcends seasons (the evergreen), but also act as powerful reminders of the exile of all the characters, and of their pathetic efforts to grow new roots.
What is more, in all the plays the set or the props can offer a starting-point, a kind of cue to the dialogue, which in turn makes their suggestions explicit. For instance, at the beginning of La Veuve enragée, Old Patience sits in front of her shack in "Cordwood Town": she thus asserts both her own position in the play and the central issue that will be dealt with in the play's action; she plays on her own (magic) name and recites an incantation. The place that she occupies physically, her powerful "all-pervasive laughter" (which she nevertheless keeps under strict control), the performative value of her words, all contribute to the creation, from the outset, of a carnival atmosphere that will modify the normal perception of space and time (as Bakhtin has pointed out) and of a number of symbolic relationships that will define the conditions of the action (in the way, for instance, that the opening of the gates in the prologue of Claudel's The Tidings Brought to Mary or the scrubbing of the doorsteps by the maids in Pelléas et Mélisande suggest a ritualistic process of initiation). Here is the opening of La Veuve enragée:
A huge burst of laughter from Patience, which begins as the curtain rises, and is kept up until the audience join in … if possible. Then a sharp cutoff.
PATIENCE You jest set and the time bide
On the stoop in front of your dwelling
Then you'll see them by the bye
The corpse of your foe carrying
She returns to carding her wool and sings
My Father had a house built….
In Gapi, the insults the character hurls at the gulls ("just shut up you goddam tarnation of little picked chickens!") evoke a space wholly devoid of human presence—at the moment—but capable of being defined through ecological sharing: "—There's room for all of us fishin' folk right here." The lighthouse in the setting thus provides a focus and a boundary, and by sweeping this territory with its beam of light, creates another human rhythm, establishes another language, engages in dialogue with the old fisherman. But the effect of the settings and the props is maximal at the beginnings of the plays. In the body of the drama, the hors-scène and extra-scène evoked through the dialogue are indeed by far the most significant modes of presentation of space and time.
Unfortunately, we lack suitable methods to analyse such modes. Ubersfeld, adapting some of Yuri Lotman's ideas, suggests an inventory of the conflictive effects and the binary opposition systems which determine space patterns. This can be done effectively for plays like Les Crasseux or La Veuve, strongly polarized characters defining their own space, but the patterns of relationships between characters are not always of an emotive/conative nature. In La Sagouine, the confrontation between the narrator and her community on the one hand (first person je/I, nous/we), and the third persons bourgeois on the other (eux/they), is only reported or alluded to; moreover, it is often mediated by an appeal to the second person (vons/you). Recourse to the phatic function, a notable feature of plays with a single character on stage (La Sagouine can be compared in this respect with Beckett's Not I, or Cocteau's Le Bel indifférent or The Human Voice), postulates a constant shift in the spatio-temporal framework. In Gapi, the opposition between the protagonist and Sullivan, his one-time drinking pal and secret rival, appears only in the second part of the play. The entire beginning is made up of the dreamy speculations (the jonglerie) of a lonely man who transcends the constraints of his increasingly narrow present space by flights into the realm of memory. Whatever conflict there is takes place only within the succession of figures of the protagonist, past and present, as with Vauthier's Le Personnage combattant (The Struggling Protagonist), or Beckett's Krapp (Krapp's Last Tape) and Winnie (Happy Days).
One might of course use Lotman's suggestion and restore a paradigm of oppositions between the living and the dead, and consider that the first part of the play deals with the lasting love—alive but not truly valued—of Gapi for the late Sagouine, while the second part, after Sullivan's arrival and the revelation of his love for the same woman, presents an actual conflict in which La Sagouine's value is enhanced ("A treasure, Gapi, is not always buried in a sea-chest"), but her husband's comforting memories of her are shattered. Such an interpretation would make the temporal model congruent with the spatial opposition Gapi/Sullivan: he who remains/he who travels, the keeper of the lighthouse/the sailor who visits exotic lands. However, the "dramatic" conflict remains virtual and undeveloped ("the two men eye each other and clench their fists"). There is no "crossing of the frontier," and the "movement from one space to another," which according to Ubersfeld is a significant feature of dramatic conflict, is not actualized. Should one then return to Lotman's hypothesis concerning the exclusivity of each character's space and time, and the inherent lack of mutual penetration? Alternatively, should a large portion of the Maillet corpus be considered not in terms of dramatic interaction, but only as a variety of modulated narrative? I do not believe that either such exclusivity or such an exclusion is warranted.
What constitutes the dramatic tension may well take place not between different characters, but within a given character: this occurs whenever the system of actantial functions is not actualized into explicit roles developed on stage. For instance, in Krapp's Last Tape or Happy Days, there is very little physical (on-stage) indication of movement; yet the text, the words assigned to the character, evoke off-stage (hors-scène) conflicts and provide genuine clues not only to the passage of time but to a change in the kind of space considered. This evocation takes place also in those of Maillet's plays which assume the form of a soliloquy or tend towards that form. Indeed, Maillet's repertoire offers an important clue to the workings of the kind of soliloquy which does not take stock of a situation; that is, which does not follow the pattern one finds most commonly in dramatists who make the soliloquy ancillary to the presentation of conflicts on stage. The opposition to be found then is not between spaces of a similar nature which could be actualized in actions within the cube, to use Souriau's description, but between the heterogeneous spaces that develop within the cube and within the sphere. In fact, this opposition—which may or may not be entirely coterminal between that of the "world" and the "universe" of a protagonist—is probably an important feature of the world's most deservedly famous soliloquies, in Corneille, Calderón, or Shakespeare.
In Maillet's plays, this opposition takes the form of what Québécois or Acadian French describes, in a very felicitous phrase, as "jonglerie." This is not a mere "juggling" with thoughts, but a complex interplay of fantasies, memories, and dreams; it involves a move to a "somewhere else," a transposition of conflicts within a realm of myths, an escape from the grid of "positive" categories. What takes place then is not a conative action (of the kind analysed by Ubersfeld), but the development of a poetic relationship to time and space conveyed through a phatic implication of the public who then must, through the exercise of imagination, substitute for the absent partner(s) of the character engaged in jonglerie. This jonglerie is never entirely absent from Maillet's dramatic works. Often, along with the action, in the time and space of the cube, which develops in syntagmatic fashion, it presents a series of reactions (one might even venture the psychoanalytic term of abreactions) and of phantasmal interactions.
In Les Crasseux, for instance, in spite of the injunction of his father, the old "realistic" chief Don l'Orignal ("Listen to your father, Noume, don't act crazy […] listen to your granddad and all your line of ancestors who spent their lives in this spot and had […] very little time for fool-juggling [pour jongler]"), young Noume persists in his jonglerie. But in this way Noume (Nomen est numen: he is a paradigm of the "houme," the man of the shabby settlers on the wrong side of the tracks, who by the act of "nommer," of naming, turns them into thinking subjects and potential heroes) "kind of figures a plan" to provide a new space for the evicted squatters. He will "overturn the tables of the law" (and set them right side up!) and volunteer to clear the dump as a project for improving the environment so as to receive a clear deed to the site. His "thinking crazy" is a prelude to a "crazy act" which turns out to be the extreme of wisdom, and establishes a space and a historical "base time" for a renewed community. While his father equates jonglerie with madness, Noume turns it into the mode of actualization of an idea that can change the world for him and for his society. While Don l'Orignal is concerned mostly with "making ends meet"—a pathetic spatial image of mere survival in the cube—and "not dying before your last hour has come"—its translation in time, the young hero draws from his dream sphere the vision that can unite myth (the founding of a "city") and reality. He can then reinvest the tension of the sphere/cube contest in a properly scenic situation: the decision to occupy the dump site leads to a clearly dramatic confrontation of the squatters with the solid burghers who wanted to cheat and exclude them from the time and space of the city.
In La Veuve enragée, the "juggling" (in this case made visible by step-dancing) of the marginal women of Cordes-debois takes place inside the time and space of the carnival, which belong to the order of the sphere ("Mardi Gras does it again!" exclaims la Piroune at the end of the play, to affirm the victory of her laughing cohorts over the solemn widow champion of the sober establishment). The merry wenches, the jolly witches and their ally the Irish sailor, Tom Thumb—leprechaun and circus performer, teller of tall tales, spinner of dream epics—will also at the end translate their poetic time and space into a conative action, and take renewed possession of the ancestral hillock where they have been squatters. This renewal is made very clear in the text:
ZELICA Here it is, our home and native land. It ain't ready to die yet, the hilltop our old ancestor has cleared (la butte qu'a défrichetée l'ancêtre Mercenaire).
It is also represented by the action on the stage:
La Piroune leads her people in a merry round. The
widow is driven from the stage
and runs away screaming.
In the less "scenic" plays, jonglerie alone must evoke conflicts and tensions, and define the dramatic style. In order to study those plays, the procedure suggested by Ubersfeld to analyze the treatment of the time and space needs to be somewhat adapted. Of course, the study of spatial paradigms, the definition of semic and scenic categories, and the distribution of characters and objects into polarized classes remain necessary tasks. But in this case, stage directions (or didascalies) offer little help: in La Sagouine, they have to be deduced from the character's words: in Gapi and Évangéline Deusse, they are often, if not redundant, at least subordinated to the text:
ÉVANGÉLINE You should not need to tell them who try and shoot roots in foreign soil when they're getting on in years … how raucous the shriek of sea-gulls can be …
One hears faintly at first, then gradually louder the call of sea birds. (Évangéline, final scene)
GAPI … There's no one left … no one …
Shrieks of the sea-gulls, all agitated.
No, not a one! Now you just shut up, you up there! I want to be left alone.
Spatial and temporal models are dependent less upon the (conative) representation of actions and conflicts than upon the (poetic) evocation of conflicts in the tales or the recitatives of the protagonists. Binary patterns that could be used to define sets of characters or objects are constantly modified as the speakers proceed with their jonglerie. For instance, in La Sagouine, the group of us is sometimes split up, and we have an opposition between I and you; within the I, one may even at times distinguish between an individual I (or somatic self) and a representative I, who speaks on behalf of the community and is apt to use a mixed singular/plural form (j'avons). The opposition of the first-person character(s) to the third person is fairly constant. But some they—who are incapable of speech, within expression, the "poor slaves"—are occasionally subsumed by us. In addition, there are beyond expression, a group of they that I have called tiers abstraits (the abstract third parties) who have no existential correlative. Their voice is that of non-people and is heard through the media (the "gazettes" or newspapers); it takes the form of officialese ("newspeak"), or of clericalese ("oldspeak"), and expresses the "machinofichier" (the power of machines and files). That tiers abstrait which uses what Gobard would call a "referentiary language" is the cold arch-enemy of the vernacular; it even distorts and dehumanises the vehicular. In order to escape it, one must travel through the looking-glass of the theater and reach the realm of the living imagination where comforting old myths still hold sway, where one is free to create personal mythologies and even to tinker with an individual, idiosyncratic expression, with idiolects and "idiomytholects."
This multiplicity of levels and the constant creative interplay among them are to be found not only in the distribution of voices, characters and objects, but also as major characteristics of the treatment of time and place by Maillet. The author of La Sagouine is clearly of the same generation as Armand Gatti, the generation that has become aware of the necessity to accommodate scientific relativity into its experience of life. She does not establish the kinds of precise relationships among four-dimensional systems that can be found in Thirteen Suns (Les Treize Soleils) or The Stork (La Cigogne). But beyond the chronicle of familiar events which provides the framework of the narrator's discourse in La Sagouine—the seasons and feast-days of Christmas (Nouël), Happy New Year (La Bonne Ânnée), Springtime (Le Printemps); the recurring activities that establish the cycles of human existence, such as one's life-work (le métier), youth (la jeunesse), death (la mart)—she also establishes the presence of historical events: war, the census. These events proceed according to mysterious laws, and their comprehensible order often appears in the guise of arbitrariness. Nevertheless, the heroine connects them with realities she has experienced; she reads some sense into their absurdities and naïvely reveals ironies without necessarily perceiving them in herself. The economic crash becomes crache écumunique (ecumenical spit), a description which invests it with religious dignity—Christ suffering insult, the efforts to unify churches—enhancing its world-wide character; the fates that are "in the cards" are connected to existential patterns. Moreover, beyond such human contingencies, the heroine is aware of cosmic horizons: the moon can be brought within reach, in the same way as heaven, and La Sagouine believes in space travel, by an act of faith which Gapi, ever critical, refuses to accomplish.
It would therefore be rewarding to develop the study of the jonglerie plays not only as poetic explorations, but also as mythical constructs. A systematic mythocritique ought to detect in them the workings of imagination, be it collective or individual. In spite of the cultural starvation imposed on the characters by their poverty and their comparative isolation, an active interplay of memories and speculations, a resourceful weaving together of vernacular and mythical languages (in Gobard's terminology), as well as the occasional bold leap into the hors-dit (that postulated treasure which dramatizes the non-dit and complements the hors-scène) make such plays extremely rich. I am unfortunately not in a position to present a developed proposal for such a mythocritique, both because of the limitations of this paper, and because of the methodological problems I still have to work out (including the techniques for dealing with the heterogeneous, in spite of Bataille's seminal suggestions; or the relationship between mental categories and verbal equipment, although Benveniste's observations on "categories of language and categories of thought" may well provide a starting-point). But I would like to submit here a few samples, the result of a rapid and somewhat subjective survey rather than of a systematic and thorough investigation, and to venture a few hypotheses and suggestions for future research.
Among the most obvious problems raised by Antonine Maillet's corpus are those of the relationships between her plays and her stories which could often be analysed in parallel from the point of view of the plot lines, the characters, the techniques of actualization and the mediations of the emotive function. The plays' originality could be assessed also by a study of the strong sociological and heterological polarization of their spatial features. One could also draw attention to the tendency of Maillet the dramatist towards a deconstruction of history and the redistribution of its elements. These elements are manifested as day-to-day history (petite histoire), emphasizing anecdotes and extending them in the direction of parable and/or exempla; in other words, transposing time sequences into a symbolic construct and offering a commentary based on folk wisdom and doxa, thus offering thumb-nail sketches of morality plays. But time sequences may also be reorganized in cyclical patterns or in epic or pseudo-epic narratives—again with commentary—thus providing a different proto-Brechtian kind of epic theater whose protagonists are again held to be in the oral tradition since most of them are functionally illiterate. Finally one could consider, as the starting-point for a definition of Maillet's theatricality, her use of paradigmatic disjunctions, the valorization of certain terms and their dual role as syntactic shifters and as semantic terms of reference.
I have briefly discussed the relation between the plays and the stories, as well as the spatial polarizations and the temporal deconstructions, and shall return to them in other studies now in progress. But the fourth problem seems particularly relevant to our overall project here, and indeed is considered to be crucial by several theoreticians, whether they deal with drama (Ubersfeld) or with other projections of the imaginative faculties (Gobard). I shall therefore concentrate on it as best I can with the limited theoretical equipment now available.
The obligatory focus, which establishes contact at the present time of the actual performance (re-presentation), at the point of emission of the spoken work (whether or not it is perceived as a transposition, a final term in a succession of relays, a speech act grounded in experience, with referential and / or metalingual co-ordinates), is the here and now vehicular: ici et maintenant with their variants in vernacular: "icitte," "là où je suis" (where I am), "où je sons" (combining singular speaker and collective awareness), etc. This base point must always be considered in its poetic function in the text of the play but, whenever enunciated, it also involves all participants in the dramatic experience, be they internal to the play or external, identified or removed (verfremdet). From this base point radiate revolving semantic beams which reveal for a brief moment a particular experience and make it possible to share it.
The lighthouse in the set for Gapi, firmly established in a given point in space, offers a metaphor and an analogue of the here and now in Maillet. It constitutes a landmark, but at the same time emits signals which reveal other areas (and reveal it as far as the eye can see) and which must be interpreted in relation to a rhythmic, temporal pattern superimposed upon natural rhythms such as those of the tide or the phases of the moon. The place of and the part played by this emitter of signals offer a visible correlative of the way the text and its dramatic production are associated. The here and the now are not, however, any more punctual than the speaking I of a character, which can, as we have noted, be considered at any moment under a variety of guises, and which of course evolves as the play progresses. But they can serve as anchoring points for paradigmatic series arranged according to modes or aspects, and include terms which are more or less strongly marked. For instance, starting from now, one finds the vehicular tomorrow and yesterday, soon, shortly (à l'instant), still (aspect of duration), again (iteration), but also the vernacular still and all (toujours ben), as of tomorrow (dès demain), which often convey a charge of emotion and imply an existential urgency.
The mythical horizon is conveyed by expressions even more idiosyncratic and with a faintly archaic flavor to evoke the time of origins—once upon early days (sus l'empremier)—or the eschatological horizon—some fine day (un beau jour). These two later terms recur in all of Maillet's plays and might establish a kind of teleology of jonglerie. But Maillet (or her characters) seems to shy away from the absolute: the Creation and the Last Judgement are dealt with by the very human, very Acadian agents. God Himself is very much in the image of a neighborly, jolly old fellow (La Sagouine would feel happy in Heaven if "… God the Father could come over to call the square dances 'pon a Saturday night …") Eternity is conceived of as a development of experience: "a real Spring, that won't stop, but that will last, and then that will last, and then … why, that will be Heaven, and on that there day (c'te jour-là) I do believe I shall be dead and right inside Paradise."
On the other hand, if the absolute is made relative, the relative is durable: provisional and precarious conditions provide the basis for lasting ideologies and for a world-view based on the desire to "hang on tight." The important characters in Maillet's plays (with the notable exception of Citrouille and the Merchant's daughter in Les Crasseux, humble modern counterparts of Romeo and Juliet, even though social conflicts are more important in their tragedy than feudal pride) refuse to die. When they are taken from life, it is after a tough battle against hardship (La Sagouine), or even when they have weathered the worst storms and are within sight of a safe harbor (the old Breton of Évangéline). Their ability to "surge up again" (ressoudre), their physical and moral resourcefulness, is indeed their most remarkable feature: each individual takes up the collective fight of the Acadian nation and, without illusion, refuses to give in to time and its grim ally, death:
you must not come and tell old folks what's what, it's no use coddling them, it's definitely no use trying to pull the wool over their eyes … Old folks and those who have been deported … That's on account of their being the only ones (par rapport qu 'i' sont les seuls) I have ever met who know all about life, since they are the only ones who have started over several times, and who have kept going to the very end … to the very end …
as Évangéline puts it before the curtain falls.
Among those poor and thrifty people who are used to mending nets and patching old clothes, the effort to negate the wear and tear of time leads to a patient reconstruction of sequences. While history has been unkind, with its succession of spoliations and uprootings, a complementary counter-history must be wrought from the little shreds that have been treasured by individuals. In that respect, the work of the défricheteuses de parenté—the careful genealogists who at the same time, in a complex metaphor, untangle confusing skeins, clear areas which are overgrown with weeds, and restore the continuity of "lines" in the vegetation of family trees, in the weaving of family "tapestries"—is exemplary. In fact, the work of restoring the chronicle may well mean more than the reconstructed chronicle itself. The Acadian descent, although it is patrilineal according to the common Western pattern, often takes its virtue from the tracing up (through the work of women) of a lineage from the individual ("he is Thomas, born of Jos, born of Samuel") rather than from proceeding in the Biblical style down from the (male) ancestor ("Samuel begat Jos, who begat Thomas") who established a root or "stirps." The family is ascent, not descent, and an effort to evolve. Thus, a tension against time is created, and that too is a factor of dramatization.
The tension against space is quite as notable, and what is more, in its most crucial form, the inherited fight against displacement (which in Évangéline Deusse actualizes the deportation into a personal experience of collective deportation), is part of the same struggle, of the same agon. Generally speaking, the Acadian characters stay in their places but will not be pushed around: should anyone attempt such an abuse, he would arouse a popular movement, such as that which takes place at the end of Les Crasseux at the instigation of Noume, the juggler-hero. Any individual who breaks ranks and tries to move apart (or believes he/she can move up) is punished by ridicule (La Sainte, in the episode of the church pews in La Sagouine) or visited with some more obscure retribution from within or without the group. But this tenacity cannot be equated with immobilism: the characters are active and mobile inside the space which they define.
These all too brief remarks in no way exhaust even one aspect of a complex set of issues. I hope, nevertheless, that they provide some clues to the originality of a remarkable corpus. Maillet's dramas are very specific: they offer the defense and illustration of a national theater for a nation that is still as much in limbo as Poland was in Jarry's Ubu. They are the representative voice of a social group that is still not heard publicly, of a sex that is still often relegated to the status of "other." But at the same time, this Acadian repertoire, whose major protagonists are old, poor women, is universal in its topoi and its structures: it constitutes in many respects a paradigm for the study of general ideology, of cultural patterns, of the layering of language. It would therefore be rewarding to use it as a basis for further research, dealing for instance with mythopoetic jonglerie and other extensions of the dramatic into the hors-scène. But such extensions are most often reinvested in the scenic cube, even if this return, this new surging up, carries with it the strange atmosphere of myth or carnival, of a different truth, a different time, a different space. Perhaps this is an example of the theater of the oppressed at work. Perhaps it is the expression of a general rule of any theater which establishes reality against reality by a process of denial.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1462
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 need to tell that her books are stories. She has published 20 books including novels, plays and stories for children. She has received 13 honorary doctorates and many literary awards, namely the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1979 with Pélagie la Charette. I interviewed her a few miles from Grand-Pré, on her land, as she put it, on the occasion of the Canada-in-Commonwealth conference held at Acadia University on November 3, 1985, to which she had been invited to read from her works.
[Jacquot:] Is it because you consider yourself as the last story-teller that you are so much attracted to the past?
[Maillet:] I am not that much attracted to the past. I mean, the past becomes important to me when I can find something in it which inspires me and reflects my present, something which stimulates me. In all my stories set in the past, there is a small cell in each of my characters which developed into the person I am. So the past is part of me, but I don't consider that I look back.
So when you write, you develop a slice of your personality?
Yes, my characters are all my different possibilities. When I write, I multiply myself, I live one million lives, which I could not do otherwise because life is too short and the world is too small.
The main characters of your books are generally women. Is it a deliberate choice?
No, it is an unconscious and necessary one. A writer does not really choose: the choices are ready-made, somehow. When I was born, I had not decided to be born that year, in that village, and so on. Those choices had been made for me. Automatically, I gathered in my surrounding a series of characters which were going to be developed in my books. The fact that my characters are women does not even come from the fact that I am one, but because I lived that life, in an Acadian environment, during the war and depression years in which feminine values were predominant. So it is because of my story, my biography, as well as my personality that my characters are women.
You are an artist, a woman, an Acadian and you are French-speaking. You seem to represent most of the minorities …
Yes, but I'd like to give to the word minority a positive connotation, because minorities should be valorized as being more precious and fragile because unique. The artist is, in a way, the small voice. Women, even though superior in number, are just starting to speak up. L'Acadie is small and its survival is still insecure. So the position of all these minorities and the urgency for them to be protected gives me the strength to write. I am a multi-minority, but my basic elements are rare pearls.
Would it be difficult to write if you came back to New Brunswick? People say that you are turning into a Montrealer …
No, I did not leave l'Acadie. It is not a place, it is a culture. I can live in Montreal and stay Acadian. If I were living in Acadie, I would fundamentally be the same. The milieu would just be smaller. I live in Montreal because it is the cultural capital city for me.
Have you ever thought of publishing a book in Acadie?
Yes, and long before all the other Acadian writers. But when I wrote my first book in 1958, there were no publishing houses there. I had already published at least 8 books when les Editions d'Acadie were founded. Then, I had a kind of moral contract with my publisher. Moreover, I live off my craft, and books are better distributed in Montreal. So historical reasons prevented me from getting published in Acadie. In a way, it is because people like me looked for a publisher elsewhere that les Editions d'Acadie were born.
The world that you create in your books can be defined as South-East Acadian as far as themes, language and settings are concerned. Is not there a danger to limit yourself to one genre?
There are always dangers, but I try to prevent to get stuck in a ditch. It is the danger of repeating one's first book, especially if it has been a success. I refuse to be dominated by that kind of danger and I know I can avoid it. I think that there has been a constant evolution in my works with each new book. When I wrote Les Crasseux I stepped away from On a mangé la dune. The same happened with La Sagouine, which became a kind of wave with Gapi and Les Crasseux. I opened a new phase with Les Cordes de Bois. It was a new way of looking at things, a new technique of writing. Then there was a new stage which could probably look like the previous one, but to me it consists in a continuity. Now I am building a bridge to leave the period of Pélagie, Cent Ans dans les Bois and Crache à Pic. It is going to be a continuity of the same world, because I cannot escape from my own world, but I will reveal new facets of it.
You won the Prix Goncourt in 1979 thanks to Pélagie la Charette. Is it your favorite book?
I always have a favorite book, but it changes every day! Pélagie was important in my life, not only because of the Goncourt which was the outside significance. But it meant something special for me because I realized I was writing a kind of epic poem in the Acadian fashion. Pélagie is a reverse epic poem, and I love to do things upside down. The epic poem is the story of a people in the minute which precedes its birth. The return of Pélagie represents the 10 years during which it was going to be decided whether l'Acadie was going to go on existing or not. The cart would decide. As opposed to the classical epic poem in which the hero rides a horse, here the heroine is walking. As opposed to the official language, here the characters speak the everyday language of the people. Those who speak the official language are making history: the States are receiving a constitution, becoming independent. Meanwhile, Pélagie goes back home through the back yard of America, unaware that she is making history. So Pélagie, in spite of me, became an epic in the sense that it tells of the story of the boat-people of that time, but it is a reverse one because it tells of their return.
You write a lot for the theater. Do you get a chance to work with actors?
It is true, I have always been very fond of theater and whenever one of my plays is being acted, I participate back stage. I attend the rehearsals, I help as much as I can, I give advice for the costumes, the stage setting, I see the play evolve. Yes, I feel I am part of the company.
Have you ever worked with Viola Léger?
Many times: Whenever Viola acts in one of my plays, which has happened more than once. I am always there.
How did you meet?
We were teaching in the same school a long time ago. At that time, we used to stage plays with our students: I was writing them, and she was staging them. I realized at once she was very gifted for the theater. When I wrote La Sagouine she was in Paris studying drama. I sent her my manuscript to know what she thought of it. She answered that she was coming back right away to perform it. It was the beginning of her fame.
One of your major themes is genealogy. It is important for you in your life, too.
Yes, I already knew that my Maillet ancestor, Jacques, came from Paris, and not from the east of France like all the other Acadians. But I recently discovered that the name Mailiet was given in 1163 to three brothers who were building cathedrals, namely Notre-Dame-de-Paris. One of them was my ancestor.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5970
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 transcended the confining stereotypes of traditionalism, the humorlessness of some feminism, and the narrow vision of fanatic nationalism. At the same time, no author currently writing has created women who are at once more classically feminine, more liberated … and more Acadian.
How has Maillet achieved this remarkable synthesis? One thinks, of course, of her humor and her narrative genius, but in addition there is the striking use she makes of female protagonists. When one examines their characters, personalities, objectives, and actions, it is clear that many of these women have much in common with the typically male epic hero. Indeed, "heroine" seems almost too derivative a word to apply to these strong, memorable figures. They come closer to the powerful but unquestionably feminine women that Maya Angelou refers to as "she-roes."
Although Maillet's best known character is doubtless la Sagouine, the kind of epic heroine (let us resign ourselves to the traditional word) alluded to above is better exemplified in her narrative works, of which three will be considered here: Mariaagélas, Les Cordes-de-Bois, and—obviously—Pélugie-la-Charrette. Two of these sparkling novels proclaim the centrality of their women protagonists right in their titles. The third, Les Cordes-de-Bois, in fact does so as well, since the title refers to the entire clan of extraordinary women known as the Mercenaires, whose most impressive (and central) figures are la Piroune and her daughter la Bessoune.
The strictures that threaten the freedom and self-fulfillment of these redoubtable Mercenaire women are reflected spatially in the setting of the novel: a stifling, hypocritical, "well-ordered" village called le Pont after its most prominent physical feature, standing cheek by jowl with the rakishly timber-covered butte called les Cordes-de-Bois, home of and synonym for the Mercenaires. The entire novel will revolve around the opposition between these two microcosmic universes and the principles they represent.
More specifically, however—in a major departure from much feminist literature—the struggle will pit la Piroune and la Bessoune against another woman, Ma-Tante-la-Veuve, a fire-breathing, witch-hunting virago who has become the self-appointed guardian of the morals of le Pont. In this novel, as in Mariaagélas and more subtly in Pélagie, we thus find both the forces for "good" (the struggle for freedom, the refusal to bow to convention, the determination to conquer obstacles) and the forces of "evil" (self-righteous hypocrisy, adherence to convention, the cult of personal power for its own sake) led by women. Maillet virtually suggests that only another woman would have the boldness, the shrewdness, the energy to serve as a worthy adversary for the likes of the world's Pirounes and Bessounes. The latter, seen as personal scourges by Ma-Tante-la-Veuve, give scandal precisely because they refuse to be bound by the traditional limits on their freedom to which the "respectable" village ladies docilely adhere. If the continuous dust-ups between the Mercenaires and Ma-Tante-la-Veuve owe more to the héroï-comique tradition of Boileau's Lutrin than to the epic heroism of Roland facing the Saracens, the fact remains that the two courageous Mercenaire women, relying only upon their own resources and wile, overcome numerous and often apparently insurmountable obstacles strewn in their path by an implacable foe.
The same pattern emerges in Mariaagélas. The young heroine, Maria, born into a family known for its rejection of the petit bourgeois norms of village society, has as chief antagonist the female incarnation of that society in all its hypocritical rectitude: la veuve à Calixte. In many ways the struggle between these two is even more sharply etched (though narrower in its feminist implications) than the conflict between the Mercenaires and Ma-Tante-la-Veuve, since Maria and la veuve à Calixte seem to take their greatest satisfaction from out-smarting each other. While the Mercenaires and Ma-Tante-la-Veuve symbolize irreconcilable mores that necessarily come into confrontation, the unending fight between the outlaw Maria and the ambitious veuve à Calixte has more the quality of a personal grudge match. In both cases, however, the author's—and therefore the reader's—sympathies clearly lie with the renegade women, who willingly forgo comfort, respectability, acceptance, and even legality in exchange for freedom and self-fulfillment.
Has Maillet set up these female antagonisms for the sake of symmetry, or are Ma-Tante-la-Veuve and la veuve à Calixte simply surrogates for men in what is essentially a male-ordered universe? Can we make a case for the latter by noting that both women are identified only by titles that define them in terms of their relationship to men? One might take such an argument one step further and observe that both these dragons, while serving as champions of the most benighted traditionalism, are freed from some of its more oppressive routine aspects by their very widowhood.
As tempting as it is to pursue this line of thought, a better explanation may in fact be the one suggested earlier. While the heroines and their antagonists find themselves (the latter willingly, the former most involuntarily) in a world whose parameters have been largely shaped by authoritative men, the fundamental struggle as they conceive it seems not to be between male and female, but between institutional constraint and individual freedom. Women are lined up against women, not in some mutual self-destructive loathing, but because they make worthy and interesting adversaries. Indeed, as the narrator points out in one sardonic passage in Mariaagélas, both heroine and villain are so accustomed to coping mainly with men that they occasionally underestimate each other:
La veuve à Calixte connaissait tout ça [that most rumrunners were eventually caught and jailed by the authorities], et savait par conséquent qu'unjour ou l'autre le sort tomberait sur Mariaagélas comme sur les autres contrabandiers. Mais la veuve à Calixte avait oublié une chose: Mariaagélas n'était pas un contrabandier, mais une contrabandìere.
De son côté, Mariaagélas avait négligé de reconnaître les attributions de la veuve, s'imaginant que sa fonction se limitait à de petits commérages de bénitier ou de bureau de poste. Depuis belles années, pourtant, la veuve à Calixte débordait chaque saison son rôle et étonnait tout le monde.
Pélagie-la-Charrette, for all its good humor and savory Acadian epithets, comes closer than either of the other novels to being a true epic. The struggles played out in mischievous fun between the Mercenaires and Ma-Tante-la-Veuve, between Maria the bootlegger and la veuve à Calixte, are repeated in deadly earnest by Pélagie and her prime adversary, no less a figure than Death herself (feminine in French). Pélagie's quest is not merely for personal freedom but for the very life of Acadia, the Promised Land whence she was expelled during the Great Dispersion and to which, against all the wiles of the Foe, she is determined to lead her little remnant of survivors. Death takes many forms along Pélagie's route, all of them female or identified by feminine nouns. At one particularly desperate moment in the journey she is la Faucheuse, the Grim Reaper, whom Pélagie bests only through exhausting and heroic efforts. Be it noted, however, that Pélagie's triumph depends on her moral force rather than physical strength, for which she unhesitatingly relies upon the men in the company. As la Faucheuse lurks impatiently nearby, Pélagie's Cart, symbol of life and hope, is sinking inexorably into the Salem swamp. While the men bend every ounce of their strength to extricate the wagon, Pélagie wages her titanic struggle out of the depths of her soul:
Les chroniqeurs du dernier siècle ont juré que Pélagie n'avait pas bougé durant toute la scène, qu'elle se tenait droite comme un peuplier, la tête au vent. Elle n'aurait pas crié, ni prié, ni montré le poing au ciel comme l'on a prétendu. Personne ne l'a vue se jeter à genoux et se lamenter, ce n'est pas vrai. Personne ne l'a entendue hucher des injures aux saints, ni les supplier pour l'amour de Dieu.
"Et alors, son cri?"
"Elle a dit un seul mot, un seul…."
"Ma vie!" qu'on entendit monter des marais de Salem et rouler sur les roseaux jusqu'au pont de bois.
La charrette a dû l'entendre, car elle a grincé de toutes ses pentures et de tous ses essieux. Deux fois en un jour on s'en venait impudemment lui barrer la route? Qui osait?
Another female manifestation of Death on Pélagie's path is the phantasmagoric black cart, the charrette noire, which attaches itself to Pélagie's companion Bélonie-le-Vieux and is visible only to him. While Pélagie imbues her own cart with her vibrant sense of life, hope, purpose, and freedom, Bélonie's cart seems instead to define him as it rumbles mockingly along with the pilgrims like a malevolent shadow, sapping energy and provoking despair. As Pélagie is to her Cart of Life (alive, active, generative of hope), so the Cart of Death is to Bélonie (resigned, passive, prepared to be trundled to his death). Only with the discovery of a living grandson, long thought dead, does Bélonie truly, totally, join in the communion of Pélagie's joyous will to survive, to reach Acadia again. Robbed of its essence, Bélonie's death cart then disappears, never to return. The epic heroine, wielding as sole weapons her own vitality (maternal as well as personal) and the wagon that embodies it, has faced down the greatest adversary of humankind, won the race against doom, and saved her less hardy friend. Though the nature of her struggle and the mode of her triumph are, as we shall see, defined by her womanhood, she thinks of them not as primarily a victory of Woman over Man, but of Life over Death.
This is not to say that the gender of Maillet's protagonists is irrelevant to their struggles—quite the contrary! In every case the fact that a struggle is necessary at all is a consequence at least partly of their sex, and both the nature of the obstacles they face and the weapons they use in overcoming them are tied to it as well.
The linkages in Mariaagélas are multiple but quite clear. At eight years of age the profit-minded preschooler Maria was out cornering the village market in returnable bottles while she was thought to be safely at home, like a good little girl, with her grandmother. At fourteen she was destined, like other girls of similarly humble circumstances, to be shipped off by her father to work in the shops, or to go into domestic service, but Maria was not about to accept either option. With scornful disregard for her future employability in any "respectable" home, she settled a perceived insult by the schoolmistress to her younger sister by storming into the schoolhouse one day, "avant que personne n'eût pu prévoir le coup, et sous le regard ébarroui des petits de la petite classe,… avait administré à M'zelle Mazerolle le plus formidable poing dans l'oeil de mémoire scolaire."
Moreover, Maria was not the first woman of her family to reject the traditional destiny: her Aunt Clara, much admired by the adolescent Maria, had become a prostitute and a vagabond in preference to remaining in the horrid conditions of a succession of sweat-shops. In her last such job Clara had even organized the other women in a short-lived mutiny, torched the shop, and spent time in prison. Despite the cost, Maria was deeply impressed by Clara's refusal to conform and looked to her as a model in her own budding life of outlawry. Nor did she aspire to the "respectable" women's roles as dependent wife, doting mother, pious parishioner, and loyal good citizen. No one—not her father, the priest, the schoolmarm, or tradition—was about to tell Mariaagélas what she must do or what she must become, or not become. Fortified by her natural taste for adventure and her business acumen, she therefore seemed to fall almost by fate into a highly profitable profession—bootlegging—that made her a moral, social and legal outlaw.
From then till the end of her days, Maria took mischievous pleasure not only in running the most successful bootlegging operation in her area during those dangerous Prohibition days, but in carrying out her feats under the very nose of the sanctimonious veuve à Calixte. In one supremely ironic ruse, Maria played upon two of the most deeply entrenched stereotypes of her society. Disguising herself as a nun, she had a bootlegging partner drive her and a full cargo of illegal liquor in her own Buick across the American border, counting accurately upon the gallantry of the québécois border guards towards her sex and the respect of the Irish-American guards for her habit to protect her from the usual close search. Her contempt for the limitations placed upon her free choice by tradition and prejudice inspired her to use them as weapons in the service of her own illegal ends.
The outlawry of la Piroune and la Bessoune in Les Cordes-de-Bois was more social than statutory, but as disruptive of local society as that of Mariaagélas. Like Maria, they were members of a renegade family whose women were known for flouting the conventions (in this case principally sexual) established by their "betters." Again the battle lines were drawn early, and again a small act of defiance signaled the charge. The bourgeois society of le Pont was centered, typically, around the parish church, whose Angelus bells called all right-thinking townspeople (notably innocent young girls) to pious meditation. The Mercenaires, however, worshiped at a shrine belonging to a very different myth. The nubile Piroune, in particular, was drawn to the quay instead of the church, and one fateful evening she jingled the little bells on the buoy at the very moment the Angelus was sounding. Though Ma-Tante-la-Veuve would not have believed it, the narrator claims that this was not a gesture of contempt, but one of affirmation:
[L]a Piroune, à cette époque de sa vie, ne cherchait dans les bateaux que des souvenirs, une sorte de mémoire-hommage à l'ancêtre. Elle se rendait au quai comme Marie-Rose et Jeanne-Mance [two of Ma-Tante-la-Veuve's many respectable nieces] à la niche de Marie-Immaculée: en pèlerinage. Cette orpheline de père et de mère semblait s'accrocher à son passé, faute d'avenir, à son lignage tout plein de mystère et de faits glorieux qu'elle revivait là sur sa bouée.
Indeed, the first of the Mercenaires had surfaced generations before in some mysterious fashion from the sea, had braved nature and the local owner to establish his brood permanently on top of the butte, and had passed down both his affinity for the sea and his rejection of conventions to his many descendants, now mostly women. As her male progenitor had emerged from the sea, la Piroune's own mother, Barbe-la-Jeune, had disappeared into it after saving the lives of some sailors stranded on ice floes by a sudden thaw.
The motif of the sea is all-pervasive in this novel (and prominent in the two others), but in contradictory ways. It gives birth and brings death. It promises hope (the vigil of la Piroune at the quay, where passing sailors come to meet her and often stay), and inflicts despair (la Bessoune's efforts to drown herself after her young priest/lover has apparently done just that). It beckons to far-off lands (the Irish sailor, "Tom Thumb," finds it an almost irresistible lure), and validates the regeneration of the entrenched Mercenaires (la Bessoune is born nine months after her mother, la Piroune, heroically saves a child snared in some ship's rigging and celebrates with the cheering assembled sailors). Neither exclusively male nor female in its symbolism, it is a self-complete, eternal, mystical life force, permeating all Acadian myth and legend. La Bessoune, twinless twin of an unknown father, is indeed a child of the sea, whose wildness and freedom she fully incarnates. Like the rest of her line, she will not be mastered by mere ordinary mortals and their silly laws, any more than they can dictate to the restless waves of the unending sea.
As a child la Bessoune puts up with the discipline of Church and school only as much and as long as she pleases, then abandons both. With adolescence she steps easily into the footsteps of her mother, selling contraband liquor and offering the bounty of her own sensuous nature to passing sailors. La Piroune and la Bessoune do not so much challenge the institutions of le Pont as ignore them, with an insouciance that often leaves Ma-Tante-la-Veuve in a state of spluttering frustration. The mere existence of the Mercenaires is an intolerable affront to the well-ordered universe of le Pont, whose futile efforts to control them result in constant, inevitable confrontation.
While the Mercenaire women thwart Ma-Tante-la-Veuve mainly by attracting most of her potential male allies to their side through sheer joyous sensuality, their ultimate ironic triumph comes on the widow's own supposed home ground: the domain of the spirit. Like everything else in le Pont, charity has been institutionalized. At a yearly "auction" held by the parish church, the destitute are assembled and farmed out to whatever families bid the lowest amount and promise to provide for them. One year, a truly pathetic case disturbs the smug rhythm of the auction: Henri à Vital, a once-popular local raconteur who had gone off for adventure to the States and was now back, a poor paralytic wreck, finds no takers. Ma-Tante-la-Veuve and the others are willing enough to do their Christian duty for the elderly and sickly, who can be counted upon not to survive beyond a decent interval. But who, the sweating auctioneer suddenly realized, would take on the wheelchair-bound Henri à Vital, "pas un vieillard encore, ni tout à fait un déshérité, qui mangerait ses trois repas par jour et pouvait vivre encore des années?"
Into the silence that follows steps la Piroune, prodded by la Bessoune, who offers to take Henri à Vital—for nothing. Ma-Tante-la-Veuve, nearly apoplectic, tries to sidetrack this scandalous turn of events, but the new young curate, overriding his stunned pastor, vigorously supports the right of the poor to go off with whomever they choose. Henri à Vital, predictably, heads right for the Cordes-de-Bois, as do a pair of orphans who have clung instinctively to la Piroune's welcoming skirtfolds.
The narrator describes the sweet taste of vengeance the whole affair leaves in the mouths of the Mercenaires as they savor the discomfiture of their archenemy:
Effectivement, le vicaire avait le pied sur celui de son curé, c'est la Bessoune qui l'a vu. Et elle sourit, la Bessoune. Un sourire qu'elle flanqua sous le nez de la Veuve en plein mitan de l'estrade de l'encan des pauvres. Tout était à l'envers, ce jour-là: les chenapans et les vieux renards qui faisaient leurs Pâques à la Trinité occupaient la tribune de l'église: les filles à matelots narguaient le Tiers-Ordre et les confréries; les pauvres achetaient les pauvres; et voilà que le vicaire marchait sur les pieds de son curé.
On a dit que la Bessoune avait été saisic alors d'un tel élan d'éblouissement et de reconnaissance, qu'elle aurait sauté au cou du jeune prêtre, là, à la face de toute la paroisse qui en am ait fait: aah!
This incident, with its climactic position near the end of the novel, underscores an interesting aspect of the question of womanhood in this particular Maillet universe. For Ma-Tante-la-Veuve the sexual behavior of the Mercenaires is a thing apart, a sin-in-itself, a violation of all the old guilt-inducing strictures of Church and polite society. For la Piroune and la Bessoune, however, sexual gratification is not an avenue into which they are reluctantly channeled for want of freedom, but a perfectly natural manifestation of the freedom they already joyously feel. As human beings, and specifically as women, they are whole beings of free-spirited openheartedness, no more self-conscious about the sharing of their bodies than they are about sharing family loyalty or the maternal warmth to which the poor and the abandoned are instinctively drawn. The struggle they are forced to wage is not within themselves, but against an embittered foe who cannot even understand, much less successfully prevent, the totality of their freedom, both defined by and expressed through their specific nature as women.
We see in Pélagie-la-Charrette the same harmony between a passion for freedom and strong womanly traits of the most traditional sort. Survivor (unlike her husband) of the sack of Grand-Pré at the time of the Great Acadian Dispersion, she has seen friends and relatives strewn all up and down the Atlantic coast and has spent fifteen years tied alongside black slaves to the plough of a Georgia planter. When she finally decides she has had enough, her revolt is inspired in equal measure by heroism of soul—strong, brave, decisive, bent on action—and by a vivid belief in her critical role as surviving mother of a whole race. The Cart of Life that she sets plunging northward on the path to liberty is also a warmly enveloping rolling home, full of the weak and defenseless, crammed with pots and pans, sheltering the pitiful remnants of a nearly exterminated generation. Hopelessness and suffocation are not, however, related to the dark interior of Pélagie's wagon, but to the monotonous closed circle traced by the Georgia planter's plough, the mud that nearly sucks the wagon under in Salem, and the frenetic, aimless charge of Bélonie's Cart of Death. Pélagie's womanhood is as traditional as a tigress fighting to save her cubs and as liberated as the warrior hero who saves a nation. It is the essential context of her being, the condition that gives form and meaning to her epic quest for life and freedom—not a contradiction but an affirmation.
The only power strong enough to distract Pélagie even momentarily from her relentless drive northward is the call of the nearby sea—here, as elsewhere in Maillet, a mysterious atavistic force of compelling power for all Acadians. Both progenitor and protective mother, master of nature and alluring mistress, proof of freedom and assurance of continuity, the sea links man and woman, past and future, life and eternity. Tempted as she sometimes is to divert her route towards its magical embrace, Pélagie sees it as above all a guaranteeing sign of her odyssey's ultimate success: "La mer restait leur plus sur lien avec l'Acadie du Nord. On peut s'égarer dans la forêt, ou se cogner le front aux monts; mais la mer du nord ne saurait aboutir qu'aux pays."
We have seen the strength of Maillet's assertive women, but what of the men in their worlds? In all three novels the important role of chief antagonist is given to another woman (though in Les Cordes-de-Bois and Mariaagélas these women may, through their widowhood, represent an institutionalized, bourgeois, male-dominated society). There are, however, several important male characters in these novels, and there are—perhaps surprisingly—very few instances of hostility in the relations between them and the epic heroines. A few of the men are subjects of mild scorn, like the simple-minded soldier Bidoche and the informer Ferdinand in Mariaagélas, or the strait-laced pastor in Les Cordes-de-Bois. Some are sympathetic but clearly secondary characters, such as Maria's bootlegging partner le Grand Vital and the stream of men captivated and lured to the butte by the Mercenaires.
Of greatest interest, however, are the examples of genuine respect and affection between the epic heroines and certain men around them. Hinted at in the family loyalty of Mariaagélas, which extends even to her rough-spoken father, this kind of warm relationship blossoms more clearly in Les Cordes-de-Bois. Two of la Bessoune's "conquests" are most unlikely partners: "Tom Thumb," the homesick Irish sailor always going back off to sea—except the last time—and the earnest young curate.
The latter, first drawn to the butte by the desire to convert the lawless Mercenaires, soon falls under their spell. They, and particularly la Bessoune, seem to possess already all the joy, selflessness, and freedom that he has come to preach. After long months of pleasure on the butte and scandal in the village, the priest is reported one night to have stepped off the bridge into the dark sea. As reported by Catoune, another Mercenaire and the only witness, his parting words are a confession of guilt to the village charge that for all his natural virtues he has not led a single soul to God: "C'est Ma-Tante-la-Veuve qu'avait raison … qu'il a dit." To this Catoune adds her own assessment: "Fallit qu'il mettit l'océan entre lui pis le monde … fallit qu'il éteignit le feu … le feu qui y brûlait les boyaux." When the heartbroken Bessoune tries soon thereafter to join her lost lover at the bottom of the sea, she is saved by Tom Thumb, now a permanent inhabitant of the Cordes-de-Bois. His healing compassion, inspired by the Mercenaires' own rough-hewn love, thus completes the redemptive cycle. In a final, gentle benediction, a report later filters back that the curate did not drown after all but has been spotted on a ship bound for Rome.
Tom Thumb, as we have noted, comes to rest at the Cordes-de-Bois only after innumerable short stays followed by renewed sea voyages. The narrator's commentary on his ultimate decision to stay explains what the spirit of the Mercenaires, and the Acadia they symbolize for him, has come to mean in his life:
Vous aviez ciu, vous, qu'il allait partir comme ca, le Tom Thumb? quitter un pays qui lui rendait son Irlande transposée et transfigurée, pour une Irlande réelle et misérable qui mourait de faim? Allez donc! C'est en Amérique que l'Irlande est belle. Et c'est en Acadie que Tom Thumb pourrait en rêver à son aise.
Il s'ébroua, le petit matelot, et offrit sa plus splendide grimace à la Bessoune.
"Moi pis le grand Brendan," qu'il dit, "on ira par terre et mer chercher les héros: les géants, les saints, les navigueux, les sorciers, les holy men … et on juchera tons ces salauds sur le faît des Cordes-de-Bois. Pis ça sera là le centre du monde," qu'il fit.
La Bessoune ne répondit pas. Mais Charlie Boudreau jure qu'elle a mis sa main dans celle de Tom Thumb, et qu'ils sont partis tous les deux par les dunes vers les Cordes-de-Bois.
The end of Tom Thumb's lifelong search for mythical Celtic heroes has come in the undemanding affection of the outcast Mercenaires, for whom love is sharing, not dependency. Like freedom and heroism, it is not to be found in some distant, inaccessible place, but within the soul.
No one could be less dependent than the determined Pélagie-la-Charrette, who takes her vocation as epic heroine very seriously. Others defer to her natural leadership without question, as when, on a day when she decides to give her flagging troup a pep talk. "I'Acadie entière lève des yeux bleus suppliants sur son chef qui déjà s'empare de la tribune." When she has finished, "elle redescend de la tribune en se drapant dans sa cape comme un consul romain dans sa toge." The narrator notes the stirring effect of her speech on the little band of travelers: "Ce jour-là, on l'aurait couronnée de lauriers, la Pélagie, si on avait été en saison." Her admiring friend, Captain Broussard dit Beausoleil, characterizes her thus: "Quelle femme, cette Pélagie! capable à elle seule de ramener un peuple au pays. De le ramener à contre-courant."
Yet the two most cherished friends of this Pélagie—heroine, leader, object of admiration—are men. Though her relationships with Bélonie-le-Vieux and with Captain Broussard dit Beausoleil are very different, each is rooted in love of a very special kind. Bélonie, noted croniqueur described as already old at the outset of the trek, brings out Pélagie's protective instincts: "matetral" would not be too strong a word. Her youth contrasts with his age, her strength and vigor with his feebleness, his black cart of despair—of resignation to death—with her Cart of Life. Pélagie, who must have strength enough for them both, refuses to leave Bélonie behind: "Pélagie n'aurait pas eu le coeur de laisser derrière le doyen des déportés, même s'il devait traîner avec lui jusqu'à la Grand' Prée [sic] sa charrette fantôme."
Onwards she prods and encourages him, mile after mile, until at last along the coast of Massachusetts the miracle occurs. The Grand' Goule (formerly the deportation ship, Pembroke, seized from the English by the exiles themselves) intercepts Pélagie's wagon near Salem. Captain Beausoleil hails the straggling band and proudly presents one of his crew: young Bélonie, grandson of Bélonie and unsuspected survivor of the Great Dispersion. Pélagie's obstinate determination to keep the old man alive is now abruptly vindicated; the death wagon becomes a pointless relic, and Bélonie-le-Vieux joins the ranks of Life. Maillet, through her narrator, uses an astonishingly effective reversed sex-role image to convey the intensity of Bélonie's joy at that moment:
Le ciel lui-même a dû ce jour-là enregistrer le cri du capitaine Beausoleil-Broussard, puis le renvoyer rebondir à la tête de Bélonie-le-Vieux qui le reçut comme un coup de pied au ventre. Si jamais un homme depuis le début des temps, a éprouvé l'ombre d'une douleur de l'enfantement, c'est le Bélonie de la charrette. A cent ans, ou presque, il venait de mettre au monde sa lignée.
Pélagie and the gallant Beausoleil have a very different sort of relationship. She often turns to him for the same sort of strength and moral support that Bélonie seeks from her. The first meeting of Pélagie and Beausoleil after the Dispersion, when the Grand' Goule comes into port as Pélagie's wagon is passing through Charlestown, shows the depth of their mutual affection:
Le front du capitaine se déride et ses joues éclatent dans un large rire à l'ancienne comme Pélagie n'en a point entendu depuis le temps. Alors les bras de cette femme éperdue se referment sur son coeur pour le garder au chaud et l'empêcher de bondir hors du coffre: ce rire vient du passé, mais point de l'Au-delà. Et de la poitrine dc cette veuve d'Acadie qui traîne depuis tant d'années une plaie ouverte, s'arrache un cri que même les morts auront entendu:
"Il est en vie!"
From then on Beausoleil is Pélagie's guiding star, paralleling at sea the route of her wagon on land. Their reunions at a succession of coastal points are so many marks of progress along Pélagie's path to Acadia. Beausoleil helps save her foundering cart in the Salem swamp and cheers her when her courage wavers. At their last rendezvous before her final push through Maine, Pélagie measures the extent of her debt to Beausoleil and the depths of her affection and gratitude:
Il était là, son capitaine, son chevalier, son héros, l'homme qui avait par trois fois risqué sa vie pour elle, qui avait calé dans la vase mouvante pour la troisième fois qui est toujours la dernière, pour elle, pour les siens, et à la fin pour sa charrette. C'est lui à la fin qui l'avait sauvée, sa charrette, lui qui s'était agrippé aux riddles, à la vie, à la mort.
Et elle se serra contre lui, se berça la tête au creux de ses épaules en murmurant des gloussements et des mots qu'il n'entendait pas…. Il avait risqué sa vie pour elle qui en échange avait offert la sienne. Leur double vie en otage l'un pour l'autre. Plus rien n'effacerait ça dans le ciel. La charrette à jamais en serait le gage.
The bond suggested here is beyond the sexual, though it involves mutual self-giving, profound union, and regeneration. The same is true of the love that links Pélagie with Bélonie—clearly not sexual, yet bursting with the seed of rebirth, of new life. Both Bélonie and Beausoleil disappear at the end—Bélonie into the forest, Beausoleil out to sea—and thus quickly pass into the domain of legend. Pélagie herself is the source and inspiration of that legend as she and her Cart of Life at last go to their final rest in the soil of the new Acadia. Thus Acadia itself becomes the heaven of the emerging myth, the medium of ultimate union between Pélagie and the two men she loves. Pélagie is the brightest star in the new constellation, neither diminishing Bélonie by offering him her strong protection nor herself diminished by accepting the same from Beausoleil. She is the epic heroine whose quest for life and freedom has given significance to the lives of the others, and it is her womanhood that shapes that quest. Her triumph is in defining the roles of the others without limiting them.
Pélagie herself asserts the primacy she attaches to womanhood by selecting her daughter Madeleine rather than one of her sons to carry on after her death. Near Pélagie's grave in the new Acadia, Madeleine takes up the challenge to renew the race and "refaire l'Acadie":
C'est tout près, dans la vallée de Memramcook, qu'elle abattrait son premier arbre, Madeleine LeBlanc, sous le regard ahuri de son homme et de ses frères qui n'en croient point leurs yeux…. Allez, ftancs mous, c'est icitte que je nous creusons une cave et que je nous bâtissons un abri!… Madeleine, digne rejeton de la charrette par la voie des femmes.
"La voie des femmes"—the royal road to the rebirth of Acadia! All the heroines in these Maillet novels could in some sense be symbols of Acadia—a small nation, weak in the eyes of a world that knows only physical force, but strong in her desire to live and flourish despite all obstacles. Refusing the right of others either to condemn her to death or to dictate the conditions of her life, this Acadia triumphs over her foes by courage, boldness, humor, shrewdness, and nobility of spirit. There is heroism in her struggle, but also a saving mischievousness that excludes excessive solemnity. She is Maria the bootlegger, refusing the life of the shops, thumbing her nose at the fate others have reserved for her. She is la Piroune, using the buoy bells to broadcast the invitation of a generous heart across the open sea. She is above all Pélagie, hitching up her hem and setting off in a dilapidated wagon towards life and liberty. Her traditionalism does homage to a past born in the Celtic mists of the sea and tempered in the fire at Grand-Pré; her liberation creates a nation that determines its boundaries by the location of its soul; her nationalism is a reflection of the universal human quest for life and freedom. One may smile at her indulgently, but always with admiring affection, for Acadia is still living her epic—glorious, and, in its way, consummately female.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4177
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 the ethnocentric publisher of Pélagie may lead the unsuspecting reader to believe, Mariaagélas, actually her ninth volume. As of 1973, the date of Mariaagélas' first edition, Mrs. Maillet had indeed already three other novels in print, as well as a collection of short stories, two plays, a humoristic presentation of the history and civilization of Acadia in the form of a very unconventional tourist guide, not to mention her published doctoral dissertation on Rabelais and the oral traditions of Acadia. Between Mariaagélas and Pélagie-la-Charrette, the author published another three plays, one of which the now famous La Sagouine, and three novels. One of the latter, Les Cordes-de-Bois narrowly missed, in 1978 the Prix Goncourt which Mrs. Maillet was awarded the following year.
Published on both sides of the Atlantic, the Canadian writer has thus been recognized as a major voice in world literature and contributed much needed rejuvenation to a contemporary French fiction perhaps too often mired in the type of formal solipsism generated by the New Novel. Mrs. Maillet's works also attest to the most significant development in post-1950 French literature, that of francophonic writings and their relevance not only to academic study but in the very terms of their universal implications and concerns. Hers is thus a complex and rich production which gained the recognition it deserves only belatedly and perhaps for sadly well-known reasons: too many francophonic works still have to take the inevitable detour of French publishing houses, the sole guarantee of prestigious exposure; it is significant that Antonine Maillet's fame spread only after the publication of four of her works by Grasset. Moreover, the traditional focus, in studies on francophonic Canadian literature, on "Québécoise" production, often fails to take into consideration such brilliant creations as those Maillet has woven around the history, civilization and legends of Acadia.
Over such two richly productive decades of literary endeavors, a thematic evolution seems to emerge, from the early novels of individual quest to the epic narrations of the more recent works. Between the opposite poles of this creative trajectory, moreover, another two phases clearly stand out: Mrs. Maillet's masterful adaptation, on the one hand, of the infinite resources of the folk-tale in such novels as Don l'Orignal and in the short stories of Par Derrière chez mon pére, and, on the other hand, a series of plays, among which the internationally acclaimed La Sagouine and the lesser-known but equally important Evangeline Deusse represent prominent landmarks. A rapid survey of these various productive stages helps delineate the unique kind of epic and mythic aura Mrs. Maillet's last novel exudes.
In Pointe-aux-Coques (1958) and On a mangé la dune (1962), the author set out to explore the sociological, thematic, and, above all, linguistic parameters within which her subsequent works would develop. Very much like the Pélagie-la-Charrette of seventeen years later, Pointe-aux-Coques deals with the theme of self-discovery and the symbolic journey of returning. The heroine of the novel, a young American school-teacher of Acadian ancestry, discovers in a small Canadian village the rich and complex fabric of a society in transition. Love, death, cultural identity, the conflict between tradition and modernism, especially in the inexorably changing area of social realities, the lucid and quietly humorous analysis of human foibles, the gripping dramas of everyday life, all coalesce into a fictional tableau already foreshadowing many of the preoccupations of works to come. The novel's stylistic hesitancy, however, stems from the author's too uniform a reliance on an academic language frequently at odds with the reality of the milieu depicted.
The lyrical and poetic tone at work in the first novel will nevertheless and again permeate the prose of On a mangé la dune, a nostalgic and appollonian evocation of childhood and adolescence. Focusing as it does on the passage from adolescence into adulthood, the novel does not only concern itself with the problem of spiritual integrity and maturation, with metaphysical realities apprehended through the initiatory experience of growing, but also represents a step toward artistic development, the strengthening of inspiration and form within an ever sturdier framework of fictional creativity to which the fictional mode of the dionysian tale will bring full blossoming.
In her Rabelais et les traditionals populaires en Acadie (1971), Antonine Maillet had conducted an ethnological analysis of the oral structures of Acadian popular traditions. The concurrent integration of the "parlure acadienne" in her creative works constituted an important turning point: the author was now fully apprehending the fictional and linguistic appropriateness of oral traditions to her subject matter as well as to her own artistic temperament. Par Derrière chez mon père and Don l'Orignal, both published for the first time in 1972, best exemplify the coming of age of her narrative mode. The short pieces of Par Derrière chez mon père, which sketch out in concisely self-contained fashion many of the plots and characters of subsequent works, now unfold with solid serenity within the timeless creative mode of ancestral tales. But nowhere as in Don l'Orignal, a story of socio-economic rivalry set in the microcosmic universe of a tiny island, and inspired by both Rabelais and Voltaire, does the art of the tale reach such consummate perfections: comedy, literary parody, humor, farce, social and moral satire intermingle in thirty-five short chapters seething with the enlightening effervescence of philosophical laughter. The book constitutes what can easily be considered Mrs. Maillet's first masterpiece, a novel that also established the epic mold in which many subsequent works will be cast.
It was inevitable that the narrative vivaciousness of Rabelaisian prose would find an even more spontaneous outlet in the dynamic universe of the stage. Les Crasseux, first published in 1968, adapted with considerable dramatic strength the plot of Don l'Orignal. In the absence of the novel's pervasive satirical point of view, the play ludically focuses on the dynamics of confrontation between two rival groups whose characterization makes for unforgettable social comedy. But more significantly, the author's artistic endeavors now point to novel preoccupations. Quasi "engagés," her writings have become strategically conscious of their audience. And the stage's dionysian outbursts underscore more and more the socio-philosophical meaning of laughter. While steering clear of the ponderous strictures of political moralizing, Mrs. Maillet's dramas display, indeed, persistent shades of Brechtian determinism.
By the time Mariaagélas was published, in 1973, the seeds of Mrs. Maillet's best creations were blossoming into superb prose epics. This richest phase of her creative evolution yielded four novels in which her affinities with Rabelais, her epic and ritualistic apprehension of human destiny and her masterly characterization of female protagonists won her international recognition and the courtship of Canada's and France's most prestigious publishing houses.
Mariaagélas represented her first full-fledged novelistic portraiture of the heroine as rebel, a grown-up and pugnacious avatar of Radi, the adolescent protagonist of On a mangé la dune. The book merits critical attention not only for its magnificent fresco of ancestral traditions, but also for the brilliant mordancy of its social satire, its humanistic ideology and comico-dramatic characterization of a fiercely independent woman during the rum-running days of Prohibition.
Emmanuel à Joseph à Dâvit (1975), tonally autonomous from the novels of this period, harks back to the quiet inspiration of Par Derrière chez mon père, but symbolically juxtaposes, in the North-South axis of two neighboring villages, the quietly traditional life of the land and that of the sea, the latter suddenly threatened by the relentless encroachments of modern industrial interests. Peacefully counter-pointing this conflict, a nativity story unfolds, ostensibly patterned on the Biblical model, but whose mythical undertones throw a new light on Mrs. Maillet's use of religious themes, and significantly counterbalances her abrasive satire, in other works, of unbending and dotardy religion.
Les Cordes-de-Bois centers on the truculent and sympathetically caricatural portraiture of a matriarcal bevy (the Mercenaire family,) and chronicles its hilariously eventful démêlés with the religious clan of contentiously prude Ma-Tante-la-Veuve. The gay satire and exhilarating lustfulness of the novel gave way, two years later, to Pélagie-la-Charrette (1979) and its dramatic account of the journey of dispersal and return of a group of Acadian exiles during the momentous years of 1755–1780. Immersed anew in the ancestral and historical traditions of her people, the narrator retraces, with phenomenal immediacy and Steinbeckian vigor their joys and sorrows, commingling history, legend, popular tales and age-old beliefs in a breathtaking succession of seventeen episodes. But in the last resort, the most impressive achievement of Pélagie-la-Charrette may be its mythic vision, its ritualization of historical awareness and its figurative appropriation of primitive legends.
In dwelling on the dispersal of the Acadian people and the epic diaspora of a group of exiles, the novel's wider historical perspective thus subsumes and amplifies many of the key themes of previous works. More successfully than any of these works, though, Pélagie-la-Charrette exemplifies brilliant formal unity and linguistic autonomy, a triumphal "aboutissement" in light of the author's earlier inner struggle with the problem of language and cultural identity. Antonine Maillet once confided in an interview: "(Mon) premier (roman), Pointe-aux-Coques, est un petit roman que j'ai écrit en faisant tous les efforts pour ne pas écrire à l'acadienne, presque pour éteindre la personalité que chacun pouvait avoir … je m'efforçais d'écrire 'en francais'." It is precisely the opposite attitude, the pervasive reliance on the "parlure acadienne" and its spontaneous amalgamation into the historical but above all legendary and mythical strata of the novel that gives Maillet's narration such powerful impact.
Told from the point of view of oral tradition, the narrative of Pélagie-la-Charrette covers twenty-five years of exile of a group of Acadians, from 1755, the date of their systematic deportation and dispersal, to 1780, the date of their stealthy but victorious return. While one of Antonine Maillet's concerns is obviously to set the historical record straight, she does not choose to do so through the medium of purely politico-historical narration but through that of the popular epic chronicle, retracing historical events through the joys and tribulations and the collective consciousness of a whole people. While 1755 signalled the beginning of the dispersal, a central thematic motif referred to as "l'exil", "la Déportation", "le Grand Djéangement", or the euphemisitc "l'événement", the novel's narrative structure revolves around the homecoming journey to the promised land of the ancestors, la Grand' Prée, a journey of grief and sorrow as well as joy and self-discovery, above all an eventful experience of coming together and of recreation of group identity: "les gens, au départ, sont une famille, à l'arrivée, un peuple" Maillet recently remarked.
Two voices harmoniously blend in the narration of this oral chronicle, intermingling everyday occurrences, historical events, popular legends, dialogues and interpersonal conflicts into the flow of a strikingly dynamic epic. The ageless, earthily dialectal voice of an Acadian narrator-participant in the journey, in turn Pélagie herself, in turn a "conteux et défricheteux" without whom "l'histoire aurait trépassé à chaque tournant de siècle", pervades the whole novel. To this voice periodically responds the omniscient voice of a modern narrator, a voice nonetheless tonally and thematically in keeping with the storyteller's voice of popular tradition. Pélagie-la-Charrette owes its structural unity precisely to the narrative equilibrium that such a dual, complementary perspective provides. Moreover, the expressive dovetailing of two stylistic registers, actualizing as it does past experience, projects it into the realm of modern collective consciousness and opens the gate to the type of universalizing myth-making that successfully transcends the immediate socio-historical framework of reference.
By the time Pélagie was completed, Antonine Maillet's position on the validity of French Acadian as an artistic medium had radically changed. Of this coastal language, separate from the "joual" and distinct from the French-English "chiac" of the Moncton area, she avers: "Premierement je dis que c'est une langue. Je ne crois pas que l'acadien soit un patois. C'est une langue ancienne, désuète. On n'a rien inventé chez nous: tous les mots que j'emploie dans Pélagie-la-Charrette, à 99.5″, sont des mots français, mais des mots d'ancien francais; Si je dis callouetter, si je dis aveindre, si je dis cobbi, si je dis chacunière, allez tout verifier ça, c'est dans Rabelais, dans Villon, dans Marguerite de Navarre, et même dans Molière". Of La Sagouine and the lesser known play Les Crasseux, she had already indicated: "Je n'ai pas choisi la langue de La Sagouine ou des Crasseux, j'ai choisi la Sagouine et les crasseux. Ceux-là n'avaient pas le choix: ils devaient parler leur langue. Tout au plus en ai-je fait une transposition littéraire; comme est transposition toute langue écrite".
This notion of literary transposition perhaps best explains the kind of epic immediacy Maillet so successfully achieves in the novel. Early in the book, when admonishing her troops at the beginning of the journey of return, Pélagie's ostensibly unfelicitous choice of words elicits a tellingly vigorous vindication on the narrator's part, and one wonders to what extent such textual intrusions (for they are numerous in the novel) do not aim at the strategic pre-emption of the inflexible censorship of traditional stylistic propriety: "Elle avait mal choisi son image, Pélagie, et aurait mieux fait de parler de tabac ou de coton. Mais Pélagie ne choisissait pas ses images, elle les traînait avec elle depuis le pays. Un pays de mâts et de haubans, encadré de baies, balafré de fleuves, et tout emmuré d'aboiteaux. Les aboiteaux! Ce seul mot la mil en rut, Pélagie-la Charrette, et elle fouetta les boeufs".
Elsewhere Maillet states: "Trois-quartsdes Acadiens sont nés les pieds dans l'eau," later adding: "vous me permettrez quand-même de vous donner en deux mots les raisons historiques qui ont fait se peupler les abords des rivières. Premièrement, les Acadiens ne disposaient que de bateaux pour tout moyen de transport; deuxièmement, ils vivaient de la pêche; troisièmement, ils devaient pouvoir se déplacer rapidement à l'approche des Anglais qui leur ont fait la chasse pendant plusieurs décennies après l'exil. A l'époque, les rivières étaient les grand' routes qui reliaient la forêt à la mer".
Summing up the historical condition of Maillet's characters, the narration of the endless journey from forest to sea and from sea to forest shows compulsive delving into the treasures of natural and animal tropes, as well as authorial predilection for symbolic evocations of a cosmic nature. Frequent assimilation of the characters' experience with animal or forest life pervade the novel, as in the characterization of the orphaned and lonesome Catoune: "la Catoune me pouvait s'égarer dans les bois, les bois qui avaient abrité et nourri sa prime enfance. Elle avait dans la peau le nord absolu, Catoune, comme d'autres le diapason. Et si l'on en croit Bélonie, elle aurait été la seule, ce jour-là, avec la boussole dans l'oeil." The frequent recurrence of "humer" and "flairer," likewise, graphically depicts the protagonists' ever so cautious progress throughout the forests of exile, and suggestively evokes the animalistic determination moving Pélagie's companions: "Mais pendant les joyeuses funérailles de cette Acadie du Nord, auxquelles trinquaient si joyeusement Lawrence, Winslow, Monckton, et le roi George dans toute sa joyeuse majesté, des lambeaux d'Acadie du Sud remontaient, tête entre les jambes, piaffant, suant et soufflant des deux narines, une Amérique qui n'entendit même pas grincer les essieux de la charrette."
While the "grincement" of poverty and suffering effectively points out, throughout the novel, the jarring note of quiet upheaval and stubborn progress of the protagonists, the animal metaphor of the ox simultaneously conveys not only humorous self-mockery but a concurrent sense of dogged resolution and robust obstinancy. The novel's long march of joys and sorrows, likewise, remains closely associated with meteorological phases and natural cataclysms, as if cosmic moods were made to echo and dramatically underscore the whims of historical adversity. But perhaps most telling is the metaphorical designation of "défricheteux" or "defricheteux-de-parenté", ubiquitous under Maillet's pen and playing a central role in the vast fresco of her writings. For the expression, which designates those of the elders who keep track of the complex genealogical ramifications of various clans, figuratively and earthily comingles the function of oral tradition and that of attachment to the land, sine qua non conditions of Acadian survival.
In On a mangé la dune and in the tales of Par derrière chez mon père, Maillet had already revealed significant glimpses of the rich framework of inspiration that the reality and legends of Acadian coastal life were to represent in her fiction. Significantly, in the 1979 epic, the return to the land of the ancestors originates on an island, the Isle of Hope in northern Georgia, and the focus of the narration frequently shifts to the fate of Captain Beausoleil, to his sea adventures along the eastern coast during the American revolution: "Pendant qu'elle (Pélagie) dressait, barreau par barreau, les ridelles d'une charrette qui la ramèenait avec les siens au pays, làbas en mer, une goéleete chargeait les restes d'un peuple, des côtes de la Nouvelle-Angleterreaux rives de la Nouvelle-France." The continuous superimposition of such realities reinforces that sense of idiolectal allegiance Maillet had once emphasized: "Il existe aussi (in Acadian French) des termes marins adaptés au language terrien: on va 'amarrer' ses souliers, on 'grée' une mariée, on 'frête' une voiture." "Et pour tout bâtiment Pélagie gréa une charrette" says the narrator in the first chapter of the novel (our emphasis); Pélagie herself will later announce "Demain au petit jour, je mettons le cap sur l'Acadie du Nord", and again later we are told that: "Après toutes ces années le coeur au sec, Pélagie laissa la brise du large lui minatter les joues et la peau de l'âme", in metaphorical constructs firmly anchoring human experience in the symbolic fabric of cosmic awareness.
The journey northward thus becomes both a historical occurrence and an experience of self-discovery, an assertion of cultural identity through the dialectical code of the group. On this subject, Maillet had already warned her reader, with delightfully incisive humor: "Ne vous méprenez pas (l'Acadien) parle francais; mais le sien. C'est une question de nuance." This archaic French of the late Middle Ages and of Rabelais symbolizes, in a sense, a striking phenomenon of cultural resistance, fighting as it does, unlike the joual and chiac dialects, against the encroachments of the language of the conquerors. To the modern reader, it provides not only a rich insight into the cultural and historical development of an ethnic group but, above all, the narrative expressiveness of numberless stylistic surprises, such as the phonetic evocativeness of "hucher" for "crier", "pigouiller" for "chatouiller", "sourlinguer" for "secouer", "tétines de souris" to designate an indigenous plant. Such stylistic particularities make for countless humorous episodes in the novel, and, more importantly, reinforce one of Mrs. Maillet's most fundamental creative impulses, the use of language as play, of words as ludic or agonistic structures textually reenacting or mirroring individuals or collective trials and experience.
The following observations concerning two young men's brash but unsuccessful advances to the beautiful Catoune crisply illustrate, in the light vein, the author's superb manipulation of language to such ludic ends: "Les deux rescapés des Sauvages, durant ce temps-là, flairaient et humanient les cotillons, lançaient des phrases équivoques et pigouillaient à tort et à travers. A travers surtout. Et le jour où le beau Maxime, qui avait cru avec la disparition de son rival Jean retrouver le champ libre autour de Catoune, voulut traverser l'étoffe épaisse d'un corsage qui gardait le fruit défendu, il comprit qu'il venait de pigouiller à tort."
Beside such sonorous notations as "des huchements de Pélagie à ses commères d'exil," which evokes to this reader the jarring cacophony of a screeching flock of exotic birds, Maillet's prose teems with crisp and vivid comments, brisk observations amounting to unforgettable one shot portraits. "Et le vieux radoteux de Bélonie reprit son récit là même où le pied bot de Celina avait planté son point d'orgue," for instance, instantaneously and hilariously captures the perennial conflict between the incorrigibly garrulous characters of Bélonie the patriarch and Celina the limping midwife. The abrupt failure of Bourgeois' demands before Pélagie's fierceful determination are likewise expressed in a beautifully caricatural combination of onomatopeia, halting rhythm, and equine metaphor: "—Et je veux plus en entendre parler. Le Bourgeois se cabra, fit heu! puis se tut." Most memorable, however, is the phrasing of old Bélonie's patriarchal but rather rusty and mechanic progression toward Pélagie in the twelfth chapter of the novel, where "il fit jouer sur leurs gonds ses os quasi centenaires, et se dirigea vers Pélagie."
Typographically isolated as autonomous paragraphs, such statements naturally take on incisive theatrical expressiveness. Insofar as they display the dynamism and graphicness of Maillet's prose, its quickness to seize upon the humorous and the caricatural, the question of Rabelais's influence poses itself. While it is not within the scope of this paper to analyze Maillet's indebtedness to the sixteenth-century writer, some salient formal and thematic affinities deserve mention: the didactic role and causticity of laughter, the compulsive use of the burlesque, the grotesque and the scatological, the inclusion of the structures of the chronicle and of folk tale, the parodic nature of encyclopedic accumulations (of which we have numerous examples in Pélagie), and above all the fictional reliance on folkloric and legendary material, as shown in gigantean characterization. All of these constitute not only the hallmark of Maillet's felicitous resurrection of a hallowed literary tradition, but also of effective incorporation of a larger framework of imagination, that of myth.
If, in its modern sense, myth symbolically projects a people's collective values and attempts to articulate its reality, Maillet's reliance on the rich legendary traditions of Acadia and her revival of ancient folk traditions attest to her imaginative propensity to mythically transcend historical reality and to strike roots in the rich humus of a pre-industrial consciousness made of "bribes d'images restées dans toutes les mémoires." The tale of the white whale and the golden ring, for instance, both scatological and initiatory, intertwines legendary and historical experience, that of intestinal engulfment and of entrapment in the dark, mazelike corridors of a Charleston prison. In turn, myth sacralizes historical experience, as does the Acadian "empremier," a term that effectively associates memories of early Acadian history and, from an etymological point of view, ab origine times. "Je m'inspire beaucoup de la tradition orale, mais dans la mesure où elle est vivante. La littérature orale a transmis des mythes, des croyances, des gestes, des drames, des héros populaires: tout cela est la plus riche matière litéraire" significantly remarked the writer.
At a higher degree of symbolization, her last novel ritualizes historical experience into mythical visions of unusual lyrical quality. Primordial creation, rebirth and salvation from water and from fire, the mythical dance of Life and Death are central preoccupations that deserve indeed full critical recognition. As mythical a figure as Brecht's Pelagea Vlassova or Steinbeck's Ma Joad, with whom she shares so many features, Pélagie enacts, throughout her clan's initiatory and reconstructive journey, many of the ritual gestures of an archetypal mother. In the end, the nocturnal symbol of her metonymic wagon, "logis primitif" and "signe de perénnité," triumphs over the most dramatic of all trials, the nyctomorphous threat of ruthless marshes, of "cette boue mouvante qui cherche à l'aspirer comme un gouffre béant."
The luxuriance of Antonine Maillet's literary imagination and of her textual strategies is indeed stupendous. As this survey suggests, incorporation of oral traditions, ludic didacticism, socio-historical awareness, linguistic revivalism and universal myth-making constitute some of the more salient foundations of her works, and because of a rich career extending now over twenty-three years, it is easier to appreciate the eminence of her contribution to the world of letters, what a critic has recently termed an "imposing presence." Very similar to that of other illustrious regionalists" (Faulkner's, Gionos's and Steinbeck's especially come to mind,) her vision is able to transcend the immediate sphere of native sources and, through the optimistic medium of self-derisive laughter, the catharsis of insane comedy and the overriding power of humanistic concerns, to explode in the type of pan-human statements of which only true art can partake.
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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 novelist and playwright. Two more of her novels were published in English translations last month: The Devil Is Loose by Lester & Orpen Dennys and Mariaagélas by Simon & Pierre. Though Mariaagélas was first published—in French—13 years before Devil, both books use the stuff of legend and oral tradition to express timeless Acadian themes.
Maillet lives on the avenue Antonine-Maillet in Montreal's Outremont district. Few writers in this country can boast of streets named on their behalf. "It was a product of circumstances," she explains. "Six or seven years ago there was a drive to find French names for some of the streets in this part of town. I had just won the Prix Goncourt, so some neighbor mentioned my name." Having your street named after you while you're still living on it may be partly an embarrassment and partly an honor; Maillet takes it mostly not as a personal triumph but as a blow struck for literature.
These triumphs and others—including a dozen honorary doctorates to add to the Ph.D. in literature she earned from Université Laval—have come to a writer from Bouctouche, New Brunswick, a town on the Northumberland Strait, facing Prince Edward Island. She attended school in Bouctouche and in the late 1940s became one of the first students at Collège Notre Dame d'Acadie in Moncton. Her schooling included reading both Racine and Shakespeare in the original, and today Maillet says that she largely learned to write through reading. She still has a residence in Bouctouche—fittingly, a lighthouse—where she spends the summers eating lobster, sailing, and writing.
Though her first novel was set in Acadia, it was not specifically Acadian in subject-matter or style. Only since the 1971 publication and staging of La Sagouine, the story of a charwoman who was memorably interpreted for the stage by Viola Léger, has Maillet come to the forefront as the voice of Acadia. She has been followed by an entire wave of Acadian novelists and poets. Maillet's country, by her own admission, exists more in time than in space. After the loss of the Acadian territory in 1755, Maillet points out, there was no land to identify with; there was a sense of nationhood, an ideology, a mentality, but no territory.
Enter the only figure capable of making a country out of all this once more: the writer. "Perhaps there may be little chance for Acadia's survival, perhaps her virtues are exhausted. But when I write, the old Acadia surfaces again." Certainly Maillet has given us a dreamed Acadia in her books, but perhaps this invented land is truer than the one we can see today on a drive along the coast from Caraquet to Shédiac. But all writers are in the business of transforming our vision of the place they come from, and in that area Maillet excels, for she has made her readers believe that Acadia really is those legendary figures and goings-on between the covers of her books.
There's no shortage of legendary characters and occurrences in her latest novel The Devil Is Loose, first published in French in 1984 and now available in Philip Stratford's English translation, published by Lester & Orpen Dennys. It's an old-fashioned story with real and concocted ghosts, raging seas, mysterious portents, village gossips, wise fools: the entire village microcosm. The book is set during American Prohibition, a time when Acadians (and not only Acadians) were fighting hard times by providing contraband liquor to their thirsty neighbours to the south. At one point the novel's swashbuckling heroine Crache-à-pic (literally, "straight-spitter") dresses up as a nun to cross the United States border on a mercy mission, an event that happened just that way, according to Crache-à-pic's creator. The heroine has sworn to operate her own family-run bootlegging operation, flying in the face of Dieudonné, supplier for the Mob in the States, including Al Capone, whom she hopes will turn up one foggy night off the Acadian shores. There are marvelous portraits of village life as Crache-à-pic and Dieudonné try to outfox each other under the indulgent eye of the local constable. But then Quicksilver, an officer who wants to make the law stick, arrives on the scene, and the inevitable happens: the untameable Crache-à-pic and the intensely upright Quicksilver fall in love. Their idyll enchants the village, and all goes well until a shotgun blast from the Dieudonné gang's boat puts an end to the unlikely couple's happiness. "It's a lot like Acadia's history," Maillet muses. "There's a lot of clowning and buffoonery and nonsense, but it turns out badly in the end."
The book gives Maillet's most typical Acadian characters a stage on which to strut their stuff. Never ones to be rushed, they are nevertheless equipped with a strong sense of timing and a tenacious patience. Their humor is like that of underdog peoples everywhere: a little defensive, never loud, always wry. And though they might be distrustful of outsiders at the start, they jump at the chance to roll up the rug and celebrate. Mariaagélas (translated by Ben-Zion Shek) tells a similar story about Maria, the daughter of Gélas, who turns to smuggling during Prohibition when she loses her job after punching a schoolteacher in the nose (the teacher had failed to give her kid sister the part of the Virgin Mary in the school play). It explores similar themes but without the love interest. There are boot-leggers, ghosts, and ersatz nuns, though with less of the appeal to tradition than in The Devil Is Loose. But in both books, the evil-doer is brought to justice in a particularly Acadian fashion.
In Devil Dieudonné and his cronies are brought to trial, but the villagers, including those closest to Crache-à-pic, suddenly lose the faculty of speech and forget where they were the night of the crime. The trial is made a shambles; justice, at least of the conventional variety, is roundly mocked. But this seeming non-co-operation by the villagers is actually designed to give Crache-à-pic the right occasion to set her trap. She inflicts a much more apt punishment on Dieudonné (which will not be wholly revealed here) based on the Acadian themes of exile both abroad and in one's own land. The village has spoken; the popular will has been done. That's the genius of Acadia, Maillet says. "An outlawed people will put themselves above the law."
Antonine Maillet won the Prix Goncourt in 1979 for Pélagie-la-charette (Doubleday published the English translation by Philip Stratford, Pélagie: The Return to a Homeland, in 1982). It was the first time France's most prestigious literary award had been won by someone not a native of France. Winning the prize opened the European continent for Maillet and raised her to the status of a fully accepted French-language writer. "The Goncourt gave me the assurance that I had really written a book in French!" Maillet laughs. "It was also a seal of approval for the Acadian language." This lettre de noblesse is especially important, for it chased away any question that Acadian writing and language were merely quaint, folkloric leftovers from an earlier time. Even if she has received approval from Paris, Maillet is no less Acadian now than before the Goncourt. There's a moral in the story: she won this internationally prestigious prize by being as resolutely local as possible.
Getting her language into English has been no small task, and we have Stratford to thank for delivering her two memorable heroines, Pélagie and Crache-à-pic, into lively English. Recalls Stratford, "Maillet didn't want a literal translation. She would tell me, 'Go ahead, be free.' That invitation to freedom let me be more inventive." What Stratford did with that freedom was to go back to what he calls his "treasure-hoard of past expressions" gathered from years of reading sea stories by C. S. Forester, Conrad, Kipling, and other sources, and create a salty, slightly archaic style that would recall the Atlantic provinces in the 1930s while avoiding the trap of a "dialect" translation.
After completing The Devil Is Loose, Maillet took a year off from writing to teach, read, travel, and lecture. Getting back to the grindstone proved difficult. She wanted to resume writing but it took another full year before she could completely limber up. But when her writer's block broke, it broke with a vengeance. Recently she completed a play and currently is finishing off a novel for fall 1986 publication with Leméac in Montreal.
Maillet works in a converted attic in her house, and a glance into her studio reveals the absence of a usual piece of equipment: there is no typewriter. She writes with a pencil in large notebooks of graph paper, a more effective way, perhaps, to reach back to the mythical Acadia and make it live for us again.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4371
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 these parallels clear and to suggest associations with some major motifs of world mythology in order to show how the dominant theme and images confer a larger—possibly universal—meaning on the narrative.
The novel represents the fusion of chronological time (Acadian history) and mythical time (the eternal cycle of perpetual life), and of Biblical imagery and that of ancient mythology. So too there is fusion on a spiritual level of the profane and the sacred, as the Acadians are portrayed as deceptively irreverent, for their rebirth reaffirms the principle of destiny and divine mission.
The general structure of the narrative loosely follows the Biblical text. The first chapters introduce us to Pélagie, Bélonie and the other characters, describe their situation, and establish the purpose of their journey, just as Genesis describes the Patriarchs and their times and points to an historical mission. The novel then proceeds to chronicle the journey itself including the fighting and rebellion, corresponding to the "deliverance" and "apostasy" of Exodus. The remainder of the novel, except for the last two chapters and the epilogue, concerns the consolidation of the wanderers into a people, paralleling the same phenomenon in Leviticus and Numbers. The final part narrates Pélagie's address to the people, her death and her people's arrival in Acadia, as Deuteronomy recounts Moses' invocation to the Israelites, his death, and the arrival in the Promised Land.
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.
In the novel, credibility is established on an historical level. Bélonie is the "historian" whose recollections and story-telling form an important link between the Acadians and their past. Pélagie III, called La Gribouille, insists on the historical accuracy of the account of the Acadian return as the basis of the people's revival: "la seule histoire qui compte … c'est celle de la charrette qui ramenait un peuple à son pays."
In the Bible, too, great pains are taken to establish the authority and veracity of the text. The tone is one of unquestionable fact and historical record: "These are the stages of the children of Israel, by which they went forth out of the land of Egypt … and Moses wrote their goings forth, stage by stage" (Numbers 33:1-2).
In addition, both texts rely on lineage to validate their claim to historical accuracy. Throughout, parentage, descendants and ancestors are a constant preoccupation: "Il n'avait rien perdu de son vieux fonds gaulois, le Bélonie, sorti de Jacques, sorti d'Antoine, sorti de Paris au temps des chansons et contes drôlatiques." The words génération, lignée, ancêtre and aïeul all appear on a single page. Enumerations concerning lineage abound in the Bible. Genesis 10 lists the generations of the sons of Noah; Genesis 22:20-24, those of Abraham's family; Genesis 25:19, the generations of Isaac; and Genesis 36, the generations of Esau. This is an important device that runs through both narratives to authenticate the stories and lend them verisimilitude.
The Acadians are explicitly compared to the Israelites ("les Hebrews ont bien eux, traversé le désert") and the historical link between the two peoples is taken for granted: "Depuis quatre mille ans que la terre roulait sa bosse, combien y avait-il eu de générations entre Adam, Abram, Moise et le premier des Bélonie sorti d'un dénommé Jacques à Antoine, sorti de France au mitan du siècle précédent?" In addition, the expelled Acadians all have their eyes "rivés sur cette terre promise." Finally, Girouard accuses the Bourgeois family "de traîner dans la charrette de Pélagie un ménage capable de rebâtir Jérusalem."
The historical and the sacred are aspects of the same phenomenon for the Acadians and the Israelites. Both cultures view ordinary events symbolically, with the result that historical reality is seen to transcend the mundane and to enter into the realm of the sacred. It is through ritual that this transformation occurs.
Because of the Acadians' and the Israelites' reverence for life and their attachment to their past, burial ceremonies represent moments of poignant emotion. A landowner surprises the Acadians who are burying the Cormier boy and demands to be paid for the use of his field, just as Abraham had to pay the children of Heth in order to bury Sarah. This material payment symbolizes a spiritual commitment to the memory of those who are laid to rest.
The issue of leadership is vital to the Acadians and the Israelites. The leader symbolizes the people and its survival. There is an implicit parallel between Pélagie and Moses, for the two function similarly as peacemakers. Pélagie stands between the Bourgeois family and the others when they quarrel over bringing the chest filled with their possessions, she breaks up a fight between her son, Jeannot, and Maxime Basque. Moses, too, was constantly having to repair rifts and rally the people (Exodus 6:9, 14:11).
In addition, the two leaders symbolize the unity and ideals toward which their peoples aspire. Pélagie tries to keep the group together when some decide to leave for Louisiana and Moses does the same when the children of Reuben and Gad prefer not to cross the river Jordan (Numbers 32).
Pélagie, like Moses, is responsible for the safety of her people. She sends her twin sons scouting to gather news of Baltimore, and they return with a great deal of information, reminding the reader of Numbers 13 in which Moses dispatches twelve men to explore the land, to learn its character and that of its inhabitants.
Prophecy is an aspect of leadership in both stories. Pélagie sends off some of her group for water, saying that after "le règne des vaches maigres vient cestuy-là des grasses," recalling Joseph's interpretation of Pharoah's dream in Genesis 41. In Virginia, they work the fields in exchange for food, "par rapport qu'il faut bien garder le meilleur pour le pire," as did that other leader of the Israelites, Joseph. For both the Acadians and the Hebrews, there were to be hard times in store, and their leaders were invested with the power to forsee those events.
Symbolic changes of name are common to the novel and the Bible and reflect the importance of the respective leaders. "Pélagie Bourg, dite led Blanc," becomes Pélagie-la-Charrette just as Jacob is renamed Israel (Genesis 32:29). In both texts, the main characters function as models for their societies and for successive generations. The change of name suggests that they are "reborn" to embody their people. Jacob is Israel. Pélagie is the cart that symbolizes the return to Acadia.
The two leaders are both individuals and symbols representing a people. They are mortal and fallible, yet greater than the average person, a part of history, and instruments of a destiny which transcends historical reality.
In addition to the symbolic attributes of the leaders discussed above, there are symbolic acts which link the historical and sacred levels of the narratives. The first of the acts concerns Rebekah. Rebekah personally offers water to Abraham's servant, demonstrating her quality of heart and worthiness to be Isaac's wife and thus one of the matriarchs of her people (Genesis 24). So, too, Pélagie performs the same act for the lost militiamen, thereby proving her merit and justifying her as the matriarch of her own people: "elle se dirigea droit sur ses hôtes et de ses propres mains leur offrit à boire dans la tasse dite de l'hospitalité, un goblet rituel (emphasis added) rescapé du Grand Dérangement. Et pour accompagner le geste, aussi la phrase rituelle (emphasis added):—Faites comme chez vous." Pélagie's literal, factual, gesture represents a more important spiritual truth that identifies her with her Biblical forerunner.
Both cultures acknowledge a mysterious aspect to human life that springs from primal sources. This acknowledgement finds expression in rituals of various sorts. One of Pélagie's oxen is killed for food, but the vocabulary surrounding the ritual suggests a kind of religious sacrifice: "immoler"; "on accomplit le sacrifice dans les rites, comme si l'on retrouvait d'instinct ou par une sorte de mémoire involontaire les origines primordiales de l'immolation"; "les lieux du sacrifice." Catoune is said to kill as if she were a high priestess. In the Hebrew Bible, after the Ten Commandments are given, God commands that sacrifices be offered, and sheep and oxen are specified (Exodus 20:21). In addition, the Israelites ratify the Covenant with a sacrifice of oxen (Exodus 24:5-6).
In this instance, the Acadians' killing is for food and the Israelites' is not, but the unconscious link with the Biblical rite is prominently and repeatedly mentioned. The Acadians' physical act is clearly replete with symbolic meaning that binds them to the Israelites. The Acadians assuring their corporal nourishment and physical survival (killing for food) finds its reflection in their spiritual nourishment and sacred mission (sacrificial rite).
The playing of music and singing, too, are ritual acts that are associated with dramatic and significant events in the life of both peoples. They function ceremonially. Since the arrival of the Basques, "le violon avait comme assourdi le grincement de la charrette." The Acadians mourn the loss of the Cormier child wilh lamentations and the playing of a violin. Maxime Basque pulls out a reed flute and "casts a spell" over his Indian captors. Bélonie's death is lamented in song—"mille complaintes à la mémoire du barde centenaire"—and the group's final entry into Acadia is accompanied by music and song—"L'Acadie tout entière rentrait en chantant." Music is accorded an equally prominent role in the Bible. Moses and the Israelites sing a hymn of praise after the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), they sing a song of triumph after their victory over the Canaanites (Judges 5), and the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32, which Moses sings before his death, is the dramatic culminating point of the Biblical narrative.
In addition to symbolic acts, there are symbolic objects which link the historical and sacred levels of the texts. Beausoleil appeals to Pélagie for some certainty and reassurance about their future by using the Biblical image of the dove: "J'allons-t-i' point un jour voir apparaître une colombe dans le ciel, Pélagie? Une colombe avec sa branche d'olivier dans le bee?" recalling the dove and olive branch of Genesis 8:8-12, which meant that the inhabitants of the Ark would be safe and secure. Beausoleil's desire for a secure relationship expresses itself in a Biblical image of universal peace.
The two ships in the following passage, the one Acadian, the other American, represent attempts at self-determination:
Ce sont des frères de souche, sortis ensemble des chantiers navals de Liverpool, destinés aux mêmes déboires et à la même lutte, à la même gloire devait dire plus tard la chronique de chaque pays. L'un et l'autre ayant réussi un coup dont peu de naivres purent se vanter en cette fin du XVIIIe siècle: décocher un caillou en plein front à cette toutepuissante Albion, maitresse des mers, comme David à Goliath. Les quatre-mâts jumeaux avaient tous deux, à un quart de siècle de distance, fait un pied de nez à la marine anglaise.
The Acadians' return occurs during the American Revolution of 1776. Acadia's struggle, like America's, is compared to that of David in the Bible. The ships serve not only a military and logistical purpose but, more importantly, are instruments of the universal quest for freedom of which Acadia is a part.
The people of Acadia themselves become ultimately more than a mere group whose drama is played out in a limited historical framework. They come to symbolize the possibility that a disparate group of exiles may become a people. They explicitly do not qualify as a people at the beginning of their journey: "Pas encore un people, non … la troupe n'était constituée que de lambeaux de parenté et de voisinage." However, by chapter fourteen, when they unite in an effort to save the cart, they have become indissolubly linked: "Astheur, les hommes, faisez une chaîne…." They do join together ("on fait une chaîne") and become "Des pavés humaines." Pélagie is proud to witness the development: "son peuple. Pour la première fois, Pélagie s'aperçut que sa famille de Géorgie dans une charrette, rendue en Acadie était devenue un peuple." So it is, too, in the Biblical narrative. At the end of the forty years of wandering, it is said of what had been a "mixed multitude" (Exodus 12:38), "this day thou art become a people unto the Lord thy God" (Deuteronomy 27:9).
Their struggle, as well, takes on symbolic proportions. Theirs is not simply a long trek to return home, but a conscious choice to survive as a people. They decide to live on in spite of the odds against them. The novel explicitly and repeatedly pits the forces of life against the forces of death. The narrator points to "une conversation qui s'était déroulée d'âme à âme entre deux patriarches jouant à colin-maillard avec la Vie et la Mort." Death always stalks the travellers: "Car nul n'est duṗe au pays, c'est la Mort en personne qui est entrée en lice ce jour-là et qui a tiré l'épée contre la Vie." In the final analysis, Bélonie, who is associated with the "charrette de la mort," chooses life. He bargains with Death and saves Beausoleil. The Bible, too, asks the people to choose life: "I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:20).
To sum up this part of the study, Pélagie-ta-Charrette and the Bible present themselves as part of history, for they tell stories that purport to be about real people at a point in time, yet they participate in the world of the sacred, as their undertaking clearly has meaning that transcends the literal. The leaders in both the Bible and the novel, the events that take place, and the objects that are named all exist for a purpose; that is, the people of Acadia and Israel are portrayed as participating in a mission. That they survive is no accident but the manifestation of their destiny.
The Biblical framework is augmented by additional archetypes associated with mythology. In the second stage of this study, I shall show how the dominant images of the circle and the "charrette" in the novel reflect ancient and primitive symbolic patterns. These images enhance the Biblical parallels and suggest that the Acadians are participating in a cycle of perpetual renewal and regeneration.
Before examining the implicit and regenerative imagery of the circle, let us first note some of the explicit references to rebirth. The reader's indulgence is invoked to witness "par quel miracle … des rejectons surgissent même d'une race éteinte." Pélagie is confident that just as spring returns—"le printemps reviendrait avec les outardes, brisant les glaces, ouvrant les champs"—so the people will be reborn. The birth of each new child is a triumphant reaffirmation: "La sage-femme rendait un enfant aux Cormier, un nouveau Frédéric en remplacement de l'autre. La vie avail en réserve des pièces de re-charge et pouvait se refaire, par en dedans."
Like all Acadians, it is incumbent upon Charles-Auguste "d'être digne fils de son père et des aïeux. Il lui faudrait réincarner toute la lignée à lui seul". Even Bélonie, who is associated with the "charrette de la mort", and who thought his entire family was lost, is part of this renewal when his grandson is discovered.
In addition to the references to rebuilding and rebirth, there is an ongoing "dialogue" between the past, present, and future, from the very beginning to the very end of the novel. (Characters repeat statements first uttered a century before by other characters, and questions posed during one generation are answered several generations later.) The reader is informed that "Pélagie-la-Gribouille, un siècle plus tard, devait servir toute la phrase au descendant de Bélonie" and, later, that "C'est le Bélonie contemporain de la Gribouille qui devait le répéter un siècle plus tard." This kind of interchange is very frequent: it suggests that the past is never dead and lost, but is rather constantly present in a process of perpetual becoming.
Symbols reinforce the meaning of the text as representing a people's return to life. Images of the circle—including that of the sun and the wheel—and images of the "charrette" are indispensable to the development of the central theme.
Pélagie herself is associated with the circle in its many forms. Pélagie enters "en plein mitan [centre] du cercle et d'un seul coup de front fit taire tout le monde." She is in the middle of the circle, her place is at the hub of the wheel, that is, at the centre of her people. Beausoleil "prit dans ses mains le visage de cette femme (Pélagie) comme s'il fut sa boussole". Pélagie, like a compass, guides her people and gives them direction. After the fire in Boston destroys one cart, Pélagie prevents Jeanne Aucoin from "auctioning off" the survivors to the other carts: "Ce jour-là, on l'aurait eu couronnée de lauriers, la Pélagie, si on avait été en saison." The image of Pélagie crowned queen serves to confirm her authority and leadership. Through the image of the circle Pélagie is represented as the undisputed head of her people.
However, the image appears independently of her. The Acadians are identified with it, too. They are determined to return and "renoueront le passé à l'avenir", associating them with the "dialogue" between the past and the present discussed earlier, and suggesting their survival into the future. Jailed in Charleston after they stormed the slave market to free Catoune, they are subsequently released from prison:
Et rendus à l'anneau d'or, ils ouvrirent toutes grandes les portes cochères, après avoir fait passer le peuple de la charrette par les couloirs et labyrinthes puants de la prison de Charleston.
The act of securing their freedom is associated with a circular form, the ring. Finally, captured by the Indians, one of the Acadians gives an Indian woman a crucifix, "transformant un chapelet acadien en collier sauvage". The transformation of the Acadian rosary to the Indian necklace links the Acadian experience to its primitive origins just as the "sacrifice" of the oxen linked Acadia with its Biblical roots.
The journey of the Acadians is expressed through circular images. The voyage is a long one, "oui, mais la boucle se refermait." The wheels of the cart carrying them home are mentioned. The caravan is said to have thirty-six wheels and Acadia itself is compared to the spokes of a wheel: "Comme une roue de charrette, comme le timon [steering wheel, another circle] d'un bâtiment [here, meaning a ship], l'Acadie nouvelle avait lancé aux quatre coins du pays les rayons de sa rose des vents [wind chart in circular form], sans s'en douter."
Thus Pélagie, her people, and their journey are associated with the image of the circle, the symbol of perpetual beginnings, constant renewal and eternal regeneration: it is implied that the death of Acadia is out of the question, that survival and good fortune await them.
The sun is yet another circle, by far the most dominant and suggestive. J. Chevalier points out that "le soleil est chez beaucoup de peuples une manifestation de la divinité … Le soleil apparaît ainsi comme un symbole de résurrection et d'immortalite." Furthermore, there is an important link between the sun and the wheel imagery in ancient societies:
Le soleil comme coeur du monde est parfois figuré au centre de la roue du Zodiaque…. Si le symbole universel du char solaire est généralement en relation avec le mouvement cyclique, la roue de ce char … est elle-même avant tout le symbole du soleil rayonnant.
The circle, and its most powerful expression, the sun, therefore, suggest the very center of life, the guarantee of immortality, and, for Acadia, return and rebirth.
The sun is omnipresent in the novel. When things are going badly for the wanderers in Pélagie-la-Churrette, it is said that "la terre tournait à l'envers du cadran solaire." Beausoleil, whose very name is tied to the solar imagery, cannot die:
La chronique du temps en avait conclu qu'aucun Beausoleil jamais ne disparaîtrait sous l'eau, mais passerait son éternité à voguer loin au large, entre les algues géantes qui amarrent l'horizon au soleil couchant.
Because he is associated with the sun, he becomes a symbol of immortality.
The caravan is guided by the sun as well: "Quand les charrettes reçurent la nouvelle avec les premiers rayons de l'aube…. Et les charrettes prirent le chemin de l'est, franc est, là où se lève le soleil."
The religious dimension to the solar image is recalled as the sun is associated with an implied church bell: "Mais au petit matin, le soleil sauta à l'horizon et fit sonner le ciel comme un gong." Virginie's miraculous recovery takes place in the presence of life-giving sun: "La fièvre s'éteignit d'elle-même et l'enfant sortit de l'ombre comme un champignon de la nuit, en dressant la tête au soleil." The people of Acadia are urged: "venez prendre votre place au soleil." They return home in May, during springtime, under a resplendent sun.
The symbolism of the "charrette" is second in importance only to that of the circle. The word "charrette" is a metonymy for the Acadians: "les charrettes reçurent", "les charrettes prirent". The people themselves are referred to as "les descendants de la charrette". And Pélagie herself is the cart—Pélagie-la-Charrette.
The cart had been handed down for one hundred years and played a central role in Acadian society: "C'était coutume en Acadie d'apporter en dot une charrette à son homme, la charrette, signe de pérennité." We note also the religious aspect of the image when Pélagie wishes the wood of the cart to serve as a cross for her grave.
G. Durand finds that the juxtaposition, and even the coupling of the two images, the circle and the "charrette," is highly evocative:
Il est tout naturel de rapprocher de ces techniques du cycle, de la mise en "joug" des contraires, le char traîné par les chevaux. Bien entendu la liaison est facile à établir entre la roue et le char qu'elle porte ou le voyage qu'elle suscite. Les dieux et les héros "flls," Hermès, Héraklès, et même notre Gargantua avec son "rude chariot" sont de grands voyageurs. Le char constitue d'ailleurs une image fort complexe, car il peut consteller avec les symboles de l'intimité, la roulotte et la nef. Mais il se rapproche cependant nettement des techniques du cycle lorsqu'il fait porter l'accent mythique davantage sur l'itinéraire, le voyage que sur le confort intime du véhicule. Enfin le symbolisme de l'attelage, de la mise au "joug" vient surdéterminer souvent le symbole cyclique de fusion des contraires. Dans la Gîtâ le "conducteur du char" el Arjuna, le passager, représentent les deux natures, spirituelle et animale, de l'homme. "Les deux personnages montés sur le char d'Arjuna n'en forment en réalité qu'un seul." Dans l'épopée védique, comme plus tard chez Platon, le char est le "véhicuie" d'une âme à l'épreuve, il porte cette âme pour la durée d'une incarnation. Les conducteurs de char sont les messagers, les ambassadeurs symboliques du monde de l'au-delà, "un tour de char symbolise soil la durée d'une existence humaine, soit la durée d'une existence planétaire, soit la durée d'un univers." Ces chars flamboyants renvoient également au symbolisme du feu….
Ainsi technique du tissage comme technique du voyage se chargent l'une et l'autre, dès leur origine, de la riche mythologie du cercle. L'on peut même avancer que la roue et toutes ses variantes, mouvement dans l'immobilité, équilibre dans l'instabilité, avant d'être techniquement exploitée et de se profaner en simple instrument utilitaire, est avant tout engrenage archétypal essentiel dans l'imagination humaine.
This brings us back to the harmonization of the circle and the "charrette" imagery which, together, combine to animate the novel with the theme of regenerative, eternal life.
This union, combined with the Biblical model, lend the novel an impressive authority. It is clear that, in Pélagie-la-Charrette, the cumulative effect of the two kinds of imagery is to convey the idea that Acadia's return is part of an eternal cycle of rebirth given expression in the imagination by established mythic patterns. It can be seen, therefore, as part of destiny that the people of Acadia, and Pélagie as one of the "conducteurs … ambassadeurs symboliques" mentioned by Durand, realize the dream of an Acadia reborn.
Pélagie-la-Charrette won the Prix Goncourt of France in 1979 and has met with wide acclaim in French Canada. The novel's success can be attributed, in part at least, to the fact that it is extraordinarily rich in the diversity of the traditions upon which it draws and in its ability to assimilate them into a coherent narrative.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5300
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 this case the unique combination of story and narrative that is signalled by the hyphenated title); context (historical referents, here specifically pertaining to the survival of the Acadians); and intertext (the sum total of allusions, influences, parallels, and comparisons, both implicit and explicit, with other texts). The foregoing quotations from the novel suggest that the relation of identity to fiction is a central paradox explored by Pélagie; according to Maillet, in a comment which echoes both Jacques Ferron and Gilles Vigneault, "mon pays c'est un conte." Into this known equation she introduces a new element: if Acadie survives primarily through its storytellers, and if Maillet literally finds herself situated at the transition point between orality and writing, then her text enacts or translates for the reader the simultaneous birth and death of history, culture, and language.
Acadians have survived, rather paradoxically, through their silence, that is to say through the growth of a strong oral tradition in the face of ever-present threats—illiteracy, expropriation, assimilation: "Apres ça, venez me dire á moi, qui fourbis chaque matin mes seize quartiers de charrette, qu'un peuple qui ne sait pas lire ne saurait avoir d'Histoire." Pélagie's reader must therefore confront the presence in the intertext of a considerable body of Acadian legend, myth, and folklore in addition to echoes of the Bible (specifically Exodus), the Odyssey, Rabelais' Gargantua, and Longfellow's Evangeline, among other texts. Simple folk elements include songs ("Et j'ai du grain de mil"), proverbs ("N'éveille pas l'ours qui dort"), and oaths ("Et merde au roi d'Angleterre"), leit-motifs that illustrate the billingsgate aspect of popular speech located by Bakhtin at the heart of Rabelais' work and of the linguistic marketplace. These tags are also used to punctuate folk narratives based on Acadian legend, narratives which begin by interrupting the action only to merge with major episodes in the story: Bélonie's traditional tale of the white whale, for example, is significantly altered by the exiles' escape from Charlestown prison, "the belly of the beast," while an Acadian variant of the Flying Dutchman legend is radically revised by Beausoleil's capture and rechristening of an English ship used to deport the Acadians. In both cases the oral tradition rescues the action but is irrevocably changed in the process. For Maillet, this complex, shape-shifting relation between signifier and signified is further complicated by the added movement from oral to written forms of discourse. The oral tradition becomes part of the canon questioned by subsequent generations of chronicler-storytellers, and joins the classical texts (all epics traditionally situated at the margins of the oral and the written) parodied by the author through her primary narrator.
This playful treatment of the oral tradition situates Pélagie within the domain of fantasy rather than historical realism as a more appropriate genre for exploring the relation of myth to history. The model for this fabulous blurring of story and narrative, the real and the imaginary, writing and the oral tradition, does not come from Latin American fiction so much as from Mikhail Bakhtin's work on the carnivalesque in Rabelais and popular culture. For Bakhtin, Rabelais is of consequence precisely because he bridges the gap between medieval and Renaissance world-views:
The primitive and naive coexistence of languages and dialects had come to an end [with the Renaissance]; the new consciousness was born not in a perfected and fixed linguistic system but at the intersection of many languages and at the point of their most intense interorientation and struggle…. In these exceptional conditions, linguistic dogmatism or naivety became impossible. The language of the sixteenth century, and especially the language of Rabelais, are sometimes described as naive even today. In reality the history of European literature presents no language less naive.
Creating the illusion of orality, Maillet is in fact writing at a stage of Acadian culture which reproduces these conditions: "… au dire du vieux Louis, cette Acadie-là qui sortait du bois en riant des yeux et en roulant les rrr … ne se serait point marié en blanc." Maillet's approach to narrative, carnival, and especially parody, a term which Linda Hutcheon has recently expanded to displace the notion of plagiarism, are the three aspects of Pélagie's language that I will address as part of its self-reflexive strategy for subverting the lapses of history.
Narrative voice and the multiplication of narrators through a combination of framing and Chinese box effects are those aspects of the novel which, despite their complexity, have received the most critical attention to date. René LeBlanc has recognized that the novel's action, constituting the return of the heroine and her people to their devastated homeland and encompassing a fifteen-year journey by oxcart from Georgia to Grand Pré, is relatively simple, while the narration of that journey, filtered through many generations of conflicting storytellers, is extremely complex. Kathryn Crecelius, focusing on doubling motifs and patterns of repetition, argues that these serve to underline "une narration en abyme," and describes the novel as "le récit de la (re) création d'un passé à la fois vrai et imaginaire." James Quinlan, addressing the novel as poetry, identifies the dual function served by the title's personification—Pélagie-the-Cart is both "object and subject, vehicle and sign." In this context I am reminded of Craig Tapping's reading of George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin as a post-colonialtext—citing Kristeva, his comments could easily apply to Pélagie: "the novel is the truth about which it writes, embodies and unfolds the process it describes."
If Maillet's response to the injustices of history seems to substitute poetry for politics, it is because she recognizes the strong links between language and freedom. The breastcloth/ handkerchief which Pélagie opens to the winds and folds into her apron pocket is a dominant symbol for the relation between what Nairn Kattan terms "desire and power." At once empty and full, it is a female emblem of potentiality, a "country of the heart" or realm of possibility never finally denied/ fulfilled. This "uncertain country" is nonetheless linguistically embedded in a world that is fully realized and fully Acadian:
Et dans sa poche de devanteau, elle enfouit aussi des mots, des mots anciens aveindus à cru de la goule de ses pères et qu'elle ne voulait point laisser en hairage à des gots étrangers; elle y enfouit des légendes et des contes merveilleux, horrifiques ou facétieux, comme se les passait son lignage depuis le début des temps; elle y enfouit des croyances et coutumes enfilées à son cou comme un bijou de famille qu'elle laisserait à son tour en héritage à ses descendants; elle enfouit I'histoire de son peuple commencée deux siècles plus tôt, puis ballottée aux quatre vents, et laissée moribonde dans le ruisseau … jusqu'au jour où un passant la ramasserait, et la ravigoterait, et la rentrerait de force au pays …
This passage follows the climactic moment when Pélagie faces the double realization that she is dying and that home no longer exists in Grand Pré, and as such it locates Acadia within the ever-renewable world of fiction. The narrator's identity finally merges totally with that of her ancestor and namesake; this dual Pélagie in turn is closely identified with Maillet herself, in keeping with Hutcheon's recognition of the author's role in the reader/text interface, and clarifying this author's insistence that "je suis parole." In the breakdown of subject-object distinctions that accompanies the verb made flesh, history is personified, feminized, and appropriated. Rather than quietly containing her tears, Pélagie's hankie amplifies sentiment, making room for the deluge: it is large enough to accommodate the white whale metamorphosed into the sleeping giantess. Because the tale is never ended, the quest can go on.
At this juncture a double diagram might clarify Pélagie's form: the first represents the two conflicting story lines, and focuses on narrative; the second represents the triple odyssey, focusing on story.
It should be noted that in Diagram I, Pélagie Leblanc is the name of the novel's primary narrator. The multiplication of narrators is now seen to be marked by circularity as well. The fact that Bélonie I descends from a Parisian immigrant named Antoine Maillet, really the author's ancestor, like the dedication of the novel to the memory of Virginie Cormier, the name of Maillet's mother but also of the character who becomes the cart of life's mascot, underscores the interpenetration of real and imaginary observed by Crecelius. The use of repetition with difference in the prologue and epilogue which frame the novel marks the distance which the reader has traveled in the interim: with the ritual chanting of family names at the end, a form of greeting in the imperative mode, we are now informed and prepared to enter the narrator's carnivalesque world. The playful recognition and celebration of identity is complete as soon as the reader acquires the knowledge for bringing it to life, a context which only the novel and its reading can provide:
—Grouillez-vous, bande de flancs mous! Personne viendra vous nourrir à la louche ni vous border au lit. Aveindez-vous de vos trous et venez prendre votre place au soleil.
Our entry into the text is facilitated, for example, once we are familiar with the events signalled and assumed by Diagram I: 1880 is the date of the first Acadian national conference in Memramcook, when the people literally and metaphorically emerged from the woods and entered recorded history/writing. This was an occasion for Rabelaisian feasts of storytelling, and for Maillet every reading of the chronicling tradition, however contentious, becomes another such occasion. As the first to write the feast, however, she has had to invent a new, "nonexistent" language, one which I have already indicated convinces us that it is not writing at all but true Acadian speech. The power of this illusion is such that my first complete reading of the novel, on December 25, 1979, was while seated at my mother's feet: for the first time since my childhood, she quite naturally adopted the highly formal role of storyteller, decoding the text by uncritically breaking into song in a way that I, the would-be bearer of gifts, could not. Maillet at once suspends an endless number of layers between the reader and the truth/ past, and recreates "original" events by conferring upon them the immediacy of an archetypal fairytale endlessly repeated. Citing Bakhtin, Linda Hutcheon reminds us that parody (here directed to the oral tradition) can celebrate as well as satirize: "through the paradox of its authorized transgression, the parodic appropriation of the past reaches out beyond textual introversion and aesthetic narcissism to address the 'text's situation in the world.'"
The multiplication of narrators evident in Diagram I is matched by the multiplication of carts in Diagram II, first and foremost by the hyperbolic growth of the original cart into a caravan and ultimately an entire people. The circularity emphasized by my diagram of the narrative structure, however, is not reproduced here, but rather is replaced by the parallel lines of the three principal players' movements. These intersect at several crucial moments and in one crucial locale, Salem marsh, to explode the illusion sustained throughout that their journeys progress independently. Pelagie's quest is at once threatened and renewed by her predilection for the wily captain, as it is by the haunting presence of Bélonie, the chinwagger who at first appears to embody the dead past. The point of intersection, when the Cart of Life is rescued from the "slough of despond," occurs when Broussard's phantom ship defeats Bélonie's phantom cart by bringing with him into battle Bélonie II, the centenarian's last living relative, long presumed dead. However, Broussard wins only because Bélonie agrees to stave off the Grim Reaper, and because Pélagie offers up her life in exchange for that of her lover. It is at this point that my two diagrams also come into alignment: "car sans ces conteux de Bélonie, fils de Bélonie, l'Histoire aurait trépassé à chaque tournant de siècle."
In addition to summarizing the broad outlines of the story, Diagram II serves to introduce the topic of intertextuality as yet another layer of the novel's action, leading us to the related issues of carnival and parody. The diagram provides the main textual points of reference for the three protagonists, referents in all cases supplemented by historical and legendary material, real or imagined, attributed to the oral tradition. Bélonie is repeatedly compared to an Old Testament prophet leading the chosen people into the promised land, or recording that quest for their descendants. Broussard Beausoleil, whose name associates him with pagan sun-worship and fertility gods, blends the characteristics of king and outlaw, earning him the nickname "Robin Hood of the Seas" and creating a parallel with Homer's Ulysses, while his crew, particularly the giant P'tite Goule and the dwarf fool Pierre à Pitre, belong to the world of Rabelais' Gargantua. Finally Pélagie, accompanied by the ghost of Evangeline in the form of the silent, war-scarred orphan Catoune, is of course contrasted with the heroine of Longfellow's epic.
The parallels with biblical events are fairly straightforward; these provide epic analogues that situate Pélagie within an old and honourable tradition. Even when the allusions possess ironic overtones, "repetition with difference" serves to recontextualize and demystify both scriptural and Acadian episodes in a parodic enterprise that Linda Hutcheon sees as clearly distinct from mere "ridiculing imitation." Maillet plays with the limits of her text's relation to its precursors, even occasionally mocking intertextuality itself in order to privilege "pure" story—for example, when the narrator informs us that if the twins Charlécoco had been literate "ils se seraient pris eux-mêmes pour de petits Pharaons" but that their ignorance of any history other than their own fortunately saved them from such a fate, tradition and education would seem to be a burden. The insertion of "eux-mêmes," however, implies the presence of an other/observer; here the reader is in collusion with the narrator in recognizing the relative merits of textual innocence and experience. The original Pélagie, like Charlécoco, is confined to story (the myth of action), while the latest one is restricted to narrative (the myth of signification).
The allusions to Homer are also fairly straightforward. References to the double odyssey of "l'Acadie du Nord" and "l'Acadie du Sud," like that of Pélagie and Broussard, captains on land and on sea, emphasize general similarities and specific differences in order to confer legitimacy upon the Acadian inheritance without deprecating the parodied text. The connection between Pélagie and Longfellow's heroine, however, is more complex and more central than the foregoing; it comes closer to what Hutcheon terms parodic satire, marked by a contesting rather than a respectful or playful (neutral) ethos. According to Renate Usmiani, virtually all of Maillet's plays create anti-types of Evangeline, and the author has repeatedly indicated that such a reversal also takes place in the novel:
Pour moi, les femmes de Pélagie-la-Charrette sont justement plus près de ce qu'a été l'Acadienne que la fameuse Evangéline de Longfellow. J'ai donc pris une petite revanche sur cette Evangéline qu'on a toujours trouvée plutôt mièvre. Il y a un paragraphe dans "Fanie" qui explique tout ça: "La voilà, votre véritable Evangéline! une courageuse, astucieuse gueuleuse, mère de onze garçons. Lâchez-là au milieu d'un poème, et elle saura bien en faire une épopée. Une épopée étoffée non plus de vierges-symboles et de femmes éternelles, mais de tante Zélica, de maraine Maude, de Mariaagélas, de Fanie."
As early as 1971, when Maillet seems to have been at work on a new play combining the eventual approaches to Evangéline Deusse and Pélagie-la-Charrette, she articulated her concept of the relation between Longfellow and Acadian writing:
Ma prochaine pièce … tentera de faire la parodie historique [emphasis mine] d'Evangéline premiére, l'héroine de Longfellow. Cette nouvelle Evangéline qui se présentera comme la seule authentique femme acadienne offrira à son homologue le contraste amusant d'une femme d'un certain âge, mère de dix-sept enfants, à l'ailure d'une Mère Courage ou d'une Dulle Griet beaucoup plus que la virginale héroine figée sur un certain socle. Et c'est cette nouvelle Evangéline qui, supplantant l'autre, devra faire face à l'armée anglaise, à la Déportation et à l'Histoire…. C'est un genre de pièce qui tentera de forcer le temps, l'Histoire et le théâtre à se démêler dans les lois nouvelles.
Longfellow is not easily exorcized, however, and Maillet's feminist discourse, embodied in a matriarchal story and matrilinear narrative structure, pays its grudging respects to the old man. Even the redoubtable Pélagie-la-Gribouillejoins the narrator in silencing the "conteurs-chroniqueurs de la mauvaise lignée" who would query the heroine's intentions in admitting certain passengers to her cart. The reader might doubt the narrator's claim that Pélagie "ne pouvait pas se prêter, dans les circonstances, à une telle gymnastique de mauvaises intentions," but it cannot be denied that if the cart shelters the midwife Célina because she possesses no other family, it must accommodate the patriarch Bélonie for the same reasons. We are clearly confronted with what Hutcheon, in her chapter on Bakhtin, terms "the paradox of parody" when dealing with the question of origins and Longfellow as fictive father.
Maillet's solution, if any solution to such a paradox can be found, lies in the substitution of Rabelais for Longfellow in her quest for origins. As her "true" father, he emerges in the personification of Acadian legend in the form of the ship which Broussard has reappropriated from the English and named the Grand' Goule in a personal attempt to rescue history. The importance of Rabelais to Pélagie is manifold. First, Maillet's reading of his books and her Ph.D. dissertation on their direct links with Acadian speech and folk culture prepared her for the eventual benign imitation which Hutcheon locates at the centre of parody. The novel's many allusions to the Gargantua, combined with the generation of new giants' tales, are a "riposte" to the foreign vision and language of Longfellow, who cannot help but be belittled in the process. As we have noted. Diagram II associates Bélonie with death and the past, Broussard with rebirth; in the end it is Broussard who saves Bélonie by restoring to him his true heir. Yet it would not do to establish too close a liaison between Bélonie and Longfellow; rather, Broussard and his crew embody and emphasize by contrast that Rabelaisian/Acadian "joie-de-vivre," resilience and generous capacity for lying which contribute their share to survival and the success of the epic:
Car telle restera jusqu'au bout la différence entre les deux plus grands conteurs de l'Acadie du retour: alors que Bélonie, durant près de cent ans, devait transmettre fidèlement à son lignage un répertoire de contes et légendes sorti du temps des Grandes Pluies, Pierre à Pitre, le Fou du peuple, allait verser dans ce répertoire des versions, variantes, improvisations, élucubrations de son cru qu'il est bien malaisé aujourd'hui de distinguer de l'authentique ancien.
If Longfellow dramatized the Deportation, together Bélonie and Pierre address "l'Acadie du retour"—the former preserves the facts of the return, the latter provides the artful touches which transform it from tragedy to epic romance.
The inventiveness and occasional foolhardiness of Broussard and his crew bring us to our second major point: beyond specific debts to Rabelais, Pélagie is marked by a more general use of and dependence on the carnivalesque. The narrator, in the first of many such comments, poses the following key rhetorical question about the nature of the enterprise: "Les Basques étaient-ils en quête d'un pays ou d'une promenade par les terres d'Amérique entre une fête et un carnaval?" It would seem that the very episodes which confer interest upon the action are interludes that as entertainment threaten to imperil as well as to prolong the quest. Thus "la Gribouille" would dearly love to relive the Charleston escape/party interlude, described by the primary narrator as "une nuit de camaval en prison" but is repeatedly forced back to the main story line: "la seule histoire qui compte, dans tout ça, c'est celle de la charrette qui ramenait un peuple à son pays."
Yet the pauses which punctuate the journey are an integral part of the story; like the tale of the white whale with which Bélonie entertains the carts, the Baltimore striptease and the celebrations surrounding Madeleine's wedding serve more than just a decorative purpose. The cart only stops to accommodate life, whether in the form of the birth of Virginie Cormier or the arrival of new pilgrims from the bayous. Speaking of the women in her fiction, Maillet has stated that "si Longfellow avait dressé l'une de ces femmes en face des troupes anglaises, je ne dis pas qu'il aurait sauvé l'Acadie de l'exil, mais il aurait donné au Grand Dérangement un certain ton de vérité qui nous l'aurait rendu plus réel et, qui sail? moins tragique." Carnival thus marks the difference between the perspectives of Longfellow and of Maillet on the response of Acadians to official history. Although the love of Pélagie and Broussard, like that between Evangeline and Gabriel, is denied permanence, the narrator uses their first meeting to emphasize that Acadians recognize each other through the quality of their laughter. Speaking of Rabelais as both scientist and humanist, Maillet approves of his philosophy that if you can't cure the patient, you can make him laugh long enough to forget/ accept his ills. Such is the function of camivalesque interludes during the pilgrimage, and of Rabelaisian allusions "during" the narration, as my two final examples will try to make clear.
Bakhtin views carnival as the popular or literary expression of laughter which parodies or inverts official culture, which flaunts the religious and political rules of the waking, everyday world. It is marked by ritual spectacles, comic verbal compositions, billingsgate, and an absence of distinctions between actor and spectator. For him, carnival is a second, festive life, based on laughter:
… as opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truths and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchies, rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of the time, the feast of becoming, change and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and complete.
In the struggle for survival, the carts do not stop for law, convention, or propriety, whether finding food for orphans or husbands for widows, although they continue to hold dear their traditions and to preserve folk wisdom. Thus the Bourgeois' chest (a parody of the ark of the covenant), the Basques' violin, and the Allains' crucifix paradoxically emerge as emblems of identity and symbols of what must, despite sentimental attachments, be abandoned in order for the journey to continue and the quest to succeed. Speaking of grotesque realism, Bakhtin reminds us that "degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one," and that by "breaking up false seriousness, false historic pathos, [Rabelais] prepared the soil for a new seriousness and for a new historic pathos."
Madeleine's wedding and the celebrations, poetic and bodily, which accompany it, set against the violent backdrop of the American revolution, illustrate Maillet's attitude to carnival as the expression of temporary liberation and a form of change, becoming, and renewal. In the "unfortunate" absence of priests and patriarchs following the deportation, the women must evolve new traditions to replace the old ways "before the fall":
Sa fille Madeleine n'avait point connu les moeurs anciennes d'avant le Dérangement. La plupart des chefs de familles avaient péri dans la tourmente, emportant au fond des bois ou des mers leur bâton d'autorité reçu au paradis terrestre. Les femmes avaient dû par la suite se dresser seules face à l'ennemi et à l'adversité, et ramasser elles-mêmes le sceptre de chef de famille. Madeleine en avait été témoin, enfant posthume de son père et de ses aieux. Pélagie pouvait compter sur sa fille pour continuer sa lignée.
In the absence of the Basques' violin, Célina invents the "reel dit de la boiteuse," and although "toutes les mélodies ne sont pas sorties de la lyre d'Orphée," the primary narrator claims that this wedding alone must have enriched the oral tradition with half of its refrains and a quarter of its "ravestans." Maillet's characterizations and choice of incidents thus serve at once to reproduce and to deconstruct Acadian folklore; the fictive fabrication of origins for such folklore is joined by pointed alterations and inversions of established custom. This example illustrates what Hutcheon means by "the authorized transgression of norms": parody cannot help but posit the order which it transgresses. At the same time, Madeleine's wedding also underlines the difference between Rabelaisian and modern parody; Maillet is much closer to the former than to the existential art examined in Hutcheon's study of postmodernism:
We must stress, however, that the carnival is far distant from the negative and formal parody of modern times. Folk humor denies, but it revives and renews at the same time. Base negation is completely alien to folk culture.
Maillet's unique perspective as an Acadian and a woman enables her to narrow the gap between Rabelaisian camivalesque and postmodern parody; the myth of the fortunate fall acquires new meaning and poetic resonance in her iconoclastic treatment of "le grand dérangement."
The novel's multiplication of amorous encounters, both legitimate and determined by circumstance, includes Célina's with the fool-poet, Jeanne Girouard's with her brother-in-law, Jean's with his Indian princess, and of course Pélagie's with Broussard as well as Madeleine's wedding. They all serve to contrast with the tragic tale of Gabriel and Evangeline; clearly the official order superseded for Maillet by Rabelais is the static Acadia/Arcadia pastoral vision "immortalized" by Longfellow. Maillet does not object to the poem itself so much as to the institutionalization of Longfellow's vision by a conservatively nationalistic clerical élite out of touch with the people and their traditions:
Mais, entendons-nous bien, le but de l'élite qui propose une nouvelle idéologic faite d'un mélange d'assomption, de tricolore étoilé, de loyalisme envers la langue, la religion et la terre des aieux, idéologic que nous qualifierions d'évangélisme, si nous osions, n'a rien à voir avec la conservation des véritables traditions populaires d'Acadie.
It is through art, that is to say through the politics of parody, that this "evangelism"can best be exploded: the spokesman's loyalty to the Acadian flag, language, and religion is replaced, for Maillet, by an allegiance to the Rabelaisian trinity of "conte, roman, épopée."
Two passages from the novel emphasize the relation between writing and freedom mentioned in my introduction: Ti-Jean Fourteen's quest for the three magic words that will allow him to marry and to live happily ever after; and Captain Beausoleil's second, exaggerated account of his ship's miraculous rebirth and rechristening. The first involves Bélonie's tale of the white whale transformed, on the eve of the storyteller's death, into that of the sleeping giantess. At first this never-ending tale seems to be the literal embodiment of Bakhtin's "unfinished and open body (dying, bringing forth and being born) … not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries." When the Acadian everyman Jean Leblanc ("John Smith") half-emerges from the bowels of his ancestor clutching the three magic words which constitute the legendary buried treasure of his clan, he joins his latest creator Bélonie in partaking of the grotesque body which, according to Bakhtin, swallows the world and is swallowed by the world. Maillet's contribution consists of the emphasis on language as the jewel buried in the dungheap: culture and identity emerge from the rediscovery of the word and its elusive, un/limited powers of renewal.
Just as the secretion of language in the grotesque body's nether regions mockingly celebrates Acadian dialects at the expense of codified French, Captain Beausoleil's involvement in the "Charleston Whiskey Carnival," explicitly contrasted with the Boston Tea Party, elevates Acadian history at the expense of American experiments and the high seriousness of their chroniclers. As Broussard repeats to the carts the tale he told the crew of his ship's twin, an English vessel taken over by American rebels, he simultaneously defers to and deflates his American host's exploits. Foreign ears are opened and Broussard's tongue unfrozen by the contraband Irish whiskey; his English gradually improves during the course of his tale about how the Pembroke/Grand' Goule came to speak only French. This process of translation invertedly mirrors the story itself, in which his crew is frozen alive when chased to northern climes by talking whales, only to return to life a quarter of a century later upon drifting south. When a melting hail of French words finally assaults the decks, we are once more confronted with a carnivalesque celebration that blurs distinctions between subject and object, signifier and signified, story and narrative.
The reader joins an ever-expanding audience composed of the Virginian's crew, the caravan of carts, and the Acadians seated around the hearth a century later. Even in Philip Stratford's English translation, a version that the text seems to anticipate, we run the risk of becoming Acadian under the influence. The text's seduction of the reader, followed by a rude awakening from the illusion of freely flowing speech, is in this instance accompanied by one of several literal explosions. The tower of Babel vies with a keg of gunpowder in a verbal revolution or artifice of fireworks:
La réserve de whisky d'Irlande fit un tel effet sur l'équipage de la Grand' Goule, que bientôt l'arsenal de Charleston se mit à résonner de mots sortis de tous les pays jalonnant l'Atlantique. On était en pleine Pentecôte. Ou a mardi gras. Un véritable camaval des mers qui vidait les tonneaux et striait le ciel de feux d'artifice.
… Un feu trop proche des poudres, à vrai dire: une partie de l'arsenal sauta.
On a accusé à tort la Grand' Goule: elle n'avait fait que fêter ses retrouvailles avec le temps des mortels.
The return to the land of the living, correctly translated by Stratford as "the land of mortal men," is signalled by the breaking of a very long silence. "Frozen words" suggest the sterile canonization of Acadian life by Longfellow; the melting torrent of words in Broussard's tale and in the telling of it suggests not a return to pure primordial speech so much as the birth of Acadian writing and the acknowledgment of its debt to Rabelais' Gargantua as well as to the popular tradition. Maillet's repeated emphasis upon narrative, carnival, and parody adds poignancy to her text, because these are not techniques so much as conscious strategies for denying the ravages of time in the eternal struggle between the phantom cart and the Cart of Life.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7190
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 Nova Scotia, ushering in attempts to eradicate the French presence in the colony. French-speaking Acadians would be assimilated by the British colonizer; failing that, they would be deported. The novels of Antonine Maillet are part of a project by the French of North America to construct a language-based identity that defines their New World experience. No longer silent objects of discourse, Maillet's Acadian characters become speaking subjects. Moreover, Antonine Maillet has created not only a linguistic homeland for Acadians but a space for the emergence of feminine discourse, contesting genealogies of gender on which supremacy has rested. Thus, with Maillet's works a new space of cultural significance opens up within the Canadian national discourse.
Antonine Maillet's novels generally exhibit traits rooted in Acadian oral culture; none, however, so clearly attempts to recreate that culture and the gender-based dynamics of its transmission as does Pélagie-la-charrette. Recreating the time when word, raconteur, and audience were one, Maillet's novel affirms primal Acadian culture while it contests the hegemony of North American Anglo culture. In depicting her people's baptism of fire, Maillet creates an American epic that establishes the Acadian people's claim to North American history. Now written down, the Acadian vernacular and the story of the "Grand Dérangement" become tools for the decolonization of Acadian historical and literary discourse. In a radio interview in 1985 Maillet reminded the audience of the epistemological shift that her works represent: "Don't forget that I'm the first one in history to have written down the Acadian language in books that were sold outside of Acadia … which means that it's about fifteen years ago."
Maillet's book is based on a collective epic generated at different moments by different authors/tellers who, through the generations, were unaware of each other's retellings. Until her novel, the Grand Dérangement story was the work of the entire community, a collective form of orature, produced through the binding force of the vernacular. Acadian French played a key role in this collective production, providing the affective link between the audience and its history of resistance to the British attempt to annihilate Acadie.
True or false, original or copy, the story has been the basis for a shared feeling of community among the Acadian diaspora of North America (the Canadian Maritime Provinces, Louisiana, and New England) from 1755 to modern times. Its significance lies in the collective death and rebirth it embodied. A communal experience that sealed the bond between language and collective emotion, the retellings of the Grand Dérangement provided a basis for Acadian identity. The Grand Dérangement thus predetermined the way each member of the community conferred significance on the Acadian past and interpreted the Acadian encounter with the British colonizer.
As Acadian society changed, the relationship between tellers of tales and their audience lost the intimacy of shared ancestry and known bloodlines. Modern means of communication widened the rift between author and audience, transforming the latter into an anonymous group of readers. As a result, the modern writer would be quite incapable of reciting the genealogy of any one of her readers, whereas the Acadian teller of tales would most probably have known the lineage of each listener sitting around the hearth. In turn, each of the listeners would probably already have heard at least one version of the Grand Dérangement story, the expulsion of Acadians by the British having been, up until Maillet's book, collectively generated.
As the Canadian nation took shape after the 1867 confederation, francophone minorities of the Canadian Maritime Provinces were educated into the written English tradition and moved into employment where French was not used. As a result, Acadian national legends and myths were no longer functional in structuring the nascent Canadian national identity. Although collective orature would be practiced well into the twentieth century, it could no longer give significance to the larger Canadian national history. Thus, the textual authority of written English and historiography replaced collective oral history in French; the new language and written tradition were pressed into service to spawn a Canadian national identity that perpetuated British colonial objectives. Such a strategy inevitably led to the deconstruction of Acadian identity. Forgetting—a common strategy in the forging of national identities—is implicit in the use of the English language and the British imperial perspective. Longfellow's Evangeline conveniently filled the void left by the forgetting, distancing Acadians still farther from their past and their culture.
Thus in the case of Maillet, writing not only rescues the Acadian language from oblivion but also nurtures and shields the revived Acadian identity from the "othering" implicit in the British control of Acadie. The effects of alienation from othering were clearly shown in La Sagouine, Maillet's first work in the Acadian vernacular. The protagonist knows she is Acadian, yet she discovers that there is no "national" context into which this survival of early French colonial America will fit. Based on what the government census taker tells her, she concludes that Acadie is not a country nor is Acadian a nationality, because nothing has been written about it in "Joe Graphy's books." In order to qualify as reality, existence must be grounded in written texts. Because Acadian identity had no such guarantee, Acadians were denied the comfort of social belonging, the powers of political affiliation, and a clear sense of social order. La Sagouine thus defines the problem of the postcolonial subject in a nation whose discourse—like an ill-fitting garment—is a constant reminder of the subject's otherness. As in much of the colonial and postcolonial literature, the congruence between identity and national discourse will remain elusive for la Sagouine.
Maillet's writing down of the Acadian language is, however, more than an attempt to counter the voices that deny Acadian claims to culture, language, and justice. Not only is her novel a form of resistance to British and North American Anglo hegemonic discourse, but it aims to give voice to those who have had the least access to such discourse: Acadian women. Pélagie is unique in its attempt to create a space in North American French writing for Acadian women. It is, then, a program that aims to counter three centuries of silence, which in Acadie were punctuated only by birthing screams or the soft, sweet sound of convent voices, raised in prayer, to His everlasting power. Pélagie-la-charrette is an attempt to confer power on women's voices by erasing the boundaries relegating Acadian women outside the margins of the North American nation-space as determined by male British/North American Anglo narratives. Maillet's epic narrative restores Acadian women to history.
Gynocentric history has not always figured so prominently on Maillet's agenda, however. Years before the novel's publication, she made it clear that she had no intention of telling the story of the Grand Dérangement. No need to tell a story already told by men, a story written down in history books:
Mais ne vous énervez pas; je ne vous raconterai pas l'histoire de la Déportation. Il existe bien trop de gros livres sur la question. Tous plus savants les uns que les autres. On a tout dit, épuisé le sujet, épuisé raide mort.
[Don't worry; I'm not going to tell you the story of the Deportation. There are too many fat books about it, each more authoritative than the other. Everything has been said, the subject has been exhausted, exhausted to death.]
Here the writer is clearly defining her turf. No, she will not touch the monument to the Acadian holocaust; men have said all that need ever be said about the expulsion and its sequels. The Grand Dérangement is surely not the theater Maillet will use for the Acadian woman to recover her voice, for as we shall see—writing about the expulsion is where the "anxiety of influence" weighs most heavily.
Thus for twenty years, Maillet remained within the boundaries of the kitchen, so to speak, writing about girlhood, schoolteachers, charwomen, nuns, prostitutes, and religious bigots, maintaining a respectful distance from the "fat history books" and their account of the Grand Dérangement. Why then did Maillet suddenly take leave of the kitchen in 1979? Perhaps this was, as the narrator of Cent ans dans les bois states, a time for unearthing the past: "Le temps était venu pour défricher."
In Acadian, "défricher" means not only unearthing, clearing the land, but also examining bloodlines, determining one's genealogy, one's ancestry. If women are to be a part of contemporary Acadie, female genealogy must be made clear. It can best be clarified through a reexamination of the moment when the identity of Acadian woman—like Acadie itself—was ripped apart by English rule. In deporting Acadians from their land, families were split, with women becoming pawns in the imperialistic conflict between France and England. The successful rape of Acadie by the British plunged the land and its people into silence; hegemonic discourse would henceforth be in the King's English.
Pélagie-la-charrette is not the account of events as one would find them in history books: it is a return to an epic moment in the Acadian past. A common New World attempt, the journey back to the kernel of national origins, by laying claim to the past, is a means of reclaiming the foundation on which identity will be (re)built. It is only when this knowledge is whole that the poet's words can envision the future.
Maillet views history with some suspicion because none of the "fat history books" have succeeded in stoking the fires of Acadie's soul. Her view is typical of those about whom historiography has spoken, but who have been unable themselves to articulate the written record of their own past: women, minorities, and the colonized. Her suspicion is evident in the opening chapter of Cent ans dans les bois:
La différence entre le menteurx, dans mon pays, est la même qu'entre l'historien et le conteur: le premier raconte ce qu il veut; l'autre, ce que vous voulez. Mais au bout d'un siècle, tout cela devient de la bonne pâte à vérité.
[The difference between the liar and the fibber, in my country, is the same as between the historian and the teller of tales: the first one recounts what he will and the other tells you what you want to hear. But after a century or so, it all becomes fodder for truth.]
What Maillet is interested in is not official archival history but the mechanism that makes a people create oral epics from their history and how the production of orature is related to their survival. The seeds of such concern can be seen in Maillet's early work Par derrière chez mon père (1972), where she states that at a time when it was forgotten by history itself, Acadie was forging its own new soul, so filled with vitality that historiography would be quite incapable of containing it. It is precisely out of this vital legendary period, pregnant with life, that Maillet will forge Acadie's epic: Pélagie-la-charrette.
Language, especially the affirmation of mother tongue, is at the epicenter of Maillet's novel. No one will deny Maillet's pride, delight, and skill in exploring the resources of her language as she uses it to shape a North American legend. Although Maillet was schooled in standard English and later learned to write standard French, neither of these is her first language. Both are far removed from the speech of the people she writes about. At the risk of being unintelligible to the reading majority, Maillet has rejected European languages for her mother tongue: the Acadian variant of New World French.
Such a choice is highly significant: the expulsion from Acadie and subsequent exile caused the vernacular to become the "carrier" of Acadiénitude, for as Vossler has stated: "If a man is robbed of his earthly home he finds a spiritual home in his mother tongue, which is everywhere and always present to his senses, and can, therefore, at some time again become concrete and have an earthly 'home.'"
Reclaiming the mother tongue is much more than reproducing a dialect or marshaling archaic vocabulary; it is an allegory of national rebirth, a strategy for finally producing congruence between language, geographic space, and time.
Through the use of the sounds of Acadie and the rich oral tradition in which women have participated, Maillet makes Acadiénitude palpable. Acadians now have a crystal through which the culture can be refracted. It is through linguistic consciousness that the writer can gather up the dispersed pieces of Acadie's past to create an epic, just as Pélagie fills her wagon with exiles who will form a new Acadian nation. The following statement from Pélagie-la-charrette, often repeated by the narrator's informant, exemplifies the stirrings of ethnic consciousness that precede national rebirth:
Les gens du pays se reconnaissent sans s'etre jamais vus, à de tout petits signes: la voix rauque, l'odeur de sel sous la peau, les yeux bleus et creux qui regardent par en dedans comme par en dehors, le rire enfin, qui vient de si loin qu'il a l'air de dégringoler de quelques cieux perdus.
[Our countrymen could recognize one another without ever having met before, by certain small signs: a hoarseness in the voice, the smell of salt under the skin, the hollow blue eyes that look inside as well as out, and last but not least the laugh that comes from so far away it seems to have tumbled down from some seventh heaven.]
Small details perhaps, but the rebuilding of ethnic identity rests also on the recognition of such common traits.
Thus, Maillet has chosen to exploit a historical theme not for its content but for the opportunity it offers her as a crafter of words to use Acadian French, and to introduce Acadian otherness within the Canadian national dialogue. Such a stance signals that Acadian culture has clearly entered a postcolonial phase, questioning the old British cultural hegemony, adding its voice to the Canadian national cultural dialogue. Maillet's attitude toward language is an indication of this newfound stance: she is no longer bound, as she was, by standard Euro-French, the only French once recognized by Anglo-Canadians. Maillet has used Acadian syntax and vocabulary since the production of her highly successful radio play La Sagouine in 1971. Such a shift must be considered against the backdrop of Quebec's Quiet Revolution and the subsequent experiments among writers with the use of "joual" as a medium of literary expression and national self-affirmation.
There is more, however, that motivates the creation of Pélagie against the backdrop of the Grand Dérangement, for any number of heroines/heroes from the past could have been created for the purpose of demonstrating the renaissance and viability of Acadian culture and language. Maillet chose the story of Pélagie because, as she says, "J'ai grandi avec ce bouchon dans la gorge: un compte à régler avec mes premiers parents" (I grew up with this lump in my throat: a need to get even with my ancestors).
This "bouchon," or primordial lump in the writer's throat, impedes self-expression and comes from a score she feels she must settle with her ancestors. They are responsible for the pervasive existential anguish that prevented her from finding her true voice. It is clear, though, that at least part of the lump in Maillet's throat is due less to existential malaise than to the particular ordering of her gender and history that has been imposed from without—from the United States, and in a foreign tongue besides. Writing is therefore Maillet's way of setting things aright, of reordering the world, and of getting even with her forebears, who were unable to ensure that Acadian genealogy was inscribed in history.
By the time Maillet was old enough to read, an American myth at the root of such dispossession had firmly taken hold in the popular culture of the Maritime Provinces, where she spent her childhood. From the patriotic song "Evangeline," performed at most school and religious functions to the name of the province's daily newspaper, Evangeline, the presence of Longfellow's saintly submissive—andsilent—heroine was pervasive.
Published in 1846. Henry W. Longfellow's cantos in hexameter met with immediate acclaim; within a century there had been over 270 different editions and at least 130 translations of Evangeline. Maillet settled on the story of the Grand Dérangement and chose to develop a legendary female protagonist as part of a strategy not only to repatriate Acadian discourse but also to reshape the perennial evangelinian myth that glorifies patriarchal values. If Longfellow's poem transformed living, acting Acadian women into "objects," mere reflections of an already written history, Maillet's work would regenerate them as performers in a national story.
John Nickrosz noted some time ago that all of Acadian literature is written in reaction to the Evangeline myth. Although such a sweeping generalization may be difficult to maintain today, it does apply to Maillet's work: there is an ongoing dialectic between Longfellow's heroine and the women characters Maillet has developed, most notably in Pélagie-la-charrette and Evangeline Deusse.
In Maillet's early novel Pointe-aux-coques (1958) Evangeline is no more than a reference to the name of the Acadian daily newspaper. In L'Acadie pour quasiment rien, however, her nonfiction book on Acadie from the same period, we see Maillet's first attempt at replacing the Longfellow myth with a homegrown version:
Et au lieu d'Evangeline Bellefontaine, assise au bord du puits, vous verrez passer une femme qui s'en va éteindre avec son seau l'incendie de l'église; et au lieu de Gabriel, l'angélique, vous verrez le capitaine maîtriser l'équipage anglais.
[And instead of Evangeline Bellefontaine, sitting on the edge of the well, you would see a woman with her bucket, going to put out the fire of the burning church; and instead of Gabriel, the angelic one, you would see captain Belliveau gain control of the English crew.]
The passage demonstrates an obvious desire to replace the passive acceptance of calamity with energetic resistance. This short paragraph contains the seeds of Maillet's revolt against the Longfellow myth, a revolt which in Pélagie-la-charrette will produce an energetic foil for the meek Evangeline and one for Gabriel as well: the sea captain Broussard, dit Beausoleil. In the quoted passage, Belliveau's overpowering of the English crew signals not only the writer's first attempt at rewriting Longfellow but also her wish to counter English language domination as well.
Given Maillet's own experience of being forced to use English as a schoolgirl in New Brunswick, linguistic domination is no doubt also part of the lump in the writer's throat, propelling her to reorder the world. In Pélagie-la-charrette, the name change of the British ship, the Pembroke, can be seen as a figure for linguistic decolonization. Pélagie's male counterpart, the sea captain Beausoleil-Broussard is captured by an English navy commander near Charleston during the Revolutionary War. Expecting to discover American rebels on board, the British captor is stunned to find that what had been a British ship twenty years before had become a French vessel.
Beausoleil-Broussard glibly explains that the British crew became French after having lost its ability to speak because of the extreme cold in the northern seas. The crew sailed in total silence for six months; it regained the power of speech during a hailstorm, as it was pelted by the frozen French words it has been using since. The British Pembroke now bears the appropriately rabelaisian name "La Grand' Goule." It is precisely through his own "grande gueule" that Beausoleil-Broussard fabricates the story that extricates him from difficulty.
Beausoleil's decolonization of the Pembroke is the equivalent of "merde au roi d'Angleterre," the blithe refrain from a traditional French folksong that punctuates all of Pélagie. The use of words to outsmart the British tormentor is not a futile exercise, for as the narrator states, at the bottom the plight of the Acadians was really a matter of words:
Une parole est une parole; et son peuple avait déjà payé assez cher une parole donnée au Roi d'Angleterre qui, sur une clause controversée d'un serment d'allégéance, l'expédiat à la mer sans plus de cérémonie.
[A man's word is his word, and Beausoleil's people had already paid dear enough for the word they gave the King of England who, over a controversial clause in the oath of allegiance, had packed them all off to sea without standing on ceremony.]
The renaming of the Pembroke is then part of the scheme for national rebirth. Exactly as the British had erased the French name of the province and its villages from the map, the writer removes the British name from the ship that captain Beausoleil will use to repatriate countless numbers of Acadians.
The linguistic revenge implicit in the ship's renaming is essential to Maillet's program. The metaphor is based on knowledge that no real emotional integration of identity—of Acadiénitude—is possible as long as those in charge of administration, law enforcement, business, and industry communicate in a language that the Acadian masses do not share. Such linguistic alienation began to change in New Brunswick with the election of the Acadian Prime Minister Louis Robichaud in 1960 and the province's subsequent adoption of official bilingualism in 1969; thus the stranglehold of English in New Brunswick began to wane.
Maillet's vernacular Acadian French is primal cultural self-affirmation. For the rebuilding of identity to be effective, however, not only must language domination end but so must the hegemony of the older debilitating Evangeline myth. Maillet sensed that Evangeline had to be replaced by a character that could energize Acadie. Such energy was waiting to be exploited in the myth of death and rebirth contained in the Grand Dérangement. It could be said that in this respect Pélagie-la-charrette exemplifies Fanon's thesis on the creation of a national culture:
La culture nationale est l'ensemble des efforts faits par un peuple sur le plan de la pensée pour décrire, justifier et chanter l'action à travers laquelle le peuple s'est constitué et s'est maintenu.
[National culture is constituted by all of the conceptual efforts made by a people to describe, justify, and celebrate the actions through which it became and maintained itself as a people.]
Evangeline's foil is quite a different character from other feminine protagonists in Maillet's works. La Sagouine, Mariaagelas, la Bessoune, and even Evangeline Deusse are all clearly socially determined. Their strong nature and aspiration for a more just social order are in a dialectical relationship to Acadian society's prescriptions for women in the twentieth century. Although we know that Pélagie has worked alongside black slaves in cotton fields, this detail has little import in determining the character herself. In La Sagouine, on the other hand, exploitation of the main character as a "fille de joie," then as a charwoman are significant elements in her social determination, making it impossible for her to heed the inner voice of rebellion, too faint to spur her to action.
Pélagie is a character freed from the societal constraints that govern Maillet's earlier female characters. She has already fulfilled the requirements prescribed for her gender: motherhood and marriage. With Pélagie's husband dead and her children grown, Maillet sets the scene for the development of a protagonist who is not at odds with society and who is at the same time free to embody a new myth. As Carolyn Waterson has stated, "Pélagie embodies the most important individual myth Maillet has been striving to generate in the majority of her works … the myth of the heroic Acadian woman."
Thus it is this liberated woman who will lead her people along the freedom trail, through the obstacles of exile to rebirth. Although the rebirth quest or journey is commonplace in literature, in women's fiction it is an expression of women's awakening to selfhood. Quest in this novel, however, is not that of individual rebirth: it is intended to encompass a collective phenomenon. As Colin Partridge has explained, "The narrative device of journeying bridges the enormous gap between the internal socio-historical phenomena that shaped the culture and the artist's inward vision seeking to encompass new proportions."
These new proportions bear the distinctive trait of women's culture; Pélagie, a powerful, integrative mother figure, is assisted in the rebirth journey by Celina the midwife. The narrator of Pélagie-la-charrette conflates Celina's skill at delivering babies with her mastery of oral history. The theme of the interplay between verbal creativity and cultural survival is emphasized as the midwife—"sage-femme"—becomes the saga woman, a "défricheteuse" or teller of tales.
Celina knows everyone's genealogy. Her own ancestry is significant because it is the very embodiment of the new society being created in North America. With the arrival of the Europeans, races that had never before met began to blend. With a father who was a Micmac Indian and a French mother, "coureuse des bois" and part sorceress, Celina's genealogy certainly fits no typical evangelinian pattern of Acadian femininity or racial "purity."
The blending of races, and the attendant verbal transmission of Native American lore and medicine, contributes to the revival of the Acadians in exile. Celina presides over this renaissance, bringing countless numbers of babies into the world. Significantly, the first of these births on the trek engages Celina as no other had before. Not only does she deliver the baby, but she feels the birth physically as if she herself were the mother: "Une crampe l'envahissait, une crampe retenue durant trente ans, trente ans de sa vie de femme déiaissée." ("A cramp invaded her body, a cramp held back for thirty years, thirty years of her life as a neglected woman.")
The birth is clearly part of the attempt to rewrite history, to revise the evangelinian myth that had frozen Acadian women in time. Unfreezing past history, the women characters have decided to give birth without the help of their men. The best of them, an aging chronicler enthralled with the past, is clearly not a comrade with whom to build the future. Thus the female characters in Pélagie unite in a fierce rebirthing of Acadie that the men can only witness but not participate in.
Significantly, the first birth on the trek back to Acadie turns out to be a girl. Her naming takes on special significance: the first Acadian ever to bear the American name of Virginie, she will start a new lineage. The women borrow the name itself, Virginia, from the American state where the birth occurs. It suggests a new virgin beginning where all is possible because old myths are wiped away to make room for new dynamic ones. At the same time the name calls to mind manly strength ("vir") borne by a woman ("gyn"). The fundamental act of naming, as Partridge states, responds to a basic need in a new culture: "the first need is to name: … the bestowal of names is comparable to the axe-blow of the pioneer in the silent forest."
Narration in Pélagie-la-charrette is Maillet's strategy for encompassing continental space and immemorial time. The verbal equivalent of a pioneering axe-blow, narration will enable the writer to retrace a history that was to have left no trace. Thus, in Pélagie-la-charrette the reader sees the origins of the oral tradition that stretches from the characters who participated in the Grand Dérangement—modern Acadie's founding myth—to the contemporary narrator who retells the story. Narration clearly shows how the common thread binding one generation to the other was initially spun in 1780, several years after deportation. From such emanations of popular culture, the Acadian ethnic group will be reborn.
In the penultimate chapter of Pélagie-la-charrette, as the ragged band of exiles at last reaches Acadie, it meets its other half: a group of Acadians who avoided deportation by hiding in the woods. Both groups are of common stock, yet their history, their past, has diverged over the course of an entire generation. Now reunited, they are faced with the task of building bridges between the history of those who were exiled and those who sought refuge in the woods.
Their reunion echoes an encounter that occurred ten years before, reuniting the passengers of Pélagie's carts and the crew of Beausoleil-Broussard's ship, la Grand' Goule. At this earlier reunion, family members eagerly sought information about the missing. We do not yet see, however, the formal emergence of a "story" that allows the deportees to make sense of the holocaust. An oral history of the deportation will emerge later, through the consciousness of Belonie-the-younger, grandson of Belonie, the chronicler of the carts. At this juncture, however, it is too soon to sift through the events, to reorder them into a unified chronology.
The reordering of history occurs at the journey's end when the two halves of Acadie begin to fill the void that has separated them. As they reconstitute their existence as a whole people, the reader sees how a common discourse about an epic event emerges in an "oral" setting. The novel details the initiation of Belonie-the-younger—grandson of the Belonie who made the journey in Pélagie's cart—into the art of telling oral history, as he recounts, for the benefit of those who had remained in the woods, the story of the carts. His counterpart from the woods, Bonaventure dit Bellefontaine, then takes up the young tale-teller's verbal thread to spin the parallel story of those whose clandestine existence was concealed from the British by the woods of the territory that had lost its French name to become Nova Scotia.
We thus have Maillet's account of how an oral epic tradition is born. As the two tale-tellers mend the rent in the whole cloth of the Acadian past, each supplying a different version of the cataclysmic event, the reader composes the scene of rebirth not through the sound of the teller's voice but by means of a solitary reading of the printed word.
Thus the immediacy and the intensity of the act performed by the teller of tales recede. We no longer hear the modulation of the teller's voice, see the dramatic gestures of his hands, the contortions of his face as he mimics pain, terror, joy, and sorrow. Writing represses the immediacy of this experience into the unconscious layers of Pélagie-la-charrette, constituting its oral subtext. No longer is group solidarity reinforced by the sharing of an aesthetic experience.
Despite this, Maillet deliberately reconstitutes certain paradigms of such an experience, which is why Pélagie acts as a catalyst that reconstitutes the sentimental links between Acadians today and their counterparts in epic time. Thus the reader has the distinct impression of witnessing the gathering of fragmented Acadian collective consciousness. As Edward Saïd has remarked about such texts, Maillet "deliberately conceives the text as supported by a discursive situation involving speaker and audience; the designed interplay between speech and reception, between verbality and textuality, is the text's situation, its placing of itself in the world."
The most typical device to this end is the "placing" of the audience around the "macoune," the hearth of la Gribouille's kitchen, which is periodically repeated throughout the novel. The narrative strategy in Pélagie-la-charrette functions in a way that recreates the illusion of the moment in time when word, raconteur, and audience were one. In another admirable example of this, the reader "sees" Belonie's audience come out from under the tale-teller's spell:
Toutes les têtes sortent du conte l'une après l'autre, laissant le conteur Belonie ralentir ses phrases, freiner, puis semer dans l'air du temps trois ou quatre points de suspension, avant de baisser les yeux sur son auditoire qui déjà s'affaire et court aux quatre horizons.
[One by one the heads pull out of the tale, leaving storyteller Belonie to slow down his phrases, brake, then cast three or four points of suspension out into the waiting air, before lowering his eyes to his audience who are already busily dashing hither and thither.]
Not only does Maillet tie the otherwise silent text to the world of orality, but Pélagie-la-charrette contains several variants of the Grand Dérangement oral tradition. As the two halves of Acadie are reunited in 1780, each has a different story to tell the other. Not only do the different parts of Acadie carry on a synchronic dialogue, but the different Acadies through time pursue diachronic dialogue in the narrative symphony Maillet develops in Pélagie-la-charrette. Such a strategy allows the reader to see the Grand Dérangement story from multiple perspectives and along several time lines. The reader sees the story take root as a formal oral performance in Belonie-the-younger's initial telling in 1880. His is not the only version of the story, however, because the narrative strategy Maillet develops gives the illusion of hearing subsequent retellings, each a century apart from the other.
The first of these occurs in 1880, a date considered to be a watershed in Acadie's rebirth, because this is when Acadians began to speak for themselves, ending what Maillet has called elsewhere "a century of silence and incubation." At the end of this period, several Acadians were invited to participate in Quebec's Société St Jean-Baptiste congress in 1880. In a deliberate attempt to create a unified vision and group ideology, Acadians held a series of similar "national" conventions before the turn of the century. Like the Acadians who participated in these "national" conferences, the narrators Maillet places in 1880 begin the tentative process of conscious reflection on the past, melding multiple points of view to create a national history.
The second retelling of Pélagie's return from exile occurs in 1979, the year the novel was completed; this time the teller is the narrator/writer's cousin, Louis à Belonie. The three renditions of the cart story—1780, 1880, and 1979—are not sequential nor chronological but rather woven as a tapestry, with the threads of one story interrupting those of the other as they pass through the narrative focal point provided by the "je/I" narrator-writer of 1979. The latter and his informant share bloodlines with previous tellers of the tale, signaling the durable nature of the cart story, reaching the reader via the narrator who is genealogically linked to the oral source of the first telling. Such a device is the narrator's guarantee of authenticity required for the reader's willing suspension of disbelief, and for the creation of a founding myth.
The narrator's voice is heard throughout, interrupting the diegesis to sum up, make a point, or ensure that the reader has grasped the causal relationship between the oral tradition and cultural survival. For instance, Belonie's tale of the quest of the golden ring leading the protagonists through the innards of a white whale parallels the cart people's escape from the bowels of the Charleston jail. The narrator of the 1880 retelling concludes his story in this way: "Et c'est comme ça que je sons encore en vie, nous autres les exilés, par rapport que j'ons consenti à sortir d'exil et rentrer au pays par le cul d'une baleine" ("And that's why we're still alive today, those of us who were exiled, because we ended our exile and returned home through the arse end of a whale"). We then hear the narrator of 1979, who tells us how the white whale story was added to Acadie's repertoire of tales, passed down in front of the hearth.
As this example illustrates, the diachronic narrative voices do not exist as separate entities, but they speak in counterpoint with each other across the centuries, completing each other as the modern narrator provides information not available to the 1880 narrator. In addition, the narrator provides the contemporary reader with information that establishes yet another type of dialogue, this one being synchronic.
When a name must be chosen for the baby girl born in Virginia, for instance, the group considers the name Frédérique; then the narrator adds the following comment enclosed within dashes: "pas Frédérique, mais non, en 1773 personne n'aurait songé à confondre les sexes à ce point-là" ("not Frédérique, why of course not, in 1773 no one would have dreamed of confounding the sexes to that extent"). Such a comment implies that the reader has participated in the protagonists' debate over the name and has supplied the inappropriately modern "Frédérique," thus causing the narrator to intervene for the sake of historical authenticity!
In view of the fact that Pélagie-la-charrette is Maillet's attempt to create a "feminine epic" that would recover the voices of Acadian women occulted by patriarchy and the evangelinian myth, questions arise about narrative choices made by the writer. Pélagie's story is filtered through the male voices of the Belonie line of tale-tellers, clearly highlighting the generative powers of male discourse. Moreover, the narrator in the prologue to Pélagie-la-charrette states that were it not for male chroniclers, History would have died long ago. This narrative seems to stand in conflict with what Maillet herself has stated about her novel. She sees it as a tribute to the generative powers of women rather than to the masculine forces of destruction common in male-generated epics of conquest.
Adding to the contradiction, the narrator of 1979 continually reminds the reader of the weighty patriarchal voice s/he is transmitting, and that s/he is merely relating the words of Belonie-the-younger, as they have come down through the centuries. This narrative strategy is a rhetorical triumph over silencing by death and the passage of time for it produces multiple layers of imagined listeners, metaphors for the durability of, the Acadian nation through time. However, does it not show storytelling and the attendant cultural regeneration to be men's work? Does this narrative device not perpetuate the kind of situation Maillet has risen up against in her desire to blaze an empowering new path? Like the Acadians silenced by Longfellow's account of their history, women in the novel must first pass through male consciousness before they can exist, rather than speaking for themselves as the principal actors in the Grand Dérangement story.
Such attention is not accepted calmly by Pélagie's descendant, Pélagie-la-Gribouille, however; throughout the novel this contemporary of Belonie (the 1880 tale-teller) contests his version of her ancestress's story. Belonie cannot take seriously la Gribouille's repeated attempts at telling Pélagie's story on the cold wintry nights when listeners gather round the hearth. These are times—the narrator tells us—when Belonie laughs at la Gribouille's amateurish attempts to recreate the past. He is in effect deauthorizing her story, sending the putative verbal artist back to her kitchen and proper women's work. The constant joshing of la Gribouille and her vain attempts to produce her own version of Acadian women's history illustrates the fact that although women may have been important actors in the central Acadian epic, they could not be entrusted with its telling, at least not in 1880.
La Gribouille's numerous protests nonetheless contain the suggestion that despite the existence of several male versions of the story, hers is the "correct," yet unheard, one. Her conviction is such that she swears to the scoffers sitting in front of her hearth that she will write the story of her family herself, just to set the record right. Her intention is an ironic reminder that the making of the narrative, as constructed by the reader through Belonie's account, is still man's work. Does Pélagie's descendant's powerlessness before male narrators indicate that Maillet—a student of folklore herself—has fallen into the trap that has plagued folklorists who traditionally have ignored women as the producers of oral literature and history?
Perhaps the male narrative voice simply illustrates the point where Maillet's revisionism in Pélagie-la-charrette falls short, opting instead to reflect the patriarchal aspects of Acadian reality. Or is she telling us something else? Is she implying that women are the true builders of society (pel-agi/agir = to act) whereas men are the passive spinners of yarns; does she want us to read "baloney" into Belonie? After all, when the reader follows the thread handed to him by Pélagie-la-charrette's narrators, the thread that enables him to weave his way back through the meanderings of the path already taken, whose powers do we admire? The man who tells tales or the woman who weaves the living threads of Acadie back together?
The information the narrator tells us would have been inscribed on Belonie's tomb provides a key to the enigma of the male narrative voices in Pélagic. The fictional inscription would have stated that Belonie was the "son of Antonine Maillet," making it at last clear that the Belonie and Maillet lines are one and the same. Thus, like Antonine Maillet herself, the 1979 narrator is a direct descendant of this Maillet as is her informant and cousin Louis-à-Belonie. Because of this genealogical information, the 1979 narrator can thus be conceived of as Antonine Maillet's "double": a woman.
The strictures of dominant mores in 1880 defeated Pélagie-la-Gribouille's attempts to tell Pélagie's story; control of narration could not yet be wrested from Belonie. A century later, however, Maillet seems to be saying women need no longer accept such hegemony. The female narrator of 1979 is invested with all of the power inherent in the verbal creativity formerly held by the Belonie line. Thus not only does Maillet create a dynamic protagonist, but she places a woman at the helm of the story's telling. In so doing, Maillet subverts Acadian male oral creativity as represented by the Belonie "tradition." Moreover, Maillet has reversed the terms of Longfellow's poem, in which male discourse framed feminine action, creating the myth of Acadian submissive-ness. Maillet's double, recycling myth and transposing gender, reverses the evangelinian tradition of female passivity inscribed in the dominant scripts of the Acadian legacy. Pélagie then counters the cultural displacement inherent in Longfellow's powerful narrative, which had so conveniently slipped into the void created by British colonial discourse after the Grand Dérangement.
Through this skillful representation of the recuperation of narration, Maillet has succeeded in giving the Acadian past and women's history cultural significance within the context of Canadian national identity. Recognition of the Acadian past and women's creation of history is not just a substitution of terms: Acadian for Anglo, Acadian French for Canadian English, female narrators for male narrators. The new strategies for identity, language, myth, and narration produce forms of meaning from an Acadian feminine perspective, something North America had not heard before Antonine Maillet.
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