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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228

Black Robe is a novel written by Brian Moore. It was first published in 1985. It is set in the 17th century, in the part of North America then known as New France, which we now know as Canada. It tells of a French Jesuit priest, Father Laforgue, who is one of many missionaries who travelled to New France with the aim of converting the native tribes to Christianity. The native people called the Jesuit missionaries "Black Robes" because of their religious attire, which is where the title of the novel has been derived from.

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In the story, Father Laforgue and his assistant, Daniel Davost, arrive in Quebec. There, they encounter some Algonquian tribals who offer to be guides to the pair. They take the two men upriver and beyond a set of rapids. From there, Laforgue plans to go on to a village called Ihonatiria, which is occupied by the Huron or Wyandot tribe, where a Jesuit colony has already been established. However, he tries to baptize his Algonquian guides along the way and fails. They also suspect him of being a demon.

He is then captured and tortured by Iroquois tribals, but he eventually escapes and finds his way to Ihonatiria. There, the village people have been ravaged by an epidemic fever. Laforgue promises a cure for the villagers in exchange for their agreement to be baptized.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942

Brian Moore’s Black Robe is a historical novel that focuses not only on the Jesuits of the title but also on the Indians that they attempted to convert in the North America of the seventeenth century. Moore emphasizes the conflicts between these two very different cultures. As he states in the “Author’s Note”: “This novel is an attempt to show that each of these beliefs inspired in the other fear, hostility, and despair, which later would result in the destruction and abandonment of the Jesuit missions, and the conquest of the Huron people by the Iroquois, their deadliest enemy.” The novel, however, begins with the arrangements for Father Laforgue to set out on an arduous and dangerous journey to a remote Huron village to provide relief or aid to the sick or dead Jesuits there. Father Laforgue is inexperienced but eager to prove himself; he even looks forward to martyrdom on the journey. There is no doubt about his courage or his dedication; he is completely out of his element in the world of the Algonkin and Huron, however, and this dislocation challenges his most fervent beliefs and attitudes.

The picture the reader receives of the “Savages” on this journey is compelling. In contrast to the Jesuits, they are perfectly adapted to their environment. They see the land as alive, are guided by dreams, and live a communal life in which everything is shared. They despise the French, who hoard their goods rather than share them and have no respect for the land. The Indians also have a rich and bawdy language that contrasts sharply with the abstractions of the Jesuits. Father Laforgue is repelled by the Indian way of life, but his helper, Daniel Davost, is attracted to it and to a young Indian girl, Annuka. This attraction creates the first conflict of the novel. Laforgue sees him with the girl and fears for his soul, while the Algonkin believe that Daniel can never really be one of their group. Daniel must make a choice when the Algonkin decide to abandon Father Laforgue at the rapids, and he chooses the Algonkin over the Jesuits; this, however, complicates the problem the Algonkin have. If Daniel joins them, word will get out that they have abandoned the Jesuit. Thus, Chomina, their elder, argues for a compromise; he, his family, and Daniel will guide Laforgue to the village.

When Chomina and his small group return to Father Laforgue, they are all captured by the Iroquois. The Iroquois keep them alive in order to torture them and make them cry out. The two Frenchmen cry out early, but the Indians refuse, since to do so would mean that their enemies control their souls. They do manage to escape when Annuka clubs their guard, and they continue on their journey to the village. There is, however, a conflict when the dying Chomina refuses to be baptized by Father Laforgue. His reasons are worth noting: He asks Laforgue if there will be any members of his tribe in the Christian paradise, and when he finds out that there will not, he refuses. It would not be a paradise to him if he were to be separated from his people.

When Father Laforgue reaches the end of his journey, he finds one dead Jesuit, another suffering from a stroke, and a large percentage of the Indians sick from fever. Some of the Indians believe that the Black Robes have brought on the disease, while others fear their power as demons or witches. They are about to kill the Jesuits when an eclipse occurs. This convinces them of the power of the Black Robes’ god, and they ask to be baptized. Father Laforgue, however, believes that it would be a mockery unless preceded by some instruction in the faith. Father Jerome, the missionary whom Laforgue has met at the village, is, in contrast, interested in the number of “Savages” converted, and he repeats the common accusation against the Jesuits as his defense: “The means are fair, if the ends are good.”

The Jesuits also insist that the Indians must give up their old ways after they are baptized: “One wife, no human flesh, no curing rituals, the dream, all of it.” The Indians are very reluctant to do so, and one elder suggests accepting baptism and going on with the old ways, but another makes it clear that the vow binds them. It is the beginning of the end for their way of life. After Father Jerome dies, Father Laforgue must confront his dilemma more directly. It is obvious that he is not the same man who set out on his journey; he now questions the purpose of the mission and his own faith in the Church and its teachings. He asks why the noble Chomina should be cast into the “outer darkness” while the sophistic Father Jerome becomes a “saint and martyr.” He knows that the baptisms are a “mockery” of everything in which he believed; they make his earlier ideals look ridiculous. In this moment of spiritual and personal crisis, one of the Indians confronts him.

“Do you love us?”“Yes.”“Then baptize us.”

He does baptize them, but he now has a prayer for their physical salvation rather than their spiritual salvation on his lips. “Spare them. Spare them, O Lord.” He asks himself the question that the Indian had posed, “Do you love us?” and responds with the same answer: “Yes.” He has moved from attempting to change and “convert” the Indians to a desire to preserve them, and from bringing God’s divine love to them to giving his very human love.

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