David Plante’s work is significant primarily for its contribution to the genre of the modernist novel of consciousness. His early experimental novels, although static and highly derivative, adumbrate the techniques Plante would later refine in novels that artfully explore the self-consciousness of individuals as they strive to understand their relationship with the external world. Plante succeeds in creating, through an often masterful command of language, a powerful synesthesia, blending paintings of the mind with the art of storytelling.
The dominant themes in Plante’s novels concern the nature of relationships and the efforts of the individual to break out of self-consciousness in order to participate in these relationships. He explores the forces that unite people, whether family members, friends, or lovers, and the ability of these forces to bind as well as alienate, create as well as destroy.
Plante’s method of narration in his early works reveals unconventional techniques that he later incorporated into his more traditional novels. In his earliest works, such as The Ghost of Henry James, Slides, Relatives, The Darkness of the Body, and Figures in Bright Air, Plante experiments with an almost plotless structure with an emphasis on language and the expression of consciousness, echoing Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. Instead of a narrative of progression and movement within a defined space and time, these novels present random associations from constantly changing perspectives. Plante often creates snapshots of consciousness in the form of numerous briefnarrative sections that flash in front of the reader, revealing not concrete images but glimpses of various characters’ impressions, perceptions, and emotions. Through this technique, Plante attempts to use a character’s consciousness to define and describe meaning, leading many critics to observe that these early novels are not novels at all but rather collections of psychological fragments that, though often powerful, ultimately confuse and disappoint the reader.
The Francoeur Novels
With the publication of his largely autobiographical trilogy The Francoeur Novels (which includes The Family, The Country, and The Woods) in 1983, Plante continued to develop his theme of relationships between family members through the perspective of subjective consciousness and fragmented images, but he integrated these experimental techniques into a more traditionally defined narrative. The first book of the trilogy, The Family, introduces Daniel Francoeur, Plante’s autobiographical counterpart in the trilogy, and his six brothers, born to a Catholic, working-class French Canadian couple, Jim and Reena Francoeur. The novel is set primarily in Providence, Rhode Island, at the Francoeurs’ newly acquired lake home. Plante traces the emotional struggle of the nine family members to remain unified, communicative, and productive in the face of internal tension and external threat. Because of their ethnic background and unsophisticated social orientation, the family members feel alienated from the Providence community, and when Jim loses his job through union pressure, the internal problems within the family are magnified at the same time the bonds of love and dependence between individual members are tested.
Although most of the narrative is seen and evaluated through Daniel’s consciousness, the focus of the novel is not on him or on any one character; rather, it is on the Francoeur family as a single living organism trying to support and nurture all of its parts for the survival of the whole. The dependence of each family member on the well-being of the others is exemplified by the hysterical disintegration of the family unit when Reena experiences a recurrence of an emotional illness.
Plante develops Reena’s character more fully than he does the others in The Family, and he examines her closely through Daniel’s eyes, making her the touchstone for the novel’s major theme: the fragility of the seemingly indestructible. Reena possesses the objectivity to see quite clearly the flaws in the character of each of her sons while simultaneously loving each totally; she is unable, however, to acknowledge her husband’s inability to cope with his unemployment. Her failure to deal with her husband as a fallible human being forces her sons to take sides against their father and ultimately to question their familial duties.
Despite her strength and authority as the Francoeur matriarch, Reena remains a child-wife, puzzled and victimized by an uncommunicative, brooding husband. She confides frequently in Daniel, who comes to see his mother’s position in the family as isolated and vulnerable. The only woman in a world full of men, an interloper in a fraternity house environment, Reena has tried to remain as unobtrusive as possible in her husband’s and sons’ world, from avoiding bringing into the house flowers and lacy decorations that might intrude on their male starkness to suppressing her fears and anger. She has created, literally, seven times over, a world that she can never enter. When her emotional breakdown occurs and Jim resists getting medical help for her, afraid she might come back from the sanatorium as something other than his submissive wife, the family organism suffers a shock and responds with violence: sons against father, mother against sons, brothers against brothers. The novel concludes with a semblance of unity, but the organism has been damaged.
The damage is subtly revealed in the second (although last-written) book of the trilogy, The Woods. Peace has returned to the Francoeur home, but only because Jim and Reena have surrendered to a self-imposed isolation and stagnant existence. They appear only peripherally in the novel, and the focus remains on Daniel, who visits his parents’ home during a vacation from college. An extremely self-conscious adolescent, Daniel finds himself facing terrifying indecision and overwhelming freedom. Though little action takes place in the novel’s three brief chapters, Plante conveys in simple yet intense language Daniel’s need to belong, to anchor himself somewhere, to overcome his apathy and lack of ambition. Daniel’s first sexual experience brings him no closer to what he wants as he becomes increasingly obsessed with the maleness of his own body. His decision to file with the draft board as a conscientious objector, despite the influence of his older brother Albert, a lifelong military man, role model, and major source of financial support for the Francoeurs, does give Daniel a sense of definition, though it is mixed with shame. In The Woods, Plante creates in Daniel a representation of the time in adolescence when passivity is the safest action, when any other action seems too great a risk, and when even one’s own body appears strange and threatening.
This period in Daniel’s life has long passed when The Country opens. Once again, Daniel, now a writer living in London, returns to his parents’ home in Providence, where he joins his six brothers, not for any holiday or family celebration but as a response to the final assault on the family unit: the slow, degrading physical and mental deterioration of Reena and Jim Francoeur. Now in their eighties, they are weakened to the point of partial immobility and senility. The sons, some with wives and children, gather to take care of their parents’ basic needs as well as to attempt, in quiet desperation, to restore the bonds of familial understanding and love. Reena’s mental problems have intensified with age, and Daniel listens, as always, to her frightened and often bitter ramblings about her sacrifices for her husband and family. In more tender moments, however, Reena shows her devotion to her dying husband, frequently enveloping his withered body in her arms, grasping his hands in silence, and kissing his cheek. Reena is also still able to express love toward her sons, sharing their secrets and laughing at the jokes whispered to her in French.
The Country does not, however, use Reena as a symbol for the state of the Francoeur family as the first novel did. Except for a brief flashback to twenty years earlier at a tense family gathering at the lake house, the last book of the Francoeur trilogy explores the character of Jim, who in the earlier works receives uneven and ambiguous treatment. Through a first-person narrative, Daniel attempts to understand the complexities of a man who once seemed so simple. In moments of lucidity, Jim expresses to Daniel his doubts about having been a good father, husband, and worker, and Daniel realizes that, despite his father’s domination over his mother and the unrelenting sense of social and familial duties imposed on his sons, Jim loved his family in every way that his Old World cultural background permitted, limited greatly by an inability to express his emotions.
As Daniel witnesses the pathetic deterioration of his once hearty and active father, he frantically tries to reestablish communication and a sense of tradition. In response, his father awkwardly attempts to understand his son’s life as a writer in a foreign country. Ultimately, the father, drifting in and out of the present in a cloudy mind, leaves his son the only wisdom he knows: “Work hard.And be a good boy.” When his father dies, Daniel is able to grieve honestly for a man who, he now realizes, “could not think of himself, but had to think of his duty to the outside world.” Reena, after an initial feeling of emancipation from her husband’s authority, reacts to his death by retreating into incessant speech and fearful imaginings, once again alone among the men she created.
In The Country, the strongest work in the trilogy, Plante achieved what he had been working toward since his first novels: the subordination of plot with an emphasis on emotion and perception. The only significant action in The Country is the observation of time and death, but the helplessness of every member of the Francoeur family is a haunting and consistent echo throughout the novel. This echo gives The Country a power not realized in Plante’s earlier works.
In the two novels succeeding the Francoeur trilogy, Plante’s protagonist continues to narrate in the first person, though he is never mentioned by name in the earlier work, The Foreigner; only through allusions to the...
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