Jacques Ferron 1921–1985
French-Canadian novelist, short story writer, novella writer, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Ferron's career.
Known for his medical accomplishments and political activities as well as his literary works, Ferron was a vocal supporter of Quebec separatism and the author of novels and short stories that combine the fantastic with the mundane in celebration of Quebec's cultural heritage. He received a Governor General's Award in 1963 for his short story collection Contes du pays incertain (1962) and was selected by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) to act as mediator during the 1970 October Crisis, during which the FLQ kidnapped a British official and the Canadian minister of labor. Remarking on the author's career, Paul Matthew St. Pierre has written that "Ferron's contributions to Quebecois literature [not only] point to his admirable involvements in medicine and politics but they also manage to reflect the cultural development of Quebec over the past forty years."
Ferron was born on January 20, 1921, in Louisville, Quebec, and received his early education at Trois-Rivières before attending the Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal. His mother died from tuberculosis when Ferron was ten, and critics have traced his literary fascination with death to this event. Two of Ferron's sisters also became artists: Madeleine, a novelist, and Marcelle, an Automatiste painter. During his time at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, Ferron developed an interest in Quebec's cultural heritage and was also introduced to socialism. In 1943, while studying medicine at Université Laval in Quebec City, he married a communist, Madeleine Therrien, whom he later divorced. After graduating in 1945, Ferron entered the Canadian army, serving as a doctor in camps in Quebec and New Brunswick. In 1946 he established a private practice in Rivière Madeleine on the Gaspé Peninsula; two years later he set up practice in the working-class Montreal suburb of Ville Jacques-Cartier, which later became known as Longueuil. Ferron published his first play L'ogre in 1949 and followed it with several more dramas and a collection of poetry before achieving widespread success with Contes du pays incertain. Beginning in 1951 and continuing for the next thirty years, Ferron became a regular contributor of literary, medical, philosophical, and political essays to the journal L'information medicale et paramedicale. In 1952 he married Madelaine Lavallée. Aside from his many essays published in various periodicals and newspapers, his political activities included founding the Rhinoceros Party—a satirical political organization—in 1963; acting as mediator between the FLQ and the Canadian government following the kidnapping of Pierre Laporte during the 1970 October Crisis; and co-founding in 1980 the Regroupement des Ecrivains pour le OUI—an organization of writers who favored Quebec separatism. Despite Ferron's success with Contes du pays incertain and the numerous novels, novellas, and short story collections which followed, his reputation outside Quebec has developed slowly. He died of a heart attack on April 22, 1985, leaving behind a collection of short stories and an autobiographical essay which were published together as La conference inachevée in 1988.
Ferron's interest in medicine and politics pervades much of his literary work, and the image of Quebec as an exiled country—suggested in the title of his first short story collection Contes du pays incertain ("Tales of the Uncertain Country")—is employed throughout his writing. The major themes in Ferron's stories and novels include death, sanity versus madness, and the complex relationship between Quebec and English Canada. A pervasive theme throughout his fiction, death is the principal subject for two of his novels—Cotnoir (1962, Dr. Cotnoir) and La charette (1968, The Cart)—and is often linked with salvation and redemption. In The Cart, which centers on a doctor who dies and then experiences a journey through the underworld, Ferron satirizes the pomp and solemnity associated with death and examines the subject from a first-person perspective that changes to third person after the character's demise. The dual themes of madness and sanity are most evident in the novel Les roses sauvages (1971; Wild Roses). The novel centers on the Baron, a highly-successful businessman whose wife committed suicide after going insane, and Rose-Aimée, the Baron's daughter who resists her father's attempts to circumscribe her life. Characterized as a sell-out, the Baron is isolated from his culture and, like his wife, eventually goes insane and commits suicide. Numerous critics have linked the theme of insanity in Wild Roses to Quebec's cultural destiny, arguing that collective alienation is a form of insanity and is comparable to a patient locked in an isolation ward who becomes servile and dependent. In "L'exécution de Maski" ("The Execution of Maski"), Ferron examines another psychological theme, the divided self. Here, Notary, the writer within Dr. Maski, attempts to kill the doctor but finds that the doctor's destruction heralds his own. The relationship between Anglophones and Francophones in Ferron's oeuvre is, according to critics, complex. In his tales Ferron often pokes fun at the English, portraying them as foreign and quaint. However, his longer works, though concerned with Quebec's self-affirmation, argue the necessity of considering the English "other" in any definition of Quebec. In Les grands soleils (1968, The Flowering Suns), for instance, it is an English woman who is cast as a potential Joan of Arc for Quebec. In La nuit (1965, Quince Jam), the English character Frank Archibald Campbell, also known as Frank Anacharsis Scott, acts as an alter ego to a Quebecois narrator, while in a later novel, Le ciel de Québec (1969, The Penniless Redeemer), Frank achieves redemption on becoming "Québeckized." Remarking on the role of Ann Higgit, an English-speaking character from Wild Roses, Betty Bednarski states that Quebec's reality is "sympathetically translated by an English outside mind, and it is this characteristic projection of one's own reality into the mind of another that constitutes the most interesting aspect of Ferron's attitude to the English. To truly exist, and ultimately, to be truly saved, Québec, it would seem, has to be perceived and have substance, individually and collectively, in the English mind."
Ferron's dramas, written early in his career, are commonly considered unremarkable, and his works did not begin to receive serious critical attention until Contes du pays incertain won the Governor General's Award. Commentators have noted his use of fantasy, his frequent attempts to demythologize Quebec's historical figures by placing them in fictional situations, and his persistent concern with the fate of Canada's French-speaking population. With the publication of several translations, Ferron's writing has gained recognition beyond French-speaking Canada. However, his work is still met with ambivalence by many English-speaking Canadians.