(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Kamouraska is generally considered Hébert’s finest novel. Certainly it is her most complex. It is based on a historical event: the murder in December, 1839, of Achille Taché, Seigneur de Kamouraska. The crime was committed not far from where the author’s grandmother lived, and the murdered man was a distant relative of Hébert’s mother. In her novel, Hébert changed the name of Achille Taché to Antoine Tassy. However, much of her novel is derived from family discussions she heard during childhood.

The story begins in Quebec at the home of Jérôme Rolland. It is told in the first person by Madame Elisabeth Rolland, who has been his dutiful wife for almost eighteen years and has given him eight children. The narrator is in a highly emotional state, but not just because of her husband’s impending death. The fact that she is about to be freed from her marriage brings back memories of an earlier liberation and of all that followed.

In a series of flashbacks, Madame Rolland relives her trial for the murder of her first husband, Antoine Tassy. Her marriage to him was a terrible mistake. He was a drunkard, routinely unfaithful, and physically abusive, sometimes even threatening to kill both himself and his wife. However, Madame d’Aulniéres, a widow at seventeen, and her three spinster sisters, who together reared young Elisabeth in the small town of Sorel, Quebec, saw in the dashing, well-to-do squire of Kamouraska a highly suitable match for fifteen-year-old Elisabeth. Just before the wedding, for a fleeting moment Elisabeth wonders why she is...

(The entire section is 647 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Kamouraska presents the psychological drama of Elisabeth d’Aulnières in a series a flashbacks spanning some forty years. As Hébert herself states on the copyright page, she based her novel of passion and murder on real people and historical events of the 1830’s in Sorel and Kamouraska, in the Quebec Province of French Canada.

As she nurses Jérôme Rolland, her dying husband, the first-person narrator-heroine reveals her mysterious past during a horrifying night of alternating insomnia and drug-induced sleep. Her story jumps back and forth from September, 1840, when she was formally accused of complicity in the murder of Antoine Tassy, her first husband, and her subsequent trial and brief imprisonment; she remembers with resentment and even hatred how her still-unnamed lover safely escaped across the Canadian-American frontier to Burlington, Vermont, leaving her alone to face police and prosecutors and the finger-pointing people of her hometown. That is why it became essential to remarry quickly so as to recover her honor as an honest woman. Despite Elisabeth’s eighteen years of selfless devotion, if not love, and eight children, Rolland, now on his deathbed, not only is afraid that she might poison him but also seeks to elicit her confession of sin.

At other times, Mme Rolland relives her childhood and adolescence with her socially correct widowed mother and spinster aunts, when she would rebel against their straitlaced upbringing by chasing after the Sorel boys in the company of her sexually precocious contemporary Aurélie Caron. Terrorized by demons and nightmares, Elisabeth imagines in her fevered mind Tassy’s violent death at the hand of Dr. George Nelson,...

(The entire section is 698 words.)