Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472
In re-creating the circumstances of a historical murder, Hébert concentrates on depths of personality rather than development, portraying characters whose origins are in the Romantic literature of their time and place. Elisabeth has three identities. To her mother and aunts, she is “la Petite” (“the Little One”), to be protected from a nasty world. At sixteen, torn between sexual desire and a need for virtue, she becomes the wife of Antoine Tassy. Battered by a husband she does not love, she nevertheless willingly accepts sexual abuse. Her subsequent adultery and manipulation of her lover to murder Tassy are her acts of defiance against the laws of marriage and society. Finally, as Mme Rolland, she seeks to escape criminal responsibility through self-deceit and duplicity. Acting in bad faith, she distorts the past to accommodate her present, as she had earlier blamed her maid and her lover for her own lack of moral strength. With her second husband dying, she finds herself alone, living behind a mask of wifely innocence, deprived of the salutary and cathartic effects of punishment.
An American living in Canada, George Nelson is an outsider and, as a Protestant, lost and cursed. Doomed in his quest for acceptance, he vainly tries to find a redeeming love with Elisabeth by fulfilling her wish to rid themselves of Tassy. Following a mad ride, tortured by the enormity and horror of his deed, he tells his apprentice that “that damned woman” has ruined him.
Antoine Tassy, Elisabeth’s depraved and abusive husband, finds in drink and sex an escape from his failures. Immature and full of contradictions, he is dominated by a cold and unfeeling mother who tolerates and even encourages his depravity, the better to control him and reign as the grand lady of Kamouraska. Often threatening to kill himself, his wife, or both together, he is much too weak-willed actually to do anything.
As the sexually aware companion and maid to Elisabeth, Aurélie Caron witnesses her escapades and becomes the confidante of her unhappiness. Moreover, because of her reputation as a sorceress, Aurélie is endowed with extraordinary influence. She encourages her young employer to pursue Nelson and goes so far as to accept beautiful clothes for trying to poison Tassy. At the murder trial, she testifies against Elisabeth but is viciously attacked by the three aunts as a lying and spiteful slut. For her conduct, she goes to jail for two years, while Elisabeth has her case dismissed after a few weeks of imprisonment.
The other characters, while contributing to the reader’s understanding of the main protagonists, have a limited psychology. Jérôme Rolland indirectly forces his wife to confront her past and assume her guilt, while the well-meaning Lanouette sisters, fearing scandal above all, defend their niece at the risk of losing their own souls.