Violence has been a pronounced characteristic of Canadian writing, seemingly born out of the inevitable clash between two orders of reality—a confining and strictured society and the need for expression of unbridled, passionate love. Hébert examines how people react in such a situation, often questioning the role of women by treating conflicts of instinct and repression. An early example in her fiction, “Le Torrent” (from a 1950 collection, Le Torrent, published in English as The Torrent in 1973), presents themes and techniques that reappear in Kamouraska. Similarly, violence and even murder were issues for Hébert in radio and stage plays that she wrote in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Most important is her first novel, Les Chambres de bois (1958; The Silent Rooms, 1974), in which the heroine, whose unsuccessful quest for happiness is told not in a conventional, sequential chronology but through a series of fitfully narrated scenes, already embodies several of Elisabeth’s desires and frustrations.
Among Hébert’s later works, two stand out in particular. One, Les Fous de Bassan (1982; In the Shadow of the Wind, 1983), is a fascinating Faulknerian investigation of a rape and murder told from the viewpoint of six different narrators. The other, a 1989 play, La Cage (“the cage”), tells of the murder of the heroine’s husband as the inevitable result of an impossible love affair.
Exquisite control of tone, delicate human insight, and above all compassion are qualities that distinguish Hébert’s work, communicated through her quasi-poetic use of fragmented, verbless sentences, shattered syntax, and modified stream-of-consciousness technique. By relating a situation through Elisabeth’s dual vision, Hébert makes event and memory immediate to the reader through a fascinating use of levels of truth evoked by fictional manipulations of reality as well as of the interior and exterior dimensions of consciousness. Finally, by drawing the past into the present and analyzing how the relationship between truth and reality bears on self-concepts and identity, Kamouraska reveals in their infinite variety the truer though oftentimes hidden natures of humankind.