Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921

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Kamouraska is a scenic Quebec village on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. Its name comes from the Algonquin word meaning “where rushes grow at the water’s edge.” Even today, residents recall the brutal murder in 1839 of the region’s leading citizen and the sensational trial that followed. The victim was distantly related to novelist Anne Hébert’s mother, and as a child Hébert spent time in Kamouraska with relatives. Long intrigued by these real but distant events, Hébert also was writing in the afterglow of the centennial celebration of Canadian Confederation (1960). All of Canada was preoccupied with national heritage, remembering bloody wrongs as well as heroic deeds. The plot of Kamouraska is generally faithful to historical events, though names are changed and a few details are embellished for dramatic purposes.

Though Hébert’s narrative flows coherently, her technique is intricate, her prose poetic. She manipulates time through a stream-of-conscious technique that takes the reader into the mind of Elisabeth d’Aulnières. Events unfold not chronologically but thematically, through a slow interior development. Elisabeth, half asleep and fatigued from tending her dying second husband, is tormented by past memories rushing into her semiconsciousness. The poetry is in Hébert’s rich, allusive language; she savors the place names of Quebec, the villages passed, as life itself flows as a carriage constantly plunging through the ice and snow from Sorel to Kamouraska.

The publication of Kamouraska, a best seller in Canada, was an important event for Canadian letters. Claude Jutra’s 1973 film Kamouraska, with a script partially written by Hébert, also was acclaimed in Canada, though it was rarely shown in the United States. Interpreters of Canadian literature have noted that a characteristic, in both the novel’s English and French forms, is the correspondence between psychological and external physical atmospheres. Novelist Margaret Atwood has written that in Canadian novels the only season seems to be winter and that the lonely, snow-devastated landscapes are states of mind as well as locales. The harsh climate and uncompromising land play as significant a role in Kamouraska as do the haunted minds of the characters. The slain body of Antoine Tassy is discovered in a block of ice, surrounded by frozen blood. These chilling images have led some readers to designate the novel the Canadian Doktor Zhivago (the 1957 novel by Boris Pasternak) and its portrait of a fragile aristocratic society has encouraged others to compare it to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936).

American literary critic Edmund Wilson, who has given Canadian literature its due, observes a claustrophobic feature, a psychic asphyxiation, in Québécois fiction. Family and community often function as conscience and jailor. In other Hébert writings—the germinal short story “Le Torrent” (1950), for example—Quebec is perceived as a consuming mother figure maiming her children. Her weapons of oppression are many, the marriage of convenience being one of the most effective. A familiar theme of continental French literature, the misfortunes of marriage, is as central in Hébert’s writings as it is in the novels of nineteenth century French novelist Honoré de Balzac. In Kamouraska, Elisabeth accepts the endless duties of Canadian women, especially the duty to provide heirs to populate the frozen land. An inescapably repressive Québécois domesticity and an inescapable marriage to a cruel man compel this gently reared woman to plot murder. It is Elisabeth alone, deserted by her lover and her companion in crime, who must stand trial, only to be rescued from infamy by yet another man and a second household prison.

Elisabeth’s family, the solemn spinster aunts who resemble the three fates of mythology and a mother who has been a widow since the age of seventeen, forms a protective shield when Elisabeth’s life is on trial. Superstitious and god-fearing though they may be, these women perjure themselves so that their charge will escape execution. Though Elisabeth’s life is spared and her second marriage provides some refuge, she must wear a mask of innocence for the rest of her life. When she is forty years old, her second husband, even on his deathbed, reminds her that she is a murderer whom he had rescued from purgatory. She realizes only too well that her genuine life ended in that far-off time when the only man she ever loved had fled across the border into the United States. The eight children she has with Jérôme Rolland account for less than the one child fathered by Nelson. Her marriage to Rolland seems a kind of tomb in which she had been buried alive. The men in her life form a strange triptych, her victims as well as her oppressors: the squire of Kamouraska, Tassy, a corpse frozen in the snow; her American lover Nelson, a fugitive cursing the day he had met her; and Rolland, living with the knowledge that only a cold resignation had been given in exchange for his love.

Quebec was once widely referred to as “the priest-infested province to the North,” nurtured by a Jansenist Catholicism in which determinism was a prominent feature. Elisabeth, despite her religious upbringing, the echoes of the catechism still filling her thoughts and her sense of being “so much kindling for the eternal flames,” had been drawn irresistibly into the arms of her doctor-lover. In retrospect, her crimes seem to have been foreordained, as was her birth in these “few acres of snowy waste that England once took from France.”

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