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 marrying a man she does not love. However, she has no idea of the horrors that face her.
After giving birth to her second child, Elisabeth finally summons the courage to flee to Sorel. When the four women there see how ill she is and hear what she has endured, they decide that Elisabeth and the children must stay with them. Understanding only that his wife is ill, Tassy introduces an old schoolmate, an American doctor who has set up a practice in Sorel. Tassy is sure that Dr. George Nelson can cure Elisabeth. However, after George sees the bruises on Elisabeth’s body, he knows where her real problem lies. His compassion for her evolves into love; her gratitude turns into the first passion she has ever known. When she finds that she is pregnant by George, Elisabeth pretends to make up with her husband and endures his rough lovemaking one more time, but she will not go back to Kamouraska.
It is now clear to both Elisabeth and George that Antoine is not only a continuing threat to her safety but also the only barrier to their happiness. First Elisabeth sends her maid to poison Antoine, but when that plan fails, George goes to Kamouraska, shoots Antoine Tassy, leaves his body in the snow, and returns to Sorel. However, despite his disguise and all his other precautions, enough people have seen him to guess the truth. George flees across the border, but Elisabeth and her maid are both tried and convicted. After serving just two months in prison, Elisabeth is set free. She is still so lovely that Jérôme Rolland feels himself fortunate when Elisabeth agrees to marry him.
During the last eighteen years, Elisabeth has been attempting to restore her reputation. She has reared eleven children, though the only one she really loves is George’s son, and she has been an obedient and virtuous wife. However, all this time she has lived with her memories and her nightmares. At the end of the novel, it seems that she is weeping for her dying husband, but in fact, she is still mourning for the man who loved her enough to kill for her but not enough to stand with her and share her fate.
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...
(The entire section is 1,345 words.)