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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 275

Mad Shadows is a novel published in 1959 by French Canadian author Marie-Claire Blais. It centers around a beautiful but damaged family. Louise is the matriarch of the family, obsessed with her beloved but helpless son, Patrice, and Isabelle-Marie is the capable but hateful daughter.

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Throughout their childhood, Patrice's beauty is often complimented and Isabelle-Marie is often ignored. We first see this in the opening scene on a train. Louise, recognizing Isabelle-Marie’s inner ugliness, also ignores her. Louise’s husband is dead, and she and the children live on their farm. Louise meets Lanz, a younger man who proves to be no good, at a resort and brings him home to live with the family. She pays so much attention to the controlling Lanz that she neglects Patrice. Isabelle-Marie meets Michael, a blind boy who falls in love with her because she says she is beautiful. They get married and have a baby, and he regains his vision; seeing she is actually not beautiful, he leaves her, and Isabelle-Marie returns home with her baby. Patrice is finally overcome with jealousy at the loss of his mother’s affection, and he kills Lanz. Louise returns to adoring Patrice. Isabelle-Marie, angry at the role physical beauty plays in their lives, puts Patrice’s face into a pot of boiling water, making him as ugly as she is. He is devastated and clingy, and Louise sends him to an insane asylum and kicks out Isabelle-Marie and her daughter. Isabelle-Marie sets the farm on fire, killing her mother. She then kills herself, throwing herself under a train. Patrice also kills himself once he realizes how ugly he now is.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

Mad Shadows, Blais’s first published work, created considerable controversy in Quebec. Many Canadian critics disliked it intensely; others thought it was astonishingly original and brilliant. Set in an unidentified time and place, the story begins on a train, as a young girl watches strangers become captivated by her brother’s beauty. The grotesque, erotic pleasure that the mother takes in her son’s physical beauty is matched only by her indifference toward her daughter, and it sets the tone for the tortured relationships that develop. In Mad Shadows, Blais explores what will become a theme in much of her later work: the creation of evil and the suffering of children caused by the failure of maternal love.

The world that Blais’s characters inhabit is dark and loveless. The first critics and readers were shocked by the utter depravity of the relationships between the mother, her lover, and her children and the starkness of the young author’s vision. Yet the power of her vision and poetic style were undeniable; she was awarded the Prix de la Langue Française from L’Académie Française for Mad Shadows in 1961.

The mother, Louise, an attractive, vain widow, adores and spoils her simple-minded son, Patrice, a reflection of herself. Dimly aware of his own beauty, Patrice seeks his unformed self in every mirrored surface, pond, and window. His sister, Isabelle-Marie, is not beautiful; wounded by her mother’s indifference, her feelings of envy toward her brother begin to overwhelm her. Louise is afflicted by a lesion on her face, a cancerous growth symbolic of the malignancy of her soul. She meets Lanz, an elegant, declining dandy, who becomes her lover; her attentions and affection now go to him, and Patrice, abandoned, rides his horse in a frenzy of jealousy, killing Lanz. In death, Lanz’s shallowness is revealed as his wig and false beard disintegrate around him. Even so, Louise feels little rancor toward her son, the “beautiful beast.”

Among Blais’s recurring themes is the end of innocence and the fall from grace inherent in sexual awakening. For her characters, all consequences of love are tragic; in Mad Shadows, there is a sense that human beings are doomed at the moment of awareness and that happiness is illusory. For a short time, miraculously, Isabelle-Marie finds happiness in the love of a young blind man, Michael. Sight, symbolic of truth, would not allow the illusion of love to survive in Blais’s nightmarish world; fearing rejection, Isabelle-Marie deceives Michael into believing that she is beautiful. They marry and have a daughter, Anne, and for a time enjoy a kind of simple happiness. When his sight suddenly returns, Michael discovers his wife’s deception. Unable to hide his anger, he cruelly abandons Isabelle-Marie and their child, and, in misery, they return to Louise’s farm.

Driven by her rejection and envy, Isabelle-Marie disfigures her brother by pushing his face into a pot of boiling water. No longer a beautiful object, Patrice is rejected by his mother and sent to an asylum, proving the shallowness of her love. Seeing his grotesque face in a lake’s surface, Patrice is horrified and drowns in his own reflection. His suffering gives Isabelle-Marie some satisfaction, but even this does not bring her peace. Mad Shadows ends in a final act of suicidal despair, as Isabelle-Marie sets her mother’s farm on fire and waits to throw herself under a train, leaving her young daughter to wander alone on the tracks.

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