Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Will to Survive
The story is as much a description of farming life in Northern Québec in the 1910s as it is the personal story of a young girl, Maria, coming of age in that environment. The bruising toil of the farmers in the harsh Canadian climate is described in detail. As everywhere, rural people are at the mercy of the elements, but in the far north the situation is worse given the length of the winter, the severity of the cold and snow, and the brevity of the summer, in which even a mild drought can result in a poor harvest and near starvation for the animals. But people have the primal urge to deal with these challenges, to persist in their struggle instead of just giving up or moving away and resettling in a less forbidding part of the world. Hémon describes the harshness of the setting, and the tenaciousness of the settlers, at the very beginning of the novel’s first chapter:
A moment earlier it had seemed quite deserted, this church set by the roadside on the high bank of the Peribonka, whose icy snow-covered surface was like a winding strip of plain. The snow lay deep upon road and fields, for the April sun was powerless to send warmth through the gray clouds, and the heavy spring rains were yet to come. This chill and universal white, the humbleness of the wooden church and the wooden houses scattered along the road, the gloomy forest edging so close that it seemed to threaten, these all spoke of a harsh existence in a stern land. But as the men and boys passed through the doorway and gathered in knots on the broad steps, their cheery salutations, the chaff flung from group to group, the continual interchange of talk, merry or sober, at once disclosed the unquenchable joyousness of a people ever filled with laughter and good humour.
It is this unending effort to go on living, against the odds, that forms the heart of the story. It is also what Maria ultimately chooses when she agrees to marry Eutrope Gagnon, who promises to work hard on their farm every day of his life. Maria, for her part, wishes to embody the will to survive in the wilderness that her mother displayed.
Loyalty to One’s Background
Maria’s first love interest, François Paradis, is frozen to death in a snowstorm when coming on foot to visit Maria from a logging camp at Christmastime. Of the two other men interested in her, one of them, Lorenzo Surprenant, has lived in the United States and asks Maria to marry him and go there with him, to the much easier kind of life made possible by both the less harsh climate and new technology. In the early twentieth century, rural people in Northern Québec lived much as their ancestors had done when the province was first settled by the French. There is no electricity, no gaslight even, and no machine tools or appliances to make people’s labor less harsh. Lorenzo offers Maria a way out of this, and she is tempted at first. But after her mother’s death, she realizes that her connection to the place of her upbringing and to her people is so great that joy and fulfillment are provided for her at home and that uprooting herself and moving to the United States would be impossible for her. The memories Maria’s father shares of her mother’s hardworking, courageous, and steadfast nature do much to lead Maria to the realization that she wants to remain in Québec and continue her family’s legacy. She then accepts the proposal of a local young man, Eutrope Gagnon, realizing that her loyalty is to her own people. It is the nationalistic feeling of French-speaking Canadians that animates Maria’s thoughts and the entire novel. Maria says the world will look upon them and say, “These people are of a race that doesn’t know how to die.”