Quebecois Identity in Literature Analysis

Historical Perspective

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The area known as Quebec, one of Canada’s ten provinces, was first explored by Jacques Cartier, who took possession of it in 1534 in the name of the King of France, Francis I. In 1608, the explorer Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec, the province’s capital and the source of the term “Quebecois,” which originally meant an inhabitant of the city of Quebec but which has come to designate a French-speaking citizen of the province. The seventeenth century saw extensive colonization of this area by approximately 10,000 French colonists. In 1759, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham resulted in a decisive defeat of French forces by the British. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris surrendered this territory to the British crown, and a royal proclamation gave the former French colony the name of Province of Quebec. When in 1867, the Dominion of Canada was created by the British North America Act, Quebec, at that time one of four Canadian provinces, was 85 percent francophone.

During the twentieth century, there was pronounced political activity by those members of Quebec society who wished to secede from Canada, in the belief that the distinctness of the Quebec language and culture made it a country separate from the rest of Canada. Two referenda, held in 1982 and 1995, were unsuccessful in achieving a majority vote by those wishing to create their own country. The population of Quebec at the time of the 1995 referendum, approximately 6.9 million (compared to Canada’s 26.2 million), was 82 percent francophone.

Throughout the history of modern Quebec, many francophone writers, artists, actors, and social activists endeavored to promote the Quebec identity through the protection of the francophone culture from assimilation into the majority anglophone culture and through the preservation of traditions that bear a distinctly Quebecois flavor. The political activism known as the independence movement was clearly strengthened by the participation of all levels of society.

Identity in Modern Quebecois Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The francophone literature of twentieth century Quebec evoked a rural, patriarchal society, steeped in Catholic tradition and conservative social and familial values. This evocation was a direct reflection of the dominant ideology, one that espoused the importance of preserving French social and religious customs. Fidelity to the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church, then an extremely powerful institution, was obligatory as was loyalty to family, the microcosm of Quebec society. The dominant agrarian ideology glorified country life, often ignoring, or portraying in a negative light, urban society.

An example of a work that extols the virtues of a conservative patriarchal society is Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine: Récit du Canada français (1914, serial, 1916, book; A Tale of the Lake St. John Country, 1921). A classic in Quebec literature, this novel depicts the life of Samuel and Laura Chapdelaine, their four sons, and one daughter. The Chapdelaines are representative of the ideal Quebec family, for they are devout in the religious faith, and unflinching in their attachment to family values and the continuation of traditional ways of life.

Maria falls in love with one of her three suitors, the adventurer and lumberjack François Paradis. It is symbolic that she is named after the Virgin Mary, as are many daughters in Quebec fiction, and that she is associated throughout the work with the values of commitment to one’s...

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Agrarianism and Backlash

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

A Tale of the Lake St. John Country and Boss of the River undertake to paint a poetic picture of courageous and idealistic inhabitants of isolated regions in Quebec. The characters of the two novels wish to safeguard their francophone and Catholic identity. Social evolution, however, caused writers to reflect upon a modern Quebec society that became increasingly urban and less centered on agrarian activities. The publication of Bonheur d’occasion by Gabrielle Roy (1945; The Tin Flute, 1947) marked a turning point in the ways in which writers perceived the Quebecois identity. Set in St. Henri, a working-class district in Montreal, during the economic crisis of the late 1930’s and during World War II, The Tin Flute casts a penetrating look at the reality of the time. The aesthetics of traditional Quebec novels, evoking an idyllic natural setting of countryside, forest, and mountain inhabited by simple, robust rural characters, gives way in The Tin Flute to a realistic portrayal of the struggle of the Lacasse family to overcome unemployment, sickness, and poverty. The francophone identity represented in this work is not the one-dimensional one that is often found in earlier romans de la terre (novels of the land) but rather one that is representative of an industrialized society undergoing profound change. The nationalist question, the conflict between francophone and anglophone, étranger and québécois, as evoked in Boss of the River, is absent from The Tin Flute. Roy’s groundbreaking work speaks of compassion, understanding, and admiration for those who struggle to know themselves, overcome obstacles to happiness, improve their living conditions, and generally,...

(The entire section is 724 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Dionne, René. Canadian Literature in French. Ottawa: Canadian Studies Directorate, 1988. A study guide.

Kandiuk, Mary. French-Canadian Authors: A Bibliography of Their Works and of English-Language Criticism. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1990. Especially helpful for English speakers.

Shek, Ben-Zion. French-Canadian and Quebecois Novels. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Offers insights into Canadian culture.

Shek, Ben-Zion. Social Realism in the French-Canadian Novel. Toronto: Harvest House, 1977. A study of modern Quebec society as it is portrayed in various novels.

Weiss, Jonathan M. French-Canadian Theater. Boston: Twayne, 1986. A general introduction.