A Season in the Life of Emmanuel

by Marie-Claire Blais
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel was declared by critics to have been both “written by the devil” and among the best French Canadian novels. Blais moves her character from an earlier imaginary, gothic world into the recognizable world of French Canadian culture. The story takes place during the first year in the life of Emmanuel, the sixteenth child of a materially and emotionally impoverished farm family. Bleak, disturbing, and full of biting humor, this depiction of Quebec’s church-dominated lower-class life is considered Blais’s masterwork.

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Blais begins the story with a constantly changing point of view, as the mother of this brood of children, some called only by their birth order number, gives birth to Emmanuel and then returns to work in the fields. The strongest influence in the lives of the children is their grandmother, the rigid and traditional caretaker of their futures. The mother has no name, no presence in the book, though her absence and failure are clearly felt as she moves through life exhausted and resigned to her wretched state. Maternal failure is a theme common to Blais’s work, which often presents a world where children are limited and defined by their emotional and physical deprivation.

The main character in this novel is not Emmanuel but four of the older children. It is through his eyes that one sees their suffering, and none escapes the evil in the world. Heloise, believing that the sensuality that she experiences in adolescence is a religious calling, goes first to a convent, then to a brothel. Two of Heloise’s brothers are sentenced to life in a reformatory, where they are molested by predatory priests and then made to suffer the stupefying life of factory work, accepting the inevitability of their fate. Jean-Le-Maigre, the most alive and creative of the brood, ends his short life in a sanatorium; his journal is the only evidence of his existence, as his death, like his life, becomes nothing more than another family burden.

Obsessed with death, the repression of children, and the perversion of religious authority, Blais’s vision is one of stifled lives and the responses of suffering children, suffering sometimes with great joy and grace to the constant evil that they encounter in the adult world. Her realistic style fascinated French critics in particular. Playing with language, often with ironic and biting humor, she renders both depravity and grace with naturalistic detail, which is especially poignant in the emotional expression of the suffering of fragile children. For many of Blais’s characters, as in her own life, language and the act of writing are symbolic paths to salvation, forestalling spiritual death and madness. The humorous and touching autobiographical writings of Emmanuel’s brother Jean-Le-Maigre are part of the structure of the book. Dying of consumption, his poems express his vitality and symbolize his rebellion against fate.

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