Saturday, August 24, 2019

Louis Hémon, Maria Chapdelaine


Opening Passage:

Ite, missa est.

The door opened, and the men of the congregation began to come out of the church at Peribonka. A moment earlier it had seemed quite deserted, this church set by the roadside ont he high bank of the Peribonka, whose icy snow-covered surface was like a winding strip of plain. The snow lay deep upon the 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.... (p. 27)

Summary: The Chapdelaines are a farm family in the wilderness of Quebec, in regions where farms still must be carved out of forests that are old and strong enough to resist the axe, where the soil is excellent but well-defended against the plough and the winters cold and brutally hard. Maria is the eldest daughter, a beautiful young woman of marriageable age, and as beautiful young farmer's daughters of marriageable age do, she attracts suitors. François Paradis is a trapper, woodsman, lumberjack, as needed; he is a handsome man of pioneering spirit. He and Maria fall in love, but when the over-daring youth vanishes in the harsh wilderness in winter -- a danger that could come up on even the most experienced woodsman -- and, what is more, having set out from his logging camp to visit her for New Year's Eve, she is desolate. Lorenzo Surprenant is a factory worker who has gone to America to earn his fortune, but wishes a wife from his native Quebec. He comes with stories of the wonderful things of city life, the possibility of a life of relative ease far away from the harsh winter. It is a common tale: Maria doesn't love him, quite, but what draws her to him is the image, however hazily imagined, of the life she could have with him. Eutrope Gagnon is a farmer, a neighbor of the Chapdelaines. He himself knows that he has little to offer her beyond a hard life and all of his effort to make it worthwhile. But there is something else that speaks, if not exactly for him, yet less against him than Surprenant: the fact that Quebec is her home, and the country of her people.

It is not an accident that the key event moving the story is the loss of all hope of paradise (Paradis); Paradis represents the Quebec of legend, the Quebec of the French pioneers, the indomitable, dashing, daring Quebec, and that Quebec is lost in the past. Surprenant more than any other suitor catches her imagination with dreams of the future, things not before imaginable (his name means 'Surprising'), but very noticeably it is an American future. (The Quebec that Hémon knew was one in the middle of L'Exode, the massive drain of young people desperately seeking jobs elsewhere.) Gagnon offers her simply the continuation of the Quebec that Maria already knows, a fall from a heroic paradise, but still home. The option of Gagnon is itself something that Quebec would only have a while longer; part of the endurance of the book, I think, has been that it later came to fit with a nostalgia for a farming past that also had begun to vanish. Modern Quebec is very much a Surprenant Quebec, although with the added convenience that no one actually has to cross the border.

But the book itself is not particularly nostalgic, even for the Quebec of Paradis; happiness is difficult, perhaps in the strictest sense impossible, but it is possible to have a good life even in the face of such difficulty. The world is desolate, and will wear you down, and will eventually take you away, but life is not awful for all that. There is faith, and there is hard work, and there is home and community, and with these things a homestead can be carved out of the territory, however ruthless the winter and however difficult the task. There is content to be had, though one will still regret what never was and dream of what one will never see, and though sorrowful memories may be the bulk of your lot. In a sense, Maria's choice is a vote for what it is to be Quebecois at all, and her answer is clear: to be Quebecois is to hold fast, regardless of how the world may change and the trials it may throw one's way.

Favorite Passage:

Four hundred miles away, at the far head-waters of the rivers, those Indians who have held aloof from missionaries and traders are squatting round a fire of dry cypress before their lodges, and the world they see around them, as in the earliest days, is filled with dark mysterious powers: the giant Wendigo pursuing the trespassing hunter; strange potions, carrying death or healing, which wise old men know how to distil from roots and leaves; incantations and every magic art. And here on the fringe of another world, but a day's journey from the railway, in this wooden house filled with acrid smoke, another all-conquering spell, charming and bewildering the eyes of three young men, is being woven into the shifting cloud by a sweet and guileless maid with downcast eyes. (p. 73)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Louis Hémon, Maria Chapdelaine, Blake, tr. Dundurn Press (Toronto: 2007).

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