Hémon: Maria Chapdelaine

January 27, 2009

Maria Chapdelaine (1914)
Louis Hémon (Macmillan, 1973; trans: W.H. Blake)
175 p.  First reading.

I have had some difficulty deciding just what to say about Maria Chapdelaine.  It is a wonderful book, and it would be easy enough for me to praise this or that aspect of it, but somehow the things I would really like to say are eluding me. Despite its slender size the book is bigger than I am.  I’m just going to ease into this Book Note and see what happens.

Maria is a young woman living with her parents and siblings in a remote cabin in Quebec.  Her story is simple in its outlines, but deals at each step with elemental realities: love, family, faith, death.  The author Louis Hémon was a Frenchman who came to Quebec to live and work among the kinds of people about whom he writes — simple, hard-working, open-hearted people — and he writes with a singing admiration that only occasionally tips over into sentimentality.

All rural Canadians know that the turning of the seasons is one of the central realities of country life: the annual cycle of melting snows, spring rains, the sowing of crops, the summer evenings with their long-fading light and fireflies, the open skies and midnight auroras, the ripening garden, changing leaves and harvests, and finally, inevitably, the cool breath of Old Man Winter and the onset of the long dark.  Winter in rural Canada means hay-wagon rides, hot chocolate and apple cider, and the satisfying crunch of snow underfoot, but also howling winds, impassable snowdrifts, and real danger if caught in a storm.  The sheer ferocity of a winter storm and the enormous labour to dig out in the aftermath I remember from my boyhood on the Alberta prairie.  At such times one knows nature as an almost irresistible force, thrilling in its power to arrest and overrule one’s best laid plans, and she even reveals herself as a kind of moral teacher, sweeping in to contradict our self-importance and to deny us the fulfillment of our desires.  She teaches humility.

Such thoughts are very much in the spirit of Maria Chapdelaine.  These rural peasants dwell under the shadow of the seasons and the weather, and the shape and texture of their lives are formed in relation to it.  Hémon understands this, and so he lovingly describes the spring melt, and the hot summer nights, and the cool and quiet winter days.  The struggle to make a place for human life in these wilds is the daily bread of these peasants.  They are people of the land, and their labour to bring order and fruitfulness to the wilderness are dignified by Hémon’s simple portrayals of their work.

This is all fine, yet the real reason to treasure Maria Chapdelaine lies further up and further in, and here I run up against my own inadequacy to express it.  The culture of these peasants is in the sharpest contrast to our own.  In many ways, theirs is a pre-modern society — technologically inferior, of course, with serious consequences, but that is not the main point.  They are not modern on the inside.  The modern notion of the punctiliar individual crowned by reason and will, emancipated from history and nature, maximizing choice and following desire — this is completely absent. Life for them is not a rationally organized scheme of self-indulgence. They have desires, of course, but also virtue.  These people are not alone; they have family and neighbours (remember those?).  They are not divided from one another by their mutual reliance on government; they govern their own affairs in co-operation.  They talk to one another.  They are one in their faith, and they pray together.  They sing, and their stories and songs are their own, not merely delivered to them by market analysts.  In short, they have a genuine culture.

Am I romanticizing?  I hope not.  I can only say that when I read Nietzsche’s description of “the last man”, it is quite easy to see in it a description of an average citizen of a modern liberal democracy.  The same simply cannot be said of Hémon’s peasants, and that suggests to me that much has been lost, and quickly.  Maria Chapdelaine was written less than a century ago.

This at least hints at the sorts of thoughts that this book evoked in me.  I realize that I have passed over the story, and the heroine herself, in silence.  She is a wonderful character: thoughtful, modest, and richly feminine.  I would like to say more about her story, but time runs short this evening.  Next time.

8 Responses to “Hémon: Maria Chapdelaine”

  1. KathyB Says:

    Are you romanticizing?

    Several years ago I spent a summer in rural Quebec working at a Heritage museum as part of a work exchange. I found the culture to be divided in groups by age. Everyone about 60 or over was a devout Catholic, very conservative, neighbourly, and had a large family. Everyone of my generation was very secular, and very enamoured of English-speaking culture, which I found interesting, since this latter group tended to ally themselves politically with the Separatists. The baby boom generation was somewhere in between. They found their elders to be old-fashioned, but were grieved by some of the behaviours of their children (mostly by their atheism and co-habitation).

    Elements of that older culture remain, and I did find them romantic. The way that the church bells rang to announce a specific service, such as a funeral. The way people came out to community events, and referred to people by their title (M. Le Maire, M. Le Curé).

    I had a fun time and got along with everyone, but by the end of the summer I feld very odd indeed since the culture that I loved best, and identified with the most was that of the older generation. They really showed a deep love for their faith and their community. I experienced a really poignant moment the last time I attended mass in the beautiful village church (all Quebec villages have a beautiful church!). I had begun to feel rather silly, being the only person in my 20s who attended regularly. However, after mass, my boss (who was a senior citizen and quite devout) came up to me, grabbed my arm, and said rather urgently in French “Keep your Faith!” I realized then that it had meant a lot to her to see a young person at mass, and it made me glad.

    I mentioned once before that I had found Maria Chapdelaine rather boring when I read it in high school French class. Now that I have a better understanding of both the language and culture in Quebec, your post has inspired me to try it again.

  2. KathyB Says:

    To add:

    There is a series of rather famous illustrations of Maria Chapdelaine done in the early 20th century by the Canadian artist Clarence Gagnon. In googling the images, I discovered that we just missed them on exhibit at the McMichael 😦

    But they can still be viewed here online:


  3. cburrell Says:

    Thank you, Kathy. That’s a really good and relevant story. I encourage you to read the book again; I think you’ll enjoy it.

    I suppose the disappearance of what I have called “genuine culture” — a shared culture that comes from a people rather than being passed down from some authority and that is deeply rooted in deep things — has been going on for a while. There was a reason why musicians like Vaughan Williams and Bartok were going around a century ago collecting folksongs from their native countries: the songs were disappearing. I am not an anthropologist or a sociologist, or whoever it is would have some professional insight into this erosion, but I cannot help thinking that the rise of radio, television, and other mass media have been catalysts. If that is true, it’s hard to know how we could ever get back short of turning the things off. Which is not such a bad idea, actually. The prospect of a shared culture, of the depth and thickness portrayed in Maria, now seems entirely unrecoverable in Canada. Small, intentional communities might be able to attempt something like a recovery. As Alasdair MacIntyre famously said, “We are waiting for another, doubtless very different, St. Benedict.”

    Would you agree that what has happened in Quebec is an especially violent form of what has happened elsewhere? They have gone from a fairly conservative traditionalism to modernity with a vengeance. I think it is likely that the pendulum may yet swing back the other way, at least partially, but that will take a generation or more.

    Have you heard the song “Dégénération”, by a Quebec band called Mes Aïeux? It is very much about this cultural suicide; the songwriter sees the problem, but really doesn’t know what to do about it. Here is the video (with subtitles). It is well worth watching.

    Thank you for pointing me to those pictures! I did not know of them. I don’t think they all portray scenes from the book, though some do, and the others are in the right spirit.

  4. Jim Says:

    Thanks for the very interesting post, Craig, and comment, Kathy. Its triggered something I’ve been mulling over for awhile, so you will hopefully forgive the tangent.

    Quebec was an unusually rapid and violent change, in terms of people’s consciousness. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s took Quebec from a society that thought of itself as rural and parish based to one build around a modern welfare state and secularism in about 10 years — a process that elsewhere took a century.

    I must admit — because it is a vice I myself am prone to — that I think Craig may very well be romanticizing village life too much. This is probably true in two ways. First, to paraphrase George Grant, how do we ignore the reality of the human suffering: the 16 hour days, death in childbirth, and disease that pervade such life? My grandfather started his medical practice in a small Quebec town in 1953 — his stories of operations in people’s homes, the families living in homes made from the cast-off outsides of logs, and common practice (since there was little else that could be done) of leaving cancer patients over-dose sized bottles of opium make me very leary of lamenting the ‘good old days’ too much. Nor, at least as he describes it, do I think we could claim a much higher level of personal virtue.

    Fair enough, you say, but what of ‘culture’? Having lived in small towns, albeit modern ones, I think it is too easy for those of us for whom ‘community’ means ‘community of choice’ to lament the shared aspects of culture. Close communities are only pleasant if they promote the values and give you the choices that are suited for you. To be an outsider in such a community is not a pleasant thing for, unlike the Annex, there is very little choice in who to associate with and very strong social mechanisms to encourage conformity. Not to say that there isn’t something to mourn in the content of the specific culture Craig’s referring to, but it should be done in the recognition that most of us have opted out of the shared culture of own age. This, I think, is a real challenge for cultural conservatives to square.

    All of which is to say, I suppose, that I’m becoming more skeptical of social/political appeals that turn solely on a look back to some golden age — it downplays too much the very real good in our own society, the ills of the past, and doesn’t allow those that value past values a creative way to engage their own time.

  5. cburrell Says:

    You make good points, Jim, as usual. Chesterton has a line somewhere about big cities being much smaller places than villages — “smaller” in the sense of narrower. In a city you can choose your associates, and have them be as much to your liking as you please; in a small town, or even in a family, you’re stuck with every variety of person. He thought the small town/family was the healthier arrangement.

    I think that you are right that small communities exert social pressures on their members, and that those pressures can be irritating, and even wicked. But they can also be good. I’m not sure the merits of cultural unity can really be discussed in the abstract; we need to know which culture we’re talking about.

    When it comes to creature comforts and medicine there is a much stronger case that “the good old days” are an illusion. This is portrayed very directly in the book.

  6. KathyB Says:

    It seems we are all self-admitted romanticizers 🙂

    Often the reminder of the hard life of previous generations ends any discussion of the merits of their society (who could wish for a return to a time when cancer patients had no medical options? That tends to silence most people). At the same time, we should be careful of presenting things as a dichotomy. Why must close-knit community and modern medicine be mutually exclusive?

    Jim, I agree with you that we should be wary of the idea of a “Golden Age”. Often the idea is more in our minds than in reality. But l don’t think that looking to the past for inspiration is a bad thing – especially since we can see how all their cultural experiments turned out and use this evidence in our own decision making. It is possible, I hope, to take up particular traits of a past culture without having to adopt the whole thing. And as C.S. Lewis said, if it turns out you are headed down the wrong path, then backing up is the most progressive thing to do.

    In discussing the merits of the society in question, I have to say that I really liked the Faith-centred-ness (if that is a real word) of traditional Quebec culture.

    Craig: that song is both haunting and shocking. I am surprised that modern Quebecers (women in particular) don’t seem to find it horribly offensive.

  7. Alexandre de Bothuri Bàthory Says:

    My wife Élaine Bédard canadianTV star and famous model in the fifties and sixties who did Vive le Québec a variety show at L’Olympia in 1967 with Ginette Reno, Gilles Vigneault, Louise Forestier etc…and had her own One Woman Show at Radio Canada is a member of Samuel Bédard family and owned letters and autographed book by Eva Bouchard Maria Chapdelaine and a portrait of Maria Chapdelaine by Suzor Côté… In the family we know it is Laura Bouchard and not Eva her sister who was the real model and character of Louis Hémon’s héroine…

  8. cburrell Says:

    Merci, Alexandre. It is good to hear of a personal connection to the book and its author.

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