Paula's Reviews > Maria Chapdelaine

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon
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's review
Sep 22, 2011

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bookshelves: canadian, french, fiction
Read in September, 2011

I read a different French edition, but close enough. An allegory of sorts. Pastoral. Roughly idyllic or idealized version of French Canadian "frontier" life around the turn of the last century. I did enjoy the colloquialisms, such as the French-speaking Canadians referring to themselves as les Canadiens and les habitants (tr. as inhabitants, those who live in this place), whereas the English-Speaking Canadians are labeled les Anglais, les Russes, les Italiens, etc. One of the dominant themes is the Christian struggle between good and evil, dark and light, here embodied in the antagonism between primeval forest and farm. Slaying the forest as quickly and completely as possible, both by logging the Old Growth and by hacking fields out of the forests is portrayed as a religious duty, the bringing of the Word to the wilderness, civilization to barbaric nature (one that shows no particular use for man). This brings to mind what Americans often think of as the Puritan view of the wilderness. Apparently, a view also shared by the pious Canadian Catholics. Their world view is fatalistic. God has his mysterious purposes, not to be questioned by humans. One must bend to his will. And in return, nature must bend to the will of man. What we think of as the Puritan work ethic manifests itself here as the work ethic of the Catholic peasant. A man proposes to a woman by claiming to be a hard worker and never drinking a drop. Certainly, a drinking man would make a miserable life for a woman, true everywhere, but even more true in the hard circumstances of the northern homestead. Everyone here must be able to get up at the crack of dawn and labor hard till dark, just to survive. A drinking man would mean an impoverished family. A woman married to such a man would live a miserable existence in an environment where the best situation is already a tough one. This is also an unquestionably patriarchal world. A woman marries a man's decisions as well as the man himself. If he, like Samuel, Maria's father, is never a settler, must always move on once a farm has been cleared and is ready to become part of a settled community, then his wife has no choice but to move with him. She can be happy or not about it, but the decision is his to make, not hers. In other respects, putting aside the gender-based division of labor, such a life is a partnership. Also, as indicated by Maria's consideration of her 3 suitors, a woman marries not only a man, but a way of life and a place, the land. In the final instance, when faced with choosing between Lorenzo Surprenant (tr. Surprising) who would take her away to city life in the United States and Eutrope Gagnon (perhaps from the verb gagner, to earn or to win), her closest neighbor, which would mean a life exactly like the one her mother had with her father (her mother, prematurely dead of a mysterious malady), chooses to stay(after having been spoken to by the voice of the land & the voice of duty). She might have faced a somewhat different life if her first fiance, François Paradis (tr. obviously as paradise) hadn't died of exposure in the winter en route to visit her for the New Year. He was an adventurer, a guide to buyers of pelts from the Indians and a lumberman, not a farmer. The lesson intended, perhaps, is that paradise is meant not for daily life but only for the afterlife.
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