After coming to rural Quebec at the turn of the twentieth century, French journalist Louis Hémon wrote his first and only novel, Maria Chapdelaine
. The novel is based on Hémon’s observations of farm life in the Canadian frontier Lac-St-Jean region. In it, a young woman, whom Hémon based on a real acquaintance, must choose between three suitors who offer completely different ways of life. Should she continue the hardscrabble existence eked out by her ancestors or move away from the farm?
Although Hémon died in a train accident immediately after submitting the manuscript for publication in 1913, the novel went on to become extremely successful. Considered a classic of Canadian literature, it has been adapted into movies, plays, TV shows, and an opera.
Maria Chapdelaine grows up on a farm in rural Quebec at the beginning of the twentieth century. Life there is extraordinarily hard. The winters are cold and harsh, and survival depends on everyone’s ability to work nonstop from sunup to sundown every single day. Maria’s father, Samuel, is a frontiersman whose vocation is to subdue the wilderness by logging the old-growth forests to create working farms on the cleared land. Once he has developed a working farm, her father is bored and moves the family further into the wilderness, to start the process all over again. For him, this is nothing short of Christian duty – bringing civilization, and with it the word of God, into what is “barbaric.”
Maria’s mother had no say in this constant uprooting – the society in which they live is deeply patriarchal, and marriage means adopting a husband’s chosen way of living. It is clear that Maria’s mother felt lingering resentment over the fact that her life was nothing but backbreaking labor; it is implied that her untimely death early on in Maria’s life was caused by an illness exacerbated by the harsh environment.
Maria meets and falls head over heels in love with Francois Paradis, a coureur de bois
, or backwoodsman who chops lumber and guides buyers of Indian pelts through the forest. He is even more rugged than her father, never living on a farm but, instead, spending all of his life “carving a way into the harsh Canadian landscape.” Francois is adventurous and romantic, offering Maria a chance at an almost a fairy tale happy ending – albeit one in which she will never not be cold and her life will never not be full of privation.
However, as his name – Paradis means “paradise” – implies, this kind of happiness in love is not meant for mortals. After Maria has agreed to marry him, Francois dies of exposure while traveling to visit her in time for the New Year holiday. Dutiful, quiet Maria cries silently at his death, making sure never to be a burden on anyone else with her grief.
Soon, two more suitors present themselves for her hand. This time, there is a stark choice to be made. On the one hand, there is Eutrope Gagnon, a farmer who is the Chapdelaines’ closest neighbor. Marrying him would mean living a slightly less terrible version of the same kind of life that her mother had lived with her father – unlike her father, Eutrope intends to stay on the carved out farm he owns. Much as Maria claims several times to hate the forest, she is pulled to Eutrope by her sense of religious duty and adherence to the wishes of her conservative family. On the other hand, there is Lorenzo Surprenant, who is planning to move to a city in the U.S. and would thus give Maria a much easier, less harsh life. He and his more modern ideas are a breath of fresh air – he is as “surprising” a possibility as his last name makes clear.
Neither of these new would-be husbands inspires Maria’s emotions the way Francois had, but both offer a version of stability. Because she isn’t guided any more by romantic love, Maria’s choice now becomes a metaphor
for the quandary faced by everyone around her: “How does one leave behind one's hearth and the place of ancestors; and conversely, how does one ignore the cry of the future and hungry children to feed?”
As Maria considers what she should do, she can’t help but think deeply about her mother’s stoic and silent acquiescence to do whatever her father chose to do. In her heart, Maria realizes that leaving Quebec to venture southwards with Lorenzo would be a kind of betrayal of the life that her mother chose and never complained about. Caught by a mournful sentimentality, Maria has a vision of the wind and the land speaking to her with a voice of duty. They tell her to adhere to tradition, to preserve a dying way of life, and to commit to the land of her ancestors. In the end, Maria listens and marries Eutrope, whose last name implied he would succeed all along since it comes from the French word gagner
, or “to win.”