Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon (1913) French original title: Maria Chapdelaine.

hémon_chapdelaineMaria Chapdelaine is a classic from Québec, written by Louis Hémon. It was published in France as a feuilleton and was supposed to inspire young French people to move to Québec. It is a rural novel, the story of a peasant family in Québec, in Péribonka, on the bank of the Lac Saint Jean.

Maria is 18 and three young men want to marry her: François Paradis, a trapper, Eutrope Gagnon, a fellow pioneer and Lorenzo Surprenant who emigrated to Massachusetts to work in a factory. Each represents three possible futures.

Maria Chapdelaine is a book with a purpose not a literary entreprise. It describes the life of early settlers near the Lac Saint Jean. Maria’s story is just a prop to describe their life and fate. It could be compared to My Antonía by Willa Cather except that Cather is a gifted writer and her characters are far more complex than Hémon’s.

For this reader, Maria Chapdelaine has no interest from a characterization and plot point of view. It was still interesting as a testimony of life at the beginning of the 20thC by the Lac Saint-Jean. It shows the typical harsh life of the settlers. It depicts the long winters, the short and brutal summers and as often in peasant novels, the dependency on the whims of the weather. It is hard work in isolated places. The men and women work, work, and work and the outcome is not a given. Hémon describes the family’s life. In the summer, they font de la terre meaning that make land. Basically, they take the trees out, clean up everything (trumps, roots,) to be able to cultivate the land. Tough job. The women make preserve and prepare diner for the men. In autumn, the women caulk the walls with newspapers to prevent the wind from entering into the house. The men stock up wood. In winter, the two older sons go away to work as lumberjacks. The rest of the family stays in the house, with the father briefly going out to take care of the animals. The only distraction is when their only neighbour, Eutrope Gagnon, comes to visit. And the occasional trip to the church but that’s not too often because it’s too far away. From what I gathered of the history of Québec, it’s accurate and a good testimony of the times.

Personally I don’t see how Hémon hoped to entice young French people to leave cozy and temperate France to come and clear land in Québec. I totally see why Lorenzo Surprenant left for the USA.

The tone of the book is a vibrant plea for simple and rough life of peasants and the benefits of Catholicism. Maria expresses a naive faith in God, in the Catholic church and the local priest has a real hold on people’s lives. I thought it was too much and that Hémon wrote as a sanctimonious conservative. Not my cup of tea. Plus I don’t particularly like rural novels that glorify agriculture and describe urban life as miserable and corrupt. As I always say, if working in fields were that gratifying, please explain to me why there was such a massive rural exodus in Europe after WWII.

The only literary merit of the book is the language. Not that Hémon’s prose is imaginative, it’s as plain as his characters. Hémon wanted to show his land and his people. Their identity is intimately linked to their native language. They are a francophone community surrounded by Anglophones. In his attempt at picturing the rural community of the time, he gives back their Canadian-French or Québécois. And that was fascinating to me.

It’s probably outdated, like the French from the early 20th century is. But still. Some words sound old-fashioned, coming directly from the 16th or 17th century. Some words are a literal translation from the English, like vue animée for motion pictures instead of cinematographe used in France. I also noticed une couple d’heures for a couple of hours where a French would say quelques heures. Sometimes, Hémon uses English words, saying une fille smart or un foreman instead of un contremaître, or des hommes “rough”. What puzzled me was une job. In French from France at the time, nobody used the word job in French. It came in the 1980s, I’d say. In France we say un job, masculine, not une job, feminine. I don’t understand how “job” became feminine in Québecois. The notion is covered by words in masculine form: un travail, un emploi, le labeur, un boulot, un métier. If anyone can enlighten me, I’d love to hear the reason behind this.

All in all, I’m glad I read Maria Chapdelaine more to read in Québécois and about the life by the Lac Saint-Jean because I was travelling there. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s meant to be in my pantheon of books-you-must-read-before-you-die. I hope it’s not a mandatory read in Canadian schools, that’s not a way to warm students to literature…


  1. August 10, 2016 at 5:27 am

    Thank yiu for expanding my vocabulary today. I had to look up the word feuilleton. Now I just need to find a way to drop it into a conversation so I can show off…….

    Liked by 1 person

    • August 10, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      Anytime you speak about Balzac you may use the word feuilleton, most of his books were first published that way. 🙂
      It’s a French word but I noticed on book blogs that it was used in English for books published in newspapers like Trollope.


      • August 10, 2016 at 4:06 pm

        How interesting. I shall make even greater effort to find ways of dropping it into conversations. I can see the eyes of my friends rolling already – here she goes again….


  2. August 10, 2016 at 8:33 am

    Sounds like a very fair critque of this book, Emma. I can understand why you read it though, especially given your travels to Quebec. My Antonia came to mind as soon as I started to read your description of the set-up. Shame that Hemon doesn’t have Cather’s touch with characterisation and prose. It’s an interesting subject for fiction, the lives of these early settlers…


    • August 10, 2016 at 1:22 pm

      Thanks Jacqui. I’m glad I read it.
      It is an interesting subject for fiction. I read fantastic short stories by Annie Proulx on early settlers in the USA. Bleak but really good.


  3. August 10, 2016 at 8:47 am

    So did I Karen, and so do I!
    How’s this, Emma? Cette semaine, j’ai regardé le feuilleton Un village français #4 (sur DVD). J’aime beaucoup ce feuilleton mais en Australia, nous ne pouvons pas obtenir #7 encore….et je dois attendre octobre pour le feuilleton #5.


    • August 10, 2016 at 1:24 pm

      Now with all the 19th century you’ve read, I’m surprised. I learnt this word from Guy, I think. (Or at least I learnt I could use it in English)

      Very good French. No mistake, except you need to say Australie. I haven’t seen this series but I’ve heard it’s good.


      • August 10, 2016 at 1:35 pm

        You haven’t seen it?? Emma, it’s brilliant… Some of it is unforgettable. There’s a scene in episode one where (thinking the war is far away) a schoolteacher takes the kids outside for nature study and some bombers fly over, just as the big black German cars roll into the village and everything changes…
        Everyone is stunned, because they didn’t expect their little village to be involved. There are all kinds of people with all kinds of different reactions and agendas, and it shows you how good men like the mayor were put in an impossible position, having to choose between their honour and saving people’s lives. Also, oh, so heartbreaking, the early resistance was so naive… they were just ordinary people without any experience (just like you and I would be) and they had no idea what they were up against…


        • August 10, 2016 at 1:37 pm

          I’m fed up with WWII things. So, as good as it is, I’ll stay away from it.


          • August 10, 2016 at 1:46 pm

            Oh well, *smile* maybe one day…


            • August 10, 2016 at 1:57 pm

              I just wish they had more original ideas than write AGAIN something set during WWII. Sure it’s great for plot and all but where’s the creativity?


              • August 10, 2016 at 2:23 pm

                I’m not here to persuade you, and I know what you mean about being fed up with re-hashes of WW2, but I’ve never seen anything like this one. If it’s like anything, it’s like the BBC’s A Family At War, which was about the effects on people and their relationships e.g. grief, infidelity, blame etc.


  4. August 10, 2016 at 10:36 am

    This actually reminded me of reading Annie Proulx’s recent long historical novel Barkskins, which follows the lives of two Frenchmen who came to this region and were indentured to a Seigneur in the hope of obtaining land. One received land, the other abandoned toiling the earth and went for the timber industry, to make as much money as possible and to improve his family name.

    In her novel, the women were either lured (lied to) if they came from prestigious families, exchanged (arranged into marriages of economic/trading advantage) or forced (the Seigneur forces his employee to marry his Indian mistress to stop his new wife complaining). I think you are right to question the attraction to young women, it had to have been sold under false pretenses to the naive or those fleeing something.

    As Jacqui says, it is an interesting subject, as all those premises and then the realities of what occurs lend themselves to excellent insights into character and storytelling. A pity this one didn’t quite live up to its potential.


    • August 10, 2016 at 1:42 pm

      I didn’t know Proulx had written a book set in Québec. When is it set? We have visited the former seigneurie of Monsieur Papineau. It’s located between Montréal and Ottawa and it started in the 19th century.

      “toiling the earth” Thanks. That’s the expression I was missing for my billet. That’s a problem when I read in French about specific settings or issues, I have problems to find the English way to say it.

      I’ve read some of Proulx’s Wyoming stories. I like that she doesn’t make the lives of the early settlers look glamorous. She shows how hard it was and how ugly things could turn. She also shows how life was difficult for women.

      Here, they wanted to attract men and women. They needed arms and I suspect they wanted arms who spoke French.

      I’ve just finished Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais. I’ll write a billet about it as soon as I can. I think it is set to be the anti-Marie-Chapdelaine book.

      Liked by 1 person

      • August 10, 2016 at 1:57 pm

        It’s been about 10-15 years in the making, a work of passion, being an historian as well as an author, so it’s a historical novel that spans 320 years, beginning in the late seventeenth century with the arrival of the two Frenchmen and then follows their descendants in two narratives, one of the family’s (the one where the Frenchman marries the daughter of a Dutch shipping magnate – economic connections) becoming wealthy merchants, and the other who struggle, this Frenchman is forced to married the Seigneurs mistress, the Indian woman and his family line struggle, and end up working in the industry that is destroying both them and their environment.

        It’s set in that period when there existed a territory called ‘Nouvelle France’ and I discovered there remain two islands (25km off the coast of Canada) that are still today part of the French territories, their inhabitants French citizens and they use the euro. Fascinating.


        • August 10, 2016 at 1:59 pm

          Ah you mean Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon?

          Liked by 1 person

          • August 10, 2016 at 4:24 pm

            Yes, the names didn’t come immediately to mind, I wasn’t aware of them until reading this book!


  5. August 10, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    I saw this and thought it was a bit of a strange read for you, but now I read your explanation of what you got from the book, it makes sense.


    • August 11, 2016 at 12:54 am

      I wouldn’t have picked this without this trip.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. August 10, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    I’ve had this on my pile for ages. It was mandatory reading during a semester but I skipped that course in the end and took another one. I thought it would be very good.


    • August 11, 2016 at 12:53 am

      I had a copy of this in the Bibliothèque Verte collection. I don’t remember if it was an abridged version or not.
      I’m sure there are better historical books to read about this.


  7. August 10, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    I’m pretty fed up with World War II myself I have to admit.

    Anyway, that’s an aside. This sounds missable to be honest. It also leaves me quite unpersuaded as to the joys of peasant life, which on the frontier at least I suspect was pretty bloody hard. Interesting review as ever though.


    • August 11, 2016 at 12:50 am

      No need to rush to read this one, for sure.
      The ending is awful: Maria is really tempted by city life but duty and the beauty of the land make her stay and live the hard life. How plausible is that? Really ?


  8. August 10, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    Emma, Louis Hémon was a frenchman (born and raised in France). He wrote what was then considered the very first novel of this type to be publish in Québec, that’s why Maria Chapdelaine is considered so highly. However, he was writing as an outsider, an observer of the french canadian people. That can make a slight difference in content and style (?). Unfortunately you will find that not many novel by french canadian have been translated in English, yet there are some interesting ones to enjoy. If you are interested in reading about the early settlers in Québec, you might like Les filles de Caleb by Arlette Cousture (Also available in DVD and in english); it’s not “classic literature”, but it offers a rather authentic and lively description of life in early XXe century. There is also a trilogy called ‘Les fils de la liberté’ (Titles: Le canard de bois, La Corne de brume, Le coup de poing) by Louis Caron (about life in 19th century and the Patriot’s revolt against the English/British (not translated in english). L’été de l’île de Grâce by Madeleine Ouellette Michalska (which recounts the arrival of emigrants from the old continent in early 19th century (not translated in english) is an other good read. Gabrielle Roy, born in Manitoba and a favorite of mine, is not really in the ‘historical’ range of fiction but she’s among the important writers and she has many titles available in English.


    • August 11, 2016 at 12:47 am

      Thanks for the recommendations, they’re very welcome.
      Actually I’m French, so I’d rather read in French if it’s possible.
      I’ve read a Laferriere, a Tremblay, a Blais and I’ve started Mistouk by Gérard Bouchard.
      I have a Côté on my TBR as well.


  9. Cécile Beaudouin
    September 28, 2021 at 1:49 pm

    Hi there ! Just wanted to shed some light on Hemon’s life, so that maybe it would reflect on the book.
    Hemon was not a conservative, at all. He fled his bourgeois family from France to London first, where he spent eight years working small jobs and writing articles and shortstories about sport in french newspapers. He became a writer and wrote three novels, but could not publish them. He had a daughter outside of marriage, but he couldn’t live with the mother because she was mentally ill and got sent to the asylum.
    Eventually he left for Canada to try and make a life, or at least to discover something new, as he put it. His child was in the care of the mother’s sister.
    Hemon did not write Maria Chapdelaine to encourage french people to move to Canada. Not at all. It’s a fiction : the main purpose was the story and the words. The story is one of a teenager (Maria is 16 at the beginning of the novel) becoming an adult while facing the death of the one she loves and her mother. The secondary purpose, if there ever was one, was to show the strong hold Catholic church held on the peasants. They could not imagine a life outside of it, even if they were miserable in it. The church intentionnally left peasants uneducated. Hemon’s ironic writing is constantly placing distance between him and his characters. He lived six months with peasants in Peribonka : he surely admired and liked them, but never did he want to live like them or encourage others to do so.
    To understand Maria Chapdelaine better, which was Hemon’s fourth and last novel, I encourage you to read the first three, and probably Hemon’s personnal correspondance as well. And also my Phd thesis when it’ll be finished 😉


  1. August 17, 2016 at 4:00 am

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