A Season In The Life of Emmanuel: Witnessing a Nation’s Transformation
In her novel A Season In The Life of Emmanuel Québecoise writer Marie-Claire Blais uses a rural family to show the transformation her country was going through
Due to its relatively small size and its origins as an agrarian settler colony, Quebec (along with the rest of French-speaking Canada) took much longer to develop a strong secular national literary tradition, but the seeds for it stem as far back as the 16th century accounts of Jesuit missionaries and other religious figures such as Marie de l’Incarnation who documented their activities with the First Nations of Canada and the humble beginnings of colonial New France. These early texts emphasize to its French readers that life in colonial-era Canada is radically different (e.g. difficult and isolating) from life in mainland Europe, a theme that lingers on in later literature, religious or otherwise.
In the early 20th century, for example, the roman de terroir (loosely translated in English as “rural novel”) tradition showed appreciation for the rather traditional way of living of French-speaking Canadians during a moment when many chose to immigrate Montréal and to the United States. Novels such as Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine (published in 1913) showed the resiliency of French-Canadians who managed to raise their families and maintain their cultural and religious identity in a land with inhospitable weather and surrounded by a wealthier Anglophone majority.
The roman de terroir, however, was not bound to last; French Canada eventually industrialized in the same manner as Anglophone Canada and the United States, and urban stories started to become prominent in Québécois literature. Sometimes, the terroir tradition was exposed for its ingenuity in its attempts to tame a changing nation — a notable example is the now canonical 1965 novel A Season in the Life of Emmanuel (Fr: Une Saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel) by Marie-Claire Blais. Marie-Claire Blais takes many of the conventions of terroir narratives to expose the fact that rural life was far from idyllic or worthy of sacrifice. Blais’ novel appears and dialogues with a nation (Québec or French Canada at large) that is rapidly evolving and repeatedly interrogating itself on what their nationhood means.
In A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, Blais presents us with a numerous family living in an unnamed rural commune (in an unnamed country with harsh winters that is very reminiscent of her native Québec). The family is kept together by the resilient grandmother Antoinette who has helped her daughter and her husband take care of approximately 16 children. However, Antoinette can only help so much and some of their children lose themselves to vice. The most sympathetic character is by far Jean le Maigre (Jean, the skinny one), a gifted child who devotes most of his time to reading and writing (angering his father and delighting his grandmother) and hanging out with his rowdy brothers Septième (“the Seventh one”) and Pomme (“Apple”). Jean and his brothers become alcoholics at a young age and suffer terrible fates; Jean dies of poisoning at in a monastery, Pomme loses his hand while working in a shoe factory in the city, and Septième wanders aimlessly around town. Meanwhile, teenager Héloïse who once planned to become a nun has turned to prostitution to support herself and her family. At the end of the novel, grandmother Antoinette continues to take care of his newborn grandson Emmanuel whose fate is as unpredictable as that of his infamous siblings.
Blais’ novel challenges the terroir idea that having a numerous family and having a rural life is desirable or worth it in any sense. Although the family she presents is so numerous as to be a community of its own, it is quite dysfunctional: a cruel father oppresses a weak mother while children, when not supervised by their grandmother, are left to their own devices. These children suffer not just from material poverty but from spiritual as well, as they struggle to find a place in the world beyond the family farm. What hurts the most while reading Une Saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel is knowing that things could have turned very different for these people: Jean could’ve gone on to become a poet and Héloïse could’ve become a nun had they had more support, and Pomme could’ve preserved his fingers had he not been pushed to work with dangerous machinery. Blais even mentions that an older brother who died long ago named Léopold committed suicide shortly before finishing his training as a priest. In a manner reminiscent of the naturalism of Émile Zola and his peers, Blais shows that there is nothing glorious about suffering — in other words, is it worth it to preserve a nation if that means forcing thousands of people to lead painful lives?
Blais was asking a question that more and more French Canadians started to ask as the province industrialized and the Catholic church’s influence progressively waned. The 1960s were, of course, a decade when the entire world was questioning gender roles and conservative value systems, so it is not surprising that Blais engaged with these ideas. Additionally, the social context of Québec and French Canada particularly necessitated voices to speak in favor of secularization and increased attention to the country’s needs as it urbanized and industrialized.
In the end, Une Saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel aptly shows how literature engages with social issues even when it presents stories that took place in the past. By the time Blais wrote her novel, the terroir tradition was in decay and stories of Montreal city dwellers began to circulate widely in the region. Simultaneously, more and more French Canadians envisioned a future for their country without the conservative values of the Catholic church nor the anti-union sentiments of their government at the time. Blais’ novel perfectly evinces the ideological transformation of an entire country: she begs the readers to consider that the rural past of French Canada was not as glorious as national narratives make people believe and that there ought to be a different way to move forward, one that treats people with kindness.